Wet Contrast

005_21.JPGI was actually looking forward to working late tonight. I had a client who'd asked me to do some work on a project related to some software I maintain. Because it's software I maintain outside of my usual duties at my company, I charge an hourly rate directly to the client, instead of going through Summersault. But even more than the higher pay, I was really looking forward to the particular problem space. The client sells real estate forms over the web, and maintains his order information in a database (a system I also helped to work on). He wanted me to design software that would produce a complex sales report against this database. I'd certainly done similar things before, but not ever quite anything like this, and so before I started working on it, I'd been thinking about the best approach. What data structures to use. Whether to do the sorting in the database or in the software. How to abstract the display of the data from the calculation of the data. These are the things that this 22-year-old white male thinks about on his way home from dinner on a Thursday night in Indiana.

I started around 11 PM and finished at 1:30 AM. I was alone but not lonely, the office was quiet, and I had some good techno/house music to keep me company. When I finished, I stepped back and looked at the software I'd created, proud of its design, excited about the satisfaction it might bring the client. I gathered my things with energy in anticipation of a good night's sleep.

As I turned out the lights and locked the door behind me, I noticed how hard it was raining and flipped up my hood. I didn't see the man in the black leather jacket coming around the corner right in front of me, and he gave me a bit of a jump. His hands were tucked in his pockets, his hair and face soaked to the point where he could barely see, and he was stumbling down the sidewalk not seeming to seek out any of the shelter that was available in the alcoves of the office entrances (including the entrance to mine). I had seen many other folks like him, wandering down the same street at the same time of night, some of them looking more dangerous and mean than others, all of them feeling quite distant from the world of databases and programming and websites from which I had just emerged.

003_23.JPGI thought how sad it was that this guy was getting so completely soaked with no apparent end in sight. Maybe he was mentally handicapped and didn't know where to go? Maybe he was drunk and didn't know where he was? Maybe he was homeless and didn't really care if he made it to or from anywhere at all. With these thoughts in my mind, I got into my car, turned on the wipers and the heat and the radio and the engine and the lights, and started for home.

But when I came to the end of the block of our office, the man was alongside the car, and waved in at me. He came around to the front of the car and shouted something that I couldn't hear. I powered down my window cautiously, and heard him mumble something about "going to 12th street".

And this is the thought process we go through: His hands were in his tight jean pockets, probably nothing too harmless there. His jacket was bulky but probably didn't contain anything that could be used for beating me too severely - at least if he had a gun, he'd shoot me quickly and be done with it. I wasn't carrying anything with me that would turn my existence into a meaningless void were it to be stolen or damaged. He was stumbling around and looked off balance. I could take him. (I could take him on.) It was raining like hell.

"Get in!" I opened the door and he landed in the passenger seat. "Oh, my god, thank you."

We drove through a run-down part of town that I wasn't too familiar with, and headed out into an even less-familiar residential area that was actually just an industrial area with some homes and trailers scattered around it as a convenience to its workers. It was dark and there was no one around. His name was Herb, and he told me that he had been on his way to try to call his son, and then I saw that he did have something in his hand - two quarters. He said "I gotta pay you for this" and I told him that he didn't. When he insisted further (even nice, nonviolent people can be mean when you don't let them compensate you properly), I told him the quarter he was going to use to call his son would be sufficient. He gave me both quarters, muttering that it wasn't enough, and I put them in my car change drawer where I will probably withdraw them again in the future to cover the cost of an overpriced fast food item.

025 22AConfirming my suspicions that he was slightly drunk, he threw out a couple of names and asked me if I knew the guys, telling me that they'd all graduated together. He asked in a manner suggesting that because of this good deed I had done for him, I should know these men that he held in some sort of high regard. I was a little nervous but touched. As he made to leave, I said something stupid like "maybe we'll run across each other again some day and you can do the same for me." He said I was an incredible fellow. And then, after Herb had gotten out of the car, he turned around and looked at me, rain once again drenching his face and jacket, and said "You know what, though, this isn't anything like Vietnam. There, this stuff went on for forty days and more." With that, he tightened his jacket around his chest, closed the door, and walked off towards the house. These are the things a 50-something working-class white male thinks about on his way home from a bar on a rainy night in Indiana.

I drove away quickly, still fighting off wondering "am I safe?" as I headed to known parts of town. I couldn't have NOT picked Herb up from out of the pouring rain unless he displayed some outward sign of intentions to harm me. But beyond that, I'm *glad* I did it. The personal security I gave up was well worth some crystal clear perspective granted to me by the contrast that Herb provided tonight.

