G.K. Chesterton’s essay Tremendous Trifles was a treat with a strong opinion. It tells of two boys who are granted wishes.
One is granted the wish to be a giant, so he could visit far off lands. But upon becoming a giant and visiting these lands, he found everything to seem very small and lose its magic.
The other boy wishes to become a tiny pigmy. He was shrunk down to size and found tremendous fascination in the tiny details of the world around him.
He likens these two boys to different approaches to fiction and story-telling. The giant is like Rudyard Kipling, who travels the world to see great heights and witness great things. To have mastery over the world and to write about the conquest.
Chesterton sees himself as the pigmy. Seeking to live a small life and instead explore the universes inside the small world around him. Sit idle. Look in the small corners.
Today we would almost certainly present these as two different, but equally-valid approaches. But Chesterton paints this as a moral dilemma. That one who seeks to enlarge themselves is in part doing so for the joy of making others small.
I have no shortage of ambition. I seek to do great things. Am I doing this to make others small? I don’t think so.
But what if I had a choice of two worlds? In one world I was a great person known for my outsized accomplishments. I surpassed all others. In another, I did exactly the same great things, but all my achievements paled in comparison to everyone else. The world around is full of human excellence. And all of my same achievements are surpassed by the brilliance around me. I am the dullard by comparison.
The second world would be filled with incredible wonder. With so much incredible capability, clearly the second world would be far, far better off.
But I don’t think I would honestly choose that second world. I think I would be miserable in my inadequacy. I would feel worthless by comparison.
Does that mean I want to see others as small? Does that mean I enjoy the belittlement of others?
I don’t know. I didn’t think so, but the thought exercise has me unsure of myself. Maybe at the heart of ambition is simply the wish to be better than. And isn’t that a wish to see others as small?
I suppose achievement is always relative. Greatness is not an objective thing, but can only be understood in relative terms. Climbing Mount Everest is a great endeavor. But if we lived in a world where toddlers could do it, then no one would care and no one would bother.
There is another way of looking at this that I think is related somehow. Another spectrum. Maybe it’s not what Chesterton was talking about, but a second cousin.
We can struggle to have mastery of the world around us. Struggle to achieve. Define ourselves by the mark we leave on the world.
But we can also struggle to have mastery over ourselves. Control how the world affects us.
When I was younger I cared more about tearing a me-shaped hole in the world. I would burn the candle at both ends. I would rage at the world. It had no right to stand in my way.
Now I care a little more about the shape of me than about the hole I make in the world. Try to react with kindness. Patience. Even for myself. I don’t always succeed. But at least now I try.
That’s probably a natural part of growing older. Some sense of wisdom, I can hope. Or at least a better sense of self.
But I’m not done being ambitious. Not by a long shot. My best work is ahead of me. And I will pursue it with principles and integrity and a strong sense of myself.
If that means there is some fingerprint of evil on all greatness, then I say so be it. If this is what propels us, then quite simply — this is what propels us. Isn’t it a greater evil to waste the talents and capabilities given to us?
The continuing true-story misadventures of an American in Dublin. Start with Part One and proceed at your own risk. Part Two gets so much worse. But it’s ok to laugh.
Things were happening. Some sort of conversation. I felt tired. I heard activity. People talking. I didn’t feel connected to it. I found it irritating. Leave me alone.
“Are you able to get up?”
I opened my eyes. I was confused. I didn’t feel well. I looked around.
I was back in the shared room. I was alive. I made it through.
“Can you get up and go to the bathroom to urinate?”
“Yeah, I think so.” I really had to pee. I felt groggy and worn out. There was a dull, queasy feeling deep in my stomach. The nurse raised the bed and I swung my legs over. I was still in my hospital gown — the kind that opens in the back. I was wearing hospital-issued socks. The IV was still in my arm.
I stood up, shuffled the IV caddy into the bathroom, and closed the door.
I stood in front of the toilet and pulled the gown aside. There was a thread about eight inches long dangling out the end of my penis with adhesive tape enclosing the far end. Hello. This was new. But no time for that now — gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee.
I lifted the thread out of the way with one hand, aimed with the other, and relaxed.
I was not prepared. They did not prepare me.
Fire and glass shards and lava and betrayal ripped through my penis and splattered crimson all over the bowl and the rim and the seat.
I cleaned up the Jackson Pollock as best I could and trudged out of the bathroom in shock.
The nurse asked if I had used the jug. What jug?
“There’s a jug in the bathroom. You’re supposed to pee in the jug so they can check your urine for stones,” she said grumpily.
I hated her. She was my enemy.
Alx and Peter came to see me. Alx was his usual goofy self, making jokes. Peter looked pale and uncomfortable. He must have been very worried. Or hung over.
I was a mess. The front of my gown had splotches of blood on it. I was sitting in bed facing them. I may have accidentally done a grim parody of Basic Instinct.
Alx and Peter regaled me with stories of their evening. It was decidedly better than my own. One highlight was a story from their cab driver.
“Did ya hair that Madowna was attacked?”
“Ya boyz, it’s all over the nooz. Oy guess it’s pretty bad. It happened in Toimes Square.”
“Wow, no we didn’t hear that.”
