Happy student

This young fellow is a teenager now. But when I visited his school near Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, nine years ago, he was this lively, happy boy.

I speak very little Spanish. I can ask where the bathroom is, I can order a beer, I can offer greetings, and I can count to 14. And I can say I don’t speak Spanish, which is what I had to say to this boy when he ran up to me excitedly asking a question I couldn’t understand. So he pointed to my camera and then to himself. His intentions clear, I leaned in and framed, and got this fantastic photograph.

And then he wanted to see the back of my camera. He let loose a torrent of puzzled words when he found no screen there. I had no way to explain my film camera!

Happy student, Piedras Negras, Coahuila • Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 • Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 • October, 2006

Film Photography

Favorite Photos Week: Happy student, Piedras Negras, Coahuila

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Personal

Rolling with the transitions

My older son graduated high school on Saturday. It’s a day for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. I was glad to celebrate this passage with him, though he said he felt much as I did when I graduated high school: “Dad, I’m a good student; was there ever any doubt this day would come?”

But I’ll admit it, the day tore open some hard feelings for me — regrets that thanks to the divorce and living apart, I didn’t get to spend every day with him as he grew up. And I see even less of him now as he has taken a job and prepares to go to Purdue in the fall. I really miss him.

When we’ve managed to get together lately, we’ve had some really good talks. He loves video games as much as I love old cameras and film photography. He deeply understands game design and has a remarkable feel for story arc and how it is best used in games. He also has good insight into the business of video games, which is enough like the business of software (what I do for a living) that we can talk meaningfully about the ins and outs of what makes both a video game and other software products successful, and why sometimes a seemingly sure thing fails.

Doing homework, as usual
In college, doing homework, as usual

But I also got to say some things to him about heading into this next phase of his life. I remember going off to college at 17 and feeling not just that I was expected to keep moving forward, away from my parents and into my adulthood, but that the door had closed behind me. I’m sure my parents didn’t mean for me to feel that way, and would have been supportive had I reached out. But I felt alienated from all I had known just the same.

And then I had some typical difficulties of adjusting to college. Because I chose a tough school, I was buried in homework and worked harder than I ever have since. I struggled with some of my classes and briefly wound up on academic probation. I kept getting sick, as the same bugs got passed around the dorm over and over again. I became deeply depressed, and I felt like I had to bear it all alone.

I was unusually fortunate then to know my calling: making software. I pursued it, I pushed through the difficulties, and for the last 26 years have spent my working days doing it. But my son is more typical. He has a general direction in mind, but the picture of his future is cloudy.

But even if he knew exactly where he was headed, I don’t want him to feel as alone as I did. I told him that no matter what, I’m on his team. If things get tough, he should call; I’ll listen to him dump and vent. If he needs to come home to decompress for the weekend, I’ll go get him. If he wants to change majors, he should just do it. If he decides Purdue isn’t for him, then for heaven’s sake don’t stay. Come home and we’ll figure out a next step.

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An apple on my former desk in my former office

It’s ironic, then, that I’m not making software at the moment. I was laid off from my job last Monday. My boss came to my office, ashen-faced, first thing to break the bad news.

I joined the company when it was small to build a testing team from scratch. (Programmers write the code, and testers make sure it works.) They make a very useful product, one that has a real chance at changing an entire industry for the better. But the company has always struggled to sell enough of it.

And so I wasn’t terribly surprised when my boss said that the company needed to cut expenses to match revenue, and that it meant my job and the jobs of several of my colleagues.

Truth? I was flooded with relief. I had been unhappy for some time. There were things I had hoped to do there that I thought would deeply benefit the company but in which I couldn’t generate any real interest. It was frustrating and disappointing to see my ideas repeatedly rebuffed. And I just didn’t mesh with my peers in management. The company culture loves bold alpha males, and so the middle-management team tends to be lone wolves who operate independently. While I’m all about moving initiatives forward powerfully, I’m more of a quiet collaborator. I kept feeling steamrolled and countermanded by my high-independence, high-action, high-emotion peers. It was exhausting.

