Sunday, May 31, 2015

On Nostalgia

I've been thinking about the past a lot recently. Well, more than usual. Which is to say quite a bit, I guess. I'm always at least 75% buried in a previous decade, mentally.

I read an article last week on one of the bazillion lifehacker-type sites. The article was firmly embedded in the genre of life-advice articles, no doubt inspired by it working once, somewhere, for someone and sounding truthy enough to be worth committing to the internet for posterity.

It was about using nostalgia to boost you through creative slumps. Thinking about better times brings you into your comfort zone, reminds you of ideas and things which worked for you in the past. It's actually not bad advice at all.

So I've been digging through my archives, things I've worked on over the years. It's funny how each thing you write is tied firmly to a period. I go through phases--there's a definite archaeology to my creativity.

It's interesting to watch yourself grow over time. When you step back, look at the collection of stuff you've written, take a ten mile view, you see trends.

I can watch my focus grow as I age. When I was young, I used to pick up and abandon projects recklessly. As I've aged, I think I've begun to realize just how valuable time is. It's one of those resources which everybody takes for granted. You can spend it, but you can never get it back. As I've grown, I don't abandon projects as lightly.

I can also see my growing disenchantment with technology and my retreat from needless complexity.

The growing mild technophobia is one of those things which confuses people. There are basically two types of people in IT. There are people who love tech and can't get enough of it. They go home and do what they do at work, except even more so and they love it. They have houses filled with cutting edge tech. Their places are museums to modern computing.

I'm the other kind. When I get home, I don't even want to look at a computer. If I have a choice between getting another gadget or using something powered by a crank, I go with the crank. At the rate I'm going, I'll be using abacuses and living in a cave in the mountains by the time I'm 50.

This is obviously an exaggeration, but there's something about making a living taking care of the stuff behind the scenes which removes the magic from the process. I'm a worker at a sausage factory. The hot dog stand is not a place I want to be in my free time, so to speak.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

More Fury

I've been reading the trickle of views and reactions to Mad Max lately, the usually flood of post first-take reactions. It's interesting. Favorite one: http://io9.com/do-you-realize-mad-max-fury-road-is-a-miracle-1707000166

There've been a number of them, though, that interest me from a writing standpoint. Chuck Wendig's recent post about how it breaks any number of writing rules was interesting. His tongue, I suspect, was planted firmly in cheek.

The movie's interesting from a pacing standpoint. You would think a two hour movie which is roughly 90% action (and that's including the credits roll at the end, really this movie is relentless), would be dull, but the pacing is pretty incredible.

A story should have a sort of flow to it, the experts say. Action, break, action, break, action, break. Etc.

Mad Max is action, action, action, action.

Thing is, it isn't. Not really.

Pacing is a lot like skinning the cat. There's many...wait, I've always hated the metaphor. Who the hell skins cats, anyway? Gross.

Any way, there's many ways to pace a scene, particularly in a movie when you have a number of tools available which aren't available in fiction.

In this case, there's many different types of action and the movie deftly switches between them constantly, with a keen eye towards the typical audience member's attention span. Fist fights, differently staged set pieces. Action scenes transitioning towards new shooting locations. You've got visually different parts of the vehicle. Musical changes. Changes in day/night. It keeps things moving.

It's somewhat awe-inspiring, much like watching an expert comedian play the crowd during a longer set. You're there for one reason, but the person pulling the strings has a deep enough appreciation of the genre they can vary the pacing easily.

Mad Max is a song written by someone with a deep enough knowledge of the visual action genre that they can distinguish between notes on the minor and major scale. It's worth studying on that level alone.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Found Memories

While walking across the neighborhood yesterday, I found a small flash drive on the sidewalk. Without thinking much about it, I stooped and picked it up, stuffed it into one corner of my pocket and promptly forgot about it until I got back home, hours later. I suppose I could've left it, but there's no guarantee the owner lived close enough to be able to find it and it was one of those small PNY jobbies, about the size of  a fingernail. If I'd put it back where I'd found it, it probably would have stayed lost.

Always a weird thing finding USB drives. You never know what's going to happen when you plug it in. Infected with a virus? Plans for the Death Star? You just don't know.

In my case, I usually plug them into my computer and take a look on the off chance it's something someone will miss.

The owner of this one was Vietnamese, judging by the name. Had a bunch of important-looking insurance documents in the root of the drive. I opened one, noted down his address and I'm going to mail it back to him next time I'm near a mailbox.

