If the definition of a hero is someone who takes risks in full possession of the facts, then I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t apply to me.  Sure, I’ve taken all kinds of risks – but as if I were channelling something out of a Mark Twain novel, I just can’t recall thinking much about them at the time.  Unlike the cowardly lion, a hero’s medal is not in my future.

When I married a woman with four school aged children and an ark’s worth of pets, my friends and family were pretty sure I wasn’t managing and mitigating risk very well.  They were right.  While certainly that marriage was a huge risk, all I can remember is the effort and rewards.  Only after I felt eviscerated by the marriage’s failure did I realize what I had done.  Feeling loss rather than regret tells me I still did done the right thing.

Having better knowledge of the facts today, I realize embracing risk may be in my future again.  Because so much of my work and leisure involves doing risky things, risk management is second nature and takes little conscious thought.  The result is that I keep a safe distance from the abyss.  But in matters of the heart, I believe it’s time to put my toes a little closer to the edge.  To look down. To creep so close my toes feel the breeze beneath them. I might get a medal yet.


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The Way Things Work

Somewhere on my basement shelves is a book I got when I was about 10 years old – it’s titled The Way Things Work.  I spent hours as a child pouring over this 2 inch thick text, learning in simple terms about how everything worked –  from telegraph systems to nuclear reactors.  As a teenager and an adult, my hobbies, academics and career provided ample opportunity to gain more specialized knowledge on a few of the things covered in this book.  And in my youth,  few activities were more satisfying than simply opening to a random chapter and exploring.

The Way Things WorkAs a young adult I was mystified when people with similar interests and activities weren’t also similarly anxious to know how things are put together and what makes them tick. It was an early lesson in the danger of generalizations about the human condition.  In the study of how people work and what makes them tick, I have little aptitude, and I am a decidedly slow learner.  Many of my mistakes and misunderstandings are embarrassing and frustrating.

When my friend Ariel asked, “Joe, why are men so incredibly intimidated by smart, mechanically-minded women?” I felt maybe I could say something helpful. Then I remembered the dangers of generalizations and and my potential for making embarrassing mistakes.  Yet I’d like to at least try to be helpful – even knowing the land mines are everywhere.

A limitation in crafting a response to Ariel’s question is my lack of first hand experience. It’s not a situation I identify with, nor one I can recall seeing among others.  I don’t doubt the merits of the question – but my ideas about it come from cultural and iconic references, not personal experience.

My daughter, an engineer, learned to change her car’s oil and tires before being allowed to drive, might be considered smart and mechanically inclined.  So far, she’s not shared a similar assessment about men with me. But as a millennial, she’s a generation apart from Ariel – and maybe that’s relevant.  Those of us who occupy the tail end of the baby boom have had far greater influence by cultural norms of the last century. We young baby boomers experienced the advent of women’s liberation and an entire change in the landscape of human rights.  As recently as this past week I was able to hear more of Katie McKnight’s experiences as an army aviator in the 70’s – a tip of the spear experience where women’s military contributions became mainstream and not segregated by gender into organizations such as the WACs.  Its hard – and important – to hear.

In the 80’s as a young professional in the field of computers, I only knew a few women in my field. A COBOL programmer in my department would describe her first work as a Go-Go dancer as an example that anyone could make themselves out to become anything. I remember envying her accomplishment – I had experienced every advantage and was junior to her among the ranks of information processing professionals.  But I don’t recall animosity – perhaps something conveniently forgotten.

Bias and prejudice occupy all of human history.  Change in norms and status only amplify tendencies to judge and discriminate. It is at least possible that Ariel’s question results from experiences prevalent among her generation. Were I to possess a book on the human condition that parallels The Way Things Work, I’d refer to that chapter regularly.

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The Time It Takes

Driving home as midnight approaches I’m feeling satisfaction as JJ Grey sings on the radio.  Grey sings Write A Letter and vivid romantic images are crystal clear.  I remember writing a sweetheart while away at college and traveling on vacation.  Then it dawns on me – I can’t remember a single song about modern electronic communication.  Perhaps they exist, but I can’t think of any song that uses email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or FAX as a backdrop for romance.  But letter writing – now that’s romantic.  There are scores of romantic songs about sending a letter.  It’s a big idea.

Letters are romantic – email and text messages are not.  At some point in the future, I expect the term “letter” may be applied to electronic messages.  But for now – I’m not familiar with any common usage of “love email.”  “Sexting” yes, “Love text” not so much.  By contrast the images a love letter evokes makes us smile inside – it’s pure romance.

