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.

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?


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.


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.


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.


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.



8 October 2014

Dear J-

Sister Christian oh the time has come

I’ve been listening to musicals lately — Rock of Ages has been in fairly high rotation — and I understand the appeal of these jukebox-type musicals: here’s some familiar songs, we’ll sketch a story around it that you can follow along with, so please, enjoy the show. You’ve already hurdled the highest barrier, which is getting people in the seats and getting them comfortable; it helps to have songs they recognize. At some point my tiny Generation X will be replaced with Millennial dollars and you’ll start seeing N*Sync musicals and the like, mark my words. But jukeboxes are a bit of a cheat, sort of a highlights album if you will.

Can’t break free from the things that you do

I know I’m as guilty as anyone of discovering music through soundtracks (thank you, Angus soundtrack for Dance Hall Crashers and Ash). I suppose artistic integrity is better served through listening to complete albums but even then we have tracks we think of as favorites and fillers, regardless of artistic merit or intent. Clearly we don’t deserve the nice things we get. Listening to a musical, though, it helps to have a plot summary around so you can figure out what’s supposed to be happening (oh, this is where the villain is introduced! or the big misunderstanding! the reunion and reconciliation!) and react accordingly. It lends new significance to the lyrics, although sometimes with the jukebox musicals they’re not a perfect fit.

Just a small town girl / livin’ in a lonely world

In the end I suppose I appreciate the original-composition musicals better (Sweeney Todd) which makes me, in turn, appreciate opera more as well. This is just as listening to zydeco has made me appreciate banda and by extension, the corridos even when I can’t appreciate the lyrics sufficiently. The more you gain exposure to different forms of artistry the more you appreciate them, and if jukebox musicals can be a gateway to original compositions, then let’s start signing folks up; there’s nothing more important than a sincere appreciation of artists and arts, regardless of what you believe actual utility to be.



7 October 2014

Dear J-

More thoughts on suicide, which are not the same as suicidal thoughts: I’ll go ahead and assert there is a link between chronic pain and depression because it makes sense, logically: if being awake means you’re in constant agony, that’s bound to affect you and more likely than not in a negative way. Whether that results in clinical depression, though, is probably the difficult link to prove. It stands to reason that mental anguish can affect you just as much. I think certain professions are particularly prone to this; the very nature of veterinary medicine is an uncertain one. You see the symptoms, listen to the history, and take some scientific evidence and try to come up with a reasonable diagnosis.

I’ve told theVet I could (jokingly) prescribe a steroid shot and some fluids, which seemed to cover many cases (as my doctor said in late August, “Aquaphor is my Windex,” in reference to My Big Fat Greek Wedding). I think there’s a secondary prestige effect; folks will listen to MDs (for the most part), recognizing the years of schooling and specialization they’ve put in to become a doctor, while they’ll argue with DVMs, and second-guess treatments, bills, diagnoses even when the DVM has just as many years of schooling and experience. Veterinary medicine is always evolving — there are amazing treatments you can apply now (with commensurate cost) but ultimately it’s up to the owners to dictate what they’re willing to bear and handle, to evaluate the cost-benefit ratio.

In human medicine the costs are masked by insurance payments; when I had hernia surgery my out-of-pocket expenses were a few hundred dollars on a ten-thousand dollar procedure. When you get the vet’s bill the first instinct should not be outrage. Second-guessing the expert does not make you an expert, it makes you a skeptic and if you’re not polite about it, it can make you a jerk. I will never know what makes a person turn to thoughts of suicide, but I know enough to be aware of how my actions influence others. I imagine those last moments and can’t imagine them, too, like looking at the sun, too terrible to bear.


Triple Track

6 October 2014

Dear J-

We’re well into October now and it feels sometimes like the year has blurred by, although I can tell you every etched minute and hour of the weekends lately. We’ve been staying at home in order to potty train the boy (get on the potty, every hour or half hour) and with the hot weather it’s been a challenge not going crazy in the house. I’ve been alternating between naps and being jarred to wakefulness by announcements both gleeful and not of whether he’s made it in the potty. Or not. We’re getting closer, so I’m not terribly worried that he’ll still be in diapers at his next birthday, but the anniversary of arriving here in San Mateo has been pretty quiet.

There’s a lot I need to do; we should meet up with my parents and save up for some trips (I have a few trips to be taken, and we need to find a way to make them happen). I’m intimidated by traveling with the kids — how do you entertain them for that long, and what do you do to keep them from bothering the other passengers — but on the other hand, you’ve got just as much right to be there, and they are people on their own right, able to be controlled as much as they’re willing to be controlled. I need to see the other worlds within this one, and we need to make some deep memories out of this, bottom line. I still remember, however dimly, trips I took as a kid and I need to extend that to the kids.

Last thought this morning: we lost a friend to suicide last week; she was a vet and was one of the regulars at the park when we lived in the apartments on Portage Bay in Davis and, as the cliche goes, was one of the last people you’d suspect of harboring such thoughts. Just as they say that chronic pain can cause severe depression, I wonder what chronic uncertainty — which is the bane of any veterinarian in practice — does to the psyche over time. This is unfortunately not an isolated incident within the world of veterinary medicine and I wonder what can be done, academically, to train for this; between debt and training you can feel obligated to continue in a career that doesn’t love you back.



3 October 2014

Dear J-

Once in a while I have taken a morning route that brings me along San Mateo Avenue through the Burlingame Automotive Row and I only now just noticed the Alfa Romeo sign at the Fiat dealership; there’s some excitement for your morning details. Discuss over coffee or tea, your choice. I also see a lot of graphic photographic opportunities, especially now in the darkening mornings. The Toyota dealership, which features a lighted wall; the empty parking garage, all ready for occupants; the deserted parking lot; the classic BMWs parked out proudly in the night. There are chances for seeing everywhere so don’t be too proud to capture them when you can, if you can.

I will start bringing a camera in my bag again; this was one of my favorite things when I was in grad school: little camera, big flash (Olympus 35RC/Vivitar 285) but I think the next step is to find a suitable tripod now instead of a flash. The combination of focal length and lens speed made for a pretty decent capability, although I doubt if I ran more than a roll or two through that machine. At this point the daily commute serves as more of a slow death sentence for most of the cameras I’ve brought: both the DSC-V1 I started out with and the DMC-LX1 I replaced it with have given up the ghost, the LX1 in particular not bothering to respond after any prodding.

Some people, to be prepared, will bring extra tools and handy gadgets in their bag; mine isn’t there perhaps yet but that’s one of the things I should work on; at least I have some suitable cameras to peek at and stick in my bag. I may not be ready for much but at least I can take care of some photographic situations. The longer it goes on the better my chances at capturing something, though; it’s the old rule about monkeys and typewriters. We have a good portion of time carved out for visual arts, even if all the style I have is spent aping other influences. I feel like a voracious consumer at times, and it’s time to give back and contribute instead.



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