The Snake Plant… and a marriage

Sansevieria trifasciata. That’s the scientific name for a “snake plant” (also Viper’s bowstring hemp, mother-in-law’s tongue or Saint George’s sword if you really want to get in the weeds about it).

It’s a homely plant. You see them in malls and lots of public places because they’re easy to grow inside, require almost no maintenance, and while unusual in appearance, they (barely) fulfill the need to liven up the lifeless interiors common to most modern public environments with something green and alive. I never gave them much thought, and you probably haven’t either.

For me, that changed just a little over 22 years ago. Kathy and I were living in our first apartment together. We weren’t married yet, and had very little money. The apartment… well, it wasn’t nice. It had those lovely parquet wood floors common in apartments that seemed to scream “this is a transient space.” It was a first floor apartment and the only nice thing about it, other than that we could just barely afford it, was the little patio we had. But since we had no money, it didn’t really have anything on it, but there was at least the potential.

We had money for food and necessities (barely!) but not decorative plants or other niceties. We also had neighbors who were frankly slobs (as in “Oh, that’s where the damn roaches are coming from!”). We’d occasionally find trash thrown off their balcony outside our patio. All-in-all, not a nice place, but we were together and young, and that made it better.

One day I happened to notice a green leaf (really almost a long, flat stalk) on the ground outside our patio. Probably no more than 6-inches long, it was pointy on one end, flat on the other, and rigid. It wasn’t even the whole thing, but for some reason I got it into my head to see if I could get it to sprout. Honestly I had no idea if it would work, but not knowing what I’m doing doesn’t often stop me. So I brought it in and plopped it into a container with some water. Weeks passed. And then a tiny little root (technically, I think, a rhizome) appeared. Success! We waited a few months and then planted it in a small pot I believe we salvaged from somewhere.

The plant grew. New leaves popped up, spreading out from that central one. Years passed, and we moved it to a bigger pot. It grew some more. More years passed, and we separated the leaves into two pots and watched them grow. Those two plants got their own new, larger pots. The plants grow slowly – just a handful of inches a year, but they never really stop – the leaves get to be about three feet long and new leaves appear every so often.

And now we have this:

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They look still rather as homely as any other snake plant. Nothing about them will ever be remarkable, botanically speaking. They live and grow, and we water them, move them outside during the summers, and back inside in the winters. They are, in essence, just sort of boring.

But today marks the 22nd anniversary of Katherine and I getting married. And those plants have been with us every single day. They’ve been there for our first fights and for the late night discussions where we talked about how to be better people. They were there for our cats to brush up against (and occasionally knock over) and they were there when we had to say goodbye to our cats. They were there for the birth of our two children – and their first steps, their first words, and all the other firsts. From the looks of it, they’ll be there in two more years when our oldest gets his drivers license, and probably will still be here when our youngest moves out on her own. Hell, they might outlive us both. (They say 20 to 25 years is the most that can be expected but honestly I don’t think these plants can die!)

In short, these plants are the most magnificent fucking plants that ever lived. They came into our lives by accident, they grow very slowly, and we have whole gardens of plants now, but they’re still spectacular.

My wife and I married almost a year to the day after we met. We were young and not even complete adults yet. And in the years since our kids were born, time seems to only move  faster and faster. But I look at those plants and can see the years that have gone by – and remember.

When you’re young and just falling in love, it’s all about roses and other traditional floral selections. And when we pass, it’s all about the flowers again. But in that middle bit, when you’ve been married for more than two decades, and have kids and a mortgage, it can sometimes just be about that unassuming little plant you first got when you were just starting out. The value is not in the thing itself, but in what value you invest in it and how you recognize what it symbolizes – in short, it’s sometimes just about being able to appreciate the little things. And happiness is seeing the big things, which are really too big to even be perceived or think about, reflected in those little things.

Thank you Katherine. Thank you for seeing that even though I wasn’t complete yet, with the right kind of love and attention, I’d grow into being the person you always believed I could be. And thank you for supporting my dreams, even the silly one where I thought I could get a sad little leaf that was thrown away to sprout and grow into something that thrived. Twenty-two years seems an odd anniversary to commemorate, but when have I ever been a slave to expectations or tradition? Love you!

 

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Nostalgia, Toys, and Making Connections in a Small World

Much has been said of how the Internet has made the world smaller and more connected. So often in fact, it has now become cliche to comment on it at all. But occasionally one gets reminded of it in such a strong way, you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief …and just a touch of wonder.

Let’s go back to 1980. There’s a small boy, nine years old, sitting on the floor of his family’s living room staring with quiet intensity at what’s before him. We notice he’s small for his age, both in height and in weight (not quite at the point where he disappears if he turns sideways, but it’s a near thing). He has large blue eyes, a mop of dark blonde hair, and a head that is quite a bit larger than the rest of him. He’s been sitting where he is for about two hours, quietly doing what makes him happiest — building.

He has a Millennium Falcon and a X-Wing nearby, along with the requisite action figures. But he’s not playing with those right now. Instead he’s building an Imperial prison. Then he’s building a Rebel base. Now it’s another spacecraft, but one never dreamed of by the masters of model building and practical effects employed by George Lucas. This isn’t LEGO, ruled by right angles or poor stepped approximations of diagonals. This is something infinitely more flexible. It’s a construction set called “Ramagon” and it inspired that young boy like no other toy before or since.

