The Problem with Bluegrass

I friend got me into bluegrass a few months ago. So far, I'm digging it, but there is one distinct problem. This evening, I got into my car, and my iPod shuffled to a song that started out with some really awesome licks. Suddenly, I felt the nearly irrepressible urge to go rescue my cousin Luke from Boss Hog somewhere in the back woods of Hazzard county.


You think my Accord could jump a ditch?


We meet again Trebek!

I've been thinking today about my brain -- about all the stuff that's crammed in there. For example, I know where the word stiletto comes from, the meaning of quixotic, and what a Stradivarius is. I also know all kinds of gee whiz science things like why the sky is blue, why water expands when it freezes, and why you can't ice skate when it's very cold. I know weird medical things, like how MRIs, CTs, and SSRIs work. I also have the typical manly knowledge, like the difference between carburetors and fuel injection, 2 stroke versus 4 stroke, and why you want a limited slip differential. I also do okay when it comes to literature: I can quote a little bit of Dante, Dickens, and Demosthenes. I've read Austen, as well as Aeschylus and Asimov. I can also quote, at length, parts of the Princess Bride, Top Gun, Sneakers, So I Married an Axe Murderer, and several SNL skits. Give me an actor, and the odds are good that I'll be able to name at least one movie that they've been in before.

Now, before you shake your head in disgust, please know that I'm not trying to paint myself as a Renaissance man. Just knowing this random stuff doesn't mean that I'm actually intelligent (or would be successful at Jeopardy, as my mom thinks), but it may certainly give that illusion.

There is a very real irony in what we call intelligence, for in the last three months, I have not once, but twice, left my check card in the ATM and driven away without it. So much for being smart.


Grandpa's Computer

I know all my readers (the two of you) were anxiously waiting to hear what happened with Grandpa's computer. In an earlier post I explained that his computer was on the fritz and needed to serious scolding. The computer parts arrived this week, so I went out there this fine Sunday afternoon to spend the afternoon with them.

Grandpa and I watched football with the TV muted, because neither of us can stand the inane commentary. We talked about the fact that Coke is on sale at Albertson's -- five 12-packs for ten dollars (Grandpa drinks at least two diet cokes a day). We also teased grandma for filling every nook and cranny of the apartment with something (like piling the unused bathtub high with bulk paper products). I also went slightly insane because the battery in their smoke detector is dying and emitting that pitiful chirp every 2 minutes, but neither of them can hear it (Yes, I changed it before I left.)

When it was all said and done, it was a day well spent. Grandpa's computer is running like a champ, we ate some of my homemade lasagna, and I listened to them reminiscings. And while all their stories are interesting, one in particular is worth relating:

When I was about two years old, we lived in a little apartment in southeast Idaho. Grandpa and Grandma stopped by to visit on their way to Salt Lake from their home in Oregon. When they pulled up, I ran out to greet Grandpa, who hoisted my into the air and gave me a big hug. Grandpa says I was "cute as a button." When he put me down, I noticed Grandma opening the car door to get out. I immediately ran over and heaved my tiny body against the door to close it on her! I'm sure my mother was mortified. Grandpa thinks it was hilarious. All I can say is that I guess even at that young age, I was afraid of girls. Some things never change.


Traveling Pants

Growing up, I had a favorite pair of flannel pajamas. Gray, black, and green plaid with big pockets and wide ankle openings. Entirely hideous, but for most of my teenage years, they dutifully filled their role in my repertoire of sleepwear. Imagine my surprise, then, to see this week old picture of my marathon running sister:

Yes ladies and gentlemen, these are/were my flannel pajamas. They are now probably 15 years old. Countless Saturdays growing up, I would pad around the house in these pjs, driving my mother completely insane to know that it was 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and I still "wasn't dressed." Through countless washings and gentle abuse, I nursed these pjs from their stiff and too tight initial state to their current status as an article of well worn comfort.

When I left for college, I decided they were far too unsophisticated for my new intellectual pursuits, so I left them home both as a memento and to be worn on those weekends when my presence would again grace the homestead. But, on one of these return visits, they were conspicuously absent from the cache of clothes I kept at home. It wasn't long until I discovered them on my sister. I saw this as the ultimate affront, and demanded that they be returned and freed from their ignominious fate as female sleepwear. The furtive cry I heard was, "But ... they're so comfortable...!"

