The Living Years

I got a phone call Tuesday from my sister informing me that my father is on his deathbed. Stage 4 bone cancer. This on top of the dementia that has been eating away at his mind for the last several years. The last time I spoke to him it was a struggle to form a coherent sentence. He knew me, but could not tell me who my wife or kids were. That was a year or two ago, so I have no idea how far gone he is now.

Some of you may recall a song by Mike and the Mechanics from the early 90’s called “The Living Years”. The song is all about the distance and disagreement between a father and his son. The first verse says:

“Every generation blames the one before, And all of their frustrations come beating on your door.

I know that I’m a prisoner to all my father held so dear I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears I just wish I could’ve told him in the living years

Oh, crumpled bits of paper filled with imperfect thoughts,

Stilted conversations I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it he says it’s perfect sense , You just can’t get agreement in this present tense

We all talk a different language, talking in defense.”

 

That pretty well perfectly describes my relationship with my father. I did not listen to that song this morning on my drive in to work, but I heard it in my head nonetheless.

My father and I have been estranged for quite some time. So, as I type this post this morning I am not entirely sure how I feel about the news I have received. I guess, if I were a “normal” person I would have called in to work this morning, taken the rest of the week off, and rushed off to see him in his last moments. I didn’t do any of those things.

I did inform my manager of what was going on, simply because I am not sure how I am going to react. I wanted him to be prepared in case I abruptly left, or began sobbing uncontrollably, or something…

The thing is, I am as much a spectator in this situation as everyone else. I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know how I will feel. I have no idea how I will react when the anticipated passing of my father happens in what I assume will be the next few days. So I am, in many respects, watching a movie I’ve never seen before, and waiting to see what happens.

I think it’s entirely possible that when a new idea or concept strikes many of us we have a tendency to believe we have “discovered” something. Our epiphany is an epiphany for all mankind. I’m sure this is particularly true if we are considered (by ourselves or others) to be “smart”. But then you talk to someone else, or read something someone else wrote, and realize that there is nothing new under the sun.

Nevertheless, while exploring my thoughts and feelings on the matter I was struck by the notion that in the end our lives are really just a series of snippets in the memories of other people.

We are born, in many cases we procreate, and eventually we die. The circle of people who care about any of these things is relatively small. The number of lives most of us will touch is also relatively small. In the end, even if a whole lot of people know who we are, the people who actually feel our loss is a small subset of that number.

Who we were becomes a function of how we are recalled by those still living. Being forever silenced and unable to correct the record or defend ourselves, perception becomes reality. All the things we accomplished fade away. The awards and achievements, the degrees and certifications, all of the accumulated pieces of paper and plaques…all piled into a pine box alongside the husk of who we once were…and turned to ash and dust along with us.

All that remains are the smiles or frowns of those who knew us when, from time to time, we come to mind. The things we said or did traded in for the things people think we said or did. Nothing lasting, nothing permanent. In my case, having fathered two girls, not even my last name will carry on. All that will matter when all is said and done, is what those two girls think of me, when they think of me.

Lest I depart too sharply from my normal manner and thereby cause consternation amongst my friends, let me follow up by saying….I’ll be dead. So, in reality, I won’t know, or care, what anyone still alive thinks. It certainly does make for some interesting thoughts though…and no doubt quite a few tee-shirts and bumper stickers about how all that matters is how we treated others, etc.

Right now, in a house I’ve never seen, in a town I’ve never been to, surrounded by people I’ve never met…my father is dying.   When I imagined for a moment what going to his funeral might be like, and what I would say if I were asked to say something, I came to some conclusions. I guess it’s up to the reader to determine if those conclusions are sad, or insightful, profound, or ambivalent. I can’t rightly say.

For the record, and for those not familiar with the situation, I will briefly recap. My father left my mother in the most cowardly manner I could imagine. He was a pastor and he ran off with the church secretary. He married her shortly after his divorce from my mother went through because, as he explained to me at the time, they didn’t want to live in sin, “any longer than is absolutely necessary”.

My mother is, as are we all, a flawed woman. But she continually and constantly pounded one refrain into my mind from the time I was old enough to speak. “I hate a liar”. That can be translated over to, “I hate a hypocrite”. I did see, and still see, my father as a hypocrite. I believe he violated sacred covenants, abandoned his flock, led people astray, and committed a whole host of other things that his faith deems “sins”. Nevertheless, he did them. And he did them for the most base of reasons. I have never truly found it in my heart to forgive that.

That fact is in and of itself intriguing to me. I know women whose fathers sexually molested them, and they have found it within themselves to forgive them and attempt to repair the relationship. My father broke a vow to a God I don’t quite believe in, and (to be fair) he also lied to me in the process. But these things seem so much smaller than the things other people are able to see their way past. So I have to consider for a moment, is the failing his, or mine?

Not that I bear him ill will, or walk around with anger in my heart. I just added him to my internal list of people I prefer not to associate with. What that translates to is, in the last 15 years I’ve seen him once and spoken to him by phone 3-4 times.

I guess in my dad’s case what angered me was that he set himself up as a leader and an emissary of God, and then fell on his face. And he didn’t stumble over some unusual set of circumstances or extraordinary moral conundrum. He was tripped up by the same shit he lectured me on.

