Saturday, September 1, 2012

Information Overload?

First off, apologies for my “voice”.  I've been watching a lot of Dr. Who recently, and have apparently regressed to my original dialect (sort of a just-north-of-London one I got growing up in Cambridge). So, if *I* have to cope with it, you bleeding well have to as well. See? We’re all in agreement. Brilliant!

Right, so the thing about blogging and posting and tweeting is that it’s a two-edged sword, with one edge of the blade being your readers get to know a lot about you, and the other one being – well, your readers get to learn a lot about you.

This can be problematic if you are a mild-mannered and pleasant Dr. Jekyll in person, but turn into an opinionated, obnoxious and right proper git of a Hyde online. Most sane people (regardless of whether or not they agree with you) will back away from you in real life and be much more wary, stunting your social life considerably. Hopefully, I have managed to avoid this particular trap, but feel free to smack me if not.
Another pitfall is that you overshare. You overshare your passion for – oh, I dunno – Lego Porn or mosquito babies or something, and post dozens of photos of the little bloodsuckers everyday with annoying comments about how adorable ‘ickle pookums is or “just look at the number of bricks it took to make THIS orgy”  while the rest of us recoil in horror. So, if this is you, for the love of Baby Jesus, please stop. Now. Thanks ever so.

On the other hand (and, like Tevye, I have several metaphorical hands so this could get interesting), you open yourself up to your readers in a very unusual way. They get to know far more about you, your interests, woes and emotions - and that makes you vulnerable. You have to take a leap of faith that this won’t backfire in some horrible way, and simply write what you feel compelled to - what you love. And trust your readers.

So far, nothing I've written in this blog or on other social media has truly come back to haunt me, but the same cannot be said about text messages. Because they are often context-free zones, and I am a very literal person – I am often left to guess about the meaning, emotions or background associated with the content, with the only thing to go on being the words directly in front of me. On far too many occasions, I have guessed wrong, with unhappy results.  So, still lots of work left to do there, me.

But, on the other hand discovering that your kid enjoys reading your blogs because they find out something interesting about their dad each time is brilliant. I mean, after years of the usual teen-vs.-parent struggle we've been through, to find a medium that lets you connect in a new way is, well, fantastic, yeah?

Then again, on the other hand (toldyaso), is this *too much* information for kids to have about their parents? I mean, it’s fine for my son, since he’s an adult and I’m totally cool with him at this age understanding that his dad is a human being with weaknesses, doubts, and problems. But what if you are a blogger talking about all sorts of personal things and your Tween kid stumbles on it? Doesn't that blow your air of authority right out of the water? I grew up in a time where children knew very little about their parents, apart from the usual up-front stuff: home town, interests, relatives, etc. Nothing about emotions, problems or anything that was not to be discussed “in front of the kids”.

As a child, I only saw my dad cry once – and that was when I opened the bedroom door without knocking. I had no idea what his struggles were, and so I thought he was above them. This made him seem invincible and all-knowing, which was helpful, no doubt, in keeping me in line. But these days, we there is a tendency to tell everyone about yourself in painstaking detail.

Every Tweet, every post, every blog and – yes – every text – reveals to the world a little more about the real *you*. The you who in previous times, only your closest, most intimate of friends or family members would know. Now – if you’re not careful – it’s all out there for the world to see. And maybe that’s a good thing – makes us all more open, more accessible. Or, it could be very bad, as people who care not at all for you use all that free information to damage your family, yourself, and your reputation.

I’m not saying that we should all go back to the bygone days of pen-and-paper, mailed correspondences. Just that we should have a care when talking about things – innocent things even, like “I’m at a party with so-and-so” letting your readers know you aren't at home and the house is empty. Or that so-and-so is with you when he/she said they were somewhere else.

It’s a tricky, tricky thing, this free and easy information. It’ll be interesting to see how it will continue to shape and change our digital society – and ourselves.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

There is No Friend as Loyal as a Book

The title is a quote by Ernest Hemingway, and it's perfectly true.

I know it will not be a shock to my friends to hear that I love books. And, since most of them are bibliophiles as well, I am in good company. But I suspect that books mean more to me than most.

I know, I know - them's fightin' words - so allow me to explain.

From the age of about 9 to 18, I lived in Luxembourg City. It was a beautiful place, but filled with people who - for the most part - did not speak English. The TV was in French, German or the local patois, and for the first few years I spoke none of those Occasionally, there would be a non-R-rated movie in it's original English-language, and those I would go to see over and over (which explains my somewhat skewed taste in movies, but that's for another blog post). My school was tiny, and I therefore had few friends my own age. I was resentful of being moved from my beloved England, and pretty much hated everyone and everything in Luxembourg.

