The Loss of Roblimo

Robin MillerWhen news of Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller’s death came to me through a tweet to a Linux Journal article, I sighed.

I felt a momentary sadness. And I laughed because it came to me even as I was fighting with Microsoft’s Windows 10 Update (1803, April 2018) that had bricked my Windows machine. I laughed because Robin would have laughed had he not been so unfortunately absent, and he would have been laughing at me.

We’d had the conversation more than once in 2003, and later in 2005, about the fact that I never went completely over to Linux for my systems. His argument – and it was only that, a way to get me on the defensive – was that without full commitment, Linux and Free Software/Open Source would always lag. My response was that in a world that had so many Microsoft machines, I had to stay relevant in Software Engineering and also in seeing differences in the systems, that I needed both experience sets to make sure that my stomach did not think to complain that my neck had been cut.

We were both right, and we both knew it. So, yes, I laughed, and even as I unborked Microsoft’s problematic patch, there was a part of me that recognized the stillness of loss. That silent understanding that little conversations like that would be lost.

You can read about Roblimo on Wikipedia, and it seems to me like examining a fly pinned to the wall (I had my own run-ins with Wikipedia). It hardly communicates who he was. People who had the pleasure of knowing him knew he stood for what he believed in, that he was uncompromising in his belief.

I met him at the FLOS Caribbean conference in 2003, here in Trinidad and Tobago, when a group of well intentioned people gathered from the larger Caribbean to try to build bridges to local government about how much sense FLOS made. Unfortunately, it didn’t have kickbacks or trade agreements, so local government wasn’t as interested in hearing about it – but it brought Robin down, as well as others.

He and I spent many a smoke break together during the conference. People underestimate how much can be spoken of during those periods when one shares a common vice if only for 10-15 minutes.

We would meet again in Boston in 2005 for another Linux event. And we would stay in touch over a period of 15 years, sporadically sharing things on social media, commenting, pushing our perspectives sometimes against each other. Later, while I was in Florida, I always planned to make it over to see him in Ft. Myers. It was the other side of the State, and… it just never happened, mainly because when I was working, I was working full tilt on something.

And now he’s gone. But what I learned from him echoes on, as it will with others, and that will simply have to do for us.

It’s a shame he’s not around for me to share this with.

Unprose End

the human soul is stardust on a tombstoneThis is more of something written for my nieces and siblings in the hope that they get out of it what I wish them to know, or what they need, or both. 

A message from my sister: “Call me.”

She was waiting outside our mother’s place, waiting for the medical examiner. The maintenance man had found the corporeal remnants, the footprint of a once living being. Of our mother.

I’d been expecting this call, much as I had expected the message from a less than articulate email from a cousin in 2005 who told me when my father had passed: “Aye – the old man kicked the bucket.”

My sister is better at this, she gives me the facts. She’s in shock, I’m in shock. She and I had broached the topic more than once but never explored it fully; she’d probably done the same with our brother. The clutch in my mind disengages, spinning free for a few seconds – that moment when everything disengages and a system reset is necessary.

The clutch in my mind engages.

I’m in Trinidad and Tobago. They’re in Wisconsin- equidistant from major hubs, almost, a meeting place of roads that is starved economically. It’s winter. It’s cold there. To get there I will be cold on the road.

The reset is over, I think, “I’ll need a jacket.”

I follow that thread in my mind, and it drags me to needing foreign exchange – U.S. dollars, a challenge in a twin island Republic once proud and rich but whose governments over the years have lead to the ropes of destitution which has lead to the foreign exchange problem. The strategist in me kicks himself for overlooking this one particular instance for a few microseconds. Plans and alternates pull together quickly, as always. It’s a Thursday. Friday will be a lost cause. Traveling on the weekend is a bad idea; it’s financially inefficient. Traveling during the week will have to be what happens if it does.

I’m not sure exactly what I said to my sister at that point except a weak platitude about her strength and that I’d see about getting up there. Her mind is not in the best of states either, but she is strong and practical. Resilient.

