The Doctor does make the occasional house call for free

It is said that the drivers of horse-drawn omnibuses in London in the 19th century were so solicitous of their horses’ well-being that the drivers would often spend their days off surreptitiously riding as passengers on their own trolleys to make sure that the substitute driver was treating their horses well. This practice was so widespread, it is said, that “busman’s holiday” came to mean, as you say, “doing on your day off the same thing you do all week at work,” with the added connotation that you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart.

The Word Detective

I often feel very lucky. I’ve found a career (working with computers) that is interesting, intellectually stimulating, and economically profitable. Not everyone can say that, and I wish more people could. I am therefore grateful that I can say that I love what I do and get paid well for it.

I can remember when I first appreciated this fact. It was toward the end of a work day about ten years ago. I was in my first or second year of graduate school, and, I had just spent about eight hours in the computer lab working on projects, assignments, and research. I was at a point in my life where I found myself doing occasional “reality checks” because some of my choices seemed unsure. During one such check that day, I discovered that despite of the fact that I’d spent all day in front of a computer, I was eager to spend a couple more hours planted there to finish up one or two small “fun” side projects (I believe that an online diary now falls into a similar “fun” category). In high school, I considered a career in law but decided against it (I’d heard that associate’s hours are murderous) and realized that my decision to pursue a career in computer-related engineering and science was a good one.

Believing profoundly that the energy we put out into the Universe in some measure determines what we get back, I try to give of my knowledge to those around me in order to keep my career karma intact. So, I help my family solve computer problems whenever I visit them. I sometimes help out at the school where my girlfriend S. works. I help S.’s family when I can as well. I even try to help out my infinitely patient dissertation advisor from my graduate school days. My price for these efforts… a free beer or two, maybe a meal, or perhaps that old, unused hard drive sitting in the corner. My parents call these efforts “busman’s holidays.”

I’ve been doing a lot of this work during the last three weeks or so. I’ve returned to my old graduate school stomping grounds to repair the installation of one machine I used to tend and consult on the upgrade of another. I’ve helped S.’s cousin turn a noisy mess of a hand-me-down machine (literally, the fans sounded like woodworking power tools) into a quiet responsive workstation. This weekend I got to help girlfriend S. set up her new Apple iBook with OS X.

It does take its toll though. Too much time spent with computer has a draining effect on the brain. If I can be called a geek, I prefer to think of myself as a “Renaissence Geek” with diverse interests. Therefore, it is not just Sir Walter Scott’s maxim “too much rest is rust” that is my enemy, but also too much of one thing for too long (which is one reason grad school drove me CRAZY, but that’s another LONG story). Even the busman needs to read a book, take a walk in the country, enjoy a good meal and a glass of wine, and enjoy the embrace of a beautiful, loving woman.

That busman is me. No more busman’s holidays for a few weeks I think. It is Spring, the sun is warm, and the sky clear.

ps. Let me offer a tip of the cap to the enterprising engineers and designers at the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University, NeXT corporation, the FreeBSD project, and most especially Apple corporation for their work that lead to OS X. Being a Windows and UNIX man for some time, I was most impressed with my first exposure to OS X this weekend. The Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD operating systems are like lowriders you see in magazines — performance machines, but made starting with stock parts and augmented with a universe of after-market accessories. Mac OS X, on the other hand, presents itself like a vintage Rolls Royce or Dusenberg; it’s plenty powerful to be sure, but not in much need of extras. Why? Because it’s aethetics are those of art rather than craft, and therefore desires to meet all your needs through the elegance of its total design without additions or augmentations. So, when it came time to set up S.’s Internet connections (one at school, one dial-up from home, and one here at my place), her printers (at school and home), her digital camera, her ZIP drive, and her Handspring Treo, OS X made all of it eminently simple, recognized everything correctly right away, and allowed her to use almost everything with OS X utilities rather than software downloaded from elsewhere. It was truly amazing for a Renaissence Geek to behold. The fact that I could then open up a Terminal window and use a very familiar UNIX command shell with equally familiar FreeBSD utilities just bowled me over completely.

a few pearls of wisdom regarding male behavior

I’ve been reading some weird stories (in Diaryland diaries and advice columns) about what women are willing to accept in terms of behavior from their boyfriends, husbands, and exes. I’ve seen a lot of this behavior in women I’ve met with men other than me, and, I’d like to offer a few friendly words of advice to any female readers who happen across this diary.

