House on the Rock 1

Occasionally you experience something that defies explanation, an experience so surreal, so otherworldly, that you walk away from it with a single vaguely formed question repeating in your mind. What the hell? Alex Jordan’s House on the Rock is such an experience. I’ve thought about visiting ever since my friend, Temper, described it to me in 1996. I read Neil Gaiman‘s novel, American Gods, in 2002 and Gaiman uses the House on the Rock as a setting for one of the many memorable scenes in that story — if you haven’t read American Gods, stop reading this drivel and correct your oversight. I’m serious. It’s that good. Go on. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’ve finished the book. Good. See, I told you. Now do you understand why I wanted to go visit? What I can’t explain is why it took me eighteen years to finally act on my desire. It’s not that far away– 200 miles northwest of Chicago. This past Labor Day weekend, we finally went to celebrate Whirl’s birthday. Princess, Farmboy, Whirl and I planned a long weekend in Madison with a tour of the house as the main event.

I’ll write more about our tour of the house a little later. The trip’s undercard deserves some attention, too.

On the way out of town we stopped in Antioch, Illinois. This is Farmboy’s hometown. His mom still lives in the house where he grew up. As we passed through town, Farmboy guided us through his childhood: his high school, his first job, the shaky island out in the middle of the lake that served as a bar. Whirl sublimely summarized the visit: “Look! We’re watching Farmboy’s origin story!”

We drove much of the trip on two-lane highways through the cornfields of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, eventually stopping for lunch in Delavan, Wisconsin. Lunch was nothing spectacular, and sadly it was only after we’d moved on that curiosity caused me to look for information about the town. That’s when I learned about the circuses. At its height between 1847 and 1894, Delavan served as the winter home to 26 circus companies. P.T. Barnum‘s “Greatest Show on Earth” was founded in Delavan in 1874. There’s a life-size sculpture of a giraffe downtown, an elephant buried in the middle of the lake, and a graveyard with circus-themed markers.

Wisconsin Capitol 2Saturday afternoon we spent at Capitol Square and the Taste of Madison. And after some various negotiations ended up walking down Williamson Street to the Weary Traveler Freehouse for dinner. At this point, the name certainly fit us and the dinner was delicious.

When we arrived back at the hotel that evening, we formulated a plan for Sunday. We agreed upon a departure time that would get us to the House on the Rock shortly after opening. Farmboy estimated five to six hours to tour the house, leaving us with sufficient time to make the drive to New Glarus to visit the brewery and maybe see some of the Wilhelm Tell Festival. While we didn’t make it to the festival, we did enjoy some delicious beer at the brewery. When I walked out onto the courtyard I was immediately struck with a sense of familiarity. It wasn’t the same and I don’t mean to compare one to the other, but there was enough similar– the trip, the architecture, the sunshine, the beer– that as I stepped into the New Glarus beer garden, memories of my spontaneous visit to Kloster Andechs flooded back to me. Similarly to how the Benedictines of Andechs limit their distribution, the brewers at New Glarus do not distribute outside the state of Wisconsin. I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to learn we loaded up with sufficient supplies before departing.

I’ll cease with the preludes and incidental attractions and get on with the main event: the House on the Rock. The House on the Rock is a complex of architecturally unique rooms, galleries, streetscapes, and gardens originally designed by Alex Jordan. It opened as an attraction in 1960. Jordon continued to develop and expand the attraction for nearly thirty years. In 1988, one year before his death, Jordan sold the House to Art and Karen Donaldson. Since that time, the Donaldson family has maintained and further developed it, adding new collections and exhibits.

For a number of reasons, Alex Jordan and his house invite comparison to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin estate just down the road. One creation myth for the House on the Rock describes Jordan as a student dismissed from the Taliesin school and the house as architectural parody of Wright’s distinctive style. The myth is just that, a myth. It never happened. But it’s a good story. Maybe that’s what’s important.

House on the Rock 3

While the House on the Rock does seem to refer to Wright’s Prairie School aesthetic of horizontal lines, environmental integration, and craftsmanship, the majority is a maze of tacky rooms and macabre galleries. Highlights include the World’s largest indoor carousel (You knew that already from reading the novel, I know. Just checking.). There are rooms full of musical instruments that play automatically, a 200 foot model of a whale fighting a squid, a reconstruction of a 20th century main street, Japanese gardens, antique doll collections, airplanes, clocks, accordions and elaborate firearms. Instead of Wright’s restraint, the house is a monument to disorganization and mania. When we emerged mid-afternoon, I described my experience as a hellride from Roger Zelazny‘s Amber chronicles. It wasn’t until I cracked open my paperback copy of American Gods upon my return home that I noticed Gaiman’s dedication. It reads: “For absent friends – Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny and all points in between.”

