Syncopation

Image of snare drum with sticks. Used under creative commons.

A week ago from the time that I write this, I was driving home after dropping Karen and our girls off for a week-long trip to see some family. I was in the sort of contemplative mindset that I often find just out of reach lately. I drove past a house with a truck parked in the driveway. The logo on the side of the truck indicated that it belonged to a fire safety business. Because of where the truck was parked, and the time – it was a Sunday night – my mind, crafting stories as always, began to fill in the details.

The person who owned the truck worked for, or perhaps owned, that business, according to this story. This was a local business, and he would go to work the next morning, driving to jobs around the area, into adjacent towns. He likely knows the area extremely well, and is accustomed to the rhythm and schedule. This person would get up and go to work the next morning after the alarm went off at the same time as always, beginning a new day and a new week.

I grew up around that type of work. I understand – if only by close proximity instead of by doing – that rhythm. That rhythm is such a counterpoint to my life now.

A few weeks ago, I sat in a small local restaurant in Seattle and, over lunch, coordinated a complex technical event that was happening in Boston from my phone. That sort of flexibility and capability is exciting, and fun. I still don’t grasp the rhythm of this work, though, perhaps because there isn’t any. Time bends in on itself, loses its meaning. Everything happens with immediacy. I long for a rhythm, for some local work.

A colleague joked a few years ago that she wanted to stop doing our profession and be a barista for a living. I laughed at this, and I also recalled a friend from my undergrad days. He said that, when he finished school, he didn’t care if he worked at a gas station all night for a living. He just wanted to write. I remember laughing at that too, but, honestly, sometimes I wish that I could just serve coffee during the day, read, and finish that novel, the draft of which has been collecting dust since our first daughter was born. I think that, when I want that, I want it not only because it would be simpler, but because the rhythm would be more….defined.

The rhythm of the life that I have now, filled with fast-paced technology and the controlled chaos of two children, is syncopated, wildly unpredictable. There’s a sense that it’s always delicately balanced, just on the edge of being out of control. There’s no real option but to embrace that syncopation at the moment. Like in jazz, those rhythms can have a purpose, even be playful at times. I long for the quiet, though, the purpose of knowing that your work is just your work, and that it is done when it is done.

Perhaps that is a thing of the past.

Image attribution: Vladimir Morozov under Creative Commons.

Travel Log: Nashville, Tennessee

I’m slightly late in getting around to writing this….okay, actually more than a year late. Something that Karen and I always try to do is visit a new place each year. That’s been curtailed for the last few years until both of our children reach an age at which we can travel more easily, but I’ve still managed to see some cool U.S. cities for work trips over the last three years. I had always sort of intended to write about the places we’ve visited (and have in some cases), so I wanted to begin chronicling these trips and what struck me about each place.

Nashville skyline

Nashville skyline

I’m not sure what I expected from Nashville, but it wasn’t what I experienced. The one type of music of which I’m not really a fan is country. I suppose that I expected to be buried in twang, but was pleasantly surprised. While a lot of local bars and restaurants are named for country music stars and honor the city’s heritage in that way, there’s music of all kinds everywhere.  Walk down the street and it greets you – one melody will fade out as another fades in, a sort of encompassing Doppler effect in Nashville’s streets.

Hard Rock Cafe, Nashville

Hard Rock Cafe, Nashville, looking toward the street

Music is the soul of Nashville, and its impossible to not be impacted by that. Everyone there seems to have a musical aspiration – you’ll pass someone carrying a guitar if you hang around long enough. I was sitting in my hotel restaurant one evening, and an old song from my high school days came over the speakers. In a rare moment of having my memory for music history trivia fail me, I downloaded and used Shazam to help me recall the title and artist. I’ve been using Shazam since, adding some of those old musical memories to my collection.

That, I think, is my biggest takeaway from Nashville: it re-ignited my love for music.

Guitars at Nashville International Airport

Guitars at Nashville International Airport

I had visited Tennessee before – a close friend lived in Chattanooga for a while – and thought that I knew what to expect. Certainly there are commonalities, but Nashville is very different, even in a different timezone. That confused me at first as I wasn’t aware of this fact, and one of my Lyft drivers confessed that its odd to have part of the state in one time zone and part in another. It’s true, though….plan on landing in CDT if you visit.

