alexpgp: (Default)
"I'm sorry, but we're going to have to let you go," said my boss.

For a moment, I didn't say anything, but an avalanche of emotions swept through my mind: astonishment, then confusion, anger, outrage, denial, fear, and despair, roughly in that order. I looked at my boss and tried to say something, but he beat me to the punch.

"I'm sorry," he said.

It didn't occur to me to beg for my job back. I doubt it would have had any effect. I got up from my seat, wanting to yell, to hit something. Then I wanted to cry. Instead, I managed to keep breathing. My boss said nothing.

I turned and half-walked, half-staggered to the window. As I looked out, it crossed my mind that Scotts Valley in mid-December just doesn't look very wintry. I took a deep breath and let myself fully absorb the impact of what had just happened. And just like that, I calmed down and tried to focus on how things were going to be okay. My knees were still weak, though.

Per the procedure, my boss asked for me to hand over my company ID and the corporate Amex card, but told me I was welcome to use my office and computer during normal work hours to look for a job, make calls, send out my resume, whatever. Curiously, when I got back to my office, there was a phone message waiting for me from the HR department at Microsoft, asking if I was interested in coming to Redmond for an interview. Things were already looking up.

Returning home in the middle of the afternoon, I told Galina what had happened. Somehow, she had already suspected the worst when I walked in the door. Faced with the prospect of having to look for a job, I said I would not be going along with her and the kids on the week-long vacation we had planned to Colorado at the beginning of January.

"No," she said with something of an edge to her voice. "We've been planning this vacation for a while and let's face it, there is no place you have to be during that week, so you are going with us. Your severance check will keep us going."

So between then and the end of the year, I made calls, sent resumes, and flew to Redmond for an interview. There, I was pleasantly surprised to see two former colleagues in the lobby, and we made small talk while we waited for our respective interviews to begin.

By the end of an intense day filled with 15-minutes interview sessions with what seemed to be half the managers at Microsoft, I felt limp as a dishrag and out of breath. I was not surprised to learn it would be a few days before I would hear back from the company. I had been through this drill before, and anyway, nobody makes hiring decisions around Christmas.

Curiously, as our departure date approached, I also got a call from a translator who had been one of Galina's clients when she did social work with Russian immigrants in Florida. He had somehow learned of our predicament, and wanted to help out.

"Listen," he said, when I called him, "my supervisor is looking for a freelancer to do about 12,000 words, into English, due about the time you get back. The rate of payment is not bad. Are you interested?" In short order, I had an assignment I could work on while the kids were snowboarding, for which I would collect a surprisingly good payday.

What can I say about Colorado? We were located in one of the prettiest spots around, nestled in the San Juan mountains, just down the road from natural hot springs and within eyeshot of the Continental Divide. The air was clean, the people were friendly, and prices for everything were incredibly reasonable.

On our way back to the car from our first trip for groceries, Galina stopped to look at a flyer in the window of a local real-estate company. The flyer featured a five-acre property with a fenced corral and a house whose entire cost was as much as just the down payment on the least expensive property in Santa Cruz, a decrepit fixer-upper that stood on hardly any land in a neighborhood controlled by street gangs.

As the week progressed, and snow fell on top of the nearly shoulder-high accumulation already on the ground, my thoughts began to turn whimsically to the idea of, well..., living in Colorado. I mean, it's not like I had a job that I'd have to quit or a house we'd have to sell, and the kids hadn't really put down roots in California. Anyway, how many times in your life do you get a chance to go somewhere, fall in love with the place, and just move there because you can?

So, two days before we were scheduled to return to California, I turned to Galina at dinner and said, "You know, I've been thinking…"

"Me, too," she said, "and I don’t know if I'm crazy, or what, but... you go ahead and tell me what's on your mind." We played Alphonse and Gaston for a while, each of us being reluctant to be the first to reveal our respective thoughts. I eventually wore Galina down, so she took a deep breath and looked me straight in the eye.

"I think we should move here," she said.

A moment passed, then I started to laugh, and the kids looked at me as if I was crazy. Then Galina and I looked at each other and we just understood, telepathically, that we had been thinking the exact same thing. I mean, what better could you ask for? Nothing stood in the way of our pulling up stakes and transplanting ourselves to Colorado!

Well, almost nothing.

What would I do to keep us fed and sheltered? Well, I could continue to write articles for computer magazines, maybe pick up a couple of regular columns and write another book on programming. I could do some consulting work. And Galina's friend, the translator, had turned me on to the fact that, if nothing else, translation was a viable option, too.

In short, I'd be taking a step that I had been steadfastly reluctant - okay, I'll admit it, scared - to take after having long ago surrendered Galina and the kids as "hostages to fortune," as Bacon so euphemistically put it.

Where would we live? Where would I work? Incredibly, we nailed down about the only rental in town, which turned out to be a manufactured home a couple of miles east of the city limit. Equally incredibly, a two-room office over the town's movie theater was available for a song. Between the two payments for home and office, our monthly outlay for square footage would be about one-third of what we had been paying to rent a townhouse in California.

So, we returned to California with a mission in our heart and a spring in our step. Microsoft called to invite me for a second round of interviews, which I politely declined (making it, perhaps, my bonehead play of the century… but then again, I think not). Three weeks later, I drove a rented truck filled with furniture and books, followed by Galina and the kids in our car, from very nearly the Pacific Ocean to Pagosa Springs.

* * *
There have been bumps and detours in our life in Pagosa since moving here, notably the five years we spent in Houston (with our house let out for rent in the interim), but we came back. I no longer write articles for magazines, preferring to translate and interpret full-time. And even though we've gone through a boom fueled by more refugees from California and Texas, the mountains are still breathtakingly beautiful, the grocery clerk still checks to make sure there are no broken eggs in the dozen you put in your cart, and on a clear night, you can look up and truly understand why it's called the Milky Way.

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Default)
I had come in to work early that Tuesday in March 1985. I was in a pretty good mood generally, and it didn't hurt that the source code tests I had run the previous night had turned out successfully. I was reviewing the test results when my boss arrived at work at his usual tardy hour and popped his head into my office on the way to his own.

"How're things going?" he asked.

"Everything is just peachy," I replied, "especially since there is hope yet for the cultural salvation of the republic." (Yes, I used to talk like that.) A beat passed.

"What do you mean?" asked my boss.

"Well, if a film about Mozart can win a bunch of Oscars," I said, with a twinkle in my eye, "then anything is possible." The previous evening, Milos Forman's film Amadeus had walked away with the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. I expected my boss to pick up the conversational ball and run with it - at least to the coffee urn - but instead, he perplexed me by asking:

"Who?"

"Mozart," I said, adding "Wolfgang. Amadeus. Mozart." From his look, I could tell the full name had been of no help.

"And who's that?" came the next question. The conversational ball had not only been left on the floor, but I started to suspect it had by now rolled out of the office, down the hall, and out of the building. I decided to disengage quietly.

