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Goodbye, Chemo

I think it's worth noting that I have taken my last dose of chemo, hopefully for the rest of my life. My brain surgery was on December 10, 2016, so it has been over a year of treatment that knocked the crap out of me. Surgery, radiation+chemo, then twelve months of chemo. The chemo was on a 28 day cycle, so more of a lunar month, really. I should look into whether it really is some kind of witchcraft.

Anyway, I'll continue to use the Optune for the time being, but it doesn't make me feel like crap. The pattern of the chemo in the past few months was that I'd take it for five days, and then the nausea would kick in after the last dose, sometimes a couple days after. My neuro-oncologist said that this was a normal development as the body got more saturated with the chemo over time. This round I started feeling nauseated enough after my third dose that I began taking extra anti-nausea medication during the day. (Usually I just took the anti-nausea meds right before I took the chemo and went to bed.) Based on my last two rounds, I have five or so days of nausea ahead of me, and then I hope I can stop taking so many damned pills and start the recovery process. My previous neuro-oncologist said it could take a few months for me to get back to my status quo ante. I'm hoping I have a head start, but we shall see.

In the meantime, hallelujah, and get thee behind me, chemo! You will not be missed.


After the Heat

Yesterday was a milestone of sorts. I saw an oncologist (not my new neuro-oncologist, but a sweet old medical oncologist who is filling in now and then during a transitional period), and he gave me the okay to start my twelfth and final -- FINAL! -- round of chemo. Yes, friends, fourteen months (nearly fifteen) since the tumor was discovered, the treatment phase is almost over. Amen, and hallelujah, brothers and sisters! I took the first dose of the chemo last night, and I'm not really feeling the effects yet. No doubt I'll soon enough be feeling fatigue and nausea. In the meantime, it's hard not to anticipate the celebration to come.

So I've started thinking about how I want to celebrate. One thing I've been dreaming of for a long time is getting back out to La Push for some nature therapy, and fortunately I have a friend who appears willing to take me out there. I may even be able to drive a little on this trip. (I haven't driven at all since the tumor was found, although I was legal to do so once it had been six months since the last seizure.) Other than that, should I throw a party? If nothing else it would be a good excuse to clean my room, which is another thing I haven't done since the tumor was found. It's pretty gross in here! So that's a good possibility, maybe in early April.

In late April I'll be going to Corflu in the LA area (arriving Thursday, departing Monday), which will be my first convention since Sasquan in August 2015. A week after getting back from that I'll be flying with my brother and his family out to a couple of islands in Micronesia. We're going to stop in Pohnpei to visit the mysterious stone city of Nan Madol -- the site, amongst other things -- of entry into the subterranean world in A. Merritt's The Moon Pool. Then onward to Yap for a couple of weeks. These are bucket list things to do. A last trip to Yap was the first thing I thought of when I started thinking about a bucket list.

Budget permitting, I hope to visit friends on the East Coast later in the year, and I hope to travel to Belgium and the UK in 2018. When I'm not traveling, I hope to be writing. The first writing project is to finish rewriting my TAFF report and to finally get it published. Another thing I'll probably work on at some point is to pull out all my LJ and Facebook posts about post-tumor life and see whether/how they read as a story. I had been thinking about putting together another collection of my fanwriting, but that seems less pressing at the moment.

Some of you may be wondering whether my treatment will really be over once the chemo is over. It's true that I will be given the option of continuing to wear the Optune. I've been told that it will be my choice, but I'll need more information and guidance before I make a decision about it. It's definitely a ball and chain to deal with, and so far there isn't enough data to draw any clear conclusions about how much additional time it would give me, especially as the way it's being used has been evolving. Anyway, I'll be getting an MRI in the middle of March to establish a post-chemo baseline, and I'll talk to my neuro-oncologist then about the Optune and quality of life.

There is still a fairly long list of practical/legal matters I've been putting off until after treatmen: a will; a living will; designating someone with power of attorney for me and someone to make medical decisions once I'm incapacitated. For now, however, I'm just going to think about celebrating the end of a long ordeal. Yippee-ki-yay!


Sarah Gulde for TAFF!

