A Dog Died Today

Her name was Brandi. She was a member of a long line of dogs in our extended family. She was a stray, of indeterminate breeding and age, rescued from the streets of Oakland by my son and his then wife. They have since divorced and, in an act of enormous generosity, he gave the dog that he loved so to his now ex-wife (I will call her Nora in this post).

Brandi was well traveled. She lived in a couple of different households in northern California, in Washington DC, in Manhattan, in New Jersey and in several different households in Minnesota. Brandi even stayed with us for several months while my son and daughter-in-law were relocating from the West Coast to the East Coast. It really did not matter to Brandi where she was, as long as she was with the people that she loved and that in turn loved her.

We all knew that Brandi was getting old and starting to fail. Her hearing was going and she was visibly slower in getting around. My wife and I are sensitive to this, perhaps because our own dog is also slowing down. For Brandi however, the end seemed very near. She was in discomfort and not eating. Yesterday, the doctor at the local veterinary clinic examined Brandi and raised the possibilities of cancer or kidney failure. The technicians took x-rays and an ultrasound and did things to make her comfortable. Nora took Brandi home last night with the expectation that she (Nora) might have to make a decision about euthanasia today when the results were available and analyzed.

We got the call from Nora this morning just after 6 AM. Brandi had died overnight, sleeping at the foot of Nora’s bed. There would be no decision about euthanasia today. In my eyes that is a good thing. It is hard enough to lose a pet and a companion through death without being the direct cause of that death.

We drove to Nora’s apartment, wrapped the body of what had been once a loving dog in a blanket decorated with dog bones, and took the body back to the veterinary clinic. This is a clinic that we have been going to for decades. It is a full service clinic that provides all manner of services for pets. It is staffed by very competent people who care deeply about pets and the people that own them. There were two services that they offered today.

First, the doctor who examined Brandi the day before came in and said that it was clear from the results of the tests that there was really nothing that could have been done for Brandi. It might seem foolish to be standing there discussing these results in the presence of the deceased dog, but if you love someone the way that Brandi was loved, you want to make sure that you have done all of the things that you could have done. It is all too easy for love to descend into guilt. Having a caring doctor tell you that there was nothing else that could have been done provides more comfort than you might imagine.

Second, the technicians made arrangements for Brandi to be cremated. One of the options was for the ashes to be returned to Nora, but after some discussion she decided that she would keep the memories of Brandi alive through pictures.

Afterwards, my wife and I took Nora out to a coffee shop. We talked for a while, mostly about nothing.

A dog died today. Taken by itself, that death would be painful for the people who loved that dog. But that death is part of a larger bargain that we make when we take on the responsibility for a dog. We will love the dog and take care of it and the dog will love us in return. But we humans live at a different rate from our dogs. It is inevitable that we will have to watch them grow old, fail and ultimately die. If my wife and I have any legitimate claim on Brandi as a part-time pet and companion, this is the fourth time that we’ve gone through this cycle. We can see a fifth time approaching as our dog reaches her end of life. And yet we know that it is very likely that we will get another dog. We have been, are and will continue to be “dog people.”

It is unquestionably a time of sadness. But Brandi died being loved. Indeed all of our companions died being loved and loving in return. We love and are loved. There is not much more that needs to be said, not much more that can be said.


The Quest for Connectivity

I have more or less tamed the tangle of websites and passwords. Picture a bare-chested man with flowing hair and sword held high, the light of crushed and burning URLs reflecting off his well-oiled muscular chest and abdomen, surrounded by the sound of passwords tortured into substantial entropy.

We are going to pause here for just a moment to savor that image. Now we return you to the reality of the situation. The truth is that I was much more of an overweight and balding trash man, picking through the debris left behind by my digital travels.

By dint of dedicated de-duplication and ruthless removal of redundant resources, I was able to bring the number of active websites in my LassPass vault down from over 150 to 71. Maybe 20 of the 79 entries that were “put to the sword” were duplicates that my careless use of LastPass created; I could delete those entries without much effort. That left 50 websites that no longer made any sense to keep in my present circumstances. It turns out that most of these now-obsolete websites have no mechanism, at least visible to the mere mortal, to delete an account. So I created a fake person with a fake email account. I updated the username, email address, and password for each of the websites to point at my fake persona, and coldly set each of these websites adrift on their individual ice floes. They are still out there but now they no longer have any connection to me. At some point in time, the website will die and take all of its user information into oblivion. Or perhaps the website will survive but in time will throw out a lot of garbage; my account that was, will be no more.

