Saturday, June 30, 2012

Good Thing #16: Peter's Alive

A little over year ago my dear friend Peter was dying from a liver condition that would certainly have killed him were it not for the wonders of modern medicine, his will to live, and love and support from family and friends. Now he's healthy. He just got back from his honeymoon. He's buying a house and planning for the future. That's great for him. What's great for me is I still have Peter in my life.

Thanks for still being alive, Peter! The world is a better place for having you in it, as is my life!

Good Thing #15: Marriage

Jess and I just celebrated our sixth anniversary this past weekend. By celebrate, I mean we tried to take a trip down the coast for a romantic day of exploring and antiquing, but between Jess being extremely pregnant and me still recovering from the last surgery, we wound up mostly doing lunch at our favorite restaurant and then calling it an early day.

I don't intend for that to sound depressing. One of the great things about marriage is it lets you take a longer view on things. A lavish celebration of affection isn't all that feasible right now, but we're together for life. We'll make up for it many times over. In a short time we'll have a baby girl to multiply the celebrating.

I don't think Jess will ever let me live this one down: A year or so after we got married, I said, "You know, marriage doesn't suck nearly as much as I thought it was going to." It sounded better in my head before I said it. Before I got married, I really never intended to get married. I couldn't see the point. The majority of marriages end in divorce. As an atheist/anarchist I don't really need to have a marriage legitimated in the eyes of the church or state in order for it to be real to me. I'd already planned to stay with Jess for the rest of my life. So really, what was the point?

Ultimately, it was simple math. Jess's family really wanted her married. Jess wanted to be married. It really didn't matter to me, but with little effort on my part, I could make a whole lot of people I cared about happy. Plus: presents!

Maybe indifference is not the attitude one should go into a marriage with, but it worked for me. I went into married life without all the baggage. I wasn't looking for marriage to complete me, didn't think it meant an automatic "happily ever after," wasn't really expecting anything to be different save for it'd be a little more difficult to break up if we got bored with each other.

Much to my surprise, marriage did change everything, in many unexpected and happy ways. As much as I like to think of myself as someone who makes his own rules and isn't defined by society, society has other ideas. It really is easier to be married when you're of an age that people expect you to be married. You're treated with more respect. People take you more seriously. Doors open up that you had no idea were even closed. The world really does treat you better when you're married. Part of me bristles at that because I strongly believe that people should be valued for who they are, not for their labels, but in this case I'm benefitting it, so I'm not going to fight it!

But that's really the least of it. Even though I'd planned on staying with Jess for the rest of my life already, there really is something different having a ring on my finger that reminds me of that in a wonderful way. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, we're together and we'll make it work out somehow. Even if we don't know what the solution is going to be, we'll get through it. There's a difference between intending to be together forever and actually thinking like you're going to be. The good things are things you'll maintain, sustain and grow, and keep on growing for years to come. The bad things are things you'll overcome, together.

I've become a much braver person since getting married. I would never have bought a house on my own, or gone back to school, or done many of the dozens of crazy things I've attempted over the past six years if I didn't have a wife there reminding me it's better to try, and that she has my back.

Together we dream bigger, try harder, and go farther than we ever would on our own. Every day I'm reminded what a great choice I made when I decided to marry Jess.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Good Thing #14: Stovetop Popcorn Poppers

Somehow, popcorn sellers managed to make popping popcorn seem like a difficult ordeal, so much so that unless you buy pre-bagged, pre-seasoned popcorn in microwavable bags, it's just too difficult to manage. So people wind up spending way more than they need to for popcorn that tastes so bad it doesn't deserve to be called popcorn when they could be spending far less for much better popcorn, with only a minimum of extra effort.

All you need is one of these:
There's a variety of brands out there, Whirly Pop, Great Northern, Cook'n Home, and others. There are debates over which is the best, but we've found them all to work just fine. Whenever we see them at yardsales, we'll buy them to convert family and friends. New you can find them for under $20, though. 

Put in a splash of oil and some popcorn and heat it on the stove while turning the crank, and about three minutes later you'll have six quarts of fresh popcorn. Is that really so much harder than doing it in the microwave? 

