02 November, 2012

Scrabble strategy

I have played a lot of online scrabble. It's a bit of a pride for me, albeit a rather unimportant one. Over the years, I have learned a few tricks that have made me a decent player. I could be a better player if my vocabulary were greater than it is. But tricks of the game can actually help a lot. And I will share some of them with you here, now:

  1. Know all the two-letter words. This enables you to build 2 or more words on almost every turn. Don't bother learning what they mean, or using them in a sentence. Because nobody is going to ask you. They're just going to think you are really smart.

  2. Never set someone up for a triple, unless you're playing a 7-letter word, or something worth at least 40 points, or you're ahead by at least a hundred points. The math of this is simple. Even if you have a good word, how many points is your opponent going to get on their next turn? Because your "net points" is how many you got minus how many you gave them with your reckless play.

  3. The one exception is if there is already a triple available on the board, but you can't play on it. Then, setting up a triple is a good idea, because you're increasing your chances of being able to play on one of the triples on your next turn. Of course, if this situation occurs, it is probably because your opponent is unaware of Rule #2, and set you up, in which case, they might not even notice either triple!

  4. Always know how many S and Blank are left. If there are no S or Blank left in the bag, then you can take advantage of this, e.g. you can make a word that ends one space from edge of the board without worrying about the other person adding an S to play a triple across the edge of the board. The same is true about being careful for words that could have a Y stuck on the end. As shitty as Y is, you shouldn't forget about that little detail.

  5. Always know when the J, Q, Z, X are gone. The game is dramatically changed in terms of how risky you can be. A 30 point lead when these letters are gone is much safer than when they are sitting out there unplayed.

  6. If you have completely garbage letters, make the decision quickly as to whether you're going to do an exchange, or try to play your way through it. Don't dawdle on it, and have multiple bad turns, and then end up exchanging anyway. Regarding exchanging, it's best to do it early when you're ahead by a good amount, or very late when it's a close game, since you have an opportunity to be serving up your crap letters back into the bag for your opponent to take.

  7. Try your best to maximize points out of the J, Q, X, Z, even if it means sitting on them for a couple of turns. These letters are your ticket to big gains. Don't play XU for 9 points. And don't ask me what XU means.

  8. Don't underestimate K since it's the next best letter after the big 4. 

  9. If you have 2 blanks, you should be making a 7-letter word at least 90% of the time. No excuses. It's there if you look hard enough, or sit on the blanks until you can, since it's guarantee of 50+ points. If you're behind by a bunch, and you get 2 blanks, it can be a good time to exchange almost everything but the blanks to increase the odds.

  10. If you have ING, consider sitting on it for a bit, because you essentially just need a 4-letter word in front of it for a 7-letter play, and that's one of the easiest ways to achieve it.

  11. Corollary #1 to the ING rule: Be careful how long you sit on that ING, especially if you see the game slipping away from you. There comes a time where you need to cut your losses. Think like a smart gambler, not a gambling addict.

  12. Corollary #2 to the ING rule: If you have an ING, don't neglect to look at other possible 7-letter words in your tray that do not exploit the ING ending. There can be a tendency to be blind to these. Example: INSIGNIA (with a letter already on the board). If you're mentally locked into XXXXING, you'll miss that kind of play.

  13. If you have some subset of ING, e.g. IN, IG, NG, consider sparing those letters unless there's a really big play using them. Because these are three relatively frequently occurring letters (especially the I and the N) and if you get all three, see above.

  14. Always look for any kind of common suffix/prefix, e.g. UN-XXXXX, XXXXX-ER, XXXX-IER, XXXXX-ED, XXXX-INE, XXXX-ANE, XXXX-IAN, XXXX-ION, etc.

  15. Don't forget to consider biology or chemistry words. These tend to involve certain letter combinations,  some of which are those suffixes mentioned above. But if you're blind to common words, mull over the science terms before giving up on a 7-letter word.

  16. Try not to get screwed by V, C, Y. These are the shittiest letters in the world. If you have all three of them, kill yourself. Unless you can spell VICEROY, in which case, good for you. The reason V and C suck particularly is that they are unable to produce any 2-letter words. They are useless.

  17. M is the only letter that can make every possible 2-letter word. MA, ME, MI, MO, MU, MY, HM. These are all words. That kicks ass. N and B are pretty good too. And H is nice because you can do HA, HE, HI, HO, HM, SH. Of all these letters, H is the best because it's worth 4 points, and it's in a lot of words, and plays well next to vowels and consonants (TH, SH, CH, PH, RH).

  18. Don't play a move when tired. I learn this lesson again and again. The hard way. Serious. It's worse than driving drunk. Ok maybe not that bad.

  19. If you play random opponents, never play a game against someone who has a much lower rating than you. Always take a game with someone with much higher rating. If ratings are close look at things like frequency of bingos. Good to play people who have lower bingo rate since you have less volatility in your odds. Playing people with lower rating has lots of downside risk and big damage to your rating if you lose. The flip is true of higher rating. Big bump to rating if you win and little damage if you lose.

That should be enough to get you started. Anything more, and you'll be beating me.

He said he was going to kill her... and... he did

More unpleasant reality. This guy has been arrested, and convicted for domestic abuse. Not once. Not twice. But fifteen times. Most recently, he was jailed for 9 months for threatening to kill his girlfriend. And when he got out of jail, guess what he did?

I'll give you a hint... it involves killing his girlfriend. Brutally.

I don't even know how the system could be modified to prevent this from occurring. What can we do? For one, I think it suggests that repeat offenders for this type of crime should be dealt with in a fashion that ensures that subsequent offenses are not possible. I don't know what that means. It's clear that the guy was not "corrected" in the correctional facility. That raises the topic of "What is happening in prisons?" Because, if it's not "rehabilitation," but merely "punishment" being referred to, euphemistically, as "correction," then it's not solving the problem. Letting someone out, after hardening them for 9 months, doesn't seem like much of a deterrent to repeat offense. Maybe I just don't understand our correction system well enough.

Perhaps someone who is s repeat offender should be released from jail with an automatic restraining order (perhaps he was), supplemented with a permanent ankle bracelet that tracks him, to ensure that he doesn't go anywhere near her residence or it triggers an alarm. Would she be willing to wear a similar bracelet that would alert her if he were within, say, a mile of her? Perhaps she would, if it could be the difference between living and dying. But we won't get to know the answer to that question.

If you've committed fifteen acts of domestic violence, it seems to me that you probably have given up some of your rights to privacy and freedom.

Armed with a pool cue

Today's enraging news involves yet another example of what could not possibly be deemed "necessary" or "justified" use of lethal force by the police.

This time, it's a drunk kid, with a pool cue, in front of his parents, being killed by deputies at point-blank range. For some reason, killing this guy was the only thing that occurred to the police officer. The article claims that the suspect was "about to swing at the officer's head." That's obviously what they need to say, to justify this use of force. Of course, the police can always justify use of force, because, well, they're the police. Don't fuck with the police, because they can shoot you if they want.

And the consequence of this unnecessary shooting? Probably a few weeks or months of paid vacation for the deputy.

You can spout off all the opposing viewpoints you want, to the effect of me not being in a position to judge whether the force was necessary. But it's pretty clear that the kid came out swinging at the deputies, because the deputies arrived at his place and he was drunk. Had there been no deputies, there would be no swinging. And the kid may be an asshole, and a criminal, but he had a pool cue, for Christ's sake. If you're a trained cop, go in there and take him down with a billy club, or maybe try your Taser more than once before you resort to pumping lead into someone. Or, even better? How about just back the fuck off and wait the kid out until he calms down. He wasn't going to start killing random people with his pool cue.

This was completely unnecessary.

Falls right in line with the other recent episodes in the news of police shooting a naked man, and a naked woman. Seriously. Naked. In the case of the boy, there was no weapon. In the case of the girl, there was a weapon, but the news stories have thus far failed to report what the weapon was (which would strongly suggest it was not a gun). Actually, further reading suggests that she was carrying an antique gun that belonged to her boyfriend, and was non-functioning. And she was insane.

When are we, as a society, going to make it a little harder for the police to get away with this shit?

13 October, 2012

There you are

I am in the lobby of the Westin hotel in downtown Chicago. This was the first place I stayed, the first time I visited Chicago. Apparently I didn't look up. Directly across street is the Hancock tower. One of the most impressive buildings in the city and I was oblivious.