"Oh, he… wrote music, a long time ago," I said. "Classical stuff." My boss grunted. A beat passed.

"Has anyone been nosing around?" he asked, rephrasing his original question and moving our conversation toward more familiar channels. I breathed an inward sigh of relief as routine reestablished itself. Life went on.

There are times, during fairly short conversations, when a tsunami of thoughts and impressions passes through my mind, and it had begun to happen during this brief exchange, in a big way. But when I fully realized that neither the name Mozart nor the film title Amadeus meant a blessed thing to my boss, I was… overcome. Disoriented. Folks around me might as well have started speaking Chinese.

In my view of the world, being out of touch with what is popular at the box office has long been forgivable, but for any educated person to be so narrowly focused in one's life as to not have picked up the name Mozart from somewhere, anywhere (if only by a kind of social osmosis), and placed it in the general context of "classical music" (even if one never listened to the stuff), was for me a positively twilight zone kind of event.

Then again, engineers have a reputation for being rather single-minded about their profession, as illustrated by the ancient joke about a doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer discussing the relative merits and demerits of having a lover as opposed to a spouse. At the end of the tale, after the doctor and lawyer have weighed in on opposite sides of the issue, the engineer comes down in the middle, saying that it is best to have both, "because while your spouse thinks you're with your lover, and your lover thinks you're with your spouse, you can be at the lab, doing research!" There is more than a germ of truth residing in that chestnut.

Having a narrow focus of interests is not a malady unique to techies, but many techies suffer from it (indeed, some even boast of it). In the end, it can serve as a weakness; an Achilles' heel, if you will, because you don't realize how vulnerable you are until you are put on the spot.

In my undergraduate days as an engineering major, I was better off than most. My mother had taught languages, my stepdad strove constantly to widen his technical and cultural horizons, and our house was filled with books on many subjects. I certainly knew who Mozart was (among others), had been a prodigious reader all though high school, and had a passing acquaintance with the arts and sciences.

By my university junior year, whatever putative "rounding" I had arrived with as a freshman had been chipped and chiseled into a strictly rectilinear set of interests in engineering and science. As was the case with many of my peers, the only thing of importance to me was to satisfy the "other" (nontechnical) graduation requirements in the most efficient manner imaginable, and then get out.

That's when I ran into Ed Czerwinski.

Ed Czerwinski was the chairman of the Slavic and Germanic Languages Department and had a reputation for giving just about everyone who enrolled for his classes an A grade. It was rumored that students who never showed up and never handed in any work got Bs. So, the six-credit Intensive Elementary Russian course he was teaching during the second half of my junior year seemed just the thing for this engineering major, who needed 6 credits of humanities to graduate.

The rumors about Ed's grading turned out to be overly optimistic. By week 3 of his course, I had pretty much reverted to form and had stopped coming to his class so as to concentrate on the important things in my academic life, like electrical science and fluid dynamics.

That week, he somehow managed to buttonhole me in the library. He told me that, in his opinion, having me in his class was an inspiration to the other students, and that my absence was having a deleterious effect on the group. Further, while he normally didn't care about who attended or did not attend his class and wasn't a big fan of the grading system, he so much as threatened me with a C if I didn't straighten up.

Others might have laughed at his threat. I straightened up.

A year later, at the start of the second semester of my senior year, Ed bumped into me again and offered me a deal I could not refuse: sign up as a Russian major, take the literature courses, and he'd wave his hands and poof, the grammar and composition requirements for the major would disappear, and I would graduate as a double major. Although this meant sticking around for another two semesters, schools around the country were still spewing too many engineers and teachers into the world (the result of Vietnam-era draft deferments), and my job-seeking efforts were coming up dry, so I agreed.

When I first arrived at the large room outside of the Slavic and Germanic Department's faculty offices - which I came to call "the bullpen" for the next three semesters - there was a lively dialogue going on among my new colleagues about Thomas Eagleton and his electroshock therapy, which had led to Eagleton's stepping down as George McGovern's vice presidential running mate at the beginning of August.

In the course of the debate, someone called the treatments Eagleton's "Achilles' heel," which led to even louder discussion of what, exactly, constituted an "Achilles' heel," at which point Ed came out of his office and ask us to pipe down.

"And while you're at it," he added, straight-faced, "consider what the cultural and linguistic consequences might have been had Achilles' mother decided to hold him by his private parts instead of his heel when she dipped him in the Styx!"

There was a moment of silence as we seriously considered the question, then we all had a laugh and the group started to break up. Ed motioned for me to join him in his office.

"I'm really glad you've decided to join our program," he said, once we were seated. "I think you'll find, over the years, that the excellent technical background you've acquired at the college of engineering will mesh very well with the kind of knowledge and the approach to finding it that you'll acquire here."

I was skeptical (for I still had the mindset of an undergraduate engineer). I frankly expected to spend my time in the department engaged in frilly scholarly finger-painting. Instead, I found the curriculum as interesting as engineering, fell in love with the works of Nabokov and Gogol, and when I did graduate, I was conscious of having grown intellectually in the interim. Along the way, I found that having an understanding of the technical end of life gave me an advantage over those whose focus had been confined to nontechnical subjects. The knife cuts in both directions.

Ed turned out to be right, though it would take far more space than a post like this to explain exactly why. (Heck, if it were so easy to explain at all, it would be common knowledge, and everyone would be doing it!) Still, perhaps an example might be illustrative…

A few years ago, I was interpreting at a dinner to mark the midpoint of a two-week technical meeting when the Russian delegation lead got up and, in the course of proposing a toast, started to quote Shakespeare. The import of the toast was quite impressive and weighty, as befitted the occasion.

My old boss, in my place, might have interrupted the speaker to ask, "Who, exactly, is this Shakespeare fellow?" Other technical interpreters of my acquaintance might have given a good, yet rough rendering of the quote, and gotten the message across but when I heard the Russian, I didn't hem or haw or ask for a clarification. Instead, I related the speaker's observation of "time being out of joint," quoting from Hamlet:
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
along with the rest of the toast, which was enjoyably received by the English-speakers in the room.

Afterward, the US delegation lead took me aside to express his appreciation for my work ("You make it look easy") and, by the way, for taking his counterpart down a peg, as the latter had a reputation for pompous puffery, which I had quietly deflated. This, it was hinted, would have ramifications in the following week's discussions. I had done well.

Specialization, it has been said, is for insects.


Cheers…
alexpgp: (Default)
High Flight
(An Airman's Ecstasy)
John Gillespie Macgee, Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
* * *
I strained forward, my eight-year old face pushed up against the window pane, looking up at the propellered airplane that was about to pass over our apartment house, and started breathing again. If there were doors on the bottom of the plane, they were closed. No bombs would fall on us. Not this time.

