Privilegemobile 7: The Things Outside the Window

It is a 43-mile bus ride from 26th and Valencia Streets in San Francisco to the stop in front of my building at work. I got the total miles from Google Maps app on my phone. I’ve learned to trust Google Maps.

The total is probably more than that, but I don’t know by how much. I put in the start and end points, but did not take into account the stop at Millbrae BART. The total trip from the freeway exit to the station and back could be a mile. I really don’t know. Including this detour could have given me a more accurate figure. Then again, maybe not. The “43 miles” Google Maps tells me has no decimal point and no inkling whether the integer is rounded or truncated.

I used the app in the afternoon so the total drive time could not be taken as gospel either. The 1:19 it predicts however is pretty close to how long it takes most days. Go figure.

I have ridden the bus to work well over 100 times by now. I spend most of the time drinking my coffee and staring out the window at passing scenery. City-limit signs and prominent buildings have become familiar sights. I sit on the right, away from the morning sun, so everything I see is out that window. I don’t see a landscape, but rather points on a line. Given enough time, I tell myself, I’ll become enough of an expert on that narrow strip of scenery to give a full account of everything that lies along kinda-sorta 43 miles.

That, my friends, is a textbook example of hubris. Even for the most attentive among us, this is an unrealistic goal. Let’s say for argument’s sake that every building, tree, and anything else visible from the bus will register in my brain over the next decade or so. At best, that would make me the kind of authority that comes with major disclaimers. Trees are cut down, buildings are demolished and built, and businesses close and new ones open. What I’ll be left with is a patchwork where the whole will not have existed at any single point in time.

And let’s be honest. I don’t pay that much attention. I am more focused than I used to be. Of course, all that means is that I don’t check out mentally all the time, only when the current situation is boring or unpleasant. Or if something fun pops into my head and I decide to run with it.

More often than not, I step off the bus in the morning only vaguely aware of the 43 (or whatever) miles I traveled during my commute. I get to my desk and sit down. Now I am focused. Now I am paying attention. Just don’t ask me where a particular conference room is located because I really haven’t got a clue.

My Ho-Hum Atheism

I don’t believe in God and never seriously have. When I was younger, I preferred to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist. My reasoning was that the existence of God could neither be absolutely proven nor disproven therefore being either an avowed believer or disbeliever would be closed-minded.

I have since changed my mind and am now an atheist. I still concede an unlikely possibility that God exists, but think that this possibility is a moot point.  I try to live my life as a tolerable human being and the prospect of getting into heaven just doesn’t enter into things.

So how is that working out for me? It’s a mixed bag actually. Now if I really wanted to laud atheism as the single best way to lead an exemplary life, it would help if I were more exemplary. Or willing to lie about it. I’m not very good at either and I have no interest in converting anybody. I certainly can’t claim it has made me a better person. I’m not terrible, mind you. I don’t rape or murder, but that can be said of most people and I don’t expect a gold star for that. I’m just this guy. Overall, I would rate myself on a par with how Douglas Adams so succinctly summed up humanity, “mostly harmless.”

I can’t even say that embracing atheism is a liberating experience. Maybe it would be different if I had an oppressive religious upbringing, but I didn’t. All I have to compare atheism to is agnosticism and they are not all that far apart. Whether God is a no or a who knows, the one who gets on my case over my wrongdoing is guy I see in the mirror. Though I lack the Almighty’s neediness and smiting mojo, I do share his knack passing judgment on my sins long after I can do anything to remedy the problem.

My neurotic corruption of Heinlein’s “Thou art God” is about as close as I’ll ever get to having a spiritual side. I don’t fault other if they have one, mind you. One of my personal heroes, Larry Wall, is a devout Christian. He invented the Perl programming language, which has turned into a source of mental exercise and cash for me coming up on 20 years now. I may not envy Mr. Wall’s faith, but it seems to work well for him.

As for me, I’m content to live out my days as a nonbeliever. Atheism may not bring me any personal enlightenment, but it does comfort me knowing that I shall never have to get up early and go to church.