“Ya, and the crazy ting is it was a famous actress what did it. That Reese somethin’.”
“Naw mate, she used a noif!”
As an aside, I’ve been accused of conflating Irish and Jamaican accents. No worries. Ever’ting gawn be alright.
After chatting for a while, it became clear that we did not know the plan for the day. Like, what exactly comes next?
In the States I would expect a last examination where the doctor would check my vitals, look over my charts, say “hmmm” a lot, and pronounce me ready to be officially “discharged.”
But we seemed to be officially ignored. Like we were done with our lunch at a busy Greek restaurant, waiting for the check. But the wait staff were competing to see who could not look at us the most.
Alx went to find someone, anyone, who could tell us what was going on. A nurse tried to sneak past us, but Peter and I did our best “loud American” routine to get his attention. He grudgingly regarded us. Once you make eye contact, you’re committed and he knew it.
His answer was non-committal and confusing. But it seemed to indicate that we could just leave. No paperwork. No official discharge step. No official pronouncement.
No part of this made sense. Did they not understand there’s a process to these things? In fact I’m pretty sure this was just wrong. But he gave us an opening, and we were gonna take it.
Alx and Peter had brought my suitcase. So I went into the bathroom to change. Then we exchanged bewildered looks, gave a collective shrug, and made our way through the hospital.
This felt a bit like a heist. No — like a prison break. Alx hailed a driver via Uber and we made our way to an unguarded side entrance. We stood there nervously waiting for the getaway driver, knowing that every minute brought us closer to sirens and barking dogs and searchlights.
The driver pulled up. We had to load fast because this was a no-stopping zone. I gave the oppressive building one last glance as the car peeled away. There were no black SUVs trailing us. Good. That’s good.
We spent that night in a quaint flat in the suburbs. I was supposed to drink a lot of water and continue to clear myself out. After that first time, I was better prepared for the pain that came with urination. Instead of screaming now I just let out a soft whimper.
I don’t want to belabor this point, but my experience was not improving in any observable fashion. I wasn’t moving down the color wheel the way I would have hoped and expected.
We had takeout pizza. I don’t remember too much else about that night. I would forget my kindle there. I got it back half-a-year later, as Eoin deployed his extended family to retrieve it and shuttle it over to him. He gave it back at our next work trip.
By the way, I was wrong about Eoin being at the conference. He was supposed to be there. Something got screwed up, and I don’t remember exactly what. Unreliable narrator.
The next day we flew to Amsterdam. We got an Uber and went straight to the meeting. It was overcast and a bit cold. There were bicycles and speed bumps everywhere.
The street was designed with bicycles and pedestrians in mind. Left with impossible navigation, cars seemed to ignore societal conventions. Our driver was navigating the outback in a Jeep. Painted lines, curbs, and medians were not prohibitions, but simply rough terrain to climb. A challenge. We may have driven on stairs at one point.
We were late. And we were absolutely going to the wrong place. If the address existed, it seemed to be 200 yards into the ocean. Alx finally reached someone at the company and we learned they had recently moved to a new office. Off we went.
My condition had not improved. Maybe they got the plumbing wrong. Their metric tools didn’t fit my American system. They hooked me up to the wrong line. I was worried enough to call the doctor.
Rushing to a meeting in the back of an Uber with two workmates is not the best time to discuss intimate medical details. But I was eventually put in touch with a nurse. I explained that I was still basically peeing blood. She asked what color it was. I think she expected I was noticing a bit of red. I said “No, ma’am this is just blood. It’s not like it’s a little pink.”
There is perhaps some karmic justice to this. Back in college my buddy Chuck and I would joke about going to the college clinic to troll the trainees. Normally my pee is just a light pink, but lately it’s been coming out a deep crimson. Is that anything to worry about?
She said “a little bleeding is normal”, but she clearly thought I was exaggerating or hysterical. I was not. She said she would tell the doctor and he would call me back if he had concerns.
I ended the call and looked at Alx and Peter. They were a little pale.
We arrived and were ferried into a big meeting room. We talked about international capabilities, fraud management, programming APIs, different ways our companies might work together. Lots of things that would probably bore you to tears.
They knew about my little adventure and were shocked that I made it to the meeting anyway. I did my best to appear stoic, clearheaded, and strong.
Maybe they would think I was tough and formidable. Or maybe they would think I was a frail old guy who gets kidney stones. More likely they wouldn’t think about me two minutes after I left the room. Get over yourself, Bob.
I did a decent job keeping my head in the game. At least I didn’t have one of those out of body experiences — where I’m in the middle of a meeting, someone is droning on and on, and my perspective shifts to an outer frame, watching myself in the situation like a rat in a maze. Is that just me?
We got a lot of questions answered. We took more notes. They offered us some beers. It was Friday afternoon. You would think Heineken, right? But for some reason I think it was Stella Artois.
Stella Artois is the Miller Lite of Europe. It’s beer for people who like water. Or water for people who dislike beer. I yearned for my urine to be more like Stella Artois.
We shared a beer with them, but we didn’t overstay our welcome. It was the end of the day on Friday and they were ready to celebrate some good news. We said our goodbyes and thanked them, and then we left. I heard music and cheering as the door closed.