I'm one of Sarah Gulde's TAFF nominators, and because the voting deadline is coming right up, we are taking the unusual step of posting the PDF of the new issue of Chunga (#25) before we've mailed out the paper copies. If you haven't made up your mind about who to vote for yet, please download the PDF of the new issue, read Sarah's delightful article about the Nerd Camps she's organizing in Portland and then read my endorsement in Tanglewood. Then download the ballot using the link on this page and vote! Instructions for how to vote online can be found on the ballot. Pay close attention to the eligibility requirements, because not everybody can vote for TAFF. Good luck, Sarah!


In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

Diski In Gratitude.jpgThis book was recommended to me by ron_drummond. It's a cancer narrative of sorts, but it's also a memoir. Diski had a highly unpleasant childhood, with two dysfunctional and abusive parents, and an adolescence spent in and out of psychiatric institutions. Eventually, because she had gone to school with her son, Diski was invited to live with Doris Lessing, which she did for four years before Lessing decided she was a lost cause and kicked her out. Diski was the basis for Lessing's novel, The Sweetest Dream.

Diski eventually realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and published a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer and given two to three years to live. This book was the result of the diagnosis, and it was published in 2016 right before she died at age 68. I really struggled with it. I found her a very sour personality -- understandably so considering her difficult early life -- and I found her inability to reconcile herself to death strangely alien. (We'll see how that goes once my cancer really starts to eat me.) Her writing style is allusive in an almost stream of consciousness way, and I found the allusions hard to follow at times. I almost bounced off the book in the very first chapter, as she wrestles with how to write about cancer in a non-cliche way, going through all the conventional approaches that she desperately want to avoid. The self-consciousness was deeply unappealing.

Then, however, she moved on to her life with Doris Lessing, which I found more interesting, even if neither she nor Lessing comes off as a person I'd want to spend time with. But ultimately I was impressed with her honesty and willingness to delve into difficult, unresolvable feelings. As Ron said, she explores the way that gratitude and ingratitude define each other, and she's never sentimentalizes the way in which her own feelings about Lessing and life shuttle back and forth between the two poles. I'm prone to irrational optimism and sentimental romanticism myself, which is one reason I really struggled with the book, but I think her relentless investigation of fear, depression, and mental illness was a reality check I needed to receive. Not everybody has the privilege of a sheltered upbringing or of a loving family and circle of friends. In this section Diski also writes about the famous people Lessing hobnobbed with. Suffice it to say that Idries Shah comes off as a creep and an asshole in her accounting, but R.D. Laing comes off better.

By the end of the book, her free associations had a kind of magical realism to them, tying together completely disparate ideas and alternative, if not contradictory, theories into a unique vision and response to the conundrum of her life. I doubt I'm capable of resisting the cliches as powerfully as she did, but I ended up admiring her for the ability to do so and for creating a vivid depiction of the people she knew and the crazy, messy era of sex and drugs, literary heavyweights and mental hospitals she lived through.
Upwallsworld_cover.jpgI had to look it up in my book log (fortunately it was near the beginning), but it turns out I read this novel before I read any of Tiptree's short stories. It appears that I read it when the paperback came out in 1979. This time I read the first edition hardcover that I picked up used somewhere along the way. (Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons! Boy, that was a different era of publishing, wasn't it?) So it's funny that my memory was that I was disappointed by the novel. Apparently I wasn't disappointed because it wasn't as good as her short fiction but because I didn't think it worked as a novel.

That's the standard criticism of Up the Walls of the World, and it's justified. For example, it doesn't so much end as trail off, with the characters still ferociously imagining multiple alternative futures for themselves. Tiptree tries to finesse this by having the last viewpoint character conclude, "Let's try it all!" It's not a bad hand wave, because what the characters (and the reader) gradually realize over the course of the novel is that the characters are now facing eternity.

Which is to say that what Up the Walls of the World lacks in structure it makes up for in sheer scale. It's as if Tiptree told herself, "I'm writing a bigger story, so I'm going to expand my speculative scope accordingly." It's pretty literally epic in scale. At times it reminded me of the Star Trek original series episode about the planet destroyer and at others the first Star Trek movie about V'ger. The novel opens with a chapter from the point of view of an absolutely enormous but nebulous space-roving entity that thinks of itself as an evil murderer. I vaguely remember that when I first read the novel I didn't like the use of all-caps to represent the voice of this entity, which eventually becomes know as the Destroyer, because what it does as it roams through space is destroy star systems. I still think the use of all-caps is a clumsy, ugly way to represent vastness, but it certainly didn't bug me as much this time.

