Dear high school self

27 11 2010

The 10-year reunion is in less than a year, and that’s a horrifying thought. Being home always reminds me of these things. A flip through the high school yearbook was a reminder of where I came from, and the path I thought I’d take. I remember imagining what I’d be like in 10 years. In most ways, I’m either on par or way better off than I thought I’d be, but in some other ways, I was completely off base.

So that’s why I’m typing this stuff right now; both in the spirit of being thankful for what you have and preparing for a future retrospective, if that makes sense. I know that without a real, working flux capacitor, this message will never get to you, even posted on this blog in “Channel 55: All Back to the Future, All the Time,” but I wanted to write this note just in case. Just in case.

On the positive side, I’m employed in a thriving division of a company that is doing well. I do work that is seen daily by people around the world. Many days, I thank my lucky stars that I get paid to do some of the things I do. In exchange for engaging in my sometimes manic profession, I really do get to travel and enjoy life. I’m able to live in another state and still make it home to spend time with the Zonies in my life. Outside of work, I have my own apartment and I also have a circle of friends. I go out and do things, and even attend parties. I take care of myself and am more confident. As a shy, awkward youngster who ate lunch by herself for years while dodging bullies, this was hard to imagine. None of this is small beans, so I’m thankful for my lucky stars.

On the negative side, staying healthy is a challenge. Living in a different place makes me feel chronically uneasy. Atlanta is definitely different culturally, intellectually, physically, etc. I miss my family and friends, and I miss the desert. I don’t own a car and I expend too much of my income on housing. My personality and thinking style are assets and liabilities sometimes.  My chosen field forces me to stretch the limits of how I express myself.

I will actively choose to believe that these “bad” things are actually good things, because it means I’m at the bleeding edge of change in my life.

Oh, and most of the stuff that I was preoccupied with in high school has turned out to be total B.S., and I should have relaxed and enjoyed myself more in college (but made a greater effort to make it to class).

What will I say to myself 10 years from today? I shudder to think about my 37-year-old self, but it beats the alternative. I hope she’s doing well.

What does this mean for you, self of the past? Well I really can’t tell you, because I don’t want you to change anything or screw it all up for me. The fact that I’m reluctant to change the timeline tells me something must be going good with my life. Thanks a lot, science fiction.

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Strange little decade fetishes

24 11 2010

The ’80s are the new ’50s … and the 1990s are the new 1960s, I guess. Eh?

A bit ago, I was listening to the radio (which I haven’t done on a regular basis in years) and except for the sonic gyrations of Katy Perry, everything was pretty much as it was the last time I regularly listened. Or, more accurately, it was like a time machine of my teen years. Alanis Morissette was swallowing her jagged little pill, Weezer was rocking out, Gavin Rossdale was crooning sans Bush, Usher was doing some R&Bing. I looked up some Weird Al Yankovic videos for good measure, because that’s what we listened to when I was 13. And just imagine cruising through certain parts of Maryvale or South Phoenix (or down Boulevard in Atlanta) with Eminem cranked up. Yes. You know the feeling. Or you don’t.

At that moment, I felt that it could have been 1995 or 2000 again. Really, I felt like a time traveler, which tells you something about radio. So imagine that you made a time machine that goes back all the way to 1995, or perhaps a couple years earlier to when Kurt Cobain was still alive and young boys weren’t mourning in pea-green sweater-veils and stringy hair. My, how much the world has changed.

My thoughts immediately turned to the first “Back to the Future,” which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. In that film, the “future” is 1985. Heck, that’s almost before my past now. If you did a parody of that film in today’s world, you could have some kid go all the way back to 1995 and try to get their strung-out grunge-loving dad to marry their grunge-loving mom somewhere in a glamorized pre-hipster conceptualization of the Seattle rock culture. (You might want to bring in Weird Al if you’re planning any parodies.) Universal Studios is already working on the motion-simulator ride for its Hollywood and Orlando theme parks. Or not.

It seems like at the moment, the 1980s and 1990s are getting to be almost as fetishably foreign to us now as the 1950s were then. You already see a lot of romanticization of the 1980s, as evidenced by my recent iTune-age of the “1000 GREATEST HITS OF THE 1980s.”

Time and decades were a difficult concept for me to grasp as a child. “Happy Days” was the ultimate confusion. By that time in my youth, I had learned that there were old things and new things. But the advent of “Happy Days” was a layered mess of reruns of an old series that took place 20 or 30 years before. Very, very confusing for a youngster like me. At the time, people were fascinated with the 1950s in a very special way. Music from the era was all over oldies stations and was popular with other kids. (Side note: it won’t be long before the Phoenix, Arizona, oldies station KOOL FM will be playing Madonna instead of the Marvelettes.) Enter “Back to the Future,” which didn’t make much sense to me when I was very young. Particularly because the second film was coming out and they were going “back to the future” in the movie, weren’t they? But they had done that in the first movie? But that was set in the past, not the future … OK, I get it now.