He demonstrated conclusively (in my mind) that Jesus isn’t changing hearts. He tore apart his own family, and the family of the woman he committed adultery with, and then he shrugged and said, “God forgives me, if you don’t that’s your problem”.

And now he’s dying.

What would I say if I were asked to say something?

My father was not a great man. Some would tell you he was a good man, and I wouldn’t rise to oppose them, though I would disagree. In the end, he was a man. He had his flaws. He had his vices. He had his shortcomings and failures. I do not begrudge him any of these things. We all have things about ourselves we are less than proud of. But he lacked honor, and was therefore not someone I chose to spend time with.

My father paid his bills, fed his kids, and served his country. He spent 4 years in the Air Force and the rest of his working life at NSA. He taught college courses, coached tee-ball, baseball, and softball. (An interesting aside, my dad was tried out to play Catcher for the Baltimore Orioles way back in the day.)

He gave to me my love of reading, chess, and debate. He taught me to think. And when he was younger and in decent shape, the man could play baseball.

He participated in the rearing of two moderately successful children. His progeny is no burden on society.

I hear that in recent years he got involved with child welfare and became some sort of court appointed advocate.

That’s it. That’s all I know about the man.

I recall a few ridiculous things like the way he would stick his tongue in his cheek when he was angry. I remember a few times we almost came to blows during my teenage years. I remember he was a bit of a clown, and enjoyed being the center of attention…which I suppose is the unspoken reason he chose to go into the ministry.

Mainly, since I hung up the phone with my sister, I have been thinking about more abstract things.

I wonder if he’s scared. I wonder if he’s even cognizant of what is happening. I wonder if he’s looking forward to “going on to be with the Lord”. Or is it possible that now that the question is no longer rhetorical, he has his doubts?

I wonder who has come to see him. I wonder, when I am in his position, who will come to see me? I wonder if he wonders if I will come…or if he even remembers my name. If he does remember my name, and does hope that I will come, will the last thing he feels be profound sadness? Is that my fault? Does it matter?

Assuming he has anywhere near a firm grasp on reality, I wonder does he look back on his life with regret, or satisfaction? I wonder how I would answer that same question.

In the end I am simply writing this because I am experiencing an event I will only ever experience once. I am not looking for pity or condolences. My father has not been an integral part of my life for a very long time. I won’t miss him more the day after he’s gone than I did on any given day last month.

I’m simply thinking about things, and seeing them, in a light that only shines once. So I’m capturing my thoughts and passing them on.

Maybe I’m just creating a snippet in the memory of someone else…

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Management Decisions

I have been sitting here this morning listening to the two senior people in the security operations center I work in discussing staffing and access.  You see, the security operations center does not currently operate.  We are in the process of standing it up.

In any event, as I listen to them speak about what access entry-level and journeyman people will need versus what rights and privileges “senior” people will need, I am reminded once again of a fatal flaw in organizational thinking regarding management.

In a couple of months, when this operations center is fully operational, I am certain I will find myself reporting to some “senior” person.  However, the use of the term “senior” is meant to describe the level of experience the individual in question has with a certain set of tools, or in a certain environment.  It is akin to describing an auto mechanic as a journeyman vs a “master” mechanic.  The problem being, knowing how to fix a car doesn’t mean you know how to run a dealership.

I am speaking now as someone who will always be a technician and never a manager because I do not have a degree or a PMP certification.  But the simple fact is that both I and every other contractor I know has worked on one or more failed programs run by people who do have degrees and PMP certifications.  So, while I know no one is ever going to actually read and act on what I have to say here, I will say it anyway.

Management is not a college major.  It’s not a name tag.  It’s not a corner office, power ties, or business lunches.  It’s not being called “sir” or “ma’am” by ass kissers in your office.  Management is a role, a process, a means to an end.  And on the whole I think we have entirely too many wholly unqualified individuals sitting in big chairs, with big titles…who don’t know shit.

Management starts with clearly understanding what has to be done, and selecting the right people to get it done.  It begins with the creation of accurate job descriptions.  It involves cooperation between recruiters, hiring managers, and the actual manager who will lead the personnel in question.  It involves actually understanding the work and the skillsets required to accomplish it.

After you have determined the goal and hired the personnel, you need to clearly define the roles, the milestone, the expectations, the penalties and incentives, and the risks.  Then you need to pass this information on to your people.  There is nothing less productive than an employee that does not understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, when it needs to be done, and in what manner.  A clueless employee is just a butt in a seat.  An FTE.  An excuse to bill hours to the customer.  You do your customer, your company, and your employees a disservice when you engage in this type of management.

Management involves a clearly defined and understood chain of command.  One of the things I liked best about my favorite manager of all time is that when the customer showed up in our space and started grilling us, she would intercede.  I can still recall her saying, “If you have a question or a problem, you come talk to me.  Do not talk to my people.”  *That* is management.  That is freeing me to do my job by taking on the responsibility of doing yours.

Lastly, management involves a lot of intangibles.  Sure, you have the pedigree.  You have your bachelor’s or master’s…or God-forbid your PhD.  You have your PMP.  You have your 40 hours of this training and 80 hours of that.  All wonderful.