The second time I visited Chicago, I met with an old professor of mine. We had dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. It's in the bottom level of the Hancock. Apparently I didn't look up. I was unaware.

This time, my fourth in the city, I went to the top of the Hancock. Now I am typing this from the lobby of the Westin, wondering "what's changed?"

I guess, for one thing, I am looking up.

20 August, 2012

Separation of Church and Rape

We live in a Theocracy here in the United States. Plain and simple. Not only do we feel no need to justify how it is that we govern differently from Europe or Canada, but we proudly and ignorantly assert that "they've got it all wrong over there."

This week, the big topic was abortion. People who have no conviction and no authority other than the "moral authority" vested in them by their religion and their political aspirations are spouting off nonsense about "legitimate rape" and other such things.

We have so many issues as a nation that require serious attention. So many problems remain unsolved. And yet, religiously motivated topics continue to seep into public discourse.

Once and for all, let's separate church from state. No tax breaks for religious organizations. No political contributions from religious organizations. No discussion in media about candidates' religious affiliation. No laws or agendas originating from religious dogma.

Let's clean it up and govern from a rationally defensible place.

Is that too much to ask?

12 August, 2012

Asteroids and orbits

That's how it came to me, in my mind, after the conversation was over. She was someone who had sort of just popped into my world for almost no reason other than chance. On her quest. It is her journey, at the moment, borne out of trauma and a lifetime of expectations and burdens about "how things are supposed to be." One could say that "fate" landed her here (though I don't really use that term in the typical sense). And then, little snippets of causality landed me in her world. Now, for a little while, I get to play a tiny part in her internal evolution. Revolution. It's not clear where it will lead. But I am not a critical piece in the puzzle. At most, I am like an asteroid, passing close by her orbit. Not very close, and not for very long. But there's a slight chance that those interactions and exchanges that occur during this brief window of time might have the subtlest impact on her path. And we all know what happens when things start small.

But the truth is, I don't actually know what impact, if any, this will have. Could be nothing. Could be everything. Or, as is usually the case, could be somewhere in between.

And this is what got me thinking about asteroids and orbits.

I realized that it was not just her and me. Though it was this example that spawned the metaphor, it is really the case for every interaction we have, every minute, in every day. We are all planets, on our various paths. And we are all asteroids, passing by each other on these various journeys. Sometimes, so far away as to be nearly irrelevant. In other cases, making full-on impact and destruction. Still other cases, winding up in a magically improbable orbit with one another, stabilizing, and forever altering. But, in the vast majority of cases, making subtle tweaks to one another's paths. We change each other, if only a little, just by opening up to each other. I am not exactly who I was a year ago because of a whole series of new connections I have made.

Last week, I wrote about how we'll be remembered. But this week, I am thinking about how we affect one another. Because we do. We validate one another. We make each other shine. We give each other hope. We make each other feel. Sometimes we feel sadness. Sometimes we feel joy. Sometimes we feel longing. It's not that we are incapable of synthesizing all of these things entirely within ourselves. But it happens so much more readily through others we allow into our world.

30 July, 2012

If you were to die today...

How would you be remembered?

I was walking home today, and that thought crossed my mind. It wasn't a morbid thought. It wasn't rooted in fear. It was borne out of curiosity, actually. How would I be remembered? But it wasn't stemming from some desire to know what people really think of me, or to be a fly on any sort of wall. It wasn't coming from a place of ego. I'm sure there's a bit of all of those things that I'm saying "it wasn't," or I probably wouldn't have synthesized those non-things-that-it-was.

But what it was really about was this: Asking myself "How am I living my life right now? How have I defined myself? Who do my actions make me... right here.. right now?"

There's a reason why they have sayings like "Live every day as if it might be your last." Of course, that type of saying gets hijacked, misinterpreted, and abused into justifying all sorts of fanciful or reckless behavior. But I think what it's meant to point out is the inescapable fact that we are always in a defining moment. Whether we know it or not. There are not "important moments" and "unimportant moments." There are only "moments."

How do you want to be remembered?

We are in complete control of that. In fact, irrespective of what has come before, we can begin redefining ourselves right now. We aren't trapped by our history. We aren't stuck in our prior selves. Of course, we must accept consequences what has come before. But that doesn't bind us to that definition of our character.

Who are you right now?

Do you know? It's not even really about "What would people say about me?" It's more a question of "What was that guy all about?" It's about the story.

What is your story?

We all have a story. Stories, actually. We have stories we tell ourselves. We have stories we tell others. These are often not the same stories. We tell others about what we find inspiring, important, interesting. We tell ourselves about what we think we're supposed to have, want, be. What if we could find a way to make those stories converge? What if we thought about what we find inspiring, important, interesting, and then focused our intention on pursuing that inspiration in our own lives.

Become the story you want to tell most. But instead of telling it, simply live it.

10 July, 2012

What would Brian do?

I was riding the bus home tonight, across Downtown Seattle, around 11pm. It was a reasonable-sized crowd for a Tuesday night. We stop in Lower Queen Anne, and several people get on the bus. One of them is a tall, young guy, wearing all black. Long black coat, stylish black pants, and a top hat, with giant furry rabbit ears protruding from the hat. He's a kind of spectacle, yes. I immediately wonder if he's a "furry" or if he's gay, and if he's going to some sort of party, or if this is just standard attire for Tuesday night. But it's just observation, not really any significant judgment (at least, not intentionally).

A couple of stops later, a few more people get on the bus. One of them is a tall man, with a belly, medium-length white hair and a beard, wearing stone washed jeans, and a denim shirt. He looks extremely disheveled, both in terms of his clothes, which are covered in paint, and his person. He smells. And he seems intoxicated, as he plops down into the bus seat in front of me, in the seats that face inward. So he's facing me diagonally.

The bus starts moving again. After a moment or so, he notices the rabbit ear guy at the back of the bus, and he begins loudly speaking verbal assaults, of a homophobic nature, at the guy. He calls him a fucking faggot. He tells him he looks stupid, and that he's gonna get what's coming to him. I can't believe people still say these things. I can't imagine that bus driver doesn't hear it, because it's loud. But nobody says anything. I don't say anything. The guy tries to make a connection with me, by "clarifying" that he's not speaking to me (I was in direct line of fire), but to the person behind me. He informs me that "it had to be said." Apparently he's doing a public service here.

I am angry. But I don't say anything. What I want to do is tell him to stop it. Or to ask him why he is bothering a complete stranger on a bus. But I am non-confrontational. I don't say anything. I just sit there, mad.

And then he gets off the bus. The moment is over.

As I sit there, my mind wanders to "I wonder what would Brian have done?"

Brian (not his real name) is a friend of mine. From time to time, Brian will relate a story of some encounter that happened, usually where he stumbles into a situation where some wrong is being done by someone. And Brian always gets involved. If you drop litter on the street, Brian will tell you to pick it up. If you do something really rude or obnoxious, Brian would not hesitate to inform you that you should not be speaking that way. In some cases, his stories sound like he's even done things that could present a danger to himself. But it comes from this place of altruism and ethical standards. And, whether he's endangering himself or not, the reality is that he's doing the kind of things that will make people applaud (although this is not something he seeks in any way). And often, I think he may even succeed in making the wrongdoer think twice about their behavior.

I try to imagine what Brian would have done.

And I think about what I did... nothing.

And I wonder... did I do enough?

07 July, 2012

Seeing the trajectory

I reread much of the 2008 content. Lots about relationships. Lots about valuation. Lots about death. That was a raw year for me. My heart was cracked open. What did it? Was it my mother's death? I think it had already started, and the process was escalated by the loss. So many things happened that year, and I think it was a kind of emotional mining expedition. This blog, before that time, was a series of witty commentaries and observations about the world. I haven't actually gone back and looked, but I pretty much know that's what I'd find.

It's kind of interesting, now that I am practicing yoga, and engaging in a more "formal" exploration of inner places. It's a quieter kind of exploration, more modest, less concrete. But I was doing my own version of "moving toward the discomfort" in 2008. Full-on reality show on discomfort. I dug up a whole bunch of shit, and had the workings of a philosophical manifesto laying among the piles of dirt. But it sort of fizzled out in 2009. It's like I got tired of the darkness, and tried (again) to be something I was not. I'm not sure that's accurate either. But I stopped digging, and various windstorms covered over a lot of what had been unearthed.

In 2010, more trauma could have kicked off the process again, but instead I opted to shut down the emotional channel and focus on career. I would not really have characterized it that way, but it's what I did, and largely continued to do for the past couple of years.

