Monday, December 28, 2009

Stocking Stuffer

I received a stick of pepperoni in my Christmas stocking.

As I sit here at my desk gnawing on it, it occurs to me that there is no way to offer to share it with anyone without being brought up on sexual harrassment charges.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Winter of My Discontent

I'm a bit ashamed of myself right now. At that time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas when we ought to be most thankful for what we have and for those around us, I've caught myself dwelling more on what I don't have and what more I want.

With Janet running a day care at home, I'm constantly looking around the house to find ways to maximize the space we have. For the last several years, our three season sunporch has alternated in use as exercise room and storage room. Now, I'm eyeballing it as additional space that could be used for the day care; however, before that can be done, it needs to be renovated, insulated, and heated.

Well, if I'm going to go to that expense, what would it take to expand it and and a few more square feet to the house? We could knock out the back wall and extend the sunporch another ten feet. Hmm... in fact, why not expand both the parlor and the sunporch and put up an whole addition to the house?

Wait, if I do that, I encroach too much on yard space. Now I need more yard. The house next door looks like it's headed into foreclosure, perhaps I can buy it and gain that real estate. Well, if I'm going to do all that, why not simply sell mine and buy a new, larger house? Or better, build one of my own design? Or even better yet, keep my existing one and build another one!

Maybe I should buy a vacation home on the Cape? Or maybe out of state? Why not buy a multi-family home and rent it out? I could become a landlord. I could increase my income through rental properties... and then buy more stuff... that requires more storage... I'm going to have to tear down my barn and build a bigger barn...

Recently, I had a couple of conversations that caused me to feel an emotion I do not often feel: jealousy. One was a guy telling me about his second home in Florida, and the other was a woman who told me about the Mercedes Benz her husband had bought her.

Why don't I have a house in Florida? Why can't I afford to buy my wife a Mercedes Benz??

So then I found myself thinking back over the last 15 years of my career in the Information Technology field, all the things I didn't accomplish, all of the certifications I didn't pursue, all of the money that I might have made if only I had been more dedicated, studied harder, worked harder...

This is a spiraling gyre that never stops. It's like World of Warcraft, there is always another level, another achievement, another possession to pursue. There is no winning, just various levels of losing.

In all honesty, it isn't like me to get caught up in this sort of materialism and I guess that's why felt like posting this blog. I'm generally pretty content with what I've got. If anything, my complaint over the last couple years is that I have too much. (Like Stephen Wright said, "you can't have everything. Where would you put it?")

So, for now I'm going to content myself with maximizing what I can do with what I do have. That's just good stewardship. And like Solomon said, "Better is a handful with quietness, than both hands full with travail and vexation of spirit."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"This One Time, at Band Camp..."

A few years ago, I decided that there are three more things I needed to do in my life in order to become a proper Renaissance Man: Learn to play an instrument, learn to speak a foreign language, and write something that gets published. I decided to tackle the first item on this list with the mandolin.

I believe it was three Christmases ago that I opened a present from my wife Janet and found the most beautiful mandolin I had ever seen. It was elegantly ornamented with ornate mother of pearl set into its woodwork on both front and back and accoutred with lovely hardware for the string tuners. For the first two years, I casually "fiddled"(1) with it, but at the beginning of 2009, I got serious and studiously put myself to the task of learning to play my chosen instrument.

Using a chord chart that Janet had also given me, I began to memorize where to put my fingers on the fret board to play a given chord. I then searched about on the Internet for simple music that used few chords. If the music called for a G chord, I would look at the chart and put my fingers in the indicated locations on the fret board and strum. With repetition, I began to slowly memorize the "finger shapes" required to play a chord. Next, I began to learn individual notes on the fretboard. This was quite a bit easier and I later realized that I probably had gone about my self-teaching backwards. Once again, it was a matter of reading a note or a tab on a sheet of music, putting my finger on the appropriate position, and then plucking a string.

