Thursday, August 30, 2012

Is Reality Television Real?

I love reality television.  I can’t get enough of Gordon Ramsey, the Amazing Race, and even Jersey Shore (I know, I know—most are probably thankful it’s ending).  Of all the shows though, my two favorites have to be Survivor and Big Brother.  What interests me the most about those two shows is the social interaction and aspect of each game.

You can’t go into them thinking you’ll just be ruthless, seize all the power, win all the challenges, etc.  The mean, aggressive players are some of the first to be voted out.  Just look at the Hantz clan and all of their follies.  I can’t even imagine some of the holding down jobs with their anger issues let alone winning a social game.  You may win every challenge or be conniving and deceitful, but in the end, when the people that have voted you out now have to pick a winner, you're out of luck.

You also can’t be weird or annoying.  Look at all of the odd castaways on Survivor that have gone home: “federal agent” Phillip, Coach, Tarzan from last season.  One of my favorite weirdos was the Hispanic dude from Cook Islands, Billy Garcia, who was a tad lazy around camp, never seemed to quite fit in, and who awkwardly thought he shared a love connection with Candice, even though she simply replied “we love you” to his charge of not being well-liked by the rest of the castaways.  He just seemed so out-of-place socially in the game, and his perceived, one-way romance was the icing on the cake.

Last night’s Big Brother gave me new-found respect for Dan.  If you don’t follow the show, skip on to the next paragraph, but basically Dan, knowing he was going home, devised a plan to stage his “Big Brother funeral”, rat out all of his former alliance members, join the Head of Household, Frank, in a new alliance, and get Jenn with her Power of Veto to pull him off the block.  And it worked.  He even accused his closest ally, Danielle, of heinous misdeeds, sending her into a bawling emotional fit, only then to tell her that it was all his master plan to get sympathy votes for her.  Jenn pulled Dan off the block, put up Brittany (who I had been rooting for the entire season), and Dan pretty much guaranteed himself a spot in the final two.  From going home this week to potentially winning, THAT was impressive.

I realize that most of the crap on reality television isn’t real.  Most of it is scripted.  Most of it is filmed in a way to make it seem real.  For example, the last episode of Hotel Hell saw an executive chef fainting when being eviscerated by Gordon Ramsey.  The entire episode was rather blasé, and I just pictured the production gang all sitting around thinking of some way to liven it up.  Well, a fainting executive chef would work.  Yeah, let’s do that!

But if Dan’s deviance, Danielle’s horror and subsequent crying fit, and even the Hantz’s aggression is all acting, those people deserve some Emmys.  I don’t believe any of that stuff is made up.  And that’s what I love about reality TV.  Real, solid, social interaction that is shocking in the displays of intelligence and emotion.  You can’t win those games by being a nice guy all the way through.  You can’t be shy.  You can’t be overly outgoing.  You can’t be a floater, sitting around hoping the target isn’t on your back.  You can’t be naïve.  Yet you can’t be paranoid.

Now read those last six sentences over.  They apply to real life, don’t they?  Think about it.  You’ll never succeed in the real world being the nice guy all the time.  After all, nice guys finish last, don’t they?  Someone will always stab you in the back, steal your work, discredit you, etc.  Sad, but true.  And shy people are considered introverts, socially awkward, and naturally the people that make all the money and have all the fame and/or power are not like that.  No politician has a fear of public speaking, you know?

Yet people that are the opposite, overly outgoing, tend to be annoying.  Like people who stomp their feet when they walk.  Pay attention to the people who annoy you and watch if they stomp their feet.  A friend a while back once inferred that people who stomp their feet as they walk do so because they are trying to attract the attention of others and/or are very insecure, loud, obnoxious people.  I hadn’t really given it much thought until I began witnessing the phenomenon myself.  Two annoyingly in-your-face coworkers, sure enough, stomped their feet everywhere they went, and the one was a 90 lb woman!

And if you sit around and do nothing all your life, it is going to pass you right on by.  Even if you have no desire whatsoever to leave a mark in the world, at least have fun while you are here.  I mean, that’s half the reason America has an obesity epidemic—because too many people are sitting around doing nothing.  Sometimes it's OK to shine.  It shows people that you are still trying hard to do whatever it is you are tasked to do.

As for those who are naïve, this relates a little to my last post.  Naivety is great if you are a Shaolin monk.  It’s not if you live in a place like America.  If you try live in a little box or cave, sheltered from the world, choosing to ignore the news and everything happening around you, you may find yourself in trouble someday.  Like when the zombie Apocalypse occurs, and you have no idea that your neighbors are walking corpses.  But likewise, you can’t go through life being paranoid.  Like my late grandmother who wouldn’t step foot onto her front porch without doing her hair for fear of her neighbors seeing her that way.  Not a healthy way to live your life at all.

We can learn a lot from reality television.  We can learn a lot from plenty of other things as well.  All we have to do is just open our eyes and observe.  Put ourselves in the shoes of others, go for a walk, and then look again.  The world is a beautiful place when you open your eyes and actually see it.

And as for reality TV or even real-life social strategies, I’m not the one to judge or tell you how to live your life.  But if you find yourself in one of those categories I mentioned above, and if you’re unhappy with yourself, maybe a good dose of reality TV will show you how to fix it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Blind to the Ways of the World

I’m amazed at how content some people are with ignorance.  They live day to day without reading newspapers, watching news, surfing the web.  And I’m finding more and more of these people each and every day.  People that choose not to encumber themselves with technological tools such as smart phones and Facebook accounts.  People that don’t have cable or satellite subscriptions or even a television to watch them on.  What gives?

