Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chin Up

I haven’t written anything here for quite some time now. That on its own isn’t a good reason to write something; there’s nothing worse than speaking just to hear yourself talk. So that’s not why I’m doing this. I feel it’s about time I post something happier (for a change), and to follow up on a few things that have been going on for me.

How it started

So, the feel-good start to this is how this weekend went. Friday night was an impromptu game night, so not a whole lot to write home about. Saturday was when the real fun began, though. I headed up to San Francisco with some friends to try a whiskey bar before another friend’s housewarming. I tried a couple bourbons, but didn’t catch the whole name of the one I preferred. Oh well; I’ll figure it out later.

The housewarming was an excellent time, with a great mix of people I did know and new people I didn’t. While events with 30 people tend to be quite noisy—and my voice is still a bit raw—it was entertaining. Complete with a fake fireplace video! Some friends brought dates, and the happiness was nearly tangible, and that always leaves you feeling good. (Well, unless you’re terribly bitter like my college friends might have expected.)

This was then followed by an unplanned movie night since, sadly, I had not seen The Big Lebowski. So, both because it fit the mood and so everyone could educate me, that went on until about 3:30 in the morning. Since the buses weren’t running, we stayed the night and slept until about 7:30 when city sounds and general restlessness woke the remaining few up.

Thanking our final host from the prior evening, who was pleasant but clearly still exhausted, we headed for the bus. It took us about 20 minutes to get back to where our car was, and being 8:30 in the morning we decided (although not decisively) to grab breakfast before ultimately heading our separate ways. The food was delicious (and, perhaps, a bit too rich to finish), as was the company.

I finally got home about 11:30 in the morning, and promptly fell asleep into a much-needed nap following the late night and early morning.

Why this story?

There’s a takeaway here that I wanted to point out. This morning was the most pleasant I’ve had in a long time, but there was nothing terribly exotic. Just a quiet morning and tasty breakfast with friends after a fun evening. I often get caught up in my own life with work and ties to people located far away, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. I think I should make a point of starting days like this more often.

The other reason for this story is like I said before: I need to share happier insights rather than the stream of sad stories that typically appear here. It’s true that things aren’t always rosy. I’ll avoid enumerating them all, since it’s documented in the archives here, but there’s another footnote to add.

Like I shared with some of my friends before leaving San Francisco this morning, my grandmother has been in the hospital this week for surgery. We found out a few months ago that she had cancer, and it was removed this week. My reaction to the news has been rather muted, but here’s why:

First, it was caught early, and nothing about the prognosis seemed terribly dire. Unless I had hard evidence that things were going to get worse, I decided to keep going and expect the best. Let’s not kid ourselves—modern medicine is downright amazing. So I’m hopeful, not despondent.

I’ve of course done what I can to spend time with family (particularly over Christmas), since there are never any guarantees, but the bigger point is that I think it’s important to keep enjoying the good things about your own life (like the above story) even through adverse times.

For some reason or another, waiting for slumbering friends to awaken this morning, I decided to queue up my Styx album and listen to that. I didn’t get very far at the time, but it’s put me on a Styx binge the rest of the day, and despite the sadness in some of the songs, they make me feel happy in general.

With things like winter camping, skiing, concerts, theater shows, and more potential endeavors in the near future, there’s so much to be happy about. So even though sad things happen, there’s generally more promise in the future than sorrow in the past.

Friday, April 16, 2010


So. It has been three years since it happened; since we turned on the television and couldn’t believe what we saw; since we frantically checked the news, staring in disbelief as the facts emerged. It has been three years since we desperately called anyone and everyone we knew; since we stared blankly out our windows, wondering what came next; since the world stopped, however briefly, and shared in our pain, offering support that was desperately needed. It has been three years since I was part of a community, stricken by tragedy, that stood together in a way I had never experienced before.

It has been a long three years for me, with plenty of personal triumphs and tragedies in between. I graduated, but left the school I loved; I started a great job, but left behind the people I loved; I’ve made great friends, but lost some as well; I’ve gotten closer to family, but lost my brother unexpectedly. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you lose a lot.

The long and short is this: right now, looking back, remembering what happened, I feel like some of the most important lessons—also the least tangible—have faded over time, and some have even been lost. “What are those,” you say? I’m glad you asked.

Strong communities are crucial.

Without our friends, families, and fellow Hokies, the events of that day would have been even harder to stomach; because we had each other, we had hope of finding our way beyond the pain. I’ll cross the line here and say this too: beware the stealthy spread of fear and distrust disguised as “safety.” It just drives wedges between us; we need to be closer to one another, not farther apart.

