the american cube life mentality.

I am a Dilbert convert.

When Dilbert first started bludgeoning the public consciousness, I was about fifteen years old, about the same time I learned the meaning of the word "ubiquitous." (noun. existing or being everywhere, esp. at the same time. Geez, that Dilbert guy is freakin' ubiquitous these days.) The characters did not contain
themselves to the funnies, but instead were suddenly on shirts, posters, stationery, lunch boxes, all prominently shown on the aisle end displays at Wal-Mart. This was new! This was hip! This successfully captures the American cube life mentality!

I didn't get it.

I tried, really I did. The funnies were pretty much the only part of the newspaper that I actually read, and so when a new comic strip came along and was the new funniest thing ever, I paid attention. And at that age, mass merchandising was still an indication of quality to me, so it followed in my mind that Dilbert must be good. One day, I read a strip. The next day, I read another. They were moderately amusing. But they were funny in the way that Cathy or Doonesbury were funny. Basically, I stopped reading Dilbert because it did poorly in the funny to words per strip ratio. There just was not enough amusement gained from reading as many words as there were. Sure, I still read The Family Circus, but it only had about seven words a strip. I can read seven words to be maybe-a-little-bit-kinda-not-really amused.

Fast forward several years to 2005, my first year out of college, out in the real world. I was working at a small software company, writing diagnostic tools for truck mechanics. I still loved to write code, but not a day passed where something didn't happen that would make me say, "This is not like school." I was exhausted by 9 PM, I became a raging caffeineoholic, I thought about 401ks. Adulthood hit me hard.

And Dilbert suddenly was funny.

How had I missed this? I read a strip now and it seems inconceivable to me that I was ever the kind of person who would dismiss it as not being worth the effort of reading. I remember being that person, but I can't remember how. I talked to other people my age in scared whispers, "Do you sometimes wake up at 7 AM on a Saturday? Are coffee breaks the best part of your day? Do you get Dilbert now?" And they did. They all did.

It's a bit scary and depressing really, like maybe relating to a comic strip solely about Oedipus might be. I try not to dwell on that. I just enjoy the daily strip and have my chuckles without stopping short and saying, "Dear Lord, this is my life." I understand Dilbert now, and that's okay. It doesn't have to be a mid-twenties crisis. Maybe my new-found appreciation of Dilbert is a sign of maturity.

Or maybe Scott Adams just got funnier.



I was sitting in the kitchen of the Panther Branch Community Center with three certified adults and one other pseudo-adult. In the main room next to us was a group of fifteen kids, sitting at the far end, perhaps unconsciously as far away from us as they could get. They were not quite whispering, but they were not trying to be overheard either. Their conversation was peppered with bursts of riotous laughter. Even from my position and my age, I could tell that they were playing some sort of confession game. I guessed "Truth or Dare," though from my experience, it could have been switched to "Truth or Truth." No one ever wanted to do the dares, and it took too long to come up with a good one anyway. Once more I realized how little has changed about being sixteen.

My brother asked Josh and me to help chaperon a sweet sixteen party for my niece. I agreed immediately, but as the date got closer, I got apprehensive. I thought about my experience five years ago, when I attended another alliteratively-named party for my roommate's little sister. There were half a dozen of us older kids there. It was a segregated event. The younger girls all stared at us older kids, seemingly amazed that anyone ever lived to nineteen. We tried not to look directly at them, not understanding how we had ever been that age. The experience was unnerving. How much worse would it be this time, when I was another five years removed from the younger crowd? I was going to be a chaperon, an authority figure. Luckily I remembered that at sixteen, I hadn't known that twenty-four-year-olds were clueless, too, so maybe they'd confuse me with a real adult. A younger, hipper adult, but still someone who could make them shut up if necessary.

I was prepared to be annoyed. Have you talked to teenagers lately? Mouthy little brats, aren't they? I remember being that age and people would complain about teenagers acting like they knew everything. I thought that was kinda silly and overstated, because I certainly didn't act like that, nor did I know anyone who did. Now I can say that I was exactly like that. So were all my friends.

The kids weren't making any trouble, so we didn't chaperon so much as observe. Actually, we stared outright. It was like watching a nature program about the social behaviors of humans in the wild. The girls giggled and the boys made idiots of themselves in order to generate more giggling. It was as intricate as a bee's courtship dance. Rather than feel irritated at all the ridiculous preening, I just felt sorry for them all. Every move seemed to scream out "Please, please, please like me." I never realized how much we were all ruled by our own self-consciousness. It was revealed in everything: how they stood, how they talked, how they ate (or didn't), how they picked who to hang out with.

