So many words, so little time....

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Home Improvement gives me gray hair...

My daughter ran a cardboard box through the wash, for reasons passing understanding. I have learned a great deal from the experience.

1.) Having an computer science degree means squat when there's an inch of water in the hallway.

2.) There are not enough towels in the world to deal with that much water.

3.) The amount of carpet that is soaked will be inversely proportional to the amount of towels you have, and directly proportional to the number of months it's been since you've had your carpets cleaned.

4.) Each fastener must have it's leverage part carefully concealed under some useless but pretty chrome bit that is physically impossible to reach around with a standard tool.

5.) The phrase, "Hello, this is the Applicances Department. Can I help you?" can be more accurately stated as, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

6.) Don't forget to turn off both valves in the wall before starting to unscrew the hoses. Just because that last load was a cold one doesn't mean they magically turned that spigot handle when your back was turned.

7.) Remember that cool thing in the toolbox with the magnet to hold onto all these important little gewgaws you're pulling off this machine? It's part of the robot being built in the boy's room now. Oh, and you'll only remember that when BEHIND the apparatus with a handful of real important-looking stuff.

8.) There will always be one smart-alec kid who applauds when you ask them to give you a hand. And they will only do it when you can't reach their scrawny little neck.

9.) The entire problem will always be caused by a little wad of something that shouldn't be in the machine in the first place. It will be about the size of the end of your index finger, and trapped in the drain filter.

10.) If you'd known that in the first place, you could have fixed it by removing three screws and one hose clamp.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Klingons for Kerry...

And just when you think you've seen everything, someone proves you wrong. I was dredging around on one my favorite boards and one of the other denizens posted a link to this story. I'm not making this up, and neither is the Willamette Weekly. Once I'd wiped the tea off my monitor, I re-read the article and realized the author was actually shocked about it. Weird.

It made me start to think. How does the average Trekkie feel about the election? Or the average comic-book fan? How does the Society for Creative Anachronism break down, politically speaking? How about the average computer gamer? Taking a look around the rest of the Alpha quadrant, we see some interesting things.

It turned out the Federation contingent seems to have some strong Democrat leanings, too. Kate Mulgrew's husband is running for Ohio governor as a Democrat, with the support of several of her famous co-workers, such as William Shatner. The Borg, at least in the person of 7of9, seem to tend Republican. Jerri Ryan's divorce papers from four years ago seem to have scuttled her ex's political aspirations to be the Republican senator from Illinois. But it's not just the actors. When it comes to regular fans it can get pretty hardcore, like that lady who wears her Starfleet officer's regalia to work every day, and insisted on wearing it while serving as a juror in the Whitewater trial.

People who aren't involved in really geeky pursuits often don't realize just how deep the rabbit hole goes when it comes to people who take these things to this level. The people who show up at their favorite movie dressed as a character do more than just watch the show. They actually build an identity in that context, and that includes all aspects of the life, from names and family relationships and personal life to political aspirations. My own geeky rule-of-thumb: If someone owns a costume for their particular world, you can bet they've made decisions in their life based on the precepts of that world. If they speak the language, you know they've made important decisions based on it.

It's the big things, and it's the little things. You can get married on the bridge of the Star Trek Experience in Vegas. Your local SCA chapter can also provide you with a medieval experience. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend of mine wears a "What Would Jean-Luc Do?" bracelet. And no, you may not tease me for my "Squidbob Cthulpants" t-shirt or my "ph34r t3h cute ones" screen background.

I personally like the idea. I would much rather see people making their decisions based on the pig-headed honor of the Klingons or the cockeyed optimism of the Federation than the dreary, dirty mess our world dishes out every day. I myself have been highly influenced by the harcore libertarian slant of the writings of Robert Heinlein. It's just my good fortune that the standard "costume" in many of his books is a birthday suit. It's a heck of a lot easier to hide under my daily wear than my light sabre.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Bad Coffee and Good Friends....

I got to spend some time this weekend doing some real dredging around in the memory banks. I tracked some stuff out besides what I was looking for, and it's settling a little weird. My life now is very different than my youth. Just about as different as time and a middlin' distance can make it. I grew up in a town that had 200 people in the winter. They didn't bother counting in the summer because everyone was too busy fleecing, uh, I mean "serving" the tourists. My family was from there. They still are there. I'm the one who's out of place.