  • Don’t be impressed and tempted to get back together with your ex if he calls you to pour his heart out to you from jail. This is doubly true if he’s still drunk and in jail.
  • Break up with him if he begins to behave in ways that threaten your safety. You know, situations like, say, when your boyfriend says he has a “surprise” while you’re making love and that “surprise” turns out to be handcuffing you to the bed against your will, asking that you perform sex acts that you don’t feel comfortable with, and then saying afterward that you should be impressed that he didn’t make his request into a demand backed up by physical force.
  • Don’t try to impress a guy you’ve been dating for 3 weeks by co-signing a credit card with him when you know he’s having difficulty even holding on to that part time bouncer’s job at the bar where you met him. Corollary: Don’t be surprised when he turns around and uses this credit card to buy a used Harley he can’t afford and you’re stuck with the payments.
  • Be careful about falling in “love” with guys over the Internet. Don’t move half way across a continent just because you talk online and then meet in person for a week. It also not advisable to pursue serious relationships with people who live half way around the world who you can only see once or twice in two years.
  • Hearing a man say that his ex-wife or ex-girlfriend “tricked me into getting her pregnant as we were breaking up so she could continue to remain a part of my life,” is not an endearing statement of love. It should be an alarm bell that makes you run away screaming until he’s undergone several years of therapy.
  • Giving the registration for your nearly new vehicle to your dope-smoking, handyman boyfriend without first making him take out a loan to assume your loan payments on said vehicle is not a symbol of your true love. It is, however, a way for you to get stuck with the payments after he’s significantly depreciated the re-sale value of your vehicle by putting 30K miles on it in a year. Corollary: You should not be surprised that if you let him keep the vehicle in your name after you break up, he will take it out of state without your knowledge or permission (still leaving you with payments).
  • Don’t attempt to reconcile with a husband whose reaction to a trial separation is to stalk you.
  • Continuing to regularly have sex with someone after you’ve supposedly broken up is not “taking responsibility for my life and living it on my terms”, it is co-depending and feeling that you can’t find someone else who is better to you.
  • Any man who says “yeah, I gotta get a lawyer because those bastards at the power company keep sending collection agencies around to talk to me” is not an excellent candidate for a long term, stable relationship.

I know. I must sound like a such a straight-laced stick-in-the-mud for saying that all this drama is bad for you, and that adult, responsible behavior is good for you. Heck, I should probably never be invited to parties again for suggesting that some people need to go into therapy if they live like this. That’s just me, though.

body dreams

I have dreams about what I’d like my body to be. Never having been a tremendously coordinated or competitive, I’ve never been much of a jock. I also grew up with pigeon-toed feet, so some of the early years of my life were spent going in and out of doctors’ offices, wearing a corrective shoe or two (no sneakers allowed), and even wearing a brace that splayed my feet in the proper direction at night. Given that simply walking sometimes caused me to trip over my own feet when I was very young, I grew up never seeing my body as being anything to write home about. Instead, I developed my mind and now find that I can put the title “Dr.” before my name.

Now many years away from being that awkward kid, I feel like this lack of body confidence is something I need to correct. I don’t think that I have unrealistic expectations — I don’t want to look like Fabio, Arnold, or Sylvester Stallone. In fact, I think that those bodies in may ways embody the wrong direction for me. No, I just want to get into the best shape of my life. I want to see a flat stomach when I look down. I want to be able to fit into that pair of jeans that haven’t felt comfortable for 10 years but I keep in the back of closet anyway because I don’t want to lose hope.

I’m willing to be patient. I want to do it right, by pursuing a healthy lifestyle where I eat right and exercise. I want to stay away from the Atkin’s diet and all the other unhealthy fads (to Atkins fans: it’s a great way to lose some pounds, but it doesn’t seem to the way to live the rest of your life). I’d rather lose a couple pounds a month and keep it off than lose a lot right away and gain it back in six months.

