I have a new (tech) blog

Since I’ve been going through this career transition to become a software developer, a lot of my energy has been focused on technical stuff. But this has never really been a technical blog. This is a personal space. So I’ve decided to keep the two separate rather than trying to distinguish between technical and personal posts here. The new blog, for anybody who’s interested, is at http://htddi.wordpress.com. It’s called “How This Dummy Did It,” and it has a total of two (2) posts! But don’t worry, the three people who read this blog (thanks Mom, Shai, and SpamBot!), I’ll still be posting here as infrequently as ever.


Blog Reset: The Wolf of Wall Street – Uh oh… I liked it!

I’ve had several blopics (blog topics) on my mind lately, but I got a bunch of DVDs over the last couple months that weren’t going to watch themselves, so I’ve been contributing that way. You’re welcome Bruce Willis, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, and Timothy Olyphant.

Last night I topped it off with some Wolf of Wall Street. Before I tell you how I feel about it, let me throw out the titles of a few movies I think are awesome so you can get a sense of my taste. That way you’ll know if there’s any reason you should keep trying to decide if you’re interested in reading the rest of this blog post. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to reflect thoughtfully. (Further spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal key plot points, including the end of the movie when a sharknado throws a bunch of snakes out of the ocean onto a plane with Stacks Edwards on it… or was that Rocky IV?))

Movies I think are awesome, in no particular order: The Departed, Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Memento, Robin Hood (Disney animated version), The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, Little Big Man, Stranger Than Fiction, Tootsie, Pay It Forward, As Good As It Gets, Meet Joe Black, Footloose, The Social Network, Moneyball, Gremlins, The Third Man, The Other Guys, The Heat, Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Rocky, Rocky II, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream, There Will Be Blood, Zero Dark Thirty, The Fighter, Dumb and Dumber, Tommy Boy… There’s a lot of dark movies on there. Remember that part in Winnie The Pooh when he had the nightmare about the heffalumps and woozles? (Shudder.) I might be a little messed up.

Ok. If we’re in agreement about at least 60% of the above list being good movies, we can probably have a decent conversation about The Wolf of Wall Street. If not, I’m not interested in trying to convince you. Move along.

Full disclaimer: I love Scorsese. There’s some hero worship in this experience for me. I look for reasons to like his movies because I trust him as a director. I don’t think he always knocks it out of the park, but I do know he’s thoughtful and invested in deep emotional experiences. So I’m definitely biased. It’s possible that The Wolf of Wall Street has no redeeming qualities, and I’m just making stuff up to validate Scorsese. If so, forgive me. I can’t help it. He’s just so awesome!

Now let’s get one more thing out of the way. The Wolf of Wall Street is full of debauchery. I’m not going to romanticize it. It’s disgusting, and it’s supposed to be. I don’t get the argument, however, that it’s misogynistic. I’m on the side of those who say that it’s a depiction of misogyny–and one that deplores it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say something daring that no one else is saying: The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s Anchorman. Oh. I said it. (Consider yourself disarmed by my humor!)

Wolf makes audiences uncomfortable (hopefully) for a reason: these characters are terrible. Much like the characters in Breaking Bad, there’s little or nothing that redeems them. They do whatever they want and take whatever they want because they can. Their lives are a non-stop binge on primal urges. I’ll say it again: it’s disgusting. And it’s supposed to be. What makes it controversial is that it’s not exactly a deterrent, either. That would be overly simplistic.

Scorsese’s bread and butter is making movies about bad guys who aren’t as one-dimensional as we’d like them to be. They’re almost never stories about good guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the characters aren’t twisted psychos we can’t understand, either. (Ok, I’ll give you Bickle and DeVito.) They don’t start off as monsters. Worst case scenario, they start off as jerks–guys your mother warns you away from cuz they’re bound to get you into mischief–or nobodies–guys who spend their youth getting angry because their parents tell them they’re worthless and the rest of the world seems to follow that lead. They’re looking for their chance to get out of something bad, boring, or both, and every opportunity, any form of power (drugs, violence, repairing neglected automatons) is a welcome one. Wolf is no different. There’s actually an argument to be made that Wolf is Goodfellas on Wall Street.

But Scorsese’s movies aren’t PSAs to warn people away from degenerate life. At least, that’s not how I receive them. Scorsese’s best films flesh out an experience and perspective that the vast majority of us are lucky enough not to live through first hand. That luck also makes too many of us immune to any empathy, sympathy, or fair judgment of people outside of our normal experience–regardless of whether or not they deserve it. We prefer the characters who are simply evil and who get what’s coming to them in the end, preferably at the hand of whatever boy scout (sorry–couldn’t think of a gender-neutral term that conveys the same thing) has been exercising self-restraint and general goody-two-shoes-ness while the villain enjoys wanton luxury. Watching killers tell jokes we think are funny, cook awesome spaghetti, display admirable traits like leadership, loyalty, loving friendship, intelligence, and a knack for innovation–not to mention their fantastic charisma–makes condemning them harder. It makes us want to believe more in redemption and how far its reach extends.

The tragedy of the men in these films is that redemption usually doesn’t come–or they don’t want it when it does. That’s Belfort’s downfall.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort has everything you want. He has a few problems and hopefully a thousand character traits you don’t want, but unless you’re Buddhist-Amish (you have to see the movie to really get that reference), he has everything you ever bought a poster of and hung on your wall. He has those fancy sheets and sharp shoes you save up for. He made that $72k in a month you were hoping your software start-up would lead to. This is where you expect some morality tale about how it’s never enough, and how love is the answer. Sorry. Spoiler alert: love does not save Jordan Belfort. (Further spoiler alert: Do not get on a boat with Leonardo DiCaprio… ever.)

