My Neighbor Tow Mater

I have a neighbor that reminds me of the Tow Mater character in the movie “Cars.” Now, if computer animated anthropomorphic automobiles aren’t your thing, “Mater” is a well-intentioned, but socially-inept and poorly maintained rusted-out heap of a tow truck. He’s a little simple, not very bright, but loyal to his friends and is always of the best intentions. And that is my neighbor.

Mater has a knack for making mistakes – he wants to follow the rules, but sometimes life gets a little too complicated for him, so he keeps it simple. He just kind of makes his living helping other cars out of their messes as the proprietor of “Tow Mater Towing and Salvage,” and it seems kind of difficult for anyone to stay too angry with him for too long – he’s often misunderstood, even though he’s acting with the best of intentions. He does the best he can with what he’s got.

This is my neighbor. He makes a living doing odd jobs, “landscaping,” and doing residential “clean outs.” He finds some interesting things doing these jobs – often expounding on these finds to anyone who asks him how it’s going for him, and is more likely than not to offer to share his bounty. He will listen when you talk, and will try to make sense and draw connections to his own experiences – even though you may get the sense he doesn’t fully “get” what you’re saying to him. He does his best to make connections, to put people and things together – more often than not, awkwardly, but he cares enough to make those connections.

Here is this genuine, thoughtful man – he’s more than a little “odd,” but he seems to me to be one of the most genuine and caring people I know. He wants more than anything to make people happy – and the funny thing is, this guy always seems happy. He walks down to the bus stop with his daughter every morning and every morning they’re actively engaged in conversation, playing games together. In thinking back, I cannot think of one time he has ever had anything negative to say about any situation or anyone. Everything in his life is an opportunity. He doesn’t have very much, he lives with his mother, and yet he seems perfectly happy in his life. One gets the sense that not a lot of people make time for this man, yet if they did, they might discover a little something.

We have this tendency to get so wrapped up in the pursuit of “life,” whatever that may be – making the sales quota, hitting that ROI, turning a profit; commuting to work, navigating the office politics, getting that email out on time; coordinating sports schedules, food shopping, balancing the check book…”winning.” And after all of that, there’s no time to read a book or enjoyment in that Sunday drive. We don’t make the time to see junior off to the bus stop. Meanwhile, our children grow up without us noticing and “life happens” while we’re too busy making other plans.

“Tow Neighbor” might just have the right perspective on things. EVERYONE can teach you something, even if they don’t know they’re teaching you.

Writing for the College Newspaper: 1992 Edition

About 20-years ago, my last op/ed article – “The Columnist Manifesto” – ran in my college newspaper. Besides the fact that I can’t quite believe it was that long ago, what really astounds me is just how much the acts of writing and publishing has changed. Consider the way the process looked back in the early-1990’s.

Now to be sure, this was by no means the stone age. I spent exactly no time chiseling my pictograms onto stone tablets, nor did I have to sharpen my own quills and mill my own paper. I used a Brother WP-1400 word processing typewriter, for which I paid the astronomical sum of $400. The Dell notebook computer on which I am writing this article, cost just slightly north of that. I saved my columns on 3.5″ floppy disks, probably the most state of the art media of the day. The only thing was that the Brother used proprietary formatting, so one could only use the data on it in other Brother word processors. I will say that I was fortunate to have had that machine: besides being somewhat of a novelty to the others on my floor, it absolutely revolutionized how I thought about my writing tasks.

It had a small LCD screen where I could review my work, spell check, and edit before taking to actually printing it out. Printing consisted of the type-wheel whirring and clicking away. To someone who may not have known I had a fully automated typewriter, they would have heard typing going on at some 80-flawless words a minute.

I would then walk my type-written manuscript across campus to the newspaper office, where the paper had retained the services of a retiree to transcribe the work of the papers’ authors onto a Macintosh Classic computer. Quite impressive, really. The paper had 4-of these $1000 machines, although I’m pretty sure they were shared with some other campus club. Those machines had 9″ monochrome CRT displays ‘” not much better than the screen on my Brother although I’m pretty sure the processing speed of my Brother was probably better.

The paper’s clerk would then spend hours “processing” the writing contributions for the week, whereupon the editors would lay the paper out manually, and then send the paper off to the printers.

Consider the amount of work and time that went into that process. My simple article was written, printed, re-typed, printed, and manually laid out. Today, that article would be saved to “the cloud” somewhere or at the least emailed, where it would be received, imported into Quark or some other desktop publishing application, and emailed to a printer; that is if I didn’t just publish it to a blog while I was sitting in Starbucks using their WiFi.

I was so conscientious about saving my work, and yet I was saving it to these proprietary disks that were worthless absent the Brother machine; today it would be saved to GoogleDocs, to my hard drive, and my “sent items.” Our retiree clerk would simply have nothing to do, as would the majority of the editors.

At the time, I’m sure the whole process was hi-tech. Today, it seems like it could be a scene from “Mad Men” or from the 1950’s ‘Daily Planet’ newsroom. I may as well have been sharpening quills, in comparison to what can be accomplished today.

30 Years of Music in Your Pocket

J Geils BandI have been collecting music for exactly 30-years. For my 12th birthday I bought my very first record – a 45 RPM record of J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”, a record I still possess. Yes, my parents clearly didn’t understand the lyrics behind the music…truthfully, nor did I.

