Saturday, September 14, 2013

A very good year

Daisy Fae's reprise of her letter to her sixteen year old self reminded me that she had encouraged me to write one of my own. I was originally resistant, mostly because my sixteen year old self was militantly uninterested in advice from his elders. But what the Hell? Let's give it a go.

Dear Clueless,

Try to relax. They can't see you. They see a good-looking, wicked smart athlete and passable actor who lives in a beautiful house with a pool. They don't know that the house and pool were largely built by subcontractors who couldn't pay your father what they owed him, or that the three acres was given to your parents as newlyweds because the owner "just wanted good neighbors."

What are you going to tell this kid that he would possibly listen to? 
People don't seem to remember that your house was in the country a decade ago, and your best friend in second grade was the son of squatters who lived in one of the shotgun houses where the Interstate runs now. Your mother has done a very thorough job of disguising her heritage, so no one suspects that her parents are Opry-loving hillbillies who only recently installed running water inside their Ozark farmhouse, or that they still have no telephone. Your father is a respected architect now, not the second son of an alcoholic carpenter.

Only your teachers, and those with older siblings realize that you are far less athletic than your brothers. Even they can't see that performing in front of people mystifies you, however much you love it.

The girl to your left is suffering greatly. Much more than a few hours after senior banquet will be able to erase. She will die too young. Help her if you can.

No one (including you) understands the pressure you feel to excel academically. Try to find the words to explain that curiosity is not the same as ambition, and that you will need some time to find your way. Curiosity will always win with you, anyway. It works out best when it is pointed in a productive direction.

Because they can't see you, they don't know your intentions. Most people don't mean to hurt you. They just  have no idea how their words and actions impact other people.Your sensitivity is your greatest strength. Try not to lose it. I know it hurts, but try to remember that it's not always about you.  Assume everyone else is as lonely, clueless and self-involved as you are. The people who seem the meanest are often having the hardest time.

There are a few people who truly see you. You know who they are. They are the friendships you can't explain. Like the quiet friend of the girl you are crushing on, and the guy next to you on the bench. Treasure them, and try not to lose touch. They will be important to you later in life.

The triple threat: nearsighted and dead slow, with hands of iron.

While we're on the subject, you could do with a little remembering that other people's feelings matter, too. Sometimes it is worth losing a friend for your principles, but not as often as you think. And just because you can date three girls at once doesn't mean it's a good idea, even if you have been up front with all of them. You're not missing anything. You know who is worth the time, and it matters, even if she says it doesn't.

Oh, by the way, many people consider you handsome. I hesitate to tell you this, since your ego is enough of a problem when you think you are only average-looking. But you are going to find out one of these days, and maybe it will encourage you to look elsewhere for your shortcomings.

Oh, and when you get to college, don't start smoking. She won't really notice, and she's not worth it anyway. Which reminds me, not everything has to be about sex. To be fair, I'm going to have to say that in the letters to all of my past selves, but it starts with you.

Most of all, try to enjoy it. I won't say these are the best years of your life, but they are definitely only for a limited time. Unlike McRib, they won't be back. And try to take it easy on the weed. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Extra dark roast

Buckle up, this is going to get gross. Seriously, I had to wait a few weeks before I could even write about it, so if you're the least bit squeamish, I would suggest skipping this post and coming back for the next one. (I'm looking at you, Johnny Virgil.)

I have never been a morning person. I sleep deep and wake slowly, despite my tendency to rise earlier with each passing year. I am terribly unfocused and uncoordinated for at least an hour after getting out of bed. The invention of the drip coffeemaker with built-in timer was a godsend for me, and (mostly) ended years of pots with no coffee, no water, grounds spilled everywhere, or (my favorite) coffee all over the counter because I forgot to replace the carafe. Now I can stumble out of bed, pour a cup, and sit quietly until the world starts to make some sense.

The other morning at breakfast, Biscuit said something about the coffee smelling funny. She's a bit of a super-smeller, so this sort of thing happens often. Some days the coffee smells funny, some days it's the air conditioner, sometimes it's me. She especially dislikes the smell of vinegar, so we don't clean the coffeemaker's plumbing as often as we might. I normally wait until she is out of town, but she hasn't been traveling much lately, so it has been a while. I noticed a bit of an odd taste, but nothing remarkable.  We discussed possibilities for a while, and the conversation moved to other things.

Just before leaving the house, as my routine dictates, I began preparing a final serving of coffee in a stainless travel cup to sustain me through the remainder of the morning. As I tipped the carafe to pour, coffee began to splatter on the counter, as if the lid of the carafe were mis-installed. When I turned the carafe to diagnose the problem, I saw two antennae protruding about two inches from the spout, attached to a bullet-shaped head.

Those of you have spent more than fifteen minutes near the Gulf coast are likely familiar with the large cockroaches that are common here, often euphemistically called water bugs, or palmetto bugs.* It seems one of these critters had wandered into the carafe during the night and gotten a nasty surprise come wakeup time.

I reacted like any red-blooded American male in that circumstance. I whipped the KA-BAR knife from my boot, stuck the little guy on the end, crunched him between my teeth, and washed him down with the remaining coffee. Okay, what I really did was throw carafe and mug into the sink, dance in a circle like a four year old convinced by his older brother to drink Tabasco, and try not to throw up. The dance was very similar to the one I did when one of these same roaches ran up my leg and into my cargo shorts about a dozen years ago, except this time my hands were flailing around my head instead of slapping at my area.

It turns out that I didn't need another cup that morning. For a few hours I thought I might never need any more coffee ever again. I threw all the affected parts into the dishwasher and set it to Obliviate. I would have put my head in there had I been able to close the door.

I had decided to spare Biscuit the trauma and carry this secret to my grave, but the next day when she remarked that the coffee tasted better again, and began conjecturing on causes, I broke down and confessed. She did not thank me for my honesty, but handled it better than I probably would have done.

