Little Lost Creek

First came the Winooski River, following its idle, meandering, little-boy-with-stick-on-the-fence path through Central Vermont. Then came route 2 running back and forth across the path of the river, but never straying far. Next came the railroad. At least I think the railroad came after route 2, but it could have been the other way around. It hardly matters since both were cleanly eclipsed years later by Eisenhower’s interstate. Montpelier was irrevocably connected to the vast network of the rest-of-the-world.

Twenty miles down the interstate from our home is Waterbury, Vermont. This town is best known outside Vermont as the home of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Inside Vermont, it is famous for a group of large rust red brick buildings housing most of the state’s bureaucracy. And to our family, it is forever known as the home of the car dealership that sold us our first lemon.

But if you head a little farther west on Rt 2, only a mile or so, there is a side road to the north that turns to dirt before you have even had a chance to gawk at the pristine valley you have just entered. A few miles down the road and there is a state park with camping sites and hiking trails centered around the Waterbury Reservoir, with its Great Depression era dam.

We had had such success hiking with our children the previous weekend with my brother and his family, that we decided to try again on our own. The high school student in the park uniform who took my money at the gate suggested the nature trail, a forty-five minute walk along a creek. Rose wanted to stop at the camp playground with the tallest swings she had ever seen, and I promised we could do so after the hike.

The parking lot was a narrow dirt gash in the forest. We applied bug dope to everyone, and watched our children race down the footpath over mossy stones and slick culvert bridges made of 2×8 boards. The terribly heat and humidity of the past few days had vanished that morning under overcast skies. A delicious coolness wafted from a noisy brook, littered with boulders and fallen trees. The woods were quiet, except for the tramping steps of my children, with a canopy of hundred foot trees overhead protecting the ferns and fungus and detritus from dehydration.

“OK, Rose. See the blue blazes on the trees. That tells us where the trail is. You keep an eye on those blazes.” Thereafter, whenever we came up to one, Rose ran ahead and stopped under the tree, her palms up under the blue blaze, posing like a department store manikin display. Then off she’d run with Samuel close behind.

“Rose, Samuel, stop!” we called repeatedly, dragging them back for some brief encounter with nature.

Look at those bugs. They are walking on the water. How do they do that? I don’t know!

Cool, says Samuel, his new word for the day.

Look at this incredibly furry caterpillar. Does he look good to eat? Yech!

Mostly though, we found mushrooms and other fungus, which flourished in the shady moistness of leafy rot all around. Brilliant orange mushrooms with tiny holes that the spores came out of. Frilled tree fungus with bright purple scalloped edges. A single, waxy, pale white mushroom that looked like skin of a corpse, and was probably deadly enough to turn us into one. At each turn we found something new for the children and spent just enough time on it to not challenge their attention span.

Samuel ran ahead. I found I could walk quickly and keep up with him. Every few feet, he would turn around and say, “Papa, wait for me!” and then turn back and run ahead.

“Papa! Shhh!” Rose hushed me, and then whispered. “There’s a squirrel climbing that tree.”

“Oh yeah!” I said, pleased that she had discovered some bit of nature on her own.  ”And, Rose, look at the mushroom growing on the tree!” A large mushroom cap rested ten feet off the ground on a branch where it forked into two.

I should have known better. In a previous lifetime, Dawn studied fungus while pursuing a master degree in botany. “Well,” she cleared her throat. “Not exactly.”

“I mean, look at the fungus growing on the tree. It’s not really a mushroom.”

“No,” Dawn interrupted. “You were closer the first time. It really is a mushroom. It’s just not growing on the tree. A squirrel set it up there to dry for winter.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No, they store nuts and they dry mushrooms. They’re quite clever.”

“I’d never heard that before.”

“Me, neither!” said Rose.

“Me, neither!” echoed Samuel.

It was a fast-forward nature walk. We managed to get the children to walk-not-run, and we did not try to challenge their attention span. The forest went by in a blur, but I remembered the brook that we all wanted to dip our toes in, had it been warmer and had we brought extra socks. I remembered the smell of the damp and the vegetative rot, which reminded me somewhat of a west coast rain forest. And I have a clear image of the Indian pipe.

I found it halfway up the short slope after the path veered away from the brook. It was pale and white, with a six-inch stem no thicker than a pipe cleaner, sticking straight up out of the leafy mold, with a curious, thick, albino flower on top. There were a dozen of them, all in a group, and once more I stopped the troupe to observe this new “fungus”. Once again, I was mistaken.

“It’s Indian pipe,” Dawn informed us. ”I remember this from school. It’s a sort of in-between creature. It has real flowers like a plant, but no chlorophyll, and it gets nutrients from decaying matter like a fungus. Scientists aren’t sure how to classify it. At least, that’s how I remember it.”

(Later that evening we looked up Indian pipe. The thirty year old dictionary agreed with everything she said. The ten-year-old biology text book, however, said that it was now known to be a parasitic plant that stole nutrients from the roots of other plants nearby. Very cool.)

By the time we got out of the woods, everyone was ready for a snack. Then we had another twenty miles to drive to Burlington for some shopping, but Rose reminded us about the swings.

“OK, Rose. Fifteen minutes and then we leave. No complaints. I’m setting my watch.”