Belfort also does a lot of drugs. He likes it, and most of the scenes depicting drug use are funny. Most of the audience I saw the movie with was laughing out loud at the country club scene. That’s one of the many scenes that shows how ripe the film is for controversy. It’s funny, but it’s also terrifying. You’d expect there to be a lesson here, too. Even though drugs may appear fun, look what they can do to you: they can make it impossible for you to function and respond to crisis. Counterpoint: (Spoiler alert) Sobriety is so boring it makes Belfort want to kill himself. Further counterpoint: (Spoiler alert again) drugs also help Belfort regain his senses and save the day. You want a lesson on the dangers of drugs? Try Aronofsky.

I’m not saying Scorsese is hawking the addict’s life. Heaven knows he’s fought his own demons on that front. But in this narrative, the consequences of doing drugs are that hilarity ensues and brilliant business ideas are born. When Belfort finally gets caught (retroactive spoiler alert… but seriously, there’s been like seven spoiler alerts in here… if you didn’t want to me to spoiler you, why are you still reading?), I don’t even remember drug charges being on the list of his indictable offenses. Drugs = success.

There’s also a lot of sex and nudity in this film. A lot. You can find the arguments about whether or not its necessary for the story (and whether or not telling that part of the story in such vivid detail is necessary) in other places. I’m less interested in that argument. What I find interesting about the sex in this film is that there’s next to nothing in this movie that’s romantic, sensual, or erotic. It shows us that sex isn’t beautiful and desirable. Outside of the context of any moral boundaries, intellectual rituals, or emotional connection (and for a lot of more conservative folks, the bonds of holy matrimony), sex is purely transactional. It’s a trade on the market floor. And the question here is, What does that transaction look like when you’re trying to get something for nothing, or for as little as possible? It prompts a question about what we want, what we think we want, and what we get when we decouple and isolate one thing we want (satisfying the id by obeying primal urges) from another (investing in abstract complexities like love). In this context, it’s not pretty.

You: But you liked it. Why? If everything about it is supposed to be disgusting, why did you like it, Tyler Nicholas Moore? I mean we saw the list of movies you think are awesome, and while no one is arguing with you about Die Hard and Winnie-The-Pooh, there’s a lot of dark stuff there. Why aren’t there more ABC Family movies on that list? We know you liked The Mistletones and that one with Amy Smart. Those promote more positive morals and uplifting attitudes. Shoudn’t we seek these things out? You’re a Mormon. Thirteenth article of faith, and all that.

Back to me:

Valid points. Let me make it clear that I’m not recommending this movie. I think most people I know would go away from this movie feeling rotten. It would make my wife physically ill. A lot of my friends would probably walk out of it. I wouldn’t blame them. It’s a three-hour romp through all the things their parents and church leaders have told them all their lives that they shouldn’t be looking at or thinking about, let alone paying money to ingest. So why did I like it?

Well, in part for all the reasons I like Scorsese’s other films. (See above.) But ultimately I liked it for the question it prompts at the end.

The friend I was with commented as we were walking out of the theater that the movie kind of fizzles out at the end. You could argue that it’s a pacing problem. But I think it’s just about right. The final scene shows (spoiler alert: the stuff about the sharknado before was a lie–I’m going to reveal the actual ending now) Belfort leading a training seminar on how to be a better salesman. Belfort takes a pen out of his pocket and says, “Sell me this pen.” One by one, the folks at the seminar take a stab at it,  saying things like, “It’s a very good pen,” and, “Personally, I love this pen,” as Belfort quickly takes the pen back and gives it to the next person in line. The camera pans a few rows back and hovers on the crowd before fading to black.

I read an article that says this is the part of the movie where we’re supposed to see ourselves in this picture, at rapt attention, waiting to see what Belfort will do next, excited about it, and ask if we’re just as bad as all the folks in the movie–if, given all the same opportunities and circumstances, we wouldn’t do exactly what they did. Ok. I see that. I mean, a few paragraphs ago I made a very similar argument about what Scorsese does. But I’m not convinced.

Throughout the film, we get to see several of the speeches Belfort makes on the trading floor of Stratton Oakmont. Oh my, are they something. He’s brilliant. If Leo gets the Oscar, you can be sure that this is where he earned it. He is passionate and primal. We watch as the muscles in his face and neck twist into the disfigured portrait of a warlord about to lead his troops into a battle guaranteed to be bloody. There’s nobody in this room who’s thinking, “It’s just a job, just money.” They eat up every word. You can see the adrenaline surge through the crowd. They scream, chant, dance. They desperately want to win the day by making a ton of money. It’s what living means to them.

You know the inspirational moment before every battle scene in every war movie ever? The Wolf of Wall Street can match the best of them, and would put most to shame.

Back to the scene in the hotel. It mimics a scene from early on in the film where Belfort rounded up his original sales team–a pack of degenerate chauvinists whose primary experience was in the pot business. When he performs the pen exercise with this group, one of the characters, Brad, takes the pen from Belfort and says, “Write your name on that napkin.” Belfort replies, “I can’t. I don’t have a pen.” Says the dope dealer with the pen, “There you go, supply and demand.” The difference between this guy and the folks at the sales seminar at the end? The folks at the end are trying to sell a pen. Brad is selling the solution to a problem. He makes his customer aware that something’s missing, out of his reach, and provides a tool to close the gap. Smart. Really smart.

So why come back to this at the end of the film? If you’ve seen it, think of three other moments: When Donnie meets Belfort for the first time (“You show me a pay stub for $72k, and I’ll quite my job and come work for you right now”), the conversation between Belfort and the FBI on the yacht, and the FBI agent on the subway near the end of the film. The question I think Scorsese wants us to think about is this: What else does drive and desire look like?

That’s what I like about the movie–not that it makes me wonder if I’d do exactly the same thing given the same circumstances. I know I’m not much like Jordan Belfort, but I also know I can’t take any virtue or vice for granted in the context of The Wolf of Wall Street. It forces me to recalibrate my moral compass. It forces me to consider how I think about what I want and the cost of getting it. What is my drive, and how is it different?

In the end, it sent me on my way with a little wider perspective on life and made me think hard about what I’m working for and want my life to be. (Also, Jonah Hill’s performance as Donnie Azoff is off-the-charts amazing!) I’m not saying The Wolf of Wall Street is the only thing that could have brought me to that place. But that’s what I like about it. That’s what made watching it an enriching experience for me and made me want to add my voice to the conversation. You know, since everybody’s been waiting all month to find out what I thought about it. Sorry it took me so long.

