Off the Bus

There’s exciting news as MediaPRO becomes part of the KnowBe4 family. What a kick to see so many of my friends and colleagues joining on with this clear industry leader …

But not me. It’s time for me to get off the bus and set off in a different direction! I’m going to start by throwing all the privacy and security balls I’ve been juggling high into the air; I’ll watch them float down and decide which ones look interesting enough to catch. I’ll sure I’ll be writing in the days ahead–about track driving, hiking, birds, who knows–and I’m likely to get back to privacy and data protection soon enough. If you’ve got a story to share about how you’ve navigated life’s adventures, drop me a line. 

Fondly,

Tom

tompendergast@gmail.com

425-315-6577

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tompendergast 

Personal website: www.caribunkle.com

Popping Through the Clouds; Feeling My Head Explode

I wouldn’t call myself a “fair weather hiker.” Not only would it imply some flaw in my character but it’s just not true: I hike in every month of the year, and I’ll take off for the mountains in nearly any condition. But I prefer sunshine. For me, hiking is all about digging beauty … and let’s face it, it’s prettier in the sunshine. (And, it’s kind of hard to dig beauty when you’re cold and wet and your glasses are fogged up and you can’t see a goddamned thing!)

Truth is, I’m pretty much committed to getting outside every day, and to at least starting out for a hike no matter what (though if I can delay by a day to grab sunshine, I’ll do it). Honestly, if you put off hikes on the chance of bad weather in the Pacific Northwest, you won’t hike much. Besides, the weather changes around here so rapidly that you never know that what you’ve got at home is what you’ll have at the trailhead, let alone a few thousand feet higher. So a lot of times, I’ll go out anyway, taking a chance for the big payoff that comes when you start in the murk, in a raincoat, and maybe slog through the morning mist for miles, or drive two hours in the fog, like we did getting up to White Chuck just this last year.

Some days you start in the murk …
.. and it never gets any better.

Sometimes you start in the murk and never escape it, and hey, you get some nice exercise in a cloud. It’s not like there’s really a bad day in the mountains.

But sometimes the world just transforms as you rise, the clouds shifting and thinning as you switchback up, patches of blue materializing overhead, and you realize you’re right at the top of the cloud deck as it floats and weaves around you–like you’ve been underwater and now you’re coming to the surface of a wavy sea. And then, suddenly, you’re above it all, and it’s just blue above and the nearby summits rise out of the cloudy sea. 

Alex and me on Bald Mountain

It’s days like this that convince me to keep trying, just to keep heading out, taking the chance that today is the day for the big payoff, when you climb out of the clouds and look across a pillowy white sea. My favorite “popping out” days happened not on the big boys—Baker and Rainier—but rather on Dickerman with Sara; on Bald Mountain with Alex; and then just this last fall, with John, Sam, and Louisa on White Chuck. The pictures will tell the story better than words.

On Rainier
On Dickerman with Sara, Big Four in the background
White Chuck
Sam and Lou digging some beauty on White Chuck

Oddly enough, there’s an odd parallel to my daily practice of reading, for there too the regular practice sometimes leads to an outsize payoff. 

Here’s my morning routine: up around 4:30 AM, I turn on the fire, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down to read. I read Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email, check out a few stories from Dave Pell’s Next Draft, go through newsletter dailies from The Guardian, The NY Times, Wired, the MIT Technology Review, check for new stories in The New Yorker, and then dip into some light car stuff from Jalopnik. I read fast and bail quickly on stuff that doesn’t light my fire.

Most days it’s pretty conventional, but every now and then I go running off on a wild goose chase that feels like I’ve stepped into a different world. Just last week, for example, I chased down a reference from Austin Kleon that led me to Alan Jacob’s quirky blog (specifically, one titled “A Newsletter of Newsletters”) and from there I went careening off off into wilds of the web, running into Robin Rendle, Paul Kedrosky, Lauren O’Connell, … man, I don’t know how I started or which led to which, but it was an adventure that just lit me up!

When Sara came down the stairs around 6:30, I was giddy, grinning from ear to ear.

“You look happy,” said Sara.

“Honey, I feel like my head has exploded!,” I replied. I felt like I was riding a big wild wave of variety and quirkiness that had rolled in off the free, wild Internet that’s still out there when I venture off my beaten path.

That day, I broke through the clouds.

Sara Went to Brazil; I Made Bagels

When Sara took off for Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 2012, just a few weeks after our daughter left for college in Pittsburgh, I watched the plane fly off into the distance and thought that this wasn’t how becoming an empty nester was supposed to work out. But Sara was chasing a lifelong dream and it wouldn’t last forever, so I determined to make the best of it.

I filled that gaping 18-month hole in my life with all kinds of boring shit—like working too much and watching lot of sports on TV—and also with a little weird shit, like going to beaches, bringing back smooth round rocks, coating them in clear varnish, and putting feet on them (oh yeah, I made a video of this one). I climbed a lot of mountains. There was a sad stretch too, which I affectionately call “Caipirinha Summer,” after the strong Brazilian cocktail I had learned to make during our Christmas visit to Ihlabela. It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Well it wasn’t: it was day after day of me sitting alone on my back porch, drinking myself into a dull stupor, bored and lonely. There was no tawdry shit.

Of all the holes that Sara’s absence left in my life, there was only one I filled to my satisfaction: I learned to make my own bagels. For many years Sara had made bagels for me. She loved to bake and I loved bagels. I was the big winner in this exchange, true, and that made it all the harder when she was gone. I tried to fill the hole with grocery-store bagels (blah) and I tried switching to oatmeal, but what I really wanted was a crusty, dense, home-made bagel. And so I learned how to make my own.