Privilegemobile 6: Hell Is Other People

My morning commute is pretty relaxing. I have usually gotten enough sleep the night before, I have my morning coffee in hand, and there are yet to be any workday aggravations to weigh on me. The bus is also pretty much empty.  I like that most of all. It turns out not many people want to go stand on a street corner before seven a.m. There is really no need since the bus that comes an hour later stops at the building where I work at an acceptable 9:20, give or take.

In the afternoon, there are also two buses that follow the same route. I take the earlier one.  So do a lot of other people. Now I’m not blaming anyone for taking the late bus down and the early one back. If they still get their work done (or even if they don’t), it really is no business of mine.

This does make for a more crowded bus, but not hugely so.  The bus has never gotten so full that people have had to stand. The lack of handrails would probably make it illegal to operate the vehicle at that capacity anyway. It is not even so full that the seat next to me is necessarily going to end up taken. Alas, it’s not necessarily going to remain vacant either.

It is late summer now, which makes it the season for summer interns. Thankfully, they seem to be a nice enough bunch this year. They are certainly better behaved than the high-fiving bro-fest that plagued my afternoon commute last year. My only issue with them is that they push total vehicle occupancy past the brink, the brink being the point where I run the risk of someone sitting next to me.

As situations go, this one is pretty small potatoes and yet it causes more distress than if every seat were taken every day. If this were the case, I would simply resign myself to my fate and spend the bus ride mentally withdrawn into a singularity. If however the outcome is uncertain, then I am faced with a stressful game to play.

The rules of this game are quite simple. The seat next to you remains vacant until someone asks to sit down. If someone does ask, you cannot tell that person no.I have no idea what it it’s like to be a seat seeker since I get on the bus at one of the first stops so I only know what it’s like to play defense.

On the surface, it sounds like a rather boring game of chance and it would be just that you didn’t get to load the dice with body language. It’s all about making someone feel unwelcome. Alas, this form of dissuasion is easy to do and it seems like everybody is in on the act. Late-boarding coworkers looking to sit down walk down the center aisle and  are greeted by averted eyes, diagonal sitters, bags and laptops opened and laid out on the untaken seat, and manspreading so wide it pushes the hamstrings to design limit.

And I am right there with them, spiral notebook atop my backpack on the seat next to me as I lean over and scribble away. I used to object to such inconsiderate displays and even griped about it on Facebook, but my high ideals eventually collapsed and I joined the passive-aggressive horde.

It’s a demeaning game all around, but I only have to play it for three shuttle stops over a ten-minute period.  After that, it’s onto the freeway where if I’m lucky, I might celebrate my good fortune by putting the notebook away.

Privilegemobile 5: My Old Friend Mr. Gray

I am looking forward to short winter days. Job stability permitting, I’ll board the bus with the sky still dark, sit way in the back, and stare out at a world that is allowed a little more time to sleep. The insanities that come with night will have receded and for a few precious hours, the city is a peaceful place.

I don’t have that now, but I can take some comfort in the overcast skies this summer. The  gray sky I see out the bus window carries over to the buildings and any people I happen to see walking down the street at that hour. This makes what I see pleasantly unreal, but there is more to it than that. This gray sky is a pleasant reminder of the city I’ve lived in and grown accustomed to, a city is that growing unrecognizable.

It is also a welcome change of pace. California, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention to anything, has been in a serious drought as of late. San Francisco’s cool summer days and the famous quote falsely attributed to Mark Twain have been sorely missed over the last couple of years. Locally, the drought seems to have abated though further south, the heat of the sun burns like a rash and the dead-grass rolling hills are ready to burst into flame at any moment.

I feel swaddled by the exterior grayness as the bus rolls down Cesar Chavez Blvd. toward the entrance to the 101.  From there, there’s one more stop at the Millbrae BART station and that’s it until we’re in the South Bay. The fog is usually gone by the time we’re halfway down the peninsula. I enjoy it for as long it lasts.