We watched the boys especially, because there were fewer of them. Maybe I was watching them because my niece is a little too cute and I wanted to make sure she wasn't hanging out with any jerks. There was the tall one with the expensive car (and generous/foolish parents), the one who cared too much about his hair, the chubby one who was compensating by being a clown. Oh, they were trying so hard. I wish I'd known back then that the boys were just as cowed by insecurity as we were. I looked at the girls and wished that I had my little high school body back. I bet each of those girls hates her own body. I did.

The kids mostly ignored us. Sure, they knew we were there, and I'm sure more than one of them lowered a voice when a dirty word was coming out. They didn't stare like at the party five years ago. When I was nineteen, they could tell that I was still like them, all young and cocky, but with unimaginable freedom. Now I'm just someone else that has to pay bills every month. I'm too boring to register.

Back to the kitchen, where we were sitting around talking about our youth. Mostly it was the real adults talking, responsible adults who used to be irresponsible kids. I knew some of the stories about my brother's colorful early twenties, but I heard some more. My sister-in-law had a couple of her own; she claimed that she and my brother tamed each other. I know Josh's stories, and he knows mine, but we both kept quiet, because we're still young and stupid and writing new stories. We overheard some of the conversation outside and realize that they were not playing "Truth or Dare," but "Never Have I Ever," another confession game. I explained the game to the parents, who hadn't heard of it: one person says something they've never done, then everyone in the circle who has done the deed in question has to raise a hand. After my explanation, my sister-in-law paused for a moment, then smiled. "I guess I'd lose."

Now I think about breaking the invisible barrier between the teenagers and the adults, how hilarious it would have been to go sit down and play along. Just raise our hands to admit to our crimes and smile at their shocked faces, blow their minds a little bit. What would scare them more - that we were like them or that they will be like us?


sandra by any other name.

First, a conversation that happens over and over in my life.

Some Other Person: Is it Sondra or Sandra?
Sandra: Sandra.
SOP: What about Sandy?
Sandra: Sandra. Sandy is my mother.

I realize that I have a thing about my name. I think it's perfectly reasonable, but others seem to think that I'm just being picky or sensitive. These people are named things like Jim or Ann. Their names are never mispronounced, and so they do not understand. It's just a word! Rose by any other name and whatnot.

My obsession comes from a couple of places. One is direct from my mother. She gave me this name, but she was just sharing her own. See, when you have six kids, you apparently run out of names towards the end (there being only six names in the entire world), and so the last one ends up with the same name as her mother. I hated my name when I was younger. Like most little girls born in the eighties, I was going to change my name to Tiffany as soon as I turned sixteen. But as I grew up, I realized that my name was pretty much stuck to me. No, I still don't particularly like it, but I dunno. It's mine. Incidentally, the thought of changing my name to Tiffany now makes my blood turn cold.

My mother should have realized that having two Sandras in the house would just be confusing. Sure, she went by Sandy, but every telephone call was a mystery.

Unknown Caller: May I speak to Sandra?
Mama: Would you like Sandra the adult or Sandra the child?

Of course I took offense to that round about age thirteen. I was no child. So she started asking the caller if he'd like to speak to Sandra the adolescent, which was just lame, geez, Mama, you're embarrassing me. Finally, she called me Sandra the teenager, which I deemed acceptable. No matter what word she used, the person on the other side was usually just confused by the question. A lot of them were telemarketers, and the question about Sandra the adult versus Sandra the child/adolescent/teenager was not in their scripts.

But maybe I shouldn't blame my poor mother, who was only passing down what she had been given, along with the hips and the eyes and the thighs. She wanted to name me Dinah (actually, there are seven names in the entire world, but the seventh one is Dinah). I'm glad she didn't, just because I would tired of all the jokes about being in the kitchen.

The real blame here should go to my birth placement in my family. It was because I was born sixth that I was named Sandra, and it was because I was born sixth that I was called the name of every child before me. I already had identity issues trying to make myself stand out among the crowd that was my family. People would get our names mixed up and so I started taking piano or karate or gymnastics classes to be different. Mostly I was called Carla, the fifth child's name. I came along six years after her, but for some reason, a lot of my teachers got us confused. I cannot tell you how much I hated that. Part of that was because I was ten and didn't have actual problems in my life. It did not help that I had a strained relationship with my sister, the one actually named Carla. In elementary and middle school, it was a pretty regular occurrence. One of my teachers wrote me a hall pass with her name on it. The absolute worst, though, was on Award's Day in seventh grade, when my AG teacher said the wrong name to announce who had received an award. You know, on the microphone. In front of, oh, everyone. I had no choice to laugh and act like it was cool, but I was pissed (and humiliated, demoralized, made to feel insignificant, etc., etc., and so forth). I think the worst part was that my sister was there, and she naturally thought it was hilarious.

