In the Back

31 October 2014

Dear J-

There’s a couple in the back, flirting with each other; you came in too late to see how they met, but you can tell it in the way they talk, the exaggerated gestures and only-just too loud laughter that lingers a little after the joke evaporates. In a flash, you see their futures spinning away from today: acquanintances, perhaps, at first sitting on the train together to be with a familiar face instead of strangers but what’s the difference when it’s this early and anonymous anyway? If you reach out — arms held wide and ran up and down the aisle, you’d only touch seats and that couple in the back, conversation spilling over you like rain.

Their stated plans and the visions you have of their future collide: which one makes more sense? You’ve been an observant student of human behaviors long enough to recognize the kind of camaraderie borne of long nights and shared struggles, of common ground and eager discovery and you wonder, like going to the Pancake House on Sunday mornings, which couples are still in the intrepid explorer phase and which are content to let silence wash over as the common tide ebbs and the interest falls away. Perhaps this is it, though; perhaps they’re the one of their ones. Perhaps this time is forever.

Hope washes over all of us, in no small measure and no easy rhythm. You wish them well, you choose their adventure according to how you’d write it, that this spark kindles fire and blossoms into a long, enduring warmth. You root for the rough patches to be smoothed over, for the gathering storms to pass and to recognize the future that lies ahead together shines brighter than that behind. Or perhaps you’re caught up in their enthusiastic verbal probing and fall for the incurable romantic heart inside yourself, should this be a musical, you’d cue the upbeat music of initial love and ecstatic mutual shared interest. Still yet to come, though, the down doomed reasons why they can’t but … but there’s still hope, isn’t there? If it’s that kind of musical. If you’re the kind of person that rooted for the Phantom over the Viscount, though …

You’ve shared their lives, looking in from the inside, for about half an hour; should you follow further and pry even deeper or does it end here? What if you ran into them again five years from now? Ten? Would you remind them of what they had, as you saw it, and would they deny it? Or have they embraced it? The conversation is about nothing, there’s nothing and everything obvious about it, isn’t there? Half an hour later, and have you learned anything beyond what you project?



30 October 2014

Dear J-

Well, all this could have been avoided had I decided to talk first. Let me go in reverse for a minute. I had — I have a few reports to turn in by this … uh, tomorrow, and I’ve been sitting on them for approximately two weeks, maybe. Editing, cleaning up, modifying, making updates … then turning it back out for the world to see. It’s frightening, and I’m not always sure that I’m approaching this in the right way, but it’s better to know it early — hence asking early and often, despite what may be my instinctual avoidance of annoying others [that's the 'please like me, please' part of me talking] by not bugging anyone.

We have to ask once in a while, and if we do we’re going to learn what we need to know. There is no shame in not knowing. Acknowledge you don’t know and work to rectify that accordingly. We have a lot to offer in terms of the work we produce and the best way to work efficiently is to know what the goal is. Ask. Ask. Ask again. I’ve been having a tough time trying to read people’s minds, but in the end there’s only one way to really know what’s needed. Clarify the vague mission goals and statements before you jump to conclusions, save yourself the extra work of having to redo the analyses (like I do!) by trying to figure out what’s what first.

We have a pretty spectacular time regardless. It’s been busy at work and home, and the first thing I seem to want to do in the evenings is put my feet up and sleep. We’ll live, but perhaps I should be grinding down towards happiness and finishing up the reports now. Perhaps.


Triple Beat

29 October 2014

Dear J-

If anger is indeed the watchword then maybe you should find something to do about it. I had the idea once to put a little controller in my pocket as a powerful surrogate: control, control the situation, control your tongue. I never got very far with that, of course. There’s actually quite a lot I should be doing in the evenings but at the moment my ambition has been residing in moving people and cargo around the world of Pocket Planes, which is not precisely the most rewarding thing in the world. And yet if that ambition is thwarted or I should be interrupted well, heaven help the child. The sharp side of your tongue shouldn’t be employed so readily or often.