Being a rock history aficionado, I always visit the Hard Rock Cafe whenever I visit a city in which I can find one. Nashville’s Hard Rock is one of the better ones I’ve visited. One of Dave Matthew’s guitars was on display.

Dave Matthew's guitar, on display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nashville

Dave Matthew’s guitar, on display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nashville

Something else that stood out to me about Nashville was a sense of celebration, almost of pageantry. The music brings a life with it, a life that flows out into the streets on any night of the week and brings a feeling of euphoria with it. I’m not sure it’s possible to be in Nashville and not have a thoroughly fantastic time.

Carriages illuminated after dark in downtown Nashville

Carriages illuminated after dark in downtown Nashville

I had a great time visiting Nashville, and every time I fall in love with a good song again, I feel like it’s still a part of me somehow.

Information Shelf Life

Glasses laying on an open textbookWhen I was a student, I developed certain habits and ways of thinking. Most students do, and I imagine that these habits are remarkably similar from one to another. When Karen and I encounter a new and unfamiliar problem, for example, we find a book (or several) on the topic. We know which books to pull from our shelves should we need to reference them for some obscure detail.

Because of our academic careers, we instinctively know an important tenant of research: the oldest source is almost always the most valid. Newer research is, by nature, regarded with some scholarly skepticism because it hasn’t yet been subjected to rigorous debate by the academy. In fact, depending on the discipline, the date of the research can be the most important factor when citing it in other works.

Fast forward to today. Now I make my living on the web, and I am forced to change this habitual way of thinking. Research and relevant information in my field comes from blogs more than books, because books become out-dated too quickly. I can bookmark these posts that contain essential information, but these bookmarks are fleeting, just like the content to which they point. Research that is older is treated with disdain – newer is always seen as more relevant, because the technology moves so fast. A year old is often seen as worthless.

This has been a difficult mindset to which to adapt, because it seems to eschew the wisdom of what came before. Youthful enthusiasm and “disruption” is prized above experience in a way that academics…or many other professional disciplines…would not tolerate. I see the negative impact of this on my profession, as well: burnout, insane amounts of over-complication, pressure to learn and then leave behind. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis, so much salvific hope, in our technology, while the exponential pace at which that very technology rushes ahead betrays us, leaves us behind, our perceptions now scattered…damaged goods, as it were.

New research is not a bad thing. We progress because of it. I would go so far as to say that we need it to thrive as a civilization. Forgetting its place, though…allowing it to push aside all that has come before it in the name of progress…counters all of the good that it might do. Critical thinking is important, and forgetting that when we’re caught up in the moment of what seems to be a revolutionary new perspective, is imprudent.

And we are the worse for it.

Thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

Photo of what looks like a theatre display for Avengers Endgame. Used under Creative Commons.I’ve waited a week since Karen and I went to the opening night show of Avengers: Endgame to write this. I don’t want to call it a review, as I normally do, I think because of the finality of this film, of the experience of seeing the film. Because I’ve known these characters for so much of my life….ten years on the screen, and many, many years more than that in print…I experienced a period of mourning after Endgame. The heroes won…we knew that they would. I don’t think we knew how costly that victory would be, or at least hadn’t let the suspicion take root.

The fact that I’m walking away with this level of emotional response is, of course, indicative of the quality of story-telling. This is an epic that concludes an epic, and it pays so much respect to the films that have come before. The heroes reconcile old schisms, make sacrifices, and recall what it is to be heroes, all while dealing with an apocalypse.

I suppose I am doing some reviewing here, because I need to mention that the storytelling is even broader in its expanse than Infinity War, diving into time travel and alternate outcomes in true comic book form. This is predictably necessary for a film of this scope, to do justice to what we’re seeing, larger than our minds can even take in at first. That said, I felt like it became beholden to a sort of genre convention of a “final episode” at times, which led to some contrived moments.

My biggest issue with Endgame is that the inexcusable destruction of Thor’s character that began in Ragnarok continues, which is unfortunate. Thor would have been a fantastic addition to Endgame, but instead there is another character here masquerading as Thor. I think that, in order to preserve the continuity of the universe, the directors had limited options other than to perpetuate the disservice that Ragnarok’s director did to the through-line, but still…it detracts enormously from the movie.

