How music changed my life, Part 1: Falling down

When you are down, negative, depressed, burned out, or even just tired from everyday routine, having some form of creative outlet is a wonderful thing. It doesn't matter *what* you do – it can be writing or painting or really anything you like – but it does matter that you do something. For me, that is largely music.

This is a story of how, over the first 38 years of my life, I grew out of touch with myself and my values, got into a depression, and almost ruined my family. Reconnecting to music was a key element to understand where I was at, in life.

This post is about 'how I got down there'. The next installment in this series will talk of how I finally awoke to the fact that I had an issue, and how I healed from it.

Personas

I have always loved music since I was a little kid.
I also had music training (piano lessons) since age 7 or 8, after I had begged my parents for a while.
Those music lessons were useful and I am grateful I had them, although they were mostly focused on mastering the 'classics' – i.e. play Mozart of Beethoven perfectly – and not at all on improvisation and composition, and spontaneous flow of emotions.
When I was 16, I dropped out of the piano lessons altogether, after having felt pressured to take it a step higher and do conservatory: I wanted to play rock, metal, anything else by then, and not just copy the famous bands, but compose my own songs, express my own emotions, not play Chopin!
An old second-hand classical guitar that my dad had found somewhere appeared in my life around that time, and I started teaching myself how to play it (this was pre-internet yet, I wish I had YouTube back then!) with some book from the local music store.
I was really crappy with the guitar, but oh the joys of doing my own noise! Expressing myself! No rules to follow!
I even got into a band for some years and I was finding myself.

But at some point I got 'serious': in the beginning of 1997, at age 20 (almost 21), after realizing university was too boring and would be too slow for my liking, I set off in a totally different direction (Information Technology), which would give me economic independence more quickly. Eventually that was still a 'socially accepted' and 'serious' work, everybody in my family was happy and proud of me, and family pressure relaxed.
After a couple of sentimental relationships that weren't the real deal but more like 'proof of concept', me and my soulmate Jyothi – that I knew since I was 19 but we had lost contact with for a few years – found each other back and I got a family with her. I gradually started working more and playing less, and neglected myself my love for music. Nobody told me to stop: it was the fear to be 'silly', not serious, egoistic, or be wasting time for myself.
Maybe because I was told as a kid that artists could never make a living, I was repeating that mantra without questioning it, and music got unconsciously ranked as 'non essential'. So, as I was 'settled', things got busy, and music became something to listen to, but I played and composed very little or close to nothing for several years. By letting go of music, I had locked my soul in a cage I built myself.

[long period of musical darkness]

Fast forward a few years, when we were living in Italy, Jyothi had a miscarriage, but I was already too busy, overworked, tired and blocked emotionally to deal with the associated emotions in a conscious and rational way. Nevertheless, I needed to express them: in a shopping frenzy I decided to buy a new professional sound card for my computer so I could record my compositions – I did it instinctively, or was it divinely guided – and at that moment I started making music again and wrote a couple of songs. But things got busy again very soon – I was travelling for work all the times and I was feeling so lonely, and so did my wife – so I swallowed that pain and didn't really deal with rationalizing the emotions associated with that episode until 2015… I also didn't play nor write much music for another while, as I was never really home, and when I was home I was trying to be a husband and a dad, first. I was spreading myself very thin, and letting my emotions out was really at the bottom of my priorities. It turns out it was a mistake to just try and toughen up / swallow those emotions and keep them locked.
Some music had come out during an episode of pain, but already at that point, with many years of very little or no music and extended exposure to solely 'rational' thinking done in IT companies, I had already shut down parts of myself and some of my other artistic expressions had deteriorated or stopped: I wasn't drawing or painting anymore – I was only drawing networks and other diagrams for work, but nothing artistic – and those couple of songs that came out were still very mechanical and 'stiff'. Also, they didn't have lyrics…

In that period I anyhow intensified my use of the camera and I became a lot better at photography – I used to explain that I still liked music, but photography was more 'portable' of a hobby, which was true: photography meant another artistic outlet that at least let me capture the beauty I was seeing outside and in other people – even while on my business trips – , although I was no longer capable of expressing my own emotions as much, I was at least using the camera to capture stories I saw outside. "The camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera" Dorothea Lange – the famous photographer – said, and she was right.

