Sunday, April 30, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 303: Biomythography - Note 52, Stand By Your Woman

Biomythography, Note 52

Stand By Your Woman

On the beige phone over the smelly brown carpet in the hall of my college dormitory, the matter seemed simple. I was going to take care of my best friend in the style I could afford. That's what one does. The call seemed to be turning awkward about it. But not for me.

“She should go to her own home, not ours,” my mother repeated. I could hear movement on the other end. She had to be stalking around the foyer at home. She only did that when she was upset. It didn't happen often. But this time, yes.

“Her family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.” This part, I wasn't sure I'd explained before. 

"What kind of family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving?" she asked, too upset to think.

"She's Dutch and Mexican." I knew I'd described this part a month ago. Maybe my mother hadn't paid much attention. But it seemed more likely she'd forgotten. 

"How can she be both?"

"Her parents met at the United Nations, where they work."

"Oh, right." It sounded like my mother was starting to remember. She'd gotten at least two letters and two phone calls. She should know I was dating a U.N. child this semester. 

"She grew up in Denmark." I tried to give my mother time to think. But I could only give her a second because I was nineteen. "Where they aren't American. So they don't celebrate Thanksgiving."

"Not American." In her pause, I could hear the concept sink in. She had lived in Germany for a few years. “Oh, right. Thanksgiving is an American-only holiday.”

“Yeah. The college shuts down here for it. She's a foreign student, so they'll let her stay here on campus alone with no food. Or I can stay with her. Or she can come with me.”

“Well she can’t come here.”


“What do you mean?” Her response was stern but, to me, pretty much expected. 

“I mean, okay." I glanced around the eggshell-colored walls and the nearby door frame with paint chipped off, "I’ll stay here for Thanksgiving. Of course I’m not gonna leave her alone. That would be horrible.”

“I don’t mean that we don’t want to see you for Thanksgiving. Your brothers ask about you. They're expecting you.”

That was probably an overstatement. Still, I missed my brothers and it was possible they weren't too busy to miss me at least for our card games. 

“I’ve written them letters,” I replied. The rationalization sounded a bit weak. 

“That’s not the same thing.”

I re-considered for a moment. In fact, I'd thought about the possible scenarios before the phone call. 
"Well, I can't afford a hotel." I'd foreseen the direction of the conversation enough to consult my bank statements. I'd also asked everyone who knew the Gaithersburg area hotels. The cheapest available were thirty bucks a night. I could afford one night. That wasn't enough to justify driving down to Maryland for Thanksgiving. 

"I'll write a letter explaining everything," I said.


"Tomorrow." It couldn't be tonight because I was taking my girlfriend out to a one-dollar movie.

The next day, a Saturday, the phone rang in the hall. Of course, I never picked it up until seven rings had passed, which my hallmates were delightful about. (They sort of actually were.) At any rate, one of them walked over to let me know it was for me.

"Hey, mom."

"She's really from Mexico and Denmark? And you're bringing her home to meet us?"


"All right, then."


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 302: Never Mind


Once upon a workday dreary, as I fumbled, tired and bleary,
Over many a slide and colored spreadsheet of financial kind,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a rapping,
A fool with untied shoes a-flapping, a sound so soft but misaligned.
“It’s the Fedex guy,” I muttered, “A teen with music unrefined,
Barely words and half a mind.”

Distinctly, I remember it was in that warm September
And every sharp and lying member of the board had underlined
The projects they had mired -- schemes they said that they desired
But when the costs had come, perspired or retired from the daily grind, 
Too faint to bear the price for programs they let fall behind.
Nameless blame is what they find.

And the dreaded thought that sticks in, there's my boss, an elder vixen, 
Fresh from ruined plans that even she cannot rewind,
And I shudder should she blame me or, even worse, just share her mind.
"It's a visitor," I mumbled, "with a package that needs signed.
Or a stranger beered and wined, arriving drunk
Or simply rushed and misassigned."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, all my work you've undermined
When so faintly you came peeking, seeking for the undersigned.
Well, I'm not the one." I yanked the door and looked behind;
Of callers there were none to find.

Deep into the hallway peering, I stood there twenty seconds fearing 
That my boss would any second snatch me, in her grasp be porcupined
By fingernails that blood red guttered, stabbed by conscience quite uncluttered
But then a single phrase was uttered, the whispered words, "I've lost my mind."
This I muttered and an echo later stuttered, "My mind."
Merely this, my doubts enshrined.