Once you've made the initial investment, popcorn costs pennies a batch. Far, far less than microwave popcorn. It's more environmentally sound because you can buy the popcorn in bulk and you won't have that popcorn inside a paper back inside a plastic bag inside a box. 

Most importantly, it tastes great. Popcorn made this way tastes infinitely better than microwave popcorn. Plus you can choose exactly what to put on it for toppings and how much. You can even add seasonings while it cooks for special treats, like kettle corn. 

We usually make popcorn this way a couple times a week. It's a great way to make an evening movie seem like an event. It's also a guilt-free snack. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Good Thing #13: Waking up Early

I love the early morning neighborhood, when I'm the first one up and there are no cars going by, and it's just me and the crows. And slowly, I can hear it all wake up. A car engine starts, a dog starts barking, a door slams. But a little bit at at time, as if the entire neighborhood is just trying to ease into the day.

I love the way the cats follow me down stairs, and rub up against my legs as I make my coffee. Dash usually wanders back upstairs to sleep on Jess, but Dot sticks around until I sprinkle more food into dishes that already have catfood in them. Then I have to pet her while she eats. It's our morning routine.

I love sitting in peace and quiet solitude while I drink my coffee and my brain starts working. Soon people will be up and the business will start, but for a moment the day is completely mine.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Good Thing #12: Meeting P. Scott Makela

Some people you know for a short time, but you're changed forever by them. Hopefully in a good way.

P. Scott Makela changed graphic design in the '90s. He defied convention by overlapping text, violating borders, using text as a graphic element and not just for communicating a message, daring to be ugly and dissonant. There were other designers at the time who did something similar, but the difference between those and Scott is the difference between a talentless musician who plays a few random notes on a trumpet and calls it jazz and Miles Davis. The 90s were an interesting time for design because of the advent of desktop publishing. A lot of people broke into the industry not because they were talented designers, but because they knew how to use computers. A number of designers violated graphic design conventions because they didn't know any better. The best of them just pushed their lack of ability to the point where it looked intentional. P. Scott Makela, however, was classically trained in Basel. Every transgression against design convention was done precisely and deliberately. 

I had the good fortune of taking classes from Scott at the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging and it changed the way I design. At the start we had to pick our favorite and most hated fonts, and explain why. From then on we could only use the fonts we hated. We were allowed, however, to go into the font with Fontographer and edit the font to change it into something we liked. That's actually way harder than it sounds and I wound up with a font that looked totally schizophrenic because of my lack of ability, but turned out to be perfect for what I needed it to do. It was an eye-opening experience. Designing with a font you hate can actually push you to design something better than if you'd gone the conventional route. 

I always thought P. Scott Makela deserved a whole lot more attention and credit than he got. Sadly, he died in 1999 at age 39, before his titles for the movie Fight Club made it into the theaters. That might have been his breakout moment. Still, I'm grateful to have met him, and I still use what he taught me to this day. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Good Thing #11: Streaming

I admit it. I love TV. Way too much of my time gets sucked up by the idiot box. However, we got rid of cable years ago. Between Netflix, Hulu and Crunchyroll, there's more than enough to watch. I feel good that Fox News and the shopping networks aren't getting our money. While Hulu still has advertising, it's far less than what's on TV. Plus we can watch whatever we want when we want, without needing to DVR it. I really don't understand why anyone with high-speed Internet access would pay for cable TV. It may be a small and superficial thing, making TV more enjoyable does improve my life.

Good Thing #10: Having the Right People

When you own your own home, there are some people you have in your life for a brief time, but they can make an impact on it every day. Flip a light switch, turn on a faucet, open a window... unless you're a do-it-yourself-er you're interacting with the work of an electrician, plumber or carpenter. If they've done their jobs right these simple acts are something you don't notice. If not, your every day is annoying. If these jobs are done badly enough it can actually be damaging or dangerous.