Fast forward a few more years, I had gotten a career opportunity, so we had moved to America.
While I was still very 'distracted' and mostly just working (in fact, more and more as I was getting 'up' the ladder), I had this big board in front of my face that didn't let me see. I was under the illusion that, since I was providing money by working hard, every other subsystem of me could be just shut down and I would be fine.
Well, not really. But luckily I have my kids that guide me. Kids are the greatest teachers. They are still so 'connected' to source, and if you flow with them and don't try to control them or shape them into what society tells you to, they'll show you the wise way every single time. So in our first year in America, Luca had a chance to get a couple of free piano lessons at school. He loved it so much and started playing a simplified version of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' over and over and over on a crappy little keyboard we had. Then I thought "hey but I have a better one" – with all my music equipment which I had relocated but not yet unpacked, over 9 months after the move.
So I reconnected all my stuff to get him a keyboard, but eventually I also started using it again myself a little. And then a little more, and a little more…
Then we got Luca a better electric piano, and his playing improved a lot and he kept enjoying it. We made sure his teacher used a different method than the one I learned with, so that he would not be too constrained into just the classics but get a broader taste and focus on enjoyment of playing, not perfection.

Luca playing the Piano

My son needed music, but he was a mirror for me, because I needed it too! I was just keeping it quiet and enduring and waiting for 'when I will have time'… while letting the time pass and never actually finding the time for what my soul craved.
At this point the equipment was plugged again, and the house in America was a lot bigger than the apartment we had in Italy, so I could also use a much bigger space, which encouraged my playing. I was also travelling a lot less, just going back and forth to the same office, so I actually was able to find a few moments in the evenings to use my equipment. So I started composing something again – if you look at my 'songs' page you'll see I wrote and recorded several songs over the 2012-2014 period.

All sort of emotions went into those song, as several things happened in that period. Work was more intense than ever, and under a new set of conditions for me: while in Italy I was travelling all the time, even if I was lonely and it sucked, I had long unwinding times for myself where I could take pictures of a new place and spend time outside to reground myself after having been at customers. I am a bit psychic and a bit autistic, I pick up other people's emotions and they stay 'stuck' on me. In the last few years I have learned to recognize and accept that and 'deal' with it to some extent; but before I realized it, in America I was absorbing everybody's emotions and intensities in large projects with hundreds of people, large meetings, conflicting agendas, frequent re-organizations and changes of plans, I had to keep quiet on several things I didn't agree with, and my European directness tended to not match the political correctness that my American colleagues expected. But according to my managers, at the end of the day I was doing great, so they kept giving me awesome reviews and raises (which carried more responsibilities, as I was already burning out) – which incidentally also made other folks jealous, since they were not moving up the ladder quick enough… as a result of all this, I was swallowing emotions, not dealing with them, and bringing a ton of stress home, which eventually made both me and my wife sick. It must have been hard being around me both at work and at home), as I was often behaving like an asshole, snapping for no reason, not trusting anyone anymore.

At least my wife was giving me the space to write songs which could speak from my soul and not from my hurt rational mind! Please listen to 'Where are the days?' and its desperate cry, from that period when I started going out of my mind.
Not just the rhythm at which I worked that contributed to my stress, anyhow: more stressful situations and episodes were also coming from society, for example what I described in the following posts, which I felt 'safe' to post only a couple of years later, after we got out of America…

When I stopped sleeping well at night

Imaginary Friend Sara (about public school in the United States)

There were more bad things happening to us and scaring us in that period, some of which I prefer not to write about, but it felt like the whole universe was screaming at us 'get the heck out of here'. But at the time I didn't clearly understand what was going on in my own head. I was dozed and 'living the dream' or being a successful manager of a famous company, and I refused to see that things weren't quite good for our well being there. I was scared and delusional.