I walked around a lot, bored. I played wargames that my brother brought home from the U.S. when he would visit - usually playing against myself, since there were very few people interested in playing Panzerblitz with a kid. And I read.

I read A LOT. Pretty much anything I was given.

The person doing most of the giving was my Dad. He worked on the nearby US Air Force bases in Germany, and had access to the bookstores and PX's that provided an endless source of reading material. He would buy 4 or 5 books in my favorite series at a time, and would dole them out to me at bedtime, along with a stick of gum. I still associate a paperback novel and Juicy Fruit gum with the feeling of being loved and cherished.

Since I typically burned through my homework quickly, and had little other entertainment or chores to do, I would consume these books at a truly ridiculous rate. Tarzan, John Carter, Pellucidar (yeah, I was a big ERB fan), Hardy Boys, Tom Swift...all were scarfed down in a day or 2 each. When those series were finished, I re-read them (two or 3 times each) and then graduated to other authors: Heinlein (my dad would buy his kid-friendly stuff, I would steal the more adult books from my brother's left-behind bookshelves), Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke...all of these wonderful books took me far away from an unfriendly land to strange and cool places with daring heroes, beautiful damsels in need of rescue, and lives far more interesting than mine.

In addition to providing much-needed entertainment, books also became useful educational tools. For example, I learned to speak French by watching Star Trek on TV avec Capitain Kirk et Monsieur Spock and following along with the book containing the current episode. In this way, I knew what McCoy was saying when he uttered the immortal line: "Merde, Jim, je suis m├ędecin, pas un faiseur de miracles!"

In short, books kept me sane through my turbulent teenage years, comforted me, and kept me close to my parents during a time when most kids reject them. They provided me my moral compass, and role models to guide my behavior. Although I was alone, with books to read I was never lonely. They were my best friends, and they have always remained loyal. I love it when they come to pay a visit, and we talk about old times as if the intervening decades had never happened.

So, if you have a spare moment, I encourage you to read a book. Make a friend. It will be time well spent.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Weekly meeting of Music Junkies Anonymous

Hi. My name is Matt, and I’m a music hoarder.

(Chorus) “Hi, Matt!”

I’ve been hoarding music for years now. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but it’s true. My family doesn’t know because I keep my home office clean and relatively tidy, my coworkers don’t know because my cube is immaculate and orderly, and my friends – well, they’re crazy - in a good way – and probably wouldn’t comment even if I dressed up in some wacky costume and danced the Karaboushka in public.

I’m very good at maintaining order and letting go of junk but – I just can’t do that to my songs (whines).

(Understanding nods and murmurs of encouragement)

Right? How can I just throw away memories like that? Like the song that was playing on my music player when the dentist was yanking a bad tooth. Or the Gaga one that the MC played because he wanted to see me dance like a pasty White Guy. Or the entire Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” album I played obsessively on that long-ass trip to Houston? These are key moments in my life, and those songs are touchstones to those moments. Oh, and don’t even get me started on that Taylor Swift song which is a real downer, but I liked it for a week and I can’t OFFEND her, can I? I mean, she could kick my ass if she found out…

Yeah, I know – when they come up on my Spotify “favorites” playlist, I always skip over them because, well, I’m bored hearing them, but still…I can’t, y’know, UNFAVORITE them, can I (sobs)? That’s like telling your best friend from kindergarten that you never want to see them again. It’s just RUDE! Hmmm…wonder what happened to Johnny, anyway?

So, anyway, I’ll deal with my 85,302-song playlists, dammit. It’s MUSIC! It’s the story of my life…or other people’s lives, anyway. Ones that I want to live. Oh, that reminds me, I need to leave now, because I’m late for my “Book Junkie’s Anonymous” meeting,

My name is Matt, and I’m a music hoarder.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Just Do It, Dammit

Over the years, I’ve noticed something interesting about people  - there are 2 kinds of them (yes, this is one of *those* observations. Stick with me, it’ll be OK).

So, the two kinds of people are those who “Process Then Act (PTA)” and those who “Act Then Process (ATP)”.

“What does this mean?” you ask. I’m glad you did. It gives me a chance to wax eloquent (who Eloquent is, and why they need to be waxed is a whole other blog). But I digress.

What this means is that when the feces impacts the oscillating device, when action is required, when an emergency situation arises, people will do one of two things:

A)     PTA: Observe what is going on, think about it, look around to see what can/is being done and by whom, think about it again, and then do something in reaction – either assist, encourage, observe passively or flee.
B)      ATP: See something that triggers a response, respond, then think about what just happened.