It seems like in this day and age, with online reviews and everything that it would be easy to find the right people. It's way more of a challenge than it should be. There are just too many people who are incompetent, if not downright dishonest. We got lucky. Our plumber is a childhood chum who takes great pride in his work. He introduced us to a good carpenter. We didn't have such good luck with electricians. The first one did a few things badly, left stuff unfinished and never returned our calls afterwards. The second was decent, to a point, but then left a job unfinished and also stopped returning our calls. I don't think we're that hard to get along with. Word has it that for electricians, the money is in wiring up whole houses so it can be a problem finding one to do small jobs. Still, that's no excuse for being unprofessional. The third electrician was a lot more expensive than the first two, but she did good work showed up when she said she was going to. We'll be having her back to do more work.

That's just it. We may not have many "major" jobs to do, but now that we've found the right people we'll stick with them for as long as we live in the area. Decades of small jobs add up!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Good Thing #9: Bangor, ME

We bought a house in Bangor, Maine because it was where we could afford to buy a house we loved, not because we were actually thrilled to be moving there. In fact, most people's reaction, if it wasn't, "Where?" was, "Why would you want to move there?" To be honest, we had our misgivings, but figured we'd be spending most of our time in the college town up the road, Orono.

To our surprise, Bangor has turned out to be a great place! We only go to Orono when we have to. We've never run out of things to do here, and there's always some event we're missing. There's a growing creative community, and young people who are trying to make the place better.

There's a real feeling of history here. Bangor was once one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, before the wooden ships fell out of fashion. It never fully recovered from that crash, but many of the buildings are still around, great lumber baron mansions that are now divided up into apartments.

The city has its problems, as any city of a certain size does. Homelessness and drug abuse and crime are things you hear about, but you'll find those in a lot of places. What Bangor also has, though, is potential. Lots of cheap but beautiful properties and places where things could happen. Creatives are moving to Detroit because they see the potential in the abandoned places. They should be coming here!

Good Thing #8: Frosty's in Brunswick, ME

Really good donuts are becoming hard to find. It's been really distressing here in Maine. Dunkin' Donuts lets the small, locally owned donut shops act as location scouts. When those businesses prove a donut shop can be successful in that location, Dunkin' Donuts will buy a location as close to it as possible. While the locals continue to support the old business, the loss of the drive-by traffic as people go to the known entity of Dunkin' Donuts is too much for the home team to continue.

It's a real shame. If you honestly believe the Dunkin' Donuts are good, you're grossly mistaken. They're disgusting. They're not worthy of the name donut. A good donut is a magical thing. They don't just fill a hole. Taste one and it makes you pause and close your eyes and exclaim how good it is. They take you back to that wonderful childhood time when you had that sheer, unfettered love of all things sweet, and could just love sugary goodness with reckless abandon.

Frosty's was one of the last surviving makers of great donuts in Maine. It was an almost mystical place, due in part to the fact that their donuts were so good that even though they opened on weekdays at 4 am, they were often sold out of their best donuts by 6 am. If you weren't someone who woke up that early, you only got to have Frosty's donuts when they were gifted to you by someone who got there in time. Even though I lived a few hundred feet from Frosty's I never made it in time. 

Then their donuts got even harder to get. It was regularly closed due to "an illness in the family" as the note on the door said. Then one day two hand-written notes appeared. "Closed," and "For Sale." It was heart breaking. This almost always means the death of a place. Rarely is a place under new ownership as good as the old one. 

Amazingly, a miracle happened. The new owners loved the old Frosty's and they've kept all the recipes to the same or better standards than they were before. Plus they make a whole lot more donuts, and they're open on weekends, so you can actually go in at noon on a Saturday and get a donut. I've only had better donuts once in my life, at a Mennonite bakery in Quetzaltanango, Guatemala. Fortunately, Frosty's is much closer!

Good Thing #7: Board Games

I love to play boardgames. I loved them as a kid, but hadn't really played them for years, until my friend Mark introduced me to Eurogames a few years back. I've pretty much stopped playing video games since then, finding the face-to-face interaction of sitting at the table with the people you're playing with so much more enjoyable. They also offer a much better entertainment value than video games. For less than the price of a new video game, which pretty much offers entertainment value up until you beat the game and then becomes a shiny plastic circle inside a crappy plastic case, many boardgames offer fine craftsmanship that can feature wood, leather, metal and the usual cardboard, with playability that can last for years. 

