Thursday, August 20, 2009

On time and attention

Ben Franklin's schedule

Ben Franklin famously divided his day up into sections, some for productive work, some for dining, some for letter writing and conversation, with a few hours left each day to sleep.

He knew that his time and attention were valuable. There were only so many hours in a day, and in order to have the maximum impact, his time was divided according to his priorities.

Many of us don't lay out our daily schedule in so systematic a way. We may have a to-do list or a day's worth of activities planned, but how many of us stick to so rigorous a timeframe?

Lately, though, I could use a Ben Franklin frame of mind. In the last few weeks, my life has become increasingly complicated, and too often I find myself with not enough hours left at the end of the day. And sleep? What's that?

Considering that I keep myself occupied enough as it is, throw in a part-time freelance job, an exercise regimen, a blog, a Pakistani neighbor, and a hobby or two, and time seems to be in short supply. It's no one's fault but my own, but it's a heavy burden to bear.

And still there are things I want to do. I want to learn how to make better web sites. I want to play my guitar. I want to mess around with my Macs. I'd love to do more writing. There are tons of books, magazines, and blog posts that I'd love to sit down and digest. Oh, and eating is pretty swell, too. I'd like to do that.

Which leads me to say there is only so much time, and therefore only so much attention I can pay to any one thing. The key is in prioritizing.

If I were to lay out my own Franklin-style daily plan, it would look something like this:

Schedule (proposed)

There seems like a lot of open space in there, but I have to be realistic. Things come up, I have a great new relationship, and there has to be time for relaxing and sponteniety. This is just the stuff I have to do.

David's list

I use several tools to help me manage all this. My first, and most essential, is probably my to-do list, which I manage with Google's wonderful (and ubiquitous, thanks to my iPhone) Tasks app. With Tasks, I can pop something on my list from wherever (home, work, out and about) I am. When something's done, I check it off. I prioritize when I need to.

Flash drive contents

Secondly, I keep my entire life - my budget, my writing, my necessary files - on a USB thumb drive. It's 128 megabytes of portable sanity, and I keep it around wherever I go. What's amazing is that all of the files I need can hang out on something that's smaller than a CD-ROM.

From my Lexar drive, I transport files, ideas, and pictures from computer to computer, but I make sure to back it up constantly. I've lost it before. If it was gone for good, I want to have a backup.

To manage everything online, I'm a huge fan of my Google account - a combination of iGoogle, Google Reader, Blogger, and my Gmail account.

iGood is like a heads-up display of all the news, weather, stock quotes, to-do list (Tasks), and e-mail (Gmail) that I need. I use Google Reader to keep track of my favorite blogs and sites, and Blogger helps me manage both my personal blog and my Recycling Jackson blog. I used to keep all my Newton Poetry stuff straight with an iGoogle Wordpress widget, but now that I'm self-hosting the blog, that option is gone.

Stuff on my iPhone that I use everyday

My iPhone carries obvious benefits thanks to apps and bookmarks stored on my homepages. With Twitterrific (for Twitter), Facebook, Google Tasks, PocketMoney (for finances), and various blog/web site bookmarks (like my online banking), I keep everything I need on a daily basis confined to the first two screens on my iPhone. Everything after that is stuff I only check once in a while, like eBay and Flickr.

What works for me is to fill little pockets of time, like eating breakfast or waiting in line somewhere, with stuff I like to read and think about, and then have the tools I like handy so I can make sense of it all. When I think about it, I ingest a lot of data over the course of a day. They trick is to have a way to digest it all.

I gave up regular TV watching a long time ago. Now, there are just a few things I watch: "The Office," football, and now "Mad Men." Instead, I read when I eat - even during lunch at work. I write before work. I exercise after dinner. And I fill in random time slots with stuff on my to-do list, like having my laundry going while I cook dinner or do work.

There are big things in my life that get the lion's share of my attention, and deservedly so. Everything else gets taken care of when I have a free second. Lately, I have less "free seconds" to go around, but I make do.

The important thing is to, like Ben Franklin, have a plan. Even if you don't stick to it all the time, something is better than nothing.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take Back the Beep

[An open letter to AT&T rep, Mark Siegel, in response to David Pogue's "Take Back the Beep" campaign. I sent this in an e-mail to Mr. Siegel at 6:57 p.m. today.]

Take back the beep

Mr. Siegel,

As an iPhone user, I'm lucky. My voicemail greeting does not burden a caller with an inanely-long "after the beep" message. I realize I'm one of the lucky few, however, because I face this message every time I call someone else.

It has to stop. And not just because of the cost to consumers.

I realize that AT&T needs to make money, and while I wag my finger in shame at using a tactic like the beep message, I understand. I work at a financial institution, and we're all about using little things, here and there, to draw in more income.

What's annoying is that it wastes my time. And time, sir, is something I can't get back.

Like Mr. Pogue mentioned in his article, the basics of leaving a voicemail - which have been with us since the dawn of the answering machine - are known to everyone but the Amish and the corrupt. In fact, many voicemail greetings created by users include the words "you know what to do after the beep" or "leave a message after the beep." Adding extra instructions without a user's consent is time wasted.

We're not long for this Earth, Mr. Siegel. You, or me, or your communications professor from college could go at any time. We live in strange times, after all, and one never knows when the mortality clock could stop ticking. It could happen as I type this. Ever heard of ball lightning?

Anyway, the point is - please let us users decide how much of our friends' and family's time to waste. What do you say? Instead of sitting and listening to a laughably-didactic woman tell me I can "page" (is this 1996?) the person on the other end, I just want to leave a message without being accosted by the recorded message. Right?


Dave Lawrence
AT&T Customer
Jackson, MI

PS: Fix your service. Half my apartment gets a mediocre reception, while the other half has none at all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fear & Loathing at Beer Fest 2009

Beer Fest - Dragonmead Ale

It's not hard to see why an idea like Beer Fest would be so popular. Take 8,000 drunks, seclude them in a riverside park, isolate them on all sides, and turn them loose with thousands of kegs of beer.

If that's not an American ideal, I don't know what is.

