Sunday, November 18, 2007


It's amazing how resoundingly empty a house can feel when someone who used to be there no longer is.

Back in August, I had to have my 15-year-old cat Taz put to sleep. He was so very, very sick, and the vet told me that there was basically no hope. He had stopped eating and drinking, his kidneys had shut down, but he still managed to come to me when I called, and he'd let me pet him, and he'd talk to me, and purr. But he just didn't feel well. It was in every movement. The way he would lie all scrunched up on the floor. I ignored it for a while because I couldn't face what needed to be done.

It was August 14 when I faced it. And I had one of my best friends—a member of my family—put to sleep.

"Put to sleep." Such a pretty euphemism. He was executed by lethal injection.

Taz was never what you'd call a social cat. He did his own thing and I did mine. He'd come downstairs and have a bite to eat or a drink of water and use the litter box, then come get in my lap for a short while, let me pet him, purr at me, talk to me, drool on me. And when he'd had enough, he'd jump down and go back up to that spot in the bathroom where he liked to sleep. But even when I couldn't see or hear him, I knew he was here. The house...felt different. Now, there's just this big, silent emptiness.

I'm not 100% sure whether it's the house that's empty or me.

I came home from the vet and cried for 2 days. I didn't go to work. I couldn't face it. I wrote the first short story that I've written in months. It was about Taz meeting Gremlin at the Rainbow Bridge. And I'm an atheist for God's sake (that was humor). I don't believe in that stuff. But it made me feel better to at least pretend.

Gremlin died suddenly. Four years ago. It was completely unexpected, and I think the vet might have been almost as upset as I was. I didn't even know he was that sick.

I watched Taz decline. And had to say, "Kill him."

In the first dream, he was back. He wasn't healthy. He looked skeletal with skin and fur stretched taut over his bones. He wouldn't eat, he wouldn't drink, he just sat in the room and glared at me. Friends in the dream kept saying "How can he even still be alive? Look at him!"

And I remember thinking, "Why won't he just die and not make me have to make the decision again?"

Paging Dr. Freud, Dr. Sigmund Freud. Please pick up the white courtesy phone.

The second dream was just awful. I don't even remember it. Just that I woke up after only about 2 hours of sleep and couldn't get back to sleep. I knew it was about Taz, though. I had that same, awful feeling after waking up. Guilt. Self-loathing. A feeling that I'd let him down. That I hadn't done everything in my power to save him.

The third dream didn't seem to be related until after I thought about it a bit. I was some sort of horrible person. I insinuated myself into the life of this powerful executive type and ended up convincing him to jump out of his 30-story building to his death.

It doesn't take a degree in psychology to figure that one out, either. I didn't kill him, officer. He jumped out the window himself. My lily-white hands are clean. See? No guilt blood.

I hope there's not a fourth dream. Three was definitely plenty.

And now the house is quiet. Eerily and creepily quiet. No quieter from a pure decibel point of view, but every bump, every knock, every groan can no longer be blamed on "the cat."

I've never felt so much like a stranger in any place I've ever lived. This is all my stuff, but it's just stuff. I look at it and feel nothing. I could move out and leave most of it behind tomorrow and not even look back. That's not like me.

I can't get a new cat. Not yet. It would feel too much like trying to "replace" Taz. Or Gremlin. Well-meaning friends and family have suggested that I just run right out and get another cat.

It just feels like a betrayal, though. Like one of those women who meets husband #n+1 at the funeral of husband #n.

I know I'm overreacting. That it's just my own feelings of guilt I'm feeling, and that I did do everything reasonable for Taz except that I waited about two weeks longer than I should have to do the last kind thing I could do for him. I put him through torture because I'm a coward.

I'm pretty sure that's no better.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Hard Truths

I had two very uncomfortable conversations today with close friends. On the one hand, it's good to have friends who feel comfortable enough with you that they can look you in the eyes (figuratively) and tell you very uncomfortable truths about yourself. On the other hand, it's more than a little scary.