You see, I knew that some airplanes, just like the one that had passed overhead, had doors underneath that opened to unleash hell on those below by dropping bombs. I knew this from watching a television show called The Twentieth Century with my stepdad every Sunday, which often showed airplanes bombing cities during World War II. The show didn't scare me, but the airplanes, on their final approach to LaGuardia airport in Queens, did.

I eventually outgrew this fear and, like many boys of that era, dreamt of someday becoming a pilot. This did not please my mother, who had a healthy skepticism about aviation. Media coverage of "routine" accidents aside, she vividly recalled the Hindenburg disaster and the then-recent horror of one Jack Graham, who blew up his mother and 43 other people aboard a United DC-6 that took off from Denver bound for Portland.

"Airplanes are dangerous," she used to say. "They're death traps. Don't fly if you can avoid it."

I had already learned to hold my peace on issues where I disagreed with my parents, but one day, as my mother and I were out shopping, we met one of my school chums, who was walking in the same direction as we. I made introductions and in the course of the subsequent conversation, my mother asked, "So, Mark, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to be an engineer and build airplanes," he said. My mother said nothing, but upon hearing this news, I blurted, "That's great, Mark! You'll build 'em, and I'll fly 'em!"

My mother nearly had apoplexy on the spot.

"You'll do no such thing!" she said, with enough agitation in her voice to cause my classmate to excuse himself from our company. Once he was out of earshot, my mother stopped and turned to me in the middle of the sidewalk and explained all the reasons why I should abandon any idea of piloting an aircraft. They all reduced to: "You'll be killed!"

Nearly three decades later, I walked into the flying school at the Watsonville airport, near Santa Cruz, California, for my first flying lesson. I had considered taking up flying earlier, when we lived in Florida, but the closest school was pretty far away and the hourly rates for instruction and flying seemed astronomical.

They were no less astronomical in California - in fact, they were much higher - but Galina and I reasoned that there would never be a better time, nor were costs likely to go down. That, plus the fact that Philippe Kahn - a Silicon Valley mover/shaker and the CEO of the company I worked for - was an enthusiastic pilot (as were many of my professional colleagues) impelled me to take flying lessons.

The wild thing about the first lesson is that the instructor sits in the co-pilot's seat and lets you take off by yourself, talking you through the process. In fact, you pretty much fly the plane the entire time (which is to say, the plane very nearly flies itself) up to the point where it's time to "enter the pattern" in preparation for landing.

From that point on, the concept of "school" takes on a principally new meaning, because if you don't pay attention, or if you decide to do something unwise (like do a barrel roll in the Cessna you're flying), you don't walk away with a bad report card. Instead, you may not live to regret it.

So I diligently studied the theory and absorbed what I could during cockpit time with the instructor, until the day came when he told me to stop the plane in the taxiway, short of the parking area. He then got out and invited me to take off, fly the pattern, and land. Solo.

The solo flight is an important milestone for the aspiring pilot, and tradition calls for the back of the new solo pilot's shirt to be torn off, but they didn’t do that kind of thing at Watsonville. That missing part of my pilot's education was taken care of after our family moved to Pagosa Springs, in Colorado, and I introduced myself at the flight school at the local airfield.

I completed my initial flight education in Colorado, passing the check ride on the first try (though admittedly, it was a close thing). The one thing I remember from that flight came at the end, when the inspector started nagging me about my fuel management, or rather, my lack thereof.

"You should have switched fuel tanks a long time ago," he said.

"You may have a point, sir," I replied, getting the landing checklist out of the pocket in the door, "but there appears to be plenty of fuel remaining in the left tank, so I don't think any action is required at this time." (And yes, I do tend to speak like an automaton in such situations.)

"Why not switch to the right tank now?" he asked.

"Because the manufacturer recommends using the left tank for takeoff and landing and there is no pressing need not to follow that recommendation," I replied.

"But what if you run out of fuel on your final approach?" he asked.

"If that were to happen now," I replied, clipping the list to my kneeboard, "I am confident I could glide to a safe landing on the runway. Now, however, I must ask you to let me go through this checklist and land the plane. We can discuss this further on the ground."

Afterward, the inspector complimented me on my resistance to his attempt to distract me (though he did have some other things to say about my "turn about a fixed point" maneuver). Over the next couple of years, Galina, the kids, and I did some flying in and out of Pagosa, but in the end, it turned out to be too expensive a pastime, and my health became an issue.

Still, it was worth every effort and every penny invested. I love flying.

* * *
A Response to 'High Flight'
alexpgp

To you, who slipped the surly bonds of earth
And passed too soon from life into God's care,
Know this: Emboldened amateurs of worth
Convey their grit and sinew through the air
In craft that can't withstand extreme techniques,
Yet which - when all is said and done - do fly,
Up far above the plains, and lakes, and peaks
And let us yearning mortals touch the sky.
We've learned the rudiments of trim and flaps,
Of slips and stalls and carburetor heat,
Then plotted out new courses on our maps.
And thus we gain reward beyond compare:
We chase the wind, and feel the world complete,
And know we've shared your footless halls of air!
Cheers...
alexpgp: (Default)
One memory triggers another, which nudges an intention, which elbows a notion, and the next thing you know, you're consciously chasing a train of thought along a track that threads through the reaches of your mind, a ticket in one hand and a computer keyboard in the other.

In my case, from time to time over the years, I've put my search-fu to the test by extending my investigative tendrils into the fabric of the Internet to search for information on old friends and acquaintances with whom I've lost contact. I do this as a "catch and release" kind of activity, in the sense that I do nothing with the information I uncover, as I've found that attempts to re-establish contact are almost certainly doomed to failure, crippled by the passage of time and the divergence of life paths.

Some years ago, one such search session was triggered by a troubling dream about my first serious girlfriend, whom I knew and loved - and lost - about 4 years before meeting Galina.

Ascribe what you will to the adjective "troubling"; it would take me too long to explain and would probably not make sense. I'll just mention it was one of the very few dreams that, over the years, I recall having remembered upon awakening.

During previous attempts to search for her name - an eminently searchable name owing to its uniqueness and one that she would have almost certainly retained professionally - every technique I could conjure came up empty. No hits on any site, and no runs or errors, either, except for perhaps initiating the search to begin with.

The search prompted by my dream came up empty, and to be frank, I didn't really know what I would have done if my efforts had been successful. Would I have called? Made myself known? Almost certainly not, in retrospect.

It may be said, I guess, that my reluctance in this regard was tied to a fear of rejection. I will respond, "Guilty as charged," and thank you to keep your armchair psychoanalysis to yourself. It's hard to change your attitude toward something that happened a long time ago, and I had dealt with the issue by avoiding it through all of the intervening years. The approach wasn't perfect, as it failed to suppress my intermittent curiosity, but I could live with the result.

My curiosity remained dormant until about 8 years ago, whereupon I fired up Google and essayed the same search yet again, with sharpened search-fu skills. This time, mirabile dictu, Google spat back not only the exact full name I was looking for, but an address, a phone number, a professional affiliation; in short, the works. And the kicker? She worked in Houston, as did I at the time.

