Boulder, CO … revisited 29 years hence

When I was 19 I was on the tail end of a several-month odyssey that took me 300 miles down the Pacific Crest Trail from Cascade Locks to the California border by foot, followed by some easy time spent with high school friends who had escaped Orange County, NY for Marin County, CA, followed by a long, slow trip to Mexico, and then hitchhiking/meandering up through Arizona all the way to Wyoming and finally down to Boulder, CO, where I visited for an entire month with a guy that grew up next door to me, but which had managed to leave and head west a year or two earlier.  I worked day labor picking tomatoes until  I could afford to buy a car, which turned out to be a black ’59 Volkswagen purchased for $400 which I drove East with a Danish college student to get back home.

Looking back, and writing this 29 years later here again in Boulder, CO , if I had known what I know now, I don’t think I would have ever left what has to be one of the very best towns in America.

I could go on and on about Boulder, but the crux of it is a combination of things, such as perfect climate, progressive politics, low crime, intelligent planning, spectacular scenery … I mean, what else is there?

Getting off the job at 5:30 PM today left plenty of time for me to head up Pearl Street to the Pearl Street Mall where I had a great dinner overlooking tulips against brick punctuated by happy people walking by.  It’s spring here, and everyone seems very content and at peace.  After dinner I found a cool Nepalese shop and bought a singing bowl, which is a remarkable Tibetan invention about 1500 years old that fills the room with a tone said to heal your troubled Chakras.  Following that I was absolutely struck by a guy playing a combination of a digeradoo, steel drums, bells, and I don’t know what else, all simultaneously in a lyrical, story-telling fashion.  He had forty people transfixed for ten minutes while he used his entire body to make some incredible music.  His name is Christopher and I think his music would be perfect for film soundtracks.

A typical evening in paradise, I suppose.

Sometimes you visit a place and you have a sense that your name, or perhaps you destiny is written all over it.  For me, this is such a place.

Stamina, Focus, and the Good Life

An hour and a half ago I was at the tail end of a ninety-minute Bikram class and it struck me that of all of the things that may have contributed to whatever measure of success I might have achieved thus far, one of the most powerful has been stamina.  I can’t think of a time in my life where I was tested so often for pure stamina than the ten years I spent fishing in Alaska, where we were routinely asked to stay up 24 hours or more while offloading 1000 frozen tons of frozen product and fishmeal.  Fishmeal was particularly tough because the bags weighed 70+ pounds apiece and there were thousands of them.  I always stayed to the end, and I remember once at the tail end of one of these marathons one of the BIG guys — and I mean 6-8″, 270 pound big — exclaimed “You’re one of the toughest little fuckers on this boat!”  which I took as a pretty decent compliment. But there’s this zone, or whatever you want to call it, that you must find in trying situations where you simply have to keep going no matter what (like 70 minutes into a Bikram Yoga class), that will help you through.  And I believe that a lot of this has to do with focus, and the quieting of the mind.

Not that I’m a model for a quiet mind — far from it, but if you can reduce the things that you are chattering away about inside yourself you will find a place where there is only the awful thing that you are trying to complete.  Nothing else.  If you breathe, focus, and REDUCE … you will make it.

Needless to say, this can work on a macro level as well.  Like if you are going through a particularly difficult, say, month … it’s the same thing.  It’s just a bit slower, and you must work to pace yourself.  The sine wave of your battle in that case is long — maybe days long — but the more you can focus and let go of the crap that plagues you from inside, the more stamina you will find to finish out the tough ride.

It would seem that we should be spending as much of our waking effort on a daily basis to structure a life that is not subject to a roller coaster effect, whether it be financial, emotional, or even physical, but we generally don’t.  Instead we just hold on and ride.  If that’s all we are capable of, then at least we need to learn how to ride, and focus and stamina are a couple of very good resources to draw upon.

So …. breathe, focus, and quiet the mind.  Repeat as often as possible.