We made our way to the hotel, checked into our rooms, and dropped off our stuff.
Finally I wasn’t in charge of anything. I had no meetings, no expectations. I didn’t have to be “on” anymore. I could breathe a sigh of relief. The only thing I had to do was make sure I made my flight the next morning.
At this point we were three guys with nothing to do on Friday night after a very stressful week. And I was still dealing with pain. If only there were something Amsterdam could offer that would ease my pain and help us relax.
You know where we’re going.
So we made our way to the local “coffee shop.” I think I may have actually ordered coffee and pastry. But that was only to accompany the joint that we shared. Alx picked it off the menu, assuring us it would be mellow. We only got one.
There was some oddness to the layout of the shop. I think they had a double set of doors. You had to be buzzed in past a certain point. I’m pretty sure we were supposed to consume on the premises. There were only a handful of spots. Another group left and pointed us to their small wooden table with three seats. It was cramped. We could see out the window to the street. It was just like a tiny mom-and-pop coffeeshop at home.
I wanted to be careful, so I just took a few puffs as we passed it around. We talked about the week. I could hardly believe the past couple days. What a wild ride.
We laughed as we recalled everything that happened. I drank my coffee. We talked and talked.
I noticed that we started talking past each other. Little miscommunications. It was funny. I laughed about the miscommunications. Alx and Peter laughed.
At one point I realized we were not laughing about the same things. I thought they understood me, but they didn’t. What they were saying didn’t make sense.
Then I realized maybe I wasn’t making sense. Were they laughing at me? Was I not part of the group? My skin began to vibrate. A switch flipped.
It occurred to me that I was in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language or the laws, I hadn’t paid attention on the walk over to this place, and my brain was coming undone.
I was definitely not mellow. I had a short window of opportunity to get safely back to my room. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and hide from everyone and everything.
I told Alx and Peter that I had to get back to the hotel. They did not feel the same way. I said something to the effect of “Everyone else can go to hell for all I care, but I am going back to the room.”
I was resolute. I had to get back or else I would surely wind up dead in a ditch. A Dutch ditch. What would my mother say?
They walked me back to the hotel door and I said goodbye. I walked in and got into the elevator. There were a few people in the elevator with me. They were younger, and clearly had been partying. Loud Americans. Was that all they had in Amsterdam?
The elevator ride lasted forever. I was terrified someone would speak to me. My eyes were fiery red pits. They knew. They had to know. I prepared possible responses in case I had to talk. Tried to remember the mouth movements to make person noises. Not mellow. Not mellow.
I exited the elevator and turned towards my room. I judged myself to be upright and walking fairly straight. I was surprised at my ability to find the right room. I tried my key card and it worked! My mother would be proud.
I entered the room and it occurred to me that this was a weird room. Everything was white. White walls, white sheets, white pillows. White.
Was that a staircase? Why were there stairs to the bed? The bed was in some sort of nook. An alcove. A white cave.
I crawled up and pulled myself into the bed. I was safe. I put my head down.
No! No, no, no, no. No. There is no chance I will wake up in time for my flight if I fall asleep like this. None. My phone was nearly dead.
I focused my willpower and melted down the stairs, found my charger and carried it back up to bed with me. I plugged in my phone and set several alarms.
Safely in bed with alarms set, I laid back and let the room spin.
I saw the artifice of language and culture and I became stripped of pretense. I wrestled with my mortality. Rat in a cage.
I couldn’t escape my mind. I fought with my own psyche for what felt like days. How could I be here, so far away from home? What kind of father was I?
I was a stick figure dissolving into a vast nothingness.
I awoke and it was dark. I checked the time — around 9:30pm? In a mild panic, I checked the date. Still Friday. Good. Good Friday.
I was starving. I had some mixed nuts in my carryon bag. Gnomf. Need moar food.
I tested the waters of my brain. Was I prepared to interact with people? Existential terror — reduced. Limbic system — within tolerance levels. Hunger — motivating.
I splashed some cold water on my face. I looked like a regular person. Or as much as I normally did.
I made my way to the elevator and pressed the button for the top floor lounge. The lighting was soft. There were lots of people sitting in comfy chairs and couches chatting. There was a shop where they sold snacks, but it was closed.
There was a vending machine filled with munchies. This place knew what was up. I bought a giant rice crispy square with a credit card. It was probably $100 but I didn’t care. Yeah, they knew what was up.
I found a spot where I could be by myself. Just me and my rice crispy square.
Peter and Alx tumbled into the lounge like cartoon characters. Their time had been markedly better than my own. They told me stories of their evening. I helped Peter work the vending machine. They opted to go out to the balcony to feel the cool night air.
We got a notification that our flights were delayed. This was a problem for their connections, but not mine. My capacity for sympathy was at an all-time low. Alx called the airlines to figure out new plans. It began to drizzle. I wore a hood and a scowl. They would later describe me as “super grumpy.”
This, Dear Reader, is where Part Two shall close. I wish it were on a more positive note. But this is a true story, and that’s not always how the world works. Empire was the best Star Wars anyway.
My return flight was uncomfortable but uneventful. And I was joyful to get back to my family, as they were happy to have me home safe and sound.
