Saturday, June 28, 2008

You Still Mean That?

I know William Safire has already written a column about this, and some readers of the blog have noted it as well, but the fact remains -- the word humbling has been badly distorted in popular American speech.

How, you ask?

Well, everytime someone wins an Oscar, a Grammy, or the blue-ribbon prize at the Clamath County bake-off, he or she feels the need to make an acceptance speech about how "humbling" it is to have won.

Well, according the dictionary, humbling is an adjective meaning, "Causing awareness of your shortcomings."

Yesterday, I was at quarters (that's an all-hands meeting) where a Captain was receiving a Meritorious Service Medal (that's a big deal). After being given the floor by the Admiral, the Captain made no fewer than five references to how "humbling" it was to have received the medal.


I *get* what he meant to say. When you think about the great things someone did to receive something, you feel humble to be put in the same league. When you win an Oscar for best supporting actor, and then you start thinking about Sidney Poitier, you feel humble.


But winning the award is an honor. It doesn't shame, embarrass, or humiliate you, so winning it isn't humbling.

If you tripped over the stairs on your way to the podium, that would be humbling.

If you stuttered during your acceptance speech, let go a swear word, or if a body part came out of your clothing unintentionally, that could also be humbling.

A nine year-old girl kicked the crap out of me at Lowell Tae Kwon Do on Shattuck Street last night. That was humbling.

Winning an Oscar, earning a Meritorious Service Medal, or earning second place in the freestyle division at the sock-hop festival, however, is not.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

NEXT Open Mic at the Worthen (...And this time I mean it!)

Well, this is the 3rd Thursday in a row I've meant to head up to the Worthen to witness the Thursday open mic comedy but it looks like it ain't gonna happen. I'm just meeting too darn early tomorrow with someone too far above me in the hierarchy, so I'll just stay in and rest up.

I have been thinking a bit about material, however (the idea still being I'd like to witness several iterations before actually gaining the gumption to get up there myself).

This next part may not be funny in the written format, but I think that with the right content tweaks and the right delivery, it has potential.

One thing I'm going to talk about is deadpanning. 'Deadpan,' of course, is already a real term, but my twist on it is the look I give someone when they make reflexive, knee-jerk, stock water cooler-type jokes.

"Would you like some pancakes with that syrup?"

"Would you like some coffee with that sugar and cream?"

"Are we keeping you up?" (Said reflexively after a yawn)

"Walk much?" (Said anytime someone bumps into anything)

"I would have nominated myself for the leadership seminar, but all I could ever lead was a drunk to happy hour." (Please reference my earlier post about overdone self-effacement)

"I don't know how many people it takes to defend's never been tried." (Editor's Note: The next time I hear that said, I will beat the speaker over the head with a world history textbook. Not only is it not funny, it's about as historically accurate as references to the Confederacy having won the American Civil War."

"They pretend to pay me...I pretend to work."

Or, of course, any reflexive, thoughtless ethnic humor, that -- political sensibilities aside -- is almost certainly unoriginal and not funny..."Hey O'Malley, go eat some potatoes!"

Well, you get the idea. You don't have to tell me, because I already know that there's someone you work with who just repeats these type of jokes and finds it hysterical.

Here's how I react to it:

When someone asks me if I want pancakes with that butter, I just stare back in the most blank, confused sort of way I possibly can.

Their inevitable reaction:

"Lighten up, man. It's a joke. Have a sense of humor."

The comedy-of-the-absurd here is that the speaker never stops to think that maybe the reaction is a response to the extreme lameness of the original comment, and not some kind of barometer on whether the listener does or does not have a sense of humor.

But if the speaker were keen enough to pick up on all of that, he probably wouldn't be walking around doing Austin Powers impressions and asking people, "How's your wife and my two kids?"

The general spirit of unawareness that drives that knee-jerk insta-humor in the first place feeds the response-to-the-response that I just wrote about.

And if I can somehow capture that in a routine, I think it could be pretty funny!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Noncoms: The Best and the Worst

If you want to really understand the modern American military -- what makes it great and what makes it unique (both historically and compared with other modern armed forces) -- the first thing you really need to understand is this: the tremendous positional authority granted to noncommissioned officers (NCOs). An NCO, generally speaking, is a sergeant or above in the Army/Marines/Air Force, or a petty officer or above in the Navy or Coast Guard. Sometimes, however, it's used in a way that applies only to E-7 through E-9 (the highest enlisted ranks).

As a Junior Officer (JO), it means quite a bit to me because part of the unique role that our NCOs play is in the way they mentor and train JOs. As I've written about in this blog before, I've seen them at their best when they're offering tough-love and honest-to-goodness mentorship and "steering" that's grooming me for the better understanding I'll need of certain protocols when I move past the JO stage.

So yes, by and large, I've come to love and appreciate noncoms and the role they play in the military. But with anything, of course, there's a flip-side: when they turn into the kid in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs.


Think back to middle or high school. Remember the kid with above-average aptitude who barely passed because he refused to "apply himself"? (i.e. play the game in order to succeed).

To me, the grown-up version of that is anyone in any context (military or civilian) who can't be told anything he doesn't already know, won't listen to any potentially divergent viewpoint before reaching a conclusion, and is quick to label any event a clusterf**k or a goatrope because the leadership is so effed up. Of course, this is always the last person to volunteer to help out or to roger up for any possibly arduous duty (either in actual difficulty or just in the sense that something may go wrong).

