Monday, May 04, 2009

So It Goes... R.I.P. Bungee

It is not my intention for a blog entitled the "Contemplative Life" to devolve into a sad series of death notices, but it seems like experiencing the loss of someone I care about or respect is about what it takes to force my hand. It is a psychic kick to the head that I cannot let pass without acknowledging.

We just had to put our cat Bungee down and it was pretty horrible. It had been our intention to bring her with to California but it had become obvious in recent weeks that her body had begun shutting down. She had arthritis but the pain medication made her throw up. She had a thyroid problem but the medication there caused allergic reactions. She had become incontinent and had lost control of her digestive processes.

We adopted her from the Harbins ten years ago when Beau had had enough of self-medicating to deal with his cat allergies. Kristin had just moved out to Virginia from California and her parents' cat had to be put down after a long, painful series of health issues and she was devastated. The timing was right and she took to us right away.

Anyone who knows us knows that she's been a pain in the ass almost the entire time. She developed a problem peeing inappropriately and caused all manner of damage and high vet bills. Against my better judgement, we even hired a pet counselor to see if she could help diagnose the issue that triggered the behavior. As I anticipated, she brought nothing but common sense and a bill; no results.

We tried to bring another cat into the mix, a sweet young male cat who'd had a hard life. We got him from the Piedmont Feline Rescue League after seeing him at a bookstore in Arlington, VA. His name was Sylvester and Bungee was not happy about the addition. She ended up tolerating him, but never quite grew attached. He had been very sick as a kitten and had been nursed back to life by a woman in Middleburg. After about a year, he also developed serious elimination issues. We tried to deal with his health problems but in the end (and a lot of money later), we decided he needed to be an outdoor cat back on the farm where he came from. It broke our heart to get rid of him but we just couldn't handle two cats with bathroom problems.

The reason we put up with it was that Bungee was about the sweetest, most loving cat you could ever have met. Anyone who came over was met with curiosity, love and affection. To a person, they were astounded at how friendly and affectionate she was. We used to joke that she'd be a fine guard cat because she'd charm any intruder with her personality. We're not sure if it was her life experiences or genetics (we believe she was a Norwegian forest cat), but she was a unique cat in this regard.

In the last year, she started losing weight and was clearly suffering from some joint issues. We tried a variety of medications but with the reactions I mentioned above, it seemed like a losing battle. The vet had suggested that a series of glucosamine injections (that we would give weekly) might help the arthritis and radiation therapy might help the thyroid issue, but we weren't convinced. She was in her 18th year and this all seemed like it was going to be rough on her.

In the past few weeks we noticed several changes. She would spend an increasing amount of time away from us, sleeping under chairs, in her carrier, etc. It was unlike her and a sign of a cat being unwell. Her limp became more pronounced and we even saw her struggling to lie down from time to time. She stopped joining us upstairs at night, although she did come up a few nights ago after I got back from L.A. It became increasingly obvious to us that the move would be too much for her. We struggled with the idea of putting her down while she still seemed like herself a good portion of the time, but we decided that that was the right thing to do.

We didn't want it to get to the point that she was in so much constant pain that there was none of her left. There is extreme guilt in making this kind of a decision but at some point it becomes more about quality of life than how much you will miss someone. This is true for pets as well as people.

Bungee spent a good portion of today in her carrier. I don't read too much in to that, but it sure seemed like she was telling us she was ready to go. It is easy to make up senseless explanations like that because it makes you feel better. We were there the whole time during the process. First, she got a heavy sedative. The vet was surprised at how quickly it took. When she was knocked out, she received a second injection and passed almost immediately.

I am convinced we did the right thing; our vet agreed. I still feel horrible, but that will pass. It was difficult to come back home to an empty house with her basket and food bowls and toys as clear reminders of her absence.

This post is less expiation of guilt and more acknowledging her passing and the place she had in our lives.

R.I.P. Bungee

Sunday, September 14, 2008

So It Goes... R.I.P. DFW

"My vocabulary fails me, it's a sesquipedalian thing..." -- Jim's Big Ego

As I mentioned in my post about his death, I anticipated Vonnegut's end for quite some time. David Foster Wallace's suicide, not so much. I am not sure how to respond. He always presented slightly Not Right[1], but given his capacity for self-articulation and the borderline narcissism[2], his fully examined life (with apologies) seemed Worth Living.

