I Shed a Tear (of Laughter)

I saw this on my mother’s FB recently, not that I spend much time there. I only joined FB so that I could keep abreast of news in my family; now I have no reason to go there. I’m usually appalled by the Liberal/Leftist anti-capitalist anti-police anti-republican Americahate I find on her feed, but this I found somewhat amusing:

  • No worries about cultural stereotyping, apparently. Your rules, lefties! You’re racists now.
  • Welcome back to the term “Illegal Aliens”! This was replaced in their newspeak dictionary with “Undocumented Immigrants” years ago, but here it is again in their own agitprop. Oops!
  • Granted, most native Americans were killed by European diseases to which they had no immunity, but it should also be acknowledged that the European invaders killed many of the natives and the new Americans broke many a peace treaty. The idiots who created this (and reposted it) did not apparently realize that the history of this country might serve as a cautionary tale against permitting illegal aliens into our land. Y’know, lest we end up like the Native Americans.
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50th Anniversary

It was a few years ago that my cousin got married; it was in July, in New Jersey, and there were two dinners; one for the wedding rehearsal, and the other for everyone else.  I wasn’t in the wedding party or immediate family so that put me in the “everyone else” category.  The dinner was at “an Italian restaurant”; I wore a dress shirt and dress pants.  The restaurant was one of those half-and-half deals: half of it was a restaurant, and the other half was a pizzeria.  They pushed together four or five tables to accommodate the dozen or so of us.

I wasn’t keen on sitting next to my parents and none of my other relatives at the table I’d seen or spoken to in years, so I sat next to my sister.  We talked some, about her living in Alaska, her children, and so forth.  She told me about how she learned the game of soccer – not because she liked soccer! – but because her son played for the school team and she would cheer him on from the stands.  Learning the game let her share in this with her boy.

I found it darkly amusing that she felt the need to explain this to me.  I knew she’d never had an interest in soccer when we were growing up, and I knew her boy was very much into the game, but for her to get involved she needed to know what the game was about.  Of course.  The contrast was with our family when we were growing up.

My parents never took an interest in anything in which we were interested.  They never encouraged us to get involved in sports or much of anything else.  I had an interest baseball, but I don’t think they ever became aware of that.  I also developed an interest in soccer for a time, when I was an adolescent, but it was my grandfather who bought me a soccer ball.  My father once took me a professional soccer game, once.  It was an exhibition game: NY Cosmos vs. the Greek team out at Giants stadium in New Jersey.  I have no idea where that idea came from; he’d never taken me to any sporting event of any kind.  Looking back I wonder if it was his idea.

I sort-of enjoyed it.  The game was good enough but my father was – how to I put this?  Stoic.  Throughout.  Dour-faced, silent, and clearly enduring this thing.  He never took me to another game.  I never asked him to either.

Getting back to the non-wedding-rehearsal dinner, my sister brought up the topic of my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary.  It was about a year away, in mid-September, and, she said, she was thinking of offering them a vacation to someplace nice, or maybe a party.  I told her was unsure as to whether I could attend a party.  I work for a somewhat seasonal business and business becomes brisk starting at the end of July, and it doesn’t let up until the end of December.  I might have to work on a Saturday or Sunday without any advance notice.

She looked somewhat – stunned, or confused.  Then she explained that she was hoping that I would help plan the party, to be “boots on the ground” and visit a caterer, that kind of thing.   Now it was my turn to just look at her.  I live about 75 minutes from my parents in another state.  Not exactly local.  And I’d just told her I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to go to a party.

In retrospect her bringing up the topic of their wedding anniversary was an opener to asking me for help in its planning.  My initial response was apparently entirely unanticipated and so she just went ahead and asked me for my help anyway.  After a few seconds of my silently and expressionlessly looking into her eyes, she dismissed the topic with words to the effect of, “well, it’s a year away, we can talk about it later.”

I anticipated her bringing this up again after the wedding.  From time to time since then I wondered when I’d get the email, or the call.  August came and went, and I heard nothing from here.  September, nothing.  The new year came and went and I’d heard nothing from her, somewhat to my surprise.  By Spring I began to suspect that she might have changed her mind and plans entirely.

In the first week of August she sent me her flight plans for when she was coming to visit my parents and asked me about the anniversary dinner again; would I like to plan or be involved?  I told her I’d pass.  She said she was planning visiting them that week anyway; how about just coming to dinner while she was in town?  I told her I doubted it.  She said she was disappointed and didn’t understand but she respected my decision.

What I didn’t know is that minutes before she asked me if wanted to be involved in planning the anniversary dinner she had already sent another email to my parents asking them if she and I could arrange a “special get together” for their anniversary.  My mother replied back to her and CC’d me, which is how I found out about it.  I replied to my sister, pointing that out that she’d volunteered me without checking with me and reminding her that the last time we’d talked about that was at our cousin’s wedding, when I had told her it was unlikely I would attend.  We exchanged a couple of emails, and this is how it went – her reply to me, my reply to her:

 

[Sister] Technically, I see your point about the sequencing of the emails. Those emails were written in the frenzy of packing and preparing for a two week trip that had me leaving Sitka the next morning at 4am, so I probably wasn’t thinking very clearly or logically. I meant no disrespect, but I guess I had always assumed I would be the one doing the actual planning anyway. I don’t remember you saying it was unlikely last summer. Probably the fault of the gin and tonic. I included you in the email to mom because I wanted them to feel like we both supported them on this important occasion.