I didn't care. Something about college had made their hideousness decidedly cool, so I took them with me for that first year of college. After that year, I went on my mission to Brazil. Given the climate and humidity, I assumed that flannel would not make suitable sleepwear, so I left them home, where there were again subject to rape and pillage by my siblings.

Upon my return, I had to cajole, coerce, and threaten to get most of my things back (I think I'm still missing CDs), but the pjs were already back into my dresser, neatly folded -- waiting to be worn. The borrower finally understood the magic of the pajamas. And that's why, several years later, and just a few months since her recently married self moved to Washington DC, I sent her those ghastly flannels. Maybe they played a role in her finishing the marathon in an amazing 4:20 (that's slightly under 10 minute miles, folks), but I can't really say.


Picture Day

Remember picture day in elementary school? Lined up alphabetically in the best clothes your mom dared to have you wear at recess? I remember hair neatly coiffed, cemented into place by a whole can of Aquanet, while the blue cloud backdrop seemed genuinely surreal in the story pit. And how about that poor frazzled soul using his photography degree to half-heartedly coax smiles out of 500 pre-adolescents? I'm sure he wanted to take my picture about as much as I wanted it taken.

And then there was the waiting, the anxiety. Would mom's 10 dollars be well spent? Did I blink again this year? Was I flush from playing in the chill October air? Did someone give me a noogie at lunch that unearthed that unruly cowlick?

It takes weeks to know the answer, and on that fateful day I'm presented with a waxy envelope of glossies in assorted sizes. I sneak peaks throughout the day, wondering if mom will be pleased, and maybe trade a few wallet sized with friends. The rest, though, are carefully secreted away in my backpack, which I clutch tightly on the bus ride home.

Finally, the moment comes when mom gets to see the return on her investment. At this, she usually sighs, "John ... Why'd you make that face?

My answer, "What face? That's my face!"

You know the only thing worse than picture day?

Picture retake day.


San Diego, Redux

This week, I found myself again in San Diego for work. Nearly everything was an the opposite of my previous adventure there. Instead of hot, dry, Santa Ana's and temperatures in the 90s, there was a slow cold sea breeze that brought the fog and mist ashore and kept things in the mid 60s.

Items of note on this trip:
  • Sometimes less is best. Normally when I travel I stay at moderately priced business class hotels. Because of the firefighting effort most cheaper places were booked, so my reservation was at a very nice hotel: travertine floors, 24 hour concierge service, 4 star restaurant, full sports club and spa, and valet parking service. All wonderful things, but the internet is 10 bucks a day, the bottles of water in the room are 2 dollars each, the gym is 10 dollars a day, and there's no continental breakfast -- all things that are included when you stay at the less expensive place. Can someone please explain to me how a hotel that charges MORE offers LESS complimentary service?
  • San Diego is beautiful. The night of my arrival, I took the 5 north to my hotel. Traffic was light, the scent of the ocean was palatable and a beautiful sunset stretched out to my left along the coastline. At the same time, rising from the trees and mist, was the striking San Diego temple.
  • While wandering the halls of my employer's main facility (I work in small satellite office in another state), I passed someone straining under the weight of an old-school 17 inch computer monitor. As I turned to look, I realized that it was the company president. I was instantly impressed. How can you not like a company like mine, where everyone pulls their own weight?
  • While waiting for my flight home, I sat a row behind a young Marine on his way home from deployment. He was wearing his dress blues. I was thrilled to see so many people come up to him with a smile, to shake his hand and thank him for his service. It is great to see that, even with an unpopular war and an unpopular President, patriotism still runs deep.


Amber and Nerds

Around noon on Friday my cell phone rang. Being a pretty slow day, I decided to answer it even though I was at work. It was Grandpa. His computer was on the fritz. I get these kind of phone calls all the time from family, but this is the first time from Grandpa. Most people have to endure a little needling from me when they call for computer help: "Sounds like a PBKAC error", "Are you sure it's plugged in?", "Computers only do what you TELL them to do." But I spared Grandpa; anyone who's 82 years old and uses a computer is pretty savvy in my book.

