Tuesday, October 20, 2015

I Hate Star Wars

There. I said it out loud. I. HATE. STAR WARS.

When the original Star Wars movie came out in 1977 I was eleven years old. I saw it. I loved it. I saw it again.

Then I saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and The Return of the Jedi in 1983. I liked each of these sequels, but less than I had liked the original.

When the next batch of movies started to come out in 1999, I did not even bother to go see them.

I cannot for the life of me fathom how these movies have stayed popular for so long among adults. They are poorly written, terribly acted, and entirely simplistic. The reason the eleven-year old me loved Star Wars was the fact that the thin story and stiff acting were hidden behind some cool special effects and Carrie Fisher in revealing outfits.

The names of the characters alone are enough for me to know that a person with the creative vision of a 12-year old boy was behind the whole enterprise. Lando Calrissian? Boba Fett? Moff Jerjerrod? JarJar Binks?

A freakin’ break give me.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Some Things I Have Learned From Skydiving

As far as we know, humans are the only species on Earth whose members carry the knowledge of their own mortality. We all have the experience as a kid when it strikes us that everybody dies—including us. Of course, a six-year old isn’t usually debilitated by this knowledge. She takes it in, ponders for a second, and then gets back to life. 

As we get older the “ponder” part of the process stretches out a bit and the undeniable fact of our own death starts to loom larger. Of course, I am speaking in generalities here.  Not everyone lingers on thoughts of their own death—but certainly everyone is aware that, as Hank Williams sang, “no matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

Some people react by buying a Miata or having an affair or drinking too much or getting a tattoo. Others suppress, suppress, suppress. Whatever it takes, you know? The utter annihilation of our very essence is kind of a big deal.

Not only do we know beyond a doubt that we will die, we also know that the people we love will all die, too. My wife will die. My daughter will die.  My mom will die. A good friend and mentor did die recently. My father died, just last summer out of the blue. Everybody we know and love will one day cease to be. And we know it—even if we refuse to think much about it. Deep in our hearts we know it.

For me, (as I suspect for many), the rational course of action seems to be to acknowledge the fact of death, and then mostly live as if it were not true. As Isabel goes off to school in the morning I don’t want to constantly be thinking, “That might be the last time I see her,” because, you know, that is just morbid.

But for the past six years I have been having that very feeling about Erica way more than a person should. Erica is my wife of 19 years and in 2009 she started skydiving. I will say right up front that skydiving is a very safe sport. There are many activities that we all engage in that are far more dangerous, statistically—things like taking a shower, driving a car, or discussing politics at Thanksgiving. Worldwide, very few skydivers die each year—roughly sixty a year since 2004. In the United States, more people die from lightning strikes than from skydiving.

I know the numbers and they are somewhat reassuring.

But then once a month, like clockwork, that damned Parachutist magazine comes and I do what everyone who gets it does—I turn immediately to the Incident Report page and read about the most recent fatality. The reports go into a lot of detail and always end with advice for jumpers on how the incident could have been avoided. The Reports are meant to serve as an in-your-face reminder of why you should never make a low, hard turn without time enough to level off before contact with the ground or why you should never, ever lose altitude awareness.

And maybe that is just what these Reports do for actual skydivers.  But I am not an actual skydiver. (I do not even play one on TV.) Instead, I am the spouse of a skydiver, and what they do for me is nothing quite so technical.  What they do for me is make me worry about Erica. The very worst thing I can imagine in the entire world is the death of my wife or my daughter. And when I read those freakin’ Incident Reports, that is exactly what I imagine.

So, I quickly change the channel in my head away from the Horrible Death by Skydiving Channel (HDS) and on to something less soul crushing, like puppies, or our little patch in the Community Garden. These things make me feel better. They help me manage my terror at that utterly banal and utterly human realization that everybody dies.

During the long stretch of days from late April through mid-October Erica goes skydiving every weekend day that she can. Just last weekend she managed 14 jumps in three days. So at least once every weekend for this six month stretch a thought comes unbidden at some point during the day: This could be the day Erica dies. On particularly bad days, a scene plays itself out in my head where I get a phone call and it is obvious right away that something terrible has happened. I shut these mental forays down right away, but they are no fun.