So we start big, and then we switch to the POV of a manta ray-like alien living in what seems to be something like the great storm of Jupiter located on an alien planet called Tyree. Tyree is in a star system that's undergoing attack from the Destroyer, and the aliens are desperately looking for a way to survive extinction. Part of what Tiptree has accomplished here is what Gwyneth Jones calls "some the most convincing non-humanoid aliens ... I've ever met." My only caveat is that the characters of the aliens still feel very human to me, and I'm not sure how it could be otherwise without staying out of their minds entirely. But the way they communicate with light and color, and the way they navigate through their environment, have sex, raise kids, perceive the world, all feel very different than any other aliens I've seen depicted in any format, rivaling the Jotoki in Donald Kingsbury's "The Survivor".

On top of these two bits of speculation we are then introduced to a group of humans who are part of a military test of psi powers. The central character in this group is a doctor who suffered a horrible loss in his past and has been self-medicating with opioids ever since. He is skeptical of the experiment, and worse he finds himself overly-sensitive to the pain all of the experimental subjects feel. He falls in love with a black computer scientist, but she is very distant and hard to approach, having suffered a traumatic injury in her own past. The band of experimental subjects is quite various and outstandingly characterized, from the paranoid, to the motherly, to the lesbian couple who are a mix of exuberant and victimized. The only thing all the experimental subjects have in common is pain and fear and lives lived as outcasts, because they are freaks of nature.

Jones says the novel is in a different mode than the short stories -- "a joyous and starry-eyed sf." It's true, but it still has a heavy serving of Tiptree's signature anguish, not least in the genocidal annihilation perpetrated by the self-hating Destroyer, but also more intimately in the fears, injuries, and losses suffered by the Tyreens and the humans. It's one of those stories about endurance of extreme suffering in the cause of a greater vision. That vision does end up being "starry-eyed," but not till the very end. Still, the sheer spectacle of the frantic, star-spanning action and the incredible world-building were enough to keep me happy through all the anguish. The awkward interaction between the aliens and the humans is very smartly portrayed, as is the gradual way they incorporate each other into a new community. This is widescreen baroque SF at its finest, despite the structural problems. As Jones notes, it's also a good example of an ethical solution to the problem of power that doesn't involve domination and exploitation. Echoes of Star Trek in that too?

A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Slonczewski A-door-into-ocean.JPGGwyneth Jones writes about this book a number of times in her collection, Imagination/Space. She has a conflicted response to it: "Don't do it! was my cry. Don't claim the moral high ground; the sf guys' club will love you for it; doesn't that tell you anything ...? A woman doing just what she's supposed to do, being gentle and nurturing, looking after our spiritual growth, being moral so we don't have to be ... That's not the revolution. I feel differently now, because these are different times. Best feature: A Door into Ocean works like mainstream sf. Okay, it's about the sixties US under the skin, but the skin is proper, sciffy, rich, and strange sfnal skin." (in "(Re)reading for a Chapter on Feminist SF")

This novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1986, which is certainly a mainstream SF credential, and it was eventually followed by three more novels comprising the Elysium Chronicles. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it: "The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans ... whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch." Sloncewski is apparently a Quaker, and her pacifist beliefs are definitely explored in this novel. What's interesting is that the Patriarch is light years away from and thus invisible to the planets he rules through an intermediary called the Envoy, and so he works as a kind of metaphor for the Christian God that the Quakers also worship. Perhaps Sloncewski's willingness to explore her conflicted feelings about her religion is part of why the novel feels so personal and honest, despite the way it stacks the moral deck in favor of the Utopian female society.

Like a lot of '70s feminist Utopias (cf Russ' Whileaway, Charnas' Motherlines, or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) Slonczewski's matriarchy reflects the political division within the womens movements of the time, with more militant factions, some that are more spiritual, and some that are more separatist, for example. Nobody gets let off easily, and a lot of the novel is taken up with the anguish various characters (including the militarist males) feel about the decisions they make. The deep history of the novel seems to be that the Shorans are descendants of people they call the Primes who thousands of years ago destroyed their civilization with "fire," probably of a nuclear nature. This forced them to change their culture and their science. Now perhaps the Patriarch is interested in resurrecting that old technology for his own purposes, or whatever other weapon technology the descendants of the Primes are capable of creating with the new science.

