this mortal coil

Some Notes on Bike Commuting

Last year I sat out the bike commute challenge at work. I was feeling resistant to bike commuting because I’d given it a try in late fall/early winter and had a really hard time of it. This year, I thought about it ahead of time and decided to set a goal of biking to work every day in September.

I started out July with a three-day-a-week goal and it was pretty easy to get up to five days a week within a month or so. The last Friday of August, I went on a 51-mile ride around east Portland (warning, PDF) as a sort of “if I can do this in a morning, I can surely do 24 miles a day” validation run.

Here are a few observations:

Handlebars matter

My last bike was a hybrid with mountain bike bars. It was very hard to ride for more than five or six miles without feeling some discomfort. There just aren’t many ways you can vary your grip, which makes it pretty fatiguing over time. My new bike has drop bars and “chicken levers” in addition to the normal brake levers. There are plenty of ways to shift around on the bars now, which helps beyond just resting wrists, hands and shoulders: It’s much easier to shift weight around in general.

A good bike fit matters

Puppet Labs paid for most of a bike fitting during the bike commute challenge, so I was able to have a specialist set me up and coach me on posture and positioning. My seat was riding a little high, and my posture wasn’t great. 30 minutes later, everything was adjusted correctly and I had learned how to position my feet on the pedals and hold my back. My ride has been more comfortable since.

Cleats are nice, but they take work

After a lot of back and forth, I bought clipless pedals. I had toe clips on my last bike, and they were fine but a little bit of a pain now and then. For September, I just used the pedals that came with my bike. They were fine except on wet days: I’d hit a few hills where I didn’t downshift enough and my feet would slip off.

I celebrated my 100 percent commute rate for September by buying clipless pedals and shoes. I was initially going to go with the standard Shimano SPD setup and possibly dual-use pedals (cleat hardware on one side, standard cage on the other), but noticed Shimano’s selling a line of clipless pedals and shoes branded as “Click’R.” They’re supposed to be easier to get in and out of, which was a concern for me because everybody said “if you go clipless, you’ll fall over some time in your first week.” So rather than going with the half-measure, I just bought Click’R stuff.

The Click’R line involves a slightly different pedal construction and standard SPD cleats, along with shoes that I think are a little more built for street wear. The pedals are also multi-use, so it’s possible to use them for short rides without cleats. The guy at Bike Gallery installed the pedals for me and set the tension very low. I went out in the side parking lot and practiced clicking in and out 20 or 30 times, then took off for work.

I haven’t fallen over yet, but clipless pedals weren’t completely trouble free to begin with. You have to set up your cleats with a little care to make sure the pedal is properly aligned with your foot. I set mine up kind-of-sort-of correctly and began to notice two things: My left foot was turned in a little (bad alignment of the cleat along the length of my foot), which caused me a little knee discomfort; and both feet were sore from my toes trying to grip something when I pedaled.

I paid very close attention to this video on proper cleat setup, made a few adjustments, and I’ve had a week of much smoother riding. No more inward turn, the knee pain is gone, and it’s easier to adopt the sort of shuffling pedaling motion you’re supposed to have when you’re clipped in. I don’t think about my feet, either. I just click in and start going and there’s no more foot stress.

The big difference I’ve noticed in my rides has come from better pedaling technique: When I’m doing it right, I’m exerting less force in a way that used to cause my upper body to move more when I pedaled. Now, with that shuffling stroke, my upper body has an easier time staying still and that makes for a ride that feels smoother and more anchored.

Lower gears are better

When I first got my new bike, I was pretty excited about how fast I could go on it. I lived up on the third ring and sort of mashed along at high speed. After a few weeks, I read that the middle cog is traditionally the cruising cog, so I dropped down to that, but still stayed up on the high gears. In the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with lower and lower gears, and I’ve found that spinning along around the middle of the middle cog is just about right for me. I’m moving about as fast as I was when I was mashing in the upper gears, but it feels better (and it contributes to the smoother ride I’ve been getting by improving my pedaling technique). It also makes hills less traumatic: one long pull on the STI shifters gets me down to a climbing gear, and three clicks at the top gets me back to a cruising gear that doesn’t take a ton of effort to get moving with again. There are a few hills I don’t even think about anymore because there’s less wandering around the gears.

You won’t please everybody

A short list of things I have gotten yelled at for on the Springwater:

  • Using my bell to warn people I’m coming up on them (“Whatever!”)
  • Not using my bell to warn people I’m coming up on them
  • Saying “on your left” before passing (“GOOD FOR YOU!”)
  • Not saying “on your left” before passing (that guy chased me for a block, yelling at me that he was going to kick my ass) (we were on opposite sides of the widest part of the trail with nobody else around)
  • Blinking lights (“disco, motherfucker!”)
  • Steady lights (“FUCK YOUR LIGHTS!”)
  • Yielding the right of way to a driver who had the right of way
  • Failing to cross against a signal

I had one close shave with someone who just turned across a bike crossing without looking, and I had one close shave from someone who yielded the right of way at an intersection, then rescinded the offer as I passed in front of them. I think someone thought the whole “lunge at the bicyclist with your car” thing was a playful joke I might enjoy. Good one!

But, you know, over 800 or so miles that averages out to someone being unhappy with me about once every 80 miles. I’ve since settled into just using my bell (people who are walking or riding along and talking or listening to music don’t hear spoken warnings without me shouting, which just makes them angry) and I’m firmly in the “your attempt at rules-of-the-road-negating ‘courtesy’ will get someone killed, so I’m not budging until your arm falls off from gesticulating at me” camp.

