Category: ramblings

Nuisances vs. Problems

We had a barbecue on the Fourth of July. I was grilling burgers like a madman, and (long story short) a bunch of grease flew off the grill at me. I dodged most of it, but my left forefinger got a healthy splash of the stuff. Speaking from experience now, grease burns are not a pleasant experience. It’s all blistered now, and it promises to be painful for quite some time to come.

But it’s still just a small spot on one of my fingers. About half the size of a dime. In the grand scheme of How Is My Body Feeling Right Now, it shouldn’t have much of an influence. And yet it’s the part I end up focusing the most on, just because it hurts, and it’s always right there, waiting for me to examine as I contemplate why in the world I didn’t take more precautions when working with burning hot grease.

Because I have a tendency to overthink things, I’ve also thought how this illustrates some other lines of thinking I’ve had over the years. How easy it is, for example, to become so focused on a relatively small problem that you lose sight of the greater good you could be focused on instead.

When we bought our home, we saw all the good things about it first. The things that attracted us to it in the first place. The beautiful wooden spiral staircase. The quaint kitchen. The cool chandeliers. The details a house from 1841 has that make it unique. Once you live in a place for a while, however, you notice the other things. The way the floor doesn’t quite line up right. How that one window doesn’t open the right way. And it’s easy to start to see those flaws each time you look at the space instead of the things you loved to begin with.

The same is true about people, though in my experience, you sometimes notice the flaws before you notice the strengths in a person, depending on the circumstances in which you met. We can sometimes laser in just on the things that irritate us the most, or the one or two bad experiences we had with the person, ignoring all the times that things were fine, and the good things the person represents.

Take the concept and apply it to anything you like. Religion. Politics. Your job. Hobbies. Your marriage. As I think about it, it seems to transfer pretty much anywhere. Yes, there are cases where there are serious problems with a thing, a person, or a relationship. Where the issues run much deeper than a bad burn on your proverbial finger. But I tend to think those are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and that we’d all be much better off if we could focus on the positive majority instead of the negative minority.

Some of the trouble, I think, stems from social media and the way it inevitably shoves people’s personal opinions and beliefs into your face all the time, to the point where you begin to pigeonhole people by those beliefs. Trump Supporter. Sexist. Racist. Democrat. Again, I’m not dismissing the potential harm a group of like-minded people can have on society as a whole, but I also believe that to label someone and dismiss them because of that label is a mistake, and an approach that will ultimately lead to a toxic environment in general, where you’re just as much a part of the problem as the people you’ve dismissed.

There are plenty of problems to go around right now. We need to make sure the ones we’re addressing are real problems, and not surface level nuisances that are nothing more than distractions. Especially on a local, individual level.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Responding to Loss: Notre Dame, 9/11, and My Family’s Cabin

About 13 years ago, Denisa woke me up from a nap. Her face was white. Shocked. “The Cabin burned down,” she told me. I had no way to really process what she was saying. Ever since I could remember, my family had a cabin up in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It was very much a communal affair. It belonged to my grandparents, and the entire family would head there en masse for holidays and vacations. Growing up, some of my happiest memories are spending a week each summer with my cousins up at that cabin, watching movies, playing games, going fishing, and just having a blast.

When I was in college, I was only about an hour away from the cabin. (Much closer than I’d been when I lived in Pennsylvania.) Denisa and I would go up regularly, but again it was almost always with family. My grandparents. My cousins. My aunts and uncles. Going to the Cabin on your own just felt . . . wrong. Like an amusement park where none of the rides are running. Year after year, the Cabin never really changed. It had always been there, and it always would be.

Until it wasn’t.

We never figured out exactly what happened. The nearest guess is my grandfather had left some rags in a bucket on the front porch. He’d been applying some stain with them, and he left them outside when he drove off. They must have spontaneously combusted in the sunlight. That initial fire caught the stairs on fire, and the cabin, being a cabin, was quickly engulfed. It was all gone. The film collection. The family pictures. The embodiment of all those years of fun.

I still sometimes think about it. Think about what it would have been like if I’d been there when those rags combusted. How big of a window did we have to stop the fire from happening? I think about the different rooms and things inside them that I loved, each of them burning, one after another. It’s incredibly sad to me. Yes, we rebuilt the Cabin, and when we did we said we’d make it “even better than before.” It’s a beautiful new building, but it’ll never be better than the original for me. The original was my childhood. It was Star Wars: A New Hope. The new one is the prequels. (Well, maybe it’s Rogue One. Let’s not get carried away here.)