We have no dates. I don’t want to hold things up. She needs to plan and move things forward, and I don’t want to be the dangling detail that holds things up – I get a hold of my sister and tell her the same. Practically speaking, if there is a choice to be made, I will defray costs more if I’m absent. I’m still planning to get there, but the stars have to align a certain way for this to happen.

I call again the next day and speak to my niece; a resilient woman in her own right. They are going through my mother’s apartment. She has found the notes for my mother’s funeral, and in it she reads, “If Taran manages to show up, let him take what he wants.”

Even from the grave. How unprose of her. I laugh about it and I realize my niece won’t understand my laughter; the relationship I had with my mother was plagued by such things – it was in part a definition of our relationship, a constant that she held on to the end – or at least when she wrote that. And she, who was someone who hid things everywhere left the funeral notes where they could be readily found – she was like that too, like all of us, showing the world what she wanted it to see, hiding the rest just below the surface. She erupted now and then with it. It was who she was.

It’s a full day later – I’m still not sure if I’m getting up there. The dilemma of foreign exchange has left me waiting on things here and there; thinking of this and that. One cousin came by and did what I would have done in his place – offered any assistance possible. An aunt called and gave her, “you’re strong” (code for “I don’t know how to deal with you, I don’t understand you and really never have. There There”). Everyone’s different, showing their emotional strengths and weaknesses at such times as they reflect them into what they have been given on such occasions. The dilemma of hedgehogs, revisited.

The relationship my mother and I had was different. It was something that my nieces and sister, at least, accepted on the surface. People who knew us both just knew it was a difficult thing for them because it was a different thing for us. She had her thoughts and feelings on the matter, I had my thoughts and feelings, and between us there was dissonance with a history of circumstance that neither one of us was at fault for.

I’ll get into that. Yet in the broad strokes, who doesn’t love their mother, who doesn’t want to be there? Who doesn’t feel a certain numbness and feel a little guilt for it as emotions below the surface try to figure out which way is up – bubbling in their own directions until they find the gravity they fight against so that they may reach the surface?

My mother was a writer – she’d happily tell you that, and if you stood still long enough she’d read you poetry that she’d written, a bit of herself she had learned to allow to the surface more readily. It’s what we do, I suppose. She was convinced my writing was a gift from her. Both sides of the family have their thoughts on that, where they are quick to point out what writers there are on either side of the family. To be an engineer was kind of expected, to be a writer was an uncomfortable thing for everyone. It still is; as Stephen King wrote, writers are not parts of ‘polite society’. We can be cavalier with those around us, tossing identifiable bits and pieces of others close to us in what we write only because we tend to write from who we are, and who we are is a complicated business of relationships and unspokens that can paralyze us.

There. I solved writer’s block for everyone. You can get back to writing. Just find those unspokens and get them out.  

That I can be creative and logical makes me an alien in both camps. For my father, he could never understand I could do both. My mother could, yet could never truly understand engineering beyond the magical results, good and bad. We see that in others that we see in ourselves, tossing in smoke and mirrors of questionable relevance that give us our own flavor of the world.

Where my father was an angry vanilla, my mother was a butter and pecan with bubblegum and a sugared cone. When you figure out what that means, let me know.

But let us push bravely on to the context of the relationship with my mother, and who she was.

Unprose

We were more distant than we wanted to be but closer than others wanted us to be. We were pulled apart from circumstances beyond our control. There will be opinions on this by all manner of people who were not involved; they were not involved and their opinions do not matter.

There are many ways to see someone. A woman can be a mother, daughter, sister, cousin, friend… and that’s the way the relationship is defined in a social agreement. A mutual understanding. And so, when they pass away, these people share stories about them with others and the net result is that they see the person in a new light, or an old light revisited.

With my mother and I, there was the period until I was 9. It wasn’t as normal as anyone might think – a mixed marriage in the 1970s, a child born in 1971 to follow two other siblings my mother had in her previous marriage. An East Indian father who would do anything for his own father and mother, later to sacrifice that on an altar of his own life. His story is told on this site in bits and pieces already, it’s not his moment – but from urban Milwaukee where we somehow fit in to the suburban Ohio where there was a noticeable effort to try to fit in, where I encountered racism for the first time through a baseball bat. People like to talk about racism a lot these days, few have experienced it – the confusion it can generate in a boy.