Artist reconstruction

We have discussed any number of ways to avoid repeating this particular recipe, but in the end we put it down as a freak occurrence and returned to our normal routine. I have never had a bug in my coffee before, so it stands to reason that I can expect forty more years to pass before the next one. By then I probably won't even notice. I can only hope this is not some new fad that the teenage roaches are all daring each other to try. If it happens again I am definitely switching to tea.

* There are four or five types of large roaches that inhabit the American Gulf South. Palmetto bug and water bug were originally common names for particular species, but are now used regionally to describe any giant, disgusting, flying, disgusting, frightening, disgusting cockroach. At least three of these species are common where we live. Luckily, most live outdoors and only wander inside when it gets very hot or very wet. Did I mention it gets very hot and very wet here? We all like to pretend we never have them in our own house, but I've seen them in the Louisiana governor's mansion. We find cats to be the best defense.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In Bruges

The black comedy In Bruges* somehow found its way to the top of our Netflix queue a couple of years ago, and Biscuit has been determined to visit the eponymous Belgian city** since we watched the opening credits. We had a free weekend during my recent conference trip to London, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Bruges attracts huge numbers of tourists, and a couple of days seemed like about all we would need.

All photos courtesy of Biscuit. She had a new camera and more free time than I, so she was designated official trip photographer. This is part of the view from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

About an hour northwest of Brussels by train, Bruges is the capital of the Belgian province of West Flanders, which you may know from the WW I poem about its fields.

Bruges rose to prominence as a seaport. A half hour canal tour is one of the ''must do" tourist activities.

Bruges was a city of some significance during the Middle Ages, with its heyday in the first half of the last millennium. Much of the medieval architecture remains, and every stretch of the city center holds some new marvel. It is a perfect spot for a fantasy stroll, at least until around 9:00 AM when the buses start delivering day-trippers. By mid-afternoon the squares look like Disney World. Most of the gawkers are gone by 7:00 or so, which makes for nice evening strolls, too.

The Church of Our Lady was built primarily before 1500. The 400 ft. spire is still one of the tallest brick towers in the world. The carvings and sculptural details make it easy to believe it took three hundred years to build. Oh yeah, and there is a sculpture by Michelangelo inside, if you're into that sort of thing.
A courtyard below the church, and one of the city's ubiquitous horse drawn carriages. The horses seem to enjoy the tours quite a bit more than the drivers.

In the evenings and early mornings, it is hard to imagine a better place to sit and relax than beside one of Bruges' canals.
During the fat part of the day the canals are more loudspeakers and motorboats than oases of quiet contemplation.

One should also be ready to pay tourist prices for everything. It hurts a little less counting out Euros, but the € is not what it used to be, and it stings to pay eight or ten of them for a few bits of chocolate. I did, of course, because Belgian chocolate is delicious. I just didn't buy any for anyone else.

Some dufus standing in the way of a perfectly good picture of the Provincial Court. If you click through you will see some of the crazy detail on the building, which seemed to derive from the "proud grandmother's living room" school of architecture. An hour before this picture was taken, this square was so crowded you could hardly walk through it.
The Belfry of Bruges is the city's most famous landmark, and dominates the center of town. It also figures prominently in the movie. It has burned several times, though not while we were there.

This was the seaport during the middle ages.  With yet another bell tower. You can't swing a  German tourist in this town without hitting a cathedral or medieval church.

As usual, Biscuit did a wonderful job finding a hotel. The Grand Hotel Casselbergh is only a couple of blocks from the Provincial Court, but far enough off the square to lose most of the crowds. It wasn't cheap, but our room was huge by European standards, breakfast was free, and the service seemed first rate.

The view from our hotel window. Luckily, most of the noisy stuff was the other direction, so it was surprisingly quiet where we were. Not counting the tour boats on the canal, of course.

The view of our hotel window from the canal. Ours is the top window on the right, I think.
We found a small French restaurant for lunch one day, and it was marvelous. I never knew that I could like fennel so much, or that its licorice taste would go so well with fish. Other than that, we mostly ate in pubs. Mussels and fries doesn't really have the appeal for me that it seems to have for some people, even if you say it in French.

Le Buhne had seats for about a dozen people. The proprietor was a wonderful mature French lady, and everything we ate was wonderful.

This may be the most famous dog in Europe, or at least the most photographed. He apparently spends most of his time hanging out in this window, and every tour boat pauses for people to take pictures. He left for a few minutes around checkout time -- apparently he has duties at the front desk -- but returned promptly.

I doubt we will ever feel the need to go back, but we both had a wonderful time. It was a nice counterpoint to the week in London. And we got to ride the EuroStar through the Chunnel, so that's one I can check off the list.

We had a little time to kill before our train back to London, so we sat by the canal and relaxed. Actually, Biscuit watched the dog and I relaxed. That bridge is like 500 years old or something. After a while you get numb to the fact that this was a big city when Columbus was begging jewels from Queen Isabella.
I don't really have much else to say, but I promised Daisyfae I would post pictures.

If we ever go back, it will probably be so Biscuit can visit the swans and baby ducks. Biscuit likes animals.

* Think Grosse Point Blank with better scenery.

** The Belgians spell it "Brugge" but the movie uses the English spelling, so I'm sticking with it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Inheriting the Earth

I came to my current career as an academic relatively recently. I may occasionally bitch, but I really like it, and I intend to do it until someone makes me stop. People ask me what I like about it, knowing that it's not the money or the prestige. The work is endless, the politics are as bad as any corporation, the bureaucracy is stifling, and I'm sitting in an office chair that is likely as old as the building it's in. But that describes most every job I've ever had.

I like the work, I like being on campus, and I like the people. One thing I like about the people is that they are smart. And many of them are good, in the old fashioned sense of the word. I was reading an article yesterday about how a disproportionate percentage of bosses are psychopathic bullies* when I realized something that may outweigh even the smartness and goodness. With a few exceptions -- mostly in the non-academic parts of the organization -- our campus has very few Montgomery Burns' in management or leadership positions. We have our share of Michael Scotts, but that just makes it fun to come to work.

