Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pre-P.S. I pride myself of my ability of coming up with post titles that indirectly or subtly reference the post's content without being redundant of the content itself. However, I'm having a hard time coming up with such a title for this post. If you happen to think of one while reading please make it known and if I like it I'll consider using it. Thanks in advance!

I started school this week. If you want to get technical, one might say that I started grad school this week. Even though I feel like a bit of a cheater when I say that I'm a graduate student. I haven't taken the GMAT or GRE, and I'm not enrolled in any actual program. But at ASU, I am technically a grad student -- a non-degree grad student -- but a grad student nonetheless.

Things are somewhat unofficial right now because I have yet to be admitted to my graduate program of choice -- ASU's Master of Arts in French linguistics program. That's why I'm a bit hesitant to declare myself a grad student -- despite my being enrolled in one grad class, which will likely count toward the MA degree in the event I am admitted.

(I do this thing where I minimize myself when I do something that could be conceived as a notable accomplishment by at least a portion of the world. (Starting school again is probably one of these things.) It's a bad habit and I should probably stop.)

My grad class is French 19th century theater. Probably not my first choice for a French literature class, but I'm glad to be taking it for that reason, since I can study and read what I like on my own. We've only met twice as a class and so far I'm loving it. The class is small -- very small -- consisting of three undergrad students and two grad students (as grad students, we have a more advanced work load).

I'm also taking an advanced French writing class (it's an online class because the professor is currently abroad. But not a broad. See what I did there?). I'm taking this to help me get back to the level where I once was. That, and I will need to take a few undergrad French courses to make up for the fact that I have only a minor, not a major, in French.

So with my new scholastic responsibilities, I will undoubtedly fall behind in blogging -- I already have. But it's a worthy sacrifice and one that's easy to make. I look forward to the day when I can call myself a master of something, and I look forward to the road ahead that will get me there.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

avoiding discretion

My stats teacher explained it this way, "A discrete number is something you can count, it's a whole number. For example, the number of students in a class is discrete. You can't have half a student," he continued in jest, "unless you're a liberal arts major!"

On the other hand, continuous numbers are used for measurement. I'm five feet ten and a quarter inches tall. Last night I slept for six and a quarter hours. Pi is 3.14159....

Sometimes we think of aging as a discrete event. As a young child I never liked the question often posed on my birthday, "So how does it feel to be a year older?" It's such a confusing question for a kid because he thinks he was only five years old yesterday but in reality, he was five years and three hundred sixty four days old (depending on the year), and that's certainly closer to six years than five.

With that, another common mistake is to think that when you turn six you're beginning your sixth year. This is not true. Turning six means you've lived for six complete years. That sixth year has now come and gone. On your sixth birthday you start your seventh year.

I mention all this because tomorrow, in a few short hours really, I begin my thirtieth year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

in my dreams; or what I blog about when I can't sleep

Last January my brother Matt -- who got engaged on Friday -- bought a house and I've been living with him since. With Matt's nuptials on the horizon (the word nuptial always makes me think of a certain scene from Arrested Development), I've had to find me a new place to live. Which wasn't hard. I'm moving in to my new apartment on September first.

It's a small place so I'll be living alone. (Well, not entirely alone, I'm bringing Scout with me.)

With a new apartment comes the welcome challenge of furnishing it. Other than a bed and some bookshelves, I don't have much furniture to my name. So hopefully over the next month or so I can come up with a couch, table, chairs, coffee table, and maybe a rug or two since the floors are all wood.

Part of the fun of looking for furniture is dreaming about items that I just can't afford that probably have no business in a small one bedroom apartment. Here are some things I'd buy if I had more money than sense:

Every time I take a trip to Stinkweeds in Phoenix I see this ferry boat wheel in the window at Red, a vintage modern furniture store on Camelback. I have no idea how much it costs, and I don't want to know, but if I were to buy it I'd pretend and tell people that it was a wheel from an actual pirate ship, and I'd go so far to say that it belonged to some obscure pirate (because, honestly, who'd believe me if I said it belonged to a famous pirate like Blackbeard or Henry Morgan).

