Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saga, part 6, Fire

Building and maintaining a good fire is somewhat of an art. Most of the time for good times, hot dogs and marshmallows any old fire will do, and most people can get one going if not with at least a little bit of struggle.

But it's different if you really need a fire for cooking or warmth, and need it to last. Or like me, you just really enjoy building and maintaining a good fire. The difference is that it will be hotter, and it will more easily and efficiently use all of its fuel.

The most important words are "build," "teepee" and "maintain." If you build it properly to begin with, before you strike the match, you won't be "keeping it going" all night, you'll be maintaining what you built.

That old adage of building it like a teepee is exactly right. You don't want it "kind of like" one, you want it just like one, except you want it fairly solid. Starting at the center with the easiest thing you have to ignite, outward to the most difficult.

If you have something that's very easy to ignite like a little bit of fatlighter*, some store-bought firestarter or a book of matches with a lit cigarette stuck in it, then begin by making a very small bed for it out of something that fluffs or crinkles. Grass, leaves, etc., even something moist will do if you have nothing else, you're just getting some airflow up under it. If you're using paper, then that's what the bed will be, with some short twigs piled on top of it to hold it down a bit.

If dried grass or something is your starter, ball it up tightly - it needs airflow, but not much - and make it the small center of your build.

Also for grass or paper (-like things) you can jamb your first layer of small sticks into the ground a little to hold the balled-up shape.

Then start with your smallest, driest sticks and break a bunch of them just long enough to lean over the small pile and touch each other, and create a layer. Make it fairly thick, remember it needs air but not a whole lot. You can smother it, but it's not real easy to do. Remember to leave a small gap somewhere to reach through and light it when you're finished (and remember to keep the gap going). Then break some more that are just long enough to reach over that and touch. Keep that process going, building with longer and thicker pieces of wood as you go. If you have enough small stuff, fill in between the taller pieces in each layer with more short. Make sure that you keep the structure itself snugly intact as you go. By the time you start adding your big stuff, your split logs or whatever, you should easily be able to lean one against it. Go ahead and build a layer of logs, this is your one chance to make a nice, solid structure out of them too before they're hot.

Now reach in there and light the center. If you built it right, it will catch as quickly as your starter allows and then build up and outward rapidly.

The whole time it's burning, maintain the teepee shape, but fiddle with the coals as much as you can refrain from it. If you do that perfectly all night, this is what will happen:
As the wood burns it will gently and gradually fall toward the center.
Each falling layer will create a slightly taller central bed of coals that will hold up the next layer, maintaining the shape naturally.
The natural piling of the coals will keep the just-right amount of air that it needs (when you poke at it you smother it with the ashes that are underneath).
The very outside layer, and the portions of wood that aren't yet burning, creates an oven effect, keeping the coals hotter. This results in more heat for you, and a more efficient use of the available fuel.
You'll see each piece of wood wind up as a little, glowing wedge between the taller pieces, pointing at the center. If you're going to keep the fire going a long time, they'll just become coals as the bed grows. If not, nudge them gently into the center.

If you do it "just right" you won't be poking at it all night, wondering why it won't stay going. All you'll do is add 3 or 4 logs in a triangle over it from time to time. It will burn as hot and as long as is possible with the fuel available.

Which, with the limited amount of kindling I had, and the extremely dry state of the split logs I'd purchased, turned out to be about an hour and a half.

That's just as well, really. I can tend and watch a fire until the sun comes up, and enjoy it way more than TV, but on this night I wanted to get some sleep and wake up early.

I cooked hot dogs on a stick, black and cracked, and then ate half a bag of marshmallows, roasted obviously. I tended my fire and watched pine logs go up like gunpowder. I burned what I had, and when it was gone I packed up the rest of my food in grocery bags, double-bagged, and laid it all right up against the outside of my tent. The inside was already getting short on space, and I had to prioritize which things I would least want to have wet if it rained. Living as I was, I knew that if it started raining and my stuff got wet, it might stay that way for a while. The food was wrapped up in plastic anyway, and the most easily replaceable stuff. (This is known as foreshadowing.)

I crawled into my sleeping bag and easily fell into a deep, wonderful sleep. I sometimes wake up momentarily when I roll over or something, and each time I did that night I smiled, loving the feeling of the outside air. Feeling pretty good about the direction I was heading. One time I thought I heard rustling.

* "Fatlighter," also known as fatwood or lighter wood, is the resinous core of a pine tree. It ignites very easily, and burns hot enough to light the rest of your fuel on fire. Many store-bought firestarters are made from it, and so is turpentine. You can often scout around and find the stump of a fallen pine tree and harvest some of its core. To recognize it, it is denser than the surrounding wood, has an oily appearance and feels sticky (it will make a mess of you, and it's hard to wash off). It's a deep, brownish red, and has a distinctive, strong and sweet smell... kind of like Pinesol with a few drops of diesel in it. Its density means it doesn't burn very quickly, so you don't need to use much of it (if you have plenty, you can use more, larger pieces if the rest of your wood is wet). A few splinters as your build's center, and maybe a few longer pieces in your first layer should be enough. It burns with a thick, oily, black smoke, so it's probably a good idea to let it all burn away before you cook over your fire.

