Monday, December 30, 2013

A Secular Life

One of my favorite words is secular.

One dictionary I have defines it "of or pertaining to the temporal rather than to the spiritual." Google's definition: "denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis."

I don't remember when I learned this word, but I do remember how it lodged into my mind: an episode of Sports Night, the television series by Aaron Sorkin. In one particular episode ("When Something Wicked This Way Comes"), Dan Rydell gets flustered when he thinks he's misused the word in a conversation. "Did I mean to say non-secular, when I should have secular?" I gave a lot of thought to that dialogue, having attended private non-secular schools until college.

I think about this word because the Catholic church I attended closed in 2004, and since then my church attendance has stopped. It didn't help that Boston's Catholic Church crisis (2002) was still a fresh memory. The news of the sexual abuse and the institutional coverups made me realize how religion and church are invented and governed by men. And as the punchline goes: "I brought you into this world, and I'll take you out." I decided to take it out.

In 2010, at my youngest brother's wedding, my other brother and I had a conversation about the ceremony. Ron said he liked that there wasn't any religious connotation at all. I replied with a smile: "A secular ceremony then!" We both laughed. By then I had been without religion for six years, and I felt at peace with it. A secular life is all I have left.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An Immigrant's Gratitude

Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines, devastating the city of Tacloban on the island of Leyte. It was a worrisome time because I do have close and distant relatives in various parts of that island nation. After the storm passed, and our relatives were accounted for, I was left with gratitude.

I was at the barber recently, and the person who cut my hair casually asked where I was from. "New Jersey," I said. "Were you born there?" he asked. "No, I was born in the Philippines."

He listened as I told my immigration story (I was born in Manila, and I came here when I was three years old) , and I listened to his own immigration story (he was born in Italy, and he came here when he was thirteen). We both became American citizens when we were young: me before high school, and him before joining the US military.

"I think immigrants like you and me are more grateful for what we have here in the US," he said.

That is probably true.

The last time I visited the Philippines, I was ten years old. I was boy running, swimming and playing in the hot sun every day. My memories of that long vacation are wonderful, but I also remember how very different it was from the United States. I knew I preferred the "comfort" of Jersey City, New Jersey.

Being an immigrant means you or your parents have come from someplace else. Being an immigrant is to be aware of two ways of living, and awareness is at least one ingredient to being grateful.

Tomorrow, the people of the Philippines will continue their lives, as best as they are able to. My Mom said that it doesn't take a lot to make a Filipino happy. I'm grateful for this trait.

Tomorrow, I'm going to sit down to the most American meal possible. My wife said she has enough cranberry sauce. I'm grateful.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Avoiding Automobile Accidents

Yesterday, there was some traffic backed up on the corner where I turn to go to work. It turned out that there was an accident, and a small crew was sweeping up the street. A tow truck had the car on its flat bed. The driver-side front part of the car was smashed in. I thought I saw the owner, his phone pressed to his bowed head.

I was in one fender bender back in the 1980s when I was in high school, but since then, I've been accident-free.

I think in those early years, I was mostly lucky avoiding accidents. I remember being an aggressive driver. I grew up in Jersey City, where driving 'close' seemed normal. I spent time in Pasadena, and prowled Southern California highways, and developed a fondness for high speed on-ramp merging. When I moved to Massachusetts, I liked to drive angry. Flooring the gas. Tailgating. Driving over the speed limit. I always felt that I could make up time in my car if I was late.

But over the years, the energy that this kind of driving demanded began to disappear. Over the years, I realized there was no 'winning' in driving. How angry I could become if someone cut me off or didn't let me merge. I questioned why I was so emotionally exhausted after driving.

I began to become generous in my driving. You want to squeeze ahead of me in a long line of traffic? Go right ahead. You want to run your left-turn green? Go on...I'll wait. I stopped using my horn. I gave myself more time to get to events. And if I was late? Well, that's what the cell phone is for.

I started driving slower. For years I did a city commute, and driving fast through the streets was a trademark. Now? I'm the person that people are honking because I'm going at "Sunday drive" speed.

All driving has become leisurely, and I am much more relaxed behind the steering wheel. I still have to deal with aggressive triggers (fast drivers, people 'pushing' me to run that yellow). I do my best to avoid those situations. My streak of accident-free driving continues.

