Any Given Friday

November 6, 2011 1 comment

[November is National Novel Writing Month, and while I’m way too busy at work to actually devote much time to writing, I’m trying to give tiny stories a shot]

I’m a rare case; at the early age of 22 I was diagnosed with a hard-to-cure syndrome known as “a real job.” Others like me have the same symptoms: constant fatigue, irritability, disposable income, shrinking social life, and general maladjustment. We’re hopeful that they’ll find a cure in our lifetime, but none of us are holding our breath. Like everyone else, we spend our weeks waiting for Friday to come.

Luckily for us, we found medicine called Happy Hour. Happy Hour was a placebo that tricked us into thinking we were still in college. Over a few drinks, we could tell jokes about the rest of our coworkers and vent about all of the assholes and idiots we dealt with day to day. We did this without looking around at the rest of the patrons, because none of them looked all that happy anymore. We avoided the glum faces as much as we could and kept moving forward. Friday was only a few days away.

***

It was 4:59 on the first Friday of fall. The next 60 seconds went by at a snail’s pace, but once it hit 5:00 I remembered that I had about another hour of work to do. That’s alright, I told myself; the time between now and the night always drags by, and I might as well get something done. So I worked for another hour, hit the road and the liquor store and was home by 7:00. I was exhausted, but I still felt allergic to my couch. I had a whiskey soda, took a shower, and had another drink. I was revived and revved up, ready for another night.

My phone buzzed and I pulled it out to see what it wanted. “What are you doing tonight?”

A text from her was always welcome. She was a pretty girl, one that always had to deal with her looks overshadowing the rest of who she was. Girls like her always have an underlying sadness, as if they know they’ll be expected to play the role of the pretty, oblivious girl forever. She liked when people treated her a little differently. Before the party, I asked her and some other friends over to pregame.

Pregaming is the sacred art of imbibing with your friends before heading out into the night. It’s something we forgot to forget from college, a relic of a bygone era. It is a way to spend time with people you really like, not just the people you spent time with because they recognize you from school or work. It is an armor you put on before heading out to the dark bars or crowded parties. Smiles are brighter, laughs are louder, lives less inhibited. In the wintertime, it has the extra benefit of making everything warmer.

So we had a few drinks, turned the music up, and reveled in the crisp autumn night. Fall is the secret hero of the seasons here. Summer gets a lot of adoration in Madison; the Terrace is in full swing, the Farmers’ Market is vibrant and swarming with young families, and the city is oscillating between the sweltering summer heat of the day and the cool Midwestern breeze of the night. It is an excellent place to spend your lazy summers, watching the days float on like the sailboats over Lake Mendota’s waves.

But autumn is when the city reboots. The students reenter the city, the freshmen so eager and excited to start a new chapter of their lives, the seniors feeling the anxiety of their future saturating the air. In autumn the Badgers get back on the field, and the library is again filled with students pretending to get work done but really just casing the place for future bedmates. In autumn, the blood rushes back to the heart of the city and the world begins again.

After the third round of beer, gin or whiskey-whatevers and the second game of “ride the bus” we were ready to head out. The party wasn’t very far away; only a few blocks separated us from what was a comfortable get-together and what would be a wild mix of people I wish I never met, people I was avoiding, and a few people I genuinely liked. I paid the host and we received a red solo cup so we could have a few stale beers from the keg. Those cups were more artifacts from college we wanted so desperately to outgrow. We found an open spot in the corner of a room, and had our friends come to us.

As far as parties go, it was an uneventful, run-of-the-mill hour. We talked about how our jobs were slowly killing us, made fun of the host’s shitty idea of good music, and shared a few stories. We told jokes about the people at the party we didn’t like, relived a few of the glory days in college, and went about our night without looking back. There was nothing special about the party, but all of it hasn’t grown old yet.

The cup over the tap meant it was time to leave the party in search of somewhere a little darker and a lot more anonymous. There’s nothing worse than a dry party full of people you don’t want to know, so we flocked to the streets once more in search of a better buzz and a few more laughs.

***

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RIP, Steve Jobs

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

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My dad was a PC before being a PC meant being John Hodgman. I’ve worked on a Windows-based computer since I was playing Commander Keen as a three year old. We never had a Macintosh, but I do remember using iMacs in 4th and 5th grade. Even to a PC, losing the co-founder of Apple is a pretty big moment.

