Read Old Man Scanlon

The Slow Eureka

25 March 2016

To augment my blathering small-talk about how getting older beats the alternative, I offer another cliché: there is no free lunch. Because we old guys know so much and have such vast experience, we can seldom bask in the pleasure of an “Aha!” moment ripped, after a long struggle, from the hands of the dark unknown. One trades off, one compromises, and one does without in exchange for the inestimable privilege of continued life.

I was a maintenance programmer, a sort of software copy editor, a beautiful and natural gig for a detail-oriented nit picker. I would even correct comments, the part of code that hints in English to the programmer what’s going on, and, especially, why. “Byte recieved [sic] from astro,” “disable interupts [sic],” and “an error occured [sic]” met and fell to my righteousness. In software, faulty aesthetics, as well as incorrect logic, have consequences. Ferreting out buggy code, when its error becomes obvious in the face of new understanding, gave me ample opportunity to rack up the “Aha!” moments.

Once I worked on a small computer with a memory leak: it would allocate memory to deal with a chunk of incoming data, and, under an unusual operating contingency of the network it was connected to, fail to release the memory when it was done. This cannot go on indefinitely. Our company’s product was barely sentient, knowing only enough to reboot itself and start over again when it ran out of memory, giving no warning, and leaving only a primitive core dump. My customer, who worked for an oil and gas producer in Texas, used the box to monitor the proportions of various hydrocarbons and other gases coming out of a remote well, information of keen interest to his corporation and the Federal government. They found the interruption in service disconcerting.

Though it happened infrequently in the lab, hardly a day went by in Texas when it didn’t: think unintelligible calls on your cell phone. I spent weeks trying to narrow down the network conditions causing our agita, writing rudimentary debugging code that could tell me what was happening pre-crash, building it into special releases which my long-suffering customer would test. The problem became political. Our customer predicated future sales on our fixing the software. Our Texas field people were hungry for a sale. So I went to Amarillo to clap my eyes onto what was happening in the real world, the bearer of mixed feelings about being the instrument chosen to project corporate power and competence while maintaining universal goodwill. Or maybe I’d just be the sacrificial goat.

I saw the Union Pacific’s major freight yard in Amarillo, small houses on cinder blocks, a neighborhood in which every block had its own bail bondsman. On the highway north through the panhandle with my company’s service rep, in whose territory I was a guest, we listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I saw a helium mine and oil wells, which I don’t run across in my everyday life in suburban Massachusetts. Despite our accents we could both enjoy our deliberate juvenile mispronunciation of Dumas, the city in which our customer was located. I could appreciate the regional differences without being overwhelmed; they were just enough to freshen my perspective and whet my senses. In retrospect, the chances of my finding a technical breakthrough in a working industrial setting were slim, and I did not. The priceless part of the experience was to escape my programmer’s bubble, and work with flesh and blood customers. Customers want you to succeed in fixing their pain and will go to extraordinary lengths to help; our corporate masters are more concerned about what goes into this week’s status report.

I’d be bitter to this day if I hadn’t found that bug. Management’s displeasure at my continuing lack of results is palpable. Some time after I return from Texas, analyzing the latest round of diagnostics and reading the code line by miserable line, I gaze at a comment: “unlink & return buffer.” My eyes dart to the code—be still, my beating heart. Aha. Pure sweet rapture caresses me. The buffer’s unlinked but not returned, a nail in the coffin of uptime. I realize my quarry has been a leak, and the fix is trivial. The status report notes there has been progress.

The gig, beautiful and natural as it was, could not last. Resistance to change—my default state—is in the software business self-indulgent folly, and plodding meticulousness is death. Bug-laden code no longer fuels my thrill-seeking. As time passes, my rewards come from softer disciplines than programming. And while I watch my grandchildren turn into adults I will not be wishing I had spent more time at the office.

I marvel that I can recognize in others a quality—adulthood—that in myself I can’t even detect. How, my grandchildren might ask, does it feel to be an adult? I don’t know. I’ve never felt grown up except when I was a teenager eager to claim adulthood’s rights and privileges, and manifestly hadn’t qualified. Even now, having endured major yet pedestrian rites of passage—marriage, divorce, remarriage, cratered career, heart attacks, deaths of progenitors and peers—not once did I feel grown up. Older, sadder, maybe wiser, but never adult. I’m pretty sure my friends feel the same. I can’t imagine that my siblings and I didn’t ask Mom and Dad what it felt like to be an adult, and I’ll lay odds, though I didn’t take notes, that they answered us like I do now, as an official warning to my grandchildren: you’ll feel like you always have. If you feel like you’re grown up, you’re probably deluded. You’ll never feel like an adult, just like you never feel a year older on your birthday.

But the grandchildren are in fact growing up. This feels like a loss to me, which of course is selfish, and resisting will only prolong the pain. Where their expanding lives intersect with mine is, if not shrinking, at least shifting toward the periphery. The quality of what’s still common is changing, too, a shift in the balance of power. My granddaughters have active high school lives of their own; my grandson is now a Marine with a Bible verse tattooed across his back. These undertakings have adult consequences. Reacting competently to them requires more than my slight talent for helping with geometry homework. On the other hand, my input is becoming unnecessary. Observing with the occasional comment must suffice.

I might have predicted the boy would grow up as he surged away from my balancing hands on his first two-wheeler, fear, determination, and then laughter animating his face. Now he has indeed embarked on his own quest, as he should. This is the job we signed up for, so I puzzled long about why I should feel loss. I am often the last to know the truth about something plain to others, my obtuseness so wondrous I can only laugh. Perhaps engineering skills are not entirely suitable for dealing with matters of the heart. At last, after I rummage through tattered emotions, the answer comes, and for once, it’s clear, simple, but right: the boy is gone, and I miss him.