Lights are a conundrum. Too bright or angled too high, and they’re obnoxious. Angled too low and they make the Springwater at night a pretty iffy proposition, considering how many people there are on foot wearing nothing reflective, or salmoning up the trail with no lights. My takeaway so far: I’ve adapted to bright lights on other bikes by looking down at the side of the path until they’re past, and I just keep my light at the lowest of the three brightness settings.

What I got over three months

So, from a dead stop of having not ridden to work in 18 months in July, to biking into work every day in September (and so far in October, with the exception of a single work-from-home day), this is what I got:

I was pretty saddle sore the first week or two, even at three days a week. My back wasn’t always happy, and my shoulders were sore, even though my new bike let me shift around a lot more than my old one. After a month, I wasn’t thinking about saddle soreness at all. I even did a 10-mile ride from a coworker’s house in my jeans without getting too sore. By mid-September, I wasn’t thinking about my shoulders or arms at all.

My overall sense of wind has been steadily improving. Now that I’m spinning more than I’m mashing, I’ve been experiencing a much more profound sense of stillness on my rides. That extends from the steady motion of my body to the ease of my breathing. Clipped in, properly seated, and resting on the brake hoods, I feel anchored and connected to my bike.

There’s been some work stress, but that hour on the bike at night gives me a ton of space to process it and come through the door in a better place for my family. The hour on the bike going in gives me valuable time to think about what’s coming for the day and gear up for it.

Without paying much attention to my diet — meaning I just sort of went with it when all that increased activity meant I wanted to eat like a horse, and I haven’t been denying myself much since my appetite settled down — I’m also down a bit over 17 pounds.

I guess the big downside is that winter is coming and I don’t think there’s any alternative but to keep the routine I’ve established. It’s been too good for me to stop, even if it means I’m going to be getting wet a lot.

I bought my team copies of @shanley Kane’s book. I think you should buy it for yours.

The first piece of Shanley Kane’s writing I ever read was her essay, “The Marketing Chick.” I was a marketing dude at the time, and it turned my head around. Up to reading that essay, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself: People in the tech industry consistently make sport of their colleagues in the marketing department, and it’s gross.

Because I’d started out at the company as a tech writer, and because I had a background as a practitioner with expertise in the sorts of technologies we support, I got a little bit of a break elsewhere in the office. The jokes about being “on the dark side” were delivered with a little more of a smile. I was supposed to read the ribbing about “bad life choices” as gentle, I think. When things weren’t going well on the team, I had an easy time finding sympathetic ears outside the team because it’s marketing, and there’s only so much you can do with those people. And because it’s like Shanley wrote:

Ironically, but not surprisingly, men who do these jobs are almost never denigrated and insulted the way women who do these jobs are. In fact, most high-level marketing positions in tech are still occupied by white men. Funny how that works.

She’s right. The worst thing I’d probably ever be called was “a marketing dude.” Never one of “those bitches in marketing.”

So reading Shanley helped me start thinking about how much privilege I was enjoying, regardless of how put upon I felt. It helped me understand what it meant when a female coworker confided to me that some of the women on the team hated to disagree with me, because they felt like they were at an automatic disadvantage dealing with a male who was “more technical.”

When I got a laudatory evaluation that mentioned the ways I’d “bridged the divide” between marketing and other teams in the company, Shanley’s writing helped me understand the ways in which a thing I thought was a virtuous outcome — I like being the guy who can walk into a room and help people make sense of each other, and it seems like a valuable gift to have — was perhaps the product of a bad gender dynamic.

Ultimately, I didn’t last on that marketing team. I went back over to technical writing — and a management role — and lots of people heartily welcomed me back. It was hard to be all “oh, thank god!” about it, because people always seem ready to believe the worst about marketing. If you believe in social justice, and once you see that gender dynamic exposed the way Shanley does in her essay, being welcomed back to “where you belong” feels slightly poisoned.

So, that was the first thing from her I ever read, and it changed the way I saw the world and thought about my work. As much as there were times in that marketing pod where I felt as profoundly alienated as I’ve felt anywhere, I was given a way to understand how much privilege I had.

I’ve read more of her stuff since. She has some wonderful insights into the responsibilities of management, how microaggression works and looks, how to identify the smells in your team communication, and more, including the wonderful “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management.” In the best of all possible worlds, she wouldn’t be considered a radical at all. In fact, there are substantial parts of that essay that wouldn’t be out of place in an Army leadership course. The fact that she sometimes is considered a radical, that she’d feel the need to label those ideas radical, just underscores how badly twisted our collective work culture has become.

So, I love Shanley’s writing. It’s direct, it resonates, and it should be all anyone needs to read to start asking the right questions. That’s why I gave myself her book. The reason I’m giving it to my team is perhaps more because of Shanley herself.

People have written about Shanley’s writing on Twitter as if they’re writing about a separate person. She’s relentless in the promotion of her ideals in the face of constant demands to just shut up and sit back down, and she isn’t at all cool about it. She reminds me constantly — sometimes painfully — that it’s not enough to read a few essays, sit back and ruminate for a bit. She demands allies actually act like allies, and that’s hard.

I’ve had to make a few difficult decisions over the past year. The combination of her lucid writing and relentless advocacy have helped me make the right decisions when I’ve gotten it right, and helped strengthen my resolve to do better when I’ve gotten it wrong. No, I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. She certainly doesn’t write for me, but she’s one of those people with whom I feel engaged, and who has a voice to which I feel answerable.