As a boss, I'm what you would call an agreeable sort. An employee told me once that my greatest talent was the ability to chew someone out without them feeling like they had been in trouble. I think he meant it as a compliment. Anyway, I have never seen the need to be a bully or a weasel at work, and I don't really like being in the sort of environment such people create.

Everything I need to know about business I learned from
beating up other kids in kindergarten. Image from here.

Too many businesses love these people. Bosses proudly use words like "aggressive" and "decisive" to describe their abuse of the people around them, and their complete disdain for any life outside of the office. They win big (usually on the backs of what a former colleague called the "worker bees") because they take big risks. They lose big as well, but usually manage to deflect that onto someone else, or jump ship before the hammer falls. Agreeable leaders tend to do just as good a job -- without the drama -- but that doesn't really seem to matter in our "nice guys finish last" society.

Campus has largely been a haven from that sort of thinking. Our leaders are mostly painfully polite. Our meetings are civil and pleasant, even when we argue. The last chancellor who asked someone to cancel their vacation got fired.**

This is one thing -- though far from the only thing -- that worries me about the current trend to make educational institutions more businesslike.  Put aside the small detail that schools don't operate like businesses, and treating them as if they do will not produce desirable results. I'm afraid that the push for "results" will bring larger numbers of "aggressive self-starters" to the academic world. While that may sound like a good thing, I promise you it is not. I just hope it takes a while. I would hate to have to start another career.

* Surprised? Yeah, me neither.

** He didn't really get fired for that. It was just a typical example of his style, and one of his final acts.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Taking a breath

Last night I finished a grant proposal that has dominated my time and attention since returning from a conference two weeks ago. Before that I was planning my conference presentation, and the trip in which it was wrapped. Before that was packing for a move that still hasn't happened. Before that more stuff, intermingled with various committees, student interactions, and family events. The last time I recall being without a looming deadline was the day after Christmas, and I was shoveling snow.

I think we all remember the great Christmas blizzard of oh-twelve. Am-I-right?

This afternoon I will attend the first of a half dozen impending meetings that will kick off a half dozen new projects, with deadlines stretching from September through next June. Summer school ends in two weeks, then (hopefully) a new work home, then a brand new academic year. More conferences and special events, more proposals, more websites, more papers, more students, more to-do lists and deadlines. Somewhere in there I will need to fit jury duty*, medical appointments, shopping trips, and more family visits. This afternoon it all starts again.

But not this morning. This morning I am taking a breath.  My head is empty, and I will do my best to keep it that way. I plan to close my door, sip coffee, and maybe eat a Pop-Tart. I am not reading e-mail, and I will think very hard before answering the phone.


If there is time later, I may spend a few minutes contemplating a life where days like this are common, rather than a biannual exception. Days where we wake up thinking, "I wonder what I will do today?" without a hint of sarcasm. Days that routinely include walks, and sunsets, and afternoon naps. With benefits.

Don't get me wrong. I had the rare privilege of choosing this life for myself, and I am grateful for it (almost) every day. But we all have our fantasies.

Here's to breathing.

* If you want to make sure you never serve on a jury, go out and get yourself an advanced degree. I'm not sure I know anyone with any sort of degree that has made it to the jury box, but a Masters or Ph.D. will just about get you laughed out of the courthouse. They say it has something to do with wanting to "better reflect the makeup of society at large," or something along those lines. I'm not sure what it says about our justice system, but I can't imagine that it's good. Of course, they still make you report.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Friendly skies

The last time I was on a long multi-leg trip, it was the final flight that was the problem. This time it was all the rest. Our flight to Atlanta (of course) to catch the big bird to London was delayed by an hour before we even left the house. It eventually took off not quite two hours late. Luckily, it is not as hard to get out of our country as it is to get back in, and our overseas flight was almost an hour late taking off, so it all turned out okay. Apparently they pushed the throttles to the stops because we landed in the UK right on time.

Speaking of getting back in the country, when we landed at Heathrow there was a passport gate for EU Citizens that people were walking through sort of waving their passports, while foreigners stood in line with a zillion other people waiting for a manual passport check and light interrogation. Since we had been in row 41 on the plane, we got to watch 280 other people go before us. Luckily, when we reentered the U.S. at Atlanta -- no wait, it was worse! The foreigners were standing in a line shorter than ours, while the four agents manning the twenty-something U.S. citizen gates quizzed us about how long we were out of the country. I wanted to tell the guy it was none of his business, but assumed that would be counter-productive.

One benefit (maybe the only one) of being in a long queue is that it is a great opportunity to people watch. This time I was interested to see how opinions colored people's perception of our situation. I assumed that the dearth of passport control agents was likely a combination of budget cuts and some calculus concerning how long people would stand in line before becoming too unruly or missing their flights. The lady behind us seemed convinced that there was an agent for every gate, and the rest were apparently lazing around in the back somewhere. Probably playing dominoes. You know how union workers and bureaucrats love their dominoes.

After an hour at passport control, there is the ceremonial claiming of the bags and putting them on a different belt. I can think of no logical reason for this little ritual, except to give people a chance to stash their duty free liquids in their checked bags before going through security. Again.

None of this would have been a problem, except that we were an hour late getting to Atlanta. Only about 15 minutes of that was flying time. There was still a plane at our gate when we landed, and a few babies and old people decided they couldn't wait until we parked to pee, so we sat between two runways for about half an hour. As it was, we got to our gate in plenty of time, our plane left more or less on schedule, and the flight home was uneventful, which is exactly how I like them.

As air travel goes these days it wasn't bad. Except for one cranky little dude on the first overseas flight, the flight attendants were generally friendly, I got to catch up on a few movies, and the person in front of me never tried to lay their seat flat. There was a child under five either directly in front of or behind us on all four flights, but Biscuit got the brunt of that.