My wife’s aunt  is in her late thirties or early forties and can’t read.  Not English.  Not Vietnamese, which is her native country.  I just can’t imagine stumbling through life and seeing WORDS everywhere and not knowing what they say.  I mean, how could anyone go through life without having any inkling of what is going on around them? 

On the flip side, I see people that seem to LIVE on social networking sites.  I've even had some recent Facebook "friends" that have lost all social etiquette.  It seems some people, rather than choosing to give updates on their daily happenings or posting pictures of things they find interesting or exciting, have decided that Facebook is a prime market for proselytizing their political agendas.  It’s not like he or she would go around telling people in public that Romney is an idiot or Obama is inept.  Doing so would probably, at the very least, get a few choice vulgar words or middle fingers tossed at them.  Yet on Facebook they have no problem posting graphs and phrases outlining the fallacies of our president and/or his competitor.  Or worse yet, a few of my Facebook “friends” have posted glaringly inappropriate content.  Nobody wants to know that you think that lady’s butt looks nice, even though you used some outrageously vulgar language to express your sentiments.  Nobody cares that you think certain people have lied to you for years, and that they can all reside in a fiery biblical residence for their rest of eternity.  Nobody cares about your religion or your politics or anything else you post in an attempt to make people see your point of view.  Because either people will agree with you, or they won’t, and the ones that won’t will just think you are nuts and defriend/block/ignore you.

I’m not sure which is better, being completely naïve to the ways of the world or knowing entirely too much, especially with regards to close friends and members of your own family.

When I turned eighteen, I got a tattoo on my leg of the Chinese symbol for the word slave.  I had it lasered off in my late twenties because, well, it was the Chinese symbol for the word slave!   And really, I think it might have actually meant “female slave”—I know, how awful is that!—and I felt extremely embarrassed about it when I frequented Chinese eateries.  But the reason I got the tattoo in the first place was purely philosophical.  It was to always remind me that I am a slave to my desires.  In other words, I live in a capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s society where everyone is judgmental of everyone else, money equals power, and we are raised from a young age to place value in material possessions.  I will always want things.  And each and every time I see something I want, that something begins to own me.  I’ve lost control.  I’ve become nothing more than a child lusting over a piece of candy.

For a while I actually dreamed of moving to China and joining a monastery.  I wanted to train my body and my mind to think without influence, to exist without needs, to accept all and judge nothing.  Of course, being a white American kid, I realized those were merely pipe dreams.  Sure I studied martial arts and read hundreds of books on eastern philosophies, but I had to be realistic.  And now that I’m a father and a husband, I wouldn’t trade my family for the world.  But I still envy those monks, knowing that they know nothing and yet everything at the same time.

Our minds, as babies, have not yet developed enough to understand the world in which we live.  And as we grow, we learn to love, hate, value, judge, believe.  We learn what is right and what is wrong, what makes us happy and what makes us sad.  But unfortunately all of that is relative.  What I judge to be good, like maybe voting for Obama for president, someone else may judge to be bad.  I value my Dodge Ram pickup truck, and yet I know a few people who detest the make and model and even hate the people who drive them, as I learned one day when a friend not-so-eloquently put his foot in his mouth by bashing people who drove them, not knowing that I had just purchased one a few weeks prior.  Oops!

So really, all of these things that we’ve learned since the time we were born really seem quite trivial and meaningless, don’t they?  Even down to the mere words we use to describe things.  Is it a spoon?  A utensil?  A lifter?  A ladle?  A spatula?  Did you walk here?  Or stroll?  Trot?  Bounce?  Saunter?  Oolala!  We use labels to define things, and yet those words do no justice for what I’m describing.  Each of you reading this is  picturing a different type of spoon—plastic, ornate, wooden, soup, large, small.  Does it matter?  All this knowledge in our heads is pointless.  Rather we should be focusing on the tangible and intangible.  Focus on what we observe.  Pass no judgment.  Do not label it.  Observe it, understand it, and then move on.

Having an empty, clear mind is a wondrous thing.  Because without that, we are all mindless slaves.  I’m a slave to my desires, and so are you.  I can’t just give up social media.  I mean, I can, but how else would I let all of my followers know I have this wonderful blog?  I can’t quit my job, because then I couldn’t put food on the table for my family.  I can’t give up drinking Red Bull.  Ok, maybe I can, but why should I?  We are born to be consumers.  We are born to grow up, go to school, get a job, have a family if we choose, grow old, and die…and buy buy buy all the way through.

Sad, really.  Life for those monks seems so much simpler.  And easy.  And peaceful.  They know a spoon is for eating rice, and that’s that.  They don’t get to hear daily about gas prices going up, injustices toward others, etc. etc.  It's no wonder they are some of the greatest thinkers mankind has to offer.

Maybe my friends and family who live life outside of the proverbial “Know” are onto something.  And maybe I shouldn’t have had that tattoo removed.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I'm Afraid of Americans!

The other day I had to help a coworker with a technical issue, as I do on pretty much an hourly basis during a typical day of work.  I cringed though when I saw this particular coworker calling me.  She’s a nice person who doesn’t bother me with trivial matters—and believe me, I see lots of eye-rolling, trivial, are-you-freakin'-kidding-me-you-couldn't-figure-this-out-on-your-own matters—but the reason I cringed when I saw her name pop up on my phone was that she’s been sick for the past couple of weeks.  So sick, in fact, that I’ve heard her coughing from my office on the other side of the building.