It's easier to rewind the tape like I am doing now and watch the movie (or hear those songs), in retrospective… but while the movie of life is being filmed, it is all improvised and not always conscious – especially when you are always running, you don’t give yourself time to regroup from one task to the next, you don't know exactly what you are dealing with, and you don't control your emotions and what you are letting out. Other people see it. That's why it's important that you let it out also in some creative form, so that you can also have a chance to see it. Because you can better see how you are by observing yourself from the outside. You can only see your problem if you move your point of view out of it. I can only take a photo of the house as a whole if I get out of it, not if I stay inside its living room. Art lets your inner self spew out fragments of a puzzle that is a projection of your conscience, or your soul. The more of these fragments you create, the more the puzzle starts to take shape, till you eventually see what you already knew but were afraid to admit to yourself – and often it is just fear of being all that we can be.

To become self-aware you have to realize how self-aware you're not – Scott Berkun

One thing was clear: I needed music more than I had ever needed before.

In the next installment of this series of posts (which I hope to publish at some point next week), I'll describe at what point I finally became aware of my condition, how I started climbing back up from the hole I had dug for myself, and the role that music played in the recovery process.

The second part of the article is here

How music changed my life, Part 2: Recognizing and acknowledging the issue

I have been chosen; Farewell my friends…

I have been in Premier Field Engineering for nearly 7 years (it was not even called PFE when I joined – it was just "another type of support"…) and I have to admit that it has been a fun, fun ride: I worked with awesome people and managed to make a difference with our products and services for many customers – directly working with some of those customers, as well as indirectly thru the OpsMgr Health Check program – the service I led for the last 3+ years, which nowadays gets delivered hundreds of times a year around the globe by my other fellow PFEs.

But it is time to move on: I have decided to go thru a big life change for me and my family, and I won't be working as a Premier Field Engineer anymore as of next week.

But don't panic – I am staying at Microsoft!

I have actually never been closer to Microsoft than now: we are packing and moving to Seattle the coming weekend, and on July 18th I will start working as a Program Manager in the Operations Manager product team, in Redmond. I am hoping this will enable me to make a difference with even more customers.

Exciting times ahead – wish me luck!

 

That said – PFE is hiring! If you are interested in working for Microsoft – we have open positions (including my vacant position in Italy) for almost all the Microsoft technologies. Simply visit http://careers.microsoft.com and search on “PFE”.

As for the OpsMgr Health Check, don't you worry: it will continue being improved – I left it in the hands of some capable colleagues: Bruno Gabrielli, Stefan Stranger and Tim McFadden – and they have a plan and commitment to update it to OpsMgr 2012.

Early Adoptions, Health Checks and New Year Rants.

Generations

Two days ago I read the following Tweet by Hugh MacLeod:

"[…] Early Adopter Problem: How to differentiate from the bandwagon, once the bandwagon starts moving faster than you are […]"

That makes me think of early adoption of a few technologies I have been working with, and how the community around those evolved. For example:

Operations Manager… early adoption meant that I have been working with it since the beta, had posted one of the earliest posts about how to use a script in a Unit Monitor back in may 2007 (the product was released in April 2007 and there was NO documentation back then, so we had to really try to figure out everything…), but someone seems to think it is worth repeating the very same lesson in November 2008, with not a lot of changes, as I wrote here. I don't mean being rude to Anders… repeating things will surely help the late adopters finding the information they need, of course.

Also, I started playing early with Powershell. I posted my first (and only) cmdlet back in 2006. It was not a lot more than a test for myself to learn how to write one, but that's just to say that I started playing early with it. I have been using it to automate tasks for example.

Going back to the quote above, everyone gets on the bandwagon posting examples and articles. I had been asked a few times about writing articles on OpsMgr and Powershell usage (for example by www.powershell.it) but I declined, as I was too busy using this knowledge to do stuff for work (where “work” is defined as in “work that pays your mortgage”), rather than seeking personal prestige through articles and blogs. Anyway, that kind of articles are appearing now all over the Internet and the blogosphere now. The above examples made me think of early adoption, and the bandwagon that follows later on… but even as an early adopter, I was never very noisy or visible.