And I knew things were a little wrong. My father was uncomfortable, my mother was unaware. She was to remain blissfully unaware of things at times throughout the years. I was a latchkey kid, I had been for years. Her first husband had died, and I magically got an older brother and a sister. I had not asked for them, they had not asked for me, sibling dynamics ensued on the canvases we already had. I cannot speak for them, but I was confused and tried to make the best of things. Later, when I was older, I would understand their perspectives better. They had lost their father, were uprooted from the family they knew, and… suddenly there.

Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather died, and my father decided to return to Trinidad and Tobago to be a part of the family business – a complicated story in itself.

I was asked, both mother and father there, whether I would like to move to Trinidad. I was 8 or 9, asked a question that seemed simple enough on the surface, and said, “OK”. After all, I could tell that was the answer they wanted, I could tell I had given them the answer they wanted – something I confused with the ‘right’ answer. And so, with a long roadtrip, I went to Trinidad and Tobago, to a culture alien to me, to wait for my parents to arrive. What would happen to my brother and sister was unclear to me, and honestly at that age I hadn’t thought about it. In retrospect, that maybe should have bothered me – but I was overwhelmed by the adventure, exploration, seeing things and understanding them.

Fast forward about a year, and my father shows up. He tells me my mother will be coming. Time passes, a few more months. “She’s not coming.” I’d adapted to the culture but never really fit – in my years, I never truly fit anywhere – so I made my own place, had my own misadventures and even forgot what my mother looked like in a few years. I could not write that when my mother was alive; it would have broken her heart further.

Of course, I rebelled. I made up a picture of her and hung it up on an inside door of my room, writing “Mom” quite large under it. They’d made mistakes; they had the omissions, they had the sticks, but they could not figure out what the carrots were. I was unlike.

And at that point, they figured out it wasn’t going away and that I would not forget her completely. Suddenly, pictures became available. And that broke the entire infrastructure built on the foundation of me forgetting and everyone doing as they wished. It was an ugly time made uglier by the dynamics within my father’s side of the family.

There is much I did not tell her out of kindness, there were white lies mixed in to keep her from her sadness. She had a deep sadness already that would erupt now and then and cascade across the people around her, a tsunami that demanded attention. Her happiness was the same way.

I was busy, inundated, and I would find out decades later that letters and pictures had been withheld. That letters I thought sent were never sent by my grandmother. Notes between my grandmother and father came into my hands once the keeper of the secrets, an Uncle, took ill – the conspiracy for me to forget my mother writ large, the manipulations, the subtlety something I did not think any of them capable of admitted. They meant well, I suppose – but in doing all of this, they created a chasm between my mother and I.

Certainly, some of her own decisions affected the outcomes in all of this, but she was faced with hard decisions all round – and she never stopped trying. The letters I found decades later written to me that I had never received would explain gaps to me, but I never told her all of that. I gained an understanding, an understanding that she couldn’t get – partly because I couldn’t share it without hurting her more deeply than she had already been hurt. She would never understand how much of my silence and firmness at times was done for her own benefit, out of love, and she was smart enough to know I was holding things back – but instead, I expect I looked like a reminder of my father to her, though she knew I could communicate better –  and was frustrated by my decision not to.

Yet after this, we would read poetry together at a few different places. We would work at the same company, and she would drive me as crazy as I would drive her – her trying to bridge to a 9 year old long gone while a young man fought for relevancy and identity in a large corporation. It was clear that I could not be what she wanted of me to me and not to her. My father’s illness made a comma there, with me returning to Trinidad and Tobago to try to help that particular hedgehog.

During that time, I would find out that she left the apartment I had arranged for her – that the financial support I gave for her to get her degree never paid off for her. She claimed agism, and I saw that as only part of the problem – she was unabashedly herself, and did not conform well to corporate culture (I am similar, just as my father, but dance on the line more than not). I was to find out that she lived in her car for a while – not the one I made the downpayment on – the shiny red Isuzu Impulse that she managed to hit in the garage a few times – but a station wagon I told her not to buy, but she did anyway.