Love and kisses,


How to Turn a Degree in English Into an IT Career

[Insert necessary comments about time since last post here. And it works, by the way–singing to the dog. He hasn’t pooped in the house since then.]

Shout outs: Congrats to Jenny McKeel, for making an appearance in Wired, my favorite magazine! (Double congrats for all the cool things she’s doing there!) And congrats to Claire Vaye Watkins, whose book I saw in the Salt Lake Airport! Way to go!

My current title is Enterprise Applications Analyst/Programmer at Pillsbury law. I’m an IT professional, which may come as a surprise to some of you. I’m also the co-founder of a small software company, Eunides Technologies. This has been a pretty big shift for my career. And another shift is coming.

Shai has been offered the opportunity to get her MBA from The Ohio State University. Of course, that means two more years of season tickets to Buckeyes football, so we have to do it. That means I’m looking for my next career opportunity. Yes, Ohio State does need a new President. And yes, I moved from Columbus to Nashville and am now coming back to Columbus. And yes, I’m Mormon. So, yes, I’m clearly the perfect candidate to replace Gordon Gee. But I’m still pretty interested in the IT thing. I’m staying focused on that right now.

In speaking to potential employers, I’ve been answering a similar question repeatedly, and it’s got me thinking about the wiggly-waggly path I’ve been on. That question is this: You have a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. How did you end up in IT? Well, here’s the answer.

Let me cliche this a bit and say that the real question might be how did I end up in English and Creative Writing? When I was in seventh grade, all I wanted to do was work with computers. My aunt Tami bought me a book on HTML 4 and I devoured it and started writing awful websites. I learned some Java and C++. I signed up for a class on BASIC at school, and I was pretty good.

It helped that my dad was a bit of a gadget guy. He wasn’t much of a tinkerer or anything, but we had a computer in the house, and we had the internet before Google was a thing. I was lucky he trusted me enough to let me play around.

Well, the army moved us to Germany, and I went from BASIC to QBASIC. A couple weeks into it, my instructor said, “I think you already know more about this than I know. Keep yourself busy.” The interwebs were much more expensive in Germany at the time, and so I didn’t have the access to the growing online knowledge base I had before. I had a harder time getting a hold of books and finding a like-minded community. So I started exploring other outlets. That’s when I taught myself to play guitar and wrote the classic hit “The Happy People Go” with David Barbee.

The happy people go
Around and round and round
And up and down
On their horsies and little swingies
Until one day
Someone blew up the park
And now they’re all dark
Because they’re all burnt!

You may not have heard it before. It was really only big in Belarus, although it was quickly overshadowed by Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.”

I’d always been a bit of a writer, and writing songs really caught my interest, and then poetry. For a while I wanted to study music, but eventually I landed in literature. I’ve played it over in my head a few times, and I can’t figure out why I never really considered studying computer science in school. I’m definitely glad I studied English, though.

All this to say that while the shift from English and teaching to IT is certainly a big one on the surface, to some degree I’ve been on this road for a long time. In college, I worked as an AutoCAD designer. I built a database and website of Emily Dickinson’s references to the Bible as a graduate project (http://sapphirefellows.zzl.org). Granted, there’s a difference between a hobby and a profession, but mostly that difference is how much you get paid to do it.

You can see by now that the title of the post is a little misleading. I didn’t exactly turn a degree in English into an IT Career. Still, when you’re getting a degree in Literature and Creative Writing, a lot of people ask you what you plan on doing with that. IT careers aren’t on that list. It’s an unusual path. I recognize that. It’s kind of exciting, right?

There’s another question that doesn’t come up often enough, though and that is, IMHO, much more important. The way people ask the question of how I came into IT from an English background implies that the two skill sets are unrelated and possibly irrelevant to one another. Fair enough. Feminist criticism hasn’t had much of an influence on my C# code. But a lot of what I learned as an English major has been incredibly applicable in my current career and often has made me a stand-out candidate. I’ll explain why in my next post!

No More Pooping in the House

Not me, of course. If I poop anywhere but in the house, I’m pretty sure a fine would be involved, if not some jail time. But our puppy, who has up until this point always been extremely good about always asking to go outside, recently pooped right in front of us. In the dining room. And a couple days later (this morning), he peed on the carpet right in front of Shai.

Granted, our schedule has changed quite a bit since I got this new job. Maybe that shift has been hard on him. He’s used to someone being around a lot of the time, since when I was teaching I was working from home two days a week. (He just came in and sniffed at my knee. He must know I’m writing about him.)

We thought he might be afraid of going out in the back yard. He used to always want to be outside. Over the last month or so, though, he doesn’t like to go out unless someone goes with him. And then he wants to play. He can’t focus on the business at hand. (Actually, you never want that business anywhere near your hand. Hands are for shaking, grabbing Cheetos fistfuls at a time, and hiding in your sleeves when you want to make small children and other gullible people believe you have no hands. (Look, ma! No hands! (Also, they’re for telling you your future. You know, if you meet a psychic (or a shyster (I really thought that word would have been spelled scheister))))). I know he’s been attacked by birds in the past. Maybe he’s terrified of the arena that is our backyard now.

Anyone know anything about yorkie psychology? Or poodle psychology? Is this a phase? Is he crying out for attention (he gets lots when we’re home, btw)? If we put a gate up to keep him in the kitchen, will that make it worse or better? Is four years too old for puppy pads?

In other news, I’m working on a new duet. It’s pretty exciting. It’s been a long time since a melody has asserted itself on all my thoughts. I’ve got the first verse, the chorus, and the fiddle solo. I just need a little more to finish it off. A good second verse, maybe a bridge. I sang what I have so far for Shai the other day. She said it’s really cute. She’s a woman of discriminating taste, so I’m pretty sure I’m onto something.

How about that soccer team, huh? Go USA!!!