Thanks to the Michigan Brewers Guild, Beer Fest takes place every summer in Ypsilanti, sandwiched between Independence Day and the end of summer, a vortex of barley and oats and vomit and shouting. There are few who can handle the mad rush of brew-crazy revelers who have been out in the sun and now, for the love of God, just need a beer.

You only live twice, and so Jessie and I headed down into the Huron River Valley to see what the fuss was about.

Beer Fest - Food

The weather was a strange mix of on-again, off-again sprinkles and this year's modest July sun beating down on the party-goers. We saw Meagan early on, her face and arms red despite the SPF 50, and she gave us an early tip that would turn the tide of this whole ordeal.

"Don't offer your wooden nickle immediately," she said. "Wait until the breweries ask for it."

This was sage wisdom given by someone who had obviously ridden this rodeo before. By holding back, we could earn more booze. It was a genius plan.

The trouble was the timing. We arrived at Riverside Park at 4:30, and the event was only scheduled until 6:00. There was a time crunch, so we had little opportunity to learn the lay of the land, or even pick out our favorite breweries in the crowd. We needed a strategy.

(As a side note, the entire event's timing boggled my mind. On Friday night it only last until 9 p.m., and on Saturday it ran from 1-6 p.m. These are not drinker's hours. Ask anyone who imbibes a 12-pack a day when they drink, and the answer is usually the same: at night.)

Beer Fest - Columbia Central gang

From what we did learn, Beer Fest is organized in four or five different tents, each one featuring a gathering of local breweries who would, for a wooden nickel, give you a taste of their wares. For the price of admission, you get 12 nickles and a plastic cup, along with a listing of the breweries. Our small 8 oz. cup would be filled about three-quarters of the way, we were told, just for "a sample," at each stop.

This was true in the beginning. Maybe it was our bad luck, but the first few breweries took our nickles and gave us a "sample" of their beer. Simple enough. But soon we realized that by simply handing over our cup and asking for our chosen brew, the brewmaster would be happy to give back a full glass for no cost.

For Jessie, it was as simple as a smile. Pretty girls have that affect on half-drunk brewmasters world wide. For me, negotiations were far more complicated.

Beer Fest - B is for Brewski

We wondered how on Earth the breweries made any money from this shindig, and the best we could figure is that they got a certain amount of money for each nickle collected. Since we were getting so many free samples, and had plenty of wooden nickles to share, we eventually started to donate our nickles to the breweries. Why not? Someone has to take something worthwhile from this whole mess.

There were plenty of people taking, no doubt. Some of the people stumbling around, their blank eyes searching for a point of focus in the bedlam, had obviously been here since opening - if not the night before, sleeping next to the river or in the bushes leading up the embankment. Their cups were crusted over with gallons and gallons of gulped-down beer, and it was only a matter of time before the event organizers turned them loose on Depot Town in Ypsi.

The kicker is that the event sells more wooden nickles. If you run out, you can buy more, and the brew will keep flowing. The brain recoils in horror at the thought of an all-day drunkfest that sits so close to civilized society.

Beer Fest - the Pissing Wall

Perhaps it's all in the philosophy of the thing. Beer Fest offers an escape from the ordinary. For the office worker who is one nervous twitch away from punching his boss, for the petite hippie who has taken one too many bites of the apple, for the burly, bearded brew snob searching for love in fantasy baseball forums - for all of them, Beer Fest exists. It serves some grand purpose that we dare not question, let alone think about.

Ah, but the quality of the beer made it all worth the effort. Arbor Brewing, Olde Peninsula, Old Hat, Dragonmead, Mt. Pleasant Brewery - these great places where I've tasted Michigan's finest brews were all there. Some had souvinirs, some had giant Elvis taps, the beer flowing from his extended right arm, and some were simple affairs that let the drinks explain themselves. I dig that.

Just as important as the beer was the experience, and chalk Beer Fest up there with one of the best. Seeing thousands of drinkers milling around and organizing shouting contests in the tent, all the while consuming enough calories to skip a meal, was outstanding.

Beer Fest - gurney

Near the end, however, things got ugly. The event security shut the taps of promptly at 6 p.m., but for one poor bastard it wasn't soon enough. Jessie and I both noticed a sickly gray-looking man, middle-aged and seated, being attended to by EMS responders. He swayed in his chair, zombie-like, until a John Deere Gator and, much later, a gurney arrived to take him away. Then he was up on his feet like nothing had happened, the deathly palor not yet gone from his cheeks. He stumbled like a pro.

It was a testament to the constitution of the professional drinker, and in our hearts we both applauded and feared the man. Why waste this moment, I thought, with those fool medical professionals?

There was still drinking to be had. After all, we're finishing up the first recession our generation remembers, and nothing eases the pain and suffering of lost jobs, wages, and dignity like throwing back a few pale ales.

Recognizing that, Beer Fest served its purpose.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Will work for Macs

MacBook Pro - glowing keyboard

For the third time in my life now, I've been directly involved in the purchase of a new Macintosh computer.

The first was my first, an iBook G4 that still serves as my home base computer. The other was helping Katie buy an iMac.

But this one, a 15" MacBook Pro, is strictly professional. It's the result of our credit union's umbrella organization, the Jackson Co-Op, taking a chance on my design skills and hiring me as a contract freelancer.

The deal goes something like this: my design skills will be available to non-profits as a Jackson Co-Op service. I'll make whatever they need, like newsletters, web sites, and - our specialty - giant paper banners. I'll work on my own, away from work, and the entire thing will be run from the new Mac.

Sure, the extra money will help. And I'll get a chance to stretch my marketing muscles beyond the credit union. But the new Mac is really what sealed the deal.

And man, it's a beauty. Fifteen inches of enclosed aluminum, a complete Adobe Create Suite 4 package, the world's most advanced and gorgeous operating system, and something to do with all that free time I have.


I'll be the sole employee of the Jackson Co-Op unless my workload becomes too great for me to handle. If we get super busy, they'll hire someone to work with me.

My freelance work, in the past, has come in fits and spurts. I won't get any jobs (which I get strictly from word of mouth and referrals) for a long time, and then a bunch of people will be looking to get projects done. Just last week I had two going at the same time - one big, and one fairly simple.