She eventually got a handicapped sticker, moved into a place in St. Petersburg, and then moved off to Wisconsin to be closer to my sister and her daughters. Pragmatic me advised her against it, but I was once again a voice in the wilderness. As it happens, her decision worked out for her – connections with her granddaughters, my sister… how could I judge the value in those things, I who had grown up without them? She was right to move. I would tell her so.

Our relationship evolved after that, in Wisconsin, yet some things got better and some things could potentially grow worse between us. Her life was a contrast of rainbows and deep storm, sometimes flickering too fast for me to keep up with. Her cynicism and anger sometimes, even when directed at me, made me laugh inwardly as I saw myself and where I got it from. Her bubbling enthusiasm at times could be abrasive, but her indomitable spirit had taken her through challenges long before I was born and since. She may not have realized that connection we had, she may have – if she did it was a mutual secret, an unspoken. She would avoid me because of my firmness at times, pushing me away in many ways even as she wondered at my distance.

Fortunately, over coffee on many occasions I said what needed to be said. We talked about her eventual death, we talked about what she wanted to happen, that my sister would be in charge of everything. She was in her tempest of storm once while we talked about this, and she asked me what I would want from her eclectic collections – I simply looked at her and told her that I had already gotten everything of worth from her. And she smiled, an accidental truth bringing her back from her storm.

Unprosed.

I know much more than I’m writing here, but those are not my stories to tell. She was a woman of depths that many couldn’t fathom, and she could be confusing to some people at times because her depths would come out of her writing and performance, coming across as shallow at times when it was simply the cooling magma as she constantly rebuilt herself.

Her life wasn’t fair to her, people around her weren’t fair to her. We all have these issues to varying degrees. She saw her troubles, troubles that she held within in depths even she couldn’t pull out, and she wrestled with them at times as anyone who has lived a life of challenge does. She was a survivor, yes, but she drank as deeply of life as she could and encouraged others to do the same. She could be amazingly impractical and somehow manage; she could be amazingly practical and somehow not manage. She never stopped.

Her relationships with her daughter and granddaughters amazed me not just in how well they adapted to constant shifts, but in how resilient my nieces had become. My sister remains a cornerstone of that foundation, she who knew our mother best. My nieces have been women for some time, and I know that they are the stronger and better for their relationships with my mother. Maybe if they read this they might understand better this Uncle’s relationship with their grandmother and learn what they can from it, that love isn’t always as easy a thing as Disney would have us all believe, and that setting things free is just as important sometimes as staying close to them, and that setting things free sometimes means leaving them where they are.

I know we all are better because of her in ways we understand as we ourselves grow. She challenged us in her own ways to be better versions of ourselves, though sometimes she wasn’t as pleased with the results as much as the process.

We are all a little unprosed for her passing. Those who did not know her will not understand what that means, those that did know her can only understand what that means in their own context.

I sit here with this last line, unprosed.

Mortality

Skull facsimileWe humans have contemplated mortality for as long as we have been conscious – we’ve developed philosophy, and arguably, theology from it. So many do so much to avoid the inevitable, and yet it remains. We have people working right now to squeeze a little more life into our mortal coils. We live longer because of modern medicine, shoveling coal into the engine of society.

But… why? Are our lives so great that we simply have to continue on? How many more years of traffic, of software patches, of reveling in the idiocy of ‘leaders’… do we want more of that, not less? Do we want to work longer toward a retirement that society robs us of through the flawed ponzi scheme of economics that are based on the assumption that a larger population will produce more and thus be able to support a minority of aged people? There’s so much wrong with that assumption.

And yet, when in a hospital bed, being told by someone who casually hangs a stethoscope over their neck, that they will die… there is surprise. There is denial. There are questions of how long. There is almost no question of the quality of life except in movies and television shows. Those who believe in a deity will make urgent requests for more time, more medical bills, more of the same of  life that so few actually get to enjoy before. Those who do not believe may accept or not, they may fight or not, but typically they do not accept (denial), they do fight. Every breath is a battle.

