courtesy as a defense mechanism

18
Sep

I am a bureaucrat. It’s not necessarily something I’m proud of; when asked what I do for a living, I usually offer up some variation of “IT guy”, which is what sticks. But basically, I’m a cog in a giant bureaucracy with a fearsome reputation for being unpleasant to deal with, even, as is the case most of the time, I’m brushing up against other cogs in this giant behemoth of a machine.

I’m doing a lot of bumping up against other machine parts lately; we released a new update to a software tool this week, and my name was the one included on all the documentation. My phone and email have been pinging constantly. As an introvert, I’m exhausted.

Almost all of the interactions I’m dealing with are from people coming to me spoiling for a fight, because something’s not working the way they expect. Usually, this is a case of them not reading the instructions, or not paying attention to the training, or some other flavor of what we in the business call “user error” or, more diplomatically, “a training issue.”

I have but one tactic that works to make these situations bearable: be unfailingly pleasant and understanding. It’s an all too uncommon reaction to these situations in this environment; it totally throws your opponent into retreat. It’s a strange quirk of human nature; even if someone’s dead set on rolling in guns blazing, it’s hard to unload on someone who professes comiseration and understanding. Even if I’m not able to give a person an easy answer, they usually leave the transaction feeling better for having talked to someone who tried to listen politely.

It’s basic customer service – something I spent much of my youth earning minimum wage figuring out. I haven’t quite lost the impulse. Problem is, it takes it out of you when you spend your whole day smiling and nodding while user after user vents their spleen in frustration over having to click a new button that’s shaped slightly differently than the old one; or (in a much more common case), fail at reading comprehension and get really worked up about something that doesn’t even apply.

Pleasantness as a survival tactic. It’s how we misanthropes struggle through life so we can reach our goal of being left alone.

Of course, all we want to do once we finally achieve solitude is fall asleep because the whole business of not being brutally honest to the ignorant masses is so mentally taxing, because sometimes, you really just want to smack someone upside the head with brutal honesty.

So, that’s been my week; my terribly exhausting week. I did find some solace in this piece from J.K.Appleseed in McSweeneys. Appleseed is a psuedonym for an anonymous employee of Apple retail, who uses the column to pull back the curtain on what life is like behind all that artistically conceived genius bar. In fact, it’s probably worth reading most of the entries in the series of Retai therapy: Inside the Apple Store. It’s enlightening, and maybe a little cathartic, at least in the sense that it makes me feel better that I don’t work for someone who’s weird corporate culture is so overtly enforced.

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current events, regrettable priorities

17
Sep

As is the case with most modern white-collar offices, my workspace has taken advantage of the latest advances in display technology, and has placed relatively unobtrusive LCD monitors in high traffic areas; ideally, as a means of providing useful information to the workforce when they aren’t shackled to their cubicles and email accounts. When these monitors aren’t displaying workplace announcements, they’re tuned to one of the major 24 hour cable news networks; in my office’s case, it’s usually CNN.

I’m not going to get into the relative politics of the various news networks; while most of you know where I line up ideologically, I’m largely fed up with all three of them, regardless of their political flavor; I get most of my “broadcast” news from NPR and a couple of news aggregator web sites; it gives me a balance of viewpoints, and I’m not contantly subject to bloviating talking heads shouting at each other very much.

The headlines across the gamut this week, though, have been mostly about the latest cross-border Middle Eastern bogeyman, IS/ISIS/ISIL (or whatver they’re calling themselves this week), and the imminent threat they allegedly pose to US security.

In my scant mentions of this topic in the past, I’ve kind of ridiculed them as wannabe Bond villains, and I still kind of stand by that; they’ve done many awful things, surely, though I continue to get the feeling that they talk a much bigger game than they’re actually capable of.

It seems that I’m in the minority in this opinion, since the unnerving trend in Washington (so unnerving that both Democratic and Republican politicians agree on the idea, in principle if not in degree) is toward launching another round of military misadventures in Mesopotamia, just as we were maybe starting to finally disentangle ourselves from a period of involvement that’s older than most of my children.