But the swings were taken by some big kids, so Rose ran to a younger child and his father by the see-saw. She sat down at one end, lifting the child off the ground, and he was unable to get back down, being a year or two smaller. I introduced myself to his Dad – he was quiet, a slow smile, not terribly friendly but not offended or offensive, a native English speaker who lived in Quebec province. I persuaded Rose to use her legs to let the boy down, and they played together.  When the swings were available, they both ran to them, so I pushed Rose while the boy’s Mom pushed him.

“So what is Quebec like?” I asked her.

“Oh we live near Montreal. It’s very nice.”

“My wife and I sometimes think about moving there.”

“There are lots of Americans living in Montreal. About 15,000 I think.”

“Well, when we get sick of the politics here and the poor health insurance it looks pretty attractive.”

“Oh, I don’t know much about politics. We’re waiting for the kingdom.”

I wasn’t sure I understood her. Did she say “kingdom?” But then her son asked her something and I lost the thread of the conversation. I tried again.

“Are you on vacation?”

“Yes, we went down to New York to tour the facility where they publish ‘The Guardian.’ We drove up through Vermont on the way home.” And then she began to talk about the Kingdom of God that was coming. She did this very naturally, weaving it into the conversation without forcing it, in the sort of meek, friendly voice anyone might use with a strange parent you’ve just met on a playground.

The Guardian? I had a sudden memory. Living in the town of Parakou in the West African country of Benin. I had been in Peace Corps for four months when two African men appeared at my door. I did not recognize them. They carried copies of The Guardian. They wanted to talk to me about Jesus.

Alarms began to go off in my head. No wait. It was my pocket. I pulled out my cell phone which was playing its jaunty alarm ring, and realized what time it is.

“Oh, excuse me. Rose! Samuel! That’s fifteen minutes. It’s time to go!”

Another Pleasant Valley Monday

Things got a little off schedule Friday morning. Dawn was out with Samuel for her morning walk, and I was getting breakfast for Rose when we heard a thundering boom, as if lightning had struck a block away, only the sky was clear. The windows rattled briefly and all the power went out in the house. Probably a transformer had blown in the neighborhood. Not for the first time. Not for the last.

Whenever something like this happens, I am usually the first in the neighborhood to reach Green Mountain Power on the phone. I used to think it was because we were the only house on the block with an old-fashioned corded phone, the kind that doesn’t need an electrical outlet to work. But now I think the real reason is that I am the only one who bothers to look up their number and call. The woman on the phone promised to look into it right away.

I couldn’t start work until we had power, so I took Rose next door for her scheduled playdate with Kailea. But Kailea was not home. She and her Dad had gone to the food co-op and weren’t back yet. I did not know how long they might be gone, so I waited with Rose and chatted with Kailea’s Mom.

“Are you going to the garage sale?” she asked me.

“Garage sale? What sale?”

“Um … the one across the street. Over there.”

Her tone of voice indicated that I must be walking around with my eyes rolled back inside my head again. We live in a tiny, no-outlet neighborhood hidden over a rise off Main Street, but when I turned around, the street was lined on both sides with cars. Through the sumac and cottonwood trunks across the street, I could make out the bridge tables and mismatched wooden chairs covered with books and toys and old electrical appliances. A small herd of shoppers milled about the driveway, their downcast eyes appearing in and out through the trees.

“Oh, that garage sale,” I answered. “Well, I might go check it out, but I left my wallet at home.”

Fortunately Kailea arrived home then with her father, interrupting my bluster, and Rose rushed over from the swings. Children can drag their feet something awful, but when they’re motivated, you’d best get out of their way. Rather than Kailea getting out of the car, Rose ended up inside, and in the melee to extract both of them from the Volvo station wagon, I busted an eardrum from the squealing.

Then a rumbling sound announced the arrival of the power line repair trucks. They squeaked through the honor guard of cars parked on both sides of the road and began searching through the maple and oak foliage for hidden transformers. I took advantage of the distraction to say my goodbyes and head across the street.

It was a fair sized garage sale, enlarged with “contributions” from a teenage daughter who was away for a week on vacation. Her parents had taken advantage of her absence to clear out some items that she had not touched or even looked at in years but which she couldn’t bear to be parted with. This included the largest collection of stuffed animals I had ever seen outside a museum or toy store, but my eyes wandered lustfully along the phalanx of chairs holding several hundred books for $3 a bagful.

Then I saw Samuel in the middle of the driveway, sitting in his stroller, utterly absorbed with an old toy truck in his hand. Next to him was a growing pile of board games, children’s books, marble runs, and more toy trucks. Dawn was dropping things into the pile, and when she saw me, she smiled and sent me home to get my wallet. A smaller truck from the power utility went by carting off a load of trimmed tree branches. Clearly I couldn’t go to work yet, so I went home for the checkbook.

By the time I got back, there were more people and yet more stuff for sale in the neighbor’s driveway. I passed a CD case, and quickly ran my eyes from top to bottom searching for nothing in particular. And to my surprise, that’s exactly what I found. A mint condition copy of “The Monkees Greatest Hits.”

Looking back, I think I must have stumbled into a puddle of teenage nostalgia I had never bothered to clean up from my mind, liberally infused with the pheromones of the competitive shoppers surrounding me. Without thinking about it, I slipped the CD out of the rack and scanned the groovy 1960’s cover just to verify it was what I expected. Yes, there were the very same long-haired boys I remembered from our black and white TV years ago. I dropped the CD into the pile by Samuel. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with the CD. But I had a vague plan that involved some sort of deformation of my children’s cognitive development.