That engagement, for me, takes the form of constant reminders of the privilege I’ve enjoyed all my life. I’ve been profoundly privileged to be places where I could come across the ideas I have, and to know people who have been willing to deal with my myopic good intentions and misguided attempts at just behavior — people who have been so patient with me. I’ve caught break after break, and I’ve had the nerve to sit around feeling sorry for myself in the midst of a career I’ll never say I “deserved,” having had the good luck to walk away from ridiculous choices and to survive one really solid attempt at just giving up.

And the thread throughout all that was privilege I didn’t even know I had. Did someone roll over me in a meeting, or treat me poorly, or do something I didn’t like? I’ve never had a doubt that the door of whatever authority figure was around was open to me. That even if it turned out I was wrong, at the very least I’d be soothed and reassured. Privilege is a place of “honest mistakes” and your good intentions mattering, and people affirming your essential reasonableness even when you’re mostly pissed off that you didn’t get your way. You get lots of do-overs. When you fuck up, people not only forgive you but they think up excuses on your behalf and then provide them to you. If you’re like me, you can even make it all the way to 44 before you have to apply for a job where you don’t have some kind of in — went to college with your new boss, had your name passed along by a friend, and on and on.

Consequently, privilege is a place of profound delusion, where you make excuses for other peoples’ suffering — when you’re even aware of it — and sometimes have the unmitigated gall to scold others for their “lack of civility” or “tone” because they happen to be mad as hell over things you wouldn’t stand happening to you, and that you’d be able to correct with a quiet word in the ear of the right person. Given all that, privilege cannot help but be morally distorting.

So I’m buying Shanley’s book for my team because in our relationship I enjoy more privilege than them, and I want them to have something more tangible than promises that “my door is always open,” or that “I’ll work very hard to be fair.” I want us all to have a shared toolkit so we can build the team we all deserve, and so there’s a shared sense of the standard to which I’ll hold myself accountable — to which they can hold me accountable — if I let them down. From her essay “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management:”

“Manager” is not an honorific, it is my job description.

My first and only priority is to make my team successful.

The honesty, safety, productivity and dignity of my team is more important than my personal comfort.

It should be common sense, but it doesn’t seem to actually be common sense, and I want it to be.

Here’s where you can buy your own copy.

You Just Go Out the Door

I’m on the “guesser” side of the cultural divide, I hate saying “no,” and it’s really hard for me to give people difficult feedback. I think most people who know me know all that.

Here’s something I remind myself of when I’m gifted with an opportunity to see that I’m heading for that territory:

I spent two years on jump status at Ft. Bragg. I wasn’t a super active jumper. I did the ones they told me to do to stay on active jump status and I went to a few weekend “fun jumps” early on. It got harder and harder to jump the closer I got to getting out; maybe because the stories of people being crippled or killed on a jump stack up the longer you’re listening for them, maybe because thinking about going home meant I also had to think about my future a little more. Either way, whatever for, it started getting scary.

So, there was this one sergeant — one of the jump masters — who didn’t think much of me. He’d let me know about it every once in a while. One afternoon he decided to make a thing about jumping:

“You’re such a fucking pussy. I saw you on that last jump, all tight-faced and afraid. Didn’t want to jump, did you?”

“No, sergeant.”

He laughed and hooted. “Called it! Called it! He even admits it. Fuckin’ scared.”

“But I jumped, sergeant. I’m scared every time, but I always jump.”

“Yeah. I guess you do.”

Mechanical Rabbit


I always liked the idea of running. One day I was in the library and saw a book called The Zen of Running, so I gave it a try.

It had some sort of woo stuff I can’t remember, and it had some advice that was just generally good (remember to breathe, unclench your hands and hold them like you’re carrying a bag of potato chips you don’t want to crush).

So I started running.

There wasn’t such a thing as Couch25K at the time, so I just aimed to go 15 minutes without stopping. That would take me to a hill on a country road behind my house that I couldn’t quite crest at the 7.5 minute mark when I started (no time, no wind). Then I was able to crest it and then I was able to keep going.

I had terrible shin splints because I didn’t know about stretching. Stretching is either implicit to Zen or unknown to it, because my library book didn’t mention it. Some mornings they were so bad that I’d get down the stairs by bracing on the wall and the hand-rail and lowering myself. They got better over time.

We moved into town, just a few blocks away from a park with a jogging trail. After a while, I got as interested in how far I was going as I was how long I was going, and I learned that I’d settled into 5K routine without aiming for 5K.

I did that for a while, almost every afternoon after work. I’d go home, put on my evening rice, change, go running, come home, eat.

A runner friend told me I’d burn out doing it that way, so I alternated running with trips to the gym with her. She taught me how to stretch.


One day, as I was finishing up the last lap of my run, I wondered to myself if I could run 10K, same as my friend. So I just kept running. It was fine. 10K felt the same as 5K.


I enlisted some time in the fall of that same year. The recruiter was sort of an asshole about my philosophy major.

“We’re gonna take you out on a run. Pushups don’t tell me how strong you are in the head!”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sergeant Ritchie. Don’t you run a lot? I’m not sure if I can keep up.”

“I’ll take it easy on you.”

So I went home and got my running clothes on and came back as he was closing the office for the day.

“How far are we going, Sergeant Ritchie?”

