Monday, October 31, 2011

Containing Houdini

On the way in to work this morning, I heard a report on WBEZ about Harry Houdini's great nephew. The great illusionist died of complications of a burst appendix eighty-five years ago today.

Anyone who leads as eclectic and fascinating a life as Ehrich Weiss (Houdini's given name) did deserves a closer look. So I did some digging, and found out some fascinating tidbits about this early twentieth-century magician.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

All Hallows Eve - A Playlist to Chill You

This is not your traditional Halloween playlist. This is my off-beat, indie-influenced, thought-provoking list of music that I love to listen to during the Hallow's Eve festivities. Some of these are down-right chilling. Some are fun and whimsical at first listen, but upon hearing the lyrics, you'll realize they are sinister and horrible. Some are perfectly harmless when taken out of context, but unnerving once you understand where they come from.

I would like to thank all the folks who submitted suggestions on facebook for this entry. There were many suggestions that fit the criteria, but I had to trim it down. Because of this, I disqualified anything that was purely instrumental, or sung in a foreign language (sorry Mark). I also trimmed out any hardcore metal or screamer music, because it is generally more annoying than scary (Sorry Rob Zombie). What I came up with is simply my picks - not the ultimate list.

Feel free to suggest other songs - I'll add them into the lineup, or save them for next year!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Understanding the "Occupy" Movements

Let me first clarify that my comments on this movement are in no way a statement for or against the Occupy demonstrations. They are merely my attempt to add clarity to the actions and intentions of this wave of protests, as misinformation has been rampant.

As I approached the Occupy Chicago congregation on Friday night, the scene was picturesque. There were close to two hundred individuals huddled at the base of a bronze statue that depicted a Native American war chief astride a rearing horse. One arm is eternally stretched back as he prepares to loose an arrow from his bow. Off to the side of the gathering the Chicago skyline lit the night air with a poignant glow. The lights and opulence, in some ways, represented what these people came out to speak against, as far as I understood.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On the Hunt for the Perfect House

House hunting in Chicago is difficult.

To be fair, house hunting in any market is difficult. House hunting in this economy is difficult. But as a twenty six year old who has spent the majority of his life in a rural setting, my situation has created several extraneous issues.

First, let me provide some context. My wife and I have been living with her parents in suburban Chicago for the last few months. We are ever-thankful for the subsidized housing, but are now in a position to start looking for our own place. As we've day-dreamed and wishfully thought about what we're looking for in a house, Annie and I have come up with a checklist of wants and needs:

3+ Bedrooms
1+ Car garage
Hardwood floors
A fireplace
Medium-to-large backyard
A good neighborhood (you know, minimal amounts of drug-busts, violent crimes, etc)
Within our price range

We know that we arent going to find all of these things, but we're hopeful that, if we aim high, we might be able to stumble upon a property that fits our needs.

So we've been on the lookout for that perfect property. Scanning the real estate listings, Craig's list, and even flipping through the classifieds of the daily paper, we are doing all we can to find that home-sweet-home. And a few times, we've thought that we had found it. The price was right, the pictures looked nice, and there were minimal remodelling jobs that needed done. We could live with that.

And yet something felt too good to be true. I didn't know the area that well, so I shot an email over to a friend who'd been living in the city for a few years.

I asked him, "What is wrong with this place? Am I missing something, or is this really a good house to look at?"

He responded almost immediately. The subject line of his email read, "HELL NO! Re: Your thoughts on this neighborho​od?" You can guess how the rest of the email read.

But I didn't want to give up hope! Not wanting to admit to myself that this house was actually a lost cause, I decided to check it out using Google Maps' Streetview. As the initial image came into focus, I saw that the front yard was filled with overgrown bushes that seemed to be growing trash like berries. Fast food cups and old wrappers littered the yard. As I panned to the side, the next house down came into view, it's windows boarded up like it had just barely survived Hurricane Katrina. On the front steps, it looked as if two men were playing dice over another mans dead body, while tall-boys of some indeterminate malt liquor rounded out the ensemble.