Here’s the recipe I use. I got it off the internet and I’ve tweaked it here and there, but it’s basically the same recipe as the original.

Try following the recipe closely first few times, until you get comfortable with the feel of the dough, then by all means experiment. I’m still searching out the perfect way to get chunks of jalapeño into the dough: chopped fresh, they add too much liquid, but roasting makes them to soft and they fall apart. I’ll figure it out, eventually. 

Tom’s Bachelor Bagels

Sponge:

  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 4 cups bread flour (white)
  • 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water

Dough:

  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 3 3/4 cups bread flour (I prefer 2-3 cups of this to be wheat)
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon malt powder (I order from Amazon)

or

  • 1 tablespoon malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar (any of these work well)

Finishing touches:

  • Baking soda for the water (1 tablespoon, or a good shake, as you wish)
  • Cornmeal for dusting the pan
  • Toppings for the bagels such as seeds, salt, onion, or garlic

Directions

This is a 2 day recipe, with the bagels spending the night in the refrigerator before baking on day 2. My only rule on when I start is that it’s got be at least 4 hours before bedtime.

Day 1: Kneading and Shaping

To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the white flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the water and stir until all ingredients are blended. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for two hours in a reasonably warm place.

Remove the plastic wrap and stir the additional yeast, malt powder, and salt into the sponge. I use the kneading hook on my mixer. Then add the rest of the flour; you can add 3 cups right away, then add the last amount slowly as the dough comes together.

A note on this second addition of flour: it’s up to you on the proportion of white and wheat flour. White flour will make a lighter, fluffier bagel; wheat makes it richer, thicker. Over time, I’ve come to prefer 2-3 cups of wheat flour, but make it the way you like. I’ll just say, the wheat flower is “thirstier” and makes for a drier dough, so you might not use quite as much.

Knead the dough in the mixer until it starts to form a dense ball. I’ll say, this dough is so dense that it eventually overheats my mixer and I take it out and finish the kneading by hand. You’re looking for a stiff dough that springs back when you poke it. I generally lookin for a combined kneading time of about 10 minutes, but it’s really all about the feel.

Immediately after kneading, split the dough into 12 equal pieces. This will get you a pretty decent size bagel. Roll each piece into a ball and set it aside. When you have all 12 pieces made, cover them with a damp towel and let them rest for 20-30 minutes.

Shaping the bagel is easy: punch your thumb through the center of each ball and then rotate the dough, working it so that the bagel is as even in width as possible.

Place the shaped bagels on an oiled sheet pan (you can use parchment paper if you prefer), with enough space between the bagels that they can rise a bit. Cover the pan with plastic (I use two small plastic garbage bags, one from each end) and allow the dough to rise for about 20-40 minutes; you just need enough time for the bagels to start to rise and fill in again before you pop them in the fridge to “retard” overnight.

Day 2: Baking

I love a fresh-baked bagel for breakfast so I always do the baking first thing in the morning, but it’s up to you. For me, day 2 starts when I take the bagels out of the fridge, take off the plastic bag, and let them come up to room temp and just start to rise again.

Preheat the oven to 500 (yes, 500). Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add one tablespoon of baking soda to the pot to alkalize the water. Or don’t add baking soda, if you think “alkalize the water” sounds like I’m making something up.

You’ll also want to lightly sprinkle a baking sheet with corn meal to receive your boiled bagels. I often spray my baking sheet with oil before adding the corn meal, because I think it makes clean up easier.

When the pot is boiling, drop a few of the bagels into the pot one at a time and let them boil for 1 minute. Use a large, slotted spoon or spatula to gently flip them over and boil them on the other side for another minute.

Now here’s one trick I learned from experience: you don’t want to put the wet bagel straight from the boiling pot onto the baking sheet. You need to get some of that moisture off. I lay a dish towel on the counter and put a wire rack on top of that, and then I drain my bagels on there before moving them to the baking sheet.

You’ll want to top your bagels while they’re still moist, so don’t wait too long. I’ve had success with salt; everything bagel topping; grated cheese; slices of jalapeño peppers. They’re your bagels, do your thing.

Once the bagels are topped, place the sheet pan into the preheated oven and bake for 7 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 7 minutes until the bagels begin to brown. Remove the pan from the oven and let them cool. Well, let most of them cool but you have to eat one right away.

When it comes to cooking time, it took me a while to get to the 7 minute rule, because my original recipe called for 5 minutes and I ate a lot of undercooked bagels. Don’t be afraid to let the bagels brown a bit. You’ll figure out what is best for your oven.

I generally slice mine once they cool and put them all in a bag in the freezer, then I them each morning of the week and eat them topped with cream cheese and fig jelly but with Mick’s Beyond Buzztail Habanero pepper jelly.

My Online Manifesto

Ever since I started working in cybersecurity and privacy fifteen years ago, I’ve been trying to think of the simplest possible principles to guide my actions as I navigate the digital world. This is my online manifesto, principles I try to live by in my personal life and also to embed in my work:

Spread Truth

Reject Bullshit

Be Kind

I’m going to devote a bunch of my writing and thinking in the coming months to playing these ideas out in detail, in part to test how these work for others.

So how about you? Do you have principles that guide your behavior in the digital world? I’d love your commentary.

In the sections below, I’m putting flesh on what these principles mean to me. This is very much a work in progress.