The house felt like a visit inside of dreamscape. Collections are dusty, erratically lit, haphazardly organized, and often without label. Shadow has no need for curators. Some items are real antiques, but many more are elaborate replicas or fantasies created from whole cloth by Jordan and his successors. It is impossible to tell what is real from what is ephemeral. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that was the point all along. I do not want to call it a museum; I didn’t learn anything. Instead I experienced everything: fear, awe, psychosis, disassociation, wonder.


Kerbal Space Program : Docking Manuever

You know that phrase you sometimes hear your coach roll out, when you’re attempting something challenging? Maybe making a three-point jump-shot or turning a 6-4-3 double play? “This ain’t rocket science!” Your face reddens. You redouble your efforts and try again. And again. There’s a reason why it stings. You know what you’re trying to do is not so difficult. Lots of people have done it before you. But rocket science! Rocket science is hard. Really hard. So hard that we use it as the stick by which we measure all other difficult challenges.

Spaceflight has fascinated me for a long time. That’s not really surprising. You grow up in the space age, and such fascinations are bound to happen to a few of us. That fascination has extended into a lot of different interests and hobbies.

My most recent engagement with spaceflight came on the heels of NASA’s announcement of liquid water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. I started playing Kerbal Space Program. KSP is a sandbox game currently in development. As a player, you control a nascent space program operated by Kerbals (rhymes with gerbils), a race of small green humanoids, who have constructed a fully functional spaceport, Kerbal Space Center. KSC bears a striking resemblance to Kennedy Space Center back here on Earth. At KSP, you build rockets and spaceplanes. You stage them on the pad and hit ignition. Once you’re in flight, you execute the proper maneuvers to establish your desired orbits. KSP uses a very sophisticated physics engine to model all of this: thrust, drag, aerodynamic forces, material strengths are all accurately represented. Planets have different atmospheres that affect the efficiency of wings and parachutes. The physics engine is accurate enough that real-world spaceflight techniques are viable methods to get around. For example, you use Hohmann transfer orbits to transit the Mun and aerobraking to return to Kerbin. Gravity-assist slingshots, geosynchronous orbits, and orbital docking maneuvers are all possible.

It’s fascinating and extremely empowering to have the entire solar system at your fingertips. It is also extremely humbling. When I began playing, I roughly modeled my attempts after the historical progression. Could I get a rocket off the ground? Could I establish a stable orbit? Could I establish a polar orbit? Could I start in one orbit and move to another? I tried these things– and failed more than a few times– while being fully aware that I was reproducing experiments with more than half a century of real world spaceflight experience to support me. The technological advancements in computing in that same time interval are also immense. But that doesn’t make things any easier.

Even with the deck stacked so far in my favor, the most basic tasks were challenging. I’m emphasizing this to reinforce just how difficult spaceflight is. And how rewarding it can be when it succeeds. Kerbal Space Program makes these points with crystal clarity. It’s an extremely challenging, and thus extremely rewarding sandbox to play in and it has completely captured my imagination.

There was a time in world history when rocket scientists were heroes, and I wonder sometimes if the lustre of their accomplishments has been lost. Do we now think of GPS satellites and pictures of Titan as somehow ordinary– pedestrian. My enthusiasm about a manned mission to Mars is, in part, an attempt to enkindle human imagination toward a seemingly impossible goal and then achieve it.

Felix Baumgartner, Red Bull StratosWhen I started writing this post, I started making a list of space-related points of my childhood. My sister’s birthday is the second anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In grade school, I had a Space:1999 metal lunch box. I designed and built my own LEGO models of the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Lander. My friend Jim and I flew Estes rockets, and even took a trip to Penrose to the company headquarters for specific kits. In 1980, I watched Carl Sagan on Cosmos on PBS; I read the book the next summer, and still own it. I still have a copy of the Feb 10, 1986 Time magazine the cover of which is the dramatic photograph of the Challenger shuttle explosion.