Why Have a Personal Website

Why have a personal website? Isn't it just an excuse to show off pictures of your cat, your significant other, a great poem about cheese that you wrote last week? Well, some of them are just that, and I strongly oppose the use of internet bandwidth for the sole purpose of showing off household pets.

However, there is a largely underutilized potential for the personal website that I'd like to comment on. As I see it, a great deal of the world's problems are derived from a severe lack of communication, a lack of human understanding amongst one another. Just think, there are 5 billion people out there that you don't know; you don't have any idea where they came from, what they're like, where they're headed. You just assume they're pretty much like you and that they'll get along okay without you.

013 10That's not the case. We go to war because we assumed someone was like us and they turned out to be too different. People die because we assume they'll be able to support themselves while we enjoy extreme affluence. Because our field of significance extends only to our family, friends, and the people we "know", we have a very narrow concept of how the "world" is.

The personal website is a great solution to this. Our stories, our interests, our problems, our joys; they make up who we are and when you can share in someone elses, you've suddenly broadened the field of people who are in some way significant to your life. If you can learn about people and what makes them tick, you're a lot more likely to know how to fix the problems that get the world down. You might even learn something about yourself.

The web and internet in general have an enormous potential to change our world, a hundred times as much as it already has. I've encountered people from all over the world I wouldn't have otherwise known about; we might not speak each other's language, but through this incredible technology we can learn about each other, appreciate each other, and openly and directly share the common bond of humanity.

The plunge is worth it. The vulnerability pays off. The potential for getting to know your world is unimaginable. Publish yourself.

Moments in Balance

The boy, trying to ignore the reoccurring dull pain in his left side, brought his hands together in front of his face, and held them there, barely touching. He moved his index fingers together and smiled at the brief moment before they touched, when each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact.

The girl, several hundred miles away and an hour from the nearest hospital, dropped her shovel and fell back into the sand screaming in terror from the pressure in her skull. Even when mommy scooped her up and held her tight and told her it would be okay, she could not stop screaming. She cried because it hurt and she did not understand.

The old woman ran her fingers over the smooth cover of the book on her bedside table, comforted at its presence though she could not see its pages. She had always had books near her, as a mother, as a teacher, and as a grandmother, and now she wanted to have one ready to read as soon as she got her strength back. She sighed at hearing the birds outside her window eating from the feeder down below, wishing she could see them, imagining that she did. She wondered if any of the friends or family who had come to say goodbye would remember to fill it again.

The old man nodded his head slowly as he was led past his wife's casket. He briefly ran his fingers over its (almost inappropriately) shiny wood surface, not so long as to acknowledge fully this loss, but just long enough to say "I know you don't belong in there." After sixty-five years together in a world such as this, it did not seem possible that he was breathing while she was not. He thought about how much work there was to do, and how he just wanted to take a nap, wondering if she would be there when he awoke.

The boy glanced up only briefly at his mother, but then back to the dashboard, and then out the windshield to the car in front of them. Briefly, the flashing of the other car's turn signal again came in sync with the clicking noise coming from their own, but then quickly went off into its own cycle. Why not make all car turn signals click with the same rhythm? He giggled quietly at the (somehow unsatisfying) answer to his question as he pictured a great, unified clicking noise on all the streets of all the world. Then, the car turned and it was quiet again.

The girl thought about her father's answer to her question as they kept walking: "Because he is a bad man, and he doesn't deserve it." He hadn't looked like a bad man. He had startled them a bit and he looked kind of dirty, but mostly he looked tired and hungry, sitting in that doorway covered in his blankets and newspapers. The girl could not know about the "bad" man's lung cancer, or that he could only sleep in that doorway because it was Sunday, or that she would be startled by quite a few more like him in her lifetime. But she quietly decided that she would have given him some money, if she had any. So what if he didn't deserve it?

The man tried to look deeply into his wife's sad and cautious eyes, but with every word he spoke he realized more that the depth he sought would have to be recreated rather than rediscovered. The horror would never quite leave him, that he had somehow justified a few moments of unworthy pleasure for this numbing pain he had brought into their marriage. As he looked at the woman he loved - perhaps more so than he loved himself? - he promised that, if she could forgive him, he would learn how to love all over again.

The woman laughed beautifully and fully as she tried to cover her husband in the leaves they had gathered, ignoring the itching against her skin and the damp cold on her fingers. They tossed each other around gently and finally lay side by side in the messy pile they had created. They drew close as she wrapped her arm around his chest and he put his hand in the small of her back. She looked intently up at the rounded space of his neck, wondering if she could curl up in that space and go to sleep. She had told him that she forgave him many times, and they had oddly never stopped saying "I love you." But it was only now that she fully appreciated the intensity and depth of the love with which they had covered each other, the forgiveness and pain inherent in it, and the contentment of knowing that it would survive and shape them forever.