Spread Truth

There’s a lot of truth out in the world, but I’d be the last one to tell you that there’s one “truth.” In fact, I think there is room for people to have different truths—as long as we agree on how we’ll handle ourselves when we hold different versions of the truth. For example, you may believe in an omniscient deity and I may not, but as long as we both agree that it’s okay for us to hold different opinions about things that aren’t knowable, we can get along. Similarly, I may believe in one role for government and you may believe in another, but as long as we agree on some principles for how we’ll resolve our differences in shaping shared governance, we can all get along. It’s violations of these shared principles that have been for me the biggest problem in politics in the last decade, and especially the last several years.

So, truth is not one thing that’s out there, but rather a process of reaching understanding that is characterized by reason, verifiability, utility, and the absence of the qualities associated with bullshit (see below). Psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton MD suggests that truth can be easily known by testing how it feels: “Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Am I taking the welfare of others into consideration, or is it just all about me?” You can see that the former is truth. You know it when you see it. Need more? May I suggest that you start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, read for ten years, then come back to me with something simpler. 

Let’s say, then, that truth is the opposite of bullshit: in other words, truth is good, bullshit is bad. It stands to reason that if you want to reject bullshit, you’ll want to spread truth. You want truth to be known, because of its qualities of making sense of the world, making it easier and more pleasant to navigate. But just like the intensity of how you reject bullshit is up to you, so is the urgency with which you spread truth. You’re not obligated to post every true thing you discover (I know sometimes I wear the patience of my friends a little thin with my habit of sending out “must reads” at 5 AM.) I guess you’re not obligated to share truth with anyone else at all. But I do think the world might be a little better place if people shared the truths that helped  the world make sense to them. I’m always happy when someone shares that kind of thing with me. (My colleague Brian Hansford shared his thoughts on the tensions between sales and marketing on LinkedIn the other day, and I was blown away by how cool it was to see somebody sharing their honest and thoughtful view of the world.)


Reject Bullshit

Bullshit is the opposite of truth. When you see something on social media that seeks to stoke outrage, to raise alarm for its own sake, to stir your emotions, or to throw stones at a perceived enemy, chances are you have run into bullshit. The aim of most bullshit on social media is to get you to “like” or react to the bullshit, and if your reaction includes spreading the bullshit to others, then it has done it’s job. When you react to bullshit, you reward the spreader of bullshit, sometimes with money, sometimes just with attention. But you increase the chances that you will see more bullshit. Basically, you’ve told the algorithm “I like bullshit,” and so you’ll see more bullshit soon. When more and more people like bullshit and spread bullshit, pretty soon you discover that the whole world is awash in bullshit.

That’s why it feels so important to “Reject Bullshit.” You can start by just not reacting to the bullshit that comes your way: when you see something that outrages you, pass it by. Ignore it. Or better yet, use the reporting functions of social media to tell the algorithms: “I’m not interested in bullshit.” Pretty soon, you’ll find that you get less bullshit in your world. Better yet, if we all stopped liking bullshit, the bullshit would (mostly) go away.

There’s a kind of activism in the world “reject” that may make you uncomfortable. I’m not saying you have to confront bullshit. You don’t necessarily have to become an anti-bullshit activist (though it’s perfectly okay if you do, as long as you work through the complexity of not giving bullshit too much attention by confronting it.) If all you ever did was ignore bullshit, that would be a great start. But you can also push back against bullshit, to be a little more forthright in your rejection (and if you can do it while still being kind, all the better).

A word about the term “bullshit”: I’m sorry for swearing; I wish there was a word that captured the nuances that bullshit captures without offending anyone, but I don’t how to convey what I mean without offense. In fact, the offense is part of what makes it the right word: bullshit offends the sensibilities of decent people not just for falseness, but also for its ill intent. That’s the thing about bullshit: it’s bullshit.


Be Kind

This one is so simple to say, but so complicated in application! How do you kindly reject bullshit, for example? The thing is, if you follow this principle dutifully, you almost can’t help but do the first two. But it’s worth calling out because it’s the lack of kindness that’s been such a big problem on the internet for so long. I won’t belabor this point: we’ve all seen the damage trolls can do, the enmity that exists when people hide behind obscure user names. We’ve seen how ugly political life has gotten when we villainize and stereotype others.

I’m not asking you not to feel anger or vindictiveness or cynicism or any other negative emotion. But I’m convinced we’ll be better off if we moderate those feelings in our digital interactions. When those harsh, negative feelings are directed at other people they elicit similar feelings (or defensiveness or retreat) in response, and they escalate and then the entire interaction gets sidetracked. It turns away from truth and toward bullshit. So I’m saying, feel all your feelings, then ask yourself if you can possibly express them with kindness.

I try to submit all my online communications to the kindness test. Whether I’m writing an email, a text message, a blog post, whatever, I ask myself: is this a kind way of making this point? And if it’s not–if I find myself expressing negative, angry, mean-spirited stuff, I put it aside and come back to it.

I’ve got a lot more to say on this one–including calling myself to account, because anyone who has known me for any duration knows that I sometimes indulge my sharp tongue. It’s true, I can be a real a**hole–but I always wish I had found a better way.

What You Go Up, You’ve Got to Come Down

Or, How I Ruined My Shoulders on Whitehorse Mountain

When I think back on all the hikes I’ve done over the years, there are a few that stand out:

The first summit of Mt. Baker, when we were too excited to sleep; finally making it up Glacier Peak, after bailing out on multiple earlier attempts due to the weather turning to shit; John, Nick, and I stuck on Sperry Peak, where we took the wrong route and found ourselves on a high ledge, choosing between two bad options—keep going up, or try going down; my fall on Merchant Peak.

Dawn as we prepare to go up the Roman Wall on Mt. Baker

Those last two are the closest I’ve come to … well, I don’t want to be melodramatic and call it “death,” because who knows, but certainly the closest I’ve come to serious injury. There’s a good story about all of these hikes.

