Ramblings and Revolutions

I think, therefore I'm dangerous.

With A Little Perspective, Today Doesn’t Look Too Bad

Seems like Americans just can’t agree on anything these days. News stories tell us we’re polarized to a degree never before seen in history. We’ll never get anything done. We’ll never improve, become our better selves.

Bad news is on the television, and the computer screen and the dwindling number of newspaper front pages. Black and white, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, all at odds with one another.

Indeed, to many Americans, times look bleak.  But stop and think for a minute. Were the “good old days” really that good?

Let’s start at a nice even 100 years ago.  By this date in 1914, World War I was well underway.  That little adventure killed some 16 million people by the time it was over, making it one of the deadliest wars in world history.  And it sowed the seeds for World War II two decades later.

And let’s not forget the 1918-19 worldwide influenza pandemic. It killed up to 50 million people.  No vaccine was available. My maternal great-granparents both caught the flu. While they were fighting to stay alive, four of their children lost the same battle.

Seemingly minor injuries  could kill — there were no antibiotics until 1942.

World War II and its attendant horrors drew to a close only after the introduction of atomic weapons to the world.

In terms of civil rights, “separate but equal” was the order of the day, especially in the South.  By the 1950s, activists began working to change things. It became a bloody, decade-long battle from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus to implementation of the Civil Rights Act.

The ’60s brought political assassinations, the Vietnam War, calls for revolution, and protests in the streets. Hard to imagine we’re more divided today than we were by 1969.

The ’70s gave us the Kent State shootings, Watergate, two energy shortages and the kidnapping of American hostages in Iran. The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident brought us lies from government officials and corporate officials. Sitting in gas lines, we grew more cynical.

The 1980s led to the Challenger space shuttle disaster,  And Iran-Contra. Vicious attack ads sank political careers on the left and right.  The ’90s saw the impeachment of a president for only the second time in our history, the O.J. Simpson trial and its aftermath and an attack by American terrorists in Oklahoma City.

The last 15 years have seen terrorist attacks on our nation, a global economic meltdown, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instability in the Middle East, and the aforementioned divide among our citizens.

But I suspect that divide isn’t nearly as wide as it was when black and white Americans couldn’t marry each other freely, or sit in the same classroom, or even drink from the same water fountain. It’s not as wide as when some young Americans went to war, others burned their draft cards or moved to Canada and some marched in the streets against the war. It’s not as wide as when being “out of the closet” meant one risked their employment, their housing and all too often, their lives.

In other words, we have made progress. As the events of Ferguson, Missouri in the past few weeks demonstrate, we still have a long way to go. We are not perfect. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Safety vs. Success

There’s a little shop I visit where the cashier always wishes everyone a safe day when they leave. Not a good day — a SAFE day.

I’m not pro-disaster by any means, but her comment, although well-intended, always grates a little. Yes, I appreciate the wish that I remain free from harm.  But great accomplishments aren’t won by staying safe.

You have to risk to reach the pinnacle, no matter what you’re doing. It applies to just about anything in life.

Take typing (or in modern parlance, “keyboarding,”) for example.  If you’re a touch typist, you doubtless have reached a natural, comfortable typing speed. It’s a good pace for you, one that enables you to get things done reasonably efficiently with the fewest mistakes possible.

Yet that comfort zone means you’ve reached a plateau. The only way to get faster, and more accurate, is to go beyond, to type faster than you’re comfortable with. Eventually, you become proficient at an even higher rate until you reach your peak.

It’s the same with mechanical products. Just about any high-performance device that operates at a level far beyond the ordinary, more mundane counterpart does so at the increased risk of breakage at the performance peak.

Cars are a good example.  Honda Accords are perfectly good automobiles. They do most things well, at an acceptable level of performance for the vast majority of drivers.  But if you want the performance of say, a Ferrari, you have to accept the fact that it will be far more likely to break down than the Honda will.

The Honda is designed to a median, a performance level that most folks will find acceptable. The Ferrari is designed for ultimate performance, even at the sacrifice of day-to-day reliability.  It’s a trade-off some people are willing to make.

Same thing with sports. The only way to reach the pinnacle of any sport is to take risks. Want to be the world’s best surfer? Then you gotta ride the biggest waves. Want to be the best skateboarder? You have to get the most air off the half-pipe. And to do those things, you have to go right up to — and sometimes beyond — the edge of disaster.  True, some men and women lose their lives trying to master their chosen passion and be the best they can be. But many more don’t, and go on to reach the peaks of their lives.

Think again of the typist. The faster his fingers are moving, the greater the possibility of a spelling error. Sometimes, it happens. Yet the only way to get even faster is to be right on that edge of going over the line.  Anything less and you’re back in the comfortable rut.

Necessary risk isn’t limited to sports. Remember the first time you asked someone out? Was it scary? Sure. Did you get better at it the more you did it? You bet. How did you get better? You took that risk again and again, learning as you went. It’s how we all realize our fullest potential as human beings.

So thank you for wishing me a safe day, dear store clerk. But I must take risks to grow, to learn, to be alive — to be human.