Do you know how to motivate people?  Do you know how to get the best out of the people who work for you?  Do your employees see themselves as part of a team, and you as the team leader?  Do you take the side of an employee when they are right, even if it puts you at odds with YOUR manager?

Or do you see your job as simply standing by the clock to monitor when people come in and when they leave; cracking the whip from time to time during the day; taking long lunches and; hanging out with big-wigs?

Can you juggle multiple tasks, and people, and events?  Do you freeze in an emergency?  Are you capable of prioritizing, providing guidance, and pushing your team across the finish line?  Or do you simply provide the excuses and point the finger at other people when things go sour?

I will never be a manager, because I lack the credentials.  In spite of the fact that I manage an international gaming group with hundreds of members, and spend my evenings managing a much larger group of people than most of the organizations for whom I work.  In spite of the fact that I can, and do, all of the things I listed above.

The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t really bother me much.  I have enough to deal with at home and in the cloud.  I am happy to do my job, cash my check, and go home.  But on some level, it does stick in my crawl a little.  Always having to answer to people who I wouldn’t let run one of my guilds, much less handle national security related activities.

And the further truth of the matter is, it’s their loss not mine.  I make plenty of money.  I forget what’s going on at work as soon as my ass hits my car seat.  I have my evenings and weekends to spend as I like.  There are no long hours or late nights.

So why am I “bitching”?  Because it grates on me a little that someone who has no real skill or ability in management will be placed in charge of me because the “paper well”.

Sigh…. 20 more years to go….

 

 

My Changing Perspective

There are moments in life, or at least in my life, where I come to sudden realizations.  Epiphanies they call them.  But there are also slow, inexorable, seemingly decades long processes where I confirm what I suspected at the start.  I don’t know if I can put my finger on the moment when that confirmation became a reality.  But, I suspect I am in, or near, one of those moments as I type this.

I spent a good portion of my life pretty well broke.  I can still recall when my children were little and I had separated from their mother.  I was living in a rent-controlled studio apartment on the wrong side of town.  Driving a vehicle graciously given to me by my former father-in-law.  One day in particular stands out.  My kids asked me to take them to the park, and I had to tell them that I didn’t have gas money for a ride to the park.

Broke!  Like, for real!

Which is why I develop a special level of anger at people who assume that because I am white and/or male, that I do not understand the plight of the poor.  As if you have to be minority in order to have no money.  Let me state for the record…I understand the plight of the poor.  I live every day with the knowledge that if I were to lose the access I have to the facilities I work in, I’d be right back in that same boat.

Anyway, Lose Yourself by Eminem came out and the third verse really stuck in my head.  I decided that I had to formulate a plot…or end up in jail or shot…

In any event, some 12 years ago (or thereabouts) I began to aggressively pursue success.  First through a contact of my then girlfriend (now wife), and then through other contacts made as time went on, I found myself in increasingly better paying jobs.

I did some telecom work for a while.  8 hours a day standing on a ladder, pulling wire over my head.  I walk around with messed up shoulders (they tell me it’s arthritis) nowadays as a result (IMHO) of that experience.

Then I got a security clearance and began a series of jobs.  Some were physical, some were technical, but each time I took on a new position I got a raise in pay.  When you’re dead broke a raise in pay is pretty much all you care about.

Eventually Bev and I got married.  Between the two of us the money going into the checking account went up about 10x.  I went from telling my kids I could not take them to the park, to sending my oldest to London as part of her senior class.  It truly warmed my heart to be able to provide things for my kids, and I regarded this as my highest calling (aside, of course, from teaching them to be decent people).

When I was sitting around watching paint dry for a living (yes, really) I kept thinking (and saying) that I was meant to do more.  When I worked Helpdesk, when I filled a small IA role, when I did Requirements work…I kept thinking and saying that I was capable of more.  I even wrote a number of blog entries right here about how life has to be about more than just trudging to work to pay the bills.

Oh yeah…the bills.  For those who do not know, or have only walked on one side of the street, let me take a moment to tell you about the bills.

When you’re broke…and I mean gas money broke…you “shop”.  You find deals on things like food and toilet paper.  You try to make sure you have enough money left over to pay for internet access or cable tv…because after all, there has to be something to do on the weekends.  You accept gifts and donations from friends and family.  You buy books on how to fix things, rather than pay someone to fix them.

When you cross over to where I am now (my eldest still recalls me telling someone that I make enough money to pay someone to punch them in the face), life is different.  My wife, having never really lost her low income mindset, still calls me to say that she wants to get her nails done.  I always reply with, “Do whatever you want.  I don’t care.”

These days I do things like spend a grand a month adding ink to my arms.  I wake up and decide I want a Harley, and that afternoon I ride home on my Harley.  One of my daughters asks for something…and they get it.  In short, I am now living the life I imagined I wanted back when I couldn’t afford to drive to the park.  And don’t get me wrong, this is not one of those posts about how money cannot buy happiness.  It absolutely can!