Perhaps exhaustion is the watchword, then. More sleep and more ambition to work on the various projects I have lying around the house. Can we? We can. What can we? Well, for one I’ve promised myself I should convert some of my controllers to use the much nicer transforming D-pad, which involves some mechanical removal of plastic. I’d feel more productive. Or I could do things around the house, like fixing up light switches and switching out bulbs and washing the windows and, well, now there’s cleaning out the drain hose on the washer. The washer has proven to be an effective hair removal agent but at the same time it’s now starting to clog, so the new ambition is …

Well, perhaps ambition is the watchword, then. I remember a carpool mate asking me what the-next-ten-years ambition would bring, and I replied with a long and detailed plan exclaiming how things would be different from here on out, of going back to school and getting a doctorate: the vague unrealistic hopes that I’d find a teaching career somewhere, me when my patience doesn’t extend past myself. His follow up question was then why I wasn’t so happy with my life as it was; if I couldn’t enumerate five things I was pleased with then some kind of ingratitude underlied the ambition. I’m not sure if it was deep dissatisfaction or just me feeling that I needed to show some stretch ambition or not. Nowadays the goals are more modest and yet seem so far away at times too.


Brains Torn

28 October 2014

Dear J-

Moderately, perhaps; moderately more competent today than yesterday. I’m not sure yet. I sometimes think the more important thing I did yesterday was manage to keep from editing any Wikipedia entries (that, and decorating the office for Halloween, I guess) but I should have a bare outline by noon today discussing what I’ve found. Which is mostly nothing; sound and fury, signifying nothing. I thought I had it all under control but apparently not. The plant I’m looking at has a stack damper and an auxiliary steam boiler to sparge steam into the HRSG, which means I don’t know if it’s being kept warm by the damper or the sparged steam. Smart, perhaps, but also infuriating from a data collection standpoint.

I find myself following Toronto politics from afar (any city with that many “o”s is fascinating, and not even San Francisco can keep up with Mount Pocono in this regard) because of my Twitter feed. I know nothing of the candidates save what I’ve read on Wikipedia (primary sources, thanks; my edits are mainly aimed at tuning up reference citations) and it seems like it would be a no-brainer to, say, not vote for anyone related to Rob Ford but yet there his brother carried a ward (Ward 2?) which will force me to read up about wards and ridings and the similarities between London and Ottawa and the political structures. Learning new things? Terrible. What about all the old things?

My evening entertainment often consists of running across strange things on eBay and then frantically researching them to convince myself I do need ‘em, or else reading up about things I had and miss (my old college stereo system, sold in an upgrade in 1998, and the upgraded system was never henceforth unboxed after the move). Remember when you listened to the radio? Or put albums on the turntable? Music consumption has become so painless that even these minimal efforts have gotten cumbersome, unreasonably so. You’ll find these things make a tremendous amount of sense after a while.

I think I’ve come up with some more thoughtful ways to chart it, but I’ll proceed cautiously until I can be sure.


Lead Off

27 October 2014

Dear J-

So in total, if you add up the accomplishments for October and weigh them against the time spent I’m running a huge deficit, no matter how you account for it: money, relationships, productivity. This I blame only on myself. There’s a lot I should be trying to work through and yet here I am, editing Wikipedia instead or with another browser window up and at ‘em. I have learned a lot, and it has been personally fulfilling, but there’s a lot I should have been doing instead too, though I’m not sure how I’m going to fix that now, bare moments before the deadlines. Actions and consequences and difficult hours spent thinking of ways to do things without actually trying or doing. Smart, I know. So flaky, too.

It was a relatively quiet weekend, although I wonder if we aren’t making the wrong decisions with respect to spending too much time at home absorbed in inactivity; why shouldn’t we be spending more time outdoors walking around? Then we do, like we did yesterday, and I remember why. The few times we have gone hiking in parks together has been a strong reminder of why: let’s go home, I’m tired, my feet hurt. There’s only so much of that you take without giving in, but still … I wonder. We need more structure and activity in our lives; there is no particularly good reason for me to be leading my particular group in Pocket Planes except for opportunity and laziness.

Yet what would we do instead? I have a thousand different ideas and not enough willpower (but so much resentment) to follow through on them. Although the radius is limited by bladders I should think we have enough time to be working to extend it, but it takes a lot of energy to ignore the kids, doesn’t it? Maybe I’m crazy, though, and what we have is the new normal; where we used to walk together now we’re in a rush and drive instead because it’s a triumph of the convenience over what we know is right. I dunno. If only we had a family of bikes to be deployed at a moment’s notice …


Lost Feed

24 October 2014

Dear J-

I had multiple failures of patience last night and I suspect today’s not going to be much better. The train home is likely to be super-crowded, traffic will be bad, and quite honestly none of that should matter because I’m a mature adult, or at least play one in real life. It’s not okay when you’re getting mad over every last little thing and what outlet can you have instead to make it less frenetic at home? I may bemoan the loss of time to myself but isn’t that what you sign up for when you have a family? Get over yourself and make sure what you do is just. No one wants to be around someone with a hair-trigger, but some don’t have any choice, so why torture them unnecessarily?