I’m not wealthy — the modest payout the company gave me will run out sometime this summer, and then I’ll have to start paying the bills with the money I plan to send to Purdue. I have plenty of anxiety over that. But fortunately, I’m well connected in my industry in my town, and I’m working my network hard. Right now, it’s very hard to fill open positions in software development here, as pretty much everyone who wants to work in the field has a job. The last time I hired someone, resumes trickled in and it took four months to find a good candidate. So I’m optimistic that I’ll be back to work before the money runs out. Wish me luck.

But there is a bright side: when my son visits this summer, at least I’ll have time to spend with him.

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Stories Told

At the foot of the stage

James Monroe School

I last stood in the wings of this stage when I was in the sixth grade in 1978. But I didn’t particularly want to be here. I would rather have been singing with the choir at the foot of the stage.

As part of a concert, a few of us entered the stage from here and danced our way across, strumming ukuleles while the choir sang Fascinating Rhythm. I hated to dance! But Mrs. O’Hair, a teacher who helped with the vocal music program, had considerable will. When she decided you were going to be in a production, there was no discussion.

And so I danced, badly. Then with great relief I returned to the choir.

I loved to sing. I could carry a tune, and I sang out loud. I joined the school choir in the second grade, a year before students were normally allowed to join. Miss Seidler, the music teacher and choir director, wanted my strong voice in the choir and so she asked my parents if they’d mind. They didn’t.

Practice was a lot of fun. I enjoyed mastering new songs and hearing my voice blend with others. I never really enjoyed performing, but the joy of singing every day was worth the two concerts each year. My dad never missed a concert. He still tells people that I carried the choir, but I think he suffers from too much fatherly pride. I was proud to have him in the audience, and I’ll never forget looking out over the dark auditorium trying to find him in the crowd.

James Monroe School

Dad liked to sit in the balcony where he could get the best view.

James Monroe School

I stuck with choir through middle school, where we sang in four parts. I sang tenor, but had enough range to cover the alto and often the soprano parts, much to my fellow tenors’ surprise. Then as my eighth grade year drew to a close, one morning I woke up and found that my voice had changed and I was suddenly a baritone. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to relearn a dozen songs quickly enough, so I just quit the choir and its early-morning practices. I found I really liked sleeping in, so I didn’t join the choir in high school. (It’s funny how things turn out – not being in morning choir practice freed me to spend time in the school’s computer lab instead, which led to my career in software development.)

But I didn’t stop singing. I couldn’t; it just felt too good. It soothed me when I was upset and lifted me when I was blue. When I was out of sorts I’d take long drives in the country, singing along at the top of my lungs to my favorite tapes until I’d regained my peace. And later when I found Christ, I was part of a congregation that sang a cappella in four-part harmony. I found great joy and pleasure in singing powerfully with a group again.

The only time in my life when my voice was still was during the last few years of my marriage, as things got really bad, and in the first couple years after my wife and I separated. But as I began to put my life back together, I found my voice, too. When I wanted to sing again, I knew that the worst was over.

I still sing nearly every day, mostly as I drive around in my car, accompanied by whatever music I’m playing. If I’m ever behind you on the road, if you look in your rear view mirror you’ll probably see me belting out a tune! My sons riding in the back seat are the only audience I ever have. Sometimes they sing along. That’s just how I like it.

Originally posted in November of 2010.

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Personal

The years fly by at warp speed

My youngest son turns 15 today. In case you’re new to the blog, I’m a divorced dad with three sons. My stepson is 28, and my sons still at home are 17 and, now, 15.

It turns out that I really enjoy teenagers. For me, these are the best years to be a dad! It’s a relief, because – can I just admit this? – I didn’t enjoy the little-kid years. I’m glad I was there for the early days, but I wouldn’t want to repeat them.

I’ve always been eager for my sons to grow up and embark on all of life’s adventures. My younger boys are mature enough now to have real adventures. My 17-year-old took several advanced biomedical classes this year and has been overloaded with homework, and has learned some hard lessons about prioritization and time management. My 15-year-old just made a tough choice not to continue in a vocational program in which he was learning television production. He really loved working in the studio. But the outside-of-class work was a little beyond his reach, and he was tired of constantly struggling with it.