So, here are some things I have learned from skydiving:
  • If Erica and I are at a dinner party or other social gathering and my natural inclination to avoid people and conversation comes on, all I have to do is drop into conversation that Erica skydives and suddenly nobody wants to talk to me any more—they all want to talk with Erica about skydiving.  It is great.
  • Drop zones are one of the most boring places in the entire world, (if you don’t skydive.) It seems weird that this might be true, but it is undeniably true.  You would think that being at a place where people are free-falling at terminal velocity and then piloting relatively small bits of cloth down to a safe landing would be anything BUT boring.  But you would be wrong. It’s nothing but inside jokes, camaraderie between jumpers, and talk of four-ways and burbles and snivels. To Erica and most other jumpers it is the best place in the world.  To me—boring.
  • My wife is not an adrenaline junkie.  She is more of an adrenaline casual user. The biggest thing she gets out of skydiving is not the risk-taking rush of the junkie. Instead, it is a place and a moment where everything else in the world disappears.  There are no thoughts of bills to pay, work to be done, conversations that need be had. The world goes away and there is nothing but laser beam focus on the activity at hand. And it has to be this way because anything else could get you killed.  It is like meditation for clearing the mind, only at 7,000 feet and terminal velocity.
  • Most skydivers are either married to other skydivers or else they are not in a serious relationship. This one is fairly obvious—who else but a skydiver would put up with a skydiver?
  • Skydivers, as a group, are some of the funniest, friendliest, most welcoming people there are. If Isabel and I ever do overcome the sure knowledge of stifling boredom  and make ourselves go and hang out at the drop zone with Erica, we are made to feel like honored guests and treated so well, it almost makes me feel bad about how boring I find the place.
  • And lastly, skydiving has taught me that human beings are brave. Every single one of us. Knowing full well that we will die and, even worse, that the people we love will die, still we choose to love people. To me, this is both the stupidest and bravest thing there is.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Brother, Can You Spare a Dork Dollar?

In 1906 a British statistician named Francis Galton went to a country fair in Plymouth. While there he witnessed a contest where people wrote down their estimates of the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox on display. 800 people wrote their guesses on slips of paper. Most of the people who guessed were not butchers, and so had very little first-hand knowledge to guide them. Some of the guesses were wildly high and others were wildly low.
Yet, when Galton totaled the guesses and divided by 800, he found that the statistical mean of the guesses was within one percent of the actual weight of the ox. Nobody in the crowd knew the weight of the ox, but the crowd as a whole was remarkably precise in their estimate. (The ox weighed 1198 pounds—the average guess was 1207 pounds.)

Journalist James Surowiecki wrote a book about this phenomenon called The Wisdom of Crowds and it is a good and fascinating read. Now that so many people have access to the Internet, researchers are designing studies to more clearly delineate just what sorts of questions are good ones to ask the crowd and what sorts of questions are answered better by an expert or two.

Social Psychologist Phil Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania has started an online prediction study called The Good Judgment Project, in which he collects predictions about specific geopolitical questions. There were more than 7000 forecasters signed up for the Good Judgment Project last year. It is being run as part of the Aggregate Contingent Estimation program of the Office of Incisive Analysis at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency. One goal of the project is to find out if average people can make predictions about geopolitical affairs as well as, or better than, experts.

Here are a few sample questions from the many dozens forecasters are currently weighing in on:

At the start of the prediction season, each participant is given $50,000 to invest in various answers to the questions. Obviously, the dollars are not real. (My smartass daughter calls them Dork Dollars.) Some questions are simple yes/no propositions while others offer a range of answers that are often split by date or by quantity. It might not sound like it to you, but this project is totally addictive. 

I am, and always have been, a news junkie.  That is why I love listening to NPR’s WaitWait Don’t Tell Me and it is why I spend far too much of my down time researching obscure topics like the Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia and the HSBC China Services Purchasing Managers’ Index. 

At least, I used to.
When the season began I was frequently in the Top 20 money-makers in the “league.” Sometimes, I would bounce up into the Top Ten. When I would crow to Isabel and Erica about an especially clever bet, Isabel would give me a withering look and ask how many Dork Dollars I had won.

