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Please Pass the Stupidity
the destruction of loyalty
“There's a special meeting tomorrow,” Bet said that Thursday night. “I think you should come in with me”. We had both worked at the same supercomputer company for years. It was handy.
I was still coding in my office only yards from where my wife lay watching TV. “My shoulder's sore as hell from going to Vancouver,” I said. “Plus it's hurting for all these months. What was it? Since a year ago June? ...No. Months before that it started aching from all that overtime.”
Bet snorted. “Overtime? You're exempt. I get overtime pay. You don't. You're working for free!”
I ignored the bite in her voice. “Bet, I've got at least three more hours tonight. Then I've still got lots of Perl tests to finish up for the filesystem... .”
With the remote, Bet lowered the TV volume. “I think you need to be there.”
I heaved a sigh, made brief notes to remember exactly what I was planning to do next, and glanced at the digital display that colorfully morphed the hours and minutes. 20:37. With a wince I backed my motorized wheelchair away from my desk, turned, and drove into the family room. Headed for the kitchen table to get more pain meds.
Even though I had been tele-commuting since March, the shoulder pain was still in the extreme range. My shoulder was essentially dislocated; the medical term is “subluximation.” I was eating generic tylenol and tylenol-with-codeine almost like M&M's. After chewing down several half-tablets I drove over to the sofa. “More firings, right?”
“I don't know,” she said, suddenly irritated. “Look: if you don't want to come in, fine; either way, it's fine!”
I thought: Christ! what's eating at you? but said nothing. I went back to work for an hour or two. What had haunted me for the past couple weeks was an overwhelming depression at the terrorist attack that had slammed the country on September 11th.
The plane-bombings had been the most radical thing that had ever shrouded my life. Even burying myself in work didn't help. Until now, my 11- to 13-hour days had been able to block out most things-- including the excruciating shoulder pains I had dealt with in the past year or two.
The terrorist attacks added new dimensions to the concept of the unspeakable. The loss of unknown thousands of lives, the heroism on the Pennsylvania plane that would never be known, the dead-on slam into the Pentagon, and the black hole of the future. Everything weighed like an enormous concrete slab. The terrorist bombings that were the ultimate reach of political-religious hatred left me somehow gasping to breathe.
Bet had gone in to work on 9/11; I worked remote as usual. My mind was numb but I coded almost by rote; my tests passed flawlessly. Somehow, scripting series of tests that pounded on the logic of multi-threaded hardware seems like the height (or perhaps the depth) of meaninglessness.
For unknown reasons I hadn't been able to sleep past 5:30 the morning of 11 September and finally tuned in NPR at a quarter of 6. Minutes later the terrorist bombings broke through the regular newscast. From then on the scope of the horror became quickly evident.
Bet was watching TV by a quarter of seven in the family room. although the radio description was as vivid as I cared to see. By the time I got into my corduroys and worked into my boots it was just past 7:00. I dragged myself to my wheelchair and went into the family room mere seconds before the South tower disintegrated.
What I witnessed at 7:10 was like being slugged in the gut. The realization was entirely visceral: that at that very instant, thousand of lives were wiped from their existence.
Not long after the North tower crumbled, Allyson, not quite six, was at the kitchen table having toast and watching the news as though it were a movie of some kind. I wanted to go over and switch off the broadcast, but Bet was still mesmerized by the events. I remember listening and slurping down coffee as loudly as possible.
Specific memories of that horror are few, although what kept flashing through my mind were the words of FDR broadcast the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor: “...a day that will live in infamy... .”
I was too numb to feel any flavor of anger; tears surfaced whenever the radio repeatedly mentioned the hundreds of rescue personnel lost in the towers. In my mind's eye I kept imagining the scores of firemen racing up the stairs to save lives, not knowing that only minutes later thousands of tons of steel and concrete would annihilate them.
One thought I do remember stuck with me for months: What a waste; what an absolute, senseless waste. The actions of madmen.
I was numb with pain when I got to my desk at the office the morning of Friday, September 28th. The first thing I did was to put two phone books on the seat of the wheelchair that I kept at work.
Working for several years with an ergonomically bad situation had virtually destroyed my left shoulder; it had gone completely out-of-whack in mid-2000, but I'd worked through the pain, bragging that I was made out of steel and that having a desk that was too high was no big deal. I had, in fact, asked for a different desk or keyboard arrangement at least twice. In 1997 and 1999 that I'm sure of. But when the sales reps for the ergonomic equipment office equipment couldn't find anything suitable, I dismissed the issue.
Now, when I came in and worked on-site once or twice a month, I took pains to be careful. It was beyond too late to do any good, but at least being careful would avoid harming my shoulder further.
In November of 2000 had I sought medical help. In March my therapist recommended that I work from my home office. At home everything was custom-built.
When I checked my email I saw a message from Jim Rottsolk. “Oh boy,” I said to myself. This was it. “I hope we're not going bust.”
I ignored the other mail in the queue and brought up Jim's mail. It was more lay-offs. Just as I mumbled, “I wonder who's going to be hit” my phone rang.