Now, going back to what I do for work, (which I mentioned here and here in the past), I work in the Premier Field Engineering organization of Microsoft Services, which provides Premier services to customers. Microsoft Premier customer have a wide range of Premier agreement features and components that they can use to support their people, improve their processes, and improve the productive use of the Microsoft technology they have purchased. Some of these services we provide are known to the world as “Health Checks”, some as “Risk Assessment Programs” (or, shortly, RAPs). These are basically services where one of our technology experts goes on the customer site and there he uses a custom, private Microsoft tool to gather a huge amount of data from the product we mean to look at (be it SQL, Exchange, AD or anything else….). The Health Check or RAP tool collects the data and outputs a draft of the report that will be delivered to the customer later on, with all the right sections and chapters. This is done so that every report of the same kind will look consistent, even if the engagement is performed by a different engineer in a different part of the world. The engineer will of course analyze the collected data and write recommendations about what is configured properly and/or about what could or should be changed and/or improved in the implementation to make it adhere to Best Practices. To make sure only the right people actually go onsite to do this job we have a strict internal accreditation process that must be followed; only accredited resources that know the product well enough and know exactly how to interpret the data that the tool collects are allowed to use it and to deliver the engagement, and present/write the findings to the customer.

So why am I telling you this here, and how have I been using my early knowledge of OpsMgr and Powershell for ?

I have used that to write the Operations Manager Health Check, of course!

We had a MOM 2005 Health Check already, but since the technology has changed so much, from MOM to OpsMgr, we had to write a completely new tool. Jeff  (the original MOM2005 author, who does not have a blog that I can link to) and me are the main coders of this tool… and the tool itself is A POWERSHELL script. A longish one, of course (7000 lines, more or less), but nothing more than a Powershell script, at the end of the day. There are a few more colleagues that helped shape the features and tested the tool, including Kevin Holman. Some of the database queries on Kevin’s blog are in fact what we use to extract some of the data (beware that some of those queries have recently been updated, in case you saved them and using your local copy!), while some other information are using internal and/or custom queries. Some other times we use OpsMgr cmdlets or go to the SDK service, but a lot of times we query the database directly (we really should use the SDK all the times, but for certain stuff direct database access is way faster). It took most of the past year to write it, test it, troubleshoot it, fix it, and deliver the first engagements as “beta” to some customers to help iron out the process… and now the delivery is available! If a year seems like a long time, you have to consider this is all work that gets done next to what we all have to normally do with customers, not replacing it (i.e. I am not free to sit on my butt all day and just write the tool… I still have to deliver services to customers day in day out, in the meantime).

Occasionally, during this past calendar year, that is approaching its end, I have been willing and have found some extra time to disclose some bits and pieces, techniques and prototypes of how to use Powershell and OpsMgr together, such as innovative ways to use Powershell in OpsMgr against beta features, but in general most of my early adopter’s investment went into the private tool for this engagement, and that is one of the reasons I couldn’t blog or write much about it, being it Microsoft Intellectual Property.

But it is also true that I did not care to write other stuff when I considered it too easy or it could be found in the documentation. I like writing of ideas, thoughts, rants OR things that I discover and that are not well documented at the time I study them… so when I figure out things I might like leaving a trail for some to follow. But I am not here to spoon feed people like some in the bandwagon are doing. Now the bandwagon is busy blogging and writing continuously about some aspect of OpsMgr (known or unknown, documented or not), and the answer to the original question of Hugh is, in my opinion, that it does not really matter what the bandwagon is doing right now. I was never here to do the same thing. I think that is my differentiator. I am not saying that what a bunch of colleagues and enthusiasts is doing is not useful: blogging and writing about various things they experiment with is interesting and it will be useful to people. But blogs are useful until a certain limit. I think that blogs are best suited for conversations and thoughts (rather than for "howto's"), and what I would love to see instead is: less marketing hype when new versions are announced and more real, official documentation.

But I think I should stop caring about what the bandwagon is doing, because that's just another ego trip at the end of the day. What I should more sensibly do, would be listening to my horoscope instead:

[…] "How do you slay the dragon?" journalist Bill Moyers asked mythologist Joseph Campbell in an interview. By "dragon," he was referring to the dangerous beast that symbolizes the most unripe and uncontrollable part of each of our lives. In reply to Moyers, Campbell didn't suggest that you become a master warrior, nor did he recommend that you cultivate high levels of sleek, savage anger. "Follow your bliss," he said simply. Personally, I don't know if that's enough to slay the dragon — I'm inclined to believe that you also have to take some defensive measures — but it's definitely worth an extended experiment. Would you consider trying that in 2009? […]