The Story of the Window Box

Two years and almost exactly 6 months ago, my daughter was born. She is our second child, and was born a full 4 weeks early. The birth was such a surprise.

Well, I mean, we knew the kid was coming eventually, but we didn't expect it quite at that point. As with our first born's birth, my wife's water broke and we rushed to the hospital. But unlike the first time, we now already had a child to deal with. We live hundreds of miles from my family and THOUSANDS of miles from my wife's, so the only support system we had was friends. 

One of them was nice enough to watch our son overnight. After the birth, I went to pick him up and prepare the house. It was the end of a cold, gray winter--not yet spring--so everything was overcast. Our brick bungalow was drab, with no color besides the dark red brick and the dark green bushes showing from the street. We had moved into the house a total of 3 months prior, so not everything was even in place yet.

I worked like a madman, sponging down whatever I could and putting the shelf paper we'd talked about using in place (as my wife was very concerned about this before going in). In order to add some color to the outside, I bought some "It's a girl!" balloons and tied them around the house--to the front railings and next to the garage--to brighten things up and add some fun.

It didn't.

Someone stole/cut away the balloon in the back. The other two were just sad, little specks against a drab background. When we had my son, I worked with people that were warm and friendly. We were all close and shared. They threw me a shower and filled some of the gap from our missing families.

But now I worked at a new job, where the people weren't as close. And when we were sitting there at home, it was just us with this huge new thing.

So I was determined that, with our third child, this will NOT happen again. Even those friends we had with our second have moved away. We're more on our own now than we were then. But I swore that the drabness--the sad, gray house we came home to for my daughter (who is anything but) would not happen again. I would make our house joyful. I would make it colorful. 

I'd add a window box.

The front of our bungalow, as with many in our neck of the woods, has three supports jutting from the brick on the front of the house--meant for the purpose of a window box. I've seen these in other houses, but the thing was that many had to use gimmicks. These supports are very wide, so most just throw a plank across them and treat it like a shelf for flower pots. Others buy custom-made stone (or made to look like stone) boxes that cost hundreds.

No. I would MAKE one.

Measuring the distance, the supports were fully NINE feet from first to last. Since lumber is sold in lengths of 8 or 12 feet, I figured it'd be fine to make the window box 12 feet, and allow for hang-over on either side. 

But, as my wife grew more pregnant and less able to take care of the day-to-day, I found I had to take up the slack. I tried to capture an hour here, two hours there. The effort stretched out as long as the damn window box. 

And you would't think a wooden box would be so tough to put together. But the thing was that I wanted something that would drain. Something that would be solid. Something that wouldn't be too expensive. 

And, most of all, something someone like me--who knows close to nothing about carpentry--could do. 

So I gathered pieces a bit at a time, put them together when I could, and tried to get things I could use for other purposes. The white base coat was also paint I needed for the garage. The screws were general use that would be used around the house for whatever. The scrap wood would be used for...whatever I could figure out at some later time.

But in the end, I had the damn thing built. It took about four or five MONTHS to put together, but I did it. I have no idea if the flowers I put in will last a week or until the first killing frost (I am NOT a gardener), but I will make damn sure that there will be no sad, sorry pictures of brightly colored balloons tied to dark railings in front of a dark house with a brown lawn beneath a gray sky.

It won't change our situation. It won't make crowds show up to offer mimosa toasts or change diapers for us. But it will make me feel just a little bit better that I tried to make this place feel more like a home.

More like OUR home.  

Choke Up On It

For some reason, in line with all the other maladies that my body has sprouted as I approach my forties, one of the oddest has been my sudden inability to eat carrots, popcorn or nuts. This is new. I used to love popcorn. I used to love almonds and cashews.

But carrots and popcorn now makes me choke uncontrollably. I didn't change the way I eat these. I didn't suddenly get lazy and decide to swallow too soon every time I eat these things. And nuts? don't want to know what happens to me when I eat them...and you DEFINITELY don't want to be near me.