Marisa introduced me to his fiction (for which I am thankful) but it was always his non-fiction that energized me the most. I remember with amusement and humility how appalled I was reading "Supposedly" on my way up to NYC for NYE to see Phish at MSG back in 1997. As someone who has the occasional propensity to succumb to sesquipedalian onanism[3], I found his profligate use of uncommon words clear evidence of Communicative Insouciance. I circle words I do not know when I read something and look them up when I have the opportunity. By the time I arrived at Penn Station, I had 30 or so words to investigate. As word after word revealed itself to be not le mot opaque but le mot juste, I began to realize that the fault was mine. Yes, proponents of effective communication would be appalled, but that does not mean he was wrong to marshall the full capacity of human expression; there was nuance to his writing.

Perhaps the greatest example of his ability to render interesting what he found interesting was the fascinating 100 page review of a dictionary found in "Lobster". If you think I am kidding, I am not. That was one of the most enjoyable essays I have read in years. Also of note in this volume is his detailed experiences following McCain's 2000 campaign as a passenger on the Straight Talk express.

I found it fascinating (not morbid or shameful) that one of my first reactions to the news today was to wonder about what a DFW suicide note would look like. I don't know if he left one, but I would sure like to read it. I imagine perhaps a highly-footnoted and impassive dissection of how he had come to his conclusion.

I will miss your work, DFW.

Kind thoughts to your friends and family.

1. Equal parts agoraphobia, an obsessive propensity for deliberate and detailed footnotial annotations and a hint of sadness at the loosening grip Man had on the full articulative [sic] nature of his language.

2. I do not mean to suggest for a moment that DFW was an actual narcissist, but it would be understandable for an outside observer to come to that conclusion given the attention he paid to his own life and experiences [cf. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, etc. ]. The Myth of Νάρκισσος has many variants through the ages including Ovid, Pausanias, Oscar Wilde, Bob Dylan and Genesis (the band, not the first chapter of the Pentateuch). The common interpretation is a morality tale against self love, but several versions reject this notion as an implausible and unspectacular literary device. Instead, authors such as Pausanias prefer the idea that he had a twin sister whom he loved. When she died, he pretended that the reflection in that water was her given the similitude of their appearance. Still, DFW qua Narcissus was apparently indifferent to the affections and affectations of Contemporary Echoes. I believe he saw in his own (self) reflection an opportunity to focus his profound attention productively, nothing more. Proximate narcissism, perhaps, but not the Real Deal. [a]

3. It was recently advised that I excoriate the phrase "interstitial flux" from a report about the applicability of semantic technologies to a customer in the scientific publishing industry.

a. DFW the Professor would be disappointed if I didn't cite my source even if he might disapprove of its authoritative credentials. 

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Moment for Moderation

As I have mentioned many times, I grew up overseas; a child of the World with my own nationality never far from my sense of self. In the Philippines, Germany and Japan, I made friends with people of all races, religions and nationalities. Even in my youth it seemed fairly clear that a single perspective did not Universalize easily. I saw poverty and wealth in the extreme. I learned to make friends quickly and take people for what they were. I witnessed the failures of unfettered self-interest and indulgence of the 60's, 70's and 80's varieties. I faced bomb threats and anger at an early age simply because of where I was born. I also saw unfettered appreciation for Post War magnanimity and a respect for the Narrative of Liberty and Freedom we wore on our sleeves.

I discovered evidence of chronosynclastic infundibula here on Earth. In "Sirens of Titan", Kurt Vonnegut defines these as "those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together". Spending as much time as I did overseas, this was the story that was sold about the United States. It is what I believed to be true.

This message of tolerance is not a recipe for complete lack of judgement or critical thinking. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that no matter how fervently one believes in one's own perspective, if you are honest, you cannot deny that there are other perspectives on the table. Nietzsche quips, "A casual stroll through a lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything." Does this devalue faith? Arguably, it does not. What it does is remove it from any kind of comparative analysis. You cannot use acceptance of Truth without Evidence as any kind of club. It remains a personal and shared expression of a world view. If we do not share that perspective, no matter how hard you try, you will not convince me and vice versa.

This collective dialogue of respect for competing views and lines drawn in the sand is what I always imagined the political process to be... until I looked on. Instead, we have a cacophony of Pro-Us chants emanating from the edges. Perhaps the adolescent name-calling and destructive venom have always been part of the process, but it's nice to imagine a dialogue of Ideas. The U.S. Constitution is a pretty high concept way of self-organizing. It is difficult to imagine it emerging from a culture distracted by the Colonial equivalents of Brangelina, Britney, Spitzer, the Hills, the OC, the View, etc. And yet people are people so it wouldn't surprise me that there was more of that going on than we care to imagine.