As Jones implies, what makes A Door into Ocean particularly fascinating is that the women of the ocean moon Shora are advanced genetic scientists, using only organic means to manipulate genes and cells. Slonczewski's background as a microbiologist shines through in the marine ecology she creates on Shora, where all life forms are interdependent and healing is practiced through enzymes and specially-bred lifeforms rather than pharmaceuticals and scalpels. (The split is reminiscent of Sterling's Shaper/Mech stories, I guess.) It's a work of hard science, and a highly original one. The only similar worldbuilding I can think of is in Varley's Eight Worlds stories and Gaia trilogy. Slonczewski goes much deeper, to my mind, creating a fully-imagined world that brought me that vicarious pleasure of exploring the alien that I remember from my adolescent encounters with science fiction. The sexuality in the novel is interesting too, with the one relationship that we see most closely being between one of the merwomen and a male (or malefreak, as the all-female Shorans think of him) from the planet that is invading their world. They are biologically incapable of having reproductive sex (in fact they are basically toxic to each other on that level), but the sex they are able to have is smoking hot.

Despite the painful subject of genocide and resistance, there is a joy to this novel that is a pleasure to behold: a science fiction writer in her prime hitting on all cylinders of imagination and speculation. Great stuff, highly recommended.

Imagination/Space by Gwyneth Jones

Imagination Space.jpegI went through a Gwyneth Jones phase when the Aleutian Trilogy was being published by Tor. Dave Hartwell was her editor at Tor, and I used to talk about her books with him. I went back and read all of her adult SF and fantasy, starting with Escape Plans, and I read one Ann Halam YA book too. My favorites were Divine Endurance, White Queen, and North Wind. In her I found an heir, both literary and feminist, to Joanna Russ. I found the third book in the Aleutian Trilogy, Phoenix Cafe, a big disappointment, and between that and the fact that Tor dropped her after that, I lost track of her career.

On my TAFF trip in 2003, however, I did manage to pick up a British paperback of her next novel, Bold As Love, which I'd heard her read from when she taught at Clarion West in 1999. (I wouldn't have remembered that date, except she mentions it in the acknowledgements to the novel, where, alas, she also refers to the Crocodile Club, which is actually called the Crocodile Cafe. Ah well, a very minor error in the grand scheme of things.) So as part of my ongoing project of reading mostly books by women, I finally pulled it off the Pile a couple of weeks ago. Alas, I found it completely impenetrable -- which was also true of her first two novels, now that I think of it. I didn't care about the characters and couldn't keep some of them straight, I couldn't figure out the political factions, I couldn't distinguish the different bands or which characters were in which band. In short, I found it completely incomprehensible. On the off chance that it was the chemo causing the confusion, I consulted with the temporarily-retired fishlifter, who I knew had had some problems with the book too, and she confirmed that she had had many of the same problems I was having. Worse, she told me it was the first in a five book series, not the diptych I expected. I gave up on it at the point.

I was considering the semi-retired fishlifter's recommendation of another novel by Jones called Spirit when I recalled that I had one of Jones' non-fiction books on my Pile. Since I'd been vaguely feeling that I've been reading way too much fiction lately anyway, I started reading Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which was published by Aqueduct Press out of Seattle. Two days later, I had read the whole thing. Although I had read some of the excellent reviews and essays on her website during my period of infatuation with her writing, I hadn't heard that in 2008 she had won a well-deserved Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of science fiction scholarship. She turned out to be an heir to Joanna Russ as an incisive critic and reviewer as well as an author of self-critical feminist science fiction.

However, at first it seemed like a bad sign when the first essay in the book -- "What Is Science Fiction?" quoted extensively from the book I'd just bounced off of, Bold As Love. But I admired the essay greatly for not trying to pin the origins of SF to one book or one literary movement. Instead she cites multiple roots in the Gothic (expecially Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula), travel writing of the ancient past (e.g. Herodotus), the Romantic concept of the Sublime (citing Burke's essay on the subject), and the more modernist genre of the Grotesque (e.g. Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I love this kind of genealogical, very literate, influence-spotting approach to genre history, so this was a perfect essay for me.

