Here there be Dragons

Because my asthma is a permanent, high-maintenance condition, I’m practically on a first-name basis with the entire pharmacy staff at the local Long’s Drugs. At least once a month I’ll come in; the pharmacist — or one of the staff — will greet me, saying, "Welcome back, Richard! What will it be today, the usual? How about some Serevent, that will really open up those ol’ bronchial tubes like nobody’s business!"

Well, okay, it isn’t quite like that. But sometimes I really feel like it is. When I call up to place a refill on a prescription, the staff member who answers the phone almost always knows my voice, and frequently can guess what medication I need.

Yesterday I went in to pick up some of the usual meds: two inhalers, an antihistamine, a painkiller for my shoulder. One of the staff members who knows me by name — and who also happens to be a part-time bartender at one of my favorite local music venues, The Palms Playhouse — was there as well. She wasn’t actually working at the time; instead she was picking up some medicine for someone else in her family: Rupert, the bearded dragon.

I had never thought that you could pick up some veterinary medications at Long’s Drugs (on the other hand, it’s probably good information to have, since when I marry Jennifer I’ll essentially be marrying her seven cats as well). Of course, I had never really thought of a bearded dragon as an animal that you would take to the veterinarian either; then again, where else would you take it when it got sick?

"Amanda" (not her real name, but I need to call her something) had brought Rupert with her, so I got to look at this creature. He was about fourteen inches long, from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. I’m guessing fourteen inches; he was in a Tupperware box, and his tail had to bend a little for him to fit into it. He was a mottled dark brownish-green color, with rough skin and sharp, beady eyes. Along his chin were lots of tiny spines, which is why he’s called a "bearded dragon". Looking at this animal, who was waiting with his owner for some antibiotics to help heal up an abscess for which he had just had surgery, my first thought was that he was emaciated and sickly. It turns out that yes, he was a bit thin, but bearded dragons have a tendency to flatten themselves out in order to capture more heat in certain environments.

Don’t you think that it’s amazing that there are such things in this world? It seems like every time I turn around, there’s something curious or strange waiting to be seen, and such things sometimes appear in the strangest places. A pharmacy is not a place I would expect to find a creature called a bearded dragon, any more than a Dungeons and Dragons game was a place where I would expect to meet my soulmate. But this sort of thing happens; strange and wonderful things pop up in unexpected places — and, furthermore, I’m convinced that this sort of thing happens all the time.

I know that when I was a kid, my mom sometimes got frustrated with me when she took my sister and I on walks. While my sister would run on ahead, I would constantly fall behind, caught up in some insect or rock or bug or piece of litter that caught my attention. I think I might have acquired this trait from my grandfather, who would frequently frighten the passengers in his car with his ability to say exactly how many cows were in the field beside the road, but not necessarily what was on the road ahead of him. I like to think that I’m a bit more attentive to the road than that, but I still find myself drawn to the world around me and all of the wonderful things that crawl, ooze, climb, and slime.

"Here There Be Dragons", the old cartographers used to warn, on maps that were necessarily incomplete: "Sail beyond the known boundaries of the world, and you will encounter deadly monsters." But the world around us is always incomplete, isn’t it? Keep your eyes focused on what’s directly ahead, and you’ll miss everything that’s going on beside you, where there are some pretty astounding things from time to time. And dragons aren’t necessarily bad things; dragons can also represent the strange and delightful oddities that populate this world like sprinkles on a cake.

Keep an eye out for that sort of thing. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

Transitioning

I wound up going home sick today from work, with only seven days left at my current job. I had awakened with a bad headache and an upset stomach, but figured it would pass quickly. Unfortunately, I was wrong about that, and both the headache and the stomachache got worse as the morning wore on; finally, around 10:00, my office mate reminded me that if I didn’t use up my sick leave now, I’d never get a chance to — the University will cash out my remaining vacation time when I move on, but not my sick time. So I copied a bunch of Cold Fusion code onto a Zip disk and went home with the intention of going through the code, cleaning it up, and thoroughly documenting it.

On the way home, I stopped at the video store, as I usually do on days like today, and rented both Fight Club and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (yes, I do love horror films, even the cheesy ones). But my intention to revise my Cold Fusion code never really became anything more than Good Intentions. I reviewed code for about two hours while Hellraiser played in the background, remembered that I had to leave Personal Web Server running on my computer in order to get the Cold Fusion server to work, and then undid all of the changes that I had made, since not all of them really worked. Backup files are a good thing.