Whitehorse

The funny thing is, the climb on which I had my most serious injury goes down in my mind as one of my absolute favorites: Whitehorse Mountain, which John and I climbed on May 23, 2009, where I ended up tearing the rotator cuff on both shoulders and the labrum on the left. My shoulders have never been the same since—but this story isn’t about my shoulders.

When John and I set out that May morning, we didn’t really expect to get to the summit. We were out for a “conditioner,” just something to give our legs a workout without going up Pilchuck for the umpteenth time. When you call something a “conditioner,” it kind of lowers your expectations; we expected to get to Lone Tree Pass for sure, maybe High Pass, but not the summit. Since I’m expecting you’re going to go out and do this soon, here are just a couple route description links: WTA and Mountaineers.) But then we got going, and everything just kept going our way: we hit snow early and the snow quality down low was not bad (meaning, not too wet and slushy), and then as we got to the back side of the ridge and started up again, a group ahead of us left such a great boot path that it made our work “easy” (watch the video to see why I put easy in quotes).

Soon enough we had reached the second, higher ridge (High Pass) and were looking at the summit and we said, hell, why not. It was just one of those blue-sky days where the snow was beautiful and our legs felt good, like we could go on forever. It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the last stretch to the summit that we understood why people roped up. Damn, it was steep! But it wasn’t far and there was so much snow and we felt good so, why not? And off we went, digging in with the ice axe, kicking in hard with our crampons, until we made the summit.

Up top, we met another group, four or five climbers who had roped up. And we started to talk about the difficulty of getting down.

The Downclimb

One of the things that you learn when you start stretching your climbing skills is that it’s easier going up than going down. I say you learn this, but really, it’s something the mountains teach you. Facing the mountain, looking into it, you keep your feet planted beneath you and you probe with your hands and your eyes going up. You can easily do more than you should. But head down the same path and it’s a whole different ballgame. Suddenly you’re facing the void, keenly aware of the depths beneath you—the space you could fall into and through. It’s harder to see the footholds, and you can’t probe with your feet the same way. Gravity wants to pull you forward. It can be fucking scary. So over time you learn that you never want to go up something you don’t want to come down. So you calibrate in your mind, how will this be going down? And if you’re smart, you find a route that will provide a safe return.

We did this little calibration on Whitehorse and we concluded that we could make it down. In truth, I’d probably make the same decision today. 

As we prepared to head down, the folks who had rope offered that we could use their rope on the downclimb. I liked that idea; John preferred to turn his face into the mountain and downclimb, kicking steps and using his axe. Turns out his was the better decision.

I didn’t have a climbing harness, so I decided to do an “arm rappel.” I had never done this before so I made it up and it went like this: I held the top end of the rope in my right hand, looped the rope around my back, and then held the bottom end of the rope in my left hand, holding enough tension that I could kind of lean back into the rope. The idea was I’d kind of “bounce” my way down the steepest part of the mountain this way, until the slope started to mellow and I could get off the rope. It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But given the steepness of the pitch it wasn’t easy at all. I’d feed myself some slack, reset the rope, then drop backward—fifty or a hundred times, jerking myself to a stop, taking the full weight of my body onto my shoulders. I felt a bit like a puppet, holding to the strings of some cruel puppet master who kept dropping me and jerking me to a stop. (Experienced climbers will observe that there are techniques to make an arm rappel easier, the Dülfersitz rappel being the most common. What can I say? I didn’t know.)

But soon enough the slope let up, and I left the rope, waving to my friends at the top, calling out “thank you.” As I watched John cautiously, methodically downclimb the same slope–facing the mountain, kicking in, planting his axe–I rubbed the shoulders I had just thrashed. They hurt! But what was I going to do: we had seven miles and 7,000 vertical to hike out, some of it in steep snow. We packed up our ice axes, lengthened our poles, and off we went. It was a spectacular climb, such a worthy summit, and every time I see Whitehorse I remember it fondly.

But my shoulders have never been the same. In 12 years, I’ve had two surgeries, stem cell injections, multiple round of physical therapy … and still, a couple tough yoga poses and I’m back into full-on pain, my shoulders aching with any rotation.

One great climb; years of aching shoulders. Still, I’d do Whitehorse again, if any of the Caribunkle Boys are up for it.

Playing the Mask Game

I’m not one of those anti-mask people, but I sure as hell hate wearing one. I hate the way it makes my glasses fog up, I hate the smell of my breath sometimes, I hate how hot it is on a hot day. But mostly I hate the way it makes us all act.

My first mask, fashioned from a pair of underwear

From nearly the moment we were first asked to start wearing masks, we (that is, society) started playing the mask game. Now, I’m not talking about the mask game where one person wears a mask to show the world that they believe in science and another person refuses a mask because they think this whole virus thing is a hoax . I hate that game, I hate it a lot, but that’s a little bit of a different game, in my mind: that’s the truth game, the one where one person has got a different set of facts that they’re going to insist on and up yours if you don’t agree. In that version of the mask game, wearing a mask is a political and ideological statement. That mask game is just a reflection of how polarized we are and it mostly just makes me sad, but we don’t play that version of the mask game too much out here in Western Washington. 

In the mask game that we play out here, we all believe the science that says that wearing masks is a great way to limit the spread of the virus—we’re just not quite sure how strict we should be about it, and that ends up making us crazy. 