Here's what I've noticed in my almost-four years of active duty so far -- every once in a while, you run into noncoms that embody this persona, but it never seems to happen with Commanding Officers, Executive Officers, or just about anyone else that reaches Major or above.


Because it's really hard to be in charge. Being in charge means making -- and owning -- tough decisions with real consequences. It means compromising. It means listening to many sides to understand the extreme complexity of certain decisions.

By contrast, as logic would have it, it's really easy NOT to be in charge.

That's why the people who call ESPN radio on Monday morning are always smarter than all the NFL coaches who had to decide what to do on fourth-and-three the day before. That's why, as one bumper sticker I just saw put it, the people who should really be running for President are all busy driving cabs or cutting hair.

And that's also why there's a certain (albeit small) percentage of noncoms who are always going to be that kid in the back -- smart, yes, and capable, yes, but too busy throwing spitballs at everyone else and making fun of the teacher to ever get involved and really take ownership of anything difficult.

And if there are any sergeants or chiefs reading this -- present or former -- just remember I'm only talking about a tiny percentage here. But you and I both know they're out there.

So why am I even bothering to write about it?

Because I've come to expect better.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Not Only Do We Allow It...

I spent the past two nights at LeLacheur watching the Spinners go toe-to-toe with the Vermont Lake Monsters. Last night went to extra winnings (though the Spinners lost) but tonight ended in the bottom of the ninth with a come-from-behind rally that ended with a sac fly out to center which brought home the winning run.

If any single experience sums up my experience at the park so far, it's this:

I asked one of the ushers if it would be alright if my friend Dave and I went down to the reserved seating even though we only bought standing room seats. I know this practice is either frowned upon or outright discouraged at most places, because of the possibly perverse incentive it gives to would-be ticket buyers, and the chance for confrontation it could create when rightful seat owners arrive late to a game.

But when I asked the usher about this he said, "Not only do we allow it, we encourage it." The ushers then went out of their way to point out available open seats (there were many, as it was a Sunday night and it was threatening to rain) and even pointed out that buying standing-room tickets at every opportunity is a cheaper (and possibly better) alternative to buying season tickets.

Combine that with the constant inter-inning entertainment (tonight featured autographed footballs being kicked into the crowd by the New England Patriots' kicker, Stephen Gostkowski), the way the stadium involves the crowd (note all the trivia contests, karaoke, kids' dancing/baserunning/movie nights), and you can see why the Spinners are held up as a model successful minor league baseball franchise.

Friday, June 20, 2008

More News from "Over There"

The above link is to an article in today's NY Times which gives a fairly balanced view of things in Iraq -- while things are demonstrably turning a corner, the relative peace there is not a certain thing for the days ahead.

The negotations going on right now at the highest levels of the U.S. and Iraqi governments are determining whether the current UN Security Council Resolution will be renewed (the one that authorizes foreign troop presence and gives them broad powers) or if it will take on a newer, more restricted form.

By entering Iraq uninvited in 2003, I believe the U.S. took on a moral obligation to help assist Iraq with what it needs in order to stand on its own feet as a democratic government. It's not our choice to either impose a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) the Iraqis don't want (well, we can't do that anyway, they're a sovereign nation) or to pull chalks and abandon them completely.

Unpopular SOFAs tend not to work so well (think about the way ours fanned anti-Shah sentiment in Iran in the 1970s), and neither does complete abandonment of allies (just think about the painful regret we're still feeling after disengaging from our Afghan allies in the late 1980s).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Leno to Perform at Lowell Mem. Aud.

I just wanted to make sure no one missed this.

Apparently, there are actually some tickets possibly available to see Leno perform Saturday night as part of the Middlesex Community College Celebrity Forum. Sounds like a great opportunity -- Leno is the Man.

Speaking of comedy, I should add here that I'm thinking about taking some of the material here and morphing it into a stand-up routine. It would be mostly observational type stuff -- always inspired by, but never ripping off, people like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, but with a somewhat more animated delivery.

And, of course, there would be a healthy smattering of Senator Marzilli jokes waiting in the wings in case my "Did-you-ever-notice-when-people-do-x-or-y" stuff wasn't taking off.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Iraq: Following the Money

"Follow the money." -- Deep Throat, to Bob Woodward, behind the orange glow of a cigarette in an unlit parking garage, Washington, DC, 1972.

While America has been enthralled with the Democratic primaries, the general election, the NBA playoffs, and Tiger Woods' post-knee surgery exploits, a lot of really neat stuff has been going on in Iraq.

U.S. troop casualties are at record lows, Iraqi army/police casualties are at record lows, and Iraqi civilian casualties are at record lows, too (despite the persistent but increasingly rare spectacular attacks like the one that claimed 51 lives in Baghdad today). Signs of normalcy return to Baghdad and other cities day by day, and public opinion polls show increased confidence in Prime Minister Maliki (thanks in large part to the success of recent operations in Basra, Mosul, and Sadr City) as well as increased optimism for the future. More Gulf Arab states are formalizing diplomatic relationships with Iraq in the form of embassies and consulates that have been closed since 2003 or 2004 due to security concerns.

As General Petraeus is quick to remind us, however, all these security gains are "fragile and reversible." He's right.

What's just as important -- maybe even more so -- for Iraq's long-term success as a prosperous democracy in the heart of the Middle East -- is the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) that will bring an improved job market and better consumer options for Iraqis. (Remember, debriefs of detained insurgents have consistently shown that financial considerations have driven more insurgent behavior than have any other single motive).

Guess what?

