Baking Made Less Easy

Its starts with a simple thought; “let’s make cookies”. Unlike the vacuum of space where no one can hear your scream, the mere mention of cookies reverberates from every surface in the household until it sparks a small stampede of toddler toes. Sometimes I think they’re just part of the required baking equipment like a spatula or measuring cups; I need only to set down the Kitchen Aid mixer on the counter and turn around to find two new attachments hopping excitedly on either side.

Accepting that this will not be the efficient task I originally imagined we line up at the sink to remove a temporary layer of dirt from my volunteer assistants. I acknowledge that any attempts at full sanitation with be short lived, so we go through the motions mostly to encourage the concept of proper hygiene. We also have a rule regarding no touching and no coughing in or around the mixing bowl. Like Vegas, “What happens in your nose stays in your nose.”

The girls march back to their assigned step-stools with hands raised in the air like surgeons ready for operation. This is an appropriate state of mind because in the spirit of fairness every task must be precisely divided between them to avoid malpractice claims and disruptive hissy fits. One holds the whisk, while the other scoops the flour. Trade off, and the other whisks the flour while the first takes a scoop. One unwraps a stick of butter, the other unwraps a stick of butter. Crack one egg, crack one egg. I have specifically selected recipes with ingredients easily divisible by two. If your “Coco-loco Chocolate Chippo Cookie” calls for 1/3 cup of flour, it ain’t gonna happen in this kitchen, bucko!   And so it goes with tag team pouring and measuring right down to an even division of labor where one will lower and lock the mixer and the other will turn it on. As the plumes of flour settle about the kitchen so too do we settle into a predictable rhythm of sharing; taking turns fishing out egg shells and wiping off the sugar-coated counter surfaces to create the sugar-coated floor surface. Let it not be argued who was able to brush away more sugar onto the floor.

As we near the end of the process the real motivation behind my eager assistants becomes clear with our two important cooking concepts; “quality control” and “taster finger”. Quality control requires that key ingredients like chocolate chips and marshmallows be carefully scrutinized for taste and freshness. This requires a random sampling of say 3 to 30 pieces to ensure proper consistency. The “taster finger” is a related quality check on our resulting batter to prevent fingers (which are predictably dirty at this point) from plunging outright into the bowl. No sooner is the paddle attachment removed from the mixer than eager fingers descend upon it like a swarm of hungry piranha cleaning the carcass down to the bone.

As lips and fingers are licked clean (or dirty) and I prepare to start scooping out the cookies we proudly admire our shared creation. The grease smeared grins that spread across their faces more than makes up for the added hassle of managing these little cookie monsters; It was all worth it in the end. And just as I’m filled we a sense of fulfillment there comes the abrupt inevitable sneeze directly into the batter. Time to start again.

“Who wants to be the first flour scooper?”

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Quotable

“Code Monkey have every reason
To get out this place
Code Monkey just keep on working
To see your soft pretty face
Much rather wake up eat a coffee cake
Take bath, take nap
This job fulfilling in creative way
Such a load of crap
Code Monkey think someday he have everything even pretty girl like you
Code Monkey just waiting for now
Code Monkey say someday, somehow”

-Jonathan Coulton

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Code Monkey

A few years ago, while still working for a software company called Foundation 9, I attended the annual gaming nerd fest; CGDC (Computer Game Developer’s Conference). While cruising the expo floor for free swag and miniature chocolates I stopped by our company’s recruitment booth to see if there was anyone I knew (or more miniature chocolates). It should be noted that at this time I probably knew less than 5% of the company on a first name basis and probably less than .05% knew me on any basis whatsoever since I worked primarily from the backwoods secluded bunker known as my home office. Seeing no one there I could identify without a name tag I turned to leave when one of the cheerful booth reps happily offered me a list of open positions and asked if I wanted to drop off my resume and portfolio.   As I thumbed through the listing of available programming roles it dawned on me that if I were to apply at this company, for which I was already employed, my resume would likely hit the shredder faster than a teenage mutant ninja turtle (how’s that for a vague reference?).

This fear was later confirmed when, following my divorce, I found myself “light on employment”. Since my first job in the industry 20 years earlier, I had typically relied on past contacts and word of mouth to either put in a recommendation for me, at least, or get me a job outright, at best. There was none of this nonsense with cold-calls, job boards, and multiple interviews. It was a civilized affair where I meet the team, get a security badge and proceed to my work-space with company mug in hand. Not once did I have to endure security checks, phone screenings and long grueling interviews that are as charming as a TSA strip search,… from a man with large cold hands and a nervous tick.

