Throwing out memories

Yesterday, I got into a conversation with someone about getting rid of stuff.  (I have no idea how we got into that conversation.)  I told her that I was a self-admitted pack rat, and (like many other people, I’m sure) I had a tough time with getting rid of things.  How many of you have tried to clean out your closet, your attic, or your basement, come across an item, and have said either “oh that holds fond memories” or “I might need that later”?  I’d bet that if I asked that question in a crowded room, almost every hand would be raised.

She said something profound: “Everything has a story.  When I get rid of something, if, say, I’m giving something away, I’ll tell that person the story behind it.  For example, let’s say I’m getting rid of a dress.  I’ll say, ‘oh, I wore that dress for a friend’s wedding,’ or whatever the story is behind it.  Once I tell the story, I can let it go.”

She gave me some advice: “If you’re getting rid of something, tell someone about it — even if all you do is write it down somewhere.  Even if no one ever reads it, at least the memory is preserved.”

It’s hard to let go.  We place a lot of value in things, whether they’re people, relationships, or inanimate objects.  If something is valuable to you, you gain an attachment to it.  The stronger the attachment, the more difficult it is to let it go.

So the next time you’re getting rid of stuff, tell someone about it — even if you just write it down.  You might find it easier to part ways.

The power of positive thought

I know what you’re thinking.  “Here we go again with another article espousing the power of positive thought.  Just what I need.”

But here’s the funny thing: it’s true.  I know this because I’ve experienced it.

For me, the eye-opener happened years ago when I took a Dale Carnegie course.  We did a demonstration where I stood up and held my arm out while the trainer tried to push down on it.  But here was the caveat: he did this exercise twice.  The first time, he told me to say aloud, “I am weak and worthless.”  He told me to say it and believe it.  And he also told me to fight him as he pressed down on my arm.  I fought him as best I could, but he pressed my arm down fairly easily.

The second time, he told me to say — and believe — the words, “I am strong and worthy” (or something like that — it’s been years, so I don’t remember the exact words).  He repeated the exercise.  This time, I was able to keep my arm straight and stiff.

I sure became a believer that day.

Examples of this abound everywhere, especially in CrossFit.  I wrote in a previous article that, at best, I could only stick with a fitness program for a few months.  I’ve been going to CrossFit for almost two and a half years (28 months as of this article, to be exact, and counting).  The primary reason why I’ve stuck with it is the support system.  CrossFitters want you to succeed.  They continually push you to be better.  I remember watching the CrossFit games where the announcer said, “CrossFit is probably the only sport where the person who comes in last gets the loudest cheers.”  I have made a number of friends through CrossFit, and I absolutely love the community.

During my junior year in college, I was struggling with something — I don’t remember what it was — and a classmate sent me his favorite poem, hoping it would pick me up.  It did.  It has since become one of my favorite poems as well.  I have a small plaque with this poem hanging on the wall of my home office.  I’ll look at it occasionally, whenever I feel the need.

Yeah, I realize “anti” or “uninspirational” quotes or memes are amusing, and I will admit that I do my fair share of dishing them out.  But whenever I feel like I’m coming out on the losing end of something, I’ll try to put a positive spin on it.  Don’t let negativity suck you into a black hole.  As the poem says, “it’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”

Memories of 9/11

(Photo image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I still remember the morning of September 11, 2001 (15 years ago today) like it was yesterday.  It was an ordinary Tuesday morning.  At the time, I lived in a townhouse in Clifton Park, about 15 miles north of Albany.  I got up, showered, got dressed, kissed my then-girlfriend (now wife) good day, stopped at the local convenience store to pick up the day’s New York Times, and drove to work.

My company had an office in the World Trade Center.  Although I was based out of the Albany, NY office, I regularly made business trips to the World Trade Center roughly about once every couple of months; in fact, I had been in the World Trade Center only a couple of weeks earlier.  I had been down there often enough to become well-acquainted with the area; I knew the hotels (including a Marriott right between the two towers) where I regularly stayed on business, I knew some of the restaurants in the area, I’d become familiar with the subway lines that went in and out of the area, and I’d become accustomed to taking walks in Battery Park.  While I am a lifelong upstate New Yorker and not an actual resident of New York City, I’d been to the City often enough that, to me, it felt like a second home.