When I am sitting at the winery enjoying a good time with my friends…that’s happiness.  When I am riding down the road with the wind in my face on the Harley I wanted since I was a kid…that’s happiness.  When my daughter gets to see the world, and do things that other kids don’t get to do, and she hugs me and says “thank you daddy!”…that’s happiness.  All sponsored by money.

No, this post is about the constant drive to do more, learn more, and earn more.  It’s about the fact that when you are always on the bleeding edge…it’s you that does the bleeding.  It’s about the thought that maybe I have reached a comfortable place…and then I took one more step…and maybe I should take a step back.

It’s about thinking that maybe a nice, boring, 40 hour a week, do it in my sleep, no certs or training required, type job might not be a bad thing.  I had one of those a few weeks ago, and I moved on to where I am now sitting.  Because I wanted to do something meaningful and “important”.  I wanted to work in “security”.  Cyber security to be exact.  So here I am.

I haven’t been here long enough to really form an informed opinion.  I will give it some time before I really make any important decisions.  I am simply writing this because for the first time I can recall in my life, I have moved on from one place to another, taken a step ahead in pay and responsibility…and thought that maybe I made a mistake.

There are a lot of reasons why this thought has crept into my mind, but I won’t bore you with the details until I see how things pan out.

Time will tell.  When it does…so will I.

Cheers

 

Stop Talking

Have you ever run into someone who feels the need to speak every time they walk by?  I’m not just talking about the guy who says your name a little louder than needed each time you pass them in the hallway.  I’m not even talking about the guy, obviously raised by a single mom, who doesn’t understand urinal etiquette and asks, “How’s it going” while you’re both standing there.  I’m talking about the guy who walks up to your desk and starts a conversation about absolutely nothing.

In my case it is a guy I report to.  As it stands right now, while the project is staffing up, I am the only person who reports to him.  As such, in just under three days, we have apparently become old friends.

He stops by my desk with a notepad and pen in hand and says, “Questions for me?”  Apparently unaware that if I had any questions I would have come to his desk and asked them.  Interestingly, when I do go to his desk with a question there is generally no good answer forthcoming.  That’s what I do… I ask the questions you don’t have the answers for.

In any event, he has become fascinated with the various aspects of my life.

I have always been something of a conundrum to the majority of the people I work with.  Though to be fair there are usually one or two people at every workplace who get me.  This guy is not one of those people.  But man he sure is trying!

As I have said on several occasions, I am a defense contractor.  I spend much of my time surrounded by people in various stages of business attire.  From time to time a few of them whip out their Master’s degrees to see whose is bigger.  There are lots of shiny shoes…and shiny cars.

I report to work in jeans and a polo.  I am well into the process of getting full sleeves done on both arms.  My definition of “the mission” is to feed my kids and pay the mortgage.  What I do is not my life, it’s the means by which I finance my life.

This guy seems like he wants to get it, but the goofy smile tells me he does not in fact get it.

It appears that to him I am simply a combination of caricatures or things he has seen on TV.  With regard to my tattoos for instance, upon learning that I have quite a bit of ink his response was, “Freakin’ Navy guys.”  I have never served…

I mentioned an expression we in the gaming community use, and his reply was, “Gaming community?  Are you a WoW’er?”  Like everyone who plays games plays WoW.  Or more to the point, WoW is the only game he is familiar with.

Yesterday he came up to my desk and asked me if I have written any SOP’s yet.  We are three guys sitting in an Ops Center that is not operational yet.  The other two guys are the Op Center Lead and the CND Lead.  I was brought on in an entry level capacity.  My purpose in being here is to learn the tools and skills, and gain the experience, to continue on a Security track during the remainder of my career.  In other words, I’m here to learn.  But he wants to know if I’ve written any SOP’s yet…

I left a position in property management  to come here.  At the moment of my departure I had no interest in continuing in that capacity.  Security has always been of interest to me.  Property accountability and management has never been of interest to me.  But I have to say, this morning I really started thinking about that position.

Having to chase technical certifications every year and dealing with high stress, high consequence situations, may not be as much fun as I imagined.  I will have to give that more thought.  But there is one thing about which I am certain.  Two actually..

  1. I do not like when people who do not know me talk to me like they do know me.  It’s presumptuous and irritating.
  2. The people that I work with are the largest contributor to whether or not I enjoy my job.  They create the environment.  They make the day go faster…or slower.  So if this guy doesn’t stop talking, we’re going to have a problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret of My Success

Driving in to work this morning I was thinking about my life.  Where I am.  Where I came from.  How I got from there to here.  Where I’m going next.  It occurred to me that this story might be educational, instructive, or inspirational to someone, so I thought I’d share it.  For those who live their lives as perpetual victims of circumstance, for whom no solution is possible or even desired, this story will mean nothing to you.  You will chalk it up to luck or privilege, shrug and move on.  Which is why you will continue to fail, and I will not.

In 1988 I came home from school and told my mother, “these morons can’t teach me anything, school is a waste of my time”.  She agreed to sign the paperwork for me to drop out if I would get my GED within 90 days.  So I quit school, got my GED, and went to work.  Big mistake!  I should have went to college.  But my dad was a career NSA cryptologist, and I wanted to be anything in the world other than a white collar cube weenie.  So I headed out in to the great big world, and pursued my blue collar dreams.

