Jul 06 2015

Success

Published by under Rants

Success Billboard

My social media feed last week was full of the news about the Harvard Business School study which showed that daughters of working mothers are more successful… well, within a certain definition of success. I read the headline and then thought briefly about what possible criteria they would use to determine success – my guess was salary and level of degree achieved. I wasn’t too far off: the study attributed success to the daughters of working mothers on the basis of employment; salary; and whether or not their position was a supervisory position. In conclusion, an exceedingly narrow vision of success.

Never mind that we don’t know how or why daughters of working mothers are more successful in those areas or that “working mother” in the case of this study referred only to children whose mothers had held a job outside the home for any period of time before the child was 14.  I really don’t have a dog in the working mother arena, my main issue is with how Harvard Business School and all the news articles portrayed the study in that it’s a pretty soul-less idea of success in life. Before we determine how successful the children of working mothers are, why can we not ask one simple, additional question: Do you find your work meaningful? Hell, give all the kids a scale from 1 to 10 and then tell me: who finds the work they undertake more meaningful?

As industrialized society rapidly plunges towards employment becoming less and less likely for larger numbers of people, we should do better than to simply parrot this narrow view of the world. As long as we base success on salary and define identity by employment we will marginalize some set of people – and that set of people is guaranteed to grow larger as time passes. Not to even touch on the fact that the espoused vision of success has no place for care work. When we determine success on the basis of salary and position, we do a disservice to the multitudes of people engaged in the little-valued (at least, as judged by salary) care work that is so integral to our society: teachers, paramedics, day care workers, home nurses, etc. Everyone’s success in life is predicated on that care work being performed.

My mother would meet the criteria of working mother for the purposes of this study: she spent 3 years or so working outside the home starting when I was 8 or 9. I don’t know if she enjoyed her job, but I do know that her job resulted in us kids being more responsible for certain chores around the house: we were cooking some meals for the family, vacuuming and helping with laundry. Her job helped us take more ownership of our own jobs: schoolwork, helping with housework, etc. That being said, my mother has always had only one stated goal for all her kids: happiness. I cringe at the idea of any other determination for success besides personal happiness or satisfaction or contentment or whatever you want to call it. People are not corporations or bank accounts or stocks to be traded. A larger salary or a job where you boss people around is meaningless if you aren’t engaged in a job which you find challenging or rewarding or interesting. I personally believe that engaging in meaningful work, whatever that work may be, is a prerequisite for human happiness and we ought to be concerned, as a society, about allowing and encouraging everyone to seek meaningful work. But don’t fool yourself: your daughter isn’t doing well just because she makes more money or supervises someone else, at least, not unless she’s also engaged in work she finds meaningful.

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Jan 20 2015

On Writing

Published by under Personal,Philosophy

Last week, I read a Washington Post article about Katry Rain a/k/a Dennis Williams, who committed suicide after sending an email to a handful of reporters, stating, essentially that since no one was interested in what he had to share, he found no point in sharing anything more and was choosing to die.

Depression is a hell of an illness and I suppose narcissism is, too.

I’m always interested in people who write and speak and seem to do so only to be heard by others. Maybe I lack self-confidence, but I find myself grateful when people listen to what I say and read what I write, however infrequent or few and far between those people might be. Writing, to me, is not a one-sided process wherein I share and others listen and learn. It’s more conversational than that.

I write (privately and in a few blog-type spaces) because I want to. Because I have a thought or an idea that keeps poking up and writing makes that thought go away, at least temporarily. I don’t track pageviews. I know when someone has read something only when they comment or they email. And those things happen rarely. If I’m honest, there is a great deal of narcissism in posting things to the internet to share with anonymous folks. But if there’s an aspect of narcissism, there’s also a desire to spark a small sense of community; of connectedness.

There is nothing new under the sun, but there are countless ways to express ideas, to build images with words, to move your audience (whoever they might be) along a path. Good writing grabs you and sucks you under water until you breathe only the air that the author intended you to breathe. It’s a little like drowning. But, it’s an art and on some level art depends on an audience to consume it.