I've lost my own share of drives in the past. Have to wonder what the discoverers thought when they looked at them, if they bothered at all.

For instance...

I usually keep a dozen bad movies in reserve in the off chance I'm at a friend's place and they want to see something mind-blisteringly awful, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000.

There's also other stuff--the usual useful utilities IT people tend to tote around with them. File recovery tools, antivirus installers, diagnostic tools and the like. Sometimes I have a spare copy of my financials, encrypted out the wazoo. Not so much these days because even with the military-grade encryption I use on Things That Matter, it's still unsafe.

It's funny how flash drives have become the equivalent of a purse or satchel. Everybody uses them slightly differently.

It's great reading old science fiction and seeing the overly pessimistic view writers had about the ubiquity of data storage.

There's an old science fiction role-playing game called Cyberpunk 2020. Came out in the late 80's with all the hallmarks of 80's cyberpunk: interior art showcasing glam metal and punk rock influences. Dystopian visions of the future, all William Gibson virtual reality and Max Headroom-esque media/political commentary. People warming themselves around trash can fires in the shadows of glittering high corporate arcologies.

Great stuff, in other words.

Reading through the equipment section is always good for a laugh: there's an upgrade you can get for cybernetic eye implants. Turns your eye into a camera, but due to space limitations, you can only take six pictures with it.

Six pictures.

That 8 gb PNY I found on the sidewalk has enough storage for roughly five thousand pictures and that's with decidedly low compression and largish resolution. And that's not even including such factors you'd expect from a modern piece of equipment. I mean, really, if you're gouging out your eye and replacing it with a bit of machinery, you'd expect at least a mobile data plan, Bluetooth, wi-fi support and a robust app store.

Another game (Shadowrun, I believe) had a chip you could implant in your jaw which would act as your own personal Walkman. I think it had a three album capacity.

The future is never what you expect it to be: it's always simultaneously better and more disappointing than you expect.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Meditations On Fury...

...Road, that is.

I saw the new Mad Max movie over the weekend. I recommend it. It's great fun if you catch a matinee and it's the sort of film you're better off seeing big and loud than on, say, your tablet while on the bus.

There's a tendency, at least in writing circles, amongst a generation who grew up watching big budget films such as this one, to conflate writing and cinema. I do it all the time.

I talk in scenes and beats (technically, that one's from play-writing). I mention staging and tend to describe things with an eye like a camera. The angle swoops in, tight closeup, etc.

Hell, I've even used "noir" to describe something that's actually "hardboiled" on occasion. Can't help it. I'm weak.

Anyway. Mad Max really drives home the difference between the two forms of art. You couldn't do a film like this in novel format. The heart of it's just the glorious spectacle of it. It's a seriously beautiful film, a 70's sci-fi novel painted cover come to life for two hours.

It's just one hundred and twenty minutes of solid WTF weird. I believe Quentin Tarantino said it best about exploitation films that the key attraction is that moment where you sit down in the theater with a bag of popcorn and you're like "wait, did that just happen? Did they just film that? What am I looking at?"

Mad Max has that in spades.

It would be very hard to do as a book. You'd either get something grindingly macho, or worse yet, one of those insufferable genre novels which Try Too Hard. You know the type, Mieville gone wrong sort of thing. The film relies on a heavy integration between the style of the cinematography and gut-level characterization, punchy little beats of visual characterization which do more to bring a world to life than a dozen wordy pages. Shiny.

Enough of that.

It's safe to say my experiment in half hour meditation before work is well and truly dead. Did that for two months and it was interesting and enlightening but...it was exhausting. There is a world of difference, apparently, between waking up at 5:30 in the morning and 5:45. It's almost like a three mile cliff arrayed at the 5:40 mark, painted with mile high red letters saying "DON'T DO THIS."

Meditating a half hour every morning required me to get up at 5:30, because my bed time is as early as it can get without completely divorcing me from a social life and...my job is my job.

I did that for a couple of months...and I was exhausted all the time. I dropped it back down to 15 and, yes, I noticed the difference in lack of meditative practice, but...that extra fifteen minutes sleeping in made a world of difference in my fatigue levels. Very weird, right? You'd think a quarter hour wouldn't make a dent, but it does. I usually wake up at 5:40, even.

Perhaps if I ever get a job with more flexible hours, I'll go back for longer spells of meditation. Not so much now, though.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

On Obligations

A few weeks back at work during one of our meetings, the subject of disciplining your children came up.

