Saturday, October 27, 2007

Top 4 ways blogs are cool.

In my recent experimentation with bloggin (here, here, and right here), I've noticed a few things while doing research and reading other blogs.

First, a lot are just like magazines in that they offer "The 10 best ways" to do something. ZenHabits does this on a daily basis, and it seems only the digit changes. From "5 best ways to prepare for retirement" to "10 worst Macs in history," blogs remind me of the covers of Cosmo and Glamour - only without the dirty sex positions. This takes complex issues - running, cleaning - and breaks them down for the average surfer, but it's definitely not a new idea.

Second, a lot of blogs are just aggregators of other blogs or news sites. The formula goes: (a) find some interesting news or advice, (b) repost it on your site, and (c) offer your own opinion on the matter. The Simple Dollar, a good site for financial and budgeting tips, does this every morning. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone, because I come from a long line of newspaper article clippers. It's in my genes. And if I find something interesting, I would hope you'd like it, too. But some blogs do nothing but this gather-and-share stuff.

Third, the best blogs have engaged and talkative commentors. Lifehacker and The Consumerist - two of my all-times favorites - are fun to read because the comment sections are full of insight, snark, and opinions. It's almost like the blog writers throw a ball in the circle and let the commentors start their own game of rhetorical dodgeball.

Finally, there's a blog for damn. Near. Everything. Again, just like magazines, there's a blog out there for everyone. The ones I read daily mostly concern Apple, tech, money, and politics (with a few randoms thrown in for good measure). But if you like to run, drink, compute, fiddle, meditate, laugh, sing, design, revolt, or simply breathe, there's a blog out there for you.

It's a crazy world out there, and everyone seems to have their own, gathered together with friends to start one (as my bro Driver did on this great blog), and/or are making some extra money with nothing but a keyboard and an internet connection. It's the American Dream in action, and all the better that it involves reading and improving and democratic discussion.

I like it because the journalist gland in me cries out for an outlet and an audience, and I love the fact that my friends can chime in and share back and forth. In some ways, its the main way we keep connected and informed.

But you can have some fun, too, and that's just as important as all the rest.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Me, version 1920.

So I was a political essayist for my favorite magazine, Harper's, in 1920.

And wouldn't you know it - talking about the same ol' stuff.

Some things never change.

Adventures in the Keystone State.

Got back from Pennsylvania late Sunday night a better American, I think, and a little bit wiser to the east coast's ways.

But first, a tour.

My first thought on entering Pennsylvania late Friday night was, "Jesus, who put all these hills here?" But really, I forgot my last trip through the Keystone State: a frightening midnight run through two-lane Appalachian roads.

Where my sister lives? Beautiful. Rolling hills, changing colors, and enough boarded-up businesses to remind me of my own Rust Belt hometown.

"Don't drink the water," my dad told me before we left. And now I know why: this was the well at my sister's apartment complex, a temporary home for students of WyoTech - like her boyfriend, Trey.

If you know me, you know I love to drive the scenic route. So it was with great pleasure that I took a spin down State Route 981, a beautiful, roller-coaster-like highway carved into the Pennsylvania countryside.

Along the route, I started to feel like I was seeing what I imagined I'd see on my upcoming New England tour. True bucolic Americana - an Emerson-and-Thoreau-inspired trip through U.S. history.

The feeling was strongest in tiny Saltsburg, a river-side town in Indiana County about 10 minutes North from my sister's place.

Saltsburg made its fame (and its name) from deep salt beds buried next to the Conemaugh River that the populace mined for wealth and fortune. What they do now I have no idea.

Take a trail along the river, behind an old folks' home, and you'll find a little path that leads to the former aquaduct.

There I sat on the rocks, and enjoyed the experience: perfect fall day, sunshine, warm, and a shallow river running next to a small American town. Truman would've been proud.

Back in this century, I enjoyed a fine lunch - Texas Hold 'Em included - and a super dinner, as well as a trip to a local tavern, the Roadhouse, for some Yuengling and some Ohio State whipping MSU.

On Sunday we had a giant breakfast, and took my sister's dog Dayton for a romp outside.

We also watched as my dad amazingly fixed the stuck door on my sister's old Toyota. Living in a complex full of auto mechanics helps, however, as long as you have cigarettes for them.

We said our goodbyes and hit the road. I finally got to see Three Rivers Stadium (or whatever it's called now), where my AFC team plays in Pittsburgh, and dad and I shared in the pretty part of Ohio (it does exist, right next to a sliver of West Virginia) as we took winding state highways back home, case of Yuengling riding shotgun.

