What Extravagantly Extroverted Teenagers Can Teach

Wednesday began the technical sessions, and my life became considerably more social. I had met a guy named Mark who worked less than a block away from me at Harvard; amusing how travel of 3,000 miles is sometimes needed to make up for institutional divisions at home. The crew of new folks from the parties and sessions was slowly expanding around me, and I was feeling much less disconnected from the conference. When you sit in the hallways and watch, the great middle passes by barely noticed, while the more extreme examples of weird stick out.

I began to think more of the last day, the social maelstrom, in a constructive manner less hazed by gin and tonic. The SAGE exec board had reportedly suffered through a 10 hour meeting over two days this past weekend. I thought about the callousness combined with joviality that marked the parties and the presiding Mafia.

No meeting of 10 hours is going to be productive or necessary. So that is the first thing my students can teach SAGE; of time limits and restraints in debate. I get the feeling that a single exec member can hold up an entire idea simply by disagreeing with it; that while officially a 6-1 vote should pass a motion, the 1 can filibuster simply by never shutting up. I wonder if they’d like a moderator, or at least someone to write some standard rules of procedure for them to use.

After thinking so, I keep slipping and referring to the conference as “the tournament”. The feel is very similar, with less rushing around and fewer surprises. However, after a year and change on the MFL board, I have renewed respect for what the we do in contrast to SAGE.

SAGE appears to spend quite some time talking about talking about things and deciding to decide and other such meta-activity. There is a lot of talk of reaching out to a large but apathetic membership, but only tentative efforts that fail — perhaps through their tentativeness, not their intrinsic value. Maybe it’s time to start a dozen subcommittees or projects and be unafraid to let ten of them fail.

At any rate, the MFL in all its hideous glory manages to directly run three tournaments a year, advise eight or so others, implement rules changes, interface with a national league, encourage new members and growth, and its members still have time to coach, prepare, and manage our own individual chapters and speech leagues.

Many of my ideas came together at the SAGE community meaning that night. Community meeting is a misnomer; it was a presentation by the exec and a chance for questions afterwards. It’s sink or swim time, now; SAGE is a little more separate from the mothership, and has to make itself real.

Then, just as we should have started the sidestroke, a semantic discussion about lobbying from people who wouldn’t know US political realities if they walked in wearing a name badge and four ribbons broke out. Sysadmins sometimes thrive on breadth of knowledge, but I have serious doubts anyone who claimed to know how to approach Congressmen actually did. A fair amount of the trouble was format — free for alls without end are never a good idea. The meeting was run like a paper talk.

However, they’re not papers, they are political functions. Political is a dirty word in this community. But my teenaged students gather every weekend to debate the merits of programs and legislation. They are given three minutes to speak their piece, which encourages them to come up with substantive, structured remarks and not free-for-alls with little to back them. When the crowd doesn’t want to hear it anymore, they can vote it done and move on.

When the SAGE crowd didn’t want to hear it anymore, they filtered out the back or opened their laptops to check their email or stock quotes. I looked up to see if the Celtics were playing; they were, and Vin Baker’s probably soon to fail renaissance continued into the regular season. That was the highlight of the night. I have never seen a group that large attempt a meeting without any form or structure. I have also never seen a meeting that produced more quiet grumbling.

I hesitated to say anything on the microphone; my interesting history makes me pause, and I don’t quite know how to be a more public figure without stirring up old stories best left behind. But not only did I know that I could have fixed half the troubles with the meeting with a stopwatch, a gavel, and a bad attitude, I knew that at least a dozen high schoolers I teach or judge could have done the same.

A Chinese literary school in the early 1920s revived ancient forms of verse and poetry that had been abandoned after the forms stagnated in the previous century under the repressive culture of the Manchu Dynasty. They revived the forms and put creative ideas into them, which the Manchu poets had failed to do, as a way of sparking creativity, which did indeed follow. Direction and restrictions made them innovate to pack meaning into small spaces. Their elegant term for it was “dancing in fetters.”

I wonder if the difference isn’t a realization that sysadmins are predisposed to ignore. I see good personalities, interesting folks, people who are great to talk to and listen to among the Established Crowd and beyond. However, I didn’t see much attention for group dynamics. I haven’t ever seen bigger tensions go blithely ignored like that before. Hints, subtext, posture, emotions — all sort of flew around looking desperately to be noticed.