It's annoying...particularly the carrot thing. Because it doesn't seem to make any sense. Why would I suddenly start choking on them? I mean, people develop allergies, but this isn't an allergy. I can eat cooked carrots without a problem. But raw? No dice. So I experienced the 7 stages of acceptance.

At first, I denied that I even had a problem, and would choke and hack in the car, at work...wherever.Then I tried to bargain with the situation: I would have carrots, but only when water was present to wash the debris in my throat away, or only at home in the middle of the day.

I can't say I've reached acceptance, even now. I deal with the problem by just not eating carrots at all, silently denying there's anything really wrong. It's sort of the way I'd deal with my daughter wanting to marry an actor, or my son wanting to move to Texas.
Cigar: Oscar Lozoya


Here is what I have never understood about "great works." To my mind, the greatest of stories are those that do just that: tell stories greatly. Melville did not do this. Neither did Steinbeck (at least, not with Grapes of Wrath). They wrote, essentially, philosophical treatises--which is fine if that's what you want from a text. But these aren't text books--they're novels. What I get from The Great Gatsby or As I Lay Dying or even Forward the Foundation are great stories that connect with me in some fundamental way because THEY'RE GREAT STORIES.

Emerson is wonderful to read for philosophy, as is Plato, but they didn't write novels that include tangential chapters about nothing except types of whales, or how long it takes for a turtle to cross the road. They may have included allegories, but those allegories were smaller, encapsulated ways of delivering their greater points, not random hiccups in an actual narrative. Moby Dick?
This is why "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a short story that feels like it's a thousand page text on what it means to be human, but Asimov's series of robot books are hundreds of pages on the same subject that reads like a breeze. And it isn't because Asimov's stories are light on theme or content--it's because they are heavy with plot, narrative and compel the reader to barrel through them.

I read Gatsby every few years not because it's hard, but because I find more from the text every time I read it, and I ENJOY IT.  

I think people often confuse heavy thematic content and overly-burdened treatises with great literature because it feels good to say that you've finished it and you've managed to wrest some nugget of knowledge from it. I will never finish Ulysses--not because I'm not smart enough (although I'm not), but because I have no incentive. If I want to learn about the petrified spirit of a people bound by inertia, tradition and repression, I'll read a book on history.

There's LOADS of text books out there on that stuff.

Words, words, words...But in any case, I also know that part of the reason I feel this way is the tendency of many of the professors and educated people I have known to undeservedly denigrate works not included in the canon and (often equally undeservedly) laud anything that falls within it. Why is it that I had to read The Sun Also Rises in THREE (count them) THREE literature classes, but not one required a single work by Vonnegut, Asimov, Verne, or Tolkein? 

And, while I know that I am falling into the same trap these learned individuals did by bashing works just because they fall into some largely imagined category, I also know what I like.

And what I like are stories.
Monster Disco

Plan B

My mother instilled in me a constant worry for how life will turn out. When I talked to her about my expectations for the future, her most frequent response was, "That is great, but what's your 'Plan B?'"

Her expectations were informed by her experience (as it is for all of us), and, in her experience, people didn't rely on their creativity for money. They worked on the line at factories. They sold things (cars, insurance, etc). They worked with numbers (accountants, taxes, or in the Finance department of a company).

Sound engineers? Graphic designers? Editors? Those are pie-in-the-sky professions. At best, you'd need connections or live in New York City. At worst, you'll be some sponge calling himself an "artist" and living off your parents.

I won't blame my mother for my failings, though. If I was so sure of what I wanted, I should have ignored what others said and just done it. Gone ahead. Made mistakes. Stumbled my way through, following what I loved and seeing where it lead me.

Instead, I followed whatever I thought I should do that would be safe. I concentrated always on that spot just below my real target.

I want to try to make my kids confident enough to follow what they love, with the knowledge that the money will come one way or another, but I see now how tough that is. You want your kids to be safe. You want them to be good people.

It's tough to steer them away from being egotists who do whatever they want at the expense of everyone around them, or being bitter failures who stubbornly fail at the same thing again and again.