This all came to an end in January. I came across a proposition that seemed like such a sure thing that I bet every single Dork Penny I had on it. At the time I was ranked in the Top 20 predictors in my league of 359.  The question is this:

When will France deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia?
  • ·      Before 1 February 2015
  • ·      Between 1 February 2015 and 31 March 2015
  • ·      Between 1 April 2015 and 31 May 2015
  • ·      Not before 1 June 2015

Not to bore you with the details of my (so-far) faulty reasoning, but I bet heavily—as in, every stinking Dork Dollar I had—on the fact that the French would indeed deliver a ship before June 1st. But then all hell broke loose in Ukraine and the French decided to punishRussia and to put the delivery of the Mistral-class helicopter carriers on hold.

So, for well over two months I have been unable to withdraw my money from the bet I have made, since to do so would leave me with nothing left—not one single Dork Dollar to my name. And because all of money is tied up waiting for France to make up its mind about these boats, I don’t have any other Dork Dollars to bet on other questions. One of the greatest daily pleasures in my (admittedly-limited) life has been taken from me. This stupid question has been my Waterloo.

I have been reduced to setting up a Google Alert that sends me an e-mail any time a story appears anywhere in the world including the terms “Mistral, France, Russia.” You might not be surprised to learn that these alerts hardly ever come.

The question will not be resolved until either France delivers a ship or June first comes without a delivery.  Until then, I am stuck watching from the sidelines as softball questions come and go—things I KNOW I could nail if only I had some Dork Dollars available. As things stand, I am now in 359th place out of 359 predictors.

Yep—dead last. 

But my bet is so large, if the French do deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia before June 1st, I will climb to #8.

If you want to help, you can write to Francois Hollande and tell him to let bygones be bygones and deliver that ship!  (To send him a note, click here.) I appreciate any help you can give. Maybe you could spare a few Dork Dollars…?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I lost a friend yesterday

The older I get the more I realize that there aren’t any heroes, there are just people who manage to make it through life with a bit more of their integrity intact than other people do. Which is why I am surprised to hear myself say that one of my heroes died today.

His name is Jeff Jonathan and he is somebody you have probably never heard of. He was the Director of the school I taught at in New Haven. And he was a great man.

Being in charge of a school is not an easy job. Yet Jeff led the school with a strength and a steadiness of purpose that inspired everybody there to be their best—or at least to be the best they were capable of that day. He hired me to teach the oldest kids in a Progressive elementary school even though during the job interview it was clear that I did not even know what the term “progressive education” meant.

He took a chance on me and I grew so much professionally because he did. Jeff made me want to be a better teacher by his example. No matter the situation, Jeff would boil it down to the bottom-line question: what is best for the child in this circumstance? That was always his main concern—what is best for the children?

Jeff put up a long hard fight with illness the past few years.  Each time it looked like he might not make it through, he managed to tap into astoundingly deep reserves of strength and make it back home again. In the midst of his own struggle, Jeff lost his wife to her own fight with illness. I was reminded of Job.

It is easy enough to be kind, honest, forthright, and loving when things are going well in your life. It is a much more difficult thing to remain all of those things when subjected to heartbreaking sadness and unfairness. Jeff Jonathan, though you have probably never heard of him, was a giant among men. He will be missed, but not forgotten.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Getting (Thrown) Off the Beaten Path

Winter is long in Ithaca. It can snow as early as mid-October and as late as mid-May. There are entire weeks when the temperature is below 20 degrees and the sun does not peek through even once. Because of the proximity of Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes we sometimes get these week-long slow motion storms where an inch or two will fall every day and every night and by the time it is all done, we have a foot or 18 inches on the ground.

This week has been one of those weeks. It has been cold and grey and snowy. In January we get well under 10 hours of light in a day, and usually even that is filtered heavily by thick overcast. It is enough to make a person want to stay inside by the fire until June, (well, THIS person anyway.) It takes effort to fight the urge to hunker down and cram myself full of comfort foods (and comfort wine) all winter.

This is where the dogs come in handy. They do not care that it is cold and dark at 6:45 in the morning—they need to get outside. And to be truly happy, they need to get outside for at least 30 minutes off-leash and free to explore.

This is how I came to find myself calf deep in the snow in the dark at Cass Park a few mornings ago. It was 6:20 in the morning, the temperature was 4 degrees, and there were six fresh inches of snow on top of the six inches that had fallen two days before that. The parking lot had been plowed and the walking path was cleared, but that was it. Every other square inch of snow-covered field was pristine and unspoiled. A few places had deer tracks leading from woods, across fields, and back into the cover of trees.