Sometimes, it is a small world, indeed, as we had said our goodbyes in New York nearly three decades earlier.

So there I was, with the information I sought displayed on my screen, yet sitting with a puzzled look on my kisser, not knowing what to do. (Take it from me, not knowing what to do in theory is a lot easier to deal with than not knowing what to do in practice.)

The safe alternative, of course, was to sit tight and do nothing. "Ne rockez pas le boat," as such advice might be expressed late at night in a New Orleans bar. But I have seldom been one to seek safe alternatives in such circumstances, so I called the number.

It was no longer in service.

I had scratched the itch. By all rights, I could go back to my mundane existence, secure in the knowledge that honor - and curiosity - had been satisfied. I had done my part.

So naturally, I then called directory assistance to find out if the number had changed. It had. Several days later, while standing in line at a book signing, I called the new number and spoke to the receptionist. My party was out. I cut the connection without leaving my name or number.

A few more days passed, and I called again.

My party was in. "Who shall I say is calling?" asked the receptionist.

I said my name.

An eternity passed. I'm sure it was at least that long. Longer, maybe.

A familiar voice came on the phone.

Years melted. We spoke of pleasant surprises and had a short conversation, ending with the words, "We must get together."

Three days passed. I called, left my number.

I got a call back and it was during this call that my telephone became an oracle of sorts, from which came an answer to a question I had forgotten I ever wanted to ask, and which, having remained unasked for so long, had corroded and become stuck fast in the catacombs of my mind. You see, I never really understood what had led to our breakup. During that conversation, she told me.

I was dumbfounded. Was that how it was? That was me? Could I have been so... stupid?

Yes. Apparently so, and on all counts. In truth, I became aware of such qualities later, and thought them to be the result of our breakup, assisted to some degree by the natural tendency of youth toward arrogance. It had taken time and effort to overcome and outgrow those qualities once I had become aware of them.

What a fool I had been! What an idiot! What an imbecile!

I was seized by a pang of regret for What Might Have Been if only I had been more open to admitting mistakes, to being more communicative, to saying "I'm sorry." Indeed, I recalled a line attributed to John Lennon, to the effect that "love means having to say you're sorry every fifteen minutes," which made a lot more sense, when you thought about it, than the slobbering sentimentality of the original tagline in Love Story.

In the end, it may have simply been the passage of time that finally cured me; and though I'll bet good money there are those who would question the use of "cure" in this context, it matters not. Not now, anyway.

In the end, we made plans to meet for dinner, but something serious came up, and it never happened. Nor was it ever rescheduled. Nor, I suspect, will it be, ever.

And thereby stands explained the curious circumstance of what may be described as a rusted switch - overgrown with weeds and underbrush - situated way, way back along the side of the track that traces my life inside my head. The switch hardware was made bright and shiny that night, and serviceable to boot. There is, alas, no going back. The switch will never be thrown.

To risk further overworking the metaphor, as I sit here wondering about that switch, I am reminded of the many miles of smooth track since, reflecting the many accomplishments and great joys that have come along with the ride. I have been particularly fortunate in my circumstances, despite the petty pressures and distractions that try to derail me, as they do all of us all from time to time. I would not change a thing.

There are no snows of yesteryear, only the track up ahead.

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Default)
It was one of those heavy wool blankets, the kind most often described as an “army blanket,” except that instead of being olive green it was very nearly black, with a couple of narrow red stripes at each end. That, and the fact that it was several sizes too small for any but the smallest soldier, having been part of my “kit” the year my parents had sent me to summer camp, when I was nine.

Over the few short years since setting off on my own, I had put the blanket to use in many ways, most having nothing to do with the retention of body heat while sleeping. Most recently, it had been used as a furniture pad for our fledgling family’s move from New York to an apartment in Jacksonville, Florida, and then again for a move from the apartment to our first house not far away, whereupon it was cached in a closet along with other items too good to throw out, but not good enough to use on a regular basis.

Owning a house means, among other things, not having to kow-tow to the requirements of landlords when it comes to owning pets, and not long after moving in, we acquired a puppy, who we named Bart.

Bart was of a breed best described as “100% mutt.” He was all black, playful, and clearly sharp as a tack. What drew my eye to him in the first place was the way he would run around, with his attention focused completely on what was in front of him, and then suddenly sit and cock his head to one side, as if in contemplation. He would grow up, I was sure, to be a philosopher.

As is the case with most puppies, it looked like the first few days away from his littermates were going to be hard on Bart. So, to ease his transition to his new surroundings, I did something I had seen my stepdad do years before. I prepared a hot water bottle, wound an old-style alarm clock (the kind whose ticking could be heard in the next county), and wrapped both inside my old blanket. This, according to my dad, created a “nest” that would comfort the puppy at night with its softness, warmth, and simulated beat of a mother's heart.

I can’t tell you if Bart was comforted or not, but I can tell you that the next morning, the clock and water bottle were at opposite ends of the kitchen floor, and Bart was wrestling with the blanket. Dog and blanket appeared to be settling their differences on a “best two falls out of three” basis, and it was evident the eventual result was not a foregone conclusion.

Bart bonded with that blanket. He loved that thing. He slept with it, played with it, and dragged it with him nearly everywhere. If I picked it up, he’d come running to me, grab it, and we'd play tug-of-war. Once, while I was reading a newspaper in the dining room, Bart emerged from the hall leading to the bedrooms with his head stuck through a hole he had managed to chew at one end of the blanket, with the rest of the fabric trailing behind. Bart resembled a canine version of Batman, but with a ridiculously long cape. After emerging from the hall and letting me get the full effect, he sat, looked at me, and cocked his head. I laughed.

I do not recall the exact circumstances of how it came about, but one day, when Bart was three months old or thereabouts, I was working in the side yard when I noticed Bart had somehow managed to get out onto the front lawn, located between the house and a moderately-traveled road.

“Bart! Come!,” I commanded, but there was no response. His attention was fixed elsewhere and obedience was something we were still working on. I stopped what I was doing, went into the house, grabbed the blanket as I passed through the kitchen, and went out the front door, again calling, “Bart!”

As I crossed the threshold, Bart was just crossing the street, heading away from me. I again called his name, louder and more urgently this time, and raised his beloved blanket to wave it.

He never saw it.

A late model Chevy came charging down the road from the right and swept Bart away, not slowing down at all, even after the air was pierced by a long, horrifying scream of agony that did not stop until the car did, about a hundred yards down the road. As Bart's keening wail died away, I turned back into the house, grabbed the .25 caliber automatic we had bought after moving to Florida, and then set off for the stopped car, fearing the worst.

The worst, or something close, had come to pass.

Ignoring the driver of the vehicle, I eased Bart out from under the car and placed him on the blanket that, somehow, I had taken with me. Bart was alive, but barely. He tried to lick my hand. I started to cry.