So what am I doing to get there? I’m trying to exercise six days a week — three devoted to cardio, three devoted to weight training. I’m also trying to follow Bill Phillip’s Body For Life plan. I used it to lose about 15 lbs across about 4-6 months last year. I’m trying to be good about it, eating several small meals a day, and balancing my protein and carbohydrate intake.

It is working, but I’m not sure how well. I weighed myself a few weeks ago, and the result depressed me because it was higher than my most depressing guess. I know that weight can be a misleading indicator though; muscle weighs more than fat, and converting fat to muscle increases weight. That aside though, I look in the mirror and I like the changes I see. My body is so much more than it was, even in January.

Yet, I know that consistency is my weakness. Developing one’s body is like anything else that requires persistence. That means making an effort to go to the gym and pushing myself a bit when I’m there. I made great gains last year, but then met a new girlfriend, got out of my routine, and lose much of what I gained. I also need to remember to be more moderate and look at things over the long haul. I’ve pushed myself too hard at times during the past, gotten sick, and then got out of my routine. The end of the routine is my enemy.

There is so much I’d eventually like to do. Swim more. Take up yoga once again, and develop more flexibility. Triathlons are out (because my feet don’t take well to running), but there must be some way to compete… or at least just finish.

Mostly though, I would like, as the 24 Hour Fitness motto says, to “look better naked” and be in better shape by the time I reach 35 than I was when I was 20. Is that so wrong?

Mullet Man and Beehive Boy

Among the many other thoughts that run through my head on your average day, I sometimes have an idea for a loser indie comic book. Here’s the concept:

The Adventures of Mullet Man and Beehive Boy

The story of a mild-mannered feed distributor who, when the need calls, removes his trusty CAT cap to reveal himself to be Mullet Man, the “business in the front, party in the back” super hero. Together with his sexually ambiguous and gender-confused youthful ward and sidekick, Beehive Boy, they fight to stamp out imported evil and maintain Federal farm feed subsidies.

At the start of this month’s issue, we find Mullet Man and Beehive Boy attending that vast gathering of the mulletude called the Sturgis Bike Rally, in Sturgis, South Dakota. Among the bikers and other peace loving citizens attracted to this event, forces of evil are afoot in the person of Ratface Rodney and his gang. We join the action just as Mullet Man discovers that Rodney has taken Beehive Boy prisoner and is planning to do something fiendish with a truck full of Coors Lite:

MM: “Unhand that Silver Bullet, you Verminous Villian!”

RR: “Careful, Mullet Man… *taking out a Zippo lighter* You don’t want me to do a Zippo job on poor Beehive Boy. *sniffs* What is that? Extra hold Aqua Net? He ought to barbecue quite nicely!”

BB: “Don’t do it, Mullet Man! Don’t pay attention to him!!!”

RR: “Shut up, you gender confused twerp! One more high pitched peep out of you, and you’ll never watch Priscilla, Queen of the Desert again!”

MM: “Ok, ok Rodney… you’ve got my attention. What do you want?”

BB: “From you, Mullet Man… nothing! From Sturgis, everything! Half the biker gang thugs from the Midwest are here today. Gambling. Prostitution. Crystal Meth. All will be at the Tesla reunion concert tonight.”

MM: “And if something were to happen to the beer…”

RR: “Aha! The brain under that long hair and bangs is not so dim after all. Yes, if something were to happen to the beer… and something were to happen to all those biker gang members… my men would be ready to move in and take over crime across the heart of America!” *diabolical laughter*

Will Ratface Rodney succeed in his evil scheme? Will Mullet Man be able to save Sturgis?? Will Beehive Boy ever see John Waters’ Hairspray again???

Tune in next time!!!

In vino veritas

I’m thinking about alcohol this afternoon. No, I don’t mean that I need a drink… or that I’m going sneak off during business hours to have one. I’m must feeling reflective about how my attitude and my relationship with alcohol has changed during the last 15 years or so.

As Dr. Johnny Fever, erstwhile radio deejay for sitcom radio station WKRP, used to say “alcohol used to be a ‘hobby'”. I find that young people are often drawn to experiences in quantity rather than quality (sex, drink, decibels at rock concerts), and I have to say that I was no exception. When beer was to be had, I was usually nearby and gained something of a reputation for it. Drinking, tragically, became something of a contest between me and my friends, with the winner being able to consume the most on a regular basis.