Quantum Mechanics, My Hearing, and Simple Macros

I went to an audiologist this morning. Turns out there’s nothing wrong with my hearing, which is good news and bad news. Hearing that your body is in good shape is always encouraging. It’s especially nice to have a professional ear-looker-inner tell you that there’s no wax in there. That’s a win in the Personal Hygiene column. (Is there an Olympics for clean ears? If there is, can my medal have chocolate in it?)

Unfortunately, having good hearing doesn’t explain my poor hearing. Lately almost every time Shai talks to me, especially if there’s any other noise at all (like a cricket two blocks away), I have to ask her to repeat herself. (It’s annoying for both of us. You know. You’ve been there.) I also have trouble hearing in public places. Sounds just start to blend together. This is one of the reasons social events wear me out. It takes so much effort just to be part of the conversation. Also, there are certain people I can’t understand on the phone at all (sorry for not calling).

Saturday night, while we were watching Barry Manilow put on what’s actually a pretty impressive show for a guy his age whose lips don’t move, I plugged up my left ear due to some excessive whooping (yes, people whoop at Barry Manilow concerts… as he said, he was the Justin Bieber of the 70s (c’mon, Barry. I think we both know that David Cassidy was the Justin Bieber of the 70s)) and I realized that everything sounded muffled. Being the inquisitive analytic that I am, I plugged up the right ear and opened the left. Total clarity. I did this a few more times. Same results.

I thought maybe it had something to do with the concert, but ever since then I’ve been plugging up my ears one at a time. Regardless of the situation and the stimuli, I get the same result. I don’t lack hearing in my right ear, but that ear doesn’t detect any crispness or clarity.

In addition to the muffling, the audiologist told me it sounds like I have something called “recruitment,” or “loudness recruitment.” I like to say that because it seems very official. Instead of saying, “Sometimes things aren’t loud enough, but then when they’re loud enough they’re too loud (ever have that with the TV? You can’t hear it, you can’t hear it, you can’t hear it, then you hit one more notch on the volume and it’s too loud? (6 o’ 1, as they say))” like a wiener, I can say, “Oh, would you mind putting that television on mute? I’ve got loudness recruitment. It responds particularly poorly to Spongebob.” (Do people still watch Spongebob? Are there young adults who are nostalgic for it?) (Also it doesn’t do well with morning talk shows, anything any sports commentator says about anything, or the new Meow Mix commercials–you already played that card, Meow Mix; what’s next? Is Dominoes going to release an app that makes us make our own pizzas as we avoid the Noid?)

I also think it makes me sound like I’m in a club, or working for a really annoying headhunting agency. “I’M HERE WITH LOUDNESS RECRUITMENT!!! AND I WANNA HEAR WHAT YOU’VE GOT! HOW LOUD CAN YOU BE?!?”

“Oh, but not too loud. Then it hurts my ears.”

“No. It just seems like I’m a wiener. It’s a real medical thing. Basically my doctor says if you talk too loud, my punching you in the throat is reasonable self defense.”

Now I have to punch you in the throat or else you’ll definitely think I’m a wiener. I really backed myself into a corner on that one.

So my audiologist referred me to some folks with more expensive tools. I don’t know how much further I’ll pursue it. It’d be nice to know what’s actually going on and find out if there’s a fix. And the part of me that thinks that way will probably eventually win out. I think that still being so new on the job, though, I’m a little hesitant to start thinking about how many doctor’s appointments I can cram in for what amounts to an unessential investigation of my good hearing. Put that in your blender and set it to Smoothie, curiosity! (You wait. Before the Olympics are over, that’ll be a catch phrase.)

Work is going really well so far. We’re in our last week of training. Training, though, has mostly meant “low volume of work.” It’s not very regimented or instructional. It’s on-the-job training, which I respond well to. I like to be in an environment where someone lets me make some mistakes and comes around later to point out the right way to do it. On those rare occasions that I get it wrong, of course. (Insert over-inflated self-confidence here.)

I’ve been using a lot of my time to learn about and write simple macros for Microsoft Word. Nothing revolutionary. I’m sure anyone who actually knows what they’re doing would scoff at the sloppiness of my code. Well, put my macros in a blender and set them to Smoothie, scoffing geeks! My macros work! (That’s a weird tone for me, don’t you think? A little more self-righteous than usual. Might be the Mountain Dew.)

For those of you who don’t know what macros are, they’re little bits of computer code that instruct an application to do something. It’s basically a Honey-Do list for (in this case) Microsoft Word. In the exciting world of document production, there are a lot of repetitive tasks. Copying and pasting, deleting random spaces in a document, copying and pasting, reformatting text, deleting extra tabs. We also do some copying and pasting. A lot of that work takes an attentive person who knows what he’s looking for and what the end result should be. A lot of it (say, looking over a 15-page scanned document to find anywhere Word put in an extra space) is mind-numbing and exhausting.

It’s also, in a lot of cases, unnecessary. Word knows what a space is. If I tell it to look for places where there are too many and get rid of the extras, it will do it. More or less, that’s what a macro is. You give the program specific instructions that tailor its built-in capabilities to your specific task. So coding (in the most rudimentary sense of the word) has become a big part of my life over the last three weeks. My colleague, Jeremy, and I have set to work on all the more mindless tasks we could think of that were more time-suck than skill-need and set about automating them. It’s been a nice luxury to enjoy while work is slow. Our training period is technically set to end on Monday, when we also start our official shifts. I’ll keep you up to date on that. For now, I’m happy to have had some time (and some willing supervisors) to let me indulge my spontaneous hobby of programming to learn some of the basics of VBA and also make our work a little easier.

And finally (a bit of a hodgepodge this week), we have quantum mechanics. I only bring it up because I’ve recently taken on a real study of the subject. I haven’t gotten very far, but my good friend Kurt let me borrow a book that’s walking me through it starting with the discovery that light is a particle. I don’t guess I realized what a big deal that was. But it is.

