Damaged

The news lately has me spun up. Acts of violence and hatred turned my thoughts to the individuals responsible. People who are so damaged that they feel the need to hurt others to make their world right.

Case in point, the May Day riot in Oakland where people broke store windows, car windshields, and left graffiti. This was called the “Oakland to Baltimore” protest in response to the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police. I understand the anger. When we are betrayed by the people that are supposed to protect us, when the cops are damaged, it cuts even deeper.

But what does damaging commercial property solve?! How much did that damage cost dealerships and shop owners who may not have any extra money to cover these damages? Are these protesters civic-minded individuals fighting for a cause or are they people with deep-seated issues waiting for a reason to damage others around them? I applaud those willing to walk and speak out in protest. The broken people who use tragedy to spread more destruction just hurt my heart.

I’m also hurt by the unforgivable treatment of women in tech know as Gamergate—especially as a male working in this industry. The recent article by Maddy Myers reminded me of this problem that is not visible to most of us.  Worse than just breaking property, these damaged men send death and rape threats to women like Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn. As it is with many cowards, these attacks are anonymous. Damaged people hide in the darkness. They justify their horrific behavior with flimsy excuses and blame the victims. These men are so damaged that they can’t see anything wrong with what they are doing. They are so damaged that they are afraid of the opposite sex. What kind of abuse or macho brainwashing did they have to endure to become the warped individuals they are today?

Whatever the cause, the result is damaged wiring. These faulty brain connections allow these people to think they have the right to hurt others. They see hate as a tool and imagine themselves as some sort of knight defending an ideal. These people have lost perspective on reality and don’t see a problem with their behavior. Here’s a quick quiz if you’re unsure what constitutes being seriously broken.

You’re damaged if…

…you choose violence as a solution.

…you feel superior to someone because of sex, race, color, or creed.

…you verbally abuse someone for any reason—especially if they “don’t belong” in your community.

…you threaten someone with physical violence or encourage others to do so.

The solution is to disavow this behavior. As a society, we need to reject any sort of violence or hatred. We can’t idly sit by and silently condone these acts by doing nothing. Speak out. Offer help to the victims. Find peaceful ways to protest injustice. Teach your children to love unconditionally. Love unconditionally.

There will always be damaged people in this world performing horrible acts, but we can minimize their actions by caring about one another. Every kind act heals our world. Every word of support soothes some pain.

We are all damaged to some degree. Damage isn’t an all-or-nothing condition. I fight my brokenness all too often, but I know each time I choose to respond with love, each time I choose inclusivity over segregation, each time I swallow my pride and admit I am wrong, I’m a better person. I’m healing some of my own damage.

None of this violence has directly affected my life–I read about it and watch the videos, but I’m not the person being victimized. There are no death threats against me and no property damage that I need to fix, but distance is no excuse for apathy. Let’s seek out ways to fix the damage. Let’s find a way to love each other no matter how damaged we all are.

Gratitude

I woke the other morning under a dark cloud. It started with a bad dream where I didn’t check on the side effects of my actions and I ended up with a bill for thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. The details of my dreams fade quickly, but enough of this one stuck around to shake me up. My morning routine includes a few minutes of quiet meditation where I focus on being thankful to prepare for the day, but before I could transition into that mode, my brain connected dots from that dream with reality.

Thoughts of projects I have yet to finish and personal tasks that have been lost to procrastination created a clatter in my mind that destroyed any hope of silence. I also seeded that storm cloud by whining about some minor health issues and my darkness began to grow quickly.

After drifting through a fog of typical morning preparation for the day, something Judy said snapped me out of my dark introspection. “Are you managing me?” I asked. Her answer was, “Yes.”

She had spotted the cloud and without referencing it, Judy was giving me space and working to keep my path clear of anything else that might make me go darker. That realization of what she was doing pulled me out of my dark cloud and onto another stream of thoughts beginning with the question: How often does she have to manage me?

Judy and I have been together since high school, so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well. I know when she needs space and when to jump in and help her and she does the same for me, but this felt different because I didn’t realize she was doing it until she told me. I couldn’t decide if I was more upset about needing to be handled or impressed with how good she had gotten at it. After some thought, I’m going with the latter because it’s no real surprise that I can’t do this alone.