Spoiler: We’re all going to die at some point. Every breath is a battle anyway; nothing has changed other than someone assigning a possible date that is closer than we might have expected. The world continues to spin.

Some of us fight for relevancy beyond our lifetimes – very few are actually remembered. Think of all those dressed so well after they died, over the ages. As of 2016, there were 100.8 billion dead humans. Our global population is roughly 7 billion at this time. How many are remembered? How many stand out? How many dead people can you think of right now? And how many of them will be remembered in a few hundred years?

But societies, cultures, civilizations – we remember those as we are taught, as was recorded by those who bothered. Even the dead ones. Especially the dead ones.

And underneath all of this, underneath all the things in ‘life’, there is this mortality that we deny through our actions, our words… and what we do not deny, we reinvent into another life, as if this one wasn’t quite enough. As if we have some higher purpose defined by people thousands of years ago scribbling into books.

And yet there are some, very few, that accept that they are already dead. Maybe they’re onto something. Maybe we already are, maybe we’re just echoes of society’s demands, the tools of our tools (Thoreau), going through the motions like Sisyphus, our blood turning the wheel of the great engine of society driving us… where?

Grief

GuiltWhen we lose someone, we feel varying degrees of sorrow. There’s no real scale; it’s the common wisdom of counseling that there are varying scales of sorrow and that some who have a mental illness feel things more… but that’s all based on how we react to emotion and is hardly an empirical measure across different people.

We all feel things differently.

Here’s my thought: When we lose someone, we lose everything that person meant to us – consciously and unconsciously. We grieve this loss, sometimes without even understanding the losses involved, and now and then we are reminded of the loss. It’s only when we come to terms with what was lost that we can move beyond grieving. The things that remind us are the things we need to address – not necessarily to forget, but to understand what exactly was lost.

As they say, you do not know what you have until it is gone – but the depth of that is lost in a two dimensional expression, and is impossible to communicate to others without the context of that loss. The more complicated the relationship, the harder to communicate – the more commonality, the easier.

In a way it’s very strange to me that it took me all this time to figure that out, and in a way it makes sense that it did.

And it was a great lesson from a candle that burned fast and bright in my own life, and one I shall not forget – and shall cherish.

It’s only when we learn the lessons we need to that we evolve beyond grief.

Imagined Conversation.

My Late FatherYesterday marked 12 years since my father passed away. I am reminded every year in Trinidad and Tobago only because of Emancipation Day.

To say that our relationship was complicated would make a British person cringe at such use of understatement. We rarely agreed on anything, and if we did we, as individuals, wondered what was wrong.

So I wondered how the conversation would go, so many years gone by and myself having grown entirely out from under his shadow.

I expect my father would start it off. He was good about that.

“I’ve been dead 12 years. What have you done?”
“Well, I’ve turned things around on the land. People have gotten to know me and are coming around.”
“Good. You learned how to deal with them. I didn’t think you had it in you to squeeze them.”
“Well, I didn’t squeeze them.”
“What? They’ll take advantage of you!”, growling, “You can’t be soft! They’ll walk all over you!”
“Well, they walked all over you when you were confrontational.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I have 12 years of knowing what I’m talking about. Your ashes blew away from Mosquito Creek with you not having enjoyed anything about the Estate. I tell the people who have problems with you to go down there and shout into the wind.”

He sighs, grinds his teeth and looks off.

“So, are you married yet? Children?”
“Nope.”

He sighs, grinds his teeth and looks off.

“What about your cousins? Are they dealing with their land?”
“That’s not my business.”
“So you don’t know?”
“Ask them yourself. The answer they give you may not be the answer they give me, the answers they give may not be what they are actually doing. Why waste time worrying about things like that?”

He glares at me, then sighs. “That was always the problem I faced.”

“And I don’t have that problem simply by not making it mine.”