That said, the audience doesn’t have to a be a million people. Some days, the audience is just me. I have things I’ve written that I will never share and I re-read them just for me, just to admire what I’ve captured. It’s a lot like masturbation.

But, I’m intrigued by people who are driven not just to create but to be consumed by others. People who feel as though they have discovered something heretofore unknown, something remarkable that could change the course of human lives. How many people feel that way and actually have done so? The fact that at some point in your life, you have found “the way” reflects nothing so much as your own evolution. It does not reflect some great eternal truth, and where it does that same truth is bound to have been expressed by hundreds of people before you, and likely better illustrated. Writing because you found some philosophy, some important guiding principles that have led you to happiness or fulfillment is all well and good and may be of importance to you. But if you expect that human misery and suffering can be cleared up by someone reading your thoughts, you’re a fool. People have been trying to do that since the beginning of the written word, just look at the many, many religious texts we have. What, then, can writing do? Document us. Challenge us. Move us. Connect us.

Like a lot of kids who grew up reading and writing incessantly, adults always told me how good I was: how my writing moved them; how they cried. They told me I would write the next great American novel. Then I grew up and entered a college classroom with hundreds of other people who were told the same thing. I’m enough of a realist to know that writing the “great” novel is a damn impossibility and in any case,  I’m not driven to do it and I never was. I enjoy writing but I couldn’t care less whether I’m writing a letter to a friend or a poem. My goal is always the same – to share myself, in the truest way I am able.

And I don’t expect millions of people to want what I have to share. I don’t expect *hundreds* of people to want it.  I have made connections and continue to make connections with some smaller number of people, which feels wonderful, of course but also isn’t the point. I write because I want to.

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Dec 31 2014

In Which New Years is Slammed

Published by under Personal,Philosophy

If you suffer from what could probably be termed Seasonal Affective Disorder, New Years’ celebrations and resolutions come at a terrible freaking time. You feel like crap. The world looks like crap. And now you have to think about what you ought to be changing when you hardly feel like getting out of bed.

My recommendation if that scenario sounds familiar: celebrate the “New Year” earlier in the year. For example, August tends to be the time of year when I start taking care of shit – I don’t know why. Something about the end of Summer puts me in the state of mind to reflect and get shit together. Probably because I’m worried about the Winter. So for me, I use the pagan holidays of Lughnasadh/ Lammas to make an action plan for change. This year, that focus was mostly on losing weight, cleaning the damn house and picking back up some hobbies (reading and library visits, embroidery, yoga, cooking). And bam, since Lughnasadh/Lammas I’ve:

– Cleaned the house reasonably enough that we can have guests over on no notice (and we hosted a few people, which was nice)
– Lost over 15 pounds
– Spent a lot of time getting more comfortable and confident in the kitchen
– Read new books I was excited about (with a few trips to the library)
– Picked embroidery back up and spent a lot of time on it, learning new stitches and getting a LOT better
– Did yoga daily, strengthening my body, increasing my flexibility and, maybe most importantly, increasing the mental space in my day to day life

So, I’m four months ahead on all my resolutions, which means I can ride four months of momentum through the low Winter months. I just have to keep on trucking like I have been and progress will continue, unabated. Now that is a reassuring sentiment for the New Year.

Big Ned

Or, in Simpsons terms, “Stay the course, Big Ned. You’re doing super.”

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Dec 26 2014

Shame on US

Published by under Politics

In light of the recently released report from Senate Intelligence Committee into the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques employed by the CIA under the direction of President George W. Bush’s administration (read the full, unclassified report here), I feel as though It’s time for a brief history lesson.

In November 2003, less than a year after the United States began war in Iraq, the abuse and torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib is detailed in a report from the Associated Press. Human rights abuses were part of the War in Iraq from the very beginning. The Executive Branch of the United States government asserted that the Geneva Convention did not apply to prisoners in the “war on terror.”

In 2006, the Supreme Court rules that the prisoners of war held at Guantanamo Bay have the right to a fair trial and that President George W. Bush does not have the right to set up War Crimes Tribunals and that the Tribunals that had been set up were illegal. However, the Supreme Court doesn’t order that the facility be closed, or the release of any of the prisoners held there (unconstitutionally, illegally, and against the Geneva Convention).

