Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Test Pattern

Eighteen days.  I can do it, but there are still 18 more long days and nights to push through.  Why do I do this stuff to myself?

This year, I once again decided to honor the Lenten tradition of giving something up between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.  So, since Feb 13th I haven't had a drop of alcohol and haven't watched a moment of television other than accidental interactions with TVs found in public places like restaurants and hotel lobbies.

For the last several years I've given something up for Lent, and every year I rediscover that giving up worldly pleasures during this season of reflection is more difficult than I remembered.

The weather here in the Bayberry Woods was gorgeous over the weekend, and I took my new grill out for its inaugural run.  I like to have a toddy with my charcoal, and my Crystal Light lemonade was a poor substitute for my traditional G&T.  Last week I joined a group of colleagues for a business dinner at a nice restaurant.  It was a festive occasion, and the others at the table enjoyed a bottle or three of a very nice merlot.  I got to discover that O'Doul's non-alcoholic beer tastes like malt-flavored carbonated water, which is what I suppose it is.

But, other than a few wistful moments like those, giving up alcohol hasn't presented much of a challenge.

Giving up television, on the other hand--not so easy.  Teri still can't believe that my Lenten vow included our Monday night ritual viewing of Castle.  Things actually got a bit testy at our house when she realized I was serious.  It also included skipping the last few episodes of Downton Abbey, the Daytona 500, and hours and hours of contented couch surfing.

The hardest part has been the nights on the road.  When I enter a hotel room, the first thing I do is flip on the television and then I leave it on even though I'm not really watching it most of the time and I don't care what's on.   The television is my company on those nights and mornings on the road.  It provides a soundtrack in the background and drowns out the noise in the hallways and adjoining rooms.  

A hotel room with the TV off feels wrong.  It seems emptier and a little spooky.  Don't believe me?  Try it yourself sometime.  You'll see.

The more I'm away from alcohol, the more I look forward to a nice glass of something with my lamb on Easter Sunday, but the more I'm away from television, the less I miss it.  At home, I haven't had any desire to turn on the boob tube for a couple of weeks.  The television's siren song while I'm on the road remains strong.

I'll end my Lenten television fast on Easter Sunday (or, more likely, the day after), but I have a feeling I'll be going on fewer Storage Wars marathons when I find the remote and tiptoe back into the vast wasteland.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A great deal . . . if you can get it.

Teri and I are in what may or may not be the final steps in the process of refinancing the palatial Bayberry Estate.  I'm not sure because every day seems to bring a new e-mail or phone call from our loan officer Scott over at GigantaMegaBank, telling us they need "just one more thing."

This will be the third time we've taken a loan on our home in the six years we've owned it.  When we bought the house, our interest rate was north of seven percent.  When interest rates began falling shortly after we moved in, I refinanced and got what I thought was a pretty good deal at 5.25 percent.

Now mortage interest rates are the lowest they've been in memory, and we've locked in a rate of 3.125 percent interest on the house.  When you consider that our loan will be subsidized significantly by the mortage interest deduction, it's getting awfully close to free money.

But, free money or not, they are sure making us work for it.

When we took out the loan six years ago, the process was a breeze.  I invested maybe fifteen minutes of work into getting the loan and then another hour or so signing the mound of documents that comes with a mortgage closing.

I called an 800 number somewhere and the guy at the other end entered my social security number into his computer and approved us immediately.

"Don't you even want my wife's social security number?" I remember asking.

"No, I've got everything I need," he replied.  And that was it.

What a difference a housing collapse and a great recession make!  Even though our credit ratings are still fine and the mortgage is for a smaller amount than the last time we refinanced, the bank is putting us through a very strict underwriting process.  I've given them dozens of documents: bank statements,  insurance records, 401k statements, W-2s, and the list goes on and on.

And every day Scott from GigantaMegaBank calls asking for "one last thing."  So far, I've played along, but I'm drawing the line when he snaps on a latex glove and asks me to bend over.

Other than our relatively small mortgage, which is only about a third of the assessed value of our home, we don't owe a penny to anyone.  We have more than enough stashed away to cover the mortgage we're taking out.  We've never been a day late on a payment to anyone--I'm so obsessive about this that I've actually prepaid our mortagage several months ahead.

If anyone is a good credit risk, it's us, and loaning money to us should be an absolute no-brainer. We're supposed to close on the refi any day now.  We'll see.