The final session of a conference. This room  was full on the first day. Most of the people remaining had something to do with organizing the thing, and are just waiting to receive their appreciation gift.
I will write about the rest of the trip when I get through the pictures, and can stay up later than 8:00 pm. Okay, not the conference so much. Not even my mother wants to hear about the conference.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ninety-five percent half naked

I have worn a St. Christopher medal most every day since I was fourteen. This is not something most people know about me. That's well into five figures of days, placing the chain around my neck when I dress in the morning, laying it down carefully before I climb into bed at night. I have long since grown accustomed to the feel of it, and in most cases I could not tell you without checking whether I was wearing it or not.

The current medal is actually my third, each a gift from a (different) woman who meant a great deal to me. The first barely outlasted the relationship that started it all, lost after only a couple of years. The second survived much longer, through my days on the road and other youthful misadventures. Unfortunately, the ex never really liked the fact that it was a gift from someone else, and it disappeared during the turmoil of our divorce.

The second medal was similar to this one. I always liked the Be my guide
inscription over than the more common Protect us. It seems less needy, somehow.

She needn't have been concerned. While the medals were important symbolic gifts, they were never strong reminders of the givers. They were my secret indulgence in superstition,  egotism,  ... different things at different times. But this little piece of jewelry (I really think of them as one object) has always felt like mine -- perhaps more than anything else I own -- and I associate it with my personal journey much more strongly than its own origins. I have worn the current version for over twenty years now.

It never mattered to me that St. Christopher was removed from the official roster of saints when I was a child. Actually, since I am not Catholic, it was a bit of a bonus. What was important was that we shared a name, and that he was the patron saint of travelers. As a fledging disciple of an eclectic mix of Eastern philosophies, I initially found the symbolism quite compelling. I no longer read the Tao regularly or consult the I Ching, but I still see life more as journey than destination, so the feeling of kinship with St. Kitt remains strong.

Yesterday morning I reached for the silver chain in its pewter tray, exactly as I have done thousands of times before, and came up empty. The medal and its chain have vanished, and a light search of probable locations has come up empty. I can't definitively remember the last time I noticed having it. You may as well ask when I last remember having my left pinky. All I know for sure is that I don't have it now, and I am beginning to feel its absence.

There may be feline involvement. I felt confident that the cats would not be interested in it, but I began to rethink my position when I saw one carrying a pill organizer down the hall this morning. If so, then it may turn up again, though both cats love to watch things disappear, and there are some suitable crevices and drain holes in our house.

While often proud of his possessions, Boy Cat was trying to sneak away with this undetected. Don't worry.
He doesn't have a drug problem. We use these to portion out fish food for vacation pet minders. The cats love fish food.

More likely the clasp gave way and it slipped from my neck in some random location on campus or in the yard. It has happened before, and while up until now I have always felt it fall, I assumed the day would come when I would not be so lucky. If this is the case, and I have seen the last of this iteration, I hope it has fallen where someone will find it. Like the two before this one, I like to think of St. Christopher helping someone else navigate life's strong currents.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Joys of Moving

As a footloose young man, I never met a move I didn't like. I graduated from high school living in the house where I was born,* and relocation possessed for me the romantic appeal that only comes from inexperience. Between my eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays I lived at eight different addresses in five cities in three states.

Of course in those days everything I owned fit in my car.** And half of it never got unpacked. Moving took about four hours plus driving time and however long I spent broken down on the side of the road. I probably would have done it more often, if not for utility deposits.

That all changed when I acquired my first live-in girlfriend, destined to become my ex-wife some dozen years later. Before I knew it I owned a pit sectional, component stereo, and my own refrigerator. A refrigerator, for Gods-sake. Suddenly, moves required U-Hauls and planning, and pizza and beer for friends. Soon I was hiring moving companies and putting things in storage.

This could be a post about the evils of acquiring things, but it's not. I really just want to make the point that moving sucks if you can't fit everything in one carload. And sometimes even then, depending on circumstances.

Why bring this up now? I'm glad you asked. The research center where I work has occupied various temporary homes since its inception, waiting for the fabled "new building" to be designed, funded, and constructed. That day has finally arrived. Or at least, it was supposed to arrive last September, then December, February, April, and latest of all, this week. Of course this requires packing our offices and labs into boxes, and sorting it out on the other end.

Everyone keeps telling us that this is our new work home. At this point, I will believe it when I show up and my stuff is there.

For most people -- or at least for me -- this is a chance to be rid of some old things that are obsolete, worn out, or otherwise no longer useful. In this case we have the added motivation of moving into a smaller space with glass walls. Unfortunately, my colleague and part time boss is a ... umm, let's go with "collector," so we've managed to throw away only a fraction of what we should have. As an example, we have a box labeled "paper scraps." I am not making this up.

Undiscouraged, we packed and sorted and taped and labeled and stacked. By last Thursday we were down to things we actually use every day, and the boxes for those things were assembled and waiting. There is not really any room to work, but we only have to endure for a couple of days, right?  The IT people were taking down whiteboards and preparing to move our servers. Then, around 4:30 in the afternoon, came the "Move Delayed!" e-mail with the high priority status icon. The main difference in this edition of the all-too-familiar-by-now message was that there was no "until" included. It seems there are some issues with the building, and all we know is that the move will happen some time in the future. The most persistent rumor I have heard is nine weeks.

Oh, happy day.

* Not literally. I was born in a hospital. I'm not that old.

** Except for my albums. The were held for safekeeping by my friend Winston. There were only two people on Earth in whom I would place this sacred trust, and the other was already married.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The case for mortality

Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind was my first exposure to the notion that our early concepts -- those things we learned to believe first -- are the hardest to change. The reason is that so much else depends on them. They are like our mental alphabet, and modifications risk collapsing the structure of our thoughts and beliefs. (John Holland and others showed similar results for genes, but that's a story for a different day.) The more complex and experienced our minds become, the more inflexible. It's not biology so much as it is math. So we are born with an expiration date. As long as the world changes around us, we will continue to be left behind. Whether this is by accident or design, we are unlikely to alter it.