On the one hand you’ve got the person who is never going to leave the house without their mask, so you see them walking out of their house (alone) with their mask on, hoping into their car and driving around (alone) with their mask on. What’s going through their mind, I wonder? Are they so deathly afraid of catching the virus that they use the mask to ward off any chance? (I feel a little sad they live in this kind of fear.) Are they, like a friend of mine, trying to make a statement, to “normalize” mask-wearing so that no one ever feels self-conscious about wearing a mask because they see it so often? (I marvel that he feels so responsible for the actions and feelings of others and so capable of influencing them.) Or have they grown so sick of taking a mask on and off, up and down, that they just say to hell with it and leave it on? (This one kind of makes sense to me!)

On the other hand, you’ve got those folks who kind of believe the scientific rationale behind wearing a mask, but mostly wear one out of the desire to confirm to social norms. Some of these folks are likely just one step from being anti-maskers: they’re the ones who pull the bandanna up over their mouth but don’t bother to cover their nose, or who have a ratty old blue mask hung from one ear, and they pull it over their mouth only when asked or when it becomes odious not to. They are only wearing a mask because they have to; you can see it in their eyes.

And then you have the great majority who carry a mask with them at all times and really do keep it in place whenever they are in close proximity to others. It’s not so bad, after all, and if it prevents the spread of illness, how can you really argue against that?

But even these folks (this group includes me) get confused once they step foot into the great outdoors and there’s nowhere that this confusion has been more obvious to me than on the hiking trails. Early on in the pandemic, say June or July, I’d go out hiking and I’d rarely see anyone with a mask. Maybe at the trailhead, but once out on the trail, the general attitude (which I absolutely held) was hey, we’re outside, we’re spread apart, there is ample air flow: no mask needed.

But as the summer wore on, that started to change: more and more, I’d see people carrying masks, and as you approached each other on the trailhead, they’d go through this dance of “masking up” and then speeding past, barely acknowledging me. The numbers of people prepared to do the mask dance grew and grew, and at some point I kept a mask ready to do the dance as well. Honestly, I still believe that fresh air and distance were ample protection, but I didn’t want to bum people out. If we were on a tight trail or couldn’t give enough space, I played the mask game.

The mask game hurt a little bit, I have to admit. One of the things I like most out on a hike is a hearty hello, a sharing of route conditions, maybe a story about what you’d seen, etc. (Now, to be fair, I only really enjoy this kind of exchange on little-used trails, which are most of the trails I go on. On the few times I was on really popular trails, I do my best to avoid people. Truth is, I hate people, or least the ones who like to be around a lot of other people.) Once people masked up, though, they became far less likely to say hello. They literally and figuratively kept their distance. One couple with children made a big production of standing off the trail and turning their backs to me as we passed. Well, good day to you too!

The highlight of my hiking summer was this arduous hike Sara and I took up Mt. Baldy in the Olympics. The first mile was an ass-kicker, as we ascended 2000 vertical feet in less than a mile, but then we got up into the open meadows and had a spectacular time on the summit all by ourselves. We never saw a soul the entire day—an absolute rarity in the Pacific Northwest. And that meant we never once had to play the mask game. 

For too long I have rued the mask game, calling it “pandemic theater” and just generally lamenting the distance that it put between people, not to mention the inconvenience. But today, walking around our favorite spot up at Deception Pass, I landed on a idea that made it kind of fun. I called it the “I’m not sharing my breath” game. As we saw people coming I’d say to Sara, “I’m not sharing my breath with them” and I’d pull up my mask, but smile and give them a big hello.

Damn, I’m sure looking forward to getting back to normal.

Looks Like a Good Day to Die

What it feels like when it rains in Seattle …

I saw a car the other day with a New Mexico license plate and I nudged Sara and said, “They’re going to hate it here!”

It’s an inside joke, a memory from the first weeks that we moved here from Albuquerque and still had New Mexico plates on our 1984 Volvo 240 DL wagon. We had pulled into the parking lot at the Fred Meyer in Monroe on one of those spectacular August days when the weather here is perfect, sunny and warm. As we closed our car doors someone said, “I see you’re from New Mexico.” “Yeah.” “Are you just visiting?” “No, we just moved here,” we replied. “Well,” the lady replied, “you’re going to hate it here.”

We knew what she was talking about: the rain. It’s what many people think about Seattle—that it rains all the time. But we arrived on August 5, 1997, and had a stretch of weather that I still wonder at: sunny and crystal clear and pleasant. Day after day I woke up and looked outside to clear blue skies and wondered if it would ever end. In fact, my Mom and Lee pulled into the area in their RV on November 3 it was still spectacular. We thought we had landed in Shangri-La. One of our first family outings was to Wallace Falls State Park, where Conrad and Louisa marveled at river flowing through a forest of massive trees draped in moss—a complete change from the dry creek beds and desiccated, spindly forests of the Sandias in Albuquerque. It rained that fall, eventually, but I never found it oppressive, and by the time the flowers started to pop out of the ground and it hit 60 degrees in February, I had fallen in love with living here.

It’s a good thing I did, because the next winter was the kind that tries a man’s soul. I’ve lived in nearly a dozen states and in every one of them, I’ve lived through rainy days. In some states, you know rain is a passing thing, nearly guaranteed to be over in an hour; in other states, rain may pour down in buckets, then steady out for a whole day, but you know it will pass. But here in the Pacific Northwest, when the rains start, I sometimes wonder if we’ve entered a dark tunnel that has no end, if this will be the time that the rains start and never, ever stop, trapping us in a steel-gray sodden hell.

If you’re not from here, you’ll think I exaggerate. But you never lived through the winter of 1998/99–our second year here—when the rains started on November 1 and for 90 straight days, they did not let up.* If you’ve never lived through a stretch of weather like this, it’s hard to explain quite what it feels like. For a while, early on, I laughed at waking to another day of rain: it was amusing, a novelty, something to chuckle about. After a month, all laughter stopped.