A few of the surviving websites are vestiges of a previous life and will no longer be relevant in a year or so. Most of the rest are “necessary” to operate in the world of today: email, finance, and places to buy things. And then there are the four websites that nag at me. I speak of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and GoodReads. And for each of the websites that I have mentioned, there perhaps a dozen more with similar ambitions. Each of these websites wants me to “join the community” and “become part of a conversation.” All that I have to do is give them a lot of information about me, participate, view the ads that are presented, and “good things will happen”. I have spent the last couple weeks updating profiles, adding information to these sites, and looking at the feeds presented by each of these websites.

I understand that I have to invest some time and energy into these websites in order to get a return. And I actually have quite a bit more time available to invest. My problem is that I’m just a little bit fuzzy about what the return is going to be. I’m not a “joiner” by nature. I am willing to put in the time and effort if it advances me toward some goal. Or to make it more precise, if this particular approach will give me more “bang for the buck” than other approaches in achieving that goal.

For a long time the predominant goal of such activities was to advance my career. Retirement, at least in one sense, means that my career has come to an end. That makes LinkedIn’s efforts to alert me to the existence of new jobs somewhat pointless. But retirement, at least in my aspirations, means that I want to become a published writer. Can I bend LinkedIn to serve my needs in this area? Or Facebook? Or Twitter? Or GoodReads?

In a very real sense this is very much like any other project that I have started. There are some very high level goals, some sense of the time and energy available to accomplish those goals, a seemingly infinite number of resources available out there in the Internets, and a very large blank canvas. The path is not clear, the ambient lighting is uncertain, and there are distractions strewn about. Pretty much, the “same old same old”, except where it’s different.

This retirement of mine is not for the fate of heart.

Flit! Or the Flight of the 70-Year-Old Hummingbird

Hello! My name is Jon and I am a webaholic.

As a part of my ramping down into retirement, I have been trying cleanup my presence on the web. I suppose that there are people that have a more significant problem than I do but that does not excuse me. I am listed on dozens of mailing lists and registered on a wondrous number of websites. How did I get to this sorry state of affairs, you ask? It was with the best of intentions, I assure you.

First of all, I am naturally curious. If the Discovery Channel is showing a documentary of how sewers work, there is a good chance that I will watch it. I have no desire to build, clean, visit, or have anything to do with sewers, other than the minimum that is required by natural bodily processes that are clearly outside of the scope of this discussion. I just value the knowledge, all knowledge. I read blogs. I read books. I read magazines. I read on-line news sites. All of this in pursuit of more knowledge.

Second of all, it has been part of my job. There are two aspects here: one noble and one not so much. The noble part of my job is that as a consultant, I have to figure out what problem the client has and what technology can be used to solve that problem. The problem is that there are a whole lot of different kinds of technology out there and they seem to breed like rabbits in perpetual heat. There is no way that anyone can know about all of these technologies.

But we have the ability to search the web. With some effort, it is possible to find information on these technologies and learn enough about them to solve the problem at hand. This is a skill that I, and many other consultants, have. Find a lot of possibly relevant information, jam it into the brain blender, pulse it a couple of time, and fish out the bits and pieces that seem to be relevant. Use these bits and pieces to find more information. Repeat until an answer to the question emerges.

The not-so-noble part of consulting is the BS factor. As consultants, we come into a client to solve a particular problem, but we are always looking for opportunities to help the client in other ways with other problems. There might be casual conversation in which the client asks if you know anything about X, where X is the latest technology to find its way into the popular literature. The goal of the consultant is to be able to string together a handful of sentences that demonstrate mastery of the topic, beg off discussing details, and run home to learn enough to have a “meeting on the topic” or find another consultant in the company that can “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Both of these purposes require me to flit from one website to another like a hummingbird in the pursuit of information. It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The dirty part of the job is that many of these websites want you to “become a part of their community.” In other words, you have to sign up, register, and provide some intimate details of your personage to gain access to the website. They always want your email address so that they can share the “good news” about whatever it is that excites them. There is enough of a chance that there is some value to the website, that you are willing to reveal your secrets in return for treasure.