I resisted the urge to look any further. As my heart settled despondently into my lower intestines, I realized that this house was not going to be an option. I purged any remaining hope from my mind, and set myself back to the task of finding our ever-ellusive dream house.

I still haven't had any luck finding that perfect property, but I keep on searching. I've learned a lot about many Chicago neighborhoods over the last few weeks, so I hope to avoid anymore housing heartbreaks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Going Home - A Prodigal Playlist

This weekend I went back home to Southeast Iowa. The weather was crisp and cool, the leaves were crunchy on the lawn, and I was feeling very reminiscent of growing up in the rolling foothills of the Mississippi Valley River Valley. In honor of my voyage home, I'd like to share a few songs about going home.

Pilgrims Chorus, from Tannhauser - Richard Wagner

This song is a part of Tannhauser, one of Richard Wagner acclaimed operas. The piece was first performed in 1843, and this particular number was infamously used as a victory march for the German armies as they marched through Berlin.

More recently (and more pleasantly), my good friend Richard Harrod used this song to herald his arrival in his home state of Maryland after a fifteen hour drive home from Monmouth College.

This piece definitely evokes feelings of homecoming, if listened to in context. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of German.

Sloop John B - Beach Boys

While this summer-fun tune from the Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds album is often lost among bigger hits such as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows", I find "Sloop John B" to be one of the most entertaining songs on this record.

Maybe it's because the Beach Boys veer away from the surf themes, love crooning, and hot rods, choosing instead to sing about how miserable life is aboard a sailing ship. Add in the eternal perkiness of Wilson's music and you get a peculiar, camp-song quality that I personally can't help but smile at.

Side note - What is going on with this album cover? Possibly one of the weirdest album covers the Beach boys ever came up with.

Homeward Bound - Simon and Garfunkel

This is the quintessential Homecoming song. Written in 1965 by Paul Simon while touring, this music will eternally be belted in cars while travellers young and old make their way back home.

This song, and really Simon and Garfunkel in general, bear special significance to me personally. I can still remember when I first heard the names "Simon" and "Garfunkel". When my sister was around thirteen, she had asked my dad for a Beatles album for Christmas. She was going through a personal Beatle-mania, and hoped that my father could facilitate her obsession.

I remember her getting that small rectangular package, then the excitement in her eyes shift to horror and confusion as she ripped off the paper to discover some strange album - Sounds of Silence. I remember thinking, "what kind of name is Garfunkel, anyway!?"

In retrospect, I am eternally grateful to my father for inadvertantly exposing my to two of the greatest poets and musicians of the last fifty years.

Wagon Wheel - Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show will always remind me of a different sort of home - not physical or geographic. The feelings evoked by this band are that of comradery and brotherhood. Wagon Wheel is one of those songs that any time we get together and there is a guitar laying around (and lets be real - when is there NOT a guitar laying around?) this song is belted out.

It's a great ballad of life on the road, the tribulations of travel, and that deep yearning to be back with the ones you love. Even though this song was written in 2001, the band gives their music an early twentieth century flavor that evokes the spirit of hobo's, gunslingers, and traveling shows.

Gravel Road - William Elliot Whitmore

This song will always be my homecoming song. I am proud to boast that William Elliot Whitmore and I share the same homeland - Both growing up in Southeast Iowa. Because of that connection, whenever he sings about farm life, the Mississippi River, and old coal trains, I know exactly what he means, because I've lived alongside the same rivers, farms, and trains. 

The song Gravel Road gets me every time with the line, "Lifes mysteries unravel when my tires hit that gravel and I leave the paved road far behind."

While I love living in bigger cities, this song perfectly capitulates the unquantifiable love I have for the rural beauty of Southeast Iowa. And Whitmore is the only person who has ever articulated that love with lyrical perfection.

So those are five songs of homecoming that I personally hold dear. I'm sure there are countless others, both general and specific to ones experiences. What songs make you want to go home? Which ones do you crank as you are rounding the bend to your childhood stomping grounds?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dog is Love

As my wife and I drifted to sleep last night, we pondered the affections of our droopy eyed hound. My wife mused,

"Do you think she actually loves me? You know, can dogs actually love humans?"