You can also cut a deep notch into a pine tree, or cut off a limb, and set up some kind of vessel to catch the thick, sticky sap that will bleed out of it. This sap is also highly flammable, so you can dip your kindling into it for easier lighting.
Use this method only in a survival situation. I don't want to start finding big notches cut into all the trees when I go to parks, and it will take a few days to get much of it anyway.

...And now you know why pine forests burn so quickly in forest fires.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What I Learned Today

Do you really "learn something new every day?"

Do you try to learn things, or let it happen as it will?

Those are just musings.
But I did just learn something. I was going to call this post "Note To Self" and not publish it (I've got lots of notes, ideas and outlines saved in my drafts), but I did kinda state at the beginning of this whole thing that I'm going to be learning as I go. My intent is to learn and grow from this, and I think it might be interesting to allow that learning process to be witnessed by my readers, intentionally.

It pertains to this "instant publishing" ability brought to us by lovely digital technology. I just published the next part of my summer story, having done minor previewing/editing and thinking it was good enough. That usually is good enough for my purposes, but I'm not trying to write "good" anymore, I'm trying to write "great." I want to go somewhere with this. After publishing it I took a look at it to make sure my pictures were showing up like I wanted. (They weren't but that's another story.) And of course I read the whole post again, and of course I found a few words and phrases here and there that could still use improvement. So of course to not slack off on my mission I set about making them better.

I changed a couple of things, republished, re-read up to that point (from the beginning, checking flow) and thought, "yeah, that's much better" and read on. And found more. Second verse same as the first, do it all again.

Perhaps it can be seen where I'm going with this.
I was eager to have something UP on the blog, so I kept re-publishing between edits, naively thinking that I wouldn't find more things to fix as I went along. Time flies when you're having fun, so this process probably took over an hour.

What if all my readers came on and read it in the first fifteen minutes?
Or spread out over time? They might have all read different "drafts" when really all it needed was two.
Maybe nobody read the best, finished version.

What if one of them was a publisher or somebody, and was almost impressed?

THIS post isn't edited at all. It's just a note to self, which is:

Don't be an overeager dumbass. (Why does the spellchecker think "dumbass" is spelled wrong?) Make sure it's the best it is going to be BEFORE clicking on "PUBLISH POST."

Saga, part 5, The Search for Camping

I've always been very spontaneous, more so than most people. Over the course of this summer I would take that to a whole new level, increasingly enjoying the nervous excitement of "not knowing what the hell I'm gonna do until I get there." Things usually work out (I'm resourceful), and when they don't it becomes an opportunity for creative problem solving. I grow from it, become smarter, stronger.

I had, prior to leaving home, found what I thought was a "decent" campground not too far from the company's hometown. However, it was in the opposite direction of the one I had traveled in that morning. I decided to forget about that one, for the time being, and look for something closer to where I was. I didn't figure it would be difficult... I was in a mountainous area, and campgrounds usually aren't too far apart. At least it seems that way when I ride randomly through the country on my bike and pass by them periodically. I know you're also usually not too far from a State Park (didn't I mention that already?).

I left the campus and rode into the nearby village. I found an older-style gas station - you know, just stand-up pumps with a lever, rotary digits and no card-swiper - and stopped to fill up and ask if they knew where a campground was. There wound up being more to it than a simple question, answer, get my change and go, and I like that. We should really talk to each other more, I think. The guys in the store didn't know of any that they could recall, but then another customer walked in who thought he did. He gave me some less-than-certain directions and it was confirmed by chants of "oh yeah, I think I remember that place" from the others, so I thanked him and headed out with confidence that I could find it.

It may interest you to know at this point that New York isn't exactly overbearing with its highway/road signage. This is a fact that certainly interested me at numerous points over the course of this past summer.

I followed the directions as best I could. It was easy to go past a turn because I couldn't tell what road it was, then find out by looking back over my shoulder at the sign for the other direction. This can be a fun, if not efficient, way of riding around. When you don't have to be anywhere soon you can go, "oh, that's where that is" and keep riding straight for a while. And the roads were fairly nice, and I started enjoying them a bit longer than I thought I should have without seeing a campground.

When I gave up I backtracked to a more modern gas station I'd passed and stopped with perfect timing. A couple on a bike pulled in and parked next to me, and thinking that another biker will know the location of a campground isn't usually like those "other" assumptions. They turned out to not have any idea about the one I'd been told about, but recommended Green Lakes State Park.