“You have to go two miles for the PT test, so let’s go a little past that. That o.k.?”

“I’ll try.”

It seemed to me that two miles was about a third of that 10K I’d run, so it seemed I could probably go pretty fast up front and make my point.

I made him quit about 1.5 miles in. I nodded sympathetically as he made excuses for himself, then we walked back to his office.


I was really awful at pushups and situps in basic training.

One morning the drill sergeants were making us do this thing where you have to hold the raised pushup position for a really long time, until you’re shaking and sweating. I sort of toppled over and one of the drill sergeants got down on his belly and put his face next to mine and screamed “you’re so fucking weak in the head!”

I took the advice, obliquely offered as it was.

There was a morning where I wanted to sort of topple over and I decided instead to take a quick inventory. The main thing I realized, having checked myself over inside and out, was that it was just my shoulders that were hurting. They were hurting enough to make me shake and sweat and want to quit, but everything else was pretty much “systems go!” and my shoulders, on further interrogation, allowed as how they didn’t have to quit, they just wanted to pretty badly. So I stayed up and made it to the point where enough other people had sort of toppled over that we were all allowed to quit.


I got a lot better at pushups over time. Good enough that I was usually pretty close to maxing out the pushup score on my PT tests. I remained terrible at situps. When I came up for a PT test in Korea, I was so nervous about situps that I tried to work on them extra hard and ended up pulling my back.

When the PT test came, I maxed out the pushups but couldn’t make it happen on the situps. My back hurt too much, and I fell short of passing by three or four.

I was so mad at myself for failing, and so embarrassed, that when it came time for the 2-mile run, I gave it everything. I was in front of everybody else in the unit in the last 200 meters or so, and it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I’d made any sort of point, so I sprinted. I heard someone yell, “holy shit, Hall!” as I crossed the line, and then I just veered off into the grass and threw up.

You couldn’t fail any part of the PT test and pass, even if you maxed the other two parts, so I failed, heroic vomiting and all.


At Ft. Bragg, I loved the long unit runs. I especially loved the ones where we could peel off and run circles around the unit as it made its way down the street.

I loved the 4-mile run they make paratroopers do and usually finished among the first 10 in the unit.

I joined the unit 10-mile race team, but a few weeks into training for that I had a pretty bad jump and ended up on a month-long no-PT profile that lasted until a week before the annual Ft. Bragg 10-miler.

I went ahead and did a few shakedown runs and then ran the race, and that was a pretty bad idea. I felt flat for most of the back half, and it affected my running for weeks after.


If we want to sum up the army running experience, I guess it’s like this:

I tried to never stop and never slow down, and if I ever felt like I had anything left toward the end of a run, I sprinted it out.

I tried to stay pretty amiable toward the people around me, but if someone talked shit to me or gave me a hard time, I found them during a run and I’d do my best to run them down.

I’d run past them and murmur, “weak.”

If it looked like they were going to fall out, I’d stay alongside them: “Don’t be weak.”

One guy passed out with me doing that to him right after one of our unit combat lifesavers had learned how to rehydrate heat stroke victims through their rectums, so I quit doing that kind of thing.

Since all that, I’ve come and gone from riding and biking, and I’ve had a hard time getting rid of that moment in Korea where I felt like I had to run all that shame and embarrassment out. GPS and stopwatches aren’t good things for me.


When I started to work at Puppet I tried to establish a biking routine, but I wasn’t very comfortable on my bike. I realized at points that I was just trying to push too hard: Too many people on the trail around me were sort of breezing by on their road bikes while I struggled along on my clunky hybrid.

I didn’t really stop to think about what it was that was bothering me about the whole thing. Looking back, I understand that what I wanted was a quiet, easy ride into work, but I couldn’t allow myself to have it. I kept pushing to go faster and got frustrated with myself when I couldn’t.

Last month, I bought a new bike that’s better built for commuting (drop bars, light frame) and started timing my rides. It was pretty easy to shave eight minutes off my 12-mile commute, and I found that it was also pretty easy to ride at a speed closer to the average commute pace for most of the bicyclists around me on the Springwater.

I started using Strava to record my rides because I liked the way it would break a trip down into legs and let me see how fast I was going relative to everyone else who uses Strava and travels across the same legs.

I had several weeks of continuing to not think about what it was I wanted from my ride, so I kept pushing harder and harder and experimenting with gears and all that stuff, then coming home sore and tired and not feeling super relaxed.

I don’t know what finally caused me to think it through, but I did. I couldn’t square the sweaty, panting guy rolling in at night with the guy I saw in my head when I thought about bike commuting and it finally occurred to me that maybe I could resolve that conflict.

So I just got on my bike one morning and settled it into a nice middle gear that allowed me to pedal along and easily imagine having a conversation with myself without panting. It was hard to maintain that pace. I got passed a lot. By the time I got to work, though, I felt a lot more composed.

I’ve been trying to do that ever since. My rides take six or seven minutes longer over 12 miles, but I feel much better at the end.

Better yet, I’ve been trying to get myself into decent enough shape to sustain a daily bike commute instead of just three days a week. I’d like to be comfortable doing daily commutes in time for September’s Bike Commute Challenge. Backing off the speed and effort makes that seem a lot more likely: Last week I rode in four times instead of my usual three. This week, I’ll try to bike in all five days.

I’m still recording my rides because I’m keeping track of calories and exercise, but I switched to Runkeeper Pro (which is far less social than Strava). If I were to add a speedometer to my bike now, I like to think it would be to make sure I’m going slow enough, not fast enough.