Stranger in a Strange Land

I’m an Android guy. Have been since I got my first smartphone four years ago. Yeah, I know I’m a late adopter — which is probably at least partly why I’m an Android guy. The “other” phone just never appealed to me.

The Android universe has been good to me. I learned the OS quickly, with all its quirks and capabilities. I came to depend on it for all my texting, email and Facebook posting needs. Oh, almost forgot — for making phone calls, too.

All was well in my little world. My phone worked great. Case? Nah, I’m not gonna drop it. Replacement plan? Unnecessary expense. Why worry about something that’s not gonna happen?  After all, I’d dropped my previous phone onto a blacktop parking lot on more than one occasion with no problems.

You see where this is going?

Three months ago, I dropped my trusty phone. About 3 feet, onto a vinyl-over-concrete floor. Disaster. The screen shattered, never to work again. Not to worry, though. We had an extra smartphone that had been my wife’s before she upgraded, so I could make do with that until I was eligible for an upgrade in 9 months. Sure, it was an older phone, so it would be slower, but nothing I couldn’t handle for less than a year, right?

In the words of a 1980s video game, try again, space cadet.

Have you ever tried to go backward with today’s technology? You can’t. Once you get used to working at a certain speed, and with certain features, what was totally acceptable a year before is just intolerable.  Trying to use the slower phone made me crazy. It stressed me out on a daily basis. I started yelling at it, threatening to throw it onto a certain vinyl-over-concrete floor. Nothing worked.

Until the past weekend.  Getting the price right (which is to say nothing out-of-pocket) required gaming the system a bit, so our oldest cat is now the beneficiary of the third line we added, with her own number. And her Daddy-o got a bright, shiny new phone — of the “other” kind.

It’s intended for those who “think different.” So it works differently. Lots of stuff in unexpected places, a different Web browser,  a different keyboard.

The keyboard is an issue. I’m accustomed to having control over what keyboard I use, and strongly prefer one that works by swiping my finger over the keys, much like handwriting. Sorry, no.  The fruit vendors won’t let you do that. They insist the only way to write is to tap something out one letter at a time. Trust us, we know what’s best.

Frankly, that’s very close to a deal-breaker for me. Or it was until I got to work this morning.

The trusty old Android model could never pick up a signal while I was sitting at my desk. The new one does. OK, maybe there are some good things about this mysterious new beast after all. So I’ll adapt and make the best of it.

But Siri-ously,  they’re still dead wrong about the keyboard.


Say What? #1 — The Watchmaker’s Four

Welcome to the first edition of a feature likely to become a regular here at Rambs & Revs — the Say What?

Say What? will be a rant description of something that exists, but doesn’t make sense. (Insert your own Justin Bieber joke here.) There are a lot more of these things around that we realize, but I’ll try to keep ‘em down to a couple of times a month or so.

Today’s example is a good way to kick off the series: The Watchmaker’s Four.

Ever heard of the Watchmaker’s Four? No? Me neither, until I stumbled across it today. Here’s how it goes:

We’ve all had at least a cursory education in Roman numerals. It’s pretty straightforward that the sequence Paul McCartney counts off at the start of  “I Saw Her Standing There” is represented as I, II, III and IV.  (Or, in McCartney’s words, “one, two, three, faw!”)

And so it’s been for millennia — I, II, III, IV.  But some watchmakers, who produce impressively expensive timepieces made obsolete by the modern cellphone, don’t do it that way. Instead, they use:


Say What?  IIII?

It makes no logical sense. From a strictly numerical standpoint, it’s flat out wrong

It makes even less sense from a musical standpoint. Instead of McCartney’s “Faw,” Ay-Ay-Ay-Ay gives us Axl Rose’s howl in “Sweet Child O’Mine.” Hardly the same.

So what’s the reason IV it?

There are a number of explanations offered online. One alleges that King Louis XIV (irony alert!) of France insisted to a clockmaker that the correct way to depict the preteen part of his suffix was the now legendary IIII.  Seems a trifle apocryphal at best, that one.

Other explanations say it’s a matter of visual balance — the IV on the right side of the clock doesn’t balance with the VIII on the left.

There are other explanations as well, but none well-documented.

All things considered, it’s about as logical as paying thousands of dollars for a watch.


Music — The Universal Language

Marie-Chantal Toupin speaks my language. So does Marie Fredriksson. And Elefante.

That’s a little more complicated than you think. Like most Americans, I’m monolingual. Other than the occasional phrase (“c’est la vie”) that’s crossed borders, I speak and write only English. Toupin is French-Canadian. Fredriksson is Swedish. Elefante is a band from Mexico.

Yet all speak to me when they sing. Fredriksson is the only one who routinely sings in English, as a member of Roxette. She also sings in her native Swedish. To my knowledge, Toupin sings only in French, and Elefante only in Spanish.

But their voices, their emotions, transcend words. No matter what language they sing in, the feeling comes through. The music moves me. Even if I don’t know “Ta Vraie Nature” is French for “Your True Nature” (thanks, Google Translate!), Toupin’s wail and the guitars backing her make me feel what she means.