I waited until Monday, after Dawn had left to take her morning walk. She left Samuel behind this time. Good, I thought. Two subjects to experiment with.

“Hey,” I said out loud, as if the thought had just occurred to me. “How would you like me to put on some music?” I asked them.

“Yeah! Yeah!” they chorused back.

I slipped the CD into the player and headed back to the kitchen island, ostensibly to finish preparing waffles, but really to scientifically observe the proceedings.

Some would say my taste in music, and Dawn’s as well, is eclectic, bordering on eccentric. My children have been fed a fairly odd musical diet consisting of Commonwealth folk, klezmer, classical string quartets, New England and Southern fiddle tunes, brass marches, and occasional acoustic guitar. None of it was composed in the last half century. They were not really prepared for what was coming.

[Twang!]
Here’s we come.
Walking down the street.
Get the funniest looks from
Everyone we meet.
[Frenetic drum roll]
Hey! Hey! We’re the Monkees!
People say we monkey around.
But we’re too busy singing.
To put anybody down.

Rose turned to me with a strange look on her face, as if I had just put on a recording of whale songs, or native American drumming, or Tuvan throat singing. Something exotic, sung in a foreign, or perhaps not even human, language.

“What are they saying?” she asked me.

“Heck if I know, honey.”

She tilted her head trying to listen better, trying to make sense of the lyrics. Meanwhile, Samuel was all over it. He was on the floor running in circles and hopping on one foot, and screaming happily, which didn’t make Rose’s job any easier. Someday, Samuel is going to be one of those boys who is super popular with the girls because he isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself on the dance floor. Rose called me from the couch.

“Papa. What does ‘put anybody down’ mean?”

Rose listened to the CD four times that morning before she was satisfied that they were, in fact, singing in English. After that, she loved it, even though she still couldn’t understand much. But by then Dawn had come home, showered, eaten breakfast, put away the dishes, folded the laundry, and was ready for Some Other Music, Anything At All, Just Not The Monkees.

Later that afternoon, I was walking by Rose’s room and overheard her singing to herself:

Hey hey we’re pixies.
People say we pixie around.
But you shouldn’t monkey around now
On the Erie Canal.

Well, I thought. Good. The experiment seems to be a success so far.

The Perseids

We have been struck down by allergies.

Dawn was first afflicted a week ago, coinciding with her bout of suffering last year. She did not waste any time but directly started a double-dosing routine – Benadryl in the morning and Clariton in the evening – along with Tylenol or Ibuprofen as needed. 

At one point, she even suggested trying my prescription anti-histamine, Zyrtec. As a medical professional she ought to know better. I asked her what she would tell a client who suggested doing something like that.

“Probably remind them that it is a federal crime,” was her answer.

To be fair, Samuel has recently weaned, and for the first time in years she can have several kinds of over the counter medication that most of us take for granted. So I think her behavior is the reactive binging one would expect after a prolonged abstinence. It will resolve itself in a month or two.

Today I joined her. I woke with a persistently runny, sneezing nose and a general sense of fatigue (which may have been due to Samuel waking several times between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning). As luck would have it, it was Sunday morning and our turn to host the neighbor’s children for three hours while they have a child-free morning. We had our turn last week. I vowed to stay away from my Zyrtec until after they had left at noon. May cause drowsiness. Do not operate heavy machinery. Do not attempt to entertain small children except as human trampoline.

It wasn’t bad. We’re pros by now. Four children, two in diapers and two in the throes of “pretend play” spent three hours emptying closets and toy chests. They had a great time. We even survived. When their Mom arrived, we invited them to lunch.

I waited until 1:00 PM to take a single Zyrtec pill, and I made it until 3:30, even constructing a monstrously complicated marble maze for Rose, before Dawn let me crash in the bedroom where the HEPA filter is running 24/7. Two hours later, I woke, still feeling groggy but breathing clearly. By 10 PM I was so ready for bed, but then I checked the news and remembered it was the night for the Perseid meteor shower.

The meteor shower is due to remnants of the comet Swift-Tuttle which circles the sun once every 130 years. Its last visit to our celestial backwater was 1992, which means that, barring some incredible advance in medical knowledge or space travel, my children will not live to see this comet in the sky. But it has left behind a trail of debris, and at this time of year, the earth plunges through it like a car running through the obscuring balck exhaust of a diesel truck. The debris burns up in our atmosphere, and there is enough of it to create several shooting stars in the span of an hour. The are called the August Perseids because the shooting stars appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus.

One of the perqs of living a mile from downtown Montpelier on a dead end street with no street lamps is that you can walk outside your front door and see stars. Lots of stars. Of course, it was so dark at that hour, that I could have just as easily walked into the front door and saw stars, but that didn’t happen tonight. I went a few paces out on the lawn until the spreading branches of the Norway maple were to my east and I had the entire night sky open to the north.

At first, I could only see about 50 of them. The bright beacon lights of Cappela and Polaris and others whose names I’ve forgotten. There was the familiar, angular bowl of the Dipper, the celestial equivalent of the retired old man out on his porch every night, regular as clockwork. I saw the reclining constellation of Cassiopeia, looking like a plastic letter W after my son has jumped on it a few times. And many other constellations whose names I have known and forgotten over the years.