Back into my office turning, all my acids in me churning,
Soon again I heard a rapping like before remind.
"Come now," said I, "only a few dollars pray for, it could be my office neighbor
and all he wants is me to pay for cookies of the minty kind.
He has a girl scout child, he says, and guilts me till my heart is burning.
There's no pocket he's not mined."

Open, then, I flung the portal. Before me stood a chubby mortal
With coffee cup and jelly pastry, which upon he neatly dined.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, strode dignified yet worldly blind
Almost sightless but for glasses of the thickest kind.
On my chair he perched his stately, wide behind.

Then this birdbrain sat there, smiling, my thin patience he was filing
Under H for 'have none,' though he himself could calmness find.
"Though your beard be shaved to goatee, and you sit like Zen devotee,
I have work to do and cannot rest," said I, "no matter how I pined
For peace or cash reward, in hope or sorrow letting earthly pleasures bind."
Then quoth the buddha, "Nevermind."

"Those rewards are dust already," said the voice with hands so steady
And dismissed Samsara's pleasures with a gesture he'd long since refined.
Although his fingers flew like a pidgeon, of coffee he spilled not a smidgeon.
Simple wrong and right had ages past been well defined
And now this office drone could too simply true Nirvana find
With such a phrase as, "Nevermind."

So the buddha murmured lightly and tried my patience most politely
With one word, as if his soul in that one word defined
How my work habits were pathetic compared to his 'at peace' aesthetic.
His buttoned shirt was collar open and most distinctly pinstriped lined
As he to my colored spreadsheet pointed and then he much maligned
With coffee breath of, "Nevermind."

"Look now, Bob or Bill or Buddha, your advice is stinky gouda.
I can't solve my office headaches with a 'Nevermind.'"
Hands on hips, I faced this fellow, whom I saw as over-mellow
Or maybe just too yellow-bellied for the office grind.
His refrain is oft repeated by those workers unrefined
Who live whole lives of "Nevermind."

Startled, no, he was far from it; his calm had not yet reached its summit.
I tapped my foot and tried to plumb it while, with both mouth and hands, he signed,
"It's a spreadsheet from a torture master. There's no saving this disaster.
So take it from a still-hardworking bum who wants to save mankind.
Do your greatest deeds for those whose souls have shined
And all the rest, just nevermind."

So the guru, quite beguiling, clicked the keys for standard styling
And said the members of the board could kiss his fat behind.
The smart ones, they would hardly need it. The others wouldn't even read it.
Those members were among the brightest apes in humankind
And some agreed with, "Nevermind."

"What work, then?" I asked my censor. He gave a look like I were denser
Than he expected, his one eyebrow high or misaligned.
“Someone has a moral disorder if they give the same weight to every order.
This you know, and to this project you were not inclined
While on others, you seized the moment, and made them self-assigned. 

You’ve hesitated over wrongful asks and mentally, you triaged your tasks.
You don’t blindly do each one in the sequence that your boss outlined.
Not each list done just to the letter, you sense who is the moral debtor.
You judge astutely and then you mutely promote the best one better.
That’s why your deeds sometimes have shined.
And I thank you for being kind.

It’s why some days feel like outtakes and this project gave you headaches.
In everything you do, intent and results get intertwined.
This task was simply taking longer because in your mind it felt wronger
Than all the others for this past month combined. 
A better project makes you stronger
While a stupid one leaves you disinclined.
And you need to say then, ‘Nevermind.’”

"And now away!" The buddha smiled with arms upraised.

“There’s no shadow you should lurk in when you know I’ll turn the work in.
Everything done was once important and all undone can be declined.
Save your soul and flee the yuppies. Go make some soup. Go hug your puppies.
Take yourself home to let the tensions unwind. 
Or wind yourself up and play with all the friends you find. 
Just don’t get worn down by the grind.”

Minutes later, I left my department and headed for my dark apartment. 
As I walked alone, dealing with the details of the bleak remind,
I stalked again the paths I’d strayed, re-lived the mistakes I’d made
And reflected on how in samsara's tentactles I’d been serpentined.
My footsteps halted.
I glanced into the lighted window of my mind. 

And the buddha, as is fitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
Near my office in his beanbag chair reclined
And his eyes have all the seeming of the Om of holy dreaming
And he's beaming, simply beaming, with a joy that's been refined
By laziness of work and laughter intertwined.
And all that's needless, nevermind.

  -- Eric Gallagher

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 301: Biomythography - Note 51, Command Line of Doom

Biomythography, Note 51

Command Line of Doom

Sunlight had started to turn amber through our back window. The playground behind our townhouse still looked bright enough to play in. My son stared at it from his highchair. He banged his spoon on his plate.