That has brought me back to gratitude. I know that being thankful for what I have been given is critical to living a happy life. Unfortunately, there are times when I keep gratitude an arm’s length away. At those times, the funk that comes over me is emotional junk food—I know it’s not good for me, but I’m ingesting it anyway. A little funk is easy to digest and let pass, but too much and it affects me at the physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. The best way out is the cleansing power of gratitude.

We live in a world brimming with problems and, thanks to the internet living on our phones, the bad news pops up immediately via social media and news feeds. It’s easy to only see the bad and find only despair. I weep for humanity at the same time that I seek the good in people.

For thankfulness to work, it has to be very personal and specific. I have to focus on an act of kindness that my lovely wife has done for me like letting me be lazy last night and doing all the dinner cooking and clean up. Or a moment of laughter between friends at work is worthy material for gratitude. Instead of going down my list of unfinished task and seeing them as half-empty glasses, I can reverse those thoughts and see each as a gift. Challenges can be well-hidden presents; I just have to find the positive side—the growth and satisfaction that will come from accomplishing those tasks.

The broad thoughts of thankfulness help too, like the gift of a sunny day or my kids or my new life. The detailed ones are just more real, stick in my brain better, and push out the darkness.

If life is looking dark or the world too broken, try making a list of all those beautiful gifts in your life. Make them personal. Be specific. Be grateful. I bet it helps you, too.

Mocha

Those of you that know me might think this article is about how my skin color has darkened since I’ve moved to California. Those of you who really know me will get that joke and know that I have only two possible skin colors: translucent white and burnt. I avoid prolonged sun exposure to keep my healthy pale glow about me.

This article is actually about the chocolate-infused coffee drink. I drink a lot more coffee since moving to San Francisco. For most of you, this may sound like a trivial matter, but I spent 50 years of my life avoiding the brewed beans. Fifty. Years.

I always loved the smell of coffee, but never could acquire a taste for it until Judy and I travelled to Paris for our 30th wedding anniversary. We ate breakfast at Angelina, a lovely patisserie with an over 110-year history. We ordered our food and I thought this would be a great time to try coffee again. If I’m going to like any coffee, it probably would be at a fancy Paris restaurant.

The coffee arrived and I tried it. Then I added a bit of cream and tried it again. Then a packet or two (or three) of (very healthy looking organic) sugar and voila! I liked it!

Yes, yes. Coffee isn’t real coffee with all the extras, but I was drinking—and enjoying—coffee. I have several friends that would never abuse their coffee this way. They also can tell if the beans were ground at the wrong speed and roasted for too long. I have no clue. It’s a miracle to me that I’m even drinking this stuff.

God, I’m such a grown up now.

Okay, that’s a silly comment, but it’s how I feel. After years of looking for alternate drinks, I can go to coffee shops with my friends and look forward to the beverage as well as the fellowship—even if I’m the guy with the fru-fru option.

In the grand scheme of things, changing my non-alcoholic drink of choice from soda to coffee is trivial, but there are bigger ramifications. Besides being a socialization tool, coffee is more available at San Francisco restaurants. Some of my new favorite eateries don’t even have Coke on the menu and liking coffee allows me to more fully enjoy those places.

My wife has been my guide through the menu of different coffees and, since she’s a chocolate fan, mocha is high on her list. Naturally, I followed her lead and became quite fond of it.

Mocha is an indulgence. It’s probably more dessert than coffee, but I’m not overly concerned about the opinion of coffee snobs. I love hanging out at The Grove, a cozy Fillmore Street restaurant, sipping almond mochas with my lovely lady.

Reflecting on our eating habits of a year ago, this is such a radical departure from the fast food life of Houston. No more piling into a hot car, driving to a chain location of a burrito or burger joint, downing some food, and driving back home. It was more about filling our guts than enjoying a meal.

In our new lifestyle, we try to take better care of ourselves. Judy started using a service called Plated, which delivers chef-curated recipes and ingredients for our dinners. This allows us to save money by preparing food at home and still feel like we’re getting restaurant-quality meals. When we do eat out, we make sure to treat it as more of a special occasion.

Sometimes this means ordering a mocha and just relaxing. The new me loves going to get a coffee. That still blows my mind.