The grass was wet so, rather than sit down, I stood with my arms besides my ears so that the elbows stuck out in front like blinders blocking the light from the windows of my neighbor across the street. As my eyes adjusted, more stars became visible. Another 200 popped out of nowhere filling the gaps. I leaned my head farther back and stared at one spot almost straight above until I felt the heavens circling around me – another side effect of the anti-histamine, no doubt.

And then countless, innumerable, radiant fields of stars appeared. Like storybook pixies, they disappeared if I looked directly at them, but they continued to dance in my peripheral vision, a glowing river of lights. Occasionally the sky would flash on the horizon below and distract me, and then I remembered I was here to find shooting stars. But I had not seen a single one. The news had said look to the northeast, but as the minutes ticked by I saw nothing. In fact, the stars in that direction seemed pale and few. Finally, I understood that they were being obscured by clouds. In the darkness the clouds were all but invisible, and their presence was detectable only by the stars they hid.

The glowing flashes on the horizon was sheet lightning. The hot, humid air of the day was condensing in widening layers of clouds. Before morning, we would have a rain storm, maybe thunder. The gutter spouts would overflow. At least our raspberry patch may yet produce one more quart for the season.

I came back inside. Inside, the children were sleeping peacefully. Dawn was on the bed reading a book I had checked out from the library; she had started on it right after dinner and is now nearly done. So no shooting stars, but at least I have a good book waiting for me tomorrow.

Monty Python's Flying Mortgage

Hello, and thank you for calling Relentless Home Loans. Did you know that you can sign up to receive an email confirmation of every monthly payment. Sign up now at www.relentless.com.

The voice is smooth, professional, young, educated. A white woman’s voice. A bank teller’s voice. A young mother’s voice when her children are being precocious and well behaved. A voice you rarely if ever hear in your daily commerce. A voice that is clearly disembodied, recorded from a model who spend a day repeating meaningless phrases into a computerized recording device.

You’ve reached customer service department. [Pause]Para Espanol, oprima el numero dos. [Pause]For quality assurance purposes, this phone call may be recorded.[Pause]Do you have your account number?

Yes.

Please say or enter your account number.

123456789.

OK, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, Is that right?

Yes.

One moment please.[Music][Silent pause][More Music]Are you an agent calling on behalf of a customer?

No.

Great! Thanks. Remember you can access your account on the web at www.relentless.com.

There is another pause. Why it is so great that I am not an agent? Does the automated phone system find real estate agents particularly troublesome?

[Bing Bing – Two gentle notes, like the doorbell on a mansion.]

Please mention in a short phrase why you are calling today.

Yes, I like to learn how I can remove the private mortgage insurance from my monthly payments.

OK. [Pause] Hi. Let me help you with insurance.[Pause]Are you an agent calling on behalf of a customer?

I just, um … No.

Would you like to hear a summary of the homeowner’s info on file.

Oh sure. Why not. I mean, Yes.

You policy was issued by State Farm on …

The voice begins to drone on and on about the insurance associated with my policy. As I listen, it becomes clear that the voice is speaking of my homeowner’s insurance, not my private mortgage insurance. There is an awful lot of detail about my account including numbers and IDs and addresses, the kind of information an identity thief would find useful to impersonate me and take out credit cards in my name. But first they would have to break this phone system’s security. They would have to know my account number. They might have to read my garbage or recycling.
Mental note: burn all future correspondence from Relentless.

Would you like to
1. Hear this information again.
2. Learn more about your outstanding insurance balance.
3. Update this information.

None of the above.

OK. Let’s return to the main menu.[Pause]Are you an agent calling on behalf of a customer?

No!

Please mention in a short phrase why you are calling today.

Insurance. MORTGAGE insurance.

OK. [Pause] Hi. Let me help you with insurance.[Pause]Are you an agent calling on behalf of a customer?

CLICK.

I count to ten. I take deep calming breaths. I then gently pick up the receiver, dial the number and try again.

Hello and thank you …

I would like to speak to a customer service representative.

[Pause.]

I think you want to speak to a customer service representative. But first, can you tell me why you’re calling?

I want to get rid of my mortgage insurance.

OK. [Pause] Hi. Let me help you with insurance.[Pause]Are you an agent calling on behalf of a customer?

No!

Would you like to hear a summary of the homeowner’s info on file?

No, I would like to speak to a customer service representative.

[Pause]

There’s usually a wait to speak to a representative. Before I pass you there, let’s try again. Do you…

No! I want to speak to a customer service representative! Now!

[Very … Long … Pause.]

Do you want to speak with a customer service representative?

YES!

One moment please.

There is a brief pause, not more than a second, during which time I hear the gentle ping of three more hairs being ejected from my balding head.

Thank you for calling Relentless Home Loans. This is Jeanine speaking. How can I help you?

The voice is different. This time it is an African American woman. She is bored and monotonous and her words are nearly inarticulate over the muddled LAN line. Clearly she is not seeking fulfillment in life through a career in customer service. But she is human, Undeniably, unmistakably, blessedly human.

Yes! [I say this a bit more enthusiastically than one would ordinarily do]. I’d like to know how I can get rid of my mortgage insurance.

Your last name?

I give it.

Ok Mr. Buh…zin…ski? Uh, let me look up that information. By the way you do know that you can look up this information on our web site at www.relentless.com?

M: yeah. So I’ve heard.