I resolved her technical issue without much ado, but I made the mistake of not using hand sanitizer when I returned to my desk.  I don't typically use hand sanitizer, but I always keep a bottle in the event I have to assist a person who is sick.  But as I said, I just forgot this time around.  Sure enough, that night I had a tickle in my throat.  Yesterday morning I awoke and felt like a zombie.  Caffeine didn't help.  Walking a mile at lunch didn't help.  I went through half a box of tissues the latter half of the day.  I popped a couple of daytime cold relief tablets and pushed through, but last night I just crawled into bed and stayed there for something like four hours, watching TV and zoning out.  Today when I got up, I actually felt a little better, but my nose was still running (never stopped all throughout the night, I swear), and my voice was raspy.

I hate being sick!

Then I woke my son up to get him ready for school.  He’s always a little temperamental in the mornings, but as I was getting him dressed, he seemed unusually belligerent.  Then he let out this hacking cough that, quite frankly, scared me a little.  Yes, I think I hugged him a few times last night, but I was careful not to let him share my food or drinks.  Still, in whatever interaction we had, he seemed to catch my cold.

I’m just amazed at how easily people can pick up germs and transmit them on to others.  This little virus travelled from my coworkers’ keyboard to my body to my son in the span of a little more than 24 hours.

The writer in me just can’t help thinking how vulnerable we are as species.  From a terrorist attack to an alien invasion, the easiest way to wipe out the human race would be to infect us all with some little nasty bug.  Turn us all into zombies or kill us all entirely.  It makes me want to wear a face mask like the people in China who were deathly afraid of acquiring H1N1!

On somewhat of a different note, I swear I’ve seen four or five car accidents in the past couple of months.  In one instance, we were sitting at a light with two cars ahead of us, the light turned green, the car in the front proceeded through the intersection, and a car in the perpendicular lane slammed into it, spinning it around 360 degrees.  Thankfully there weren’t any major injuries, but I watched that car speeding, the driver on a cell phone, and she just didn’t seem to see that red light at all.  A week or so later, a VP with one of my company’s clients was killed in a head-on collision where a truck crossed the center line and slammed into his car.  And just yesterday I saw two minor fender benders just ON THE WAY HOME FROM WORK!

I think I can understand why people are agoraphobic.  I’m just glad I don’t live in Chicago, where gun violence has increased 30% since last year.  Man, I’d never leave my freakin’ house!  Pizza delivery and UPS guys would know me on a first-name basis!

Let's wake up, America.  Put the guns away.  Put those cell phones away and pay attention while you drive. If you're sick, stay home!  And if you absolutely have to go to work, sanitize your work area and everything else you touch!  Please, let's think about how our actions may affect others.  Just this once?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Would You Be an Effective Leader? Or Would the Power Go to Your Head?

I’ve been slacking here on the blog front, so I thought I’d add a little post.  Well, maybe not little…hehe.

So Todd Akin’s statements prove that he is an idiot.  I’m sure there is a very small minority out there who would disagree with me, and for them I would advise that they go find some health textbooks and learn something about the female anatomy.  What’s more shocking to me though is his refusal to exit the Senate race, despite his own party pressuring him to quit.  I just have to wonder if he’s that power-mad?  Is his quest to become a Senator so important that he’s willing to jeopardize the entire Republican party?  Very scary stuff.  We don’t need people like that ruling our country!

I think it’s an illness that may affect many politicians nowadays.  They may start out with lofty ambitions to win a seat or office, hoping they’ll be able to make some significant and positive change (even though “positive” is such a relative term), but then they become institutionalized, lose sight of their original intentions, and then just fight and fight to stay in power when it’s obvious to everyone else that they must leave.  I think our government needs to overhaul the term limits for certain positions.  Of course, it’d be easier to ask my son to throw away all of his Spider-man toys and gear.  Not going to happen!

I was watching Hotel Hell from last week, and the owner of the hotel, when confronted by Gordon Ramsey (who is just amazing in the way he motivates people), actually had the nerve to tell his employees that “if they don’t like it, they can find a job elsewhere.”  Gordon Ramsey just completely lost it on this jerk, repeatedly asking him “how dare” he “say something like that.”  And he’s right.  Anyone who manages even one other person has absolutely no business in that position if that’s his or her opinion.  Unfortunately, nearly everyone I know has heard a boss or supervisor utter those words.

Some managers and business owners seem to have this sentiment when their employees start complaining.  Instead of trying to rectify the situation, they’ll just dismiss it.  It’s the sign of a person who lacks leadership qualities, who is too afraid to effectively communicate, guide, listen, and even reprimand their staff.  These people tend to struggle with conflict and try to avoid it at all costs.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that if that’s the type of person he or she is, that person needs to not be a manager.  If an employee is complaining to you, whether it be about working conditions, gossip, wages, etc., it’s your job to listen to them, identify if their gripe is valid, and then communicate your thoughts and come up with a plan of action.  Don't just ignore it!

I’m about to get a little wordy here, but I just want to mention one case in particular (while protecting the names of the innocent).  We had Bob, an employee and a manager of a group of five or six, who reported to Frank, a low-level executive.  Frank also had Sally, Mary, and Pat reporting to him from other departments.  Sally, who ran a department with close ties to Bob’s, and several of her underlings had it out for Bob, and they repeatedly complained to Frank about Bob’s department.  However, Bob’s department was setting all sorts of records, so much so that even the President of the company complimented him on his work, and his staff’s morale was at an all-time high.  Sally’s complaints were petty attempts to make him look bad, but Frank couldn’t stand all the bickering and infighting among the departments, and at one point he actually asked Mary (from a third department) to “keep an eye on” Bob and look for certain things that Sally and her underlings complained over (which Mary never witnessed, I might add).  Pat, who worked in yet a different department, overheard bossman Frank’s plan, and so he told Bob about it.  Bob decided immediately to leave because he couldn’t put up with the departmental bull crap and poor management by his supervisor.  He couldn't believe that Frank wouldn't discuss the "complaints" with him and would rather have someone spy on him.  And who could blame him?  After he left, a new employee, James, was hired to move into Bob’s spot.  And then things went downhill from there.