On the LCD display I saw the caller was Charla Foote, my most recent supervisor. Over the years I'd had at least seven as my responsibilities shifted from task to task. “Shit,” I said, “They're hitting me.”
“It's Charla Mustard-Foote,” the voice on my speakerphone said, “I need to talk to you. Please come to to my office right now.”
I explained that I couldn't come up there because of my card-key situation. It took more than five minutes for Charla to understand my garbled speech and that if she wanted to talk to me in person she would have to come to my office. Eventually, she said, “I'll be right down”, and hung up.
“How can they fire me?” I said. “I'm testing the whole goddamn system! Can't sell a supercomputer with a million bugs!” Actually, I was one of three operating system testers; one other tester got the ax. (This, I later learned from friends, was so that the execs covered their corporate behinds.)
I tried to type something but my hands were shaking too much.
After taking several deep breaths, I punched Bet's phone.... And got her pre-recorded greeting. A second after I disconnected Bet came through my door, crying.
“I swear I didn't know they were going to do this!” she said. She threw her arms around me and dropped to her knees.
When I tried to say something, she repeated herself. “I knew there were more layoffs coming but I never thought you'd get it.--You told me your work was critical!”
I finally managed to get my right arm around her. “Well, I thought software testing was critical,” I said hotly. “Mick was in here last time to say thanks for catching three bugs. My tests saved him from going way off. Rick Korry too. Damn!” I stopped for a long and very deep breath, and added, “We can't ship the Navy a system that craps out every few hours!” I felt my anger begin to rise and mentally stepped back and watched it.
Finally Bet asked, “What are we going to do, Gary?”
“I'm going to bail,” I said without missing a beat. “I'm going to try to retire on disability.”
We discussed whether they would allow that. Yes, I did have severe and multiple disabilities since mid-childhood. But then I had been working successfully in this line for more than 20 years.... so what made me think ---
Just then, Charla came around the corner. She moved with a slight limp, slowly, heavily, as though she had taken a dive off a motorcycle. “Knock-knock.”
Bet shot straight up, barely glancing at Charla, and strode back to her office while Charla settled herself heavily into my guest chair.
She began by asking if I'd seen Jim's mail.
“Yeah,” I said, “I was just reading it when you called.”
Charla sighed and stared at me with her rheumy eyes. “Then you know that the company is in serious---very serious---financial trouble.”
It kind of irked me that she was giving me the whole song and dance; that she didn't credit me with enough intelligence to get it that I was being let go. Why, I wondered, don't you just kick me in the teeth and get it over with?
I let Charla ramble on for several more minutes as she explained why people has been let go in recent months: that the forecast sales had missed their target, and that in light of 9/11 things that were already bad were bound to get worse, at least for the commercial sales. All of a sudden her eyes began to redden and she seemed near tears. Then she told me that the decision had been made to let me go. There was simply no other way.
“I see,” I said calmly. I was sitting back in my old wheelchair, hands clasped comfortably in front. “And what's going to happen with testing?”
“We are just going to have to make do without your skill-set,” was her answer.
About this time Charla's eyes began to grow even more serious and began brimming with tears. It moved me a bit, since, although I barely knew the woman, there was something friendly about her demeanor.
My dislocated shoulder began to ache intensely and I wanted to get rid of Charla, but she seemed content to stay and chat. So I inched the wheelchair close to the desk and managed, after several tries, to grab three or four codeine pain pill halves. Chewed them down. I would have washed the med down with some coffee from my thermos, but that was way beyond my abilities since the quart bottle was full and very heavy.
Charla stayed another 15 or 20 minutes rambling on about this and that. Her teary-eyed demeanor seemed to come and go. I was trying to figure out what was going on. Charla's background was in journalism. She had mentioned that in passing one time. --Another thing was that she had been married to a computer programmer... or else she was living with a retired programmer now. Maybe that qualified her to manage the test group. It never made any sense to me.
“You know,” she said, abruptly losing the tears, “you're certainly taking this all better than I expected. I thought you'd be real emotional.”
“I've been through lots worse stuff than losing a job, Charla. --Like having my seventh brain surgery cost my entire right side.”
She gave me a dumbfounded look. But then she knew utterly nothing about my disability... . “Well, I guess,” she said, and her voice faded as she got stiffly to her feet and limped to the door. “Oh, we're not going to escort you out or anything.”
“Well, shit, of course not!” I said with a sharp laugh, insulted at the thought.
Charla's brows were raised. “Oh?” She explained that everybody who was laid off at amazon.com, including her, had been escorted out of the building by the security guards.
I thought that may have reflected Amazon's corporate mechanics than anything. But it was too much to get across in words. “Whatever,” I said.
The instant Charla was gone, I sent email to the human resources people. I said that, given the severity and intractability of my shoulder problems, I wanted to retire on the company's Long-Term Disability insurance. That set things in a new and unexpected direction. When the executive committee met to see who would stay and who would be hit, they didn't expect anyone to take the LTD route.