OK Mr Buhzinski, in order to get rid of your mortgage insurance you must have had the loan for two years which I see that you have, and you must have at least 20 % equity in the house. Our records show that you have 13%, which means that you do not qualify at this time. However I will forward a request to our appraisal department which will review your case and send you a letter in 7-10 business days. In that letter they will likely request that an appraisal be done on your home or that you pay down enough of the principal to make up the difference. There is a toll free number for the appraisal department that you can call if you have any questions.

[Pause]

And that phone number is…?

Unfortunately I don’t have it. But it will be automatically generated on the letter you will receive. They won’t want to talk to you before they’ve had a chance to review your account anyway.

I still too blissed out from talking to an actual human being to get rude, but … They don’t want to talk to me? I’m a friggin’ customer!
At the same time, I picture a vast automated telecom system. It has a bank of phones and a computer that resets the lines to random phone numbers every three days, just to throw the customers off the scent.

OK. Thanks very much.

Is there anything else I can help you with today?

No, I don’t think that would be advisable.

Alright then Mr. Buhzinski. Have a nice day and thank you for calling Relentless.

What I Do For A Living

“OK, welcome to Code Remediation Services. First we’ll go around and introduce ourselves, then we’ll dive into the problem we are trying to solve. My name is Harry and I will be your mediator for this evening. I have a master degree in mathematics and a masters in Cartography and Geographic Information Systems, and I have been working as a computer programmer in one capacity or another since the late 1980’s. Who would like to be next? Anyone? Ms. Server, how about you?”

The older woman on my left is sitting in a straight back wooden chair of Scandinavian design. Her gray hair is tied into a librarian’s tight bun, and she wears a severe gray shirt with pearl buttons down the middle, and a simple black skirt of ample material that covers the lower half of her body and envelopes the chair. She looks like a widow at a funeral, mourning a husband she never loved.

“My name is Microsoft SQL Server 2005. I’m a complex interconnecting system of Windows services and toolkits, with some out of the box interface components for configuration and analysis of data. I’m used just about anywhere people need to do some serious data analysis.”

There is a noise in the room, a sort of fake throat clearing noise pretending to mask an obscene comment, the kind of juvenile stunt I ought to ignore, except that there are only three of us here, and so it is pretty obvious who did it.

“And Infalli, would you care to introduce yourself?”

The man on my right is about my own age, with long thinning hair brushed straight back and rose-tinted sunglasses. He slouches in an easy chair set back in the recline position, wearing blue jeans and a faded T-shirt that once advertised the band, Phish.

“Sure. Whatever. I’m Infalli.”

We allow him a polite pause for elaboration, and he takes the hint.

“Yeah, uh, Cartomagic Infalli. I’m a toolkit for doing mapping and … stuff.” He rubs his nose on his shoulder and leans back in his chair with his hands in his pockets.

“OK, well, thank you both.” I clear my throat and try again. “Let’s just dive right into the problem, shall we? Ms. Server, would you remind us all what the issue is?”

She sits up straighter in her chair, if that is at all possible, a gaunt, prim looking woman, an old-fashioned grammarian with whom it is nearly impossible to communicate. She parses every sentence you utter and if the syntax is at all lacking, she will let you know and expect you to try again before she will respond. She’s been in the business a while, quite old at this point really. Actually, neither of them are spring chickens, but she seems to have borne it worse than he. She’s put on a lot of weight since 2000, and the new makeup job is alarming and does little to hide her wrinkles, but it is my job to ignore such features and focus on functionality.

She clears her throat. “Thank you. Yes, well as you know I am a top-of-the-line database system capable of managing, storing, arranging, sorting, and analyzing gigabytes of data. That’s a lot of data, you understand,” she adds, turning her head momentarily to Infalli. “I hardly need remind you that it is a job requiring phenomenal memory and a great deal of attention to detail. I’ve been doing it for years and I must say, despite this so called technology boom, fueled mostly by an unfortunate, ill-conceived, almost idolatrous worship of innovation, I say in spite of this, the need for my services, however archaic it may seem to some, continues to grow. Some data processing never goes out of style, despite the various fads in software that seem to crop up from time to time.”

“Yes, we are all aware of your prestigious record,” I interrupt, trying to deflect her back on course. Clearly there is tension in the air between these two. Infalli is frowning, sifting through everything she is saying looking for subtle insult. There are a lot of dead horses around, and we won’t get very far to day if we try to beat every single one. “And we all know, Ms. Server, that you accomplish a great deal for a single software package. But not every package can do everything. That’s normal and no one would expect otherwise. That’s why I’ve invited Mr. Infalli along today. Can you focus a bit on the current issue?”

“Very well. I have a particular client for whom I keep a great deal of location information, storing the latitude and longitude for millions of records.”

For the first time Infalli interrupts. “What records?”

“Excuse me?”

“What are these so-called ‘records’ recording? What is your ‘data’?”

For a moment she is speechless, a look of surprise at the impertinence of the question. “Why, I couldn’t possibly say! That’s classified information! I am not at liberty to reveal anything about my client’s data without their explicit permission!”

“Got it. Customers and warehouses.”

“I … how did you … but …. Young man, I did *not* say that!”

“No, not explicitly. We all know you’re working for a retail chain, and really, what’ve they got to hide except their customers and their warehouses?”

