Saturday, April 4, 2015

Thoughts on things

It's one of those Buddhist / New Age truisms that "things" don't make you happy. We love the idea of acquiring things, but once we have them, we're discontented. Up to a point, I agree. I've been much happier since downsizing my possessions to the point that, with the exception of the furniture I was recently given, I can fit everything I own into a reasonable size car.



However, I don't agree that, per se, possessions don't make us happy. For example:
  • My car makes me happy, every time I drive it. Even driving to work in shitty traffic. It's fun, and cruising round with the top down in this weather is an absolute blast. 
  • My vaporizer and collection of essential oils makes me happy, every time I fill my room with sweet aromas. 
  • My bluetooth speakers make me happy, every time I play music off my phone, tablet, or laptop, without worrying about wires, or having to plug things in when I go from room to room. 
  • My musical instruments and recording equipment bring me intense joy.
  • Every piece of art I own has a story to it, and when I look at them, I smile and remember. 
  • My slow cooker and chef's knives make me happy. Cooking is a real pleasure anyway, and having nice kitchen equipment makes it better.

And, apart from my clothes, a few dozen books, and the aforementioned furniture, that's pretty much all I own these days. Undeniably, since buying those things, I have been happier. Sure, that's not the only reason I'm happier, but those things have played a big part in making my life more enjoyable.



It's not that things don't make us happy. They can, and they do. Rather, when we have more than we need, individual things lose their importance, and when we focus on acquisition rather than enjoying what we already have, that's when we become discontented unless we have a continuing stream of new "things".

Perhaps surprisingly, my attitude is best expressed, not by a Buddhist or a pagan, but by Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Muslim, a cousin of Muhammad, and the man to whom Muhammad dictated the Quran.




Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Rope Burn: The Bloody Jug Band

The first time I saw BJB was not long after I arrived in the US, in a tiny bar somewhere in Orlando, somewhere around 2010. I don’t recall why I was there - that was a time where i was drinking in all the local culture I could, and saying yes to everything that friends wanted to take me to. I had no idea what a jug band was, and I wasn’t familiar with any form of American folk or roots music other than Woody Guthrie, so I really didn’t know what to expect. What I got was an evening of really entertaining, well-played, foot-stompy music. Since then, I’ve seen them every few months, and watched them evolve into a first-class powerhouse Southern roots rock outfit.





Their new album, due out on April 13, marks their transition from a bunch of fine pub musicians into a thoroughly professional eight-piece band. The production quality is superb, and their playing is tighter than ever before, but they’ve retained the sense of fun and dark humor that makes them such a great live act. I mean, with track titles like Forest of Bloodthirsty Unicorns and Asylum Blues, you know they’re a little… different. 

The thirteen tracks on the album show their wide range of musical styles. The opener, Volfkiller, is a punchy rock number that gets you up and moving. By contrast, 13 Steps is a gentle melodic ballad that showcases Stormy Jean’s heartrending vocals backed by a sweet harmonica line. Late Shift and Grab a Jug have a much lighter feel and give the mandolin, washboard and banjo a chance to shine. Jezebellion, is a fast, furious piece with country style guitar and harmonica that makes me want to shout yeehaw at regular intervals. And then there’s the aforementioned Forest of Bloodthirsty Unicorns, which is just a glorious riot of insane lyrics and bouncy, fingersnapping acoustic rock.




This is the kind of music that I really enjoy on a hot afternoon outside with a plate of pulled pork and beer or two. (Or three. Or four. If I’m not driving, of course.) If you’re already familiar with BJB, then this is definitely one to grab. If you’re not, then give this a listen if you like Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band with a hearty dose of heavy on top.  

If you want to get your hands on it before the release date, there’s a pre-release party at Venue 578 (formerly Firestone Live) on Friday, April 3, and CDs will be available. BJB will be playing, of course, as will several other local bands. Their CD cover artists, Greg “Stainboy” Reinel and Vaughn Belak will be showing their work as well. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

The March of Happiness

If you've known me for any length of time, you'll be aware that 2012 and 2013 were pretty bad years. I went through major depression, I had problems finding work, and I had health issues that nearly killed me. But in the last few months, things have turned around almost unbelievably in almost every part of my life. Here's what I did in March.

Professionally, I've been going from strength to strength. I started teaching my new business course for mobile developers at Full Sail. I wasn't sure how well it was going to work out, whether I was asking too much of my students, whether I'd pitched it totally wrong for students who were essentially programmers or whether I was actually doing a good job of teaching. In the event, it worked better than I was expecting. They loved it, and told me how much they appreciated what I'd taught them. I've now been asked to teach a Master's course as well, starting in May, so obviously I'm doing something right.