Last month, I had a job interview. I was under the distinct impression that it went well. They liked me (I was told), I liked them, I had two people at the company pushing for me to get hired, I had an ex employee of the same company also sending emails on my behalf...I was all but a shoe-in. After the interview, I was told that I was the strongest candidate they'd met, that my personality meshed with the team better than anyone they'd met, and that I'd hear from them in a day or two. I took myself out to a nice dinner to celebrate an interview well done.

Except...they apparently didn't like me; they just said that. In actuality, they thought I interviewed badly, was "tentative," and didn't know nearly enough to be considered for the position for which I interviewed. One of the interviewers told one of my friends that he couldn't recommend me because, based on the interview, he couldn't tell how much "hand-holding" I'd need.

They continued to interview, and I was told—again, through these three friends—that there was almost no chance they'd find someone at the level they were looking for, and that I was all but a shoe-in for the "lower" position one step down on the pay scale, for which I was definitely the strongest candidate they'd seen, blah blah blah. They'd open up that position if they didn't find someone that was a very good fit for the other one. The one I interviewed for. I sent them a "Thanks, please keep me in mind" email with a salary requirement that I know for a fact (because of the aforementioned three friends) is near the high end of the salary range for that position, but since I am "the strongest candidate they've seen," I figured it made sense.

Well, it seems they did find someone for the higher position. When I was informed today that they'd offered this other guy the position, I was frustrated and griped to my friends who were online.

Who let me have it between the eyes, figuratively speaking.

It seems that I don't have confidence during an interview. It seems that I'm my own worst enemy. It seems that the only jobs I've gotten since the very first one were because someone at the company already knew me and could get them to see past my horrid interview to the good developer that I am. To "give me a chance," as it were. It seems that the job I had two jobs ago had the exact same reservations this new place does, but my friend—who worked there at the time—had to "lean on them" to get them to hire me over their objections.

So from one friend—and he is a very good friend, indeed—I learned today that I'm basically unhirable because I come across as unskilled and tentative during job interviews, and this causes them to wonder if I actually know what I'm doing. If it hadn't been for him and another friend or two, I would be unemployed and living in my mother's basement, or still working for the soul-sucking void where I worked for nine years.


I have a computer science degree and 20 years of experience in programming. Dammit, I know how to program! The language matters not to me; it's all learning syntax at this point. My skills are in problem solving: getting the computer to do what you tell me you want it to do. Let me work out the details.

The guy this company made the offer to has a PhD in Mathematics.

While I know that this doesn't mean he knows nothing about computers and programming, it makes me question why I spent four years in college getting what amounts to a useless degree if basically anyone who just has better interview skills can end up getting jobs I know I'm qualified to do. But apparently can't convince others I'm qualified to do. At least if I'd gotten a degree in something else, I'd have something else to fall back on, n'est-ce pas?

So I'm doing something wrong. But how do you get feedback on something like that? You can't call up an employer with whom you had an interview but didn't get the job and say, "Excuse me, but would you be kind enough to point out some of the mistakes I made during the interview so that I'm better able to convince the next company to hire me?"

It just doesn't work that way.

Except this time, it does. One of my friends inside the company was at my interview, strictly as an observer. She was under direct orders not to say a word because her boss knows we're friends and he didn't want her to influence me in any way.

So as painful as it may be to hear that my last three jobs have all been because I was hired in spite of my interview instead of because of them, at least I can now get some constructive feedback.

But that was only the feedback from one friend. I said there were two.

I was griping about the same thing to the second one and she started asking me questions about why I was angry. I saw immediately what she was doing. I said to her, "I reserve the right to be angry and not have to explain it."

She was leading me down the path to the same conclusion: that if I didn't get the job, it wasn't because of anything they did; it was my own fault.

So, yeah. "Happy Monday! Here's your world, which I've conveniently put into a snowglobe. Now I'll just...flip it upside down a few times so it looks pretty and snows! Hey, why are you pale?"