[Me] You characterize that as a technicality but for my part, this was something that was of mild concern to me for the better part of a year.  It was at the pre-wedding dinner at that Italian place that you told me that you intended to give them the option of a party, a trip, or nothing if they don’t want to do anything special, and I told you it was unlikely I would be able to go because that would be during the busiest time of year where I work.  You went on to say that although you would do what you could from Alaska you’d need my help locally – to visit caterers or what not – but that this was a year away and we’d talk about it later.

[Me] So, from time to time, I wondered when you’d bring this up with me, and as the date grew closer I became concerned that you might make the offer to them without getting me on board first.  If they did end up wanting a party, then from what you said, you’d need my help, and I would be put in the awkward position of either having to do this or your having to rescind the offer with me to blame.  “But no,” I thought, “She wouldn’t do that.  She’ll discuss this with me to make sure she has the support she needs from me before she’ll offer to commit to a party.” Anyway, from what you’ve said I accept that you weren’t trying to put me in an awkward position.

 

[Sister] The point is, I don’t see why you can’t make the effort to be there. You don’t have to do anything. Just show up. It is one evening. A simple dinner with the two people whose love for each other brought you into this world.

[Me] I’ll tell you this in the strictest confidence: I’m conflicted over how close I want to be to this family, and no, I don’t want to discuss the matter.

[Me] That having been said, let me give you a clear warning: This is between you and me.  If Mom & Dad find out I said that to you then I will consider that to be a serious breach of confidence on your part.  No joke.

[Me] So, what I said about work being busy is true enough; there are times when I need to work late and defer personal chores to the weekend, and there are some weekends when I’ve had to come in to work, and I have short- or no notice in advance.  Will I be free on the weekend of the party?  I don’t know, but my doubts about my attendance for P&M’s 50th stem largely from my not wanting to be a part of this family, not a lack of effort.

 

[Sister] With that said, now you’ll probably definitely not come out because you will resent me harassing and guilting you this way and I have probably risked alienating you.

[Me] Your assumption here is undoubtedly founded in conversations you’ve had with Mom and Dad, since you and I never had any kind of conflict which would lead you to think that.  Now, put that in the context of what I just told you. Mom and Dad think that I become resentful and alienated when they do things which are mildly harassing or guilting. That’s well explained by my not feeling connected to the family and conflicted over how close I want to be. Harassing me or guilting me is counterproductive as it only pushes me away.

 

My sister didn’t speak to me for another two years after that, which sounds bad but really it’s perfectly normal.  If she visits my parents and I go to visit then we’ll see and talk to each other, but other than that we don’t speak, on the phone or by email.   I see zero effort on her part to start a dialog, to build a bridge, or have any meaningful contact.  I’m fine with that, but it’s just so odd when juxtaposed with her expressing concern that she’s “risked alienating” me.  That ship sailed decades ago, sister.

A couple of days after our conversation above I got a concerned call from my mother.  Apparently my sister had been saying some things about me that were deeply concerning.  I passed it off as my sister being overemotional and overstating things.  My mother didn’t tell me specifically what my sister had said but it was pretty obvious my sister had breached the confidence I’d given her.  The irony is that I told her that confidential thing as a trust-building way of opening up a brother-sister dialog.  Looks to me like that ship wrecked on the rocks of betrayal.

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Work

Somewhere, out of somewhere, I developed a good work-ethic.  My schoolteachers would be amazed.  I don’t even know quite where that came from; maybe it was that working meant making money.  I held some BS part-time jobs in college, but some time after I was done with college I got hired full-time by the company for which I still work.  My parents never had one word of advice on writing a resume, getting, or holding on to a job.  Both had worked in a structured environment; my mother worked at a hospital, my father worked at a college.  I recall one time I was telling my mother about my work and I had to explain a business concept to her, probably having to do with the Economies of Scale, and she remarked something to the effect of, “Wow, I think you know more about business than anyone in our family!”  Well, probably, but considering that my family ranges from Liberal to Socialist that doesn’t count for much.  Some years later I realized that she was unclear on the difference between gross and net profit, so there’s that.  My father never had a word of advice on work; how to deal with management, coworkers, or later, employees under my supervision.  I might tell him a work story and he might then regale me with a sorta-similar tale of his teaching days.

The first thing I learned about full-time work was, wow, they really put the “full” in full-time!  I’d never worked so hard in my life.  Working was important to me, though.  I was in the business world, the real world, and for the first time I was making some serious money.  Like, enough money to live on.  Not that I was in a hurry to live on my own.