Time Cover, February 10, 1986

February 10, 1986

In the last couple years, Mooch and I have played several sessions of High Frontier, a spaceflight boardgame by Phil Eklund. When Eklund is not working as a game designer, he works as an aerospace engineer and rocket scientist. Smokes and I watched live as Felix Baumgartner broke the sound barrier in freefall during the Red Bull Stratos project. And just today, Randall Munroe commented in his webcomic xkcd on his dramatic increase in understanding orbital mechanics through playing KSP despite the fact that he worked at NASA for several years.

So now I’m looking to the heavens. I’m queueing up “An der schönen blauen Donau” by Johann Strauss, strapping my Kerbals into their command module and lighting the fuse. Come with me.

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.

Dodger Stadium 2

So it’s been nine years. For nine years, I’ve been thinking and writing and whining about cracking my head open. That can’t be good, right? To be fixated on something for that length of time. Nine years. No matter how unfortunate. No matter how traumatic. No matter how life-altering, nine years is a long time. But that’s what is has been. Short recap: nine years ago, Whirl goes out of town to visit her cousin dying of brain cancer and I step out in front of a guy on a bicycle racing a red light. I get knocked on my ass and land in a coma for ten days. Whirl and my family get calls from the Chicago Police and race across the country. I spend the next several months in hospitals, therapy and other dark rooms putting my life back together. I was lucky. By all accounts I should be dead. But I’m not.

The first year back on my feet, my friends and I took a trip to Las Vegas in part to celebrate. We’ve repeated that anniversary trip a number of times since then. The last two years met some some logistical and financial complications and we didn’t go. But this year we succeeded in our return. We put together a two-city tour: first to Los Angeles to take in the NHL Stadium Series game between the Ducks and the Kings at Dodger Stadium and then on to Las Vegas.

It was a small group, this year, four of us: Whirl, Farmboy, Princess and me. While in California, we stayed with Tom and Lisa in Palmdale. So that increased the number to six for the first leg of the tour. Plus Molly. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Tom and Lisa’s delightful pet cocker spaniel. Don’t be fooled by my practiced disposition of indifference, I loved this dog. She was so sweet and friendly and made me happy just to be in the same room with her. Wonderful, wonderful dog.

Defensive Zone Faceoff

In Los Angeles, we attended the most surreal hockey game I’ve ever seen. I can wrap my head around hockey outdoors. I can even wrap my head around hockey in a baseball stadium given that the calendar says January 25th. It’s the fans in shorts playing sandlot volleyball and the thermometer that reads 75°F that take the story into the land of the slightly bizarre. Other than not wanting to see the league-leading Ducks gain another two points in the Western Conference, I did not have a particularly strong loyalty to either team playing. I came to the game because I like to watch hockey, the timing worked out with the the rest of the trip and Tom and Lisa are LA Kings fans. So that made me a marginal Kings fan for the day. (Just to get the painful part over with quickly, the Kings were shut out 3-0 by the Ducks and the game never really went their way from the beginning.)

The USC band marched out. The crowd heavily weighted in support of the Kings booed– the Kings fan standing next to us clarified that this was a UCLA crowd. Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully introduced the teams. And this time the crowd roared louder. And then there was the strut. Wayne Gretzky emerged from the cloud of smoke stridently pacing his way to the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. Gretzky’s relationship with the NHL has been strained recently, mostly to do with the financial troubles surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes. A settlement was reached in December and Gretzky’s appearance at the game in Los Angeles was seen by many as the the symbol that the ship had been set to right. Did Gretzky ever own that walk!


To underline the strangeness of the evening with eyeliner and whiteface, KISS played two short sets. This is after you take in the skateboards and yoga circles and inline skate park. KISS opened with the curious choice “Lick It Up” and included the three songs I expected them to play: “Dr. Love”, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, and “Shout It Out Loud”. Whirl was particularly amused by the fact that the band was shuttled onto the field with golf carts– stark contrast, indeed, to The Great One.

The hockey game itself had a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything. There was a short-lived fight (two punches and a fall), an Anze Kopitar penalty shot (missed) and a shutout (for the Ducks). But that was quite alright with me. I enjoyed the spectacle of the whole thing. I brought my camera and took some photographs, but after the first period I just put it away and soaked in the entire experience. That’s what I try to do on these anniversary trips– to turn off thinking about things and just enjoy where I am and who I’m with. So I did.