Vintage-1979-Toy-RAMAGON-2000-Construction-System

It also doesn’t exist anymore. Out of production for years now, I had even forgotten the name of it for awhile.

As you might guess, that boy was me, and that Ramagon construction set was, without a doubt, my favorite toy ever. It had a unique hub and strut building system that allowed you to make beautiful and strange creations that not only were large, but looked like the very definition of “the future,” circa 1979. While you could still make right angles, you could actually make connections in twenty-six separate directions off a single piece. While the structures you built looked and felt lightweight, they were substantial and sturdy.

It was not only a fascinating toy to build with just for the sake of building, it was the perfect way to build things that you could use with other toys and action figures. With triangular and square panels, you could create platforms and give your creations heft and solidity. Without the panels you could create airy, skeletal constructions that looked very similar to the plans for a space station that NASA had been planning at the time. I built elaborate worlds for my Star Wars toys. I built towers taller than I was. But the most fun I had was just building really complex geometrical shapes and seeing what I could do with them.

Ramagon  Micro base

I got older of course, and my Ramagon set eventually disappeared – probably in some charity donation. But I played with that set for a good six or seven years. Looking back later I realized that it hadn’t been just a toy used for entertainment, but something that helped me learn problem-solving and spatial visualization. I learned how to break big problems down into smaller pieces. I learned to balance having a plan with spontaneity and imagination. And while I love LEGO too, just connecting one brick to another isn’t very exciting – the building process with LEGO felt like a grind, the focus being on what you were building more than how you built it. Ramagon on the other hand opened up a whole world of possibility — not only allowing you to think about making connections in all directions, but encouraging it.

Flashing forward a number of years, and I now had two children of my own and I wanted to give my kids the same toy I’d had and more importantly the same experience I’d had. The first hurdle was one I’m ashamed to admit: while the toy had stayed fresh in my memories, the name of it was something I’d forgotten decades and decades ago. I did a lot of web searches for “1980s construction toy” and looked at a lot of pictures. I even searched for “1970s construction toy” as, with a child’s self-centeredness, I had no idea how long it had existed before I got mine.

Finally I had my eureka moment and found references and pictures on some sites that listed older toys. It was… Ramagon. Honestly, how I forgot a name like that I’ll never know. And to be fair, the Ramagon pieces were never emblazoned with a brand name the same way way LEGO pieces are.

Well, now I had a name but my jubilation was short lived. Turns out that by the time my kids were old enough to play with them and I went looking for them, they had been discontinued. I was crushed. As a parent, we all tend to want our children to be introduced to the things we loved best from our own childhoods and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was especially discouraging as I thought that Ramagon was the ultimate building toy that could be enjoyed by both my son and my daughter. Especially as both of them have tons of LEGO, and the later Ramagon sets had added panels that allowed kids to integrate their creations with LEGO bricks. I knew they’d love the possibilities it represented. It was frustrating knowing the perfect toy existed at one point but now was effectively gone.

I’d occasionally look for people selling Ramagon sets and would find some outrageously priced sets on eBay, sigh dramatically, and go about my business. My kids continued to get more and more LEGO sets and other construction toys and I continued to comment “Those are cool, but back in my day, I had the perfect building set…” They would roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing.

In the second half of last year I started wondering about where Ramagon came from. Who had invented it? It’s funny – so many commercial toys are completely divorced in the public mind from the person who invented them. Big toy companies don’t have much interest in promoting creative talent the same way tech companies do (obvious break-out hits like Rubik’s Cube being the exception). But I had a feeling that it would be possible to identify a single individual as the inventor – the set, its history, and everything I’d found out so far made me feel like this was someone’s passion, not the result of corporate focus groups and demographic targeting.

I’d already learned that it was never a toy in the same league as LEGO or Erector (or the later K’NEX) in terms of popularity and I would get met with blank stares and shrugs whenever I told people about it. After a consulting job that had me researching various patents, I decided to try looking through registered patents to see if I could find the person who had created, in essence, some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

US4129975-1Thanks to the Internet and specifically Google, searching patents is much easier than it used to be. That said, trying to find a patent without knowing the inventor or even the company that originally manufactured it (I knew the license for the toys changed hands over the years), is very difficult. Especially as the Ramagon name itself likely wasn’t even going to be mentioned in the patent (though later patents for similar toys did mention the toy by name). After much searching and looking at crazy toy designs (most of which were probably never sold anywhere) I found one: U.S. Patent 4129975 A. Inventor: Richard J. Gabriel.

So Mr. Gabriel invented the toy I still thought about all these years later. My question was answered, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. However, as I sometimes do, I drafted a letter in my head, thanking Mr. Gabriel for having created something that meant so much to a quiet, shy kid who found a way to express himself by building what he saw in his imagination. I was sure it was a letter that would never be sent. How could I even find him to send it? Would he even care? Was he even still alive?

And once again we come back to the point I made at the beginning – the world is smaller than it used to be. I grew up at the end of the era of three TV networks and rotary phones, and while I’m frequently an early adopter of new technologies, I can’t say that my thinking isn’t a little colored by a worldview now several decades out of date.

I went ahead and searched using Mr. Gabriel’s name and the word “Ramagon.” I found quite a few hits, mostly the meta cruft that is often associated with business listings. Lots of information, but none of it especially useful. I paged through more results, and finally… unbelievably… I found not just a website, but his website. Fittingly, he’s been an architect for more than 25 years, and there on his website was his email address.