“We don’t actually know that for a fact,” I interrupt. This is getting sticky. I want to keep Infalli involved and interested. In fact, I absolutely need his participation, and she knows it too, though she doesn’t want to admit it. “Please, continue Ms. Server.”

She sniffs. Her jaw lifts slightly as she does this, but otherwise she makes no other movement. “Yes, well, apparently there is a need to attribute this location data. For each latitude and longitude, they want to know something more, how shall I put it, ‘human-centric’ about the location. The zip code for example, or the county, or perhaps one of their markets.”

“Oh Christ!” Infalli had been smirking at her, but now he looks downright disgusted. “You brought me all the way out here from the east coast for a frigging point in polygon operation? I could do that in my sleep! That’s so simple it’s … Christ! It’s demeaning!”

“Well young man, if you can’t handle simple latitude and longitude data…”

“It’s ‘longitude and latitude’ lady! Longitude first. Then latitude. X-coordinate comes before Y, as in the alphabet. You *do* know the alphabet Ms. Server, don’t you?”

She looks at him with pure hatred for a moment, but doesn’t rise to his bait. “Excuse me,” she sniffs again. “I need to use the facilities.”

Infalli mockingly holds up his watch. “Is it midnight already? She must need to make a dump.”

“Watch your language, you … you … you disrespectful, sophomoric upstart.”

“I think this would be a good time for us to take a short break, shall we? Say, five minutes?”

He smiles as she leaves, amused by her outburst. She sees him as a young hoodlum, and he takes this as a compliment, for truth be told, he is not so young himself. The hair is thinning and there are flecks of gray in the spindly beard. Those sunglasses of his are not merely for looks. It’s a prescription pair. When she’s gone, I turn to him.

“Look here. You want this job, or not? Because if you do, you’d better lay off the snide comments and flip attitude. I need to get you two working together and your attitude is not helping.”

“Hey, I did not start this. She’s the one with the problem. Ms. My-client’s-data-is-too-precious-to-describe. Does she want my help or not?”

“Just back off the attitude, ok? Be a gentleman, or at least pretend to. You aren’t going to change her into some sexy young dotcom package. I know she’s not easy to talk to, but she’s a venerable, hard-working software package, with a lot more documentation than you’ve ever shared with the world. Perhaps you might pay attention and learn something from her.”

‘Yeah yeah yeah. Whatever. I’ll play nice. As long as she does too.”

I know this is as much as I can expect, so I don’t push it. She returns to the room, her stern matronly face looking a bit more at ease. She sits properly in her chair, brushes her ankle length skirt smooth, and folds her hands in her lap, composed.

“So, Mr. Infalli. Do you think you can do the job?”

“Of course. I’m Infalli-ble. Ha! Get it?”

Her face did not twitch a muscle. “How … charming. In a juvenile, childish sort of way.”

“They ain’t very nice, lady.”

“‘Isn’t.'”

“What?”

“‘Isn’t very nice’. If we are going to communicate, Mr. Infalli, I will insist upon perfect grammar and orthography.”

“What are you, my mother?”

I interject, “Well, we seem to be getting along swimmingly now. Shall we try a turn at this?” They both turn to me, surprised, as if having forgotten I was in the room. I have given up trying to get them to be nice to each other. Frankly, I just need to get the job done. It doesn’t really matter how they feel about it, or each other.

“Here’s how it works,” I continue. “I have written a small piece of linking code. It contains a single programming function that takes a longitude and a latitude and a name for the type of data requested – zip code, market, county, etc. It ferries that request to Infalli, who will provide me with the name of the zip code, market, county, etc. that contains that location, and my function returns the value. I have tested this code with Infalli before we got together, and I can assure Ms. Server that whatever his faults in grooming or finishing, Mr. Infalli does return the correct value.”

“Frankly, sir, that is between you and him. I don’t care if he returns Timbuktu for a zip code, as long as you format it correctly. But how do expect me to use this linking code of yours?”

“With your permission, I shall attach the assembly to your master database, and declare the function so it’s available for any queries that your clients might make.”

“Very proper. In theory. You may continue.”

“Thank you. First, I will attach the compiled code.”

“Hey, what do I do?” Infalli is looking put out, a little pouty at being suddenly ignored.

“Don’t go anywhere,” I reassure him. “We will need your services momentarily. Shall we begin Ms. Server? Here’s my first request.”


— Create the assemblies
CREATE ASSEMBLY [SqlIntegration]
AUTHORIZATION [dbo]
FROM ‘C:\work\SqlIntegration.dll’
GO

“Very well.” she says.


Command(s) completed successfully.

“Thank you.” I add politely. Infalli, looking on, pretends to not be interested. “Next the function declaration…”


— Create the scalar functions
CREATE FUNCTION Inspection
(
@region nvarchar(100),
@x float,
@y float
)
RETURNS real
AS EXTERNAL NAME [SqlIntegration].[Services.Sql].[Inspection]
GO

“Yes, quite correct,” she allows.


Command(s) completed successfully.

Infalli raises an eyebrow. He is surprised this is going so smoothly, but he says nothing.

“Now let’s give this a test run. Infalli are you ready?”

He pulls his hands out of his pockets and sits up, a curious look on his face.

“Here goes. Ms. Server…”


UPDATE Customers SET ZipCode =
Master.dbo.Inspection(‘ZipCode’, ‘X’, ‘Y’)

I sit back, expecting this to take a while. There are millions of records in the database. But I get a response almost immediately.