In December 2006, Saddam Hussein is executed (he was captured in December 2003 and trial began in October 2005). Among the crimes he was convicted of: War crimes and crimes against humanity. I probably don’t need to discuss the history of how the US government openly supported Hussein and Iraq in their war against Iran in the 1980’s. (what the hell, here’s a picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking the man’s hand).

On Friday January 26, 2007 – President George W. Bush responds to criticism from both sides of the aisle regarding his intention to increase the number of troops in Iraq by stating, “I’m the Decision-Maker.”

Protest: Jan 27, 2007
On Saturday January 27, 2007, Michael and I joined a protest on the National Mall. There are videos on YouTube of the protest. Many of the signs, some humorously, proposed Impeachment of President George W. Bush.

In June 2008, Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Robert Wexler introduce articles of Impeachment against President George W. Bush. The articles are worth a read, to this day, but the allegations range from an invented war with Iraq to mistreatment of detainees.

This is a brief, and incomplete outline of some of the events that unfolded throughout the Presidency of George W. Bush, but it’s a summary of a good deal of evidence we had, early on in his Presidency, to rightfully impeach him. With the torture report having come to light, recently, we have sufficient evidence to try George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for war crimes. I am ashamed of our Congress, our current Administration and the International community for showing their spinelessness in choosing not to indict. I am ashamed of my fellow Americans who somehow feel that torture is acceptable under any circumstances: you don’t have to be a philosophy geek to understand what Nietzsche meant when he said “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster…”

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Dec 16 2014

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons: Building the Holiday Prank

Published by under Comedy,Crafts,Personal

Kara and I have a fairly longstanding tradition of sending bizarre holiday cards to our friends and family. This year, I wanted to do something a little different.

About a week ago, many of our family and friends (well, those for whom we had accurate addresses at the time) received an envelope like this in the mail:

The outer envelope.

The outer envelope.

Inside this envelope was a piece of lost mail that looked like it might have been addressed to them, or at least to their house:

The lost mailpiece.

The lost mailpiece.

The lost mail turned out to be a saccharine Christmas newsletter from the Stevenson family of Sandusky, Ohio, finally delivered after presumably floating through the postal system for the past 21 years:

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons!

Merry Christmas from the Stevensons!

Of course, it turns out that the Stevensons never really existed at all. For our “Christmas cards” this year, we set out to make the most believable piece of fake lost mail possible, and overall I’d say it was a success. Here’s how we did it.

The whole undertaking took an embarrassing amount of time and research. Kara and I put the newsletter together in late November using our Amiga 3000 and the incomparable PageStream desktop publishing software (which is still available for purchase). The anachronistic pieces of the newsletter–lists of toys and “hottest hunks”, exhibits at the Shedd aquarium that are no longer there, and so on–were the product of many hours spent reading catalogs and magazines of the time. The fonts used in the newsletter are all default fonts that shipped with PageStream; I borrowed the clip art from Aminet’s encyclopedic clip art archives. Moving the clip art from the internet to the Amiga was relatively easy since we have a CD-RW drive connected to the Amiga. Finally, the picture of the Stevenson family was converted from a photo that I shamelessly stole from a blogger family who happened to be about the right ages for our backstory. I’ve blurred them out in the image above to protect the innocent.

Thanks to PageStream’s native support for PostScript, once the newsletter was assembled, it was easy to print copies on our laser printer. But we knew that this wasn’t good enough, since laser printers were fabulously expensive in 1993. We were going to need a dot matrix printer to make the newsletter believable. I settled on an Epson ActionPrinter 3000, which is compatible with pretty much any application that can use a 24-pin printer, and which I was able to pick up on eBay for a song. After some hassles getting it set up (and digging the tractor paper out of the garage), we were ready to go.

The PrankStation.

The PrankStation.