I did eventually make my way down the color wheel to a thin Stella Artois. I had a follow-up surgery in the States about a month later to remove the rest of the stones. That may be worth a post at some point. I also wrestled with insurance companies and billing from different providers. I’ve learned a lot about healthcare and I have strong opinions about the pros and cons of the US healthcare system. That also might be worth exploring.
Alx, Peter, and I laugh now when we talk about that trip. And heck, we laughed then too. I mean, you can see us in the photos. A lot of this stuff is pretty funny. And isn’t it better to laugh?
I suppose the most useful thing I could offer is advice to avoid this fate for yourself. Drink the heck out of some water. Every day. That’s the biggest change I’ve made and my regular checkups have shown me to be problem-free.
This is a true story about my last trip to Dublin. It happened over two years ago. Some details may have blurred over time. You have my permission to laugh at my discomfort.
I was going to Dublin, Ireland for a payments conference. This was my second trip to Dublin. I love the pub food. I love the Guinness. And I love the people. I think we resonate on a similar frequency. There’s a blue collar, wise-cracking attitude that reminds me of growing up in the Midwest.
I treated myself to a chair massage at the Austin airport before boarding the plane. I’m a tall guy and I don’t fit very well on planes. So it helps to limber up before a dozen hours of tight quarters and cramps.
The flight was uneventful. Uncomfortable, sure, but same as it ever was. I put on my headphones to drown out the engine noise. I logged onto the WiFi and handled some work details. Made sure everyone had what they needed before I went offline for a few days.
I pulled out the kindle, did a little reading — The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I had red wine with dinner. Then another glass. I fell asleep watching some low-grade action movie.
When I got there I met a colleague, Ian, at the airport in Dublin. We grabbed a table at an airport restaurant to wait for others to arrive. I ordered an “authentic Irish breakfast” with coffee. Bacon, sausage, black pudding, eggs, tomatoes. I thought a big meal would help me reset my body to local time. But it didn’t quite sit right.
I was there to learn and make connections. There were five of us — Peter, Eoin, and myself from the payments team and Ian and Alx (yes, “Alx”) from the fraud team. We rented an Airbnb to save money and because we have fun together.
The conference went as conferences do. We attended sessions, asked questions, took notes, made connections. We shared new ideas. Lots of meetings with people from different companies.
My stomach didn’t feel quite right. But that wasn’t surprising. I was jet-lagged. I was following a strict low-carb diet. I didn’t hold back on the whiskey at cocktail hours. And I always had to be “on” to represent our company. So that ramps up the stress.
And my back hurt too. I have a bad lower back, so that wasn’t out of the ordinary. I felt the need to shift position a lot. Try sitting. Lean one way. Then another. Try standing.
We were at a dinner hosted by a payments company. It was a chance to get honest feedback from other clients. And of course it was also an opportunity to have good food and wine.
But the steak was awful. The salad was bitter. I couldn’t eat either of them. And my back was still bothering me. I thanked them for the dinner, said my goodbyes, and walked back to the Airbnb by myself.
I wasn’t sure what was going on. Maybe this was constipation? I never had that before, so I wasn’t sure. I stopped at a drugstore on the way home and bought constipation medicine while avoiding eye contact with the clerk. I think you’re supposed to be embarrassed if you’re constipated? I don’t know. This was new.
That night was awful. I was in terrible pain. It was diffuse. Maybe it was my back. Maybe it was my stomach. The medicine didn’t help. I couldn’t sleep. I kept feeling like I had to pee, so I’d go to the bathroom. But nothing. So after a while I’d go back to bed. I cycled back and forth dozens of times. I only got a few hours sleep.
The next morning I awoke and got ready for another day of meetings and sessions. I was standing in the kitchen, bent over at my waist, letting my torso and head hang down, trying to find a position to relieve my back. My workmates gave me skeptical looks.
I said something like “We only have one more day. I just want to get to the conference and see if maybe I start to feel better.”
Alx said, “No, that was yesterday. Yesterday was your day to see if it would go away or get better. Today is the day you need to see a doctor.”
I saw the logic and truth in what he said. My reluctance had more to do with the impossibility of it. How? How do you go see a doctor in another country?
I’ve traveled all over the world for work. But the only time I’ve needed medical assistance was… well that was in Dublin too. Hmm. My ears never popped from the plane trip and I had terrible ear infections. The hotel sent for a doctor who did house-calls. He checked me over and prescribed antibiotics — which I had to get myself. That’s a whole other story, but let’s stay on topic.
My point is… how do you just go see a doctor in another country? Nobody even has phone books anymore. Do you just google “doctor”? Or is it “hospital”? Or maybe “clinic”? How does insurance work? Doesn’t Ireland have nationalized healthcare? Do they take in Irish citizens and leave foreigners to die in the street?
Luckily I had a crack team of work buddies getting me sorted. They found a clinic (a medical center) within walking distance. Couple kilometers, I think. So I said goodbye, wished them well at the conference, and resigned myself to a very different kind of day.
It was a chilly morning as I plodded along. I approached the clinic and couldn’t see it. Huh. Google maps says it should be right here. I looked up and down the street and none of the signs said anything about “doctor” or “clinic” or “medicine.”