If that description sounds a bit mechanical, it was so intended because my "learning" was terribly mechanical. I call it music training by brute force. Having no formal music training in my background, I wasn't even sure how to learn, let alone what to learn. What has been surprising to me most of all in this process of self-study is that little I am able to accomplish has been fairly well received.

The first strangers who heard me toodling around on my mandolin were friends I knew online. Using an Internet voice communication program called Ventrilo, I grinded out a couple tunes to a few folks who had the misfortune of being online at the time. It was far from perfect, but rather than being laughed and scorned, I was commended for my attempts and applauded for what I had learned. In short order, a couple of the others pulled out their own instruments and we broke into a sort of impromptu online jam session.

This past October, I subjected myself to my first public appearance with a mandolin in my hands. I attended the Cape Cod Mandolin Camp, a three-day festival which featured well known and gifted mandolin instructors teaching workshops in a variety of types of music and culminating in a concert featuring the students. I learned quite a lot, most of which entailing a realization of just how much I did not know. Many of those who were there were students at renowned Berkley College of Music, but a few, like me, were utter novices. But regardless of who we were, we did have one important thing in common: more than anything else, we were all hopeless geeks. This camp was far and away the geekiest thing I have ever done, surpassing any Dungeons & Dragons game I'd ever participated in by several orders of magnitude. (I can't wait to go back next year.)

As it happened, Ben was sick that weekend. That fact made for a perfect excuse for me to chicken out of the student concert and leave early on the last day. I wasn't ready for that sort of demand upon my insufficient skills and I knew it.

When I returned home, I picked up my studies with a renewed vigor. I practice more often and tried to put into effect those nuggets of knowledge I had picked up at the Mandolin Camp. I was finding some improvement, and feeling a bit more comfortable now that I knew what it was that I did and did not know. It was the previous feeling of "not knowing" that had always nagged at me; not knowing if I was playing a chord properly, not knowing what music to focus on, heck, I didn't even know if I was holding the darn thing the right way.

Several weeks ago, in November, I contacted the music leader at our church and asked if he'd mind if sat in on the team's practices as a means of trying to better myself at my own instrument. Our Worship Team is composed of about half a dozen people playing the piano, a couple accoustic guitars, an electric bass, and drums. I was told that I was welcome to practice with them. That first week, I found myself encouraged, if not compelled, to join them on the platform during the service. I did. I played softly and timidly, but again, I was well received. Over the last five or six weeks, I've had a couple pretty shaky outings and a couple of really good ones that even made me smile. As it turns out, there's a lot of Christmas music that lends itself to the mandolin. The feedback from people in the congregation has been very encouraging, even those comments from those who think I'm playing a yukelele. (I told one enquirer that it's an oboe. They responded with, "Oh, cool.")

So, why the mandolin?

I could come up with a variety of answers ranging from liking the sort of music it is associated with. Folk music, one of my favorite forms of music, going far back into the Renaissance and right back into today's Bluegrass, has always employed the mandolin. Celtic and Italian music both rely on the mandolin. Even rock music has featured this instrument. (Jimmy Page was an excellent mandolin player.) But the real reason I picked up the mandolin was that I thought it would be easy. Stupid me. Years ago, I started to try to play the bass guitar. As I started getting the hang of it, it dawned on me that I couldn't really just sit and play the bass alone without someone else to play the melody. So I fell out of it. Later, when I contemplated finally learning to play an instrument, I realized that the mandolin was played like a four stringed instument just like the bass guitar. I assumed I already knew much about the mandolin and that this would give me a running start. As it turned out, the mandolin is exactly the opposite of the bass guitar. Same string tuning, reversed. Ugh.

But I love it. I find that the more I play, the more I want to play. It's almost addictive. Each time I accomplish something new or better, I find myself more hungry to learn more. If I thought I had any real talent that this, and that there was a market for it, I'd quit my job and hang out under Park Street Station and play for coins. It's the perfect instrument. It's fun, it's got a unique sound that lends itself to many forms of music, and it is easily transportable.

