Can I Graduate?

I am set to receive my Associate Degree in Computer Programming from Gwinnett Technical College in a few weeks. It’s been quite a ride. I would like to say that I don’t recommend it, but that would not be true, and it would never be that simple anyway.

Though technical/community colleges do not get the respect that 4-year universities do, the fact is that some programs, at some tech schools, require a much higher level of intellectual engagement and sheer grinding work than perhaps half of all major university programs in the country. There are some very smart, very driven people coming out of tech school right now. I know some of them. I’d hire them in a heartbeat.

I’ve been over-scheduled and over-worked for a couple of years now. The sleep deprivation, and the attendant emotional and physical exhaustion, have been intense, sometimes to the point of badly affecting my health and safety.

So, I’m tired.

And I just got a job, one that pays real money. It’s nothing glorious, and it might not last much more than six months. And it doesn’t involve moving out to California and to join the tech elite, thank god. It’s really just a really well-paying internship, honestly, but one where I’ll be doing something I like to do, and something that promises to offer a lot of opportunity in the near future. I’ll be studying JavaScript/JQuery, .NET and a few other things over the next month or so in preparation for my first day on May 5. It’s another startup, so it might not last (for any of us), but it’s a win-win for me, because the first coding job is usually the hardest one to find, and my graduating classmates and I are realizing that we are not quite prepared for a full-on job in this field: we need mentorship, we need internships, and we need real-world experience. So getting the opportunity to work for, and learn from, successful professionals is a dream come true, really, and if it only lasts six months, then I’ll be ready for the next step by then. Guaranteed.

So I’m putting in my notice at Big City Bread Cafe, where I’ve managed (and learned) for four years, and at Vitamin C Software, where I’ve interned (and learned) for three months. And I’ll spend the next 3-4 weeks finishing school and studying for my new job. And I’ll sit back and think for a minute, now and then, about all that I’ve been through, all that I’ve seen and learned and done these last few very intense years. And then Jonah and his mommy will get home and I’ll go outside and run around in the yard with my son and I’ll be shocked, again, that I could ever feel so much joy.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

As a child, I didn’t understand this metaphor of “the shadow of death”. I suppose I had some vague notion of God protecting me from physical danger. With time I came to understand the truth. My confusion was not simply that of a child. Metaphors and parables are trickier than they seem. They touch on something innately paradoxical about us, and about the way we think.

It is said that we are defined by our choices. The problem is, most of us spend most of our lives not realizing how many choices we make every day.

Carl Jung spoke of the persona: the face that we present to the world, the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self we want others to believe us to be.

One lesson to take from Jung’s writings: lying to others is really only possible if you are already lying to yourself. That is a dangerous game, and one played by far too many people.

Another lesson Jung offers is this: good actors are doing something magical and self-transformative. The wearing of masks, or the donning of other personae, is an ancient and honored part of human culture. The urge to do so lies somewhere near the oldest part of our human brains. The trick is to wear the mask consciously and conscientiously, not in an ongoing state of existential panic.

Carina Chocano writes:

In starting to lay out the possible uses of regret, [Janet Landman, author of Regret: The Persistence of the Possible,] quotes William Faulkner. ‘The past,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Great novels, Landman points out, are often about regret: about the life-changing consequences of a single bad decision (say, marrying the wrong person, not marrying the right one, or having let love pass you by altogether) over a long period of time. Sigmund Freud believed that thoughts, feelings, wishes, etc, are never entirely eradicated, but if repressed ‘[ramify] like a fungus in the dark and [take] on extreme forms of expression’. The denial of regret, in other words, will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that people’s greatest regrets revolve around education, work, and marriage, because the decisions we make around these issues have long-term, ever-expanding repercussions. The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.

The take-away: whistling in the dark is no good if you are trying to distract yourself from how scared you are. Only whistle in the dark as a means of echo-location, as a way of finding your way through the darkness. Pretending everything is okay when things are clearly wrong is not bravery: it is cowardice.

Jung also believed that people are at their most hopeless and most desperate right when they are ready to shed an old version of themselves and start anew. But that is precisely when most of us refuse to let go of our older selves, and so avoid the process of change. That is “the shadow of death”, the feeling of dread that you are about to be extinguished, that all the things you are, and all the things you hold dear, are about to be ruined.

So: put on a face for the world, but fill it full of you, not of the self you imagined as a child. Wear your mask with full awareness of what you do. Let it be a conscious choice. Don’t get trapped by the idea of who you thought you had to be.

And don’t tell yourself that you are not afraid of the dark, or that the darkness is not even there. You’re not fooling anyone.

Pynchon and Paranoia

From Justin St. Clair, in a recent book review:

“Suddenly you’re wondering what the hell Pynchon was doing in the Quad Cities.”