Love. Comin' at you!
"Sure. Look at that face - those lurching eyebrows and doleful peepers. Looks like love to me." I said this with my own eyelids drifting to their nocturnal rest.

"Yeah, but do dogs have the ability to love?"

"I believe some level. Cats, on the other hand, I'm not so sure. Hobbes, for instance, has no ability to love in his body. Only loathing." *

A thoughtful silence settled over us. I began to nod off, while my wife deliberated.

"Why are dogs and cats so different?"

"What kind of question is that?! Why are...giraffes and orangutans so different?!" Sleep was not in my immediate future.

"Yeah, but cats and dogs live in houses together."

"So do people and mice! And they're very different. On second thought, you know what? They're actually not. Genomically, mice and humans have many similarities. That's why scientists grow human ears on the backs of mice - and mice on the backs of human ears. You should see the rodent growing out of my ear!"
Ear, meet Mouse. Mouse, Ear.

"They do not! Wait, they do? That is disgusting...why would they grow a human ear on the back of a poor little mouse?"

I don't know! For people who have no ears. You know...ear transplants or something."

With that, we finally settled into a blissful rest.

Thank you science, for settling the question of "Do dogs have the ability to love?"

*Hobbes is the cat with which we currently share residence. This arrangement is against my will and better judgement, but I tolerate his presence.
I wish he would return the favor, but alas, he does not.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Great Unknown

Today, as I was deleting the scads of forwards, email newsletters, and other garbage that had inundated my email inbox, I came across a post from a blog that I follow. The author of the Mission Paradox Blog is Adam Thurman, a theatre producer from Chicago, and he has some very interesting ideas about promoting your craft, whether it be a theatre or a corner store.

Today's post was entitled, "Most People", and in it Mr. Thurman discusses how, in our current disparate society, it is virtually impossible to achieve even a minute level of fame or notoriety, let alone the star power that will land you on the cover of Rolling Stone or The National Enquirer.

Thurman is absolutely correct. Consider the music or film industry in the 40's and 50's. How many genre's of music were there when Elvis, Sinatra, Buddy Holly, or Hank Williams were crooning their love songs? A handful at best. Now, there are more sub-genres and niches in music than hip-swivels in an Elvis song.

Some of the most clever, well written television programs are have only lasted a few seasons, before being bumped for some cheaply-produced reality show. Programs such as Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks have kick-started the careers of some now wildly-acclaimed actors, but never saw even a paltry following during their existence. And yet Two and a Half Men and King of Queens have been on for nine seasons (I apologize to any fans of the aforementioned programs)?!

Thurman states in his essay that, "The goal isn't (or shouldn't be) to have the world know you. The goal is to build a following large enough to sustain you . . . large enough to be able to devote a substantial portion of your life to art creation."

On one hand, I agree with Thurman completely. Obtaining a regional or genre specific following, in today's cultural climate, is the realistic way to position yourself as an artist.

On the other hand, I disagree entirely with the premise that you should not try to conquer the world.

This is a potentially dangerous way to look at the world. A true renaissance man looks beyond his comfort zone, surpasses his area of expertise, and attempts to understand all things. This means becoming ubiquitous your niche, then moving past it, into areas yet undiscovered.
Master the craft that you want to dedicate your life to, but don't restrict yourself to only that world. That is what drives me - a respectful curiosity for the world in which I live. I believe that this is the most fulfilling way to approach life.

Seek to understand the world as a whole, so that you might exist in the world as a whole, rather than simply the world that you know.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

"The Thomas Edison of Our Time"

As I drove into work today, WBEZ - Chicago's NPR affiliate was offering commentary on the passing of Steve Jobs last night. The commentator referred to Jobs as "The Thomas Edison of our time".

This phrase made me stop and think. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, right? That's what my elementary education at Central Lee Community Schools taught me. A seemingly small invention, but through this harnessing of electricity, he opened the door for an infinite number of other advancements in technology and modern luxuries we now enjoy.