Now you're all feeling sorry for me, because you have to admit that story could have been on The Wonder Years, it was so fraught with adolescent (teenage) strife. But I must have gotten over the incident, because I had completely forgotten about it until I happened to find a very angry journal entry from eleven years ago about it. Incidentally, I got mad all over again once I remembered. And so as I am remembering all that turmoil I went through over being called the right name, I'm realizing both how big of a deal it was and that I've become okay with it. Maybe that's because no one calls me Carla anymore and I'm the only Sandra at my residence. If someone calls me by the wrong name, I do correct them, but I haven't started taking gymnastics again.

Of course, a woman I hadn't seen for a couple of years called me by my other sister's name, Rita. I was again unamused, but I think it's because Rita is twenty years older than I am.

Not cool.


park in the back.

My ex-boyfriend did not like to have to walk far from the parking lot to the store. I guess no one does. What's the point of having a car if you have to do a lot of walking anyway? I've been known to drive up and down a couple of rows of cars myself, around the block a couple of times if I'm in a downtown setting. But his tolerance for a far away space was much lower than mine. At some point, I'd be ready to give up and just park wherever rather than keep wasting time and gas on the effort of finding a place right up front. He would insist that I keep trying. Finally, I would get sick of it enough that I would suggest that I could drop him off up front and then park the car myself. That would shame him into accepting whatever spot was left. Ah, relationship mind games.

That was kind of an annoying thing about him, sure, but it's pretty insignificant. Just to be fair to him, I will mention that I shuffle my feet when I wear sandals, and it makes noise. Actually, pretty much everything I do makes noise. That's an annoying thing about me, call it even.

After I'd been dating Josh for a while, I noticed that he always, always parked in the back. Even if there were a bunch of spaces up front, empty and waiting to be filled, he just pulled in to the first place he found, and it was done. It was such a contrast to what I was used to. I finally made a joke about it one day.

"Uh, you know. There's an empty space in the next lot that I think is slightly farther from the store than this one."

"I hate driving around for a space. I can walk."

It was like the clouds lifted. This philosophy, so odd and illogical seeming, made sense to me. Finding a parking space in a crowded lot can be stressful, what with all the other cars and the stalking of pedestrians who might have be vacating a prime location soon. And to think, I could just bypass all of that by parking in the back. As my mother would say, "Do you have two broken legs?" I'm twenty-four years old. I can walk an extra fifty meters.

I kid you not when I say this attitude has changed my life. It's a very specific example of not sweating the small stuff. Today, this is my advice for a happier life to you. Park in the back. And as you make the long walk up to the store, feel free to shuffle your feet.


30 ways.

A friend sent me this blog post of thirty random ways to lead a happier life. Of course, lists like this always are a bit revealing into the priorities of the writer. Since I air out my psyche all the time for you people, I made a list of my own. However, I decided not to post it.

Just kidding, here it is. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

1. Take naps.
2. Unplug sometimes.
3. Challenge your brain. Do puzzles, play thinking games, read a hard book.
4. Frolic every once in a while.
5. Go to the zoo. Something tells me it's all happenin' there.
6. Send snail mail, for special occasions and for no good reason.
7. Put up a (humming)bird feeder.
8. Go someplace you've never been.
9. Give out genuine compliments like free candy.
10. Eat ice cream for supper sometimes. Name brand ice cream, even if it's not on sale.
11. Listen to old people tell stories.
12. Snuggle.
13. Hang out with your family. Never turn your back on them. If they irritate you, it's because they are like you.
14. Leave time to improvise during your vacation.
15. Learn to be proud of the things that make you different. Revel in them.
16. Go barefoot.
17. Donate everything you can to someone else before you even consider throwing it away.
18. Learn to cook at least one thing that you really like to eat yourself.
19. Try new foods.
20. Drive with the windows down.
21. Don't ever lose anyone you like due to drifting. Feel free to let those you don't like fade away.
22. Buy a hammock. Preferably one big enough for two people.
23. Perform random acts of kindness when you know you will never get recognition for them.
24. Wear silly sunglasses or hats or jewelry or anything.
25. Learn to enjoy solitude.
26. Avoid eating at national chain restaurants.
27. Know that "Because I've always wanted to" is a good reason for doing something.
28. Find new ways to tell people you love them.
29. Sing in your car. Loud.
30. Dress comfortably.
31. Do more than is expected every once in a while, just to throw people off.