The solo freelance work I've done has been more to keep my skills sharp and to help out local non-profits with their marketing. All too often, I've come across a brochure or flyer and though, "Jeez, they need some help." Some organizations are smart enough to realize this themselves, so they give me a ring.

And that's not to say I'm some super local talent. There are tons of way more talented designers in Jackson. You just get what you pay for. I purposefully charge a bare-bones rate just to help the non-profits out. I asked for double from for-profit companies because, hey, they can afford it.

Now, I'll still be doing freelance work, but under the guise of another not-for-profit organization. It'll no longer be Dave Lawrence, for hire. It'll be the Jackson Co-Op, and this fella Dave Lawrence, for hire.

But golly. A new MacBook Pro serving as the base of operations? In this case, it can hardly be called "work."

I'm a bit nervous about the workload. I know I'll have to give up a few things, (Newton Poetry may have a few fewer articles each week, for instance) but the deal works out on a bunch of different fronts. I'll be stashing away extra money, helping out local groups, and...oh yes...the Mac thing.

Here I had planned on grabbing a new iMac after the latest operating system, OS X 10.6, comes out. I'll probably still do that, but now I'll have an easier time paying for it, and I'll familiarize myself with OS X 10.5 Leopard (I've been running OS X 10.4 Tiger on all my Macs).

So things should get interesting. In the meantime, I'll be working on infrastructure projects, like the co-op's web site and mailing lists and so on, while reaching out to local organizations and offering my/our services.

All I need is a "Now Open" sign for my window.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On bird watching

It is remarkable how such a simple thing – an evening walk, a bird in a tree yelling its head off – can manage to cut through so much mental entanglement, can revive you when you are tired, can bring an almost immediate sense of well-being. And it occurred to me that evening that one of the things about the world is that it is largely indifferent to the human stories that we weave.
It's called "biophilia," which means love of living things, and what helped thinkBuddha's author ponder the clamour of life helped me realize why I've grown so fond of birdwatching these past few years.

I can't place the exact time it started, but sometime two summers ago I really started to notice the bird songs around my area. Part of it was waking up to so many songs, since tons of birds live around my apartment complex, and some of it was my reconnecting with nature through walks, runs, and bike rides.

A bird would make a song, and I would - for the first time - wonder where it came from, and from whom.

Anymore, a beautiful birdsong is enough to make me stop what I'm doing and pay attention. It's profound.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On 'Into the Wild'

Americans can be placed in two diametrically-opposed camps: those whoe view Henry David Thoreau's experiment next to Walden Pond as a great idea, worthy of copying, and everyone else.

I've long placed myself in the former category. The idea of spending two years alone in the woods, with a self-built shelter and a bean garden, sounds pretty darned gnarley. Thoreau allowed himself walks into town for shopping and visits with friends, and that would be fine, too. But the romantic ideal behind Walden is enough conjure visions of daily journal entries, long walks in the isolated woods, and lots and lots of book reading.

For that other group of Americans, Thoreau's experiment sounds like a trip into madness. Living alone in the woods? Finding yourself in solitude with just your thoughts? Cue the spine shivers and dry heaving. For some, an idea like that is not in the cards - now or ever.

I've always done well alone. As a child, I could entertain myself for hours. And now, as an adult, I've taken several long excursions all by my lonesome, and no suffering ensued.

"I don't think I could do that all by myself," people tell me. So it is.

But even the idea of Chris McCandless - the 24-year-old vagabond who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness and subject of Jon Krakauer's magnificent Into the Wild - heading out alone and unprepared seems like madness to me.

McCandless, if you're not familiar with the story, was a well-to-do college graduate who gave away all his money and hit the road. He preferred an uncertain life in the American wilderness to a comfortable, normal middle class existence.

I can respect that. I admire someone who takes the ideals of Thoreau and Tolstoy (or Jesus, for that matter) and other ecstetics and lives them out loud. Living close to the bone is, arguably, the only way to live. For some, giving up all their possessions and lending their life to chance makes our mortal existence more worthy. I dig it.

What I don't dig is a life led foolishly. If you're going to take a chance, then you'd better be able to accept the consequences. In McCandless's case, he paid the ultimate price for his ascetic lifestyle. It didn't have to be that way.

Krakauer paints McCandless's tale as a mixture of preperation and cares-to-the-wind gambling, mostly stemming from the kid's stubborn moralism. McCandless came to idolize Thoreau, Tolstoy, and the stories of Jack London so much that common sense seemed an afterthought. Like taking a canoe down the Colorado River, hoping to reach Baja California and the Pacific Ocean - even though there was no direct route. Or sleeping in his car in a salt flat, only to have a flash flood was everything he owned away.

Breathing the neon of life is a fine way to live, but man - there are always consequences. If I take a cross-country driving trip, sure, I take my chances on exact details. But you can bet I've got the general outline planned out, and that I've done my research. Life can be exciting and well-thought-out. They're not mutually exclusive.

All I know is, heading into the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a 10-pound bag of rice and a rifle is far from proper foresight. It's suicide. What's sad is that McCandless probably knew his chance of survival was nil, but the experience? Well, that was everything.

I feel the same pull that McCandless felt, if only to a lesser degree. Tramping off to climb a mountain or hike through the woods in solitude restores some reptilian center in my brain to full health. Thing is, I want to take more trips and experience more adventures sometime in the future. To do that, I need to keep living. I have neither the constitution nor the wherewithal to survive like some Neolithic hunter-gatherer, and I have the humility to recognize that.

It's a shame that a bright, resourceful, strong-minded young man could've had plenty of more adventures if only he hadn't been so foolish. Hubris is a helluva thing in the face of an uncaring, unsympathetic Nature. Odds are, you're going to lose.

But all that is obvious. Any idiot can see how foolish McCandless was. What struck me was that McCandless was such a rigid moralist that it cost him his life. In the face of overwhelming odds, the kid had no sense of pragmatism. Even Thoreau, alone in the woods, built a woodshed for the winter. His character was not lessened by his prep work. But like most absolutists, McCandless picked and chose Thoreau's lessons to fit his worldview. People often pick Bible passages to prop up their evil. McCandless took only those maxims that justified his rash existence.

So he died. Maybe, in his final agonizing moments, he felt justified. The suffering was the living, and starvation brought him closer to the live wires that light the world.