I know the feeling well. Not that I was ever in the Quad Cities myself: I’ve always skirted the Midwest in my travels. But it seems that the reclusive (yet peripatetic) Thomas Pynchon has been there: he included a tiny detail about it in his latest book, “Bleeding Edge”. That’s one of Pynchon’s hallmarks, to throw a bewildering array of real-world details at his works of fiction. The word for that trick, or nervous tick, is “verisimilitude”, which is the idea that if a narrative artists includes in their work enough bits and pieces of the world as they themselves have experienced/seen/imagined it, then that will give their art the feeling of “being real”, of being grounded in something resembling consensual reality. This is a trick Becker and Fagen used to great effect in so many Steely Dan lyrics.

Thomas Pynchon gets around. Or he used to, back in the day. He is, by all accounts, a bit more settled now. But perhaps he has notebooks full of little vignettes, tiny bits of set and setting left over from his rambling days, stacks of “scenes” jotted down years ago, all carefully filed away for future use the way an old professor stores notes and observations in a filing cabinet near his desk.

And so some arcane little detail about Mr. St. Clair’s home town makes its way into a new book by one of the greatest legends of modern fiction, and Mr. St. Clair is a little creeped out by it. I have no sympathy: one should know what one is getting into by now, if one has any sort of relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Some things are not for the faint of heart. You but your ticket, you take the ride.

I read “Gravity’s Rainbow” years ago, very quickly the first time, then again at a slower pace. It was mind-blowing, the searing kaleidoscope of words, the staggering amount of imagery and detail and insight cascading into a blur of cognition and buzzy confusion. There were patterns to it that I discerned but didn’t quite grasp , patterns that I still don’t know to be entirely comfortable or even safe to comprehend.  I got truly paranoid at one point, lurking in the library in old Savannah, looking over my shoulder once or twice to see of anybody saw me sifting through old books and periodicals. I was trying to verify how much of Pynchon’s outrageous yarn was “true” and how much was “fiction”. This sounds odd, I know, but only if you’ve never read that particular book.

“Bleeding Edge” is at the top of my reading list, at any rate. I hope to finish with school by summer semester, 2014, and then maybe I’ll have time for the odd bit of pleasure reading.

 

The Beach

We went to the beach in late July. It looked like this:

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It was lovely.

The whole family was there, so it was lively, too.

I got stung by a jellyfish, no big deal. I hear it gets worse, depending on the jellyfish. I spend a lot of time in the water when at the beach, so I was bound to get stung sooner or later.

Jonah gradually acclimated to the vastness of the ocean, and by the end he was pretty comfortable. But you can’t blame a tiny man for feeling a little intimidated by such a deep, noisy beast.

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That’s my head out there in the waves. I like it out there. It’s soothing. Except when getting stung by jellyfish, of course.

Jonah soon learned the wisdom of being prepared. Or of being accessorized. Whichever.

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And we finally got a pretty good family portrait.

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My Music Website

Here’s a link to the website I built for my Web Development class this past summer:

uptownjimmy.org

We were required to use only a simple text editor to build our pages completely from scratch, using mostly raw HTML5 and CSS3, no Dreamweaver or other developer applications allowed. It’s a little colorful, perhaps more so than I would normally choose, but it was a learning exercise, and I wanted to try a bunch of different things without worrying too much about what the general public might think. But now I’m getting busy with fall semester and I won’t have time to work on the website anymore for a while, so…it is what it is.

Actually, it’s a lot simpler a site than the one that got graded for class. We were required to include all sorts of bells and whistles that I have no real use for, so I’ve stripped out some code and pared things down a bit.

I will be working on some songs here and there for the next few years, whenever I have a chance, and I’ll post clips as I go. Who knows, maybe somebody might want to use some of my music in a film or TV show.

Glory Days

I was born in 1970. That was an odd time to be born, I think, what with the Culture Wars and the Vietnam War and earth-tones and Ranch-style houses all being such a big deal.

All the bits and pieces of culture that we reflexively associate with that time were not then cartoonish and laughable: the hair, the clothes, the shape of automobiles, the look of so many modernist buildings, they were a part of the fabric of our daily lives.

But here’s a very nice article from Hendrik Hertzberg on being a young Newsweek reporter in San Francisco in the late-60’s, a period that bled seamlessly but traumatically into the time of my childhood. I especially liked this bit:

Newsweek finally got around to doing a cover story on hippies some nine months later, for the issue of October 30, 1967….My surmise was that some of the sons and daughters of some of the editors of my former magazine had turned on, tuned in, and made it their mission to drop out. In any case, the headline on the cover was ‘TROUBLE IN HIPPIELAND.'”