At some point last year, the exploration resurfaced in this "less verbose" fashion, and triggered the yoga practice. And finally, the two have started coming together and there's a bit of both the "Classic" and "New" me happening, with the writing (mainly in the other blog) and the yoga.

Looking back, I can see now how slowly "growth" occurs in our lives. It's not actually that slow, when looking backwards. A few years. But, in the day-to-day, it feels almost imperceptible. And when I think back to those first urges to find another way of seeing the world, when I was 24 years old trying to read about Zen, it was certainly a long road. I'm not suggesting in any way that I think I've made huge progress on that road.

Changing channels.

I want to be writing here. In this blog. I want to be making those witty observations of the world that I used believe I was making. I want to have "Something To Say." And right now, it mostly comes through the yoga blog, because I have held myself to this standard of writing every day. There's only so much you can write, right?

I see where I was. I see where I went. The trajectory is always clear in hindsight, like a vapor trail. And the blog helps preserve that trail in a way that it can forever be revisited, unlike an actual vapor trail that becomes more and more vague and diffuse, until there is no trail at all, except a memory.

But do I see where I am going?

Shouldn't I be able to look at my current state, my present actions and focus, and predict where the trajectory will lead me? Shouldn't I? Can I tell you what this life will look like in 3 months? 6 months?

If you envision it, will it happen?

15 June, 2012

Raytheon is just a memory and a pile of dirt

Today, I drove down Route 20 in Eastern Massachusetts through a town called Wayland. About 18 years ago, I worked on this road at a company called Raytheon. I was an RF Engineer, and worked on various projects, mostly funded by the Department of Defense. That was my commute every day. First along some stretch of Route 128 (Interstate 95) filled with horrific traffic, and then along Route 20 the final several miles to work. Raytheon's Wayland facility, like many of their buildings, was very run-down and old. It was a brick building, with lots of concrete inside, a generally foul odor, poor fluorescent lighting, and an atmosphere that seemed to imply that there was a time where things were better to be there than they were during my time. I am not really sure when that time was though. Maybe during the 1980s?

So, when I drove down Route 20 today, I noticed that the buildings that were once Raytheon were gone, and what remained was the start of a massive construction site. But it was also evident that the lot had laid dormant for a very long time before this construction had begun, because several of the gigantic mounds were completely grown over with grasses. Raytheon had probably been demolished over a decade ago, I would guess. A quick perusal of the Google suggests that they were already working on cleaning up the former site as long ago as 2004, so I guess it was demolished even longer ago. It appears they're building a new Town Center, and I heard there's going to be a supermarket (Stop & Shop) there. It seems an interesting sign of the times that a former major defense contractor location becomes a town center. I am not sure what that sign is, but it's definitely a sign of something.

When I think about it, though, the remains I saw today were almost metaphorical to me of that entire chapter of my life. I had a career here in the Boston Area, an education in Engineering, and all these connections and experiences in this world. There was a fairly massive representation in my brain devoted to all that stuff. The mathematics and lore of RF Engineering, and a whole series of friendships and views of how things work. And then, I abandoned that site. Over time, the representation of it in my mind has become sort of like giant mounds of dirt, grown over with grass. A lot of it is gone. I have images in my mind from that building. Projects that I did, circuits that I built, people I talked with. As I type, some of the names fly back into my head just by association. There were a lot of good memories in that world. I remembered, driving down the streets today, of how we used to go running together at lunchtime and wander through the back roads of a very beautiful wooded community. We had time to slack. I don't think I ever had to work hard back then. We played softball after work. There are other, more mixed feelings, such as a very seriously complicated relationship I had with a coworker over the course of a couple of years. I look back on that time, though, and I feel like it was a different me.

In yoga, we often talk about how you need to let some things go, so that new things can take their place. I let a lot go from that time. I let pretty much everything go, actually. In fact, I sort of jettisoned it all. It's not the first time I have done something like that. I did it again, to an extent with my subsequent education in Neuroscience.

I look at people who have stayed in the same place their whole lives, same town, same job, same partner, children, friends, and sometimes am envious of the roots they have. They know who they are and where they are. Or so I would like to assume. I've also noticed that those who stay in one place don't (need to) devote a whole lot of energy to asking the question "Who am I? Why am I here?" Is it because I've moved through so many chapters that I am constantly asking that question? Or is the constant evolution the result of asking the question?

That's a good question, isn't it?

09 June, 2012

Being right

"Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?"

That question has been kicking around in my mind for about two decades. I cannot recall if it was a therapist, a self-help book, or my mother who first said it to me. I have placed a large value on being right in my life. But I am not sure it has really brought me where I wanted to be.

Everybody wants to be right. In some situations, there is one right answer and, like it or not, someone is right and someone is wrong. In other cases, it is purely a matter of opinion. There are cases where the cost of "being wrong" is high (e.g. "What time does the flight depart?"). There are far more cases where the consequence is negligible (e.g. "What year did that movie come out?")

It seems that how tightly we cling to right and wrong has more to do with who we are than with the importance of the matter.

Lately, I have been practicing "letting others be right" more often than not. Actually, I am not sure that's true. Let's say I have been doing it more often than I previously did. The most important thing I noticed is that it does not feel bad to "be wrong," even if I think I am right. And, allowing the argument to not happen results in opportunity for relationship building instead of wall building.

Being right sometimes feels worse than being wrong. I think it's because we are spending karma, so to speak. If we let it go, especially without the conflict, we spare all sorts of negative energy. And what's the consequence? Rarely any.

The trickier thing is to be okay with being wrong when someone says to me "I think you are being __________." Whatever it is, if it didn't sound good to me, I want to refute. But this is their perspective. It's their truth. I cannot be right about what they think. Rather than argue or refute, what if I just listen and consider the validity of their words? It's scary sometimes. It requires trusting others and relinquishing control. Not easy stuff.

No wonder we are so inclined to try to be right. It feels safer.

05 June, 2012

Why guns?

There really is no longer any justification for handguns being legal. There is marginal justification for a rifle, I suppose, in the historical context of forming a militia. And if we are ethically willing to assert that hunting is okay, then a rifle still has its place.

In contrast, handguns are designed for shooting people. In that sense, you could fairly assert that handguns are appropriate for enforcing the law because they are practical for an officer to use in any situation where they may need to have a weapon. And, of course, handguns are really effective for committing crimes.

I would go so far as to say that the top two uses of handguns are 1) committing crimes and 2) law enforcement. The use of a handgun, effectively, for personal, lawful self-defense is so far down that list, it is essentially negligible.

So why are guns legal?

No argument has any validity in the face of the number of gun-related deaths and crimes we see each year. I will not even refute them one by one here because it's been done before.

I would be perfectly okay with guns being owned only illegally or by the police. There would be far fewer on the street than there are now, and crimes of passion by otherwise lawful individuals (especially involving alcohol or drugs) would drop dramatically.

We have tried this system for hundreds of years. Why not try something different? Why not experiment?

Why not no guns?

31 March, 2012

27 things the pope probably doesn't do

I was pondering what it must be like to actually be a pope. And the first thing that occurred to me is that there are a large number of things that one probably does not do once becoming pope. Here are 27 of them.

1. Parallel park
2. Make scrambled eggs
3. Bowl
4. Hot tubbing
5. Dance
6. Take a ceramics class
7. Angry Birds
8. Scuba diving
9. Go-Kart racing
10. Plunge a clogged toilet
11. Prank phone calls
12. Shop at Trader Joe's
13. Hot yoga
14. Cross dress
15. Watch "The Three Stooges"
16. Volunteer at a cat shelter
17. Buy things from Amazon.com (Shipping Address:  "The Pope, 1 Vatican City")
18. Call 911
19. Eat potato chips
20. Pay for healthcare
21. Air guitar
22. Wear rock-and-roll t-shirts
23. Say "It's all good!"
24. Log his vacation time
25. Facebook
26. Collect baseball cards
27. Mail stuff

01 March, 2012

Something to say every day

Could I commit to saying something every day?

There's "the yoga blog" where I write every time I take a class, which is nearly every day. But the channel is pretty narrow. The purpose of that was to journal an experience. To journal a journey. It's less creative than reflective and documentary. The eclecticity (to fake a word) of this blog has always been sort of the epitome of "me." I don't know what I will have to say, from one day to the next. It has turned out, from time to time, that I have been either prolific or tapped-out, clever or obvious, angry or grateful, tactful or divulging. 