Three of Bart's legs were broken and attached to the rest of him by skin alone. In places, fur and skin had been abraded to muscle. There was blood everywhere. One eye was destroyed. Part of one lip was missing, and I could see the lower jaw was broken. He looked at me with his remaining good eye, poured out his love, and forgave me, I think, for what I was going to - had to - do.

The car had stopped next to an empty lot, so I gently picked up the blanket and moved Bart a dozen or so yards further away from the road, then put him back down. I kneeled, grabbed a handful of my tee shirt, and wiped away my tears so I could see what I was doing. Then I placed the pistol to Bart's head and pulled the trigger.

Although the reasoning part of my brain told me Bart was dead, seeing his broken body thrash reflexively caused the primitive part of my brain to command my hand and arm to aim and pull the trigger again. And again. And twice more, emptying the five-round magazine. Bart lay still.

I rose and turned to face the driver, who was leaning on his fender smoking a cigarette, as if nothing in particular was going on. He looked at me and smiled, as if we had just shared a joke. The bastard smiled at me!

For a split-second, I was tempted to point my pistol at him and pull the trigger, just to see that smile disappear from his face, but the Marines had trained me well. Even though I knew my pistol was empty, I had no intention to kill the scrofulous cretin grinning in front of me, so I suppressed the temptation and instead, put the pistol in my pocket.

I don’t remember much of our ensuing conversation, only my desire that it be over with and that this miserable excuse for a human and his car be gone forever from my life.

After the car drove off, I carefully wrapped Bart in the blanket and carried him back to the house. I sat in the back yard for a while, holding the bundle to my chest, crying, unmindful of the blood that had seeped through the fabric and onto my clothes. Once the tears stopped, I got up, fetched a shovel, and dug a grave under a ficus tree my wife and I had transplanted into the yard shortly after moving in. I buried Bart there, shrouded in his favorite blanket.

Postscript. The next day, when I sat down to clean the pistol, I found a round in the chamber. For whatever reason, my "empty" pistol hadn’t been empty. Apparently, there are times when it makes sense to blindly follow the rules (in this case, "never point a weapon at someone unless you are prepared to kill him").

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Some folks can get positively weepy about language.

The ability to use language, folks used to say, is what distinguishes humans from all other species on the planet, though as we learn more about the animals that share this rock with us, such a claim begins to stand on ever-thinning ice, together with the assertion - which is standing out there where the ice is really thin - that only humans exhibit intelligence.

Language, folks like to say, is a marvelously precise tool that is part of the heritage of virtually all humans, enabling us to define and transmit our cultures, give expression to the most sublime of thoughts, and pursue human progress. Such sentiments can bring tears to one’s eyes, but from my perspective as a translator and interpreter, the reality is that language can turn on you like a riled rattlesnake, and will, if you’re not careful.

To whet our appetite, consider the terms “translator” and “interpreter.” In the language services industry, a “translator” describes someone who works with written materials, producing a written translation, while an “interpreter” is someone who listens to an utterance and then translates it orally. The jobs are quite different, requiring different skill sets. As a result, a great many translators do not interpret, and many interpreters do not translate.

Unfortunately, the two functions don’t seem all that different to people outside the industry, which is why they are almost universally lumped together under the word “translator.” And while normally, this particular point of confusion is benign, I do know of a couple of cases where clients requested - and were sent - translators (i.e., people who do not interpret) to support interpretation assignments, entailing less-than-optimum results.

Sometimes, confusion of terminology is not so harmless or innocent. If you really want to see some sparks fly, try using the terms “safety factor” and “safety margin” interchangeably in a technical conversation with an engineer. The two terms denote related, but decidedly different concepts. (Unfortunately, quite a number of bilingual dictionaries do not draw the distinction, thereby sowing mayhem in translated documents.)

Worse than having two terms become confused is having the meaning of one word become smeared, like a line drawn with pastel charcoal under the pressure of one’s fingers. For example, there was once a time when the prefix “bi-” meant “every two” in words such as “biweekly,” “bimonthly,” and “biannual.” Yet despite the best clarion efforts of editors such as Theodore Bernstein, a common tendency arose and persisted to use the prefix in the sense of “twice every.” As a result, you end up with the following definition for “biweekly,” which I found at Merriam-Webster OnLine:
Main Entry: 1bi·week·ly
Pronunciation: (")bI-'wE-klE
Function: adjective
Date: 1832
1 : occurring twice a week
2 : occurring every two weeks : FORTNIGHTLY
Now, contrary to what is often propounded in school, the numerical order of definitions listed for a word has nothing to do with which is “more correct,” though the ordering may reflect what the dictionary editorial board feels are the prevailing priorities of usage. In any event, I’ve never met anyone who predicates his or her usage - or understanding - of a word on the basis of where, numerically, the intended meaning appears in the word’s dictionary entry.

The bottom line? Given this pair of definitions, the word has become well-and-truly useless. Forget you even know how to spell it; just tell the reader “every two weeks” or “twice a week,” whichever applies.

* * *
In 1978, Osmo Wiio, a Finnish researcher into communication among humans, published a set of laws, the fundamental one of which was “Human communication fails, except by accident.” Couched in the humorous pessimism embodied in Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), most people assume Professor Wiio meant his laws as some kind of joke. Curiously enough, making such an assumption means you’ve misunderstood Wiio’s attempt at communication (as the professor did not intend his laws only as humor), which - come to think of it - illustrates Wiio’s assertion. Such logical reasoning aside, however, I can recall a incident from my professional life that lends additional support to Wiio’s Fundamental Law.

Back when I worked in-house for the NASA contractor that provided language services for the International Space Station program, I managed to get technical representatives from the US and Russian sides to sit down at a table with language specialists and work out a basic list of ISS terminology. Previous efforts to compile glossaries of this kind over the years fell short, mostly because whoever was compiling the glossary was working in a vacuum, lacking the kind of comprehensive participation that I sought to achieve, and largely did.

In the course of our panel’s deliberations, one term was added to the list rather routinely. The Russian term, transliterated, was oblyot; the equivalent English was flyaround. It was jointly understood as denoting the performance of a specific spacecraft maneuver around and in the immediate neighborhood of the ISS.

A year or two passed, and once, while visiting the Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City, near Moscow, a US Shuttle pilot was given the opportunity to take a Russian Soyuz capsule for a spin in a training simulator. Everything went well, until the Russian instructor asked the astronaut to perform an oblyot.

Obligingly, the American started a flyaround, which involves maneuvering the spacecraft 360 degrees around the station, smartly maintaining a fixed distance from an imaginary center point, just as if he had been at the controls of an Orbiter.

“What the heck are you doing?” asked the instructor, interrupting the pilot about a third of the way through the maneuver.

“An oblyot,” replied the pilot, “just as you asked.”