At the age of 19 I married my first wife.  Big mistake!  I loved the woman, and still do.  But, we were too young and inexperienced.  We were diametrically opposed in many ways, and the marriage didn’t last long.  So we got divorced and I immediately remarried.

I can’t say the second marriage was a big mistake.  We had some good times.  I have two wonderful children and a pretty awesome extended (albeit ex) family.  Nevertheless, we drifted apart for a long time and then we split up.

At the point in time of my second divorce I was driving a local delivery truck for a vending supply company.  I was making $400 a week.  I had child support payments to make.  I was living in a roach infested studio apartment in a income restricted apartment community on the wrong side of Newport News, Va.  I had no health insurance or any other type of benefits.  I had no education, no connections, no opportunities for advancement, and no hope for the future.  (Pause there for a moment)

I have, for a very long time, used a man walking in shadow as an online avatar (one of many).  That’s because for most of my life I have walked in a grey area between two worlds.  There are two different people thought to be “me”, and which one you perceive depends on the place you are standing when you look.

On the one hand I am “street” Doug.  I am a big guy with tattoos and earrings.  I ride a Harley-Davidson.  I own a number of guns. I wave the flag, spit tobacco, and cuss like a sailor.  This side of me is very much like my uncles from my mother’s side.  There’s a lot of Eddie and Bill in me I think, though I never really spent much time around either of them.

In that environment I am seen 100% of the time in blue jeans and black Harley shirts.  I live in a modest 1800 square foot 3bed/3bath home on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, Va.  I keep mostly to myself, except for online gaming.  And I am the most successful person I know.

To the people in this environment I am “rich”.  I am also “lucky”.  The people I know best have made an utter mess of their lives, most of them are so broke they have to think about whether they can afford McDonald’s or not.  Almost none of them have the freedom to simply do whatever it is they feel like doing on any given day.  Because I do, in their eyes, I live a charmed life.

It was thinking about this thought process that made me sit down to write this post this morning.  Because it is how I am perceived in the second community, and how I perceive myself there, that gets to the heart of what I’m thinking about.

In the other community where I am perceieved, I am one of the least successful people I know.  I trade in the Harley tee-shirt for a polo and report to work in an office full of suits and ties.  I am a high school dropout surrounded by people with Bachelor and Masters degrees.  As a result, I am one of the lowest paid individuals in my workplace.  I know people who pay cash for brand new cars and own their homes outright.  I cannot do those things.  I know people who travel the world, own vacation homes, pretty much “living the dream”.  I cannot do those things (yet).

In this environment I am tolerated.  Mainly because I have endeared myself to the upper management.  I am not a yes man or an ass-kisser.  I will walk in to the boss’s office and say, “You’re fucking up”.  Some don’t like that…so I have lost some jobs.  But, some like the breath of fresh air that comes from hearing the truth.  I was in fact hired for my current position specifically because the VP of the prime told me to my face, “I need someone who’s not afraid to tell me I’m making a mess of things.  You’re that guy.”

So what I wanted to get at this morning is…why I was able to make the transition when so many others appear unable to do so.  The answer is simple to say and difficult to do.  Mainly because it is related to character, and that is something few people are even aware of, much less have the ability to modify.

Too many people these days seek the easy way out.  Too many of my associates over the years have adopted a mindset that since they don’t have anything, they don’t have anything to lose.  So, they make stupid choices that result in painful consequences.  Sometimes these consequences have a permanent, life-altering effect.  In the professional world I live in these are called CLE’s (Career Limiting Events).  An example would be telling your boss to go fuck himself, or getting caught stealing from the company (or in my case the government).

I have associates that are convicted felons.  They are struggling financially because work is hard to find when you are a felon.  But they believe I’m “lucky”.  As if it was luck that I didn’t rob a liquor store, or shoot somebody, or assault my ex-wife.

You chose the friends that put you in front of the liquor store that night, and then you chose to go through with the robbery.  You chose to have sex with the 3 women you have kids with, and now you are saddled with back breaking child support payments.  You chose to date or marry some crazy bitch that you ended up punching in the face during a heated altercation.  I simply made better choices than you did.  Luck had nothing to do with it.

In conjunction with making better choices most of the time, I also refused to accept the permanent negative repercussions of my mistakes.  I did not look around at my section 8 housing and my beat up used car and figure, “Oh well, this is how my life is going to be.  I may as well smoke a joint and bang a couple of crackheads”.  I looked at those things and thought, “This is unacceptable.  How can I change it?”

So I signed up for CCNA classes at ECPI.  I took out a student loan for $6,000 and overpaid by half to take 7 months worth of classes.  I drove that truck all day, and went to school 5 hours on Friday night and 5 hours Saturday morning, every week for 7 months.  On the last Friday of class my boss called me in and fired me.  I went to the testing center the next morning and took the CCNA exam with knots in my stomach.  My head was hurting, my eyes were burning, I had sat up all night trying to both study and figure out how I was going to pay the rent.  Nevertheless…I passed.  And so, in 2004, I very proudly announced that I was a CCNA, unemployed and looking for an entry level position as a network engineer.