It's all over the place. 

In recent years, much of that bipolarity has been dampened. I thought of it as "losing my creativity" or "losing my edge" but the truth is, it might be more a case of me just settling into my place in this life. There's less anger. Less indiscretion. Less of the need to be clever or to belabor the obvious. And all of that seems to manifest itself as, what at least feels like, a dulling down. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. There are still things to say. It's just perhaps going to be less spewing and more saying. Is it bad that I'm not angry anymore? Is it bad that I am not resentful of the world? Is it bad that I am actually quite apathetic about such affairs as the Republican Primaries? It just doesn't feel important to me anymore.

Last week, I was at dinner with friends, and I started a rant about Romney. I asserted that it's hard to believe this country would elect a Mormon. My friend, who is not religious, and definitely not a Mormon supporter, jumped on me and stated that it's completely asinine to discredit a candidate because of his religious affiliation and, to suggest that Romney would try to favor the cause of the Mormon Church was also ridiculous. I wanted to get defensive. I wanted to push it. But the fact is, he was right. Who cares what religion the guy is? And who even cares if he gets in office and attempts to further the cause of things that he cares about, even if one of those things related to religious organizations? It's no different than the kind of special-interest pandering that occurs with corporate interests. How is it any different? And we get mad about that too. But why get mad?

I am starting to spin into a rant. But my point is that my friend, who has always been more liberal than conservative (and still is, as far as I know), called me out on being a hot-button liberal, looking for any reason to jump on the right for their questionable causes. He's showing me that, if I want to rant about Ann Coulter (which I have been known to do in the past), I should probably not walk around yapping like her Bolshevik counterpart.

So, rather than get mad, or defensive, I agreed with him, and decided to rant about how it's horrible that multimillionaires always seem to be running everything, instead.

But secretly, and not-so-secretly, I still believe it's complete bullshit that this country would even consider electing a Mormon (there, I got the last word).

25 February, 2012

Westbound and...

Is it up?

East was supposedly down. So, then, is West up? Is North South? What is real?

I dreaded the trip home (as usual). But also, as usual, it was much better than expected, and I leave Boston wondering where I belong. Wondering "Where is home?" I felt a connection with family. Close family. Distant family. Old family. Young family. There are people who need me. There are people who just like me.

Pizza costs half as much... the roads are not straight... the accents are not neutered... your friends challenge you, but you don't need to worry if that means they won't like you anymore...

The East Coast, for all my fear around it, and all the heaviness of the past, and family, is still my home. And I talk about the East Coast as being so dark and nebulous, but the fact is, I have had my share of trauma, drama, and instability on the West Coast too. It's not been a walk down the primrose path.

The problem with the East Coast may be that it pulls at me. It makes me wonder what I am doing out here. It makes me question my priorities.

The allure of the West may be that it is safe... remote... disconnected. Can I be connected here?

Or is home where the heart is?

Fuck if I know...

22 February, 2012

Drinking in the rich history

There are so many questions unanswered. There are so many "I have always wondereds." I can carry the questions with me, as each of the keepers of the knowledge slowly makes their way to the grave, ultimately taking the very questions themselves to the grave with me. Or, I can take every opportunity to probe, explore, hunt, gather, sleuth, glean, extract, discover, and coax precious nuggets of history from those in my family that still hold the keys to this treasure.

Not everybody remembers everything. That's a fact. And not every bit of information lives in the minds of those alive to tell the tales. That's also a fact. But there is much still out there. And some people are as willing to talk as I am to listen.

I don't want to wish I had asked. That happened with my mother. I never got the chance. There are still people who can help piece together large chunks of the voids in my knowledge of her life. Her sisters... My dad...

Tonight we stood in my bedroom, which has become the "picture room" because the wall is adorned with dozens of photos of 4 generations of the two sides of my parents' family. And today, my father had stories to tell about every photo. And memories that were triggered by each. I learned things in a five-minute conversation at 1am that I had not learned in the 43 years prior.

The loss and grieving is sort of an opening of a window into hearts and minds.

I am not going to walk past this opening because it's exactly what I need. In fact, it may be exactly what we all need right now.

Eastbound and down

It's getting dark. Rapidly. Now it is dark. That fast. When you are traveling east, everything happens more quickly. Blue sky becomes sunset. Twilight becomes blackness.

Going home seems to always have some feeling of darkness associated with it. I ran away from home, in a way. Well, I actually drove away from home. But the effect was the same. I spent 30 years there, and I decided that was enough.

After my departure, little pieces of that world disintegrated bit by bit. I feel like I am looking at a photo of Marty McFly's family in the movie Back To The Future. First my mother disappears. Then my sister.

Okay, that's morbid. And perhaps a little over-dramatic.

Still, I do feel heaviness heading east, and lightness heading west. That is the way it is. West is safe. East is uncertain. West is my life. East is my past. West is where everything now is. East is a sense of vacancy.

More drama. Oh, but it's good drama, right? I'm not pitying myself, mind you.

I am just heading east again. And this is all part of the show.

Goodbye, Ronna Lou

Nobody actually ever called her that and, to be honest, she'd probably kill me for even typing that here. But, unfortunately, that's not possible.

My sister died yesterday. Now I am sitting in an airport, waiting for an airplane to be fixed so that I can go to Boston and do the family thing that must be done when people die. 

I don't think I know how to grieve. Or maybe I do. I am not sure if I am grieving or if I am numb. I am not sure if numbness is grieving. I don't know anything. When my mother died 4 years ago, I felt numb. I did not feel the uncontrollable urge to sob. I did not feel like I couldn't go on. In truth, I felt like all there was to do was to go on. So I did. And here I am again, feeling the same way. It's not that there are no emotions. I definitely have some emotions. Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that both my mother's and my sister's deaths were entirely expected. There was nothing sudden about them. In both cases, it was (to use a term that I don't usually use) a blessing for them both, that they went quickly, because life was not going to be worth living for either of them.

My sister found out that she had a neurological problem at a pretty young age. This diagnosis came as a result of a few episodes in her younger years. Nobody could say for sure if she was truly in imminent danger from this vascular abnormality in her brain. But it was always this thing lurking there, sort of like a time-bomb. Everyone in the family worried about it. There were periodic tests over the course of decades. I cannot even imagine the stress she must have experienced, knowing all those years that this was in her head, and pretty much nothing could be done about it other than to hope it didn't cause more problems.

In the end, the time-bomb didn't actually "explode," but it worked like a slow-release of destruction, always wreaking anxiety and depression in my sister's life and, ultimately, causing her to slowly disappear over the course of the last few years. The Ronna that I knew wasn't gone yesterday; she was gone a long time ago.

Because I moved to Seattle, my relationships with everyone have been spotty. I have only visited about once a year, since 1999, if that. There were periods of time where I was in frequent, daily communication with my sister. She knew everything that was going on in my life. She was my friend, my confidante. Then, there would be periods where the relationship went dark, and we didn't communicate for months. Toward the end, I did not answer her phone calls, because it was too painful. I expect there is some regret to be felt in that. I don't know. It just got so hard, because she knew how to dial my number, but when I answered, the conversation was too difficult. It was dementia. Perhaps you can imagine. Perhaps not. 

Because it deteriorated over time, and I am out here in Seattle, it was easy to almost forget how close we'd been. We did not always see eye to eye, and she did not share all the same values with me, but she loved me, and she thought I was her really cool little brother. Even though we barely grew up in the same house, due to the age difference, there was some special bond, that defied the generation gap. We were probably closer than any two people in my entire family. We had our own unique sense of humor. Things were funny to us that were funny to nobody else. We were irreverent together. 

Ronna was wacky, sarcastic, clever. She was also shy, anxious, alone. I feel like I was always on the inside. There was an outer shell around her that was all those negative energies, but I was comfortably inside that wall, enjoying the relationship with "The Real Ronna." Not many people got to see that. A few of her friends. Her daughter. Her husband. 

Seeing our parents die starts to make us realize that nothing is forever. Seeing our siblings die starts to make us think about our own inevitable mortality. I'm not a big fan of that concept. I've been fortunate, especially compared to some of my friends, in that I have not lost many people who are close to me. I realize you can't outrun that forever. 

When I do think about my own death, it is terrifying to me. I don't believe there's anything else out there. I believe that the end is the end. That all we leave behind are memories. I hope that I can at least make those memories be good ones.