Bikram Yoga

Today is Iophase Internal Administration day, which means between crises between clients, I spent virtually the entire day in this tiny office driving myself crazy working on IT, mainly for my own stuff.  For me this is a special form of Hell, and today is no less a nightmare than any other.  At this very moment, one laptop is 20% "upgraded", and there are hundreds of GB of data being copied here and there using another laptop, and this machine -- my Ubuntu desktop that I just love, or at least I love the idea of it, is available.   The day started out with an important backup routine completely failing for a client, with important data lost, followed by failing USB external enclosures for another client and for myself, reesulting in more lost data, and now hours of moving data around here and there in a panic to preserve what I can.  The office is a shambles, but I don't have it in me to lift a finger to even try to organize it, so, it's time to write something.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention in these pages this incredible thing I have been doing lately.  I would venture to say that it's the best thing I have done for myself in about 10 years or more.  It's Bikram Yoga (note, this link may die because the High Priests at Wikipedia think it's an ad - reminds me of the DMOZ in the olden days ...), which is a relatively new type of Yoga that is performed in a room heated to 105 degrees.  My wife suggested it, probably because she was tired of hearing me complain about losing my flexibility , and generally kvetching about growing old. Well, If I can do this two or three times a week consistently, there won't be much more of that.  The classes last 90 minutes, and every class features the same relatively simple 26 exercises, each repeated twice.  The first half is standing, the second is mainly lying down or kneeling.  The heat, which at first seems completely insane, adds a sort of endurance element to it, so if you are the type that won't do yoga because it's not "challenging" enough -- this will kick your ass.  I don't care if you are a Triathlete, this will kick your ass.  At least the first few times, anyway.

But it's not about kicking ass, really, it's about putting your body through a very nice set of deep stretches and balanced poses that will make you feel better in lots of ways.  It happens to be perfect for me because of where I am in my life -- 48 years old with four little kids, and so I am in desperate need of flexibility, the ability to stay lean, and complete silence for 90 minutes a few times a week.  This affords all of those benefits and more.

Coming from a Pilates background, I guess my body was somewhat prepared for some of the exercises, but it's quite different in many ways.  The objectives are different, while many of the benefits are similar.  Pilates is designed for core strength first, and flexibility second, whereas it seems to me that Bikram is designed first for flexibility, with some core strength required, especially for the balacing poses.   I would say that if you really care about your health you should do both.  (Not that I do ... but if I can figure out how to adjust my professional life to provide more time, I sure will!)

The place I go is just across the street from my office, and like everything else in Irvine, its success has a lot to do with clever marketing ("Stay Hot") and a strong sense of professionalism.  Because Irvine is full of professionals, they demand complete and utter professionalism, and this place delivers.  They have it down -- you walk in, wave your card, grab a towel, a mat, and some water if you need it, change if you need to, drop your shoes on a rack before going into the room, do the class, exit out the back door, drop your towel in a bin, grab your shoes off the rack that they have pushed to the back of the studio, shower, grab another towel, change, and leave.  Everything is simple, efficient, and all taken care of.

I'm told that this method of Yoga is polarizting - you either hate it, and run screaming from the room, or you love it.  Judging from the attending which seems to keep growing each time I go, I guess the latter reaction is winning out.

UPDATE ... OK, just had to add what happened with the laptop upgrade -- just trying to go from Vista Home Premium to Ultimate.  It sits there for three hours, basically spinning, reboots a couple of times, and then the last thing says "Windows failed to configure a component".  Please reboot and restart the installation.  Great. So I'm ready to call MS and give them a piece of my mind, so to speak, and on the box I see it says, "Upgrade Vista -- may require clean install."   My wife had a good analogy -- they are like the employee who sits in a room for 8 hours, lost on a difficult project, and at the end of the day says, "Uh ... I can't figure it out..." and you just want to say "You could have told me you were having trouble six hours ago!!!"  Compare that with compiling software on Linux, which tells you every step of the way how (and what!) it's doing.  Or, compare it with Mac .. which just works.