The FDI trickle is starting to become a flow, and it matters. ( With every dollar of foreign investment that comes in, more and more international actors have a key stake in the future success and stability of Iraq. More Iraqis have sources of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. That strengthens civil society.

As I might say, it strengthens Iraq's social capital.

There are many factors in place that are going to lead Iraq to be a league leader in GDP growth over the next several years -- significant oil wealth (daily exports have passed pre-2003 levels, with crude prices in the stratosphere), religious tourism, a largely untapped labor pool, and a huge market hungry for the consumer goods that they've largely been denied either through state repression (1968-1991), international sanctions (1991-2003), and the privations of war (2003-present).

As my CO told us two years ago, "Stop looking for the big picture in Iraq. There is no big picture. There are just lots and lots of little ones."

Every step in the positive feedback loop of improved security and a more robust economy is a little picture that will help bring healing to a people that have suffered more over the past two generations -- through no fault of their own, mind you -- than most us will ever care to know, or even imagine.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Acting Out in New England

Last night, the Shangri-Lowell crowd hoofed it up to Major's for the JAMBRA block party thing on Jackson Street. The combination of a live band, DJ, light drizzle, and cups of Stella Artois led to a good time for all.

One of the most interesting points of the night (besides a friend of mine donning the 'Dr. Doolittle' mantle and convincing strangers he could read their pets' thoughts) came at last call.

Right at 1:30, the Major's staff threw the lights on and started moving the crowd away from the back of the bar towards the door.

Just as this was happening, the entire crowd still inside burst into a loud and vigorous "Beat L.A." cheer -- all at once, and without any visible catalyst to prompt it. It wasn't belligerent, it wasn't really directed at anyone in particular, but it was just a collective bellowing of the patrons' shared desire to see the Celtics win Game 5 tonight.

Never one to waste the opportunity for good-natured banter, I jumped right into the cheer -- all the way out the door and back onto Jackson Street.

It reminded me of something I've tried to explain to people when comparing American regions -- the reason I love New England is because this is the one place I've ever been where people aren't afraid to *act out* and get boisterous in public.

If you haven't lived in some of the blander, cookie-cutter, Sun Belt-ish parts of America, you might take this 'public spiritedness' for granted. If you have, I know you appreciate the difference here.

Because I can assure you that (major college towns excepted) a spontaneous, collective outburst like that just wouldn't happen in the strip-mall-and-subdivisions Southeast, or in the mostly antiseptic and culturally void freeway mazes elsewhere.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why 'No Offense' Merits 'No Place' in Your Vocabulary

Have you ever noticed that nothing good has ever followed the words "no offense" or "now don't take this the wrong way, but..." Usually, what follows is some kind of slight that probably didn't need to be said in the first place...but what do you think the chances are that someone would respond:

"Well, that was pretty rough and probably unfair. But, I think I'll take note of the preceding disclaimer, dust my sleeves off, and just move on."

To my knowledge, that's never happened to anyone, ever.

So a general piece of advice would be to stop yourself anytime you're about to deliver one of these statements and realize that whatever you're about to say is probably going to cause some type of (perhaps justified) offense.

That was pretty obvious, though.

What I think is far less obvious is the way these type of disclaimers take statements that otherwise sound innocuous and add some strange, unwarranted degree of awkwardness and/or, well, offense.

Let me give you an example. I recently met up with a friend in Woburn (how's that for splitting the middle) who was just about to finish up a graduate degree program in Boston. As I understood it then, he was now many tens of thousands in the hole and had no job lined up for afterwards. How do you think these four statements might have come across:

1. So, what are your plans looking like? What are your prospects for after graduation?

2. No offense, but what do you have lined up for afterwards?

3. Don't take this the wrong way, but do you have any post-grad plans?

4. I hope this isn't too personal of a question, but what are you looking at doing after school gets out?

This might already be obvious to you, but to me, Question #1 sounds like one good friend using straightforward, direct speech to ask another to describe what his plans are. That's how I'd interpret it if someone asked me.

Questions #2-4 are all asking the same exact thing and may come from someone with an equally warm heart, but they all come with a subtle verbal jab for the person being asked -- each implies that there's something 'wrong' about the situation. When you stick 'no offense' or some other awkward mutterance before a question you ask someone, you're adding a whole new element to what you're saying -- an implication that there might be offense to be taken.

My advice to readers: Just drop the term 'no offense' and all the members of its family tree away from your vocabulary completely.

Because it a) won't take the edge off an already-offensive statement, and, perhaps more importantly, adds an edge to an otherwise-innocuous statement or inquiry, it serves about as much purpose as a football bat.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Overdoing It..

Of any of the things that I've seen, heard, visited, tasted, felt, toured, explored, or otherwise experienced since moving here, the best -- by a country mile -- is Community Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational church that I started going to this past Easter.

I don't consider myself a born-again Christian, but I definitely was a *latent* Christian for years. I explored a few churches in Massachusetts (go-around number 1), New Jersey (while waiting to start OCS), Pensacola, Arlington, and then Virginia Beach but in each case wound up getting discouraged somehow and sort of backsliding away. The reasons range from the dullness of services to the attitudes of parishioners (believe me, I've seen churches in the South where what you're wearing seems to matter more than what you're feeling inside your left ribcage). I checked out a few others here before coming to CCF, where, almost from the first minute, I knew. The whole place just has a very genuine warmth and a very down-to-earth feel. The dress code ranges from torn jeans and cut-off t-shirts all the way to suits and ties, and no one cares. This place is all about The Message, and I love it.