“No,” says Ms. Server.


Msg 6522, Level 16, State 1, Line 1
A .NET Framework error occurred during execution of user defined routine or aggregate ‘Inspection’:
System.TypeInitializationException: The type initializer for ‘Services.Sql’ threw an exception. —> System.InvalidOperationException: Cannot load dynamically generated serialization assembly. In some hosting environments assembly load functionality is restricted, consider using pre-generated serializer. Please see inner exception for more information. —> System.IO.FileLoadException: LoadFrom(), LoadFile(), Load(byte[]) and LoadModule() have been disabled by the host.

“No?” I respond.

“Certainly not, dear boy! I’ve never heard such an improper request.”

“But … it’s a straight forward UPDATE request. What’s wrong with it?

“What’s wrong with it? Good Lord! What’s right with it?”

I turn to Infalli, looking for support. A huge grin has spread across his face. He waves his hand in the air indicating I should continue, and he leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head. I turn back to Ms. Server.

“I don’t understand. It’s the most straightforward UPDATE query possible. You pass me the longitude and latitude and I take it from there and return the zip code to you.”

“My dear boy, you make it sound simple. You forget, I have the Runtime package. I’m the one who is going to run your little linking program. Not Windows, not the operating system, but me. And I am a bit more selective than the operating system about with whom I am willing to speak.”

“You won’t speak to me?”

“Oh, don’t look so crushed, dear boy. You’re a lovely lad. Of course, I shall speak with you. However, I shan’t speak with him,” and she jutted her chin ever so slightly towards Infalli.

“But, you don’t have to speak with him. That’s the beauty of it. You only speak with me, and then I speak with him. In fact, you wouldn’t even know I’m speaking with him if I hadn’t told you. How could you know?”

“Ah, you’ve already forgotten. I am running your code, and before I can run your code, I must read it. And I assure you I have read through it entirely and thoroughly, and it is quite clear you intend to send my information to some sort of external web service and bring back something thence. And I simply cannot expose myself to just anyone.”

“But it’s just a zip code. How can that hurt you?”

“Who knows what he will do with my longitude and latitudes? Perhaps reverse geocode them, find the addresses, send them unsavory solicitations. No, dear boy, I simply don’t TRUST him.”

I turned to Infalli, hoping he will play along. “You would never do that, would you?”

He lifted one hand in the air, palm up, in a gesture of surrender. “Hey, I do whatever I’m paid to do.”

“Exactly,” said Ms. Server.

I think for a moment. I seem to do a lot of this in my work. People have this strange idea that programmers spend all their time typing arcane syntax into computers, but the truth is, we spend much more of our time thinking of ways to get around stubborn, poorly documented error messages.

“OK, how about this? What if I *tell* you that he’s trustworthy?”

“You must be joking!”

“No, no really. I will vouch for him and then if anything bad happens, which is highly unlikely, it will be my decision, and my responsibility. How about that?”

She looks shocked at the idea, but I know this will work. Fundamentally, despite her straight and narrow ways, she cannot enforce more security over the data than I permit, as long as I am explicit about what I ask her to do.

“Very well. Be it on your head,” she adds, a bit dramatically, I must say.

It takes me hours to track down the arcane requests necessary to perform this deed. I try command after command, but each time she raises a new objection. She knows what I’m trying to do, she must know, but she simply won’t help at all. She insists I send her one statement at a time, and each time she returns one single objection at a time, even though she may have multiple problems with any one statement. The entire time, she sits properly with her hands in her lap, and I do not think she blinks even once. It’s rather unnerving. Infalli has long since fallen asleep in his chair.

Finally I change some compilation settings in the project and recompile it. Then I return to Ms. Server. “OK. I think I’ve got it. Here goes:”


— Create the Asymmetric Key
CREATE ASYMMETRIC KEY SqlIntegrationKey FROM EXECUTABLE
FILE = ‘C:\work\SqlIntegration.dll’ ;
GO

— Create the Login
CREATE LOGIN SqlIntegrationLogin FROM ASYMMETRIC KEY SqlIntegrationKey
GRANT EXTERNAL ACCESS ASSEMBLY TO SqlIntegrationLogin;
GO

— Create the assemblies
CREATE ASSEMBLY [SqlIntegration]
AUTHORIZATION [dbo]
FROM ‘C:\work\SqlIntegration.dll’
WITH PERMISSION_SET = EXTERNAL_ACCESS
GO

CREATE ASSEMBLY [SqlIntegration.XmlSerializers.dll]
AUTHORIZATION [dbo]
FROM ‘C:\work\SqlIntegration.XmlSerializers.dll’
WITH PERMISSION_SET = EXTERNAL_ACCESS
GO

I honestly have no idea what most of this means. But one of the nice things about the internet is that plenty of people have had to work with Ms. SQL Server in the past, and they have all written about their experiences. There are hundreds, thousands of postings, stories, questions, and, fortunately, answers about how to trick this modern Sphinx into getting out of the way without eating us alive.

Her eyes glaze over for a full five seconds this time. I have no idea if she’s working, processing, stuck in an infinite loop, or about to hand yet another error. Then the reply comes.


Command(s) completed successfully.

“Excellent!” I yell, waking Infalli with a start. He groggily wipes the spittle off his cheek where he has been drooling. There are a few cracking sounds as, grasping his head in both hands like a vice, he rotates first clockwise and then counter-clockwise to work the kinks out of his neck.