Another favorite piece was "Postcript to the Fairytale", subtitled "A Review of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ." This is one of Russ's most slippery, shifting, difficult works of fiction, and Jones does a brilliant job of tracing Russ's wrestling match with the contradictions of exercising power as a woman in a patriarchal society and her resistance to the common feminist urge to retreat into fantasies of female superiority. Like Russ, Jones is not much for the easy answer, and she is as pointed and balanced in her criticism of feminists as she is of sexists. Of course The Two of Them is partly about the ways women are complicit in their own oppression. Jones sees her own complicity too in brilliant passages like this:

The story behind the fiction, the story of a generation, always starts the same way: I was a girl-child in the fifties. I was attracted to the alien culture (indubitably alien!) of a set of books with rockets on the spines. Maybe I was influenced, though I didn't really know it, by my mother's memories of the halcyon days of World War, when women's work was needed outside the home and she had a life. Maybe I felt her unease, though she never talked about it, at being socially engineered back into the kitchen and the negligee. (Maybe I called this "not wanting to be like my mother.") The books were exciting and adventurous, and there were plenty of tomboy girl characters. I didn't know they were there for decoration, I thought it meant the genre had a place for me! So I ran away with Science Fiction, to start a new life. And here I am, still happy to be dressed in long underwear, with my raygun, but sorely disillusioned about those tomboys ... And then the story divides. The unregenerate tomboys keep their rayguns; the alpha female fans create a female, womb-friendly space within sf; but aren't both playing by the rules of the boy club? The Two of Them examines this dilemma, with illustrations. (p.48)

Jones is frequently provocative. Her essay about the links between horror, sexual arousal, and science fiction is called "String of Pearls," which although derived from a work of criticism, it is a work of criticism about pornography, which leaves the sexual suggestion intact. Her essay on video games connects that industry to the science fiction field in ways that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, although that likely reflects my own lack of interest in video games. She provides fascinating insight into her own working methods as a writer, specifically in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural" about tagging after a female molecular biologist, Dr Jane Davies, while researching her novel Life, which is about a non-Darwinist concept of evolution.

As with any good work of criticism, I come away from it with a list of other books I now want to read. Jones provides not one but two lists of top feminist science fiction, and I've already started reading Joan Sloncewski's A Door into Ocean, which she mentions more than once, not necessarily disparagingly, as an example of "a female, womb-friendly space within sf" and has long been on my big list of books I'm interested in, largely due to the advocacy of a feminist writer-friend of mine. Indeed Jones' Life now seems like the next novel of hers I want to try, but based on this collection I'd also like to track down her previous non-fiction collection, Deconstructing the Starships. I thought Imagination/Space was completely fascinating and riveting, and I'd like to read more of the same.

Long tail

I had an MRI and visit with my new neuro-oncologist yesterday. The MRI once again revealed that the tumor hasn't returned yet. My conversation with Dr. Taylor was an eye-opener to such an extent that I decided to sleep on it before sharing it with anyone other than my family and housemate.

I had some questions about survival rates, and in the course of asking I rehearsed the survival stats I was given in the beginning: an average of twelve months for people who don't take treatment, fourteen months for those who do, thirty percent survive at least three years, and only ten percent survive at least five.

"That sounds like the statistics for the whole population of people with glioblastoma," Dr Taylor said. "You need to look at the statistics for those like you who have the IDH1 mutation." She said they are now seeing that the IDH1 mutation makes a pretty significant difference in survival rates and that between having the mutation, the methylated MGMT gene (which is apparently highly correlated with having the mutation), being relatively young (under 60), having gotten most of the tumor out surgically (achieving 95% resection of the tumor is apparently more common in people with the mutation, and Dr Silbergeld seemed very confident that he had gotten as much of the tumor as humanly possible), and having survived the surgery in very good health, both physically and cognitively, she thought it was likely that my survival time would be on the long tail.