I also landed a new writing job as a regular contributor to Engineer Jobs, also providing advice on business and career topics. It's odd to think that this is what I've ended up doing, but so it goes. It feels good to be appreciated for what I've learned in 25+ years of business.

March was also the month I took care of a lot of the boring paperwork that's been hanging over my head. Preparing the last set of accounts so we can finally get Draco Felis closed down was a major headache, but at least it's done. And at the end of March I qualified for Full Sail's health insurance, so we've now got the whole family signed up. That's a huge relief, after five years of being here uninsured and nearly dying of pneumonia a year ago because I couldn't afford to see a doctor and get a prescription for free antibiotics. Plus we finally paid off the debts to the accountant and the psychologist, which is another big weight off my mind.

My main project this month was to redecorate our bedroom. I've wanted to do this for about two years, but finally I had the time, the energy and the money to do it properly. Anna went away to MegaCon for the weekend, and when she came back, I'd changed things just a little.


It's also nice to be able to afford to go out. Okay, I overspent slightly, but I think I did more in March than in the whole of 2013. I went to the movies and saw 300 (which I enjoyed and am not ashamed of). I saw two live bands, Orlando legends the Genitorturers, and Led Zep tribute band Get The Led Out.



We discovered a new Turkish restaurant near work which does superb baklava and kedeyfi, finally made it to the Smiling Bison and had the best bison burgers I've ever tasted, went to the mariachi night at Senor Tequila where they played a Mexican version of Santana's Oye Como Va for me while I drank an absurdly large margarita, and revisited my favorite local dive bar, Odin's Den.

I also went to the Orlando Turkish Festival, went to see my friend Janae at an art show, went to Fantasy of Flight and the Tico Warbird show and clambered all over various planes, and took my stepkids shooting for the first time.




That lot would make for a pretty damn good month, but wait - that's not all!

Last week, I finally made a dream come true. I flew a biplane. That's me in the pilot's seat, just getting ready to taxi off down the runway.




I can't think of anything else I have ever done in my life that has made me so happy. Being at the controls of a vintage aircraft, with Richard Bach's Illusions constantly in the back of my mind, feeling so totally free and relaxed - it was just incredible. It was like the first time I rode a motorcycle, but better. I could have stayed up there for ever. Even if I never do it again, that's a memory that will live with me for ever.

Oh, and I stopped smoking.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Homesickness

I'll admit, I've been struggling with depression for over a year. Some of it has been financial: I haven't had steady work in a long time, and we've been lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping each month we'd be able to pay the bills and keep our home. That damaged my self-esteem more than I realized, starting to wonder if I was unemployable before I even reached fifty. Some of it has been due to the ongoing legal battle over my stepdaughter's custody and medical treatment, which has taken a horrific toll on the whole family. Thankfully those issues are beginning to resolve, and I start a new job in about a week, teaching at Full Sail University.

However, it's taken me a while to realize that there's been an unseen third factor - homesickness. It seems that it's something almost all expatriates suffer from after a couple of years abroad. It can often last a year or two, after which they either recover or go home. Fortunately, I seem to be recovering.

If you're not British, you have no idea what this is all about.

One of the things you don't realize the significance of when you move away from home is holidays and other traditions. Take Christmas, for example. First time you experience Christmas in your adopted country, it's new and exciting and different. The next year, it's sort of familiar, but it's not yet part of your personal tradition. The third year, you start missing the mince pies, the sparklers, the turkey dinner, the crackers, even the tin of Quality Street and the dumb Christmas special re-runs on TV. They've been part of your life for always, and now you're conscious that they're gone.

And you miss those birthday drinks with the people you've got together with since always. The annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race where you pretend for a day that you care about sports. The New Year's Eve family dinner you always hated except for talking to one of the cousins, but now you see the pictures on Facebook of everyone else playing those stupid after dinner games. The coy, polite ads for Safeways instead of the brash, screeching commercials for Wal-Mart or Target. The unfulfillable cravings for your favorite comfort food when you're sick. Primroses and snowdrops on the roadside in the spring. It's the little things that slowly get you.

But perhaps most of all, for a Celt like me, living in Florida, what I miss is a sense of history. Before moving here, I owned a house that was four centuries old, in a town two millennia old, and from my window I could see burial mounds four thousand years old. I went to school and lived in buildings constructed in 1382. I studied archaeology and thought of the mediaeval period as modern. My world was steeped in mythology and folklore, in history and tradition. Solstices and Equinoxes at Stonehenge or Glastonbury were normal, and I drove past those places every week. And that was nothing unusual - the whole country was like that. Hell, the whole damn continent is full of ancient stuff.

This place is part of my soul. It's not just an image on a New Age T-shirt.
But here, anything older than me is considered "historic". American versions of European traditions seem like commercialized parodies of what I'm used to. They're fun, and they're important local traditions in their own right, but they're not the same.