Likewise, I knew the thirtieth floor of Tower 1 — where one of our offices was located — very well.  One of our large data centers, a server room (in which I spent a lot of time when I was there), was on that floor.  I made sure our server room maps and information were up-to-date.  I had come up with a map grid system (identical to the letter-number grid combinations that you’d find on road maps) to identify and label server racks.  Whenever we added a new server rack, I’d create a label for it, record the servers within the rack, and make sure it was updated on the map.  Years later, I would eventually come up with an online system, including a SQL Server database back-end, that automated most of the data that I gathered from my regular server surveys, but in those days before automation, I had to do the work manually.  No matter.  I enjoyed working in the World Trade Center, and I always looked forward to my excursions down to the southern tip of Manhattan.  Those trips always made the mundane work worthwhile.

At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary (from my perspective, anyway) when I arrived at the office in Albany and went upstairs to my desk.  Someone told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I didn’t think anything of it at first.  My first thought was that a small single-engine Cessna had hit one of the towers.  How tragic, I thought, and I told myself to check the web for any news about it later that morning.  I dropped off my briefcase and my newspaper at my desk — again, another normal, typical morning for me — went downstairs to the cafeteria to get myself some coffee and some breakfast, and went back upstairs to my desk.

At this point, the office was abuzz.  I checked a few news websites for information.  That’s when I discovered that the plane that had hit wasn’t a small private plane; it was a Boeing 767.

I called my house immediately.  I told my girlfriend, “turn on the TV right now!”

That’s the last of what I remember clearly from that day.  The rest of the day is a blur.  While my memory of the events from that point forward is hazy, this is what I remember.

No work was done for the rest of that day.

I made my way over to the help desk area where a TV was broadcasting the news.  Other than the news broadcast, the entire area was deathly silent.  I remember one girl on the help desk was sobbing.

My manager had gone down to the City that day; he was there every week.  I remember his wife calling me.  She was understandably in hysterics.  I told her that I had not heard anything from him (the lines were all jammed from the amount of cell traffic, so no calls were getting through), and I promised that I would give her a call once I’d heard any news.

(I did see my manager later that evening; he told me that as he approached the office, a crowd was heading in the other direction.  He was there to see the towers fall.)

I remember Dan Rather broadcasting the events.  I remember the stunned silence as we all watched the towers fall.

I had heard stories from my friends and co-workers who worked in the World Trade Center.  One person was downstairs getting breakfast.  He had only moments earlier gotten out of the elevator — when flames shot out of the elevator.  Another person ignored announcements to stay where they were, and escaped down the stairwell — a decision that likely saved his life.

The next few weeks were hectic.  Our department (we were responsible for supporting the company’s server infrastructure), including employees from New York City, Harrisburg, Syracuse, and Middletown, convened in the Albany office to come up with a recovery plan.  We started with rebuilding critical domain controller servers and went from there.

All that time that I had spent in the World Trade Center documenting the servers proved to be crucial.  Based on the data we had, we were able to recreate the servers we had lost and rebuilt the infrastructure.  We obtained backup data from offsite storage — proving the value of backing up your critical data and storing it offsite — and recovered much of the data stored on the lost servers.  We worked thirteen straight days around the clock, working in shifts.  A server engineer would rebuild a server; if it wasn’t finished by the end of his or her shift, another engineer coming on-shift picked up where the previous person left off.

Everyone wanted to do their part.  I remember one of our colleagues was away on vacation when the planes hit; he was unable to return immediately because all flights were grounded.  He eventually was able to make it back to contribute to the cause.  Even my own manager had to tell me to go home and get some sleep.  He knew I wanted to do my part, but he also knew that it was important for us to get our rest so we could contribute.

I was willing to give up my extracurricular activities to help out.  I was going to skip band practice to help rebuild.  No, I was told.  If you skip things like that, the terrorists win.  Stick to your normal routine.  It’s important that we maintain morale and keep our spirits up.  We were all encouraged to work and to rest when we had to.  Employees from out-of-town were encouraged to take trips home to spend time with their families, then return to Albany to continue with the work (we set up a schedule so that everyone could do so).  Any sense of normalcy and efforts to boost morale were evident.  The company even served us breakfast during those two weeks; I remember eating a lot of pancakes, eggs, sausage, and bacon when I got into the office each morning.

After two weeks, we had rebuilt enough of the server infrastructure that we were able to maintain our business.  We weren’t at 100%, but it was enough to keep it going.