I don't know what that means exactly. I'd say it's still likely that the cancer will eventually kill me, but this still feels like a reprieve. My radiation oncologist, Dr. Halasz, was willing to say that all my favorable factors would likely put me in the 10% who live at least five years, but Dr. Taylor is saying something significantly different, to my ears. But what, exactly? That I have a strong chance of living for quite a while with this beast? I told her that my mom would be insufferable, because she's been saying this all along. I was going to be that guy who survived for twenty years and died of a heart attack, not cancer. I kept telling her she was in denial (at least in my internal dialogue with her), but maybe her optimism was correct all along. She's certainly feeling pretty smart right now.

"How was she able to understand?" Dr Taylor asked.

"She was a transcriptionist in a Pathology lab for a number of years."

"Ah, so she can actually read the lingo."

"Better than I can anyway."

The article about the mutation that I linked to echoes some of the stuff that Dr. Taylor told me while amplifying other things. They now think that the mutation occurs in some people when a lower grade glio moves up a notch. It also sounds as though one of the main helpful features, which is how I understood the positives of the methylated MGMT gene too, is that it works well with radiation and chemo to improve the body's ability to kill cancer cells. One section of the article talks about a study in which "the median survival in the IDH-mutant group was 163.4 months (13.6 years)". That was for one subgroup in the study. For another subgroup with the mutation the study showed a median survival rate of "118.7 months (9.9 years)." I can't say that I follow much of the technical discussion distinguishing the two subgroups, but either of those medians is far better than any median survival I've run into before. Of course this was one study of about three hundred people with GBM, 113 with the mutation, 222 without.

The article also says treatments are being developed to specifically target GBM patients who have the mutation. Again, the discussion is too technical for me to follow, but it all sounds pretty hopeful, which I assume is why Dr. Taylor was willing to be so optimistic right to my face. I feel torn between wild optimism on my own part and cautious skepticism. No doubt I'll need to read and discuss it further, but damn if I didn't immediately start thinking, "Maybe I *will* get to see Celine grow up!"

In other news, I started round eleven of chemo last night. Only one more after this one. I'm excited that chemo will soon be done, so I'm just feeling giddy in general today.


The Tao of DARS

DARS Gang.jpg
With Tom and Kathy at a Washington State DARS conference in Ellensburg probably in the late '90s (Photo by the fourth member of our team, Susan)

Yesterday I cleaned out my desk in Schmitz Hall, and amongst other things I discovered this photo from a long ago work conference. December 31st was my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm now officially retired, and I've specifically applied for a disability retirement, although that hasn't been approved yet. This, however, is the story of how an English major ended up working in the Academic Data Management Office. Not that my trajectory is all that unusual for the early days of the Information Revolution.

My first job in the Office of the Registrar, which is currently located in Schmitz Hall, was a temp clerical job in the Graduations Office in 1988. The supervisor there, Virjean, liked my work well enough that when a credentials evaluator position opened up in the office in February 1989, she hired me. The cred evals processed graduation applications, which meant we determined whether students had completed their degree requirements and could be granted a degree. So in four years in this position, I became thoroughly familiar with the University's undergraduate degree requirements.

A few years after that, around '91 or '92, the U bought a license to the Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS), which was a software package that allowed schools to encode their degree requirements, feed a student's classes into the system, and let the program determine whether the degree requirements had been fulfilled. Since I was familiar with the degree requirements and was considered a pretty smart guy, in 1993 I was given the job of implementing DARS from the degree rules side. Susan (who took the photo above) was the COBOL programmer in charge of installing DARS on the mainframe and figuring out how to feed the requirement "encoding" and student records into the system.

The mainframe version of DARS came with screens for entering the requirement encoding, but the mainframe team was short-handed in those days. They didn't have the bandwidth to implement the entry screens. The first stage work-around was to have me manually create text files in which each line and each position within each line was mapped to the DARS data structure. Needless to say, this wasn't a very user-friendly solution. So they decided to have me develop an Access database with forms that allowed me to enter the data in a more intuitive way and then export it into a flat file like the text files I'd created earlier. I don't think I had any knowledge of Access at the time, or if I did it was just a couple of entry-level training courses that introduce you to the concepts of tables and queries, forms and reports. I'm not sure why they thought I'd be able to figure Access out on my own, other than they thought that I was a smart guy with good analytical abilities.