These choices really shape their futures and say a lot about the people they are becoming. In choices like these I see parts of my personality and character in them, and parts of their mom’s. I even sometimes see things in them that I recognize as traits from my mom’s family, or my dad’s. I’m excited to see them launched out into the world, to enjoy what it offers and, I hope, to give it the good things they have.

If I learned anything from the years my stepson was in high school, it’s that these these years fly by at warp speed. Unfortunately, because of the divorce, I only see them a couple evenings a week and every other weekend during the school year, although they live with me half the summer. So I don’t even get all of the days that will come. The best I can do is be as present as I can be for every moment I get.

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Essay, Personal

Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way

Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.

The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.

1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.

How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.

If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.

If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.

But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. This will suck; avoid it at all costs.

2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.

Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.

Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.

3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.

Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play CDs of the music from my youth.

But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.

More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.

4. Be who you are.

This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.

You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.

This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.

5. Following your dreams is overrated.

I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.

Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I wasn’t very good at being a programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.

Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway. You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.

6. Enjoy the journey.

If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.

You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.

That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.

Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.

7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.

You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.

For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.

Those days are pretty much over.

I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due shortly after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.

The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.

But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.

Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.

Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.

You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.

Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!

These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.

I envy you; it sounds like great fun!

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Stories Told

Imaginary numbers with real consequences

My college degree is in mathematics. (Please withhold the math-major jokes in the comments; I’ve heard them all!)

imaginary

During senior year, math majors had to take a class called Functions of an Imaginary Variable. Yes, imaginary! That’s what mathematicians call numbers that, when squared, are negative. If you remember anything about the fourth grade, you know that any time you square a number (multiply it by itself), the result is positive. The ancient Greeks discovered these seemingly impossible numbers; they backed into them, really. They couldn’t work certain equations without them, so they decided they must exist, reason be damned. Mathematicians kept studying them, and they were well understood and described by the 1500s. Imaginary numbers, and the complex equations that involve them, have concrete and essential uses today in disciplines such as electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, and quantum mechanics.

And so for ten weeks I studied i, which is the letter assigned to imaginary numbers. And it was utterly fascinating! Well, actually, the crusty old professor just rattled on about theorems and proofs, his chalk clacking hard against the board as he illustrated his points with equations. But it was poetry to me, and I sat through every class in awe and wonder.

But oh, did I struggle with the homework. I understood the concepts and could have held my own in any discussion with the professor. I just couldn’t work the problems. They were seriously hard.

So my test scores were in the toilet. “There will be four tests and a final exam,” the professor grunted on the class’s first day. I failed all four tests, and not by a little bit. My highest score was something like 42%. I scored 16% on one test! As we approached the final exam, I was failing with prejudice.

The course would not be offered again until the next school year. If I failed it, I’d have to come back the next year to take the class again. My buddies used to call that, “the extended dance remix of college.” I could hear my father’s voice in my mind. “Jimbo,” he said, “I can barely afford four years of this. So four years is all you get. If you need more time, you have to pay for it entirely yourself.” And here I was in danger of not graduating because of these fantasy numbers!

In high-school English class I learned about deus ex machina, a literary device in which an improbable, contrived intervention solves an intractable problem. It may be a weak way to end a story, but when it happened to me in this situation relief washed over me and I nearly cried and danced at the same time. A week before the final, the professor held up a sheet of paper dense with text. “This is a list of all the concepts we studied in these ten weeks,” he said. “I’m going to give you a choice of finals. One will be composed of problems like you’ve worked on all the tests so far. The other final will show ten concepts off this list. You will define and prove each one. Who is interested in this alternative final?”

My hand shot up; I was the only taker. The professor gave me his sheet of paper. At home, I wrote definitions and proofs for every concept and memorized them. On the day of the final, I regurgitated the ten requested answers. I got a 99% – which was enough to raise my grade to a D-.

I graduated on time!

Do you have a close-scrape story to share? Tell it in the comments, or on your own blog (with a link back here)!

My alma mater’s campus is beautiful. Check this photo I took one spring morning.

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