Frank’s inability to effectively manage his staff caused the loss of a valuable employee.  And then, believe it or not, Frank was promoted even higher in the organization.  And James, who had no managerial experience, failed miserably without any guidance or training at being a manager (no surprise given that Frank was his boss).  The department continued to do well, mostly because of initiatives that Bob had put into place before he left, but morale began to slip to an all-time low.  James even at one point, frustrated over an employee’s complaints of having too much work to do, broke a lamp in his office.  He repeatedly threatened to write up his staff members for innocent or non-existent mistakes, and the department severely suffered.

Not good.  Would you want to work in a place like that?

Somewhere along the line, someone should have recognized Frank’s inability to lead and pushed him in a different direction.  Frank was great with numbers and reports and business analysis, but he was lousy with people.  And that’s just the way it is sometimes.  Not everyone is a born leader.  But nobody pointed this out to Frank, and so the atmosphere created under him was toxic and still remains that way today.  And by the way, I know Bob.  He’s doing great in his new role.  He’s also very happy and thankful he got out of there when he did.

Are these people just blinded by their power that they can’t see how harmful their actions are to those under and around them?  It reminds me of a line from a Nine Inch Nails song: Capital G.

                Don’t try to tell me how some power can corrupt a person
                You haven’t had enough to know what it’s like
                You’re only angry ‘cause you wish you were in my position
                Now nod your head because you know that I’m right.  All right!

Truly sad, but we all know people that certain people in authoritative roles tend to feel that way.

So what’s my point?  My point is that being a good leader isn’t for everyone, obviously.  But the Tao Teh Ching has some good advice for those who want to try.  By the way, check out my pocket-sized one--I suggest everyone get one and read it!  But anyway, for those of you who think you can be a leader, just contemplate these:

Chapter 17 of the Tao Teh Ching:
The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When you are lacking in faith, others will be unfaithful to you.
The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people will say, “We ourselves have achieved it!”

Chapter 24 of the Tao Teh Ching:
One on tip-toe cannot stand.
One astride cannot walk.
One who displays himself does not shine.
One who justifies himself has no glory.
One who boasts of his own ability has no merit.
One who parades his own success will not endure.
In Tao this things are called “unwanted foods and extraneous growths,” which are loathed by all things.
Hence a man of Tao does not set his heart upon them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What Happened to Colored Toilet Paper?

Remember this?  Where did it go?  When did it go?  I can't remember a campaign to end the production of this stuff.  And yet it no longer exists.  If you do a little research on the web (how bad is it that you and I are researching toilet paper), you'll find that marketing campaigns, bathroom styles and colors, and people's allergies are mostly to blame for its disappearance.  And really, wasn't that yellow stuff just awful, especially if you used the restroom after someone else who neglected to flush?  And did they make a beige color, or am I just imagining that?

Sorry, I was watching Seinfeld the other day, and George was saying that toilet paper hadn't changed in 50 years, and Elaine and Jerry disagreed.  I guess they were right!

And I'm ready for the weekend.  Can you tell?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How is Your Sense of Ethics?

What’s up with all the cheating lately?  Today I read an article about a teenage player in a Scrabble competition who was caught cheating by hiding blank tiles in his sleeve.  Check out the article here:

And the Olympics had a Chinese badminton team throwing matches so that they wouldn’t have to compete against a more difficult team in the next round.  Likewise, a few boxing referees were suspended and expelled for various infractions.  In one case, a boxer from Azerbaijan fell to the mat six times, easily defeated, and yet the Turkmenistani referee refused to end the match and give the win to his Japanese contender.  In the end, the Azerbaijani boxer won by decision, although he had to be helped out of the ring.

Seriously?  This is the Olympics, people.

I shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, the best way to beat an opponent at a competition is to have an advantage over him or her.  Ethically-speaking, that advantage is in skill, intelligence, or athletic prowess, and the winning competitor has abided by the rules of the game.  But sometimes those rules have loopholes, and if that means winning a gold medal in the Olympics or going home empty-handed, we shouldn’t be shocked when people find ways to exploit those loopholes.  Or flat out cheat.

I can’t say I never cheated.  But in high school I never did.  I know some kids would write answers on their desks right before the exams were handed out, but high school studies were very easy for me.  I never cheated in high school because yes, it was wrong, but also because I didn’t need to.  I just used my brain and did well.

College was a bit of a different story though.  And I think it was the peer pressure that really made me cross those ethical boundaries.  After taking a few tests in one particularly difficult EE course, a lab partner of mine asked, “Are the formulas in your graphing calculator messed up?”  I had no clue what he was talking about, and then he scrunched up his face like I was joking, pulled out his graphing calculator, and showed me a list of about two-hundred formulas broken down by category that’d he’d entered into the device's memory.  He had the Law of Sines and other trigonometric formulas, chemical reactions, Fourier Transform pairs.  And I was honestly just dumbfounded.

Of course, my shock turned to compunction when other lab partners started laughing and showed me their calculators, which seemingly had even more formulas than the first.  And then even a TA came up to us and said he’d never have gotten through EE 330 without his stash of formulas.  In my mind I kept thinking this was just so…WRONG…but that night I must have spent three hours entering formulas into my calculator.  And then when I took my next exam, I think I referenced those formulas a handful of times, and sure enough I got a 96 on it.