Nothing is guaranteed, not even tomorrow.

While this is often repeated and rephrased, the point still remains. While it’s impractical to never make assumptions about the future, it’s important to avoid squandering now. Treat people kindly! Enjoy the time you have with them; for every friendship there is a final parting, and seldom will you see it coming. I got lucky—my brother and I parted with a hug, even though I was coming back in three weeks. It turned out to be our last. When was the last time you hugged the people you care about?

Most quarrels are, in fact, pretty minor.

When compared with the possibility of tragedies of this scale, a lot of things just fade away. The $5 your friend never paid back? Unimportant. The need to win every argument? Not worth it. Feelings of inferiority or superiority? Misplaced. These kinds of events level the playing field, and make us realize we’re all in this together—assuming we don’t tear ourselves apart first.

So why am I writing this? Partly because it saddens me to see myself and others forgetting these lessons. I can see it in our actions over the past three years, and that alone makes this tragedy even sadder. Secondly, and perhaps more honestly, this is my only outlet because—for the second time in as many years—I’ve not made it back to join fellow Hokies in remembrance.

I can’t believe the news today;
Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.

U2, Sunday, Bloody Sunday

That’s how it feels now, looking back. While most days now pass without considering these ideas, this seems to be the magic day—well, one of two—that throws them into stronger relief. Hopefully it’s an impetus to improve our own lives and those of people around us. In memory of those lost, we live for 32.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sean P. Marks: 1987–2009

Sean P. Marks Sean Patrick Marks, age 22, died Thursday, December 10, 2009 at his home in Raleigh.

Sean was born August 9, 1987 in Roanoke, VA, but grew up in Raleigh and knew it as home. He graduated from Enloe High School in 2006, and was employed as a pharmacy technician at Kerr Drug Stores. Sean defined himself using his exceptional talents in music and visual arts. Though reality too often inhibited his dreams, his passion for them will always remain.

He is survived by his parents, Bob and Pegi Marks; brother, Paul; grandparents, John and Alice; and his extended family and close friends. His presence will be sorely missed.

The News & Observer

Some passages you neither expect nor wish to author. Unfortunately, pen had to meet paper for this purpose when my brother passed away earlier this month. It is but a glimpse of the person Sean was; it was the best tribute we could create.

When friends and family found out, the reaction was frequently: “I’m so sorry; I have no idea what to say.” I’ve been in that position before, but never did I believe I’d be on the receiving end. I just want to share my personal feelings on that: great! Even experience can’t teach you quite what to say, and I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone. So for your own sake, I hope you never have to learn this pain.

Remembering Sean

In life:

In death:

Words fall short

For anyone who knows me well, I have a penchant for putting together words at memorable occasions. My parents (and, more surprisingly, many other parents) have not forgotten one such speech toward the end of high school. The point is never simply to talk, but to articulate the elusive and ethereal aspects of an experience so they may be better remembered.

I wanted to make sure my brother’s funeral was a special thing, a fitting tribute and message to those left behind. So here’s what I was able to cobble together:

To describe what we’re all enduring, everyone says there are no words. Among us is one person who knew that better than anyone; my brother, Sean. He said with music that which words cannot; his talent was natural, and that I will always admire.

Though imperfect, like each of us, Sean’s heart was full of love. He loved his music and his family and his friends. Through the many trials life presented, he still loved these in the end. We can hear it in his music, see it in his pictures, and feel it in his deeds.

Sean never would have wanted this. While nothing can ever fill this void, we can honor his life by finding within ourselves the things that he loved. We can find them and share them, just as he spent his life trying to do.

Sean has been part of my life forever. We grew up together, and were supposed to grow old together. I will cherish all the memories we shared. I hope to share his passions with others, because they’re his gift to all of us.

Brother, you left us too early.

I’m told the room was full, but I honestly can’t remember. I gazed out from where I spoke, but I didn’t really see. My message was this: remember Sean for who he was, and help touch the world as he would have. Though he no longer lives among us, he can live in (and through) our memories.

Words can never fully capture a life lived fully, but at least I tried.

All good things…

Depending on how long you’ve known me, you may already have known that my brother and I went through a rough patch toward the end of high school (for me) and into my first year or so of college. The good news is that we had worked past that, and got along well. The bad news is that our reemerging kinship was cut so painfully short.

I wish I could say this is my first experience with death among my peers, but it’s not. I’ve always felt a lingering guilt about that, because it didn’t hit me as hard as maybe it should have. I didn’t know anyone personally, which made it easier for me. This time, it’s practically the opposite: it’s not just a peer or just a friend, it’s my brother.