I went into the store, bought a map and borrowed a pen and piece of paper. I had a nice cup of coffee while I plotted a route to the park and wrote it down. I stowed the map and tucked my directions under the left side of my tank bib (so I can pull them out to glance at when I need to).

By now it was pretty close to rush hour, so I paid attention to how long it took me to get there so I'd know what to expect in the morning. The traffic wasn't too bad, but it was as slow as it always is when there's a bunch of it in front of you. It didn't bother me much though, the wonderment of being someplace new does a lot for the mood. Especially, I think, when it's in hilly territory.

I got to the park office a little after 5 and paid for a primitive site for a couple of nights, telling them that I'd like to be able to ride through and pick one. They went ahead and booked me one, but told me if I liked another one better I could call them and they'd just have to make sure it wasn't reserved.

The park did have campers in it on a Monday, including one other guy on a bike with his kid.

After some looking around I found that site 19 was perfect, and when I called they said it wasn't reserved till the weekend. That was fine because I wouldn't need it through the weekend. I took my luggage and sleeping bag off the bike and rode back up to the office for some firewood. I bought one bundle for 5 bucks, bungeed it to my passenger seat, and hauled it back to the site to make camp.

View from the "perfect" campsite:

The first thing I did was remove the wood from the seat so it wouldn't sit there and leave an impression in the vinyl.

Then I found a straight stick to use as a pole and carved the ends sharp with my hatchet, and cut a few small "V" shaped branches to use as stakes. I snapped my two Army ponchos together as my tent. Using theatrical tie-line (a high quality, braided and usually waxed twine, black) I tethered one end to a tree. At the other end, which would be the front*, I put the pole into the grommets and pulled it up and tight with more tie-line to two stakes at about 90 degrees from each other. More stakes for the side and corner grommets of the ponchos, and I had myself a nice, open-ended tent tall enough to sit up comfortably in. For good measure, in case it got breezy or rained, I unfolded an emergency blanket and gaff taped it (also a theatrical product, black) over the front opening of the tent from the inside so it would look nice and neat (and so that if I were to need to fix it in the rain, I wouldn't have to go outside to do it).

*The site was selected mostly for level/flatness and distance between the best tree for my purposes and the fire pit.

My tent:

I scouted around in the woods for sticks to use for the beginning of my fire, and pulled up a couple of armloads of tall weeds to use as bedding. I also found a nearby clearing that had just been mowed, so there was lots of soft grass clippings. I wished I'd done this scouting before I built the tent so I could carry a bunch of it in a poncho, and decided it would have to wait till I came back later with some grocery bags.

I then unpacked my luggage and one of my saddlebags (the other one carries the things that stay with the bike, like my rain gear) into the tent and reattached the luggage to the bike for a trip to the store. Before leaving I went up to the bathroom and chanced upon meeting the other motorcycle camper. In the short conversation that ensued he wound up telling me where I could find restaurants and a grocery store before I even thought to ask.

I donned my gear and got on the bike once again. I found the grocery store with little trouble, but it turned out to be what I thought was a "Fresh Market." Down here in the South that's a chain of organic and health food grocery stores, and while it's good stuff and I think mostly worth it, it was out of my current range of dependable powers of expenditure. Then I got to feel like a complete fool when I frustratedly asked some ladies in the parking lot where a "regular" grocery store was and found out that it was. It was actually called a P&C, but "P&C" wasn't nearly as big on the storefront as "Fresh Market" was. I swear.

So I went in and got, well... I hadn't been camping in a long time. So of course I got hot dogs and marshmallows. I got about a half pound selection of cookies from the bakery, and a couple of fresh bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. I got some rolls and some meat and cheese from the deli to make sandwiches to take for lunch, figuring I'd save time and money but still ride with the fellas (I'm a slow eater). I bought the smallest jar of mustard I could find. (It's kinda tricky trying to buy for literally a couple of days, because you don't have room for leftovers.) And I got a sixpack of, oh... how nice. They had a really decent beer selection, and I discovered that they also had multiple local and regional breweries (though I didn't yet know the full scope). I picked out a local stout, paid and grabbed a couple of their sale/coupon papers to use as kindling (I hadn't found any fatlighter on my brief scout). I packed it all onto the bike and headed back to the park.

I got back to my campsite just after dark, and the first thing I did was empty a couple of bags and make several trips to that field for grass clippings. I laid out a thick layer of them through the center of my tent, and then laid the taller stuff I'd gotten over them. Rolling out my Army sleeping bag and testing it out, I found it was damn near as comfortable as the bed I'd left at home. Then I packed a bunch of my things back into my luggage and tucked it into a corner, and laid the rest of my stuff along the sides of the tent.

I turned off my phone so it couldn't ring and attract attention to itself, walked a couple of campsites down to a powered one, and plugged it in to charge for a while.