But around the fiftyish such interaction, the cynicism mounts and you start lying about everything. To the security question about what you favorite color is, you say “bratwurst” without the slightest tinge of guilt. I have a problem that needs a solution. The client and my teammates are looking to me to come up with a solution. The answer is out there somewhere on the web. Maybe this website is the one that will show me the way to salvation, or at least, give me another search term that gets me closer. It may well be a “slippery slope” but a desperate software developer is willing to brave all sorts of dangers, moral and spiritual, in pursuit of an answer.

I mean, how bad can it be to lie to a pile of hardware and software? Unless it is a truly advanced artificial intelligence, can it even understand the concept of what a lie is? Besides, how is the website going to catch you in a lie? Another software developer wrote some logic to capture the data entered in the web form into a database. Chances are that no human being is ever going to actually look at the answers. More programming logic is going to send out the emails. Clearly, no sentient beings were harmed during this registration, no matter how far away the supplied data might be from objective reality.

The one thing that it is difficult to lie about is your email address. Increasingly, the clever website asks you for your email but does not let you in until it has sent you a confirmation email and you have responded to that confirmation email. Here there are real consequences for lying. The unfortunate part of this interaction is that the website now knows where you live, at least with respect to where you receive email, and website cannot resist the urge to reach out and connect with you. Frequently!

So I am faced with the prospect of dozens of websites that I no longer care about, if I ever cared about them at all. I could just go through the ritual of unsubscribing to all the distribution list that they use to send out emails like dandelion seeds in a summer breeze. Then I could ignore them. The problem is that these websites still have my email address and in many cases the password that I supplied. It is possible, cough, cough, that I did not practice good password hygiene in all instances. But in my defense, my involvement with some of these sites goes back over a decade. In those days we were all so young and innocent and didn’t realize just how nasty the web could be and how little it took to trigger that nastiness. What is the harm of using the same password at a dozen different websites? What could possibly go wrong?

If you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention to what’s been going on out there in the Internet, you realize that most websites are not even marginally secure. It is almost the case that you can see commercials on late night TV for Crack O-Matic; for $19.95 plus shipping and handling you too can have your own personal copy of software to crack virtually every website out there in the world. The family that cracks together, stays together. And so on. Furthermore, it turns out that it is pathetically easy to crack passwords. Add to this, the willingness of some websites to sell your personal information to marketers or other nefarious folk, and you have a real danger not just to being annoyed by spam but to being subject to identity theft. This is most unpleasant.

So, at least for a while, I’m going to have to take off the hummingbird suit and clean up the mess that I have made. For each website that I no longer care about, I must:

  • Change the password to the strongest one that I can generate.
  • Change the email address to a throwaway email address I don’t care about.
  • Scrub the account profile to remove as much personal information as I can.
  • Delete the account if possible, ignoring the fact that the website might perform a “soft” delete which does not physically delete the data but merely hides it from view.

This might protect me, but then again, who knows?

Trust me on this: retirement is not for wimps.

Eating my Way into Retirement

One way that people celebrate retirement is to eat.  I worked for a consulting company, Magenic, and provided services to one of their clients (who I do not have permission to name). People from my client took me out for lunch at the local Green Mill.  The folks from Magenic took me out to a local restaurant, The Loop, for happy hour. Both were very nice, however, the third gift of food was the nicest of all.

Yesterday I got a  pair of packages from Zingermans. My nephew and niece, Drew and Kim, send us a “build your own pastrami sandwich” kit. Here’s a picture of what we got:

WP_20150304_003 (2)

I’m not sure that there is enough food in the kit to feed us for a week, but it will certainly take care of lunch for several days.

I thought that I would do a web post covering the un-boxing and kit assembly as a way of thanking Kim And Drew.

We I opened up the box, this is what I got: macaroons and a container of perishable food:

The contents of the boxes
The Boxes within the Boxes.

Unpacking the perishable food container, gives us the following:

The Components
All of the Piece Parts to Make the Pastrami Sandwich.