Yesterday, my generation’s visionary died, and we’re a little broken up about it. You can see it in the flurry of sincere tweets, obituaries, and blog posts from a normally-disaffected generation. He was our John Lennon, a dreamer who seemed to believe in himself and his own ideas on a supernatural level. I saw more than one tweet fly by into the ether last night about how losing Steve Jobs is my generation’s version of losing Walt Disney, someone else whose ideas were so brilliant and so new. People are actually laying flowers for Steve Jobs, a former executive at Apple stores he helped create. That is absolutely unheard of in an era whe

re our nation’s youth are protesting in front of Wall Street, an era where we distrust anyone wearing a suit and cast shame on executives across the country.

Steve Jobs showed us why we should Think Different. He hired the brightest people and expected them to make the best products. He pushed his employees to the edge because on the edge, legends are born. He proved to us that breaking the rules isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do. We learned from Steve that if you’re good enough, you make your own rules. Through his work, he taught us that simplicity in design trumps complexity every time. His products showed us that ease of use is a beautiful thing.

Steve Jobs taught us that sometimes, things break, and the world will crush you. He also taught us that there’s freedom in losing everything. After being fired from Apple in the 80’s, he could have sat on his couch, wallowing around with a bag of cheetos and daytime TV like the rest of us. He started Pixar instead. He taught a generation of underpaid, underemployed, and overworked people that life is too short to work in a job you don’t like. We learned from Steve that settling for a life we don’t want is far worse than feeling lost for a little while, and we each take that lesson with us well into our twenties.

The fact that the majority of my generation probably heard about his death via one of his products says more about the impact of Steve Jobs than words ever can. But Steve Jobs means more to us than the phones in our pockets, laptops in our backpacks and music in our ears. He showed us what we could be if we were brave enough and heard our inner voice in a clear and resonating tone. He was a genius, someone who changed the world, and he will always be an inspiration to each and every one of us.

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.

Nine Eleven

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment

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I didn’t take 9/11 very seriously when it happened (I wrote about comedy’s place in tragedy last year). I was 13, and I lived in a suburb in Minnesota. The day was filled with jokes about planes aiming for the buildings in our town: Go ahead, take out the teen center and ice rink. Nail the McDonald’s downtown.  That was how my classmates and I felt that day; there was no danger, no threat to anyone close, no damage done in our world.  We made jokes because we didn’t understand why our teachers were so solemn, so quietly fearful of how everything would turn out and what the ramifications of the attack would be.

They remembered the draft and they remembered Vietnam, so at that moment all of our teachers and parents probably had visions of their students and sons forced to wear camouflage, ready to fight another guerrilla enemy in a long war. History was again going to be repeating itself, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

But there wasn’t a draft, only a generation of volunteers heading to the Middle East to fight for whatever we had lost that day. And many battles have been fought, and many lives have been lost, and many things will never be the same.

What happened and what changed and what evolved in the last 10 years is nothing short of astonishing.

We’re still involved in the same wars. We’ve seen the feeling of unity and “God Bless America” patriotism mutate into polarized political factions.  One of them is an overwhelming celebration of anger, fear and jingoism hiding as“Average American” patriotism. The other party is full of idealists hiding under a veil of irony and cynicism because they just might actually believe in the “Hope and Change” rhetoric of yesteryear. Everything is black and white. And anyone in the middle better duck and cover, because there isn’t a place for reasonable people who see value in both sides. Politics isn’t a buffet, it’s a prix fixe menu.  If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.

Economically, we’ve seen empires crumble, then banks crumble, and then we crumbled. Jobs were lost, and many more Americans had to deal with layoffs and job reductions. Gas shot up, loans went unpaid, and houses still remain foreclosed. The rich get richer, the poor poorer. Again, the middle is no place to be.

We’ve now fully realized that we’re on our own. The institutions won’t make us whole. Our political parties will only keep fracturing and moving towards the poles. The banks will let us down, religion will not save us, schools can barely teach us, and the government cannot protect us.

But, as the Springsteen song goes, “at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.” We still have hope. The internet has evolved from a place for nerds to talk about episodes of The Simpsons and Star Trek into an all-encompassing ecosystem of its own. Social media creates communities of geographically-displaced human beings, and is even aiding in revolutions across the world. Pop culture is making us smarter and more aware. There is some light, even if it isn’t that much.