11 February, 2012

Long... long... short... long...

Today finds me shunted to a new track. with no destination. just always on the track. moving forward, and eating up the miles. occasionally stopping in a station, and blowing the loud loud horn, with the pattern.. long... long.. short... looooong, just like the many trains that pull me into the moment day and night in my home in downtown Seattle.

Another of those blog entries from the past where I can't even tell you what I was thinking. I don't even know what my struggle was. I guess it was probably 2008. So I guess I know what influence I was under. In fact, it sheds a little light on the regret blog as well. 2008. Not a good year. If I were a winemaker, I would have burned the grapes from that year, because the memories didn't age well. Okay, I'm being melodramatic. I actually have come to terms with most of what happened in that year.

2008 was the year my mom died. I was likely lamenting the revolving door of relationships that I had during that period of time. I had likely just exited one of those doors, and was feeling adrift. It was also the year I joined the band. I might have been in a phase where I was drinking more alcohol than I typically would ever consume. There was a little window of time where I was slightly more "dark" for lack of a better word.

I felt lost in 2008. I felt lost in 2009. It was two solid years of being lost. And I never attributed it to anything. Well, that's not really true. I definitely experienced a lot of rough times, and I certainly attributed them to all kinds of things. But I never realized that there was a big continuous window of being lost, except perhaps in fleeting moments that might have been captured in some journal entry, but were eventually forgotten. I think I was actually getting lost before that, and remained lost after that.

For my first two years here, I could not help but hear the sounds of the trains. Some people love the sound. But I found it to be irritating. I know what they're doing, and why they're doing it. I know what long... long... short... loooooooong means:

"Wherever feasible, train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long.  The horn must continue to sound until the lead locomotive or train car occupies the grade crossing."

But I still believed that the horns were there to vex me, and that they were largely unnecessary, driving back and forth, unloading their cars, in a purely industrialized neighborhood. Surely, there could be no need to iterate this call endlessly. Why?

And over time, I've stopped hearing it. It is still happening, I'm sure. And if I try to listen, I will hear it. But my brain finally decided that it wasn't an important stimulus.

I didn't feel lost in 2011. I am on a new track. I don't know what the destination is, for certain. But I know that there is one. I am moving forward, but not merely eating miles. I am going somewhere.

No regret

"I will always regret so many things regarding us." That's what she said. I won't tell you who she is. And I won't tell you when she said it. And I won't tell you why she said it. But for all of the possible explanations for such a statement, from all possible sources, at all possible times, I will respond with the same assertion of certainty:

There is no regret.

Things happen, and we accept them. No matter which side of the action we are standing. If we cause pain, we must accept that we did it, and try to understand why we did it. And learn from it. And try to hold ourselves to a higher standard the next time. If we are the recipient of this pain, then we need to accept that we steered our lives along a path.

Again, I find words from the past. And I do not even know who they were about. It's strange to me that things from only a few years ago can have blended into some sort of mosaic of memories such that the same words could be true about many people. I guess the common theme among all possible subjects of the above was none other than me. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that I was struggling with regret.

There have been a few times in my life where regret has become a major factor. These days, I try to see things as: "If I am happy with where I am right now, then how can I possibly regret anything that has led me to this point?" And that's a cute little romantic view of the world. Basically, I am glad to be where I am right now. And I know that some of the things that I went through that triggered the greatest regret at various times are also some of the principal catalysts for the major choices I've made that landed me where I am.

But still, it troubles me... "I will always regret so many things regarding us..." What troubles me about it is just how many people it could have been who might have said that. How should I feel about being attached to that much regret? Maybe this is just the way love goes; the way life goes. We try things. And sometimes (usually) they don't work. And people regret. At least for a while.

Can I look back with no regret?

Can you?

Things you don't see anymore, or someday soon won't

A cord between the part of the phone that you hold in your hand ("the receiver"), and the part of the phone that attaches to the wall (I don't know what the hell that was ever called).

The expression "leaving the phone off the hook".

Gas pumps with mechanical numbers that flip over to indicate how many dollars you spent.

Postage stamps (okay, I am an oddball here, because I already don't ever purchase these anymore - but someday, no one will use them).


Unattractive middle-aged commercially successful pop/rock musicians with talent, who actually write and perform their own material.

Cathode ray tube televisions or computer screens.

Local banks.

Video stores.


Television programming that involves professional actors.

Trivia questions that cannot be immediately answered.

Things that are paid for by taxes.

Phone books (we can only hope).

Libraries (sadly).

Fair elections.

Cassette tapes.


Saber-tooth tigers.

Fear of mediocrity

I wonder if it's better to never really try at anything at all, than to go all in on something, and never be great at it.

In my newly found strategy of completing old blog entries that were sitting in "draft" mode, I come across this entry. There was nothing but the title, and the first characters above that you see in red. So, I am left to pick up where the story left off, little story that there was, and take it in a direction that means something to me now.

Truth be told, I do not even know what I was talking about. I do not know if I had been discussing music, or if I was just in a phase of self-deprecation, where everything seemed bleak and pointless.

But how is this true today?

I can say for sure that it is not better to never really try at anything. But I do experience fear about trying and being mediocre. That's something that is incredibly important to me. I want to be good at everything I do, which means that I either have to work really hard, or choose really carefully.

Lately, I started exploring "art." I have never thought of myself as an "artist." In fact, even when I look back at the things that I did as a child, I have to say that there is little evidence of a budding creative genius. I could start telling you about how maybe it's because my mother never let me play with the Play-Doh because it would make a mess, but that is probably best left for a different blog entry.

The art interest started when I dated Denise, her being an artist and all. I had always known what I liked when I saw it, and had fairly strong preferences in particular directions. I was not what you'd call an art appreciator, but I definitely enjoyed Art Walk when someone would invite me to attend one. Dating an artist, I became attached to a collection and a style, and took an interest in what was involved in creating these works. I appreciated not just the work itself, but the fact that a person could have a vision in their mind, and then just set out and CREATE something. Seeing Denise walk up and down the aisles of an art store, sometimes briskly, sometimes in a pensive meandering way, I could tell that she already had an idea in her mind of what something was going to be, and it was just a question of finding the ingredients; almost like cooking. During our relationship, I had the luxury of having all of her "art overstock" hung on the walls of my place. The walls would have been barren, since I owned not a single piece of art, but instead they were filled with at least a dozen, maybe more, paintings of hers. It made my place look like someone lived here. Of course, after we split, most of the art went back to her, except for the few pieces that had been gifted to me.

But I think that planted the seed in my head about liking art.

Then, in the past couple of years, I finally decided "I am going to buy art." I am not sure what triggered it. I was in a new relationship, with Melissa, and we had gone somewhere that there was art, either to a cafe with things hanging, or a gallery, and I saw something that I really liked. Actually, it might have been that she was buying a gift for a friend of hers, and she wanted to get a small painting. Seeing that she was buying art made me think "Well, maybe I should too." There has always been this feeling that, if I have no art, then the first thing I buy somehow says everything about me. And it felt like that was a lot to say about myself, and I never bought anything. But on this particular day, in this particular mood, I decided it didn't matter if these were the first things I had ever bought. I am now not even sure I'm correctly remembering this, but I believe the first pieces I bought were tiny landscapes by Jennifer Phillips. They looked a lot like what's on this page. I saw them, and I could afford them (truth is, I could afford most art that I see, but these were only $60 or so, and it felt "safe" to dip my feet in the arty waters with a small purchase rather than a big one). And most of all, I liked them. I felt comfortable with the idea that, even if someone might think I'm defining myself, that these are pieces that defined me.

And that broke the ice. I have purchased a fair amount of art since then. Some of my favorite local artists, whose work I own, include Deborah Stachowic, Jacqui Beck, and Kelly Rae Cunningham. While there are several different styles and media among the pieces I own, I have a bit of an inclination toward encaustic. I didn't mean to buy like ten pieces of encaustic, but it just happened. I'm attracted to the texture of it, and the bright colors, and the crispness of the lines that the colors create.

So... all that brings us to the original topic, which was fear of mediocrity. I decided that I'd like to learn to do some art (this long story will become rather short at this point). A couple of months ago, I took a mosaics class with Melissa and her coworkers. I felt like the piece that I made was nothing special. I felt like it could have been done by a third grader. I felt like anything anyone said about it that was positive was probably just some platitude to make me feel good about myself. But, after letting it be for a while, I decided that maybe it wasn't that bad after all.

