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.

Mike

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?

Mike

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.

Mike

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.

Mike

Breakthroughs

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.

Mike

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.

How Are You?

16 October 2014

Dear J-

There was a fatality on the tracks yesterday after I’d completed my ride, so I wasn’t impacted but I followed the swirling mess of updates and chaos on Twitter. I’m not sure if it’s a feature or a bug still but the 140-character limit makes for a staccato rhythm of news and you end up having to put together a good mental picture of what’s going on and where. Put it this way: you have to. There’s no way you could sketch up a map showing how train traffic past Palo Alto got snarled up while they conducted their investigation and share that in the same time it takes to knock out a terse missive telling everyone when the trains are leaving your station, or if they’re even moving at all.

There are no easy way to communicate emotions, though; I’ve noted a distinct coolness between two of the morning riders. They board the train at successive stops and both work for Stanford, but while they were quite happy to sit together before and chat, the fellow who gets on at the later stop definitely goes out of his way to avoid the other. If there was only some way we could get over our pride and say in great blinking lights or something similar how we felt! Perhaps using words! I’m not making fun of them because I know that’s how I’d react — I’m not privy to anything more than twenty minutes of each day with them — but it’s amusing that I’d be willing to share various emotional outbursts via Twitter that I’d hesitate to say in real life.

theVet claims I have no filter when it comes to saying stuff in front of the kids, which is mostly true but arises from emotional distance. I’m wary of strangers making fun of me so I tend to be close-lipped when I perceive the relative social worth of preserving good perceptions of me. I’m not saying that makes sense — who cares what strangers think about you — it’s just how I’m wired, apparently. My family, on the other hand, are stuck with me, so it’s a festival of farts and questionable language once I walk through the door. Life online can have the same strange intimacy with anonymous strangers you collide with then spin away from as you read what’s being shared, though it all ends up being facebook-style cleaned up and packaged for envy, doesn’t it?

Mike

Everyday Mopping

15 October 2014

Dear J-

There’s a bit of breeze passing through the region making it more challenging than usual to keep up the same bike routes; yesterday I was almost convinced I was going to start rolling backwards at one point. On the other hand I’m reasonably busy at work and no significant Wikipedia activity has occurred other than obsessively checking my existing edits for acceptance and/or reversion (all the stuff is good, but it just needs to be looked at by senior people, I think in my elder-venerating mind). On the other hand there are fingers. Life is pretty content and the simple things are sufficient so let’s get through this fall into winter and the next year.

I feel at least vaguely responsible for having a laptop; could you be doing more work at home, or on the road between work and home and oh the so many interstitial hours of the day (instead of that nap on the couch, why not be working all the time?) but it’s better to iron these things out early and get it done before the next crisis arises. There’s always something else, after all. Companies are cold, calculating creatures; if what’s given can improve productivity, they’ll push more and more often, too, trying to squeeze the last drops of work out of you. So the guilt only goes so far. What and where are the passion, though? Do you change what you’re doing in order to go to work excited or do you find the excitement inherent?

[more incoherent rambling]

I guess that’s the crux of it; you have to be excited about it, because motivation comes from within, so if you can’t find a reason to be thrilled to do it (maybe it’s the “again” part of it: repetition does tend to dull the keen edges) then try to tackle it in a different way, or handle it creatively. Try a fresh perspective, as they say, otherwise the drudgery of getting through the day starts to be overwhelming. The more time you spend puttering around wishing things were otherwise is less time you could have been actually doing, finishing and ready to tackle the next opportunity to present itself. Things you don’t want to do aren’t going to take care of themselves; it’s like going to the hardware store and getting distracted by possibilities when all you wanted was a mop.

Mike

Hut Hut

14 October 2014

Dear J-

Over the weekend I wrote something provocative on Twitter, which received a probably appropriately angry response from someone I don’t know but obviously disagree with, so I poked the bear a little more and received several incoherent responses. This is life on the Internet nowadays, I suppose, so I shouldn’t be too surprised, and I’m not saying I didn’t do my part in inciting everything, but wow. And wow. After the initial adrenaline rush and horror (someone on the Internet hates me!) I realized the best thing would be to move on with my life and ignore the dissenting voices, which is how we’ve come to the polarized state we’re in now, not wanting to listen to those who would challenge us.