Telegrams were electronic – and while I can’t think of any songs off the top of my head that herald the romantic notion of telegrams – I believe they do exist.  It’s the time it takes that makes the difference.  Even telegrams had to be delivered by hand. The best you can hope for with a letter is delivery tomorrow.  Waiting is romantic, because it takes time to dream and anticipate.  I’ve always thought it was amazing how anticipation was sometimes better than actualization. But then, I’ve got a vivid imagination.

Corktown FootbridgeA week ago, crossing a Corktown footbridge over Ottawa’s Rideau canal I found hundreds of locks on the railing.  These romantic gestures exist at other places around the world, but these are the first I happened upon and they got my attention.  These locks are symbols of love between couples and some have initials written on them like carvings on a park bench or a tree. Immediately the locks make me think of how many first kisses and embraces they witnessed.

Why choose locks as romantic vandalism? I’m sure every lover has their own reason – and at some point, it’s simply because it’s what people do. But as padlock combinations and keys are lost, discarded and forgotten, these locks persist.  They weather time – and like a telegram, they are delivered by hand. It’s the time that makes the difference.  While love at first sight may exist, its the time it takes to live it that gives love meaning.

It’s easy to appreciate a love song about writing a letter. Its memory is something you can’t make go away by pressing a delete key.  The romance the music evokes takes time to play.  We all need more time.

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12 Minutes

My favorite thing about streaming radio is the ability to time shift.  On the east coast I can roll the clock back 3 hours by listening to my favorite NPR shows out on the west coast.  Yesterday, after the NPR broadcasts were over in Atlanta, I clicked on KPCC in Pasadena – one of my favorites.  It kept me company as started a new project – fitting a GPS mount to a motorcycle handle bar.

My project required finding a way to fit a bracket several millimeters too wide for the space available on the bar.  After considering several options, I decided I needed to call upon the Rodney Dangerfield of the toolbox – the flat file.

I learned about flat files in my 8th grade shop class. My dad always had flat file or two in the garage – and it never seemed useful for much more than a substitute pry-bar when a big screwdriver wasn’t available.  The few times I tried to shape something, the dusty and old flat file never seemed to make a dent in whatever I was filing.  My shop teacher changed all that.  By showing us proper technique using a good quality file, we learned we could do amazing things with a flat file and it’s cousin, the rat-tail file.  We sharpened saws, shaped metal, and made parts fit. Before those lessons, everyone in our class thought a flat file was a worthless tool.  We had never given it any respect. Few today probably do.

flat file and viceI selected a new flat file from my toolbox and started removing the excess width – about 4 millimeters according to the toolbox queen, the micrometer.  Holding the bracket firmly in the shop vice, I slowly drew the file over the bracket – a little on each side – until the material began to vanish and a small heap of silvery powder began to appear on the workbench surface.

Meanwhile, the newscaster on NPR started a piece on the consumption of breakfast cereal.  It seems we Americans are eating less. Cereal producers have tried to compensate by finding new and exciting ways for us to enjoy their products – like mixing them in yogurt and showcasing gluten free options like corn and rice Chex. But even these new options are losing out to the breakfast bar, the fast-food drive-through, and other options for eating on the go.  Traditional breakfast is losing out to things that take less time.

Someone has measured the average time a typical American has available for breakfast – the newscast reported 12 minutes. Using sound effects of opening a box of crunchy cereal, pouring it into a ceramic bowl, applying the proper amount of cold milk and the clank of a spoon placed in the bowl of breakfast – the newscaster hinted at the irony of such a simple meal requiring too much time for many Americans.

Taking time for a craft project is a luxury I’m pleased to have. With a little planning, I’m usually able to avoid rushing to get things accomplished.  Some things just take time – and those without it are missing out.  Of course we can’t make more time, so we reallocate what we have by doing things like skipping corn flakes and having a bagel in the car instead.  Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to abbreviating our daily activities that we’ve forgotten the pleasure of taking time.

As my pile of silver powder grew larger under the shop vice, I wondered how much time this filing project would take.  About an hour and a half was my best guess. It had taken me at least 12 minutes to have the pear, macadamia nuts and coffee I ate for my breakfast. But with 90 minutes available to use my flat file, I could have taken much longer.

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Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor says more about us than it does about nature.  A Japanese proverb about conformity states a nail that sticks out gets hammered down.  We have a similar itch toward wanting satisfying explanations about the unknown.  It’s an urge that’s so strong that even when presented with multiple possible explanations we need tools in our philosophical tool kit like Occam’s Razor satisfy to help us choose the right one.