I have observed this behavior pattern directly several times in my life, read about it many times in news articles or seen it on news videos.

The most recent example of the latter was the case of a driver who lost control of her vehicle, hit a tollbooth and flipped partially over. She was trapped, since the doors wouldn’t open, and the car started to smolder. Several helpful folks milled around, trying to figure out what to do to get her out. The video shows them, talking, pushing, pulling but nothing was happening – some started to back away from the obvious danger that the car posed. Another passing motorist (an off-duty Air Force serviceman) strides up, grabs a fire extinguisher from somewhere, climbs up on the burning car, and proceeds to smash the window into oblivion. He reaches down, pulls the woman bodily from the shattered wreck, sticks around long enough to see her under medical supervision, and then goes off about his business. I’m pretty sure he got the shakes on the drive home, but it didn’t matter a damn by then.

Emergency situations have arisen several times in my life, and the same sort of thing happened each time. The scenarios ranged from minor (a surge suppressor popping and starting to burn; folks going down from heat, horses escaping from their paddock) to major (a friend being badly beaten; an attempted kidnapping). Each time, I reacted instinctively, and without thought. Sometimes, someone else did the same along with me, and it was like being in a Matrix “bullet-time” scene: WE were moving at a normal pace, but everyone else was moving like molasses. Act. Don’t think, Act. Boom, boom, and done.

In each case, the actions were generally correct and the situation was handled, but I take no credit for that – because I had NO idea what I was doing at the time. Something just impelled me to NOT just sit there. It’s very strange, because (as those of you who know me) I am a very methodical person. Hell, I’m a Systems ANALYST, for pity’s sake. I analyze. I think. I plan. I don’t like being rushed.

And yet, on occasion, my mind makes me toss all that out the window, and go for it.

I’m not the only one to be puzzled by this behavior. There are so many interviews with servicemen who – when asked why they did the actions for which they were being awarded a medal – simply say something like “it needed doing, and I was there. Anyone would have done the same”.

I don’t know if that’s necessarily the truth, though. I’m pretty sure everyone would have WANTED to do the same, but – even though training clearly helps – I think some folks are wired differently. Not necessarily better - because we don’t usually find out about folks who reacted but failed because they picked the wrong reaction – but different.

Regardless, I strongly believe that the “A” part of the PTA/ATP acronym is the most important. Civilization has always been kept moving forward by people who ACTED based on their beliefs, inspirations, and passions. So, whether you are wired to think first or not – ACT. Do not just observe events, or watch others participate in them. YOU can do something – small, large, it matters not at all. Leave your mark on the world – make a difference.

I never worry about action, but only inaction.
Winston Churchill

Monday, June 18, 2012

Take Us To Your Castles

Something you should know about me: From the age of 3, I was raised around History. I grew up in Europe, so it was pretty much everywhere you looked.

Now, this wasn’t the dry, dusty, boring history that overworked and underpaid High School teachers are forced by State mandates to pour into kids’ brains until those vital organs are reduced to the consistency of oatmeal (and have about the same amount of processing power). No, instead, I was raised around LIVING history. History that you could touch, climb on, hear tales about and viscerally FEEL. I scrambled through castles, walked in awe through soaring cathedrals, wandered battlefields and cemeteries with tears pouring down my face, that matched those on my Mom and Dad’s faces.

I saw up close the brutal effects of war: A sections of trench at Verdun left in place for younger generations to ruminate on, partially caved in by the terrible effect of a nearby shell explosion, with the tips of rusting rifles and bayonets left sticking up out of the dirt as a grave marker for the brave men who were entombed there. It made a hell of an impression on me, as did the rows upon rows of stone crosses near the beaches of Normandy and the forests of the Ardennes.

I marveled at the contents of numerous national museums, spending hours and hours wandering hallways looking at painting, sculptures, and suits of armor. I became so familiar with the Casemates of Luxembourg City (a 17th-century cave system expanded for centuries as a natural fortification) that I gave impromptu - and quite unauthorized - narrated tours to English-speaking visitors. I must have done ok, since they tipped me well…or, come to think about it, maybe they were just trying to get rid of me. I digress.

I wandered the Colosseum, Pompeii, Athens, Cambridge, Berlin (back when there was still a wall dividing it), and Trafalgar Square. I grew up in a city where the “New Church” was four hundred years old, and the “Old Church” – a squat, circular building built during the Norman times – was more than 900.

In short, I was extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to be exposed to the buildings, the artifacts and streets that had a FEEL to them. The feeling that other feet had trod where you stood, that untold numbers of humans had somehow imbued the stone, the glass, and the wood with their presence. The tombstones in the old churchyards seemed to cry out “Remember us” and remind me that I was just a link in a long chain of humanity. It was enough to make even a young man pause and ponder his mortality and place in the world.