While I love Scout, if I had $20,000 to spend on a pet, I'd get an Ashera cat. These cats, bred by Lifestyle Pets, are supposedly part African serval, part Asian leopard, and part domestic housecat. While the breed's authenticity has been challenged, it's still an awesome cat. These cats are hypoallergenic, meaning those allergic to cats won't have reactions to this one, and get this, you can actually take an Ashera cat on a walk (though in her defense, I've never tried this with Scout). I wouldn't be so nervous to run the canals at night with a domestic leopard in tow.

Recently I've thinking about buying a new electric guitar. Right now it's up in the air between a Gibson SG and Fender Jaguar, two fairly different guitars (for example, SGs have been used in countless hard rock settings -- think Tommy Iommi and Angus Young -- and Jaguars got their start in the surf rock scene, although both guitars have proven to be quite versatile over the years). If I've got money to drop on a ferry boat wheel and a pet leopard, fronting the cash for two guitars wouldn't be tough, even for vintage models. I'd look for an early '60s issue on both. And I'd probably need a vintage guitar amp to go with them, an old Fender Bassman would do.

So there you have it. If you happen to have a superfluous flow of cash, I'd be happy to front any wire transfer fees. Also, I take checks.

Monday, August 15, 2011

guest post: how Becky met Hazel

A few weeks ago I asked my friend Becky if she would do a post on my blog detailing her recent adventures with my favorite author, John Steinbeck. She kindly obliged and provided the post below.

Becky is from one of my favorite places on planet Earth, Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of our lovely northern neighbor, Canada. She currently resides in Calgary, Alberta. Becky has a blog of her own, unabashedly becky, so please go read, comment, follow, share, repeat, ect.

And now, Becky:

Hey peeps! I want to tell you a story. Spoiler alert: It’s about me, and John Steinbeck.

I had a phase (that lasted for years) where I didn’t read novels. I couldn’t stand fiction. I was still reading, but I read non-fiction. Books like The Stuff of Thought (authored by Steven Pinker), or The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene wrote that one), oooor...anything Malcolm Gladwell wrote (that guy is the boss). When I came out of that phase, I was craving not just stories, but good stories. Entertaining stories. Literature. I started out by reading Salinger, then moved to Kafka, then Vonnegut. All good stuff. Mostly, incidentally, short stories. Short stories are the best, for me anyway. I love that I can get through an entire narrative in a few fifteen minute blocks -- give or take.

I should tell you now, I suppose, that I had an unofficial boycott of Steinbeck going for many years. It began when my dad was reading The Grapes of Wrath. See, my dad has this quirk* where, when he really loves what he’s reading, he has to read it aloud to someone. For those of you who haven’t read the book, Grapes of Wrath contains one whole chapter which is devoted to a turtle crossing the road. This is the chapter my dad read to me. It could have been because I was a teenager, but I found the whole thing ridiculously boring. That’s how the boycott began, it continued on account of a boy I particularly despised in high school** choosing Grapes of Wrath as his book of choice for his Independent Study in our last year of high school. So, you can see how I might be poisoned against reading Steinbeck, so to speak.

ACT III: Through a short series of events, mostly consisting of my sister-in-law emailing me a link, I started reading and then following Myke’s blog. Both of them, actually. After reading what he posted about Tortilla Flat on Earthbound But Aspiring I resolved to read it. You know what convinced me? This: “Each short chapter is so self-contained, but not to the point of being able to stand alone like a short story.” Granted, he does say they can’t quite stand alone like a short story, but I figured...close enough.

Guys, I loved it. It made me laugh out loud. On the bus. In public.

Once I had the skeleton of the plot (by which I mean setting and characters) it really was almost like a series of short stories. Of course, the chapters build on previous ones, so they really can't stand alone out of context, but I was able to read roughly a chapter or so a day while riding the bus. The characters are fantastically loveable (a few notches above scamps on the scale of badness, really) and I couldn’t get mad at them, even when they did very bad things. One part in particular made me laugh until I cried and tell anyone who would listen. It involves a gift that is as thoughtful as it is thoughtless: a vacuum cleaner for a special lady-friend who has no electricity. The description of her "using" her vacuum is reason enough to pick up the book. With that, the boycott was officially lifted.