Vulnerable

My favorite books and articles are the ones that let me into places I didn’t expect to gain access—the backstage pass to someone’s life.

This type of writing is also the way I lean when my fingers hit the keyboard. If I’m honest to the subject matter, my words will slice the skin and leave me exposed, raw, and vulnerable. That’s where true emotion lives and where I can best connect with others. I’m wasting my time and yours if the words I write  fail to penetrate and cling to you.

We live in a world of oversharing on all too many social networks, but most of that is illusion. It’s either fluff about someone’s latest meal or details constructed to support a social facade. That’s all well and good—and probably sensible in many cases—because personal information sharing can lead to discrimination or retaliation, if the wrong details are leaked.

The problem with social network content is that people think that everyone else is doing fantastic and living the ideal lifestyle. Everyones lawn looks greener than yours, which can be damn depressing. Even I’m careful about what I post to Twitter or Facebook.

But when I’m writing articles, I work to lay myself bare. In order to make a difference in this world, I need to take a risk and share things that expose blemishes and scars. As a writer, I can’t be both honest and safe. If I have no flaws, then I’m a horrible subject for articles. No one is perfect, which means that no one can relate to my articles if they are about perfection.

I’ve been complimented in the past for being brave in my writing and for revealing so much. The compliment is always appreciated, but the fact is that I’m always afraid. I’m afraid that if I don’t dig deep enough with my words, I’ll become irrelivant. Useless. Just another droning voice in the noisy internet. It’s not me being brave, it’s me handing out the only content that I think will be worthwhile. I’m selling all that I have to keep you around long enough in the hope that something I write clicks. I fear that my mistakes will count for nothing but a checklist of items I didn’t do well enough. If I expose enough details of my struggles and failures, you may find a connection. There may be common pain and shared emotions where my writing helps you feel less alone during your transitions. My secret weapon to being useful is my ability to scrape together enough courage to get past my fear that you will scurry away when I disclose my flaws.

I’ll let you in on another secret of mine: Most of my articles are written as a stream of consciousness. If I don’t start writing when the thought or emotion hits me, chances are I’ll never finish it. Too many words of mine have withered and spoiled because I didn’t deliver them on time.

I’ve become more decisive and better at triage. What did I just write? Was it real? Does it still have a pulse and can I save it with surgery or do I pull the plug?

I’m doing that now with this article.

Why do you care about why or how I write? Maybe this will help you to begin writing. Maybe it answers questions you have about me. Or maybe this one bounces off the surface of your skin. That’s okay: being vulnerable means accepting the misses as well as the hits.

Identity

During one of our weekend walks exploring San Francisco, Judy asked some tough questions of herself, “Am I the person I want to be? Who am I?”

Without getting too philosophical, these are questions that deserve time and thought. I think they help us focus our efforts and energy in life. Asking myself these questions sent me back to my youth to discover who I am today.

Growing up, I felt like I needed to do something huge, something that would change the world and affect every soul on this planet. My longing wasn’t for fame or fortune, I simply felt this was my destiny. Admittedly, I was a weird kid.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I would do it. I was smart and a quick learner, but no genius. I had a natural talent for fixing things, but no sketches of life-altering inventions ever flowed from my fingers. I had a love for music, but my guitar playing caused my dog to walk away from me. How was I supposed to change the world with such meager gifts?

Over the past five decades, I’ve accomplished more than some and less than many. My choice in a life partner was brilliant and my kids impress me more and more each day as they evolve as adults, but my scope of universal change is tiny compared to the vision I had as a child. It’s difficult to define myself from within.

“So, what do you do?” Is a common opening question when we meet someone. What we do often defines who we are in our minds. Over the years, I’ve been a student, an entrepreneur, a software engineer, a father, a husband, and held many other minor titles. The truth is that I’m not any one of those roles that I have played and I’m more than the sum of them. So how do I answer those questions that my wife posed?

I don’t know.

That’s a disappointing answer, but it’s filled with truth. Most days, I’m happy with who I’ve become. I have great friends, a wonderful family, and I’m passionate about my work. For me, it’s okay to not have answers because I’m not done letting these questions drive my actions, but for the sake of this article, I’ll dig a bit deeper.