It wasn’t until later that we discovered the aftermath in regards to our company.  We lost nine employees.  Among our lost employees were a man confined to a wheelchair and his friend who wouldn’t leave his side.  Every year, on September 11, I still think about those nine co-workers that I lost.  I didn’t really know them.  (Regarding the man in the wheelchair and his friend: I vaguely remember exchanging a couple of emails with them, and I think I spoke to one of them on the phone a couple of times, but I did not know them that well.)  Nevertheless, I still consider them as I would friends or family members that I lost.

Fifteen years have passed since that fateful day.  It is important for us to remember.  We can and must always remember the lessons of 9/11.  However, it is also important for us to continue with our lives.  Not moving on would be a great disservice to everyone who lost their lives on that tragic day.

Life goes on.

How do you want to be remembered?

Have you ever thought about your own obituary?  (I apologize for the morbid thought.)  Dying is something we’re all going to do someday.  When that day arrives, what kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind?

This week, I had the misfortune of attending two different wakes for two different people.  Interestingly, I did not know either person well; in one case, I was friends with the deceased’s sister, and in the other, the deceased and I had mutual friends.  In both cases, despite not knowing the deceased that well, I felt compelled to go.  Mainly, I went to support my friends in their time of grief.  However, both people had compelling life stories that made me wish that I had known them better in life.

I don’t remember the exact wording of the quote, nor do I remember where I read it, but I remember reading something to the effect of “the way you measure the success of your life is by the number of people who show up for your funeral.”  Okay, granted, after I pass on, I won’t know how many people will show up at mine, but I’d like to think that a large number will show up.

(Side note: my favorite rock band is Kansas.  I’ve told people that I want “Dust In The Wind” performed at my funeral.)

Honestly, I don’t know how I’d want to be remembered (or at least, outside of this article, I’ve never really stopped to think about it).  I suppose I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a good person, someone who cared (sometimes too much), someone who gave it a shot, and someone who gave his all in whatever he did.  (There’s probably more to it than that, but it’s not something I feel like writing now, and to be honest, you probably don’t want to read about it.  I’d rather do my thing and let others be the judge of how I did.)

When it comes down to it, how you live your life and how you treat others will likely be your legacy.  So make the best of it.  As someone once said, live every day like it’ll be your last — someday, you’re going to be right.

What music taught me about being a professional

They say learning music improves cognitive skills, and I definitely understand the correlation.  I’ve been playing music my entire life.  Reading a score is like a computer reading a program; there are notes (that correlate to instructions), dynamics (attributes), repeats and D.S./D.C. instructions (loops), and so on.  (If you want to take the programming analogy further, you could say that each movement in a suite is either a function or an object.)

However, that is likely another article for another time.  What I want to talk about is my involvement in music, and some of the lessons learned throughout my life.  Granted, not everyone is a musician.  For the purposes of this article, I could easily replace the word “music” with “sports.”  These lessons aren’t necessarily about the science of music; rather, it’s how my experience in music shaped my life and, eventually, my professional development.   It’s about being a part of something bigger than myself, and how I’ve been able to contribute.  Many other people likely had these same experiences playing sports; it just so happens that my experience was in music instead of sports.

Anyway, for the context of this article, some personal history about my musical background is in order.  I started learning the piano when I was 7, and I picked up the clarinet when I was 8.

In my school district, second graders were offered the chance to learn an instrument, which was determined by your skill in recorder lessons.  You had your first and second choices of instruments.  The saxophone was actually my first choice; the clarinet was second.  I don’t remember why, but they wouldn’t let me take up the saxophone, so I ended up on clarinet.  As it turned out, I became pretty good at the clarinet — good enough that it provided me with opportunities later down the road.

Lesson learned: just because your first choice doesn’t work out doesn’t mean opportunity doesn’t exist.

XmasSax

I ended up learning how to play saxophone years later, when I was in high school.  I actually discovered that it was easier for a clarinetist to learn saxophone than it was for a sax player to learn clarinet.

Lesson learned: sometimes, things happen for a reason.

Like just about any typical kid, I hated to practice.  (Admittedly, I still do!)  But as time went on, I realized that the only way I was going to get better was to work on it on my own time.  So I worked at it, and got better.

Lessons learned: practice makes perfect, and preparation is everything.

As a kid growing up, my piano teacher lived next door.  To get to my lessons, all I had to do was climb over the bluestone fence that separated our properties.  Every year, we had an end-of-year recital at our local community college.  (I remember looking forward to the post-recital reception — hey, cookies! — the most.)  Every year, I felt nervous about getting on stage to perform — a feeling that lessened each year.  I suppose it was a sign of my growing confidence in something that I enjoyed and was able to do fairly well.