When I decided to learn an instrument, I had one simple goal in mind. I wanted to be able to sit in front of a campfire and play for my friends. I think I'm almost there.

(1) Mandolins and violins are tuned the same way. Ain't I witty?
(2) For more info on mandolins than you can possibly want to know, try


Friday, December 11, 2009

Are You Not Entertained?

The Chosen One seems to have encountered a few... let's call them impediments... on his journey toward destiny. It seems the woman he married (that's her just there to the right) has proven insufficient to meet the needs of his Chosenhood and he found it necessary to sate himself elsewhere. Many elsewheres, as it turns out.

Like the vast majority of people out there, this story had little interest for me until just this morning when, on the ride into work, I caught a few things being said about Chosen One that defied credulity. These were not statements regarding resently revealed trists, rather, they are statements made many years ago when he broke onto the sports scene like a tiger attacking an antelope. What follows are statements that were captured in either interviews or other recorded events over the years. I think they paint a rather vivid picture of the standard that the Chosen One was expected to uphold.

Interviewer: "Do you see yourself as a leader, a Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela?"
Tiger Woods (21 years old): "I will have more impact than Gandhi or Nelson Mandela because I will have a larger forum than both of them."

Tiger Woods: "I know I can handle all this, no matter how big it gets."

Earl Woods (Tiger's father): "Tiger is going to be the bridge between the East and West. He plays a sport that is international. There is no limit to what he can achieve because he has the guidance."

Earl Woods: "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,"
Sports Illustrated: "Mr. Woods? Do you mean more than Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, more than Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe?
Early Woods: "More than any of them because he's more charismatic, more educated, more prepared for this than anyone."
Sports Illustrated: "Anyone, Mr. Woods? Your son will have more impact than Nelson Mandela, more than Gandhi, more than Buddha?"
Early Woods: "Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he's playing a sport that's international. Because he's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. He's the bridge between the East and the West. There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."

Earl Woods (during a speech at a dinner): "Please forgive me, but sometimes I get very emotional when I talk about my son. My heart fills with so much joy when I realise that this young man is going to help so many people. He will transcend golf and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live, by virtue of his existence and his presence. I acknowledge only a small part in that, in that I know I was personally selected by God to nurture this young man and bring him to the point where can make his contribution to humanity. This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely. Thank you."

Tiger Woods: “I think it's an honor to be a role model to one person or maybe more than that. If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person's life in a positive light, and that's what I want to do. That's what it's all about.”

Tiger Woods: "My main focus is on my game."
Gleno: "Yes, but which game?"

Tiger Woods: "If you can't laugh at yourself, then who can you laugh at?"
Gleno: "Well, we can laugh at you, apparently."

Just what is it that drives celebrities to do self-destructive things? Why is that those people who have it all (I did mention that the woman in that picture is his wife, right?) seem to exhibit an irrational desire to risk it all? Is it boredom? Is it the lust for adventure? Is it a feeling of invulnerability? At what point do you begin to believe all the absurd, obsequious, kowtowing drivel that people tell you?

It seems apparent that Tiger began to believe it at a very young age indeed. Clearly, his father raised him to think he was indeed the Christ-Child. Did that contribute to Tiger's actions? Did he really think himself invulnerable or did he just want us to think he was?

And most importantly of all, do we, should we care?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Keep Your Laws Off of My Body... Unless...

Here's a good one. I just found this out a short time ago. In 1984, Al Gore helped rush the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 into law. That law makes it illegal for anyone to offer one of their organs, most notably, one of their kidneys to another person in return for any kind of payment.

OK, so here is a law established by the Federal Government that is designed to tell you what you can do with your own literal physical body. The law, proponents state, helps to "protect" poor people from "exploitation." Apparently, according to this mindset, if you make under a certain number of dollars per year, you are categorized as too stupid to make decisions for your own well-being and thus, the government needs to do this for you.

What's absolutely unfathomably absurd about this law is that it was sponsored by Al Gore, one of the leading political pro-abortionists of the last 20 years, a man who has actively worked to protect a woman's choice of whether or not to kill a living person in their wombs.