It’s probably natural that one of my first thoughts when I watched Notre Dame burn on television was of the Cabin and all those nightmares around it. I’d been to Notre Dame twice, once in high school on a marching band trip, and once a few years ago with my family. I’m a bit of a cathedral junkie. Any city I go to in Europe, I have to seek them out, just to appreciate the sort of effort and craft that went into them. Seeing the aftermath is heartbreaking, though I’m so glad the entire building wasn’t lost. Hearing Macron say they’ll rebuild it “better than ever” definitely reminds me of my family’s goals after the fire, along with the inevitable conclusion that it can’t be better than the original, because the original was the original. There’s no need to be “better,” though we say it to try and comfort ourselves. To feel like there wasn’t a loss. That we’ll make things right again.

Even though we can’t.

When a loss happens in our life, whether it’s something physical like a building or emotional like a friendship, that loss leaves marks on us. The bigger the loss, the bigger the marks. It doesn’t mean we’ll never be happy again, or things won’t ever be right, but it does mean they’ll always be different. I think it’s important to recognize that and to give yourself time to process it.

The other thing I was reminded of in those flames was watching the Twin Towers burn on 9/11. The comparison is inevitable for me, since that event had such an impact on me as well. Here I was again, watching footage of a place I knew. A world icon in flames.

I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, so many people didn’t know quite how to respond to it. I was certainly one of those people. It was too big for my mind to really wrap around it. I was in college at the time, and I went to classes the next day. The professor chose to use the event as a lecture topic. I’m sure he was trying to deal with it, just as I was, and perhaps his efforts helped some. All I know is that for me, they were the exact wrong approach. He was discussing the symbolism of the Twin Towers. Picking apart why the terrorists had chosen those buildings. What it all meant.

I went back to my apartment and dropped his class that afternoon. I had no desire right then to use that tragedy as a discussion topic. That was a city I knew and loved. A city I’d grown up with. I had friends who had been around the World Trade Center that day. Family members who were close enough that I was worried if they were okay, and relieved to find out they were. I can talk about the events now, of course. I’ve had the time I needed to process it all. But I still remember the anger I felt sitting in class that day as the professor blithely used all of what had happened as a way to discuss something so trivial (to me that day) as Flaneur literature.

In the aftermath of Notre Dame, I’ve seen some of the same things happening. I saw articles written just hours later talking about how we all could use that loss to understand other things more acutely. How we were supposed to feel or think or cope. I couldn’t bring myself to read those articles, because to me, it would be as if Denisa had woken me from my nap that day thirteen years ago and said, “The Cabin burned down. We need to remember how much it inspired us, and how its loss will bring us to new heights in the future.”

When I encounter loss, I don’t need explanation or justification. I need time to let myself be sad. I don’t need people telling me “Cathedrals have burned down before” or “It was only a building” or “It could have been so much worse” or “There are so many other things in the world to be sad about.” I need people to be quiet. There will be time for all that self-reflection and philosophy later. But it’s okay to be sad for a while. To feel for what’s gone. To recognize that things will never be the same.

A tree grows organically. It encounters trials throughout its life. Wind storms. Ice storms. High winds. They affect what the tree looks like. How it twists and what limbs thrive. At the end of all those storms, it still looks like a tree, but it’s a different tree than it would have been without the storms. It might be stronger. It might be weaker. But it’s inevitably different.

And that’s all I have to say about that today.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Does the Audience Matter at a Performance?

Denisa and I had the chance to go to a live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies here on campus on Saturday, part of the New Commons programming that’s been running here since fall. It was a great performance, and I was so happy to have it here. (I’ve been a huge fan of the New Commons project, even though I haven’t been able to go to nearly as much of the programming as I’d have liked. Pesky work meetings keep getting in the way.)

But as I was listening to the performance, I couldn’t help thinking of other things. (Too much going on in my life at the moment, and a brain too easily distracted sometimes.) One of the things that occurred to me is how much different a live performance is from a recorded one.

There’s a spectrum when it comes to performance. On the one hand, you have the totally packaged offerings of Hollywood. Things that have been spliced and edited together to the point that they remove pretty much any of the original “live” nature. On the other, you have 100% live performances. In between, there are broadcasts of live performances, where you watch something as it’s literally happening elsewhere, and there are also recordings of live broadcasts, where you watch it after the fact.

I personally prefer live performances, but sometimes I wonder why that is. I’m even still willing to pay money to see movies in the theater, despite having a sweet home theater set up. And when I see things with an audience, there’s always a chance I’m stuck next to someone who’s noisy or annoying through the film or performance. (We had a guy next to us who started singing along to some of the performance on Saturday. I kid you not. Thankfully, he stopped.)

So wouldn’t it make sense to just watch everything at home? To buy the finest recordings and view them all on a great sound system?

I don’t think it would.