As I got out of the car I glanced up and saw that the sky was momentarily clear. The stars were thick and brilliant.


I didn’t care. I was simply there to get these dogs their 30 minutes and then it would be back in the car, back home, into the warm shower, and off to work for me. I opened the back door, let the dogs out of the car, made sure all my zippers and straps and ties were done up against the cold, and began my forced march down the only cleared path there was.

I spent the first ten minutes clenched against the cold, which was considerable. But slowly, the quiet of the morning, the crispness of the stars, and the obvious happiness of the dogs pulled me out of my clench. I stopped on the trail. I picked my head up and looked around.  The sky to the east was just starting to lighten and the buildings of the Cornell campus were silhouetted up on East Hill. I looked west and was lucky enough to catch a shooting star as it blazed straight down toward the horizon on West Hill. I am fairly superstitious, but only about shooting stars.  I took this as a great sign that it would be a good day.

From where I was standing on the path it was easy to see exactly how I had gotten to where I was. The path all the way back to the car was obvious. The way ahead was also obvious—at least to me.  There was one cleared path in Cass Park—the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, (which is a real municipal treasure in Ithaca,)—and I was going to follow it all the way around and back to the car. This would give the dogs their thirty minutes and me my small bit of exercise for the day.

I was just about to begin walking again when Ginger made it clear to me that she did not want to continue ahead on the trail. She hunkered down a bit and seemed reluctant to come with me. I thought she had to pee, so I waited for a second. Rather than squat to do her thing, she just stared at me. We were stuck.

I could not figure out what she wanted and she could not tell me. So I asked her out loud: “Why are you looking at me like that? What do you want?” And as unbelievable as it may sound, Ginger turned her head toward the wide, snowy field next to us, raised her chin just a bit, and gave a small nod in the direction of the snow. I knew then just what she wanted and I reached down and unclipped her leash right away.

She took off like a shot, sprinted 20 yards out into the field, and then flopped over onto her back and rolled around in the snow for a good 60 seconds before coming up to shake herself off and look around. In the meantime, I had let Lotti off of her leash and she quickly follow in Ginger’s footsteps. The two of them wrestled around in the deep snow for a bit and then went off exploring around the edges of the field.  I followed them out and took their lead.

No. That does not mean that I dropped onto my back and writhed around madly for a while.  I simply followed wherever they went. There was no cleared path, no blacktopped trail to show them the way. I think mostly they were following their noses, though I cannot say for sure what leads a dog where she decides to go. By the time I was too cold to continue, we had made a mess of that field. There were footprints everywhere, a few yellow spots, and several patches were the snow showed signs of their tussles and their further floppings.

To get back to the car, I could have gotten back onto the plowed path, but instead we cut across the field and through some bushes, clearing our own path. It was about at that point that the whole metaphoricalness of the outing hit me.

I have always been a person who sticks to the path I am on until something knocks me off and onto another. I rarely choose to radically change directions of my own accord. It’s not even that I consciously choose to stick with the way things are—I just don’t entertain the idea of changing things. It was Ginger’s idea that we leave the trail and go mini-walkabout. And it was fun. Much more fun than doing our lap and going home.

When we got home I went upstairs to take a shower and get ready for work. There were boxes and furniture in the upstairs hallway. Erica had decided the day before that we need to switch the guest room with the office with the craft room. It was a three-way trade that was going to require a lot of furniture moving, some of it up and down the stairs. In the end, the arrangement of rooms will be much better and much more useful. But that did not matter when she told me. I had reacted with some pissiness, and I was still feeling a bit put out about the whole thing even the next morning.

Once the warm water of the shower hit me and I had time to consider my walk with the dogs, I saw that what Erica was doing with the rooms was the same thing Ginger and Lotti did in the park. She was simply changing direction, looking at what else was possible, and doing something new. She is good at this. And, almost invariably, I react badly. And then I come around.

This morning I told Erica in an e-mail at work how much I appreciate her willingness to change course, to question the way we are doing things, to take a new path. She is willing to juggle possibilities and take risks and do unexpected things and it drives me crazy. But in the end, it makes me a better person, too. What I consider a weakness in me is a strength in her—it’s one way we complement each other. It is also one of the things I have come to appreciate most about Erica, even if it means I sometimes have to carry heavy shit from room to room.

She e-mailed back right away to say thanks. And to tell me she quit her job this morning.  JK