The exit from Dodgers Stadium provided another bit of amusement we carried with us through the remainder of the trip. The mood of the crowd was much more mellow than any other sports audience I’ve been a part of. It would be easy to chalk this up to Southern California sun-soaked stereotypes, and maybe I should just do that rather than try and analyze it too deeply. But two things happened in short succession as we were making our way out of the parking lot. For setup, the parking lot did not have much in the way of traffic control. People drove pretty much wherever they wanted in whatever order they wanted to get to one of the various exit points out of Chavez Ravine.

And at one point as we were about to turn onto one of the main arterial streets away from the stadium, a guy appeared in front of us, oblivious to the fact that he had stopped all traffic from exiting. We sat for a few moments before tapping the horn. No movement. So Farmboy laid on the horn longer to secure his attention. The fan slowly turned and blinked. Farmboy suggested the fan move out of the way. Fan responded in a mystified, lyrical tenor, “But I’m on the phone …?”

Farmboy accepted the fan’s right to talk on the phone, but pointed out many other places out of the way of traffic, where the conversation could continue that would not impede traffic.

“But I’m talking to my friend …?” came the fan’s bewildered rejoinder. The car erupted with laughter. The catch-phrase earned its place in our vocabulary.

But I’m on the phone. I’m talking to my friend.

Moments later, as we attempted to circumnavigate Phone-a-Friend, a van full of Anaheim Ducks fans cut us off from the right. Girls were hanging out the side window, one in particular must have thought herself quite clever with this taunt.

“Hee-e-eey, Kiiiiiings fa-aans! I saw a-aall the goa-a-aals!”

I don’t think I stopped laughing for five minutes. We might have been halfway back to Palmdale before I finally was able to collect my composure. This was a very far cry from the abuse I’m used to seeing Packers fans take at Soldier Field or Red Wings fans suffer at the United Center. Cardinals fans get more shit at Wrigley Field. It was hilarious. Sweet, peaceful, hilarious.

One final anecdote from Los Angeles: Farmboy’s iPhone navigation app was normally quite good at delivering directions. I mean, Siri wasn’t quite at the Scarlett Johansson level of engagement, but she did fine. Except for one street. She could pronounce all the Spanish street names in and around Los Angeles. She had no problem with expressways and bypasses. She pronounced French names like “Versailles” appropriately. But Valberg Street threw her and I have no idea why. She had to spell out. Really fast. Every time: Turn left at VEE AY ELL BEE EE ARR GEE street. What’s up with that?

The next day we said goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Tom and Lisa, and headed northeast across the desert to Las Vegas. Along the way, Whirl kept us entertained and informed with trivia surrounding Zzyzx Road. At breakfast, Farmboy explained that any of life’s problems can be overcome through the careful use of one or more of these three simple skills he learned in wrestling:

  • Takedown
  • Stall
  • Escape

Before we dropped off the rental car at McCarren Airport we had lunch at In-N-Out Burger on Tropicana Avenue. Tom had given us some suggestions to try from the not-so-secret In-N-Out Burger menu, and while we waited for our food, we considered what had become of Maggie. Maggie had left her calling card on the picnic bench outside the In-N-Out and appeared to be in some distress. The photograph showed her missing both shirt and shoes– and pants! Hard luck all over, I suppose. Over the next several days in Las Vegas we speculated on Maggie’s story. Was she living across the street at Golden Palm Casino Resort? Was the limousine parked outside In-N-Out waiting on her arrival or that of her friends? Every day, usually over breakfast, the four of us expanded upon the scope of our conjecture about a day in Maggie’s life, taking clues from the people, places and exchanges we witnessed during our visit.

How To Dismantle a PhotobombThis year we stayed at the Mirage. We’ve been to the Mirage several times on previous trips: to play poker and pai gow, to have dinner, to see LOVE. And most notoriously I cajoled several friends into joining me to see the erupting volcano. Let’s just say my associates were not impressed and they remind me of that fact in a myriad of friendly ways and at any opportunity.

This year the highlights tended to revolve around food. We took advantage of the wide variety of restaurants in Las Vegas. We revisited Hash House A Go Go for a delicious breakfast on Monday. Tuesday night we traveled to the MGM Grand and had dinner at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House before attending the evening performance of Cirque du Soleil’s .