There will be good years, and bad years, and we will keep moving forward. Just remember that good things will keep happening. Kids will still laugh, friends and families will still get together, and comedians will still tell jokes. We will still smile. We have our freedom, and no group or institution or moment has been able to take that away. And we will never forget one of the moments that changed everything and defined our generation.

Categories: Culture, Gen Y Tags: , , ,

As Long As We’re Young

August 7, 2011 4 comments

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There are rules you should break, and there are rules you should respect. Which rule belongs in which category is completely up to you. You will ultimately be defined by the rules you break. The world is built and enhanced by those who break the right rules and respect the others.

You will be rejected, by girls and jobs and friends and enemies. You will feel left out. You will feel alone. If you’re strong and smart and brave and confident enough, you won’t let that darkness cover you and define you.

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we’re special, that we’re alone in feeling the way we do. The truth is, we all feel the same basic things. When you do feel rejected and alone, just remember that everybody else does too. Friends will dampen the bad times and enhance the good times.

And always believe in brunch

You will have good friends and bad friends and friends you only keep around to compete with. Some will journey with you, others will fall behind. Find the ones you can spend lazy time with, time spent going to brunch or sitting at the park. If you can sit around with a group of people, watch crappy TV, and still enjoy yourself, you’ve found your best friends.

You will collide with strangers who will leave scars (good and bad) that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. Deep, ephemeral connections with strangers during an impromptu adventure are some of the most memorable moments you’ll have. Some of these collisions will last for a long time, some of them will be fleeting. Enjoy the moments.

If you’re not exercising now, start. We’re at the lazy peak of our physical existence, so it’s easy to forget to take care of our bodies. Right now, everything heals, and what we do often has little lasting power. Watch what you eat. Watch how much you drink. Soon your metabolism is going to shut down and the negligence will bite you in the ass.

Find something you’re passionate about and throw yourself into it. There is nothing more boring or useless than hating everything. Sarcasm, satire and cynicism are okay, but feeling electric about something is much better.

There are people who love to dichotomize the world, to assign people to teams, to categorize chaos. Remember that while some things are good and some things are evil, the majority of things lie in between those two poles. Don’t let anyone put you on a team you don’t belong on. Think for yourself and be a free agent instead.

Silence is your best friend and your worst enemy. Figure out how to find peace in silence and in nature. Nature has been here much longer than you, and it’ll be around long after you’re gone. Your job is to hunt for the beauty that exists in the world, and try as hard as you can to ignore the ugly.

As long as we’re young, we still have time. Take advice from your elders, take advice from the younger generation, and take advice from your generation. Most of all, take advice from yourself. Nobody sees the world like you.

Do things today and learn from the past. And never, ever forget to move forward.

(Inspired by/stealing from this)

They Survived Madison, Wisconsin

July 10, 2011 1 comment

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Last August, I wrote about leaving the city I had come of age in and how it felt to leave all of my friends behind. As it turned out, I would get a job within the next couple of months, move out of my place in Minnesota, say goodbye to my temporary roommates (Mom and Dad), zip down I-94 and start a new life in my old town.

Now it’s almost one year later. Time flies, and I find myself thinking about how much movement happens in August and how much change occurs before the leaves turn shades of orange and red in this beautiful college town. New blood revitalizes the city and the old guard is packing up, leaving and transitioning to a new stage in their lives.

For the first time, I’m not part of it. My life is comparatively stagnant, though not necessarily in a bad way. I’d be completely immune to the moving and shaking of the August rush (a new apartment with a good friend barely counts as change) but for the fact that some of my best friends are moving on. 

It’s a strange feeling watching friends you’ve known for some of the most formative years of your life leave. I’ve gone through it a few times, but this time it seems more potent, more permanent, because the last batch of my college friends without jobs in Madison are taking off. On one hand, I feel happy for them, because I know they’re headed out to chase their future and become the types of people they always dreamed of becoming.

On the other hand, it’s such a huge sadness to see cardboard boxes packed with memories you helped create fade away, down East Washington or Gorham headed towards their next big adventure. Pieces of a “me” that no longer exists are in those boxes, pieces that only remain in memories and pictures and deep pangs of nostalgia. As much as I dread watching my friends leave, I’m also mourning a past version of myself that they take with them.