Why am I studying quantum mechanics? you ask (this is my blog–I get to make up your side of the conversation if I want… unless you add comments; then you get to do it yourself). Well, short answer, because I want to know. I just found out that the camera in my cell phone uses quantum tunneling to take pictures. I don’t need to know that or how it works, I guess, but it’s super cool. Plus, how else can I be the nerdiest guy at the party? I mean, sure, I think writing computer code is fun (actually, I guess I think making computers do what I want is cool, and writing code gets me there (at what point are you analyzing, and when does it become overanalyzing?)) and I enjoy conversations about the necessity (or lack thereof) of the Oxford comma. But if I can’t chime in on quantum theory, well, I’ll never be a know-it-all. I’ll just be a know-some. Not-all. Doesn’t-get-why-the-science-in-Recent-Blockbuster-makes-no-sense-at-all-because-quantum-mechanics-is-the-same-thing-as-voodoo-to-him. That’s what the nerds say about you behind your back, you know. “As far as she’s concerned, quantum physics is a bunch of hokum witches made up to avoid being burned at the stake.” “He thinks that math is the new eye of newt.”

Pretty soon, I’ll know what a Planck’s constant is and why that joke about a Niels Bohr swimsuit catalog in MST3K was funny. (I know now. I just wanted to get another nerd reference in.) Put that in your blender and set it to Smoothie.

Oh, yeah! And the Olympics! Are you watching? NBC’s coverage is really awful, but Go team USA!

Walter Kirn’s “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon”

Thursday morning I read the above article my Walter Kirn, writer of Up In the Air, among other things. Turns out he’s Mormon… or used to be. A lot of us know what kind of comments to expect online from anyone who labels themselves an “ex-Mormon.” So when Shai sent me this link on facebook, I was curious. I know Shai doesn’t like anything hateful, or senseless complaints and attacks on anything, let alone the faith we practice daily.

Let me save you some reading time by getting straight to the point (because I want you to read the article). Walter Kirn has written one of the most human stories of faith in recent memory. It is honest, clear, meditative but not falsely transcendent, and reflects real experiences with people as opposed to investigative facts of a faceless organization. Mormon or no, this is worth your time. And it’s great writing to boot. Let me know what you think!

In Response to Bloomberg’s Mormon Profile

Hi friends! I apologize for my recent absence. I figured you, like me, were out watching fireworks on the fourth. And if you weren’t, surely it wasn’t because you were inside refreshing my blog looking for the latest post. Last week, I was training in New York and, well, you know. There’s a lot to eat in New York. I’ll have to post some pictures from the trip soon, but right now something else is on my mind.

Last week, we got our copy of Bloomberg Businessweek. (I honestly still don’t know how we got subscribed. It just started coming in the mail, much like my monthly Esquire, which I’ve never paid for or renewed in the last three years. Someone wants me to read magazines.) The cover design, which you may have already heard about, is a satirical remix of a historical sketch (with a great story of its own, btw!) that’s misidentified by the author as Joseph Smith’s First Vision (it’s actually John the Baptist conferring the priesthood on Smith and Cowdery). Some speech bubbles have been added referencing some of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ rather large financial holdings and investments. It made a lot of (Mormon) people mad to see what they considered a sacred image treated with such irreverence. Personally, I thought it was funny. I mean, I have reverence for my religion. Not as much as some, but enough that I don’t appreciate having my faith and values denigrated. But it’s funny! It’s funny like this is funny. And it’s an apt commentary on the complex relationship the church and its members have with secular wealth.

The backlash over the cover is somewhat disappointing because it leads me to believe that not many of those crying foul have looked past the cover to the content of the article, which is actually much more troublesome than the cover design. It’s misleading, misinformed, and reluctant to consider the faith on its own terms.

The timing shouldn’t be lost on anybody. Romney is making a real run for the White House. He’s got a shot at winning. He’s Mormon, and he’s been heavily criticized for his history in business. People are curious about how his being Mormon will affect his attitudes and leadership. And we’re still crawling in the trough of a recession. The article never comes right out and says so, but one of the major points seems to be that the church is profitable at the expense of its membership and the communities it enters. If you’ve listened to the news at all in the last decade, you may recognize which side of the party line this article falls on, and what it might want you to think of how Romney might run this country.

Fine by me. Everybody has to pick a side or get out of the way. Here’s the problem:

Daymon M. Smith, a Mormon anthropologist, points out that tithing slips read, “Though reasonable efforts will be made globally to use donations as designated, all donations become the Church’s property and will be used at the Church’s sole discretion to further the Church’s overall mission.”

Mormons, check your donation (they’re for more than tithing) slips. Friends of Mormons, ask your Mormon friends to see one of their donation slips. You’ll notice that what it actually says is this:

All donations to the Church’s missionary fund become the property of the Church to be used at the Church’s sole discretion in its missionary program.

For those who don’t know, the Church missionary fund isn’t related to tithing (the 10% of our income that we give to the church as a sign of faith, obedience, and so they can reupholster the chairs without holding a charity drive).

The church missionary program is an amazing thing that is paid for by the membership. There are tens of thousands of missionaries serving all over the world. Most of them pay their own way (often with help from their families). But everyone pays through the church and the church redistributes those funds. Bottom line, every missionary pays the same amount, regardless of what their cost of living is, and the church makes sure everybody stays fed and the lights stay on. In other words, if Johnny goes to expensive country A, and Timmy goes to third world country B, they both pay the same amount a month, and Johnny gets some of Timmy’s money because Timmy won’t need all of it. (Very socialist, I know.) That‘s what the disclaimer is about. Because when you turn in a donation slip that says “Timmy” on it, you mean for that money to support Timmy. In that instance, the church reserves the right to redirect that money at its discretion.

You don’t have to agree that that’s a good way of doing things. But I hope you’ll agree that (1) Caroline Winter may have correctly quoted her source, but she got the facts wrong; and (2) there’s a difference between socializing missionary funds and scheming church members to give you seed money for a shopping mall.