In the world of science, our philosophical tools help us with the fringe of what’s knowable.  Is the universe really expanding and contracting? Can the speed of light really not be exceeded?  Scientists will answer these kinds of questions with certainty in part because they rely on philosophical precepts that sand off the rough edges of uncertainty.

Explanations about human behavior reside in the neighborhood of what’s knowable. Simple explanations are appealing here too.  I was admonished by my sister once that “maybe she’s just not that into you” when trying to explain why a relationship wasn’t working out well.  It was hard to be more simple than that.

Not everyone has the compulsion to look under the covers to understand why things work the way they do.  Letting things go as unknowable is a more relaxing way to live.  Like doing cardio training to maintain physical fitness, a mantra of “just let it go” might help maintain emotional peace. Having a nail or two sticking up might not be as bad as spending a lifetime of pounding them down.

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The Gift of Listening

There is a proverbial tree falling in the middle of the forest.  A thought experiment asks if this tree makes noise when no one is there to hear it fall.  This question probes the philosophy of human experience and if there is “reality” beyond human perception.  The point is: What does it matter?

Recently, I traded some old memories.  Stories were told about childhood experiences with a favorite aunt, a grandfather who made summer afternoons an adventure and a grandmother who might have taught a thing or two to Thelma and Louise.  A few favorite passages were read and a search was made to find some old photographs.  The exchange lasted a few hours, but the experience may last much longer.

When artists play in an empty auditorium, it’s called practice.  With an audience, it’s a performance.  By listening, you give a voice. Then it matters.

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To Be Betrayed

Among its attributes, great literature invites escapism, reflection, and introspection.  A novel, play or cinematic screenplay creates a mental place where implausible circumstances can allow one to ask “what if?”  Like the personification of non-sentient objects, literature allows you to ask what would it feels like in imaginary circumstances – no different than one might ask what pain a tree feels when it is cut down.  And by mentally putting oneself on the “stage,” a reader can consider what choices or feelings might be evoked were those settings to be one’s reality.

Not being a very speedy reader, I tend to take my literature on the big screen – or the “little” one where creative drama is masterfully played.  And in the past several years, while I’ve been slogging through a morose period of healing after my second divorce, I’ve gravitated towards television dramas with leading male characters whose depicted flaws, instincts and motivations are not dissimilar to my own.  Perhaps there are a lot of men in recovery these days – these shows are popular.

The most recent screenplay to promote my emotional exploration is The Newsroom, and the portrayal of Will MacAvoy.  A major subplot of this drama is MacAvoy’s inability to get over being cheated on by his former lover, more than 6 years after they parted ways.  Encouragement to forgive and forget haven’t taken hold, and MacAvoy moves though life with a perpetual emotional millstone.  While not providing obvious clarification toward healing, an epiphany of sorts occurs when MacAvoy is told his emotional state isn’t the result of being rejected.  MacAvoy is told he suffers because he was betrayed.  Oddly, it sounds so simple when reduced to a single word.

The details of my second divorce are nobody’s business – and my actions in response to marital stresses were not faultless.  I like to think that what matters is my desire and efforts to resolve and later reconcile our differences.  My view of marriage centers around a commitment to creating an environment hospitable to the existence, if not the creation of love.  This is not a blind commitment to an idealized marriage contract.  The Ketubah provides a divorce remedy – a realistic understanding that unforeseen circumstances can create situations were preservation of a marriage would destroy its participants. Perhaps in filing for divorce, my wife simply sought a greater good.  When bad things happen, moving away from continued deterioration is clearly a remedy.

Definitions of betrayal range from treachery, violation and abandonment of a social contract.  In simplest terms, to betray is to quit.  In my second marriage, the efforts to create an environment hospitable to love, stopped.  While not obvious to me, I’m not so self aware as to be able to recount such quitting on my part. I don’t know exactly where I am culpable.  But after several years of effort towards reconciliation that firmly reestablished a relationship, but failed to rekindle love,  perhaps like the fictional MacAvoy, I was betrayed.

Out of self preservation, I eventually tried not to love my ex-wife.  I never failed so spectacularly at anything in my whole life.  In an interview I heard on the radio, Timothy Leary stated that “words are the freezing of reality.”  So now with the introduction of the word “betrayal” applied to my emotional response, perhaps I now have some firm ground to build a psychological sanatorium.

I don’t know how one recovers from a betrayal.  Maybe that’s why society builds memorials.  People who’s loved ones have their names carved in the Vietnam war memorial have a physical place to grieve, remember, and celebrate the memories of what was lost.  Maybe only time heals a betrayal.  Building just keeps you busy as time passes and washes the ache away.

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