So, now I am taking an encaustic class (actually, with Deborah Stachowic). I've had the opportunity to make a few pieces during a 4-week class. Again, I don't really know if what I'm doing is mediocre, good, great, or what. I will post those pieces when I get them back. I learned some things, and I know some of the mistakes I made. I had some struggles, which I wrote about in my other blog. But I also had the experience of coming in with an idea, and having it become something completely different, and better. I took something that was originally going to be closer to imitation, and transformed into creation. I guess I feel good about that.

I do fear mediocrity. But I also realize that sitting around and doing nothing because I don't want to fail would be a miserable way to live.


I don't like to be alone.

I am an extrovert. No matter how much socializing I do, there always seems to be room for more. That's true. But the type of aloneness I am talking about here is more about the "being with myself" variety. I do my best to avoid it. And I am not entirely sure why.

I wrote that first couple of sentences probably at least a year ago. And over the past year, I have oddly seen myself making a turn inward. Case in point, it's Saturday night, and I am home alone, with no plan. It's not for having tried and failed. I never had a plan. Never considered making one, except perhaps passingly, I might have considered reaching out to this or that person. But here I am, completing a blog entry from years ago, about Aloneness, in a rather ironic twist, because I know where I was going with it, and it seems to be less and less relevant to me than it ever was before.

I am not sure what it means. Am I becoming better with "being with myself," as I commented above? I don't know. Am I becoming an introvert? I don't know.

There are fragmented thoughts and connections here. I recall my mother speaking of my father. She would occasionally say to me "When your father and I first got married, we had so many friends. We would get together with them regularly. But over the years, one by one, he decided that they weren't good enough, and didn't want to be friends with them anymore."

First of all, I would not under any circumstances take my mother's assessment of my father's actions as a reflection of reality or underlying intent. I think she only observed that he became less inclined to get together with others, more okay with isolating, and she overlaid her resentment, and decided that it must have been because he felt they weren't good enough. But maybe it was something completely different? Maybe he decided that he wasn't good enough? Maybe he went through changes internally that just caused him to feel less connected with people? He's still alive. I could ask him. But I suspect that he would tell me that he doesn't recall. I should probably try to ask him.

I'm not sure any of my father's experience is necessarily relevant to mine. But I do see that I went from frantically scrambling to never not have something to do, to now being completely content to have nothing to do.

What's different with me? Have I decided that people aren't good enough? Have I decided that I am not good enough? Am I just cherishing the time alone? Am I in limbo deciding what connections I want to maintain? Am I creating space for new things that have not yet arrived?

I don't know.

it's the music that matters (part 1)

I've been playing guitar since I was twelve or thirteen years old. The first songs I learned were Rolling Stones and Kiss tunes, and I figured them out by ear, badly, but by myself. Never had one lesson. Well, that's not entirely true, but it was probably only about three lessons after I had already been playing guitar for four or five years. I didn't have the patience to properly learn technique when all I really wanted to do was play songs, which I was already doing on my own. Much like so many other things, I was content to be "pretty good" at something with no effort, rather than busting my ass to become "very good" at it.

I wrote many songs during my teens, but they were all rather trivial, derivative in obvious ways, of all my favorite bands. I never shared any of those songs with anyone. Just wrote them on a notepad, or typed them on a bad typewriter, and played them for myself. The first song I recall "sharing" was a song that I wrote for a girl whom I liked from the next town over. She wouldn't date me, after the initial flirtation, because I was "too young" for her (one year behind her in school - funny how much a year mattered back then). So, in my state of unrequited love, I wrote a song called "Pain After Pain." I would not be surprised if I still have the original of this in a box somewhere in my garage. I do not plan on recording it! It was rather insipid and predictable. But when I shared it with her, I think it almost made her want to give me a chance. But not quite.

I could ramble in more detail about this in future entries, but I should probably not do my usual "tangent thing," and get to the point, so this will be readable.

So, first time "performing" for an audience of one was probably at the age of sixteen. In college, I played music with friends occasionally, but was a little bit shy about performing. The next noteworthy performance (again for an audience of one) was a song titled "I Can See It In Your Eyes" (rip-off of a Men At Work title, which may have come out before my song, if I remember correctly). This time, the performance actually won me the girl! She'd been taunting and teasing me for many months, and when she realized that I actually wrote a song for her, that was enough to melt her heart. We dated for almost three years, and eventually we both saw in each others' eyes that it wasn't going to work.

Straight through college, I'd never played in a band. Not sure why. I knew how to play almost every song by every band that I liked. AC/DC, The Cars, The Police, Devo, Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis, The Kinks, Aerosmith, Van Halen, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc. If I could hear it, I could play it. But it was mostly for my own entertainment. In fact, usually if people said "Bob! Play something!" I would just respond with a polite decline.

In graduate school, I became friends with some guys in a band, and became obsessed with them. I don't mean in a bad way, like "Mel" from "Flight of the Conchords." But they inspired me, and they were my best friends. And watching them made me want to perform. I had hoped I would have an opportunity to become a member of their band but, for many reasons, that was never to be. After leaving graduate school, I finally started responding to advertisements in a local magazine (I think it was called the Boston Phoenix), and found some musicians who were starting a band. They called themselves "Phantom Roommate," which was a rather tragic band name, but we saw little enough light of day that the band name didn't matter very much.

My first-ever live show was at a party at someone's house - I think it was one of the band members. There were a lot of people there. We played five or six songs, including "Can't Get There From Here" by R.E.M. We also played a song that I'd written, titled "Seduction." I wrote that a couple of years earlier. It was very much a Kiss-inspired song. It was a little bit cheesy, but not bad as a straight-ahead blues rocker. That was my first show. And it was fine. Ironically, my guitar and amplifier were almost stolen out of the back of a pickup truck when we were loading our gear out after the party. We were carrying things out of the house, and a stranger tried to run off with them. The amplifier was very heavy and the guy ended up having to drop everything to jump over a fence and escape. My friend, Jeff, managed to salvage my gear for me, unharmed, by providing adequate chase to the would-be thief.

mess with my sister

you mess with my sister
you mess with me

i gave you forty feet on that leash
and you gnawed through the links
when no one was looking

i trusted you on word-of-mouth
and little else
and this is the thanks i get?

at least show some elegance
at least show some style
at least show some class
something that goes beyond the woefully superficial

you turned out to be a timed-release letdown
a book best judged by its cover

they say you can tell a lot
by how one regards children, pets, wait-staff
i guess we had all the evidence we needed

so stay away from my sister
and stay the fuck away from me

04 February, 2012

Revisiting influences from the distant past

I'm on my way to Chicago right now.

Actually I am not. I started this blog over a year ago, but it lingered, incomplete. But now I find myself inspired to finish pieces started previously, so let's just pretend.

It is "work travel," but there will be a very special non-work-related aspect to this trip. I'll be meeting with one of the people who had the greatest influence in my early-adult life. My first graduate school advisor, whom I have not seen since 1993, lives in Chicago. We're going to meet this evening. And I am nervous about it. Not sure why. We've had sporadic contact over the span of the 17 years that have passed. A few recommendations, a few emails, a Linked-In invitation, and some occasional comments about Microsoft Office, once he learned that I was a part of the development of that product.

The first thing that's weird about the transition of a mentor from youth into an acquaintance in adulthood is the change in nomenclature. When I was his student, he was always "Professor X" even though he is only 11 years older than I am, and he would have been perfectly okay with me calling him "Nick." But now, he's Nick, of course. I still feel like I should show him some more respect than that. But it's just a leftover.

We met at The Cheesecake Factory, in Downtown Chicago, which is not a place I would ever have chosen since I try to avoid major chains, and would prefer to go someplace with local flavor, and character. But that was his recommendation, and I was not going to reject it.

When I first saw him, it triggered strong emotions, because of how important he was in my life. In some ways, I feel like Nick contributed significantly to my general outlook on life, and he may have impacted subsequent choices that I have made. He looked much the same. His hair was a little thinner, he had gained a little bit of a belly from the years (he was 34 when he advised me, and now he is 52). And he no longer had the thick mustache that was one of his defining characteristics back then. But he's still the same Nick. Outspoken, opinionated, passionate, animated, and truly from the heart.