With the noise of the reception now off in the distance, the man and the woman, the boy and the girl, stood facing each other, hands raised and each with palms nervously but firmly pressed against the other's. It was a perfect darkness and the temperature let them forget about their skin and their balance and their mass. They looked deeply, smiling at the joy of this night and of these several years together. Each wondered how they met, how this moment came to be, and each looked for signs about what it would mean to spend the rest of their lives together. As their faces neared, each seemed to gently reach out to the other, attracting and pulling and melting into the moment of contact. Moments before the physical touch, another kind of touch that explains everything engulfed them both.

10 Minutes

It seemed to be all my friend Eppie could remember about her father's death: the Ten minutes right before it. She had watched him die for months and had grieved for years afterward but the climax of the "event" as she remembered it was never the moment of death itself, but the Ten minutes beforehand.

It always seemed odd to me that Ten minutes of life would mean more than the life lost, but the wistful stare in Eppie's eyes when we talked about it brought me closer to understanding. You see, in those last Ten minutes of her father's life, she realized that her father was dying. According to her (and sometimes her mother), their eyes met as this sunk in at about minute number Three and that was when he realized it too. One of the nurses reflected later that in that moment, even though all the damn machines were going off and people were waving goodbye in their hearts, he felt like the cancer "just up and left" Eppie's father and that "if we hadn't all been so intent on him dying he might have up and walked away from the whole mess." But with Seven minutes to go, what are you gonna do, especially if you don't know you have even that much?

Cry is what Eppie wanted to do, but her father wouldn't have it. He was mostly gone and mostly ready, but he wasn't just about to slip out. The damnedest thing is that every power involved seemed raring for him to do just that, but right as minute Four started to head into its second half, he sat up in bed and held out his hands.

The real excitement wasn't that he was sitting up, though this was apparently something he hadn't done since he woke from the last round of miserable skin slashing and marrow moving, but the real excitement came when he held out his right hand as if it were a flat slate and with his left made a scribbling motion. Now it seems his hands were pretty weak so I guess the motion wasn't that clear to Eppie at the time, so it took until about minute Five and forty-five seconds until she realized that her father, who had lived 43 years of life and who had devoted 12 of them to her happiness, was trying to get a message across. And this time, it wasn't the "need more water" or the "change the channel" signing he would have to make because there were so many awful tubes in his beautiful mouth; no, this time it was something that gave him enough strength to hoist his tired and dying body closer to his daughter. This time it was a message that made nothing else matter.

Eppie never got that message. No one in that room did. The very thought of the situation makes me want to cry, and I can't really even begin to imagine what it does to my friend. When minute Six reared its head, Eppie shouted for a paper and pen and her mom followed Seconds later with a cry for the same. The one time when Eppie went into a lot of detail about it, she said "the damn hospital kept the place so clean and reality-free that there wasn't a writing utensil or paper to be found in the room." But it got worse. The nurse who felt the cancer leave walked out looking for something to write on as minute Seven walked in. Eppie's father looked around questioningly and his hand stopped scribbling. He just sat there, she said. "Just sat there and waited for something to write on. My dad had been waiting to die for six months and now all he had to wait for was a pen and some paper."

The nurse had to go far to get it. He had to watch the head nurse fumble around the admit desk for something suitable for a patient to use. He had to watch the head nurse scribble ink on a piece of scratch paper to make sure the pen worked. He could not say anything because it was almost minute Eight and that ink "might as well have been life flowing out of that poor man's body."

Eight and a half and his head started to droop. Eight and forty and his head hit the pillow. Just a few before Nine and his hands fell all the way down by his side. Nine-oh-five and Eppie grabbed both of them. Nine ten and his squinting eyes were for ced closed by the rising smile that defied a tube that gave him breath. Nine thirty and there was so little movement and so many tears. Minute Ten rolled around and the message left forever like a secret that is so secret you forget about it. After that, Eppie's life was only ever measured in hours and days and tears, but never in such minutes and seconds as those.

We won't always be able to figure out that dad wants to write us a message. The damn hospital isn't always going to have some paper and a pen lying around. There isn't always going to be a nurse, and if there is, he isn't always going to care about your dad. Sometimes, what we do in minute number Two matters so much more than what happens in minute number Nine. This is a happy story. These are the greatest Ten minutes of your life.