My parents had fostered into me a fear of corporate America, partly directly, and partly indirectly by way of the leftist propaganda to which they subscribed (Utne Reader, The Progressive, NYTimes, etc.).  I was afraid and convinced that I was going to fail, that I would be chewed up and spat out.  I lived at home and saved my money, knowing that I could lose my job any day.  I felt I needed to get established, to set aside some savings in case things went tits-up.  So, fear.  Also inertia, and a lack of ambition.

When I did move out it was amazing.  Being on my own and responsible for myself was the best thing I did for myself.  You know how people sometimes muse on what they would tell their younger selves?  I would tell myself to GTFO of that house.  On the other hand I don’t know that I would have listened.

I started out in an entry-level position but I’ve worked up to middle management.  The family I work for has put a tremendous amount of trust in me, probably more than they know, and a lot of responsibility (I have 24hr access to our corporate headquarters and warehouse, and I have full admin privs to our LAN).  I’ve learned that I’m comfortable in a leadership position but also that I can be a leader or a follower depending on circumstance and role.  If I’m a follower then, so long as the leadership has a good plan and executes well, I am but a cog: set me to task.  If there’s poor leadership I’ll advise as to what we should do to facilitate the task or avoid/mitigate problems, but in a leadership vacuum I just naturally go straight to taking charge and I turn into Boss Man, issuing commands and taking initiative.  I wasn’t raised to be assertive or a leader, so I’m not sure where that part of my personality came from.

My parents do ask me about work but they almost never remember what I tell them.  Let me give an example: A few years ago I was sent by my company to a vendor workshop in Arkansas.  This was a workshop being run by our biggest customer for the operations people of their key suppliers.  It was my second time going, and my third away mission for me to take for the company.

Now, to begin with, bear in mind that I hate to travel.  It makes me anxious – not knowing where I am, being away from the safety of home, having only my wits and what’s on my person to deal with whatever comes my way, and worst of all, my poor sense of direction and a nagging fear of getting lost.  I never travel for vacations; heck, I rarely leave my neighborhood.  I’m a natural contingency planner, so when I’m unsure of where I am and where I should be going, or if anything even seems to start going wrong, I’ll immediately start thinking ahead, like, “Well, maybe I could find a hotel room if I can’t get my bearings by nightfall, or maybe I could go sleep on that park bench if I can’t find a hotel…” and so forth.  I think “worst-case scenario” and how to best mitigate that, and what should plan C look like if plan B fails, and so forth.  My anxiety has me getting way ahead of myself even if plan A is still working just fine.  On my first two away missions I brought with me printouts of the airport layouts of both origin and destination, the directions to and from the airport to my hotel, all neatly arranged with my flight information and assorted contact numbers.  It just made me feel better having that with me (see this post for more on me and preparedness).

Secondly, on this trip I’d be representing the company for which I work, alone, to our biggest customer; my boss, the owner and president, told me that one reason, and if for no other reason, he wanted me to go was “to show the flag”.  Now, understand that I’m an operations guy; I do back-end work in making the business work.  Shipping, billing, EDI, logistics, employee training and supervision, Tier 1 technical support, and more – it’s a small company and I “wear a lot of hats” – but I don’t generally speak to our customers, or at least it doesn’t happen very frequently.  What’s more, this kind of mixture of social and business interactions does not come naturally to me.  In business-speak this trip would be somewhat “challenging”, or, to put it less euphemistically, it was going to be kind of difficult.

When I learned of the workshop and my bosses were deciding whether to send me I told my parents in a phone conversation that it was possible I might be going to Arkansas for this thing.  My mother was apoplectic to the point of incoherence, as in, she made noises and a few words and she literally could not say anything coherent.  After a minute of this nonsense she managed to blurt out, “Well, at least you won’t need an abortion!” (to which I replied with calm exasperation, “Are you done?”).

So what was that all about?  Well, Arkansas is a “red” state.  Yes, home and starting place of Bill & Hillary Clinton, but still, a red state.  She was very upset that I’d be going to a red state.  Now, bear in mind, this was a business trip.  I’d be flying out there, staying at a hotel, and would never have to leave the hotel for the duration of this conference.  I’d be meeting some people from Arkansas, sure, but mostly employees of our customer and hotel staff.  Most everyone else would be from around the country and other parts of the world.  We were gathering to do business things; nothing to do with politics.

I thought my parents might be more interested in the trip itself, or perhaps share some sympathy over my anxiety about travelling, something my father and I share.  We did talk a little about the trip, but then the topic got changed to their grandchildren.  We talked a little more about it when I called them a few months later that summer after it was confirmed I was going sometime in mid-September.

After my trip they didn’t ask me about it.  I made a bet with myself that they wouldn’t ask about it by the end of the year – and I won!  They never brought it up.  Ever.  Like it never happened.  It’s not so much the red-state thing, it’s that they don’t remember because it’s not relevant to their lives.  It might have been a big deal to me but it didn’t matter to them.

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Cooking

When I got out on my own my mother gave me a couple of cookbooks: “How to Cook Everything” and “The All New Joy of Cooking”.  They also gave me some old utensils, a couple of old pots and pans, and some old dishes, a garlic press – basically they looked through their kitchen drawers and cabinets and gave me some of what they didn’t need anymore.  They did buy me one new thing: a nice chef’s knife.