For me, though, I'll take my adventure with a bit of planning. The sights I've seen and the places I've been have brought me closer to some Ultimate Experience. A glimpse over the top was all I needed.

To guys like McCandless, they're not happy unless they're dangling from the edge, rope frayed from rubbing against their own moral scaffolding.

Lots of luck out there.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Devils in the details

Because the specifics matter. It’s one thing to say that Citi wasted some of the money taxpayers sent its way via the bailout; it’s another thing to say Citi wasted some of the taxpayers’ money by upholstering the pillows on the private jet Sandy Weill took to Mexico over Christmas vacation with Hermes scarves. It’s one thing to say Wall Street bankers felt pressure to chase profits; it’s another thing to say they achieved those profits by systematically robbing a whole generation of pensioners and working-class homeowners, under the noses of the politicians they bought with tens of millions in campaign contributions.
This from Matt Taibbi, at his True Slant blog, on Fareed Zakarias's defense of capitalism as it stands.

The devils (plural) are always in the details, but that doesn't matter to those who trump ideological frameworks as Bibles for how we should lead our lives. To some, the Market is an omnipresent, omniscient force of good will that works for the betterment of all. Really we know that not to be the case. Just as communism isn't a perfect idea, or Christianity still has some kinks to work out, capitalism - as a system - is just as flawed as the rest.

It may be the best way, but it's far from the perfect way. The chasing of money for the sake of greed alone is bound to produce criminals. Period.

To say the system is flawed is an understatement, and one that we keep uttering to make ourselves feel better when this kind of thing happens from time to time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The best there ever will be.

"You can be a good person and do everything right and it doesn't guarantee you anything." - Owen Hart

I can place the era that I started watching wrestling again, when I was 13, and it was mostly because of two events: the return of the Undertaker at SummerSlam 1994, and the fact that Bret Hart was the reigning WWE (then, the WWF) champion.

It's astonishly easy to admit: Bret "Hitman" Hart is a hero of mine.

I can blame Andrew for my renewed interest in the Bret Hart's career. His video collection is stock-piled with classic WWE pay-per-view events (including all the SummerSlams and Wrestlemanias). We spent a good portion of my time in L.A. - at least at night - watching classic matches from the '90s.

I watched wrestling religiously back then, after taking time some time off in my pre-teen years. From 1994-1998, I watched almost every pay-per-view event with my buddies Josh and PJ, and caught many of the weekly TV shows in college. My interest traces as far back as the rivalry between Hulk Hogan and Randy "Macho Man" Savage in the mid '80s. At least that's as far back as I can remember.

No matter who came and went, Bret Hart was always my favorite.

Mostly, I think it was his work ethic and overall "averageness" that made me a fan. His Hitman character was simple: technical, proficient wrestler who took on all comers. Bret wasn't big, he wasn't flashy, and he didn't have quite the charisma guys like Hogan or, later, The Rock, had.

But man, he knew his stuff. I just finished his autobiography, and the biggest thing that sticks out is that he was a consumate professional who worked hard and gave everyone an opportunity to shine. His success came as it should have: through dedication and sticking it out. It wasn't his size or his ego that got him to the top. It was his skill and professionalism. His co-workers respected him for that.

"There was always something different about my fans," Hart writes in his autobiography. "They really believed in me as a person."

And that's true. The Bret Hart in the ring was the same guy as the Bret Hart in the locker room.

Bret Hart was one of the few wrestlers to use his own name. He didn't appeal to the crowd during his matches. He was a loner, a history buff, and true to the friends who didn't betray him.

That kind of thing appeals to me. I always respected how Bret Hart's character, as World Champion, gave everyone a title-shot opportunity - even guys like Doink the Clown. He was an egalitarian.

And good lord, what an excruciating finishing move. The Sharpshooter, a modified Scorpion Death Lock, was intricate and beautiful to watch.

The Undertaker, always my second favorite, had the mood and the atmosphere and the spooky persona down. He was talented, yes, but it was his theatrics that made me a fan. Bret Hart appealed to the average guy in me. When you don't have a lot of charisma or athletic gifts, you try to out-work everyone. I understood that.

Bret Hart's hard work paid off in a lot of ways. He's, by far, the most decorated wrestler of all time: two tag teams championships, two intercontinental championships, seven world titles, two King of the Ring tournaments, various other championships, and so many fan and industry awards (including induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006) it's impossible to list them all. Again, it's something I see in myself. Overachievers get my respect.

What's tragic, however, is what has happened to Bret Hart since November 1997 - the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" that served as his inglorious ousting from the WWE. Since then, it's been one misshap after another: a so-so career in rival WCW, the death of his fantastically-talented brother Owen in a freak accident, the drug abuse of his fellow comrades, a concussion, a divorce, and - in 2002 - a debilitating stroke after a bicycle fall.

In other words, my childhood hero is human, just like the rest of us, and that's helped me to respect him even more.

His autobiography lays the imperfections out there: infidelity, a bit of drug and steroid abuse, a chaotic family life. Still, when seen against the tableau of what was going on in the rest of the wrestling world, Bret Hart's life was pretty tame. That's why it's such a shame to read about what's happened to him since the glory days.

My fear, like his, is that his legacy will somehow be erased - that people younger than me won't remember what a great performer Bret Hart was.

I suppose that's why, after I returned from Los Angeles, I immediately hit Amazon and bought his book. For my own mind, I wanted to hear Bret Hart's story. Maybe it's my dread that my best days are behind me now, or some strange need for nostalgia, when I watched a purer form of wrestling entertainment than what's on TV now.

Whatever. It's been great to relive the days of my boyhood hero. After all, when you grow up with few male role models around, you look up to what's available at the time. Bret Hart, a hero in his home country of Canada, was one of them.

Of course wrestling is staged and the outcomes are pre-determined. Telling that to a wrestling fan is like telling your parents Santa Claus doesn't exist. It doesn't take away the fun, and it doesn't take away the real people behind all the hooplah and exhibition. They get hurt and they have problems and they deal with real life just like the rest of us do.

To me, Bret Hart was more real than most.

Here's to you, Hitman.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Dave Lawrence earns Jackson Magazine's '30 and Under'

Yup, that's me.