So, I am encouraged that it might still be possible to rise above the muck and have real conversations with real debate. We seek a balancing act between the roles of the Individual and the Group. We seek the shared efficiencies of many hands pulling in the same direction. How strongly you embrace the Way of Things is clearly directly proportional to how well you think S. Quo has worked for you. There is plenty of room for discussion with no need for the raw, polarizing anger of contemporary political discourse.

The World is a crazy, frightening, unstable place requiring more discipline, consideration and maturity than we have demonstrated in quite some time. It is easy to fall back on the faults of the last Eight Years, but it goes back further than that. We have not been led by Wisdom, Vision, Leadership or healthy perspectives for quite some time. Retreating into jingoistic chants won't cut it. Denying realities that the rest of the world sees clearly makes us look foolish. Taking control of our legislative bodies and accomplishing nothing is a waste of time, money and self-assigned High Ground. Embracing indefensible, equivocated positions of our own past make us look infantile. Ignoring the fact that we have ceded our moral, social, scientific, military and cultural leadership positions doesn't mean we haven't.

Here is to personal responsibility of both the individual and group kind. Here is to an administration that believes in the U.S. Constitution and doesn't mock it. Here is to an appreciation of the subtlety that defending ourselves does not mean reducing ourselves. Here is to hard work and strong reward and compassion and generosity. Here is to tolerance with a backbone both in terms of what we should reasonably accept and what we can defensibly reject. Here is to an educated populace capable of competing on a World Stage that is going to look very little like what we expect when we look backwards. Here is to a citizenry who understands their actual place in the world, not the one they imagine. Here is to having Big Visions for Hard Problems and the courage to do what it takes for success.

You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one. -- J. Lennon

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Good Funeral for a Great Guy

We attended Steve Metsker's funeral today. It was literally standing room only.

Two thoughts:

1) It was amazing to hear everyone reiterate exactly the same things. Steve was consistently wise, clever, accepting, inspirational, encouraging and a stand up role model to everyone he touched. He was a team player, eschewed the spotlight, accepted people as they are and pushed them to be what they might be. I have never been to a funeral where it was so clear what the direct impact of a single life had been on so many people.

2) The power of a liturgical structure in a ceremony is that it provides a narrative at key life moments (birth, death, wedding, etc.) because we often lack them on our own. Granted, the Unitarian Universalist tradition doesn't offer much in the way of concrete narrative, but this funeral today was entirely made by the personal anecdotes from a variety of friends and family. Steve's life, words, actions and influence were clearly narrative enough. Everything else (sparse as it was) simply got in the way.

Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry. -- Mark Twain

Hey, man. You win.

Friday, February 08, 2008

So it goes... R.I.P. Steven J. Metsker

I was just devastated to find out that my friend and former customer, Steve Metsker, passed away yesterday. I had not the slightest idea he was ill. They discovered some form of cancer on January 11 and less than a month later he succumbed. Apparently he was in a lot of pain toward the end so the swiftness was in his best interest, but it is so hard to make the mental shift and realize that the world is one Good Guy shorter today.

I met Steve when I was hired as a consultant at Capital One as a contractor. They had a project that had taken a group of PowerBuilder developers, given them some modest Java training and told them to go forth and build Enterprise Java applications. Hilarity ensued.

After many false starts, missteps, etc., Steve was added to the team to help. Within a year (my recollection on the timeframe may be wrong, but the results are not), he had helped turn them into a functioning, consistently productive team.

As I worked with him, he and I developed a friendship and mutual respect. We had similar senses of humor and enjoyed talking about software, life and everything. I showed up at Capital One very excited about the ideas of Aspect-Oriented Programming. Steve shared my interest, but cast a cautious eye toward silver bullets. Still, I credit him with encouraging me to send myself to the first Aspect Oriented Software Development conference in Enschede in April of 2002. That was a pivotal point for me as it was there I met Gregor who introduced me to Ron who introduced me to Jay.

Steve was an accomplished author, mentor, speaker, trainer and all around sharp guy. I remember one time when his parser book had been translated into Japanese, he was curious what the Japanese reviewers said:


My Japanese is pretty good, but had gotten rusty, so I ran that through BabelFish and came up with:

"To be easy to know being brief, the super male be completed"

The gist of the review was that it took a pretty special person to make a book about writing custom parsers in Java so simple, accessible and brief. He also wrote about Design Patterns, UML, Software processes and pedagogy.

That was Steve's gift. He was a talented communicator; a distiller of ideas. He was very much in favor of hands-on instruction and used the approach at various OOPSLA and other conferences to teach people about Design Patterns.