When I was growing up both my mother and father cooked most of our meals but neither of them taught me how to cook.  OK, to be fair, when I was very young they taught me how to make toast with butter.  Later, my father taught me how to make spaghetti (boil water, add salt, cook for about ten minutes, drain in a colander and rinse).  He once showed me how to make his spaghetti sauce, but only once, and I only got to watch.  Some years later he gave me the recipe, long after I was making my own spaghetti sauce.  Well, no matter; I’m not so fond of his sauce – but mine is really excellent.  And after I drain my spaghets I no longer rinse them.

Anyway, getting back to the point, this fits the pattern of their teaching me nothing.  I consider cooking to be one of the basic life skills.  They knew how to cook – they did it almost every day, and it – what?  Never occurred to them to teach their children?  Not worth the time?  What were they thinking?  It’s just another example of wasted opportunities to teach and spend time bonding with their son that they squandered.

At the start of my life on my own I was eating pre-made food like Stouffer’s entrees for dinner, but I wanted to save more money and I thought that cooking for myself might be a good way to do that.  It was one area of my spending over which I had some flexibility, anyway.  What really started me going was getting a frozen turkey.

Not the best way to start cooking, but it was free.  It was right around Thanksgiving and that turkey was a promotional bonus for having spent so much money at the grocery store.  I noticed it on my receipt one day.  What’s this?  Free turkey!  Wow!  What the hell was I going to do with a 15 lb. frozen turkey?  I didn’t know, but it was free.  I mean, really, what’s the worst that could happen?  So maybe I’d ruin it and then have to throw it away.  Big deal – it was free to begin with.  Besides, I had the cookbooks my mother gave me.  I bought one of those one-time-use aluminum roasters.  I was going to give it a go.

And I did – and it turned out pretty good!  Simple, just cooked, no stuffing, no seasoning, just a cooked turkey.  I had no idea what to do with the liver, the neck, and whatever else was inside the cavity, so I tossed them.  I had no idea what to do with the leavings, so I tossed them.  I had no idea what to do with the bones, so I tossed them, too.  I ended up with some containers of turkey meat, most of which I ended up freezing.  I didn’t even know what to do with the meat; I tried having a meal of basically turkey meat but that didn’t sit very well, so I knew I’d have use it more as an ingredient or a component instead of just, you know, a meal in and of itself.

Cooking that turkey gave me a lot of confidence and I was proud of myself.  Frozen turkeys were relatively inexpensive so I ended up getting more of them, and I began to try new things.  I tried making it with Stove Top stuffing, with some added onion, and that turned out well.  I tried seasoning the bird more.  I stopped using those disposable aluminum roasters when my parents got me a non-stick roaster but that only lasted a couple of years before the “non-stick” began to come off.

I ended up getting a large, steel, covered roaster.  I tried cooking chicken (wings, drumsticks, whole leg quarters) and whole pork shoulders, too, and they’ve become mainstays.  I learned to save the leavings, strain it, refrigerate it to separate the fat from the water, and use both in my cooking.  I learned to save the bones and make bone stock.  Almost nothing goes to waste and I love that efficiency – I paid for that food and I’m going to get everything out of it I can, even the freakin’ bones!  I’m still not sure what to do with that turkey neck and such, but then, I don’t much buy turkeys anymore.  Pork shoulders are cheaper, and chicken is cheaper still.

I learned to cook more and different things by watching YouTube videos and reading recipes.  I’d get a general sense of how something is done, I look at variations on it to see what I could do with it.  What was the general order of operations?  Would I need ingredients I didn’t have, and was it worth it to buy them just for that?  What ingredients could I add or sub that I already had on hand?  That kind of thing.  I cook improvisationally; I take a recipe and then do something like that – add this or that, sub or leave out other things, and generally treat the recipe as more like a suggested guideline.  Just get the general idea and then do something like that.

Let’s be clear about something: I’m not a chef.  I’m not a sous chef.  I’m not a short-order cook.  I’m really not much of a cook.  But I am home cook – a limited kind of home cook, and I make most of my meals myself from scratch.  Having started cooking knowing only how to make toast and boil spaghetti, I think I’ve come a long way, and I’m exceeding proud of myself for my limited skills.  I’ve had coworkers swoon over the smell of my homemade lunches but even as I thanked them for the compliment I’ve always insisted I’m not much of a cook.  Even on this anonymous blog I’ll swear to that.  Still: just so proud of myself for what I can do.

Side note: Ever since I learned to make stock (broth, whatevs), whether it’s making food, shopping for food, eating food, or looking at food, in some way, my dreams always involve food.  Always.

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College

After I graduated high school it was as if a weight was lifted from my shoulders.  High school had been enormously stressful, and combined with a self-induced personality change, I started getting paranoid.  I got professional help for that, and once I was free of that environment I felt liberated.

I’d toyed with the idea of joining the Armed Forces but at the time I was underage and my parents wouldn’t sign the consent form.  They did, however, offer to pay for college instead, and I was so directionless I accepted that offer.  Maybe I wasn’t that serious about joining up, or maybe it was inertia.