It was a beautiful trip, and a beautiful state. I plan to engage my assault on New England from Philadelphia next year, so I'll be able to see more of it.

A few things I learned: Pennsylvania is like Ontario, because they only sell beer in beer stores; Italians are legion, judging from the number of pizza joints; they DO have an accent; they love Penn State and the Steelers (sitting in the Buffalo Wild Wings, hearing the lunch crowd cheer for the Nittany Lions, was a neat experience); and the construction is just as bad there as it is here.

Thanks for having me, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

News, hobo road trip edition.

Thomas Jefferson would disagree with Fred Ziegler's letter to the editor: the "bottom line" of education isn't to prepare students for the working world, but to prepare them for a participatory democracy. An uneducated populace isn't fit to vote or debate national issues, said Jefferson, so a public school system would give kids the basic knowledge to function as American citizens.

Training students on "thank you" ettiquette should fall to the parents, not overworked teachers. It just so happens that Ziegler's "job readiness skills" come along with a good education.

I've heard too often about schools switching to a curriculum that focuses on teaching trades and job skills, but if the best we can do is teach kids how to punch a clock, it's no wonder we need rigid, cookie-cutter standardized tests to keep kids in line.

Many kids in school think learning about Shakespeare or government or economics is boring with a capital "B." But then I think about how current generations are dropping out of activities like reading books and newspapers, voting, and falling for financial scams like sub-prime mortgages, and I wonder how all that "job training" is going to help Americans be good Americans.

I've long advocated for a new dieting craze called the Hobo Diet. So far I've developed basic meal plan guidelines: anything in a can (sardines, pork 'n' beans, Vienna sausages), anything high in salt and sodium (crackers, chips, boloney), speadable meats like braunschweiger, drinks enjoyed out of a paper bag, and lots of fried eggs - with little to no fruits or veggies (unless they're out of a can and high in corn syrup - like fruit coctail).

(Come to think of it, my Hobo Diet is a lot like what my grandpa and I ate when I visited him as a kid...)

Now someone has come up with a step-by-step process to become a REAL hobo. How exciting.

Turns out there's an entire hobo language:

"Learn the hobo code. Historically hobos relied on a shared system of symbols that let fellow travelers know more about their current environment. The symbols can vary from place to place and may no longer be used in many areas."

So pack your sardines, learn the handshake, and catch the next train to Sacramento.

Who's with me?

Why Dennis Kucinich will never become president: ""Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe. Matter transcends, to return to spirit. The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self. The energy of the stars becomes us. We become the energy of the stars. Stardust and spirit unite and we begin: one with the universe; whole and holy; from one source, endless creative energy, bursting forth, kinetic, elemental; we -- the earth, air, water and fire-source of nearly fifteen billion years of cosmic spiraling."

From his book, A Prayer for America.

This weekend will be the first time my dad and I have taken a road trip together in years. Me, him, and my iPod to break the silence.

We're heading to Pennyslvania to visit my youngest sister, who moved down there with her boyfriend while he attends a trade school. They got an apartment, and she snagged a job with Olive Garden. What's cool is my dad's helping them out along the way - care packages, money, whatever - as my sister gets her first start out in life away from home.

I've been through Pennsylvania, but never stopped for any kind of visit. From what I understand, the town is a bit east of Pittsburgh, which I've always wanted to see. So we won't be in the heart of PA, but still: a new place to say I've been.

My dad doesn't talk a lot. My grandma likes to say I'm the happy medium between the two families: sometimes quiet (dad), but never a non-stop talker (grandma).

"I don't know how he hooked up with our family," grandma said. She said a lot more before and after that, but I drift in and out.

Dad was never a helicopter parent - most of the time he was pretty absent from any of my school activities - and he told me the only way I would ever get in trouble with him is if I got caught. Well, I got caught plenty of times, but I've never caught real hell with dad. I think he knew to trust me - to trust my decisions, to trust that I could make my own way in life, and to trust me to just be around, in some fashion. He's independent, so I'm independent.

My dad just likes us kids to be there, no strings attached. I think that's a pretty good deal, and so I suggested we take this trip together. Even if it means a total lack of in-depth conversation; just being together is enough.

We leave Friday night. Back on Sunday. Wish me - and the guy that named me - lots of luck.

On improvement.

Self-improvement has a long history in this country. Ever since Ben Franklin started working under a pseudonym, America has long been the center of the self-help crowd. What other country, in the minds of people around the world, offers the kind of start-all-over paradigm that we do?