I should pause here and say something about Tuesday night. I’m struggling with how to describe it, exactly. I can’t condemn it as a bad evening. It wasn’t. I had a great time. But it was troubling for me. Tuesday night seemed off-center in a couple of ways and writing this now from the perspective of looking back at the whole trip highlights the differences. It was a good meal, but not the best. That came later. It was a good show, but flawed by very difficult circumstances. I’ll start there and work back to dinner.

I’ve wanted to see Kà since 2007. I’ve attended three other Cirque shows on previous trips and a combination of poor planning and bad luck have kept me from seeing Kà. My interest in Kà piqued when I saw an episode of “Really Big Things” that featured the mechanics of the 360 degree rotating stage. The stage is as much an element of the show as the actors and there are 86 of those. The stage does not have a permanent floor; it has several moving platforms that appear to float. Action takes place on the shifting positions of the stage, sometimes horizontal, sometimes at an angle, sometimes vertical. The Los Angeles Times, when describing the show, said it “may well be the most lavish production in the history of Western theater [and] is surely the most technologically advanced.”

So I was really looking forward to seeing it this year. What I was not prepared for was the repercussions of the tragedy that struck the production last summer, when Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell to her death during a performance. It was the first– and only– death from an accident onstage in Cirque’s 30-year history. As a result of the death, the production has struggled with how to handle the show’s final battle scene. It’s not a scene that can be cut wholesale from the show; it is the climax. Guyard-Guillot played the show’s female protagonist. She figured prominently in that final scene. The compromise approach taken by Cirque was to present the final scene not with live actors, but with a projection of an earlier recording of the battle onto the vertical surface of the stage. That stylistic change was jarring to say the least. Other alternative approaches the troupe has tried included rewriting the scene from a battle to a wedding, to re-blocking it from a vertical orientation to a more traditional horizontal one, and training an entirely new troupe of actors. As a result, Kà is very much in a state of flux.

I think the original reason for the trip colors my reaction. For me, the annual retreat is a celebration that I am still around. That I’ve overcome something bizarre and unexpected and managed to hang on– even thrive in the aftermath. When things don’t work out that way, I feel it. With the run-up to the Olympics, I’ve noticed a number of stories resurface that have parallels to my own– all except for the ending– Michael Schumacher, Chelone Miller, Sarah Burke to name only a very few.

And now this has taken a rather darker tone than I had intended. Let me see if I can rescue it, because the message I want to leave about the trip is quite positive. I felt loved. I felt relaxed. I felt unburdened by worry and despair. I laughed a lot.

Youth Revisited

Before dinner, we’d spent the entirety of Tuesday afternoon at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame Pinball Museum reliving our youth. We carried around buckets of quarters and played dozens of pinball machines. The museum houses hundreds of machines from the 1950s to the 1990s. And the vast majority of them work. They’re playable. For a quarter. Some of the newer ones cost fifty cents. But still, twenty dollars goes a very long way here. Princess, Farmboy and I spent quite a bit of time looking at old Williams machines, scouring the painted credits for names of Midway Games coworkers who had started in pinball. We found a lot! In fact, a huge percentage of the machines were manufactured by various Chicago companies. Here’s a short list of the major manufacturers represented at the museum:

  • Bally
  • Chicago Coin
  • Chicago Dynamic
  • D. Gottlieb & Co.
  • Midway
  • Stern
  • Williams

Not all of the games at the museum were pinball. There were a few stand-up video game arcade consoles and other arcade oddities. By far the most interesting game we played was Chicago Coin’s Las Vegas Shuffle: a combination of shuffleboard, bowling, skeeball and tic-tac-toe played with a mirror. It was made in 1973 by Chicago Dynamic Industries in (you guessed it) Chicago, Illinois.

We did some gambling, of course. I tried my hand at craps a number of times. I discovered that part of the remodeled Margaritaville restaurant in the Tropicana has been expanded into a gambling parlor, complete with dealers in flower print shirts and a fulltime soundtrack provided by Jimmy Buffett & friends. They also offered $5 craps and blackjack all the time. Farmboy finally found a slot machine that he liked, Goldfish, by our friends at WMS. We also played pai gow poker and spent an inordinate amount of time jumping from one big multi-cabinet machine we couldn’t figure out to another. The highlight of that late night romp through the Venetian being the discovery of IGT’s “Batman: The Dark Knight“.