Just because I can doesn’t make much of a reason, does it? So if I can distance myself from it this morning, I can start doing it in the heat of the moment. One of the lessons from The Explosive Child (which should also be required reading for parents of normal kids) is that children will do good if they can; there’s not, in general, a desire to be unnecessarily malicious. This can be extended to other aspects of your life: that person who cut you off in traffic (wow, what loaded phrasing: cut you off) or the person jumping ahead in line or putting their feet up on the seat … if you treat the world more rationally instead of in paranoid manner then things become calmer, don’t they?

Keep that in mind tonight. If you’re in a rush it’s because you haven’t thought through your schedule. Don’t be so quick to blame others. Is this something you can control? If patience is a knife in the heart then learn when those painful signals mean you’re doing it right. We have a thousand ways to be honest with ourselves and strangers, and if we can’t extend that same courtesy to our families then perhaps we are already lost. It does help to enumerate the blessings in your life, once at night, when you get on the train, when you arrive at work, when you get ready for lunch, whenever you think it’s appropriate. Family. Opportunities. Location. Abilities. Health. Time. Service.


Long Way Home

23 October 2014

Dear J-

I wonder about these actors who have roles in what you might consider to be kids’ movies, people who maybe had serious roles and are now acting in Escape from Planet Earth or Spy Kids. I’m not going to use the phrase “reduced to” because these are conscious decisions, to take a role or not, and I’m not privy to the decision-making processes that have happened to get them there. I suspect in some part it’s because they might be doing a favor for a friend, and in other ways, maybe they want to make a movie they can take their kids to as well. You want your kids to know what you do and feel proud of it, and what better way for an actor than to show off a finished product?

It’s easy to snipe from outside and say these kids’ movies roles must be a walk in the park; you’d never see a serious actor with, let’s say the intensity of a Daniel Day-Lewis taking on one of those roles. Here I suspect most critics have no formal training in acting or filmmaking, or at least no experience in it besides what they’ve observed over the years. This is why I try to read book reviews written by published authors, which may end up being overly complimentary, but at least are written from a place of sympathy. I’m reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s advice to Jason Robert Brown: be supportive. So sure, maybe the plot of this particular movie won’t advance your understanding of the world, but the role looked like fun and who doesn’t want to get paid for having fun?

The cost of entertainment is always rising, except for the case of music, perhaps (we’ve grown accustomed to the price point of $1 per song and $10 per album and folks complaining about that should remember twenty and thirty years back when it was $15-20 in contemporary money, meaning closer to $25-30/album in today’s money) and I understand we want to get the most for what we pay. Yet we also consciously associate cultural worth with what we consume, as though the person on a steady drip of art-house movies is somewhat better than the one who only watches films helmed by John Woo, who in turn far exceeds the cultural capacity of the Michael Bay addict. Same thing with books; if you’re passing over convoluted literature in favor of YA fiction, maybe there’s something wrong with you. Why don’t you want to challenge yourself, right?

I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do in real life, and I certainly can’t always understand what it takes to get through your day; who am I to criticize your tastes or how you spend your time?


Profit-Loss Margin

22 October 2014

Dear J-

One of the things you learn is how to deal with disappointment in a mature way which I’m still struggling with in a non-judgmental fashion. Disappointment comes from envy and you know what that’s the root of, don’t you? I find myself looking for various deals and being disappointed not because I didn’t get it but because someone else did, which is the envy part of it. Did I particularly need or want that thing? That’s not the point; the identification of the deal, that’s not enough to be counting coup and declaring victory, apparently. The idea that someone else might be having and enjoying it is enough to make me squirm (look at how much I’ve kicked myself after finding bits and pieces of a Neo-Geo AES in a thrift store, but not the system).