My grandfather was born to a world without cars, radio, or electricity.* He didn't get running water inside the house until he was in his sixties, and still preferred the walk to the outhouse when weather permitted. I suppose pooping in the house is a concept that takes some getting used to, if you didn't grow up with it. I don't think he ever had a telephone, and he managed to live eighty-four years without ever stepping on an airplane.

My grandfather and me in the "initial food prep" area of his farm. The smokehouse is in the background, with his impressive collection of walking sticks. Just out of the frame to the right is a spigot that delivered the only running water on the farm.

My parents' generation was forged in a global depression sandwiched between the two most destructive wars our civilization has ever experienced, harbingers of the promise and potential horror of globalization and technology. Fortitude, stability, and duty were their watchwords. Their world was a hard and dangerous place. The wise were prepared for anything. They believed in citizenship and strong social institutions. If they were the greatest generation, it is likely because they lived the greatest challenges.

My lot grew up in the Cold War. Whether we were playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Allies and Nazis, or something else, there were good guys and bad guys, and no question of which was which. Science and technology had started and ended WWII, cured polio and smallpox, and were helping us beat the dirty Russkies to the moon. Most families had one car and one working parent. Cokes were a dime and comic books were 12¢. The '¢' symbol was common. We roamed pretty much wherever we wished as kids, with the only restrictions that we look both ways before crossing the street, try not to put anyone's eye out, and be home for dinner.

I notice two phenomena as I age. The world moves away from us, in my case with globalization, new technology, complicated politics and 24 hour cable news (rapidly being replaced by Internet channels of all kinds). And we become less interested in keeping up with progress, or maybe it's that progress seems like more of an illusion. I learned enough model numbers as a kid trying to prove I knew stereo equipment. I have very little interest in keeping up with the newest smartphone features. A dear friend's father retired from architecture a few years early when his firm computerized, choosing not to bother learning a new way to do a job he had done all his life, and had done better than almost anyone. Like most his age, he eventually learned to e-mail and surf the Internet, but computer technology is neither his friend nor his constant companion.

While many of us never lose our fear of death, we begin to lose our place in life. The present becomes at once lonelier, more confusing, and more mundane. We fill the void by investing heavily in memories of the past and hopes for the future.**

On the other hand, no one appreciates a day like a person who doesn't know how many more they will see. The countability of our moments gives them meaning. I think it's impossible for the young to fully appreciate this, but it is no problem for someone who attends funerals as regularly as the rest of us go out to dinner. Every time I think of how I miss my father, I am reminded.

The result (and possibly the cause) of all this is that the little things -- family, friends, the sun in your face on a perfect day -- become the big things in life. The title on a business card, or the number of Twitter followers and Facebook friends fade in comparison. At least that's how it seems to be working for me.

I've always believed that we should enjoy our days, because the clock is ticking. It's only been in recent years that I have decided I'm okay with that.

* Technically, all of these things existed when my grandfather was born. They just weren't at all common. Sort of like Segways.

** One word: grandchildren.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Road Stories: Supertrash

In the late 1970's, the ancestors of the four companies that now own all of your music and television were young, hungry, and awash in cash and blow.  In other words, they were motivated and able to try bold new things, without the judgment to wonder if they were good ideas. This smokey crucible produced the enduring cash machine of the outdoor music festival, and money pits like the ELO spaceship and the made to order supergroup.

The definition of a supergroup (often capitalized for no reason I can understand) in those days was a group composed completely or in part of people who were already famous. The desire to create them came from early more or less organic successes like Cream, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

The main problem with supergroups is that they are full of inflated egos who are all convinced that their enormous talent is the only chance the thing has for success. They never last, though a record executive who could put together another Cream would probably be okay if they only did one tour. I think the reasons that any bands ever stay together after they get famous boil down to habit and long familiarity.

I got to witness two of the less stellar attempts at this new sport. The first was the RCO All Stars, which provided the venue for my initial hiring. I was fortunate enough to call SHOWCO on the day after Randy Lawson had failed to show up for work for the next to the last time ever, so the late great Kirby Wyatt** sent me down to the RCO show in town the next day for a job interview.

Actually, Levon Helm was having health problems even then, and the show was cancelled, so my interview happened in Budrock's hotel room. Budrock would go on to become Willy Nelson's long time lighting director, and if you want a mental image of him, use Charlie Daniels. I learned a lot about Budrock over the years, but the first thing I learned was that he could not brush his teeth without gagging. This problem had cropped up suddenly after his divorce and seemed to annoy him greatly, but he had found a workaround. If he lifted one foot off the ground, he was fine. So my first exposure to this new company was watching a man in cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat brush his teeth while standing on one foot.

Anyway, I got hired and the RCO All Stars never did really get much of a tour together, though they tried one or two more times. They put out one album that didn't sell very well, and all sort of drifted away, I think. We were all quite disappointed, because the band was reported to be very good.

The second was the Dudek, Finnegan and Kreuger band, or DFK.* This was a good example of trying to make a supergroup from great musicians who were not famous enough. We all liked them. Their music had a complexity that hipsters thought was necessary at the time, but was poppy enough to be enjoyable. Sort of Genesis meets Peter Frampton, to use an analogy of the day. But they didn't really have a great songwriter or front man, so they were probably doomed from the start.

The also could bring it live, which was the real litmus test for any band. We did a three week trans-Texas tour for them to tune their road chops, which included one of the best shows I ever saw. We played in the Ritz Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas on a hot night in late Spring. The great thing about decaying theaters is that the owners tend not to be overprotective of the upholstery, and just want to fill the seats, so pretty much anything goes. They were serving beer in big plastic cups, and by the end of the night pretty much everyone was drunk. Dave Mason made a surprise appearance to close the set, and he was Hasselhof drunk, but still playing guitar better than 99% of us could even fantasize. The show ended with Dave and Les Dudek lying boot to sneaker on the front of the stage, dueling with guitars and matching each other note for note, while the band kept up like only real professional musicians can do. It was magical. And sweaty.

