Two Stories

Steve Alexander

Copyright 2015 by Steve Alexander 


Photo of a baby eating toilet paper.

Kung Fu

This story is true. I think it's important to know that at the start because it wouldn't be believable as fiction. It takes place in Sydney, Australia. I was teaching a Chinese man, James Kung, computer programming on a Prime computer in preparation for him to join our company.

Although James understood English fairly well, he was uncomfortable with his ability to speak it. The Kung family had come to Australia from China via Taiwan, and had been in Sydney only a short time. For this reason, when we met for tutoring sessions, James would bring along the whole family. There was Mary Kung (wife), Eva (#1 daughter), Anita (#2 daughter), Teresa (#3 daughter), and Kathy (#4 daughter). I think the theory was that if one head was good, more were better – sort of group think. The sessions were interesting, to say the least, with my talking English and Mary and the four girls all jabbering to James in Chinese.

If James had a question, he would ask it in his halting, broken style of English, and I would answer if I understood the question. If I hesitated, however, he would immediately ask the question in Chinese to his translators and all five of them would ask me the question in their own way. I would then answer the five questions, and they would translate the answers to James. To a passerby, it must have looked like the proverbial Chinese fire drill, but it was actually a rather thorough way to communicate because of all the different ways I heard the questions (and I imagine the five different answers James heard when my answer was translated).

One evening we had decided to hold the session at Prime's head office in North Sydney so we could use a live computer terminal. Prime was kind enough to allow me the use of their facilities as I was a former employee and a fairly well-known Prime Information consultant in Sydney. We met at Prime's Head Office, Blue Street at the time, about 7:00 PM, and soon rounded up chairs from several surrounding office cubicles and sat down around a terminal in the Systems Engineering area.

The only other person in the building was the night operator (a Jewish fellow named Arthur, who has since moved to New York and changed his name to Avraham) in the adjoining glassed-in room where the computers were. Arthur had a full beard and always wore his and yarmulke and tallis. All-in-all, Arthur was a gentle and wonderful man, totally in tune with the machines he worked on. So much was Arthur's empathy with his machines that he would sometimes talk to them. Several times late at night, I have passed by and found Arthur mumbling something like, "Oh, come now, you know that's not right...what’s wrong with you?" Night operators get lonely, okay?

So that's how it was that evening at Prime headquarters in North Sydney.

Enter an unsuspecting salesman. He was passing through the Systems Engineering area (on the way to his cubicle) and obviously noticed our rather unusual tutoring session. His lips were silent but the look on his face said, "What the...?" We ignored him and went right on talking.

Seemingly, in order to regain a hint of his contact with reality, he headed toward to computer room where Arthur was. I suppose he was thinking of having a laugh about his recent discovery of the Chinese gaggle (including one American), when he entered the computer room. Arthur was facing the screen and didn't hear the door open behind him (the room had one of those air conditioners which creates a small typhoon and lots of noise). So, the salesman walked up behind Arthur and heard him talking to the computer screen. Arthur, of course, ignored him and went right on talking to the screen.

The complete scene: a Chinese man and woman, four Chinese children, and one American babbling at each other in Chinese and American English in one room, and a bearded guy dressed strangely and talking to a computer screen in the other room. Nobody else was around.

This was just one more pea than his pod could hold. He looked skyward, headed for the front door, threw up his hands in the traditional 'give-up' gesture, muttering something like, "Not a sane one in the building..."

I never saw that salesman again, but I would like to dedicate this article to him on the off chance that he will see it and find, at last, an explanation for some of the Kung Fu he experienced that evening.

The First Time

I'm a computer consultant, and I work with an unusual operating system called "Pick,” which was created by a man named Dick Pick. This is a love story about my introduction to computers, and the Pick operating system, and well, you'll see.

The first computer I ever saw was at Vanderbilt University in 1961, while on a high school field trip. Actually, I was much more interested in the fact that the building next door was the gymnasium where the Vandy basketball team practiced. The thought of seeing one of my heroes in the flesh, was much more exciting than hearing about the monster computer blinking stupidly at a bunch of wide-eyed, high school teenagers like me.

So, I don't remember much about the computer. It had lots of flashing lights and it lived in a room about the size of the lot my house sits on today. There were no transistors in it. The whole thing used vacuum tubes (thousands of them) that had to be replaced on a fairly regular basis. The tour guide told us that several technicians were on duty 24 hours a day to keep it running.

Since then I have seen many machines. An IBM 1401 with a disk drive about as tall as I am (over six feet), a 7094 which lived in the basement (actually three floors below ground) of the math building at Purdue University, a Microdata machine about the size of a refrigerator with a 20 MB hard drive which looked like a matching dishwasher, and a host of others.

The machines all seemed to have what I hesitate to call a “personality.” Looking back, I realize now that I began to associate each machine with a person I knew at the time. I don't remember that much about the machines, but I can recall quite a bit about the people.

