Thursday, April 29, 2010

Just say ... wait, what was the question?

When I was in eighth grade, pretty much all of my knowledge of drug culture came from watching Dragnet on television. I was standing outside of the school one afternoon, lurking around a girl I thought was pretty (and maybe a little fast), when one of the ninth grade biker boys rode up on his Yamaha 250. After a few minutes of chatting, he pulled out a homemade cigarette (professionally rolled with the Laredo cigarette machine) and started sharing it with the girl. About thirty minutes later, and halfway home, I realized what had been going on.*  I was appalled, and certain that those people would be drowning babies in bathtubs shortly before going insane. Obviously, they were all going to hell.

Less than a year later I was at a Bread** concert with LC, my girlfriend at the time. In those days it was common for someone at a concert to light a doobie, take what they wanted and pass it down the row. When it got to LC, she took it, did what you do, and then passed it to me. I took it without hesitation, passed it a few seconds later, and then tried with all my might not to cough up a lung.

While my attitudes had softened some over the preceding year, I think it's safe to say that my beliefs about this particular herb changed a lot in a few seconds, and primarily because of my feelings about a very small redhead. It's hard to even imagine how many "Just say no" commercials it would have taken for me to make another choice in that moment. Peer pressure is an unstoppable force at that age, especially when amplified by hormones.

That moment marked the beginning of a very different direction for my life. I'm not saying that LC or Bread are responsible -- it was almost certainly the path I would end up on anyway, given my personality and the emerging culture of the day. But every journey has a beginning, and that was the first step of that particular aspect of my life. Over the next ten years or so I would gravitate to different people and activities, make different decisions, and face different challenges than what my eighth grade self expected.

I don't regret that choice, or any most of the ones that followed. but I know my life would likely have been simpler if I had gone another way. I would have been more likely to get a degree from the first college I attended. I probably would have missed some adventures. I definitely would have gotten more sleep, and would have been way less cool.

I think the only thing that can help kids (and adults, really) make informed decisions is giving them real information and real tools. The pressures on them are intense and immediate, and expecting them to think, or remember their values when they are awash in the smell of Love's fresh lemon and the taste of strawberry lip gloss*** is just asking for disappointment. They literally can't help themselves, so someone else has to help them.

As an outside observer, I can't even imagine how overwhelming these choices are when it's your own children. In many cases, a parent's own investment makes them incapable of adopting the strategy that is most likely to succeed. It's got to be even harder when you wish for your children to make different decisions than you did.

There is a lot one gives up when one chooses not to be a parent. But to quote the guy in Office Space, in this particular case, I wouldn't say I've been missing it.

* I was always a bright boy, but not super-quick on the uptake. Not much has changed.

** Still a guilty pleasure, though I never replaced the 8-track. I dare you to listen to "Baby, I'm a Want You" and not sing it all day long.

*** Those are still popular with kids, right?

Friday, April 23, 2010

My favorite year

Dixie Chicks have a song called Favorite Year on their Taking the Long Way album. It's a song about nostalgia, and peace, and regrets, and it has been one of my favorites since the first time I heard it, though for different reasons over the years.

I realize now that I have spent the better part of my life either looking forward or looking back, sometimes nostalgic for times past or relationships lost, and at other times eager to reach some milestone so that the next, better phase of my life could begin.  Don't get me wrong, this wasn't keeping me from living and enjoying my life. But no matter where I was, or how happy I was, it seemed somewhere in the back of my heart I was always wanting to be someone* else.

This has been my pattern for so long that I can't really say when it began, and it's so ingrained that I only notice it in when it stops. But something has definitely changed. I don't know what, exactly. I'm older than I ever thought I would be, and I can already feel time nibbling away in my walls and dark spaces. I'm temporarily employed in a vulnerable stage of a new career, in the midst of an economic crisis. I'm sure I drink too much, and I don't often sleep through the night without waking up thinking about something. I have a to-do list a mile long, and a to-read list that's even worse. I have too many hobbies and keep adding more. I'm overweight, out of shape, and quite possibly out of my mind.

For some reason, none of that seems to matter. I seem to like my colleagues and my work, and my wife makes me laugh most every day. I commute three miles down the prettiest stretch of road in town twice a day, and there is a neighborhood grocery store on the way home. I have a few friends whom I rarely see, but am always glad when I do. I write, which is something I always said I would do. Sometimes I take naps.

I guess somewhere along the way I learned to accept myself and the life I am living, which makes it much easier to enjoy my days. So, for the first time in a long time, I find myself looking neither forward nor back (nor longingly at someone else's life). I can honestly say that this is my favorite year.