I've actually been shocked at how much work and how intrusive this process has been compared to the last two times we went through this.  Unless you have superb credit, are persistent and are willing to put a lot of effort into it, I'm not sure how anyone is able to take out a mortgage in today's banking environment.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The web never sleeps

My day job is working on the digital side of what was a very traditional business only a few years ago (book publishing).  I spend my working days helping college professors implement my company's e-book and computerized homework systems into their classrooms.  Since I'm paid to work with computerized systems, you might think I'm a computer geek who adores all shiny new technology.  You'd be wrong.  The geek part might apply, but computer geek--hardly.

I love tech, but only when it makes my life better.  For instance, I'm currently falling in love with Evernote because it allows me to take notes on any of my computers or iPad (something I do a lot) which I can then access from any device that connects to the internet.  Pandora allows me to create "radio stations" tailored for whatever mood I'm in at the moment.  Pandora and Evernote are examples of digital tools that work intuitively and  make my life a tiny bit better.

At other times, technology is just more trouble than it's worth.

Right now I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by all of my digital gizmos, mostly because of the sheer proliferation of them.  I've got a desktop computer, a laptop computer, an iPad, a smart phone and two Kindles (a "regular" Kindle and a Kindle Fire tablet).  All of these devices are fairly new and both of my computers and the iPad are less than a month old.

Teri has a similar collection--the only difference is that all of her stuff says Apple somewhere on it.  The latest addition to Teri's Apple family came earlier this week with the arrival of a new laptop.

Don't get me wrong, it's nice to have all of these gadgets.  I couldn't do my job or share my thoughts with you without them, but there's a dark side to being completely accessible all of the time.

Sometimes I feel like I exist to serve my electronic masters when it should be the other way around.  The machines are so demanding and they never ever sleep.  They need constant attention.  For instance, when a new work e-mail comes in, my cell phone, laptop and iPad will all ding, chirp and beep at me simultaneously, telling me somebody, somewhere wants something from me and whoever it is probably wants it now.

Because of the nature of my job, I get lots and lots of e-mails asking me to do lots and lots of things.  There are plenty of times when I feel like Lucy working the line at the chocolate factory.  All of those requests in the form of dings, chirps and beeps often come in faster than I can possibly deal with them.

When things get out of control, each new electronic bleat is a tiny stab to the heart.  Each little chime let's me know I've fallen a bit further behind.  In the few minutes I've been writing this, my devices have been pinging away as the sales reps get off campus and begin moving their own dings,chirps and beeps down the line at the chocolate factory and in my general direction.

I don't mean to complain.  I'm grateful to be employed and in demand given the current state of things.  It's just that it feels so noisy, everything feels so urgent, and there are times I want that incessant ding, ding, ding out of my head.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Creatures of habit

I think most of us are creatures of habit, especially when we've been walking the planet long enough for our habits to be set in concrete.  That can be a good thing or a bad thing--sometimes it's both.

Today, for instance, I'm working from the road, something I've been doing for longer than I care to admit.  I'm on three night road trip and today's only agenda item is a training session I'm giving at 1 p.m.

I'm all caught up on my paperwork and e-mail and with nothing urgent pressing this morning, you think I'd make good use of this free gift of precious time.


I did break my road routine by not setting an alarm last night for the first time in years.  Didn't help.  I was wide awake and brewing my coffee by 5:45--same as always.  Ugh.

After clearing out my in-box, another early morning ritual, I could have passed the next several hours in any number of pleasant personal pursuits.  It's a sunny day and my hotel has a lovely swimming pool.  But nah, I showered, dressed, and headed for the lobby for no particular reason or purpose other than it's what I always do.

It's a workday.  I'm on the road.  What else could I do?

Habits become so ingrained that, even when we see the folly in them, they can be almost impossible to break.

After decades of business travel, I've collected my fair share of road rituals.  I have a particular small cooler that goes with me everywhere. There's a twelve pack of Diet Dr. Pepper in the trunk of my car that keeps my cooler perpetually full, along with a pack of ramen noodles in case there's a dining emergency (there never is). I always take the pens they leave for me in the room, but I leave the spare toiletries behind. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I have my favorite hotels in every town and I get flustered when my top spot is unavailable.  Of course that doesn't happen often, since I'm a Hilton Plutonium member, and they always find a room for me even when they're booked solid.

I'm at peace with the fact that I'm a creature of habit.  I suppose the trick is to make sure the habits you develop are the good kind.  Understanding that is wisdom.  Being able to apply that knowledge is something beyond wisdom, and I'm not there yet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Smells like Christmas

Two more unrelated topics today:

For the last couple of days my house has smelled like Christmas, or at least what Christmas smells like in my imagination.