Alas, DFK was not to be. They made a single album, which sold less than the RCO All Stars, but the band had already split before it was released. Musicians are not the only people with egos, and in this case the rumor was that management disputes made it unhappen. The record company released the album as a one-off, and DFK faded into the CO2 fog of history.

Neither these two, nor countless other experiences can keep the music executive from trying again. I assume it won't be long before we see the American Idol All Stars form a band. Or since technology has virtually eliminated the need for real musical talent, maybe it will be Donald Trump, Nancy Grace, and Dr. Phil, with Lindsey Lohan on drums.

* I know, right? A lot of this depends on your definition of "famous."  Also, it was pretty obvious it was doomed since they couldn't even agree on a real name. I'm surprised they were able to agree on alphabetical billing.

** Kirby was the best and most terrifying boss I have ever had, all at the same time. He knew everything, he saw everything, and he had an answer for every problem. On several occasions I stormed into his office intending to quit and left a half hour later feeling lucky to have a job. I have never met his equal.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing for position

I've been writing much more at work for the last year or so, which has a lot to do with the time I have not been spending here. Writing for academic conferences is competitive in a way that I had not had occasion to ponder until about a week ago. And unlike most other fields, my specialty is dominated by conference publications (rather than journals), due to how quickly the research changes.

Conferences generally know from the beginning how many papers they will accept. This is a function not only of having to provide time and space for each paper to be presented, but also a holdover from the days when proceedings* were expensive to publish, and every page counted. So instead of the work being compared to some specific standard of quality set by the publisher, conference papers are in direct competition with each other, as judged by the competitors and their rivals. Acceptance rates are single digits for a few established and prestigious conferences, and are published as a matter of course.

Most of the conferences I target have an acceptance rate of one in five or six, so while it's no fun to get a rejection, neither is it usually a big surprise. It's what I was expecting when I submitted a paper in December for a June conference. The writing was jammed between the end of semester, the holidays, and several other work deadlines, so it was not my best work. The project itself seemed interesting enough, and the paper was good enough that I wasn't embarrassed to submit it, but only just. My plan was to take the feedback and refine it to submit somewhere else.

Every paper is assigned a primary reviewer, who is responsible for rounding up three additional referees, all of whom provide ratings and feedback. The ratings are on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 signifying "better than I could have written," and 1 meaning "it's burning in my wastebasket as we speak." For better conferences (like this one), some papers are rejected outright, some (those with all fours and fives) are accepted, and the rest are given a chance to write a rebuttal of the reviews. Then a committee meets to decide who's in and who gets the home version as a consolation prize.

Remember to keep it close to the wall through the Discussion section.  Image from here.

Rebuttaling is a delicate business. Regardless of whether a paper gets accepted, there is a very high chance that the same people will review your work in the future, so the "Reviewer 2 is a poopy pants" approach is not generally recommended. We pretend this is all anonymous, but academic communities are very specialized and surprisingly small these days, so everyone knows who is skewering whom. The safe approach is to thank the reviewers for telling you your writing is awful, assure them that their reviews were better than Cats, and start working on the next publication.

My ratings averaged to "meh," which normally means thanks for playing. Imagine my surprise when comments from my primary reviewer said essentially, "I would like to see this in the conference. Write a rebuttal that will convince us. You have five days and up to 5000 characters."

First, let me say that if you ever receive such a notice, it's important not to read 5000 characters as 5000 words. Just don't do it. But it got written and submitted, and it's arguably better than the paper, so I consider it a good exercise. Hopefully it will be just enough to edge out some poor slob whose reviewer hates his Ph.D. advisor, and I will have some work-funded travel to look forward to.  I  will know in a few days. In the meantime, I guess I will start on the next one.

Updated: After a successful rebuttal and two rounds of revisions, the paper has been accepted. I will spare you any description of the subject matter. If I can manage to get the camera-ready version uploaded to the website, it looks like I will be heading back across the pond this summer.

* All of the papers presented, as well as descriptions of selected other activities and messages from Powers that Be, are collected into the Proceedings of the 24th Annual Conference for Whatever Arcane Topic and published. They used to be bound as books. Now most are distributed on DVD, or increasingly, online.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Things I love about gardening

Every year I plant a handful of plants and call it a garden. Basically, I grow pizza and salad ingredients -- basil, tomatoes, bell peppers, lettuce and whatever else strikes my fancy. If I could find a mozzarella tree we would be in business. This year I decided to start a few seeds indoors before the weather was reliable outside.

Apparently the cat approved.

Planting seeds from the garden, you can never be sure what will grow.
I don't know what's up with her lately. Notice how she didn't run away as I asked her what she was doing and then went to fetch the camera. This is despite the fact that she pretty much runs away whenever I enter a room she occupies.

Don't worry, I won't be inviting any of you over to eat the lettuce under her butt. She ate what she didn't crush.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Have at you!

I accidentally started playing Dragon Age: Origins shortly after the new year, and now I'm a Level 13 Rogue with a demon on my back. I've been playing most nights before bed for a couple of weeks, and the lack of sleep is beginning to show. So far I've managed to resist questing before breakfast on workdays.

"I am Tater of the Grey Wardens, and I have come to save your land."  I try to give my characters silly names whenever possible. It pays off in the dialog throughout the game.
Third person role-playing games like DAO have fallen out of favor in the last few years, and virtually all big studio releases (including this game's sequel) now feature some variation of the first-person shooter style originally popularized with DOOM.* There is a bit of a learning curve, and it took a while to really get into this one. I had forgotten how much I liked these games, so my first few of weeks playing an hour every few days lulled me into a false sense of self control.