With all of my acquired “experience” <cough, cough> this meant that I was applying for a senior engineering position, one usually reserved for that eager intern that had killed himself working 90 hours a week for his first summer before coming on-board and being subsequently promoted four times over the next 6 years for kicking ass, chewing bubble gum and eventually amassing the collective knowledge of every nuance in their product and every kludgy line if their code base. Fast forward to me, having successfully fast-talked my way through the phone screening and now scheduled for the first of three interviews with this very same Mr. Eager-beaver-intern-turned-team-lead who was (no exaggeration) still in diapers when I started my first job those 20 years previous. This is the man or boy-child that I must impress with my checkered programming past that includes either technologies that companies no longer care about or technologies that companies care very much about but which I haven’t actually worked with for a dozen or so years, which, to put it in perspective, was about the time the interviewer discovered his first pubic hair.

Now, if it were just the generational gap I was working against, I’d really have little room to complain. But once the pleasantries have been exchanged and we’ve reminisced about the first computers we programmed on (Vic 20 vs a frickin’ MacBook Pro) we get down to the real meat and potatoes of the modern programmers job interview; the white board. This is when the other senior programmers at a company get to ask you the most ridiculously complicated questions they can dig up for the sole purpose of watching you squirm and sweat out a response while getting high on dry erase fumes. Mind you, these aren’t the word problems from your days in grade school with trains bound for Chicago and St. Louis at fixed rates, these are either problems or optimizations that the programmers previous struggled over and proudly solved, or complex logic puzzles that graduate students write their thesis on (seriously, look up “100 prisoners and a light switch” – http://anttila.ca/michael/100prisoners/ ). Whatever happened to the good ol’ days when they’d ask you thoughtful questions like ““if you were a tree what type of tree would you be” or “describe your greatest weakness”. How about my great weakness for impaling people with dry erase makers when they ask me questions they already know the answer to.   I’ve since discovered that finding the solution is often secondary to what they’re really interested in which is seeing how you logically work through a given problem. As proof of this I recall once turning the table on my interviewers and asking them a logic question that I already knew the answer to. I was delighted by the fact that none of them was able to correctly answer the question, less delighted when none of them called me back for another interview.

The real take away from this process was a reevaluation about whether or not I’m even in the right line of work. I picked up programming after graduating from college, when I realized I had no viable options for paying down my ever swelling credit card debts. The career tracks available for my college majors and minors came bundled with the “struggling” prefix; struggling artist, struggling writer, struggling cartoonist, struggling interpreter. After being a struggling student for 5 years I didn’t have it in me to venture forth as a professional struggler.   Once I started on programming I was drawn to educational software, and how kids interacted with the product. It was all about game play and fun. Programming was a tool, just like art and animation, to provide an entertaining delivery platform for dry educational content. Since I didn’t have the formal computer science education starting from binary baby talk and working up through adult compilers a lot of the programming was learned along the way; with each new project came a new set of skills to master, new programming languages to learn. I had a good logical mind and enjoyed the problem solving nature of debugging and finding a way to make something work. Eventually the educational software industry started to dissolve with the advent of widely available cheap apps for mobile devices. I was left with less interesting tasks using different languages and technologies. Curriculum made way for database structures. Teaching mathematics made way for teaching corporate compliance. Before, when people asked me what I did, I was able to mention the products I worked on that their kids might have played. They would smile when I mentioned the big clients like Disney and Nickelodeon that everyone has heard of. Now when asked what I do, there are no smiles and rarely any follow up questions, just a polite nod and then a subtle redirect to another topic. “Have I shown you my hernia scar?”

Even great programmers with an in-depth education and an impressive breadth of experience can potentially age out of an industry with such a constantly evolving technology. Kids graduating from college have been given the distilled essence of the most current technology and its applications in the modern business world. A company can pick between hiring a whiz-kid like this as a free intern turned cheap, but seasoned, employee or filling the same role with an untested “senior engineer” for 2-3 times the salary. It’s a no-brainer from a business standpoint.

From a career perspective the alternative to this dismal fate is to try and remain viable at a company for as long as possible until you’re able to move up the career track into management or even a producer role. From there you should be able to leap frog to management in another company or rely on all of your connections to land you a new job. As I’ve mentioned though, working remotely is not conducive to either of these options. I have fewer contacts and references since working at home and many of my older contacts have themselves transitioned out of the industry for one reason or another. With all of that I get the sense that an expiration date has been stamped squarely on my behind, and without some fresh packaging this Code Monkey will go rancid in another year or so.