I've felt, in the very truest sense of the word, rootless. America has been my home for four years, and I love it here and have no desire to return to England, but I haven't felt like I'm part of the place in the way I do in England. For a long time I couldn't work out why I felt as I did, until a chance remark from a friend, an English girl living in North Carolina, made me realize that my depression was about more than just money and stress. Talking to friends and family back home, and staying in touch, isn't the same as being immersed in the place. I guess that's why so many expats end up forming isolated communities where they can maintain the traditions of home and pretend they're still back where they came from.

Recognizing homesickness as part of the problem was a big step in addressing it. It's about understanding who I am, and where I fit in this culture, and how I can maintain my sense of identity when I'm so far from everything that's familiar to me. I don't feel British, but I'm not an American either. Instead, I'm having to learn to be just a person who has been lucky enough to have experienced most of my life in a culture that most of the other people around me have only read about or seen in books; and I have to learn to let go of my past in the same way I let go of my possessions.

As Richard Bach said in Illusions, I am here now, and that's all of us can ever be.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fifty Shades of Meh

Yes, I read it. Partly out of curiosity to see what all the hype was about, and partly out of professional interest to see what made this such a self-publishing success.



The main thing I learned was this. All that stuff they tell you about having to be a great writer and practice your skills and persevere and be original if you want to be successful? That's bullshit. This is mediocre at best. It's not truly appalling writing, but it's not in any way good. There are tens of thousands of much better writers publishing their stuff on Smashwords and the Kindle store. There are many people writing much better stuff in the exact same genre of "billionaire BDSM erotica". So what made 50 Shades so insanely popular?

What you need if you want to be a successful writer is first and foremost, luck. Luck can transform a mediocre book like 50 Shades into a major success (and pave the way for all your future books to rocket to the top of the best-seller lists). Or luck can doom a literary masterpiece to obscurity. Success has nothing to do with the quality of your work or the effort you put in. It's just a roll of the dice.

Frankly, it bored me. It's the modern equivalent of a Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins or The Red Shoe Diaries or 9½ Weeks: absurd romantic fantasy with some kink, aimed at bored middle-aged housewives and young women looking to be daring and guys looking for something a bit pervy that they could get away with. (And those were phenomenally successful too in their day, despite being mediocre.) Half of the appeal of those was because they were known to push the edge of what was acceptable in the mainstream, it was cool to say you'd read or seen them. You didn't have to like them - it was more about showing how sophisticated and open-minded you were.

To be honest, it wasn't as bad as I expected. It just doesn't deserve to be the poster child for self-publishing. It doesn't send the message that self-publishing is the way for great writers to be discovered. Instead, it tells us that no matter how poorly you write, you could, if you're lucky, be a success. That's why we have a flood of truly crappy books thrown into the e-book lottery by untalented writers hoping they've written the next 50 Shades. And the depressing thing is that one of them probably has.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Men

When I was a kid, it was normal for people to make jokes about black people, Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, mothers-in-law, and women. Not just any old jokes, but cruel, demeaning jokes. All those people - basically anyone except straight, white men - were lazy, stupid, useless, and... well, every other insulting stereotype you could imagine. These days, that's much less common. We seem to have matured as a society on both sides of the Atlantic. Derogatory jokes are mostly no longer acceptable. Most of us - not all, I'll admit - have understood that these kind of insults are hurtful, even when made in jest. Some comedians can still get away with edgy jokes, but to do so requires great skill and wit, usually with a fair amount of self-deprecation.

Except, it seems, when it comes to men. It's still very much okay to make jokes about men.


We can't cook. We don't know how to use a washing machine or dishwasher. We never tidy the house. We can't look after the kids. We're babies when we get sick. We're stupid and only interested in sports and beer and cars. In fact, we're totally responsible for screwing up women's lives in every way possible. Every single one of us.



"So what?" you say. "Why the hell does it matter? Can't you take a joke, Matt?"

Well, for a start, if men were making the same jokes about women, then most women would get - rightfully and understandably - upset and insulted.




"Women are only good for one thing, and half the time they can't even do that!" 

"Women are like fine wine... it's up to men to stomp the shit out of them until they turn into something acceptable to have dinner with."


Not exactly sentiments many women want to hear, are they? So why is it okay to say the same to men?

But more to the point, gender stereotyping matters more than we realize, even in humor. Fifty years ago, it was normal to joke about treating women like obedient little housewives, and their lives sucked because that's how men grew up thinking they should treat women in real life.


Today, we laugh in barely concealed shock at sexist ads like this, and we - both men and women - cringe at the misogynistic society that spawned them. We watch Mad Men and are appalled by the way women were expected to behave and the uncaring attitudes that men showed them. Even comics reinforced these gender stereotypes. (Okay, there are still issues with gender portrayals in comics now, but images like this are a thing of the past.)


