Archives for category: Opinion

Solitary road trips have way of inspiring me to think about things in a way I don’t otherwise. Maybe it’s the monotony of them, the hypnotic hum of the wheels on the roadway or the persistent white noise of the engine. I like to think it’s the isolation of it. If you allow yourself the opportunity, traveling has the way of culling out interruptions. It provides a sort of freedom in the emptiness. Sure, there’s lots of things I can do. I can stare out the windows and watch the world slowly glide by. I can read a book. I can watch a movie. I can play a game. I can work. — And while I enjoy all of these things at various points on a road trip the thing I do most often is to put on headphones and simply listen to music. Sometimes I’ll read or work, too, but more often than not I just listen and allow myself the chance to let my mind wander where it wants.

This past weekend I took the four-hour bus ride from Chicago to visit my grandfather in Peoria. Four hours there, and four hours back. It was a good chunk of time to just be alone with myself and think about nothing in particular. But after a while that unstructured thinking began to take form. A combination of hearing a particular song connected with recalling something my friend, Smokes, had recently said propelled me to start thinking about musical influences. Why do I listen to the music I listen to? Why do I like it? But more curiously, how did I come to find it? The questions crystallized in my mind around a central theme: which albums were most influential upon me?

I always do this, I always spend too much time on the prelude. I think some lengthy explanation is necessary to lead up to a rather basic question. I should work on that. So, please pardon my rambling. I’ll get to the list. Here are the criteria I used for inclusion:

  • Album as a complete work, not just a particular song
  • Direct inspiration for listening to other music
  • Marks a significant milestone in my life
  • Released while I have been alive
  • Purchased with my own money within a year of public release
  • Not necessarily my favorite, the most popular or the most successful album from a particular artist

Here they are in chronological order:

In Through The Out Door, Led Zeppelin (August, 1979). By the time I discovered Led Zeppelin in the fall of 1981, John Bonham had died and the band had broken up. At the time, this was their last album. (Coda wouldn’t be released until 18 months later.) Joan turned me on to them. Early in the school year we became friends. At recess, we would walk around the soccer field and talk. Often about Zork and Led Zeppelin. She made a cassette tape of In Through The Out Door for me to listen to. It opened my eyes to what was possible with rock music– a radical departure from the Eagles and the Beatles and the Beach Boys my dad often played in the house. Later, I bought my own copy of this record because of her and over time I collected much of Zep’s published discography. That, in turn, allowed Queen, Lenny Kravitz, and the Ramones to all enter my collection.

Twelve years later, when I met Whirl for the first time, one of our first conversations was about music. Led Zeppelin was (and still is) one of her favorite bands. If I were ever to write a screenplay of that first meeting in Portland, I’d set it to “Fool In the Rain”.

Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (March, 1983). Another early record purchased while I was in middle school. While I can’t be sure, I like to think I bought it in the spring the year after the Scorpions came to Pueblo to play the Colorado State Fair. On one of our various trips to Denver, I happened upon KBCO and discovered my new favorite radio station. The first time I heard “Blister in the Sun” was on KBCO. I was hooked. A three-piece band that embodied folk and punk and bitterness and frustration. I think of this album as a rite of passage. I got into it and a whole world of music opened up. For me, it added the Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, the Psychedelic Furs, the Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, the Velvet Underground and many many more. Bands I never heard on the local radio but are now intimately connected to growing up.

Hounds of Love, Kate Bush (September, 1985). “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” There’s something magical and intoxicating to me in Kate Bush‘s eclectic blend of styles. At this point I had some steady income from the paper route. I could afford to buy more music. I helped Kate topple Madonna‘s stranglehold at the top of the charts with my purchase of Hounds of Love. It includes classical themes, progressive measure and that startlingly beautiful voice. This album inspired me to chase down nearly every female singer I could find, the more exotic and theatrical the better. And I still do. Artists in my catalog that I directly attribute to discovering Kate Bush: Suzanne Vega, the Eurythmics, 10000 Maniacs, Stevie Nicks, the Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Liz Phair, La Roux, Adele, Paramore, Sia, Poe, and Sleigh Bells.

