Sunday, October 28, 2007

Original Ideas

“So you don’t write your own code?” One interviewer asked, his expression indicating that I must be mentally deficient to even suggest such a hideous idea.

“Not always.” I replied after a pause. It’s difficult when I can read someone, understand clearly what he wants to hear, then not offer it. But I was being honest, I decided firmly, looking over his shoulder at the spectacular scenery. My niche is in one of the most established parts of my field. There are many, many people working on similar projects which means there are many, many software packages out there. Most of them are free and easily downloadable. So I use them.

“I know people who would agree with you.” I told the guy across the table and watched his expression shift into something less horrified and more neutral. I smiled involuntarily. “George was in my graduate group and he spent weeks writing a random number generator. ‘George,’ I said to him, standing at the opening to his cubicle as he worked late into the night and I prepared to go home, ‘do you know how many random number generators are out there? Hell, if you need random numbers that badly, just tell me how many and I’ll give you some!’ But George, sweet as he was, would look up and return my smile, wish me a good evening and return to the code that marched across his screen. It wasn’t that he needed random numbers, of course. It was that he needed to know how the generators were coded so he could build on that.

“I’m not like that.” I concluded, with fond thoughts of George and hopes that he’s doing well. Interviewer couldn’t restrain a frown, so I tried to elaborate.

“I see it this way.” I explained. “There’s a clinical problem and I’m trying to solve it. If there are established acquisitions and data analysis tools, I use them. A community of people has already tested and debugged and made those pieces of code reliable and correct. I don’t personally feel the need to recreate the wheel just to prove I can. If there are holes in the analysis structure that exist, of course I’ll write something and have done so in the past. But if a group in Japan or Boston has already done a piece of what I’m trying to do and has offered the code they used to accomplish it, I feel time is better spent merging our resources, using what’s available and going from there.”

They disagreed, of course. Bunch of Georges who could probably have random number wars with the superfluous generators they’d all coded at some time. I sometimes muster enough maturity to admit that neither of us is wrong - George and I just represent different views on how to solve problems and spend time. (And I’ve published a whole lot more than he has, but his papers tend to be more high impact than mine.)

Wrapped in a fuzzy pink robe to guard against the chilly morning air sneaking in the barely opened window, a warm canine curled behind my knees as she continues to sleep, I was thinking about problems - or new experiences - and how I want to approach them.

I tend to categorize. New Disease is like Disease X in this regard. Therefore if I read about Disease X, I’ll find out what worked well and apply that to New Disease. Then I might as well use software created for Disease X with the idea that it’s probably close to what I want and I can tweak tiny details if need be. So before I’ve started, I’m halfway done! And this way of thinking only gets easier as I’ve done more analysis and written more code myself. I can cut out some of the reading time and just know what works and what doesn’t. Which analysis methods are promising and where the gaps in current knowledge exist. It’s effective and I won’t apologize for doing it. I will, however, need to find an employer that recognizes the wisdom in my strategy.

Friend and I are struggling lately and I’m at a loss since she is unlike any of my other friends. I have experience with those women and therefore understand what they want and what I’m comfortable offering. There’s a certain predictable nature to the relationships that comforts me. When I get self-absorbed and don’t communicate for weeks, I’ll be forgiven. When I am sad and scared, I receive pep talks and comfort. So I cuddle into those relationships as if they are blankets fresh from the dryer - warm and fluffy and smelling of clean comfort. Yet as I try to figure out what to do with beloved Friend as we both are dealing with stress from many angles, I continuously read her wrong, become hurt and withdraw. It’s as if she’s an issue that won’t be analyzed by my trusty software packages. And when I’m feeling depressed or lacking in resources, I simply don’t cope very well. I need to write code here, I think, but I don’t know how. And it’s so hard.

I read an email the other day - I get a few about a couple of posts that I’ve archived. I disappoint searchers looking for red velvet cake recipes. I’m not much help to those who are concerned with bee stings in their dog’s paw either. There’s at least one transitional relationship search each day and I smile each time someone reads my Longaberger baskets post. Anyway, occasionally someone will search for something then stay to read for a bit. I always feel a spark of eagerness when I note that someone has clicked on the link to send me email. I’m curious as to why people are here and what they thought when they read something. Plus, I’ve emailed a few bloggers myself when particularly impressed with something they wrote. (Sadly, no. I don’t get many emails.)

But when one particular man wrote to gently chastise and encourage me out of my lethargic state, I read the email twice and nodded. “You’re like Peter.” I told the email on my computer screen. Pleased with the categorization, I soon frowned. “I don’t know what to do with men like Peter.” I admitted. The fact is that when faced with a man in his late 30s who strikes me as very smart, wryly funny and an exquisite writer, I crave approval. Hard as I try, I don’t know when or why it started. But when I think of men who have made me flutter over the past two years, they’re all in the same general age group and share a few basic characteristics. And while new people can be subcategorized into Charlies or Robs or Peters, I tend to lavish attention on any of the above.

I started my second email to him with a paragraph that included the sentence, “I'm easily manipulated by a certain type of man and you just might fit into that category.” So since New Peter (I haven’t asked permission to name him, so I won’t) is far away and involved with someone and more interested in writing beautiful messages than in flirting with me, I have decided to allow my fascination to overrule my immediate distrust. And it’s been so long since I’ve checked email from anything other than habit, looking forward to learning something new and reading something written extremely well. So when I read a paragraph three times because the words flow just right and the images evoked are so vivid, those feelings trigger old ones. And - without meaning to - I miss Peter.

We don’t write (and haven't written for some time) and while I was initially dismayed - I love very few people and hate to lose any - I understand. There’s nothing more that should happen, it seems. We’ve talked out the end, he’s said all he can, I wrote a novel to repossess the feelings and actions and understand where I was and what I did, it’s been more than a year. Why am I not done with this? What am I doing wrong that makes me want to ask once more if we can’t be casual friends? If I can’t get a lovely email just sometimes. Or get to know what’s happening in his life since I cared about that so much once. I know why that’s not possible, of course. And that’s why I haven’t asked - I’ve reached a point where I’m able to leave him be and I’m grateful for that. But if all I’m getting from those memories is a strong sense of ‘don’t trust men between the ages of 36-42,’ which is absolutely ridiculous anyway, then why do I have to remember at all? Can’t it just fade to black and allow memories untinged with sadness to surface when I meet someone new?

I’m aware that this categorization is a gross oversimplification and might not reflect so well upon my personality. But there are reasons that it works - that seeing how a new situation is like an old problem provides a starting point on how to solve it. And I’m good at that. I rocked at the ‘One of these things is not like the other ones, one of these things just isn’t the same.’ game on Sesame Street. But when my strategy fails and the old code isn’t going to work with the new problem, I’m often stuck. That’s when I panic and feel useless and unprepared.

I want it to be easy. And sometimes it just isn’t. So my instinct here is to ask for code. How do I forget someone who was once important to me? How do I fix a friendship? What would you do if you were me? And sometimes that works - identifying resources and asking for input is never a bad idea, I think. But there are situations where I must put my head down, think, demand more from myself and figure it out. Because sometimes - when all else fails - I write some very decent code myself.


Psychobunny said...

I wish I could write come code that would magically fix everything. Unfortunately, Matlab isn't my thing and Visual Basic just isn't terribly powerful. So all I can offer is hugs and good wishes and hope that it can somehow help.

Anonymous said...

seconding psychobunny's hugs and wishes. and i agree with you about the georges. i'd much rather go home!

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