It’s weird to be on the other side of moving out. I know that I have a life here, and I’m very happy with it, but I can’t help but wonder what life will be like without being in the same zip code as some of the people I’ve formed deep bonds with. I’m worried that after they leave, I’m going to be a less interesting person.

Then again, I know myself well enough to understand that I’ll never be happy with myself if I get complacent. I’ll always be chasing fun and running away from boredom. I’m not friendless in this town by any measurement. I still have a network of people I consider some of my best friends. I’m meeting people I barely knew in college, people who were only ancillary characters in my life’s story, and we’re becoming very close. We cling to each other because we all haven’t quite figured out how to make new friends, and I’ve started to figure out what amazing people they are.  I also work with some very cool people, many of which I consider friends.

Everyone will move on eventually, and so will I, and we’ll go through these motions all over again. And that’s ok, because this change is good. It’s movement.  There’s really nothing to worry about, because it’s all part of life. I can take solace in the fact that wherever my college friends are, and whatever they do, we’re inextricably linked to a particular time and place together. We’ll carry those memories with us, and they’ll help shape who we become.

So here’s to old friends dispersed across the country, starting new lives and starting over. For now it’s so long and goodbye, but I have a feeling our paths are bound to cross again. My couch is always open.

Stage Fright

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

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It starts like this:

My heart pounds and I can feel the veins in my neck pulsating. The necktie gets tighter and I start to feel like I’m suffocating. I get butterflies in my stomach like I’m having a first date with a girl I really like. The fight-or-flight kicks in and I feel like a speed-freak from the rush of adrenaline, and without being able to spend all of this newfound energy I start getting jittery and talking faster and faster and it feels like a million eyes and ears are all fixed on my every word and what if I screw up and what if I say the wrong thing and what if everyone laughs at the wrong moment? I just want it to be over.

But then it’s done, and everything goes well, and the adrenaline surge turns into a calm buzz and relief washes over me. I feel electric and accomplished. Another presentation is through.

I hated public speaking. I still do, to an extent, but it’s getting easier to do and the dread declines each time I step up to the stage.  Since I have to do it quite a bit for my job, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that make speaking in public easier. Here are five of my favorites:

Happy thoughts

You don’t have to be confident to appear confident. Even if you think you’re shaking like a tree in a hurricane and speaking a mile a minute, you’re probably not. You can trick your audience into thinking you’re confident by looking confident. Dress well. Smile a lot. Tell (non-awkward) jokes. Project confidence and eventually you will feel confident, as if it happened by accident.

It’s your time. You’re the expert, and for the next 10, 20, 30, or more minutes, your audience is obligated to be there and listen to you. That’s powerful. For the next X minutes, you are the most important person in the room. Keith Richards said it best (I’m paraphrasing): “It’s your time to let the tiger out of the cage.” 

The terror goes away if you let it. The more you speak in public, the better you get at it. There’s no other way to gain the experience without feeling really uncomfortable at first. You have to take the leap and hope you can learn on-the-fly if you’re going to grow as a public speaker. It may be terrifying at first, but eventually the feeling subsides and you’re be able to relax a little.

Relax. Find a way to calm yourself. Take deep breaths between sentences. Tell yourself that it’ll be over before you know it. Find a way to zen-out. Your audience will be able to feel the relaxation flow through you and straight into them. Psyching up before a presentation is as easy as practicing in the mirror (it actually works) and having a ritual during your presentation. Some good advice I was given is to always start out with an introduction and agenda of things you’re going to talk about. If you start out with the same ritual each time, you’ll find yourself much calmer once you get into your rhythm.

There’s always an exit. The most liberating advice I’ve heard on the topic of public speaking came from a very wise person at work. She said that she just tells herself that there’s always an exit, and you always have the option to leave. You’re not physically bound to the podium. If things head south, you can always get out of Dodge and reap the repercussions later.

You may still feel the butterflies rising up and you make still feel like you’re doing a bad job, but you’re not. Every word you say and every minute you spend in front of other people is making you a better public speaker. Remembering these tips has made it easier for me to speak in public, and I hope they help you out too.

