Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Tidying Up

I enjoyed Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when it was published in the US in 2014. It was a bestseller, and when my wife bought it, I skimmed through it also. I liked Kondo's key idea: keep only what brings you joy.

It's a deceptively simple criteria to apply. It's simple because the question is straightforward. It's deceptive because you might expand the definition of joy, lumping possessions under "it used to bring me joy", or "it was a joy to receive it."

I own a lot of things, but not all of them bring me joy. Because I have an unfinished basement, I can afford to keep things simply for nostalgia's sake, or inertia's sake. I can afford to keep all my excess baggage.

My wife and I were inspired by Kondo's ideas though. We began to purge things more frequently since 2014. We know that the joy of possessing something can be short-lived, and nothing is wrong with that.

A fond acquaintance told us "You own possessions, possessions shouldn't own you." As my wife and I perform the magic of tidying up, I remind myself that the most joyful things are things I can't possess: health, relationships, ideas. The rest can be given away.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Signs of Encouragement

On my way home I pass a small house that has two yard signs bearing a message that lifts me. The first: "Don't Give Up." The second: "You Got This."

I probably noticed these signs sitting in traffic, since this house is near a traffic light. After a long day of fighting work problems, it's easy to get discouraged. I think: "I didn't get enough done", or "I'm not cutting it." Perhaps it is the early winter darkness, but this line of thinking can easily seep into the rest of my life. Personal annoyances and irritations can become overwhelming. But that's what life is, isn't it? Along with the positives are the not-so-positives, and it's up to you.

So when I saw these signs, I sat up straighter. "Don't give up, Rick," it was saying to me. "You got this!" Only you, Rick. If not me, then who? Don't give up! You got this.

As I drive on, I think about how some people do give up. "I can't handle it," they think. I send them the positive message from these signs. If not you, then who? Don't give up! You got this.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Scaring Myself at the Movies

I just finished watching "Gone Girl" (2014). This movie is probably closer to a psychological thriller than a proper horror movie, but the end result for me is the same: a good scare! I generally have avoided horror movies, but when I think about dread and fear and suspenseful experiences at the movies, I think of these five.

Alien (1979) - From the appearance of the alien out of the bloody guts of Kane's stomach to the frightful appearance of the alien in the end, it's a horror movie in space.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)- All I have to think about is that last scene, and that scream, and I'm scared all over again. I should probably rewatch this but I know how it ends!

Get Out (2017) - When our hero is held in that chair by that frightening family I was getting that great panicky feeling: what horrific thing is going to happen to him? This is a fun horror flick.

The Omen (1976) - The slow-motion reveal of the antichrist's birthmark is what I most remember about this superb scary movie. When evil is portrayed in a child, that adds to the scare factor.

The Exorcist (1973) - The grand-daddy of scary movies. Regan's rotating head, her frightful taunting and swearing, and all that bile and gore make this an all-time horror favorite. I can't bear to watch it!

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Turkeys of Turkey Hill

Our house is on a hill named Turkey Hill. It's a small hill, just 351 feet according to the USGS. At the top of the hill is a blue water tower, and depending on how clear it is, you can see this from as far away as Porter Square in Cambridge, six miles away.

We have lived here since the mid-1990s, but in the last few years we've been seeing wild turkeys. They seem to be coming from the hill that is their namesake. Wild turkeys! Walking, pecking and hop-jumping up and down our low fence and into our yard.

They seem to always travel in groups, and they seem to have a regular schedule of walking past our door. For a few months we saw two large turkeys and a baby turkey, and we named the little one Tetrazinni. After a while the little one stopped showing up and we made up a story that it went off to turkey college.

The best part of watching them is seeing them take flight. I learned that domesticated turkeys are too heavy to fly, but wild turkeys can fly. At the end of our yard is a steep ledge surrounded by trees. Depending on their mood, they will sometimes fly down to the bottom, parachuting with their wings gently waving. Other times they will flap their wings hard, and they will rise slowly to the branches near the tree tops. They seem quite tired when they get to the top.

I like my turkey neighbors!

Saturday, August 31, 2019


Our house is too big now
We're missing our teen
With her up in college
We've lost our routine.