My friend Kathy dropped by the other day with a massive quantity of pears, and yesterday I began the process of making and canning pear butter with them.  The recipe is turning out great, but there's one small problem--I've only made this stuff once before and began with way too much liquid this time.  As the name implies, pear butter needs to be fairly thick or else you have to call it pear sauce.

To thicken the pear butter without burning it I poured the batch into a very large crock pot set to high with the lid off.  I grossly underestimated the length of time required to reduce the liquid, and it wasn't close to done by bedtime, so I lowered the temp to warm and put the lid on so as not to burn the stuff.  When I woke up this morning, I removed the lid and cranked the crock pot back up to high to resume the process of evaporation.

For the last 24 hours or so, the heady aroma of fruit, cinnamon, allspice, clove, nutmeg and vanilla have filled the house.  Call it Christmas in August.  I'm not sure why I associate that smell with Christmas, but I do.

The pear butter has nearly reached the desired consistency, so I'll be canning the stuff presently and our home will return in time to the dog days of summer.


Yesterday I wrote about an on-line course I'm taking from the University of Michigan through Coursera.  Part of the course requirement each week is to read and grade essays written by my student peers.

This week we were studying Lewis Carroll and one of the essays I was given to grade went off on a riff about how different things in Alice in Wonderland symbolized the War of the Roses.  This was done without any citation, so out of curiosity I inserted a sentence from the essay into Google and the entire assignment came back word-for-word. From Wikipedia.

Wikipedia?  Really?

I wrote about this in one of the course discussion forums.  My post has taken on a life of its own, resulting in many dozens of responses and several parallel threads.  I wasn't the only peer reviewer who discovered plagiarized essays.  Apparently plagiarism and other forms of gaming the system are fairly widespread in the class.

Why?  What's the point?

The mind boggles.  There is a grade given to students in the class, but it a NON-CREDIT course.  There should be absolutely no incentive to cheat.  Students who choose not to submit any essays still have access to the class lectures and all other resources in the course.  Students who do cheat receive no tangible gain as a result.

The whole point of the class is that it's an entirely voluntary and free shared experience undertaken for the sheer love of learning.  The good news is that virtually all of the people who responded to my thread are as mortified and baffled by the cheating as I am, and a number of my fellow students are calling for the course administrators to act on this.

As for me, I don't know why I care since there's nothing real at stake here. I'm not sure why I'm so disturbed to discover snakes have infested this scholarly Garden of Eden; but I am.  A lot.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fightin' chickens and book learning

I have a friend who is a police lieutenant in one of the small cities in the vicinity of the Bayberry Woods. Yesterday he told me about a ne'er do well (let's call him Cletus) arrested for drugs or some other misdeed.

Cletus' mother (let's call her Etheline) paid a visit to the small police department where her son was being held to find out exactly what Cletus had done and how much money she would need to bail him out.

As Etheline prepared to leave, Cletus shouted out to her from his jail cell in a plaintive voice that could be heard throughout the building.  "Mama, don't sell the fightin' chickens."

This doesn't have anything to do with what follows, but it was too good not to share with you.


I have seen the future of education, and it's way cool.  A couple of weeks ago, I began taking an on-line college course through Coursera.  Coursera (here's the link) is a for-profit company that is partnering with 16 powerhouse universities like Duke, Rice, MIT, Georgia Tech, and Stanford.  The professors leading the courses are the teaching superstars at these institutions.

The course I signed up for is a ten week class on fantasy and science fiction taught through the University of Michigan, but Coursera currently offers over a hundred other courses in a broad range of subjects.  In mid-September, I'll begin a world history course being taught through Princeton.

The classes are absolutely free.  Students earn a grade but don't earn any credit from the sponsoring institution.  Instead, they receive a certificate upon successful completion of the class

I initially signed up for the class because I work with the digital materials offered by a traditional college publisher and I wanted to see what it felt like to experience a college class entirely on-line without any up-front cost or obligation to finish if I got bored or busy.  Besides, I'm interested in those genres of fiction.

The class is a great deal of work, and I'm surprised at how much it feels like a real college course.  There's a lot of reading (about a novel's worth each week), a weekly essay to submit, video lectures to watch, weekly peer reviews of five other students' essays and self quizzing.

After reading a collection of Grimms' fairy tales and the two Lewis Carroll Alice books in the first two weeks, we're on to Dracula this week.  Weighing in at more than 160,000 words, Dracula is a beast of a Gothic novel.  I'm about a third of the way through and loving it.  I've seen a bunch of Dracula movies, but I can't believe I've never read the actual novel until now.  In coming weeks we'll cover the likes of Edgar Allan Poe before moving on to more modern masters of fantasy and sci-fi.