I typed out basically what I’d already drafted in my head and sent him an email, not really expecting anything, but just wanting more than anything to say “Thank you.” That same day I received a reply from his wife Ann letting me know he’d get back to me in a couple of days. I was astounded.

Richard (and his wife Ann) wrote back and thus began a correspondence we’ve sporadically maintained in the midst of busy schedules. Richard and Ann have led fascinating lives, and I’ve loved hearing about what they’ve done and what they have planned. I even managed to provide a little help to them involving web design and online marketing. It was literally the least I could do in return for what I’d already received from Richard. I consider myself lucky to now count Richard and Ann as friends.

This had all started with the itch of unsatisfied nostalgia. I had gone looking for an old toy, and by extension, my childhood. I wanted to find a way to express appreciation for something that gave me so much joy as a child. I found so much more than that.

I found a link to my past that gave me a new perspective. I found new friends it felt like I had known for years. And thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Richard and Ann, I found something else too. In the mail this week, I received the following:

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Richard had, at my request, even signed the boxes for me. And with that, I was finally able to pass along to my children that idolized toy from my childhood. And along with it, a connection to a world that is both smaller and more amazing than the world I lived in some thirty-five years ago.

From the moment I pulled the sets out of the box they were shipped in, my kids’ eyes lit up. There were appreciative oohs and ahhs from both of them. My oldest, who just turned 13 and who has begun to have a pretty good idea of the value of such things, commented “It almost seems a shame to open them up.” I answered back “It would be a bigger shame not to.” And with that, we set about building.

I may have bogarted the toys a bit at the beginning. The pieces felt comfortably familiar in my hands. The click as pieces came together providing the same satisfying completeness that it had so many years ago. We built a spaceship. We built a Martian base. We built.

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This isn’t a story about nostalgia, or toys, or being an uber geek about something (though it obviously includes all those things). For me, this experience has been about the sort of connections possible in the small, connected world we live in, and the connections that exist within ourselves. How those connections can go off at any angle but that together, they can make something beautiful, strange, and the very definition of “the future.” It’s been about how when things click together just right, it provides a sense of completion.

And I hope for Richard that this is a story about how if you build with passion and creativity, as he did, what you built will last far longer than you could have dreamed.

I want to once again express my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to Richard and Ann. Nine times out of ten, or maybe even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if someone in a similar situation had received my email, assuming they even read it, they’d likely just smile and move on. I think it says something that they didn’t. Maybe with all their experiences across the globe, they realize that while it may be a small world, it’s full of large stories and the greatest fun comes either from making your own or from being a part of as many of them as you can.

Good News Everybody! I Made Four New Year’s Resolutions So You Don’t Have To…

I’ve always believed New Year’s resolutions were… well, bullshit to be quite frank. Why wait for a day to roll around on your calendar to decide to change something about your life? Yes, yes – there’s the end of the year and maybe you’ve had some time off from work or spent some time with your family and received just that little extra bit of changed perspective that inspires you to change. If so, go for it! But I suspect the majority of resolutions come about because:

  1. We think we should because everyone is (supposedly) doing it
  2. We’ve tried to make a change in the past and it didn’t work out, so we hope the impetus of a new year is the boost we need to make it happen
  3. We’re desperate due to some unhappiness in our life and we can’t face another year without trying to do something — anything really — to try and change that.

With the exception of number 1 above, those are good reasons, and again I say go for it! (But maybe don’t wait for the calendar to force you. No time like the present and all that.)

So why am I writing a piece the purports to put forward a set of resolutions for all of us if I think they’re not that helpful? It comes down to that “all of us” bit. These aren’t resolutions for each of us as individuals, these are resolutions for us collectively as humans. Now, to be clear, it takes a fair bit of arrogance to presume you have all the answers and while I have never been accused of being overly modest, I honestly don’t think I have all the answers. Or even most of them for that matter. But some things have stood out to me more and more over the past couple years and I want to encourage us to try and address them. I could be wrong and freely admit that, but if one of the ideas below gets you to thinking about something in a different way, I say mission accomplished!

One note about context: most of these came about because of exchanges and postings on the Internet. That, however, does not mean that they only apply there. And that leads to to…

Error MessageResolution #1: Let’s stop pretending the Internet is something different from everything else. Just because communication is broken down to 1s and 0s and then reassembled does not offer some magic transmutation that isolates this mode of communication from everything else. As I’ve written before, there is no “real life” and “online life” – it’s all just life, because it’s us. That’s all the validation it needs. This idea that because something happens online – whether it’s a posting to Facebook, meeting someone, or whatever is different from “real life” is not only wrong, it’s toxic and unhealthy. By distancing what occurs online from “real life” we are hamstringing our empathy, which when it comes down to it, is the only thing that makes the great sea of humanity around us at all tolerable. Without empathy, without the ability to see those you interact with as humans and something like ourselves, interactions devolve into tribalism, wars, distrust, and hate. So basically the worst part of ourselves. When we view “online” as separate from ourselves and our lives, we take no ownership for what happens there. The “tragedy of the commons” writ larger than it has even been writ before in human history and our ability to communicate with each other being the resource being depleted.

There are other aspects as well, especially legal, where it makes no sense to treat what is online or digital as somehow different, but those are mere inconvenience next to the giant morass that is our inability to constructively interact and communicate with each other. One can argue (fruitlessly it seems to me) about what “makes us human,” but when it comes down to what makes a civilization and culture, it’s the ability to communicate and empathize. So if we like that sort of thing, we should probably at least consider this one.