Satisfied with my living quarters, I emptied out my water bottle, poured myself what turned out to be an excellent stout, and began the task of building my fire.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Saga part 4, The Stage Build

So I went over and found Mark and introduced myself. He was immediately friendly, and the first thing we did was walk over and take a look at Sugar, exchanging a few words about the ride up. I found out that he's heavily into bicycling, as I would soon learn lots of folks are Up North.

He also went ahead and gave me a couple hundred bucks, just like he'd said he would.

We kept the pleasantries to a minimum at that point, however. There was lots of work to get done. I asked him, "so where can I be most useful right now?" and he brought me over and introduced me to the Light Tech, Dan. I shook his hand and told him, "I've got my C-wrench and I'm ready to work." (Probably 90% of the tool work on lights, which is mostly installing and focusing them, is done with a Crescent wrench. The roof and truss that you see above the stage is built using only one size of wrench, and the particular stage that this company uses goes together with nothing but hammers and humans. The First Rule of Engineering is "don't make it any more complicated than it needs to be.")

He said we wouldn't be needing C-wrenches yet.

The rest of the crew was assembling the rectangular grid of truss which would be the roof, which was about finished at that point, and getting started building and raising the towers that would lift the whole thing. I was going to help Dan run cables through that truss to the lights and the motors.

The cables that run all those lights you see at a concert are usually what's called "Socapex." They're thick, heavy cables that are basically a whole bunch of extension cords in one. We call them "soco" or "mult" for short, and they save us the trouble of running 150 extension cords -one to each light. Each one usually powers six to eight lights (or anything else up there that needs power). They all get run through the truss to a single location, where they then drop down together neatly into "Lighting World." Lighting World is basically where all the power for lights, and everything else onstage that isn't sound, is routed and controlled. The majority of the power use of a concert is used there, and that's a lot of electricity. (It's more than enough to kill someone, which does happen occasionally when someone slips up. All of this is dangerous work, not like "incredibly" dangerous like some things, but enough so that all it takes is a "slip-up" for someone to get killed or permanently injured. Read further, oh interested one, for there is danger in this very tale.)

We got those run and connected and by that time the rest of the crew had the towers erected.

The roof, in brief:
10' lengths of truss are bolted together and to special corner blocks. A corner block has adjustable feet (screwjacks) for leveling the whole structure, and the base of a tower in its center. The outer portion that the rest of the truss bolts to has wheels pointing inward that grip the tower.
The towers are assembled laying down along the truss and then one side is attached to the base by a hinge. Ropes and muscles then heave the tower upward, and the base is bolted together. Once each tower is up and bolted, someone climbs up it to remove the ropes that were used to pull it up, and send one of them over pulleys on top of the tower so that chains can be pulled up and over.
Another length of truss, the same as the front and back, is then lifted on top of the existing rectangle which winds up creating the peak of the roof. Once the roof itself is attached, things called "chain motors" pull the whole thing up the towers.
A chain motor is a device that pulls chain through itself, gripping it tightly. It's useful for lifting very heavy loads such as stage roofs, or all the lighting and scenery truss you see over the stage at an indoor show.*

Once the roof was up, Dan and I were both freed to help build the stage itself.

The particular stage this company uses is really top-notch. It's both versatile and it goes together fairly easily. Mostly. Though it can be a real hassle if you don't get it really straight/square.

It begins with upright steel "ringers," which go on top of screwjacks for leveling. Ringers are stackable pieces that have a circular rings with holes in them. Long bars, called "ledgers" span between the rings, with a slot in their ends to wrap around them and then a pin that drops down through the holes... a few good whacks on those pins with a hammer and you have a good, solid structure. Longer pieces, which we called "diags" span diagonally in numerous places to help add strength to the overall structure. All of this can be built in almost any shape or configuration, for building fancier stages with risers, ramps, etc. These same parts also build the towers on the sides of the stage, called "wings."

The wings get wrapped with waterproofing, and they're where things like Lighting world and Monitor world go (on opposite sides of the stage), as well as where the main speaker stacks are hung. They're also, to me, quite fun to build. Climbing and working is hardly working to me, although obviously work is getting done.

Once the frame of the stage is built, the floor goes on. The top pieces that hold the flooring decks are the same as ledgers, except they have an extra, rectangular bar of steel welded to them. Most are flat, but the ones that go at the front and back of the stage have an extra piece of metal that sticks up to hold the decks in place. The whole thing is decked with sturdy, 4'x8' decks, and then they're all clamped together underneath with standard "C" clamps.

And... you have a completed stage.

We then raised the roof to a comfortable working height, and Dan and his other helper start getting lights hung from it and connected properly.