While it does last, I let the grayness of the sky carry my thoughts into the past. There is no honest reflection here, just vague, innocuous memories of how I like to think life was. It has been said that hindsight is 20-20. That is only true until it turns into nostalgia. Then it sees nothing but a nice, soft blur. I am OK with that for now. There will be time enough to agonize. There is always time for that.

First and Fantasy World Problems

I don’t multitask well. I never have really. Perhaps it’s because attaining any level of focus is such an uphill climb for me. Once I have that focus, I make best use of it with no distractions other than perhaps some music to keep the creepy crawlies in my head from going into open revolt.

My boss seems to understand this and as long as I continue to be productive, I’m pretty much left alone. I enjoy being left alone on the job and in the fullness of time, I’ve learned how diligence can earn me that privilege. If I were ever to write a professional-success guide, its overarching theme would be perfecting the art of making people go away for a finite amount of time.

That said, I am also well aware I have job responsibilities that go beyond just writing code. For one thing, I work for a consulting company at a client site so I essentially serve two masters. The client’s needs are straightforward. Produce results. They don’t care a whole lot about my morale, team spirit, or my plan for professional growth. I am not their employee. To them I am a resource, not an investment.

It is a bit different with the consulting company. There are performance self-assessments, quarterly staff meetings at the local HQ, and weekly timesheets so they know how much to bill the client. I don’t particularly like having to do deal with any of these things, but I treat them as necessities and do what needs to be done.

Not letting things slip has been a hard-won victory over my innate flakiness, but well worth the effort for its benefits. Not having any extra stuff hanging over my head means I can concentrate on work when I’m working and on whatever the fuck I feel like when I’m not.

This all works just fine until it doesn’t.

This Monday, I did my usual five-minute ritual of deleting spam comments in this blog (about 400 per day in case you’re wondering) and checking if any software needs updating on the VM where it is hosted. There was a new release of the operating system available and I was given the option of doing an upgrade.

Stupidly, I did the upgrade without creating a system snapshot first as an emergency backup. This would have come in handy as both this blog and another site hosted there got broken. It was annoying, but not the end of the world. I got poisonspur.com operational on Monday night. The other site, platypus.org, is more of a convoluted beast that I’ve set aside some time to deal with this weekend if I’m not too burned out to muster any enthusiasm.

So far, no big deal, just a hiccup for me to deal with on my own schedule.

Tuesday morning, there was an issue with submitting my timesheet. It’s due every Friday, but I like to get it taken care of early in the week. I took the laptop issued by the consulting company to work with me as that’s the only one I can use to access their intranet. I figured there was some technical snafu and I would call the technical help line and get it fixed.

No such luck. I tried three times and each time I heard “Hello? Hello?” followed by him hanging up. My guess is that he turned on mute and forgot to turn it off again. If I worked in tech support, I would probably do the same thing. I gave up and decided to try my luck the next morning.

My luck got worse. The intranet was down when I tried it from home and when I got to work, the guest-accessible Wi-Fi in the building wasn’t working either. I also found out that this was an administrative rather than technical issue. This meant having to talk to people and wait for an answer. I am not very good at either.

That’s what fucked me up. I know it’s a minor thing for most people, but for me it proved to be an unfinishable task that would haunt me through the rest of the week. Don’t get me wrong . I’m no perfectionist. I have no problem embracing Murphy’s Law as long as it does its damage elsewhere, but if a missed timesheet deadline happens enough times, that could impact my annual bonus.

So I fretted. To concentrate on work, I kept having to shove worst-case scenarios to the back of my mind, something I achieved with only partial success. My off time was worse. Instead of engaging in my hobby of thinking up terrible puns to say about a tragic news story I’ve read, my imagination ran riot with thoughts of me taking the blame for whatever the mix-up was even though it wasn’t my fault.

You see, I hate injustice, at least a specific subset of it.

In the end, everything worked out fine thank to the grace of my personal lord and savior: Privilege. Once again spared the avalanche of shit that forever rolls downhill, I am free to look at the world and amuse myself with all the wrong I see in it.