Louder Than Bombs, Smiths (March, 1987). “And if you have five seconds to spare // Then I’ll tell you the story of my life: // Sixteen, clumsy and shy. // That’s the story of my life.” During high school I tried on personalities with about the same frequency of trying on new shirts. It seems like every day was a new attempt to reinvent myself. To be a new person. To try and determine who I was, what I wanted. Morrissey‘s lyric and Johnny Marr‘s guitar combined on this compilation at exactly that moment in my life. And they nailed it for me. I identified with the confusion and the mundanity and the caustic sense of humor. From my interest in the Smiths— and becoming a regular customer at Wax Trax in Denver– I discovered Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Church, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, The The and eventually (by way of my time working at WNDY) Elvis Costello, the BoDeans and Billy Bragg. Today it’s the Killers, Phoenix and Foster the People.

Substance 1987, New Order (August, 1987). My high school musical collection was filled with new wave artists. I attribute Substance with being the strongest single influence on that transformation. Radio was dominated by Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Robert Palmer and Madonna. I had Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Alphaville, the Pet Shop Boys and Ultravox. And the album that coalesced all of that together, that best represented that influence upon my musical taste was Substance. The echoes of this influence are still there, as I find myself listening to the Strokes, Fischerspooner, Interpol, Neon Indian and Washed Out. I also think a line can be drawn through from New Order through to electronica and house to Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method all of which enjoy frequent rotation today.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd (September, 1987). My first Pink Floyd memory is not of this album. Bear with me; it’s a good story. Fourth grade. Shortly before Christmas Break. Music class out in a temporary classroom trailer on the playground. Teacher had asked us to bring in music for the rest of the class to experience. Someone brought in their older brother’s brand new copy of The Wall and put on “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”. It starts innocently enough with some drums and a little guitar riff. Add the a bass and some quick lyrics. And then it all goes horribly wrong, straight through a short description of dire domestic abuse into the anthem, “We don’t need no education! // We don’t need no thought control!” We never had music appreciation day again.

It would be several years before I truly fell in love with progressive rock. It happened with A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Fast forward several years from The Wall. Roger Waters has left the band. David Gilmour has taken over and produced this album. My best friend Beau and I are sitting around the kitchen room table after school arguing whether or not it was a true Floyd album without Waters’ involvement. We decide to go buy it and find out. Beau’s tastes in music were often a step ahead of mine. He owned several Floyd albums and was trying to get me interested in the band. This is the album that did it. Three tracks in, and I was hooked. I’ve been grateful ever since. I filled out my Pink Floyd collection, added Yes and Boston and Genesis. Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Bowie. Later there would be Coheed and Cambria, the Verve and XTC. Pink Floyd remains one of my favorite bands to this day.

The Lion and the Cobra, Sinéad O’Connor (November, 1987). From the moment I first watched the video for “Troy” on MTV’s 120 Minutes late at night, I knew I had to have the album. At first opportunity, I drove over to Independent Records on 4th Street and picked it up on cassette. For the next 18 months it rarely left the glove box of the car. This is one of my all-time favorite albums. I’ve seen O’Connor twice in concert, both times at Red Rocks. I’ve heard her (and everyone else) talk about this album, about O’Connor’s life– I’ve watched her blow up on television and in print. I don’t care. I love this album. It’s beautiful and fascinating and powerful. I replaced it on cassette at least twice from stretching it out, and once more when the CD became too scratched to play without skipping all the time. She’s a ghost that continues to haunt me– and I’m thankful for it. Through her I discovered Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Melissa Etheridge and the Sundays. Liz Phair and Bob Marley. She provided a radically different look at Irish music for me– ushering in album after album from the Pogues, the Cranberries, Van Morrison and the Chieftains.

Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails (October, 1989). Vern claimed that every boy goes through a metal phase. Sometimes it lasts a week, sometimes a couple years, and sometimes we never leave it. Mine came late– despite Beau’s attempts to get me to like Iron Maiden. Pretty Hate Machine is an industrial album that appealed to my appreciation of electronica. And with it I began to explore the larger world of industrial music. I’d go on to collect 12″ singles from Front-242 and attend Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy concerts. Later I’d follow this thread to discover Einstürzende Neubauten and Rammstein. But its most influential effects of Pretty Hate Machine came from bonding over it with college friends who had grown up on steady diets of Anthrax, Motörhead and Metallica. It is through this album– and those subsequent conversations– that I experienced what they heard and vice versa. We are (still) the road crew.