256px-Radio_News_Sep_1928_CoverResolution #2: Stop watching TV news.
I grew up (back in the ancient times of the ’70s and ’80s) watching the local news, the national evening news, and in my later teens, the local evening news. I also grew up listening to news radio and reading the newspaper, weekly news magazines, and pretty much anything else I could read. (tl;dr – my parents were news junkies for various reasons) Then as I grew older and the Web came to be a thing, I stopped. First went the local news. Then the national news. Then the newspapers and magazines. But when it comes to current events, I consider myself better informed than most (thanks Internet and diverse news sources!). For some of you millennials, I’ll probably have to explain that it used to be the case that something wasn’t regarded as having happened until the likes of Walter Cronkite told us so, and then we read the paper the next day to figure out the details of what it was that happened, and then we read a weekly magazine like Newsweek to find out what it all meant. We’d spend up to two weeks just getting it straight in our heads what happened. It was imperfect, flawed, and slow, but it worked in it’s own way.

Then something changed. We got 24-hour news channels. To fill all that time, they’d hype stuff relentlessly, just to keep eyeballs glued to the screen (because that got viewers and that gets advertisers and that gets money). Local and national network broadcasts changed to compete in an escalating war of “This common household product may be killing you!” stories. Then they hit on the real winning formula. Celebrities. But not just movie or sports celebrities – anyone who had the least bit of fame was fair game, and being a democracy, we have a whole host of people who are most notable for being slightly famous – politicians. So now we treat entertainment gossip as “news” and political news as gossip. Today, those channels still have 24 hours of programming to fill, and they continue to create “narratives” rather than news. “The reveal” morphs into “the backlash” which then dives into coverage of “the debate,” and this in turn will sometimes spinoff into the “why this difference of opinion reveals how broken everything is“, and then it all either gets ignored (if it just becomes too boring but no worries – it will be revived later with the “whatever ever happened to…” piece in a year or two) or it merely starts again – rebooted if you will – once some new event happens. I mean, we all complain about movie reboots, but CNN and Fox News have been pulling that crap for years.

So what I’m suggesting is, that no matter your ideological bent,  we all just stop watching TV news. No more MSNBC, no more Fox News, no more CNN… no more network evening news — none of it. Sure, other news sources are just as beleaguered, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them as formats. Whereas news and TV are inherently incompatible – TV news provides the illusion of being informed with none of the substance – it has no information density and becomes merely an echo chamber. Want to learn something about what’s happening in the world? Do literally anything else. Read a newspaper (if for no other reason than you can tell your grandkids about it one day), or preferably go online. But don’t just go to one site, go to as many as you can – read articles from places where you won’t know what the article is going to say before you read it. Don’t know where to start? Browse Twitter. Sign up for Feedly. Just whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV to get your news – it not only doesn’t work, it pollutes the well of discourse in the name of increasing some megacorp’s bottom line. When a news source becomes more concerned with it’s bottom line than in reporting the news, it should stop being considered a news source.

Resolution #3: Realize no one gets a cookie for being right. What do I mean? I mean that, especially in America, we are so concerned with winners and losers, we’ve lost sight of the fact that not every issue has a winner or a loser. We seem to have become so uncomfortable with gray areas that we avoid thinking or talking about them and every issue becomes a battle between opposing sides, and the ultimate casualties are nuance and understanding. We’ve all become this:

Except we’re all this way with everything now, not just the Internet

To give you an example: the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Back before this was passed by Congress and signed by the President, there was discussion about what the legislation actually did (not nearly as much as there should have been, but some). So what do we hear about now? If you’re a Republican holding office, you’re stance is pretty much required to be “Repeal it!” or at the very least “Sabotage it’s implementation!” And if you’re a Democratic office holder, you’re dictated stance is “Protect it at all costs.” The debate has stopped being about how to generally improve health care in this country, and become who can score the most political points off the opposition over this flawed piece of legislation that nonetheless has improved healthcare for millions.

Photo by sajbrfem / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s mental laziness. Rather than thinking about the hard stuff, we drift towards what’s easy: declaring ourselves right, and anyone who disagrees with us as wrong. Never acknowledging what’s wrong in our own assumptions and what’s right in the assumptions of others. I could literally spend all day giving other examples: abortion, the death penalty, climate change, race, guns, police use of force, GMOs, sexism … the list goes on. These issues have become entirely focused on the debates themselves and have lost sight of trying to find solutions that actually might improve the world we all live in. The only time a specific point is raised is when one side attempts to wield it like an intellectual Excalibur to slay every argument of the opposition.

So let’s be clear. Being “right” doesn’t entitle you to anything. No awards. No trophies. And no cookies. And it most certainly doesn’t entitle you to stop thinking about things. Which leads us into…

chooseagain-8ballResolution #4: Choose again. Lastly, we come to this. All good fiction, in my opinion, is transformative for the reader by definition. But once in awhile, you’ll run across something that truly and deeply changes your perspective. Such was the case with myself and Dan Simmons Hyperion/Endymion novels (known as ‘The Hyperion Cantos‘). A fascinating amalgamation of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it introduces a Messiah-like character named Aenea whose message for mankind is simply “Choose again.” To explain that, let me provide this excerpt from Rise of Endymion, the fourth book in the series:

“I got my message down to thirty-five words. Too long. Then down to twenty-seven. Still too long. After a few years I had it down to ten. STill too long. Eventually I boiled it down to two words.”
“Two words?” I said. “Which two?”