But all the while, my headache and stomach ache were just getting worse. Finally around 1:30 or 2 I gave up, popped in Fight Club (an excellent film, by the way — I recommend it highly), and lay down. Then I slept for about three hours. When I woke up, the fever was gone and so was the stomach ache, but the headache had stormed in with full fury, to the point where I could barely move my head. Even now, it hurts. I get migraine headaches from time to time; this is a grand doozy of one. Bright lights bother me, and so do ambient noises, and so do the drumming of the fingers of the people sitting next to me at the cafe right now. (Yes, I’m feeling crabby; so sue me, I have a migraine.)

But no, I did not spend the whole day griping and feeling miserable. Besides, as Agent Cooper suggested in Twin Peaks, "Every day, give yourself a gift: it doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy, just something you like and enjoy. A really good cup of coffee, or a chance to watch a beautiful sunset."

Today, I gave myself the thrill of faxing in my acceptance of the position with [the new place of employment]. The first two months of this new job are going to be spent up in Portland, Oregon, learning about the company and how to use their in-house suite of application packages. I’m excited about that: I’m going to be learning a lot, I’ll be meeting new people, I’ll get to see what my new co-workers will be like, and so on.

The hardest thing for me to adapt to and accept with regards to this new job is the pay increase. It’s not quite going to double my income, which had been my goal for the year, but it represents an 83% increase over my salary with the University, which is close enough. Last night I dragged Jennifer with me while I went and test drove new cars; and it was such an odd feeling looking at the 2000 Honda Accord SE and realizing that I can now afford this car, instead of taking what someone else was willing to sell to me, a used car with "issues". It’s a marvelous feeling.

I didn’t buy the car last night, of course. For one thing, I haven’t gotten any paychecks at all from [the new place of employment] as of yet; and, for another thing, I’m going to be in Portland for two months starting on August 7; and what’s the point of buying a new car if it’s just going to sit in front of my house? [the new place of employment] will be flying me back to Davis on the weekends during that time, and Spiff will be just fine for me until October or so, when I start the daily commute out to Roseville. Then, I’ll probably buy the Accord.

And now I feel like I’ve completed a series of transitions in my life which began just about a year ago. I’ve transitioned from being single to being engaged to the woman of my dreams; the process of moving from my duplex with two housemates to a large custom-made home with a beautiful wife has begun; I’m finally leaving the University after having been there since 1986 in some capacity or another. And, most importantly, I’m moving from a existence which is essentially aimless and directionless to one which I feel like has a purpose and a direction.

All in all, a pretty good day for me.

It isn’t a great day for everyone, of course. My best friend continues to have problems with his own career (though I like to point out that if I can make this kind of transition, then he will be able to as well); my good friend Ivymoon was disappointed to learn that she did not get the job of her dreams; and Jennifer has ended up having to put in long hours at her own job yet again. And, of course, my boss in Information Technology is still left with the problem of finding someone to replace me (I still feel guilt about that; especially since I had to go home sick today).

So, with all of these transitions nearing completion, I find that it’s easy to relax and think, "Now things are settled. I don’t need to do anything more, now that all of my goals are met." Of course, nothing is further from the truth; I’m rebuilding my life now, making that fresh start.

Not to say that my life was boring or dull before, but… Now is when a whole new set of challenges and excitements begin.

Muggling Through

It seems that every time something good comes along, something else comes along (usually in the form of a money-hungry lout or a misinformed idiot) to try to spoil it. The great comic book Spawn, for example, might be forced to cease publication because some football player took offense at the name used as one of the villains, and is suing for more money than Todd McFarlane can pay out without shutting down the title. That’s the sort of thing that I’m talking about.

Now, Jennifer has recently converted me to being a Harry Potter fan. I had gotten the first book from my dad as a Christmas present just this past year, and started reading it — but sometimes when I’m reading a book, I get easily distracted by other things, and I just sort of put Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aside for awhile, intending to pick it up again later, and just never did. However, when news about the fourth book came out, Jennifer decided that she wanted to read the first three, and she thoroughly enjoyed them. And I couldn’t help but notice the Potter-mania that was going around, especially as the release date for the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, came closer. Then my sister informed me that my niece really wanted the fourth book for her birthday; and so on the Friday night before the release, I found myself standing with Jennifer at Borders, waiting for one of the coveted unreserved copies, while kids dressed up like wizards cavorted and adults — some looking exhausted, some looking enthralled — gazed eagerly at the counter and employees made periodic announcements about special giveaways that would be given out with the first fifty copies. It was actually fun, in a way. I had stood in line for six hours to be one of the first people to see Star Wars Episode I, and this was kind of similar. But this hype was for a book, not a movie, and I’d never seen this kind of hype for a book before.