This is a story of getting things wrong, and perhaps continuing to get things wrong, but not knowing exactly what to do besides what I’ve come up with.


When I lived in Bloomington, IN, some guy spent a week in one of the student neighborhoods attacking women. The one account I read from a victim was that he walked up to her with keys sticking out from between the fingers of his balled fist, slashed her cheek open, and said, “not so pretty now” before running off.


A while back, before Ben was born, I took a few night classes. A few of us getting out of class together had to walk four or five blocks down a quiet side street to get back to a common parking area.

So, class would let out and we’d make our way down to the street. Throw in some random travel variables — like getting backpacks repacked or chatting with classmates on the way out the door or whatever — and you’d end up with four or five of us spread out over two blocks headed the same way down a side street after dark.

Most nights, there wasn’t much to think about: Out the door, down the street, into the car, home.

One night, I ended up falling in behind a woman from my class. She was about half a block ahead. I don’t think she noticed me at first, but I stepped onto a loose metal plate and it made a big noise. She glanced over her shoulder and appeared to notice me for the first time, and I think the next several blocks were very frightening for her.

Within a block, everybody else had headed down another street. It was just the two of us. She kept glancing over her shoulder, and I could tell I was making her anxious. There was no way it made any sense to pick up the pace to just get past her — I was engaged enough to realize that — but there was a smaller, stupider part of me that was pretty fixated on just getting to my car and going home. That part wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

Well, let’s not dissociate.

I wasn’t doing much problem-solving that didn’t involve getting to go the direction I wanted to go as quickly as possible.

In the end, she ended up picking up the pace, she got to her car a block ahead of me, and it finally occurred to me that if I slowed down just a bit she’d be able to get into her car without feeling quite so much like she was racing me to get something between us but distance on a dark sidewalk.

So I slowed down and she got into her car and she drove away and I quietly congratulated myself for the five percent of our separate but shared walks where I had really thought about her and what she might be going through.


The next week, class let out and I went out the door with another woman in the class who’d been in my workshop group. We’d enjoyed each others’ work and we were talking about it. We walked out onto the sidewalk and I noticed we were headed the same direction. I didn’t want the conversation to end quite yet, so I pointed the way she seemed to be headed and said to her, “are you headed this way, too? I’ll walk with you.”

Her face tightened for a moment, but then she agreed. We walked a few blocks, she got to her car before I got to mine, and I had yet another belated realization that she’d been nervous the whole time. She couldn’t say goodbye fast enough.


So, when class let out on the third week it was back down onto the sidewalk and assorted variables came together to put me about half a block behind the classmate I’d walked with the week prior, just the two of us on the quiet and dark sidewalk. And — just like two weeks prior — she didn’t notice me until I made a sound. Then we spent a block with her looking over her shoulder at me, noticeably picking up the pace.

So I stopped and put my backpack down on the sidewalk to get my keys out of it, which helped her put a block between us. Then I crossed the street so I’d be on the opposite side from her, and slowed way down until she made it to her car.


I’ve done pretty much the same in similar situations ever since: If I end up behind a woman on a quiet sidewalk, I just go across the street. If I see that she’s noticed me behind her before I can do that and seems to be watching me, I’ll backtrack to the last intersection to do so.

It’s the smallest, saddest thing.


9, 23, 25, 26, 29, 33, 35, 39 & 46

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
— Psalm 90:10

There is no safety in the threefold world; it is like a burning house, replete with a multitude of sufferings, truly to be feared, constantly beset with the griefs and pains of birth, old age, sickness and death, which are like fires raging fiercely and without cease.
— The Lotus Sutra


When I was nine years old, I borrowed a collection of Star Trek stories from my dad. It included this one, wherein William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly all end up in the 23rd century owing to some sort of freak transporter accident.

That was a pretty exciting premise to me. Since I knew that I was living in the 20th century and that Star Trek was happening in the 23rd century, I could do the math to figure out how long I had to wait to see it all for myself.

23rd century – 20th century = 3 centuries, pretty much.

So if it was 1977, then I was looking at having to wait around until 2277. I grabbed dad’s Commodore calculator (it looked like this) to help with the next part:

2277 – 1968 = 309 years.

So, dad being in seminary at the time and our family being church-going anyhow, I had some idea that some people lasted a pretty long time. Methuselah had a pretty good run. Hadn’t Noah made it to 900? Needed to check with mom, though.

Yes, she explained, people in the Bible lived a long time, “but we get threescore and ten years now.”

I knew how much a score was because Abraham Lincoln was my hero.

So …

1968 + (20 * 3) + 10 = 2038

and 2277 – 2038 = not even close, really.

Further away from now than last year’s bicentennial had been from the first Independence Day.

I just wasn’t going to make it.


My favorite grandfather is dying of a brain tumor. Mom goes down to Texas, hoping to make things right, but all she does is get in the way of the t.v.


I don’t think what I experienced was a “death trip,” exactly. I just remember that things got pretty morbid some time around dawn. I was in the tv room at the house in Indianapolis, looking out at the parking lot behind the back yard. Cody and Kevin and Bill were riding bikes in the morning fog, gliding in and out of view.


Hudson was so stupid and inept. They made him my buddy and told me if he didn’t make it out of basic, it’d be my fault.

The last week, we were out in the field under a tree. It was raining and Hudson had fucked something up and all he could do was cry. All I could do was put my arm around him and tell him it’d be fine.