Achtung Baby, U2 (November, 1991). U2 has been a part of my musical landscape for nearly thirty years. Sometimes subversive, sometimes bombastic, sometimes compliant. But this is the album that placed an exclamation mark on 1991 for me. From the German in the title to the Trabbi on the cover art, to the edge in the music– this is U2’s last great album and it arrived at a moment or startling transformation for me. The two moments are forever linked. While the album did little to expand my musical interests, it is a constant reminder of my experiences abroad and my own personal growth, isolation and reinvention.

Superunknown, Soundgarden (March, 1994). I grew up in Colorado, far from Seattle. I went to school in rural Indiana, even further away– geographically and culturally. When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” arrived in 1991, propelling grunge into the limelight, I was in Germany listening to weeks-long radio tributes to Freddie Mercury. The result: I missed grunge. It’s taken me years to acknowledge Nirvana as anything more than a one-hit wonder band or the darling of the latest VH1 countdown show. But I made it back. I see it. I love it. But I came at it through Soundgarden. Generation X had its brief moment on the cultural stage before being swept away. Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Singles and Reality Bites saw mainstream success. Superunknown was the closing act. I caught that and allowed it to take me back through the musical catalog: Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, the Stone Temple Pilots. And for those bands that have moved on, I’ve gleefully followed with: Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age.

Blackout, Dropkick Murphys (June, 2003). You don’t have to go far to find the marks left by the Dropkick Murphys. Many of the earliest entries on this blog are decorated with DKM lyrics as I struggled back from brain injury. I listened to these guys a lot through that ordeal. Hell, even the album title Blackout is an appropriate description of that time in my life.

Farmboy introduced me to this band from our time working together at Midway. He’d been playing some Mighty Mighty Bosstones and this was the album that followed up. I bought it and was hooked. I love this version of “The Fields of Athenry”. Warrior’s Code followed, and the rest of their catalog. And more than a few concerts. Perhaps due to the circumstances surrounding my introduction, Blackout remains my favorite of their albums.

I see a number of my earlier musical influences coalescing in this album: the Pogues most notably, but also some Billy Bragg with anthems of social consciousness. When I went to see them at the Vic in 2005, they arrived on the stage under the cover of the Chieftains rendition of “The Foggy Dew” that featured Sinéad O’Connor on vocals. Incendiary. DKM directly added a tremendous amount of music to my catalog: from Flogging Molly, the Tossers, the Mahones, the Fratellis and Cage the Elephant to the Black Keys, Jet and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Broken Boy SoldiersRaconteurs (May, 2006). With the notable exception of “Seven Nation Army” I never really got into the White Stripes. And I don’t remember how I first came across the Raconteurs. Jack White’s musical career was not something I was following. Then again, I don’t remember lots of things from 2005-2006. But I did hear them somewhere, found the album and listened to it start-to-finish at least three times in a row. Whirl, in her infinite patience, didn’t throw the stereo out the window. The inclusion of the Raconteurs into my library led directly to the additions of the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, Mumford and Sons, the Cold War Kids, Wolfmother, Kasabian, and Radio Moscow. It also caused me to look back at some of the White Stripes stuff I’d collected over the years and check out Dead Weather. I’ve really grown to appreciate Jack White as a result. White’s inclusion in the two music documentaries, Scorsese’s Shine A Light and Davis Gugenheim’s It Might Get Loud made them all that much better.

Finally a few honorable mentions, albums that influenced me, but for particular reasons don’t directly meet the criteria I see out on the list.

“Symphony No. 9 in D minor”, Beethoven (May, 1824). Over the years, Whirl and others have commented on my apparent resistance to classical music. And while it’s true that it is rarely the first choice I make when choosing something to listen to, there are moments when classical is ideal. This is one of the pieces I often go to. I first paid this piece serious attention while working on a senior thesis about Theodor Adorno. Adorno has, in various works, compared the Ninth to a cathedral. That’s a comparison that has stuck with me.

The Beatles, Beatles (November, 1968). My mom and dad are big Beatles fans. Which sort of makes me a big Beatles fan, too. If you’re curious, Dad’s favorite album is Rubber Soul. But for me, it’s the eponymous white album. And while I’ve never purchased this album, it’s been in my collection for as long as I can remember having a collection. I originally taped dad’s copy and then continued to convert it as changes in music technology came about: tape to CD to MP3. This album opened my eyes to the idea of music as experimentation and exploration.

Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü (July, 1984). My belated gateway punk album. But it wasn’t until I got to college that I heard it. And by that time the band didn’t exist anymore. But the American musical landscape was forever altered by Bob Mould and Grant Hart. When I moved to Chicago I learned that WXRT, Chicago’s Finest Rock, was still in love with them. For good reason. Hüsker Dü brought me Paul Westerberg, Sugar, Sonic Youth, Green Day, the Breeders, the Lemonheads and the Replacements.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers (October, 1991). Like what happened with grunge, I missed the Peppers when they first broke. We played this album often at WNDY, but it would be ten years before I would sit down and really listen to it. When I did, RHCP became a regular addition to my sound-scape. Listening to them always makes me happy, and that sort of magic can’t be underestimated. The fact that they continue to produce funky albums is gravy.

This winter has been colder than the last several winters. That fact has engendered an odious amount of discontent among area residents– and visitors. I’ve attempted to counter this tiresome culture of remonstrations and gnashed teeth by repeating a quote from Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen.

Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær. // There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Admundsen led the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole. They achieved their goal in December, 1911. Not satisfied, he repeated the task at the top of the world in 1926 and reached the North Pole. Roald knows cold. But I fear he may be a bit esoteric for contemporary audiences. And besides, everyone knows that explorers are crazy.

So let me transcribe this conversation among a group of Canadians I happened to overhear. We were all drinking coffee at The Roasted Bean at the Mirage. They were waiting for the first morning session of HDAW. For point of reference, it was -5 in Chicago on the same day and the entire city was shut down. It was 65 and sunny in Las Vegas, but that’s beside the point.

My wife called this morning to tell me it’s -42 in Winnipeg.
What are your kids doing?
Oh yeah? The kids have school then?
Yeah, my son was at hockey practice at 7 o’clock this morning.
Oh yeah?
Yeah. He had a game last night at 8 and was back at practice this morning at 7. He’s got another two-hour practice tonight at 8:30.

Minus-42 and it’s just another day. Schools open. Two-a-day hockey practice and travel plans for a weekend tournament in balmy Minnesota. So, seriously, Chicago. Put on your hat and shut your yap.

Inbox Zero

Email can certainly be a bear. I get a lot of it both at work and at home. And with the proliferation of mobile computing, it has become increasingly difficult to just walk away from it. My email walks with me. The danger is that email will become yet another interrupt-based technology. Frankly I don’t work all that effectively when confronted by overwhelming or unctuous interruptions.

Inbox Zero is a methodology for effectively dealing with the deluge of email we receive every day. Merlin Mann made a presentation on it at a Google Tech Talk in 2007 and has written several articles on the topic. The idea is simple. Instead of just checking email, you process them. Processing does not mean responding– in fact that’s often the least appropriate action to take. Instead you apply one of the following actions:

  • delete
  • delegate
  • respond
  • defer
  • do

I don’t particularly subscribe to Mann’s entire Inbox Zero methodology, but I am rather draconian with how I handle incoming messages, and some of my techniques dovetail nicely with his approach. When I read my mail in a UNIX shell, I rigorously apply procmail. Over time I have developed more and more complex mail filters, eventually branching out to include SpamAssassin and other features. Mail filters continue to be my first– and often strongest– line of defense when dealing with email overload. I have them– lots of them– everywhere I read email.

I filter. I file. I delete. I delegate. — And for the most part, my inbox is pretty small, but very rarely zero. When I do manage to get it to zero, I allow a bit of celebration. It goes something like this.

“Inbox Zero”
Music by: Foreigner
Lyrics by: DJ Bingo

Sittin’ on the datacenter floor, with his head hung low
Couldn’t close a ticket, and it was time to go
Heard the roar at the bar, he could picture the scene
Put his head to the desk, then like a distant scream
He heard “You’ve got mail”, just blew him away
He saw blood in his eyes, and the very next day

Bought a beat up laptop, from the Craigslist store
Didn’t know how to work it, but he knew for sure
That one laptop, felt good in his hands, didn’t take long, to understand
Just one laptop, slumped way down low
Gotta close the tickets, only one way to go
So he started typin’, he ain’t never gonna stop
Gotta keep on typin’, someday gonna make it to the top

And be at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes, he’s at inbox zero
He took one laptop, inbox zero, stars in his eyes
Inbox zero, (stars in his eyes) He’ll come alive tonight

In a cube without a name, in a ticket downpour
Thought he passed his own shadow, by the breakroom door
Like a trip through the past, to that day in the cage
And that one laptop, made his whole life change
Now he needs to keep on typin’, he just can’t stop
Gotta keep on typin’, that boy has got to stay on top

And be at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
He’s at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
Yeah, inbox zero, stars in his eyes
With that one laptop, (stars in his eyes)
He’ll come alive, come alive tonight.