Next to our dining area, the phone hung on the wall. Its handset was beige and cheap. It was sturdy. But I never answered it. I hadn't answered a call in years. When it rang as we were sitting down, Diane diverted from the path to her seat to pick it up. After a moment, she handed it to me.

"It's Adam," she said.

I put a sippy cup in my child's hand and rose from the dinner table.

"I've got a problem," Adam said on the other end. "I thought I'd share."

"What is it?" I kind of liked having problems to solve. Adam knew that although, really, he liked solving things too, so he didn't always share. 

"The Usenet server crashed."

"Yeah?" That was awfully fast. I did some counting on the calendar page next to the phone and saw we hadn't gone a full three weeks since we installed the node. Of course, I understood Usenet services had changed from 1991 when I'd first gotten to know them. The main thing was, the Eternal September had taken place.

During Eternal September, which began in the fall of 1993, Internet service providers started offering Usenet access to everyone who asked. That included Adam and me as of last month. But the explosion of nodes everywhere around the country, actually across the world, changed Usenet. The Usenet threads had been channels for semi-private chats involving professional academics. Now computer hobbyists and various other professionals were getting involved. In 1994, the AOL service decided to open a Usenet gateway, too. That added even more non-academics.

Everything was faster, bigger. Different.

"The stipend for the job was pretty good." Adam's voice took on a tone I recognized as leading into a set of logical statements.

"Yeah." It was true. I waited for his logic.

"I figure it should cover a session of troubleshooting."

Crap, that seemed reasonable. I didn't want to travel from Frederick to DC again but I was nodding even before he finished his sentence. I'd left the Usenet node running in fine shape. But maybe I'd created some sort of problem with my vanilla configuration. It was possible. Maybe I'd programmed the server to crash in some slow, non-obvious way.

"Okay," I sighed.

Since his office felt the situation was urgent, I agreed to report on Saturday morning. We made the same driving arrangements as before. After I got to Adam's place in Gaithersburg, we hopped into his car and he took us the rest of the way.

Once again, his offices looked dark but somewhat comfortable and well-used. We flipped on the lights. While Adam took care of other business, something about a color printer, I sat myself at the Usenet server. It didn't take much time to figure out what was wrong. The process table showed a bunch of necessary programs were missing including the Usenet service. Also, some of my commands to the server didn't work. Anything I ran that created a file seemed to fail. I checked the disks,

$ df -k

and read the usage report.

"The disk is full," I called to Adam. "Like, it's completely, one hundred percent full."

"Huh, well." The tone of his voice, even at a distance, told me Adam had suspected as much. "I know you said to keep an eye on it."

"Did you?"

"I was busy." His voice got testy. He stalked from desk to desk. Something was wrong with the office printer and he wasn't having a straightforward time with it. "This is where I work. I have other jobs." 

My fingers rested on the keyboard of the little Linux server.

"Yeah, but it's not just like you're supposed to keep watching and deleting whenever you notice it's getting full. You have to filter it. You have to edit the configuration files."

"Well, I don't know how to do that."

"You watched me do it. We wrote out notes."

He remained silent for almost half a minute. He shrugged.

"Okay," I said, doing math on a scrap of paper. "You've got seventeen days of the entire Usenet. That's the limit for this storage. The machine has got 180 megabytes of hard disk. Your real limit, one that gives you room for swap space, needs to be less than seventeen days. If you want decent swap space, I say you should keep ten days without any other filter setting except timestamps."

"Well, I had to buy all three machines the same."

"Yeah, but that means this is what you've got. One hundred eighty megs, unless you put in another disk. You can keep all the Usenet threads for a little while, but not for very long. Or you can filter out some of them and make the storage last for a month. But you can't keep all of the Usenet traffic forever."

"From what my boss has been saying, he wants at least three weeks."

His boss had business reasons, I figured. I started running directory usage summaries and doing the math.

$ cd comp
$ du -h
$ du -h ./graphics
$ pwd
$ cd ..
$ cd alt
$ du -h

After a few minutes, the pattern of Usenet history began to emerge. I understood which threads used up most of the storage. I could see there wasn't much in the science directory tree besides a scattering of text files. The scientists at various research sites around the country were holding discussions but they weren't sharing microscope images or anything with large binaries to take up space on a disk.

"Do you know what threads you want to keep?" I called to Adam. When we'd configured it, he hadn't.

"Yeah." He wandered closer with a toner canister in his hands. "I think I do."

"Okay, then, I can tell you where most of the payoff is going to be. We can delete the big directories you don't need to save. And I can set up any filters you tell me."