Similarly, Steve Jobs, alongside Steve Wozniak, invented the Apple computer in his garage. Now a laughably simple piece of technology, this device opened the doors for an outpouring of technological advancements. As a techno-minded friend of mine posted on my facebook epitaph to Jobs last night, "Can you imagine a PC without the windows OS? Without a mouse? Without a GUI (Graphical User Interface)? Jobs' crew at Apple made the PC what it is today 10 years before Microsoft started trying the same innovations." All of those who grew up in the 90's and beyond owe their current lifestyle to this man, in some regard or another.

So when the following words were forwarded to me by a co-worker this morning, I knew I had to share them hear. The chilling relevancy of this commencement address, given by Jobs in 2005, reminds us of what is important in life.

'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says
Stanford Report, June 14, 2005
This is a prepared text of the Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, on June 12, 2005.

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down - that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.

Talk about a true Renaissance Man. And I haven't even mentioned his impact on the worlds of marketing, public speaking, Computer animation, the music industry, the telecommunication world, and the education system.
Thank you very much, Steve Jobs. An innovator, a dreamer, and a revolutionary. Your ideas and inspiration will be greatly missed, and your impact on the world will not be forgotten.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Department of Motor Vehicles

Today I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew the registration on my vehicles.
As I walked into the unassuming, fluorescent-lighted office, nestled between an insurance office and a pet store in a generic Midwestern strip mall, I hoped that my experience would be the same - mundane and uneventful.

License and Registration, Sir
But as I walked into the government office, a wave of warm, pungent aroma washed over me. The small gray room was a cauldron of swirling body odors. It did not matter the age, race, gender, or station of the citizen, their smell was represented in my olfactory.

Slowly my nasal passages calloused to the harsh scents and I made my way through the melting pot and to the woman at the front desk. Taking my ticker tape that bore the number "774", I glanced around to take stock of my situation.

The electronic signs above the cubicles read "942", "946", and "947". Judging by the people standing below these neon numerals, those digits may have been indicative of the number of hours they'd been waiting.

Never have I been in such close proximity to so many people who's collective apathy and loathing was directed at a few drab-uniformed government employees. And those employees radiated equal-and-opposite apathy directly back. The tension burned in my sinuses worse than the body odor.

A woman a few seats away from me held a child, who in turn held an iPhone. The child evidently was not happy with the game selection that Apple proffered, and was vocal about this deficiency. Unable to keep the child quiet, she sternly threatened,

"If you don't start acting better, I'm taking you out to the car to sit with grandma."

Aren't there laws against leaving your grandma in a car unattended? I hope she left the windows cracked.


A man behind me, in an effort to pass the time, strikes up a conversation with the gentleman next to him. Their words add to the din of the crowd, when suddenly I overhear the man say,

"So do you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon?"

"No, that wouldn't be a good idea. I am an angry person."

The second man proceeds to go into his resume of car thievery and automotive parts trafficking. The conversation meandered through the cacophony of children wailing, phones sounding, and what I can only assume was the wheezing cough of avian bird flu.

The man boasted his conquests of car repossession, ATF cajoling, and dog beating. Judging by the inflection and light-hearted quality of his tone, he truly felt that this was the American dream.

And if that is his dream, I salute the achievement.


Finally, after two hours of listening to "Grand-Theft-Stupid" and "Geriatri-buse", my number is called. I land in the cubicle with the excitement of a schoolgirl at recess. Handing the woman my old registration, I chimed, "I need to renew my registration! What information do you need?"

"I'll let you know when I need it."

Ok. Sorry for my attempt to assist.

The curmudgeonous woman began clicking away at her computer, her fingers using all the excitement she could muster. Honestly, to call her a curmudgeon would be kind. She tottered around with an unyieldingly sour face, then handed me a bill with a little sticker on it.

"Are you paying with cash, check, or credit?"

That was the most expensive sticker I have ever bought. But also the most entertaining one.