By my senior year in high school (and my final recital), my fellow seniors asked me to present our piano teacher with flowers as a “thank you for putting up with us everything you did.”  (I told them I wouldn’t do it unless they were on stage with me; they obliged.)

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why my fellow seniors picked me to be the spokesperson, but they saw something in me that I didn’t.  By that time, I’d gotten comfortable with performing on stage, but I felt pretty nervous when my friends appointed me to make that presentation.

Lesson learned: to be successful, you need to step out of your comfort zone.

My school’s marching band had built quite a reputation.  In 1973 (?), they were selected to perform halftime at a New York Jets game.  The Jets still played at old Shea Stadium, and the weather that day was, to put it mildly, not nice.  Despite the weather, the band took the field at halftime.  The play-by-play man said on national TV, “this is probably the bravest marching band in all of America” (or something to that effect — they actually showed halftime shows on TV back then)  In 1976, they were selected to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  In 1980, they were featured in a commercial for Pepsi-Cola.  I remember watching that commercial as a wide-eyed kid and proclaiming, “I’m going to be in that band.”

Lesson learned: sometimes, you need a dream — or a goal.

Ray_OCS_MarchingBand

I was supposed to play clarinet in my high school band, but my freshman year, the band got a brand new set of marching bells.  Because I played the piano, I was one of the few people in the band who knew his way around a keyboard.  So guess who got the job of playing the new set of bells?  I was already getting praise for my musical prowess, but somehow, playing the bells gave me a whole new prominence with the rest of the band.  Had I stayed on clarinet, I would’ve been just another face among about a dozen other clarinet players.  I played the bells for three years before I switched back to clarinet.  But the bells gave me new experience that I was able to parlay into mallet percussion opportunities later in future groups.

Lesson learned: if an opportunity arises, jump on it.  You never know where it might lead.

I played in my high school band for four years, and ended up doing quite a bit with them.  I marched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1981 (yes, I am visible in the video link; you can see me in the percussion section playing the bells at 0:22).  We performed halftime for a couple of New York Giants games.  We were in the stands for the infamous snow plow game (the Patriots would not let us on the field because of the snow; we performed The Star Spangled Banner from the stands and left the game before halftime, so we never got to see the field goal).  We played pregame for a couple of Yankee games (I remember standing in center field, playing my music, and thinking to myself, “wow, I am playing in center field in Yankee Stadium!”).

My last game as a member of my high school marching band was a Giants game.  I remember thinking that it would be the last time I’d step on a football field with a marching band.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up attending a college that had a marching band.

Ray_SUMB_Parents_Wknd

College was a whole new experience (as it usually is for any kid coming out of high school).  Here I was, a small town kid going to a large university that happened to play NCAA Division I sports.  And as is often the case of most major college football schools, the school had a marching band.

When you’re in high school, and you become really good at something, you tend to think you’re hot stuff.  You’re a big fish in a small pond.  But for me, in going to a large school like Syracuse University, the pond suddenly got a heck of a lot bigger.  Suddenly, here were a bunch of people who could do the same things that I could — sometimes, even better.  For me, however, it set the bar higher.  I was determined to do well in a band of over two hundred people.  And for four years, I felt proud to be part of that team.

Lessons learned: you get better by setting the bar higher.  Be a team player; your contributions make a difference.

Even after I graduated from Syracuse and moved to the Albany area, I continued to play my music (and I still do).  More opportunities came up.  I joined a few large ensembles.  I became an accompanist for a church.  I’ve written songs and created some demos.  I got paid to play for weddings.  I found a bar in downtown Albany where I could play for a few extra bucks.  I was asked to accompany students, instrumentalists, and show productions.  And through all these opportunities, I still continue to improve and grow as a musician, as a professional, and as a person.  I continue to enjoy what I do.  And I intend to keep playing for a long time to come.

Lessons learned: never stop doing what you love.  You’re never too old.  Share what you love with the world.

Play on!

The only person whom you can change

“Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?”
“A: Only one, but it really has to want to change.”