CFL nationals last spring was one of the hardest weekends of my life. But when Josh needed to talk alone, everyone cleared out of the room, more or less. When Jared needed a moment to chill out, people left us in the corner and didn’t butt in. When Meredith and Alyssa needed turns on the temporary couch, Jonathan instantly grabbed the Washington Post and sat out in the hallway, uncomfortable and tired.

On Wednesday of SAGE, a great conversation I was having with Mark was cut short when drunken Scandinavians suddenly invaded the area of the pool patio we were sitting in. I asked Geoff, who seemed haggard and tired and not just because of a lack of sleep, if he was doing all right. I made sure to pitch it in that serious, “I don’t want a polite answer, I want a real one” voice. I hope it did good. Later, I realized Trey had been doing the same thing. So I was not alone.

The gay mafia

Tuesday was the first party. I wandered into the Party Suite on Peg’s directions. The suite officially belongs to Geoff Halprin, the president of SAGE, the sponsoring organization of the conference. However, it clearly belongs to the alcohol, and run by the Gay Mafia.

The Gay Mafia, as one quasi-innocent first timer named Patrick had asked earlier, is what “runs SAGE.” It was an old accusation, and offensive at first. No one would name it mafia if three program chairs in a row were straight. The response was lighthearted — they made “Gay Mafia” ribbons and wore them, showed some solidarity.

But as Tuesday’s night grew into Wednesday’s morning, swifter for the seven kinds of gin and six kinds of scotch, I saw a different power: playful, touchy-feely amorous attention from the gay men in the room, returned or not. A gentle touch of affection had an implicit promise of more buried in it, if only the recipient asked. Granted, we’re a little hung up on casual touch and even sexual undertones, in theory. But people wouldn’t sit on couches and talk to avoid discomfort. People were made less welcome for their own beliefs.

I spent the night talking to Chris. He was very uncomfortable with the scene; both because he usually is, but also he’s more sparked and fiery and inclined to crusade than I am. He’ll be on the SAGE exec some day, but not the Gay Mafia. But SAGE in a way is that party suite. The group has yet to grow beyond a social organization — it has only recently been given self-rule, and the board members are still trying to change their mentality from opposition to governors. And even when that happens, any association should be able to gather its members in festivity rather than gravity.

But the Gay Mafia unwittingly pushes people away, makes welcome only the guys straight or gay who are comfortable with random affection. I’m a relative newcomer, gaining a ticket in because of Lois and Peg. If I hadn’t known them, I may not have been welcome. I may not even have known that scene exists.

So I left the party suite and went into the hottub, inhabited by much the same crew, but a bit more quietly. Patrick was there and Chris and Trey and others. Trey noted that I seemed remarkably relaxed. I hadn’t noticed, but it was true. After all, human interaction is my bread and butter after all, and I hadn’t gotten enough in months. All my stress was 3,000 miles away. I ended up going to a very late night meal with Chris and sleeping through the first session in the morning. I wondered whether I was in the middle of a change, a reaching out for new people, or simply was creating another clique loosely aligned with the existing ones.

Paradise Burning

Monday was the day I’d promised myself the beach; last Thursday had brought the season’s first snow to Boston. But San Diego was still burning with fury. I stayed in for much of the morning, watching news of destruction in place names that I did not recognize. I imagined millions watching the same news, but hoping to hear that their aunt in Pomay was all right and that the Cedar fire wasn’t going to turn north into Ramona or south into San Diego itself.

If it had turned south, it would have aimed itself right at us, but there was too much city and not enough brush between me and it to make it a real danger. All the same, the fire had already leapt across two highways. More than 300,000 acres ended up burned by the triple fire. Around 1,200 homes were lost, about 20 lives.

I talked to people back home and mentioned The Fire. None of them had any idea. Our age is colored by the CNN effect — instant news! But instant communication isn’t all technology. Governor Davis here was calling in the military; Arizona and Nevada were sending firefighters flying down to us. However, New York had not yet noticed, and so no one else knew. My mother didn’t even call me in worry.

The Fire was palpable here, touched everything we did. The hotel handed out breathing masks. I grabbed one intending to use it as a souvenir. I stuffed it into my bag and remembered it only later when I had to walk to a store to pick up a replacement part for my computer, and labored breath and felt the burning. The mask didn’t do much good after I slipped it on, but it let me think I was doing something.