Saturday, September 15, 2007


I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why I'm an atheist. It's like asking someone why they breathe or blink. It's not something I think about; it's something I just am. I know that I've never really believed in a "personal" God—or gods—and paid lip-service only to fit in and because I didn't know that not believing was an option. I attended church almost every Sunday for a while when I was a child, and went to Vacation Bible School in the summer. Like a good Southern Baptist. But I never really..."got" it, if that makes sense. It never "took."

Understand: I don't have some sort of grudge against the church or god because I didn't get something I prayed for. On the contrary. Just like everyone else, I made little prayers when I was in school for dumb, silly, childish things. And like everyone else, I remembered the ones that came out the way I wanted and forgot the ones that didn't.

I can remember one instance in particular that stands out for me, because it taught me something valuable.

It was 1982 or 1983; my senior year in high school. I had done a project for the science fair every single year since the very first year we were "allowed." I say "allowed" in quotes because it wasn't really an option. But also when I say "I" had done them, that's not entirely accurate. Like most of the kids, my parents did a good portion of the work. My father was a carpenter/contractor, so he "got" to build anything that required building. The tornado box, for instance, or the solar oven. And always the tri-fold backboards that delineated the space that each project could take up. My mother helped me write the papers, and had her secretary type them up for me, so they'd look nice and professional. Thus, I usually did fairly well in the fair, but not stellar. The projects I picked were straight out of books with helpful suggestions for science fair projects. Often, more than one of us would pick the same project, and end up side-by-side at the fair.

The previous summer I had attended Capstone Summer Honors program at the University of Alabama. This gives high school juniors with high ACT scores the option of getting a head start on their college careers by allowing them to attend the first of two summer quarters while living on campus. It was a great experience. I took a computer course (on a mainframe) and became hooked on computers. So when I got back home, my parents relented and allowed me to get a computer. We first selected a Timex-Sinclaire 1000 because the price was right: $99. After I quickly outpaced what that would allow me to do, my parents saw that this was not a passing obsession and let me step up to a TRS-80 Color Computer. Sixteen whole kilobytes of memory that didn't fall out of the back of the machine at the drop of a hat. I was in heaven. I quickly learned BASIC and everything kind of took off from there.

For reasons that are unclear to me, I had also gotten interested in television violence. I think I must have heard a talk on it or read an article, but it intrigued me. It was clear that it was Bad with a capital "B," but it was also clear that the networks were not about to reduce the amount of violence in their shows.

When the time came to select a topic for the science fair, it was only natural that I find a way to combine my two passions: A Statistical Analysis of Television Violence.

What I did was actually quite simple, but at the time, it seemed brilliant. To me, at least. I decided that I would analyze whether people's favorite shows were also the most violent, whether they knew this, and whether it would correlate based on age, gender or race. So I came up with a questionnaire, had my compter generate 200 random phone numbers in my home town, and I cold-called people and asked them to answer my questions over the phone. I also sent another 200 or so with my mother to take the schools in the neighboring county where she worked in the admistration of the school system.

"Hello, my name is <my name here> and I am a senior at Warrior Academy in Eutaw. I am doing a science project about television violence and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind answering a few short questions for me?" That was roughly my script. I had them tell me their favorite show, what they thought was the most violent show on television, and give me their gender, age range, and race. A few people bristled at the last question, but that's to be expected in rural Alabama. "I am a NeGRO," I remember one older man said, very defiant of what he must have assumed was some sort of racist question on my part. I was so naive of race at the time that I hadn't even included a catgory on my charts for Asian and Hispanic.

After all the questionnaires were in, I entered the data into a rudimentary "database" (at the time, I had no idea what a database was) I had designed and stored it all on a cassette tape. I wrote a program in BASIC to read the tape and correlate the questionnaire results based on whether the people realized their favorite shows were also the most violent and categorized it by age ranges, gender, and race, in every combination of the three variables. The violence information itself, by the way, came from a group called the National Coalition on Television Violence, or NCTV. They don't seem to exist any longer, as their site ( is no longer available. They provided me with the top 100 shows rated from most to least violent.