Jump school seemed like a good idea. It never really occurred to me to feel frightened during the day, but every night I dreamed of falling and falling with no parachute. My subconscious mixed it up by letting me ride a mattress into the dirt one night.


The team’s up on the Richmond site outside of Taejon. It’s an old building behind a gate. We’ve put up the mast and we’re on the network. The team chief asks us what we’d do if the balloon went up. Oh … I know this one:

“We take our defensive positions and the one on radio watch burns the SOI and takes an axe to the COMSEC gear, then we all defend the site.”

The team chief says, “you do that. I’m gonna run my ass down the hill before it gets shot off. They won’t bother with soldiers anyhow. They’ll just dial us in and light us up.”


I arrive at Ft. Bragg the week a major in my brigade had a bad landing, broke his leg and the bone severed an artery. He bled out on the drop zone before anyone could find him and help him. I don’t know if he knew what was happening.


That last nine months I was on jump status, I was pretty sure each jump was going to kill me. If you could be on jump status, though, you were supposed to be on jump status. That’s how it was. The sergeant major would cut your wings off your chest in front of everybody otherwise.


They aspirated a lump in my throat on a Wednesday, the doctor fucked off on vacation before the labs came back on Thursday, and nobody would tell me anything until the next Tuesday.

It was fine.


Ben. He stirs some things up.


“I mean,” says my friend, “FORTY. Aren’t you freaking out?”

“I just don’t, I guess.”

It wasn’t a question for me though, was it? In retrospect, I regret the answer.


Here we are.

I still don’t.

Some days, I feel naive or clueless and I think to myself that I might be wrong, and that I might be giving the wrong answer on a cosmic test.

Some days I think, “you’ve taken advantage of a number of opportunities to consider it.”

Mostly I think we’re born in a house that’s on fire, and there’ll be a moment between flame and ash.

We’ll need to have been kind.

Things We Can’t Hear

I have had luck remembering to do things when I’ve written them down and made them public, so here we go on this one:

Hey! I’ve had a pretty good last couple of weeks. I was interested in this position elsewhere in Puppet, so I applied for it and I got it.

There was a writing sample to be submitted, which wasn’t hard to write—writing is a thing I can do! So I sat down in the library one afternoon, reviewed my source material, wrote an outline (that’s how you know I’m serious), put on the headphones, loaded up this playlist I’ve got that starts with “Teen Age Riot” and builds from there, and did my best to burn the thing down. The whole time, there was a lot of “is this the right thing to do? Is this what you want to do over and over for a while?” The last time I had to complete an exercise to get an interview, it’s worth noting, I realized right in the middle that I really didn’t like what I was doing after all so I stopped and apologized to the recruiter and that’s how I came to be at Puppet at all. “Writing,” said the recruiter, “is what really lights you up, isn’t it?”

Yes. Writing lights me up. Or, rather, it takes me out of right now, which makes me pretty happy.

Anyhow: Wow, it was hard to decide I was done, save my work, and mail it off to HR. I felt pretty good about the angle I came up with, I felt good about the tone, I felt good about the flow, but mailing it off was to say “this is me at my better, maybe best.” What would be more awful than thinking I was shredding with a Fender and being exposed as a mildly ridiculous keytar soloist?

So next I had to give a presentation. That was hard, too, but less from preparation: Once I knew what the hook was, it was pretty easy to get that out onto slides. I had ten years doing the thing I was presenting about, I care about it a lot, and I’m pretty sure I’m right about most of what I think. At least, right enough that if someone were to say, “please stop there. We can’t hire you for this position because your opinions are not correct,” I’d be pretty o.k. with not being hired because that would make me a bad fit.

The hard part wasn’t even giving the presentation. A few things went wrong, I got off track, and I missed a few of my talking points. That was o.k., because by the time I was past the first slide I was feeling pretty religious about the whole thing, and that counts for something. And I was at Ft. Bragg during the anti-PowerPoint interregnum, so my sense of presentations in general is that they are not the point of themselves and so can go pretty wrong provided you keep a map of the terrain in your head.

The hard part was being done and having to ride the train home, because I felt pretty spent. I’d just had religion for an hour, after all.

Then I had to just sort of stew for a few days, and that meant bracing for maybe not turning out to be the guy they were looking for. I don’t know if my way of preparing for that is great, because it involves modeling a number of responses to getting bad news in a variety of forms and also feeling sort of bad for the person who has to deliver the bad news and hoping that I’ll be able to put them at ease so they can deliver it with minimum discomfort.

Anyhow, I did get the job, and that was pretty great. Some of my soon-to-be new team came by my desk when they got the word and said some very nice things. In fact, I’ve been hearing a lot of nice things about myself, which is where we get to the thing that is most hard of all and why I’m writing at all: It’s very hard to hear those things, I don’t know where that comes from, and I know I don’t like it so I think I should figure out how to make it easier to hear them.

How do you do that? It feels like there are a lot of knots to untangle. Nigel, my boss until I transfer to the other side of the building, says it sounds like impostor syndrome, which is totally not a DSM thing but feels pretty apt when I read about it. An ex-boss says I’m just habitually hard on myself. I have a very dear old friend who spends a lot of time asking me why I get like that. I don’t have a single answer. I guess I could point to some adult-era biographical facts that make pretty good sense and perhaps point toward adopting habits of thought that are not conducive to positive self regard. I guess I could point to some childhood biographical facts that might similarly create a way of thinking that aren’t great.