Next I read Cannery Row which I also really liked. It has a similar feel to Tortilla Flat but the characters aren’t as loveable. They’re no more conniving, but they seem less innocent. Nevertheless, I found it mostly funny, and sometimes infuriating***, and I fell totally in love**** with Hazel. And while I’m not American, I loved the Americana in the book. It feels like Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan, or a segment of “This American Life”. I don’t know how to describe it better -- maybe that’s just because I’m not American.

During the time I was reading Cannery Row, my best friend Darryl found a copy of East of Eden and started reading. Yep, it spread. We resolved to swap when we finished our respective books, but East of Eden is like five times the size Cannery Row, so I started Grapes of Wrath. Or, rather, I tried to start it.

It was the perfect setup, even. My dad has a copy (had, I stole it from him), and it was right on schedule with Myke’s reading list. I couldn’t, and still can’t, get past the second page. I meant to just borrow it from my dad, read it and then put it back on the shelf, but then I couldn’t get interested in it, and then I moved. So I took it with me. It’s on the tippity-top of my pile, actually. I just, for whatever reason, can’t get past the second page. I’m going to keep trying though. Maybe Grapes of Wrath is my Macbeth? Just in case, as a backup, I bought a used copy of East of Eden for ten bucks.

Anyway, kids, that is the story of how I became a fan of the badassest looking author...probably ever.

* I have the same quirk, incidentally. Nature or Nurture? Who can say.
** I had very good reason to despise him, trust.
*** (Spoilers) I’m pretty sure my blood pressure went up a few points while I was reading the chapter with the first party. I could not believe they let the frogs out.
**** Not romantically, yeesh!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

pick your poison

I may have shot myself in the foot with the challenge I issued last week to write a lengthy word-only post. I don't have writer's block, I just don't have that much on my mind that's impersonal enough to share on a medium accessible to anyone who uses the world wide web. So I tentatively write the following, taking some comfort that the length of this post will scare most readers away.

Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne is a sort of pseudo-hero of mine. I don't agree with many of his personal philosophies, but I love the passion and originality with which he approaches his career. For example, earlier this year the Flaming Lips released a digital EP stored on a USB drive embedded in the gelatinous brain of a seven and a half pound gummy skull -- you had to eat your way to the USB drive.

A year or two ago, a piece of Wayne's unconventional wisdom struck me and made me realize something important about myself. During a commencement address at an Oklahoma City high school in 2006, Wayne said, "We are not what we dream. We are what we do." Now, I know that's not terribly profound, and it's something I already knew, in a nebulous sort of way. It just had never been articulated for me so clearly (or if it had, I hadn't been paying attention).

Sometimes I feel like more of a dreamer and less of a doer. I contemplated making a list of all the things in my recent life that I've wanted to do or thought I would do but haven't. I look back on a few of those things and think, Why didn't I do that? Why haven't I taken the GMAT yet? It would be so easy to get that out of the way. Why didn't I take the CPA exam right after finishing college? I could've been done with that by now.

And then I try and account for the time I spent not doing these things. What have I done instead? Why is it easier for me to focus on what I haven't done than what I have done? And why do I feel like my most important accomplishments are limited only to the realm of school and work? -- especially when, historically speaking, my passion for both of those things has been so up and down.

Anyway, I feel like I know the answers to these questions. They just tend to bounce around in my head less when I know someone else has heard them.

== == == == ==

In case you haven't noticed, from reading this post and from subtle hints on other posts, I've been rethinking my line of work. I remember someone saying that who you work with is more important than what you do. If that's the case, then maybe I should change my attitude instead of my career. I don't know which scares me more: a new attitude or a new job.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

corpus callosum

Every now and then I wax nostalgic and peruse past posts on my blog. It's interesting to see how my writing has changed over the years. Now, I don't really fancy myself a writer, but I do love writing. I was talking with a good friend the other night, and I decided that I really like to use both sides of my brain, left and right. Writing lets me do that. To write, you have to know grammar; it's like math for words. You have to know where things go, how to marry quotation marks and punctuation, for example. Writing also requires a certain amount of creativity -- creating metaphors and similes, drawing conclusions and forming ideas where they aren't expressed in an apparent manner.