Getting Fired – Why Corporate America no Longer Deserves You

It may have been putting the cart before the horse to talk about “Managing Fear as an Independent” as I did last month, since that kind of information only applies if you are, indeed, independent.  At this point I would like to make the case for why you should become independent of a “job” if you are not already, and for those of you who are now free of a job through a decision not your own — well, I would suggest that you take a deep breath for about a month before you rush out to find your next soulless grind.  For you folks that are without a job, look for future posts that will help manage and hopefully maintain that status comfortably.  This post will be a sketch, with the intention of filling in the blanks in later, more detailed posts.

First, the premise:  There may have been a time, long ago, when the social contract went something like this — you willingly offer your time, energy, intelligence and work in exchange for money, security, insurance, perhaps a pension, and any other perquisites that might come with full time employment with a kind and beneficial company that looked after you and yours, and truly cared about your success.  The company might offer incentives for production, and maybe even a program to help you improve by skills training, college education and other benefits to help you grow.  Why would they do this?  Because if you get better, the company gets better, profits more, and everyone is happy.  That’s the theory, anyway.

By now it’s pretty obvious to just about everyone that this social contract is mainly null and void.  I’m sure there are some companies that are still attempting to operate along these lines, like perhaps Google or Cisco or a few others.  In fact, there was recently an article about the “Top 100 Companies to Work For”, and that’s all well and good, but we cannot all work for Google and the fact remains that with very few exceptions, companies provide less and less benefit, and demand more and more production. Despite this, every year millions of wide-eyed, hopeful college graduates go searching for a company to hook up with with the same naivete as the previous generation.  And companies are always in search of the best and brightest to inject the energy and intellectual capital it takes to compete in this world at this time.  But let’s have a look at what these grads are hoping to find:

1. Security — the perception is if you have a job with a large corporation, you are somehow more secure than if you work for a smaller company, or for yourself.  This is simply untrue.  You are welcome to search for your own statistics, but look at it this way — if you think of yourself as a company that provides a service (which is what you are — you are providing a service to a company that employs you), would you rather derive all of your income from one customer, as it were?  What if you had a falling out?  What if their fortunes changed, and they went out of business?  Your business would be in serious trouble.  If you had, say, five companies that provided the bulk of your business, and one fell away, you would lose one-fifth of your revenue, not all of it.  So what is more secure, the one company you devote all your time and energy to, or the five that you work for part-time?  The five, I would say.  That’s not to say that you need five part-time jobs.  Instead, work towards a model where you provide services for multiple companies who pay you well enough to create and pay for you own benefits.

2. Prestige — there is something to be said, I suppose, for having “Verizon” on your resume, but it has to be asked — who are you trying to impress?  The hiring officers of other large companies?  It may certainly help you get another job with another company, and if that’s what makes you comfortable, then it may be worth it to pursue that line of thinking.  If the prestige of working for a large company is something you find valueable, I would argue that you can market your services as an independent contractor to those large companies, and the prestige will take you just as far, except you make about twice the money.

3. A “Career”.  Actually, is anyone seriously looking for such a think anymore?  I don’t think so. At least not tied to a single company.  There may have been a time when companies fostered the careers of their employees, and wanted them to grow within and without the organization, but with few exceptions those days are gone.  Now, benefits are grudgingly given out and mainly to stay competitive within the Human Resource marketplace.  Companies still understand that they need intellectual capital and human energy and drive.

And that brings me to my point.  They don’t deserve it.  Not anymore.  For what possible reason should you willingly give up your life energy, your intelligence, your drive, your ambition to a company that doesn’t know who you are or what you bring to the table, couldn’t care less what your talent is, and can’t wait until you leave because you cost too damned much money?

But, see, this is the deeply ironic part of the story.  Because even though you might be making, say, $80,000 / year in salary, you are far, far more expensive to them than that.  That’s why they won’t think twice of laying off your entire department in favor of outsourcing the whole thing to someone who will do your job for nearly twice the hourly pay you make, but with no benefits, and no HR overhead.   So your strategy should be that person that gets hired at twice the rate and pays their own taxes and insurance.  And why in the world would you want to do that?  Because, you can take on three companies as clients in this manner, triple that income, and enjoy a relative sense of security as you collect your income from three sources instead of one.