Battles involve carefully telling each character in my little group what to do next, letting the action run for a few frames, pausing the game, drinking a few potions, and doing it all again. It's a bit like stop motion animation. The world in this game is vast, and I'm probably less than halfway through. Biscuit lost interest in playing RPG's that are not Fallout some time ago, but she does seem to enjoy watching. And she's a good strategist, so her help is most welcome.

Fighting evil is messy business, isn't it boy?
The chemical rush one receives from beheading a darkspawn or setting an evil mage on fire is apparently chemically indistinguishable from the one delivered by being punched in the face, though considerably less intense. This particular adrenaline cocktail is known to be "habit-forming" as they used to say, but the game version has the distinct advantage of being pain-free. And we know that game-based training increases retention. So, while it may look like I'm wasting endless hours repeating the same silly actions, I am actually staying in fighting trim. Not physically of course, but if I am ever attacked by a legion of fire demons I will have my head on straight. Or I'm indulging an addiction. You say tomato...

Whatever the neurochemical truth, it is refreshing to trade the stresses and constraints of the real world for the stresses and constraints of a fantasy adventure for a few hours. I will be through it in a couple more weeks, and then I can spend a few months drying out and getting the bloodstains out of my armor. But right now you must excuse me. There is a considerable amount of rescuing and slaying that needs doing.

*This is not an improvement. It is an example of the "mcdonaldization" of the game business, resulting in all major games being essentially the same. The biggest differences are the scenery and the costumes.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Pounding

My mother once told me of an old Ozark tradition that was apparently the hillbilly equivalent of a bridal shower in the first half of the last century. The ladies in the area would give the young young bride* what was known as a "pounding."**  In order to help stock the new couple's larder, each guest would bring a pound of flour, or corn meal, or beans, coffee ... you get the idea. Each item was well appreciated, and you can bet the person that brought the coffee was one of the more well-to-do ladies of the group. I think of that every time I see a couple registered for a flat screen television or a $500 cookware set.

This post is not at all about that. It's about football. Sort of. The Large Southern University where I work is expanding their stadium. Apparently there are over 100,000 people that will pay ridiculous money to sit on bleachers in the heat/cold/rain/etc. to watch the local sports team play, so we're going to need more bleachers. As with all construction, it starts with the dirt work and foundation.

Since we don't have anything that resembles bedrock down here, big structures are built on great numbers of concrete pilings that have been driven 25, or 50, or 150 feet into the ground. If you're not familiar with the concept, take a bowl of pudding, stick 30 or 40 toothpicks about halfway in, and then set a graham cracker on top. Go on, I'll wait. (I would recommend chocolate.)

As you can imagine, the process of driving foot-square concrete poles into the ground is a noisy affair. And it's been going on right outside of our building since just after Thanksgiving. Every day. All day. From before I get to work until the time I leave.

Put this on a loop and let it run for a couple of days. You will start to get the idea.

It's not quite constant. Constant might be better. They pound for what seems like forever and then it stops. About the time sanity returns it starts again. And the loudness varies. Yesterday they were on the other side of the stadium. Sometimes they are about fifty feet from the window of my lab. On those days it's hard to carry on a conversation.

I have no idea how much longer this will go on. I thought they were almost finished, as the stack of pilings was diminishing quickly. Then last week I was almost run over by a truck delivering more.

It could be a long Spring.

* And we are talking young. My grandmother was married at fourteen.

** I know, right. I don't even know which direction to go with that.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Road Stories: Cowgirls and Illinoisans

We were having a much too long discussion recently on an old roadie forum trying to identify various mustachioed youngsters in an old photograph, when my old roadie friend Jim made a comment comparing me to my old roadie friend Kevin, with the implication that we not only "favored," as they used to say in Texas, but that we were more or less interchangeable. I initially found this to be a ridiculous statement, since Kevin was a Chicago street kid about half my size, very high energy, and so cute that we tried not to have him around when we were trying to meet women. He also climbed like a monkey, which was a definite plus in our line of work. I was a lumbering, laid back, shy Southern boy with no real street smarts and a fear of heights. But then, as with pretty much anything anyone says to me ever, I was reminded of a story. Or at least a fragment of a story.

This is part of the lighting rig for the Hong Kong Trade Show, at that time billed as the largest fashion show in the world. It's also where I learned that many models really are as dumb as they are portrayed on TV. Some are even dumber. I'm seated third from the left, rocking the flannel shirt and three stripe Adidas. My roommate is on the far right, sporting the Quaker beard. As far as I recall, he never threw away a single piece of trash in our apartment. I should probably look for him on Hoarders.

Lighting roadies really didn't meet a lot of women on the road, or do much of anything else, really. We started work too early and stayed too late. The occasions when we managed to grab a slice of normal life -- a cookout at someone's friend's house on Lake Michigan, or a round of golf at Pine Knob -- shine much brighter in our memories than the endless shows and hotel rooms.

I found myself in Arizona once (Tempe, I think) with that rarest of road holidays, the day off with no travel. I don't remember exactly where we met Cowgirl and her friend. I think she may have been working at whatever bar and grill we wandered into. What followed was one of the most pleasant and comfortable twenty-four hour periods of my young life. We spent most of the day riding horses through the desert. She made a home-cooked meal. There was napping.* In short, we really hit it off. So much so that I kept her address, and promised to call on my next trip through.

Instead, it was Kevin who called on his next trip through. They apparently hit it off as well, because he left the road before too long to join her in the desert. They ended up married with children. They were an unlikely couple, but perfect for each other in many ways. Maybe we were more interchangeable than I thought.

It's probably impossible to adequately describe the culture that allowed Kevin to ask me for Cowgirl's number, and for me to give it to him, without an impact on our friendship. Frankly, it's hard for me to understand it myself, from this far removed. But I'm confident that it wasn't a matter of devaluing or objectifying women, at least not in this case. I saw Cowgirl as more of a friend and peer than any sort of sex object. He was looking for one of those slivers of real life on the road, and I thought they would enjoy each other's company. Plus, he had never been on a horse, and everyone should ride a horse at least once. I think it was more a matter of devaluing sex. And it cut both ways.