(If it matters, the results were that people did seem to realize that the shows they liked were also quite violent, but that the only real correlation was gender and age. Most prominent were the males between 18 and 24 (or whatever range I came up with). Which, coincidentally, is the demographic most advertisers at the time were trying to reach.)

What does all of this have to do with my being an atheist? I can hear you thinking it. It will become clear. Patience, Grasshopper.

So I finish my science project, Daddy built the tri-fold backboard, my mother's secretary typed up the research paper, and I took the computer, the cassette tape player, and the bound set of questionnaires to school and set it all up.

It was then that I remember saying a little prayer. "God," I thought as I exited the gym, "just let me do the best I can." That was it. No more. I knew I had done my best, and I knew that I had, for once, done the lion's share of the work.

A few hours into the judging, the principal, Mr. Costanzo, came and got me and my friend Willis out of class. "Boys," he said, "the judges are very impressed with both of your projects, and they can't decide between them for first place. So we've decided to award it to both of you."

Wow! First place! And I had done it! All by myself, within reason. Willis and I both walked around with swelled heads for a few days. The other kids were let in to view the fair in the afternoon, after the judging, and I realized pretty quickly that I had a golden opportunity. Instead of having my computer display boring statistics and information about television violence, I loaded up a game I had written. I left it running on the computer.

My display was the most popular. :)

It didn't take me long, though, to realize that God had nothing to do with my success. I had done all the hard work on my own. I designed the questionnaire, made the cold calls, wrote the program to do the analysis...I even wrote the program to generate random Eutaw phone numbers based on patterns I had noticed in the phone book. God hadn't done any of that; I had. So why give him any of the credit?

Willis and I both went to the regional fair, and both failed miserably. At Warrior Academy, we had both been big fish in a little pond; at the regional fair, we were plankton. The girl three booths down from me had done a project with a computer, as well. She built her computer. And then programmed it. By flipping switches and entering in machine code in hexadecimal. I can't help but wonder where she is, today.

Willis' display on erythrocytes was right next to a kid whose father was a professor at the University of Alabama, and had access to a scanning electron microscope. His similar project blew Willis' out of the water. We both returned home chastened, our big heads deflated. And once again, I thought, "I did my best on this." It wasn't God who had made me win by somehow influencing the judges to vote for me. And it wasn't God who had made me fail at the regional fair. No, both times it was because of me and my own abilities. At Warrior, our projects outshone the others because of the hard work and dedication we had put in. At the regional fair, ours faded into the background for the same reason: we hadn't put in as much work and dedication as the winners. It was just that simple.

When I look back on this experience, I see the first glimmer of my realization that God—or gods—simply isn't necessary. It wasn't until much later that I began to think critically and examine the scientific evidence and realize that I could no longer even give lip-service to the concept.

So that's why I remember that one, silent prayer so vividly. It was the one that led, utlimately, to a greater understanding that God wasn't necessary.


I have another blog. It's a typical "pictures of my cats and what I had for breakfast" blog with the occasional post of some sort of substance. This blog is an attempt to get away from that format and write only about things that matter to me. I've made no attempt to hide myself from that other blog; if people from there find me, then that's fine. I don't care so much about having an audience as I do about writing for writing's sake. Something I've managed to get away from in recent years. Something I miss very much. Something I hope I can get back into. I might try experimental things, here, such as using literary forms or techniques that I find intriguing, but which don't lend themselves well to "pictures of my cats and what I had for breakfast."

So, having said that, I will now stop writing about purpose and think of something to write. And I'll refrain from posting pictures of my cats or telling you what I'm about to have for breakfast.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hello, world!

I believe there is a kind of tradition that the first code you write with any new development software is the "Hello, World!" program. So, in keeping with that tradition, since I am a developer and this is a new thing for me:

Hello, world!