I’m not, however, the only person holding this opinion. On my Tuesday commute home, I heard this piece on NPR, an interview with Ramzy Mardini, author of “The Islamic State threat is overstated”, an opinion piece in the Washington Post detailing the idea that the group’s increased influence thus far has far more to do with regional factors beyond it’s control, rather than any inherent ability, and that “In short, we’re giving it too much credit.”

According to Mardini, the Islamic State has managed to expand it’s sphere of influence as it has because of local instability and a relatively welcoming populace in the regions where it’s moved in. Those factors, however, don’t really apply any further out. IS** is now spread too thinly to really sustain its gains, let alone expand further, and is now surrounded by hostile forces on all its borders. Despite the appearance of success and short-term prestige, it is unlikely to be able to maintain itself long-term.

This is a realistic position that I truly hope gets wider distribution; I don’t like where the conventional wisdom is heading. One of these decades, we’re going to figure out that this sort of thing is largely a waste of time (going back to, gee, I dunno…1096 AD), and never really ends well. I honestly hope that this time works out in such a way that we’re not “a nation at war” for another decade.

Also, this stuff (plus various NFL domestic violence and child abuse scandals) has managed to keep some really neat and optimisitic headlines off the front pages. I’d rather we have a national conversation about cool stuff like NASA’s support of commercial space launches and the neat discoveries of The Curiosity rover, or, perhaps more importantly in the short term, continue to talk about making heath care available for everyone, in particular, all the veterans who are the result of our constant war footing.

Oh, and somewhat related: Happy Constitution Day!

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wizard world richmond

15
Sep

So, the Wizard Entertainment juggernaut came to town this weekend, as the popular comics and pop culture convention expanded into several new cities in 2014, including mine.

I wasn’t really planning on going to this show, for a couple of reasons: first, the pricing for even one-day tickets was much higher than I’d like, and secondly, because I’m not really a celebrity autograph hunter, and that’s really what the Wizard shows are all about. Also, I’m an established fan of the locally produced, long-running Virginia Comicon, and there’s a bit of a rivalry going on between the two right now. Every media story about this being the first “comicon” in Richmond kind of irks me – give me a David vs. Goliath battle, and I’ll pick the little guy pretty much every time.

Still, I was curious, and a friend of mine happened to have won a family pack of tickets and offered up extra one to me, so I spent a few hours on Saturday walking around, gawking at the celebrities and the lines to “interact” with the celebrities, browsing the wares of the many vendors hawking collectibles, t-shirts, comics, and skeevy bootleg DVDs, and generally taking in the aura of this particular gathering of the geeks.

And, I had a pretty good time. The celebrity line-up wasn’t bad (although the folks I was most keen to see ended up not showing due to illness (James Marsters) or filming commitments (Eliza Dushku, Alan Tudyk), though they did have Adam West and Burt Ward from the 60s Batman tv show, who put on an entertaining show during their Q&A panel, Michael Rooker and Dave Bautista, fresh off of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, and they managed to score a couple of excellent late-breaking “gets”, including Ron Perlman and Bruce Campbell.

A couple of folks in my party were thrilled to get their photo taken with Mr. Campbell, or have the Batman ’66 movie poster they’ve been carrying around since childhood signed by the stars before framing it (in each case, for a significant fee). For that aspect, the show was pretty cool, even if it’s not really my thing.

I did end up picking up a couple of things while I was there and visiting some friends exhibiting things – my friend Chris Otto was there promoting his web comic A Dog’s Life and doing sketches for the kids. Chris’s work is great all-ages fun, and something any pet owner or animal lover would appreciate. I had the honor of being the first sale for his new print collection, The Monster in the Closet. I also checked in with my friend Micah, who was there promoting his book, Li’l Eddie Books – Ricky’s Spooky House, a board book adaptation of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, an idea which makes me exceedingly happy. I’ve already got a copy of the book because I contributed to the successful Kickstarter linked above, but I did buy a book of short stories featuring the work of Micah and his charming and talented wife Shannon.