If you haven't heard of Eurogames, well, basically they're boardgames from Europe. In the US there are really two types of board games. There are the ones we're all familiar, like Risk and Monopoly. You probably played them a few times when you were a kid, and then got bored with them. Then there are hardcore games that take hours to play. Only the serious gamers play those. But there's not much in between the two. 

Europe has a different attitude to board games. There, the designers of the games get cover credit on the game, and when they design something new, people get excited. The games cover a much broader range of skills and interests. Games like Settlers of Catan or Dominion can be played and enjoyed by the whole family (as opposed to a game like Monopoly where the whole family can play, but only the youngest kids actually enjoy it). One thing I find interesting about Eurogames is they're so fun to play that I usually don't care if I win or lose. It's just fun to play. Of course it's always nice to win!

Board games attract a different sort of crowd. I've been to a boardgame meetups where large numbers of board gamers gather to play. The atmosphere is far more along the lines of "Hey, come let me teach you how to play this really fun game!" instead of the competitive atmosphere one might expect from gamers. 

I'm really looking forward to the day when my daughter is old enough to start playing Settlers of Catan herself!

Good Thing #6: What's Best in Life? Conan!

Most people who have never read Conan assume it's stupid. Many people have actually read Conan still think it's stupid because they haven't read it in the way it was actually written. It took almost 70 years from the time of Robert E. Howard's death for the stories to be published the way he'd written them. Before then, the stories that had been published in magazines in the 20s and 30s were edited, re-ordered to give the stories a linear sequence like novels, which was never the intent. Stories Howard had written about other characters had their names replaced with "Conan." So in some stories Conan is in inexplicably a different location with a different personality.

With the Del Rey editions published in the 2000s, they correct the problems, going back to Robert E. Howard's original versions and ordering them the way he wrote them. Originally they were non-sequential snapshots of the life of a barbarian who is living at at time when civilization was taking hold. Unlike the comfortable "noble savage" of, say, the Tarzan novels (with the familiar, "Who's the real savage, Tarzan or civilized man?" cliché) Conan is absolutely savage. The view of civilization is much more nihilistic. It's not necessarily better or worse than savagery, it just might not stand any chance at all.

At the same time, these are rousing adventures, written to get the blood racing. They can be extremely brutal, and some scenes stick in the mind long after they're read. When they're in the order that they were written, we see Howard growing as a writer, defining then transcending the Sword & Sorcery genre. The last few stories we see a writer who could go on to become recognized as one of America's best writers coming into his own. Sadly, he committed suicide. It's heartbreaking to think of the stories that might have been.

At least he left us with many great stories. I'm happy for that.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Good Thing #5: These Perfect Days

We have a saying in Maine: If you don't like the weather, wait a minute. It's true. I grew up with it so I don't notice it as much, but when I was living in LA I realized we can get more of a range of weather conditions in a single day than LA gets in half a year. Usually we like it that way! If the weather was more consistently pleasant, more people would move here, and then we'd have all the problems of a place like LA. But every once in a while, we get these days that are absolutely perfect. Today is one of those days. It's sunny, but it's still cool enough not to mind it, but warm enough to be able to leave the house without putting on anything extra. There's a breeze keeping the air fresh and blowing the mosquitos and black flies away. We don't get many days like this around here, and it's always a special treat when we do.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Good Thing #4: Dot & Dash

Our two cats, Dot & Dash. I know most of it is just human projection on behavior that is probably much more self-absorbed than it seems, but these cats create such a feeling of unconditional love! I get up in the morning and they're happy I'm awake, and they rub themselves against my legs. And when I come home it's the same thing. And sure, it's probably just because they want to be fed, or need to re-mark me as their territory, but when something cute, warm and purring acts happy to see me, it makes me happy.