So last week I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone again and started re-reading from the beginning, not bothering to try to find where I had left off before; and over the next two or three days I read all three of the Harry Potter books, then borrowed Jennifer’s copy of Goblet of Fire and read that (that one took me four days, partly because of the length and partly because I found that I had very little time to devote to reading even while Jennifer was gone in Ohio for her family reunion).

The hype was worth it. The Potter books are certainly not brilliantly-constructed fantasy the way that The Lord of the Rings (or my personal favorite, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams) is, but they are a lot of fun, and well written. And anything which encourages kids to use their imaginations, to explore the world around them with wonder, and simply read more books deserves high praise, in my opinion.

So, of course, some people have to try to ruin it. One author from the east coast is suing J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, over an alleged trademark violation (you can read more about this at The Unofficial Harry Potter Fan Club); and the Harry Potter books are actually banned in some schools in at least thirteen U.S. states (more about that at Muggles for Harry Potter). The lawsuit kind of makes sense, if you squint in an intellectual sort of way (though I think it’s tantamount to A. A. Milne being sued over the use of the word "Piglet" as the name of a character); but I’ve never understood the reasoning process behind the desire to ban books. Okay, some books (such as The Turner Diaries) are deservedly jeered and most bookshop owners with an ounce of decency wouldn’t carry them; but what is the logic behind banning books like Harry Potter? The perpetrators claim that the books undermine traditional Christian values and that they promote Wicca and paganism (though I can also see how Wiccans and pagans could find elements of the Potter books that are offensive), but, again, you have to stretch to see it.

Part of the reasoning that I’ve seen for banning the Harry Potter books claims that these books teach children that the world around them is worthless, that people who can’t use magic are losers and not worth paying attention to; I have to disagree. Of course, all novels are escapist, to a point; but children don’t lose themselves in a novel and then despair that their world isn’t like that in the novel. On the contrary, children read novels about heroic deeds and create their own worlds to match. The characters in Harry Potter — especially Harry Potter himself and his friends — are brave and heroic and courageous, and I believe that these are values that we ought celebrate children learning. And the lessons that children learn while acting out their own stories as heroes are carried over into their own lives — at least, that was my own experience as a child, and that’s what I see in children around me today.

So my thought is this. Everyone knows that somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we lose the power to see or make magic in our world; some of us retain some of that ability, though it’s usually just a ghost of what we possessed in childhood. And some of us become so bitter at the loss that we can’t imagine that children still do have that power; so we deny that children have that power, and we try to bring them into our own world, just as bitter and jaded as we are, long before they are ready. "This is the real world," such people say, "and there is no place for magic or wizards or other fairy-tale nonsense."

But in reality, the world is a magical place, and full of wonder. Those of us who have had the misfortune to grow up can’t see most of the magic or wonder anymore, and so we have to Muggle our way through a world of taxes, difficult job transitions, broken cars, insurance, noisy neighbors, and so on. I’m glad that there are books like the Harry Potter books to remind me, at least, of what else could be out there.

It’s a shame that there are other people out there who feel like they have to spoil it.

Slipping to the Dark Side

Okay, I admit… I’m a fan of horror fiction and movies. I enjoy the genre, and I know it pretty well (to the point where I overhead a brief conversation between two co-workers and could tell, based on one single sentence, which movie they were talking about and which version). And when I worked at the video store, I took the opportunity to catch up on a lot of classic horror movies that I’d never had a chance to see before.

I’ve read a lot of horror novels, too. I like Stephen King a lot, as well as Clive Barker (Dean Koontz and Bentley Little are okay, but I will rarely bother finishing one of their books if I can’t do so in one sitting). I have a very active imagination, and I can envision what I read very well. My imagination has always been like that; in fact, my parents would not let me read a single Stephen King novel until I was 18 because they were afraid that I would scare myself too badly. I admit, though, that I cheated a sneaked a copy of The Dead Zone when I was 16 years old — and it had pretty much the effect my parents had predicted.

So last night a friend of mine and his wife went out to the movies. She took herself to see Pokemon 2000 while my friend and I went and saw Scary Movie.

God help me, I thought it was funny.

Granted, I had to turn off my good taste in order to enjoy it at all, but once I did, I found myself enjoying it and even laughing at the sickest jokes, in the same sort of way that I like watching South Park from time to time.

Scary Movie is unbelievably offensive in many ways. Some of the jokes are blatantly racist, some are outright homophobic, and some are unbelievably degrading to women. It’s not what I really had hoped for in a good parody of the horror genre (Young Frankenstein is probably the best for that sort of thing), though I thought it poked some good fun at the Scream trilogy and the I Know What You Did Last Summery films. And it had no plot, no honest character development, and no real point — but, then, neither did many of the other films that it parodied, including The Blair Witch Project.