In a perfect world, my kids would be well-balanced individuals who are practical enough to know their own limitations, confident enough to chase their dreams and smart enough to see how the money will follow.
Rat Pack Cigarettes. Dig that flavor.

Corporal Soap vs. Lieutenant Spank

So I don't like corporal punishment much.

I know you were wondering.

At least, I don't like the idea of spanking being your go-to technique. If you start there, what do you work up to? Chopping off an appendage?

So the time out is generally our disciplinary action of choice. But over the last couple days, our son has become batshit insane. Not "ready to rob a store" insane, but talking back, acting out and (in a final bout of pique) dropping the F bomb.

Keep in mind that this is a child who turned 5 last week.

At the core of this is a few things. 

  1. His grandparents were up and lavishing attention on him.

  2. The spoiling went beyond attention--manifesting in an orgy of gift-giving

  3. His sleep has been hampered by illness (first his and then his 1 year-old sister's)

  4. Potential anxieties over the start of Kindergarten in less than a month.

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Cigar: Oscar Lozoya

Financial Apocalypse

 News on Friday that S&P downgraded the US's coveted AAA rating to AA+ for the first time ever apparently combined with European fears of a complete meltdown to knock the Dow further and further downward.

What compelled S&P to downgrade the country was that they didn't see how the US was going to truly address its debt with the deal that passed. The posturing, bickering and brinkmanship that our elected officials used to secure their individual seats delivered us into this mess. So, knowing that, what was the response to S&P's analysis?

More finger-pointing, of course.
Monster Disco

The Nook Hack: Or Why B&N Wants Hackers

News that Border's Books and Music is on the verge of a shut-down seems to have merged in my head with a growing desire for a tablet.

You see, for a long time I've said that a variety of characteristics had not yet come into alignment in a way that made electronic books a viable alternative. These were:
  1. Multi-purpose device: Printed matter is more durable and requires less upkeep than any device. Requiring that people buy a dedicated device for reading makes it a niche and more of a fad. Real attachment won't be there until you have a general-use device that can ALSO be used for books.
  2. TRULY fair pricing model: Most retailers were basing their e-book pricing off of hardcover sales, which make no sense. If you're requiring the purchase of a single-use device (see #1) of $200-$500, it makes NO sense to the consumer to then pay $15-$20 on an e-book. I can skip plunking down cash on the big-ticket item and just pick up a paperback.

But the difference between Borders, Amazon and Barnes & Noble is that Borders looked at that and said, "Hah! Those things will never happen!" while the competition said, "Hmmm...let's fix that."

Now, this didn't happen in a straight line, and it still hasn't all been fixed yet. Amazon started down this road addressing that piece that meant very little to anyone: battery life. Don't get me wrong, a device that can only last for a couple hours won't help anyone, but improvements in lithium-ion batteries removed much of the advantage they thought they'd gain with e-ink. The B&N Nook seemed to start out as a gimmick to get people into their stores. Only eventually did it truly challenge (and possibly exceed) the Kindle.

But I hear you saying, "What about that #1 on your list! Both of those e-readers are JUST e-readers! And why haven't you mentioned the iPad!?!" Good question, you...whoever you are. Indeed, the iPad has become a contender in this market, and the tablets that have come out since have also addressed this #1 piece amazingly well. This is the reason I've been thinking about a tablet a lot lately.

I've also been thinking about how much those tablets cost, however, and while a tablet is less expensive than a laptop (or even some netbooks), the price is still more than someone can comfortably spend on something that's (to be honest) still unnecessary.

HOWEVER, Barnes & Noble is sneakily responding to sneaky people...or, rather, NOT responding. You see, someone figured out that the B&N Nook Color can be easily hacked to unlock all of the capabilities of its Android OS. Because of this, you can easily turn the $250 Nook Color into a fully-functional wifi tablet. Of course, this invalidates the warranty, and B&N tech support won't help you at all with a hacked device, but you'll have shaved HUNDREDS off the cost of the closest tablet competitor.