I look back now and still think that was so wrong.  But considering that our profs graded on curves, and I was at the bottom end of the bell curve in several of my classes, I really had no choice.  I was paying a lot of money to get a piece of paper saying I was an educated man, and yet cheaters were robbing me of my money and education.

I remember one statistics class in which the professor actually encouraged us to use graphing calculators and even laptops with the Excel statistical package installed if we had them.  I came to my first exam with my laptop, pulled it out, and watched as twenty-nine other students stared at me, most probably thinking I was a nerd for actually bringing a laptop.  I was the first one to finish that exam though, and when I received my grade, I had 100%.  I’d even gotten the two bonus questions correct.  When that course ended, I recall stopping by my prof’s office to see my final grade.  He asked for my name and looked it up, and he was shocked that I had the third highest out of all 3 sections he taught.  His exact words were, “How did you do so well in my class, and I don’t even know your name?”  I just shrugged my shoulders and replied, “It helped that we were able to use calculators and computers.”  And I felt great knowing that I used the tools available to me to do well in his class.

There’s a huge difference between using technology as a tool and relying on it though.  In none of my other courses, especially the 300 and 400 level courses, did a professor allow us to use laptops or calculators to store formulas.  We were expected to memorize those formulas.  My EE grades may not have been as good as others, especially after having gone through one and a half semesters without using their unethical trick, but dammit I knew all of those mathematical formulas better than 90% of my peers.  Granted I can only remember maybe 10% of them now, but at least I actually LEARNED something.

The question is: how many of us would cheat to get ahead if given the opportunity?  Does money or fame or having your name in the record books trump knowing that you did this on your own without the assistance of a crooked judge or a computer or some other method of cheating?  Has our society become so obsessed with success that we are willing to throw out all of our morals and ethics to obtain it?

Of course, I’m the kind of guy who follows the rules to a tee.  I take all of my corrugated cardboard and newspapers to the recycling bins outside of Wal-Mart instead of tossing it in the trash.  I always use my turn signals and stop at every stop sign, even though I know people roll through the one down the road from my house like it’s not even there.  I cringe when I hear about people scamming stores that offer no hassle returns.  But that’s just me.  I was raised properly, I guess.

But what about everyone else?  Am I the idiot for not following suit—metaphorically speaking, not putting those formulas in my graphing calculator?  I’m not asking because I’m considering a change into the realm of the unethical.  I’m asking because I want to know if you, my reader, have a firm moral ground to stand on.  If you don’t, why is that?  Because you just want to have an advantage over everyone else?  Because having more money/power/fame is really all that is important to you?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Could You be a Hoarder?

So I must have spent half a day watching Hoarding: Buried Alive over the weekend.  That show is like the ultimate roller coaster ride.  It starts out with a house, seems normal, but as they approach and go inside, you gasp in horror.  It always seems to go from bad to worse, with some new atrocity of piles of used diapers or roaches crawling over everything or dead animals buried under the messes.  We actually tried to eat dinner while watching it, and I can honestly say that if you want to lose weight, put that on while you are eating.  You won’t be going back for a second helping.

After watching three or four episodes, I decided to clean up my own tiny "hoard" in my garage.  My father-in-law came out to help, and in no time we had three garbage bags full—mostly newspapers and cardboard I never got around to hauling off to the recycling center.  I only spent maybe an hour and a half before my allergies got the best of me, but my daunting mess of a garage is much cleaner, and I can't wait to set up my workout bench again and hang up my punching bag so that I can use a portion of it as a gym!  Yay!

But back to hoarding, I can’t quite figure out how people allow themselves to live in filth.  Granted, my house isn’t always the neatest or the cleanest.  My kid loves to make messes, and while he’s great at cleaning them up at the daycare, at home…well…not so much.  Add volumes of junk mail, my wife’s mountain of shoes inside the doorway, laundry, newspapers, etc., etc., etc., and sometimes I feel like I spend way too much time cleaning up.  But my house will never EVER EVER come close to looking like those houses--even in most of the "after" pictures.

I’ve realized that there are really two problems that are presented on Hoarding.  You have the people that just don’t want to let go of anything, which to me seems like a real mental disease, and then you have the people that are just lazy.  On this one particular episode, this woman lived with her two kids (a 17-year-old girl and a 15ish-year-old boy).  The mother claimed she had fibromyalgia and couldn’t do anything without suffering extreme pain, and the kids wouldn’t do anything either.  Mountains of trash piled up, and nobody seemed to care or notice.  The mother blamed everything and everybody but herself, and she even got to the point where she refused to talk to the therapist because the woman was "belittling her" and saying she was "unfit to be a mother."  This lady was also a diabetic, and instead of putting her USED NEEDLES in a sharps container—or even a plastic bag—she was just throwing them into this garbage heap beside her.  They actually had to have a HAZMAT team come out and clean up her needles, and sure enough the team found at least one that wasn’t capped.  Are you freaking serious, lady?!?!?!?

The kids didn’t want to live there, and yet the girl cooked (on one burner amid a pile of trash) for her mother and didn’t want to leave her.  I kept thinking that those kids should have been placed with their father or in foster homes, but I realized that the daughter was fiercely emotionally attached to her mom, because otherwise why would she live in this filth?  Not to mention the place was crawling with roaches.  Yes, roaches.  Queue the vomit...

In the end they got it all cleaned up, and the family lived happily ever after, blah blah blah.  I don’t buy that though.  That lady had to have been one of the laziest people on the planet.  She couldn’t take trash out because she was in pain, yet she was walking through the house just fine.  She couldn’t even put her needles in a bag so that they weren’t poking people?