Our dinner conversation reminded me of everything that was great about him. We talked about his new business that he started, after leaving a major corporation where he'd led a research division for many years. We talked about the projects I was working on at my company. It turns out, there was a fair degree of overlap in the disciplines that we were both in, even though I had changed careers pretty far afield from what I studied with him. And we talked about the philosophy of science and life. I think this is the area where he influenced me the most.

At dinner, we were talking about making big decisions in life, and how to navigate the details and negotiations, particularly when they involve financial factors. He shared with me some advice that his father had given him. His father is a Greek man, still living in Greece, whereas Nick has been in the states since at least the mid-1980s.

His father had said "If it's worth buying for ten dollars, it's worth buying for eleven dollars."

I think it may be some sort of Greek proverb, but who knows. I keep getting words of wisdom from Greek people.

The point, of course, of this wisdom is that we should never make big decisions about our lives based on small differences in some tangible factor. Because, years from now, we will never remember that small difference, but the magnitude of the intangibles that we wanted will probably far outlast.

And it was a joy to have this connection straightaway with Nick. It was also a joy for me, and I must confess, a moment of pride, to know that he viewed my life as having turned out okay. He was proud of me, and he felt that my life is interesting, and that I've done well for myself. He is not the kind of person who would look at me and think "If only he'd stayed in his discipline, and become a professor." He was happy to see me happy, and he was happy to see me. That was almost a parental kind of validation.

Nick had shared many words of wisdom with me when I was his student, but two of those things stuck with me all these years, and have been formative in the choices that I have made in my life, and things that I have often called upon when trying to get through hard times.

First, he had said to me "If you want to get a PhD, the biggest thing is that you have to be willing to make sacrifices." He explained that you have to be willing to not have some things that you want to have in your life, whether it be money, or relationships, or free time to pursue your hobbies. At the time, I was about 24 years old, and I realized that I was not ready to make those sacrifices. I wanted to have money, and life, and things. And my passion for the degree was in no way solid enough to weather the absence of those things which I had never yet had. Years later, after working in industry, I went back and pursued a PhD in a different field. Although it was a long road (over 6 years), I did finish the degree. And what I realized were two things: First, he was right about the sacrifice. The hardest part of being a graduate student was just sticking with it, and being in that state of not really being anywhere, long enough to do the work and finish the degree. It was about patience and, I guess you could say, "delayed gratification." Of course, I spent a fair chunk of my graduate years obsessed with World of Warcraft, so I am not sure you could say that I was the picture of delaying of gratification. The second thing I realized was that the hardest part of graduate school was not the research itself. It was just the idea of not giving up and getting tired of being there.

Another thing he had said, when I had expressed some concerns and worries about security in life, was the following: "There is nothing more evil, more limiting, and more at odds with getting where you want to go in life than the notion of security." I'm paraphrasing, but it was a long rant, and I remember it vividly. I even remember being in his office for the conversation. He sounded like a wild man to me! It was the antithesis of my father. It was the antithesis of everything I'd ever been taught to believe. But it stuck with me. I never forgot it. And I realized, more and more, through my late twenties, and onward, that he was absolutely correct. Security is the antithesis of growth, self-exploration, evolution. If we only strive to maintain security, avoiding all risk, then we can't ever do something new. We can't ever become something new. We are limited. The first big risk I took was to leave my career on the East Coast, and move to Seattle. And to give up the stability of a well-paying job for the pauper-like state of graduate school once again. I remember my father saying "I support and trust whatever decision you make, but I can't help but ask you if it's really necessary that you make such an extreme change?" And the answer was "YES!" It was necessary. that move, that change, leaving all that was secure, opened me up to the idea that I could do anything, I could succeed, and I could grow. I could decide what I wanted my life to look like, and it didn't need to look anything like I had thought, or anything like anyone else thought it would look.

There's a sign on the wall at our yoga studio. It says "The best way to predict the future is to create it." And to me, this rings incredibly true. I still battle with the choice between security versus new possibilities. But, when push comes to shove, I always tend to go the path of the new. It is not just because I don't want to live the life my family led, though that is probably a part of it. It's because I don't want to have regret. And in this case, I think I can quote one of my mother's favorite quotes that she always used to say: "You will never regret the things you did in life. You'll regret the things you didn't do." Actually, that seems pretty ironic, because my mother didn't do a whole lot. But she was good at providing a Readers' Digest "Quotable Quote." That one probably came from someone like Erma Bombeck or Oprah Winfrey.

Anyway, this has gone on a sideways tangent.

It was good to see Nick. I do hope I'll have the opportunity to see him again, as he continues to be in my mind, and remain an influence and inspiration to me.

Cross pollination and promotion of all things feeble

So, I've been a bit absent from here, but I have actually been writing.

I started a "Yoga Blog" which is intended to track my progress, internally and externally, in my new yoga practice. I've only been practicing yoga for about 4 months, and I decided about a month ago to start tracking it in a journal. This was partly to get me out of a rut, by giving myself a concrete topic to focus my writing. But it is also so that I can monitor the changes and growth that I am experiencing.

The blog is called The Feeble Yogi.

I intend to keep both blogs going, and I am starting to feel like ideas are flowing that fall into this blog's subject matter. But in case you've been wondering what I've been doing, you can check that one out as well.

Truth be told, I've got all kinds of blogs that are either semi-dormant, dead, or disabled.

There are many things to be written.

04 January, 2012

You never when it's going to be too late until it's too... late

The window of opportunity for understanding my origins is forever narrowing.

I started this blog entry well over a year ago. It was an idea I had, I guess. But I stopped. It was undoubtedly during a broad window of writer's block.

When I was in high school, or perhaps younger, I did a project for either school or some personal reason, where I interviewed my grandmother - my mother's mother. I don't remember what I asked her. But I do remember that she didn't remember as much as I would have hoped she'd remember about her past. And I probably didn't ask very well-formulated questions.

I never got a chance to ask any of my other grandparents those questions. With the exception of my father's father, they were all born in Europe around the turn of the century. That was a different time and place. There was no electricity. There was no internet. There were no refrigerators. There were no cars. It's weird to me to think that just that gap of two generations holds such immense changes in how life was lived.

I talked with my mother a lot, about a lot of things. But I wish, now, that I had conducted lengthy formal interviews, extracting every bit of knowledge I could, and taking good notes. I wish I knew about her childhood more than I do. I remember her relating tidbits such as when I asked her about what it was like growing up and she said "We all [her sisters] believed that we were our father's favorite, and that our mother hated us." I remember stories about my mother's father. I knew he'd lost his leg because he was hit by a fire engine. I knew that he had a temper and he was good at playing cards. I knew that people had only a vague sense about what he did for a living. As a child, I recall stories about how he either worked for the circus or was in the Jewish Mafia. I don't know what the truth was. And I don't know why it was so opaque.

I used to ask her questions about how she and my father met, and she would always tell me crazy stories about how my father supposedly wouldn't tell her what he did for work for the first few months they dated. I know that my father's mother didn't care very much for my mother. That she wasn't good enough. Just all these little snippets. But it's not a movie. It's like notes inside fortune cookies. I didn't get to ask her everything I wanted to ask her. And I have forgotten the details of many things I did ask. It seems ironic to me that I used to get so upset when my father would tell me he didn't remember things from the past, but I am now forgetting things from the past. Though, I think I remember my past better than that of the stories that have been related to me.

I want to know more about my father's time as a child. I want to know more about his father. Even though my mother's father died thirteen years before I was born, I know more about him, because of the few stories, than I ever have known about my father's father, who was alive when I was a small child. I only remember visiting him in a hospital bed. I know that he was part of a business with partners, something like a hat store, and that his partners "screwed him out of the business" (that's how someone related the story), and that they lost their home in the depression and never owned a home again for over forty years. But that's all. I don't know what they were like.

The only ones left in my family from whom the stories may be told of the past are my brother and my aunt. There is probably much they can share of their respective generations. And they both are great storytellers.

I learned much from my brother about how different my parents were when they were younger, with him being eighteen years older than me. But again, the stories don't feel like I'm really there. I don't know what it is. It's like I'm wanting something deeper than a story can provide. And nobody's memory is sufficient to quench my desire to feel what these people were like.

I would love to know more about my father's time in the Navy. Or in college. To know what he wished for when he was young. What did life look like?

I loved it when my mother would tell me little memories... she told me what it was like the day that JFK died, and I could feel the emotion. I want that reality, that intensity, for the entire movie of the entire history.

But she's gone.

And people are aging.

And I am aging.

And memories are fading.

And at some point, in the not too distant future, it's going to be too...