Maybe down that alley? I walked down the alley and yes, there it was. Just a solid door and a shaded window and a very hard-to-see sign above it. You couldn’t see into it. The setup discouraged scrutiny. Like a strip club. This did not instill confidence.
Well, this was the plan, and I had no other. So I opened the door. I saw steps leading down — maybe half a floor down. Bloody hell, that didn’t seem right. But here we were.
It was a tiny space. Room enough for the receptionist. I could hear the doctor talking in her office — every word quite clearly. I told the receptionist what was happening. I told her I had a history of back problems. She pointed me to the chair.
I recall hearing a loud conversation in Chinese. But that could be my memory playing tricks on me. Between that and the clinic setup I worried whether I was seeing a medical doctor or an acupuncturist.
That sounds pretty racist. That isn’t lost on me. But it’s better to acknowledge it than kid myself. Mostly my thoughts were about the pain in my back. Kind of on the right side, higher up than my “normal” back pain.
The doctor called me in — the normal medical doctor. I don’t remember exactly what she did. I think she just asked me questions. She said I needed to go to the hospital emergency room and gave me the address. She also gave me a note to give to them.
I thanked her and paid the fee on my way out. It was about $80. The hospital was pretty far away so I called an Uber.
The car arrived and I got in. I think it was about a 40-minute drive. I wasn’t able to sit up normally. So instead I laid on my left side.
That poor Uber driver. He was driving someone from the clinic to the emergency room. And the guy in his back seat was complaining of pain and seemed on the verge of death. I can hardly believe he took the ride.
We had a conversation, but I don’t remember what we talked about. I mean, my back, obviously. Probably traffic. He was sorry the ride was taking so long. I’m sure he wanted me out of his car as soon as possible. Traffic seemed pretty light.
We arrived at the hospital and he helped me out of the car. The entrance gave me the impression of a loading dock. He asked if I needed a wheelchair and I said no. He got me into the door. Then he gratefully returned to the rest of his day.
The next bit is a little foggy. Like an old videotape that turns into static for a few minutes. Or in modern terms, a zoom that keeps freezing and jumping ahead.
I’m sure I talked to someone behind a desk. I had to walk deeper into the hospital. I thought the place could use clearer signs. I remember having to wait in a chair in the hallway. There was a usual cadre of people waiting with me; a man with a patch over his eye, an old woman coughing into her handkerchief, people holding bloody bandages against wounds.
I finally talked to the intake nurse. I scrambled to figure out insurance as we talked. I read through my policy on my iPhone. I researched travel insurance from my company. I messaged my HR rep.
They brought me into the ER. They call it an ED, by the way, for “Emergency Department.” They put me on an IV with pain medication.
They poked and prodded me. They must have done some sort of ultrasound or x-ray. I was shuffled around from place to place, pushing my IV drip caddy along. Some other department for a test. Back to the ER. Back to the line in the hallway. Back to the ER. I felt very much forgotten. This lasted for a crazy amount of hours. Almost an entire work day.
Eventually it was late enough that it was morning time in Texas. So I called my wife and told her what was happening. She was understandably upset. She wanted me to fly home immediately.
Finally I was brought into a the main ER office. I think there were several people in the room. A nurse. Two doctors.
“Ya got a buncha stones.” ‘Stones’ was pronounced like ‘stawns’, in a thick Irish brogue. This was the head ER doctor. He seemed young. Maybe my age or younger. He was surprisingly good-looking. I realized I could stand right next to him and most women wouldn’t see me. I felt jealous for no reason.
So apparently I had a lot of kidney stones. And one of them was blocking my ureter, which meant that kidney was turning gangrenous and dying. That’s bad. Any time a doctor mentions gangrene to you — that’s bad.
We all know the human body is disgusting and shameful. But bear with me for a brief explanation of anatomy. Kidneys filter waste out of your blood. You have two of them. They each have a tube, called a ureter, where they pass that waste into your bladder. And from there, if you’re a guy, you get to write in yellow cursive.
Sometimes, some of the minerals in that waste can crystallize into angry little stones with jagged edges. They get lodged in the walls of your kidney. That’s not good. But apparently one of them was dislodged and was now stuck blocking my ureter. I immediately thought back to that chair massage. J’accuse!
The doctors said I needed that kidney stone removed right away. I asked if I could fly home to the States. They were pretty clear that this was a bad idea. This could go bad, and you don’t want that to happen in the middle of a 12 hour flight. So, ok, we were doing this here.
They were going to “powder” the stone with a laser and then I would pass the fragments in my urine. They were only going to deal with the stone that was actively blocking my kidney — the one that could kill me. The rest I would have to deal with back in the States.
Then they said I had a choice to make. Apparently this was a private hospital. There was also a public hospital.
The surgeon would be the same at either hospital. He worked at both. But if I switched to the other hospital, I would have to go through admittance again (which took about six hours at the private hospital), and the doctor said I probably wouldn’t get a bed. I’d be sitting in a chair in the hallway all night.
I’m not frugal. I’m straight up cheap. But there is a limit. I gave it some thought, but… naw man, naw, that ain’t right.