I ended up going to the same college where my father taught.  It was less expensive – a city college, and my parents wouldn’t have to pay for my room and board since it was close to home.  Going to the same college where my father worked wasn’t that weird for me though because we rarely ran into each other, and I never took classes in his department.

When I started college I found myself in a familiar position – nobody knew me, and I could create a new image of myself.  With the stress of high school behind me and in the more placid college environment, I ditched the camo and started wearing oxford button-down dress shirts.  Less intimidating, more college-like.  However, although I could change my appearance, I found, with unsettling dismay, that the mask of intimidation and implicit violence was no longer a mask: it had become a part of me.  I realized that I had inadvertently changed my personality back in high school, and so I’d have to change it back now that I was free of that place and it no longer served me.

So I did.  That was the second time I changed something fundamental in my psyche, and it wasn’t the last time.  The third time I did that is another story, perhaps for another blogpost.  This series of blogposts is more about my relationship to my family.

One of the improvements of college over high school is that in college there are no parent-teacher conferences, no report cards to get signed.  I was still the same lousy student but it was less apparent to my parents.  Until I almost flunked out due to poor academic performance, that is.

I appealed the expulsion and got on probation, and I started to take college more seriously.  Not seriously, just, well, more seriously.  I did well enough to continue.  Neither of my parents took any interest in how I was doing or what courses I was taking, or who I was friends with, or who I was dating, or any other aspect of my life, i.e., same as always.

While I’m on the topic of college, there was this one time when my father called the house and he was in distress.  He had inadvertently eaten something to which has a known, severe allergy.  He was going into anaphylactic shock and needed his Epi-Pen, which he didn’t have.  It was at home, on his nightstand, and he needed me to get it and bring it to him in his office.

In a mild panic I searched frantically for this Epi-Pen, found it, jumped in my car and raced to the college.  I was running red lights and exceeding the speed limits.  I got to his building, got out of the car and ran to his office.  By the time I got there I was so out of shape and in such a state that I was seeing washes of colors in my vision.  He took the Epi-Pen and slammed it into his thigh, and then we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

They got there and got him ready to go to the hospital.  As they were about to put him in the ambulance he grabbed my hand and said, near tears, “Slab, Slab, there are so many things I wanted to tell you – so many things I wanted to say!”  Then they got him inside the ambulance and I couldn’t go with him, so they took him away.

And released him the next day.  When he got home I thought of his words, and I anticipated we would be having some kind of heart-to-heart talk.  Clearly there were things he wanted me to know.  So, any day now.

Except not.  As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into a month, then a month and a half, as I slowly came to the realization that there would be no talk between us.  There was nothing he had to say to me after all.  We never did have that talk, not then and not in the decades since.  I’m guessing, and would prefer to think, that the threat of imminent death had him panicked and, in reality, there were no specific things he actually wanted to say.  Sure, that would be lame of him, but I think it beats any alternative explanations.

I graduated, eventually, after turning what should have been a 4 year degree into 6, with a GPA of – I don’t even know.  I never paid any attention to my grades.  By the end I just wanted out of there, and to be done with school.  I had no ambition, and no plans for the future.

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BASIC and Coder

I came across this back when I was using FB to keep more-or-less up-to-date on my family:

This left me partly puzzled and partly pissed off.  Let me explain.

First, the context: Shortly after IBM came to market with their PC – the original IBM PC – my father bought one.  For his use, and for mine too.  Altogether, in unadjusted dollars, it probably came to somewhere in the neighborhood of $5K.  Being a science nerd in my early teens I was thrilled.

The IBM PC came with MS-DOS BASIC built-in to ROM and I decided to learn to programming.  It’s a simple beginner’s language and it was all I had.  Back in those days the computer came with a manual in a binder, which included all of the commands for BASIC.  That was my guide (bear in mind that the World Wide Web did not yet exist), and I methodically went through that manual as it was laid out – alphabetically.  I learned how to structure my programs, how to think more logically, how to systematically chase down problems.  It was an invaluable learning tool in disciplining my mind.  ST-TOS Spock was a childhood hero of mine, but this was my training ground in logic.

Starting as we all do with “Hello World”, I wrote simple programs to get a feel for the command structure and usage of BASIC syntax.  When I got to some of the graphics commands I wrote programs to draw intersecting lines and such which created moiré patterns on the screen.  I thought they were pretty cool, and so I showed some of them to my father and his response was always the same, “That’s nice”, he’s say; “Very good.”  More polite than interested; underwhelmed and unimpressed.  Then he’d walk away.

At that age I was increasingly withdrawn and secretive and I wanted to keep secrets on that computer – I wasn’t sure what secrets but the idea appealed to me.  There really wasn’t a way to do it, though.  These were open architecture machines, from the hardware to the operating system to the applications, and in those days personal computer security was essentially nonexistent.  I could try to hide the data, on a disk or buried in some obscure part of the operating system folders, but I couldn’t secure it.  What I needed was an encryption program, something to turn a secret file into a file of randomness, lockable and unlockable with a password only I knew.  At the time it didn’t exist for the PC.  So I decided to write my own.