But what about the logistics of managing three clients that are “full time” or close to such?  Efficiency.  Through a judicious combination of remote work, strategic outsourcing (yes, you yourself can and should outsource!), and careful time management, you can easily accomplish the work of what used to be three “full-time” employees.  And that huge evil company that sucked you dry of everything you had while you were there now rarely sees you, and happily pays you more than they ever did before.  They are now a client, and the people who pay these higher bills does so with the same distant and impersonal  ennui as they did when they paid you your salary, or when they fired you.

There are a number of things you have to do to make this work, but if you are still employed, you should start planning your escape now.  Future posts will systematically show how to do this, step by step.

Managing Fear as an Independent

One of the issues we face when we choose, or by no choice at all, are thrust from the comfort of our dead-end jobs, is fear.  This is especially true now, since the fear du jour that the media has lactched onto is the ECONOMY … the big, bad, scary and broken ECONOMY…

There is no question that there is a lot of pain out there, and I suppose we should be afraid, very afraid — after all, just this morning I saw an article about the Sacramento Tent City just up the road a few hundred miles as evidence that we are all in deep trouble.  And we are, I’m sure, but at any given moment we have a choice of what to think about, how to feel, and what filter we will put on to view the world around us, and it doesn’t help to have a constant stream of bad news about the economy to supplement our own internal dialog, which is likely distracting enough.

For me, because I am paid when I deliver technical services, and because I charge for my time on an hourly basis, I rely on an ongoing need that is expressed by my clients.  Naturally, that need comes and goes in an ebb and flow, which translates to lots of work, followed by less work, and this goes on and on this way, but I am sometimes stuck in one of two mental modes that form the outlook for my personal finances :

1. If I am flush with work, then I have little to worry about financially, but I sometimes feel overwhelmed and trapped by the work itself.  It helps slightly to remind myself of the Sacramento Tent City and other evidence of pain around me that I am not feeling, and it’s quite true that there are people that have much worse problems than “too much work”, but that doesn’t change my mindset, and it doesn’t help me to behave any differently.

2. If the work drops off, I feel an initial sense of freedom, but that is short-lived, because little time goes by before I start projecting finances outward a few weeks or month, and wonder if the flow of work and money will suddenly stop.  Thus, the fear.

I don’t allow comments in this Blog, becuase I view it more as a journal, but I can hear you saying “What an idiot!”  and you are quite right.  But how to change that thought pattern?  How do we drive back the fear, and spend our mental energy doing creative and healthy things instead of projecting outward events that do not and cannot yet exist?

Maybe it starts with refusing to  listen to the endless stream of media that assaults us about the ECONOMY, and other BIG FEARS.  That’s a start, I suppose.  But what about analysis — those of us that are inclined toward studying a problem might choose to spend some hours focused on previous patterns of ebb and flow.  Is the work cyclical?

I had a good breakfast today with a data center manager from a few years back who must be described as brilliant on a lot of levels, and this came up because it has been a topic of conversation with me lately, and he pointed out that much can be learned by assiduous tracking.  Find out, for instance, how much money you need each month or so, and enter other criteria, such as future jobs that are scheduled, etc. and simply look at where you are each week against that need.

This strikes me as a good idea — and I do use a very good time keeping service, but I realize that I am only realizing half the benefit if I don’t run a report once in a while to see how things are actually going.

We spend so much time heads-down, pressing onward, that we lose the view that we need to keep ourselves healthy — the large view.  Salespeople seem to have that down, with their “Pipelines” , outlooks and plans.  Engineers generally don’t care about such things, but when you own a consulting company, alas, you are no longer just an engineer.