But Al shared with me an interesting Buddhist parable she heard at the zendo about a man who’s wounded with an arrow and refuses to remove it and stop the bleeding until he can figure out why he was shot in the first place.

When she told me the story, I did what I do, which was to say “well, that’s fine but I think I’d need to know more about his particular situation before deciding whether he wasn’t perhaps doing the right thing.”

I think she was right to tell me that story, though. The “whys” might be interesting, but I don’t think I need therapy so much as I need, perhaps, a bit of reason and some faith in my coworkers. I haven’t told you much about them. They’re pretty great. I wrote this a little while back:

There are lots of bright people working really hard to solve interesting problems. […] Moreover, people there are very generous with their knowledge. There’s a lot of it, and sometimes it’s delivered very quickly in large packages you don’t so much receive as hope not to be crushed under, but it’s generously delivered all the same. I don’t get that creepy “don’t want to tell you because information is currency” vibe at Puppet. I get a “you need to know this because everyone wants everything to be better” vibe.

That is still true, and there’s more good to say than that. It’s a good place, and a good place to work. I like being in the kitchen on a Monday morning, listening to laughter from people who enjoy each other and haven’t seen each other for a few days. I like the way the Friday all-hands melts into people enjoying a beer with each other before heading home. I like how just about everybody seems so goddamn thoughtful and intent on solving whatever problem is in front of them. I could go into a lot of specific likes, too, but don’t want to embarrass anyone. It’s enough to say it’s a good place, and a good place to work, and it’s full of people who are talented and thoughtful.

So writing that down helps get a fingernail under the knot, and it was a little hard because I hate talking about good things that have happened to me: I don’t want to come off like I’m bragging or crowing. But it’s written down and it’s true. It’s a good place, a good place to work, and it’s full of people who are talented and thoughtful, and they picked me. Even if I’m having a hard time having a lot of faith in myself, I’ve learned over the past six months to have a lot of faith in them, and I believe that should be enough.

Little Free Libraries Coming to Lents (care to help?)

So, there are these things called “Little Free Libraries.” You build a small, weatherproof box, stick it on a post in your front yard, and you put books in it. People can take books or add books. You keep it stocked up if it runs low and keep it fixed up. That’s about it.

Some neighbors of ours (the Springwater folks, who helped us build a retaining wall a few years ago), wanted to start a neighborhood library. I mentioned Little Free Libraries, and it seems several people had the same idea all at the same time. So Laura Jones, the librarian at Kelly Elementary –Ben’s school–got a grant, and a number of other folks from around the city contributed a design and did some preassembly work for eight or ten little libraries in our part of Lents.

IMG 2305

Yesterday we had a building party at Kelly Elementary, with each library host family getting help assembling their library. Ours isn’t quite done yet (needs shingles, a nice doorknob and a little finishing work). The host families now have a few weeks to get them painted and ready to go up. Toward the end of February, the Springwater folks will come around and dig the postholes and pour the concrete, then come around again the next day to mount the libraries. There’ll be a neighborhood bike tour to see all the libraries, and we’ll be hosting a kickoff party at our house.

I’m a little excited about the whole thing: I’m really looking forward to keeping an inventory of the books in our little library, just to see what kind of use it gets. I’m hoping that ours, being across from a park, will see some use from the people who just come to hang out during nice weather and might like to have something to read while they’re sitting under a tree.

I’m also a little trepidatious, because I don’t want it to get vandalized. The flip side of living across the street from a park is that the pleasant people sitting under trees reading books by day are replaced by drunk assholes after 10:00 p.m. (Or teenagers dry-humping on the teeter totters, but they’re not usually interested in breaking anything.)

I’ve got a few ideas for our home’s library:

  1. It might be fun to tag the books and do the occasional ride through the neighborhood to other little libraries to see if any of the titles migrate.

  2. One of my neighbors is an Army Corps of Engineers mathematician, and he’s interested in a campaign to build a small web app so Lents librarians can keep track of their inventories online.

  3. It seems like an easy hack to tear apart one of those solar-powered garden lights, hook the door up to a switch to make a little light come on, for after dark visitors who aren’t interested in vandalism. I’d thought about just mounting a light that would come on after dark, but that might be a beacon for trouble.

I’m sort of torn on the ideas that involve broadcasting the library’s presence. Having held a few garage sales where the book scanner people turn up in force, I don’t know if it would be a good idea for all our neighbors to plot interesting titles on a map. It was fun to think about building a library app and providing an API …

Would You Like to Help?

Since we’ll have to keep the library stocked up, donations are welcome. If you’ve got any books you’d like to contribute, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.

Better yet, if you do a zine or have published something you’d like to share, I’d love to include stuff like that in our library.

I’m sure I’ll have to go down to Goodwill or Value Village with a twenty now and then to stock back up, but the more original work I can include, the better. And self-published stuff you did on a shoestring is the very best: I’d really like it if our patrons could see and enjoy creative work that didn’t come from a big publishing house. You won’t just be sharing your words, you might be sharing a hint or a nudge.

Heroica and Such


So, Ben turned nine on the 24th. It’s a weird time of year to have a birthday, but we’re learning how to deal with it. It just seems to last for whatever the number of days is between the actual birthday and the next weekend day, with some mixture of presents and general indulgence culminating in an informal party with his clique from school.