When it rains this long, and especially when it rains this long at the time of year when the days are getting shorter and shorter anyway, you start to feel the rain deep in your bones, deep in your soul. The clouds crowd overhead, heavy and thick and unbroken, gray giving way to deeper gray. Some days I swore the clouds squatted just above us, and would have smothered us but for the trees holding them off. The rain, the constant rain, varied in intensity: some days it was a light enveloping mist, what I’ve since learned to call a “dry rain,” because if you dress properly you can actually work out in the yard in it. But other days, days when a Pineapple Express system rolled in off the Pacific, we felt like we were trapped in a ship at sea, the rain lashing the side of the house and the wind gusting and howling, rattling our old single pane windows in their frames. On days like this there’s so little light you can look outside at noon and wonder if it’s dusk. 

It was on a day like this, with me standing in a conference room with a co-worker, looking out into the gloomy early afternoon, when I first said: “It looks like a good day for a murder.” We locked eyes and I could see that he was concerned and maybe just a bit alarmed. He must have wondered if my thoughts were darker than he first suspected. They weren’t, don’t worry: I harbor no hostility toward others, but dark days like these felt (and feel today) like a scene in a movie, a scene where someone might be broken by this weather, broken enough to kill a man and drag the body into a rain-filled ditch.

Some years ago, a body lay in the deep ditch alongside Marsh Road, lay there long enough that the body started to stink. We smelled it for several days as we drove over the Snohomish River bridge and south across the valley, remarking to each other that a deer must have died nearby. I learned that a lone motorcyclist had disappeared not long before: his family reported him missing and a search went up. Someone put two and two together and found that he had gone off the road and died in the deep ditch. No one had seen him plunge off the road; no one saw him as they passed by. I hope he died quickly and didn’t lay there for long, listening to cars whooshing by nearby, hoping someone would see him. This terrible accident happened in the middle of the summer, but to me it always seemed like it fit better in the middle of one of our long, rainy spells. Now, when it’s dark and miserable, I say “It looks like a good day to die,” and this is what I picture.

This is where my mind goes when the rains come, not on the first day of rain but after a few days, just enough that I can imagine that we’re starting into another one of those spells. Just last year, 2020, we set a record when rain fell every day of the month of January, followed by more, heavier rain in February. Our basement flooded; I spent hours moving stuff around, up on blocks and out of the wet. 

I amuse myself with these dark thoughts, I lean into them and feel their darkness. Then I sit by the fire, I read a good book, and I think about how good it will feel for the summer to return. The rainy spells never last forever—though sometimes perhaps just a bit too long.

*This is how I remember it, and apparently I am not alone in that memory, though a weather researcher actually determined that while it was not 90 days in a row it was one of the rainiest stretches on record. See https://www.glenallenweather.com/ex9/RainStreak.pdf. KOMO meteorologist Scott Sistek notes on his blog that the official streak of rainy days is actually just 33 days—easily topping Miami’s 20, Anchorage’s 17, and San Francisco’s 17.

2020: The Year of Paying Attention

This post is akin to my “Christmas letter” and it’s primarily intended for friends and family.

The year began normally enough, with business travel. Two trips to San Francisco for work conferences and then four days of product management training in Salt Lake City. I felt like I was off to a roaring start, but Sara traveled more, back and forth to Atlanta and other cities for her consulting business. Work was an endless hurtle forward.

And then, at the tail end of February, we had a brief joyful jaunt to Sedona, Arizona, where the only cloud on the horizon was the specter of this odd virus that seemed to be spreading around the world, starting in the U.S. at a nursing home not far from my work. I recall the slight pall of paranoia that clouded the plane as we returned home from Phoenix: lots of empty seats; I coughed and drew an accusatory stare from the couple across the aisle.

But in a matter of days, it got all too real: Back at work on March 4, we (the executive team) advised employees who felt nervous about coming to work to feel free to work from home, then just two days later, on March 6, we followed the lead of the big tech companies nearby (Amazon, Microsoft, others) and “strongly encouraged” all employees to start working from home. And with that, 2020 really began. 

I think of March 6 as the day that divides my old life from my new life, because I’ve not been back to the office since. The old life looked like this: chase work all week, don’t slow down, regroup on Friday night, and have fun until it all starts again on Monday. 

Ah, but this new life! No more commute, comfy clothes constantly, and there’s my lovely wife every day and we can go for walks to Vetucchio and make meals and sit by the fire at night. Time seemed to slow right down, and suddenly I began paying attention to things that had rushed by before: birds singing in the trees, bread to bake, a lawn to mow, music to listen to. In the 2020 that started in March, someone turned down the volume and turned up all the colors.

I first recognized that 2020 was rewiring my brain as I mowed my lawn with my new battery-powered mower. Without the noise and exhaust fumes, lawn mowing became a banquet of sensory delights: the smell of the grass, the sound of birds singing, the patterns of straight lines I drew across our newly-seeded lawn, the smell of the lavender. I mowed in a goofy meditative trance, pausing to wave to neighbors walking by, moving slowly, slowly, because I wanted straight lines and because mowing had become a way of expressing love for this home where I was now spending so much time. Why rush through something that brings so much pleasure?