For example, when my roommate's girlfriend drove from Oklahoma one weekend for a surprise visit, only to discover that he was on the road, she seemed determined not to return empty handed ... or, whatever. So we drank some tequila, she pierced my ear, and we passed a very pleasant thirty-six hours until she had to drive home. No one felt particularly guilty, and we never spoke of it afterwards.

It seems that while Kevin and I may have been somewhat fungible, those years really are not like any others, and not just because they were the years I was young. It really was a different time, the full flower of the cultural experiment begun in the 1960's, right before it collapsed into the Reagan years, and the resurgence of traditional values. A better time? Maybe not. But definitely a great time to be young.

* It is almost impossible to overstate the pleasure of an afternoon nap to the chronically sleep deprived.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The melting pot

It's been a pretty good New Year's holiday, considering I'm still intermittently clocking a hundred point something fever, and if I cough one more time I'm afraid the top of my head will come off. But at least I don't feel like my skin is icy-hot anymore, or that I'm going to need a double hip replacement before the day is out.  And my sense of taste is coming back, though that can be a mixed blessing with the stuff that's being manufactured in my head and chest. Hopefully, I'm also making a little more sense. The weekend is a bit of a blur, but I would be willing to bet that little of what I said was worth writing down.

Once again faced with the biennial 1500 mile Christmas tour, Biscuit and I decided that longer stays weren't going to make the drive any shorter, so we scheduled two nights at each homestead for a total of five days away. It ended up being only four.

All went pretty much as expected at Biscuit's parents' house. Many treats and goodies were eaten, relatives' health issues discussed, Christmas Eve candlelight service was attended, and the latest project presented for consideration. Biscuit's father is a tinkerer on a scale which typically only mad scientists approach, and a visit to the shop out back is a high point of every visit. It was sometime Monday afternoon when the weather entered my consciousness.

I had checked the forecast around 700 times before we left, because I'm a middle-aged man and that's what we do. Apart from some possible light showers on our Christmas Day drive from Biscuit's homestead to my mother's house, it seemed like clear sailing, and even a little milder than usual. But by Christmas Eve, a monster storm had appeared from nowhere and was predicted to cross our path the next day*. Luckily, it looked like we would be driving well ahead of the storm, and safely at my mother's before we saw more than cold drizzle, whatever was going to happen.

Well, "whatever" turned out to be the largest snowfall since I was in elementary school**, over a foundation of a daylong rain and an inch or so of ice. We arrived at my mother's in plenty of time for Christmas dinner, since they were predictably two hours late (and losing ground) on preparations when we arrived at mealtime. We had a lovely meal, my mother gave her annual tearful speech on how special it was to have the whole family together, and everyone got home (just barely) before the roads became impassable.

Many people in my hometown are rethinking the whole "dreaming of a white Christmas" idea. The trees on the right are normally taller than the house, but are bent almost flat by the snow load.  Everyone in my family got power back on the fourth day, which is quite good by hurricane standards. Of course, after a hurricane we typically don't have to worry about freezing to death.

Little Rock is a city of steep hills and many trees. On Boxing Day morning it was also a city largely without electricity, nine inches of snow and ice on the streets, and exactly four snow plows. Since only one of my siblings had electricity (and heat), and since his house has four fewer than the six bedrooms required to put up the family, we decided that home was the better part of valor, arranged for my brother to fetch my mother, and we set off for our own blessedly electrified house. We had to shovel our way out of my mother's cul de sac, but after that we had no real problems getting home.

We observed another tradition of this trip, which is that one of us bring home a cold or the flu. This year was my turn. Probably because I dared to enter a church. I started to feel that nagging rawness at the back of my throat on the drive home on Wednesday, and by Thursday night I was feverish and unable to sleep. I've spent most of the last week tossing and turning on various horizontal surfaces around the house, coughing, and browsing for things on the Internet that I immediately forget having seen. But one or two things have managed to stick in my frying brain.

The diversity of New Year's traditions listed by my FB friends over the last couple of days reminded me that the American Culture many of us were raised to believe in is a myth, or at least a subculture made up of a dwindling -- if influential -- minority. Television would have us believe that we all party hearty on the Eve, and then watch football and make resolutions all the next day. I know millions of people do that -- I have been one on occasion -- but it may not be as common as some people at Disney or NewsCorp would have us think. I know a lot of people with different ideas on how to commemorate the turning of the year. Many African Americans pile into churches on New Year's Eve to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud -- a tradition considerably older than college bowl games. Most Southerners that I know share the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year's Day, but the details of the meal vary widely from region to region, and even family to family. (We had black-eyed pea hummus (my first attempt), coleslaw with Greek salad dressing, and Mediterranean pork tenderloin.***)

I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say here, except that when I was a kid we heard a lot about America as the melting pot of different cultures and traditions. We celebrated the diversity of our origins, but assumed that all of the pieces would merge into some homogeneous American fondue. A great many people still believe in this vision, and more than a few of them think we have enough different flavors already. In truth, I think the United States is more of a stew pot. The flavors blend, but individual chunks remain. It's the partial blending that gives the dish its richness. Damn, now I want stew.

In any case, Happy New Year Internet Friends, however you celebrate. And whatever your hopes and dreams may be for this year, I hope enough of them come true to make this your best year yet.

* I'm not sure when was the last time I saw local television weather-casters so confused by a storm. They had essentially predicted somewhere between zero and ten inches of snow for Biscuit's parents, with the promise that they would have a better idea "tomorrow", which was of course the day the storm arrived.

** When we still didn't know what the Moon was made of.

*** In Southern Louisiana the tradition tends to go black-eyed peas for luck, cabbage for money, and pork for good health.