Kill your unborn kid? Hey, it's your choice and the government shouldn't have any say.
Sell your kidney? Hey, you can't do that. It's unethical.


Oh WoW

Pirates of the Caribbean

I've been woefully slow in getting this posted, but every time I sat down to attempt an entry, I'd be distracted by dangling string or shiny objects. This time, I'm forcing myself to write.

From November 16th to the 23rd, Janet, Benjamin and I, accompanied by Janet's father and aunt, took a Caribbean cruise. It was a much needed vacation and we had a very good time.

We booked on Norwegian Cruise Lines for this, our third cruise. I was very much looking forward to it based on the experiences I'd had on the previous two cruises. However, this time, I have to say that the experience was somewhat tarnished and my expectations of enjoyment were left a bit disappointed.

The best part of the cruise, as I had anticipated, was the snorkeling and watching Ben on the ship and at the beach. A few months ago, when I turned to Janet and suddenly declared I wanted to go on a cruise, it was the desire to once again go snorkeling that prompted the decision. Having Ben with us on this vacation made it all the more fun. Certainly, he made it much more challenging -- meals in particular are always more interesting with a baby -- but we were blessed to have the full support of Auntie Patsy. She was our hero when it came to helping with Benjamin.

In the interest of keeping this post of reasonable size, I'll recount one brief story that will no doubt be one of my favorite memories for all time. We were in the most upscale restaurant on the ship enjoying delicious steaks when Ben began to get rowdy. He was sitting to my left in a wheeled high chair. We had a series of distractions: babyfood, his bottle, toys, keys, etc. that we hoped would keep him occupied through dinner. Eventually, the novelty of each one wore off and he returned to throwing things off his high chair and being noisy. Having many times seen kids making far too much noise and parents do far too little to reign them in, I am rather sensitive to how much noise Ben makes in public. I felt like he was approaching that point where one of us would have to leave the restaurant with him. Not something I was particularly looking foward to.

The maitre d' came over to inquire if we were satifisied with our meals and service and if there was anything he could do for us. I said, "This guy next to me is making an awful lot of noise. Can you throw him out?" He called over one of the waitresses and instructed her to "take Monsieur for a ride." At that, she wheeled Benjamin away from the table and across the restaurant. Ben's face immediately lit up. Ben and the waitress then visited every table in the restaurant where he was able to make liberal use of his favorite word: "Hi!"

He made the rounds like a politician running for office. He spent a fair amount of time at each table, with the couples and families at each exclaiming how cute he was (he really was), and chatting away with him in his own little language. He never outstayed his welcome and he quickly moved on to visit the next table and to chat up the guests seated there. Some twenty minutes later, he returned to our table, very happy indeed, and just in time for a little ice cream for dessert.

In general, the weather was great, the many beaches, the shopping, the tours, were all fantastic, but there was one thing that, I personally felt, left a taint on the entire experience. In the two previous cruises we've taken, I felt like we were treated like royalty. That was what I anticipated on this cruise as well. However, instead of this being the case, I felt like we were being "nicked and dimed" by the cruise line.

Unlike the previous trips, Norwegian suddenly had all sorts of extra charges that I hadn't anticipated. During our first trip, all the food was phenomenal and it was all included. On the second trip, there were two restaurants that were considered "extra special" and they cost $10 per person to get in. This time, however, fully three-quarters of all the restaurants had a "cover charge" (some as high as $25 per person!) and the quality of the food in the standard restaurants was far inferior.

There are a number of other examples that really left me cold, but I'll not bore you with them here. Suffice to say, I won't be back on a cruise ship again, at least certainly not on Norwegian Cruise Lines. My complaints, when voiced to the front desk were dismissed entirely with a wave of, "That's the company's new policy." At an economic time when I'd expect to get more bang for my buck, not less, I found people banging on me constantly demanding more of my bucks.

I think I'm going to return to backpacking and hiking as my preferred vacation mode. At least that way I'm in charge of where I go and who I give my money to.