Although they're just warm lumps most of the time, I find them endlessly fascinating. I would have assumed that things like "personality" belonged to things with bigger brains, but these twin sisters have distinctly different personalities. Dot spends her time following me around, usually just a few feet away from me as long as I'm home. Every once in a while she'll come up and want to be petted, and will walk on the keyboard until I do. Dash could care less, unless I have a lap for her to sit on. Then she'll park there as long as I let her. Dot is aloof and seems like the shy one, but will be the first to explore an unfamiliar situation while Dash hides under a bed. Dot somehow knows I'm on the toilet, no matter where I am in the house, and will run in and demand to be petted as soon as I sit. Dash stands guard outside the bathroom when we're using it. 

I could go on and on, but like children, people's own cats are infinitely more fascinating to themselves than anyone else. Suffice it to say I love my cats and my every day is better because they're in it. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Good Thing #3: The Bicycle Wheel

Today I celebrate the bicycle wheel. It's an amazing work of art. It should be put on a pedestal and put on display in an art gallery. Oh, wait:

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913
Duchamp may not have had the same intention as I woud for putting a bicycle wheel in an art gallery. Most likely he was using it to critique the essential concepts of art. I, however, would do it to celebrate the bicycle wheel.

As the story goes, Ben Franklin was speaking to a Revolutionary assembly. He held up an arrow and broke it in half. Then he held up a bundle of arrows and tried to break it, and couldn't, and it was something to do with how if they were united they'd be unbreakable. That's just because the bicycle wheel hadn't been invented. 

If you pick up a bicycle spoke on its own, you can easily bend it with one hand. The rim is a bit sturdier, but you could bend the rim fairly easily if it hasn't been built into the wheel. Once the various parts of the bicycle wheel are combined and tuned properly, it's a wonder. Together these parts that are weak on their own can now withstand tremendous impacts with ease.

How the wheel works is not what you'd logically expect. The spoke attaches to the rim and to the hub and it's under tension. Every spoke is pulling the rim towards the hub. So when the rider is on the bike, the ground pushes up on the wheel and tension of spokes at the bottom reduces. When you're riding, you're actually suspended by the spokes at the top of the wheel, while the spokes at the bottom are relaxed and able to absorb impacts. 

Look at the wheel Duchamp displayed and compare it to one of today. The design is very similar to the ones of today. Every so often they'll try something new, like a disc or a blade, and it'll be around for a little while before people realize they really couldn't improve on perfection.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Good Thing #2: Singin' in the Rain

Is there a finer movie than Stanley Donen's 1952 movie Singin' in the Rain? No. There may be other movies that are as good, but none better.

First of all, it's really funny. I wouldn't have thought that a sixty year old musical comedy about the birth of talking motion pictures would ever be that funny, let alone that the jokes would still work today. But the setup and the timing are impeccable, and the range of humor, from slapstick to one-liners to complex gags set up over multiple scenes. There's an entire genre called musical comedy. This one is actually funny. 

The composition of every scene is gorgeous. Nothing is taken for granted. Every color is carefully chosen, and the placement of everything and everyone in every scene is perfect. You could print any frame of this movie and hang it on the wall. And yet it never calls attention to itself. I didn't even notice until after I'd watched it a few times.

Everyone has personality. Even with characters who only have one line, you get the sense that they thought about that person. They have a story that began before that line, and continued after the camera moved on Even characters who only appear for a second are still memorable. The main characters we fall in love with, or hate. 

Cyd Charisse does a dance dressed in green. She's only in the movie for one dance number, and has no speaking lines, but in that short time she manages to be the sexiest woman in the history of sexy. 

There's the Broadway Melody sequence. Just watch it and remember that they made this 60 years ago. They build sets for all of it, and actually did what you're watching. It's not greenscreen (except for a second or two).

I could go on and on. There's just so much to love about this movie. I'm happy it exists. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Good Thing #1: Carbon Steel Spatulas

Carbon steel spatulas haven't been made in years. The ones that we have are probably 50 to 100 years old.