“Choose again,” said Aenea.
I considered that for a wheezing, panting moment. “Choose again?” I said finally.
Aenea smiled. She had caught her wind and was looking down at the vertical view that I was afraid even to glance toward. She seemed to be enjoying it. I had the friendly urge to toss her off the mountain right then. Youth. It’s intolerable sometimes.
“Choose again,” she said firmly.
“Care to elaborate on that?”
“No,” said Aenea. “That’s the whole idea. Keep it simple. But name a category and you get the idea.”
“Religion,” I said.
“Choose again,” said Aenea.

When we look for answers, humans tend to either adopt a stance based on what they think they should (parents, society, etc.) or by rejecting a stance based on what they dislike (again parents, society, etc.) — but, and this is the part where we all fail time and again, we don’t often revisit those assumptions. By believing in them, we take them into ourselves and they become a part of us, and when they are challenged, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. Once that happens, discussions stop being about the issue and become about us.

The benefits to changing this — to constantly and consistently deciding to “choose again” — are two-fold. First, we can better adapt (you know, that trait that got us from being single-celled critters intent on eating each other to creatures that could wear smart watches and order a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato) – to changing circumstances or new evidence. Secondly, by focusing as intensely on questioning ourselves as those around us, we gain better understanding of ourselves and empathy towards others. Institution after institution throughout human history has survived and even flourished by working against this – and yet human progress continues on, always because of someone deciding to choose again. And then the the disruption becomes the new status quo, until someone chooses again – often at great cost.

It’s by no means easy, but let’s realize perfect is the enemy of good enough and give it a try. What can it hurt?

And there you have it…

So if everyone follows these resolutions in 2015, can I guarantee world peace, an end to hunger, and whiter whites and no ring-around-the-collar? Nope. I can’t guarantee bupkis. That’s sort of the whole point. And certainly none of these ideas are original to me. But are any of them inherently flawed? I don’t think so. In my own can’t-quite-shake-being-a-child-of-the-70s way, I do believe if enough people adopted these as their own, the world would be a better place. There is so much energy that we pour into discussions of certain issues without ever realizing we’re talking about effects without ever dealing with causes. So if by some miracle, some consensus is formed that allows us to move forward, we’ve only won a temporary reprieve as the original cause still has not been addressed.

And the original cause is almost always us. Humans. We continue to push back the edges of what we know about the universe and yet spend so little time and attention on understanding ourselves and how we interact with one another. My daughter has already been taught the basics of economics in 1st Grade (she was explaining this to me just the other day), and yet she’ll probably never receive any in-depth instruction in school about:

  • Critical thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Effective personal communication
  • Developing emotional intelligence

…suffice to say, the list goes on. We have an educational system that’s main avowed purpose is to turn out the next generation of workers, when what we need is the next generation of decent human beings. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I know enough to see that things can’t continue as they are.

On a personal note, my goal (no, not a resolution!) is to write twelve posts about these sorts of topics in 2015, one each month. I hope you’ll check back in occasionally.

An Open Letter to Tim Kubart, a.k.a. ‘Tambourine Guy’

UPDATE:

And job done! Huge thanks to Tim Kubart for being an incredibly good sport about the whole thing and well, for being #TambourineGuy — because the world needs more of that.

Dear Mr. Kubart,

I invite you to view the following:

[Please note if you are not Tim Kubart, this disclaimer applies to you.]

Thank you! Now to be clear, I am asking this of you with Jess’ full knowledge and understanding – acquired while she was sober — which despite what the contents of the video above might imply, we both actually are more often than not. Continue reading “An Open Letter to Tim Kubart, a.k.a. ‘Tambourine Guy’”

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I don’t care where you fall on the various spectra of gender, race, ethnicity, belief, socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation. I don’t care if you accept or reject anyone’s ability to label you with any of those things. I don’t care if you’ve lived a life with or without privilege.

It doesn’t matter to me whether you’ve been a perpetrator or a victim of oppression and assault. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve been shamed or done the shaming. It doesn’t matter to me whether the laughter has fallen hard upon your ears or been launched like a bullet out of your mouth.

Your views on sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are immaterial to me. As is the taxonomy of your uniqueness as a snowflake.

I am not fighting for your rights.

I am not fighting for my rights.

I am not even fighting for the rights of my children.

I am fighting for the only rights that matter.

I am fighting for our rights. Each and every goddamn one of us.

The people we hate. The people who are different. The people who hate us.

Because the moment I stop fighting for our rights and start fighting for my rights is the moment I lose.

This late night rant brought to you by seeing too much activism simply degrade into bullying and identity politics. You want to bring about change? You want equality, civil rights, and social justice? Then work to bring it about for everyone, because every case of inequality and oppression throughout history is the result of someone else getting what was theirs and then deciding that was enough.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tucking this whole Jayne’s Hat business into its bunk…

I believe this will be the last I post on this — I just want to make a few observations after my post from yesterday. Buzzfeed posted an article late last night about the whole thing, and even featured some of my tweets about it. And ThinkGeek posted a couple of responses to all this yesterday and today. First, they disavow any involvement in the cease and desist orders sent to crafters selling their own Jayne Hats and secondly they’ve announced that 100-percent of the profit will go to the “Can’t Stop the Serenity, a Browncoat charity dear to ThinkGeek’s heart that raises funds and awareness in support of Equality Now.”