So I was admitted to the hospital and brought to my bed. Surgery was scheduled for the morning.
They put me in a shared room. There was a young guy in one of the other beds. Maybe early twenties. He was friendly, but I don’t remember his whole deal.
Alx, Ian, and Peter came to visit me that night. They had been carousing at some after-conference party but came to check on me. Eoin lived close to Dublin so he was already back home. Ian lived in England, so he was going home the next day. I wouldn’t see him again.
Alx, Peter, and I had plans to fly from Dublin to Amsterdam for another business meeting. My surgery meant we would miss our flights, so Alx had been working on updating our plans.
We decided that taking a long-haul flight immediately after surgery was probably a bad idea. So we booked another Airbnb for the next night to give me time to recover in Dublin.
After that, a long flight back home still seemed like a bad idea. But the flight to Amsterdam was pretty short, and we already had our hotel booked. We decided to rebook our flights to Amsterdam and shift our meeting one day later. The doctor said I was supposed to take it easy after the surgery and avoid lifting heavy things, but otherwise they didn’t give me many restrictions. That would keep us from having wasted a ton of money on our trip and also would give me another night in Europe to recover before the long flight home.
After they left, the surgeon visited me and asked if I had any questions. I realized I didn’t really understand the mechanics of it all. I had my suspicions and fears, but I had to ask.
“So, are you going to make an incision?…”
He responded reassuringly, “Oh no, we don’t have to do anything like that. We don’t have to make any new incisions. We’ll go through the urethra and use the laser on the stone and then it will pass naturally. We don’t need to make any cuts.”
This reassurance had the opposite effect. The wave function of possible futures collapsed to confirm my fear. They were going to shove a laser device up my pee-hole. Sweet Jesus.
The hospital wound down for the night. I read more of my book until I felt tired enough for sleep. I put down the kindle and pulled up the bed sheet. It was too thin. The hospital was cold. Hospitals are always cold. I tried to find a position that wouldn’t pull on my IV line. I closed my eyes.
The next morning arrived. Alx and Peter showed up before surgery. Alx is a protective and loyal person who cares about his team and his friends. He will take on hardship to make life easier for others. He makes sure everyone is safe. He has red hair and a beard and he tells dad jokes.
He was in touch with my wife and my mom back home, giving them updates. They really appreciated it. But something about it rubbed me the wrong way. “Oh, your friend Alx is so nice.” “Thank your friend Alx for me.” “Thank God for Alx.” I was feeling irrational and petty.
Peter is a brilliant and curious person who has made a career out of ignoring his comfort zone. He has a hillbilly beard, a mischievous smirk, and a philosopher’s soul. Sometimes over late whiskeys we’d try to shock each other into existential crises. But mostly we’d end up laughing.
Today he looked smaller, like he was eight-years-old. Like his parents were telling him they still loved him very much, but they didn’t feel the same way about each other anymore.
The orderlies arrived. They pulled the curtain around my bed and prepped me. They manipulated my privates in very unsexy ways. And then it was time.
I gave a thumbs up to my friends as the nurses wheeled my bed into the hallway. The countdown was palpable. I was an astronaut being led to the launchpad. I was an airplane taxiing to the runway.
I joked with the nurses. Showing them I was a good patient. There’s no fear here. What a good boy am I.
The urologist who would perform the surgery joined us at one point. Any more questions? This is very routine. No worries here. He moved off again through some other route.
Like a plane on our way to the runway, we had to stop and wait a few times. At one point the anesthesiologist took over. Just him and me.
He said to me, “So, I have to ask you something. This is awkward.”
This was a troubling opener.
He continued, “How will you pay?”
This did not compute. SEGFAULT ERROR
I didn’t understand the question. Is he asking about my personal finances? Do I have to figure out how insurance works right now? Do I have to do something to convert Dollars to Euros? Is this a shakedown? I imagined an underground network of Irish anesthesiologists extorting foreign patients. Lessen hayr. We can do dis ting in one o’ two wayz… Oy bet yull be wantin’ de good stuff, won’tcha nahw?
I looked up from my prone position. “Do I need to pay you right now?… I don’t have any cash on me. All my things are back in the room. How much do you need?”
“No, I mean, like today. How will you pay.”
“Oh, I was just going to pay with a credit card.”
This seemed to satisfy him. And with that we were moving again.
I looked up at the ceiling as he wheeled me down the hallway. The perspective gave me the impression I was in an elevator shaft, descending through the floors. Every door we passed marked a new floor. Down and down we went.
It occurred to me how very alone I was. None of my family was around me. Maybe none of them were even awake. If something happened, nobody would be here. No one could get to me. My trip felt selfish. All of my work trips were selfish.
We arrived in the operating room. It was a bustle of activity and… things. It didn’t feel fresh and new. It felt more like a cellar with stuff everywhere. I recall glass block windows to the outside, but maybe that’s my mind playing tricks.
They moved me to the center of the room and told me to get out of bed and lay myself on the operating table. They drew a curtain across my chest so I couldn’t see the preparations. A nurse brusquely wiped my privates with wet sandpaper while half a dozen people watched.