Home sweet home sweet (bittersweet) home

The truth is, you can have two homes.

I've struggled for years now as to "What is home?" When I moved to Seattle, there was a long time where I spent my time pointing out all the ways in which Seattle was lacking. Inferior infrastructure. Inferior pizza. Lack of anything really "old." There was a long list. It went like that for a few years. And then, at some point, for a variety of reasons, Seattle became home. And suddenly, I dreaded Boston. For completely different reasons, however. It was not that I changed my preferences about pizza. Or mass transit.

I developed an aversion to the pressure of visiting family. Of having to stay in the uncomfortable, tiny bed of childhood. The deep immersion into family which I had told myself I was happy to be away from. The weather. Hot or cold. The feeling that a family visit was not really a vacation, and there's only so much vacation time. So, for many reasons, Boston became a dreaded trip, and a place I could never imagine myself living again. Each trip was short, and rushed, and felt frantic and tiring. And when my mother died, it felt like Boston had become repellent to me. I did not want to return. Ever.

Then, my situation at work became such that there was an opportunity to travel to Boston periodically. And suddenly, my attitude began to change. Visiting Boston meant visiting Boston - the city. Working in the city. Staying in the city. And visiting family and friends as a part of the trip. Now, Boston became a trip to a really cool place I used to know, without being too deeply immersed in the things that made me uneasy. And that made me develop a new fondness that may have even exceeded that which I had when I left.

In the course of about a year, I think I visited Boston four times. It was a period of transformation for me. I started to feel more connected with family. I started to feel more connected to my history. I felt connected to my roots.

And then I left the job where I was afforded that opportunity to visit home on a company dime, and stay in fancy hotels, and eat on a per diem budget.

And I haven't visited since. Instantly, my aversion to visiting has ratcheted back up again. I don't even know when the last time was that I visited, but I believe it may have been about a year ago. And, as before, the longer I go without visiting, the more I don't want to go. And the longer I go without visiting, the more it becomes imperative that I visit sooner rather than later. And that, again, makes me want to move to Irkutsk.

So where is home?

02 January, 2012

23andMe and the prospect of eugenics

Though not quite as elaborate as the eugenics of Gattaca, 23andMe is a service that, for $200, will tell you quite a bit about your genetic traits, disease risks, and family heritage. I decided it would be a fun thing to do. Actually, I decided it would be a fun thing to purchase as a gift for a friend who is a biologist. And the friend, in turn (and independently), decided it would be a good gift for me.

There's a lot of information in the results they provide. Some of it is not at all surprising, such as validating your risks of diseases that you already know are in your family (though, it's a reassuring "positive control" to see this appear in the data). There's also a lot of muddier information, where they tell you that you've got potentially elevated risk for something, based on some of the markers in your genome, but potentially decreased risk based on other markers. Of course, that's completely to be expected, but leaves you with not a whole lot of certainty as to whether you actually are at risk.

I suppose there are only a small number of cases where one learns something extremely significant about one's genetic risks. 

One of the neat things about 23andMe is that they have a large number of surveys where they ask you about your own traits, history, and drug sensitivities. The answers to these survey questions, combined with the genetic data that they have collected from a large number of participants, enables them to occasionally identify new associations between markers and traits. So this is a two-way service. They tell us something. But we also tell them something that is used to fuel further scientific discovery.

So what did I learn?

I learned that I have almost double the average risk for prostate cancer, which was interesting to me, because there are no known cases of it in my family (to my knowledge, though my family is so poor at communicating, that perhaps I wouldn't have heard about it anyway).

I learned that I have dramatically lower risk for any type of colon disorders such as cancer, irritable bowel, Crohn's Disease, etc. That's good to know.

I learned that I have much greater than average risk of heart disease, which is consistent with the fact that heart attacks, angina, and arteriosclerosis are widespread on my mother's side of the family.

I learned that I have significantly lower-than-average risk for developing Alzheimer's Disease.

And I also learned that, on my maternal grandmother's side of the family, my heritage at some point traces back to one of the most common European ancestries; not a purely Jewish heritage like I would automatically have suspected.

There are a bunch of other things, but these were the ones that stood out as particularly interesting.

Moving back to the Gattaca topic... how will this data be used in the future? Will insurance companies be allowed to genetically screen people? Should they be allowed to do so? Why is it okay for life insurance companies to charge higher premiums for people who smoke, but it's not okay for health insurance companies to assign higher premiums to patients who carry higher risk for developing diseases?

The quick answer is that lifestyle choices are something we can control, but genetics is not. And we have actually seen health insurance moving in the direction of more privacy, rather than less, in my lifetime. I recall being denied health insurance because of something that was seen in a physical examination when I was in my twenties. It turned out to be a mistake. But the fact is, it happened. Today, we don't see that happening. And even preexisting conditions seem to be covered. Should they be?

Should a health insurance company need to be forced to take on a high-risk patient, and lose massive amounts of money? Or, at the least, should they be allowed to say "Your genetics indicate you have double the risk of cardiovascular disease of general public. Thus, if you want us to insure you, we're going to charge you such-and-such a premium. And if you smoke, the premium will go up by this much. And if you do not maintain your weight below such-and-such a level, your premium will go up by this much."

It sounds brutal, but it is also completely logical for health insurance companies to want to do this. Of course, the resultant litigation would be a nightmare, as would the attempts to falsify data that the health insurance companies can maintain.

The Gattaca scenario of carefully selecting the best possible genetic material, so as to avoid these expensive outcomes seems like a more viable solution than the approach of prorating healthcare.

But can you imagine the battles there would be if the government tried to mandate in vitro fertilization for the purpose of eugenics? There would be huge opposition from the religious right, and from the personal freedoms supporters of both the liberal and libertarian groups. Who would support such a thing? What ideology? It would be easy to envision it in the context of some horrible ethnic cleansing. But what does it mean to cleanse, not by ethnicity, but by genetic "fitness"? Is that any better or worse? And who decides? In a purely capitalistic sense, one could set the goals at eliminating those diseases and disorders that carry the largest price tag. 

It's a scary thought. I cannot really envision us going to it. But it is also (in my opinion) nearly equally odd that individuals who are born with zero, or virtually zero chance of normal lives are provided millions of dollars of medical support, while we don't have the healthcare resources available in this country, or in other parts of the world, to provide basic healthcare to everyone.

The argument is political, philosophical, ethical, and economical. Of all those "-ical" arguments, I suspect, in the long run, economical will be the trump card.

One final angle to consider is the impact that such data could have on relationships and marital choices. If you knew that your partner was a carrier for a trait or a disease, how would that impact your decision to start a family? The implications here are slightly more favorable, in that eugenics could offer couples the opportunity to screen to avoid genetic diseases. This already happens today. But a more widespread availability of such data, and the stigmas and propaganda that could evolve along with that availability, could lead to a new type of relationship conflict. Ultimately, it could give rise to new approaches to "mate selection." One could even envision dating sites where, instead of using a special formula to find your best matches based on preferences and personality, you would be given your best matches for genetic compatibility. The possibilities, again, are endless.

01 January, 2012

Precious things lost forever

When in doubt, don't get rid of it.

That is truly a motto to live by. Because you never know what you'll be sorry to lose. And sometimes, you do know what you'll be sorry to lose, but you let it go anyway. One might point out that this could be taken to an extreme, in the case of pack rats, hoarders, etc. But for the average, balanced person, I would say that if you have one moment's hesitation, keep it. Find a place to put it. Give it to someone for safekeeping, even.

I wrote those first few lines over a year ago. And interestingly, almost exactly a year later, the topic came up again today. Today, I put a little spin on it though. If it has any sentimental value whatsoever, keep it. If it's a stack of random papers that mean nothing to you, that you haven't looked at for 6 years, toss it.

I've lost a few precious things.

A dollar bill. Hand-made greeting cards. Guitars. And in every case, I could have and should have known at the time that I parted with them that I would long regret the decision. In one case, it was brief brainwashing that led to the relinquishment. In another case, it was fear. When it came to guitars, it was the illusion that I needed the paltry amount of money from a sale in order to justify the purchase of some other piece of gear.

Even today, with my countless guitars, I am still heeding my own advice to part with none because I don't need the cash, and well, you just never know when you're gonna wish you still had that guitar. Of course, the guitars are replaceable. The greeting cards were not. And neither was the dollar bill that belonged with the cow.

Don't lose your precious things.