This is all of the things that you need to build a delightful pastrami sandwich with sides of potato salad and coleslaw. I took these pictures on the second day that we made sandwiches. All the containers have been opened and resealed. We took a couple slices out of the loaf of bread. And to be fair there were brownies in the original package. They did not survive the first day. They were delicious!  The macaroons are standing in for the brownies.

We also had directions for the kit (first the marketing come-on):

Kit Description
The Description of the Kit

And on the flip side, the step-by-step instructions on how to assemble the sandwich:

The Step-By-Step Instructions

Here we have sliced the bread, added the Swiss cheese, and are warming it up on the stove:

In the Skillet
Warming the Bread and Melting the Swiss Cheese

At the same time we had the pastrami, wrapped in aluminum foil with a couple of tablespoons of water, in the oven. After a few minutes of pastrami comes out steaming hot.  If you look closely, you can see steam in the picture:

The Steamed Pastrami
The Steamed Pastrami

We unfolded the sandwich, added some sauerkraut and the steamed pastrami The first day we did not warm-up the sauerkraut but the second day we did. We are voting for warm sauerkraut for the rest of our run with this kit.

Everything is in Place
Everything is in Place

We buttoned the whole thing up, cut it in half, added some potato salad and a pickle, and enjoyed it immensely:

The Finished Sandwich
The Finished Sandwich

We’ve had two sandwiches on this kit so far and think that we will get at least two more before we are done. This is been a delightful present. Thank you Kim and Drew.

Some Assembly Required

It is Sunday, the first of March. I am now officially retired. I know that not so much because the calendar says I am but because Magenic shut down my email account today. Thursday was my last real day of work. Friday was a day of paperwork and saying goodbye. Saturday I was still an employee and could access my Magenic email. Now it is Sunday and I am not an employee and I cannot access my Magenic email. This is not particularly shocking or even surprising. This is the sort of thing that first-class technical organizations do as a matter of course. Magenic is a first-class technical organization and what they did was right and proper. Still, there’s that little inaudible “click” as you realize, “now it is real.”

I took a few minutes this morning to remove the Magenic email account from my phone and from a couple of laptops and tablets that I use. Later I will go through my Lastpass password manager and remove all the credentials for Magenic employee websites.  The list of favorite web sites will need some pruning as well.  I’m sure that over the next weeks and months, I will be finding more bits and pieces of Magenic-related connectivity that I will have to remove from my devices. I have changed jobs before and much of this is familiar if only dimly remembered. It is different this time in several ways. The last time I did not have a smart phone, a tablet, and a laptop that were connected to my employer’s information systems.  This time, I have to disconnect the now-broken links. The last time I was moving from an old employer to a new employer. This time I’m just removing connections, leaving a hole that needs to be filled in.

It is a big hole. And it is more than just digital connectivity that is changing.  My job occupied a big place in my life, in my family’s lives. The mechanics of getting ready to go to work, commuting to work, working, and commuting back home took up a big chunk of my time. Even outside of “work” I spent time thinking about the projects I was working on, reading about technology, studying for an advanced degree, and preparing for certifications.  The job controlled the clothes that I bought. The job controlled where I lived: my job took me to California and then to Minnesota. The job in so many ways established the rhythms and patterns of my life.

We refer to our home that we have lived in the last 17 years as Walden, after Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.  The inspiration was from our children who, being raised in suburbia and converting to urbanites, were appalled that they had pass by cows and cornfields to come visit us.  Thoreau’s most famous quote is relevant here: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  Now, the “drummer for working” has packed up and departed.  There are other drummers in our life but it has gotten suddenly quieter here.

Our challenge is to reinvent our lives, to combine the drumbeats of some old and some new drummers into something that makes sense for us. It is not that we lack for things to do. Rather it is that there are so many things that we could do.  We have to choose which ones and how to arrange them.  Some of the decisions are small and trivial.  With a job, I showered and shaved in the morning before I went to work and exercised at my health club after work. The question is will does that still make sense? If it does not, what is the right answer? It will not take much effort to resolve such a question, but there are hundreds of such questions that must be answered as we fill up the hole created by retiring.

The irony of the situation is that I now have much more free time to take up such questions.

The journey continues.

Jon Stonecash