Back then, our motto became “live for thirty-two,” but now it feels like mine may become thirty-three instead. I just hope it doesn’t happen again.

ASIDE: I think I now understand how hard losing someone can be. It’s not only the initial loss, but also the recurring reminders and passing thoughts that reopen one of life’s most painful wounds. To anyone whose pain I’ve not understood before, I’m sorry; I think I understand now.

Life goes on

I write this not because I will forever hang onto the past, but because I acknowledge that I and everybody else need to put this behind us. Our lives need to continue, even though Sean is finally at peace. Life wasn’t always easy for him, though even in hardship he managed to find some joy for himself. He’d want us to keep finding joy for ourselves, too.

That said, this is simply my way of archiving and remembering things that I feel are important, both about his life and about his passing. I don’t want time to erode some memories; it’s a worthwhile venture to perserve them while I still can.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Loose Ends

For some reason not wholly apparent to me, I’ve decided I owe everyone an explanation of what’s been occupying my time for the past couple weeks. My life, particularly since I graduated last May, has been rife with loose ends. Some of them were clearly my own creations, and some were just products of my surroundings. One can only collect so many of these before they begin to weigh down the rest of your life; they’ll sit in the back of your mind and complicate your view of other opportunities that present themselves.

So I suppose it should be a relief to me, then, that many of my loose ends appear to be tidying themselves up right now.

The biggest among these is—surprise—academic. I started an undergraduate research project last spring as a substitute for certain graduation requirements. It is simultaneously the best and worst decision I made for my education. I enjoyed the research much more than a corresponding class; I loved choosing my own direction and following it. However, the project has haunted me ever since it began.

Last summer I was busy preparing to move, and trying to bid all my friends farewell in a manner they deserved. All the while, this research was in the back of my mind, as my advisor tried to have graduate students follow-up over the summer. That didn’t pan out, so it spilled into the fall in two capacities. First, trying to tidy up the paper for a formal publication attempt, and second to assist a team of grad students who were trying to make practical use of the work.

When I wasn’t busy at work, I was busy at home fulfilling these two needs. It took time from me that I honestly didn’t want to spare. Except a week spent hiking in New Mexico, this described most of my fall.

Fast forward a couple months, and it still hadn’t gone away. The original attempt at publication faltered, resulting only in acceptance as a poster. The conference was February 22–24, so I spent many of my evenings in Februray contemplating the contents of said poster, trying my best (albeit rather unsuccessfully) to design and properly print the poster. I didn’t have the completed, printed poster in-hand until the Friday before the conference.

So that weekend, I drove to Monterey where the conference was held. I spent one night (between registration and presenting), which turned out to be quite the miserable experience. For several reasons, I was quite ill last weekend and hardly slept at all. I presented the poster, and then returned to San Jose to work, since I didn’t have vacation time to attend the entire conference.

The research and its associated paper and conference have amounted to so much pressure that ambivalence slowly grew into animosity. By the time I got behind the wheel, driving to Monterey, I was incredibly pissed off at the idea of attending a conference for research that had burned me out. That, and I’d only answer questions for an hour and then be conveniently forgotten. So needless to say, I was a bit perturbed that whole weekend.

Having that research and poster squarely behind me is a huge relief, though my life is not completely free of its shackles yet. My advisor is still pushing for a full publication, and there is some private interest in the work that I shall not discuss currently.

When I first decided / announced that I would be moving to California to start my job, my friends received the news with fairly uniform intrigue. A few of them had recently grown into wine aficionados, and at least one is very interested in skiing. California is a great place to do both, so many ideas were discussed about visiting me here to pursue such activities.

I consider this a loose end because we have this habit of never solidifying plans until the last minute. So despite the fact that discussions began well over a year ago, nothing was (or is) concrete. Turns out that, little to my surprise, all the plans to visit/tour have morphed into nothing more than empty threats.

Disappointing, but at least I have my answer(s) now.

Clarifications. To be more specific, I tend to avoid telling people about my life until I have a pretty concrete understanding of what’s going on. In some cases, this means I let folks go a really long time on their own assumptions. So a couple weeks ago, I finally decided to put an end to that. (Rather, I decided to break the silence with a few people.)

I finally got to catch up with Marj in earnest for the first time since we broke up aeons ago (nearly four years, I believe). It was good to get that sorted out, if poorly timed; she’s leaving for the Peace Corps tomorrow. On that note, I finally took my parents aside and made sure they’re on the same page I am about that situation. I could always tell there was some awkwardness on their part, and it’s good to have that wrapped up.