So, I went out to see them this afternoon. When I arrived, the computer seemed to be behaving itself. False alarm. This also happens a lot. Infernal contraption. Once the computer figures out that I'm coming, it decides to behave itself, just like a child that's no longer sick one you suggest that they have to see the doctor. But, for my trouble, Grandpa and Grandma took me out to one of their favorite places, the restaurant Amber.

See, I know what you're thinking. "Amber? That sounds posh." Well, let's clear that misconception right away. My grandma explained that Amber is probably a step below the Chuck-A-Rama. As we walked up, Grandma said, "This is where your parents had their wedding luncheon." Eying the drab brown exterior I asked, "Has it changed much since then?" Grandpa butted in, "I don't think it's changed AT ALL."

Amber is the antithesis of dining today. No rowdy mixed drink menu, no trendy decorations, no overpriced signature dishes. Here, the flatware is from Wal-mart, the mashed potatoes are still instant, and the only lettuce is iceberg. As Grandma put it, "We like this place because it's just ordinary. Ordinary people eating ordinary food." Grandpa then added, "Well, the clientèle does border on geriatric, but we're okay with that."

Anyplace that offers 10 dollar prime rib is okay in my book. I had mine with the instant mashed potatoes, doused in gravy from a mix, and a vegetable medley that I'm guessing made it's journey to the restaurant in a frozen bag. And you know what? It was all deeply satisfying, both the company and the cuisine.

During dinner, Grandma asked me about work. She said that she had tried to explain to one of her neighbors what I do but ended up saying that I was a "computer nerd." She said she thought "computer genius" was a little boastful and hoped that computer nerd was okay. I told her it was just fine by me. It's both a badge of honor and the simplest way to explain my job.

And that's quintessential Grandpa and Grandma. They don't mince words, and in a very complex world, they remind me of how simple life can be. Grandma explained: "Every day, I wake up and say 'Good morning Old Man', and your grandfather says, 'Good morning Old Woman'... Every night, it's 'Good night Old Man' and 'Good night Old Woman.'" Way to tell it like it is, Grandma.

And as I watched them walk out of the restaurant Amber, I watched those two 82 year-olds hold hands. That's them -- food and life: uncomplicated.


Perception vs. Reality

Sneakers is probably my favorite movie. It's been 15 years since it came out, but the questions it asks are still relevant, and the characters are still funny. I mean, how can you go wrong with Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, and these lines of dialogue?

"I could have been in the NSA, but they found out my parents were married."

"You should have that guy checked for rabies."
"Rabies occurs only in warm blooded animals."

"Cattle mutilations are up..."

"I want peace of earth and goodwill toward men."
"We're the United States government, we don't do that sort of thing!"

"The girl with the, uh, Uzi... Is she, uh, single?"
"...Wait a minute... you can have anything you want, and you're asking for my phone number?"

And, of course:

"I learned that the world is not based on reality..."
"... but on the perception of reality."

This is a true and powerful principle. Everything we do and think is clouded by our perception of the world around us and the people in it. Too often, I think we become complacent in our perceptions. We forget to challenge what we think and to remember that our understanding is certainly incomplete. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone is so firmly convinced of their world view that they won't even consider that there are alternate and equally valid realities.

A case in point: earlier this week I was hanging out with some people that were discussing the upcoming election and a proposed law that would provide vouchers for students attending private schools. One guy presented a very well reasoned argument in support of vouchers. Despite his compelling argument, I couldn't find myself agreeing with him at all. The reason? His whole argument was based on the idea that the educational system is dominated by "liberals." My question to him, which he dismissed out of hand, was, "Are you sure the educational system is liberal or is our view conservative relative to the educational system?" As I see it, perspective is just as important as the argument itself. Unwillingness to even consider an alternate reality immediately makes me wary.

The problem is that eventually our perceptions serve only to support the realities we chose to embrace. Everything becomes evidence of what we "know" to be true. It's not that I blame us for being this way; sticking to a reality is comfortable. It fits just like our favorite pair of jeans. The challenge, as I see it, is to be brave enough to constantly question perception. I'm not advocating moral relativism; I do believe that there is a right and a wrong answer to many questions. In the end, the right answers are the ones that are reinforced regardless of the reality from which they are viewed.