Monday, September 30, 2013

My Current Reading Pile

I have started a lot of books, but hopefully these are the ones that I finish soon (and by soon I mean "this year").

Code (Charles Petzold) - This is a marvelous book, and the reason it's taking me so long to finish it is because I don't want it to end! It's a book about "how computers work", but his approach to answering that question is to take us all the way back to how we represent data first in code, then in bits and bytes, and ultimately in software. It's a fascinating journey, and I'll have more to say on my technical blog when I finish

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson) - Neal Stephenson's lengthy epic cuts between three main characters, code breaking, World War II, and the "present" world of the high-tech start-up industry. This book is full of great scenes, including "Captain Crunch" and "Van Eck phreaking". The characters are richly rendered. And as a bonus for geeks like me, there are small programs and mathematical equations throughout.

Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson) - This intricate collection of stories set in the town of Winesburg, Ohio, has always fascinated me from when I first heard of it. When I picked it up finally, I was surprised by how short it was, but each story in this book packs an intense amount of imagery and emotion. Like "Code", I'm drawing this book out, hoping to make its imagery stay with me.

Inferno (Dan Brown) - My mother-in-law bought two copies, and I made the pleasant mistake of checking out the first chapter. For those who've read Brown's "DaVinci Code", you'll know that to read the first chapter is to commit to reading the entire work. Inferno has a similar great opening, and I know that means I'm in for a great ride.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Breaking Boxes

Breaking boxes is possibly my favorite chore.

Thanks to e-commerce delivering goods directly to our house, our basement (still unfinished) collects boxes at a fairly decent rate. The boxes pile up and accumulate, to the point where I declare to anyone who'll listen "I'm going to break the boxes downstairs."

I put on a pair of cloth gloves and open a grey Craftsman utility knife. I pull a few boxes from the teetering pile and set them on the floor. Using the knife, I cut the shipping tape from the bottom of the box. This lets me collapse the box, flattening it. I'll work through maybe a dozen large boxes like this. When I get to the smaller boxes (from Priority Mail, FedEx, or Amazon), I'll use the knife to cut open one end. Once both ends are open, I can fold the box flat.

Only if the box is large enough do I actually cut the box itself. When we bought a new dining room set, the boxes had me busy the next weekend. I remember that the boxes contained lots of cardboard, some of which had Styrofoam glued on for further padding. I worked these apart, trashing the foam into a large garbage bag, and then cutting the cardboard even more.

Sometimes the boxes are strangely shaped packaging that is usually coupled with heavy plastic. I'll spend the time separating these carefully. The knife helps me cut the plastic, which then goes into a separate bin.

If it sounds like we get a lot of boxes, then yes, we get a lot of boxes.

It's satisfying to look at the boxes once they're flattened and in a small pile. Where there was once an unruly pile, there is now a clear space. I've made room.

I take the folded boxes to my car, and drive to a nearby recycling dumpster. There is usually a box or two right in front of the dumpster, which always makes me shake my head. Next time, I'll bring my utility knife, and break that box too.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Seventh Blog Post This Year

I've been good about writing BLOG entries this year! This is the seventh entry so far this year, and even though this entry is light, it does count for the month of July. This means that I can say that I've posted at least once every month this year.

I'll take that.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers

I love Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories".

Clearly Daft Punk is in the spotlight, thanks to their super enjoyable track "Get Lucky", but until a month ago, I hadn't heard of them (though later I'd learn that they wrote "One More Time"). After I saw enough mentions on Twitter, I went to (of all places) Myspace to stream their album.

I very much favor a strong first song, and "Give Life Back to Music" is a strong first song. Its rising, declamatory notes, smoothly shifting to a sweet and confident groove had me at attention. "Just turn on the music," go the lyrics, blended with electronica, and that swaying guitar. It's an awesome song.

Nile Rodgers is one of the guitarists on "Give Life Back to Music", and I listened to his commentary on the album's website. He was asked about his various musical collaborations, and it quickly became clear that I have heard his work before. From "Good Times" to "Material Girl", he has been making music as a performer and a producer for a very long time.

The commentary ends with him playing the guitar chuck from "Get Lucky". Unmistakable resemblances to his past work, but fresh and unique enough for this great hit track. He's smiling as he plays. "I forgot how cool that was," he says. The delight was plain on his face. "Get Lucky" is full of delight, but make sure to check out that first track!