What drives people to such low points in their lives?  This lady obviously was depressed and sick and just in a horrible mental state, but to subject your kids to that?  I just don’t get it.

On another episode, one lady actually claimed that she was a very selfish person, she knew it, and she would never change.  Her boyfriend was ready to leave her because of her hoarding, and this was their final straw.  They cleaned up their place and worked out their differences, but I think that lady’s honesty said it all.

We have a hoarder house about a mile away from our residence.  We drive past it nearly every day.  We've watched over the past few months as they have filled three or maybe even more dumpsters, and the house itself isn’t all that big.  Part of me would have loved to have seen the inside before they started, but if given the opportunity to actually go, I ultimately would have declined.  Just cleaning out my cluttered garage was enough to send me into a horrible sneezing fit.

I could never be a hoarder.  Someone very close to me was on the verge of (probably even crossed the line of) being a hoarder, and unfortunately I had to deal with cleaning up most of the hoard several years ago.  Luckily I found some auctioneers that helped us sell most of the stuff, but we had both a big and a little dumpster of pure trash hauled out.  I don't mind talking about it to people, but I'll just summarize it here--it taught me a lesson, that's for sure.

These people that are just lazy hoarders, the ones that won’t throw away their trash—they just need slapped silly or else tossed in jail for a month or two to learn discipline and respect for others.  And really, that lady from that show should have spent some time in jail for abusing her children by forcing them to live in conditions like that.

But for the ones that have to hang on to material possessions, I understand it's a mental disease, but I can't identify with them at all.  They find value in garbage.  The one had a 55-gallon drum filled with ballpoint pens.  Seriously?  Like 10 of them aren’t going to last you the rest of your life?  You really need 5000 of them?  I had to throw out 10 pairs of worn shoes when cleaning up the hoard I had to deal with.  Not one of them was fit for wearing even around the house.

I have a little Zen Calendar on my desk, and one saying in particular was so good that I kept it, cut off the date, and taped it to my monitor.  It reads:

“Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you obtain it, it is nothing special.” – Shunryu Suzuki

That's the way I've TRIED to live my life since high school.  I don’t let material possessions own me.  I may give in once in a while, but at least I try, and I think I'm rather successful.  I mean, I look at my own house now, and I really think it would take a small-sized U-haul for us to move.  If it burned down, I wouldn't be upset.  I'd just replace the things we need, buy a few things to have fun with, and move on.  And here's a good example of my philosophy: the other day I was looking at Poweriser jumping stilts, thinking they’d be so cool to have, and then I realized that I’d probably wear them a handful of times, get hurt or realize that I’m not 18-years-old anymore, and then put them in a closet or up in my loft where we keep all of our stuff that we no longer use.  Yeah, check them out.  They look pretty awesome, right?  But how many times would a 35-year-old use these things??

Bottom line, don’t be a slave to your desires.  Don’t be a slave to material possessions.  The next time you go to buy something, ask yourself if you really need it.  Because chances are that you don’t.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Creating a Convincing Villain

Writing is easy.  It’s just a bunch of words typed in or scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper, with proper grammar and punctuation and all of that.  Most people can accomplish that fairly well enough to write an email or letter to a friend or whatever.  Well, maybe most people over the age of thirty.  I worry about the younger generations of today.  Either our nation’s English teachers are suddenly, miserably failing, or texting and IMing is destroying our youth’s ability to write cohesive sentences.

Writing fiction, though, takes a bit more skill.  When I write, I’m usually rather adept at creating a protagonist.  I take some of my own (or my wife’s, son’s, friends’) endearing qualities, add in some flaws (not typically my own, but ones that I am usually personally familiar with), create a back story, and voila I have a protagonist.  Most of the time it works.  Of course, I don’t just reveal all of this to the reader in the first few paragraphs or even the first chapter.  Most of the time I’ll stretch it out across the first third to half of the book, and because I love to add plot twists, I may switch it up and add a new or different quality or attribute somewhere in the latter half.  Either way, creating a convincing protagonist isn’t too difficult.

But the antagonist, on the other hand, is a bit trickier.  First of all, it’s quite difficult to create a villain without falling into a cliché.  If your villain is a bank robber, and he’s done it a dozen times before, it’s easy to get carried away with how “perfect” he is at robbing a bank—a crime that leads to apprehension nearly 99% of the time.  He may not have been caught all those other times, but each new robbery needs to be treated like his first with regards to the dangers he faces.  I don’t care who he is, unless he’s taking a ton of Xanax and is somehow immune to the sleeping/numbing effects,, he’s not going to be going in there with much confidence.

Likewise, if your villain is a high school bully, it’s easy to make him a bigger, lonely kid who comes from a bad home life and who, in the end, is just looking for attention.  Or if he’s a military drill sergeant, he barks orders to the point of breaking soldiers and never seems to have a softer side.  In other words, it’s easy to create a one-dimensional villain, and that’s where, as writers, people tend to make mistakes.

In my book, Project Utopia, my villain is a mental health doctor, and while he fits the mold of many others, I try to turn the tables on the reader by making him seem like he’s not necessarily the mastermind behind the entire evil plan.  Likewise, my villain in Paradox is quite sinister, and yet the reader learns midway through the book that his similarities to the antagonist are uncanny.

But beyond the clichés, I don’t think it’s very easy for most readers or writers to think like a villain, and therefore it’s not easy at all to write about them.  I mean, many writers go for a serial killer/mass murderer/horror movie villain, and yet unless those writers have actually committed some of those crimes, it’s really hard to put themselves into that mindset.  As an example, our nation has seen some tragic mass killings happen recently, and at one point my family was discussing the motives of the killers.  Some people are convinced that these men are/were crazy, and that may indeed be the case, but how do you describe crazy in a way that a reader can relate?  Or if they weren’t crazy, what were they thinking when they plotted and carried out these killings?  What does it feel like to be sadistic?  How can you make a reader relate to someone that is heartless or cold or uncompromisingly evil?