The Perils of Working Independence

For most of my adult life I have held what you might consider unconventional jobs.  Stonemason’s apprentice, framing carpenter (not so unconventional there, I suppose), Fisheries Technician for New York State, Bering Sea Commercial Fishing, Encyclopedia Salesman (the low, low point), and so it was with some trepidation that I took the closest thing to a corporate job at Exodus Communications in 2000 in Orange County, CA, mainly because my wife was pregnant with our first son, and because we were moving to a part of the country where the real estate was so ridiculously expensive that I could not conceive of making the kind of money to pay off a mortage of that magnitude without something that resembled a “safety net”, as it were.

We all know what happened to those dreams that those of us in IT hoped for when we took such jobs in 2000 — exploding bubbles, crashing, burning, Chapter 11.  And yet I managed to hold on to that job through two successive purchases, the last by a PoDunk upstart from St. Louis who had lawyers clever enough to leverage the real estate under the data centers themselves to buy the company with, for pennies on the dollar, and beating out XO and Gores at the same time, only to shock us all and actually turn the company around in the successive couple of years as the Tech Calamity eased and grew real legs, but more quietly.

It was my own personal crash and burn that did me in after seven  and a half years as a “Senior Network Engineer” there.  It was lack of sleep, really.  I worked from Friday night to Tuesday morning, 7PM to 7AM every one of those three days, but because I had a bunch of little kids, I didn’t sleep during that time, and so by Tuesday morning, I had literally slept 6 hours over the three days.  Needless to say, I was a babbling fool on those Tuesday mornings, and probably slowly dying.  I had done that for about four years, but enough was enough, and so after a silly mechanical error dumped 25,000 gallons of diesel in the parking lot on my watch, and well as a few others, we were called to the “conference call” — and when do you suppose that took place?  On Tuesday morning, of course!.

It wasn’t long into the call before my friend Shane — the only one of us engineers who had the ambition to climb the rickety thing that passed as a “corporate ladder”  and  who was acting as a manager on the call, essentially to shield us from the shadowy figures from above — was frantically trying to figure out how to hang me up from the conference, so deeply was I digging our graves with my wide-eyed and earnest babbling over the phone.

I sure told ’em, all right.

So I and the other best damned engineer they had in the data center, or at least the other guy who truly gave a shit,  became perfect candidates for them to dispose of — mainly,  I suppose, because we made way more than their new business model called for, and also because it was a convient time to get rid of the “Prima Donna’s” or whatever the equivalent slang term might be on the banks of the Mississippi.

Of course it was a rough first year, but I held out and refused four job offers in quick succession, and finally found my legs as a truly independent contractor/business owner after about fourteen months of struggle.  Since then my life has been … completely different — to use a term that is 100% accurate, since emotive descriptions might be unduly influenced by how I feel at the moment, which is mostly … tired.

The issues are many, and since it took me this long to create the background for the piece, the idea will be finished in a second post, perhaps tomorrow.  Suffice it to say, in a quick sentence, that when you are the only master of your Time, it’s possible for the Work to never end. Or to put it another way, it’s entirely possible to avoid every waking moment of your life in favor of the Work, since it is always there, and you and no one else owns it.  The smart and courageous learn to outsource some of it, and it is only now that I am starting to figure out how to do that, and only in limited quantities.


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It’s about Time …

I suppose we all eventually get to the point at which we need to produce and deliver, instead of take from the world.  I have long chastised myself for not producing with the generosity of someone like my father who wrote every day of his adult life, until the very day he died.

I am at that point now — and what is it, that drives us there?  Mortality, perhaps?  Children, maybe – the desire to leave something behind, for them, because you know that you will never have time to explain yourself fully to them.   Not that it matters, so long as the output is created and stored in a place that may outlast this mortal coil, as it were.

And so what is the point?  To add to the din, to express oneself, for therapy as much as anything, but also because we can.  It’s the job of the artist to create art — everything else that happens after that has little to do with the creator.

The trick is to spend the precious time to create something worth reading, and esepcially these days, something that we have time to read.  Therefore, brevity above all.

Writing, finally, because it's better late than never