What I got instead…was crickets.  And here came the only place I can identify in my entire life where “luck” played a part.

My girlfriend at the time lived about 2 1/2 hours north of me.  She groomed dogs for a living at Petsmart.  She had a customer that was fanatical about caring for his dog and he wouldn’t let anyone but her touch it.  She told the man that she was moving to live with me and would no longer be able to groom his dog.  He reacted by asking her what he had to do to get her to stay.  She kinda flippantly said, “That’s easy, just get my boyfriend a job here”.  So he did…

And now you’re thinking “Aha!  See!  You WERE lucky!”  I guess.  Except the job I got was not in networking.  He got me a job as a cable installer.  Standing on a ladder 8-10 hours a day pulling wire over my head.  10 years later my shoulders are all fucked up.  I have already had one surgery to repair damage to my neck, and shoulder surgery appears likely in the not too distant future.

But it was “technology”, and it paid better than what I was making driving the truck.  It was also a job with benefits.  So I took it.  I packed up my life, moved to my girlfriend’s apartment, which she shared with another guy and his son, and reported to work.  I pretty much lived my entire life in a bedroom, in someone else’s apartment.

Six months later the contract ended and I was let go.  So I called a man I had had some contact with previously and asked him if he was still hiring.  He asked if I could start Monday.  I did.  And went right back to doing more cabling.

So follow me for a second.  I was making about $10 driving the truck (based on a 40 hour week, even though I put in way more than 40 hours).  The first cabling job paid $14 an hour.  The second cabling job paid $20 an hour.  Eventually I wound up working for a third company doing cabling and making $24 an hour.  But, I hated what i did for a living…

So one day, while working on a classified site, I asked the guy escorting me around what he made to stand there and watch me work.  Long story short, I applied for his job and got it.  And I took a pay cut from $24 an hour to $19 an hour, and spent 19 months standing around watching paint dry (literally sometimes) just so I could get a clearance.

Eventually I was offered a job punching down patch panels for 80k a year.  I was simultaneously offered a job working in a NOC/Helpdesk for 72k a year.  I took the NOC (Network operations Center) job.  I wanted to expand my horizons and open up future opportunities, so I took the lower pay for the brighter future.

A series of similar decisions led me to where I am today.  Always working hard and earning the reputation that got me the next opportunity.  Always moving in to a position with more responsibility, more stress, and more new things for me to learn.  I haven’t actually held a job I was qualified for in about 10 years.  I just get in because someone knows someone I worked with on the last project, and then I earn my right to be there once I arrive.

In 2004 I made about $20,000 and my wife made about $18,000.  In 2012 when we filed out taxes our combined gross income was $192,000.  Which makes us “lucky” to all those people stuck in dead end, minimum wage, aint gonna be shit, jobs.  But I would propose to you that it is not luck that put us where we are, and I will tell you why.

My wife works nights.  I work days.  We see each other for a few hours twice a week.  We both drive 150 miles round trip every day to get to work and back.  We were both willing to make sacrifices with regard to positions and salaries, locations, travel time, etc., in order to get to where we wanted to be.  I, for example, wake up at 3:45 a.m. 5 days a week to drive in to work.

Too many people are unwilling to take a step backward or sideways in order to correct their trajectory.

As an example, I was offered two openings on the next contract I am going to.  One paid what I am making now, and involves system administration, which is what I am doing now.  The other comes with a $20,000 pay cut, and is a position as a junior network engineer.  I chose the $20,000 pay cut, because finally, after all these years, I will have a chance to do what I wanted to do in the first place, become a network engineer.  In a couple of years I will move from a junior engineer to a senior engineer and I will command more money than I am making now.  I am willing to make the sacrifice.

In contrast, I have a former associate who got thrown out of his apartment and was living with another friend along with his baby mama and the friend’s girlfriend.  He’s broke.  He lost his apartment because he could not pay the rent.  He has failed to pay child support for so long that he was served with notice that he will be going to jail (back to jail actually) if he does not catch up.

So finally, after months and months of searching he finds a good job at a 3M plant.  He can finally pay his bills and take care of his kids.  Hell, maybe he can even afford a game every now and then for his PS4 (don’t get me started on a guy with a PS4 that doesn’t pay his child support).

So what does this titan of intellect do?  He quits the job.  Why?  Because 3M makes adhesives, so once you report to work for the day you are not allowed to exit and reenter the plant (because of dust).  This guy couldn’t take smoke breaks…so he quit.  Presumably he is now taking all the smoke breaks he can fit in to his busy schedule…in prison.

So what is the “secret” to my success?  Make smart choices.  Persevere through tough times when things aren’t going your way.  Be willing to step back or sideways if need be when you need to get around an obstacle blocking your path.  Be VERY careful about who you associate with and who you allow to have influence in your life.  Most of all, if you’re not happy with your life CHANGE IT!

I guess REO Speedwagon could have summed this entire post up in one line.

If you’re tired of the same old story…baby, turn some pages.

Simple Things

It’s funny how a person (me) can spend their whole life discounting simple things, only to turn around later and be stunned by how profound they are. Concluding that the answer to a complex issue must be equally complex created this scenario in my life for many years.