Yeah, he’s gotta keep on typin’, just can’t stop
Gotta keep on typin’, that boy has got to stay on top

And be at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
He’s at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
(Just one laptop) inbox zero, (aah aah aaah) got stars in his eyes
He’s just at inbox zero, aah aah aaah
Juke box (stars) hero, (stars, stars) inbox zero, (stars, stars)
He’s got stars in his eyes, stars in his eyes

Little Giant Stadium 1I’ve watched as my friends and I have passed various milestones over the past few years: marriage, a fortieth birthday, divorce, a twenty-year high school reunion, the death of a parent, children learning to drive or themselves graduating from high school. We talk — or don’t talk in some cases — about these events in terms that remind me of pedestrian versions of lifetime achievement awards.

Predictably someone is happy, “We made it!” Devastated, someone else wails, “What happened!? Where did it all go?”

In cases of tangible loss the reaction is understandable, but there are imes when the emotional response seems out of proportion with the event itself. These intrigue me: a particular birthday springs most prominently to mind. Yeah, so you’re forty. That does happen. Despite all our poetic attempts to describe it as otherwise, time is one of those universal principles that progresses at a regular pace. We know it’s coming. It doesn’t sneak up on us, appearing at our doorstep in a bizarre costume crying, “Surprise! Gimme all your birthdays!”

Time is fundamentally linked to change and movement. There is change precisely because there is time.

Whether we arrive at this conclusion rationally or empirically is irrelevant. It is the inevitability of the conclusion that I want to emphasize.

Chapel SpireI want to emphasize it because I want to convince myself that I’m acting like an idiot when I think about Wabash at twenty years gone. Unlike the other milestones — lifetime achievements — this one tripped me up. I was able to navigate the others with flinty-eyed composure. Not this. The twenty-year reunion has come and gone and I am no closer to understanding the causes, catalysts or components of my reaction. It was like I’d lost my mind. “Twenty years. It can’t be twenty years. We just graduated.”

I took stock of what my world looked like twenty years ago. I remember trying to study for finals while every television in the house was tuned to coverage of the riots consuming Los Angeles. Where were you during those days following the jury acquittal of four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King? Do you remember the video footage? Bill Clinton was in the middle of securing the Democratic presidential nomination to challenge the “unbeatable” George H. W. Bush. Bush was flying high on 80% approval ratings after the Gulf War. Almost no one had email and absolutely no one had email on their phone. Kurt Cobain was still alive. The country’s economy was still suffering under the tenacious recession following Black Monday. My class was entering the workforce after several years of high unemployment, and massive government budget deficits. Generation X.

I continued to speculate about my reaction. Had I noticed a critical mass of cultural touchpoints similar to that spring in 1992? Was it the fact that I’d spent the same amount of time alive after college graduation as I had before? Was my college experience so formative that it has become viscerally knitted into who I am as a man? I start to systematically dismiss them. Some of these notions strike me as overly romantic. Others require a powers of observation I think exceed my capabilities. I just don’t think it’s about the math. There’s nothing particularly magical about years.

Eventually I gave up. I abandoned the task of trying to figure myself out. Socrates can apologize all he wants. I’d come to the end of this diversion of my unexamined life.

I accepted my fraternity brothers’ invitations and hopped on the bus to Indianapolis for a three-day weekend of reunions. I spent Friday and Saturday on the Wabash campus in Crawfordsville and Sunday with my fraternity pledge class in a backyard cookout outside Indianapolis. Some of these men I’d seen from time to time in the interim. I hadn’t kept in contact with most of them. And again I don’t know the reason for that. Was it apathy? Embarrassment? I honestly don’t know. After the initial guilt pangs subsided I settled in to enjoy just being with them again. We spent time catching up with each other and the college. I attended some colloquiums put on by fellow alumni. We sang Chapel Sing together.