Of course, it made jabs at a number of films that were well-done and well-made; the end, for example, spoofed both Dark City (well, I thought that was a good film, at least) and The Usual Suspects. And because The Sixth Sense is part of the recent revival of the horror genre, Scary Movie poked fun at that one, as well. Unfortunately, while many of the spoofs and jabs were pretty funny, the jabs at some of the others were just kind of dumb.

All in all, yes, I enjoyed Scary Movie. I’ll probably never see it again, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to any of my friends (and I wouldn’t rate it more than a 1 on any scale), but, yes, I laughed. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps my good taste just fell away completely, or if I’m just a lot sicker than I thought I was. I found myself asking myself these questions all throughout the movie, and thinking things like, "Oh my God, how can I ever respect myself now? How will anyone else respect me? That woman’s being beheaded, and here I am laughing about it!"

In the end, though, I gave up on trying to justify myself and decided to simply enjoy the film.

After the film was over, the three of us went to the International House of Pancakes for a late dinner and a game of Fluxx. I was still thinking about the movie when I got home, and felt an overwhelming need to take a long hot shower. I did so, and then I popped in The Sixth Sense just to reassure myself that yes, I could still enjoy a quality horror film. Seeing Scary Movie was cathartic, in a way; but still, seeing a film of good quality was sort of a cleansing experience.

A Not Entirely Unexpected Turn of Events

I love my new job; it’s great that I get to go in each day, spend nine or ten hours straight coding in Cold Fusion to build dynamic pages which are actually useful, and working as part of a team to get a large project finished. My co-workers are fun, my boss is a good guy, and I love the work I’m doing. I know that I’m very fortunate to have gotten this job, especially since it’s really the first job I ever went out and actively pursued as opposed to simply "drifting" into it just because I needed a job, any job (which is how I’d gotten all of my previous jobs, including the job at Labor Relations at the University).

So today I gave my two-week notice.

Does that make sense to you? Why would I quit such a great job after only two weeks? The answer can only be that someone else made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

At about the same time that I applied for this new job with the University, I had also applied for a job with a company called [the new place of employment], Inc., which provides on-line services and web applications for physicians and medical groups. For [the new place of employment], I went through three interviews here in Davis, and four interviews in Portland, Oregon (fortunately, all four interviews were all on the same day, so I only had to fly up there once), not to mention a ton of telephone calls and lots of e-mail correspondence. In spite of all of this, I had thought that my chances with [the new place of employment] were very slim; it’s a pre-IPO startup organization (though it’s been around for a number of years), and I know that they were looking for very talented web developers. I know that I’m pretty talented at what I do, but, I suppose, I hadn’t thought I was talented enough to actually be competitive in the field. This offer from [the new place of employment] is pretty much the opportunity I’ve been looking for: I’ll be doing the kind of work I love, getting lots of training, interacting with end-users to help build the web applications that they need, and more. The benefits package I’ll be getting is comparable to the University’s, and the whole thing comes with an 83% increase in salary.

Naturally, of course, I can’t do anything without a significant amount of angst (I think that this is a holdover from my childhood; I had a much better childhood than just about anyone else I can think of — save, possibly, for Jennifer, whose family is so nearly identical to mine that our childhoods were just about identical — so I must have developed a habit of surrounding everything good with angst, just to feel better able to relate to my peers). So, my decision to accept the offer from [the new place of employment] was an angst-ridden one; it’s the first time I’ve gotten a "serious" job outside of academia in my life, and I know that the corporate world I’m moving to is a very different one from the academic world I’m leaving behind. So, naturally, I have to worry about things like: what if I can’t get the medical benefits I need? What if I can’t handle the workload? And, most importantly, what if I simply screw it up?

Fortunately, I have a good supply of friends and relatives who are quite happy to thwack me over the head when I need it. My best friend, who is also the father of my godson and who thus loves making references to Don Corleone and The Usual Suspects, said that this was simply "An offer you can’t refuse" (said in his most threatening Marlon Brando-esque voice), and that to screw up this kind of job would take me actively planning out doing so for at least three months. My dad simply said, "Sounds like a no-brainer to me." And my soon-to-be-former co-worker said something along the lines of, "You’d have to be a moron to turn this one down." Jennifer, wise and wonderful person that she is, told me that as long as I was happy, she would support any decision I made with regard to [the new place of employment] and the University — though she did confess that she was leaning slightly towards [the new place of employment], simply because it seemed more like what I want to do with my life.