I consider myself to be a good flyer. I don't throw up, I don't get claustrophobic, and I don't start screaming "We're all gonna die!" as soon as we hit an air pocket or whatever it is that planes hit to make them bounce in the air. I'm content to sit quietly by the window and look down at all the people below, who look like ants. Granted, I get a little tense during takeoff and landing. And of course, I don't particularly care for turbulence, though in that case, I use the stewardesses as my guide. If they're looking shaky, then I go ahead and just wet my pants. But if they're serving drinks and gossiping about the lady in 12C, then I figure I just might not die this time.

So when Simon, a coworker, asked if I'd like to accompany him on a flight in his plane, I accepted. After all, other people from my office had gone up with him, and they all seemed to still have their cognitive abilities.

"Oh, there is one thing I should tell you. If your door should fly open while we're in the air, don't lean out and try to close it. Just let me know and I'll take care of it."

I stare at him in reply, wide-eyed and terrified.

"Not that that's ever happened."

Simon's a quiet guy, shy and mild-mannered. Why, yes, he is a computer programmer, how did you know? However, when you get him talking about his passions, flying being one of them, he becomes downright chatty. As we drive to the airport, he tells me about flying and about his plane and how he bought it. I'm not bored, because it's an interesting topic, and I like people who have passions. Simon told me that he started flying a few years ago because it was something he'd always wanted to do. More people should follow their childhood dreams.

We arrive in a parking lot with rows of small planes. Simon's plane is tiny. I've never been in a cockpit before, but this plane is the cockpit. He goes through the routine of pre-flight preparation, explaining all the steps. Not all of the information sticks, but there won't be a quiz or anything. I ask if I can take my camera on board. He acquieses, then laughingly remarks that another coworker of ours went up for a fifty minute flight and took fifty-two pictures. Simon thinks this is pure craziness. I guess photography is not one of his passions.

We climb aboard, close the doors (very, very tightly), start her up, and off we go. I get my own headset, though I use the earphones much more than the microphone. Simon's busy talking whiskey-tango-foxtrot with air traffic control, and I'm glad that I'm not expected to keep up any conversation, because I'm all eyes. We fly around Raleigh and out to Jordan lake, my camera going snap snap snap. It's a beautiful day (Simon calls it a "Simpsons sky"), but even the gentle breeze tosses the tiny Cessna around. But my pilot doesn't seem to notice it, and I decide I'm probably not going to die this time.

We head back to the airport and make a smooth landing. As we taxi back to the parking lot, we hear another pilot on the headphones requesting permission to retry his takeoff, because one of his doors came open while he was on the runway. We laugh, though mine is a little forced. We get out and Simon parks the plane by pushing it backwards with a big bar. I take a look at my camera. We were up for forty-five minutes, and I took fifty-five pictures. Simon would think that was pure craziness.



I was at the auto parts store last week, and I decided to take advantage of the free battery testing they do. The auto parts man brought his machine out to my car. I opened up the hood and then watched him unravel the wires. Unfamiliar with the process and standing sort of awkwardly by, I asked if there was anything else I needed to do.

"Just stand there and look pretty." Aww. The auto parts man thinks I'm pretty. I don't get hit on very often, and each time holds a special place in my memory as a shining moment in which I was validated by the opposite sex (well, one time by the same sex. I think.).

The bad thing about being hit on is that sometimes you already have a boyfriend. Actually, this is usually a very, very good thing in its own way, because it is a built-in excuse. You can say, "sorry, taken!" without having to add that even if you had been single for the past fifteen years, you would not want to spend any additional time with the person. No, the danger is in telling your boyfriend about the incident, because he might get suspicious and jealous and possibly even angry at you because of the actions of a stranger. And that's unfair, but possibly natural. If the auto parts man hits on me, then no matter what my reaction, my boyfriend might feel threatened. And so he gets grumpy and suddenly I'm not allowed to go to the auto parts store ever again. It's silly, really. You can't get mad at someone for agreeing with your tastes. I sincerely hope that my boyfriend also thinks that I am pretty, even if he is wearing great big love blinders.