A couple years ago my blogging habits were a bit different. Rarely did I post pictures. My posts were thick with long paragraphs. Recently I've strayed from that a bit, I guess to make my blog a little more interesting. I don't know if I'd call this pandering but it sort of feels like it. I didn't start blogging to write for an audience and I didn't do it to post pictures, especially ones that others have taken. I started blogging because I like writing and I think that needs to be the reason I continue.

So, just for fun, I thought I'd post links to some of my favorite posts that are nothing but writing -- a few short creative non-fiction essays, if I can be so bold as to call them that. Here they are:

  • "Fingerprints": This is my second blog post ever but it's one of my favorites. It's short.

  • "my skeptic sight": This one's about Jimmy Eat World, one of my favorite bands.

  • "My Fidelity": This one's about my love of record stores and records.

I happen to like reading as much as I like writing (OK, maybe I like reading a little more because it's easier) so I'd like to issue a little challenge: Try doing a post with only writing. No photos, no videos, no music. Use words to describe what you would share as a photo or video or otherwise. Avoid single-sentence paragraphs and avoid making lists (like the one you see above) -- make it long, paragraph upon paragraph. Tell a story. Or make one up. Try learning a few new words to use in this post, or at least use a thesaurus to replace any repetitious words. I'll do one too. If you decide to take this challenge, post a link to this entry and I'll link your post here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

murder by numbers

On the first day of one of my accounting courses my teacher asked the class, "What is the purpose of business?"

We weren't idiots, we knew the answer to the question, the answer he was looking for anyway. But we kept silent. Maybe it was the first-day jitters, maybe some of us were ashamed of the answer.

"The purpose of business is to make money. There's nothing wrong with that," he continued, addressing our silence, "and it's nothing to be ashamed of."

Is this dude's house just really small, or is it half buried in dust? Famous Dust Bowl photo by photojournalist Arthur Rothstein that I stole from Wikipedia.

One of my favorite things about The Grapes of Wrath is how Steinbeck arranges the chapters: for each chapter of plot -- the story of the Joad family as they migrate west from their home in Oklahoma to a new life in California -- there is a brief, three or four page chapter that gives a broader context to the meat of the book. It's a sort of macro and micro view of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. (Steinbeck chapters out Cannery Row in a similar manner.)

In chapter five, one of those short, contextual chapters, Steinbeck explains the role of the banks and land companies during the Dust Bowl:

If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank -- or the Company -- needs -- wants -- insists -- must have -- as though the company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.

So when the crops failed and farming ceased, Dust Bowl farmers defaulted on their loans. And that insatiable monster took their land away.

== == == == ==

A few years after that accounting class, I remember discussing the differences between French and American work ethics in a French civilization and culture class (French was my undergrad minor).

My teacher -- who was French -- had a tough time understanding our American workaholic culture. It's not that she didn't want to, but coming from a country with a 35 hour work week and five weeks of mandatory vacation for full time employees, it must have been a hard concept for her to grasp.

As we talked, I remembered what my accounting teacher taught us on that first day of class. I offered an explanation, "The purpose of a business is to make money. When an employee is absent, the company makes less money."

It's a simple explanation, and it's also true, at least on paper.

"Seal my heart and break my pride, I've nowhere to stand and now nowhere to hide." Mumford and Sons' Grapes of Wrath-inspired "Dust Bowl Dance."

While I read chapter five of The Grapes of Wrath, as an accountant it was really easy for me to understand the position of the bank and land owners. Repossessions happen every day in our country: if you can't pay the loan, the bank takes the asset.

But what happens when that asset is your livelihood, your home? In the course of business, there are many types of gains and losses. But this kind of loss is one I never learned how to account for, how to quantify.