Sunday, December 31, 2017

On the eve of 2018

2017 was an unexpectedly punishing year for me. It started with a plunge, didn't let up, and landed a frustrating number of parting shots right in this last month.

After how crazy 2016 was, I'd planned for this year to be a time to rest and recover; make some friends and some money, and arrive on the other side with a firmer grip on life and a sound heading for where to go next. Yet somehow, none of that came to be. And I'm now standing here on the edge of a new year feeling even more battered and bloodied than I did at the end of the last one. 

Strangely, though, I also feel more hopeful than I did then. I'm not sure if I can really articulate why. Maybe it's that I can honestly say again that I no longer know where I'm going, and that in itself is my natural and healthy state.

While I may carry some scars from this year for a long time, I've reached the end still standing. Bloody, but unbowed, as that moving—if very blasphemous (and even more misquoted)—poem by Henley goes. 

I've learned, yet again, that I am certainly not the master of my destiny or the captain of my soul. But that doesn't mean I'm not free. And perhaps the realization that I am not either of those things is, in fact, the only way that I can be truly and fully free. 

So with that thought, I bid farewell and adieu to 2017, and welcome 2018, come what may. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving in America

I realized yesterday that today would be my first Thanksgiving in America—let alone with my family—in three years. 2013 was the last time that I was home for it. And, despite all of my annoyances with “home,” I can honestly say I’m very thankful to be here this year.

This morning I drove the hour south along the lake from Geneva and visited my grandma, this afternoon I ate Thanksgiving dinner with my immediate family, and this evening I played Settlers of Catan with my siblings.

Of course, not quite all of my siblings are here now. My sister, Mattea, isn’t. But she has probably the happiest excuse possible in that she’s now in another country, and part of another family.

So it’s different than Thanksgivings in the past, and who knows what the future will bring. But for at least a rare moment, I am very happy to be here and now. And I just wanted to say that, and that I hope you also have a happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

It could be worse

Last night I got home from work at 11pm and the only two things in my mailbox were a medical bill and a jury summons. And I was like to hell with adult life.

I felt like that most of today. That is, when I wasn’t too tired to really feel anything. Work didn’t help. Getting home this evening though, after a moment of continuing to feel miserable about everything, I thought about it from a different perspective.

I had the luck to be born in a country where criminal defendants are entitled to a trial by a jury of peers. Even if it threatens to kill me about every other day, I am gainfully employed. And the medical bill will only make me choose between it and how much money I put in my brokerage account this month, not it and the rent. Many, many people today aren't as lucky. 

So I felt much better about everything.

Until I thought back to the last time I really thought about the whole “count your blessings” thing. It was when I was working in Iraq, and I remember how perverse the whole idea seemed to me at the time.

Is our only recourse for suffering the fact that there are people who suffer more? And what does that feeling of blessedness for not suffering more do for anyone who is?

It’s fast approaching a couple years since I first really thought about that. I still don’t have an answer. The good news is, I’m generally too numb to really think about it now.

So it could be worse, which is good, right?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Another year

My first year of living here in the small city of Geneva, New York, quietly came and went earlier this month. I didn’t put much thought into it. I’d had to renew my lease way back April, so all the decisions and angst and thoughts of doing something else really happened back then. This past month has just been silently watching things happen for the second time: HWS students coming back into town and filling the bars on weekend nights just like they did last September; the same strange early fall heatwave that happened last year. Soon the heat will be over and one day in a couple weeks I’ll hear the eerie sound of the ancient steam radiators in my even more ancient apartment groaning and creaking back into life for another season.

Perhaps the only remarkable thing about this being the second year is that I now know what will happen before it happens.

I’d hoped last year that I’d have some friends here by now. But that hasn’t happened. The only people who recognize me are my landlord, the YMCA desk attendant, and a collection of bartenders (people that I pay) and people that I meet through work—who all hate me (but I won’t elaborate on that because if I did they might find this and would no doubt derive great satisfaction from the possibility of me being lonely and miserable).