In moments I would be unconscious. This was routine surgery. Nothing to worry about. Except that any surgery can be dangerous. Especially when they put you under. I would almost certainly be fine. Unless I wasn’t. Nobody thinks they’ll be the exception. But the world is big. Lots of things happen everywhere, all the time. And every day some unlucky people draw the short straw.
I confronted the possibility I would not wake up. I thought of my wife, my family, my parents. I appreciated how fortunate my life had been. I tried to let go of any anger, hatred, or resentment I might carry. I did my best to issue a writ of forgiveness and mea culpa in my soul.
Doctor Shakedown tied a new line to my IV. The moment blurred. The world contracted, moved away, left me falling. I slipped into the dark.
I really enjoy the podcast, Levar Burton Reads. Levar is an actor best known for his roles as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek, Kunta Kinte in Roots, and as the host of the PBS series, Reading Rainbow.
Levar Burton Reads is a grown-up version of Reading Rainbow. Mr. Burton — or Levar? I feel like I can call him Levar — reads short stories that he loves. They tend to fall into a loose category of “speculative fiction” which includes sci-fi, futurism, supernatural, fantasy, etc. It’s not for kids. There’s strong language and adult themes.
I love this type of fiction because it pulls us from our mundane lives, our routines, our restrictions, and it gives us a sense of greater possibilities. A sense of hope.
I also think it’s a great way to draw people out of their preconceived ideas. We see characters, creatures, and races interact with each other and we can judge them by their behavior, without the biases that come from identity, with tribalism.
I was listening to the episode where Levar read “Cricket” by Kenneth Yu, and in the recap Levar said;
I tend to believe that pain is a part of life, right? But that self-pity, that suffering brought on by self-pity, that’s optional. It doesn’t necessarily come along with the entree, you know?
That really struck me. It ties into Stoicism so well. I’ve written about Stocisim and Control before. You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction to the world around you. You control how you think and feel about the events in your life.
So I would expand on what Levar says. It’s not just self-pity that’s optional. It’s also self-doubt and self-blame. All the ways we sabotage ourselves with negativity.
Those feelings are what cause us real harm to the part of us that matters most — the choices we make, our belief in ourselves, our sense of self-worth, our identity.
What if after making a mistake, you simply recognized it, adjusted strategy and tried again? Making mistakes doesn’t make you weak. Learning from mistakes makes you strong.
If you’ve gone down the wrong path, responded badly, acted in ways that you regret, shame isn’t the answer. Shame is a terrible motivator. Shame requires that you identify with that behavior, that you say “I am this person who does bad things, and this makes me a lesser person.”
I believe we are capable of constant renewal. I believe we are the choices we make now, the principles we follow now. Recognize your past mistakes as belonging to the person you were before.
Choose to be the person who can bounce back, who can do better. Choose to be a person who can hold their head high and feel proud.
That’s your choice. No one can stop you. No one can get in your way except yourself. Your own negative feelings and ideas are what get in your way. So leave them behind.
Life is full of pain, but self-pity, self-doubt, and self-blame are optional.
I pledge allegiance to the Principles of the United States of America; That all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, or whom they love, are created equal with unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, That Governments derive just power from the consent of the Governed to uphold these rights, That Absolute Power corrupts, and a robust balance of power is necessary to defend against Tyranny and Despotism, That Freedom of Speech and Assembly must be upheld to spotlight Corruption and safeguard minority rights, And that our Diversity of Cultures, Ideas, and Opinions is our source of Strength and Resiliency.
Years ago — too many years — my friend Mike showed me a T’ai Chi practice called Push Hands. It’s a mix of dance, practice, and sparring. You and your opponent (or partner) face each other with one foot forward, your front feet touching.
You put your hands up, palms open, pressed against those of your opponent, and without striking you seek to shift your opponent such that they lose their balance and lose their footing. What follows turns into a sort of dance with circular motions, swaying back-and-forth, pushing, yielding, redirecting. It’s much less about strength and more about balance, anticipation, reading, and flexibility.
I don’t remember where we were, but I know it was a warm and sunny afternoon somewhere in suburban Wisconsin. I felt lucky to have a friend like Mike, an accomplished martial artist, who could casually offer me a glimpse into his learnings from years of study and practice.
Of course he could beat me pretty handily. It was no contest. But it was fun.
He told me to drop my center of gravity. I bent my knees and waist a bit more, dropping my center of gravity. I had studied physics in college. I understood the concepts of leverage and center of gravity well. This immediately helped me to better hold my footing. I understood this intellectually and it made perfect sense.
Then he told me to drop my center of gravity even further — to drop it “into the earth.” Find a point twenty feet below us, fixed in granite, and fasten myself to it.
I imagined that point. And I imagined some filament, some unbreakable cable, fixing me to it. I imagined the strength of it, the solidity.
We sparred again. And the difference was palpable. The strength and stability I drew from rooting myself into the earth helped me to hold my ground.
This didn’t make sense on an intellectual basis. Of course my center of gravity wasn’t really deep underground. But my belief — my willingness to be open — had an undeniable effect.
You can call this whatever you want. A placebo effect. The power of positive thinking. Self-delusion. It doesn’t matter to me and it won’t change my experience.