I don’t think many American kids get that chance – and it’s a damn shame. Think about it – what’s the oldest thing American kids see on a normal basis? To them, an “Antique” is a record player, or maybe a 1950’s tract home. If you really push it, and you live in Texas, it’s something like the Alamo, which dates all the way back to (gasp) the early 18th century. Not a whole lot, is it?

Which brings us to the subject of Castles. We need them. Scattered all around the U.S. Our youth needs them – hell *I* still need them.

We need castles – or very old buildings …old manors, pubs, forts, or even a thatched cottage will do. Just something we can take kids to during the summer, on school field trips or on weekends. Something to remind them that they are not special (sounds harsh, I know, but I think Americans as a whole take on this “We’re from the New World, we’re automatically superior to you stinkin’ Old World types” attitude). Something to make them think about the folks who have come before them – the things they built and the dreams they dreamed.

It shouldn’t be too hard – I mean, there are falling down castles, keeps, towers, and palaces all over Europe that the folks on the other side of The Pond just can’t afford to keep up. Heck, half of Pompeii is falling down, and the Italian Government (now THERE’s an oxymoron for you) can’t seem to find the money to save these priceless examples of their own heritage

So let’s buy ‘em. Fork over some cash, ship ‘em over here, set up turnstiles and gift shops and make a metric ton of money charging folks entry. Not much, maybe a couple of bucks a head, but I’d visit Vianden castle every week if I could. More often if it was next to a water park.

Yup, it’s cheesy, and yup, I’m wincing even thinking about removing these buildings from their provenance, but it might actually save them in the long run. And the kids would learn what history is all about.

I’ve got 5 bucks. Anyone want to pitch in? I think there’s a small town in Ireland that’s up for sale…

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dads, Sons, and Life

Hi! Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. As it turns out, today happens to be Father’s Day, so I guess it’s appropriate that I write about that. Oh, and go hug your parents if you’re able to…

For the record, I've always hated Father’s Day.

As a kid, I was permanently broke and could never think of anything to get my Dad. If I asked, it was always the same answer – socks. Or a hug. Neither of these felt like they were enough, so I usually drew him something or made him a model airplane. He seemed to like them, but I still felt guilty.

As I got older and moved to college, it was hard to maintain contact with him and Mom since they were still in Europe and I was in Arlington…and this was the pre-internet Stone Age. So (if I remembered at all) I’d send him a card and hope it got there in time, but I still felt guilty. More dislike of the holiday.

As I got older – and I started to understand what it was like to be an adult, I got a bit better about checking in with my Dad.
Time seemed to speed up. He and Mom moved back here, I found a girl who would actually put up with my insanity, got married and then - all of a sudden, *I* was a Dad.

Very quickly, I began to understand my father. The things that annoyed me about him as a child now became completely clear.
  • The forgetfulness and repetition of stories?  Stress and sleep deprivation.
  • The muttering under his breath? Trying to remember something important while distractions hurtled at him.
  • The sadness in his eyes as he politely declined another insistent request to play Panzerblitz (yeah, I was geeky when geeky wasn't cool)? Sheer fatigue from driving and working 12 hours a day.
  • His flare of anger when I tried to “help” him fix a bike or other machine, and screwed it up? He just wanted the damn thing over with so he could take care of the 500 other items on his list.
  • His retreating to the bathroom for as long as he could before being rousted out? Dad loved to read, and he never, ever had enough time.
These points became clear because I started to do the same things. OK, maybe I spend less time on the loo than him (I have a man-cave in which I can do my reading, a luxury he never had), but, really – I am becoming my father.

He hated Father’s Day as well. Didn’t like a fuss being made over him, he said.

After Mom passed (colon cancer, terrible to watch), Dad moved in with my brother. Kayli and I built a house just a few blocks away so we would be close, and my son would be able to stay near to his grandfather.  Dad’s cigarette-smoking past caught up with him, and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He fought it hard, and – with the help of awesome doctors – kicked it to the curb, where it remained in remission for 6 years. The Docs were amazed at his toughness, but I just smiled. That was just Dad. He had grandsons he wanted to see grow up, and he for damn sure wasn’t going to be deprived of that pleasure.

He succeeded, and almost lived to see my son graduate from High School, but cancer is patient.

So now, I still hate Father’s Day, because I think of socks, and hugs, and wish more than anything in the world that I had to worry about what to get him as a present. I think I figured this year’s out though…

…hey Dad – I got you a blog post. Hope you like it :)