I was honored to receive Jackson Magazine's "30 and Under" honor - a special profile section of young professionals in Jackson, MI.

The magazine profile tells about my involvement with Recycling Jackson and Rotary, and my environmental efforts at work.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Changing life's guitar strings

I haven't changed my guitar strings in years. My electric guitar has been sitting in its case for at least two years, while my acoustic still hasn't forgiven me for my neglect - even though I've picked it up more often these past few weeks.

Old strings, though, they break a little easier. They're cruddy and grimy and - if you haven't played in a while - are a bit out of tune. New strings not only look shiny and new, but they feel like it, too.

But old strings feel better. You remember the time you strung this new set into your guitar. You remember all the songs you've played on them, in front of people or alone, and the ghosts of those songs play in the ether somewhere. Most of the time, your strings will only get changed out of necessity. Either they break or they become unplayable - whatever. Still, you wouldn't change them if you didn't have to.

I think about change a lot these days. I think about how our world is changing in ways we don't even recognize, and we won't recognize how everything has changed until years later. Time equals a critical eye. Only later will we realize the sand is shifting beneath us.

A Time article has me thinking about how work is changing, and my visit out to see Andrew (and our conversations in LA) just solidified the whole thing. Freelancers are becoming the norm. A "stable job" is a rare, shy beast these days. I see it at work now. Pensions are a thing of the past, benefits are being cut or eliminated, and only recently have our 401(k)s begun to recover. Things are weird out there.

It's humbling (which, I argue, is a good thing).

Like some hippo in the Niger River, I've adapted to be wary of these kinds of changes. But lately that's changed. I'm more willing to go with the groove, and less likely to stay in the water where it's cool and safe. It's probably out of necessity. I read about things like burnout and I think, "Man, that could be me."

One thing that hasn't changed is my love of trophies and certificates. I know I'm a vain person, and I deal with it in ways that I hope aren't cloying to others, but man - give me an piece of etched glass and I glow. Very Gen Y, right? But it's always been that way. I collected awards in college like Jay Leno collects cars.

In that respect, this year has been terrific. Three national credit union awards, two state-wide credit union awards, and now my "30 and Under" designation - it's enough to make anyone's grandma annoy total strangers for longer and longer periods of time (take mine, please).

But even all that's not enough to keep me happy. Nope. For once, the prospect of change is the stuff excitement is made of. For the first time in my life, I'm embracing the idea of "different."

I'm working on changing life's guitar strings. The current ones are brittle and ready to break. Yes, they're comfortable, and yes, they still sound okay. But I can't wait around until they snap.

It's time to be proactive. I need a brighter sound.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Criticism is a good thing

John Siracusa, from Ars Technica, in his post "Hypercritical":
How is it that Pontiac and Oldsmobile managed to find their way into the hearts and minds of consumers (ask your parents about it) while perfectly competent Dell and HP have not? I contend that it's at least partly because the auto industry has enjoyed a rich history of subjective, high-quality criticism, while the technology industry has been busy measuring megahertz and counting bits.
Siracusa's answer to "feeling" in the PC biz is, of course, Apple. "Devoted customers? Subjective quality over objective specifications? Feelings? Yep, that's Apple," he says.

It's something I know from my work as a writer. I'm infinitely more capable of critiquing someone else's work (as I did as a writing center tutor in college, and as the editor of a newspaper) than I am of finding fault with my own. Given time, I can always find better ways to say something. But at that time, looking at that printed page, I usually fail to find what others can easily spot.

The important thing is to have an opinion, not just some opinion. Siracusa explains:
Even at the extreme end of the spectrum, I have a few kindred spirits. In fact, most geeks have this inclination to some degree, even if it's just nitpicking logical or scientific flaws in a favorite TV show or movie. This is actually a skill worth developing. Have you ever met someone who holds strong opinions but is completely incapable of explaining them? "I really hated that book." "Why?" "I don't know, I just didn't like it." Who wants to be that guy? That's no way to live.
To be educated is to be critical, and education provides the framework for us to think about why something is shit versus not-shit.

Life gets better, my thinking goes, when we work out the flaws - even the little ones - of bad work while at the same time living with "good enough" when it matters. The hard part is knowing the difference.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Now for something completely different.

Next week, I face the first week-long vacation of my adult life where I have no plans.

I've never taken time off from work and done nothing.

By "nothing" I mean no cross-country trip, of course. My first dose of vacation time took to me my first solo trip, a long weekend in Chicago, and from then on it's been 1,000 miles or more. It's the only way I know how to operate.

But it's not like I have "nothing" to do. I've got an entire list of projects, errands, and favors I can attend to. In fact, I plan to use some of my time off to plan my next giant interstate (or inter-province) trip.

Through May, I'm using the last of my remaining vacation time. There's an entire week off next week, and then there's a five-day weekend for Memorial Day later this month. For that, I've had a few ideas. I've wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, so I thought about heading down to the Tennessee/North Carolina border and roughing it. Yosemite National Park is also on my to-see list. Part of my big end-of-July trip involves me actually having money, however, and each of those trips seemed costly. What's a budget-minded person to do?

Here's the beauty of Facebook: I planned a long weekend in Los Angeles with Andrew thanks to a few wall postings. How's that for planning? All it will cost me is the plane ticket and money for food. And perhaps a Dodgers game.

All that's in the future. Next week, though, I plan on tying up any loose ends in my life. That includes thinking seriously and deeply about what I want to do with the next five years. Where do I want to work? Where do I want to live? What else do I want to do?

My mom's death left me introspective. It's not that I didn't see it coming, but I realized that I've been stuck in a rut. Mom dying woke me out of it. So from here on out, I'm not going to be so nervous about trying on new things, tasting new experiences, and quit living life day to day as I have been.

We get comfortable. You've probably felt it yourself.

Then we wake up 20 years down the road and have a lot of unchecked items off our big To-Do List. I don't want that to happen.

So that's what I'll do next week: work on the next big project. I'll have plenty of free time to think, do, and plan.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On resting, and living, in peace.

Mom and me

My mother passed away last Wednesday. She left us peacefully, in her sleep.