I think we all say things that in many instances we do not actually consider or internalize. When the day comes that you finally do, when that light bulb goes off over your head, the life altering repercussions can be shocking.

Take The Serenity Prayer for example. I was first exposed to this prayer while attending NA meetings in support of a loved one around the age of 19.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The strength to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This was recalled to my mind this morning as I was discussing a co-worker who worries too much about things he has no control over. As I said the words it dawned on me that without really thinking about it I have internalized this philosophy. This is not to say I never worry about things I cannot change. But, when I do, it is a slip and not the norm.

I have always had a nearly infinite capacity to not care about things, so I have frequently been able to simply shrug and walk away. But this is different. I am not longer shrugging and walking away because I do not care, or because I am pretending not to care. Now I am simply accepting, through the application of wisdom, that my efforts and energy are better directed at the things I have power over.

No, I am not leaving things in the hands of “God”. I am simply aware that with the passage of time all possible outcomes will be whittled away to what is eventually the single outcome of any situation. Many times my “job” is to simply wait and see what happens.

Yes, I need to plan ahead and take care of my family and myself. But sitting around giving myself high blood pressure or an ulcer doesn’t help.

I recently connected with another blogger who is a self described minimalist. He seeks simplicity and a basic lifestyle, which he achieves by connecting with nature, removing clutter, etc. I enjoy my toys, and I remain too materialistic to pursue this lifestyle. Nevertheless, as I read his posts I become aware of ways that his point of view and life philosophy can be modified to fit my lifestyle. In the end I do not think it comes down to the number, size, or type of items in your home. I believe it comes down to seeking out that which makes you happy and pursuing it.

Even that notion sounds somewhat cliché’ unless you have actually internalized it. “Pursue what makes you happy” is no solution to anything if what you pursue is self destructive or hurtful to others. Money for instance, can be a tool to bless those around you, smooth obstacles, and give your children opportunities that you did not have. Or it can be a vice. Something you rub in the face of others, lord over them, or use to leverage others in to destructive behavior in order to please yourself. (Drugs, prostitution, etc.)

So it is not simply making yourself “happy”, but rather coming to a realization of the meaning of “joy”. When you realize what joy is, and become a joy to others, and derive joy from others, that is an entirely different thing.

I have begun to seek and find joy in others. Transforming myself in to someone who brings joy to others is a more daunting proposition. But I’m working on it.

Love and Friendship

Looking out at the world through our own eyes, I think it is normal to believe that “most people” see what we see.  At the same time, we all believe we are unique.  This is, of course, demonstrably untrue.  If each of us were unique individuals entire bodies of science would not work.  Polling, statistics, psychology, criminal profiling, marketing, etc.  We are all different arrangements of the same basic things, leading to groups of similar people.  One can argue that our “souls” are different, but our minds are, by and large, most certainly not.

So I feel confident that there are many people like me out there.  People who feel what I feel, see what I see, hear what I hear.  As such, I have to believe that many folks can relate to what I am about to say.

From time to time I grow weary of the several thousand songs on my thumb drive.  I go to Amazon and download a cd or two, transfer it, and listen to new music on my way in to work.  This morning I downloaded a cd appropriately entitled “Now That’s What I Call 80’s Hits”.  I fired it up and let it play while riding down the road.  Somewhere along the way, “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins came on.

I was 16 again.  My dearest friend, was telling me that she was leaving for college in Boston.  I sat in the window of my second floor bedroom listening to this song.  For four years this song was *the* song.  It was the soundtrack of my life.  Dana was the only one who really knew me at all…

A smile crossed my face as I considered the power of music to transcend time and space, and transport you to places long forgotten.  I began to think about that line.  “You’re the only one who really knew me at all”.  The sights and sounds of a time long behind me came rushing back.  Decision points and intersections were recalled to my mind.  Things I said and did…images, faces, some with names, some without.  “You’re the only one who really knew me at all….”  That was my fault.

My mother asked me recently why I was such a hard ass in my youth.  I explained to her that the peaceful neighborhood the adults lived in was not the same as the violent neighborhood I lived in.  I ran in a pack.  A wolf pack.  And to show any sign of weakness to anyone, ever, was as good as asking for an ass whoopin’, or worse.  So I became this cold, unfeeling person that no one wanted to mess with.  I never got in a fight past the age of 13 or so, because I made it clear that you weren’t going home if you jumped on me.

Much like lying eventually trips you up because you forget who you told what, so too with being vulnerable.  So, rather than risk flipping the switch at the wrong time, I simply broke it off.  I once backed down the entire Glen Burnie High School football team because when they surrounded me outside the school I looked at the biggest guy there with no fear in my eyes and a knife in my hand and said, “If you’re gonna do something you best get started, lunch is almost over.”

Dana was the only person I knew at the time that I was completely sure would never hurt me in any way.  So she was the only one who really knew me at all.  Against All Odds was her song.

Somewhere in the middle of all that I met Thaeda and Tereasa.  They came to know me over time as well.

