randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Diski In Gratitude.jpgThis book was recommended to me by [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. It's a cancer narrative of sorts, but it's also a memoir. Diski had a highly unpleasant childhood, with two dysfunctional and abusive parents, and an adolescence spent in and out of psychiatric institutions. Eventually, because she had gone to school with her son, Diski was invited to live with Doris Lessing, which she did for four years before Lessing decided she was a lost cause and kicked her out. Diski was the basis for Lessing's novel, The Sweetest Dream.

Diski eventually realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and published a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer and given two to three years to live. This book was the result of the diagnosis, and it was published in 2016 right before she died at age 68. I really struggled with it. I found her a very sour personality -- understandably so considering her difficult early life -- and I found her inability to reconcile herself to death strangely alien. (We'll see how that goes once my cancer really starts to eat me.) Her writing style is allusive in an almost stream of consciousness way, and I found the allusions hard to follow at times. I almost bounced off the book in the very first chapter, as she wrestles with how to write about cancer in a non-cliche way, going through all the conventional approaches that she desperately want to avoid. The self-consciousness was deeply unappealing.

Then, however, she moved on to her life with Doris Lessing, which I found more interesting, even if neither she nor Lessing comes off as a person I'd want to spend time with. But ultimately I was impressed with her honesty and willingness to delve into difficult, unresolvable feelings. As Ron said, she explores the way that gratitude and ingratitude define each other, and she's never sentimentalizes the way in which her own feelings about Lessing and life shuttle back and forth between the two poles. I'm prone to irrational optimism and sentimental romanticism myself, which is one reason I really struggled with the book, but I think her relentless investigation of fear, depression, and mental illness was a reality check I needed to receive. Not everybody has the privilege of a sheltered upbringing or of a loving family and circle of friends. In this section Diski also writes about the famous people Lessing hobnobbed with. Suffice it to say that Idries Shah comes off as a creep and an asshole in her accounting, but R.D. Laing comes off better.

By the end of the book, her free associations had a kind of magical realism to them, tying together completely disparate ideas and alternative, if not contradictory, theories into a unique vision and response to the conundrum of her life. I doubt I'm capable of resisting the cliches as powerfully as she did, but I ended up admiring her for the ability to do so and for creating a vivid depiction of the people she knew and the crazy, messy era of sex and drugs, literary heavyweights and mental hospitals she lived through.
randy_byers: (Default)
DARS Gang.jpg
With Tom and Kathy at a Washington State DARS conference in Ellensburg probably in the late '90s (Photo by the fourth member of our team, Susan)

Yesterday I cleaned out my desk in Schmitz Hall, and amongst other things I discovered this photo from a long ago work conference. December 31st was my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm now officially retired, and I've specifically applied for a disability retirement, although that hasn't been approved yet. This, however, is the story of how an English major ended up working in the Academic Data Management Office. Not that my trajectory is all that unusual for the early days of the Information Revolution.

My first job in the Office of the Registrar, which is currently located in Schmitz Hall, was a temp clerical job in the Graduations Office in 1988. The supervisor there, Virjean, liked my work well enough that when a credentials evaluator position opened up in the office in February 1989, she hired me. The cred evals processed graduation applications, which meant we determined whether students had completed their degree requirements and could be granted a degree. So in four years in this position, I became thoroughly familiar with the University's undergraduate degree requirements.

A few years after that, around '91 or '92, the U bought a license to the Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS), which was a software package that allowed schools to encode their degree requirements, feed a student's classes into the system, and let the program determine whether the degree requirements had been fulfilled. Since I was familiar with the degree requirements and was considered a pretty smart guy, in 1993 I was given the job of implementing DARS from the degree rules side. Susan (who took the photo above) was the COBOL programmer in charge of installing DARS on the mainframe and figuring out how to feed the requirement "encoding" and student records into the system.

The mainframe version of DARS came with screens for entering the requirement encoding, but the mainframe team was short-handed in those days. They didn't have the bandwidth to implement the entry screens. The first stage work-around was to have me manually create text files in which each line and each position within each line was mapped to the DARS data structure. Needless to say, this wasn't a very user-friendly solution. So they decided to have me develop an Access database with forms that allowed me to enter the data in a more intuitive way and then export it into a flat file like the text files I'd created earlier. I don't think I had any knowledge of Access at the time, or if I did it was just a couple of entry-level training courses that introduce you to the concepts of tables and queries, forms and reports. I'm not sure why they thought I'd be able to figure Access out on my own, other than they thought that I was a smart guy with good analytical abilities.