As I also like to do at these things, I wandered about a bit and found something new: I met Tom Hutchinson of Big Dog Ink, a small press out of Chicago, and picked up a couple of volumes of his throwback superhero series Critter, which I’m also enjoying quite a bit; the art is gorgeous.

This show also provided an outlet for the local costuming community, which is always a good thing, because there are some pretty talented people nearby. I found a pretty good gallery of some of the best at Filmfad; where I totally didn’t end up in the background of anything.

So, that was the show; like most comic-related cons I’ve been to, they didn’t have enough to really warrant picking up a pass for the whole weekend – I was done after a couple of hours. All in all, I’m glad they came to town; it gives people another outlet, and I’m relatively sure that Richmond is big enough to support two dueling comcions covering somewhat different aspects of the fan experience – this one’s about the spectacle of big celebrity names, while the VA Comicon (who does four shows a year), is more a pure “comics” thing, and does a great job of bringing in artists and creators, and provide a great venue for small press and independent creators to get their work in the hands of fans. I wish both operations the best of luck, though in the end, I’m still partial to the local show, and hope the big corporate guys moving into the territory builds the market for both rather than crowding the little guy out.

See you at the big local VA Comicon show November 22-23!

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friday random ten – “dialing in on normal” edition

12
Sep

After many, many weeks of (mostly exciting and cool) weirdness, I’m sort of zeroing in on a regular schedule again. This may change at any moment, as work is futzing with last-minute scheduling with business travel, and there’s always other mysterious possibilities on the horizon.

Anyway, though – it’s Friday morning, the kids are at school, I’ve paid my bills, and in a while, I’ll go out and buy groceries, because that’s what I do on Friday mornings, when there isn’t a gig or other weirdness getting in the way.

While I ease into my morning, though, here’s some music, randomized from the old music folder on my old laptop. It’s some stuff I haven’t heard in a while:

  1. “Disco Heaven – Lady Gaga
  2. “Falling Into You” – Weezer
  3. “You Can Rock it LIke This” – Run DMC
  4. “Little Miss S.” – Edie Brickell & New Bohemians
  5. “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me” – Dixie Chicks
  6. “Hey There Delilah” – Plain White Ts
  7. “All or None” – Pearl Jam
  8. “Heaven Can Wait” – Iron Maiden
  9. “Lipgloss” – Pulp
  10. “Ladies Room (live)” – KISS

While you peruse that list, take a listen to this…the Replacements live on The Tonight Show! Glad they’re back, as I totally missed them the first time around. Still sound great.

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dragon*con 2014 post-op report

03
Sep

So, as indicated previously, I spent the weekend at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, playing bass for my friends The Blibbering Humdingers throughout the weekend as part of the filk track. This is the space where I chronicle my experiences on this adventure.

The executive summary/tl;dr version? It was great fun, though more than a little intimidating, at least in terms of scale. I met a bunch of interesting new friends, saw a few old ones, played a bunch of great shows, holding my own with folks a heck of a lot more professional and high profile than I, saw some really neat costumes. A wholly unique experience I would happily be part of again if anybody asks me to.

If you’re looking for some more details, read on…

Transit to and from the event was relatively uneventful – I packed up my stuff at home and arrived at the rally point at Humdinger Central in NC in the early afternoon. We packed up, collected the rest of our party (Cerine, who ran merchandise for us), and hit the road, stopping off for lodgings somewhere in the wilds of SC (where it was determined that I’m a noisy sleeper – sorry gang), hitting the road early Friday morning and arriving in Atlanta before lunch.

Dragon*Con is spread across half a dozen hotels and exhibition spaces in Downtown Atlanta, so upon arrival, we split the party to more quickly get checked in with the hotel and gain our con credentials. This went relatively smoothly, though if I haven’t said so enough, this Con is HUGE. Like amazingly huge. Later, we’d learn that semi-official estimates had total attendance for the weekend at something like 80k people. That’s a lot of people, and well over half of them were wearing at least some sort of costume. I took many pictures, but it’s really impossible to document the con effectively if you’re trying to do anything else.