The rest of us weren't finished though. Since this company does "big shows," we then also build a loading dock for trucks and equipment off the back of the stage. Sometimes it's attached to the stage, sometimes not. Sometimes it's built exactly the same as the stage, only using all the less-desirable (less pretty, older) decks since the audience and most of the performers won't see it, sometimes it's built with standard scaffolding (and the same decks). This time we built a fairly large one out of scaffolding, not attached, long enough to back 4 trucks up to and connected to the stage by 2 long ramps.

During the course of the festival, the artists' equipment will be loaded off the trucks and "staged" on this dock until such a time as it's needed. (To avoid confusion... "stage" vs. "stage": Many kinds of work have a "staging area." This is where equipment, tools, personel, etc. are kept until they're needed.)

When it came lunchtime, I learned that we got a fairly strict 30 minutes. It takes time to warm up my bike and get all my protective gear on. Since I was also obviously interested in getting to know my co-workers, instead of messing with my bike and gear I just shouted, "who can I ride to lunch with today?" I kind of kept that as a theme most of the summer (when there were lots of us around, anyway), going with someone different most of the time.

This company, on normal days (pre and post festival/show) almost never works past 3 pm. Frankly, I enjoyed that a lot. It's nice to have the afternoon to do other things, especially in a situation such as mine. On this day we finished building the dock right at about 3, so we were done for the day after that.

Everyone went their separate ways and I set about finding a campground, with no plan or idea.

* Interested in an addendum? Hanging things overhead is an enormous responsibility. I'm sure if you've been to a concert you've noticed the enormous amount of metal stuff that's hanging over the stage and sometimes the audience. These things are not permanently attached, they are hung for the show. If they were to fall, and on rare occasions they do**, obviously someone or lots of someones can be hurt badly or killed.

The person who's responsible for hanging all that is called the Rigger (or the Head Rigger... often most of the people working under him... pun intended... are riggers too). If the rig comes down, he gets 100% of the blame. This is often, but not always, very technical work. There are lots of calculations involved. Even if one is working a big enough tour that they're carrying their own rigging, the "grid" (the internal roof structure of the venue) is always going to be different. Your rig is always the same, but how it attaches will be different in every venue.

**Don't let this make you afraid of going to concerts. Most of the time when a rig fails, it does so when it first goes up, long before the audience starts showing up. Also, even then people don't always get hurt: Usually when the rig is ready to go up the Rigger, or whoever's at the controls, will shout something along the lines of, "THE RIG'S FLYING!" and everyone will get clear of it until it's safely at "trim height" (simply meaning the height it's going to be). As it's going up all trained eyes (usually us techs have some basic rigging knowledge as well) will be on it, at least one pair watching each motor, and keeping watch for trouble. The person with the motor controls can't possibly watch ALL the motors, and sometimes there are minor problems... one might not be moving, or could be going the wrong way. None of us wants to get hurt or see a catastrophic failure, so we all watch the rig go up and will shout, "STOP" if we see any kind of problem or potential for one.

Usually a prudent Rigger will stop the rig at a comfortable working height and have someone (just one, that way there's no, "I thought HE got that one") go around and double-check every bolt, hook and shackle in the whole rig. Something simple like a shackle turned sidways against its load can cause a small failure, and once one point goes... well... The clanging and screeching of twisting metal ensues... lawyers are contacted... jobs are lost.

Usually lots of the experienced members of a stage crew will have at least some very basic knowledge of rigging, so that more eyes are capable of hopefully recognizing potential problems before they occur. Pretty much everything has to be "perfect" for the show to be its best, but mistakes in rigging don't just ruin the show. This would include things like how a shackle should be loaded properly, or noticing when something's bolted incorrectly.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

At the liquor store

I picked out my poison, went and got a cola out of the cooler, and got in line at the cash register.

While I was standing there, one of the employees went over and rearranged the cooler a bit, pulling bottles and cans forward so it all displayed properly. Then I changed my mind and decided I wanted ginger ale instead of cola.

So I walked back over to the cooler, and pushed back the cola bottle to make room to put mine back. I took a bottle of ginger ale and then reached back, pulled the next bottle forward so as to not mess up their display.

As I walked back over to the line I heard the owner, who was standing at their drive-through window, say, "thank you." I looked over and saw that he was saying it to me. Once he caught my eye he said it again.

It caught me by surprise for a moment to realize he had noticed me do such a little thing. And chosen to say so, us being strangers and all. Then I felt a little, tiny moment of pride. I smiled very big at him and gave him my best, "no problem," paid for my purchases and went on my way.

Pipe Dreams?

So I was looking around, trying to find useful forums in which to "advertise" my blog.
I've started saying something about it in the motorcycle forum that I frequent, and every time I have it's driven at least some traffic to the site. That has inspired me, and shown me how easy it CAN be to start building more readership.

I went to the website of my favorite magazine, because much of what will be my subject material is closely related to theirs. I figured that people interested in that magazine might also be interested in what I have to say.

Unfortunately, I didn't find a "forum" there, so the intent of my original efforts proved futile.