* Someone, somewhen, somewhere. It's all the same in the end.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dream police

Last night I had a dream, and I was in it, and you were in it with me. And everyone that you know, and everyone that I know was in my dream. I saw a vampire, I saw a ghost, and everybody scared me, but you scared me the most. -- Randy Newman

I had a very disturbing dream last night. It doesn't really matter what it was about. It was one of those that seems like it goes on forever, and there are characters and a plot and all sorts of stuff happens. It was so clear in my mind when I awoke that it took me a minute or so to determine that it was, in fact, a dream. It took much longer to convince myself that this was the first time I had dreamed this, that it wasn't building on a series of previous episodes, and that the whole thing had probably taken less time then I thought.

When I was a small child, between the ages of about four and seven, I had a recurring nightmare. Unlike most of my dreams before or since, this one was as clear as watching TV. I could draw the setting from memory, even now. I know this, because I just did.

Somewhere between then and adulthood, my fears either subsided or submerged, because I have had only a handful of nightmares since, and this dream is the first to wake me in years. I'm a heavy sleeper and a slow waker, so I rarely remember dreaming at all, much less what I was dreaming about.

And when I do remember a dream? I tend to let it drift away with the fog that fills my head when I awaken.  I will try to hang on to a sex dream every now and then, but that's really more about trying to stay asleep until it's over. Or hang onto the feeling of warmth and love that tends to ride along. Otherwise, dreams belong to the night, and I find that trying to remember the details just ends up sticking me with some emotion I didn't earn. I'm starting to think every dream is a manifestation of some emotion.

I used to believe that dreams were significant, a window into our deepest thoughts and feelings. And there is still probably a little of that. But the older I get, and the more I learn about how minds work, the more I think they are primarily the semi-random artifacts of nightly cleanup. Sort of like the pile of stuff you see at a garage sale. Some is significant, but most is just old crap that no one ever needed. Poor decisions, unbidden gifts, articles left behind by guests and family.

My first wife used to wake up mad at me for things I had done (or more often failed to do) in her dreams. I mean, she would be really angry. And it would sometimes take a day or two to get past it. I think I prefer forgetting, and starting every day with a clean slate. Maybe that's why I usually wake up happy.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The K Rule

I had a co-worker once who taught me more than probably anyone else about the way American corporations work.* You probably know the type -- super-enthusiastic, thirsty for power, barely competent on a good day. He would volunteer for everything, and usually fail to do anything after that. When he did complete a task he left a trail of questionable results, indefensible liabilities, busted budgets, and disgruntled employees. Shortly after K received his first project to manage, I walked into his office late one evening to find him angrily reworking some results produced by people with considerably more expertise than he possessed in the area. "Why does this have to be so hard?" he fumed. "If people would just do what I say and not back-talk, we wouldn't have these problems." This outburst pretty much defines his management style.

Away from the office, he was pleasant and fun to be around, though he did ask my wife if she had a younger sister (presumably for him to date) when they first met. It was a nice gesture, but the "younger" part didn't go over really well, especially considering there is less than two years difference in their ages. I still see him at parties on occasion, and I will go out for a drink with him anytime. At work it's a different story. We once had to leave the office, go to his house, and drink an entire bottle of vodka just to work out our differences long enough to finish a project.

To the surprise of most around him, K moved up the corporate ranks very quickly, in spite of the fact that his egotism and lack of judgment produced near-disastrous results on several occasions. There were at least two separate times when I was sure he was going to get fired, only to see him promoted or given more responsibility within a short time. Apparently, all the corporate officers saw was a results-oriented self-starter who was not afraid to take risks to succeed. He was also a shameless self-promoter and would take credit for anything he could get away with, which didn't hurt.

But even the corporate types can get irritated, and management eventually created a rule that bore his name. When the rule was invoked, no one was allowed to use the word should unless it was immediately preceded by the word I.

I like the K rule. Since I first heard it several years ago, I have tried to live by it as much as I can. It has also made me sensitive to how often those who espouse personal responsibility believe it is always someone else who needs to change.

I really think more people should use the K rule.

* And as far as I can tell, governments and universities and just about anywhere else that bureaucracies thrive.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Passing on the Road: Ian Knight

In general, it seems that road dogs have a shorter than average lifespan. No surprise, really. That's part of what we signed up for all those years ago. Live fast, die young, I forget the rest. As Mickey Mantle is reputed to have said, if I had known I was going to live to be this old, I might have taken better care of myself.

Late last week we learned that Ian (Iggy*) Knight had passed away in London. Ian was never really a friend of mine, but we all knew him. He was a pioneer in staging and special effects design for concerts, and some of his effects inspired pervasive and lasting technology. He is also the inspiration for one of the most important lessons I ever learned about design.

Before you get the impression that Ian was some sort of intense, towering visionary, I'd better stick in a picture. This is Ian backstage at a Led Zeppelin show, striking a welding rod against a piece of railroad track to simulate lightning. He is wearing laser safety glasses, which of course offered zero protection against the welder.