All that being said, I don’t have any access to the financial records of the church. I don’t know exactly how they handle income and spending. I doubt any organization with the size and assets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints offers a completely public record comprehensible to the average lay person. The article makes clear that religions are not required to be open with their finances, pointing out that they stopped reporting them in the 1960s. I can understand why that would be concerning. Our generation values transparency highly. We’re suspicious of anything that seems hidden, and the people working to hide it. I wasn’t aware how extensively the church was involved in business, real estate, and farming. I’m grateful to be confronted with that, and with questions about how God is involved in it, if at all.

But here’s another line that bothers me:

It offers little financial transparency even to its members, who are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to gain access to Mormon temples.

If you live in technicalities, there’s a way that statement is true. If you are a member of the Mormon church who does not pay a full tithe, going by the book, you shouldn’t be granted access to the temple. But Winter makes it sound like there’s a cash register at the entrance. “I’m sorry, sir, but the ticket prices are 10 percent of your income. If you can’t or won’t pay that, I’m afraid you’ll have to find something else to do with your afternoon.” The truth is that entering the temple is a very personal experience that is determined by countless factors regarding one’s standing with God in their own eyes and the eyes of their ecclesiastical leaders. It’s also true that members who do not pay a full tithe can be granted access to the temple if they feel worthy and are making a good faith effort to be obedient to the law of tithing.

Members might also pay a full tithe but struggle in other areas of faithfulness (chastity, substance abuse, personal prayer and study) and thus not feel worthy to enter the temple. In other words, if I am indulging an addiction to heroin but also paying a full tithe, I cannot be admitted to the temple. It’s not about the money. It’s about what we consider the Lord’s law and what constitutes obedience.

I can’t stress this enough: It’s not about the money.

Assuming the numbers Winter tosses out are true,

…the Mormon Church donates only about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charity

there might be reason to raise an eyebrow. But how are these estimates made? What counts as charity? We can’t follow Winter to these conclusions. We’re getting the slide show of her trip to the desert, and none of the pictures have a complete context for us.

Despite the ways the article fails, however, I think Winter confronts us with some important questions. Are we, as humans, and are Mormons in particular, complex enough creatures to be driven to make profit without sacrificing our sense of charity? Can institutions gracefully straddle that line? And most importantly, can a religious institution that expects/requires its members to be charitable, be profitable and also be moral? Can it turn an enormous profit while doing good? (The end of the article also makes it clear that Winter has her doubts about whether capitalism itself can maintain any morality.)

These are important questions, and I wish the tone of the article let them be questions. Winter has clearly come to her own conclusions and tries to force us headlong into them. It’s an important article, and insofar as it’s accurate and fairly represents the motivations of both the faithful and the dissenters, I am grateful for it and the discussion it has sparked. I’m curious to know how this will affect the popular perception of Mormons and our attitudes toward money.

Mormon friends, have you read or heard about this article? What’s your response? Friends from other faiths and no faiths and those who worship at the pizza buffet, how about you? (Don’t ask me for money. If you read the article, you’d already know that I gave it to the church so I could get in the temple. If you want them to give you money, you have to join and then go get other people to join. A Mormon mission’s basically a pyramid scheme with a lot more reading and praying. (See what I was talking about earlier? Complete and total reverence for my faith.))

They’re gonna play my music on the radio (on the internet)!

To start, a shameless plug (are there shameful plugs? am I wasting my adjectives?):

My radio interview about my songwriting talents and awesome EP with Joey Stuckey will play July 1st at 10 pm est (following the news). Listen at www.audio-style.com.

If you listen, you’ll learn a few things. One (and remember, there may not be a two… I count Piraha now), interviews make me nervous. My wife assures me I’m charming (and she would know!), but I think I’m kind of a dingus. I don’t like the spotlight. No matter how often I find myself in it, it makes me uncomfortable. So I think I talked too much, too fast, and I forgot the title of one of my songs. Though I tried my hardest to blame it on principles I learned from Billy Joel, it’s embarrassing. I’m going to have to write something so rockin’ that nobody remembers the title of that old song they used to think was good.
You’ll also learn about my recent songwriting projects. Then you can start holding me accountable. I haven’t been writing much recently, at least music-wise. The last thing I finished (a bromance song for my buddy Clayton) was so brilliant that I’ve kind of intimidated myself. I feel like that guy from the Goo Goo Dolls after he wrote “Iris.” (Notice how I didn’t look up his name even though I’m already on the internet? That’s how I keep it real. Memories fail, and I don’t see why I should mask that with intergineering (my new word (coined!) for engineering things with the internet).) What if that was my peak, you know?
Please at least go to the web address while the interview is playing, even if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing. Joey Stuckey is a wonderful musician and producer, and he deserves your support.
Plus, you’ll get to hear about how I may have become a minor celebrity in Belgium, which we should all celebrate with the appropriate waffle.
In all seriousness, it’s really humbling. As I mentioned, Joey is an incredibly talented guy who rolls with tons of other really talented people. And he wanted to interview me about my music. Granted, he produces my music, so there’s some self-interest in promoting it. But I don’t think he ever would have signed me if he didn’t think hecould sell it (see how there’s always self-interest but also always real belief in me?), and that’s humbling, too.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I take my own talents for granted. I put a lot of them to good use, but I don’t think of myself as particularly talented. There’s a difference between modesty, humility, and gauging yourself poorly. There’s a difference between not wanting to sing and play guitar in front of people because you don’t think you’re very good, and not wanting to sing and play guitar in front of people because you’ll be embarrassed if you make a mistake.

I have a mixture of all of these feelings. I have some genuine modesty and humility (in other words, I know when I write these blog posts that nobody’s comparing me to James Joyce, W.S. Merwin, or Natasha Tretheway; when I sing, nobody is thinking “This guy makes Adam Levine sound like a mutant whippoorwill getting in a fight with a sickly fox that only has one kidney” (partly because kidneys have very little to do with the quality of one’s singing voice, so that thought would make absolutely no sense)). But I also fear humiliation, which is ridiculous and embarrassing in its own right.