I was still learning how to program but I thought I knew enough to do it.  I decided to use a simple XOR algorithm.  At the heart of it was the encryption engine, which took the data, converted it into ASCII binary (i.e., a string variable like “10010010” – literally, an eight character string of ASCII characters 1 and 0), performed a character-by-character bit-equivalent of an XOR operation with the password (also converted to ASCII binary), then converted the result back into binary.  All in MS-DOS BASIC.

It worked!  It worked pretty well, actually, but it was achingly slow.  It was like filling up a family swimming pool, one bucket at a time – then emptying it the same way.  Initially I used a conditional branch structure until I understood subroutines, which enabled me to trash that unwieldy structure for the more elegant GOTO/RETURN.  I continued to polish it and make some refinements as I continued my studies in BASIC, until I got to the part of the manual which had the “X” commands.  There was, as it turns out, a native BASIC “XOR” command.  I was floored.

Having a native XOR command meant that I could replace the forty or so commands of code in the encryption engine with, what, maybe two, and it would run faster – a lot faster.  If it worked, my encryption program would run very, very fast.  This was a thrilling discovery, and I enthusiastically spent the morning experimenting with this new command, then writing and testing the new subroutine for this algorithm after having unceremoniously trashed my clunky BASIC equivalent.

After I had tested and integrating the new algorithm into my program I set it to work on a test file, and then as the computer churned on that I took a break and came up from the basement.  My parents were there, in the kitchen, making their lunch, and so I enthusiastically told them about what I was doing.  My program would run like a bunny, and I was over the moon!

They couldn’t care less.  “That’s nice,” said my father, “good for you.”  “Honey,” he said to my mother, “how do you want your eggs?”  No encouragement, no followup questions, no interest whatsoever from either of them, and it took the wind from my sails.  I turned around and went back down to the basement, low and dejected, as I asked myself why I’d even bothered to tell them.  They didn’t understand, and they didn’t care.

So, back to that FB post and my parents pride and nostalgia – yeah.  About that.  At the time my mother was oblivious to whatever I was doing but apparently she was aware that I programmed in BASIC; my father was patronizing and uninterested.  No surprise that they offered no help in my education aside from providing the computer, but what am I to make of this, of my father saying he was proud of me?  If he was proud of me back then he must have made an effort to hide it, which would be appalling, but I don’t think that’s it.  I think they’re both looking back on those years with, as they say, rose-colored glasses, and probably subconsciously rewriting the past in a way which better reflects their current mindset, and is more flattering to them.

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High School

Grades ten through twelve I spent in public school.  The class sizes were bigger, the teachers were worse, the kids generally cruder.  On the one hand, in private school there were these rich kids would have fancy electronics and designer clothes who would brag about their ski trip vacations and it made me aware of how much more wealthy they were than my family.  I had some envy.  I also thought they were kind of snooty and for the most part I didn’t like them much.

On the other hand the public school kids were about what you‘d expect.  Kids were generally less well educated.  Sometimes kids would come into class on drugs.  Fights would break out every so often on and just off school grounds.  I got mugged twice in my first semester, once at knifepoint.  I can’t say I recall pining for the good old days of that private school, though; mostly I remember being pretty miserable either way.

When I first made the transition I realized that this was an opportunity to change my image.  At the private school I was thought of as a space cadet: interested in science fiction, socially awkward, unathletic.  Nobody at this new school knew me so I could change some of that.  After I got mugged I knew what kind of image I wanted.

I remembered back to my days in grade school, when walking home sometimes coincided with the local public high schools letting out at the same time.  Those big kids could be intimidating, and so one day when I saw they were let out at the same time I’d have to walk past them I got an idea.  There was a big stick lying in the gutter, so I picked it up, carried it as if I was going to wallop someone, and I put a fierce look on my face as I passed by those big kids.  They parted in front of me like tuna avoiding a shark.

I never forgot that.  I decided that my new high school image would be intimidating.  I started carrying a pocketknife and I told a few of my classmates, knowing that they would gossip about it.  I started wearing camouflage clothing.  I grew out my hair and started wearing it in a bandana.  I watched – no, studied – Clint Eastwood movies, and copied his swaggering walk (which, in college, my friends once described as, “relaxed Stormtrooper”).  I trained myself not to flinch, because flinching would make me look weak.  I let them think I was on drugs (even though I never touched them), and maybe a little bit crazy, probably violent, best avoided.  All through this my parents studiously avoided my appearance changing from Space Cadet Nerdboy to Longhair Misfit Dangerboy.  Maybe the important thing to them was that I stayed out of jail; or maybe our relationship was already so hostile that there wasn’t much they could do.