2007 Bodega Arteca 'Atteca Armas'The highlight of the entire trip was Wednesday night. We had been talking about ideas for what to do on the night of January 29th, the actual anniversary date of the injury. Farmboy had stated he wanted to get a steak at some point during the trip and Tom Colicchio had just opened his second steak house at the Mirage in late 2013, Heritage Steak. We could not have asked for a better experience. The meal was the evening. By that I mean that dinner lasted deliciously from 7 until well past 10 in the evening. Everything was exquisite. The atmosphere was intimate. Farzad, our waiter, was fantastic. He genuinely appeared to enjoy hanging out with us as much as we did with him. We talked to Kate, the sommelier, more than once and gave here a muddled confusion of requests for wine. (I don’t know much about wine, but I can tell you that I was rather confused about what Whirl and Princess were requesting.) Kate persevered and came through with some excellent bottles for us. Speaking of Whirl, she’s been anxious to try beef for some time. So she decided to give it a try this night. She ordered a fillet and about wept. The meal was just so much fun. At the conclusion of the meal, Kate joined us for a glass of port and the chef, Anthony Zappola, came out to speak with us for a few minutes.

I know we’re not high rollers. I know we’re not, in the big scheme of things, particularly noteworthy, but everyone at Heritage Steak made us feel comfortable, welcome, special. I’ll never forget it.

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

The Dervish House, Ian McDonaldThe setting is seven days in Istanbul just a few years from now. Turkey has finally joined the European Union. This is my latest read from Ian MacDonald, The Dervish House.

The story begins with a death– a suicide bomber on a crowded tram. But the attack has no victims other than the bomber. The ramifications of that attack will stretch out across the whole city. And we observe it through the points of view of half a dozen characters whose lives connect in one way or another with an old dervish house in run-down and unfashionable quarter of the city.

Necdet: Necdet is on the tram. He sees the bomber’s beatific expression as she triggers the device. And shortly thereafter, he starts seeing djinns and saints until he finds himself turning, against his will, into an Islamic holy man.

Can: Can is a nine year-old boy with a curious medical condition that confines him into a muffled apartment without sound or shock. Stimuli can kill him. So he explores greater Istanbul through an amazing transforming robot that can take on the form of bird, rat, snake or monkey at will. He witnesses the bombing through the robot’s eyes. He also spots another robot spying on the aftermath of the bombing.

Georgios: Can shares his discoveries with Georgios, an old Greek academic. Georgios spends his days with other old Greeks in the coffee house across from the dervish house, until he is unexpectedly invited to join a strange think tank being set up by his old academic rival.

Leyla: Leyla, who also lives in the dervish house, is caught up in the traffic chaos following the bombing. This causes her to miss a job interview. And as a result she takes a sketchy job drumming up venture capital for a sketchy nanoware start-up company run by a relative. This quest brings her in contact with one of the biggest financial institutions in Istanbul.

Ayse: Ayse owns a specialist antique shop near the dervish house. She accepts a strange commision to find a Mellified Man– someone who was reputedly mummified in honey. At first convinced this is a fool’s errand, she eventually finds herself drawn into the secret history of Istanbul.

Adnan: Adnan, Ayse’s boyfriend, is a trader in the commodities market at that selfsame financial institution that Leyla approaches. But Adnan has bigger plans, with three colleagues he is planning a massive fraud involving black-market Iranian gas.

This is postcyberpunk literature at its best. McDonald delivers his story mostly just assuming the technology that supports the landscape– and then weaves a complex character- and culture-driven story within that assumption. Characters don’t just live within the science fiction, but also within the history, cultures and traditions of the setting.

X Saves The World, Jeff GordinierJeff Gordinier wrote a feature for Details magazine in March, 2006 titled “Has Generation X Already Peaked?” His editor had called him with the idea that the magazine should weigh in on Generation X. What happened to them? What had they accomplished? This was even a question, because of the precarious position Generation X holds sandwiched between the world-swallowing leviathan of the Baby Boomers and their offspring, the Millennials. You may know them as Generation Y if you’re sympathetic to GenX, or my favorite descriptor, the Echo Boomers. By 2006 all of the short-lived lustre of GenX’s media closeup had warn off. We held the limelight for maybe three years? 1993-1996. Maybe? From the end of the first Iraq War to the moment the world discovered the Internet. Whatever.