Let me explain. The more diversity of opinions you ingest the healthier your outlook on things; this is analogous to eating a balanced diet, for instance (not just steak & potatoes all night every night), key to a healthy lifestyle. You are informed. I’ve talked in the past about how media today has allowed us to do nothing more than listen to the echo chamber of your choosing, whether liberal or conservative (here in the US that means left-wing communists or right-wing fascists, respectively: I think that’s sufficiently offensive to both camps). There’s a third group, too, who call themselves libertarians and insist on remaining self-made Ayn Rand-ites even when drawing on government help.

Point is you now have all these outlets you can spend hours listening to folks who think the same as you, which tends to reinforce your point of view (seeing things in print is more authoritative, even if those words are printed on a screen). It’s become too easy to stop thinking for yourself. (insert something about how society as whole is reflective of this) um … we’re comfortable not challenging ourselves to see what the other side(s) have to say, jumping directly to inchoate shouting down other viewpoints. That’s going to be a huge issue going forward, as we’ll lack the critical skills to learn from our mistakes. It’s never been about how wrong you are, only that you’re willing to change in response instead of defiantly holding on to inflexible tenets and assertions.

Mike

Fruitless labors

10 October 2014

Dear J-

Let’s repeat these tenets: work first, then worry about editing Wikipedia, no matter how excited you are about transcribing information (yesterday, I figured out the serial numbers on the Bay Aviation Super-V and everything clicked into place: now we know that of the fourteen built, seven have been destroyed, four are not accounted for, and three — only three in the world! — appear to be capable of flight with current registration. Aviation enthusiasts have tabbed the Super-V as being the inspiration for Rochelle, the Canadian racer in the movie Planes, hence my particular enthusiasm for the model (look, if you’re going to be forced to watch the same show(s) repeatedly, you might as well find some way to stretch your mind).

And then … and then you start going nuts with all the different possibilities of what you learn, the obscure trivial nuggets and gems, like how the Type Certificate has swapped owners like germs in a preschool, or the original price of the conversion, the details of which Lycoming O-360 engines were approved for use on which models, crash dates and incidents. How can you capture all that in a single article? And then you fall further down the rabbit hole, chasing fruitful leads and oohing over every new info until you’re a self-described expert in something so obscure there’s not even a -phile or -ology to describe it. I think the proper term would be obscurologist.

The fact that obscurologist isn’t flagged by spell check (oh, wait, there it goes) should be terrifying. In your mind — I know what you’re thinking, because it has gone through mine as well — you see legions of pale glassed men, skin gone soft from living indoors and discovering what’s possible from the chair instead of being outside and active. I can’t explain why this is so interesting to me except to say how it feels to be writing for an audience — this modest audience excepted — for an audience that keeps me wanting to write more. Aside from the idea of trying to download the Internet occasionally (you heard that right; the whole thing, damnit) the more Sisyphean task is trying to make sense of what you read online. That’s a task worth struggling over.

Mike

Data Liberation

9 October 2014

Dear J-

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but there are times I wish I was a curator of stuff or things; there are interesting stories to be teased out of history and the closest I get to that is doing volunteer work editing Wikipedia entries. It’s interesting to read contemporary accounts and dig up what’s publicly available on the Internet (Google Books is pretty amazing with old periodicals) to try to make entries better; there’s a lot of information, some of which doesn’t make sense. I read up about the Bay Aviation Services Super-V conversion to a Beechcraft Bonanza and the best source of history turned out to be a court case, in fact.

It feels a lot like the reports you used to make when you were in grade school: read a reference, regurgitate the information onto the screen in a non-plagiarized manner. Tie it together thematically and you end up with something you can send out in the world to get edited down or trampled on or … but at the same time I wonder if research skills have atrophied to the point where when you find something that’s a clear contradiction without much effort, I wonder how many unverified assertions are floating around out there. I suppose there’s some that don’t sound so outlandish and so they don’t go challenged for a long time. That’s easy enough, I suppose.

Do you remember having to pore through lists of articles and then either physically locate the bound copies, or else pull the right microfilm reel? Having these things at your fingertips is amazing and that’s the point, I suppose. Wikipedia is a good general overview but you should really check the primary sources if you’re going to be citing anything, and doing so is so much less effort now than it was in the 90s … and less expensive, too. I have several physical books of lenses because I love reading through these thinly-disguised marketing materials but also because that was the only way to get reliable data — purchase the book yourself, then liberate the information inside. I hope you’re properly excited by all of this too.

Mike


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