Am I the person I want to be?

Some days, yes. Others, not so much. I can always do better. I can be more inspiring or loving. I can give more back and choose to be less lazy. My standards are typically above my skills or energy, so I have to be careful with this question.

I’m not altogether sure who I want to be and that view changes based on the snapshot in time that I may have tried to define my future. The other question may be more fruitful.

Who am I?

At this moment, I’m a writer. That doesn’t define me fully—and pays no bills—but I enjoy this part of myself and it gives me a way to express my thoughts and feelings. I hope that what I write entertains or touches others and helps them in a small way.

When I finish this article and put down my iPhone (yes, I tend to write on whatever is nearby when inspiration hits and my iPhone is always with me), I’ll be someone else. I’ll call my mother and be the good son, chat with my sister and be a caring brother, or connect with my kids and be their dad. 

I think I am who I need to be in the moment depending on who I’m with at that time. My goal is to be the best me I can be. That sounds like a recruiting poster platitude, but it  also makes sense to me. If I’m not some grand figure that was created in a naïve vision of my youth, I can at least continue to grow and be there in small ways for those around me.

Maybe it’s the millions of small gestures that define us all. The person who changes the world does it by touching a handful of others and they in turn do the same. This planet certainly feels like a better place when I read about people helping people.

I can live with that answer. I am a contributor to the greater good. Some days I’m selfish and contribute very little and others I’m more magnanimous. I’m a constant work in progress.

Quality of Life

My father died before his 61st birthday—he was just 8 years older than I am now. My dad smoked too many cigarettes, ate too few proper meals, and enjoyed his beer more than he should have. He was more underweight than over and his once athletic body just gave out from lack of care.

My mother has survived over 30 years without her husband and is still going. The other day, I found myself wondering what it would be like if he were alive today also. I’d like him to see the new life I’ve made and the family that I have. Unfortunately, even if the doctors could have saved him back in ’84, his quality of life would have been miserable. He spent too many years neglecting his health and his body was too broken to ever recover completely. It makes me sad that my children never got to see what a remarkable man their grandfather was.

He was raised in the Depression era to be tough and to push through pain and he raised his children to do the same. The only time I was taken to the hospital was when I broke my wrist—other injuries were handled at home. Even when I sliced open the palm of my hand with a box cutter while working on a bathroom remodel, my dad just closed it up with medical tape fashioned into butterfly bandages. I’m sure it was a cut worthy of several stitches, but I was tough and didn’t think twice about his solution. Skipping the trip to the doctor was normal.

A month after I got married and moved out of the house, my dad played tough and skipped the hospital visit when he pushed through the pain of several small heart attacks. When my mother and his friends eventually forced him to seek medical help, his doctor said these attacks could have been going on for weeks. This landed him in triple bypass surgery, a stroke during recovery, and his last breath just three months later.

Whenever I’m feeling stubborn about scheduling an exam or medical test, I think about Fran Hoctor and how his tough behavior cost us his presence and it kicks me into action. Not always immediate action, as I did put off one or two tests for a handful of years. Stubborn as I am, I did manage to do the right thing and get caught up the past couple of months.

As far as health goes, I’m a blessed individual. I circle all the “no” answers on the “do you have” medical questionnaire list. The issues I have are terribly minor, but enough that the endocrinologist I went to offered some proactive measures with regard to diet and exercise, “Avoid dairy, gluten, and fruit…”.

I have never smoked, I keep my weight in check, enjoy a whisky or glass of wine now and again without excess, and I try to stay active and exercise. As for eating, I try to make good choices. Back in the late ’90s, I was a fast food junkie. I was gaining weight and living off caffeine for energy. Judy convinced me that we should get healthy and switch to a vegan diet, which we did—for about two weeks. Did you know that vegans don’t eat cheese? That was a deal breaker. I love cheese too much and decided that eating vegetarian was good enough. I have no problem making radical diet changes, but I’m not going to be a food martyr.

I’ve worked hard to keep my body in good running order so I could enjoy a long, healthy life. After the nine-year stint as a vegetarian, I was tired of avoiding meat and decided to just eat healthy without going to an extreme. Giving up bread and fruit feels like another extreme and I’m not convinced either is a real health issue for me.