This isn't news, though. The Nook Hack (or "Nook root") has been around for months--so long that conversion kits can be bought on eBay. Given all that time, what has Barnes & Noble done to curb this violation of its little reader? Huh. Yeah. Um. About that...weeeellllll...

Nothing. Not really anything.

A Google search won't even turn up a press release. Why? Because the Nook is outselling the Kindle. B&N stumbled onto the perfectdevice: cheap enough to undermine ALL competitors: competing with Apple, Samsung and Motorola. As of May, three MILLION units of the Nook Color had shipped. Good money is on the next version of the Nook Color coming with a full version of Android 2.6--making the hack completely unnecessary. Amazon is following suit on the Kindle, but they've got some ground to cover. Their no-glare e-ink in color is a bigger challenge than B&N had with just taking existing tablet tech.

As for #2 on my list, the competition is doing healthy things to price points for books--aligning pricing in a brand new way instead of the old ">$30 hardcover and then <$20 paperback" model, it seems to be finding its own ground as a completely new format. 

With any luck, by Christmas, I'll be able to pick up a brand new, fully functional tablet for under $300 and have access to tons of books I otherwise wouldn't have bought. The idea that Borders won't be around doesn't really seem to phase me that much. It's sad to see things change. When new things come, old things often have to leave--particularly when they refuse to see what's coming.
Rat Pack Cigarettes. Dig that flavor.

Why Zediva Should Exist (Or, How Law DOESN'T Imitate Reality)

Recently, I purchased a Roku.

If you are unfamiliar with the device, it's essentially a box you hook to your TV that allows you to watch videos from the Internet without having to connect through a computer. This and other "Smart Boxes" are being hailed (by me) as the next evolution in delivery mechanisms for video content.

But, while I can watch old(er) movies from Netflix and TV from Hulu Plus, I can't watch any new movies. 

Roku boxSure, I could pay to rent a streaming video from Amazon or some other online service, but those sites are charging a premium for their online rentals--Amazon charging as much as $4 to watch a streaming movie. 

I was amazed at the price point. Both Redbox AND Blockbuster have moved to $0.99 rentals, and I get a physical disk that allows me to access the special features. Not that I WILL, but still...

Now, I have made the argument MANY times that online delivery is cheaper than physical stores. The answer to this always seems to be, "Well, online has a cost, too!" And yes. It does. But I have never seen ANY numbers that show online distribution costs are ANYWHERE NEAR physical delivery. 
Anyway. I then discovered Zediva. So the idea behind it is kind of genius--both on the distribution/logistics side and on the pricing side. Zediva has a bundled pricing model. You pay $10 for 10 rentals. That sold me right there. I could easily find 10 rentals--even if it took me a couple months.
On the distribution side is where Zediva got into trouble, though. Rather than offer a movie as a streaming file in the same way the other sites do, they have actual disks. They took a page from old-school video stores and just bought DVDs. 
When you rent a movie on Zediva, you are renting an actual disk that is put into an actual DVD-player and plays through an online viewer to your computer. Then they did something else that raised the ire of the MPAA.
See, they decided that it was silly to enter into the same agreements that Netflix and Amazon had entered into--where they wait for months after the release of a movie on DVD until they make it available. I can see why they'd think this. It IS silly, but the MPAA is like a powerful, over-bearing boss that understands half of what's going on and is quick to rush to judgement when a threat is perceived.
So the MPAA did what it does--it sued.
More than that. It will win. Why?

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Day of the dead: Oscar Lozoya

"High Level"

Most executives want to say they're "thinking strategically."

What this means, to them, is that they have a general idea of what they want to do, and (if you're lucky) a general idea of how they want to do it.

They don't do specifics. In fact, they HATE specifics. If you start to talk about the realities of doing something, you'll get a lecture on how "that's tactics--I'm talking STRATEGY."

Tactics. To them, tactics are just ways of implementing strategy. They give you guidance of what they want to do. You figure out how to do it. That doesn't work? Figure something else out. That's tactics.