One of the best friends I've made there is a guy named DS (actually, his whole family, who has been going there for 25 years, sort of took me in under their wing). One term DS introduced me to a while ago -- one I'd never heard before but have since sort of tacked on to the mental lexicon -- is overwelcome.

"We want to be careful not to overwelcome you," he told me early on, and explained how the church had made that mistake in the past and had driven away newly-arrived prospective members.

The term begged no further explanation. It wasn't done to me, I *got* what he meant and I've been careful not to do it to people even newer than myself at CCF.

I know the term seems a little bit counterintuitive (after all, welcoming tends to be a good thing) but it makes sense when you think about how it might overwhelm someone when they're just trying to blend into the scenery and soak it all in at first before making a rather big decision.

I was thinking about the term the other day when in a retail sort of situation where I saw someone being overhelpful to the point of annoyance. I'm sure this has happened to you before -- you go into a store or other such establishment, and someone with presumably good intentions insists on *helping* you even despite your mild but repeated protestations of, "It's okay, I'm good" or "We're just browsing here."

It doesn't have to be limited to retail situations. For instance, 9 times out of 10, when I stop and ask a stranger for directions, I just want to keep it super-general. Maybe I just have a short attention span, but by the time you get to the 9th intersection where, "It's a right, it's a left, but a right at the next one," you've already lost me. Really, I just want you to point me towards my destination and we're good.

And while on the topic of over-words, I want to conclude the thought by talking about overbearing, which may be my single-biggest pet peeve in social situations. If you would define (as I would) social skills as simply "the ability to make others feel comfortable around you" the first place to start, I believe, is on not being overbearing. To the extent that I can, I always try this -- always offering someone an 'out' if they're not interested in what's going on, suggesting something once but not going overboard with it if it doesn't seem to gain traction, and just generally leaving well-enough alone when it's appropriate.

From an early age, I've noticed, but not understood, people who fail to heed this. It's like, will your life be any qualitatively different if I do or don't go to said event? If I do or don't go in for another round when I'm tired and ready to leave? If I feel like going to the bar to watch the fight?

Trust me, it won't.

So when I put things out to people, I try, at least, to always do it in a very neutral way, as in "Hey, we're going to head over to this festival, it'd be great if you can make it, but if not, no big deal, we'll talk later."

Because just going off of a quick application of the Golden Rule, which seems to apply to nearly all major and minor religions, it's a good idea not to badger or annoy.

In other words, don't overdo it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Sun in His Eyes

I'm not a huge fan of Chris Matthews on TV. He's loud, he interrupts too much, he can be absurdly inconsistent, and can sometimes just grate. Some of his writing is mediocre but at times it's amazing -- in fact, I consider his first book, Hardball, to contain some of the best American folk wisdom this side of Ben Franklin and Dale Carnegie.

His other books are a comparative letdown, and not just in the way it's hard to match a first effort (like the feeling you get from sequels to Ocean's Eleven or with any Wu-Tang effort post-Enter the 36 Chambers). No, his other books are mostly just bad.

He does, however, still come through with the occasional gem, such as the ability to predict the winner of an American Presidential Election based on which candidate has "the sun in his eyes."

Of course, it's not a totally literal expression, but it's what makes Ronald Reagan better than Walter Mondale, what makes Bill Clinton better than Bob Dole, and what makes anyone with a pulse better than Adlai Stevenson. It's the idea that the guy who *gets it* on Main Street, the one who's out there sweating, gripping, grinning, and best able to *connect* with people will ultimately be elected. As Matthews writes, it's the guy with the sun in his eyes.

Looking back, I think this helps me understand past Presidential elections that I've witnessed. It's why a darkhorse Governor from Arkansas beat an incumbent war hero President who didn't understand how the debt might affect everyday Americans, let alone understand how to buy food at a supermarket. It's why an arriviste but not-as-awkward-and-stiff East Coast son of privilege was able to beat two stiffer, more awkward East Coast sons of privilege in 2000 and 2004. It's Reagan's optimism triumphing against dour Dems in 1980 and 1984.

Here's why 2008 fascinates me so much: I don't think either candidate comes out way ahead in this regard.

With Obama you've got youth, optimism, radiance, and the best candidate-as-rhetorician in my political memory. On the other hand, you've got his nightmarish speech in San Francisco about those poor folks in the flyover states who cling to guns and religion in desperation and hold antipathy for others. Ouch.

With McCain, you've got a great sense of humor, natural leadership, experience, and a real track record as a maverick centrist. On the other hand, you have his noticeably less-sprightly gait, not to mention his nightmarish "Bomb Iran" parody of the Beach Boys' song "Barbara Ann" and a handful of other such gaffes.

So which one is more out of touch? Which one has the sun in his eyes?

It's a totally open question, and that's why 2008 is going to be a great race to watch.

It's also why the VP search will be just as fascinating, because it gives both Senator Obama and Senator McCain the chance to cancel out, rather than magnify, their perceived shortcomings.

For each candidate's sake, I hope they get it right.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Realtor's Question

I was walking out of Brew'd Awakening a couple days ago when I passed by the woman who helped put me in this condo (the ERA Morrison is on Market Street between the Shamrock and Brew'd). It was great to see her -- she was a huge help, and through some seriously great timing and luck, she ended up showing me this place the same day it was put on the market, coached me through the bidding process, finessed some numbers the right way, and voila, I was in.

I asked her how things were and she said they were booming. Since I'd come in to see her in March, she was swamped with prospective buyers, offers, sales, etc. and she seemed really optimistic about the market turning up after what had been a pretty rough patch for realtors. "You were like a good luck charm for me," she joked, and then showed me a picture of the seven-figure property in Acton that she was about to show someone.