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Text Break

We all know that smart phones have become a permanent fixture in our daily lives and that texting has become the predominant form of communication in society.   Why make a phone call when you really only want to leave a message anyway? Why compose a well thought out email when you can get your message across with just few acronymthrowback_thursday1_larges and a silly emoticon? Why bother talking to the person in the other room when you can save yourself the physical exertion of getting off the couch and send them a text from a seated position? I accepted these things as the new standard as I once accepted being tethered to a rotary phone by its coiled wire. It’s just the way things are done. What I never considered though was the effect this would all have on a relationship, or more specifically the end of a relationship.   Having an argument via text is like having a barroom brawl at the bottom of a pool; no matter how hard you struggle everything moves in slow motion and loses momentum well before it hits. There is nothing “instant” about instant messaging when both sides are trying to express complex emotions and hurt feelings with their thumbs. At one point, knowing that the argument was going to go into overtime I went out to run my errands rather than waiting for the delayed fallout. I went to the game store, did a reply. Filled up the car, did a reply. Picked up the groceries, did a reply. The argument was still in play, but at least I felt productive. It didn’t all strike me until I was back at home cleaning up after lunch that this was not the proper way to argue. Something just didn’t feel right. The simple fact that I was able to multitask probably didn’t bode well for whatever the original point of the argument was,… probably something about how I wasn’t emotionally invested in the relationship.

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One in the Can

To all those who have ever experienced the undeniable, bowel wrenching need to sacrifice both your attachment to cleanliness and a small piece of your sanity in order to face the wretched conditions of a public restroom and heed the call for gastrointestinal relief you can appreciate the contrasting experience of heeding that same call in the comfort of your very own bathroom. No need to step over that hobo in the doorway. No need to question the random drips sprinkled about the stall. No need to gather a heaping handful of individually dispensed tissue squares to wipe away the sense of ick.   At home, in your private sanctuary, you have the clean seat, the tidy bowl, the stack of outdated yet unread magazines and the perfect combination of wipes and extra quilted paper for your delicate behind. It is the nirvana of potty breaks.

That is, of course, unless you live in a house filled with a motley assortment of teens, tweens and toddlers, in which case the home front is likely filled with bathrooms that are only one small step above the public facilities,… and that one small step is probably the hobo in the doorway which, thankfully, we rarely need to worry about. We do however still have the random sprinkling of drips and, more often than not, a clogged toilet. Could it be the carb heavy, fiber free diet of the average American youth or perhaps the California drought friendly low flow toilets that contribute to the maddeningly frequent clogs? I have no idea the cause but I’m quite familiar with the frequency. Approaching any toilet in the house is a paramount to visiting that old aunt that nobody likes and wondering if this is the visit that will find her face down in the kitchen with her four cats nibbling away at her recently deceased body. You approach cautiously, taking a tentative sniff at the air, deciding if it’s worth a peek to confirm your worst fears or if it would be better to just assume the worst and call in the cleanup crew now without further confirmation. I mean really, who needs to see that. Bad kitty!

To prepare for this inevitability every bathroom in the house comes equipped with a fully functional plunger. Each child knows what a plunger looks like and has at least a passing knowledge of how the thing works. And yet, none of them will make the effort to use one unless forced to at the end of a disapproving parental finger wagging in the direction of the offending clog.  More than that, not only will they not take action to clear said mess but they will all religiously swear that they were nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the incident. A unanimous chorus of “it wasn’t me” can be heard ringing through the halls. Alibis having nothing to do with anything start to percolate; “I haven’t been upstairs all day because I twisted my ankle during presidential testing in PE.” Accusations redirect blame to other random suspects; “I suspect Colonel Mustard, in the bathroom with the lead brick”.   This is a crime scene that no one wants to investigate. There will be no CBS series called “CSI: Downstairs Bathroom”. In the end, nobody cares. The residing adults play a quick game of rock, paper, plunger and whoever loses two out of three deals with the problem while somewhere in the house an unknown child giggles knowingly to themselves.

I just don’t want to think about it. I lose enough sanity dealing with everyone else’s mess, I don’t need to face that in my moment of need too. This is why no child is allowed in the master bathroom. I don’t care if every other bathroom is occupied (or clogged) and you just chugged a 32 oz. Gatorade on a dare. You can wait,… or discover the joys of operating a plunger. Whatever the supposed emergency at least one room in the house needs to be reserved for our little parental nirvana. Our blessed little brood may not care about trivial things like aiming or flushing, but those indiscretions will not be tolerated when I’ve intentionally avoided the public stalls in Costco only to race home with legs crossed and I need to know that a safe haven awaits me minus any potential clogs or hobos.

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