The 1401, for example, brings to mind a young naval officer I knew at the time. He liked to putter – just like the 1401. You've met people like Carl, I'm sure. He would spend hours fiddling with something on the computer, when it could have been worked out in 10 minutes with a pencil and paper. Carl eventually went to work for Burroughs – a good match, I thought.

The 7094, a basically good machine which never seemed to complete anything, reminds me of my roommate at college. Marvin was an intelligent, healthy, apparently competent person, but he refused to apply himself to anything that offered the possibility of reaching a conclusion. His quest in life seemed to be to work a problem to death without solving it. Marvin loved the 7094 because it seldom completed a program but always gave him pages of reasons why not. Marvin was in the Navy and is probably retired by now. The 7094 is retired, too.

I met my first Pick machine in 1975. It was a Microdata Reality. The Microdata always seemed like a nice machine to me. Though it had its quirks, it was user-friendly, accommodating, and just plain fun – like the young woman I met at the printer while we were waiting for our output one day. She had a pleasant smile.

I stuck my thumbs in my belt, sidled up to her and said, "Yuh come here often, ma’am?" I used my best Texican accent.

"Unfortunately, yes,” she smiled.

“What’s yer name?”

“Marion – and yours?”

"Steve. Uhhh, yuh wanna fool around?" We Texicans get right to the point.

"Uhhh – No?” but she was still smiling and her eyes said maybe.

Our conversations grew longer and we grew closer as the days passed. We talked computers, helped debug each other’s programs, shared a chocolate milkshake and watched a sunset or two, and yes, we fooled around.

Eventually, I moved out of state and then to Australia, and I lost touch with her. Her face merged with other pretty faces, but her memory still tugs at me when I see an old Microdata machine. There have been other machines and women since then, but I guess I will always remember that old Microdata and Pick. There's just something special about your first time.

Raising Kids

If there is to be a world fit for good people, there must be parents willing to train their children to create that world and to live in that world.

I think most parents today are on the wrong track. I think they are doing a poor job of raising kids fit for a world of nice people. Most kids of today are ill behaved, whining, screaming little criminals. They run their families, they are a nuisance to others, and their parents (who were raised the same way) let them get away with it. Bad behavior is accepted as “part of growing up.” They call it “self expression.”

A friend of mine was at dinner with us. We were having a pleasant conversation, when Heather, my 4 year old at the time, butted in, “Daniel’s putting French fries in his nose!”

I said, “Heather, I am talking with Lisa. Be quiet until we are done.”

Heather went back to her dinner. Lisa, mother of a 2 year old, seemed surprised. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll stifle her self-expression, or bruise her little ego, or something?”

No,” I said, “Kids need to have their self-expression stifled a little. Can you imagine a world where everyone expressed everything they were feeling? Hell, I’d kill half the people I see and have sex with the other half on the spot. I don’t want to live in a world like that, and I don’t want my kids to behave that way. She needs to learn to behave appropriately, and butting in while someone is talking is inconsiderate, rude, and inappropriate.”

It is now two years later, and Heather hardly ever interrupts anyone’s conversation. She waits patiently, and when there is a lull, she speaks. She is a very smart little girl, and she has a lot to say. Her self-expression and ego are very much intact. With our training, she knows how to participate in an appropriate way. She is much more pleasant to be around than some 10, 12, or even 20 year olds who haven’t learned the art of polite conversation.

It took about three months to train her not to interrupt when other people are talking. Every time she interrupted a conversation between others, her mother or I stopped her and asked her to wait until it was her turn – every time. It took some effort from us, and we think it was worth it. We think it will have her life go better, and we think that is part of our job.

So, what is a parent’s job? We think our job is to raise human beings fit to live in a civilized world. We raise our kids to be people we enjoy being around, talking with, spending time with. It is not our job to be loved, or even liked, by our kids. It is not our job to coddle them or protect them from the natural consequences of their actions. As it happens, they do love us, and we enjoy that – but we don’t interact with them trying to get them to like us or love us. We try to teach them what is morally right, polite, workable, and appropriate, whether they like us or not.

Once I was putting Heather down for her afternoon nap. She had been playing some game that she wanted to continue, and a nap was not on her agenda. After a few seconds of trying to persuade me that she didn’t need a nap, she resorted to, “I don’t want a nap. You’re mean. I hate you.”

I smiled and said, “I understand (pause) and it’s still nap time.”

She has only tried that tactic a couple of times in her 6 years. I suspect that if it had worked, she would have used it again and again.

Along that same line, we never end a sentence with “OK?” Most parents seem to end almost every sentence with “OK?” nowadays. “Honey, we have to go now, OK?” “It’s time for dinner, OK?” “Don’t hit your sister, OK?” These kids apparently grow up thinking that’s the way to talk. For example, they grow up to be cops (on the TV show COPS) who often end their orders with “OK?” “Sir, you hit your wife with a baseball bat, OK?” You are under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon, OK?” “Turn around and put your hands behind your back, OK?” “Sit in my car, OK?” “We’re taking you to jail, OK?”