Before she took off, she asked me (in the same tone and voice that my mother would ask -- with a sort of inquisitive but really-rooting-for-me type of lilt), "So, have you met any girls here yet?"

My first response was, "No" but then I quickly corrected myself -- I had read a little too far into the question and hadn't answered it literally.

"I have met a few. No girlfriends yet, but we'll see."

I knew she was in a rush to take off, and probably didn't feel like listening to a long answer, but that's what this blog is for, right?

What I meant to say was this: The two-thousand-pound elephant in the room that I've sort of avoided talking about here on the blog is that yes, I'm single, and yes, a huge part of my desire to actually *establish* myself somewhere is based on the simple but steadfast belief that by staying put for a while, getting out of the house as much as possible, and just basically being a decent human being, something is going to work out for me. Affordability here was a major factor, but I purposely avoided a depressed city (i.e. New London or Bridgeport) or a large, transient city (Boston) because I didn't see either as a good place to stay and pitch base camp.

Inevitably, at some point, someone is going to introduce me to their best-friend's-college-roommate's-aunt's-neighbor's-bridge-partner's-cousin's-stepdaughter's-dance-teacher's-niece's-barista's-younger-sister.

It may happen tomorrow, it may happen in a couple months, or it may happen in a couple years. Either way, the best thing I can do until it does it just stay put and be myself -- not pushy, not needy, but just genuinely friendly, open, and gregarious.

Roughly 90% of the people I explain this to generally seem to *get it.* The other 10% give me the raised eyebrow and/or eye roll connected with some quizzical remark and/or outright scoffing. Frankly, I was kind of surprised when I got this -- along with a cynical comment about this blog (and by extension, me) -- from someone in town last week.

You may think it's weird, or that it's contrived, or whatever else you wish.

It's your freedom to think and say what you want. It's my freedom not to give a rip.

Personally, I think it would be a whole lot weirder to stay on active duty for the next twenty-odd years, bouncing around to a completely new locale every couple of years and never really getting to know anyone.

Before I left my last command, my XO told me:

"So, you're saying you want to find a place to live, dig in a bit, and eventually get married? That sounds pretty gay." [I swear, a la Dave Barry, that I'm not making this up -- those were his actual words]. Let alone the obvious irony in the language, I found this kind of hypocritical, as he was happily married a girl he knew from college years ago, before he initially enlisted.

I tried to explain it another way so I hit him with this:

"Well, sir, if I had taken care of all this before I joined the Navy, I would see the world differently. I didn't mind being a single 26 year-old Lieutenant j.g. playing football with someone else's kids on the beach at the command picnic. But if I can help it, I'd really prefer not to be the single 36 year-old Lieutenant Commander playing football on the beach with someone else's kids at the command picnic." [N.B. that wasn't a dig against single 36 year-olds, but for historical accuracy, yes, that was my rhetorical flourish].

To go back to something I wrote earlier, the word 'stranger' may be denotatively neutral (i.e. someone you don't know) but in American English it carries a negative connotation learned from a young age. Put bluntly, being a 'stranger' is never a good thing in any context (except maybe in CIA spy movies).

I spent five pretty significant years (2003 to early 2008) never staying in any one place for more than a few months. While it was professionally rewarding and great in some ways (particularly the October 06-Jun 07 deployment, thanks to the lasting security turnarounds to which it helped contribute), it sort of left a huge gap in my life -- basically, a desire to belong to some other, larger social network and not to have to start from scratch everytime I left my house (esp. given that the two true 'friends' I had in Virginia were mainly in Bahrain and Iraq, respectively).

Anyway, back to the 'stranger' thing -- If you don't believe me, try it sometime. Take a five-year period, change addresses (on average) once every five months, deploy three times, come back and let me know how it works out for you.

I've mainly avoided this topic because a) I don't want to turn this blog into a running farce about my love life, or lack thereof; and b) I have even less desire to turn this into a 'Woe is Me' or 'Dear Diary' type of blog, as those tend be quite painful on the literary senses and not worth the time of anyone other than, possibly, the author.

So I won't return to the topic until there's something to report, and even then, I'll tread lightly and stay on the bigger themes.

Monday, June 9, 2008

How Many Monkeys?

My 12th-grade math teacher, who I'll call "Coach Mac," was a phenomenally smart man who could solve any NY Times crossword puzzle in under 20 minutes. Back in the day, we used to go back-and-forth with baseball trivia and threw around the numbers that mean so much to baseball fans -- 714, 755, 511, 1.12, 61, 31-3, and 56.

As hard as I tried to stump the guy, I couldn't do it. I even remember walking in one day, and just dropping this one on him: "What was George Brett's batting average in 1980?" Without even flinching, he shot back, ".390." Wow.

One day he asked me what the hardest record to break in all of baseball was. My guess was Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

"No way," he said, starting to get into probabilities (although DiMaggio's will be one of the toughest to break). He explained how a lot of records based on sheer numbers over time could easily fall, with his reasoning being that if it's possible for someone to hit 755 home runs over many years of playing, just adding "1" to that huge number really isn't much of a stretch. He started getting into the different variables and probabilities to the point where my head was starting to spin and I was losing him.

"Okay, I give up," I said -- what's the answer?

"It's Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no hitters."


"Yup, that's the toughest record. Because to break it, you've gotta pitch three straight."

He followed that one up with some heavy-duty math based on the probability of anyone pitching a no-hitter, threw in some other variables, cubed it, and came out with something I can't recall.