For the next two years, Gordinier expanded his article into a book, X Saves The World. As he explains when promoting its publication he originally intended for the book to have the more melancholic tone suggested in the title question of his Details article. Yes. The answer is yes. We’re done. We’re over. We’ve been snuffed out. And besides that, we’re not even supposed to be here, today. Gordiner writes:

Because we’re said to be the defiant demographic, dedicated to shredding whatever raiment the marketing apparatus tries to drape us in; because we’d prefer not to be categorized at all, thank you very much; because, like one of those unmarked speakeasies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we’re not even supposed to acknowledge that we exist– coming right out and calling yourself Xer has always seemed a bit too, I don’t know, Andrew McCarthy. Too obvious.

But as he worked on the book and interviewed people, his position changed. The fatalistic impression faded and he was able to more than just a catalog of contributions Generation X has given to society, but a cultural mindset– a generational personality. A way of doing things that is hopeful without preening.

Gordiner argues Generation X developed an in-betweener, middle-child sensibility: detached, skeptical, quiet, questioning. This is in strong contrast to the polished mythology of the Boomers who preceded us. His neat and ironically-articulated example:

I am Steve Jobs, soothsayer for humanity.

Boomers are all about the collective, and so are the Millennials. We did this. We changed the world. We saved you. You’re welcome. To Generation X, that just rings false. It’s a varnished mythology of so much shamelessness and unnecessary self-promotion.

And the giant generation behind us, what about them? Gordiner is equally critical. Here’s a summary.

The Millennials speak with none of the doubt and skepticism that have marked — and hampered — Generation X. They just love stuff. They love celebrities. They love technology. They love name brands. They love everything. […] So what if they can’t manage to read anything longer than an instant message? — That’s okay! If anything, it’s an advantage. Because literacy leads to self-reflection and critical thinking, and self-reflection and critical thinking open the door to doubt and skepticism and stuff like that just gets in the way.

So continue your Boomer parade. Let the band play on. Millennials, post your selfies to Instagram. Try the rose-colored filter. Use the hashtag #timeofmylife.

We’ll just be over here, keeping the lights on.

8:07:26 AM

The official race review for Big Shoulders 2013 was titled “Splitting the Uprights”. This reference to the first week of Bears football really was about the perfect conditions on Ohio Street Beach. The National Weather Service had issued rip tide warnings for the Thursday and Friday leading up to the Saturday swim. On Saturday, amazingly, the winds died. The sun came out. The water temperature came in at a wonderful 72°F. The morning air temperature started in the low 70s and ended in the 80s. The water was glass– calmer than I have ever seen it. Much calmer than last year. And then this morning, the day after the race, the National Weather Service issued a fresh set of rip tide warnings. Friday: Scylla. Sunday: Charybdis.

Call me “Odysseus”. This year I came to the race as a veteran. I’ll admit to some degree of anxiety, but this year I told myself I’d done it before. This year was not just about completing, but about competing. Improving on last year. Hitting my goal time. Improving my position in the placing. It was also my only competitive event this year. I didn’t swim the State meet in Glenview. Or any other meet for that matter. This was it for me. And I wanted to do well.

I learned a lot from last year. I anticipated the chaos of the start and the importance of swimming straight– particularly on that first leg out to the breakwater. My sighting was better. I was able to draft for some stretches. My pace felt comfortable. Training and practice paid off.

Here are the numbers.

This personal best was 8m40s faster than last year. I moved up 91 places overall, 14 places in my age group. I pushed it on the last leg heading back to the beach, and I came out of the water looking like this.

9:32:30 AM

Again, I want to thank Whirl and my mom coming out early in the morning to cheer me on and take photographs. And another thank you to all my friends and family who gave their support over the year. I’m planning on doing it again next year.

Thank you!

Elgin Tower Coal FurnaceWhirl and I had our 15th wedding anniversary this week on Thursday. As we were talking about what we might want to do to celebrate, the logistics of a mid-week anniversary complicated things. So we put off making a decision until the day was upon us. Whereupon we put it off again. “Let’s do something this weekend.”

And now it’s Saturday and we still don’t have anything planned. We’d tossed a few ideas around. Go out to dinner somewhere, go to a show, or a concert or a movie. (I remember at one point earlier in the year we’d talked about going to Lollapalooza for our anniversary, but tickets sold out before we could get our acts together.)

“What about Elgin?” Whirl suggested.