Other than me, who would want to take on a difficult reading and writing regimen like this just for the love of learning and without receiving any real course credit?  Lots of people, it turns out.  There are thousands of us taking the class (Coursera hasn't told us exactly how many), and we come from all over the globe.  I can tell this because the participants in the very lively discussion boards often say where they are from.

Coursera may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they've got a problem being a for-profit company that gives away its only product.  As of now, there's no charge to take any class and no advertising to be found anywhere on its website.  That business model will have to change at some point if Coursera is going to stick around as a going concern, but for the moment anyone, anywhere can take a class from some of the best teachers at the best universities on the planet teaching the thing they know best for absolutely free.

I can't think of a downside.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Angel of the food court

The food court in the Cincinnati airport is an odd place to encounter an angel, but that's exactly what happened to me last week. For a few moments in that clinical public space, my angel sang to me and to me alone.

Even odder, this was our second chance meeting.  I encountered the same angel in another public space back in December--in the Dominican Republic, of all places.

I was in a Cincinnati suburb interviewing for another job with my present employer (which I did not get--more about that at another time).  I had a couple of hours to go before my flight to Detroit and then another flight south; and with eight hours of travel ahead before I reached my nest in the Bayberry Woods, I grabbed a meal at one of those airport food chain places.  You know the ones, they all have names like Ruby Friday's, TGI Applebees, North Dakota Pizza Kitchen, etc.

There was music playing in the background at that perfect Muzak level; loud enough to fill an uncomfortable silence on an elevator ride with strangers, but quiet enough not to interfere with a whispered conversation.  The thing is, the ambient noise in the Cincinnati airport Outback Wild Wings drowned out that music, rendering it virtually inaudible, almost subliminal.  Ordinarily missing out on generic airport music would be a blessing, but not this time.

As I dug into my plate of empty calories alone in my booth, something in the canned music hit me with an electric jolt, and I suddenly strained to listen.  I could swear I was hearing an angel underneath the bustling sounds of aeronautical commerce.  Even though it came to me distorted and indistinct, as if through a wall of water, something about that subliminal sound reached out to me.  At last I was able to make out a few words--"she's going to find true love."  Given that the theme of half the art, literature and music ever produced is love, I didn't have much hope I'd learn the identity of my Muzak angel.

Turns out it was enough.  I Googled "lyrics she's going to find true love." My Muzak angel was the first result.  "Oh, of course," I said to myself when I learned the identity of the song and its singer.  The title of the song was "Tenderness on the Block" and the singer was Shawn Colvin.  It couldn't have been anyone else.

I'd heard the song a thousand times before but didn't recognize it.  Co-written by Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne, "Tenderness on the Block" is one of the tracks on Zevon's Excitable Boy, an album that I've listened through hundreds of times on vinyl, cassette, CD and my iPod.

Shawn Colvin's version of this old favorite sounds very different, partly because it is backed up by the Subdudes.  For discerning readers who are non-hipsters, the Subdudes were (or still are, I'm not sure) a very groovy band of middle aged guys from New Orleans who had a distinct sound.  I've seen them perform several times over the years.  The marriage of a great Warren Zevon song, a groovy New Orleans hipster band and the voice of an angel works in every possible way and on every possible level for me.

Flash back to December.  Teri and I were taking a long beach weekend in the Dominican Republic.  The resort hotel was playing Christmas music in the open air lobby.  Most of what was playing were the old chestnuts we are all familiar with--Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and their ilk--but then, I heard a Christmas song I had never heard before, and it sounded like it was being sung by an angel.  Just as I did last week, I wrote down a few words from the song and Googled them as soon as I got home.  You guessed it, it was Shawn Colvin.

This kind of Muzak revelation has happened to me twice and only twice.  What are the odds that two obscure tracks from the same relatively obscure folk singer would motivate me to hunt them down?

Here's the point, and it's hardly original; music has amazing power to speak to us in a powerful and primitive way.  Even when we can hardly hear it or it's just playing in the background, music is acting on us in ways we don't fully comprehend.

Okay, that's not the real point.  That's just some thoughtful-sounding stuff I thought I should say.

Here's the real point:

I don't know if Shawn Colvin's voice and music pushes your buttons in the way it obviously does for me.  Probably not.  But somewhere your music is out there calling to you to come find it.  My wish for you is that you do find the music of your life.  When you do, sing, and keep on singing.