So I forgot the math but I remembered the point.

And the other day, a buddy and I went into Monkeys (new ice cream shop on Merrimack), where I planned to earn my place in frozen dairy foods lore by taking down two helpings of "10 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" each of which consists of ten scoops of ice cream and a very healthy smattering of additional toppings. I had almost done it the day before, but stopped after one helping because my friend and his wife had to take off back to Logan.

The first 10 scoops went down pretty easy, but I had a brief moment of doubt midway through the second 10. However, I pulled myself together and powered through to finish strong with a final count of 20 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.

For a moment, I thought about going for 30, but I waved it off.

A woman inside asked me why I was stopping at 20 and I thought back to Coach Mac.

"Not many folks can take down the initial ten scoops with toppings on their own. I'm sure that even less can do the 20. But for someone to break this record, they can't just top it incrementally. They'll have to order 3 helpings for a thirty-scoop total."

Someone may rise to the occasion. If they do, I'm going to make sure I come back with some heart paddles and a defibrillator in tow. Why?

Because that means I'll need to take down 40 to regain the title.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Comedy on Central?

I'm in love.

No, erase your first thought there -- that entry is coming in a couple months (stay tuned). But I'm headed in another direction here -- I'm in love with an idea.

Here it is: A comedy club downtown.

I love downtown just as much as you do. I never have to drive and everything is right in front of me -- literally. We've got enough bars, restaurants, and coffee shops to suit every possible taste and palate, ranging from the young college kids who take over the Blue Shamrock on Friday and Saturday nights to the (way) older crowd who gets down to JC's Golden Oldies at Cappy's.

But we're missing a few things. The common laments I often hear are that we're missing clothing retailers and a grocery store. Both are good points.

More important than those, I believe, is the lack of downtown entertainment.

I realize we have the art galleries and the theater, but that mainly appeals to a niche audience and is limited to certain times of day.

I know we lack a movie theater downtown, but I won't hold my breath on that one, as most small movie theaters have given way to major multi-screen googol-plexes that can turn a bigger profit more quickly.

So what do we need? A comedy club. I applaud The Worthen's effort to re-start the Thursday night open mic comedy, but that still doesn't equal a professional comedy club where people can regularly go on weekend nights during the after-dinner hours for entertainment.

As luck would have it, today a friend and I were walking around downtown, and we popped into a barbershop owned by a guy named Bam Savage (yes, that's his real name, and yes, I'm cleared to use it). It turns out he's currently working to open a comedy club on Central Street (just near the Central and Merrimack intersection).

Here's why I love the idea:

1. It adds unique value to the city. Currently, there's no other comedy club anywhere in Lowell. So the addition of a comedy club on Central Street really adds special value to the city in a way that another restaurant, bar, or coffee shop would not. For comedy lovers (like me) it's a dream come true -- a chance to go see an art form that I admire and appreciate by taking a five-minute walk from my front door.

2. It starts to fill the need for downtown entertainment. I know most of this was already stated above, but downtown really needs something like this. I mean, bars and restaurants are only so much of a draw. The theater, the arts, baseball, and hockey are all great, but each appeals to a specific niche and none tend to go on much past midnight, let alone ten p.m.

3. It reaches across the city's entire spectrum of humanity. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller famously wrote, "Laughter is...the shortest distance between two people." Comedy has mass appeal in a way that other art forms don't -- it can appeal to the complete spectrum of age, race, religion, taste, and gender. In a city that celebrates its diversity, how many things *really* bring us all together? Comedy has the power to do that.

4. It will bring the college kids downtown. Living downtown, it can be very easy to forget that Lowell is a college town. Yes, some of the bars attract students, but all are strict ID-checkers. Most college kids are under 21, and are therefore shut out from the bar scene, and thus, from downtown itself. Comedy clubs have the power to tweak their audience based on the nature of a given show -- they can do 21-and-up, 18-and-up, or all ages, depending on the circumstances. This literally gives thousands of college kids a reason they never had before to come downtown on Friday and Saturday nights. You better believe that there will be a spillover benefit for the Mambo Grills of the world.

Like I said at first, I really love this idea. It looks like it may not come into reality until at least a few months from now, but I'll support it in any way I can. Unfortunately, I don't have the mega-bucks to truly *back* it financially (reference a couple entries ago), but I can do my part by showing up, bringing friends, and going to the shows they put on.

And by writing and talking about it to help generate buzz, like I'm doing right now.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Milestone: First Visitors

Last night, a good friend of mine came into town with his wife. They were up in New England to see the Brazil-Venezuela soccer match in Foxboro, and then they came on up to Lowell. They were the first visitors I've ever had to my place, and everyone had a rollicking time.

We hit the Natty Park Visitor Center this morning, and it dawned on me that I haven't even started to take advantage of all the tours and historical stuff that regularly goes on there (note to self: do this more, not just when people are coming from out-of-town). We hit a lot of the usual downtown haunts before they had to take off down to Logan to make it back to Virginia.

Rather than just let this be a "Dear Diary" sort of entry, however, I want to use it to make a point about visits -- the rules of gratitude on these things is often bass ackwards.

Here's what I mean: If someone comes to visit you, they are the one expending their own personal time and treasure to make it happen. You haven't really *done* anything other than open your door to welcome them in. So when all is said and done, when someone comes to visit me, I end up thanking them, as opposed to doing it the other way around.

An exception, I guess, would be something like a vacation home where people come to visit to *use* what's there -- access to the beach, mountains, or golf, for example.

