No Tech For Old Men

I’m lying in bed in a motel room. We’ve reached the Mexican border. I’m awakened just after midnight by a deadbolt clunk from the room next door. A loud clunk. It jars me even though I can tell that the person next door is trying to enter quietly. Fifteen minutes later: clunk! Again.

I peer out the window and catch a glimpse of a sturdy looking fellow wearing a kerchief around his neck.

Truck headlights beam in through the window. The light is strong and direct into my eyes.

Who makes quick visits like that at this hour? “Drug deal,” comes to mind. I buffer the thought with the knowledge that I am prone to fantasy.

I lie back down and stare at the speckled popcorn ceiling. The carpet in the room is clean and new, though both the pattern and the color are straight out of the 70s. “Why put in new carpet if you’re going to pick out a pattern that looks old,” I wonder.  There’s typical motel art on the walls; typical for the year 1975. The art looks familiar like something from my childhood in the southwest. Sleeping here is a form of time travel.

Driving through this desert country, staying in this motel…it all reminds me of the movie “No Country For Old Men”, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy was accurate with his descriptions of west Texas — romantic and rough.  I can attest to this not only because I was raised in the border town of El Paso, but because McCarthy lived a block down from one of my childhood friends. I know that his eyes have seen some of the same things mine have. My mind may very well be prone to fantasy, but violence on the border is not an illusion. A childhood friend of mine was shot in a drug deal when we were teenagers. For most people, reality and movie fantasy are usually quite different things. On the border, reality is sometimes stranger than movies.

I’m on a road trip with my soon-to-be ex-wife, driving a cheap mini van we picked up in Austin for the purpose of transporting three of our dogs to her new home in Mexico. Road trips are one of the things that my wife and I do well together. We’ve taken more than a few trips, but now we’re at the end of a long divorce and a road trip seems like a weird thing to do as one of our last marriage rituals. It’s strange, creating something new while at the same time letting go.

It’s Maya, the Hindu concept of the illusion of reality. Or delusion. We think we are in control, involved and participating, however it is all impermanent…only illusion. I know that’s not the exact definition (though I’m not sure what the exact definition is). Anyway, lately that has been my experience of the illusion. I am engaged in the external world, but at the same time I am a distant observer. I am creating the reality, and at the same time I am the creation — subject and object at the same time.

106My career in software has been the same way. I’m part of a team that creates something together, putting a little of ourselves into code and scripts while simultaneously letting go of that creation. Some people deal with letting go better than others.

I’m a kind of DIY technologist. I taught myself programming when I was 13 years old.  I was fortunate to find an industry where I didn’t need formal education to back up my opinions.  Over and over again, I end up in rooms with Ph.D geniuses, deep in philosophical discussions on the art and science of software methodology. It’s not uncommon to end up talking about analogies for technology that are at the same time analogies about reality. And yet, for all the deep conversations, sometimes I think that I don’t have a clue about what is happening in technology. Not anymore.

I remember learning about object-oriented programming at IBM by watching an IBM Fellow give a lecture with a whiteboard. The lecture was on VHS tape. For the next year, while working on frameworks for CORBA, my officemate and I often discussed the nature of reality — all in terms of object-oriented lingo. His name was Simon Peter Hemingway.  I thought that was such a cool name. We would often take long walks and talk about the nature of defining objects – both in a software context and in real life – with Simon trying to convince me that reality was an illusion. Simon had a Ph.D. He must have known what he was talking about, right?

Last night I popped onto the motel wifi. No password needed. More of the Wild West.

I used my phone to post to Facebook. I’m paranoid about security of the server at work which is supported by millions of dollars of security infrastructure, and yet I trust my phone’s data with the motel’s $50 wifi. That doesn’t make sense. Anyway, I saw a news reports that says that Facebook is for old fogies. Maybe I’m too old to stick around working on technology. Maybe I’ve become blind to what technology is all about. Or maybe technology is just emerging too quickly in every moment for me to grasp it with my meager mind (prone to fantasy or not).

Yesterday was my last day with the company. I created software with a team of people I had known for years. The software was for other engineers who design chips; also people I had known for years. In leaving I thought I would be able to capture some insights on the Zen concept of letting go. You know, the whole you must empty-the-cup before you can fill-the-cup thing? I had this idea that if we bring mindfulness to technology that we will somehow create beautiful innovation. That’s what I thought I was going to write about today. That’s the stuff I wanted to explore during my break from work. But then my hotel neighbor clunked his deadbolt, and…

297that sound launched a series of thoughts. I suddenly felt like I was dreaming all of this. Staring at the ceiling my mind leaped from one image to another like in a dream, connecting formerly disparate ideas. Totally random chaos that somehow made sense.  I felt compelled to grasp the raw truth of all those thoughts before they floated away like the elements of a forgotten dream.

What is the connection of these random thought. Maybe I am just processing what it means to leave a job. To leave a team. To leave something you created. Maybe my subconscious is sorting out what it means to leave something that at one time occupied the center of my heart.

In the last scene of “No Country For Old Men,” the sheriff – one of the good guys – has a dream in which he sees his father walking ahead, holding an ancient fire. In the story, the sheriff failed to catch the bad guy. It’s an uncomfortable realization that he will never have closure.  In the sheriff’s dream, he feels compelled to follow his father, even though his business on earth is left undone.

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