What would they do without military or sports metaphors?

Anyway, this causes a very complex and weird interplay between the people at the top, the people at the bottom, and all those in-between. The middle-managers' most valued trait is an ability to take something that needs to be done and make it look like it fits into some over-arching STRATEGY, instead of just keeping the wheels on. If you do what needs to be done, then you're REACTING--not taking the initiative to ACT.

So, if you're one of the people on the bottom, you do what needs to be done, try to find out in advance what MAY need to be done and also do that. Every day you tell your boss this, and he/she tries to fit all that into some sort of strategic vision. Then he/she organizes this strategic vision into presentations and talks about his/her STRATEGY to the boss.

It's all this weird inter-play that I am genuinely not good at. I see something that needs to be done, I do it. I see something bad that will happen and I prevent it. I see something good I can do to make things better and I do that.

There. That's MY strategy.
Rat Pack Cigarettes. Dig that flavor.

An old essay about a blizzard

Wrote this one about 8 or 9 years ago, and it seemed apropos, given the current weather here in Chicago. 


I’ve always read that snow purifies.

Its white shroud covers the landscape and wipes away the sins or the worries of those that it covers. To me, though, this poetic sentiment always seemed melodramatic, overly optimistic, and downright incorrect.

I’ve seen snow.

Growing up in Rochester, New York and then moving to Buffalo, New York, I know what happens with snow. First it comes down in buckets, snapping branches under its weight…breaking holes in ceilings, fraying telephone and electrical wires. Then, the salt trucks come, pouring down bucketfuls of rock salt, corroding the sheet metal of cars and ruining the shoes of pedestrians…not to mention the rugs they have to wipe their feet on.

After awhile, the snow goes from pretty white to dingy gray and black-—the road spray from the cars splashes around onto the snow banks. 

Then you just have a dingy, muddy mess.

Snow didn’t mean purity to me.

This year, though, when so much has happened on a scale that I can’t even begin to fathom, something stereotypical and, nonetheless, unexpected has occurred in my city--my adopted home.

Buffalo is in the middle of a blizzard.

If you don’t live here, you probably heard something about it on the news. It was on CNN, NPR, and the network news stations. The Weather Channel had a field day reporting on it.

I’m in my third year living in Buffalo full time, and this is the second blizzard of this sort that I’ve been in, here. Blizzards aren’t new to me, and the child in me is always delighted to see the huge piles covering rooftops like whipped cream on a sundae.

As disasters go, blizzards aren’t so bad. When you’re in the middle of one, stuck in your car in the center of God’s wrath, it may not be so rosy, but veterans know what to do. I’ll take a good white out over hurricanes, brush fires, floods, tornadoes or earthquakes any day of the week.

Last night, I participated in an old blizzard custom around here. A few friends and I walked to a couple bars over the snow-covered streets and laughed about life. We talked and drank, and tried to connect with others. We called friends and family to make sure everyone was okay (in my case, they were). We went to the local shops and chatted with the clerks that we may normally only have grunted at. The clerks, who may have just checked to see how long it was until break time, would joke and laugh with us, instead.

I cleaned off the walkway to my apartment building, and met my super for the first time. Really met him. We talked about the snow and driving and the cost of gasoline.

When this happened last year, I helped my neighbor move his car out of a snow bank, shoveled driveways, gave people pushes out of ruts, and met up with complete strangers…all lending a hand.

This doesn’t last for long, this sense of community.

Eventually, people go back to their own lives. They wrap themselves up in their own concerns again and return to the circle of community that they’ve set up for themselves-—at work or through friends.

But for one, shining moment, when the imprints of snow angels are simple and joyous on top of the drifts...when the icicles look like nature’s popsicles...when huge snow banks practically beg for you to climb them...

Life is pure.

It’s Norman Rockwell simple and Julie Andrews beautiful.

Eventually, it’ll die down. The snow will go away, but, if we can remember that moment…that beautiful piece of what life should be like…then we’ll know what to carry with us the rest of the year.

And just hope for another snowfall.