No, I don’t let other people make my decisions for me. I do trust my friends’ judgements, though, and I know that they know me well enough to know what would make me happy; so, I’m happy to take their input and consider it while I make my decision. In this case, even though this huge career switch will mean some big changes in my life, I’ve decided to do it. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come along every day, and, even though I know there would be others if I decided not to follow through on this one, I know it’s time for me to break the University barrier and move on.

When I gave notice, the manager at IT:CR was understandably disappointed. I’d only been there two weeks, and they’d been counting heavily on me to complete the application that they’d hired me for. I told him that I’m committed to seeing the application through testing and that I’d document everything out very carefully and thoroughly so that the next developer will know what I was doing, but he was still disappointed. In all honesty, I don’t blame him at all. I wished him the best and apologized profusely.

How am I feeling right now? Excited, thrilled, overjoyed, and happy. This is the opportunity I’ve been hoping for, and I can’t wait to get started.

Making a Fresh Start

Yesterday I started the new job; I’m now an actual paid web designer, working for UC Davis. Today as I was going through some Cold Fusion code and matching everything up with the databases, I found myself marvelling at the fact that I was having a blast doing this and that I am actually getting paid to do it. I feel like I’m fitting in well with the two people that I share my office with — we all seem to have similar tastes in music (which works out well since we all three of us work best with music playing), and it turns out that I’ve worked with one of them before in a cafe in downtown Davis. We’ve had some interesting conversations.

Of course, as with all new jobs, there are a few surprises. One of the bigger surprises for the other in the department, apparently, was that I had been hired at all; official word went to my office mates last Friday that I would be starting this week, which meant that they had to spend a good chunk of time cleaning up enough space in the office for me to work and for my computer. The other web developer has been going a bit frantic trying to set up a multi-user development environment, even though she is glad to have someone on board to help pick up the workload.

Most of the surprises, of course, were for me. I know who my boss is, of course; he’s the project director. On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure to whom I’m supposed to directly report; the project director also manages three or four other units and doesn’t really have time to act as Application Development Director as well. So the other web developer and I are pretty much on our own to make sure that the project we’re working on is completed within the schedule outlined in the project plan. This shouldn’t be a problem, as long as we can get the three new servers up and running in time, and as long as we can get SSL, Kerberos, and SQL*Net installed and functioning before we port the code over to the new servers (making sure we can fix all of the breaks that will inevitably happen when the Access tables are converted to Oracle and the code is ported to the new servers). It will be challenging, but I’m really enjoying what I’m doing so far, and it seems likely that I’m going to enjoy the next few months.

I also hadn’t expected that I would be getting a photo ID badge with the job; I haven’t worked in a job which required a badge since I worked for Lockheed for a summer back in 1985 (don’t be impressed; I got the job because my father works for Lockheed, and it was a summer job for a high school junior). And in addition to the photo ID badge is the pager; I’m now also responsible, partly, for keeping the web servers up and running which means that people are going to have to occasionally get in touch with me, which means that I get a new alpha-numeric pager. This has proven immensely amusing to my best friend, to whom I mistakenly sent the number (he’s the father of my godson, and he’s going to be the best man at my wedding, so I figured he’d probably need to get in touch with me sometimes), and who sent me several brief e-mail pagers reading "Yank!" (because I’d jokingly referred to the pager as "my leash") or "Zark!". The last time I ever had a pager was when I borrowed one from a friend of mine for a couple of days two summers ago, when there was a situation where certain friends of mine needed a way to get in touch of me in a hurry.

One of the other surprises came while my boss was giving me the tour of the division, and introduced me not only as a Cold Fusion programmer, but also as a Java programmer. I have some experience with Java, but I don’t think it’s mentioned on my resume at all; the only thing I can figure is that I briefly mentioned that I had taught myself some Java when I was in for my second interview. That’s just fine with me, though. I spent a few hectic minutes this morning downloading and installing JDK 1.1.8 on my new workstation. I was introduced to many people as "our web developer", and was received universally well. "Thank God!" one person actually said. "Now we’ll be able to get that [project name withheld] site up and running!" By that point, of course, I knew that I was already assigned to one project that was of very high importance to the division, and that other projects would probably be kept on hold for awhile.

All in all, this is actually starting to feel like an actual job; not just something I floated into, but an actual job that I got because I wanted it; and, more importantly, a job where I know that the projects I work on are going to be appreciated, and where I know I have the skills to do the job well. The department has a demonstrated committment to training and education, so I know that I’m going to get some great training here.

If nothing else, this job is a good start for me in my new career. I’m excited; I know that there are more surprises in store, not all of them pleasant for everyone involved, I’m sure, as well as some wonderful opportunities for me.

Yep, it’s a fresh start for me, and things are definitely getting better.