Finally, his expression eased into a tentative smile.

"My boss probably wants to leave the social discussions and the talk threads about nuclear disarmament."

"Those are easy. They don't take up much room." I ran a du -h on the talk directory to make sure. It reported about what I expected, 9M of data, all of it in text files on the various threads. The same was sort of true with the computer discussion threads except in some of them, like /usr/local/bin/usenet/comp/graphics, people sent image files sizable enough that it would help to delete them. But Adam wanted to keep the graphics.

"That's the best part," he said.

"You know, I have to set up the filters for what to save. But really I'm asking what I can delete. If I can't delete I need to know what other big folders I can blow away."

"Let me see." He pulled up a chair next to me. When he launched into what to save, I tried to bring up a file editor for the Usenet configuration file. 

"Wait!" I raised my right hand. "Wait, wait, wait. I have to make room on the disk first. Deletions. I need some, at least. I can't edit the configuration until I blow away some Usenet files."

"Well, don't remove the stuff I want."

I checked what I was doing. I'd lost track for a moment. 

$ pwd

Somehow I'd ended up in the wrong directory. That happened all the time in the vanilla installation of Slackware. There was no customization of the command line prompt. Soon I got back to where I needed to be, though, and talked with Adam about the sizes of files, folders, and the details of the usenet directory structure.

$ cd /usr/local/bin/usenet

When I'd deleted enough files, I edited the configuration while Adam watched. He had to make decisions about what discussions his office wanted to participate in. He let me put a three week timer on the files, too. It was an option in the configuration he hadn't wanted to exercise before. With the decision made, though, whenever he wanted to archive a thread for his boss or a set of graphics files for himself, he would have to make the decision within twenty-one days. After that, the usenet service timer would purge the files and they'd be lost.

I had to go back and forth between changing directories, running pwd to make sure I was in the right place, and running rm -rf * for a long time.

$ cd /usr/local/bin/usenet/comp/VMS
$ rm -rf *
$ cd ..
$ cd lang
$ rm -rf *
$ cd ..
$ cd sys
$ rm -rf *

Adam's business wanted to save particular parts of the file trees. That meant I had to individually run recursive deletions in multiple spots. Each time I wrote 'rm -rf' I told the computer to remove files with the -r flag for doing it recursively (everything I specified and everything in the further along the directory path, too) and the -f flag (for 'force,' meaning I didn't want to get asked every time for ten thousand times about whether I wanted to delete something). Basically, I was telling the system to shut up and delete what I said.

Finally, after some negotiation, Adam decided could go. There was a ton of space used by the directory for it, so when I told it to delete, nothing happened for a while.

"How long is this going to take?" Adam asked. He'd been watching me for half an hour or more. He had wandered off and wandered back, too, announcing he'd fixed the printer. For at least twenty minutes, he'd done nothing with his hands. 

"A while." I'd already done the math in my head. At the rate the disk could clean itself up, the big deletions would take an hour.

"What does it take to fire up Doom?" Adam wondered.

"We'd have to play on the other two machines," I pointed out.

"So? There are two of us."

I scooted over to the web server, logged in, and ran,

$ cd /usr/local/bin
$ pwd
$ ./doom -net
Adam laughed as he got it running on the mail server, too. Soon, we were each at our console and dashing around in the game arena. We blasted the hell out of each other with bazookas. Every now and then, after I killed Adam or I died, I'd hop up and run to the Usenet machine to blow away another directory.

After twenty minutes between deletions (I'd found a good sniper spot and crushed Adam for a while, both of us laughing because he couldn't take two steps), I dashed back to the Usenet server. Oddly, the drive light was flashing. The command prompt hadn't returned from my previous command, either.

I hit a CTRL-C to stop the removal. Then I ran a pwd.


"Oh, shit."

"What's wrong?" Adam said.

I didn't answer right away. I was surveying the damage. My recursive deletion had been running without interruption on the main Usenet folder. I had been deleting everything in Usenet. Everything. Including all the stuff his boss wanted to save. Maybe. Probably.

"Sorry, man." I showed him the remaining folders. I tried to explain what had happened. Fortunately, the recursive deletions had gotten stuck in the alt folder, where there was too much to remove in twenty minutes. The routine had removed most of alt.binaries, though, something Adam had wanted to keep.

"It's all really gone?" Adam asked.

"Yeah, really. Until I fire up the server again, those folders will be empty."

He sighed. A moment later, he shrugged.

"Oh well."

"Your boss won't be mad?"