After getting settled in, gear stowed, and merch table up and running, I wandered a bit to get the lay of the land (and find out where the hell our shows were throughout the week). I also did a run through of the dealer’s area (which has it’s own multi-story building), which contained lots of interesting stuff, though not the copy of the vastly underprinted Marvel Dicemasters Avengers vs. X-Men starter set, which we’ve been looking for at a decent price for a while now. I inquired with all the game vendors: No Dice (ha!). I did, however, get accosted by a (possibly drunk) stripper wearing a Hogwarts robe over a bikini offering to show me magical things in a peepshow booth set up in the vendor area (I declined). Otherwise, lots of neat stuff (especially if you like swords), but nothing I had to have. I never made it back there the whole weekend – lines were too long.

Our first show was on the Concourse II stage, an outdoor venue in the Hilton on Friday afternoon. It was a little out of the way, though there was a bit of foot traffic, as it was adjacent to a popular photo venue. For our first show of the con, it was pretty great – the sound folks were awesome, we sounded great, and had a lot of fun. We were able to play for almost double our alotted time, giving us a pretty decent “live” rehearsal. Our audience more than doubled in size from the beginning of our set to the end, which was nice to see.

Having knocked that first show out of the park, we settled into con rhythm. We played the “big room” in the Hyatt each night of the con, along with most of the other acts on the filk track (most of whom had their merch tables in the same general area of the Marriott as us), so we all spent a bunch of time together and became good friends over the course of the Con. While all of our big shows went rather well, we had trouble getting a feeling for the room – it was hard to tap into the energy, we felt a little disconnected from the audience, though they all seemed to have a very good time, laughing in all right places and having nice things to say to us. So, call the official shows successful, all at least B+ material (that’s a highly personal assessment, largely because I’ve got a bit of imposter syndrome going and I remember each and every one of my bum notes; I’m working on getting over that, but it’s a process. Really, we sounded pretty great).

We played one final “ninja gig” on Sunday night as well. Our merch table was set up just outside the main big ballroom in the Marriott, which played host to the Yule Ball run by the YA Lit track, and, being a Wizard Rock band (who played the Yule Ball the previous year), we figured these were our people, so we set up by the merch table and played for the folks waiting in line to get in. It was a lot of fun, and, at least in my opinion, easier to latch onto the energy of the audience and my band cohorts…a nice way to end our slate of performances.

Anyway, those were the shows. We all did our best to cover each other at the merch table so we could venture out and enjoy the convention a bit, or hit a panel. I got to sit in on Amy Acker’s Q&A panel, which was nice, because I’m a fan. She’s very charming, and surprisingly tall. Others of us collected autographs and interactions from/with Patrick Stewart and Billy Boyd, and we all wandered around enjoying the costumes, sights, and sounds (so many costumes – I took pictures, but didn’t manage to capture even the tiniest bit of the neat stuff I saw every day). The rest of the time, we hung around at the merchandise table, interacting with fans, playing music with the band and with the other performers nearby, and people watching.

I imagine it’s probably easier to do a con of this magnitude if you’ve got a home base like a merch table to cling to. Were I attending simply to attend, I’d probably be totally overwhelmed – there’s so much to see and do, and so many people around all the time. It was nice having a secure place to crash and still remain engaged.

“Big Name” encounters were modest. I peed next to Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch, and had minor encounters with Adam Baldwin and Grant Imahara. Otherwise, my “celebrity” sightings were limited to wandering the “walk of fame” room and catching glimpses of folks like Evanna “Luna Lovegood” Lynch (absolutely gorgeous), John Ratzenberger (by all appearances jovial), and Peter Weller (surpringly corpselike) and several others. I sadly did not encounter Molly Lewis (though my bandmates did…and didn’t immediately come get me!), and was occasionally inconvenienced by the Diva-like aura of Cary Elwes (or, possibly his management or handlers), which involved lots of obscuring curtains, hallway clearing, and other things seemingly designed to keep the fan riff-raff at arm’s length, unless they were ponying up 50 bucks for an autograph.