Printing the 26 copies of the newsletter that we sent out took a total of about 3 hours, which served as a reminder of just how good we have it with printing today. The cat was terrified of the noise — she loves the sound the laser printer makes, so her fear was probably compounded by the psychological strain of being abandoned by her beloved printer. Once the newsletters were printed, we stacked and folded them, and I sanded the creases with carbide sandpaper to simulate aging so that some of the copies would crack along the folds when opened. I’d previously done an embarrassing amount of research on standard methods for simulated aging of paper, thinking that we would need to yellow the paper for it to be believable. In the process, I found out that most paper made in the past few decades is so low in lignin and acid that it doesn’t really yellow much at all on the scale of a few decades. So we ended up skipping that part entirely.

The inner white envelopes started as cheap #10 envelopes from Costco — we were careful to pick up envelopes with gummed flaps rather than self-sealing ones, since self-sealing envelopes were uncommon enough in the early ’90s that it would be something of an anachronism to use them. We addressed the envelopes properly, using the Stevenson family’s fake address in Sandusky, and then pretty much destroyed the parts of the envelope containing the addresses (and a few other spots) by rubbing them with wet fingers.

The stamp on the white envelope seemed to be the most convincing part of the hoax for most of our family, though it was also one of the easiest parts to pull off. I chose the Elvis stamp instead of a holiday issue because it was the best-selling stamp of 1993, and one of the most famous stamps of the last 30 years, so we were assured that nearly everyone who was alive in 1993 would recognize it. Thanks to being mercilessly hoarded by collectors, the value of this particular stamp is in the toilet, and I was able to purchase a pristine sheet of 40 stamps for $7.99, or about 30% less than face value. The postmark on the envelope is fake, of course, produced by a realistic-enough craft stamp that I inked by hand with an alcohol marker so that the cancellation lines would be imperfect.

Once the envelopes were stamped, they were creased and sanded, the latter mostly to wear the color off of the stamp in the spots where it had been creased.

The problem that remained unresolved for the longest was how to get these envelopes to our friends and family in a believable way. Obviously we couldn’t just drop illegible mail with cancelled stamps into a mailbox. One of my coworkers ended up solving this for me, by suggesting that we put the envelope inside another, properly addressed, envelope. We played around with several different sizes of envelope before settling on #11 envelopes, which are just larger than a standard envelope and are the size usually used to hold things like bills that come with reply envelopes. They’re pretty much impossible to buy in small quantities, but Amazon came to the rescue. We laser printed the addresses on the envelopes in a way that I hoped would look just non-spammy enough for people to open. I chose “Lost Item Recovery” for the return address for two reasons: first, because I thought most people would assume that the envelope had been recovered and forwarded on by the post office, and second, because it is different enough from the name of the office that actually does this (“Mail Recovery Center”) that I was unlikely to be indicted for mail fraud. The PO Box in Chicago is fictitious; I checked the address ranges for the ZIP code to make sure that it did not actually exist.

Lastly, Kara and I drove 3 hours away from home, applied metered postage to the outer envelopes, and posted the letters from an adjacent state — hey, if you commit this far to a prank, you have to see it all the way through. Then we waited for the mail to start arriving.

In the end, the reactions to the hoax were fantastic. We are likely enough suspects for this sort of thing that a few family members pretty much immediately texted or emailed us to say “hah hah, very funny.” Most of them believed that the letters were genuine, at least until they started talking to other family members, which is exactly what we were hoping for. Some of our friends embarked on ambitious searches to find the Stevensons, so I think I probably owe an apology to a few people named Stevenson for nuisance emails.

The best story came from one of Kara’s aunts, who took the letter to her local post office, where a staffer determined that it was genuine and even claimed that our fictitious Chicago return address was some kind of official postal facility. Never underestimate the bullshitting power of even a small-time local bureaucrat, I guess.

As far as we know, only Kara’s younger sister actually found the attribution we had put in the newsletter, hidden in Rascal’s Word Search:

It's not like we didn't try to tell people.

It’s not like we didn’t try to tell people.

Here you can download a PDF of the newsletter, but for best results download the original PageStream document and print on a dot matrix printer. :-)

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