Class of '62 Chapel Sing

Wabash is a small liberal arts college of between 800-900 students. Reunions for all classes on the five-year graduation interval are held simultaneously, and the class celebrating its 50th (1962 this year) is the highlight and typically has the highest percentage participation. Out of a graduating class of 153 men, 47 came back to Wabash for the 50th reunion. In contrast, my class at 17 attendees. The obvious reason for the smaller turnout is children. Many of my classmates commented on the number of games, matches, camps and activities they and their children were involved with that conflicted with the reunion schedule. That made sense to me, nor do I fault them for prioritizing those things over the reunion.

The highlight of the weekend for me was the cookout on Sunday. Eight fraternity brothers from my class, along with their wives and children converged on PJ’s place outside Indianapolis. I’d lived with these guys for four years while at Wabash. While some of us had gone overseas for a year during college, I still think of it as a four-year stretch. I can’t quite put into words how comfortable I felt seeing them again. I’ve already mentioned the inevitability of change, and things had changed. What surprised me more than anything, given that brace of change and my accompanying anxiety about it was how quickly those fears evaporated. How quickly I realized I was truly among friends.

I suppose that what reunion means. To capture again, for a weekend or a single, sunny afternoon, that state of friendship and harmony experienced in years now long behind us.

Everything is a Remix is a fascinating four-part video series by filmmaker Kirby Ferguson. He explores the concept of creativity from the position that everything creative is fundamentally derivitive. Creation occurs through through some essential degree of copying, transformation, combination, and subversion. Ferguson demonstrates these interactions through a wide range of examples. Some familiar and some unfamiliar– that is until he skillfully highlights the sources: Led Zeppelin to Star Wars to Gutenberg to Apple. The drama occurs in Part 4. In Part 4, Ferguson focuses on the systemic failures caused by the conflict between the interwoven, tangled world of ideas and the the legal regard for for those same ideas as unique properties with distinct boundaries. Copyright from the shoulders of giants.

Haymarket Affair Reenactment 13
Today is May Day. In many countries, May Day is celebrated as International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day. It is a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organised to commemorate the fight for the eight-hour workday. May First was selected to commemorate the people involved in the 1886 Haymarket affair right here in Chicago. And while America celebrates a Labor Day of its own — established as a federal holiday in 1894 under President Grover Cleveland — the date of May First was intentionally avoided. Instead Cleveland selected the first Monday of September. As such, Labor Day’s American celebrations are more low-key than the May First celebrations elsewhere around the world. I remember Labor Day as the end of summer — picnics, barbeques and the weekend the swimming pools closed.

I’m not going to even pretend to provide a summary of all of the social, political, and economic elements at play surrounding May Day other than to highlight that May Day has become an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement and the date is inextricably linked to local, deadly actions taken in Chicago 125 years ago. I encourage anyone interested in learning about the history of socialism, capitalism, anarchism, and organized labor to read about the 1886 Haymarket affair.

To honor the 125th anniversary, a full-scale reenactment was staged on the original site — a site less than a mile and a half from my home. Groups from all across the city came together to remind people of past labor struggles here in Chicago, and the need to work together in the present. The contemporary battles over collective bargaining in Madison, Wisconsin, Toronto and Iran cast long shadows over yesterday’s reenactment of the deadly Chicago events. Whirl and I attended the reenactment. I took photographs. We listened to the various speeches and toured the site. It was a powerful reminder to me about the awesome position of privilege currently held by contemporary American society and the heavy prices paid by those who came before us, that we might enjoy them. And while I disagreed with some of the more scathing polemic deployed by and against the labor movement, I know that the lessons are there to be learned and not ignored.

I do not think in the course of human events 125 years is a particularly long time. Yet the changes seen in the day-to-day lives of people as a result of these sorts of actions are widespread, powerful and oftentimes silently assumed. We would be wiser were we to remember that.

Like me, many of my friends also work in technology. From time to time, we succumb and wage the various holy wars about particular bits of tech with one another. One such protracted battle — a battle I am steadily losing by attrition — is the holy war over the “one true editor.” Vi vs. emacs. Recently Princess and Farmboy fired a salvo across the bow of my ship-of-the-line: emacs.