Over time, my 45 collection came to number in the 100’s, LP’s came to number in the 100’s, cassettes which came to number hundreds more some of which duplicated my LP purchases, then CDs which came to number over 500 at various points. Over time this amounts to a lot of “stuff.”

Music collecting had become more about collecting “records,” and it is that distinction that I carried with me into my late 30’s. On the other hand, the “Gen-Y” crowd has grown up with digital music – and their collections are digital files. They carry their entire music collection (as distinct from “record collection”) with them in the form of iPods and the other varied and assorted MP3 players.

As a “Gen-Xer,” I was slow to adopt the “music” collection over “record” collection – if I couldn’t feel, touch, or otherwise experience the packaging as well as the music it didn’t “feel” like owning a copy of a work. It almost every other aspect of my life, I had long since adopted the digital medium and while I may not be the “digital native” of Generation-Y, I’m probably one of the most technically literate people going of either generation. But music…music was something different.

However the “stuff” in my life came to be somewhat burdensome. Over the course of time, these things came to be misplaced, given away, or otherwise just stored away as the rest of life’s “stuff” came to be more important. At one point, I would have preferred a Bang and Olufsen system over having an automobile, but somehow over time I found I’d prefer a sofa or a kitchen table. Over time, those things came to dominate my home and managing my records came to be more hassle than it was worth – especially given the limited amount of time I actually took to pull a disc out and play it.

And so it came to be, this stodgy Gen-Xer came to adopt digital audio. I ripped each and every one of my CDs to MP3 – and I realized how many of these discs I really don’t care for anymore, but I kept the digital copies. I bought a USB turntable and ripped copies of my old vinyl to MP3 with varying results. Fully armed with my iPhone, I can carry with me my entire “music” collection and pull up any given song I want at any given time. If I so choose, I can pull up a copy of a partially warped record, complete with cracks and pops – there’s something about the remastered Rolling Stones music that makes the music seem hollow and sterile next to a copy of a somewhat time-worn record.

And so it is, 30-years later, I can literally fit most of my life’s important music into my pocket and take it down off the wall, the CD holders, the display case – what have you. Now, I still haven’t been able to pry my books out off the shelves in favor of a Kindle or Nook, I am a big fan of audio books played on the very same iPhone on which I carry my music – there’s something sacrosanct about the feel and smell of the paper that just can’t be replicated on a Kindle, something completely different than the compulsion to own a “thing.”

I have come to feel comfortable “owning” digital copies over the physical object of a record, and because I can sort through them, build lists, and shuffle I have rediscovered so much of the soundtrack of my life. So, I have come to be free of possessing that physical object for the sake of possessing it, and have come back to enjoying that which I wanted that object for in the first place.

One Thousand Songs In Your Pocket

When #Friends Die

Social Media, and Facebook in particular, increases our connections – it more easily invites us into other people’s lives. Historically, we maintain a network of a maximum of some 150-friends, otherwise there are just too many people, names, faces to keep up with. Psychologists have recommended that we don’t maintain more than 354-Facebook friends because of the combination of the effects of our propensity to post only positive things, thereby leading us to unfavorably compare our own lives to those of others.

Life does happen. We can now see into the lives of others more ably than ever before, which is a connection – no doubt. What happens when that connection is severed, not through a falling out or the click of an “unfriend” button, but through death. What should we do with our online connection when one of our “friends,” or worse “in person” friends, passes away?

I’ve struggled a bit with this – I had a friend who knew he was failing, and he took great pains to make sure those connected to him understood that he was comfortable with death. He said what he had to say and he was at peace. When he passed, his family posted notice of his passing and his friends that he had so carefully prepared mourned. But then what? Do I “unfriend” him?

We are so good with beginnings: Facebook posts that you’ve made a new friend, Twitter announces to you when someone has begun following you. We’re not so good with ends: connections are terminated without an acknowledgement. And so it goes, that when a life ends before a connection ends, it is a question left unanswered.

I’ve had a childhood acquaintance pass away suddenly through accident. It was a particularly harrowing situation because while I was connected to him through other friends, I wasn’t connected directly. Many of my friends were able to express their sympathy directly to his wife or on his Facebook wall, but I was not – and perhaps that was best, after all, as I was able to express my condolences for my friends’ loss. It was eerie, though, so pull up his wall and see him smiling yet to know he was no longer with us. A similar feeling came to me upon learning of the passing of another friend’s mother. I know him through online ventures, although not in person – I helped him write his resume. I was looking for information on his mom, and found her wall. To see the things of interest to her, her connections and activity up to her death was a bit unsettling.

Regarding the first friend I discussed, I said my condolences to his family through his wall and said my final words to him…and unfriended his account. It was too much of an emotional investment to see notices posted to his wall, comments of his loved ones expressing their missing him.

We all grieve in different ways. Perhaps had I more of a connection with him, I would have wanted to keep that connection – almost like being able to visit a grave site. I know many of my in person friends have kept their connection to our common childhood friend’s account and stop by on occasion to comment. A blessing and a curse, really. I honestly don’t know what is a healthy response: is it healthier to keep that virtual connection or to let it go? Should loved ones remove the account, or keep it active? Perhaps it is best to be able to say good bye, have that final conversation, and let go. Life isn’t about hanging on to the past, it is about our own individual journey, and when our journey ends it may be best to let the minutiae and detail of it rest with us.