But for a more standard, normal visit, I'm more impressed by the traveler than I am by the host.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Name Dropping..

Last night during the Celtics-Lakers game (remember, Paul Pierce = Truth), two of my neighbors brought up a very legitimate point -- if I'm going to write anything on this blog that includes a personal detail -- really, anything beyond a person's name stated in an already publicly-known context, it might be a good idea not to use the person's name. It doesn't really add anything to the main points, and it might be something the person wouldn't want to appear if, say, their name was Googled.

They were right. I don't have time right now to go back through old entries but will give the whole blog a once-over this weekend.

They realize that no harm was meant (I'll take a mulligan here), but their point is still valid and well-taken. In the meantime, to the dozen or so faithful readers of this blog, if there's anything on this that you find objectionable, e-mail or post a comment and I'll work to fix it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Breaking the Nest Egg to Make Omelettes

As anyone who a) reads this blog, or b) knows me, or c) falls into both categories knows, my social life has picked up tremendously in the past two months after years of upheaval-induced dormancy.

I've got a little bit of stability, I've got a lot more going on, and the whole thing just keeps picking up like a snowball rolling down a hill. Great, right?

Mostly. The tricky part though is the distance between my place of work and my ideal city. I've found a work-around which I call the *hybrid commute.* It basically means I spend 5 nights a week in Lowell (plus all long weekends and leave periods ) and then, on average, two down here by the base where I work. It's a temporary fix, and I'm actually enjoying it. Besides, in about two years' time, I can live in Lowell full-time and enjoy it even more (that is to say, when *my* Mass NG brigade or battalion is not in Iraq or Afghanistan).

I'm making it work, but here's the tough part:

Utilities. Rent. Mortgage. Condo fee. Car payment. Insurance. Internet. Phone. Wear and tear. Gas. (Don't worry, this won't turn into a gas prices rant, it would still be a major budget item if the price fell in half).

If you add all that up, and throw it some slight discretionary spending, it ain't pretty. In fact, it's so unpretty that you might say it wouldn't work. You'd be more or less right to say it.

But here's the saving grace: The fifteen months I spent deployed, plus the fact that I lived in a $550/mo apartment in Virginia Beach in a not-so-great neighborhood where I hardly ever went out means that I saved a butt-ton of money from late 2006 to early 2008. I won't spell it out exactly, but suffice to say it's a nest egg that would support me for approximately six months if I had no other income.

It's a lot of fun to watch it grow and to see the dividends pour in each month, but here's the reality -- I don't want to be a hermit. The value of getting out and connecting with others just greatly outweighs the value of a bunch of numbers on a computer screen.

Besides, I don't plan to ever stop working. I'm not one of those people whose goal in life is to retire in their forties or even fifties. Besides, another lengthy deployment would launch me right back into another heavy-duty surplus far after all the bills were paid.

So when I looked at my budget and started to scratch my head a bit, and then start to worry, it dawned on me -- all that time I spent saving, and everything I went through during that period, can serve a greater purpose now. It's not going to do me any good on paper. A bunch of numbers on a screen aren't going to help me achieve my goal of finding a community and, well, having a life.

So I'm going to just buck up for the next year or so (before the next promotion, finishing off the car loan, and getting out of this lease) and just accept the fact that I'm going to start drawing down my savings a bit.

That's what it's there for, right?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Avoiding or Removing Negative Influences

The great American secular humanist philosopher (I meant that) Warren Buffett was once asked what was the best part of being rich.

He responded that despite his many billions, he still subsists mainly off of Cherry Cokes and Hamburgers. He still lives in the same old house in Omaha, still drives the same old car, etc. He went on to make a bigger point about how now, more than ever, the way people in our society of varied means actually live (in terms of day-to-day amenities, luxuries, conveniences, etc.) has converged more than ever before. You might think that's pretty glib coming from America's second-wealthiest man, but if you actually listen to what he's saying, he's got a point.

But I digress.

Warren Buffett said one of the best parts about being independently wealthy was that it gave him near-total freedom to decide who he would spend his time with. In other words, if Warren Buffett finds a person obnoxious, overbearing, rude, self-centered, opinionated, or just plain annoying, he has the freedom to say goodbye because Warren Buffett doesn't *need* anyone.

What a cool answer. I doubt that's what most people would imagine it feels like to be insanely wealthy.

I'll never be Warren Buffett, but hey, there are degrees to everything, right? I know I can point to times in my own life where I wish I had been better at nipping others' negativity in the bud (or at least steering it away from myself).

The only time I've ever gotten into anything even resembling an actual, physical fistfight came during my sophomore year of college, when I started to scuffle a bit with a guy who was generally an unhappy, cynical, miserable type who felt the need to constantly belittle me out of some personal sense of insecurity. I don't regret the way I handled it -- I asked him so many times to stop that I lost count, and I continually warned him to stop the night that we almost fought (although conveniently he leaves all those details out when recounting the story, which should provide yet another reason to never come to fisticuffs with anyone -- you will always come out looking bad in the end).

So the point here is that I don't regret the way I handled the "micro-situation" but I screwed up bigtime in the macro picture. The point is this -- once I saw this person's character for what it was, I should have calmly, casually, and politely just told him to take it somewhere else. In other words, I allowed myself to get brought down into it time and time again until it almost bubbled into something worse, were it not for the intervention of two of our friends.

I understand that now, although I didn't at the time. (Although let's not forget the words of the great Canadian secular humanist philosopher Alanis Morrisette, who reminds us that we learn through our life experiences). And no, I did not *mean* that last parenthetical aside.