Hell, even the pilgrims knew they could start fresh somewhere else.

Maybe I was born in the wrong era, because - looking back - my life has been one big self-improvement saga. From awakening my thirst for involvement in high school, to my participation in activism and leadership at college, to my community awareness in the working world, it seems I've always strived to do more - and better.

Consider a few things I've been working on lately:

At the start of the summer I couldn't run for two continuous minutes. Now I can run a 5k. I tried out track in high school just so I could know what being involved in varsity athletics was like. And I was decently fast. These days I'm doing it just to say I can do it. The fun part? I have something else to talk to people about.

Financial peace
This one is ongoing. I've had a decent handle on my finances since graduation, but now it's a goal, and a project, and something I'm working toward improving. It doesn't involve just making more money, but doing more with the amount you have. I've learned so much.

Web site design
This is the one area where I'm lacking in graphic design, so lately I've decided to do something about it. With the web becoming so integral to business and organizations, it's silly not to learn the basic. Now I'm helping build web sites for work, Rotary, Recycling, and Katie's dad's business. I want to take a class at Jackson Community College to learn more. Why not?

I got turned on to a few meditation podcasts after reading an article in National Geographic that said Buddhist monks were, according to pure numbers, the happiest people on Earth. I wanted some of that, and started experimenting. Turns out, it's not that bad. My heart wasn't built for organized religion (probably because I tend to ask too many questions), which is probably why I've always been interested - or at least curious - in Buddhism. The best part is you don't even have to be a religious person to reap the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Maybe we could all use a bit more quiet time.

This one's also almost always ongoing, but I'm always trying to get more done in the time I have. I started carrying around a thumb drive, and on it I have plain text to-do lists, listing my projects, ideas, and even a grocery list. I found a neat notebook I can carry in my car, in case I think of something at red lights. And the ol' note-on-the-back-of-my-hand trick works everytime. If it's not written down, it doesn't get done, so you'll find scraps of paper everywhere I am. All to GTD.

...and I've always been this way. From picking up a guitar to running for student government president to start a recycling program here at work - life is too much fun to passively watch it go by.

But what does it all lead to? Where am I going with all this?

Lately I've thought about the ultimate start-over technique: moving/working somewhere else. On all my trips over the past few years, I've explored each spot as a possible place to live and work. Not in any definite amount of time, but just to plant the idea. Over time I've learned where I wouldn't want to live, and where it might be kind of fun.

Shucks, with the country headed in the direction it's in, I've always thought of moving to that northern neighbor right over our heads.

Maybe all this self-improvement stuff is a type of monomania. Is the constant need for a better me a good thing, or even healthy?

Always, there's a burning in my stomach to try more, do more, live more, get more done. A lot of it is not even feasible, but then the only big expectations I have are for myself. I hope that, given any situation, I'd make the most of it. I'd probably have a lot of fun, too.

What's next? Who knows. But it'll be something. Maybe I'll land on my next big project by chance, but I'm starting to think that spending some time researching my big ideas might be the way to go. Go back to school? Live somewhere else? Run for office?

Poor Richard was right when he said, "Tis easy to see, hard to foresee."

But I do know a better me is within sight.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MessagePad Jabberwocky

I've started a new blog, and it involves poetry and my Apple MessagePad 110.

Go here to see it.

I started it for several reasons:

(A) To play around with WordPress
(B) To play around with my Newton
(C) To get myself to read some poetry
(D) To become a world-famous blogger

I use my stylus to write down poems on the MessagePad. It translates them, usually spitting out gibberish, and I blog whatever comes out.

It's inane, and silly, but it's fun. And it got me reading Perrine's "Sound and Sense" - something I haven't picked up since English Literature Studies.

Check it out, and leave a suggestion for the Newton.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Run, Al, run.

If you've ever seen the opening scene in Michael Moore's "Farenheit 9/11," where Moore imagines Gore winning the 2000 election, you might have one of two reactions: disgust or gee-whiz sentimentality.

For me, the scene Moore painted was excruciatingly visceral: sentimentality is my middle name, and that scene stuck with me for a long time after I saw it. Some of us have never moved past the whole 2000 election mess (and for good reason), and I can't help but always wonder "what if."

So at the risk of putting salt into healed wounds, I'll jump on the "Gore should run again" bandwagon that's been popping up in anticipation of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement.