Incidentally, Back to the Future (the first one) is one of the tightest films or stories I’ve ever seen, plot-wise, and I think that’s why its popularity has endured. Modern movies and films and music would do well to learn from this example, regardless of genre. The key to its memorable nature is its straightforward plot, built in two perfectly intertwined layers so that the time-travel plot is a device for the emotional exploration of Marty’s parents’ relationship. How many things have you seen that balance this dichotomy so well?

Anyway, the point of this post is: leg warmers are going the way of the poodle skirt, Happy Days was awesome, BTTF is awesome, and holy moly, Weird Al is still going strong. Oh, and Gavin Rossdale is still as appealing as he was back in the day. That is all.





Reading stuff online

22 11 2010

I’m kind of fascinated by this whole “reading stuff online” thing. I’m currently checking out several electronic book platforms including readers, electronic print, iPhone apps, desktop sites and other venues. Reading the classics on my iPhone seems to be working OK for now, but I bet a larger screen would help. The question is, is it better to spring for an e-reader like a kindle, nook, literati or Sony model? Or just get a netbook instead? There’s at least a few versions for free. I can’t help but wonder if this will help fledgling authors build a following. Without further delay …

Online book sites of the day:

  • Wizard of Oz — nicely formatted for the PC screen, probably works on mobile as well. From an online library, which includes texts from …
  • Project Gutenberg — large source of classics, many now available on iPhone apps that serve up the classics. No excuses, folks.
  • Georgia Tech links to online math textbooks




The Elevator Play

21 11 2010

The other day, I’m not sure which other day, I was reading about formulaic story plots. One of the most commonly used is the Elevator Play, especially in theater. This isn’t like the Elevator Pitch, which is given in an actual elevator in order to elevate one’s status, but rather a theoretical construct in which the characters are confined together in a limited space (like an elevator). “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (sp) is a classic example of this. The action takes place in basically one spot the whole time. You can see how a playwright would love a limited space like this. Screw the setting changes, focus just on the characters.

According to the formula, you put a bunch of characters in the space together and then at least one of them goes berserk, or otherwise instigates the rest of the group. The physical limitations imposed by the setting then force the characters to confront some kind of personal demons.

It’s interesting how that theory applies to many stories. Think about “LOST,” which I’m just about done watching. Maybe down to the last three or four episodes or so (whew!) and I’ve already seen the finale. So a bunch of people are on an airplane (another classic Elevator Play scenario) and then they crash onto an island (there’s the confinement again) and, guess what, they’re not only being chased down by smoke monsters and giant polar bears, but they’re being forced to confront their own personal demons. Be they misgivings about one’s father, as in pretty much all the cases, or something else. Who knows what. And, guess what, some of those people are unstable and they create trouble, but everyone’s trapped there and they can’t leave. And so it goes, until it all gets boring, and then they get to leave the island … all the events from the second half of the show were created to cope with the limitations of the island setting. It gets to the point where the island scenes are less interesting than everything else.

I think an interesting writing exercise is to think about your “elevator” and what kind of people you would want to put in it. If I had to pick one, it would be a subway car late at night, or a family hiding out in a bomb shelter underground, or maybe some kids who eat lunch together in their school’s band room. It could even be a shady motel room on Route 66, or a Seattle office during the dot-com boom. Maybe even the Donner Party in a snowstorm. There’d be some archetypes: the wide-eyed innocent, the sage, the stoic, the trickster, the thief, the cannibal. Naturally, some wouldn’t get along, and some would get hungry.

The theory behind the Elevator Play probably explains what makes reality shows so remarkably compelling. There’s usually a set location or premise that permits a group of attractive young people to stop being polite and start getting real. That is, they get into a fancy house and then start getting naked, showering together, fighting about petty things, doing mandatory volunteer work, confessing to the camera and having pixellated sex on camera. Which is about as real as it gets.

I’m now several years older than most of the cast members, but let me tell you, the Real World kids have nothing on me; they’d better get those elevator pitches ready.





Happiness is scary

21 11 2010

I’m feeling pretty content right now, and that’s frankly a little scary. Historically, I’ve been fueled by ridiculous and often-unachievable dreams. But there’s something satisfying about savoring the here and now, and about striving for the things that are within one’s reach.

I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to increase one’s happiness without being happy in the first place. Makes sense, I guess.

Perhaps it’s because to take pleasure in the challenges of one’s own life, and to take active steps to improve a situation in the actual form that it is, is to make real progress. Live in the present, enjoy the here and now, and take advantages of opportunities as they come.

Nothing magical, I guess, just a whole lot of sense.





I hate my blog

15 10 2010

I really hate my blog. I’ve always struggled with my online identity. Should I be funny? Should I be serious? Who knows. Guess it’s a little bit like real life.

Not that I don’t like blogging. No, on the contrary, one thing I can tell you is that blogging can really help you out.