When you are in charge in the way parents and cops are, you should never ever ask if it is OK. Kids, like criminals, should have no choice – besides, of course it is not OK!

You say to the kid, “It’s time for dinner.” “Sit down.” “Don’t hit your sister.” “Be quiet.” It is not a choice. It is an order from an authority.

And for cops, “Get out of the car.” “You are under arrest.” “Put your hands behind your back.” “Get in the car.”

As adults, we understand that the “OK?” question is inauthentic and meaningless. At best, when we use “OK?” we really mean “do you understand?” Kids don’t have the capacity to interpret that. It leads to resistance that is not present when you communicate in a simpler, more straightforward way.

For example, when it’s time to put our kids to bed we say “bed time.” They get in bed; we tuck them in and kiss them good night; and leave the room. They go to sleep. They do not whine about it. They do not attempt to persuade us it is not bedtime. They don’t get up after we leave the room. They don’t talk and keep each other awake.

They tried these things a few times when they were two or three years old. They were never successful, not once. It took about a week to “sleep train” them. Now, it is simply not an issue. I know other parents who are still trying to get their 10 and 12 year olds to go to bed at bedtime. “It’s time for bed, OK?” doesn’t work any better with a 12 year old than it did with a 2 year old.

When it is mealtime, we say, “Time for dinner.” Our kids come to the table and we have dinner.

When it’s time for school, we say, “Time for school.” They get in the car and we take them to school. No problem. No arguing. No whining. No discussion.

We never ask them if they want to go to school. We don’t ask if they want to go to bed. We don’t end sentences with, “OK?” We know it is not a choice, and they know it is not a choice.

When they were about five or so, each of them tried a couple of times “I don’t want to go to bed,” or something similar. We always acknowledge what they want, and we make it clear that what they want is not the deciding factor. We say something like, “I understand that you don’t want to go to bed (pause) and it’s still time for bed.” That’s usually the end of the discussion. When they first tried the “I don’t want…” tactic, sometimes they’d persist with a couple of more attempts. Each was met with the same acknowledgement and steadfastness, “I heard you. You don’t want to have your bath now (pause) and you are going to have your bath, anyway.”

While I’m on the subject of choice, there are many areas where we allow the kids to make a choice. For example, “You can have a hamburger or a chicken sandwich. Which would you like?” “You can wear your blue shirt or the red one. Which do you want?” But if it is really not a choice, we don’t pretend that it is. A word to the wise: never give a child more than two alternatives, unless you want to spend a long time discussing it.

I have heard parents say, “I have learned so much more from my children than they have from me.” If you are learning more from your children than they are learning from you, you are not doing your job. The parent should be the teacher, not the student. If you are even a mildly competent adult, your kids have nothing to teach you. They know nothing! Kids are little blobs of protoplasm, and it’s your job to turn them in human beings who can function in our world.

Most parents have 20 years or more of life experience. Kids have none. It is not a parent’s job to learn from kids. It is a parent’s job to teach.

While we have a lot of fun with our kids, and we recognize and applaud their innocence, we are not confused about who is teaching whom. We are the parents. They are the kids. We teach; they learn; period.

A family is not a democracy. This is apparently not obvious to most parents. They are constantly asking their kids for opinions and votes. A family that works is not and cannot be a democracy. If the kids got a vote, you’d have jelly beans for every meal and watch cartoons all day. The bottom line is always, “because I said so.” Parents should use it often, and with pride and enthusiasm!

When our kids were two or three, they began asking “why” about just about everything. Though it is tempting to answer their “why” questions, no good can come of it. It starts with perfectly innocent curiosity. “Why does this bug taste funny?” But if you answer even one “why” question, you will soon be answering many more. “Why do I have to go to bed?” “Why do you get to decide what we have for dinner?” “Why do I have to go to school” “Why do I have to obey the law?” “Why shouldn’t I smoke dope?”

Our kids are now 7 and 10, and they seldom ask “why” questions. They ask, how, when, what, who, and where questions, but seldom “why.” We trained them by answering almost every “why” question with either the standard Zen response or “because I said so.”

Why is Daniel eating toilet paper?” Daniel is eating toilet paper because he is eating toilet paper. That’s what I mean by the standard Zen response.

Why is poop brown?” “Poop is brown because poop is brown.”

Why do I have to go to bed?” “Because I said so.”

Why do I have to go to school?” “Because I said so.”

Once in a while I test them: “Daniel, why are you smart and handsome?” He pauses only a second, and then grins, “Because I am smart and handsome!”

And Heather, why are you smart and beautiful?” She pretends to think about it, “Uhhh, because I am smart and beautiful?”

They are good kids prepared to live in a world of civilized people.

I joined the Navy after high school, saw the world, went to war, lived abroad several years, and finally settled in San Diego, California.

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