There has to be a balance between maintaining good health and enjoying life. I’ll exercise more, so I can enjoy the occasional pizza or butter-infused French cuisine. I will not sacrifice my quality of life by abusing my body, but I also won’t trade it for a bland existence. I hope I’ve found a way to embrace the gusto my father had in his life without falling into his short-sighted failings. Today, I feel like I’m doing well with my balance.

Here’s to your good health and a life filled with joy, love, and quality. Cheers.

Free Time

There are different stages of life and each dictates how much free time you have and how you choose to spend it.

Today, my wife and I are spending a Saturday in Mission Dolores Park, which attracts quite a diverse crowd of San Franciscians. This is our first visit to this outdoor venue and part of our “try as much as possible in our new home” adventure.

We spent many hours in parks when our kids were young, but it was more about access to playgrounds for them than exploring the north side of Houston. When you have young children, your free time is devoted to them—or most of it at least.

Prior to having kids, we wasted our free time. Worse, we didn’t realize we had any. We groused about how little time we had to do anything. HAH! Three kids later and we couldn’t figure out what the hell we were thinking.

Now in our third stage with our adult children in Texas, we cherish our free time. It’s a gift that may get consumed at any point with heavy work schedules or health issues. Today we are healthy, happy, and have the weekend to soak up life. Unlike the foolish newlyweds with myopic views of our world, we are sitting now on top of 50 years of life and can see so much more—albeit with the required glasses that come with older eyes.

I wish you free time, the ability to appreciate it, and a thirst for diversity.

White Noise

This city isn’t quiet at night. There is a constant stream of noise throughout the sleeping hours, but I don’t mind. White noise has always been my ally.

I know plenty of people who love silence. It relaxes them and gives them a feeling of serenity. Too often, silence amplifies the smallest of noises for me—tiny sounds that shout in the echo chamber of the void. As the external noises of my environment fade, my brain grows more active and I start to drown in my own thoughts. It’s like being in a movie theater where you can’t hear people whispering during the action sequences of the movie, but in the quiet dramatic scenes, a whisper becomes a complete distraction. Without white noise, my brain fills with my own whispers. Whispers that I am powerless to silence.

I’ve always thought of my ability to drink in all the sights and sounds of my environment as a blessing. It made me more observant and quicker to gather information in a classroom. There is a curse as well and it comes into play when I lose control of the onslaught of input and the noises from outside and within overwhelm me. It’s at those moments that I become paralyzed. I fail to make any progress because my brain can’t concentrate on one path to follow.

I used to sit in my Texas backyard to get some fresh air and try to clear my head. It was relatively quiet—in Houston, you quickly learned to ignore the drone of air conditioning units as the price to surviving the heat and humidity—but I couldn’t focus unless I turned on our pool waterfall. The rush of water over two tons of rocks created an intricate symphony of sounds that quieted the cross chatter in my head.

White noise consists of sounds that don’t require my action or attention. When I would work in my home office with family around, every creak, conversation, or drip would distract me—even with closed doors. Every sound screamed, “handle me now!” I’d escape to a coffee shop or restaurant for the quiet of bustling activity and carefree conversations. It wasn’t my building decaying or my family talking, so it was glorious static.

Our San Francisco apartment is in a busy area of Pacific Heights, with both a hospital and a fire station within ear shot and the traffic of Van Ness two blocks downhill. I was concerned at first that our city life would too dramatic a change without the residential quiet we had become used to, but the chaos has become glorious background music.

It’s just one more gift of our life change: beautiful white noise.

Dramatic

Sitting with my wife in our sixth floor, one-bedroom apartment, I’m shocked at how much has changed from a year ago.

Last year, we were recovering from losing Judy’s dad, which caused us to consider downsizing our Houston home that once held six of us. Our kids are all in their twenties and were becoming more independent. It forced us to reevaluate what we as a couple should do next.

Then one morning in April, an email from Cupertino started us down a dramatic new path.

It wasn’t easy to give up being an indie developer who controls his own world for a job as an engineer working under layers of management. The latter gives me the opportunity to be part of a company that I’ve always admired and challenges me every day to become more proficient. It took weeks of conversations and decisions and baby steps to settle on the final choice. In the end was a good choice… no, a great choice.