That was an exaggeration. Josh would never tell me not to go to an auto parts store. He might just develop a deep-seated suspicion regarding auto parts men in general without really understanding why. I have a similar relationship with female bank tellers. Stupid bank tellers.

But you have to be very careful about how you report these things. You can't come bounding up and excitedly say, "I got hit on today!" the way you would tell your BFFAA (best friend forever and always) that Jimmy had asked you to the prom. That's pretty much how I always feel, though. Like I said, it's rare, and it's validation. Even if he is an absolute loathsome kitten-kicker that no one should ever date lest he reproduce, somehow his opinion counts. It's as simple as that. If a stranger told me that I looked fresh from a visit to Ugly Town, that would crush me, too. Basically, I don't have to be attracted to someone to feel flattered that they're attracted to me. As long as I defuse the situation as best I can, I should feel no guilt for *gasp!* actually being appealing to another human being. What I want is to be able to tell a story about something during my day that made me feel good about myself without worrying about causing tension in my relationship.

Back to the auto part store parking lot. I'm flattered and blushing, but realize that I need to keep an eye on the situation so that the conversation didn't escalate to him asking me for a number or date or impromptu waltz in the parking lot. If this guy were not roughly my age and were instead roughly three times my age, I would have immediately said, "Okay, I'm good at that." I can't say that, oh man, do I want to, but I can't, because that would definitely be encouragement. He's lit a cigarette by now, so I ask if he's allowed to smoke while doing battery tests. We finish the battery test, my battery's fine, but he tries to sell me one anyway, and it's over. Later, I tell Josh about it and he handles it well, only narrowing his eyes and scowling for a second. Then he bounces back and tells me that I am, in fact, pretty.

Aww. My boyfriend thinks I'm pretty.


we don't encourage children.

My mom was telling me about how my brother took his wife and six children out to a restaurant. With the kids all being ages nine and under, I imagine they looked like a small daycare. The hostess at the restaurant met them with a stony stare. My brother's kids are as well-behaved as they are cute, which is what any good aunt will say. My mom thought it was sad that kids aren't really wanted in restaurants, even before the workers find out whether or not they'll behave.

It's not just behavior. There are lots of reasons children are the most dreaded kind of customer. When I was receiving the orientation for my first waitressing job, my boss explained to me that we had a kid's menu, but it wasn't listed on the regular menu. We had high chairs, but they were hidden out of sight in the back. "We don't encourage children," he said, then paused. "We get 'em, but we don't encourage them." That's a pretty harsh attitude for the future world leaders.

Behavior is a factor, but I've waited on more good kids than bad. There were some rotten ones. I remember a pair of little boys who ran around the entire restaurant while their parents blithely enjoyed coffee in the sunroom. But I also remember a little girl who ordered her chicken tenders with a "May I please..." and called me "ma'am." It was adorable. And of course this is really all about the parents. I've heard of some particularly entitled kids treating servers like servants, another attitude that they picked up from their folks. Luckily, I never had any experience with that.

For the most part, though, behavior is not the issue, because it's only certain circumstances that the restaurant workers have to deal with that. Sure, the other tables might have to listen to your little brats, but me, I'm somewhere else. Of course, if our other customers are unhappy because your baby is practicing for the opera, then our tips might reflect that. Even still, I don't think behavior is the prime reason servers don't want to wait on children.

For one thing, kids are messy. Even good kids. Straws, crackers, wrappers of all sorts, and of course, large gobs of food end up on the table, the seats, the floor. Everything ends up sticky. Just think about dinner time at home with your adorable children. Think about what you clean off their hands and faces, not to mention the table and floor. Now imagine that these are someone else's children and therefore not that adorable. Suddenly, that mess seems much worse.

Kids are also more work for less money. They eat less and they don't drink alcohol (or uh, they shouldn't be), so each little person is not adding that much to the check total. And yet they often have special requests, like no tomato or no onion and extra ranch dressing. So you work harder to accommodate more people, but your tip doesn't go up very much because the check isn't much higher. Surely you understand why a gaggle of youngins makes us want to run.

All that being said, I would like to say that most servers do understand. Granted, I'd rather have a table of a couple of rich old people than a young family. Less work for more money, that's easy math. But I do understand that the young couple want to be able to eat out with their family. I understand that the things that make kids a pain to serve are just part of their very kid-ness. So if you have a large family, I'm not going to resent you or give you lesser service. And I think most servers are like that. Yeah, you might end up with a jerk for a server sometimes who doesn't get it. But then again, good servers are going to end up with bratty kids at the table sometimes, so I guess it evens out.