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Best of My Blog

I've been writing in this space since March 10, 2001. Almost 750 posts. Out of all of these, I've marked 46 to be "my best BLOG posts".

I went through this exercise a year or two ago, when I moved my BLOG yet again from an old host to being back on Blogger. I went through each post, "labeling" them into categories. Some posts I could categorize easily ("Daughter", "Movies"). Some posts were so brief I labeled them "Tweet", which suggests that I was tweeting before Twitter was invented. Some posts eluded easy categorization, and I dumped them into "Personal".

The posts I marked as "My Best" are varied: movie reviews, reminisces, essays about the day-to-day, eulogies about the well-known and the personal. I really liked the posts I wrote about the people in my life who made a strong impression, people like Jonathan, Paul, and Greg.

I hope to add more posts into the "My Best" category. Of course that means I have to keep writing them first.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Wicked Week in Boston

My wife pinged me with an instant message: "A bomb was set off at the Boston Marathon finish line!" What?

The Boston Marathon is held on the Massachusetts holiday of Patriots' Day, kicking off a state-wide school vacation week. For that fateful Monday, the Red Sox were at Fenway for an early game, and the Boston Bruins were scheduled to play in the evening. For Lexington and Concord, battle re-enactments are staged. The federal tax deadline is pushed back one day. All of Massachusetts takes a bit of a break.

A bomb exploding at the Boston Marathon finish was hardly believable.

When I finally got home to see TV footage, it was stunning. I spent a few years living in the Back Bay, and whenever I took the T home, I would get out at the stop near the marathon finish (Bolyston Street, Copley Square). It's a gorgeous block: the Boston Public Library on one side, the magnificent Trinity Church on the other, with the Hancock Tower in the immediate background. Walking home with a roommate from Copley, he remarked in admiration: "Can you believe we live here?"

Now that famous street was shut down, a crime scene to be examined.

Since the events of 9/11, all of America has become familiar with terror. For Boston, however, like most of the country, terrorism was confined to the newspapers and the all-news television stations. It was at a remove. The Marathon Bombing was not distant: it took place in our back yard. All of Boston fretted.

When one of the victims was revealed to be a local woman who lived in Arlington, and grew up in Medford, I felt an immediate sadness. I live in Arlington, and I've certainly been through Medford. In our small town (40,000), the loss felt personal. The president visited Boston, and offered this comfort: "Every one of us stands with you." And as I responded to various texts, Tweets, and e-mails from far-flung friends, I felt that.

By late Thursday, however, I had a thought that the suspects would be long gone. They were shown on television, and I was prepared for a nationwide manhunt to start. But around 4AM, my wife woke me up, saying that she had heard distant explosions. The suspects apparently were in a firefight with authorities, throwing pipe bombs from their car. Suspect #1 was killed, and Suspect #2 raced by foot into a Watertown neighborhood.

As night turned to day, the governor locked down Watertown and its surrounding cities. He called it "shelter in place." He stopped all mass transit, and told businesses to take a day off. I live just outside the "stay inside" map, but I was distracted at work. The state highway that I commute on was as clear as a weekend morning.

Relief came Friday evening, with Suspect #2's capture. There is a certain humor in the fact that he hid in a parked boat in Watertown, but the prevailing feeling was relief and joy. And pride. Boston cooperated with a shut down, flooded Watertown with enforcement, and after careful work, captured their man. We stood up to terror, the Boston Strong way.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Daily Dream

Every morning, when I first log into the computer, I take a moment to write down what I remember from last night's dream. Some days, I can only write down the vaguest sentence about my dream. Other days I can write whole paragraphs of what happened, so vivid were the details. And still some days (most days), I report that I cannot remember a thing.

I can pinpoint when I began this habit: April 2011, with a Kickstarter ad for "Oneironautics: A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming". This book attempts to teach you how to "wake up" inside your dream. One of the techniques for such "lucid dreaming" is to write down your dreams, building up a diary of your subconscious mind that you can study when you're awake.

I remember feeling this same excitement after watching the Richard Linklater movie "Waking Life", although at the time (early 2000s) I didn't realize there was a vocabulary for this idea. Of course, the recent movie "Inception" continued to stoke my interest.