It wasn’t the logic of slowing down that caused our remodel to linger so long into 2020. We started this remodel* on June 14 of 2019 but a hiccup here and there–earth to be moved, walls to be painted–pushed the last steps so late into the year that they just had to wait till spring, but then spring came and the ‘rona kept all contractors from finishing their work, so completion dragged on into the middle of the summer and it wasn’t until September that we finally put the finishing touches on with the front porch mosaic project. (In truth, we may have intimidated ourselves a little bit with the complexity we had designed in–there are 503 pieces of slate tile involved, and I had to cut every one of them–but it truly is the crowning touch on the project.) In the midst of this long project, I (finally) realized that when it comes to matters of aesthetics and design, I should just shut the hell up and let Sara call the shots, because her eye for design just knocks my socks off. When I mow the lawn and trim the lavender, it’s just me doing my part to celebrate Sara’s wonderful vision for this place. 

*Note the term “this remodel,” because this was the third major remodel we have undertaken on this house since we bought it in 1998 and it’s intended to be the last, not counting minor stuff that we’ll never stop doing. We determined that with this remodel, we’d have completed the house in a form that we could then live in forever. Forever! Ha!

Three months into the pandemic, it felt a bit like the walls were closing in, so we planned an escape down to an AirBnB on the Washington side of the river in the Columbia Gorge. What an escape it was: this big airy house had a wall of windows that looked south to Mt. Hood, and it sat alone on the edge of an orchard. The kids came down too and we relished the new sights and the chance to pretend for just a little while that we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

A couple months later, Sara and I escaped on our own, celebrating 30 years of marriage at an AirBNB out near Sequim, where we spent four days biking, hiking, eating–but mostly just digging each other’s company. It feels like we’ve got this whole loving each other thing pretty well dialed in.

It’s not like I discovered my need for speed this year, but I sure as hell indulged it. I got my new car—my first real sports car—in mid 2019, but other than a few autocross days I didn’t really lean in on what it could do until this summer. The moment the BMW CCA offered a track day at Pacific Raceways, I jumped at the chance to get my M2 out on the track. I had flogged other people’s cars on a track before but never my own, so I eased into it slowly, adding speed here, more brakes there, slowly, incrementally finding the limits–and finding them well beyond my own capacity. It was up to me to build the skill and the courage to go faster, and this became the immensely rewarding mental challenge of the summer and early fall. I did several more track days, burning through a set of tires and pushing my OEM brake pads well past their limits. I started making plans for some 2021 modifications–R-rated tires and track pads–that would allow me to go even faster … but then this opportunity came up. For a guy who had been reading about tracks all his life, the chance to drive my car at Laguna Seca was simply too good to pass up, so I accelerated my planned modifications and hauled my ass down I5 to Monterey to see what I could do. I wrote about this quite a bit, so if you’re a car nut, check out those links above.

After a couple years of pretty avid running, I hit a bit of a snag in 2019 when I ripped the muscles in my lower abdomen. After trying multiple courses of PT and steroid injection, I hit the summer of 2020 resigned to the fact that I’d likely need surgery to fix the issue—but I said to my doc, let me just get through the summer hiking season (as hiking didn’t seem to exacerbate the tear very much) and then maybe we could address the issue in the fall or winter. Well holy shit, it’s like I opened the door on the best hiking season ever! For a bunch of reasons—the injury, craving variety, wanting to hike where we wouldn’t run into a bunch of people so we wouldn’t have to play this stupid pandemic theater mime-show of “oh yeah, I’m wearing a mask even though I’m out in the wilderness”—I summited a bunch of new mountains and that was just a blast. Among the highlights: Alta Mountain with Jeff Morgenroth; turning around just short of the summit Hibox Mountain with Louisa, and then nearly getting lost in the woods, great learning experiences both; Silver Mountain with Julien Duplant; White Chuck with Louisa, Sam, and John Tucker, which was by far the most scenic hike of the year; and an anniversary vacation hike to Mt. Baldy with Sara where we never saw another soul the entire time (this never happens, never). On Baldy, realizing that we had the place to ourselves, I stripped bare-ass naked just to feel the air on my skin. I’ll spare you the pictures.

Conrad and Abbie moved in together on July 18 to a terrific spot overlooking the city, and they are already remaking the place in their tasteful image. It sure is nice to see him so happy with his delightful girlfriend. And he also got a new job at AWS. Good job son.

Sam and Lou got a puppy: Grover P. Underfoot. In their characteristic way, they carefully planned how they would train him and it worked: our grand-puppy is a delight. Lou is mid-way through her PhD, tending her kidney cells in the lab, and she also got a new part-time gig working as an analyst for a biotech VC firm in Seattle. And Sam is living his dream as a firefighter for the City of Tacoma. 

Late in the year, Sara took the pedal off the gas on her consulting work and started painting more. Her paintings dry on a rail in my office, which is awesome for me, her biggest fan.

That’s what this year felt like to me. How was it for you?

Discovering Vetucchio (aka, Riverview Wildlife Refuge)

I’m no fan of this pandemic but without it, there would be no Vetucchio. There would be no magical land of early morning fog, no kaleidoscope of birds, no month-long daily binge on blackberries, no daily escape from the routine to this wonderful landscape just down the street from my house.

Let me clear with you: Vetucchio didn’t exist before the pandemic … or at least it didn’t exist as Vetucchio. It’s not that it wasn’t there. Hell, I had even been there–it’s just that I rarely paid much attention to it. I’ve lived in my house since 1998. Once, when the kids were young, we walked across the old treatment ponds during a dry summer, as if it was just a field of tall grass. In fact, it was the location of years worth of “unscreened biosolids” that had been deposited in the lagoon from approximately 1958 to 1995, years in which this site had been used as the city’s very old-school wastewater treatment facility. We walked all the way across to the cement spillway, the overflow point that allowed raw sewage to drain out into the Snohomish River if the waters got too high.