The point? The point is not that this is so terrible and I need to change my ways before I collapse in a puddle of goo and self-loathing. If I recognize the tendency, the next time it might happen I’ll know better, right? At least I’ll understand why I’m sitting there kicking myself in regret. If I understand that then I’ll understand what to do instead. Words have power and the more I start to believe the simple interrogative — well, what was I planning to do with that anyway? — or recognizing that anything mass-produced will have more than one copy, and another one will come up for sale eventually, possibly at a better deal — that means I’ll be a much healthier, money-wise person.

Meanwhile … is it worse to know about these things and not act on them, or is it worse to be blissfully oblivious of the stupendous deals that await? There are things you need and things you want; I should remember just how my discretionary spending is arranged to be biased towards one or the other, and if I can bring it down to need-based — at this point it’s clear I have just about anything I could possibly want — then I know I’ve won. It’s a struggle. Words matter. Mantras help. If you consider that I might have spent the time in the evenings more fruitfully, possibly paying attention to the kids … yeah, there’s not a lot of joy in counting up the lost hours.


Ride Through

21 October 2014

Dear J-

You put your head down for one second and all of a sudden it’s the middle of October already. How did that happen and who let it happen? You string together a few nice days and then you’re gone, off and running towards the next milestone. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas New Years and it all starts over again. There are certain routines and schedules to keep, sure, but you don’t realize how much (wow, how much cologne is that guy wearing) you rely on seeing the same familiar faces, day by day, until you realize the one conversation you’ve had all day was on the train or the same six stops always beat the rhythm of clicking wheels and sodium lights. Burlingame – San Mateo – Hayward Park – Hillsdale – Belmont – San Carlos – Redwood City – Menlo Park – Palo Alto – California – San Antonio and then me.

I got to watch it through figgy’s eyes on Saturday, for which I’m grateful to have had the opportunity. Which station is next? It’s interesting in the daytime because I didn’t realize you could see the East Bay hills from the second deck, or the shape of things where the night makes more sense (does that sound right? What I mean to say is you grow accustomed to the sculpture revealed by lights at night and I’m surprised by how big or little the actual building is in when under the sun) or at least is more familiar. The familiar is renewed and we can see where we’ve been and what we’re doing passing far forward.

Here is another chance to … what, I don’t know. Look, the clock; another minute has gone by that I’m never getting back, or the dreadful night gives gradual way to day as you mark off enough time to keep the elevated elegance going continuously. A year from now, a lifetime ago; you ride the rails and make your way back to these same familiar places and did it ever seem so familiar, was the fare ever so cheap or were your metrics so advanced you couldn’t count off the stops from memory? The lights line up long the tracks and we and everyone else make a good argument for happiness and contentment, don’t we? We have to try.



20 October 2014

Dear J-

You learn about the differences between can should may shall and will spending your weekends with kids. You can eat candy for lunch, but you probably will not. You shall listen, or may not do what you want to do. You should use the restroom now or else … yep. The boy has been protesting, now that he wears underwear, that he should be allowed to keep wearing it even overnight and while we’re out, and so far so good — you know, he was resistant to the idea of even wearing it at first, but now that he has it, he doesn’t want to go back and I can’t blame him for that. Now we revert back to the early potty-training model of always being aware of where the nearest bathroom is.

This is sort of like walking into a room and knowing where the exits and windows are, and then making sure you don’t put your back to any of those. The subtle instinct of making sure you know is not a very difficult task but one that requires a fair amount of research. We did go to two outdoor events this weekend and did a pullup for the first and underwear for the second; he made it fine the second day but I was pretty impressed nonetheless. From despair that he’d ever be able to learn to use the potty to amazement in two short months. The interim is not fun, but the rewards of success are bountiful and amazing. You may enjoy them.

There are few dealbreakers that keep us out of places, though we’ve become the sort of parents that other people write to manner columnists about (Dear Suzy, the people at the next table are being horrible and loud, and they can’t seem to control their kids. Should I say something? — Dear Reader, part of being socially graceful is accepting the things you can’t change, and you should feel sympathy, not contempt, for loud kids who are loud and their parents). Bathrooms are one; folks who demand perfectly-behaved children is another. It’s just not going to happen, not with these we’ve got and try to control, every now and again.


P.S. This is not to discount my daughter, who has turned out to be amazingly well-behaved and subtly controlling the flow of play and interactions with — I’m not going to call it an iron fist, more akin to a gentle touch of the reins. We ask her to do something and it gets done. I’m eternally grateful.


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