I did, however, get to meet and become acquainted with filk legend Tom Smith, which was a personal hightlight. He operates on a different level than I do at these things, but was gracious and friendly, and lots of fun to have around at our nightly shows and when he was in the merch area, despite not feeling particularly well (His “dueling filk” show with Mikey Mason was one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve seen all year); he’s a tremendous boon to the community, and it was a privilege hanging out with and becoming sort of friends with him.

Also nearby by was the aforementioned Mikey Mason, a friend of many years who totally owned his first Dragon*Con, is an enjoyably terrible influence on all of us, but always brings the fun, and totally indulged my unabashed fandom of his more obscure and sentimental tunes. Much time was also spent with The Brobdingnagian Bards (and their charming merch person/author Jessica Brawner – buy her book!), our neighbors to the other side, from whom issued much pleasant music and lots of lessons on how to successfully market one’s art (yes, I was paying attention!).

I also became an unabashed fan of Pandora Celtica, an amazing acapella group who we had the honor to share the stage with, and who made the room much more fun just by being in it. Seriously, check them out. And finally, I also got to meet and talk with Beth Patterson, whose folk music is impressive, and whose work I’ve trumpeted in this space before. Sadly, her shows were scheduled such that I couldn’t get to one.

So, that’s most of the name drops. However, I have to drop some more, in thanks to Scott and Kirsten for letting me come and play at being a wrock star for the weekend, Cerine, who helped make the merch table and photo hunting experiences fun and enjoyable (and all three of you for putting up with my snoring and whatnot for most of a week and still being friends with me), Eddie and Christie of Hawthorn and Holly for playing along with us, new friends Amber, Pat, Grace, and the rest of the filk track volunteers who made our experience as performers go so smoothly, Michelle, Gray, Erik, and all the other friends who came by to say hello and listen to our tunes, and all those other people whose names I’m so bad at remembering who made the weekend so entertaining.

So, that was Dragon*Con. Quite the place to crack the barrier between fan and guest/performer (and it was an honor to be welcomed into that aspect of the community so warmly). Let’s do it again sometime!

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forty

24
Aug

I guess I’m officially “old” or something now. Empirically, when considering actuary tables, I’m on the downslope now, whatever that means.

I don’t feel that old, at least mentally, I don’t feel any different than I did ten years ago. Physically, the body is sometimes letting me down, but for some reason, I’ve had to re-institute a teenage skin care regimen, because I’m breaking out in pimples left and right. I guess that’s a wash.

Otherwise, the day wasn’t bad. I got to play rock star. That’s always cool.

Anyway, as I’ve said before, I’m not going to suddenly assume “old” person behaviors (other than the usual responsible, job-holding, bill-paying person I’ve been since it was necessary) because the world expects me to. I’m going to keep doing what I want. And, since I never really tried on the “staid, mature, adult” personality, I’m not going to feel the need to grow a ponytail and run out and buy a convertible. No need for a midlife crisis when I’ve never pretended to be anything else than what I am.

Still might buy that convertible someday, but when I do, it won’t be a sad effort to recapture my lost youth; it’ll be because I need a Miata to enter in autocross competitions.

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inspiration in strange places

21
Aug

One of the things I’m doing this week at the office is reading and evaluating all sorts of documents I can’t talk about because of the many non-disclosure agreements I signed saying I wouldn’t. And I won’t, but I did find a single sentence buried in a disused paragraph somewhere in that stack of hundreds of pages that struck me as profound:

Make interesting new mistakes.

That’s a pretty good philosophy, when it comes right down to it. We’re human. We make mistakes all the time, but we learn from them, often just enough to set us on the path to make completely different mistakes. That’s the goal – keep learning and trying new things; a pretty good signal you’re making that ethos work is that you find yourself trying different things and screwing them up in intriguing new ways.