So I spent six months learning how to use Access, including how to write procedures in Visual Basic. This was definitely one of the strangest periods in my working life, because I was essentially being paid to learn. I spent all day, every day, reading Access manuals, trying to figure out how to do what I needed to do. Eventually I developed a database with data entry forms that allowed me and others to encode the degree requirements for DARS in a relational database and export them into flat files for upload to the mainframe every night. If there was any kind of error in the data, the upload would abort. However, it worked well enough that eventually we were able to hire two more encoders to begin the job of putting all of the UW's undergraduate degrees into the system. I also developed a diploma back-order database for the Graduation Office, and I was pretty darned pleased with myself.

The first woman we hired to encode turned out to be mentally unstable. She had scars on her wrists from previous suicide attempts, and she tried to commit suicide while she was working for us too. The story she told us of that attempt is actually pretty funny in a morbid way, because everything she tried failed, including closing the garage doors and starting up the car, only to have it run out of gas. Anyway, it was less funny when she accused me of emotional abuse, and we had to go through a long, painful process to determine that I wasn't actually being cruel to her.

I think by that point we had hired Tom, who was a gay man from Minnesota. He was tighter with his money than anybody I know, except for maybe my brother's friend, Steve, who funnily enough is another Lutheran-raised Minnesotan. Tom's partner loved opera and had hundreds of CDs that he loved to listen to at top volume, which got on Tom's sensitive nerves. So, like my Mom, who insisted that they add a room on their house in Crooked River, so that she didn't have to listen to Fox when my half-deaf father had it on full-blast, Tom and his partner had a grandmother apartment separate from their house where Tom's partner could listen to loud opera to his heart's content.

Eventually, much to everyone's relief, Kimberly moved on to another job, and we hired Kathy to replace her. Kathy was a much more down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who was also taking care of her sick mother. Things in DARSland stabilized for a while until Kathy's mom started going downhill and Kathy had to look for a less demanding job so she could spend more time caring for her.

I'm not sure why I went into such detail about these folks, other than to give some context for the photo. In the meantime, because I needed to pull in representative students to test our requirement encoding against, I learned how to write queries against our student data and started to learn the structure of the relational data warehouse of the mainframe flat files. I even took over the creation and maintenance of the official degree codes for the university, because I had become so familiar with them through using them in DARS. Also, once we hired Maggie to replace Kathy, we were well into the maintenance phase of DARS, and I started to lose interest in the project. While we were in the implementation phase, it was the first time that I had ever felt I got my greatest sense of fulfillment in life from my job rather than from my hobbies and pastimes. This was also the point at which a client-server version of DARS came along, and all my Access work was scrapped.

By this point, my knowledge of student data structures and Access query writing were good enough that in 2007 I was moved over to a job in the Academic Data Management Office essentially writing ad hoc queries as well as running stored queries and processes that more knowledgeable people had written. Eventually through a process of attrition through death, retirement, and post-Great Recession layoffs, I became the last person standing on the data side of the office, which also included some non-data functions such as desktop support. I always felt like a total imposter, because I didn't know how to write SQL from scratch, but I kept reminding myself that nobody knew the underlying data structures better than I did. By the end of my career in that department I was *the* go-to guy on the campus for questions about which tables had which student data and how to join the tables. If I didn't know the answer to the question, I knew who did know the answer. Needless to say, this stuff wasn't written down anywhere, and our data dictionary was always a work in progress. So I guess I earned my keep despite my lack of SQL proficiency.

And that's the long-winded story about how an English major ended up in a semi-technical job. Aside from my knowledge about the data structures, accrued over time, my other important skill was the ability to problem solve in a methodical way when things weren't working. I was good at analyzing where things were breaking down and then working my way toward a solution by a process of elimination. At least one person I worked with who was far better at SQL than I had no ability to trouble-shoot, because when she started getting bad results, she always jumped to the idea that there was something wrong with the underlying data rather than accepting the more obvious possibility that there was something wrong with her SQL. Of course she was also mentally unstable, so there's that.

Anyway, needless to say this career path was not anything I had in mind when I earned my English degree and started looking for work. But I wandered along the way, going with the flow, and found my own idiosyncratic path.