I’m tempted to say that I wish I were more courageous about sharing my talents, but it’s not all about courage. A lot of it is selfishness, avoiding obligation. When people find out you can do something, they often ask you to do it. That’s at least a little annoying, right? You know. You’ve got a talent you don’t like to share, or you’re really good at something that you used to love until all your friends wanted you to do it as a favor to them for free. Or until you became the gal everybody knows who plays the piano, the guy who can fix their wireless network, the one they call when their car breaks down (but never otherwise). I guess that’s part of it, too. I don’t want to get pigeonholed and allow people to depend on me.
Wow, I sound pretty curmudgeonly. What a crankypants!
As all this dawns on me, though, I also see in myself this guy:
That’s me surfing in San Diego. (I told you there were pictures. I just had to find them.) I didn’t think I would ever surf. Can’t really remember ever having the desire. It seemed like something that would be easy to fail at for a while before I had to go back home to where there are no waves for surfing. Why pay someone else to let me fail at surfing when I could get an ice cream sandwich where the sandwich is a fresh waffle and relax and read on the beach? That seems like more of a win-win scenario.
I went surfing because Shai wanted to do it, so I wanted to share that experience with her. I expected to be bad at it. I didn’t expect to actually stand up on the board and ride it into the shore. I didn’t expect to have to wear a zebra-stripe “training” shirt to warn other surfers that I was a noob. (C’mon, surfer dudes. No matter what, I’m never gonna look cooler than you. At least put me in something manly, like a bullet belt or a Buckeyes jersey, maybe something with the Bat signal on it.)
If it looks like I biffed it right after that picture was taken, that’s because I did. But later I surfed for real. Then I went back out and tried again and failed a lot more. But I caught a lot of waves that day, too. And people were watching, and real surfers were out there. Despite all that, I was really pleased with myself and what I accomplished. I wasn’t at all embarrassed when I fell.

I don’t know if I can add surfing to my list of talents yet, but I think that’s the feeling I need to do a better job of cultivating. When I strike a chord on the guitar and people are listening, even when there are better guitarists out there listening and/or playing (there’s somebody playing a guitar like every hundred feet in Nashville; I’m pretty sure it’s required by city ordinance), I need to not let all that be my center. I need to think of my growth as an artist, singer, songwriter, and writer less as having a destination (like #1 hit single, Pulitzer Prize, New York Times Bestseller) and more as a line extending into the distance until it’s buried by the horizon. I’ll never see where it ends, but who knows what I’ll find if I follow it anyway?

Home Safe and Sound

Hi, friends (and other random readers–welcome!)! So much has been happening, but I’ll have to keep it to the short version. The good news is that there are photos!

First, I’ve finally started an online album of our wedding photos, which you can view here. Flickr is pretty great, but it has an upload limit of 300 MB per month. That will make it at least another month or two before they’re all loaded. Kind of a pain, but I guess I still get to share all our wedding pics with you for free. I probably shouldn’t feel so young and entitled that I take that for granted. (Self-reflection!)

Second, (and after this I’ll stop counting. I always lose track after two. Unlike Liz Lemon, I’ve made no commitment to always come up with a third thing when I’m making lists. I should take up Piraha) Pillsbury has been treating me wonderfully! If you’ve been following along (and even if you haven’t, because “If you’ve been following along” usually means “I’m going to repeat myself since I don’t trust you to remember stuff”), you know that I just spent a week in Washington, DC (my first time ever) followed by a week in San Francisco (ditto). In between was a trip by bus to Knoxville.

Here’s what I have to share about Megabus: the prices are fair, but they were ill-equipped for a break down at 4 am. Waiting on a bus for a few hours is less fun than riding on a bus for a few hours. You might think there’s not much difference, but there’s one key change in the bus’s behavior when the power isn’t on: the toilet does not flush. Nevertheless, people use it.

I took a bus from DC to Knoxville to meet the Rasmussen crew for family pictures and to catch the tail end of a reunion. The pictures turned out great! I don’t know where they are, but if we’re facebook friends, check my wife’s page. She’s posted some.

I’m going to get the grumbly part out of the way to focus on the fun. I flew Frontier airlines. I like them. Just one piece of advice, though. If you don’t have any pilots, you don’t have to be in a rush to board. If I have to wait, I’d like to do it someplace where I can buy Cheetos and feel reasonably comfortable that I can move my arm without finding my elbow rubbing someone else’s elbow. And if you can avoid it, please don’t taxi away from the gate until after you figure out the brakes are glitchy and the mechanic looks at them. It’s unnerving when you have to taxi back to the gate with the knowledge that your brakes aren’t working. I don’t want to be willfully ignorant about much, but maybe that. Just tell me you forgot your iPod. I’ll understand.

Okay, the fun!

When you find yourself in Washington, DC, definitely look for this cafe called Bread & Chocolate, and eat this:

It’s chocolate banana French toast, and it is amazing! They also have a spinach and chevre omelet I wouldn’t say no to. (Different days, of course. I couldn’t have eaten a Tic Tac after all that French toast!)

Aside from that, I don’t think I really found any gems off the beaten path. I did a lot of urbikking, but DC has been covered pretty well. It’s fun to see a lot of that stuff in person, but there weren’t a lot of surprises.

Except that my phone takes way awesome photos! As long as the light’s right and you don’t shake your hands or mess up the settings by touching the wrong part of the screen. I wonder how many videos I’ve made of me saying, “Wait. I reversed the screen and started recording video.” (The answer is zero, but you can wonder aloud for humor without being a liar.)

I’d like to share what I’ve been learning in my job training, but it’s all hush hush. I feel comfortable denying that I’ve actually secretly been recruited to the CIA, though the trip to Washington doesn’t help dissuade that opinion. So think what you want. All I’ll say is that if you go to the Fairmont hotel and order the Rooftop honey and praline ice cream, you will either find yourself being swiftly transported to a secret underground facility, or you’ll get some delicious ice cream. Win-win unless you’re lactose intolerant. (The Fairmont hotel has its own beehive on site from which said honey is harvested! YUM!)