Her death stands in stark contrast to the freewheeling life she led. Us kids, my oldest sister and me, were merely along for the ride.

Many that know me know that I cut off any relationship with my mom in high school. It wasn't due to any lack of love, but I had my own self-preservation to think about. A decent life could not co-exist with my mom.

I've reacted to the news the way anyone would react to the death of a long-lost aunt or distant cousin. There's that tickle in the brain when you lose someone you love but have no real relationship with: it hurts a little, but only a little.

I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, and in the book the character of Ma Joad becomes the head of the family after instability rocks the ground underneath the Joad men. Through her steady hand and strong will, Ma Joad becomes the solid foundation of the Joad "fambly" - despite the move cross-country to a state full of unknowns.

My own life has lacked one continuous "Ma Joad" figure. When I was young, my Grandma Bonnie (my mother's mother) was there for me. As I grew up, my Grandma Maxine (my dad's mother) and my Grandpa Bill (my mother's grandfather) helped me along until I moved in with my dad right before high school. I needed the help because my own mother was the anti-Ma Joad: a constant source of chaos, instability, and high drama.

But all that is gone, now.

My sister gave me an old photo album Monday night, when her, my grandma, and me paid respects to my mom in our own, traditional way. Inside were pictures from when my parents were still together and I was a newborn. These pictures, combined with many others I have from my childhood, reveal the chimera that was my mother. Sweet, fun-loving, easy to laugh - this is what I remember and saw in those pictures. In fact, it's obvious that she cared about me as a baby. Then there was the ugly side.

Which is why looking through the pictures points out my mom's tragedy. A person so vibrant and so happy eventually ruined her own life with drugs and alcohol. Things could have been so much different.

As it was, I never had that sense of "fambly" or stability that I read about in Grapes. I attended 10 different elementary schools, three in the 5th grade, and four different junior highs. We lived in more houses and apartments that I can remember. We were homeless for a while. Life was a whirlwind, and that kind of living has a tremendous effect on kids.

So there are other things, besides pictures, that my mother left us. For myself, I've learned over the years that I have a neurotic attachment to stability. I have my schedule, and my routine, and I hate it when things don't go "according to plan." I show up early, and I fucking hate moving. The direct result of my mother's chaotic life was an aversion to chaos; I swung toward order and ritual, and I swung hard.

My sister - my poor, poor sister - is another story entirely. She bore the full brunt of my mother's behavior, and she deals with the consequences ever day. And because she never left my mother behind, my sister is having the most trouble dealing with my mom's death.

But even she said, at dinner the other night, "I kind of feel relieved."

This is the legacy of my mom. Being with her was like living in Florida, knowing there's a high possibility that a strong hurricane would come and blow your shit out to sea.

I chose to up and move to my dad's when I was 14, in search of a stable household and a parent who didn't abuse themself or those around them, but I'm sure in some ways my mom never left me. She was always outside the boarded-up windows I built for myself, howling away and wrecking havok.

It's sad that we all feel relieved now that she's dead, because we should be feeling something else. Not sadness, not peace, but that we lost something important to our lives.

That's not how it happened, and so I haven't felt much at all in the week since she's been gone. I did such a good job of keeping her out of my life for the past few years that I didn't really lose anything when she passed. She was gone to begin with, in my eyes.

Now she's finally at peace. And so am I.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hit the road, Jack.

My life is renewed when tires meet the road.

It's always been that way, for as far back as I can remember. When I feel pressed down, or stressed, or worried, I hit the road and I'm made whole. Maybe it's the self-induced isolation, or maybe it's giving myself time to think and unwind and enjoy the scenery. I don't know enough to explain it, but I know that it works.

So it was this weekend, when I left town to see my good college friends Andrea and Keith. On the way to see Andrea in Harrisburg, PA, I took a small section of the old Lincoln Highway - what is now US-30. I've been to Pennsylvania twice, and driven through it twice, and have never seen much of the state because it was always dark when I drove through. It's a beautiful Commonwealth, full of hills and trees and old American farms, and traveling down an old highway reminded me of the Route 66 trip, if only briefly.

My visit to Keith's was an exploration in the truly unknown. Nobody thinks of Columbus, OH when they think of big American cities, but I do now. It's a fine town, complete with a fully-operational Apple Store and a (ahem) major American university. Keith made an excellent host and tour guide, and gave me a whole-day's respite from the road. I like driving, but I also like not moving for a while.

Monday, my birthday, had me hitting the road once again, knowing that when I got back home things would go back to normal. Sure, it's nice to return home from a long trip, but I dread the part of me that feels like I never left in the first place. The road's romance is short-lived, it seems, and I only get the benefit in the doing. And maybe the remembering, days and weeks and years later.

I drive to escape, mostly. To get out of town, to Go Somewhere, and leave the everyday behind. I surely can't drink and eat like I do when I'm on vacation. And I can't suspend life's rules like I do when I'm on the road. All I can do is take a little piece of the road home with me. See this big, beautiful country we live in. Perhaps take some pictures, too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

America 2.0

Someone, sometime soon is going to start describing the climb out of this impressive hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and they’re going to call it “America 2.0”. Clever, yes. We need a new version of ourselves and that’s going to involve bright, unexpected ideas from those we least expect them from, and they’re going to strike you as impossible. All you need to do to understand these terrifyingly ambitious ideas is to look back at what we’ve already done to understand what we can do.
From Rands In Repose, called "The Makers of Things," on how the building of the Brooklyn Bridge applies to the troubles America faces today.

None of the malaise we face these days compares, historically, to what came before (see: Civil War, Great Depression, 9/11). The blogger's point is that from all those catastrophic woes sprang creativity.

[Via Daring Fireball.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Something to digest

A true test of any fitness level is the paczki, a Polish doughnut usually eaten in America on Fat Tuesday. They're a big hit around Michigan, Toledo, and areas of high Polish-population density. And they're delicious.

My test came after I devoured my paczki on Tuesday. Because I'm diabetic, I have to be careful about eating carbohydrates. My body doesn't produce insulin on its own, so if I eat more than my insulin injection can handle, my bloodsugar spikes drastically. Tuesday, post-paczki, this didn't happen.