The last time Gore ran, I wan't that enthused about him. Sure, he was better than Bush, and I knew better than to vote for Nader. Since then, however, something has happened. For some of us, Gore has achieved this martyr status in the Democratic Party. He has this really cool story to tell, about how he almost became president, and with all that's happened in the world since 2000, you can't help but think that we wouldn't be having some of the arguments and problems we are today. Maybe they'd be different. But it all plays into this giant national story, about red and blue and the "something" that's wrong with Kansas and the whirring sound that's resonating from the graves of the Founding Fathers.

The imagination flies, and even though the Democrats have a good crop of candidates this time around, none of them - with minor exceptions - have this tragic tapestry behind them.

Edwards has poverty. Richardson has foreign policy. Dobbs has national service. Clinton has her husband. Obama has community. They've all got stories that are worth telling.

But Gore has a bigger story to tell, one that needs to be told and needs someone at the helm to actually get it accomplished.

I've avoided a lot of discussions about the 2008 election so far because, frankly, it's a helluva long way until 2008. Candidates forming policy papers this early is madness to me, and I've struggled to maintain a healthy distance from any political discussions so far (which I'm pretty proud of, thankyouverymuch). Dipping into the pool in October of '07 makes me want to vomit blood.

My read on it this early, however, has been an obsession with electability (kind of like the last election) and the horse-race mentality. There are three top candidates, and the rest can go to hell, and why even consider the lesser-knowns - even though some of them have been stirring the pot in fun ways. This mania about electability, though, takes the country down some muddied paths. I don't care as much about a candidate that can "beat someone" as much as I do about a candidate who has a story to tell, and some items on their to-do list that really need to get accomplished, and the respect for government to actually manage the government.

Would Gore have the support? Could he fundraise? Does he even want to run?

In my heart, I feel like there's no way it will happen. Gore seems to be having way too much fun outside of politics. And who would want to crush his spirit with the soul-blackening concessions made during national campaigns?

Luckily Dems are not in the same situation that the GOP is in: there aren't a bunch of middle-age white guys engaged in a pissing contest over who would torture which minority more, or who would leave a bigger, steamier pile of shit on our Bill of Rights.

I like Richardson's experience and foreign policy shutzpah, and that he knows how to run a government. I admire Edwards' passion about poverty and health care.

But there's something about the idea of Gore running again that could restore my political thirst. Score Hillary as a running mate, and the dream team is back. Hit up Obama as a VP, and you've got the makings of a good 12-16 years of Democratic control of the White House.

Run, Al, run.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Hometown Pizza, how may I help you?"

It's amazing what you can find just by cleaning out your closet.

I came across a bunch of random floppy disks the other night, and discovered some pictures I had taken at Hometown the summer after I graduated college.

I've often told myself that I couldn't write about my time at Hometown - about seven or eight years all-together - because the experience was too weird and too awesome to put into words.

Me and all my friends, we pretty much grew up there. Harry got me a job, my first, when I turned 15, and I got Josh and PJ and Don and a bunch of other friends jobs there, and soon it turned into one big hangout session when we weren't in school.

That's Brian, the owner, on the left. He fostered an atmosphere of organized chaos, with crazy bets and challenges and all kinds of high hilarity.

I always thought that little pizza joint in Brooklyn would make a great TV show. We had all the great characters, and all these great situations. Perfect for television.

Any attempt to take pictures of the place failed. I took a disposable camera into work for the sole purpose of taking pictures, but I lost the damn thing. Finally, after college, I brought home my cheap little digital from my graphic design class and snapped some pictures. Then they, too, disappeared.

Only to reappear, years later, in a shoebox in my closet.

It's the kind of thing that makes you kind of glad to be scatter-brained, because otherwise some curse would've lost the pictures down some black hole.

The funny thing is, the characters are all there - they're just different now. Don still delivers, and I stop in every once in a while to grab a pizza.

But the Hometown I remember is the fuzzy, hazy one - lost to memory and stories told after the fact. You can't really write anything meaningful about Hometown; it takes a group of us, all together, to tell the story, because laughter is always involved.

Monday, October 1, 2007

What's up, Chuck?

I've never been a big newtwork TV guy.

"The Office" changed all that, of course - being the first show I have to watch every week, especially now that the new season is underway.

But I caught a bit of news about NBC's new "Chuck."

And hey, it's not half-bad.

I mean, classic and thinly-disguised G5 Macs, a gorgeous blonde, and some pretty cool action sequences; what's not to like?

I'll check out episode two tonight, just to be sure.

Any other new favorites you've seen this season?