Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Chapter 11: “You say you did what when you were fourteen?!?”

“I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”
       George Orwell. 1984.

“Stanley Motss: I bet you're great at chess. 
 Conrad Brean: I would be if I could remember how all the pieces moved.”
       Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Wag the Dog.

“Nick Naylor: I talk for my job – basically.
  Child: Can’t anybody do that?
  Nick Naylor: No – it requires a certain moral flexibility that most people lack.”
       Aaron Eckhart. Thank You for Smoking

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 11: “You say you did what when you were fourteen?!?”

Okay, it’s chapter eleven. By now, he must start sharing some actual life events if this is to be considered an “autobiography”, right? And, what’s the deal with this being the autobiography of two people? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Who is this Bob guy, anyway? How come he hasn’t shown up for his own biography yet?

All great questions – to be answered in due course. Bob has already showed up in this autobiography in a cameo role and will be back again soon. Meanwhile, I have to disappoint you as this chapter is also about Ben.

At a recent job interview, I was asked what Bill Gates is like in person. After answering, I mentioned in an off-hand manner that I had also worked for Steve Jobs for about a year even though it doesn’t show up on my resume. The short story is that I worked on a new PowerPC based system at NeXT which was cancelled days before it was to be announced – when Steve Jobs decided to abandon hardware and instead standardize on the Intel x86 architecture and concentrate on software instead. In hindsight, this was absolutely the right decision for the company but, at the time, being the hot headed engineer that I was, I left in a pique over the cancellation. How dare they cancel my project? Of course, Mr. Jobs triumphantly returned to Apple a couple of years later and the rest is history.

The conversation reminded me of all the other jobs I’ve had: starting with the dishwashing job at a steak house - at a whopping $2.60 an hour; to the part time programming I did on the side for one of my college professors - at a dizzying $7.50 an hour; to the midnight-to-noon weekend graveyard shift as a sysadmin - at a stratospheric $10 an hour; to the part-time Teaching Assistant gig at college, working with Math students and wondering why and how they had gotten so far without understanding fractions or decimal points in high school; to the part time programming job, every other weekend, fixing bugs in a medical billing application in some arcane language on an ancient PDP10 machine which no one else was either able or willing to touch, at a laugh-to-the-bank rate of $15 an hour. I could keep going but you get the idea.

So many odd jobs, the proceeds therein going to partly fund my undergraduate career as a starving foreign student. The fact that I often held two or even three of these jobs simultaneously seemed natural. Working and studying eighty, ninety, a hundred hours a week seemed natural at the time - a requirement for survival.

Having landed in Boston as a lone fourteen year old, fresh off the boat from a war torn country in the grip of a revolution, I somehow seem to have managed not only to survive but to thrive as well.

The less I say about the old country, the better. I remember skipping school and joining demonstrations in the streets - not because I agreed with any of the revolutionary groups but mostly just to avoid going to school. I remember schools being closed for months at a time due to unrest. I remember the odd feeling of hearing gun shots in the street outside and seeing cars burning in the streets while the TV news broadcasts calmly announced that “all is well” - due to Government censorship. I distinctly remember the day when this policy was reversed and the first time I saw all the violence on TV. I remember reading books about torture, about communism, about politics and revolution. It was eye opening to a thirteen year old. You grow up very quickly in such an environment. My parents, like so many other parents of teenagers, decided that it would be safer to send me overseas to continue my education.

Having already spent a few months in the UK, I arrived in the US with ignorance and confidence: ignorance of the monumental task ahead of me - just to survive in this country - and confidence built out of that ignorance: confidence in my own ability to put up with whatever comes along - to roll with it, so to say. Not being burdened by parents, a host family, or the regulations of a dormitory meant I could - and often did - get into a lot of trouble. Let’s just say there was a lot of underage drinking in bars and dancing in discos. No one ever asked me for an ID back in those days. The only saving grace was that I never got into drugs – too expensive!

Somehow, while all this was going on, I managed to finish the last three years of high school in a single calendar year, even with the hindrance of English as a second language, and arrive in college at age fifteen. Fast forward two and a half years and, somehow, I managed to graduate from college with two bachelor’s degrees - in psychology and computer science - at the still tender age of seventeen. Washing dishes to pay the bills was just part of the equation.

I'm not writing this to boast. Friends and strangers have often wondered in hindsight how I zipped through school so quickly. At the time, it didn't seem like such a big deal. I was just doing the tasks in front of me and happened to do them more quickly than others. What's the big deal? I had much bigger problems to deal with, what with the life of the lone teenage foreign student with minimal funds amounting to not much more than moldy basement apartments shared with four guys you just met last week, a sojourn with an extremely OCD guy as a roommate for a month (we're talking bouncing quarters off of bedsheets OCD), and another apartment with a dangerously tilting floor.

The point is, I've made so many mistakes in life and made so many decisions for the wrong reasons that I'm personally baffled at how I've ended up doing so well overall. Despite this hodgepodge of a background and a similarly checkered career, I seem to have done reasonably well by most measures. I'm thankful for that - thankful to all the people who have helped me along the way.

I've also been blessed with a family that has supported me in all my harebrained ideas and decisions. Picking up and moving across the country for a job I like or quitting a job on the spur of the moment are just a couple of the examples from my professional career. My wife always says, "That's great, honey. You just go right ahead and do it. As long as you get out of the house." 

Ah, she loves me so.