I felt myself tapping into something greater, whether it was within myself or without. I don’t feel the need to define it.
Today we are feeling off-kilter. We are getting pushed around by social media, by our politics, by our biases, our outrage. Many people are losing jobs. We are losing loved ones.
The future is uncertain in a way that I have never experienced in my lifetime. I don’t know what will happen a week from now. I don’t know what the world will look like a year from now.
In order to hold our footing, we must learn to respond to the forces around us. We must learn to yield and bend. Push where we can, but not too hard, lest we lose our balance and overstep. Take the forces against us and redirect them.
But we are not just our response to the chaos around us. That is not our identity and that is not our strength. Yes, we must be aware. But we must not invest too deeply in the forces pushing us or our response to them, or we may lose our footing.
We draw our strength from our very core, connected to something deeper — more solid. Whatever that is for you. Find your center and drive it into the earth. Make that your identity, that unbreakable connection to something greater.
This is a difficult time for so many people. I don’t know when, but this too shall pass.
I wrote and published this internally at my company, Automattic (we’re hiring!). Some of it is specific to us, a distributed technology company, but I suspect some pieces may resonate with others, so I’m sharing more broadly.
We often have a sort of narrow-mindedness where we focus on our own tasks or our own areas of code to the exclusion of the greater whole. And we play a game of hot potato where we do our thing and then throw it over the fence. We think of our job as working on the narrow piece that is our expertise — an API endpoint, a page in an app, some section of code. But we don’t work to understand the other parts of the system.
I think this comes from a mindset of fear. Fear of something bad happening on our watch, in our area. So we race to get our piece done and throw the responsibility to someone else. This leads to things like code reviews where people list objections without solutions. Where people point out why we cannot do something without offering ideas moving us forward. It leads to slow exchanges in conversations where we waste days due to timezone overlaps, narrowly answering questions but not digging further. Where we don’t coordinate or ask people about their side of a project because “that’s not my job.”
It also leads to solving problems at the wrong layer. Addressing API problems with front-end workarounds. Writing “fixers” that address the symptoms of problems after they occur rather than addressing the root cause. It leads to missing things like planning for analytics or ab-testing or launch plans, because we’re focusing on building code… because we think that’s the job. “I did my piece, so if anything goes wrong it’s not my fault.”
But doing our one piece is not the job. Our job is to get the thing done, make good products, and get them in the hands of our customers, however that has to happen. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything. But it does mean that rather than throwing things over the fence, we need to purposefully hand-off and confirm with others. Take the extra step and think “What can we do to solve the real underlying problem?” or “How can we get this new awesome thing improving our customer’s lives as soon as possible?”
We need to think about and understand how our projects are going to help people. And we need to better understand how our work fits in with everyone else’s work to get in the hands of our customers. Take time to learn how the other systems work, how components interact with each other. Plan ahead to make sure the whole project lifecycle is being considered, and to make sure other teams are ready and available to help. Consider our job complete, not when it’s built, but rather when it’s helping a customer.
This comes from a mindset of eagerness and opportunity. It comes from leaning in, understanding the customer journey and having empathy. We should be excited about what we are building and want to get it out there to see what it does. Feel proud about what we’re doing for people, because we can see and understand how it makes their lives better. We should feel that we can explain in a very simple way — in an elevator conversation with a customer — how what we are building is going to make things better for them.
This shifts us from focusing on tactics to focusing on strategy and narrative. It gets us thinking about the value we are creating… thinking about the opportunity in front of us. It gets us thinking in new ways… maybe there’s an easier way to build this. Maybe there’s a better idea that solves the underlying need we are trying to address. We build smarter, faster, and better when our motivation comes from the good things in front of us.
I’m not gonna lie. Today felt really hard. The hardest day yet. Yesterday I started a conversation at work that I knew would be difficult, it would mean disappointing people, arguing, debating. Leaving people unhappy, disappointed.
That’s the job. It just feels harder in the current environment. But I think it sapped all my energy from today.
I can’t seem to figure out a health regimen. Yesterday we ordered dominoes, but I made a low-carb pizza for myself and Jill. And then we followed that with a bottle of wine.
Today I woke up hungry and feeling a little sick and gave up on the low-carb intermittent fasting that has been my mantra for the past two years or so. I had a couple bowls of cereal to try to feel “right.”
I recognize that so many people have it harder than me. Whether it’s people in healthcare working round the clock or people who have lost their jobs because of the shut-down. I 100% get that I am a privileged jerk. No question. If this post feels like a cry for sympathy… it’s not. I’m just trying to capture my thoughts.
It’s honestly hard to work with the personal existential crises this environment provokes. I’m not curing cancer. I’m sure as hell not curing coronavirus.
But I am responsible for making sure that my company does well. And in that respect I am responsible for the salaries of about 1,300 people. And without hubris, if I do a bad job in my position, it will have a real impact on those 1,300 people. So honestly, it doesn’t matter how I feel. My responsibility is to ensure that we can continue to pay these people. That our company continues to make sense and provide value to people.
I have no wrapup to end this. Today was Thursday. It’s gonna get worse over the next couple weeks. But we need to keep doing what we do. Keep serving the needs of the people who rely on us.