“So, we in business, boss?” he asks.

“I think so.”

He looks over to SQL Server. She is sitting as primly as ever, staring straight ahead, not acknowledging either of our presences. Her jaw is set, as if she is angry at my success, and she doesn’t speak. Or perhaps she’s tired. It’s been hours. But somehow she looks as if she never sleeps.

Infalli raises one eyebrow. “Are you sure? She doesn’t look very … what’s the word … accommodating?”

“One way to find out. Are you ready?”

Infalli sits up in his chair. “Go ahead. Fire away.”

I turn to Ms. Server and pass her the request yet again.


UPDATE Customers SET ZipCode =
Master.dbo.Inspection(‘ZipCode’, ‘X’, ‘Y’)

There is a long pause as the little icon spins and I look over to Infalli to see if there is any signs of activity. At this point, it is out of my hands. I have set the wheels in motion and if they are going to talk with each other, they must do it without me.

But first Ms. Server speaks.

“No.”


Assembly “Cartomagic.Stubs” was built using version v1.1.4322 of the .NET Framework. SQL Server currently uses version v2.0.50727.

“Oh for crying out loud! Why not?” I don’t mean to yell at her. I know it won’t do any good, but it’s been a long fruitless day and I cannot restrain myself.

She turns and faces me, and for the first time that day, there is a slight smile on her lips.

“He’s too old. I won’t be able to understand him.”

Infalli is on his feet, all pretense of apathy and casual indifference gone. She has pushed his buttons in a deep and painful way. He is seriously angry, and spit flies from his mouth as he snarls, “Who are you calling ‘old,’ you miserable, archaic …”

“Now wait a minute!” I interject loudly. “Hang on. You’re supposed to be ‘backwards compatible.’ Even if he was compiled with the last version of the framework, you’re supposed to support that.”

Her smile is gone. She looks at me now with a face of pure loathing and disgust.

“Mr. Programmer, am I to believe that you expect me to be ‘compatible,’ as you so crudely put it, with … with … every nature of primitive beast that comes along? I will not interface with just anyone, and I am deeply offended that you could suggest such a thing!”

I’ve had it. I really have. I lose my temper and I don’t care anymore. In as cold and murderous a voice as I can muster, I slowly read her the riot act.

“Listen to me, you little perfectionist. I will hack your memory into tiny little bits if you don’t start communicating with him right now, and I mean immediately!”

There is a fire smoldering in my eyes, and sadly I must admit that it was with satisfaction that I observed the shock and fear in her face. She did not lose her composure, but her hands trembled as she wrote out a list of longitude and latitude values and held them out to Infalli to read.

But he did not move. He sat with his hands folded across his chest and stared into her face with his lips tightly pressed together. Once more she shoved the paper towards him, but he did not take it. Instead he whispered something to her that I could not hear, and her eyes opened wide. Then she turned and walked back calmly to her seat, back straight, dress smoothed, hands firmly in her lap. She turned to me and all expression was drained from her face.


500 Internal Server Error

“He says he doesn’t want to talk right now.”

Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

We live not far from the old, neglected Catholic cemetary in town. In the early days of Montpelier, the Catholics were not allowed to bury their dead in the town graveyard, and Lord only knows what the Jews did or if there were any Jews to begin with. But in the end the Catholics got their reward, for their cemetary sits on a beautiful slope in a quiet neighborhood with a stunning view of the town and the surrounding hills. Whereas the original municipal graveyard sits on a heavy-trafficed, economically-depressed section of road right next to the river. It has been submerged in floods numerous times. The stones are crooked, their inscriptions worn beyond legibility.

To get to the Catholic cemetary from my house, you take a short walk to the end of the road and then follow a well used trail through a shady woods which takes you to the far corner of the graveyard. Although the place is small, the stones carry names from every Catholic homeland in Europe and beyond: Italian, Irish, Spanish, French. There is even one couple from Syria/Lebanon. There are many children buried here from the 1800’s, and more than a few veterans of various wars.

When Rose was three years old and her Montessori school was in downtown Montpelier, we use to walk home through this cemetary, and she would stop to trace the letters on the gravestones, just as she would trace letters on her movable alphabet at school.

Towards the end of the year, after she had turned four, she began to ask questions. Why are all the stones here? Who are the statues with the wings? Who is the pretty woman with the baby carved on the stones?

This was her introduction to death and mortality and the idea that there are other religions in the world besides Judaism. It was a good place to discuss it, walking alone with her Papa through a sunny slope strewn with wildflowers and bees. I explained to her the customs and rituals of her tradition and how it differed from others. She wanted to leave a pebble on each of the graves, and I had to carefully explain that she could do that in a Jewish cemetary, but not a Catholic one. We had a number of interesting conversations there. And then her school moved to Berlin, and we stopped walking there.

Tonight, more than a year later, after I sang her a bedtime song, she rolled over in bed and said to me, “Papa, when you die, I am going to decorate your gravestone. I am going to put stickers on it, and cut out little hearts and paste them and put pretty colorful rocks on it.” She went on in this vein for a minute or two, while I smiled fondly at her. It had been a difficult, whiny day, noticeably short in “smiling fondly” moments.

“Rose,” I told her when she finished. “I think that would make me really happy. You do that.”