“That’s no oblyot,” said the instructor, and in the course of the subsequent discussion, it was learned that, when performed by a Soyuz, an oblyot aligns the Soyuz docking port with a port on the station, in preparation for docking. It was definitely not this fly-completely-around-a-fixed-point business one does in a Shuttle. Although both words refer to a maneuver, they don't denote the same maneuver.

Oops.

In the end, the misunderstanding was the result of several factors, including the fact that Soyuz capsules are small and maneuverable, while Shuttle Orbiters are, due to their size, not anywhere near as agile. The major factor, though, may have just been Wiio's Law.

In the end, it turns out there are quite a few ways for language communication to fail. If it’s not in the actual verbal symbols that we use, it can be in their perception. Once, during a teleconference, I distinctly heard a participant say “we’ll have to yell at Agate” (where I assumed “Agate” was a person, but could not imagine why we would have to yell at him or her). I was then informed that what had actually been said was “we’ll have to 'yellow-tag' it” (which is NASA-speak for literally tying a yellow tag to a cargo item being delivered to the station as a way of highlighting its safety status).

Language is powerful because it’s the only tool we have to communicate, to relate our tribal stories, to tell the salesperson we want the red one instead of the black one, or to reach out to others across space and time.Yet while powerful, language is also frequently treacherous. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Doubtless, Professor Wiio would disagree.

Cheers…
alexpgp: (Visa)
All things considered, I was an exceptionally obedient child. That's not to say that in some essential aspects I didn't ruffle parental feathers from time to time (the messy state of my room comes immediately to mind), but all in all, I was a pretty low-maintenance kid. For most of what might be described as my "formative years," my world consisted of my parents, my grandmother, school, a steady stream of library books, and the television.

My parents were a bit on the overprotective side. Scarred in her youth by sensational coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping, my mom held the steadfast conviction that I was the one and only target of every kidnapper on the face of the planet - or at least Queens - and for that reason, on those rare occasions when I was allowed out to play, I was admonished to remain within sight of our apartment's windows. Failure to comply would result in her coming downstairs to look for me, so I learned not to wander.

My stepdad was a survivor of the Second World War and believed in hard work, but unlike many of his generation, he didn't believe in corporal punishment. On the contrary, his approach to my upbringing was more psychological, and he often commanded my obedience with simply a look or a withheld word. I never raised my voice to him or disagreed on any fundamental issues.

For the longest time, I had no neighborhood friends to speak of, nor were there any overnight trips anywhere, or to anyone's house, or any Cub Scout meetings. My parents didn't believe in giving me "spending money," nor in paying me for chores that they felt were a family obligation to begin with. My friends at school were exactly that: people my age with whom I associated during school hours, though as I passed through junior high school, I did manage to form three fragile friendships.

I watched a lot of television in my youth. As a child, I amused myself by perfectly imitating the voices of cartoon characters with names like Woody, Bugs, Elmer, and Yogi, and I later aped the shtick of Moe, Larry, and Curly and Bud and Lou (even though "Officer Joe" Bolton, who hosted such after-school fare on WNEW, warned us not to). At night, after finishing my homework, I'd sit in the corner, quietly, and watch my stepdad's favorite shows with him and my mom until I was told to go to bed. I never asked to stay up.

Throughout this all, I was happy enough, never suspecting that life could really be any other way. In any event, I did have my grandmother as a counterbalance to any unease I may have felt from time to time. Despite the fact that she and my mother thought alike on a number of subjects, my grandmother seemed ever so much more… approachable, more friendly. I felt free when I came to visit her, and when we went out, I could almost always count on her buying me some amusing bauble at the five and dime.

She taught me rudimentary cooking skills, and songs. She tried to teach me some elementary phrases in French, too. (In fact, I still have her set of 78 RPM Assimil language records!). She showed me old letters and photographs of my grandfather, who died when I was an infant. And despite her frail health, she took me - not just once, but several times - to the New York World's Fair just a few stops down on the elevated at Flushing Meadows Park, where we wandered the pavilions and she let me get high on the promise the future held for all of us.

In my junior year of high school, my parents moved to Long Island. The dislocation was not as serious as it might have been for me, though it was serious enough, for I lost track of my friends from Queens. Yet I continued to be an obedient adolescent through the rest of high school, and even went along with the idea of limiting my college applications to Hofstra and Stony Brook so as not to end up at a school too far from home after graduation.

Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon during the summer between high school and college, and the only two things I remember from my first year at Stony Brook was how impossibly hard freshman chemistry was, and running to make the Long Island Railroad train for the trip home every Friday afternoon.

You see, I was still quite entangled in the apron strings of home. As always, my grandmother - who had moved in with us after contributing a hefty share of the down payment on the house - was a beacon of solace, although her health now was really beginning to fail.

Things changed, slowly. In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I saved some money working as a golf caddy at a local country club. Then, during the first half of sophomore year, I discovered the writings of Ayn Rand and began to meet with other "students of Objectivism" on a regular basis. I began to ever more frequently skip weekends at home, citing the press of my university workload.

Then, somewhere in the run-up to the December holiday vacation, our little group began to discuss the idea of driving down to Florida, to Ft. Lauderdale, for the January intersession. I held back from such discussions, knowing that such an adventure would never gain the approval of my parents. And yet…

And yet, as the New Year loomed, the idea gnawed at me. Not only did I want to go to Florida because my friends were going - we all got along well together, and it promised to be a great trip - but also because one girl in particular was going.

I guess that must have been the tipping point, because one night - incredibly, unbelievably - I broached the subject of the trip to my parents over dinner.

"You're crazy," said my mother, "Florida? That's out of the question!"

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, for one thing, who are these people you're going with?" she replied. "Anyway, it'll take you a week to drive down there, and another week to drive back. You'll be exhausted! What a silly idea. Put it out of your mind!"

When she paused for breath, I tried to answer her objections, but she did not want to listen. Instead, she looked at my stepdad for support.

"How do you plan to to pay for it?" he asked. I told him about the money I had saved from the previous summer. He shrugged his shoulders.

"Listen to your mother," he said, and ate another forkful of food.

"No. No. Absolutely not!" said my mother, not letting me get a word in. "I forbid it!"

I got up and fled the kitchen, as I felt tears coming on.

I ended up in my grandmother's room. I don't know why, maybe because it was a place I could feel comfortable. It certainly wasn't to cry on her shoulder, as I was utterly certain that she would share my mother's opinion of my proposed two-week trip a thousand miles from home with a bunch of young people my own age. Instead, after telling her of what had happened at the dinner table, she rocked me to the very core of my being.

"I think it's a wonderful idea!" she said. "There's no reason you shouldn't go and have some fun with your friends. You're certainly old enough!"

Buoyed by this support, I screwed up my courage and stormed back to the kitchen, half-dried tears still on my cheeks.

"I've thought it over," I said, "and I'm going. I've made my decision, and I'm going."