Rarely does it show better than when I'm having coffee. Coffee is not supposed to be consumed from a paper cup while perched on a chair designed by a Swedish soulmate of Torquemada. You drink it from an off-white Ironware mug with a brown ring around the rim while sitting on a cracked vinyl chair-seat. You don't season it with fancy brown sugar and three different thermos bottles of cream. You have three choices: pink packets, white packets, and the little dented pitcher with the lid sitting in the saucer of ice. You don't stir it with a long wooden stick or a straw. A slightly beat-up stainless steel spoon that can be rapped on the rim twice to get the drops off and then propped in edge of the saucer mixes everything just right. You don't order it in pseudo-Italian gibberish. You don't even have to say a word. You just sit down and turn over the cup. It doesn't cost $4 either. In the best establishments, you pay by the hour.

The conversation's a very different bird, too. Current events, work, and the concerns of this busy modern world are given short shrift. You get a good yarn with just enough truth in it that it gives the rest of the table a good starting point for the next one. These aren't so much tall-tales as they are medium-tales. They're about ordinary people, but with slightly larger than ordinary cause and effect. Like the time Uncle Joe's then new wife burned dinner so badly it set off the neighbor's smoke alarm.

The words are old companions, fitted together long ago and oiled with laughter and old joking mockeries. They've had years of re-tellings to show them the way out into the room. Even the other's skepticisms are well practiced and delivered with the precise timing of a vaudeville duo. These same stories have lined up every morning and punched their clock in and out for as long as anyone can remember, and they file past on their way out to their jobs just like any other working stiff.

Newcomers are welcome. They're good for tipping, and new ears are always a good thing. But that's not what you wait for. There are few things in life more proud than the day when a child or grandchild finally gets up the courage to pull up a chair and sit down, turning over their own cup for the first time. They've learned the motions from years of sipping soda in the booth across the aisle, turned around and leaning so they could catch every word. They've practiced their story, and when you give them the chance they slip it right in. Don't worry, it won't be perfect but that's all right. A stumble here and there just helps the rest of the gang learn their parts and they've got years to polish it up just right.

The old people are the ones who spend the time down at the Glenn-Rich yarning. The busy grown-ups, with kids and jobs and what have you do it their own way. Usually, the moms pick someone's house to meet at, and they all bring their kids and sit at the table over-looking the yard. They have coffee and field kids in and out the front door. Then, about an hour before the men are due home from work they all go home and start dinner and what have you. But they have two hours to get ready, not one. When they get back into town, the guys all go over to the Shop. It was my grand-dad's when he was alive, now some cousin by marriage owns it. It's a log building with a quanset roof, about 100' by 30'. Grampa built it when they upgraded the runway right next door and he wanted a place where he could work on the planes out of the weather. All the snowmachines, trucks and everything else mechanical seemed to drift in and out of there, too. And every night, all the men would come by to visit with whatever project they were running, have a beer, and talk. Then it was home to dinner and kids and what have you.

Maybe that's why it's hard to feel like I'm sitting at the grown-up table sometimes. From where my notions of these things sit, real grownups do this all so differently.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Walking around the shadows...

It's been three years. Many of us have found a way to walk around those two long shadows. Last year's footprints guide our feet, and we have a surer path to tread today.

The world is still a scarier place than it was before that day. I think many had never really faced the concept of inexorability before. They had always been masters of their safe little worlds, and watching that monolithic proof that there are things that they can't help, hurry, or fight has torn their souls into an older shape. They don't like it. I know I don't. I'd stopped maintaining the skills needed to keep going in the face of this sort of creeping dread. They're rusty and they creak alarmingly when I try to use them. And the fact I have to teach them to my children makes me very angry indeed.

I couldn't figure out how to handle things. There isn't a real sort of focus for events here. We're on the other side of the country, so we couldn't just go somewhere. Each one of us came up with one thing we thought would be a good way to deal with it and wrote them down on small scraps of paper and put them in a box. I opened the box, and read:

make something
fix something
remember the past
give presents

Each one of us had our own reasons for choosing these things, and we discussed them and how we were going to implement them. We decided to do them all. We made applesauce from some of the wild apple trees in our neighborhood. We fixed and re-painted our front door. We gave an azalea bush to a lady who really wanted a new potted plant for her deck. We prayed together down by the flag in the local cemetary. We went out to an old fifties drive-in for a late lunch on the way back home.

When I said "make", I kind of meant building something, but the weather and the fact that I live in an apartment didn't cooperate. However, my eldest son had a good idea. We'd had a storm yesterday and it had played havoc with the local trees. There are a couple wild apple trees in the area and they had lost a lot of fruit. We couldn't fix it, or make it not happen, but we could take something that was lost and damaged and turn it into something good. So we went to the trees and picked up the fallen, as well as anything that was ripe that we could reach and they are simmering away on my stove as we speak. He also picked up some big branches that had fallen and it's been cut up and added to our woodpile on the deck for this winter.