Anyway, it worked.  I never got mugged again during those years, and nobody bothered me.  It was only after high school that I learned the price of wearing that mask.  I will say, to my credit, that despite occasional truancy and a variety of minor acts of trespassing and vandalism I managed to stay mostly out of trouble.  I’m not proud of my past but I have compassion for younger, stupider me of all ages.  As W once said, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”

In my senior year I became aware of and promptly joined the fencing team.  Sure, it was an extracurricular school activity, but it was fencing, which seemed pretty cool, and I did kind of enjoy it.  My parents took no interest, gave me no encouragement, nothing.  At one point there was a Saturday inter-school tournament and my team pressed me into filling a slot.  I held my own but, really, I wasn’t ready.  My parents?  I told them where I was going but they never asked how it turned out.  They had probably forgotten about it before I’d even gotten home.

I managed to graduate high school on-time with a Regents scholarship, which put a big gold star on the diploma – literally!  And much to the chagrin of my classmates who were vocally resentful that I was even graduating.  They didn’t understand how I’d managed it when they knew I was such a slacker, and they’d worked so hard.  It was a Regents scholarship in nursing, which they didn’t know and didn’t need to know.  The English teacher who distributed the Regents scholarship application forms to us encouraged everyone to apply for all the scholarships because, hey, even if you don’t want it now, you might one day and it could be there for you, but if you don’t apply you’ll never have the opportunity.  So I did as he suggested and checked the box for the nursing scholarship.  I never did take advantage of that but, hey, gold star on my diploma!

As an aside, that teacher was the guy who, one day in class, came up to me and quietly said, “I wish the rest of these kids had half as much guts as you.”  I had no idea what he was talking about or why he chose that particular moment to tell me that.  On the other hand, sometimes when it looked like I wasn’t paying attention he’d break off pieces of chalk and chuck them at me from across the room, as he was teaching – never broke stride or interrupted the lesson, he’d just keep talking and start casually flinging chalk at me.  It was kind of rude but I knew it was playful; he wasn’t trying to piss me off, he was just trying to get me to pay attention, and although it mildly annoyed me I didn’t take offence.

My parents attended the graduation ceremony, but my grandmother on my father’s side gave me a gift of substance – actually my choice of gifts: A new computer or a trip to Italy.  I chose the computer.  Never regretted it.  Having my own computer was frickin’ awesome.

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Learning to Shave

When I was something like fourteen years old I started to hit puberty, and one Saturday morning as I was sitting at the dining room table reading the NYTimes my father came downstairs and stopped at the entry way to the dining room.  I looked up from the paper and he brought the back of his fingers to his cheek, scraped his whiskers, and said to me, “You should start shaving.”

It was totally out of the blue and I didn’t know what to say – so I said nothing; he continued through the dining room and into the kitchen where he made himself breakfast.  I went back to the newspaper and tried to put his words out of my mind.  I didn’t know what to do – so I ignored it.

The next week the exact same thing happened, and I mean exactly as you see above, but instead of ignoring what he said I realized that yes, I was going to have to do this.  I just didn’t know how to shave.   Also I didn’t have a razor.  And I had no money or to get one.  I was altogether unclear on how I was going to make this work and anxious about the whole thing.

Naturally I ended up “borrowing” my father’s razor.  I mean, there it was in the bathroom, so I just used it.  That, and hand soap for lubricant.  With a little trial and error I managed to do a half-decent job of it, and with practice I got better.  Ah, if only YouTube or the equivalent was around back then.

Looking back I’m not sure how that could have gone differently.  At that time in my life my relationship with my family was poisoned.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask for his help, and he didn’t offer any.

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Grade School

Ugh, school.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate school.

I remember one time when I was in kindergarten and my uncle asked me how it was.  “Pointless,” I replied.  I had no idea what we were doing in kindergarten or why.  We played in the morning, we has story time, we snacked on juice and crackers, we napped, we played some more, then we went home.  Why go to kindergarten?  I could do all that stuff at home.  Kindergarten really did seem completely pointless to me.

I spent first and second grades in public school.  I remember absurdly stupid homework assignments, like “cut out pictures of pies from magazines and bring them to class” (no, really), and “fill in this circle that says Red with red crayon”.   I was just a kid but it seemed obvious to me that these assignments accomplished nothing and served no purpose.

When I was going into the third grade my parents pulled me from public school and put me in private school.  They’d learned I was going to get a teacher who was notoriously loud and cruel – and, in second grade, I was in a classroom next to hers, and we often heard her yelling at students, so there was surely something to that.

I don’t remember much about third grade but I know that fourth grade is when I truly began to loathe school.  The work was harder and required more time both at school and at home.  I didn’t care about any of the subjects and I had real difficulty with math and foreign language.  It was also in fourth grade that I began to fathom just how long it would be before I graduated high school, and it was daunting.  Every day was like going to prison, and I had an eight year sentence.  When teachers tried to motivate me to do better, they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I learned that they’d use my answer to try to convince me that schooling was necessary to do what I wanted when I was grown up, so I started telling them I wanted to grow up to be a garbageman.