The best advice I’ve ever heard is to try to take your feelings and put them into words. Whether you share them publicly is your choice or not, but it’s nice to struggle through a complicated thought and come out on the other side with a better sense of clarity. A blog can be your ally in doing that. Depending on your situation, it can really help you solve a difficult issue. I’m a firm believer in the format. It’s good promotion, too, assuming you are careful about what you express.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like a real bona fide thing that says, “this is who I am,” that isn’t vulnerable to some opportunistic rant that could show up in the Google cache some years later.

The age of the homepage seems to have died. It used to be you’d get an angelfire or geocities account and build some crappy circa-1994 thing and push it out there and tell people that’s your homepage. Now it’s blog, blog, blog, which is cool, but doesn’t provide that biographical feeling (and can really catch you at an awkward moment without the context of who you are).

After working 11 days in a row (mostly by my own choice), through my somewhat bleary eyes and short-tempered stupor, I feel like maybe this is a good time to give it some thought. What would my ideal online home look like? What would it have?

Would there be a text area? Video? News? Something interactive? What would I want to put there?

I almost feel like my ideal blogging situation would be a bit like Twitter or the Facebook feed … you know, there’s various kinds of activities. There’s the things you’re reading, the things you take pictures of, the things you write in 140 characters or less … oh, hey, there’s Tumblr for that. I think my big gripe with Facebook is it’s kind of ugly. It is, however, highly reliable. No fail whales there, Zuck.

So look for some updates to come as I hash out my thoughts. Chances are, I’ll be putting them into words right here.





Being a good listener

30 09 2010

My listening skills are something I desire to improve, and something that people are always saying you should do — so much so that it often feels like an “in one ear, out the other” kind of thing. But I know it’s important, and I’m beginning to realize that actually fixing the problem is more vexing than I bargained for. It’s not just about taking off your headphones or cleaning out excess ear wax. It’s about changing the way you view the world and your place in it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we value listening habits because they appear to symbolize the value we place on others. Hypothetically speaking: When you place a lot of importance on a particular person, you  may find yourself at times listening very carefully and trying to memorize what they say. There may be specific motivations behind this kind of listening. It sadly can feel like an act of deference or flattery to pay full attention to someone, rather than simply a common courtesy. That stinks. Perhaps listening should be more commonplace. Then, more people would do it.

A poor listener may, in theory, view their opinions more highly than those of others, regardless of the actual relative merit of those ideas. They may have a short attention span or a preference for other forms of information delivery (i.e. visual). They may be preoccupied. Or, the poor listener may in fact value another’s opinions, but not know the proper way to balance their own input with others’.

Listening is valuable to human relationships for these and other reasons:

  • Understanding feelings and motivations of others
  • Incorporating new information into your worldview
  • Getting the global picture of an undertaking
  • Avoiding repetition of information/instructions (a biggie for many bosses)
  • Understanding of another’s point of view
  • Anticipating possible challenges or difficulties

The difficulty lies in our inherent egocentrism as human beings. It’s not an excuse, but a possible explanation. We are driven to fight for our own interests and to get the best meat on the Savannah. At the same time, our society wants/demands/requires us to be collaborative and places strong value on altruism. We can’t be industrialized or function in the Information Age without working together. All of our political arrangements and capitalism and socialism seem to boil down to different ways we channel our self-interest to work together efficiently.

The way I’m beginning to see it, the act of listening is a connecting force that allows us to reconcile the competing needs of the Self, Other and Society.

When you’re listening, you’re not speaking. Someone else is taking the stage. This can feel threatening in a group setting, where people are fighting to come up with the most entertaining anecdote or share the most enlightening observation. The people with the most status are the people in the best position to dominate a conversation. And, if they’ve accumulated significant awesomeness over the years, they may also be relaxed enough to police the conversation for the benefit of the group. This is a sign of high personal power. To be a good listener, you have to be comfortable with the idea that you aren’t in the spotlight, and that you are an audience for someone else. In turn, the speaker should be gracious to you.

We have to ask ourselves in life, how comfortable are we with the idea of being someone else’s audience? And how do we feel about the people who are an audience for us? The answers can be revealing.

Listening is at the crux of the ever-present struggle between the Self and the Other. The world is a competitive place and we all have to fight for attention and splendor and money and wealth and friends and lovers; it sometimes seems like whoever provides the most value takes the spoils. At the same time, we all have to get along, and we all depend on each other. We have to use each others’ ideas. A leader who can’t mobilize their followers can’t get anywhere. To balance one’s own needs with those of others requires clarity of mind and purpose, as well as a strong awareness of your personal motivations.

You can almost imagine contributions to a discussion being graphed in the shape of a hill, where the percentage of domination is on the X-axis and the value of what is being said is on the Y-axis. The crest of the hill is the sweet spot of how much you dominate a conversation, where you’re getting maximum value without going overboard.

So now I sit, wondering how to make myself a better listener and balance all that conversation bubbling up from within and without. Finding the sweet spot and consciously training the mind to place value on others’ views may be the key. I’m convinced it will help me out in several areas of my life, but I also know it will require me to fight evolution, experience and instinct. But I bet it’s worth it.

In summary, listening is important because it tells you something about a person’s world view. Learning to listen will for sure change that perspective, and require further changes in turn.