He was the one who turned in "fixing something", too. We looked around at what projects needed to be done and could be done, and we decided to fix our front door. That way it would be better than it was, and we would see it every day. It just needed a tune-up (tighten hardware, etc) and a paint job, and we had the stuff for it. So we took a couple hours and we have a nice shiny door that swings and closes properly.

My younger son wanted to give a present. Because he didn't die at the Pentagon, my uncle was there to give him a fishing lesson that he would otherwise never have had. We thought about who and what, and he remembered a lady he helped with her groceries the other day. She had a dead pot of tulips on her deck, and she'd mentioned that a squirrel had eaten the bulbs. So we went over to Home Despot and found her a nice azalea bush on sale and all its paraphernalia, and he bought it and we took it to her place and we all had a soda while he planted it for her.

My other daughter has been driving her church youth pastor crazy with questions, so I guessed correctly it her suggestion that we pray. She wanted to go back out to the cemetery. She worries about her uncle, and she was pretty upset at our recent 1,000-casualty milestone. I figured it was as good a place as any, so we all piled into the car and went on our way. Once we got there, we found a quiet spot out of the way just up the hill from the flag, and she led us in a prayer and a moment of silence.

My bookish daughter thought we should find some way to remember things. On the way out to the cemetery I got majorly lost, and we ended up somewhere off the beaten track. By the road was a giant orange sign shaped like a barrel with "XXX" across the front. Not what I originally thought it was. When we got closer we saw it had a bunch of classic cars in the parking lot, and it was a drive-in. We stopped and I got directions for my left at Albuquerque, and we went on our way. On our way back, it was a unanimous decision that this was the place. We went in, and spent some time oohing and ahhhing at the classic memorabilia hung on the ceiling and walls and the gorgeous rolling stock in the parking lot. We got seated and ordered a round of their signature root beers in huge frosty mugs. Sensibly splitting two of the 9" big burgers, we listened to classic oldies and chomped away. It was interesting to hear from them how they remember that day. We talked about my Uncle a lot, and my brother-in-law over in Iraq. Not just the sad times, but also the fun things. We yarned for a long time over our mugs, sitting back in those metal-flecked vinyl chairs. There was a silly re-enactment of the "Great Balls of Fire" scene out of Top Gun that I wish I'd had some way to record. We took pictures and the staff did, too.

This was all done mindfully. We didn't just go do stuff like any other busy Saturday. It was done thinking about things, and talking about them. There was talk about what this meant to the world, and to us. How we thought things should have been handled, and how we think things should go from here. Nothing to change policy for; just working things out for ourselves.

So, this is going to be our formula from now on to deal with this day. I'll keep these slips of paper, and next year we'll each draw one from the box and decide how they're going to do that. To make something new and good out of something that was lost. To repair things damaged and in that way remember what was broken. To visit the past to help us be mindful of how it is the foundation of the present. We will give a gift, as those who survived and their families were given a gift that day. And we will pray for all those lost and all those who must live with this changed world, and most especially that we don't end up with more days like this on our calendar.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Why Have I Been Listening to Country More of Late?

Now, I listen to just about anything, so don't get too crazy at me. But lately I've begun listening to country a lot more. I'd figured it was just because the local country station has the best traffic reports and the least commercials during drive-time. But it's happening at home, too. I've been hunting through one of my favorite playlists for something and the latter part of it seems to be getting pretty heavy in the hick department. That, and all the recent posting about it made me stop and take stock.

Variety is a great thing. Grab one of those "Now That's What I Call Music" compilations and listen to it, front to back. It's all homogenized, for your convenience. They've found the combination to lock on as large a percentage of ears from a certain age group as they can, and that's what they do. Over and over and over. Country isn't at that point, yet. It draws on several root genres, and even during the peak times when they concentrate on the newest music I can hear a straight up Zydeco number, have it followed by a weepy ballad, and then it'll turn around and hit the guitar hard for some good ole' Southern Rock. The roots of rap, pop, and rock have a wealth of sound to choose from. Where do you hear it on the top-40 stations? Mostly buried in a thumping bass and bleeped swear words.