However, I learned something while I was there that kinda got me excited.

They are hiring.

I don't want to say too much yet, or even name the publication. With this blog, I'm trying to EASE my way into saying much of the things I want to say. I want to establish my style, my personality, and my intent gradually, and try as hard as I can to build initial readership while bypassing people's biases. My true intent is to COMMUNICATE things, and really to stop "preaching to the choir." To present information, and possible solutions, that are NOT based on BIAS, but facts, information and education. It's a delicate process, and I'm not even sure it's possible in our current cultural landscape.

To name the magazine at this point, or to even post the words they used in their "hiring" ad that really got me excited and made me feel like I have a chance, could jeopardize that intent. To do so might give a premature impression that I "lean" this way or that, when frankly I don't.

So, well, I don't guess this is a very informative post.

I just wanted to share my excitement at a POSSIBLE "dream job" that I'm going to try really hard to get.

The "what we're looking for" part of their ad is what gives me hope. My resume in no way demonstrates my eligibility for this job.
Number of "credentials" that I have on paper that demonstrate my eligibility: Zero.
Amount of "professional experience" I have that demonstrates same eligibility: Zero.

But the main part of that ad, what seems by ITS writing to be the most important criteria, fits me so perfectly it may as well have been written BY me.

And, it's a job WRITING. Something I do a lot, in some form or other, and something I believe I do extremely well.
So, theoretically I SHOULD be able to "write" something good enough to show them that no one else could possibly do this job as well as I can.

So that is my goal, and I'll begin it this evening (right now, in fact). I am going to attempt, by Monday morning, to write a "cover letter" and "why you should hire ME" that is so good, and relates so perfectly to their mission (I already do), that it would be crazy to consider hiring anyone else.

Wish me luck. If it works, obviously this blog will hear all about it, and probably be changed forever. If it doesn't, it will be back to business as usual, and I'll continue my gradual process.

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Prize

I got into a big discussion online about the over-inflated cost of medicines, and almost digressed into a diatribe about the overwhelming state of "depression" in our society. In order to keep that discussion reasonably on-topic, I told one of my forum friends that I'd save it for my blog.

So here I am.

But man... where the heck do I start on that one?
(I usually write "when the mood/inspiration strikes," but this time I'm going to write because I said I'm going to. It will be a good exercise on "writing" instead of my normal "letting it flow.")

This is a pretty deep subject, and one that I've put a lot of thought and reading into. I can go on and on about it, for sure, once I get myself going.

Well... According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics website 14% of Americans take antidepressants.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 9.5% of Americans suffer from "Mood Disorders," which include Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder.
According to another study, 12% of those interviewed met the criteria for Clinical Depression, and another 10% suffer from "frequent low mood," signs of which can include: difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, fatigue, difficulty in concentrating, and and ongoing case of "the blues."

Here we have 2 separate studies that show differing percentages: NIMH's 9.5%, and the other's (a study funded by BASF) 12%.
I believe it's very safe to say that there are LOTS of "depressed" people who are not accounted for in either statistic. Many people don't seek help for depression, and some aren't even aware they're depressed.
Heck, I myself am currently pretty "depressed," and I'm not seeking diagnosis, help, OR medication for it.

For the sake of the unmedicated, undiagnosed, and unaware, and this discussion... we're going to add up the "clinical" and the "low mood" to 22%, and then add a conservative 3% for the "unaccounted for," for a total of 25%. I think this is reasonable in my intended context, because "not as happy as one wants to be" concerns this subject just as much as "clinically depressed."
And frankly, I believe that's probably a lot more than 3% of our population.

We're by far the richest nation in the history of the Earth. We're "free."
We spend more money maintaining our lawns than the entire tax revenue of India.
What the heck do WE have to be depressed about?

Well... I believe we are a SOCIETY of depression, in the "pursuit of happiness."

Our Beloved Forefathers really nailed it when they included "the pursuit of happiness" in that famous document.
THAT is our goal in life. Almost every single other thing we do is based on that pursuit. Even when we perform charitable acts for others it is, deep down, because it makes us happy to do so.

At our core we really want just two things out of "life": To be HAPPY as much as possible, and to die with as little pain as possible. Everything else circles around and stems from these two basic desires.
("Happy," here, is sort of a catch-all bottle. It's the "core" of many other things... We need to be loved: feeling loved makes us happy; we need to be healthy: being unhealthy or in pain hinders our ability to be happy; etcetera.)

What I believe is askew is what we believe will make us happy, and there are very powerful reasons for that.
There ARE mechanisms in place that are designed to make us think the things we think will make us happy will make us happy.

These mechanisms are so complex and effective that we persist in our beliefs of what will "make us happy," even though it's not working. That fact is key to the whole problem.

I've heard it said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result." But part of the problem is that we've become so blind, so caught up in the bullshit, yes bullshit, that we've lost our ability to even SEE the result.