The bad thing about a carbon steel spatula is that it rusts if you leave it wet. Manufacturers think Americans are too lazy to clean their cookware after they use it, so now all spatulas are stainless steel or plastic. If you don't see washing a spatula as a huge inconvenience, you're rewarded by getting to use a finely crafted kitchen tool. A carbon steel spatula is much thinner and more flexible than plastic or stainless steel spatulas. The edge is knife-sharp. This means you can slide it under the most delicate food without pushing it. It also means that if you accidentally scorch your food and it sticks to the pan, you can cut it away from the pan, leaving the scorched portion still attached to the food instead of ripping it away from what you're cooking.

It's a little thing, but you know, it's a spatula that works the way a spatula is supposed to work. Every time I fry something, the process is more enjoyable because I've got these antique spatulas.

Good Things

I've got a special project for this old blog. I'm making no promises to stick with it. I'm not sure if I'll even tell anyone about it. Since this was my former "thing a  day" type blog, it seems an appropriate place. 

Things haven't quite been going my way lately. I think it started about a year ago, last March, with the liver surgery. The surgery itself was a good thing. It was a planned donation to save a friend's life. That friend is thriving now and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to save a friend's life. Too often when we've got a dying loved one in our lives, all we can do is try to be emotionally supportive, but there's rarely more than that. But for once I could do something to make a difference. So I don't regret that surgery for an instant. However, the recovery from that meant half a year of not operating at my fullest. Not really in any sort of pain after the first 3 months, but just tired all the time. Just barely able to fulfill commitments, not really feeling enthusiastic about doing things that would usually excite me. Yeah, depression, basically. 

Then, just as I was finally recovering from that, our son died 5 months into the pregnancy. I must confess, I never really understood this before it happened to me. I've always been sympathetic to friends who lost children during pregnancy, but it didn't seem like all that big a deal. After all, they never really knew their child. I shudder to think that I used to feel this way. But I guess unless you've lost a child that way, you never really know what that kind of pain is like. I hope you never do. 

The pain from that was almost paralyzing. I'm not quite sure how we kept moving forward, but we did. The depression was worse than anything from the liver surgery. Then there was a whole series of misfortunes. I don't want to get into all those, but it just seemed like whenever things started looking positive, there was something else bad happening to knock me back down. 

But we were getting through it. We've got a daughter on the way now, and all the tests and scans indicate that everything is A-OK. I'd started feeling more confident, excited by the future, feeling like things were going to turn out fine.

Then a routine surgery turned into a 3-day hospital stay with a six week recovery. While full recovery is expected, it's been extremely painful and debilitating. I've been in near constant pain for a month now. It's worse when I laugh. Or cough. Or, really, do anything besides sit around. 

And yes, the depression is back. I'm starting to feel like a Smith's song:

Good times for a change
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man
Turn bad

So please please please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
This time

Haven't had a dream in a long time
See, the life I've had
Can make a good man bad

So for once in my life
Let me get what I want
Lord knows, it would be the first time
Lord knows, it would be the first time

Depression is a tricky beast. Once you've got it, it's almost like a living thing that tries to keep perpetuating itself. It will make it so you don't notice the good things in your life (and there are many good things in my life. I know this intellectually but knowing it and feeling it can be two very different things). Depression will also make you do things that ensure you have things to be depressed about. Like make a deadline seem so overwhelming you don't even try to meet it. Or make you terrified of your email in box, so a simple problem that could be solved with a "yes" or "no" turns into a problem so big it needs a committee meeting to deal with. Or turn an normal, healthy dialog into something that seems like a painful confrontation.

You know what? I've got better things to do. I've got a daughter on the way who I want to welcome into the world with boundless joy. I have a wife who makes me feel lucky to be married to her every day. I have a family I love and get along with more often than not, and a life filled with interesting people, exciting opportunities and so many other things that should be making me happy now, and will again.

So here's what I'm going to do. Every day I'm going to write about one good thing. Yes, I know it's not an original idea (see the 1000 Awesome Things blog, for example). Yes, I know I've complained about how contrived and banal books like the "Things to be Happy About" series are. But you know? I don't care. This is for me. Every day I'm going to carve out a few minutes to recognize that there's something good in my life. I'm going to do it for as long as I can, even if that doesn't last past the end of the week. I'm not going to try to be profound. I'm just going to do it.