To make matters worse, many pop and rock music writers are all running around stealing beats from each other and from their predecessors. Those playlists are doing stuff a mink-breeder wouldn't tolerate. I imagine that's why young kids like this stuff. They just hear that it's good. They haven't heard the other 30 years of songs that are being run through the music label's grinder, so it doesn't bother them to hear a song they loved peeking out between the bars of some gyrating thing. When a country song comes back out, it comes back out front and center. They'll just dig up the original track and let it run. Charlie Daniel's classic "The Devil Came Down to Georgia" is climbing the charts again, just as it was.

Country has always had a lot of the same stuff, mostly because vocals are still the centerpiece of the music and humans only have so much vocal range (unless you're Mariah Carey or Luciano Pavarotti). Having huge back-production doesn't really work. Even now there are live performances where you have three guys on a stage, with gituars and a bass. And I'm not just talking about the local honky-tonk. Check out Tim McGraw's newest, "Can't Tell Me Nothin'". Even the acts on the pop side (Rascal Flatts, Uncle Kracker) sound like a pick-up band compared to some of the Brittney-ized stuff. Since the voices have it, there just isn't the pressure to file the serial numbers off of anything that ever worked before and try to slide it under the door again. And even if they do it's not particularly noticable. Well, unless you're Big & Rich, and you find a way to shape it into something strange and wonderful.

It always makes me sad to see the latest pop starlet hit the fame-fanblades. Their fifteen minutes seems to be getting shorter and shorter. On the country side of things, longevity isn't an odd thing. There are people like Madonna in everywhere on the dial, but there's usually only a couple per station, and their old stuff isn't in play. When was the last time you heard "Holiday" on the radio, or "Cherish"? I heard a set on Friday that consisted of Patsy Cline (a classic - "Crazy"), Garth Brooks (old song, old singer - "Friends in Low Places"), George Strait (old singer, new song - "I Hate Everything"), and Gretchen Wilson (so new the sticker's still on both of them - "Redneck Woman"). And it's not just the biggest names, either. Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Down at the Twist and Shout" was on that day, too.

Since the background doesn't really matter, you can actually sing this music without a band of your own. Try an experiment. Think of your favorite current pop-song or rock song, and sing it with no accompaniment. All the way through. Make sure you take all 3 minutes and 40 seconds. Gets a little thin after that first verse and chorus, doesn't it? The backup music really carries the show. On the other hand, take just about any country song you know, and head for the shower and let it ring. Some of the alternative stuff works pretty good, too, but by and large if you like to sing the big stations aren't going to do you much good.

Every part of life can be front-and-center. On the other stations, just about every song is about someone in the 18-24 demographic trying to score, getting laid or recovering from the last jerk (of either gender). Sex and rebellion are the core of just about all of it. That's fine when you're in that demographic, but a huge percentage of them grow past it. Then what? Country has songs about babies, kids, and teenagers. There's adults and old folks. And they're all growing up and growing old and coming apart and coming together. The past and the present and the future are all in there. There's quite a bit of rabble-rousing and carousing, don't get me wrong, but instead of ninety songs in a hundred being about it, it's more like ten out of a hundred.

Beliefs aren't separated out. God is in there. I mean REALLY in there. Not just given lip service on the back cover acknowledgements, but actually discussed in context within a song. And it's not only the old guys - Jimmy Wayne's song "I Love You This Much" and Joe Nichols "If Nobody Believed in You" are recent hits, by new artists. Randy Travis hits one straight at the DOVE demographic with "Three Wooden Crosses". A lot of those rappers seem to talk a God-game during interviews and on the awards show stage, but if you listen to their music I just don't hear it on the Top 40 stations. It's pretty non-partisan, too. Let me rephrase that. I mean that there are artists on both sides. They're not quiet about it, either. The Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith are out on both ends of the political spectrum and they're not alone.

I guess I could have said it in one sentance, now that I look back. It's about a whole life. It's not all pretty or nice, but there's still the hope that it can become so. It's not fancy, either. Yeah, I do still usually turn off the radio when they dredge up some old Oakridge Boys b-side that's just a little too 70's for my tastes, but for the most part it's the place I'm in. Now I just have to figure out if I'm okay with that.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Can opened; worms possibly everywhere....

I'm so sadly behind, it's not even funny. I keep hoping to come up with something profound, and I end up coming up with nothing at all. Pathetic, really. My life just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, as per Alice.

Good news, I've finally gotten the kids off to school. They're all doing really well. My gray hair generator got a perfect weekly report this first time out, and we've survived the evil known as school pictures with my daughters. They'll find something to drive me crazy with pretty soon here I imagine, but for now things feel pretty good.

Now to go chase down those worms..... ;)