So I spent six months learning how to use Access, including how to write procedures in Visual Basic. This was definitely one of the strangest periods in my working life, because I was essentially being paid to learn. I spent all day, every day, reading Access manuals, trying to figure out how to do what I needed to do. Eventually I developed a database with data entry forms that allowed me and others to encode the degree requirements for DARS in a relational database and export them into flat files for upload to the mainframe every night. If there was any kind of error in the data, the upload would abort. However, it worked well enough that eventually we were able to hire two more encoders to begin the job of putting all of the UW's undergraduate degrees into the system. I also developed a diploma back-order database for the Graduation Office, and I was pretty darned pleased with myself.

The first woman we hired to encode turned out to be mentally unstable. She had scars on her wrists from previous suicide attempts, and she tried to commit suicide while she was working for us too. The story she told us of that attempt is actually pretty funny in a morbid way, because everything she tried failed, including closing the garage doors and starting up the car, only to have it run out of gas. Anyway, it was less funny when she accused me of emotional abuse, and we had to go through a long, painful process to determine that I wasn't actually being cruel to her.

I think by that point we had hired Tom, who was a gay man from Minnesota. He was tighter with his money than anybody I know, except for maybe my brother's friend, Steve, who funnily enough is another Lutheran-raised Minnesotan. Tom's partner loved opera and had hundreds of CDs that he loved to listen to at top volume, which got on Tom's sensitive nerves. So, like my Mom, who insisted that they add a room on their house in Crooked River, so that she didn't have to listen to Fox when my half-deaf father had it on full-blast, Tom and his partner had a grandmother apartment separate from their house where Tom's partner could listen to loud opera to his heart's content.

Eventually, much to everyone's relief, Kimberly moved on to another job, and we hired Kathy to replace her. Kathy was a much more down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who was also taking care of her sick mother. Things in DARSland stabilized for a while until Kathy's mom started going downhill and Kathy had to look for a less demanding job so she could spend more time caring for her.

I'm not sure why I went into such detail about these folks, other than to give some context for the photo. In the meantime, because I needed to pull in representative students to test our requirement encoding against, I learned how to write queries against our student data and started to learn the structure of the relational data warehouse of the mainframe flat files. I even took over the creation and maintenance of the official degree codes for the university, because I had become so familiar with them through using them in DARS. Also, once we hired Maggie to replace Kathy, we were well into the maintenance phase of DARS, and I started to lose interest in the project. While we were in the implementation phase, it was the first time that I had ever felt I got my greatest sense of fulfillment in life from my job rather than from my hobbies and pastimes. This was also the point at which a client-server version of DARS came along, and all my Access work was scrapped.

By this point, my knowledge of student data structures and Access query writing were good enough that in 2007 I was moved over to a job in the Academic Data Management Office essentially writing ad hoc queries as well as running stored queries and processes that more knowledgeable people had written. Eventually through a process of attrition through death, retirement, and post-Great Recession layoffs, I became the last person standing on the data side of the office, which also included some non-data functions such as desktop support. I always felt like a total imposter, because I didn't know how to write SQL from scratch, but I kept reminding myself that nobody knew the underlying data structures better than I did. By the end of my career in that department I was *the* go-to guy on the campus for questions about which tables had which student data and how to join the tables. If I didn't know the answer to the question, I knew who did know the answer. Needless to say, this stuff wasn't written down anywhere, and our data dictionary was always a work in progress. So I guess I earned my keep despite my lack of SQL proficiency.

And that's the long-winded story about how an English major ended up in a semi-technical job. Aside from my knowledge about the data structures, accrued over time, my other important skill was the ability to problem solve in a methodical way when things weren't working. I was good at analyzing where things were breaking down and then working my way toward a solution by a process of elimination. At least one person I worked with who was far better at SQL than I had no ability to trouble-shoot, because when she started getting bad results, she always jumped to the idea that there was something wrong with the underlying data rather than accepting the more obvious possibility that there was something wrong with her SQL. Of course she was also mentally unstable, so there's that.

Anyway, needless to say this career path was not anything I had in mind when I earned my English degree and started looking for work. But I wandered along the way, going with the flow, and found my own idiosyncratic path.

Name Plate.jpg


Corflu 34

I've purchased a membership to Corflu 34 in LA. I'm curious what kinds of pre-convention plans people have.

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