Our pursuit can be equated to the mentality of a compulsive gambler.
He "knows" that millions (happiness) are just around the corner... he keeps playing because he persists in his belief in the payoff.
But there's a big difference. In the compulsive gambler's world, HIS goal of happiness... "millions"... would be real if he were to win (and of course, he stopped with "good enough").

Here's the difference:
In our infinite quest for the payoff, "happiness," most of us are actually winning most hands we play. Where the problem lies is that when we WIN, we aren't any happier, and instead of switching to a different game we play again... thinking that if we just win BIGGER this time, it will work.
Most Americans get constant payoffs in this game, and yet 25% of us are depressed.

I suggest that it isn't whether we win or lose that's the problem. IT'S THE PRIZE. When we win, the prize doesn't do for us what we thought it would. Our sickness is that we play the same game again, for essentially the same prize, and think the prize is going to do what we expect this time.

We stay depressed, "not happy," because the we can't seem to figure out that what we THINK will make us happy won't. And to top it off, we keep working ourselves harder and harder, stressing ourselves out more and more, trying to get that same prize.

So what is this "prize" of which I speak?


This stuff, that stuff, the same stuff he has, some different stuff, cheap stuff, expensive stuff, somebody else's stuff, some stuff to call my own. It's all the same, essentially. We acquire most of it for the same reasons, and we all get as much of it as we possibly can. "He who dies with the most toys wins."

All our lives are wrapped up in stuff. Our home is stuff, and we put all our other stuff in it. We entertain ourselves almost entirely (most of us entirely) with stuff: the TV being the biggest, but all the rest of our stuff, our boats and jetskis, our golf clubs, our video game system(s), our computer, our fancy pop-up camper, our specialty appliances (like a breadmaker or bagel slicer), our car(s). Even the "good things" like books. It's all stuff.

Obviously most of our "necessities" are stuff, our stove, refrigerator, SOME form of transportation.......

We have even come to define ourselves with stuff. "Which brand I choose" has become the number one way a person in our society tells others "who I am," especially in the younger generations. (Even hippies and punks are paying top dollar these days for "brand name" clothes and accessories... wtf?)
Are you the kind of person who would buy a Mercedes, or a BMW?

Our lives are so completely wrapped up in stuff that's easy to start believing that if we have more and better STUFF, we'll have a better LIFE. We'll be happier.
And we are coerced, seduced, persuaded and otherwise influenced into not only persisting in, but increasing, this belief. Not by "people," but by desire for ever-increasing profits at any cost.

We constantly strive for a BETTER home, a BETTER car, a BETTER toaster.
We're really not as happy as we'd like to be, and we are surrounded by sources that are telling us that if we have better stuff, we'll be happier.
So we work harder. We educate ourselves in the direction of what career will give us the most money (not necessarily something that interests us in any other way). And work even harder.
And, hopefully, we achieve more "success."

Everyone knows that when we get more income, our expenses tend to rise accordingly.
When we get that promotion, we buy a bigger house and a nicer car. We put our kids into "nicer" daycares, maybe we get pregnant again. We get a better toaster, and a bagel slicer.

Or maybe we finally buy our first NEW car, and move into a nicer rental. Bring the old toaster.

But if more than 25% of us are depressed, and "most" of us are "middle class," that means that a lot of people who are doing "pretty good" at that game aren't getting any happier.

The bagel slicer looks neat on the counter, and we can make breakfast 16 seconds quicker, but we don't FEEL any better than when we were still using a knife.
We can now see the HD television from the other side of the pool, but we're no happier than when we were watching an old 21" Magnavox in a double-wide.

I heard a show on NPR where they were talking about "the definition of rich."
A lady had written a letter saying that she was surprised when she totalled up how much money she and her husband "brought home" and found that it was well over $100,000/year. She said she still wonders every week where the daycare payment is going to come from.
An art dealer called in and said that he defined "rich" as when someone could walk into a store like his, find a $10,000 painting, and say "I'll take it" without having to spend a minute thinking about what other things they'd have to sacrifice to get it.

In our society, that really takes a LOT of income. Even millionaires fit the mold of "increased income = increased bills." Payments on yachts, huge homes, a few extra huge vacation homes, etc. can wind up meaning the "rich" guy doesn't have much more "leftover" money than you do.
And it turns out that he isn't any happier either.

All this makes a pretty good case that maybe it isn't stuff that will make us happy after all.

In fact, since STRESS tends to really bum us out, and most of us work stressful JOBS to pay for the stuff... maybe it's precisely the pursuit of that stuff that's making us so miserable.
And frankly, when we're not working we're constantly "entertaining" ourselves with our stuff... watching TV, playing video games, chatting online about what we saw on TV, chatting on Twitter about what we had for dinner, updating our facebook, getting drunk at clubs...
We never just take time to THINK.