"Yeah, but no," He gave a sardonic smile. "He won't be mad at me. He'll be mad at the consultant."

Hey, that was me. "Why?"

"I'll just tell him you made the decision. It's not like you'll ever see him"

"Oh." Well, that was that. "True."

"I meant to do that," I added and Adam mouthed it at the same time. The Pee-Wee Herman show had been off the air for a couple of years but every now and then, he referenced it like a pop culture reflex. I'd developed my reflexes from him. 

"Is there any directory left to blow away?" he asked. 

"A couple. The religion tree and the fido tree might as well go."

"Start on those. Then let's play some more Doom."

$ rm -rf *

A few seconds later, on a different window of the same computer, I typed, 
$ ./doom -net


Sunday, April 9, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 300: Biomythography - Note 50, Harbingers of Doom

Biomythography, Note 50

Harbingers of Doom

"How do you feel about a consulting gig?"

I'd just picked up my office phone at Hood College. Those words were the first Adam said to me after 'hello.'
Both of us had taken side jobs before and we'd talked about getting more of them. It was more often a theoretical concept, though. We wanted extra work because neither of us were making enough. We needed money to feed the kids and the mortgages. But we were busy with our main jobs, too. Looking for other activities took more time than usually we had. His invitation to hustle as a consultant seemed alarmingly sudden. At the same time, I appreciated how he was getting right down to business.

"What's the deal?" I asked. My gaze wandered around my darkened room in the server center. I imagined where Adam was, he had gotten a non-profit connection to a tedious art task, or a session of cable-pulling to network computers together with Novell, or maybe a writing assignment no one else wanted.

"I want to get Usenet into my office," he said. "And email. And a web server."

This was going to be totally different than I thought. Huh.
"That's a pretty big project. And it's in your own office?" He was talking about three sizable setup plans. I'd built a few web servers at a time when hardly anyone had done it. Folks were just getting to know what the 'web' was. On the other hand, I hadn't configured a mail server beyond setting up auto-forwarding services.

A couple of times I'd gone into mail configuration files far enough to edit lines of shell code, TPU code, or the Pine setup parameters. That's as far as I'd gone. Those straightforward servers and clients came packaged with distributions, so my configuration skills with them could be, and were, primitive. We would have a home territory advantage in Adam's office, of course. But anything we screwed up would be more visible there, too. I worried I might create a mail configuration that didn't route.

"You won't have to specialize the setups. The mail server and web server are for me to play with. You just need to install three Linux machines to use as servers."

I'd already installed Slackware for myself on a PC compatible machine. It was great, way easier than Digital Unix or AIX. I knew Slackware would be perfect.

"Okay, I have a plan," I replied.

"Good." He took a breath. "You haven't asked about the money."

"Yeah." That was the down side. I figured Adam would want a special deal, hours or days of work as a favor.
"It's fifteen hundred dollars." Adam interrupted my thoughts. "I told them your rate was five hundred per server. And they went for it."

There was silence on the phone line for a moment because I didn't know how to respond. Adam waited for me to speak. The pores on my skin opened up in preparation for a session of nervous sweat. This was too lucky to be reasonable. Adam had cut a good deal. So there had to be something unsaid, something wrong. If there wasn't some element in this already steering us to disaster, we would be doomed for some other reason, some factor we hadn't considered.
"What about your ISP connection?" I asked, looking for the hidden harbinger of doom.

"I've already made a deal. I'll have to do the TACACS setup with them but we have a connection upstream."

"I configured TACACS for Hood College."

"I know," he replied, sounding exasperated. "You told me. But the ISP wants this done a certain way. I've committed to doing it with them. I'll call you if I need help."

He probably wouldn't need help. I wondered if I'd really have anything to do. It didn't seem enough to provide the basic Slackware Linux.

In 1994, personal computer hardware kits were starting to come with CD drives. But they weren't standard. When I asked Adam, he wasn't sure he could get his company to spend extra for the fancy drives. After all, the three servers would sit in closets, maybe with no monitors. They would never display media to anyone at the console. The CD drives in them would mostly go to waste. So I prepared a Slackware machine image on 3.5 inch floppy disks. The basic installation files took up twenty floppies. The number climbed higher with the optional driver disks. I didn't want to skip any.

With color-coded labels, I built my collection. My paranoia kicked in. I wanted to arrive with every possible hardware driver for Linux I could bring. All of them in existence, maybe. Non-standard hardware was the toughest part of installing Linux in 1995. At the time, even mainstream companies made personal computers with weird network cards or embedded graphics modules that made it impossible to find a driver anywhere except at the vendor. And the vendors never made Linux drivers. I'd always wanted to write a hardware driver, sure, but not during an installation job.