A surprising number of people there believed in the traditional punishments: a good swat on the behind. Grounding. The taking away of privileges: the right to have a television with a PS4 hooked up to it, cellphones, whatever. A few leaned towards the Biblical end of the spectrum, which is probably a topic for another day.

It occurred to me that my parents rarely ever bothered to punish me.

I suppose there were a few reasons. I'm a stubborn bastard. Always was. If you apply thumbscrews to me, my natural reaction is to dig my heels in and fortify. I once spent an entire evening sitting at the kitchen table, alone, because my parents told me they wouldn't let me do anything else until I ate my bowl of lentil soup. I was that kind of kid: if I tell you I'm not going to do something, then by Jove, I'm not going to do it.

Another reason might have been my brother. He's a much more feisty bastard than me and my parents had simply grown tired of the usual punishments by the time I rolled around. Their arms, so to speak, had grown weary from him over the years.

But the real reason is probably that I'm not terribly rambunctious. I'm not the sort of person who goes out and starts drama. I'd much rather work within the system. Or at the very least, not go out and throw rocks through neighbors' windows or soak the cat in baby oil (true story). Occasions where my parents would get angry at me were fairly rare.

In any case, in the rare occasions they needed to they quickly realized that there were better ways to motivate me.

Guilt's the big one. I was raised fairly Dutch. The feeling that I'm not living up to obligations is something which keeps me up at night. It's a kind of on-edge feeling, on par with that sensation you get when you head off on a two week road trip and realize four hours in that you can't remember whether or not you locked the front door.

The annoying thing is that it's obligations of all kind, including the imaginary ones I set for myself. Hell, I feel guilty about not cleaning out my car often enough, even though I'm the only one who really uses it. It's awful how my brain works sometimes. It's a constant process of telling myself "wait, no one cares about that, focus on bigger things."

So, missing out on writing kind of chews holes in my brain. On the other hand, the previous posts still stand--I've got bigger fish to fry and when I'm not frying fish I should probably be resting up, recharging and preparing for the next big thing.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Life And Unexpected Mental Places

Life ate my Thursday post. I can't even say I had an attack of being lazy or that I overslept or whether or not my deep-seated love of huffing paint climbed up on me.

Instead I spent the time doing homework, since I'm fairly serious about this rental property investment thing. If you're going to turn something on the side into a job, albeit a small one, you might as well treat it like one. So I've been doing homework. Lots of it.

Weird how life takes these strange twists and turns. I'd never have thought in any of my previous decades that I'd be heading down this path. But that's the thing about life. If you always do the things you can picture yourself doing ahead of time, you'll never take any chances or make any changes. You'll just keep doing the same thing over and over until you find yourself wondering why every day feels exactly the same and why every mistake and success in your life is just an echo of the ones before.

I mean, really. When I was sixteen, I couldn't picture myself driving. I had no idea what to expect from living on my own, and that turned out just fine. College, I could picture...but earning a living of any sort I couldn't, which is just as well because most of what I've done for a living in IT didn't even exist as a profession in high school, save for some vague notions in random science fiction novels.

I had no framework ahead of time about learning to swim or to scuba dive. I couldn't imagine being able to travel alone to Asia. So looking back over things...it's no surprise there's a large part of my head that's drawing a blank about owning rental properties. But it's compelling enough, on a mathematical and conceptual level, that it's worth pursuing. And it's similar enough to things I've already done, both as a hobby and for a living, that I'm fairly comfortable with the idea that the 25% of it I can't outsource I can handle. And the 75% that I do outsource I could probably handle without outsourcing if need be.

So, that.

Writing's been slim lately as a consequence of this. Which is just as well, because I probably needed a bit of a break.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Value Of Being In A Good Place

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I had a coworker who was in a bad place in life.

She was a handsome woman in her low fifties, constantly stressed out and getting grayer by the week. I get the feeling her career had dead-ended a few years back, or at least this was the narrative she was telling herself at the time.

She was the sort of person who was constantly putting out one fire or another. She juggled dozens of important projects at once. She could go from being in good cheer to being in the blackest of moods in a breath. All it took was one unplanned event and anything good which had happened to her that day would crumble, like a pile of sugar cubes under the onslaught of an ice tea spill. She was the sort of person who would curse at her computer monitor and thought that multitasking was a viable method of time management.