Sometimes I really struggle with coming up with a human, run-of-the-mill villain, and the reason, I think (or hope) is that the average person doesn’t think like a villain.  I envision Joe Blow from his lovely little abode “off the street” as being a kind soul, and so unless he has some mental health issues, why is he going to hurt this person or commit this crime or cause tension or pain to my protagonist?  And if this guy (or girl or dog or alien or whatever) has made the decision to create or be a part of some conflict with my main character, the explanation as to why has to be clear to the reader.  Because a good story relies heavily on the conflict itself, and if the author doesn’t have enough detail in that conflict, the reader will think the story isn’t very good.

My wife scares me sometimes in her penchant for real-life crime stories on Investigation Discovery and A&E.  And we both recently signed up for additional life insurance so that our kids will be well-cared for if one of us meets his or her demise.  I keep joking with her that she’s going to poison my food, but she is clear to point out that, really, it’s pointless to murder someone, because it’s impossible to pull off the perfect murder.  And then I think it’s just a little twisted that we are having a discussion about murdering me (or people in general), and while we laugh it off, it’s still a little unsettling.  I mean, the idea of killing someone else isn’t really something that most people think about.  Is it?  Or perhaps they think about it, but would they ever have the ability to go through with it?  No.  And yet we read about villains in fiction works that are ruthless killers ALL THE TIME.  Where do all of these evildoers come from??

How do you create a convincing villain without alienating readers?  I mean, it’s one thing to write about a guy that wants to kill, kill, kill, but most readers aren’t going to relate.  And the ones who do, well, they’ll probably think your idea is corny, because they’ll probably be megalomaniacal themselves, deeming anyone else’s theories or ideas as trivial to theirs.  It’s quite a riddle—one that great writers have apparently been able to solve.

I’m not an expert in villain creation.  Heck, I’m not even an expert in writing fiction, because if I were, well, I’d be a great writer on the New York Times’ Bestsellers List.  But I’ll certainly try my best at creating a convincing character that has a legitimate reason for creating conflict with my protagonist.  Maybe I’ll fail, or maybe I’ll succeed—that’s up to you, as the reader, to decide.  Either way, just know that it’s not easy taking the imagination into the realm of the perverse and leaving with a believable, multi-faceted antagonist.

P. S.  If you are a fellow writer, let me know your thoughts!  How do you create a realistic and convincing evil mastermind?

Monday, August 6, 2012

I'm the Judge!

I'm judging Wakefield Mahon's Motivation Monday flash fiction challenge today.  The challenge is simple--you have 500 words to write a clever story using "She stumbled away from the fiery wreckage" as your starting prompt.  You have until 12 PM tomorrow to get your stories in.  Hit me with something fun and creative!

Friday, August 3, 2012

It's All About the Benjamins

What’s wrong with our economy?  Check this out…

So part of the non-IT, business side of my job is to conduct wage/salary surveys.  I’m not going to get into a lot of detail on that, but let me say that I’m as close as you’d find to an expert on how much people in certain industries make in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.  And so as I was compiling a report today using some of the data from the latest survey (conducted between April and July of 2012), I ran across a stunning fact:

CEO’s and upper management are more likely to be given a bonus than the non-management workers—the difference is three-quarters vs. less than two-thirds—and the average value of the CEO’s bonus, AS A PERCENT OF SALARY, is four to five times that of the average worker.

Maybe it’s not so stunning, because we all know that CEOs and executives make a ton of money, but let’s just think about this for a minute and do a little math.  We have Bob, a CEO, who is making $200,000/year as a base salary.  We have Fred, a production line worker, who is making $25,000/year as a base salary.  When it comes bonus time, Bob is more likely to be given (or to grant himself) a bonus over Fred.  And, if Bob and Fred do both receive bonuses, Bob is getting a much larger one AS A PERCENT OF HIS SALARY than Fred is.  So, for example, say Fred is given a 4% bonus.  That means that Fred will get $1000.  Not bad, considering that Fred only makes $25,000/year.  Maybe he’ll be able to take his kids to the beach for a weekend.  Or maybe put a little dent in his credit card debt or mortgage, which hopefully is not underwater.  Bob, on the other hand, is getting four point five times that AS A PERCENT OF HIS SALARY.  Why do I keep capitalizing that?  Because Bob is not getting 4.5 times $1000.  Bob is getting 4.5 times 4%, or 18%, times his salary of $200,000/year.  In other words, Bob is getting $36,000 AS A BONUS.  That’s more than Fred makes in a whole year—almost a year and a half even!

Corporate taxes are at the lowest point since the 70's, and certain political folks in Washington (namely the GOP) think they should be lower to spur on the economy.  After all, trickle-down economics is the way to create more jobs, right?  Put more money into the pockets of the wealthy, and they will, in turn, give more money to the lower classes.  Right?

Not when the executives are taking it in huge bonuses...and then stashing it away in off-shore accounts and paying only 13.9% of their $20 million income in taxes, when all the rest of us are paying 15% or 25%.

What's wrong with our economy?  There's your answer.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why Do People Hate Leann Rimes??