In the weeks leading up to the configuration and launch weekend, I got nervous and made an extra set of Slackware installation disks. I located more Linux drivers and made more sets of installation files. Plenty of times, I'd heard Adam say, "I know a guy." This was probably the first time I'd been the guy.

When the day arrived, I drove from Frederick to Gaithersburg to pick up Adam.
"I'll drive to my office," he said as he ate at his dining room table. Although I knew I would get carsick in the passenger seat, I agreed. After all, the place was in downtown D.C. On my own, I'd get lost or pay three times what I should for parking.
I started feeling better after a few minutes in the semi-dark, lonely offices. The place had a careless air of comfort. Plus, I had my plans about what to do. When I asked Adam questions, I had in mind particular steps in a particular order for my plans. To my relief, the steps we'd discussed in kind of an offhand way before made sense to Adam when I got into the details. He had his own set of plans around the hardware, the network, and the timing of the configurations. Our ideas seemed to fit together perfectly. When I started the first server installation, which was agreed would be Usenet, Adam was by my side handing me disks.

"We could do this in half the time if I start using your second set of installation disks on the mail server," he observed. And it was true. So we proceeded to cycle through the Slackware steps, each of us shouting the disk numbers across the office or trading disks as necessary. The hitches I expected to run into, like the driver choices, arose. But, time after time, we got through them. During the first installation, I was able to pick the most generic drivers or look up the hardware specifications to find a close match. There was only one device driver, the one for network cards, where I had to guess. I guessed right.

After that, all we had to do was duplicate the installation process for the web server. As I finished the third computer, Adam verified his TACACS configuration steps. I pinged his mail server from the web server. I pinged the Usenet server. So far, we had spent ninety minutes.

The hourly rate looked amazing.

"The mail server doesn't quite look like it should," said Adam. He checked the instructions with his Internet provider. As it turned out, I knew what to do to make Linux behave the way he needed.

Then, while he tested his mail, I configured the web server, a piece of cake since I'd done it a half-dozen times before. Finally, Usenet. Once I was running the Usenet service, though, I found the easiest setting was to let it grab every thread it could find from an upstream server.

"Yeah, that's fine," Adam concluded at the end of our Usenet discussion. "I'll decide what parts to eliminate later. The main thing is to start grabbing it. Is it really working?"

I could see it chugging away in the process table but I understood the sight wasn't enough. For Adam, I navigated into the Usenet directory tree and showed him the files and folders it was creating.

"Nice." He let out a sigh. He walked back to the last machine he'd been working on, the mail computer. His fingers rested on top. "How fast do you think these machines are, anyway."

"Brand new." I knew he understood the specs. He'd bought them. "As fast as you can get in personal computers, really."

"I think we should load test the servers."

"What does that mean?"
He was smiling. I knew I'd missed a hint.

"Did you bring the game disks I mentioned?"

"Oh, yeah." He meant the free version of Doom. I pulled out a separate box of floppy disks and waved it. He laughed and nodded. I repeated, "Oh."

He chuckled again.


For another twenty minutes, we loaded Doom as a team, cycling through disks in the same way we'd done before with the more serious work. I felt giddy. The amount of money involved had made the stakes seem overwhelming. Server configuration and minor bits of coding were the kinds of things I did at work every day. But I'd never had this rate of pay.

In my mind, this was a scam. The company was willing to pay me. I was willing to take their money. That was the scam. But it was the sort of scam where I pretended to do the work and actually did it. And they pretended to pay me and actually paid me.

If I could pretend to work well enough, I would never get caught.

"Yes!" Adam shouted as we fired up the first copy of Doom and got the welcome screen, a fiery background with a fighter in greenish. Behind the fighter loomed the dramatic DOOM logo. In front of the entire set of graphics, the computer presented us with a menu: New Game, Load Game, Save Game, Options.

"Can you make yours be the server?" Adam called. "I'm almost done. Then I'll try to join."

I had meant to run Doom on Slackware before this but I never had. There were so many non-Linux machines around, I had always grabbed a DOS or Windows computer to play games. This time, I switched the Slackware version of Doom into server mode. It worked great.

We made sure the computers were fast. Extra sure, maybe. After we spent an hour shooting each other with bazookas, Adam leaned back in his chair. He let out a satisfied sigh and announced, “The network is fine. And the servers are fast."