As I reread a few of my own dream entries, I see the usual psychological debris of my past (college, high school) mixed with the racy and the rowdy. I sometimes think these dreams would make great movies, if only some screenwriter would make them half-way coherent. Until then, my dreams will just have to serve as my morning writing prompt.

For more on lucid dreaming, check out Dream Labs.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

My Favorite Oscar Winners

The Oscars are tonight. My only stake in the proceedings is whether or not Argo wins Best Picture, as it is the only nominee that I have watched (though I have read "Life of Pi").

Everyone no doubt has a personal list of favorite movies, but chances are that list would look different if you restricted it to just the Oscar winners for Best Picture. Below are my top favorite Oscar Best Pictures, and needless to say, these are "must watch" movies.

The French Connection (1971) - When you listen to the director's commentary track for this movie, you'll hear William Friedkin say he'd never shoot a car chase like this again. This harrowing chase scene, in which Gene Hackman's character chases an elevated NYC train, is the very definition of intense. But so is the rest of the movie! The "good guy" (Hackman's Popeye Doyle) is angry, dark, and profoundly imperfect, and that adds immeasurably to this thrilling movie.

Chariots of Fire (1981) - A friend of mine urged me to check this movie out back in the 1980s, and I was glad that he did. Chariots is a great movie. The movie has grown up with me too: when I watched it as a pre-high-schooler, I marveled at the athletic sequences, but as an adult, I am now caught up in the drama between the two Olympic runners, and their quest for faith, integrity and victory.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Silence is a psychological procedural, an examination of process, as practiced by the young Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). Foster's acting is strong and vivid. The moment when she stares into the camera, pondering "first principles" is wondrous. Anthony Hopkins' exquisite Hannibal Lecter is one cinema's premiere bad guys.

Titanic (1997) - Someone derided me once when I announced that this was one of my favorites, and my argument that it is one of the most successful movies of all time fell on deaf ears. It's too bad, because that person is missing out on the best romantic adventure movie of all time. Everything in the movie builds up to the spectacle and emotion of that final scene, and when you hear Rose blowing that whistle in the dark, I dare you not to be moved.

No Country for Old Men (2007) - It's a measure of supreme talent that the people who made "No Country", the famed Coen brothers, also made "The Big Lebowski" (another must watch). "No Country" is a meditation on greed, mortality and evil like no other. Tommy Lee Jones' character is bone weary, in stark contrast to the cold ruthlessness of the bounty hunter played by Javier Bardem.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Low-Information Diet

I have embraced the idea of "a low-information diet", ever since I read about it in Timothy Ferriss' book "The 4-Hour Work Week". Truth be told, however, I've been struggling with my 'information intake' for years.

Ever since I was a kid, I have always been impressed with people who were well-informed. When I was an altar boy, I remember being flustered that I couldn't converse with the priests before mass. Other servers had no problems talking about politics or sports, but I sat there silent, not knowing how to get into the 'flow' of the conversation.

In high school, a friend and I were stopped by a television reporter in front of the train station. He posed us a question, and I was amazed at the ease with which my friend gave his thoughtful response. I remember not saying anything, and to this day I don't even remember what we could have been interviewed about.

As I grew older, I learned how to be more 'conversant', but I've never become 'well informed'. I learned how to form my own opinions, but mostly on light news (sports, entertainment). For many years, one of my standing resolutions was to "read the newspaper more", but every year that resolve was always the first to fade away. Flipping the pages and reading even just the headlines eventually began to feel like a chore.

In Ferriss' book, his chapter about "selective ignorance" is introduced with a quote by Herbert Simon, a political scientist and economist: "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention..." It's a striking quote, and it put me very much at ease.

Ferriss recommends an exercise where readers just ask others "what happened in the world that was important today." Eventually, he says, you'll learn that the answer doesn't affect you in the least. Instead, what is important is what's right in front of you: your family, the work you choose to do, your joys, your interests. Consuming the news takes time, our most precious commodity.

I don't get flustered anymore when someone sounds well-informed to me. If I get the chance, I ask them to tell me about what they know, instead of dwelling on my lack of knowledge on current events. A low-information diet is not for everyone, but I've found it quite liberating.