Her room has her stuff
Lots of movies and books
It's just as she left it
Every time we take looks.

Our chores are now different
We clean a bit less
We're cooking for two
There's not that much mess.

We love that she's learning
But school's a good drive
With FaceTime and texts though
We're not too deprived.

For all of us three
We feel all the feels
It's a new phase of life
Let's see what reveals!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Self-Driving Cars

Futurists have been ushering in the era of the self-driving car, but I was glad to see a recent article proposing more caution. A recent fatality involving a self-driving car underscores this. The emergency backup driver in that fatality was not paying attention to the road. Why would they? After all, the car was driving.

Two years ago I started teaching my daughter to drive. At first a lot of what I was showing her was checklist and task oriented. As we started driving I tried to demonstrate continual awareness and anticipation. It was a constant stream of me saying "look out for this", "watch that", and "this person is signalling." Driving is continually reacting and making decisions.

Trying to replicate what the brain is doing while driving is going to be quite the feat in artificial intelligence. Lots of driving involves intuition and, in some cases, improvisation. I couldn't even imagine the computer science behind how you'd do this, though I suspect machine learning is a part of it.

A co-worker said he cannot wait for the age of the self-driving car to arrive. He thinks it'll be the end of distracted drivers. Machines don't get distracted. Despite laws, people still peek and peck at their mobile devices before, during and after traffic lights.

I like the baby steps that the self-driving car is taking, namely starting with smaller vehicles on controlled roads. Let's get collision avoidance figured out, then the computer will at least hold their own on real streets with real self-driving drivers.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Brewologist

For maybe a year now, my wife and I have been making pour-over coffee using The Brewologist, a stainless steel coffee filter. The marketing says that the filter allows for oils and other aromatics from the coffee bean to transfer into my cup of morning coffee. I have had to become more patient however, since pour-over coffee is the slow way to get to a cup of coffee. In the first part of the process, I remember to inhale the waft of smoke produced when the hot water first touches the grounds. Most days I try to make a circular motion with my kettle over the filter to maximize my use of the grounds. When I'm finally adding cream into the coffee, it's the end of a deliberate process. Maybe this makes me part of the mindfulness crowd. Coffee making is now ritual, not routine. And it's a nice cup of coffee!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Jazz Guitar

Since January, I've been learning jazz guitar.

Last December I had asked for and received an instructional DVD called No Nonsense Jazz Guitar by Jimmy Bruno. It starts out simple, and Jimmy does employ a no-nonsense approach, but the DVD quickly moves to harder material, without any preparation. One minute, you're learning a simple scale pattern, but then the next minute you're learning about doing changes over a 2-5-1 progression.

To fill in my knowledge, I went out to the Internet and found lots of tutorials. There are many tremendous jazz instructors (I like Jens Larsen and Matt Warnock) who take a far slower approach at the material. These side investigations into concepts that Jimmy introduces ("passing notes", "modes", "triads", "Circle of Fifths") have introduced me to music theory, a body of knowledge that is quite rigorous and analytical.

In the end, what's really helped is learning how to play jazz songs, the whole point of my wanting to learn jazz guitar. But unlike rock or R&B, jazz songs are fairly complex, and use very different chord forms. I learned songs like "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (Rolling Stones) or "Big Me" (Foo Fighters) in an afternoon, but I've been working on the jazz standard "Autumn Leaves" for the past two months. (My excuse: I only practice 30-45 minutes a day.)

I'm not deterred though. I'm okay with my pace, because learning this genre of music has been challenging yet engrossing, and I expect I'll be pursuing this for a while.
First 8 Bars of Autumn Leaves

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2015 novel The Sympathizer won The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It is a remarkable mix of historical fiction and thriller, with elements of "fish out of water" comedy and romantic comedy thrown in. It's the story of a Vietnamese double-agent, his voyage out of Saigon to America, and his dangerous spy work embedded in a sleeper cell. The novel explores the consequences of his choices as he tries to maintain his identity, in more ways than one.

The book examines many aspects of the immigrant experience as the protagonist settles into his enforced American life. He's been to America before. "If an American closed his eyes to hear me speak, he would think I was one of his kind," he says. But as the novel progresses, he's tormented by his outsider identity, both as a spy and as a refugee living in a culture that he admires and despises.