To top it off, I also had a sizable breakfast at Rotary: eggs, bacon, and a few pancakes with strawberry jam, plus the usual orange juice and coffee combo.

By all accounts, my insulin shot should have only covered my egg-and-pancake meal. After the paczki hit my stomach, my body would have searched for any leftover insulin to cover the pastry bomb. Finding none, it should have spiked my bloodsugar, turning my plasma into a system-wide poison.

Again, this didn't happen. When I check my bloodsugar levels before lunch, my machine read "108." Normal bloodsugar for diabetics is anywhere from 80-120. Mine was perfect.

I can explain this in two ways. First, on my own, I've started to adjust my insulin medication to fit the meals I eat. If I eat less carbs for breakfast, I take less insulin after breakfast. If I eat a lunch full of carbs, I take a bit of extra insulin. My bloodsugar level also gets factored in: high bloodsugar equals a bit of extra insulin to take care of it. There's some math involved, but it's not too complicated.

Except now, through trial and error, I've figured out how much insulin I need when I eat, say, a salad-and-fruit dinner. My bloodsugar has dipped a few times when I took too much insulin after such a meal, but I've learned from those experiences. Now my adjustments are much more accurate, and my bloodsugar remains stable.

Before, I would have to eat enough carbs to cover the insulin I took after my meal. I had a set level of insulin I would take after every meal, so if I didn't eat enough my bloodsugar would crash. Now, I don't have that problem. I can eat what I want, and adjust the insulin - not the other way around.

That's number one. Number two is, with my gym membership, I've had to adjust my insulin around my meals. Since my metabolism is running pretty steadily these days, any insulin I took would have a bigger affect. When your body is more efficient at burning calories, you need less insulin to make up the difference. This is why healthy people don't become Type 2 diabetics.

Which makes something really obvious: the body is a wonderful, remarkable machine. This plus this equals that. Excercise plus insulin equals flexibility.

And flexibility is something I haven't had with my diet in a long, long time.

So when that paczki was finished digesting, I had enough insulin and enough metabolism to cover the beast. Instead of taking more insulin at lunch to cover lunch and the paczki, I only had to worry about lunch. And since I had chili and an apple for lunch, I had even less carbs in my system.

This, friends, is progress. It's a system that has helped me prevent a lot of the high-and-low swings that are epidemic among Type 1 diabetics. Because my bloodsugar doesn't crash after I take my insulin, I don't eat as much - and because I don't eat as much, I can take less insulin. In fact, if I could subsist on plain vegetables, I might not need to take insulin at all.

But let's not get crazy, here. I love paczki and fruit and bread too much to let that go. So I'll work with the system.

And, these days, the system is working great.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Humility in this day and age

Humility is in plentiful supply these days. And why not, since people are losing their jobs, losing their homes, and losing their sense of purpose and dignity. Us Michiganders have felt it for years now, of course, and now we stand to lose names like "Pontiac" and "Chrysler" down the giant economic drain hole.

That's humility. Now it's being felt all over.

But no matter what we learn during these hard time, it will all be forgotten in a generation. Maybe sooner, judging from the snap back to The Way Things Were after September 11. For a while there, we felt like we learned a lesson. Things were going to change. Then Things went back to normal. And here we are.

Ronald Reagan taught us to think we were special, remember, no matter how many hits to the chin we suffer. All you need is a short memory, an intollerance for intelligence or debate, and lots and lots of TV. Stir, add a little pepper, and you have that wonderful dish: Exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism, Jon Carroll says, is the excuse of dying dinosaurs:
Empires think they have beaten the rule of change. They haven't. Empires think size will protect them. It won't. Empires think military might will protect them. It won't. Empires think charismatic leaders will protect them. They won't. Nothing will. The old makes way for the new.

What's the new? Is the new America made of debt and not much else? That's all we've known since Reagan, and despite a few years during the '90s when our financial house seemed to be in order, we're right back where the Gipper put us: leveraged.

Now, to kick start the economy, our new president is forced to put us even more in debt. And if that doesn't scare each and every one of you, you're taking better pills than I am.

Have you looked through the stimulus bill? The kind of money our goverment is throwing around is staggering. For eight years we starved our national programs, and now we're replacing what was lost - but how will we pay for it all?

Democrats should fear these deficit numbers because, after all, it was their own Bill Clinton who balanced the budget. Democrats attached "fiscally responsible" to their brand, even though the GOP liked to think different. When Bush ran up the national tab, Democrats raised a hew and cry. Now Dems are spending money like it's going out of style.

Republicans should be even more ashamed: the largest tax cut in history, and the party that favors tax cuts can't complain enough. At least they pretend to worry about deficits now, instead of during the past eight years when they had access to the national MasterCard and humped it like a whore. It's enough to make you puke.

Those of us using our heads and stashing away a bit of money are made to feel bad for being frugal. "You fools," they tell us, "you'll hurt the economy if you don't spend more."

Edward Glaeser, writing for the New York Times, says so outright:
Within the private sector, as well, some should save and some should spend. Those Americans who borrowed too much, or are near their financial limits, should certainly cut back. The nation needs no more bankruptcies. Yet there are many Americans who spent the last eight years living within their means, and have plenty of resources left. For those Americans, the ones with cash in their bank accounts, this is the time to spend.

Right. So those who were responsible with their money, now is the time to go hog-wild. That, friends, isn't humility - it's the same horseshit that got us into this mess in the first place.

Is this what our grandparents faced in the 1930s - a call to spend? Did we respond to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by going shopping? Now that whole generation is dying off, and with them the common sense that helped weather some of the greatest storms in our country's history.

I hope for some Grand Realignment of our economy, one which values production and saving energy and building things, instead of just moving money around. I hope for an America that doesn't base its self worth on people buying crap they don't need on credit. I hope for a country where a bit of humility, foresight, and grit win the day.

If things turn around, I'm worried that we'll go back to our old ways and repeat this cycle, every 10 years or so, and learn nothing. Or we'll find new ways to screw shit up.

But what if things don't turn around? What will we do then? Can we get any more humble?

Will it do us any good?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Winning the fucking Newbery

Author Neil Gaiman, after finding out (via speakerphone at 5:45 a.m.) that his book won the Newbery Award:
You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo. This was a wise thing to think because otherwise huge, mighty and fourletter swears were gathering. I mean, that's what they're for. I think I said, You mean it's Monday?
I like his Twitter response even better.