I realize that we're not all Warren Buffett.

We sometimes have bosses, co-workers, roommates, family members, or whoever in our lives that may try to drag us down into their own misery and/or project their insecurities onto us by turning every stupid, petty, trivial thing into some type of pissing contest.

If we let them do this, we must accept that some of the fault lies within ourselves.

I realize you may be *stuck* in a certain situation, but that doesn't mean you can't find a somewhat creative way to solve it or maneuver around it. Maybe it means finding clever ways to avoid a negative person. Maybe it means your own mental trick for tuning them out. Maybe it means somehow changing the scope of the relationship to make it more palatable for you.

Either way, it's essential to your own well-being that you do this.

If you let them, the cynical, the insecure, and the miserable would love to take you down with them.

So I implore readers -- find a way not to go.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Developing Theme...The Goodness of Being Good

"...And the truth will make you free." -- John 8:32

Last night I had a great time hanging out with one of my neighbors at The Worthen. We saw a phenomenal ska band with a Gwen Stefani-esque lead vocalist, a great horn section, upbeat music and some damn funny lyrics.

After the show ended, we stuck around for a couple more Pabst Blue Ribbons, and he regaled me with some stories of his days as a swashbuckling Lothario back in his twenties. At one point, the story involved his simultaneous dating of two high-power corporate women who were, on average, ten years to his north in age.

"How do you do it?" his friends asked. Everyone wanted to know the big secret -- how was he able to juggle the two at once and still make the whole thing work without either being the wiser?

"There is no secret," he replied. "I'm just completely honest with both, and no one minds."

People were stunned. The secret wasn't some kind of parlor trick, sleight-of-hand, or high-wire trapeze act involving the juggling of flaming bowling pins. There was no lying involved.

It was something far more powerful and durable -- simple, forthright honesty.

This got me thinking about the power of being truthful. On top of my prior entries about being a nice and decent person, I see a theme developing -- the promotion of these virtues not just in a "tsk, ought to behave this in this 'morally correct' sort of way" but in a you-should-do-this-because-it's-in-your-own-self-interest sort of way.

You may not know this, but Larry Bird was one of the most infamous trash-talkers in the history of the NBA. You know how he infuriated and humiliated his opponents?

It wasn't by insulting their mothers, or even their jump shots. He used the truth.

Larry Legend used to announce to his defender exactly what he would do on a set play...just before he did it. He was so open about it, and so brazen about the openness, that it doubly infuriated his opponents when they couldn't stop him.

In his case, he used to truth to his advantage in a different sort of way. Yes, the Bird example is a little bit of a deviation from my bigger point (he wasn't necessarily doing anything virtuous, I admit), but I still wanted to include it as a vignette about the truth's varied powers.

I hearken back to my earlier entry about community-building here -- it doesn't have to be about cards up your sleeve, or about magic tricks, or silly books that are supposed to teach you about the right number of threads to weave into a conversation. It has a lot more to do with just being honest, forthright, open, and friendly.

When I think of the places that I've taken to -- and where I'm starting to become a 'local' -- a huge factor has been the way the staff has treated (or not treated) me.

Three examples would be Brew'd Awakening, the Blue Shamrock, and The Worthen. At each one of these places, the owner got to know me, learned my name, and made me feel welcome. There wasn't any special magical formula to it, and in the end it will (literally) pay huge dividends back in the form of future business (and good word-of-mouth).

The places that I went to a few times but never got that *warm* feeling back from, I simply won't be rushing back to.

So, from the vantage point of a business owner (as well as a would-be social capital builder or a North Shore Don Juan) it's good to be good. That may sound corny to you, but I really believe it.

Here's another personal example: Sometime in my mid-twenties, I shed what used to be a truly terrible habit of mine -- in true passive-aggressive fashion, I would badmouth people for any minor foible to other colleagues, fellow students, dormmates, co-workers, or what-have-you. Of course -- human nature being what it is -- many of those comments made their way back to the target in roundabout fashion and generated what you might call some truly bad karma (apologies to Sharon Stone for the 'karma' reference).

I'm not going to say I'm perfect about that now, but I've seriously made about a 179-degree turnaround. Now, if I have something to say to someone, I'm a lot better at either just keeping it to myself or telling them directly.

So how does this benefit me?

A ton. When you don't engage in bad-mouthing, it frees you. It means that you never have to watch your back. It means you don't have to sweat it when you make tenuous agreements about what's "not going to leave this room." It means you never have to worry about whether something you said about someone might have made it back to them, and does-the-person-know-and-are-they-looking-at-me-funny-because-someone-may-have-told-them-what-I-said-two-weeks-ago-about-how-annoying-they-sometimes-are.

It's amazing how personally liberating it is to have all that mental clutter removed when you break that habit. If you haven't already done it, I suggest you give it a whirl. It not only improves your office or social group's climate, but it comes back to personally benefit you.

And yes, that's the big "developing theme" I referenced in the title -- the idea that you should live by certain, unwavering moral precepts based on decency not just based on a bunch of "shalls" and "shants" concerning the way you treat others, but because it's truly a better way to live and will absolutely come back to your benefit in the long run.

Stop for a second and think about the people you like and/or generally admire.

I would bet that on balance, they display the traits of honesty, sincerity, and transparency. Tools, mind you, can and will always finish last -- they deserve no better. But being good does not by any stretch make you a tool.

And I'm willing to bet that in your book, whoever you thought about two paragraphs ago finishes first, or at least pretty close to it.