Here are just a few of the dramatic differences in our lives today:

  • We moved from a large five bedroom house in the suburbs to a modest one bedroom, sixth floor apartment in the city.
  • Our house had five and a half bathrooms; now we only have one in our apartment—arguably our most life-altering friggin’ change!
  • We went from five cars in our driveway and taking occasional walks for exercise to having no cars and our feet being our primary mode of transportation.
  • Almost all the restaurants in The Woodlands were big chains and now we eat at places where we get greeted by the owners.
  • History and architecture surround us in San Francisco (even our apartment building was completed back in 1927). In North Houston, a historic building is from the 1970s.
  • We no longer drive to Kroger and load up the trunk with groceries for the week. Instead, we walk to Whole Foods or Mollie Stone’s with our reusable bags and carry what we can back up the hills.

I could go on to mention so many more changes in our lives, but no one wants to read a post that long. The point I’m trying to make is that after 50+ years of suburban habits, I’ve had to rethink everything. These changes strike me most when I think about my parents when they were in their fifties. Would they have rebooted their lives like this? Could they have?

After surviving this transition, I can’t help but see it as an enormous gift. A chance to act differently, make different choices, and force myself to not fall back on old habits. As scary as this leap was—so scary that I almost backed out a few times—it’s been so good for us and our family. I hope it has inspired our children to take chances and leaps of faith in their lives.

Fear of the unknown and fear of failure are always going to be battles for me, but I’ve won quite a few this year and my reward is this amazing new life with my loving wife.

Worthy

Beating myself up for not accomplishing what I planned or simply doing a piss-poor job of it is a hobby of mine.

What triggers these episodes varies. Sometimes it’s just a silly little thing like wasting money by forgetting to use food before it goes bad. Other times it’s major mistakes related to family or career. The problem is that the scale of the mistake is not proportional to the self-punishment. And when one of these triggers click, the collapse is fast.

This is not full-on depression, an enemy that Matt Gemmell recently described so well—I battled that foe 15 years ago and am wary of its return. Still, these dark moments are not harmless. They obscure the light and warmth. They make me stumble and slide down a pit of despair where I find more reasons to remain there. They cause me to reject the help of others.

Because I’m not worthy of their affection.

Sometimes I just want to give up on the day or a single task, but other times these dark thoughts thrive. I slide deeper into the darkness where I am blind to the worth of my existence. I see no hope for my future, no reason why anyone would want a loser like me around.

I hide it well—I’ve been practicing this since before the Beatles broke up—and still smile and joke around. My wife, Judy, sees through my facade and suffers more because of it. She knows how to gently remind me of all my blessings and to wait for me to let go of the trigger. I honestly don’t know if I’d be here without her.

The saving grace of my dark thoughts is that they don’t last long—sometimes only hours and rarely more than a day. I’ve also learned to recognize them and try to maintain some perspective.

“You’re doing it again, Hoctor. This is all bullshit that you are using to build a false reality. When it’s over, you’re going to be annoyed that you wasted any time on this crap.”

Unfortunately, knowing that I’m sliding into the pit doesn’t empower me to walk away from this darkness—there first must be punishment. Reality is out of reach and I’m not worthy of happiness just yet. Maybe later.

This all has something to do with records playing in my head that say, “I could have done that better. I’m underachieving and should perform to my potential. Don’t screw up again; you may not get a second chance.”

Countering these negative records is the sound of Judy’s voice saying, “You need to stop beating yourself up! You don’t deserve this kind of pain. You are a good person!” But I’ve tried so often to quiet these demons without success. They are like stains that most of the time I ignore, but when pointed out, I can’t stop staring at them. I look to the positives in my life and see how wonderful they all are, but those damned stains are right there.

I’m ready to let go of this unhealthy behavior. The solution that my brain supplies is wrong and just as messed up as these episodes: Just do everything right, which is an impossible solution. It’s also counter to learning from my mistakes—a method that has worked really well for me.

They say that the sane person questions if he is crazy and the crazy person defends his sanity. I guess I can take comfort in my sanity and just work every day to serve others and stay out of my own head. I need to feel worthy.