My mother looked at me, then looked down at the table, sorrowfully. In a disappointed tone, she mustered up as much drama as she could and said: "If you go, it will be against my express wishes."

With that, she turned to my stepdad, who was now reading the evening paper. "What do you say?" she asked him.

He looked up at me over the top of the newsprint and said, "If you get in a jam, don't expect us to help you," and went back to reading the editorials.

It was that easy.

The trip was a blast. It didn't take long at all to get to Ft. Lauderdale. Once there, the girls moved into a house belonging to one of the girls' parents and the boys moved into a motel room not far away.

During the days, we did what all tourists our age did: we went to the beach, visited the Everglades, sailed in the Intracoastal Waterway, debated whether to report a UFO (the strange glow in the clouds to the north turned out to be a satellite launching from Cape Kennedy), and just drove around in the sun. At nights, we'd cook dinner, socialize, listen to records (we about wore out the grooves for I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog, which we played several hundred times), and then part company until the next morning. It was a great vacation.

We left for home on the last day of January, a Sunday. We ran into some traffic near Cocoa Beach, and we couldn't understand why until we learned that a moon shot was going to launch that afternoon. We got off the highway and joined the expectant multitudes. There was a holiday mood in the air and we found a good spot from which to witness the launch of Apollo 14.

The launch - the first I saw in person - was spectacular. What caught my eye in particular was seeing how the flaming exhaust from the first stage engines was at least one-and-a-half times the length of the Saturn launch vehicle, which itself was 36 stories tall!

Something happened to me at that launch, because for a few moments, while the rumbling of the rocket was fresh in my chest and before the Saturn and its payload disappeared entirely into the sky, I felt as if, literally, the sky was the limit. For the astronauts, for me, for everyone.

In subsequent years, I managed to shed many of the limitations - imposed from both without and within - that I had lived with in my youth. I became a double-major and graduated with two degrees. I learned a foreign language well enough to be mistaken for a native speaker. I joined the Marines. I became a stage magician and performed in a show under (yes, under) Broadway for a while. I got a job in the USSR and got married there. (Heck, I even started a LiveJournal back when the idea was brand new and, frankly, a little weird!)

I'm no guru, nor a saint, and Providence knows, if Homer sometimes nods, then I sometimes snore, and loudly. But through it all, I've been guided by the thought that life is grand, and the sky really is the limit!

Cheers…
alexpgp: (Visa)
After marrying a Soviet citizen in Moscow, I returned to the States secure in the knowledge that my days working in the USSR for an American travel agency had come to an end. I was comfortable with this watershed, realizing that, as a newly minted husband with responsibilities, it was time to move on to bigger and better things.

Then again, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that intellectually, I understood that I needed to find a place to live, get a job, and maybe even start putting down some roots. In reality, however, I knew it might be a year or more before the Soviet bureaucracy might get around to letting Galina leave to join me, and meanwhile, my wedding band - very nearly the only tangible evidence of my new status - didn’t have the mana to light a proper fire under my butt and keep it lit.

I interviewed for few jobs, but it seemed nobody was interested in an engineering major who hadn’t pursued engineering straight out of college. So, between temporary day labor assignments, I tried to make money with my typewriter and my camera, confident of my talent, but ignorant of the fact that talent is commonplace, and that the secret to freelance success is not the ability to produce a product, but to sell it.

The day finally came when I learned that the creaking wheels of officialdom had come full turn, and Galina would be permitted to leave the USSR to come visit me in New York. It was a day marked by unbridled joy at the prospect of again seeing my bride, and gut-wrenching terror as I realized how little there was for me to show for the intervening time apart.

And so it was that, newly inspired, I buckled down. In short order, I rented an “apartment” in the basement of a house in my old neighborhood in Queens and then set about finding a job. Still starry-eyed about the printed word and convinced I had printer’s ink in my blood, I interviewed for - and landed - a position as a “senior production editor” at a publishing company that, as it happened, published English translations of around 150 Soviet scientific journals. I would be responsible for just over a dozen of them.

Shortly thereafter, Galina arrived from the USSR and, mirabile dictu, did not go shrieking back across the ocean intent on cutting the ties that bound us and begging the Politburo’s forgiveness for ever having had anything to do with me. Things were looking up.

The curious part about my employment was that no knowledge of Russian was required to do the work (though as creaky as my proficiency was when I started, a reading knowledge of Russian was a definite plus). My job was to work with three employees in my “department,” along with a couple of freelancers, in a routine that started with editing received translations for spelling, grammar, and house style, then proofreading typeset translations after they had been technically edited and typed, and finally, checking camera-ready plates to make sure the typeset copy, equations, figures, tables, footers, page numbers, and whatever else had been properly pasted up.

The work load was murderous. I sat down once to calculate just how many words I passed my eyeballs over every week, and the figure I arrived at was staggering, something close to one million! Naturally, I wasn’t reading for comprehension, but at some level, my mind still processed what my eyes looked at, in fields as varied as semiconductors, plasma physics, and astronomy. The hours were long, and there was always work to take home. Eventually, my eyesight deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t make out the street signs in my neighborhood.

On the other hand, all that exposure made me pretty good at comparing translations against the corresponding Russian source text, mostly in cases where the English sounded strange - as in the case where “hydraulic ram” had been translated as “male water sheep” - or when it was obvious something in the original had been missed. I even started to translate short snippets of such omissions, both for myself and for other editors.

And that's how I earned our daily bread for nearly two years.

Then one day - I recall it was a Friday - an article translation went missing from a sheaf of translations returned by a technical editor for an upcoming issue of the Soviet Journal of Low-Temperature Physics, one of the books I was responsible for, which had to go to press by a certain date that was not far off.

I called the editor, who obligingly tossed his uptown office with no result. Then my boss tried calling the translator, who apparently had departed for a three-month vacation to parts unknown. What to do? My boss’s office settled into a sepulchral silence as he and I tried to think of a way out of our predicament. After a few moments, an idea formed in my mind.

“I could translate it,” I said.

“Who, you?” said my boss, “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re not a translator!”

His reaction made me recall comic book ads that began “They laughed when I sat down at the piano...” Still, the missing article was only four pages long, and I’d been eyeballing translations for so long, I was confident I could do this.

“Why not let me try?” I asked. To his credit, my boss kept his mind open and thought about my proposal. Doubtless he also realized that it was late in the day and that no translator could be found until Monday, at the earliest.

“Okay. Here's the deal,” he said after a few moments. “You bring in a translation on Monday and we’ll courier it up to the editor. If he says it’s good, you get paid the freelance rate. If he say’s it’s no good, you get nothing. Agreed?”

I'd worked for him long enough to know I could expect no less. We shook hands.

I don’t remember the details of that ensuing weekend very well, which supports the theory that our minds cause us to repress overly painful memories. I do recall, vaguely, that I struggled and strained and looked up very nearly every word - twice - in the course of writing that translation. I learned, along the way, that it was one thing to compare source text with its translation, and quite something else to conjure up a translation given just the source. I became one with my Smith-Corona typewriter and a weatherbeaten copy of Callaham's Russian-English Dictionary of Science and Technology I had borrowed from the office.