Of course, it is with some irony that I even associate the word “winning” with drinking. I say that because given the amounts of alcohol we consumed, we all pretty much lost when we awoke on many a following morning sick with hangover.

I think that the low point for me came when I was just two months shy of my twenty-first birthday. I’d been out at a party drinking with my frineds at college, imbibing a truly foul combination of American pilsner beer, a mixed cocktail called a “blue sky” made from vodka, grenadine, and 151 rum (so-called because of the blue flame it makes when it is lit on fire), and straight Baccardi 151 shots. As you might imagine, I got violently ill from this toxic mixture. I became so nauseous that my body’s attempts to expel the mixture broke blood vessels in my gut. On seeing this, my friends called an ambulance and I got to spend a night drying out in the campus health center. I guess I must have “won” that night because I was barred from attending parties given by my hosts that night for over a year, an act described by a mutual friend as akin to “getting thrown out of hockey game for fighting too much”.

Fortunately, my relationship with alcohol is not what it once was. I find that age brings a desire for refinement in the pleasures that one experiences. So while I have not abandoned my taste for beer, wine, or liquor, I am much more selective and much less frequent in my pleasures… now glad to drink a pint or two of Full Sail Amber ale, or Guiness, or Anchor Steam, if I am of a mind for beer. I have friends who are dedicated wine fiends who regularly introduce me to bottles of wine ($50-70 and up) that I would never buy for myself, as well as cheap supermarket blends that compare quite well with their more expensive bretheren.

Of special note is the fact that I’ve just recently joined the American branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. I first became acquainted with the Society about three years ago when I visited a cousin who was enjoying an extended 3 year stay in Edinburgh. He took me to the Society’s tasting room at the Vaults at Leith, where we sat in leather chairs in front of a coal fire and I got my first sense of the variety of tastes and flavors available in malt whiskey (especially at cask strength — usually 110-120 proof). I’m now pleased to say that my first society bottle has arrived – poured directly from a 10 year old Ardmore cask, often used for blending, but rarely seen as a single malt on its own.

drinking from the firehose

I feel like I’m trying to drink from an information firehose describing world events. With four news networks (CNN, CNN headline news, MSNBC, and Fox News) to choose from, plus long hours of coverage from the three major American networks (CBS, ABC, and NBC), turning on the TV creates a deluge of news and information into my living room. It is hard for me to swallow it all at one sitting.

At the same time, it is also… stale and self-referring. It is not a crucible that burns away impurity; it is a conflagration that takes hard information and consumes it, leaving only ashes. I speak of the large full color maps, the swooping computer graphics, the grainy live satellite footage, and the inevitable sea of experts – retired military, Ph.D’s, and foreign policy experts that provide opinion after opinion after OPINION. They are like great herbivores chewing and re-chewing bits of information in an attempt to fill hours of air time.

But alas, you cannot program war like you program other television. Conflict, like all fundamental human relations, demonstrates the characteristics of non-linear dynamics; it is prone to long periods of elaborate boredom, punctuated by moments of terrifying clarity and action. As such, I feel that you cannot say “schedule three hours this afternoon, a lot of important events will happen then”. Instead, I see how events are spun and re-spun over hours where succinct minutes might suffice. Experts first talk to policy makers and people in the field, then only experts speak for others, and eventually commentators speak for experts. It is an important and inevitable process to understand, but, it is one that don’t always want to see.

For all my technological pretensions, I am a Luddite in many ways. Unlike so many other people, I’m more of a newspaper reader. Although the immediacy of television can be a beautiful thing, I prefer to take my news in small, digestable helpings. I like to think that newspapers offer a brief pause for a breath and a moment of reflection before directing information my way. Yes, they may be slightly out of date… but I find television to be too fast, and too repetitive for many things.

A one act play concerning St. Patrick’s Day dinner

A Corned Beef Odyssey

or: How I Survived My First Irish-American St. Patrick’s Day Dinner

Dramatis Personnae:

my girlfriend
S.’s first cousin once removed, our hostess, and S.’s Godmother
S.’s second cousin and friend, daughter of B.
K.’s daughter, age 2
Father P.
Diocesan priest and friend of B. (what’s an Irish-American family dinner without at least one priest, I ask you?)