And while another approach might have been to yell, “Avast, ye scurvy dogs!” and open fire on these ninjas, instead I responded in song.

“Like a EMACS”
Music by: Far East Movement
Lyrics by: DJ Bingo

Poppin tildes on the files, like a blizzard
When we code, we do it right gettin LISPer
Slippin regexp in my style, like three splats
Now I’m feelin so fly like a EMACS
Like a EMACS, Like a EMACS
Now I’m feelin so fly like a EMACS

Gimme that Per-Per-Perl
Gimme that Py-Python
Ladies love my style, in my syntax gettin on
Get them tildes poppin, we get that push and that pop
Now give me two more buffers cuz you know it don’t stop

Hell Yeaah!
Code it up, code-code it up,
When source compile around me, they be actin like they run
They be actin like they run, actin-actin like they run
When source compile around me, they be actin like they run

Poppin tildes on the files, like a blizzard
When we code, we do it right gettin LISPer
Slippin regexp in my style, like three splats
Now I’m feelin so fly like a EMACS
Like a EMACS, Like a EMACS
Now I’m feelin so fly like a EMACS

Sippin on, sippin on init, Ima ma-make it diff
Girl I keep it gangsta, poppin buffers at the fringe
This is how we live, every single night
Take that buffer to the head, and let me see you fly

Hell Yeaah!
Code it up, code-code it up,
When source compile around me, they be actin like they run
They be actin like they run, actin-actin like they run
When source compile around me, they be actin like they run

Poppin tildes on the files, like a blizzard
When we code, we do it right gettin LISPer
Slippin regexp in my style, like three splats
Now I’m feelin so fly like a EMACS
Like a EMACS, Like a EMACS
Now I’m feelin so fly like a EMACS

Thanks to my degenerate friends, I came into a little bit of cash at our poker game last week. Friday I spent my poker winnings on a pair of hockey skates and then proceeded to immediately head over to Millennium Park and try them out on the outdoor rink. Returning to the ice is (as I’m sure you have surmised) phase three of my time machine project.

I skated regularly as a kid. My hometown has a nice, full-sized ice rink. As an added bonus, the rink was only lightly used. Everyone else wanted to play baseball, I think. The rink had a lot of good things going for it. It was close to my dad’s office. It was open year-round — which made it particularly appealing on those scorching days of summer in the desert. And it was across the street from the best comic book shop in town.

I skated there a lot growing up. I desperately wanted to play hockey there but lost on appeal in the court of parental oversight. We had a number of popular roller-rinks in town as well, but I always preferred the ice rink. It was great.

So here I am, twenty years older and not a day wiser, strapping on some new skates and heading out onto the ice once more. Of course I invited my friends to join me. Many were convinced this had to be one of the worst ideas I have ever come up with. Tempting horrible physical and psychological trauma this close to the anniversary of that Brain Mishap. That’s saying something, because I’ve had some really bad ideas over the years. T. was more supportive:

You win the prize for picking the cutest group activity chosen by a grown ass man.

At least I think she meant that supportively. You don’t think she was being cynical, do you?

So anyway, some scheduling complications meant that we scheduled two trips to the ice rink this past weekend. The brief one Friday night at Millennium Park. T., Hurricane, and niqui joined Whirl on the sidelines while Hurricane and I skated for a while. We did a longer skate Saturday afternoon. Whirl has never ice skated.

So Saturday when we regrouped. Farmboy, Princess, niqui, Whirl and I met over at the smaller outdoor rink at Daley Bicentennial Plaza on the north side of Grant Park and skated for a couple hours. Whirl and Princess both skated for the first time ever. Nobody got hurt. Both newcomers did really well and said they had a lot of fun and would like to do it again. It was a great time outside on the ice.

Farmboy put on a strong pitch to get my skills up and consider joining him in a pick-up amateur hockey league and I have to say the proposal has a lot of appeal.

All time travel stories have to contend with the issue of paradox. Farmboy’s proposal and its implementation inside my time machine raises that issue in a very personal way: What would happen if I were to travel back and time and defy the ruling of the court of parental oversight?