DC, bus to Knoxville, then flight to San Francisco. Here’s the first person I saw on my first night in the city:

Downtown San Francisco is littered with homeless folks. It’s really sad. What I thought was interesting and unique, though, was how much gratitude they expressed for any gifts. I always had some change in my pocket (or, in one case, most of an omelet left over), and so I tried to be charitable without exaggerating my generosity in my head (“Look at me! The world just needs a little change!” You know how far a pocketful of change goes? Yeah, you know. If I had a nickel for every time I was happy about having a nickel, I’d have stopped receiving nickels when I was about four). One guy was playing the harmonica outside Walgreens. He had some competition. There were one man bands and street drummers everywhere. I dropped some money in his cup, and I could have sworn he almost teared up as he said, “Aw, thank you. I was just about to give up.” Again, I don’t want to exaggerate his meaning. Maybe he just meant he was about to give up playing the harmonica outside Walgreens. But maybe not. It struck me that hope can be pretty cheap.

So that was my most spiritual experience in the bay. But there was more touristy stuff.

I did a lot of urbikking there, too, including walking up the stairs from Sansome Street to Coit Tower.

The tall one in the middle. Not the pointy one. You don’t have to walk the stairs, but you should go up into the tower, which was a semaphore in the telegraph days. There’s a 360 degree view of the city. It’s breathtaking! My battery was dead by the time I got up there, so I couldn’t take any pictures. You’ll just have to go see it for yourself.

A lot of folks were riding around in these little yellow cars that did GPS guides around the city. That seemed like it would have been a lot of fun. It takes you on Lombard street, which I didn’t drive. I did walk the stairs next to it, though.

Next to Coit tower, my favorite thing in San Francisco was the cable car museum. Definitely do that! It’s not just a museum. It is the central hub for the cables. You get to see them in action and learn how they work! Even if you’re not a nerd, it’s on the way to everything. So just hop in for a minute or two. It’s free between 10 and 6.

Finally, you should get a double chocolate malt from Super Duper Burger, go to the Grove (they have the BEST bacon I have ever had in my whole life; I went twice just to confirm–it’s consistently amazing!), and eat breakfast at Dottie’s:

Lamb sausage and goat cheese is a great idea! Thanks, Dottie!

It’s good to be back home with my lovely wife. I missed her so much! Things just aren’t quite as much fun without her. Even when they’re really really fun.

I’ll be home for three weeks getting MOS certified. Then I get to spend a week in New York, my last on-site training. After that, back to Nashville to go to work in the Batman building. Exciting times!

I hope you’re all doing well and eating only the most delicious foods. Because of all the eating out over the last couple weeks, Shai and I are purging with a protein and veggie cleanse. I’m going to break it with a bacon sundae from Burger King. Please join me if you’re around!

PS. I was interviewed today for a radio show. It’s about my music. If you forgot (or didn’t know) I write music, this is the revival of my secret talent/hidden career. Get in on the new ground floor! Details to come!

Training in Washington, DC

Pillsbury (the law firm, not the dough company (and I’m going to stop making that distinction because I know you get it, and I don’t want to insult your intelligence)) is a first class corporate law firm. I’m halfway through my first week of training, and I’ve never been treated better, or fed so much!

I promised to tell you more about my job once I started training and had a better idea of what I would be doing. I’m going to keep that promise but with a couple of disclaimers. First, the training lasts several weeks, so halfway into my first week, I still don’t have a clear picture of what my average day will look like. I do know how to report sexual harassment to my HR manager, though, and I have a company email address. So I’m making progress!

The second disclaimer is that Pillsbury has a fairly strict social media policy. The letter of the law is that I’m not allowed to mention anything specific about my job other than that I work there. People have actually been fired for saying too much on social media, and I definitely don’t want to end up in that category. Of course, a law firm deals with a lot of sensitive information, much if not all of it confidential. If I err, I want to err on the side of revealing too little. What I think it’s safe to say, though, is that my job is to provide firmwide support in all things documentation. That turns out to be more involved than proofing and editing legal documents, which I think is the impression I’ve given many of you. The reality, though, probably wouldn’t come off any more exciting to you. Keep imagining me hunched in front of a computer screen, scanning legal documents for errors, and you’ll have a more or less accurate picture of what I’m up to. If you don’t mind, just imagine that hunch with a dash or so of suave–you know, for me.

Before I forget, if you or someone you know is looking for a job with an awesome company in finance and billing, let me know! Pillsbury is asking us for referrals. Because you’re reading this, I know we’re friends and I like you. We should work together! Send me all your contact info and a resume, and I’ll put your name in the hat! (The hat is figurative.)

DC has been a lot of fun. It’s my first time, so seeing the White House and all the sites is exciting. I’ll post some pictures! We’re not usually off work early enough for me to make any of the official tours or hit the museums, but they did take us to the Newseum this afternoon. They actually set up a VIP tour for us. I highly recommend putting the Newseum on your to-do list the next time you’re in DC. It’s technically a museum of news/media, but since the news covers pretty much everything, it’s basically a museum of everything. They have John Dillinger’s body armor, the Unabomber’s cabin, and real artifacts from 9/11, including a piece of the antenna from one of the towers. It’s a harrowing experience to be in the presence of some of these artifacts.

The Newseum also has a room of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs. These are a combination of harrowing, gorgeous, and spectacular. I almost regret not buying the book of them.

All the people are super great, too! I’m one of nine in this training group. Everybody has personality, so I’m sure I’ll have stories to tell as we get to know each other better.

The one thing that’s missing, of course, is Shai. I wish I could share all these experiences with her. She interned here, and I know she’d love to be my tour guide. And the Newseum would have thrilled her. And while chocolate banana french toast and homemade honey and praline ice cream are unbelievably delicious, they’re the kinds of food that are ten times better when you get to share them. I’m looking forward to seeing her this weekend, even if it’s just for a day.

Next week, I’ll be in Pillsbury’s San Francisco office. I guess that means even if I’m not able to tell you much about the new job, I’ll have touristy things to share. Until then, love and kisses!