There are parts of the novel that smartly satirizes America's own tendency for scrubbing away the cultural influences for entertainment purposes. "You didn't even get the screams right," our hero complains to an American movie director. There are also moments of sheer terror, especially in the later chapters, when you fear not only for our hero's life, but your own sanity as Mr. Nguyen vividly renders pain and suffering with frightening precision ("Interrogation is about the mind first, the body second," a character explains).

I came to his novel by way of his New York Times op-ed piece titled "Why We Struggle to Say I Love You". In that op-ed piece, he analyzes the difficulty most Asian-American children have in saying "I Love You" to their parents. His piece greatly touched me, and I sought out more of his writing. I was not disappointed.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Rethinking How I Watch Movies

Of late, I've been watching movies over multiple evenings. I watch a movie for an hour or so, then after a scene change, I'll stop it. I usually resume watching it the next day. I've been doing this for the past few years, but I really embraced it last year, to the tune of almost 80 movies.

It's a form of time management, but one that required a change in thinking on my part. When I was growing up, I feasted on movies. I would sometimes spend entire days at the theater, watching the same movie twice, or sneaking into the next theater to catch part of another movie. All through college and my early 20s I was a fan of the movie-going experience, and sitting through its entirety was something I took for granted.

Fast-forward to my middle age, and the infinite free time I had when I was a callow youth is gone. It's hard enough making time for a proper two hour movie let alone spending a whole day watching multiple movies.

A former co-worker was the first to suggest watching movies over multiple sittings. I remembering complaining about the length of the Lord of the Rings movies and he said "Just watch it an hour at a time." This makes perfect sense! After all, we don't read books in one sitting.

I still get to the theater, but it has to be for something that is a consensus theatrical epic. For the most part, though, I've let go my fixation for the single-sitting rule. Now I'm happily surprised when a movie is so compelling that I will sit through it all at once!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Cars of My Life

I first learned to drive with my Dad's Chevrolet Chevelle in the mid 1980s. It was long, it was blue, and towards the end of its existence it belched out blue exhaust smoke at random. I remember many afternoons with my Dad practicing parallel parking over and over between two traffic cones.

Our family traded up from the Chevelle into a generic Chevrolet conversion van, complete with a manual sliding door and a ladder to get to the roof. We drove this car across the country, wearing out its single cassette player. I was excited when I drove for a few hours on those long rides.

When I left for college and beyond, I inherited the family sedan, a blue Nissan Sentra. (My parents bought a red Sentra to replace it.) I shared the car with my wife in the 1990s after we moved to the suburbs. I drove the Sentra until small holes started to emerge in the trunk and back-seat wheel wells due to rust.

In 2000, using a little dot-com money, I bought a used Audi A4. It remains my favorite car. It was sleek yet muscular. I loved that you could lower the windows by rotating the key counter-clockwise in the door lock. I also loved its red interior lights. I gave up the car after one too many engine start problems and a persistent water leak.

In 2006, I bought a Subaru Legacy. This car is completely nondescript but is thoroughly reliable. The all-wheel drive has paid for itself over many winters up and down our hilly neighborhood. I taught my daughter how to drive with this car. It might not be flashy, but as long as it's drivable, I'll be keeping it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My 2018 Books and Movies

In 2018, I finished 31 books and watched 79 movies.

My favorite fiction book from last year was Fatherland, by Robert Harris. It's crime-fiction set in a Germany that won World War II. I enjoyed the pace and the voice of the detective protagonist, Xavier March. Other favorites deserving mention: Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker and Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera.

For non-fiction, I very much liked Skyfaring, by Mark Vanhoenacker, and Dreamland, by Sam Quinones. Skyfaring is a soaring, evocative meditation about air travel by a commercial pilot. Dreamland is a deep look at the heroin crisis in the United States.

79 movies is a lot for me. For whatever reason I dug deep into Netflix and Amazon Prime Movies from November onwards. From the movies I rated a 10 the standouts I recommend: Get Out (2017), Her (2013), and What Happened to Monday (2017).