Tomorrow I fire up the second phase of my time machine project. Tomorrow I’m attending my first class at the Goethe Institut. I signed up for an eleven-week course in intermediate German after completing the Einstufungstest. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years as I slowly stood by and allowed my language skills atrophy with lack of use. This January marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of my year abroad in Germany. Personally, socially, academically — that year was one of the most enriching times in my life I have ever experienced. And now looking back on it I feel that I have squandered some of what I worked so hard to develop while there. I’m setting out to recapture it before it is gone entirely.

So with that mindset firmly fixed in place I stepped into the offices of the school — just a few blocks from where I live — and turned in the written portion of my exam. I underwent the subsequent oral examination. The speaking component was much less formal, much more conversational than the written. Despite that informality I felt self-conscious, almost embarrassed for myself. I knew that I knew how to do this, and yet I didn’t. I floundered. I stammered. I reached for words that at one time I knew were ready at hand only to have them slip traitorously from my grasp.

I’ll get them back.

They might have escaped me this once, but I will get them back. I’m determined. I’m excited. Walking home from the institute down Randolph and Wabash I felt a version of the same rush I remember when walking across the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin to get back to the small apartment I shared with my fellow students from Geneva. I’ve taken to thinking this is a sign that my time machine is working.

When I got home I collected my trusty Duden, and my Langenscheidts Kurzgrammatik. The next day I headed over to Beck’s Book Store to pick up my textbooks for the course. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve done anything like this.

Tomorrow: jetzt geht’s los!

I’m building a time machine. It’s not an actual machine. It’s not some device that will bend space and time or carry me to another period in history. No the machine I’m building is mostly in my mind. And when I come right out and think about it, it’s not a machine at all. It’s a mission — an assignment I’ve given myself to re-energize interests and activities from earlier in my life. I got to thinking about all the things that my friends were doing for themselves in the spirit of a principle AK first mentioned to me a couple years ago when we were working together: “personal enrichment”. He told me about how he liked to take on particular projects for himself not to necessarily do something for any particular overt benefit. He took up craft brewing. He learned how to ride a motorcycle. No fame, no fortune, no name in lights. Nothing like that. But just to do something that would expand his life. Give him a new skill, a new experience. Personal enrichment.

I thought it was a great principle. I like the sense of initiative. I like how it serves to break routines and avoid getting stuck in ruts — bad habits.

And more recently I’ve noticed a number of things that my friends have been doing that I might also categorize as “personal enrichment”. They’re hobbies, really, but they’re hobbies followed up with passion and importance that provide a sense of well-being. T. told me this week that she is setting a goal for herself to read every Hugo Award winning novel. Hurricane, Steamboat, niqui, Farmboy and Princess are all going (or going back) to school to pursue a college degree. Bitsy is starting to aggressively train for RAGBRAI this summer. niqui is training for a triathlon this spring. Princess wants to learn how to knit.

So I decided to pursue my own little “personal enrichment” activities. And what I’ve chosen to do is to return to activities I used to enjoy twenty years ago or so. In the interim, for one reason or another I had abandoned them. My return to photography was the first of these activities. It’s a sentimental return to a version of myself from twenty years ago, but seen through the eyes of someone twice that age. Time travel in my head.

In November, 2007 I started working out regularly and dropped a significant amount of weight. Last month I returned to the swimming pool for regular exercise. I added swimming as part of my “eat less, move more” diet plan. I like this plan for its simplicity. I eat what I want; I just eat less. And I make sure and move a little bit each day. I walk to and from work. I was going to the gym three times a week– now five. Today marks six weeks of adding swimming to the mix of workouts. Swimming again feels very good but I have to say this was way easier when I was 18. Last week I hit the one mile milestone I’d been working towards. I’m feeling comfortable in the water again. Now I’m trying to see what I can do to start building up a bit of speed. I was surprised how quickly it came back to me. I’m not looking to be competitive. I’m not doing this to be part of a race. I’m just doing it to feel better about myself, to provide a bit of relaxation and tranquility. I mentioned to Whirl that I was particularly appreciating the sense of isolation that the pool provided. Since returning to the gym I’ve been doing most of my workouts during my lunch. It provides a good break from sitting at my desk, gets me out of the office and reinvigorates me for the afternoons. I use the time to listen to music or podcasts and just take myself out of whatever stressors are surrounding me in the workplace.

Swimming removes even those potential distractions. It’s just me and the water. I think about breathing. I count laps. The rest is empty.