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 299: Biomythography - Note 49, Deliberate Awe

Biomythography 49

Deliberate Awe 
On a mountain trail in West Virginia, I hiked, tired and slow. After a while, I stopped at a turn. I noticed a pair of eyes on me. I pivoted toward them. And I saw the gaze belonged to a stag. It was taller than me by half, at least. Its antlers were wide and pointed. The beast regarded me with a sense of calm evaluation. For a moment, we stared and waited for each other to move. The stag turned and walked on.

And I decided to remember. 


I sighed and turned the steering wheel. I'd been working my day job, taking contract work, and teaching college courses. I was returning home later than I wanted from the college gig. When I reached my development only a few yards off route 194, I circled the court. All the spaces were full. I had to park in the row of trade vehicles a block away. 

My back hurt from the cramped seat. My eyes hurt from the drive. When I'd started for home, my brain felt fine because teaching is fine, but the commute and the late hour had rendered me foggy. I'd spent part of the drive cursing myself for missing storytime with the kids. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe. The harder I worked, though, the more I missed out on time with the kids.

I had writing to do before I slept. There was a lot on my mind. As I parked my car, I glanced up. 

A bright, reddish streak filled an inch or two of night sky. Amazingly, the fiery object broke up into three pieces. I knew right then I'd seen a meteor explode as it burned up.

"Wow." For a moment, I turned the motor off and sat. When would that happen again? I had seen hundreds of meteors in the sky as a child and not one of them got close enough to have the vivid red color this one did. None of them were big enough or close enough for me to see their disintegration. The previous ones had all winked out like shooting stars usually do.

I yawned. Already, as I tried to remember the look of the meteor, it was fading. My memory was a blur.

As I hefted my tired body out of the car, I considered how quickly I was forgetting these things that once seemed worthwhile. This time, I was going to lose the memory of a rare event because I was too sleepy and mentally preoccupied.

I stood up straighter. With deliberate care, I woke my body and mind. I turned to face the spot in the sky where I had seen the meteor crack into ruddy streaks of light. I re-woke the memory. I tried to fix it in my mind forever.

The effort sort of worked.

Between my training in awareness and my maintaining the influence of an old friend, Kate, I felt a good and possibly correct difference take place. I sensed my possibility of retaining the memory. My brain was shifting it from short-term to long-term or whatever was going on.


I looked up from my Blackberry. In theory, I was walking to take a break from work. In practice, I was working from my phone on a trail near my office building. The way it often went is I'd answer an email, stroll a few yards between the trees, and notice the prompt of another email. After one of them, I glanced up. 

For a moment, I wasn't sure why I felt a difference. I waited in the shadows of the maple and mulberry trees. My gaze moved to a gap between the leaves and the natural wall of bamboo. There, I could see the brightness of the noontime sun on the far shore of the retention pond. 

The pond caught rainwater drainage from artificial hillocks created with the office buildings. Even the basements of the buildings were uphill from me, here. So it's possible the pond was required by local flood or drainage standards but the property owners had gone one better and tried to make it into a miniature nature reserve. For sure, someone had stocked the lonely pond. Hidden pipes aerated it like a large, goopy fish tank. A few times, I'd noticed frog eggs on the shores of the green darkness. Geese visited the waterside and made their homes. Ducks did likewise. 

A sign warned passers-by not to disturb the ducks. From the tales of office workers around me, though, it might as well have said, don't get attacked by geese. Although they had never bothered me, I sometimes paused to let geese pass or waited for them to understand I wasn't approaching their nest. 

Something was odd about the geese, this time. Through my window into the pond, I could see they had all moved to one shore. A glance to the opposite side showed me why. 

On the bank where I suspected the drainage designers hid an aerator stood an animal I'd never seen before. It was a bird with light, bluish grey feathers. The head bore a mark like a bandit mask, dark grey or black. When it lifted its neck, the creature looked at least five feet tall. 

Its beak was long and pointed. Dangerous. But it didn't have eyes for me. It was focused on the geese. The geese, for their part, formerly the terrorists of the pond, were looking the other way, not even catching the gaze of one another, just strolling back and forth aimlessly as if they couldn't acknowledge this thing had kicked them out of their home. 

Later, I found out what it was. For the first time in my life, I had seen a great blue heron. 


We'd ridden less than a mile in the Arizona desert. My hand held the reins of my roan horse, Django. I was patting the gelding's neck and paying attention to him. I wanted to ensure we got used to each other early in the day. Django loped carefully between rows of cactus. He didn't want stabbed by them. Neither did I.