Women and men aren't so different apart from a bit of biology. They're equally smart and talented. They're just as good at holding down jobs or caring for kids. They're equally loyal, kind and funny (or not). They're just as emotional - though culturally, the sexes are conditioned to display different types of emotion. Just look at guys screaming at sports. And although men are on average stronger, I've met plenty of women who could kick most men's asses at almost any physical challenge you care to name. Men and women - we're all just people.

So why do we accept casual modern day sexism aimed at men?


When I posted something recently about looking for a present for my wife, I was hit by a scornful barrage of women suggesting that "maybe you could try doing the laundry for a change - if you can figure it out" or "have you thought of cooking her a meal instead of expecting her to make your dinner?" 

As anyone who knows me will be aware, I in fact do almost all the cooking, almost all the laundry, and the kids and I do most of the housework. It's pretty insulting to realize how many of my female friends assume I do none of those things and act like a complete asshole to my wife, because I'm straight and apparently only gay men are prepared to do traditionally female tasks.



When I was sick a few months ago, I lost count of the number of women who sent me cartoons about "man-flu" and men being pathetic when they're sick, and telling me to man up, go back to work and stop being a pussy. It turned out I had pneumonia. I nearly died because I didn't want to go to a doctor and look like a malingerer so I carried on working. (And incidentally, when my wife was sick with the exact same symptoms a week later, her wall was full of sympathy and best wishes from both men and women.)



And it goes deeper.

Some people I am very close to are going through a horrendous time right now coming to terms with sexual abuse from many years ago. But their anger and bitterness and resentment and mistrust, while understandable, isn't just directed at their abusers. It's directed at men. All men. Me included, even though I wasn't even on the same continent when it happened. And probably you too, if you're male, even if you've never met anyone in my family. Men are bad. Men are untrustworthy. Men are scary. Men are smelly and hairy. Men are repulsive. Men are disgusting. Men are rapists. Women would be better off without men.




Why do they feel that way?

Because we seem to have accepted that it's okay to lump all men together in an undifferentiated mass and assume we're all alike. We're not individuals. It doesn't matter if a man cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, tidies the house, how kind and caring he is, how much he believes in equality, or how respectful he is towards women. He's still part of that group who has to bear collective responsibility for everything ever done by everyone with a Y chromosome.


Collective responsibility is a true evil.

Not all Muslims are terrorists.
Not all Christians are homophobic misogynistic bigots.
Not all Jews are greedy Christ-killing Zionists.
Not all whites are racists.
Not all Americans want to invade the rest of the world.
Not all foreigners want to destroy your way of life. 
Not all immigrants are lazy welfare scroungers.
Not all unemployed people are stealing your tax dollars.
Not all gays have AIDS.
Not all women are bitches or hoes.
Not all men are bastards.

Thinking that way is dangerous. It leads to fear, hatred, to abuse, and in extreme cases to killing. 



If we truly want a society where everyone is treated as equal, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or anything else - which I'm sure most of us do - we need to recognize that this kind of stereotyping is extremely damaging. Even when it's used in humor, whether it's aimed at men, women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, the handicapped, or any other group, treating people in this manner is hurtful and creates a society filled with prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. 

In the war of the sexes, I'm a conscientious objector.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Would you donate $2500 to your boss?

If you were earning $10/hr and your boss asked you to give him $2500, would you do it? Probably not. But that's exactly what many people are expected to do.

Money

You're keen to impress your boss, and keep your job, so if he expects you to turn up 15 minutes early, you do it, right? No biggie. And staying 15 minutes late to finish off a few things, sure, you can do that. And then in the evening, you take care of a couple of emails, maybe take a phone call, or deal with a couple of little tasks at home... it's only half an hour. So what?

But add that up. It's an hour a day. Five hours a week - more than half a day's unpaid labor, or $50. Over the course of a month, that's 20 hours - half a week, or $200. In a year, you've done 250 hours unpaid work - that's six whole weeks! Even at normal rates, not allowing for overtime payments, that's $2500 you should have earned. Instead, you worked for free, and the company keeps the money. If they have 20 employees, that's $50,000 they didn't pay out to their staff.

Obviously, for higher paid staff, extra hours go with the territory. I've often been in jobs where I was expected to work 60-80 hours a week, but my salary and other incentives more than compensated for it. But for lower paid staff who have nothing to gain, it's immoral that they should be expected to donate free labor and be exploited in this way.

Unpaid overtime hurts many workers, and it damages the economy. That $50,000 could have employed two extra people. Obviously the work needs doing, and there are people who need the jobs. If the companies who do this actually paid for the work that's done on their behalf, unemployment would be drastically reduced, hundreds of thousands of families would be better off, and the national welfare bill would plummet.