I explained all of this to my mom, who still can't really imagine why anyone would not want her grandchildren at their restaurant. Alright, fine. It's really because most kids just aren't as cute as ours. I think if I told her that, she'd believe me.



When I was in high school, I had not yet given in to purses. Most of the other girls my age carried around purses in addition to their bookbags, but to me, it just seemed like extra baggage. Then I turned sixteen, and I suddenly had to carry around a license and some keys all the time. My sister bought me a wallet with a keyring attachment for my birthday. I kept it in my back pocket, the keys dangling out. It was a good system for me, bursting with femininity though I am. Matt, a boy in my math class warned me that having a heavy keychain could damage my ignition. I thought that sounded idiotic and told him so. He swore up and down that it was true, even asking my math teacher for verification. She gave him much the same expression that I had, and the issue seemed closed. Still, I've always wondered, because I'm clueless when it comes to my car.

It's a well-documented fact that car maintenance makes me nervous. I like things that I can control and that I can fix on my own. My car is neither of those things. In fact, I am a car hypochondriac. Every little noise I hear or jiggle I feel creates instant stress for me. I'm sure that my car is immediately about to fall into a billion pieces on the highway, while I sit confused in the seat, holding the detached steering wheel. Strangely enough, this has never happened, though I think I saw it in a cartoon once.

For the past year and a half or so, my ignition has been acting finicky. I could get the key in, but it wouldn't turn. I'd have to give a few tries before it finally went all the way and the car started normally. The problem would get worse and worse, with me having to give the key more and more of the old college try before all systems were go. I would get a new key made, and the problem would go away. A key could last me about six months. Since keys are only about a buck apiece, I accepted this solution as being a nuisance, but one of the quirks of an older car. Deep, cleansing breaths, I was able to return to calm.

Until maybe a month ago. The new key trick stopped working. I've bought about eight new keys recently, including going to the dealership and creating a brand new one from the VIN number. Still, I sit in my car for a few minutes every time I want to start it, turning the key, pulling it out, looking at it, flipping it over, trying again. This whole routine is dotted with me pleading with my car, please, honey, just start. I have three keys to the same car on my keyring, just in case it helps. I'm not sure that it does, but it makes me feel better.

The most irritating thing about this problem is that it seems to defy logic. I feel positively moronic trying to describe it. The car won't start? No, it will start, but I can't get the key to turn. Yes, I'm turning it the right direction. No, I do not have really weak arms. Because of this fact, I've been very resistant to trying to get it fixed.

In the past month, I've slowly given in to defeat. The new key trick, once so effective and sneaky and cheap, was failing me and I began to face the fact that I was going to have to get real maintenance done. Each car trip begins with a few minutes of me sitting in the driver's seat, trying over and over, my shoulders slowly drooping more and more. One day, I gave myself blisters on my finger trying to turn the key to leave work, increasingly frustrated and near tears. Then, this past weekend, I tried to go yard saling, but found myself sitting in front of houses of strangers, unable to start my car. I gave up after three houses and lost a whole Saturday of yard sales to this stupid problem. It was time for action. I inquired at the dealership what fixing the issue for good might entail. He recommended a new ignition cylinder. I asked if this was a common problem, to which he replied that it happened on high mileage cars. Then he mentioned that if I had a heavy keychain, that could exacerbate the problem.

I'm sorry, Matt. You were right.


volvo statistics.

I've become a traffic sheep. When I first moved here, I ranted and raved about how awful the situation was. Half an hour to go five miles! Ridiculous! However, I have to go those five miles to get to work everyday, and in doing so, I've become complacent and accepting of the situation. I might pout a little, but by and large, I've become an obedient little commuter.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be in the moving lane. I've turned each commute into a traffic pattern experiment, trying to judge how the lanes move given the many factors, including time, distance before an exit, distance after an exit, etc. There always seems to be a moving lane and three other non-moving lanes.

I'm in my moving lane, feeling lucky because I'm traveling on the interstate at a blazing 25 mph. And then The Volvo appears.

I'm in lane two, The Volvo is straddling lanes two and three. The Volvo appears about fifteen feet in front of me. There is no time to account for The Volvo. The only thing I have time to do is to swerve halfway into lane one before coming back into lane two, because the driver of The Volvo decided to notice me and has stopped halfway in lane two. As I'm making my maneuver, I remember to beep, and I beep with vigor. It is only after I'm safely back within lane two's bounds that I think to look in lane one. Thankfully, there is a gap. I'm more than a little shaken as I think about how lucky The Volvo was that I was paying attention to him and how lucky I am that there was no one in that other lane. That would have been at least a three-car pileup right there.