This year, his birthday falling on a Thursday, he got his favorite dinner (drumsticks, mashed potatoes) and a cake (chocolate, vanilla frosting). We forgot to get candles, so I had to sort of wiggle my fingers over the cake until he made a wish and blew on them. Then they curled into a facehugger shape and went for his face.

We asked him what his wish was, and he said it was “let me watch just one episode of what you guys watch after I go to bed.” He started the negotiating at American Horror Story (no way in hell), then moved on to Sons of Anarchy (I’ll be rewatching that plenty in hell, so no), then went for what I think was the end game all along: The Walking Dead.

There was some debate: Entrails, human-on-zombie violence, maybe Shane sweatily pawing at Lori? Was that in the pilot? Couldn’t remember. Oh, and zombie on horse violence. But we o.k.’d it. He was pretty delighted.

Friday night, his friend Zack came over for a sleepover (Paranormal Activity, Minecraft, camera phone videos of assorted boy lunacy).

Saturday, we went to Oaks Park where he met with four of his friends and they went skating. Highlight:

Me: So, having a good time?

Ashton: Well, I fell and someone ran over my hand with a skate. Then I fell again and someone kicked me in the leg with a skate. Then I came in here and fell and stabbed myself in the eye with my straw. So, I guess so.

I gave him some cotton candy and listened to his outlandish stories about a giant Slinky he had at home.

Ben’s birthday present from me was a small Lego set featuring Gollum and Bilbo and some weird trap door that makes the One Ring pop out, and a Lego game called Heroica: Castle Fortaan.

The Heroica line is pretty neat: You get a small Lego set that allows you to build seven or eight dungeon rooms, provides four hero figures, a collection of potion blocks, treasure chest blocks, bad buy blocks and weapons. Each Heroica set comes with two maps you can assemble into a particular adventure, like this:


Then you move the characters through the dungeon trying to reach the final room. Along the way you can collect gold and battle monsters. Each hero represents a stripped down character class like you’d find in a fantasy RPG, and has a limited number of health points.


You can buy several sets in the Heroica line and combine them into bigger adventures, and it allows for some persistence from adventure to adventure (so a relic or gold earned in one game carry over to the next). The game rules include variants where players can either compete to reach the end first, or where one player controls all the monsters in the dungeon.

I was glad I found it: Last week at our friend Justin’s birthday party, there was some Lego stuff going on (Justin’s a fan). Our team won an Instagram scavenger hunt and we each won a Lego mini figure. We’ve never really put Legos in front of Ben (simpler building toys didn’t seem to be his thing), but he really liked the mini figures and asked for a Lego set. He’s also been asking to play more Pathfinder. So I walked into the store thinking “Hobbit-themed Lego set” but walked over to the games section thinking “fantasy/RPG-themed board game” that might give him some of that whole dungeon crawl thing without having to roll up a dungeon. And there’s Heroica: A fantasy/RPG-themed board game made out of Lego. Awesome.

Like Being Back

Hey, here’s something that made me pretty happy:

My name turned up as a contributor in some release notes. It stands to reason that it would, because I work there and I did some work that shows up in that release, but I think that’s a first for me at Puppet. The actual ticket I worked on was for the documentation on the newest version of the Puppet Ruby DSL. It was kind of a heavy thing to have a hand in, I wasn’t sure I liked having to deal with it at the time, but there it is and if you’re the type to maybe feel a little stifled by the vanilla Puppet DSL, maybe you’ll enjoy giving the Puppet Ruby DSL a spin.

Something else I worked on related to the Puppet 3.1-rc1 release, but not as anything that was on a ticket anywhere, is a small enhancement to the documentation for installing Puppet on OS X. Installation itself is pretty simple: You just download a few DMGs and run the installers, but you’re not left with much to work with from there if you want to run a puppet master or background agent. So we rescued a few launchd plists from the aging wiki, spruced them up a little bit, and gave the information a home on the docs site, where it will seem less like some vaguely illicit thing you can try but aren’t encouraged to count on and more like a thing you ought to be doing. So here’s the basic installation guide for Puppet on OS X and here’s the bit about launchd plists for Puppet on OS X with links to a pair of plists that will get you going.

I used them to help finish the setup on a puppet master for a home Mac that isn’t seeing much use now that I’m not working at home as much. I’m going to use it to puppetize a few configurations between my several machines, and also with Kelsey Hightower’s Homebrew provider.

One more note on those: They’re very simple. If you’ve been curious about launchd and thought about replacing cron with it, those links above will give you a minimal working example. All they do is kick Puppet off at system launch, at which point Puppet’s own configuration handles how often a run happens. If you want to set up a launchd job that runs on a given interval, you have to add a StartInterval key. Here’s a reasonable, minimal guide to launchd that points to some tools that’ll keep you out of editing XML. Oh, and here’s a coherent case for launchd from back during Tiger’s launch. The word “barbaric” is used, so if you’re really sensitive about cron and Our Sacred Unix Heritage, you should maybe just let that link be. Alternately, use it as a test to see how you do when exposed to higher quality Apple advocacy.

Oh. Why so happy? Because I remember back when I was kind of this paid Linux and open source guy, and I let some things that were not awesome about that get in the way of enjoying the parts that were awesome. I stopped being that guy and started doing other stuff. In the process of doing that other stuff, I felt pretty cut off from the open source world.

Moving to Puppet Labs, I feel reconnected with that world and understand the ethical language people are speaking around me. I’m really glad I get to make a living contributing to free software people love.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.