Somewhere in the midst of all this talk about warmongering, bombs, and peace protests (1400 protesters locked up for blocking San Francisco streets yesterday), I’ve neglected to describe my first encounter with that most Irish-American of traditions (and we’re not talking green beer): corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

The locale: B.’s condominium, a three bedroom unit in a modest planned community nearby.

Everything surrounding gatherings at B.’s condo must somehow be negotiated. For instance, the invitation that S. got for St. Patrick’s Day dinner said “arrive at 4pm, dinner at 6pm”. Given the occasion, we thought that two hours was a rather long lead time. After consulting with K., we were reminded that her mother had a penchant for rather long cocktail hours (often involving St. Andrews Scotch out of golf ball-shaped bottle). After meditating on that image, we decided that 5pm might be a more appropriate time to arrive instead.

We were late. S. had a sorority alumni lunch to attend at around noon, and then decided to head over to the Valley Fair Mall (one of largest in Northern California) to do some shopping. I meanwhile did some accounting odds and ends and did some remote system administration chores for some computers that I still tend (occasionally) from my University days. S. got back at around 4:30, but, we were further delayed by chocolate chip cookie making (from frozen dough, not scratch) because we thought it best to show up past 4pm with a peace offering in hand. Cookie making took just under an hour, and we finally arrived at B.’s condo with a few dozen cookies and a bottle of BV Cabernet Sauvignon in tow at around 5:50.

Domestic chaos reigned a B.’s place. The table was beautifully set, but the food was still cooking, and, complicated and intricate negotiations were under way as to the best way to serve it. Despite the 4pm invite, we were also not the last guests to arrive — K. had yet to arrive and a number of other guests were unaccounted for. So, we all just kind of milled about, waiting for the food to cook and to arrive at a quorum of guests for dinner.

In the mean time, B. (being a doting grandmother) decided to bribe a tired and hungry Sa. with one of our chocolate chip cookies because dinner was so late. A family friend saw Sa. with the cookie and then made finding something healthy to eat for Sa. into her crusade. After loudly and uncategorically announcing that “all two year olds LOVE fruits and vegetables”, she then attempted to feed Sa. part of a papaya and also offered her red beets. Both were ultimately vetoed before Sa. could try them because other, older ladies in the kitchen felt two year olds somehow do not like papaya, and that the red beats were “special” and meant for B.’s consumption alone. (I myself was skeptical about the “all two year olds love fruits and vegetables” claim after seeing some picky eaters in action over the years.)

Everyone finally arrived around 6:45 and it was announced that dinner was imminent.

Having seen the kind of chaos that serving dinner can be with B.’s family at the Christmas table last December, I knew my best strategy was to find a seat at the table and not get up from it until there was food on my plate in front of me (better to ask forgiveness than ask permission with this group). It proved to be a good choice. First plates were collected because food was going to be served buffet style (no doubt to preserve the abundance of shamrock decorations on the table). Everyone was then told to get up and start filing through the kitchen to get food. Then this scheme was inexplicably vetoed by powers unseen in the kitchen, because plates were suddenly redistributed back to the table and everyone was told to sit back down. A large platter then appeared containing the corned beef and cabbage and was set down in the middle of the table. Several side dishes soon followed, along with some good humored grumbling and complaining from people with buffet-style serving preferences that were exiting the kitchen. We finally started moving food onto our plates at about 7:20.

The menu consisted of boiled corned beef, boiled cabbage, some cold Irish potato salad, green salad, and two different kinds of home made Irish soda bread. I pretty much tried everything but the cabbage. The corned beef reminded me (in many ways) of Mom’s sour braten, except for the pink color and the lack of a white sauce. The soda bread was also interesting, with a look resembling Italian biscotti but with a more bread-like consistency.

I added my own levity to the evening when I turned to Father P.(who I saw bless a family pickup truck before Christmas dinner) and asked him to pass the BV Cabernet right after I started eating. At least one friend of the family (who needs new hearing aids, I swear) said this was the first thing she heard me say all night, and found it rather funny.