I keep going on my way, keeping an eye out for The Volvo in my rear-view. Lane two has become the lane that does not budge. I move into lane one (after checking, double-checking, signaling). Sitting in lane two, less than half a mile from my brush with The Volvo, there is a blue truck straddling lanes two and three. There is also a Jeep all the way in lane two, and partly in the blue truck. They say history repeats itself, but they never mentioned it being repeated a half a mile away.

I am not a good driver. I've done lots of stupid things behind the wheel and been saved by the lack of other vehicles or the vigilance of other drivers. I consider that to be a pretty average state of things. Given the number of accidents and resulting injuries and deaths, I feel downright lucky to not have had any collisions (Except for the deer, deer don't count!). As I pass by the blue truck and its brand new Jeep attachment, I wonder how I got to be so lucky that there were no cars in lane one. I wonder if the driver of The Volvo wondered how he got to be lucky enough to pull in front of me instead of someone who might not have been able to react.

I believe in statistics, I believe in probability. Every time I don't have an accident, I'm relieved, but feel with a sinking certainty that I will not be so lucky at some point, and statistics will get me in the end. I suppose there are three schools of thought. One is to feel invincible and take your luck for granted. Another is to simply feel grateful all the time that you're still around. Me, I'm in the third group, grateful yet at the same time watchful, because I'm convinced that everyone only gets a limited supply of luck, and I seem to be using all of mine. Somewhere out there is a Volvo waiting to pop out at me when my escape path is blocked.

Of course this view is illogical, as is the related hope that being aware of statistics somehow might make me immune to them. Or rather, both conclusions are too logical for their situations. You can use statistics to examine the past and even predict likely patterns of future accident levels. But you can't really determine your individual future and trying doesn't affect the outcome. All you can do is just take it as it comes, so it goes. And watch out for Volvos.


not a movie review: m

Back when I was writing truck software, I had a contact at a brakes manufacturer that sounded exactly like Peter Lorre on the phone. Fans of classic cinema already know who Lorre is, but for the rest of you, he was Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon and Ugarte in Casablanca. He is also the inspiration for countless imitations of his voice and mannerisms. Think of the weaselly German guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark who burned his hand on the medallion. That's just another imitator. Lorre is the archetypal creepy guy. And so talking to this brakes guy, even about brakes, was a bit like having to deal with an obscene phone caller.

M was Peter Lorre's first major role as an actor. He plays a serial killer and implied pedophile. Scenes of Lorre in this role were used in Nazi propoganda videos about the evils of sexual deviance. To sum up the past two paragraphs: Peter Lorre will make your skin crawl.

And now, to sum up M: There is a serial killer on the loose in Munich. Eight little girls have disappeared and the city is in a panic. Innocent people are being arrested for even speaking to a child on the street, and mothers live in fear. The police are being criticized for being unable to catch the guy, and the criminal underworld is starting to get antsy, as the atmosphere is not conducive to business. Hans Beckert (the very bad man, played by Lorre) is captured by the criminals right as the police are closing in on him, and they put him on trial in an abandoned factory. The climactic scene is all Lorre's, a long speech about how he must kill. He does not have an alternative. Never so much have I wished that I could speak German so I did not have to rely on what seemed to be a clumsy translation to understand this chilling speech.

If you are not an insane killer, and I know I'm not, it's probably pretty hard to wrap your head around the idea of needing to kill little girls. You think, uh, have you tried just, like, not killing them? Clearly, the dude should be locked up in an asylum. The prosecution in the underworld trial argues that he should be put to death. If he were put in an asylum, he would be released in a matter of years. (Here, my faith in the system disagrees: anyone that has killed eight little girls is not ever getting out.) Beckert's defense (also a criminal) argues that many of the people in the room have killed (remember, this is an elaborate organization of crooks), and they weren't even crazy. I've pretty much given away the whole plot here, and that's why I don't write movie reviews.

The movie was directed by Fritz Lang, another legend in classic cinema. He also directed Metropolis (a movie that will blow your mind - watch it). M was Lang's first talkie. You can tell he's playing around with the dialogue and sound sometimes. Some scenes are still completely silent, while others feature conversations happening elsewhere. For example, there is a scene where a police investigator is describing the characteristics of a serial killer as the audience gets its first real glimpse of Lorre while he examines his face in the mirror. He looks afraid of himself.