Well, that makes it all better, right? After all, ThinkGeek doesn’t even own the license, they just worked with the Firefly license owner Ripple Junction on the hat, and besides we all know what kind of assholes those guys at 20th Century Fox Television are! And now that they’re donating all the profits from the hat to a worthy, Firefly-oriented charity, all is well in the land of the geeks.

But…

You knew that was coming, right? But what about the crafters? Some of whom have been selling these hats for eight or more years? They kind of got stuck with the crappy end of the stick on this one, didn’t they? I don’t see anyone donating to a charity for them. And please don’t give me any gruff about how they shouldn’t have been selling unlicensed copies in the first place. Unless you’re willing and able to make 10,000 units of something, license owners won’t even answer your emails. And it’s a damn hat — a part of a costume from the show, so not covered by copyright. It’s not like Fox owns the design of the hat. There’s no way any court in the land would back Fox’s play here.

However, what crafter in the world could afford the time and expense AND risk of fighting it in court? Not a single one I’m aware of. So who is to blame, and more important what can be done to stop a cluster like this from happening again?

Well, Fox is clearly to blame for the cease and desist orders. Or are they? Under current law, if there is the smallest sign that the owner of intellectual property hasn’t enforced its rights to the fullest, it puts their intellectual property claims in jeopardy. So yes, Fox is still being a dick about pretty much everything Firefly-related, but not especially so in this instance. It could even be argued that they’ve willingly allowed this market in Jayne hats to exist for almost a decade without going after folks. Something obviously changed in the past few months then, huh?

What about Ripple Junction, the license owner? They’ve been strangely quiet, and some have said that if the Etsy listings were reported to them, they were required to pass that information along to Fox for action. That may or may not be the case, but in my experience, the companies that purchase these merchandise licenses are very aggressive (read “way too fucking aggressive”) about pursuing non-licensed sellers. I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from thinking that Ripple Junction wasn’t looking to instigate action against non-licensed sellers from the very beginning. One can easily imagine that when deciding to mass produce the hat, they did their due diligence to see how much demand there was for this product and cruised by lots of those Etsy listings well before any hats were even made or agreements to manufacture signed. As one troll noted to me on Twitter yesterday (in a different context), that’s just Business 101.

And lastly we come to ThinkGeek. Again, as I stated earlier, I’ve been a customer of ThinkGeek for ten years and very much a supporter of the company. They and Valve are usually at the top of the very, very short list of companies I repeatedly point to as doing right by their community and the world in general. But being a fan, like being a friend, sometimes means you have to call someone on their shit, and in this instance I believe ThinkGeek still deserves some of the blame. The mass produced Jayne hat was, as they have said, their idea and they worked closely with Ripple Junction on the design. It is likely that had they not done so, the C&Ds would not have been sent out. Maybe not forever, but not within months of having started to sell their licensed version.

Regardless of who owns the license, who sent the cease and desist orders, or anything else – ThinkGeek decided to …well, there’s really no other word for it… bully crafters out of the business of selling Jayne hats. They claim this was due to public demand, despite the fact that any web search of “jayne hat” back in November 2012 would have led to dozens and dozens of independent crafters selling them. No, what they did was that they saw a market ripe for the taking since they’d be selling the officially licensed version.

I challenge anyone at ThinkGeek to tell me, with a straight face, that they didn’t anticipate that bringing a licensed Jayne hat to market would result in crafters getting shut down. I mean the whole point of selling “licensed” products is the ability to get non-licensed sellers shutdown. Honestly, the fact that ThinkGeek would not be licensing the product themselves and would be working with another company who did own the license was probably seen as a huge benefit — if anyone complained, they could just point their fingers at Ripple Junction and Fox and say “Sorry guys, we’re not the ones shutting you down.” — a statement that is, while superficially factual, still misleading.

That’s it for the Parade of Blame, unless you want to pull in every US citizen that has never voted for candidates interested in making intellectual property reform a priority for our government. As it stands now, the system is pretty damn broken.

While the damage in this case has been done and can’t be undone, I do have one last suggestion for ThinkGeek, and it’s one that I sincerely hope they give some thought to as I still believe the company and all of its employees are some genuinely nice, geeky people:

Please don’t compete with the community of geeky crafters. There are probably a number of other licensed, mass-produced versions of products you can start selling. That doesn’t mean you should. You aren’t Aperture Science. You don’t need to do what you must because you can. There is more than enough business for you to keep on selling (and sometimes creating) wonderful products without looking to muscle crafters of handmade products out of business — because that is exactly what will happen every time you do.

Fear, Truth, and Consequences

I’m tired of senseless death. It will always exist, but after this past year I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed by it. After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had felt the grip of cold fear as I thought about my own children. Every parent knows fear — it’s part of having children. Afraid for their safety, afraid you could somehow fail them…the list goes on. And as parents, we all know that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best.

Because in the end, the truth about parenthood is that you are not in control. When it comes to your child, you can guide, inform, punish, and influence — but you can’t be in control of another person. No matter how much your child is a chip off the ol’ block – they are their own person and as a parent you need to come to terms with that sooner or later. And most of all, we can’t completely control what the world does to our kids. So we try our best to prepare them for whatever the world throws at them and hope with all our heart that it’s enough.