Around me, I saw baked, hard ground when I spared my attention to it. I noticed yellow brittlebushes and a few tiny, desert chicory flowers. An Arizonan friend, Carol, rode ahead next to our tour guide. Carol gestured to the herbs and bushes. She knew the names the local life. Among the rocks and tough soil, she pointed out barrel cactus, prickly pear, ocotillo, and saguaro. We passed a pair of mesquite shrubs, stunted and dried out, and a thriving greenstick tree.

"Is that ...?" Our guide turned sideways in her saddle. She squinted against the angle of the sun.

I raised my head. She shielded her eyes and nodded at something not too distant, maybe thirty yards away. 

"Is that a coyote?" She leaned to her fellow tour guide. The other girl’s mouth fell open.

As the others followed her line of sight, I did as well and ended up staring at a tall saguaro. I didn’t see what they did, at first. The brown shape lay in the shadow at the base of the big cactus. Its body blended into the dirt and the background of a dry buckhorn cholla.

“Are we okay?” asked the younger girl. 

"We'll, we're on horses." The senior guide gave her companion a wry look. In fact, we had passed the coyote by on horseback. We must have come within a dozen yards. It hadn't moved.
The coyote rested in the shade, not quite motionless but not concerned with us either. We would have had to make the horses ride through cactuses to approach. 

“Let’s go,” said the guide. She had a schedule to keep.

Some people say a coyote is basically just a dog. In my experience, yes, it is. It's a nice looking dog. Smart. A wild sort of animal but at least right then, it was not very wild looking.

High overhead, dark winged figures shifted back and forth in the sky. Behind them I saw the blue backdrop of a clear, open sky. Occasionally, one of the predatory birds drifted in front of the tall butte of rocks that everyone called the Devils Tower.

We had come to Wyoming by driving from place to place, traveling on the cheap to see what we could. As I glanced up, I was standing in a crossroads of nature trails at the base of Devils Tower. The easy trails were populated by drivers like us who had gotten out to walk. The harder, higher, or more remote trails were nearly empty as far as I could tell, except for one, where a group of mountain climbers was gathering near the base. They had layed out equipment and nylon ropes on the stones.

After I looked up, I found it hard to stop watching the sky. Seven or eight of the birds looked like vultures to me. I'd seen plenty. One of the avian forms, though, looked different from the rest. Its wingspan had a more pointed shape. The sun filtered around the feathery edges differently. Its head was white, I guessed, although it was hard to tell from a couple hundred feet below.

The exceptional bird and the vultures danced in the air. The vultures had numbers on their side but they seemed wary of the stranger among them. After a few minutes, I understood. The other predator flying near the top of the butte was an eagle. The eagle flew differently than any vulture, despite how their wings and bodies were roughly the same size. 

My wife beckoned me to follow her across a strand of tumbled rocks. My attention returned to the trail. We followed the path widdershins and uphill. Around a bend, my wife stopped to point.

"Eagles," she said. She gestured to a tall pine tree. I counted nine eagles in the tree and four in the diseased pine next to it. None of them glanced our way.

As I crouched down, I made out the print on the ground more clearly. It lay partly in the summer snow, pebbly and off-white, partly in the layer of grayish mud beneath. This print came from a cat. It was a cat too big to be domestic, not that we were likely to find any of that variety this high up. It was also too small to be a cougar, or so I judged.

We'd gotten here by driving up Blue Mountain in the twilight dark. The journey had turned out to be its own adventure. Diane had grabbed my shoulder along the way as the road narrowed and she caught a glimpse of the path ahead. The mountain pass turned into a roller coaster, the kind of ride that slants toward the ground as if to throw you off. In this case, the slopes of the road led to falls from sheer cliffs. You wouldn't want to be in a car that skidded. There was no rail, no border of any sort, just dirt that dribbled away from the tires and bounced down the slopes into the treetops a hundred feet down. 

After a long hour of switchbacks and crumbling gully-filled gravel and dirt, we arrived at the base of the Blue Mountain trails. And then, after a hike to the peak, we found this cat paw print. 

"It's pretty big." I rose, hands on my hips, and considered. I turned to Diane. "Is there anything for a cat this size to eat?" 

"Squirrels and chipmunks. I saw plenty on the drive up."

So it wasn't a hallucination. It was a bobcat. Of course, I would never see the actual animal. Cats were too clever and quiet. I knelt and touched the edge of the print. 

I'm old. Yet it's not hard to feel awe at the most mundane of things. I'm collecting all these natural wonders together into one description because isn't finding our sense of awe somewhat repetitious? Each person, animal, and object around us inspires awe when we think about them. 

Aren't these incidents all basically the same?

No. Every awe has its own flavor. 

Every moment is different.