Name Plate.jpg
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
As I think I mentioned in my post about the eight days in Oregon in August, I returned to more emotional turmoil than usual, and it just got worse for the next week or so. I characterized it to those who asked as feeling sorry for myself, and certainly part of it was feeling roiled about my cancer and the treatment for it and where this is all likely to end up. But there were other components to what I was feeling that had nothing to do with cancer or treatment or mortality. It's difficult to write about, because it's pretty abject emotional territory and because I don't want to name names. Basically I got very angry at a female friend of mine, and at myself, because I have a thing for her and thought she reciprocated but has lately seemed to pull away from me. I've already gone through one cycle of feeling this way about her, right after radiation treatment, and I've now realized that part of what was going on this time is that when I got back from the trip with Hortensia in July, I felt at a very deep, insecure level, that I had lost a life partner of some kind. This made me feel desperately lonely and inadequate, so I almost immediately shifted all the intense feelings I had for Hortensia onto this other friend of mine. Mind you, this was all internal to me. Nothing was expressed or communicated, thankfully so. It was all taking place in my imagination, for one thing. All of it. The idea that Hortensia was still a potential life partner should have died back in 2009, but I was incapable of facing facts. The idea that my friend is pulling away from me is almost certainly completely a by-product of my imagination too, because the idea that she reciprocated in the first place was also a projection on my part.

The fact is she's a popular girl with a busy social life and lots of guys chasing after her, and I've always been on the margins of that. The fact that I can still get twisted up in my own internal romantic projections is deeply embarrassing to me, but as soon as I realized that I was doing it to compensate for the perceived loss of Hortensia, my levels of anxiety, self-pity, and anger dropped through the floor. As I wrote to another friend recently, "As stupid and immature and flailing as I think these emotional shenanigans are, I can forgive myself for my loneliness and my desire for love." I've never been very smart when it comes to love, but I hope I've gained at least a little self-knowledge over the years. It doesn't ever seem to help me gain the love I yearn for, but it has helped me recognize the love that I actually get nonetheless, including from "lost" Hortensia, who may no longer be a prospective life partner but still sends a hell of a lot of affection my way, bless her copious heart.

On another emotional front, earlier this week I found a Message Request in Facebook that was sent back in August 2015. It was from a woman who was a childhood friend of mine in Salem. We stayed in contact for a few years after high school graduation, but then we lost contact in the late '80s. Last time I saw her was at our ten year high school reunion in 1988. I've wondered about her over the years but wasn't bright enough to try to look her up on Facebook. There aren't that many people from that era of my life that I still think about. Why her? As we've been chatting in the past few days I'm realizing that she was one of my earliest friends, dating back to pre-school days, before my family moved to Yap. She and her mom lived just a few blocks from our house, her aunt and uncle were our next door neighbors, and we went to school together from fifth through twelfth grade. I suspect we went to kindergarten together too, but she doesn't remember that. She did confirm that she went to the Little Red School House, which is the one I went to.

It has been a strange trip to get her perspective of those long ago days. She told me it took her days to build up the nerve to even say Hi to me after we got back from Yap. It sounds like she may have had a crush on me in high school too. I had no idea, partly because she was too shy to tell me, but no doubt partly because I was fixated on girls who were basically unobtainium to me. Story of my life, eh? Or so I tell myself. She claims there were girls in high school who were warning her off from me. Was that in her own head? Or were there girls who actually were right next to me, yearning for me to ask them out? Probably so, which makes me feel absolutely autistic. Or maybe they were girls I wasn't interested in. Well, shit, no wonder I hated high school so much! I had no fucking clue about anything emotional or social, and if someone had feelings for me that I didn't reciprocate, my impulse would have been to run and hide. I've been looking back at some of my old correspondence from right after high school and rolling my eyes at what a self-serious, pretentious, overly-intellectual twit I was. It took me decades to learn how to tell my friends that I loved them and was grateful for their friendship. Yet I always had a group of good friends, so I must not have been *completely* awful. I was probably more generous with my feelings and my support than I remember being, but I lacked self-confidence.

Anyway, I'm guessing there will be more noodling about the past in the future. I'll be very interested to see where reminiscing with this old friend will lead down the twisty path of Memory Lane.
randy_byers: (Default)
I have an old Hawai'ian song stuck in my head and I don't understand the words (because I don't speak Hawai'ian), so I've been using nonsense. Thus the subject-line.

But that's not what I'm going to write about. I'm going to write about misery memoirs. )


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