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice…”
— Rush, “Freewill”

“Minds are like parachutes.  They only work when they’re open.”
— Thomas Dewar

The other day, I was watching the Tour de France on the TV with a couple of friends, when another guy walked in.  He started going off, unprompted, about how “bicycling isn’t a real sport,” “I know because I worked with bicyclists,” and so on.  The way he was talking, it was blatantly obvious, even to me who doesn’t know as much about cycling (as a sport) as my friends did, that he had no idea what he was talking about.  This person was aggravating — to the point where one of my friends finally said to him, “I’m done talking to you.”

Someone once said that you can’t outtalk someone who knows what he’s talking about.  Unfortunately, you also can’t outtalk someone who has an opinion and is unwilling to change it.  It is for exactly this reason why I refuse to talk about politics with anyone.  No matter what facts you tell that person, you’ll never be able to change him or her.  Any attempt to do so only gets you frustrated and angry.

There is only one person over whom you have 100% control: you.

You have the power to influence change on others.  You can’t completely change them.  We all have our own thoughts and opinions that we express to others.  But as much as we’d like for people to see the world the way we see it, it’s ultimately up to them to make up their own minds and act upon their own thoughts.

I’m thinking about the movie Coming To America, where Eddie Murphy’s character is talking to his newly appointed bride-to-be.  “Jump on one leg.  Bark like a dog.”  And she does — without any question.  This scene brings up two thoughts.  First,  what he couldn’t do was convince her to be her own person.  He doesn’t have that power.  Nobody does, except for that person.  Second, would you really want a friend, spouse, or significant other who (as much as we like to joke about it) is completely obedient to every single word you way?  I sure don’t.  My wife is one of the most strong-willed individuals I know (note: individual is a key word).  And I wouldn’t want her any other way.  Sure, we fight on occasion; all spouses, couples, and even friends do.  There is no relationship that is 100% perfect.  There shouldn’t be.  Every person is their own individual.  It’s up to that person as to how to change.

I previously wrote about how change is inevitable.  It is up to us to determine how that change happens — and how we should handle it.  We can always try to influence change — and we should.  But influencing change is not the same as implementing change.  People will always try to influence you with their opinions.  What you do with those opinions is up to you.

Support your local user group

I’m involved with a number of local groups.  I participate regularly with my local SQL Server user group and my local Albany UX group.  I occasionally attend events held by my local college alumni group.  And I hold a leadership position within the local community symphonic band with which I play.  Additionally, there are several other local groups with which I would like to be involved; only lack of time keeps me from getting involved with more of them.

Why is it important to get involved with local user groups?  There are many good reasons.

  1. It’s a free resource for learning.  Both my SQL and UX groups regularly include a presentation about some topic at their meetings.  These presentations provide me with an opportunity to learn something new.
  2. It’s an opportunity for you to get involved and to give back to the community.  I am a musician in my spare time.  My involvement with music groups give me a chance to share my talents with the rest of the world.  Likewise, I’ve become a presenter with my SQL group (more on that in a minute).  Through my user group, I have an opportunity to share my knowledge and my thoughts.
  3. It’s an opportunity to grow.  Years ago, I started attending SQL Saturday, a series of SQL-centric technical conferences that are held at various locations.  I wanted to contribute to these conferences, but I wasn’t sure how.  I gave some presentations at my local SQL group.  I took those presentations, submitted them to SQL Saturday conferences, and was accepted.  I now regularly submit to and speak at SQL Saturdays around the Northeast United States.
  4. It’s a chance to network and make new friends.  I have made a significant number of friends through my involvement with user groups.  These are people with whom I feel comfortable getting together, having dinner, inviting to parties, playing games, going to ballgames, and so on.  From a professional perspective, it’s also a great opportunity to network.  It’s entirely possible that user group involvement could lead to professional opportunities and job leads.  You never know.  Speaking of professional opportunities and job leads…
  5. It looks good on a resume.  Getting involved with user groups demonstrates that you are genuinely interested in something.  That’s something that might appeal to potential employers.
  6. You become involved with something bigger than yourself.  Doesn’t it feel good to be part of a team?  When you’re involved with a user group, you can point to it and proudly say, “I’m a part of that!”
  7. It’s fun!  I’ve often told my wife that band practice “isn’t just a hobby; it’s therapy.”  I’ve often gone to rehearsal angry about something, and by the end of rehearsal, I’ll completely forget about what it is that upset me.  These user groups are something I enjoy, and it makes for great therapy.

These are some of the reasons.  Are there any others?  Feel free to add by commenting!

So go out there, find a user group that interests you, and get involved.  Chances are that it might lead to something.  You never know!