The Situation: Post-Father’s Day

17 Jun 2013

Original Blogger tags: The Situation 2013

I had a great weekend.

These posts have been largely kind of gloomy — maybe understandably, given my ongoing unemployment. But I had a great weekend.

On Friday afternoon I had a phone interview that went, I thought, pretty well. Grace had taken the kids away with her to Ann Arbor where she had an obstetric appointment, and then stayed overnight with them with extended family, even taking them to a kind of barbecue/fishing party that sounded like a blast. On Saturday morning she picked up a CSA share that belonged to a friend, who was out of town and donated it to us. She got back Saturday afternoon. Our fridge is packed with fantastic produce. More on that in a bit.

I spent most of that time working on a Dylan program, an implementation of the little Macintosh Polar puzzle game from 20-plus years ago. When I took breaks from the screen I worked on a Gene Wolfe novel that has eluded me for a long time — the second part of the Short Sun trilogy, In Green’s Jungles. Wolfe is one of my very favorite writers and I still think that the Book of the New Sun series is pretty much the masterpiece of late-twentieth-century fantasy and science fiction. I think The Shadow of the Torturer is the only book I’ve literally worn to the point of disintegration just by reading it over and over.

But he’s a puzzling writer, and in the later series he gets more puzzling. Reading In Green’s Jungles is like looking through a kaleidoscope held by someone else. As soon as you start to figure out what you’re looking at, and say “Ah! Yes, I think I see what is going on,” he twists the kaleidoscope and says “how about now?” And it’s all a jumble of pretty fragments again. And so these are books that are unsatisfying on a first reading, and even a second reading. I’ve gotten further this time; maybe I’ll even finish the second book. Maybe by the third reading I will be able to plow through the third and final book and feel like I have a sense of what is really going on. They differ from The Book of the New Sun in that the former series can be read as a straightforward adventure story, and it is satisfying in that way — to a certain extent. Until you realize that Severian’s story doesn’t entirely hold up, and that he is an unreliable narrator, and then you fall naturally into the mystery, and start to form your own theories. I have a monograph I’m working on, about The Book of the New Sun, but I don’t feel it is quite ready for publication, even on my blog. I feel almost ready to write about the second series, the Long Sun books. The Short Sun books are still largely a blur of glittering fragments to me.

I’m digressing again… back to my weekend. The time with my wife and family out of town. That was a great chance to dive back in, just a little bit, into one of my favorite programming languages, and one that was hugely formative to my thinking about programming. In 1994 or thereabouts I was an alpha-tester for Apple’s Dylan development environment, a tool that was ultimately relegated to the status of a technology demo than a viable language. At the same time I was developing real solutions in NewtonScript, the language that Apple actually deployed in the Newton product line. Trying to understand Dylan led me to Scheme and eventually to Common Lisp and Haskell. Dylan still exists in the form of community-supported implementations — see also the Dylan Foundry.

Dylan is a fascinating language but as I study the original documents in 2013 — Apple’s book The Dylan Reference Manual and the original Dylan book describing the language with Lisp-like syntax — I see an over-designed language, in the sense that the core language, designed to allow both dynamism and efficient compilation, seems to have too many features to really enable the sort of optimizations that the designers imagined. Maybe I’m just mistaking implementation failures for language design failures. Is there a thinner core language to be extracted from the big-language spec, if some features could be sacrificed? And would that be worth doing? Because I also see an extremely expressive language, a language I far prefer to Java, the other language emerging at the time, with some wonderful features, not the least of which is generic functions, which still seems like the natural way to construct object-oriented programs which are open to tinkering and extension.

Anyway, I got my program mostly working, and I’m talking to some of the remaining volunteer team about some remaining issues, so that’s been fun. But I’m not writing today to talk about programming. I’m writing to talk about how grateful I am for my life and what my family and I are doing here in Saginaw.