The heroic sacrifices of our heroes at times leave me understanding…this truly was the only way that it could end…and at times left me angry, entering a first stage of grief. I’m also left with hope, ordering events from the time travel exploits in such a way in my mind that I can conclude that maybe, just maybe, someone that we’ve lost might return (rarely does any character stay dead in comics, anyway).

Of course, I’d be remiss to not tell just how much I love the final battle between good and evil, which in so many ways is what a super-hero story is about. The audience in our theatre cheered, applauded, and when we finally heard “Avengers, Assemble!” nearly responded with a standing ovation. This is the bigger universe that Tony Stark had found himself a part of all those years ago, and now, rising above all mistakes and personal failings, the one several of our heroes give everything to protect.

To be honest, my mind has been spinning as I unpacked this three-hour adventure so much that I almost didn’t write this. Because I reviewed the first Avengers film though, I wanted to review the final one. This was the ending, a true ending. Notably absent from the end credits is any mention of “The Avengers will return.” This was their final battle. Steve has received his much deserved leave and passed his mantle, and Tony can rest…the world is safe. I can recall seeing each movie leading to this, though…recall every theatre that I sat in, devouring analysis after and looking for hidden gems that hinted as to what was coming. This has been years of masterful storytelling, and I think we’re all grateful. Everything, though, must come to an end. We’ll always remember this ten-year adventure with excitement, knowing that it ended the best…the only…way that it could. For one final time, the Avengers fought the battle we never could. As Fury predicted at the close of the first movie, they were there because we needed them to be.

Image attribution: Brendan C under Creative Commons.

On Shopping and the Value of the Mundane

An image of winter gloves, used under Creative Commons.I’ve been shopping for a new pair of gloves.  This is a deceptively difficult thing to get right. When you live in New England, you don’t own just one pair of gloves, because the mid-weight gloves that you wear in December are useless in January and February. Having the right gloves at the right time of year is very important.

After Karen and I had been married for a couple of years, I joked that I was a master of the suburban jungle. We fell into a rhythm of grocery shopping every Sunday afternoon. This sounds mundane, but was something that I enjoyed. Our rhythm is no longer the same with two children, and this is true not only of grocery shopping, but of many other aspects of life.

Even within these interruptions, however, one adapts. We used to have these little outings as a family. Again, nothing huge, and often mundane….trips to a local store to pick up some items that we needed, then eating out. I love those excursions, even when they are something as trivial as shopping, perhaps for the right pair of gloves.


When our oldest daughter was younger, I took her for “cookies and milk” every weekend. This was an inviolable routine. Even when traveling, we made time. Even if it was as simple as grabbing 15 minutes at a coffee shop (which it frequently was), I made the time. As life progressed, this, too, began to happen less and less frequently, a fact that she has lamented to me recently. Now I find myself digging for ways to accomplish this simple act amidst all of the work that I have to accomplish, all of the daily life commitments that come with family…almost none of which, it occurs to me, involve leaving home.

This was a utopia long-predicted and, now that we have it…for all of its telecommuting benefits…I can’t help but wonder what we’ve relinquished. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I recall sitting upstairs in my favorite coffee shop, when a classmate walked in downstairs. I began to IM him (remember AOL?), and realized the absurdity of such an action. I walked downstairs and said hello. That was a precursor to today, as the absurdity of that moment becomes commonplace when we use Slack to talk to a co-worker who is only a few feet away.

Of all the face-to-face interactions that we abdicate, it is the interactions with my children and family that are most painful. As crazy as it sounds, those random weekend shopping excursions held something that just doesn’t spark when we have those same items delivered by Amazon. The convenience of having such a plethora of options for a new pair of gloves is somehow not worthwhile, because the substance of doing the activity together, even when it’s only shopping, is more important than the outcome of the activity.

That idea, though, is counter-cultural in an age of scientific pragmatism. We are, after all, only data, right? And thus intrudes a cognitive dissonance into my life. I love shiny new toys. I love that I can have groceries delivered to us on Sundays if we are overwhelmed with daily family responsibilities. I miss the act of intentionally doing those mundane things together, though. I miss it deeply, because it now happens so rarely. And thus, so do our connections with each other.

Except virtual connections. Those will never go away.

For whatever they’re worth.

Image attribution: Keith Williamson under Creative Commons.