So we never re-evaluate our situation.
We never take the time to wonder if, since we're not as happy as we'd like to be, maybe we are doing something wrong.
Maybe, just maybe, what we think should be our "goals" aren't really what's best for us.

Maybe the pretty girl in the commercial is... wrong.

I propose that we do just that. We turn off the stuff, for just a few precious minutes, and do a little thinking. We re-evaluate what we truly NEED in life, to be HAPPY.

Start by spending a few minutes reminiscing on your "happiest moments."
Are they something you saw on your television?

Obviously there are many needs in life that require stuff, and even "life's needs" can be tied to your happiness.
You need clothing. You'd be pretty unhappy if you were cold, wet and naked. But are you any happier wearing Hilfiger than Levis, or vice versa?
I need a home, a roof over my head to protect me from the elements, but do I need a big, fancy house on the island? Me, personally... I live alone, and simple, and frankly I don't enjoy doing much cleaning... a crappy little two-room apartment suits me just fine.

And of course the more direct happiness things: I love to read, and books are stuff. (Though it's not about "having" books. Frankly I prefer to give the good ones away.) I'm very happy when I'm riding my motorcycle. I love to watch movies, so a TV is pretty handy... but I can also watch them on my computer, so do I need both?
But they don't HAVE to be brand new, hardcover, expensive books. And it doesn't HAVE to be a $50,000 custom chopper. Would I be happier riding the chopper? Honestly, deep down, no. It's "the ride" that does it.

Think about, and perhaps list, what you would truly NEED to be as happy as you think would be reasonable. Try and focus on the difference between the "need" and what you think you "want."

Maybe you love to go fishing with your brother, or your son. So a boat and something big enough (big enough) to carry it would be awfully useful. But does it really "need" to be a big, fancy boat, or as far as your happiness is concerned will a little ol' John boat do?
When you look back on those fishing trips is it the boat you're going to be thinking about, or fishing with your brother?

When I list what I need to be happy, most of it is relatively inexpensive. The top things on the list are free.
At least one real friend.
Good conversation.
Learning about things that interest me.

Once you have this list, if you are so bold, you can begin to adjust your work and lifestyle around it.

I believe what we do for work, for our income, is a POWERFUL influence in our lives, who we are and what/how we feel. Most of us spend well over half of our waking hours at, and commuting to, our jobs. What we do, who we are, and how we feel at work, is pretty much what we do/are/feel. If our job pisses us off, we're pretty much pissed off most of our days. If our job stresses us out, we're pretty much just stressed out (stress doesn't exactly just "go away" when you get home to your stuff).
Heck, even if our stuff WAS what makes us happy, we still spend more time getting pissed off and stressed out than we do playing with our stuff.

So here's what you could do:
Say you used to be a carpenter, and you loved it. You like building things, being outdoors, working with your hands. You decided to start a family, and of course you were going to start needing a lot more stuff, so you went to school and learned to be a computer programmer because it wound up having the potential to make you more than a carpenter's wages.
But you hate it. You're indoors all day, in a cubicle under flourescent lights, staring at a screen.
Since most of the hours of your every day suck, your life pretty much sucks, and you're miserable. Like 14% of Americans, you take antidepressants to get through your days.

We tend to be most happy when our interests are stimulated, and I believe that most people have "interests" that are useful to others in some way. In other words, that can be applied in SOME way to a "job." Doing a job all day long every day that bores the hell out of you is just as stressful as one that makes you mad.

If it turns out that you really don't NEED all the stuff, or as much stuff, or the "best" stuff necessarily (are you going to be happier with the new 81" TV this Christmas than you are now with the crappy old 76" one you bought last year?), maybe you could cut back a lot on your expenses and debts, do something that interests you or that you even love, for less money, and live happier.

Maybe you don't really NEED a Cadillac Escalade for carrying groceries and kids. Moms in the '60s did just fine with station wagons.
You could buy used. (A "new" vehicle has proven to be the worst possible "investment" in our society.)

Maybe you don't need a new pair of Nike's to replace the ones that fell apart or went out of "style" in 6 months ("quality" is another fairly deep and loosely related subject... for another blog).
You could get a pair of less-popular, but better quality shoes that will last you 3 years. Or learn about a company like Danner who will sell you a boot for around $250-300 that, with refurbishing every few years, will last the rest of your life. (Another concept of value - spending a little more on something that lasts proportionately WAY longer - that has somehow gone by the wayside in our society.)

Maybe... just maybe... if you didn't work SO hard, ALL the time, doing something that at least doesn't stimulate and interest you, at worst makes you miserable most of the time, to pay for all this stuff that isn't really doing anything for you... you could be happy sometimes.

You can play the game less, and win more.

To be further explored in subsequent ramblings:
The relationship of "cheap goods."
What influencing forces we, as individuals, have to overcome.