Staying home in Saginaw for the phone interview Friday, I missed the travel and the company and the barbecue. But on Father’s Day there was a friend in nearby Bay City who was moving his family — a large family like mine. I thought helping their family would be a great way to spend Father’s Day so I took my daughter and drove out there. It was a great afternoon — there was food set up, a big U-Haul truck, and just enough guys volunteering. Veronica hung out with a gang of kids. The weather and the company were terrific. I helped load cabinets, dressers, a treadmill, helped take apart a picnic table — all kinds of stuff. It was a reminder that doing work that requires me to exist only as a brain and a set of fingers is sometimes not gratifying, and that enjoying life is really often predicated on using the body, not just the brain. My back feels better than it has in months — I worked it just hard enough to stretch everything out thoroughly and counteract some of the endless hours spent sitting at the computer looking at job postings. Today my back and arms and shoulders and wrists feel sore, but in a good way — no stabbing pain or pinched-nerve sensations, just a pleasant ache of well-used muscles.

I wonder if that makes sense — the idea that I would go spend most of my Father’s Day helping someone else move, and honestly, I can’t really say that it was entirely by way of trying to be virtuous or helpful. I feel like I got a lot out of it. It was fun. I’m really glad I went.

On the way back home I stopped at a bookstore, and indulged my habit. One of the books I picked up is a bit of fun trash (I say that admiringly). Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers. He writes gloriously gothic and gritty space opera. He’s now written a Doctor Who novel, a spin-off story set in the Jon Pertwee (Third Doctor) era. I have not finished it but it is terrific so far. Somehow Reynolds, in print, manages to conjure up the low-budget location shoots, cliched supporting characters, awkward dialogue, excess foreshadowing, and cliff-hanger pacing of the old serials in a way that is both dead-on and affectionate.

But I was talking about greens… a kaleidoscopic jungle of greens, in our refrigerator, or something… oh, yeah. Sunday night is tossed salad and scrambled eggs night — yes, inspired by the closing song from the old Frasier TV show. Do we really eat meals on a regular schedule? Well, more or less; Monday is always chili night, and I cook it. Tuesday is baked potato night, of some kind — white potatoes or sweet potatoes, often topped with leftover chili — you get the idea. Theme, but variations according to whatever is in the refrigerator. So Grace softened up some chopped garlic scapes and chives in butter, and threw in eight eggs, and some gorgonzola cheese, and fresh dill, and something else I probably don’t remember — and it was delicious. We had a big salad of mixed greens, fresh from local Michigan farms, at room temperature, tossed with a little leftover pasta salad rescued from her trip, and it was delicious.

And Grace couldn’t eat any of it. Somehow between the pharmacy and her doctor’s office and Medicaid they did not approve her enzyme prescription refill, and somehow sat on it for ten days, so that she didn’t know it had not been approved until it too late to do anything about it for this weekend. She’s now out of pills, and so can’t eat food without experiencing waves of nausea. So she sipped weak tea and watched us eat. We will be trying to resolve that today, and spend a few hundred dollars we can’t really afford to spend, if we have to, so my wife can eat food. It seems like it should be a simple thing, but it isn’t. And unfortunately this is not the first time she’s had to go without her enzyme pills. We remain hopeful that someday she will be able to go off them entirely, but having to forcibly go off them doesn’t help that.

But it was still a shockingly delicious dinner. Sometimes life just hits you across the face, in a good way.

For dessert she made a strawberry-rhubarb fool, with fruit picked up from a farm-stand north of Ann Arbor. The strawberries were so ripe that you would not have wanted to pick one up and eat it — they were just starting to dissolve into pungent red liquid. That’s just when they actually taste the best, of course. She just cooked down the strawberries and rhubarb, with a little honey, and I threw in a tablespoon or so of dried thyme. The result was indescribably delicious. We served it to the kids with a little half-and-half drizzled on top, which curdled from the acid — so it was kind of an ugly dessert, but delicious. I think Grace got to eat some of that, without the half-and-half.

It seems like a simple thing — working, socializing, eating. We’re running short of money, I’m still applying for jobs every week, I’m waiting to hear back on dozens of them, I’m waiting to hear follow-up from a number of interviews. It all seems complicated and challenging and stressful. But I had a great weekend. I hope you did, too.

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