As I sat there enjoying the performance, it occurred to me that the audience is an integral part of that performance. Part of this insight came as I watched the bass trombone player sitting through most of the symphonies, doing absolutely nothing other than listening, since he had no part to play except every now and then. Did his not-playing add to the performance? Obviously, since he could have grabbed his instrument and started wailing away whenever he wanted to, and that would have ruined it all, just like the guy sitting next to me might have ruined things for me if he’d chosen to sing through the whole performance.

Watching a movie with a throng of people who are also loving the movie adds to my enjoyment of the movie. (Conversely, watching something with a group of people who are all NOT enjoying the movie detracts from my enjoyment considerably.) Watching a sports event live in a stadium heightens the emotions, whether it’s the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

There’s just something you get by that collective shared experience that you can’t capture in a recording. Watching it live, remotely, can have some of it, but it’s not the same thing.

Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that humans connect with each other in so many ways that aren’t immediately observable. Sitting there with so many people all intent on the same goal (more or less), you pool all that focus. In the concert, there were other sounds in the room than the symphony itself. The noise of people shifting in their seats. The beeping from watches in the audience at the top of the hour. The breathing of the conductor. Sometimes it’s the absence of sound. People NOT talking or unwrapping candies or applauding after a movement. It all adds to the experience.

Watching the Fifth Symphony live, I noticed for the first time how important that eighth note rest is to the theme. Dun dun dun dunnnnnnn is actually {rest} dun dun dun dunnnnnnn. And you’d see the conductor jab out with his baton, meeting nothing but silence until an eighth note later. I’m having a hard time describing it, but to me it was like he was stabbing a knife, and the theme was the result of that initial stab.

I love going to geek movies on opening night. Watching them with a throng of like-minded people. The laughs, the gasps, the responses in general. The applause at the end. It all makes that experience more impactful.

When I walk into a room where people are bickering, I can sense it. Maybe it’s the body language or the facial expressions. I don’t know. I often feel like I can tell when someone’s fighting even in the same house as me. It’s hard for me to describe, though it’s enough that it makes me believe there’s something to auras, whether it’s a spiritual explanation or something else.

Anyway. I’ve gone on long enough now, and captured some of what I was trying to say, so I’m going to call that a win and move on. I hope some of you were able to go to the performance. It’s not something that happens locally very often. Many thanks to the New Commons folks for making it a reality.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Question Common Knowledge, and You Might Be Rewarded with Delicious Food

Ever since I moved to Maine, one of the things I’ve missed the most (from a cuisine perspective) was the abundance of great Mexican food places in Utah. Not just the Tex Mex stuff, but the actual, real Mexican restaurants. It didn’t make any sense to me that there wouldn’t be any in Maine. I mean, the best Mexican restaurant I ever ate at was in Nebraska of all places, so if Nebraska can have fantastic Mexican, why not Maine?

I asked around some, but no one really had any great suggestions. Chipotle is all fine and good, but it doesn’t cut it for me. There were some burrito places that have popped up in the area, and there have been some food trucks that did their own sort of Mexican food, but I never found anything that came close to the places I’d go in Utah. Great, cheap restaurants with fantastic food, huge portions . . . Mmmm . . . .

So imagine my surprise yesterday when I was in Bangor and asking around for ideas of places I should eat. The Bangor library director asked me if I liked Mexican.

“Yes, but they don’t have the good stuff here in Maine,” I said.

“Have you ever tried Las Palapas?”

Friends, I hadn’t even heard of Las Palapas. He told me it was great, authentic Mexican food. I was skeptical, but I tend to value the opinions of librarians more highly than the opinions of the general masses. We’re trained information professionals, for one thing. And we don’t mess around when it comes to good food.

I went off to give the place a shot. It’s not the easiest restaurant to find. It’s tucked back between a couple of hotels just off the freeway, over at the Bangor Mall. But when I walked in, the smell was just right, and when I sat down, they plopped a huge portion of fresh tortilla chips and salsa in front of me, and they were fantastic.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful meal. Rice, beans, and a burrito smothered in cheese. It makes me hungry just thinking about it again. So why in the world did I not know this place existed?

To explain, I need to tell another story. When I was on my mission in Germany, I was told early on that “Germans don’t have fresh milk.” This was something all the other missionaries I came in contact with took for granted. The only milk Germans ate came in a box that didn’t need to be refrigerated. It was nasty stuff, but if you cooled it down, it was quasi-edible.

Why did I believe this? In hindsight, it seems preposterous. An entire first world country that just doesn’t drink milk at all? And yet for the first half year of my mission, I believed it completely. Missionaries would go shopping with other missionaries, after all. And navigating a grocery store in a foreign language is tricky for an adult, let alone a 19 year old guy. So we all knew what other missionaries ate, and we stuck to that. (I shudder at the memory.)

Until my mastery of the language improved, and my sense of adventure increased. I started branching out into other areas of the grocery store when we went each week. And one week, I was looking for cheese, and I came across this strange box in the chilled food section. It said “Frische Milch.” “Fresh milk.”