It’s shocking how naive the major movers of that scene really were. Well, Bill Graham wasn’t naive. But a lot of the folks who played in bands or who danced in front of the stage at the Fillmore that year were very naive, back in 1966, when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were still local celebrities unknown outside the Bay Area, and it was still a rather exclusive club of people gyrating deep into Friday night, all of them convinced that there was something IMPORTANT happening, and not just right in front of them, but IN them, as the LSD sizzled across their synapses and the pulsing light shows reflected off the walls.

Life had gotten complicated in America by then. I remember it well. I was just a child, but it seemed to me that each individual’s naivete and confusion about who they were and where they were going was all bound up in everybody being naive and confused about who we were and where we were going, as if the whole country was experiencing a collective adolescence. Now, whenever I see mention of Ronald Reagan in an article, I always think to myself: whatever else he might have been, whether real or pretend, for the people who voted for him he was an honest effort to un-complicate their lives, to feel sure of something again.

I wonder what happened to all those dancers.

Like School Online: No Class

When I made the decision to go back to school and study computer science, a very dear old friend asked me to let him know what I thought of online classes.

This old friend of mine (we’ll call him ‘D’) is something of a legend in my very small circle. He got his start in IT right out of college as a teletype boy for the local paper, and subsequently spent most of his adult life in the newspaper business, herding various publishing-centric computer systems through their daily paces. ‘D’ was one of the earliest civilians to be “online”: he participated in lengthy discussions on the early pre-Internet networks like ARPANET and Usenet back in the 80’s, at a time when there were only some tens of thousands of people in the world with access to those networks.

I’ve never talked with ‘D’ at any length about his early online experiences. I do get the impression that some of the more difficult or annoying things which we now routinely associate with online discussions were already present in those earliest iterations of the Web, for instance the tendency for people to feel overly-emboldened by the inherent disembodiment of the online social experience, along with the concomitant likelihood that any small disagreement might escalate into an aggressive argument. Then there’s the fact that the military and intelligence communities had their fingers in the online pie from the start, which is interesting in light of the recent Snowden Affair: we are shocked, SHOCKED by the idea that our intelligence agencies might be observing our online activity, without ever giving much thought to the fact that the Internet exists precisely because the military and intelligence communities were highly instrumental in helping to invent it.

But I digress.

So, my old friend ‘D’ has been a computer geek since before anybody ever heard of such a thing, and he still keeps his ear to the ground vis-a-vis all things computerized, even though he’s retired and living in the woods near our ancestral stomping grounds in the foothills of North Carolina. And, seeing as I have been taking several of my classes online as I pursue my degree in computer programming, he was interested to hear my take on the growing trend in online college courses.

To which I reply: compared to what? This whole college thing is very new to me, and I am reluctant to expound upon things about which I am so naive. I’ve had some online classes, I’ve had some classroom classes. There’s good and bad with both.

But I will say a few things:

1. It’s a lot easier to get to know people in person, in the flesh, in the same physical space. We are physical animals, and most of our social cues and signals are not linguistic at all. Using only the internet for all relevant, school-related communication, as I have done for entire semesters, is like trying to force a waterfall through a straw: spills are bound to happen.

2. Schools still seem to be figuring out just how much actual work these online courses require from instructors. My online instructors have generally seemed overworked and harried, whether due to juggling other classes or other jobs entirely. Of course, “overworked and harried” describes most adults I know, not just the teachers…

3. Online classes are generally considered a real test of one’s self-motivation and self-discipline. After all, it’s just you, your laptop, your textbooks and the instructors’ hasty notes and emails. But then, if you’re doing it right, any rigorous study regimen is going to be a whole lot of you, alone in a room, working like someone who is terribly afraid of idle time.

4. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’ll be driving to and from Gwinnett Tech this semester, one hour each way, three days a week, on top of a full-time managerial job in Athens and a very young son who I adore and want to enjoy while he’s still such a tiny, funny little man. All those hours I’ll spend driving this fall could be spent studying, or sleeping, or playing with my son. Online classes make this sort of adulthood-intrinsic scheduling a bit easier.

There’s one question that many college kids are not accustomed to asking themselves, much less answering honestly: why are you in school at all, and what do you aim to gain by being there? How one answers that question will certainly offer strong indicators as to how one might handle online learning.

If your primary intent as a student is to learn, then you’re going to have to study. A lot. And that involves thousands of hours of careful reading and reams of homework. The majority of my learning takes place in solitude, with my laptop and a stack of books in front of me.

But the other reason for attending school is to make connections, with instructors and with fellow students. That’s how you find jobs. It’s all about connections. It’s all about the impression you make as a person. Or that’s what I’ve always heard.

Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to make honest connections and good impressions in person than online.

I expect that future college students will become accustomed to a combination of both.