Some friends say they won’t listen to singers without knowing the language being sung. They have to know what’s being said in the lyrics before they’ll even consider the song. That’s unfortunate. They’re missing out on some great songs that could (literally) rock their world.

Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to explore the world. And when it comes to music, there’s so much out there for the listening. Go ahead, try something new today — even if you don’t speak the language, it will speak to you.  Here’s a couple of places to start:

Ta Vraie Nature — Marie-Chantal Toupin

Mentirosa — Elefante

Back To School

School started this week for the students in our fair county here in Florida. It brings back memories for me of the promise the first day of school always held, the first week really. Every new year was so full of new possibilities. Students, teachers, administrators, everyone was always brimming with the prospect of greatness.

Sure, it didn’t always work out quite that way. Boredom, social anxiety, tough classes, funding cutbacks, all take their toll as the year goes on. But for most, the year turns out OK by the following spring. And for now, the promise still remains.

So here’s to scholars of the 2014-15 school year. Good luck, and may all of you have a great year!

THIS is what youth sports should be

I’m pretty much a casual sports fan. I generally don’t follow any sport or team particularly closely, beyond a cursory reading of the sports page of the newspaper or news websites.  But every once in a while, something comes along to make me sit up and take notice. Such an event happened yesterday.

Youth sports get a bad rap sometimes. We’ve all heard about the screaming coaches, or worse, the screaming parents, who sometimes do little more than berate kids who, when it comes down to it, just want to have fun on the field.

On the other side, fortunately, are people like Dave Belisle. He coaches the Cumberland, R.I. Americans Little League baseball team. He embodies, in my opinion, the essence of what all youth sports should be. Read on, and you’ll see why.

The Americans lost a heartbreaker 8-7 in the Little League World Series Monday night. The game was televised on ESPN. After the game, the team was devastated by the loss, and still on camera.

Coach Belisle’s words could make or break his team’s memories of the game and the tournament. His response was so letter-perfect, so inspirational, that it brought a tear to the eye of more than one adult watching it.  He was still wearing an ESPN mic, which captured every word. Here’s the transcript, from ESPN’s website, of what Belisle told his team:

“Everybody heads up high, let’s talk for a moment here. Look, I gotta see your eyes, guys. There’s no disappointment in your effort. In the whole tournament, in the whole season, it’s been an incredible journey. Look at the score: 8-7, 12-10 in hits. It came to the last out, we didn’t quit.

“That’s us! Boys, that’s us. The only reason why I’ll probably end up shedding a tear is because this is the last time I’m going to end up coaching you guys. But I’m going to bring back with me … and you guys are going to bring back, something that no other team can provide but you guys, and that’s pride. Pride.

You’re going to take back for the rest of your life what you provided for a town in Cumberland. You had the whole place jumping. You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. Because you wanna know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys that don’t quit. They like guys that play the right way.

“We got down to the nitty gritty, we’re one of the best teams in the world. Think about that for a second — the world!

“We need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug and then we’re going to go celebrate. We’re going to celebrate with our parents, and then tomorrow we’re going to celebrate and come home to a big parade.

“I love you guys. I’m going to love you forever. You’ve given me the most precious moment of my athletic and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching a long time. I’m getting to be an old man, I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You’re all my boys. You’re the boys of summer.

“So for the last time we’re going to try to suck it up and we’re going to yell ‘Americans.’

“One, two, three, Americans!”

It’s all a matter of perspective

For an octopus, forewarned is eight-armed….

A New Phrase

On my lunch hour, watching a new 24-hour breakfast emporium being built, it occurred to me that the English language could use a new phrase:

“Built like a brick Waffle House.”

Robin Williams

This was going to be a day for a funny, lighthearted post.

Sorry, but I can’t think of anything funny today.

Even if I could, it would never have been anything nearly as funny as anything Robin Williams could come up with in his sleep. The world has lost a huge talent, an inventive mind and a wonderful soul.

It’s telling that so many people around the world are remembering their favorite Williams performance, posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs about them. No matter if it was a stand-up routine (my wife still talks about the time she saw him perform when she was in high school 30+ years ago), a movie or a television appearance. Everyone has a favorite.

It’s nearly inconceivable that a man who brought so much joy to so many others couldn’t find it in his own life. But that’s the paradox of depression. Sufferers often hide it from others with humor.

The late Jonathan Winters, Williams’ idol and mentor, battled depression for years, writing and speaking candidly about it in later life. Although it didn’t take his life the way it did Williams, it’s clear Winters’ life was shaped by it.

It’s an insidious disease, one that sneaks up without warning, a black cloud that can blot the sun before one realizes what’s happening. For too many — an estimated 30,000 people a year in the U.S. according to one news report — it makes suicide seem like the only solution.

But that doesn’t have to be. Help is available. Depression IS treatable. If Williams’ death changes the way we talk about depression, helps people understand there’s nothing to be ashamed of, he will have helped more people than he possibly could have imagined.

Rest in peace, Robin. The peace that eluded you for far too long.

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