Fear is not a terribly useful emotion in the modern world. It can be great to help you anticipate and react if you’re in a life-threatening situation, but in a (hopefully) rational, civilized society it’s often counterproductive. It short-circuits our reason and makes us respond on an emotional, sub-rational level, so in essence, it makes us give up all the advantages of evolution and civilization and turns us into small, quivering creatures hiding from a Great Big Bad Thing and wanting more than anything for it to all go away.

It’s even worse when that fear is felt by a group or society, as fear is possibly the worst possible basis for public policy. Look at any bad law, policy, or government action, and at its core you will find fear. Fear of people who look and act differently, fear of change, fear of a lack of control, fear of what we don’t understand.

The events in Newtown brought this into sharp relief for me. What I felt, what I saw, and what I read all boiled down to fear: fear for the safety of loved ones; fear that the government will take away guns…and fear that they won’t; fear of the unknowable and unexplainable.

Hell, TV news folks interviewing elementary age school kids who were present in the school when the shooting happened was driven by fear of ‘losing the story’ to someone else and fear of losing ratings. And why do we need news interviews from those personally involved in a tragedy? I think it’s driven by the public’s fear that those in power won’t tell us the whole story, so we want the news channels to do those interviews so we have the “real” story.

And what does all that fear give us? Besides the rush of adrenaline and the worry, not a whole lot. After September 11th, 2001, what did it get us? Two wars, the deaths of countless more innocents, the Patriot Act, a huge increase in debt and a national malaise because I think at some level we all understand nothing we’d done made any real, meaningful change.

So is fear bad? Not in and of itself, nor could we in any healthy way stop feeling the emotion. What’s bad is letting a 200-million year old part of our brain trump the human neocortex (which is only about 195,000 years old).

What we can do is reclaim the birthright of our forebrains and the fruits of thousands of years of civilization and try to actually make the world a better place…not with our emotions, but with our brains. (Yes, at heart, I’m a hippie — deal with it)

Do guns need to be banned? I don’t know – generally speaking I would prefer most people didn’t have them. I certainly think we need to put a bit more emphasis on the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment. Certain types of guns clearly have no place in a sane, civilized world. For those that do have guns, the requirements for their ownership and use should be at least as stringent as other dangerous items. Currently there seems to be more sophisticated and onerous controls over decongestants than guns (at least in my state) and that does strike me as out of balance. But again, I don’t know what the solution is, as too often both sides argue out of (and to incite) fear. Guns are not “special” — they are merely another method for producing destruction. If we can regulate bombs, tasers, knives, and yes, even cars, we can and should regulate guns.

I also know that this country needs a much, much better mental health system. No one can tell me that a 24-year old shooting up an elementary school is the act of a sane, well-balanced individual. The issue of him having a rifle and two handguns should be secondary to why he was unbalanced in the first place. No, of course, we can’t stop everyone from snapping and going on a rampage – but shouldn’t the general mental welfare of everyone be one of the most important things we should aim for? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal by itself?

But more than anything, we need an answer as a species, as a country, and as individuals to learn to deal with the reptilian part of our brain and the fear it injects in our thinking. We need to be mindful of when we are letting it drive our decisions and work to overcome it with the only thing we have going — our intelligence and reason. In essence, we all need to apply the same type of thinking a good parent does — we need to remember that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best. And realize that any control we think we have is likely a not-terribly-helpful illusion.

Not much of an answer, I know. But what we’re doing is obviously not working, and repeating the same mistakes over and over again is not very likely to change anything for the better.

Which of course brings us to the truest and best thing Frank Herbert (or perhaps anyone really) ever wrote:

The Litany Against Fear

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Read, Rinse, Repeat…

One thing that has always struck me is that it’s evidently rare it is to re-read a book. Or at least it seems to be among the general populace. (Sadly, for those of us who regularly do read, we all have a feeling for how rare reading is in general). This came to light recently when someone asked what I was reading and I answered that I was re-reading Robert Heinlein’s novel ‘Friday’ – and the response was “Why? I never read the same book twice.” That got me to thinking — why do I re-read books, especially when there is so much out there that I haven’t read yet?

I think the answer is two-fold. First, it just sometimes happens that I’d rather read a book that I know I will enjoy but maybe just haven’t read in awhile. Secondly, and this is a point I’m unsure how widely spread it is, I re-read books to help program my brain. That makes it sounds probably more exciting than it is, but consider this:

  • Everything we do, from playing video games, to watching television, surfing the web, and yes – even reading, changes the fundamental structures in the brain.
  • Those changes are sometimes expected (e.g. watching lots of television and shorter attention spans) and sometimes unexpected (e.g. regions of the brain involved in decision making are larger in frequent gamers)
  • The so-called “power of positive” thinking may have some basis in truth – and the reverse is also true, as studies have shown focused on depression

You might see where I’m going with this — it was one of the first concepts in programming: GIGO (Garabage In, Garbage Out) or it also could be summarized as “You are what you eat” (or in this case “consume”). There’s even a cool term, neuroplasticity, that describes how our brains continue to evolve and change as we age and based on what we do with our squishy gray matter.