I felt like a voyeur, playing the audience at Natural Disaster. I only saw the thing on TV and maps and choking sky. I have no one in San Diego closer than friends of friends. I can only watch and not let myself be annoyed too much at the inconveniences, because I know whole towns are burning.

ashes and geeks

I went outside that morning into a land gone crazy; it choked and smelled of smoke, and I walked a good twenty feet before realizing that the dust layer on everything were ashes falling slowly from the sky. The sun was bright red, the sky was brown. You could easily make out sunspots with the naked eye. The air was full of acid burning when I breathed. It was supposed to be a sunny day, said the weather, but the earth itself had cancelled.

The news mentioned fires, so I went to the first conference tutorial and used the wireless to read more. The city of San Diego was surrounded with a ring of fire; three blazes to the north, east and south, that all burned in tandem and consumed dry brush and suburbs alike. Over the day, the smoke got worse and the ashes fell on roses and swimmming pools and restaurants and cars.

I sat down in an anonymous hotel meeting room to learn about some acronym happy technology. I was towards the back of the room. On my left sat a large jolly person, who spoke too loud and had anime backgrounds decorating his FreeBSD laptop. Hundreds of little doodads blinked on his screen, telling him weather, stocks, and CPU cycles. He asked questions in a loud voice and make jovial jokes about Microsoft.

On my right, there was an older gentleman, who instead muttered about Microsoft. He talked too quietly for anyone else to hear, intending his wisdom as a gift for only me I imagine. LDAP is nothing like DNS, apparently. Putting two services on a system is a high crime worthy of execution, and not simply a bad idea. There is no such thing as a good MTA. PAM is stupid. Macs aren’t good, they just suck less. I am always assured by those who enjoy their work.

I liked the guy on my left, not the guy on my right, but by the end of the day had no desire to speak to anyone like either of them. I had at home a friend trying to deal with his friend’s cancer. I teach students worried about parents and colleges and lovelives, people not much younger than me who have barely discovered the painful beautiful juice of life, which tastes faintly of blood. I read novels and overwrite poetry when I can; I teach and learn and want to see the beauty of a city here.

I took a break and checked my email, and started chatting online with Jared about college and Mike about his job and Shawn about his music and Rudy about his friends. I laughed out loud at the screen and sucked in breath at bad news. I look like any other geek spending an hour staring into his laptop, but none of them make noise. I break the etiquette of the laptop crowd. I’m reaching out to humanity, because I’m not here.

I am not superior to any of them. Brilliance visits here, people who can paint structures in code and who can design systems that will withstand time and pressure. Authors and speakers and teachers walk alongside traditional geeks, and the traditional geeks themselves, for all their cultural maligning, can burn brighter than them all. I, however, don’t quite fit. The gods of Harvard pay me to care about computers from 9-5 and I do so with diligence and whatever mental powers I can gather — but then I use both to pursue other ends. Systems don’t interest me such that I can pick them up and put down a novel, given a choice.

I sat in the chair listening to stories from three thousand miles away and heard in the corner a religious argument about text editors. I shrugged to myself and left. The open-air mall where I tried to get dinner closed; the restaurants were horribly short staffed as people checked their homes and relatives near the blazes. I ended up getting room service and waiting an hour and fifteen minutes, and gave the waiter a big tip.

Saturday: California the Sweet

California is sweet; something remembered as soon as I breathed its air. The air was misty blue once I landed; the view from the plain was less appealing: pockets of natural paradise drenched in a city plopped into the dust. The west can’t conceal the manmade scars as well; their trees don’t billow and forgive like New England’s, and the smaller growth isn’t as lush and embracing, covering our mistakes. So poor buildings and rich ones tend to grab the attention.

California is sweet and for a day or a week or a month it is intoxicating and paradise, but I’m already glad it will end after a week; sweet things in too much quantity grow sickening and uncomfortable, too precious not to experience in life but too rarefied and purposeful to be life itself.

But what I didn’t know was the sweetness was temporary. As I sat to dinner that night and happily watched the Yankees lose the World Series to Josh Beckett’s stifling arm, a signal fire was set in the countryside’s hills by a lone hunter who was dehydrated, disorientated, and very grateful that he had been rescued before dying alone in the wilderness brush.

It had not rained in San Diego in over 100 days.