I got to know Gaiman for his work on the Sandman comic books, and got turned on to books like American Gods and Neverwhere. Now he's got a new movie coming out, and his The Graveyard Book won the Newbery. Thing about Gaiman is, he writes really creepy kids books. And they gave him an award for it.

Couldn't have happened to a better bloke.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On answering the call to serve.

During his campaign for president, Barack Obama asked the American people to give of themselves to help steer us out of this national funk we're in. Service, he said, helps us help our fellow citizens, lifts our spirits, benefits the economy, and fosters a sense of responsibility in America's destiny.

I didn't need to be told that by President Obama. The benefits of service and altruism, to me, are self-evident. But that's not the case with a lot of Americans. Many are complacent enough to let others do the serving, while they reap the benefits of a prosperous country.

What happens, then, when your country isn't so prosperous? Is it then time to get off your duff and do something worthwhile?

It's a shame it's come to this, but if an economic downturn, and a "sapping of confidence across our land," are what's needed to get Americans mobilized, then so be it. Let them take a share in country's future - as they should have all along.

Obama used Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a call to arms for all Americans: do something above and beyond yourself. Use Dr. King's legacy to serve the underserved. A lot of Americans answered the call.

But I imagine more didn't. And no matter how many times the president asks us to serve, there will be those who seek excuses for not serving. I'll bet some won't even be shy about it.

During the last administration, the most Bush asked us to do was to grab our credit cards, start shopping, and shut the damn up about Constitutional abuses. We were asked to give nothing up in response to the Afghanistan and Iraq War, except the lives of our young people and our standing in the world. We sacrificed little. Maybe that's why the cries for the war to end have been relatively quiet. Why cry when you have little to cry about?

Now a lot of people are hurting, and perhaps Obama's message - that we're in this together, that it will take a collective effort to get us out of this mess - will be respected. There's plenty of blame to go around, but a heart attack patient doesn't weep long over the pizza and beer of a previous life. Instead, he gets busy shaping up. That's what America needs.

One of my online/Mac/humor heroes, Merlin Mann, said it well:
Maybe what we really need is somebody to tell us it’s time to grow up, to think about how the rest of the world operates, and to accept that being a country of adults means doing a ton of insanely hard work and making sacrifices where not everybody wins.

So what to do? How can each of us assist in beating the "general malaise," as President Carter once understood it, and fight the "crisis in confidence?"

The options are endless, really, and it depends on where your heart find the most joy. Marketer Seth Godin has a few ideas, and some ideas are very difficult at all. You could do as the Coudal Partners suggest and simply put your hard-earned money where your mouth is. Do you seek confidence in the strength of the American market? Fine. Pay up or shut up.

Chances are, however, that your efforts can do the most good not too far from where you're sitting right now. Time and time again, I talk to local non-profits and businesses and hear the need in their voices: shop here, give here, help us out.

My advice? Go where your talents can do the most good. Or, go and do something that you've never done before. Just do something. Not all of us can be Ben Franklin, who gave so much of his time, talent, and attention that we put him - a guy who never became president - on our currency. But you don't need to be Ben Franklin to make a different somewhere. Try this: one night a week, for an hour or two, give your time to a cause you care about. Just one night a week, turn off the TV, set your video game down, get out of your living room, and put yourself to work - for free - on a project.

If you do this already, great. Your country thanks you. Keep doing it, and do a bit more if you can afford to.

But if you don't usually do this kind of thing, and even if you didn't vote for or support President Obama, answer his call to service. If you don't, nothing will happen. No one will hate you. America will carry on as before.

And that's exactly what I'm afraid of.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Standing at the waterline.

"Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top." - Hunter S. Thompson, 1986

* * * * *

As General Motors and Chrysler crumble and teeter like a top-heavy Jenga game, I can't help but feel apathetic. These are the people who inspire the need for a new car. In fact, their whole business (or lack of) depends on Americans buying vehicles that lose their value the minute they leave the dealership lot.

How strange, I think. But maybe not. Our whole economic system, after all, depends on the new, the shiny, the weird. Maybe it plays to the Grand Ego of our country - the one that says we're the best, so we need the best.

I'll probably never buy a new car, so my economic decisions won't ever help to save an ailing auto company. GM will survive or die without me. There's comfort in that thought; I have no individual responsibility for saving a company that was once the symbol and thermometer of American progress. I've checked out of the system. No fault of mine.

Used vehicles are the lifeblood of my place of employment, and there's dignity in that thought. When all the banks are dying or being bought up like on-sale antiques, credit unions stand apart thanks to their not-for-profit status, their democratic decision-making, and their responsbility to serve the underserved. I didn't know a lot of this when I got the job, but as the years have gone on, I take pride in my industry's philosophy - probably because it matches my own.

Used cars. Used Macs. Used CDs on eBay. Even used clothing, when it smells decent. Perhaps I should have been born in the Depression. Lord knows I'm still lucky enough to have a job in the current one.

Our generation may have a wake-up call coming. America's ego has been made flesh in every generation since the Baby Boomers, and while our generation is politically active and commercially cynical, it still thinks a lot of itself.

Republicans, and a lot of Democrats, see nothing wrong with this. They've been selling the idea of America as a Place That Does No Wrong for a long, long time. It's only lately that our giant national id has been laid low. Being humble is not an American trait that comes naturally, but lately we've had no choice.

I know this personally. 2008 was a stupid, stressful, bumble-headed year for me. It taught me a lot about my limits and faults, and I've thought a lot about them this winter. It's been good for me.

Which is why I can only wish the same for all of us, as a country and a people. The world is too nasty and too chaotic to keep our national credit card on an over-the-limit status. We're now at the waterline, as Dr. Thompson mentioned, and the sharks are circling nearby.

That adrenaline rush we feel in our gut is evolution at its most basic: fight or flight. Which way do we go? Do we strive for a more meaningful and fulfilling life? Or do we seek meaning in a life looking for a bailout?

We've been at the top of the food chain for a long time now. But the sharks have been around a lot longer, and they have no ego to keep in check.