“What happened to the workshop?”
“Oh, you’ll love this. Your sister closed it.”
“What?!”
“Yes. Your brother had a stroke, a lot of things happened afterward that boiled down to her taking control and she closed it. ”
“You were supposed to run it! Or one of your cousins!”
“Well, truth be told only one of us ever really wanted to run it and when it came down to it, he didn’t really want to either. And your sister made sure of that.”
“Hmm. Which sister, anyway?”
“What, you folks still don’t talk?”
“Don’t be a smartass, tell me which sister.”
“Does it matter?”

Again, the glare.
“No, it doesn’t.”

“See, you’re all dead but two. It’s a brave new world.”
“How is it?”
“If you were here, you’d probably die of heartbreak.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah. So did you ever talk to your father like we’re doing now?”
“Many times.”
“Drove you crazy, didn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You never really got out from under his shadow, did you?”
“What?!”
“Well, the closer to death you got, the more you talked about his visions and plans.”
“I did?”
“Yeah.”
“I didn’t realize that. So are you trying to do the same as you get closer to death?”
“Nope. Your visions and plans are gone with you – have been for 12 years.”
“So why the HELL are you even talking to me?”
“I thought it would be interesting. I thought about how you imagined your father, and I imagined mine. And you’re here. And now… you’re gone, left as a part of my memory and imagination in a small room of my mind. I may visit you from time to time, but you are only me remembering you.”
“You always talked about shit like that. Unproductive!”
“Generally speaking, yes, this was unproductive. But it was closure.”
“What?! You little…”

And he’s gone. What’s more, I’m free of him.

Time

Do You Want to Fall in Love She AskedA strange thing, time. It’s our way of explaining things, of looking at the past and the future. It connects us and disconnects us.

The concept of time varies by culture.

We don’t think enough about something that has such control over the way we deal with our lives – and how ‘time’ varies with people we interact with in a global community.

They say that time heals, but if time heals it’s by transporting us to somewhere else – sometime else – where things are different. It’s not time that changed, it’s our environment – internal and external – that changes, and we mark it in our own versions of time.

And if we remove time altogether, we flatten our lives into a summary of all the interactions we’ve had and how we’ve interacted with it.

The living call this death.

Suddenly, She Was There

I’d been avoiding smartphones, using a basic phone for a while, partly because of a self-imposed exile from noise. But I got another smartphone because I had found a half decent reason to and a way to make it work for me without subjecting me to too much noise. I’d thought this through, as I always do – cool, rational. I’d pay for data when I wanted it, subsisting instead on WiFi so I wouldn’t get charged for WhatsApp jokes I’d seen and even posted years ago.

It’s a sound plan that allows me a discrete camera for street shots, so I can blend with the writing. It’s not a great camera, but I let that lay for the price. The price of freedom is sometimes compromise.

And so, despite the work of the helpful young woman who set basic things up on the store, I went through the Android device and configured it as I wanted it.

I logged into my Google account, set up email, pulled my contacts, etc.

And today, as I was about to send a text to someone, the SMS app helpfully showed those I messaged the most and… after all of this time… her name was there.

Her name. Hers. That name. The name I don’t speak often for fear of it all boiling over. The conversations late at night, the text messages flying back and forth, our secret codes. Her name.

That conversation at 2 a.m. about whether she should have that surgery to have her other ovary removed. The hopeless conversations about endometriosis, a sinister condition for her. The idiocy at her job, hew she had invested so much of her life into the company to see it being pulled in a direction that diminished her.

It wasn’t all bad or it wouldn’t have been. We had well matched quills, and for two people who were noted for being stubborn we had an odd habit of listening to each other and of being able to communicate with a word or a glance. We had the crazy nights where she sang country songs I hated, or where she put up with my own insanity as I bubbled up from the other world I visit as often as I can. The way we pushed against each other to allow us to be more ourselves, the way our backs immediately came together when we were surrounded by the idiots.

Then there was the shock of her suicide that wasn’t as much of a shock as a painful finality for me. She’d told me what she would do when the pain was too much for her and I thought it was… not as soon. That there was time.

There wasn’t.

We wonder about those things even when we understand them.

And after all these months, she’s the one I message the most according to Google.

And she’s gone, but still pulled a final ‘gotcha’ on me.

Brat. I do miss her.