So things progress onward.

The lake is beautiful. I stare at it occasionally. I decided it was pathetic that I just stare at it, so I took one sailing lesson. But it was really expensive, so I had to quit.

The church bells are beautiful too—even if they play for like an hour every day when I’d rather not hear them. I visited a couple churches here. One was full of the vaguely-aforementioned people who hate me. The other was better, but everyone was either 40 years older than me or a doctor.

The days are getting shorter again too. I guess they’ve always done that, but this is 150 miles further north than I’ve ever lived before, so it’s more intense, technically. Pretty soon it will be dark again whenever I go to the YMCA, whether it’s before or after work. I don’t like to think about that, so I’ll stop.

I’d hoped I might meet some people by going to the YMCA, but unless you’re 70, a jock or speak Spanish, it’s really difficult.

So I just signed up for Spanish lessons. I or I think I did. I mailed my registration form and money to the community college, but I haven’t heard anything back.

That was the same thing that happened with the Young Professionals group. Only fortunately I didn’t send them any money, because I never heard back at all.

It’s all beautiful though. The lake and the bells anyway. I’m not so sure about the YMCA.

In the event that I make it through this year, I think I might go to the Philippines, or maybe back to Egypt. Some place that’s cheap and I have a good excuse for not fitting in.

Or maybe Latin America. But that’s only if the Spanish classes work out.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Move Fast and Break Things

About a month ago I was sitting in the office with CNBC on in the background when they brought Jonathan Taplin on for an interview. I’d never heard of him before that I could remember. And what he said about how many of the Silicon Valley giants are really byproducts of a direct antitrust action by the federal government several decades ago was something I’d never heard before anywhere. So, at the end of the segment, when they made a plug for the book he’d just written Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, I decided to buy it on Audible. It turned out to be one of the most simultaneously devastating and enlightening pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read.

I don’t really have the time or emotional energy to write a proper review about it, so I’ll just say that if you work in advertising, media, music or art, or any business associated with those things—or if you’re even just a consumer those things—it’s a must read.

I’ll add the note that I don’t promise that you’ll agree with Taplin’s moral audit of what’s happening—I know I didn’t entirely. The thing is, even if you don’t agree with how he judges what is happening out there, the picture he paints of what is happening out there is the most prescient and comprehensive that I’ve ever seen. Whether you want to take it as a heart-wrenching lamentation—or just investment intelligence—it’s an invaluable read either way. 


Saturday, July 29, 2017

3 international news channels that live stream on YouTube

When I moved into my apartment in upstate New York a year ago, it was the first place I ever lived where I had the option to get cable. I guess the fact I decided not to doesn't quite make me a "Cable Cutter," since I didn't really have one to cut in the first place. Still, a big part of the decision was the fact that there are now just so many options: Between Netflix and Prime Video, I can stream as many TV series as (and in fact more than) I could possibly want, and unplugging the existing coaxial cable that runs across my house to the TV from the wall and into a $9 rabbit ears antenna gave me several local and regional news channels and more PBS and NOVA stations than I can keep track of—mostly in 1920x1080 HD, no less.

One noticeable hole though was continuous live national/international news. Certainly there are now streaming services like Sling TV that you can pay $20 or so a month for to get that. But when you add that on to what you're paying for Netflix and Amazon, it starts to get confoundingly close to what you'd be paying for cable. There are also lots of illegal streams of major cable news stations that pop up here and there during major news events. But they're extremely inconsistent, require some searching and are, well, illegal. 

The TV I bought when I moved in is a smart TV—one of a number of cultural and technological changes that happened while I was overseas in a less-than-developed country from 2014-2016—and it supports a YouTube app. So I was excited to discover another change: There are now a number of perfectly serviceable international media outlets that stream all of their programming live on YouTube, which I can now watch seamlessly on my TV. It may be you've already known about this for years, but just in case, I thought I'd share three of my favorites below.