I remember even bringing it over to my companion. “Check this out,” I said. “Do you think it’s real?”

“Germans don’t have fresh milk,” he assured me. “It’s probably a marketing gimmick.”

But my love of cereal and milk in the morning was great enough that I decided it was worth a 2 Mark investment. I bought the product. It turned out (surprise surprise) to be perfectly normal fresh milk. And from then on, I became an evangelist not just of the Gospel, but of the existence of fresh milk to my fellow missionaries.

Why hadn’t we known about fresh milk? A couple of reasons.

  • The milk came in different containers than we were used to. Instead of jugs, it came in plastic bags or boxes. So the thing we identified as “milk” by sight didn’t match up with what we were seeing.
  • We accepted the experience of missionaries who had come before us, and we weren’t exposed to many other missionaries at once. “What do you drink for milk” just wasn’t a common conversation topic, so for the first six months, I think I’d gone shopping with a total of 4 other Elders.
  • We didn’t question the reality we lived in.

I’d like to think I put all of that behind me years ago, and yet there I was yesterday, believing Maine had no authentic Mexican food for 11.5 years, only to find out one day that I was wrong. All it took was asking the right person. Of continuing to question and wonder and be curious, and then be open to the answers I got back.

So what other areas am I limiting myself right now? Maybe I should just ask the public at large. I could really go for a great German restaurant in Maine. Anyone got any recommendations? (Or am I expecting too much?)

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Life in Easy Mode

I read an article the other day about the many ways tools, cars, clothes, and life in general have been designed for a male audience, making it harder for females to do the same things. For example, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash. Why? Because car crashes have been tested for years with male-model test dummies. Test dummies that are the height and weight and mass distribution of the average male.

Another example: most public spaces have an equal amount of space set aside for restrooms for men and women, and yet (as anyone who’s ever walked past any restrooms during intermission can tell you) there’s always a huge line for women and almost nothing for men. Why not? Because a men’s room can accommodate more users at a time, using the same foot print. And not only that, but men are finished with their business much more quickly than women.

The whole article is really worth the read, and I recommend you check it out. But it got me thinking on a broader scale about how often things like this come up in our society. I don’t believe the people who designed these things really set out to be sexist. They just made a few base assumptions and never questioned those assumptions over time, to the point that those assumptions became engrained in the way our society is set up.

As a man, it’s easier for me to use current smart phones, because my hands are bigger. It’s easier for me to use voice-recognition software, because it’s been designed to recognized male voices more easily than female voices. (70% more accurate for men than women!) I can go to the store and buy any “one size fits all” thing and be pretty confident it will fit me, because it’s been designed with male proportions in mind.

This extends beyond sex. It’s easier for me as a white male to walk down a dark street at night, because I don’t have to worry (for the most part) about people wanting to rape me. I also don’t have to be as concerned about the police (or bystanders) being suspicious of me. Just another white guy! Nothing to see here.

The thing is, this is something that’s very hard to recognize when you’re one of the people who’ve benefitted from it over the years. I never stopped to think about how awkward smart phone sizes these days are, because they work for me fine. Some people take umbrage at the thought that “white privilege” might exist. That somehow being white made things easier for them. After all, things have been very difficult for them already. And I’m not trying to belittle their struggles at all when I say that. Just because someone else had it harder does not make my personal challenges any less challenging.

But it also doesn’t mean I should ignore the fact that other people are struggling even more due to things outside their control.

It also doesn’t mean that when someone speaks up about something, it can be dismissed because “that’s not my experience.” The more I think about things, the more I see that personal experience only accounts for so much. We go through our lives thinking most people have it more or less like we do. But we’re all different. Even in the same country, the experience of a Mainer is going to be very different from the experience of someone in California.

Is there “male privilege”? You bet. Does it mean that everyone who’s been enabling that privilege for years has been part of some nefarious grand conspiracy? No. It just means they took certain assumptions for granted and never questioned those assumptions after that. And so when I get in a car to go home today, I’m 47% less likely to get seriously injured if my car crashes than if Denisa gets into that same crash.

That’s privilege.

I’m happy to see these assumptions being to be questioned, and I look forward to more questions in the future. Because while it’s great that the world has generally been designed with me in mind, I’ve also been the victim in some aspects. Let’s call it “average height privilege.” If I’m on a plane or in a theater, chances are those seats are not going to fit me at all. And when someone leans back in their airplane seat? My knees are going to suffer. Not because that person is a jerk, but because the plane wasn’t designed with people who are my height in mind.

Once you can recognize how you’ve been personally affected by some of these biases, maybe it becomes easier to recognize how other biases might be affecting others, even if you yourself haven’t been impacted by them at all.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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