Recently, Steve had attended several of my NFJS talks on REST, the Semantic Web and NetKernel and was again cautiously optimistic about building scalable, maintainable systems with these ideas. I don't think he had quite wrapped his head around the full picture, but we were working on that.

A little over a year ago, Steve asked me to be part of OOPSLA as the Demonstration Track Chair. I was flattered and happy to do it, especially since I would get to work with people like Dick Gabriel, Joe Bergin, Guy Steele, etc. The last time I'd seen Steve was in Montreal last October. We had a lot of fun and spent a good amount of time together, eating, drinking and just gabbing about software. It was at this OOPSLA that I got to hear Fred Brooks, John McCarthy and David Parnas in one day! That evening, through a weird series of coincidences typical of my life, I ended up joining John McCarthy for dinner and got to explain some of the ideas about the Semantic Web to him. Talk about the highlight of my career!

I owe a lot to Steve and his influence, guidance and encouragement. But as enthusiastic as he was about his career, books, etc., nothing was more important to him than his family. I heard so many stories about the various activities with his wife and daughters. They were all precious to him and it showed. I don't think I could end this any better than to quote him from a variety of emails. They do a good job of showing his enthusiasm, supportive spirit and wide interests:

About his willingness to pitch in and be involved in his daughters' activities:

In other news: Today’s Pinewood Derby day, where 50 or so boys race little tiny cars they’ve built (in the morning), and then about 50 girls race in the afternoon. I was the least averse to volunteering to help, and am now pretty well running the whole thing. There’s a ton of logistics and operational stuff, with an aluminum track to set up, an electrical timer (with a laser switch!), and race management software. Man! Anyway, I think I’m prepared. If I pull this off, though, I’ll send along a revised resume!

About his interest in fostering clear communication to people submitting tutorials to OOPSLA and encouraging them to be involved again and again:

I notice as I fill in my tutorial reviews that some of y’all are not filling in the section on “Evaluation, including points in favor and against, and comments for improvement.”

It’s important to fill this in.

Filling in this section is a courtesy to the submitters – they need to see what we’re thinking, especially when we reject. It helps them grow and submit better tutorials next year. It can incent rejected submitters to try again. (It might, I suppose, have the opposite effect, depending on our wording. But I can’t imagine that pure silence is better than trying to give them ideas on how to improve.)

On his encouragement of me and my career:

Ya know, I gotta say, you're one of those people who seems faintly
bemused that others see a lot of potential in ya. Self effacement's Ok, but it's Ok to believe in yerself too.

On his reminder to me to not let work overtake more important relationships:

Glad to hear it, given that I assume with not one moment of doubt that you do not allow your busy schedule to any way impinge on your relationship and partnership with your beautiful wife. :)

And finally, the last e-mail I got from him was an idea he had submitted to Threadless based on a conversation we'd had:

As I said, the world is down one Good Guy today.

Goodbye, my friend.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Grieving Process

I've had my share of grieving. Losing my mother so early in life was a blow, but I felt like it couldn't get much worse than that. Ultimately, I still believe that, but it doesn't make it easier to countenance a new loss, even if it is only indirectly.

Right now, my heart has been rent by the struggle of a fourteen month old girl who I have never met, but I have just found out she no longer struggles.

We hear about tragedies on the news all the time, but we simply cannot bear the weight of the world on a day to day basis so we don't process the full implications.

I'm trying to keep functioning. I have a lot to do and I find the work to be a good distraction, but every once in a while a I'll find myself surprised that I'd put it out of my thoughts, at least for a short while.

The shock one enters into is such an important aid; it would be impossible to function without it. It is a thankful psychological band-aid that masks the struggle that will come next. I've found that the hard part isn't the losing, it is the learning to live without.

It is an intentional process of self-preservation that wracks you with guilt the entire way.

I remember the first time I caught myself enjoying hearing a song on the radio after my mom passed away. I was horrified that I could have slipped into a sense of normalcy. That I could have "forgotten" for a moment about my loss. It seemed like an affront to her and how crucial she'd been to me.

Eventually, it starts to happen more frequently and the guilt and the shock attenuate with time. They have to.

Living without is not forgetting.
Living without is not ignoring.
Living without is... living.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Heartbreaking Tragedy

We at Zepheira were devastated over the weekend to hear about Chime's tragedy.

Our broken hearts go out to them.

If you'd like to contribute to the family, a fund has been established:

Ogbuji Family Fund
c/o Dr Linus Ogbuji
2737 Green Road
Shaker Heights 44122