1. Al-Jazeera English

Solid world news coverage, decent US coverage, and hands-down the best Middle East coverage on the planet (I'm allowed to make that judgement, so be quiet). Typically alternates between news updates every half hour with subtitled documentaries in between with longer news hours at set times. As long as Qatar doesn't cave to pressure from from the other Gulf states and give them the ax, I will be enjoying this one here:

2. Sky News 

So this is a British news channel (well, I think they have channels in other European countries, but the one that streams live and in English is from Britain). So naturally, some of the news is UK specific, but they have good Europe stuff, and even serviceable summaries of US news. And hey, if the news event is in the UK/EU, all the better. I happened to be watching it the morning that the the whole NHS ransomeware attack hit and new all about it a full five hours before it became headlines in the US. Check it out here:

3. Bloomberg

Kind of like CNBC, but with more of an international bend. Good business analysis. Lots of coverage from Abu Dhabi and Beijing and places like that, but with US market coverage too. One note on this one: Pretty much all of these play without adds, but whereas Sky and Al-Jazeera just switch to showing world weather reports during the ad segments, Bloomberg has these newsfeed updates that flash on screen, and the music loop they play in the background is so annoying I actually start to wish they'd play ads instead. Just a word of warning. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A 2nd Pass: For Whom the Bell Tolls

I don't often reread books. And if I do, I wait at least three or four years in between.

I've always been a very slow reader, and maybe because of that, I tend to remember the things I read pretty vividly. So when I reread books, it's not to remember the story so much as to see how differently I interpret it based on where I am in life now versus where I was when I read it before.

It's not that I get to the end and realize, "Oh, I completely missed the point of that," (though that's happened at least once). It's more a matter of emphasis and how different parts of the story stand out to me, or maybe more accurately, how I relate to the way the characters experience the story.

I read For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time one summer five years ago, and began my first rereading of it earlier this month. I had remembered it having a great effect on me the first time, and also spent the half decade since then going around telling people that it tied for first place as my favorite book ever. Thus, I was a little bit nervous that on rereading it I would find that I either a) completely missed the point of it the first time, or b) didn't really care for it all that much.

Thankfully, neither of those was the case: It still seemed to me to be about suffering as the unifying part of the whole human condition and the inevitability of our own fates, and I'd still say it's one of my favorite books ever. How I related to the story, though, was another matter.

The first time I read it, the things that affected me the most were the great sadness of all of the death that happens in it, and the passion of the relationship at its center. I'd recently lost a friend, so maybe that explains some of it. Not knowing what was going to happen the first time may have also played a part.

Beyond that, I remember being impressed with what a badass Robert Jordan was. With his flask of absinthe and his backpacks full of dynamite, sleeping with Maria just hours after meeting her and leading guerrilla attacks on a fascist army. He represented a lot of things that my 22 year old self wished I could be.

Reading it this second time, the things that really affected me were different. They were more subtle, but just as profound because I'd actually lived them.

Having to finish a job in spite of unforeseeable complications that arise. The tension of being an outsider and a foreigner working alongside people who will never really understand or trust your motives for being there. Being caught up in a fight to the death over an abstract political cause that you sometimes aren't sure you even believe in. The necessity of action even in the midst of deep contemplation.

I also found that this time I admired the old hunter Anselmo. It may just be I forgot, but I have no recollection of seeing him as more than a tertiary supporting character before. Something about his steadfastness—often mistaken as simplicity—and his own conflict between his love for the Republic and his old religious faith and hatred of violence struck me in a way I don't remember at all before.

I hope I haven't aged that much in the last five years that my favorite character is now the elderly man. But then, maybe I'm looking up to him with respect the way I looked at Robert Jordan the first time.

At any rate, it was good to revisit the book. I intend to do it with a number of others now, and will have to remember to circle back to this one in another five years or so. That is unless I've tragically died by then, in which case you will have to read it for both of us.