If you’re repeating the same mistakes over and over, you’re not making any progress…but if you fail brilliantly in a completely novel manner each time you stumble, you’re building up valuable experience, which is kind of the point.

It turns out, of course, that this bit of wisdom isn’t entirely new. In fact, I mentioned a variant of the idea in this very space a few years back. At that time, I was making mention of Neil Gaiman’s Keynote address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012, which closed with the following:

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

Closing with Neil Gaiman never hurts. That guy can shape some words. So, to paraphrase, go screw up in some interesting new ways – it’s good for you.

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announcing my dragon*con schedule

21
Aug

In case you missed all the subtle hints around here the last few months, you’re probably aware that I’ll be a performer/guest at Dragon*Con in Atlanta this year, serving as bass player for Cary, NC’s premiere wizard rock band The Blibbering Humdingers. If you weren’t aware, please consider this your official notification.

Dragon*Con, for the uninitiated, is probably the largest sci-fi/fantasy/comic/nerd/whatever convention on the east coast, taking over much of downtown Atlanta, and attracting somewhere north of 50,000 people over Labor Day weekend. It’ll definitely be the biggest con I’ve ever been to, and the first con where I’m an honest-to-Cthulu guest rather than just a reasonably well-socialized attendee. Kind of intimidating, but I think it’ll be a lot of fun.

So, how’d I get myself into all this? The Humdingers (Scott and Kirsten) and I run in some of the same regional nerd circles, and have become friends over the years. Musicians as we are, often find ourselves talking tunes and playing together in filk circles, and eventually, that becomes me sitting in with the band for the occasional con set or wizard rock show. When D*C gig came up, they decided they needed a full band, and I was willing and available.

I spent last weekend deep in rehearsal with Scott and Kirsten at Humdinger central, and we’ll be doing the same thing this weekend, adding in our drummer and hopefully knocking out our set lists. Lots of songs, and an instrument that’s not my primary talent, but something I’m forcing myself to get a bit better at. I’m also getting a crash course in live bass sound (thanks to the advice of my friend and Cha-Cha’s Cadillac bassist Steve Wyse), which gave me the excuse to buy some new gear this week. All kinds of stretching of my boundaries…exactly the kind of thing I ought to be doing on the eve of my 40th birthday*.

Anyway, if you’re in Atlanta Labor Day weekend, be sure to stop by a show or four, and enjoy some music, comedy, wit, and occasional wistfulness, and lots of songs about house elves and unresolved literary sexual tension.

As it stands right now, our schedule of performances looks like this:

  • Friday 8/29: 4-4:30pm Concourse II – Hilton
  • Friday 8/29: 7-7:40pm Hyatt International North
  • Sat 8/30: 5:30-6:30pm SCA/Medieval Music in Hyatt basement “Edgewood” room (just the medieval scholars here, not me)
  • Sat 8/30: 8:15-9pm Hyatt International North
  • Sun 8/31: 8:10-9pm Hyatt International North

I expect there may be a couple of ninja gigs stuffed in there somewhere as well, if the spirit moves us. The official schedule of the filk track (featuring performances from lots of great acts, including Tom Smith, and our friend Mikey Mason) can be found here, though bear in mind, the organizers stress that nothing on the schedule is final until after it’s actually happened.

So, that’s the big news from here. Now I need to get back to rehearsing.

__________________________

* – This boundary stretching does not, however, explain why my skin is suddenly breaking out like I’m a pubescent teenager. I swear. This is not something an adult should have to go through.

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seven

14
Aug



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long time coming

13
Aug

“There is no doubt that Virginia is ready for the freedom to marry…” – James Parrish

Virginia could begin issuing same sex marriage licenses as early as Wednesday.

Excellent news.

Of course, the US Supreme Court could jump in here with another stay. It might. It did in Utah a while back. But, I’m going to bet it doesn’t. That’s the way the wind feels like it’s blowing to me. I hope I’m right.

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