If you don't stop it, you really will go blind.
Photo courtesy of Steve Jander

Also, almost every time I saw Ian he was carrying a rum and coke, probably on the assumption that it was after 5:00 in London. I heard that he switched to screwdrivers for a while after his doctor told him that his drinking was killing him. He apparently decided that the cola was the problem, and that orange juice would set him right. I assume he eventually cut back or stopped drinking, or he never would have lived this long.

Ian is probably best known for some of the effects he designed for Led Zeppelin, but I knew him for the Genesis mirrors. If you were fortunate enough to see Genesis in the late 70's or early 80's, you saw the mirrors. Mylar was only just then becoming commercially available, and Ian designed six octagonal mylar mirrors, each eight feet across, able to rotate 360 degrees on two axes, and computer controlled. They were designed to hang over the stage, and we bounced every type of laser, spotlight, floor light, side light and flashlight we could find off of the things.

Photo from here

Here's where the design lesson comes in. Mylar was important because it was lightweight, so the mirrors could be hung in the lighting rig, turned with small drill motors and transported easily. The problem was that they were built in Holland, where at the time there was virtually no aluminum, and therefore practically no one who knew how to weld it. So they built the mirror frames out of tubular cast iron, which meant the motors had to be huge, which meant more power, etc. When it was all said and done, each mirror unit weighed in at 450 lbs. That meant extra bracing, extra rigging, extra power, and an extra truck to carry it all. As we used to say, from the people who brought you wooden shoes...

The mirrors taught me that one little detail can have tremendous and lasting ramifications. We hauled those things around for years. It drove us all crazy, but Ian took it all in stride. Ian took a lot in stride. I doubt he ever knew how many of us learned from him.

*All men from England named Ian were called "Iggy" in those days. I think it was a law.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fools

I have a pretty good sense of humor. At least as far as I can tell.* I've been known to crack wise, I laugh at good slapstick and smile appreciatively at more cerebral humor, I can remember about one out of a hundred jokes I hear for at least twelve hours, and perhaps most importantly, I can usually laugh at myself when required.

One area where my sense of humor is completely lacking is in the area of practical jokes. I don't know what it is, but I can never come up with a good prank. I never even think to try. And I usually fall for them when people play them on me. Someone gets me every April Fool's Day, even though by now you would think I would see it coming. And I always feel foolish, which I gather is the desired reaction.

In my defense, I know some pretty funny people. They have been known to super-glue receivers to telephones, cover the sensors of optical mice with tiny pieces of Scotch tape, smash eggs on people after blowing out the yolk, and wrap every object in a room with aluminum foil. The Wife even has her own seltzer bottle. Last April first, some friends who had been dating for almost ten years announced their engagement on Facebook. I knew they had been looking at houses, and they had me at "Hey, everybody!"

So obviously, this post is about politics. I avoid writing about politics when I can. I find most people either don't know that much about whatever particular thing is being discussed, or they have their own (sometimes very strong) opinion. If they don't know it's usually intentional -- a wise and legitimate personal choice -- and if they have an opinion I'm not likely to change it. So the only time that a political discussion is normally enjoyable is when we agree, and I have better ways to spend my time than congratulating myself on the wisdom of my beliefs. **

Occasionally the background noise gets too loud, or something comes up that is too outrageous. and I just have to say something. And what I have to say in this case is not that Obama is the devil, or that Palin is a succubus, or anything about Wall Street and Main Street. I want to talk about the tone of political discourse.

Apparently, thirty percent of the people in the United States are convinced that another thirty percent are evildoers trying to destroy our nation. And vice-versa. Seriously. What I believe is that a significant part of the remaining forty percent sort of think that you're all getting a little overly dramatic and self-indulgent, and you're kind of pissing us off. As I recall, that was one of the main reasons people gave for voting for hopey-changey guy. I know enough people along the political spectrum to know that the vast majority of U.S. citizens love the country and want to make it better. We just disagree on methods and priorities.

The only thing people seem to be able to agree on is that our government is broken, yet they don't seem to want to talk about it with the people they hired to do the job. I have been struck lately by how many people preach personal responsibility, and in the next breath talk about how other people need to change. Apparently, there are a lot of people who don't know what that term means. Given the state of our educational system, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

So I have a suggestion. If you have a beef with what is going on in Washington, please contact the people who are paid to represent you there. If you don't get satisfaction from them, work as hard as you can to get them fired. That's how it's supposed to work. The rest of this foolishness is just going to end up getting people killed.

A better way to express political activism or concern is probably at the State level, or even in your local community, but that's a topic for the next time I'm too frustrated to keep my mouth shut.

* Hopefully, I'm not one of those people who spends all their time defending their absolute lack of a sense of humor by proclaiming what a great sense of humor they have. Or the kind who always hears, "You're so funny," when what people really mean is, "That's the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life."

**Shut up.