Then the city was forced to shut it down and pump their effluence west to Everett, after the first stage of treatment had been completed in the newly built treatment facility. Local birdwatchers started to patrol the periphery, and eventually convinced the city to support making all the area around the treatment ponds into a wildlife refuge with walking trails. Their master plan, submitted to the city in 2013, called for the creation of the Riverview Wildlife Refuge, and the signs you see pictured here date to 2014. 

You would have thought that the designation as a wildlife refuge would have caught my attention. My friend Bill Fulton, who was part of the committee that pushed for the refuge, told me how much he liked walking there, and the access points, both of them, were literally just down the street from my house. And yet, we rarely if ever walked there. Sara and I had our 4-mile loop, our 3-mile loop that cut across the back of Freshman Campus, hell, I think we even had the walk we now call Pilchuck Flats. But the refuge never captured our interest. I always viewed it as a kind of marginal re-use of city land, blighted by the proximity of the city yard, the Highway 9 bridge passing overhead, the treatment plant. For more than 20 years, I walked my town nearly daily, and yet I was virtually a stranger to this location.

I can’t pinpoint the day I discovered Vetucchio, but I can triangulate it within a set of conditions that came into existence somewhere between March 7–when MediaPRO employees were directed to start working from home—and my first photographs of Sara and I walking toward Vetucchio on May 7.

It was this peculiar mix of conditions that created Vetucchio: conditions that opened my eyes and my mind to seeing the world in new ways. The first month or so of the pandemic shutdown was what I call the “walking days,” days when suddenly the streets were filled with walkers: middle aged couples, families, teenagers, all strolling out in the spring sunshine in the middle of the day, often in the middle of the street. The pandemic was young and new to all of us; there were no masks. It was a big adventure and we all smiled and said hello. Sigh! 

I can’t pinpoint the day, but I can pinpoint the moment—the moment my mind opened to seeing the world differently, to slowing down and digging the beauty that was in front of me, instead of being distracted and sucked along in the vortex/slipstream of work and email and meetings, the combined energy of a group of people working toward a common objective, an objective that had once mattered a lot to me but now, well, not as much.

First, there was the pandemic. It sent us all home, wiping out in one fell swoop not just the vast time suck that was the commute and its associated preparations—showering, eating—but also the bounded time of “office hours,” even those as flexible as mine. Suddenly you could start and end work whenever, and that meant you could also find holes in your day when, if you looked outside and the sun was shining, you could dash out for a quick walk.

Second, there was the birding. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about birding prior to April 24th. Hell, I was actively dismissive, ridiculing the obsession with those who obsessively identified and named all the birds they saw. If anyone drew my attention to a bird, I’d opine: “There are really only four kinds of birds: killing birds, cool birds, water birds, and the rest are all little brown dicky birds.” Thus, I thought , I put in their place those folks who paid too much attention to things that didn’t matter. (I was wrong.)

Then, on April 24th, Jeremy Schwartz gave his bird presentation to the company. We were, by this point, six weeks into working from home. I suspect we were all just beginning to recognize that we missed interacting with our co-workers, or at least interacting with them in ways that didn’t involve the prison of the work Zoom meeting. So Lauren, our office manager, gamely arranged some Zoom lunches for people to share their interests, and sincere, earnest Jeremy stepped up to give a talk about birds, a group version of his ever-present offer to go out on a bird walk at lunch, back when we were all in the office and could do such a thing.

I’ll write more about birding at some time–about the permission it gave me to slow down and look more closely–but for now, suffice to say that the moment I began to pay attention to birds, Vetucchio became a magnet for my attention. The city publishes a brief birding guide to the refuge on its website.

Third, there was the permission I granted myself to think differently, for it was right around this time that I opened my mind to thinking differently about work, thanks to giving up my operational duties at MediaPRO, reducing my load to half-time, and taking up the work of writing a regular blog for the company and supporting our marketing efforts as the Chief Evangelist. This major shift in my worklife meant I allowed myself the opportunity to think about my mental space differently, to open it up to purposes other than the growth of the business and solving the problems that the business presented. Granting myself permission was crucial, because it was purely a cage I had put myself in. It’s as if I opened the door to a cage that had never even been locked and all I had to do was push open the door. Was this the most important condition of all? It will take me some time to figure that one out!

So there it was: the pandemic and the way the whole world shifted, the birding, and this sudden openness of mind, and in that moment I walked into what has become Vetucchio. Floating in that moment, I awakened to the beauty of the place: to the sound of the Common Yellowthroat singing in the marsh, to the perfect perspective of the lane stretching along the wetland, to the sight of Mt. Index and Persis beyond the bridge. It roused the romantic in me, the guy who exclaims “I dig beauty” whenever I am struck by how beautiful the world is (quoting a line from the Stuart Dybek story, “Blight,” from The Coast of Chicago.)

How could this beautiful place not have a beautiful name? I asked. So I sought one, trying the sound of various words in my mouth as I walked about, remembering the feel of the Italian hilltop towns along the Amalfi coast: Ravello, Positano, Sorrento. And I stumbled upon—which is to say made up—Vetucchio, and it’s now my name for this combination of wetlands and river and stretching lane, fragrant with blackberries, trilling with birdsong. And I made up the spelling too, using conventions that lean Italian: there is a real place, Verucchio, a comune in Italy, and an Italian family that runs Vertuccio Farms, outside of Mesa, AZ, but as best I can tell there is no other Vetucchio. It is one of a kind.

I’ll end this with a few of my favorite pictures of Vetucchio. You can be sure there will be more.