You'd come in to work and she'd be there already, with a nest of paperwork around her which told you she'd been there since the low single digits of the morning. You'd leave and she'd still be in her office, banging away at her keyboard, writing project outlines on a whiteboard, taking calls with a grim facial expression, completely settled in for the duration. She didn't take lunches and only took breaks when exhaustion forced her to.

Even on days when she had cleared out all her workload, you could tell she was on edge. There were things going on in her life which were eating her mind. You'd ask and it would be a litany of nits: new tires, mortgage payment, unexpected medical bills, sometimes her spouse was in a bad place at his job. You get the idea. Small-to-moderate emergencies. Nothing to point to which would indicate that any one thing in her life was making her life awful. More of a cumulative zeitgeist thing.

And yet.

All the bad times at work, according to her, were balanced by the good, which were very good. She made a decent salary. She ate out at nice restaurants. Her car was high quality and fairly new. She went on vacations regularly. Her good times were good. Not extravagantly so, but pretty nice.

If you mapped her days out, they would be like a pendulum. Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Over time, though, the bad times outweighed the good, because even when things were going right, she was still stressed out and tired and that would pile up after awhile. Her bar for a day-destroying Bad Thing crept lower over time. After a while, it wouldn't take much to tip her off balance.

This is probably the point in a usual entry where I'd launch into a tirade about personal finance, emergency savings, budgeting or whatever, but really, this is more about moderation.

There's a culture in America centered around the work-hard/play-hard ethic. Put in fifty or sixty hour weeks for decades. Then you can spend all your free time (which you won't have much of) going on expensive cruises. Buy the biggest car, the nicest house, enjoy yourself so hard your fucking face hurts. Be better at your job than anybody else so you can play harder than anyone else.

I suppose that's great if you're Don Draper or something, but most people burn out--hard--living like that. My ex-coworker, for example, flamed out a few years after I first met her. Just got to a point where she stopped working altogether and was let go shortly after. I lost track of her after that. I think she started her own business out east, is semi-retired and much happier than she was in that last job. But I digress: this is supposed to be a cautionary tale, not a road map.

It happens more than you might think. Some people in some lines of work refer to it as golden handcuffs. Others call it the treadmill. I just call it stupid.

A better idea is to step back. Make your good times less awesome so your bad times don't have to be so bad.

Instead of a big expensive car, buy a less expensive one, keep the money you just saved in savings so when you blow a tire, you don't have to run up a credit card. Instead of eating out two or three times a week, eat out once a week, savor it more. Restaurants are only a treat if they're an occasional thing, anyway. Eat out too much and you're just eating.

If you spend less on the good days, it means you will have more money lying around to head off minor emergencies, which helps you sleep better. After awhile, you'll have enough money lying around to head off the big stuff, too, which is a great relief.

Yes, there's the urge when you have a pile of money lying around to spend it on amazing things. Nothing wrong with that, but fight that urge. The piece of mind involved in having options is priceless.

When you have options, such as a side gig, or enough money laying around you're not handcuffed to your current job, you'll find yourself with a strange new thing called "perspective." The emergencies your coworkers are freaking out about begin to seem slightly silly and trivial.

You might realize that working endless long hours is kind of a chump's game, anyway. If anybody takes issue with you turning down extra work, you can say no, with a level of confidence which can only be derived from knowing that you can afford to not work for a few months while you look for a better job. And ultimately, that confidence will make you better at your current job. Why?

Without that overtime eating into your free time, you'll have more time to sleep, see your friends and family. You'll be able to pursue hobbies in a satisfying manner instead of sneaking time out between stressful moments like a guilty schoolkid cadging a smoke behind the high school gym.

When you're better rested, you make better decisions. You prioritize better. Instead of band-aiding emergencies, you'll be focused enough to see root causes and address them, leading to fewer emergencies from that source in the future.

You get the idea. It's a cycle. Get better at moderation and the bad times get less bad. Sure, the good times will be less awesome, but you'll have more of them and more evenly spaced, which is in my mind, far superior.

People are convinced that running harder on the treadmill will get them somewhere when the reality is that there is no finish line. There's no game, either. There's no race. You're ultimately beating yourself to death over nothing.

All those years my coworker spent working herself out of her own job? She could have been saving a bit, a little at a time. Running under less debt. Sleeping more and formulating an exit strategy or options. Or simply enjoying life instead of slumping her way from one minor bullshit emergency to another.

Getting back to the title, the value of being in a good place is realizing that you're in a good place and preparing so the next bad place isn't so bad.