I almost never did my homework and I’d put off studying and assignments as long as possible; every approaching test or due date felt like a daily weight around my neck, an approaching appointment with a judge who would hand down my verdict of failure.  I was a terrible student except that I managed to skate by.  My grades were meh and I didn’t care, as long as I passed the classes.  I just wanted as little to do with school and schoolwork as possible.  My parents didn’t work with me on homework or studying for tests, and were almost entirely unaware of what tests were coming or what essays or projects were assigned.  They never asked, and I never volunteered that information.  They would send me off to school and I was gone until the early afternoon when I would arrive back, and they had little to no interest or awareness of what happened during that time.  When I came home from school, if my parents asked me how my day was, I would tell them, “Fine,” and we would leave it at that.

My neglect of schoolwork would catch up with me every semester and cause its own problems.   Parent-Teacher conferences and report cards were always bad news.  Aside from my getting sent off to school each day it was those conferences and report cards seemed to remind them that I was in school, in the sense that they would pay attention to what was going on in school, albeit briefly.  My parents would sit me down and sternly tell me that I needed to do better in school, and then they’d punish me.   Punishment usually meant no TV for a week or so.  I did what I could to skirt those sanctions and they were loosely enforced.  After a few days my parents would often forget that I was being punished anyway.

My grades and overall school performance were bad enough that by ninth grade my parents had had enough; they put me back in public school.  They told me there was no point in paying for private school if I was doing so poorly, and really, I couldn’t argue with that, and I didn’t protest.  I think my spirit was broken by that point and I just didn’t care any more – this school, that school, whatever school, I still had to serve my sentence.  Sure, public school sounded worse, but it was still school, so it was going to suck no matter what.

Public school was… worse.

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Religion

When I was a kid I remember hanging out with some of the other neighborhood kids, we were probably, what, ten years old? – and one of the kids – not a friend of mine but he was from the neighborhood – said something, I don’t remember what, but something about “God”.  I asked him what he meant, and he was, like, “God – you know, God.  Up in heaven.”  I did not know.  I’d never heard of God.  I literally had just learned about God from some kid out on the street.  Well, OK, I was standing on the curb, but he was sitting on the curb, with his feet on the street, so yeah, that counts.

When the topic of religion occasionally came up in my young adulthood my father always said that, like many things, they (he and my mother) wanted me to make up my own mind.  Over the years I’ve asked them a couple of times, casually and in passing, but it was only in my mid-thirties that I pressed the question to them as to what their beliefs were.  As for my mother, I gather she doesn’t believe in any religion but is either so respectful or uncomfortable with the topic that her answers were vague and noncommittal.  As for my father, well, he finally told me about his own beliefs.

Raised Catholic, he believed in God implicitly but his devotion was focused on the saints.  As he explained it, he believed that if you could get in good with a saint then they’d put in a good word for you with God.  In his mind it was sort of like having and advocate, or an inside guy, and he had a patron saint: Saint Jude.

Yes, Saint Jude, the patron saint of hope and impossible causes.  You have to be more than down on your luck to have this guy as your saint; you have to be hopelessly screwed.  Think: Leprosy, or some fatal and incurable disease, or maybe just desperately poor, this saint is the last resort of the truly desperate.  And then there’s my father: a second generation American, raised in a modest-not-poor middle class house, went to college, got his PhD and went into teaching at a university.  Got married, had a son, and went on to own his own home, cars, and other material possessions common to a middle-income American household in the latter part of the 1900’s.  Never went hungry.  Some back problems but never had a serious disease.  It doesn’t seem like a good fit or an appropriate choice but it makes sense to me.  My father has always been depressed, morose, fatalistic, and tinged with self-pity.   Like most leftists he believes he’s been screwed in life, mostly by other people.  That my father might see himself as a hopeless cause seems unsurprising to me.

That he believed in God at all, however – that was a surprise.  Religion was never a part of our household, and to my knowledge he never went to church, or even prayed – to God, Jesus, St. Jude, or Vishnu for that matter.  That he never mentioned this was explained by his wanting me to make up my own mind, at least that’s how he explained it, but that makes no sense.  It would be as if he said to me, “I wanted you to make up your own mind about the spiritual beliefs I have never told you about.”

What’s just as baffling is how he cherrypicked the parts of Catholicism that appealed to him and tossed the rest, as if he had a choice in how the universe works.

In accordance with his beliefs he didn’t have me baptized.  Baptism is the Catholic equivalent of a Get-Out-of-Hell Free card: All your previous sins are literally washed away.  As he explained it, his angle was that I could do that at a time of my choosing, perhaps on my death bed (with the inference being that in that way I could game the system and get in to heaven).  That didn’t work out as he planned, though.  He and my mother left me in my grandmother’s care one day when I was just a tyke, for reasons he did not say, and in their absence my grandmother spirited me off to the church and had me baptized.

Without religious indoctrination I grew up to be an atheist, or to be more technically accurate, an agnostic, so whether I’ve been baptized or not is of no consequence to me.  From my perspective what remains is the question of why my father wouldn’t teach me his beliefs or even about the beliefs of others.  From his perspective – and this is my supposition – my everlasting soul was at risk of eternal damnation, so what did he do to make sure that didn’t happen?

Nothing.  I’m surely better off for it, not being religiously brainwashed and all, so, um, thanks for nothing!  But there’s that parental neglect thing again.

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