At any rate, by late afternoon things were tentatively set. For 90 days I would be on Short-Term Disability and still “officially” a Cray employee; after that, if the insurance carrier agreed that I was, in fact, disabled, my benefits would kick in. Brian Koblenz warned me over and over that was a rather big if; I was more than ready to take the risk. Bet told me that Brian came to her office around 4:00, complaining that the company's disability insurance rates might go up. She told him to get the hell out of her office. Brian was among the geek veeps; he was a good compiler hacker. He also had the personality of a slimy mop.
The sleight-of-hand way the benefits were structured, my total income would be meager. But then, if Bet and I were careful we would escape poverty.
For five of the past six years I put my annual bonus toward paying off the mortgage. Even if we never paid an additional dime on the house, it would be paid off within another ten years. Assuming that the world economies resumed even a moderate growth, over the next several years things would probably turn out at least fairly well.
I took a break at 1:15 and went to the usual Friday meeting. It surprised some people who had assumed that I had fled in shame. The gossip and hostility were somewhat surprising considering it was coming from my co-workers. I said nothing more that that I was still a Cray employee. I said nothing about my plans to bail nor about my incomplete negotiations with HR.
There was the monthly OS meeting that afternoon and I drove over and found a place while Brian was frantically gesturing to get Charla's attention. She was about to sit a few chairs from me.
"Hey," the veep hissed at Charla. "Didn't you talk to people? Or what?" Brian was more than a bit bent out of shape as he and Charla stepped away and had a brief exchange. It didn't go any further than that, tho.
I turned to see Jim Rottsolk huddled with his usual group of underlings. Then turned back and shut my eyes until the meeting began several minutes later. The meeting had nothing to do with my chores but I stayed until it was over. Afterwards, I returned to my office and worked non-stop until nearly 9:30 setting things up for the one person left in system-test. We went from four people in system test to one. Cray saw fit to lay off another tester this morning---they couldn't afford to have me filing an ADA discrimination action. Another tester left the company for greener pastures several weeks back.
The single remaining test person had the responsibility of picking up the pieces of more than three years of work by four or five people. I collected all my tests into only a few directories and wrote shell and Perl script for the sole survivor. She was a recent UW grad who knew little about Unix or testing. But since she was It she had to understand how my stuff fit together to hammer the supercomputer. As a computer language, and Perl was more of a script than a language--but anyway, Perl could be virtually unreadable unless the programmer documented the code well. If I went more than a couple weeks without using my Perl scripts, it could be a chore to remember what I had been doing. And it was my code!
During that day I chewed down 7 or 8 generic tylenol-with-codeine half-tablets and a few regular acetaminophen pills along with my quart thermos of coffee. It stilled enough of the agony in my shoulder to be productive.
Bet had to refill it around 6:30 that evening. “I don't know why you're killing yourself,” she said as she brought back the thermos-full. “I think you're just wasting your time.”
“I'm not doing it for this place, ” I Said. “I'm doing it for the country. For the CIA and the NSA and the FBI and whoever else who is going after those lunatic murderers!”
I unscrewed the thermos cap that Bet had tightened and poured myself a cupful. “If our machines can decrypt a message and stop another terrorist attack, I'm doing this to be sure there are no bugs in the system. At least not in what I'm testing.”
Bet glared at me. “You really are hard-headed!” she said and left.
I didn't get into bed until past 5:30 Saturday morning. The pain in my shoulder was back to the absolute-worst 10.0 level it had been in March; it remained at that intensity for many weeks. Looking back, there were times when I wondered if that final 13-hour-long day had done any good whatsoever. But then there was something else that I realized: my years as a employed or employable computer geek were very probably finished.
A computer programmer past 35 is elderly, past 45 is as good as dead-- unless you are a CEO or other exec- or have your Ph.D. Even though I was near the top of my game from a performance standpoint, I was 56. That in itself executed me.
“Looks like you really screwed up your shoulder by putting in so much time in your last day,” my doctor said when the agony forced me to see him. He was pushing my shoulder back into its socket. “The subluximation seems even worse than before.”
I asked the internist if he could do anything.
“Pain meds is about all,” he said. “That and rest. Use the arm as little as possible..... And I realize your other arm is useless... .” His voice trailed off.
Surgery was probably not an option. The orthopedic surgeon I'd seen the previous winter ruled that out. Most of his patients with a subluxed shoulder would be in a cast for six weeks following surgery, then follow that up with a few weeks of physical therapy. For me, with my muscle spasms, the surgeon said the arm would resubluximate during the rehab therapy.
I had no idea what the orthopedist meant by my “muscle spasms” because the fifth and sixth brain surgeries had ended those on my left side. Including my left shoulder. Most likely, the surgeon knew little or nothing about a neurological disorder as rare as dystonia. And there were a slew of types of disorders lumped together under the name “dystonia.”
“Well,” I said to my doctor. But that was the limit of my conversation.
Bet and I went home with a prescription for generic tylenol-4's.