Fragments

June 26, 2011 Leave a comment

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I generally save this blog for whole pieces and ideas fully realized.  Of course, I’m not fortunate enough to pop out fully-grown word babies all of the time. Sometimes, there are kernels of ideas and fragments of stories that are scratching to get out and I can’t focus on anything else until I’ve gotten rid of them.

I put these things on Tumblr, a blog format born for fragments. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s like Twitter but without the character limit and the ability to share multimedia. In an attempt to save these fragments of stories from being buried under quotes, Simpsons references, dog pictures, and Rolling Stones music videos, here a few fragments I’ve written.

Seasons

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of “Game of Thrones” lately, but even in the heat of summer I can’t help but feel that “winter is coming.”

Walking these streets and feeling the wind blowing at a cool 66 degrees, I feel at home. I can’t go out every night and revel in the drunken haze of a college summer night in Madison anymore; I have actual work to do tomorrow. But I can always take a ten-minute walk around the block and breathe in a little of that feeling. The job can’t take that away.

I’ve ambled along the same streets in the worst winter has to offer; I’ve felt the sting of sub-zero wind pelting my face like needles. I’ve experienced the bitter cold, and I know how to use the buildings around me as protection against it on my walk home. But I’ve also felt the same wind cooling me off as I escape the oppressive heat of my AC-free apartment in the dog days of summer.

It’s lurking behind every corner, glaring at me during the warm months. It’s a somber realization that when the world turns and summer becomes fall and autumn turns to winter, the wind is no longer an ally in the ongoing War of Life.

Even in the darkest nights of winter, when the snow rises and the mercury falls, I know that in a few months the summer will come around and places like patios and the Terrace will usher my mood back above freezing.

I’m from the Midwest, born of the North Country. I’m conditioned for all of it. Maybe I’m doomed to be a slave of the seasons. Because honestly, I don’t know anything else.

Thoughts at 30,000 Feet

And it doesn’t even matter who the woman fiddling with multiple pill bottles, going to the airport bathroom, and coming out jittery and happy really is. In my story, she’s already the cracked-out grandmother who can’t survive her 2-hour flight without anything less than a bathroom bump and an ice cold Heineken. I sort of envy that dedication to non-sobriety, even at her age.

***

An airport is the closest thing to a human zoo I hope our society ever concocts. An airport is Mecca for people-watchers. Air travel is a look into the very best and worst of people.

Departures and arrivals bring out the rawest emotions; you have lovers, families and friends saying goodbye to each other and you have real grief and pain coming from it. You also see the pure elation resulting from the same people getting back to where they came from. Terrorism sort of killed the idea, but we all feel something when we’re watching a movie and someone’s racing to the airport to say all of the things they wish they said earlier.

On the other hand, airports bring out the ugliness in people. You see the TSA doing everything it can to keep everyone safe, but all they get is stink-eyes and accusations of privacy invasion by the very people they’re trying to protect. People think they have a lot more to hide than they really do.

Flight delays and cancelations create monsters out of seemingly-normal people. We’re so afraid of missing our chance to get home or missing an opportunity to be somewhere else, and we’ll lash out at anyone who gets in the way of it. As if an hourly employee working at the gate actually caused the delay or can do anything about it.

You need to have very, very thick skin to work at an airport.

***

I’m always surprised to see how conversations with strangers evolve on an airplane. You’re essentially invading the personal space of random strangers for a few hours, packed in like sardines.

Maybe you sleep. Maybe you dive into a book or work and turn on the iPod, if you’re like me. But maybe, just maybe, you start talking to this person. You probably start out making banal observations about the weather, the airline, the flight. Something safe, and something you can bond over. Delays and cancelations are good common enemies, so they’re a good conversation starter.

Then maybe you move onto more interesting things. I think the forced proximity and lack of exits causes most people to open up. You start telling this absolute stranger intimate things about yourself, because hey, why not. You’ll probably never see them again and it feels good to let your guard down for a while.  You tell them about your wife, your kids, your job. Your boss might be a dick, your kids might be allstars, your marriage might be crumbling.

Before you know it, it’s time to turn off the electronics and hear the sound of the wheels coming out in preparation for landing. It’s time to end the conversation. This is when the weirdest part happens: you introduce yourself for the first time as you’re deplaning. Maybe you don’t tell them your name, because you dig the anonymity and they have all sorts of dirt on you. It’s odd, how people wait until the end of the flight to tell the stranger their name.

And then you never see them again.

***

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