By the time Sunday night rolled around, I realized that I had never before put so much effort into a writing project.

Late on Monday morning, my boss came into my office and announced the technical editor’s verdict. “His note says your translation was better than most,” said my boss. He didn't smile, but he didn't scowl, either.

Then he handed me a form to invoice my translation, my first ever, and the first of many since.

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Corfu!)
I made resolutions in 2002, 2003, and 2004, but then gave it up.

Why? Because when the time came to "settle accounts," so to speak, at the end of the year, it uniformly turned out that (surprise!) I did pretty well at the stuff I was good at - "pursue excellence as a wordsmith, interpreter, and translator" - and not so well (sometimes spectacularly so) in areas I wasn't so good at, which included almost everything else. Basically, in most areas, I hadn't changed at all.

According to articles published several years ago in The Wall Street Journal and Wired, this turns out to be about par for the course for most people, which is little consolation. According to those articles, something like 94 out of 100 people fail to make important personal lifestyle changes even if there is very clear and direct evidence that such changes will, with near certainty, prolong their lives.

So I "backslid," if you will, in terms of improving my life. I just kept on "keeping on." It worked, sort of. Or then again, maybe not.

Doing things I excelled at gave me a pretty workmanlike feeling of overpowering my shortcomings, but in truth, I was running around at Mach 2 with my hair on fire, letting stuff get out of control from time to time. Tempers flared; communications collapsed; credit scores suffered.

I think it took the relatively recent deaths of my parents, one year apart, to jar me hard enough and make me acutely aware that life isn't static, that I'm closer to the end of my life than to the beginning, and that if I don't start to apply some boot to buttock real soon, there will be that much less "later" in which to live a better life.

So, I've decided it's time to once more enter the lists, because if there's one thing the end-of-year holiday season brings out - at least in most of us - it is the irrepressible idea that it is possible to turn a new leaf and improve one's life. And this year, I've decided to pay attention and do something about it. (I can almost hear Paul Henreid's voice saying "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.")

So, just as you'd want to launch a rocket toward the east from the Equator, thus taking advantage of the fact that, from your position, you're already moving east at 1000 mph without having done a thing, I figure, "Why not take advantage of the jump start associated with the 'starting with a new slate' feeling of the New Year and go with the flow?"

Hey! It's only a few hours to the New Year!

In those earlier years, my list of resolutions was pretty impressive in scope. However, a dip into Ben Franklin's seminal work in the self-improvement field (his Autobiography, which should be read even if you have no intention of making New Year's Resolutions) shows that ol' Ben hewed to the simple approach, keeping his goals down to thirteen areas of interest, which he called Virtues, each described in one or two sentences (e.g., "11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.").

Heck, I can do that! Anyone can!

What I failed to do, in those years where I made no progress, was what Franklin did back before the advent of the BlackBerry and the Moleskine, and that was to review his personal behavior on a regular basis (each day, in fact) and, in a notebook of his own design, to
mark by a little black Spot every Fault I found upon Examination to have been committed respecting that Virtue upon that Day.
With such a system, it was easy to see how he was doing at any point in time, although I think the real purpose of his notebook was to help him stay focused on his goals.

Furthermore, he concentrated on strengthening each of his Virtues individually, on a successive weekly basis, rather than trying to improve them all at once. Rome was not built in a day, and any of us is a much more splendid work, worthy of greater care and attention.

So the key isn't the goal you set, but how often you pay attention to what and how you're doing, making any necessary "course corrections."

With that little lecture under my belt - directed more at myself than at you, kind reader - and with the assumption that I need little encouragement to excel at things I am already good at, herewith are my modest goals for 2009, which have been chosen precisely because they are goals I have not able to so much as dent in years past:
  1. Improve my relationship with my wife, children, and grandchildren.
  2. Get medieval on my lack of facility with money.
  3. In connection with #2, make an earnest effort to understand investments.
  4. In connection with #2, stamp out "leaks" of cash from our household.
  5. In connection with #2, plan and start an online enterprise of some kind.
  6. Take control of my health, especially my weight.
  7. Expand the scope of my one-man shop.
  8. In connection with #7, market my company's services more aggressively to end clients.
  9. Acquire improved fluency in speaking French.
  10. Finish the story I started to write during this past Nanowrimo.
In closing, whether you choose to make resolutions or not, dear reader, please accept my best wishes for the coming New Year!

Cheers...
alexpgp: (Default)
Hi, my name is Alex, and I've got a compulsion to write.

Mostly, it's hidden behind what I do for a living, which is translating technical documents from Russian into English. From time to time, I also work as an interpreter, which doesn't leave me any time or energy to write, really. Any residual cravings are addressed by posting to my LiveJournal, which was created back when membership numbers were four digits long.

It's been quite a road getting here. I was educated in the New York City school system, graduating from SUNY at Stony Brook with degrees in engineering and Russian. (Why that combination? I needed humanities credit to get my engineering degree, and ... well ... I got carried away, okay?)

After graduation, I worked briefly at odd jobs, and as a stage and close-up magician, then as a freelance tour escort for just over two years in the USSR. After meeting and marrying my wife in Moscow, I finally settled down, landing a position as an editor for a New York publisher of English translations of Russian scientific journals.

Eventually, I got an opportunity to move to Florida, to resume - start, actually - an engineering career. Between the job and a growing family, there was little time to write. My compulsion became acute. Translating on the side helped scratch the itch, but it wasn't The Real Thing™. Eventually, I leveraged what I did at work into a series of articles for computer magazines, including BYTE and Dr. Dobb's Journal, and two books on programming.

The writing eventually landed me a job with Borland near Santa Cruz, California. Two years later, while on vacation after having been laid off from Borland, I established a new base of operations in Colorado to become a full-time freelance translator and writer.

I was located in one of the prettiest spots around, nestled in the San Juan mountains just down the road from natural hot springs and within eyeshot of the Continental Divide. I was living the good life, in the clean, crisp mountain air, and doing what I loved. Then I was offered a chance to move to Houston and work with the space program. As an incurable romantic, I viewed this as an opportunity to help humankind take its first baby steps to the stars, so how could I refuse?

The Houston years were good to me. I got to work with an incredible assortment of intelligent, competent people. Among other assignments, I helped train astronauts and cosmonauts for space flight. I learned a tremendous amount. After five years, though, I decided it was time to take my leave.

Since returning to Colorado... well, that would require quite a bit of space to describe, which I've been doing in increments (I'll let you guess where :^). The short version is this: The Road Still Rises Ahead.

Hey! I've got a small mountain of work left to complete this assignment I want to kick out the door Monday morning! Daylight is burning!

Good luck to everyone!

Cheers...

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