Tereasa was the best friend of my girlfriend.  When Maria and I finally broke up, Tereasa and I did not.  Thaeda was the twin sister of Tena, a girl I briefly dated (and still know to this day).  My introduction to Thaeda came in the foyer in front of the cafeteria.  She was promoting the chess club.  I walked up to her, sat down and said, “You know your sister is a real bitch”.  I spent the entirety of that day sitting at that table playing chess and talking.  We’ve been the closest of friends ever since.

Over all the years since then (29 to be exact) there have been ups and downs.  Dana and Thaeda have remained.  I intentionally cut off contact with Tereasa a few years ago, during a phase I was going through.  I reestablished contact with her this morning.  When she accepted my friend request and responded to the message I sent her I have to admit I cried a little.

I recently posted Hard To Love by Lee Brice to my wife’s Facebook page.  Some guys do that kind of thing as a romantic gesture.  I did it because it is true.

I have gone out of my way over the course of my life to be difficult.  I have, with words and deeds, essentially punched my best friends in the face just to see what they’d do.  Amazingly, what they did was stand back up and keep loving me anyway.  I used to see that as weakness.  I used to see it as a pathetic co-dependency, a desperate need to be accepted, a willingness to endure nearly anything just to be thrown scraps from time to time.  Like an abused dog that still comes when you call it.

I realize now, and I guess I have for quite some time, how much more strength it takes to be them than it does to be me.  I have purposed in my heart to be more like these people, and less the person I have been.  That is, of course, easier to say than it is to do.  Honestly assessing your own character is difficult.  Identifying things that need to change and actually changing them, is monumental.  Like turning the Titanic.

As is often said, every choice I’ve made along the way has led me to where I am now.  Each day that passes contains decisions that shape who I am.  There are a lot of days behind me…

But I have come to a place in my life where I have to be honest with myself.  “A life well lived” is about more than making money.  It’s about more than where you live or what you drive.  It’s about more than “success”.

I have come to understand that a life well lived is one filled with friends and family.  It’s about loving and being loved.  It’s about facing pain, and fear, and failure, and coming through it to brighter days.  It’s about extending your hand to someone you think might not take it and loving people who may not love you back.  It’s about being open, and vulnerable.  Because when you shut and lock the door to your heart as I have done, you block out the good as well as the bad.

Tereasa doesn’t have a song.  She was a well worn jacket.  There.  Comfortable.  Familiar.  And I fear I took her friendship for granted, like finding my keys in the pocket of the pants I was wearing yesterday.  I never thought of her in an emotional way, and so I never attached a piece of music to her.  I’m going to see about changing that.  Tereasa is the only person who has ever read all of my poetry.  She’s my politics and religion debate partner.  She’s the voice of reason when I’m being unreasonable.  She was never afraid to confront me…and I needed that.

Thaeda’s song is My Sacrifice by Creed.  “Within my heart are memories, of perfect love you gave to me.  Oh, I remember.  When you are with me, I’m free.  I’m careless.  I believe.  Above all the others we’ll fly.  This brings tears to my eyes….”  You are, without question, the best friend anyone could ever ask for.  You have been “home base” for me for virtually my whole life.  When I get in too deep and lose my way, you are the place I head back to.  You’re also the only woman to ever get me in a headlock I couldn’t get out of. 😉

Dana, I love you.  Always have, always will.  Since I was 12 or 13 years old.  I still recall the first time I ever saw you.  You have been the pure, loving, person I have aspired to be worthy of all my life.  When we were young you’re song was Against All Odds.  At one point it was “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon.  Today it is When You Come Back To Me Again, by Garth Brooks.  I have always been the ship out on the ocean, at the mercy of the sea.  You have always been the lighthouse, shining to show me the way home.

My beloved wife Beverly…you have so many songs it would take a hard drive to record them all.  Suffice it to say that you have literally been right by my side during some of the darkest moments in my life.  Reaching out to take your hand has literally saved my life.  I’m working on becoming the person you deserve.  I have a long way to go.

EmmaLeigh, my oldest.  You are the legacy that any parent on the face of the planet would be proud to have.  So much more than I deserve, and so much more than I have any right to claim.  You have somehow managed to take the few good qualities I ever exhibited to you and combine them with your mom’s best qualities.  I take solace in the fact that with all that I’ve done wrong I must have done something right.  Which is why your song is Butterfly Kisses.  It was your song when you were an infant, and now as you grow in to an adult the words take on the sweet sting of truth.  You will always be my first love.

Laura….my baby.  I cannot help but grin at you.  You are like looking in a mirror for me.  You speak truth without fear.  You see obstacles as challenges, and you overcome them.  I watch with amazement as you tackle musical instruments, sports, acting, and all the other things I wish I would have done when I was your age.  I know being the second child is not always easy.  But, I want you to know that I am every bit as proud of you as I am of Em.  You do not hold second place in my heart.  You have all of it.  Your song was, and is You’ll Be In My Heart by Phil Collins.  I’ll be there for you always….just look over your shoulder.

It is a difficult thing to go from being a solitary individual, to a friend a friend would like to have.  I don’t know that it is possible or even desirable for me to become an “outgoing” individual.  I cherish my peace and quiet too much for that.  But what I can do is listen more and argue less.  I can just say what I feel more frequently, and be less guarded.  I can learn from those around me instead of acting like I have all the answers.

I’m going to work on these things.