What separates this movie from a typical serial killer thriller is the involvement of the underworld. Lang brilliantly parallels the investigation of the police with that of the bad guys. So you see a smoky room with the police chief and the mayor talking about how they need to catch the killer as they smoke cigars. Then you see a smoky room with the mafia boss and a couple underlings talking about how they need to catch the killer as they smoke cigars. During the trial, there is definitely a heavy atmosphere of "cast the first stone" regarding the cornered Beckert. It's a very different movie from your general "catch the bad guy" flick. In 95% of movies like that, you know from the beginning that the bad guy will get caught at the end, because that's the way movies work. Lang just makes it interesting by asking a bunch of open questions about criminal activity and mental illness.

One of the most impressive things about this movie is that it is old. I was talking about this movie to my niece, who thinks a film made in the 80s is ancient. I explained that it was about a serial killer, and she asked if it was gorey. No, it's not, because it was made in the 30s, and that sort of thing was not allowed. So the movie comes across as even more unique as compared to modern thrillers, because there is no violence. It's plenty disturbing, but in no way gruesome. Everything is implied. In the beginning, when a girl disappears, you see a series of shots while you hear her mother calling for her, each time in a more desparate voice: a ball lying alone on the ground, an empty attic, a balloon caught in a power line.

The movie has aged well. In some cases, you see techniques still used by directors today, and you realize that this guy was doing it first. Then you see camera angles and sound tricks and plot twists that are fascinating, but not used today, and this guy still comes across as revolutionary seventy years later. M has one of the earliest uses of a leifmotif in film (associating a particular piece of music with a character - think of the Jaws theme being associated with the appearance of the shark and the Imperial March song that plays when Darth Vader is around). When Beckert is stalking a victim, he whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite, a tune that has been ruined forever for me.

If you can't tell, I really enjoyed this movie. It's heavy and dark. If you don't like old movies (for instance, if you have never seen Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon), then it might not be your thing. In which case, you don't really like movies all that much, so why are you reading this? Otherwise, it's defintely worth a viewing. And while you're doing so, just imagine Peter Lorre talking about brakes.

It's still creepy.


in the news.

This entry will be a little different than my typical long-winded account of something mundane in my life. We get the Raleigh News & Observer at my office, and I've taken to perusing it. I've never been a news person, really. If something big happens, I navigate over to CNN.com. For a while in Winston-Salem, I listened to NPR, and I found myself walking around with a weird sense of elitism and a quiet outrage all the time. But now I'm back to my blissful ignorance. Usually I just read the funnies or try to figure out the anagrams in the Raleigh paper in the breakroom, but on the occasions when someone is using the Life section but I don't want to go back to my desk, I find out a little bit about the world. For instance, did you know that Liz Claiborne died? Did you know she was still alive?

I read a front page article the other day about the public transportation system here in Raleigh. I've never ridden the bus system here, though I've used public transportation enough to know what to expect from the experience. Josh uses the buses to get to work sometimes. He says it's not a bad system, reasonably on time and regular, mostly clean. However, four shopping centers in the area have banned the city buses from their parking lots.

I haven't been here long enough to know much about the individual centers, but I am familiar with one of them. It's ginormous and very shiny, meaning that while the stores are about the same as any other shopping center, the construction is much nicer and modern. Around it are clean and achingly cookie-cutter suburban townhomes that don't even bother to try and pretend that you're living in a real house with a real lawn. Instead, they just say, "Live here! You only have to drive your SUV a tenth of a mile to shop!"

The article quotes a representative of this particular shopping center, who says that the reason for the ban is because of congested parking lots. So, the solution to congested parking is...wait for it...banning public transportation.

To me, this sounds like complete BS. It seems to me that the centers are just trying to keep out people who can't afford to spend a lot of money. What's the point of letting the poor people in if they're just going to drive the property values down without increasing revenue? In fact, the bus people don't shop there. The only reason this issue has even come up is because people are having to walk a quarter mile from the bus stop to their jobs. Bus people work there, and so really, no matter how long they have to walk, they will do it, because it is their livelihoods. If banning the buses actually caused any drop in sales, I bet they'd find a way to allow them even in those congested parking lots.

You know what? Those parkings lots are annoyingly full and busy. I've noticed that myself. Getting rid of the buses will not help that. Designing a better parking lot that allows for public transportation will.

The ban is being taken to court, and I'm hoping that the buses will win. Someone more cynical than I would insist that they've already lost. I have my own solution. Ban SUVs!

Yeah, right.