So I'm sitting here during my lunch break, and I'm thinking about how last night was a typical evening in the Strohman household.  We arrived home from work/daycare, and I immediately went outside and fired up the grill to cook some hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner.  My wife made the hamburger patties, and we bought some Chicago-style hot dogs that we wanted to try.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the skies overhead were mostly clear, and so I cooked outside and my wife and I put together a nice little dinner.  I can’t say I liked the Chicago-style dogs all that much, but I did pick one of the first jalapenos from my little garden, sliced it up, and put it on my burger, and boy was that tasty.  And spicy!  Yum!

As we were chowing down, the topic of wormholes and black holes came up, and so I went on ad nauseam about what they are, the science behind them, the implications if they do/do not exist, etc.  My wife always has trouble understanding space-time, and so I think she walked away from it with a clearer picture and maybe even perhaps a better view of what it’s like to live with my brain (hahaha), as I’m always thinking about weird crap like time travel, alternate dimensions, mind control, etc.

After that I rummaged around for my art supplies and began working on the cover of my latest finished novel, Terminal Restraint.  I went back to my bedroom in search of some peace and quiet while drawing, but it didn’t take long for Adam Bomb to come rushing in, wreaking nuclear havoc on my plans.  I actually got him to draw alongside me for maybe, oh, 30 seconds, but then he wanted to climb on me.  Yeah, it’s a little difficult to sketch when a three year old is using you as a jungle gym.  After tossing him off of me and grumbling at him for about fifteen minutes, he switched tactics, instead wanting me to don his Spider-man mask and Hulk hands—I guess I was Spider-Hulk—and fight him.  He’s been on this kick about wearing his Captain America or Spider-man pajamas as soon as he gets home, and his Uncle Anthony bought him a Spider-man ski-mask and gloves to complete his ensemble, and so he was all decked out and ready to go.  Suffice it to say, I didn’t get much drawing done, although I have the overall concept down and started working on shading and coloring.

How does Leann Rimes tie into all of this?  I'm getting there...

From there I played some games of SongPop on my phone with my wife.  I absolutely detest that game.  It probably wouldn’t be so bad if I played it on my tablet, which I think I’ll try tonight, but my fat fingers are always pressing the wrong choices on my phone, and in the few weeks we’ve been playing it, my wife has just obliterated me.  I think, at least at the time of this post, she’s winning 34 to 17.  Apparently she’s really good against everyone else she plays, so if you are up for a challenge, request to play her.  She’s even beating me in genres that I absolutely know more about than she does, i.e., metal, industrial, and punk.  Even TV show theme songs!  Grrr…

I wrapped up the evening watching A.J. Burnett of the Pittsburgh Pirates try to pitch a no-hitter.  My wife wanted me to turn off the TV so that we could go to bed, and so I had to explain the importance of a no-hitter to her.  Of course, AJ gave up one measly run to a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning after the umpire failed to recognize two previous close pitches as strikes.  The Buccos still won though!  Let’s Go Bucs!  Anyway, I turned it off as soon as the game was over and fell asleep within minutes.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Who cares, right?  Well, I do have a point to my madness.

Yesterday I was reading an article about Leann Rimes, who I admittedly know very little about.  I do know she is a country singer, I think she was rather young when she first met stardom, and I might have heard that she maybe had an affair with some guy that was on CSI: Miami and, I think, possibly married him?  Other than that, I couldn’t name one of her songs or even come remotely close to guessing her work on SongPop.  Grrr…hate that game.  But anyway, in this article they were describing her tweets regarding some emergency dental issues she was having.  She supposedly had to have an emergency root canal done, it was extremely painful, and she posted all about it on Twitter.  I read the article, read her tweets, thought to myself “so what??”, and then I read the comments underneath...

Man, people freakin' HATE Leann Rimes!

I realize that most of the vitriol you read in Internet comments are typically entered by spiteful, loathsome people, but some of these were extreme—saying she should have all of her teeth knocked out by a flying brick and other such hateful verbiage.  I don’t know what Leann Rimes did to these people, and I don’t know why people feel so inclined to post such negative comments, but I feel sorry for the poor woman!  And it also got me thinking…

Why do we care so much about other people, so much so that we will spend five minutes reading their tweets or blogs about their daily lives...wait, err...let me rephrase that.  Why do we care so much about celebrities?  Why are we so fascinated with every aspect of their lives? has become huge, and People magazine has been around since the 70’s and is still going strong.  Twitter has become a huge stomping ground for celebs, and they all have hundreds of thousands of followers.  Why?

I’m a regular on Twitter and I have to admit that I follow close to a hundred celebrities (not Leann Rimes though).  I do always get a kick out of how normal some of them are.  Take Wil Wheaton, for example, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation and has a recurring role as himself on The Big Bang Theory.  That guy tweets about his love for video games, brewing his own beer, etc., and he just seems so...normal (albeit this is coming from me, a geek).  Others like DJ Pauly D and Simon Pegg and Kal Penn are just the same.

I just find it amusing that we are so interested in everyone else’s life.  Chalk it up to plain curiosity, or perhaps it’s the competitive nature in humans, and we just want to see how everyone else is living to see if we—or they—are “normal”.  Call it whatever you want, but wouldn’t we be happier if we focused more on our own lives rather than what everyone else is doing?  I’m not trying to drive away my readers, but I just think sometimes we concern ourselves too much with the thoughts/actions/feelings/gardens/facial hair of others.  I love sitting and talking with people, listening to their little anecdotes and life stories, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  When people sit at a computer, read tweets or news concerning said tweets from a celebrity, and then write hateful statements in the comments, well, that’s a problem.  Am I right?  I mean, if that's what you consider a productive use of your time, I really think you need to get a life.  Go to a library or a church function or join a running group or something and meet some new people.  Take up a new hobby like sketching or playing with your kids or playing SongPop or whatever.

Who is with me on this???