More importantly, it’s about time I started keeping them more informed about the rest of my life. I don’t know why I felt the need to hide parts of it until I had them figured out.

Some more concrete things I’ve finally done this weekend. My car has needed some routine maintenance for a while, and the trip to Monterey finally put me over the limit I’d been awaiting. So I changed its oil and its wiper blades this weekend, though I’ve still got a couple more things to fix.

Finally made it to the mall to get my watch repaired so now I can actually know the time without having to fumble for my phone. That’s been a long time coming.

So, on the whole, it’s good to have a few of these long- and short-lasting loose ends tied up. It’s certainly made for a busy couple of weeks, and some of it still weighs on me more than I’d like. Of course I’ve picked up a few more loose ends in the process, but I’m not yet sure what to make of those. Feels like I’ve lost something important, though.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


There are few practices in life that will more quickly drain your soul than deception. The underlying reasons can be either admirable or deplorable, but the art itself is difficult. Stories upon stories, never-ending, spiraling out of control. Any grand deception quickly falls victim to the social equivalent of the Butterfly Effect—more stories and more people must be included to sustain it. This innate difficulty, however, makes successful and elaborate deceptions something of a decadent beauty.

We have long fostered a romantic fascination with con artists and their schemes.

The most successful and, simultaneously, most deplorable example of deception is the day-by-day battle a psyche wages against itself between waking and sleeping. The person who does not suffer this discord is rare and fortunate; perhaps such a state is our ultimate quest—finding a life for oneself wherein no false pretenses are required to be at peace with its reality.

What makes this so abominable? It’s reality, right?

What troubles me is my simultaneous awareness of the process and unflappable tendency to repeat it nonetheless. I’m completely aware that half of my satisfaction is manufactured, and simply exists after battling my doubts into submission. It’s absolutely true that I love my job; loving the other 16 hours of every day is what’s forced.

I’m pretty sure the dissonance is rotting my soul.

I went out today and helped out at a high school that’s trying to participate in a robotics competition. Honestly, I would have done this in any situation. A lot of people gave their time to me through high school, so I feel like I should return the favor. However, when troubled, I have a habit of weathering the storm by dedicating myself to projects, people, and problems that are not my own. The Hillcrest jukebox is undoubtedly the canonical example. I slaved away for the first half of that semester, hiding from the questions I really needed to answer. It was something, but ultimately a distraction.

Three years later, it looks suspisciously like I’m doing it again.

Like before, this will eventually go into remission. I have friends who aren’t doing so well themselves, and any attempts to help those situations have been thwarted (or worse, nearly backfired). So it’s been a quiet week—one more completely on my own than usual. I’ve gotten a disturbingly good look at where I am. I suppose I’ll like it well enough after I defeat these questions once more, but no sooner.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I was writing a long article about my thoughts on software engineering, and how I’m tired of seeing people hate on some pet application because of a nuance they find infuriating. It’s demoralizing, as a developer, and also very aggravating. Reasoned complaints are fine by me; it’s the unilateral lambasting without duly considering counter-arguments that drives me nuts.

So in thinking about blame, and placing it (if at all), I came up with a few questions I tend to (or should) ask myself first:

  1. Am I informed enough to accurately place blame?
  2. Is the target of my blame truly correct?
  3. Can I support my argument objectively instead of emotionally?
  4. Have I considered and accounted for reasonable counter-arguments?

I find that most tirades that aggravate me fail to address one or more of these basic premises. As for “objective” support, I purposely didn’t mention “subjective” arguments, because sometimes those are inevitable. What’s important is having support that amounts to something more substantiative than “because I said so.” You must be able to acceptably answer the rhetorical question “why?”

If not, your case holds no water. I think we would have a lot fewer stupid and frivolous arguments if people considered questions like these. And for the more serious arguments, I suspect they would be a lot more civil.

My software-specific post may come later, but this is the basic premise that can be applied to many more areas. I’m also interested in hearing from those of you more well-versed in logic and debate about how useful these ideas might be.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s roughly in this region of New Mexico.

I will be leaving in about 6 hours to catch a plane into Denver. We’ll arrive at Philmont on Friday, and hit the trail for a week, finishing up on September 13. I am taking my camera, and hope to take many amazing pictures—more amazing, at least, than the crop from last time, which were taken on a crappy film camera. I cannot explain how excited I am to be going back, even knowing how strenuous it is. You don’t grow by taking the easy options. I’ll post here to let everyone know I got back safely when I finally return the evening of the 13th.

Until then, stay safe, and don’t cause too much trouble while I’m gone. You know who you are.

~ Paul

UPDATE: I took my DSLR along, so here are my pictures from Philmont.