Now hold on a minute. Don’t give up on me just yet. You see, Elgin isn’t quite as bad an idea as it might appear on first look. When we took stock of ways we’ve commemorated our anniversary in the past, we realized we have had similar celebrations before. In 2005, the year I got hurt, we spent our anniversary in Springfield, Illinois. Another year we rented a car and headed generally north. We ended up spending the weekend in Cedarburg, Wisconsin and attended the Oazukee County Fair. A couple years before that we took a similar trip to Michigan– although that trip was in a Mustang convertible. And there’s always the year I was laid off on our anniversary and no new job lined up, so we spent the entire day away from the job search at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Several years we’ve just spent the day together the two of us exploring some part of the city– often somewhere along the lakefront.

Okay, maybe Elgin is still a bad idea. But it’s not an uncharacteristic idea. Not for us, anyway. And why I argue that it’s not a bad choice is because all of those other simple days together were really very fun. We have a lot of fun together when we do these simple things. We just hang out and see where the day takes us.

So today we took the Metra Milwaukee District West out to the end of the line in Elgin. Whirl wanted me to see the Elgin Tower where she had visited a possible nest site two years ago. But beyond that we didn’t have much in the way of plans. We didn’t need them.

Historic Downtown ElginWe took the 12:30 from Union Station and arrived in Elgin at 1:45. On the way out we’d picked out a couple of other things that would be worth exploring. There’s a downtown historic district and also a historic residential district with a number of Sears kit homes still extant. A walking tour along the Fox River– and if all else failed there’s the Grand Victoria Casino that I was pretty sure would be happy to take our money.

We never made it to the casino. We didn’t want to. Our first stop was the 15-story art deco Elgin Tower Building, originally the Home Banks Building, built in 1929 shortly before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Other than the assistant building manager we were the only ones there. He gave us a tour of several of the floors. On the twelfth floor we saw one of the peregrine falcons from the 2011 visit streak away off to the north. He excitedly showed us the Internet cafe now converted into the ETC Speakeasy in the newly renovated technology center inside the building. Our guide pointed out the new chairs, books and tables in the library before offering up my favorite moment: the active coal furnace in the basement.

Nothing quite says happy anniversary like riding a manual control elevator into the darkened basement of a 85-year old building to see a coal furnace.

We emerged unscathed, thanked our makeshift guide and headed out. Where we ran across the second surprise of the day an arts festival in historic downtown Elgin, Art & Soul on the Fox. Over 80 artists, and live music ran for several blocks in the downtown area. So we took our time and explored the various booths and stalls until we got hungry.

Elgin Historic HomeOur third pleasant surprise was Al’s Cafe. Right in the middle of the arts festival with lots of outdoor seating, delicious burgers, delicious beer and delicious homemade ice cream malts. I know this because I tried all three. In fact I was filled with nostalgia, given the time of year and the availability of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. This was a favorite summertime beer of mine when I lived in Tübingen. Historically, I have not had much luck finding it Stateside. Al’s Cafe had it. So I had it. And it was good.

Whirl picked up a fused Falcon Ridge lodi zinfindel wine bottle from Patricia Donnelly as a memento before we continued on our walking tour of the town. In another bit of serendipity, it turned out that Donnelly was an interested reader of Whirl’s Peregrine Falcon Journal. This came out when they discussed Whirl’s choice of bottles and talked about seeing one of the pair on the tower earlier that afternoon.

Afterwards, we took in some of the historic homes, learned about the floods and a bit of the history of Elgin. You may be aware of the Elgin Watch Company, a a major US watch maker from 1864 until its closure in 1968. But something you probably weren’t aware of– and certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve ever heard– is the freshwater pearl rush in Elgin in the early 1900s. At a time when the average daily wage was $2, a typical pearl taken from the clams in the Fox river were going for $25. And exceptional specimens might demand $100 to $150.

Maybe not the most exciting adventure, but it was a day full of a number of unexpected and pleasant little surprises. I got to spend it with my best friend, and we came home lightly sunburned and happy. And really, that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

I Had My Eye On You From The Start

After a few years’ hiatus, Whirl and I returned to Chinatown today to get some photographs of the annual dragon boat competition. Whirl was also interested in checking in on the possible peregrine falcon nest site we spotted earlier this spring. It was a gorgeous day and we both had quite a bit of fun. The races have expanded significantly since the last time we were down to see them.

I’ve posted the full set of race photographs. Also of interest is the faraway shot of Huff, the male peregrine falcon first sighted near the park in April and two photos of terns cruising the river.