When I was a kid, my parents had a rule when we went to the library (which was often — probably explains a lot, huh?). It was “For every three ‘fun’ books you get, you have to get at least one ‘serious’ book.” Now, the serious book could be anything – history, how-to, or as usually happened — science. And so I grew up not just reading, but reading to learn. I tore through biographies, which were strangely one of my favorites. I still have fond memories of some children’s books about Alexander the Great, Ty Cobb, and Teddy Roosevelt. And I mixed that reading in with the “fun” stuff – Asimov, Poe, Heinlein, Tolkien, et al. Now here’s the important thing — I never really stopped with that approach. I really should thank my parents, as whether intentionally or not, they passed along the idea of structure and discipline in regards to what I “fed” my brain.

As I got older, I found myself coming back to certain books when I was feeling a certain way. Feeling a little fed up with life in general? Well, then I’d reach for Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series (Life. Don’t talk to me about life. — Marvin). Maybe a little frustrated with people in general? Take two doses of Mark Twain and call me in the morning (Twain captured people as they really are better than almost anyone before or since). Want to spark the ol’ creative juices? Here’s one William Gibson, one Bruce Sterling, and if my arms aren’t too tired to lift it, throw in a Neal Stephenson (Katana optional). And it’s really more book-specific, rather than tied to the author. Adams’ Hitchhiker series does very different things to my brain than say, the Dirk Gently books. One of my personal favorites is a book of short stories by Jimmy Buffet (yes, *that* Jimmy Buffet) called “Tales from Margaritaville.” While I am only a slight fan of his music (schtick much?), I have to say that whenever it’s the depth of winter and I feel the walls closing in on me, the stories in that book somehow make it all better.

While the original admonition from my parents regarding what I should read was more focused on educating me, I’ve found that it’s just as helpful in terms of maintaining who I am, what type of person I am, and developing who I want to be. And maybe that’s the root of even bad stories living on long after they’ve stopped being relevant, including the Bible, the Greek mythology, and other fanciful nonsense. Take the Bible (or any truly ancient religious text for that matter) — as pure storytelling, they’re all pretty much utter and complete crap. They do everything that good storytelling isn’t supposed to do — even read as short stories, they’re not very entertaining. Maybe they’ve hung around so long because of the way they change our brains as much as anything else (despite not being interesting, true, or applicable to your life)?

So, I think what I’m saying is not very new (or perhaps even interesting, true, or applicable to your life), but from my own experiences I have to believe that what we read continues to shape who we are for good or for ill, and as a result, it’s up to each of us to try and do the best we can by reading books that not only improve our intellect but improve the mind itself. And this takes a certain mindfulness as what books do that for you are likely a very personal choice. The importance of books as vehicles for information has been acknowledged since Gutenberg got done tinkering around, but I think their importance as tools to help shape our brains and how we think is just as important. Considering that it was likely poetry that Gutenberg first printed on his press, not the Bible he later become famous for, perhaps that makes a certain amount of sense.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who regularly re-reads books and the reasons they do it – so please comment below if you wish to share! As I said at the beginning, I know why I do it, but I’m not sure what other reasons people may have and I’d be interested to hear from other folks.

Oh, and I was wrong at the beginning…the reason I re-read is three-fold, not two-fold. The third reason being that some books are like friends to me. I may not see them all the time, and they may have been out of my life for awhile, and so I want to sit down and spend a little time getting to know them again. One of the primary reasons my wife and I engaged in a total tear-down and rebuild of our basement was that we needed more space for books — and once we completed the basement and got all the shelves in place, we realized we still had too many for the space we had. My wife got rid of a few of hers, but I haven’t parted with any of mine, because I know that a time will come when I might need one and it will be there waiting for me…like good friends do.

While this isn’t strictly part of my long-neglected series “You Are What You Read” it certainly adds something to that, so feel free to read if you feel so inclined. It’s been more focused on the books I’ve read that have shaped who I am, as opposed to shaping who I want to be, which is more what this post is about. 🙂

Happy New Year — Now Can We Get This One Right, Please?

So, I was thinking about an end of year post where I would do my best to go about cataloging all the joys and sorrows of the year. But you know what, fuck 2011. It doesn’t deserve it, and it didn’t earn it. The economy? Meh. The political climate? Meh. We lost a bunch of dictators but also lost Steve Jobs,Václav Havel, Christopher Hitchens, and a bunch of other really cool folks, so I think that all washes out to a “meh” as well.

But 2012? I’m not sure if it’s going to be good or bad, but it at least should be interesting. Presidential elections here in the U.S., Olympics over in London, a Mayan-not-really-predicted-they-just-ran-out-of-numbers apocalypse — all should provide at least a few moments that rise above “meh.”

I make no resolutions — being of the school that if you only resolve to become better than you are once a year, you’re doing it wrong — but I do have certain hopes and aspirations for the year that I’d like to share:

  • Obviously I’d like a year that ends with no new wars and hopefully a few less. As one of my personal heroes Issac Asimov wrote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” and if after thousands of years of civilization we can’t find a better way to resolve our differences, well then what the hell are we doing?
  • I’d like 2012 to be the year when President Obama finds wherever he’s lost his balls and learns how to say “no” to both the Republicans and the Democrats on the Hill occasionally. My trust in Obama is not as bright and shiny as it was at the beginning of his administration, but I still believe of all those running, I feel safest with the country in his hands. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Hopefully “Candidate Obama” shows up and sticks around through his second term.
  • I’d like to see fewer movements (whether Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street) and more regular people getting off their butts and becoming educated and involved about their own government. Think of it this way — presidential elections are the “gateway drug” to civic responsibility and involvement. I really don’t want to hear one more person complain about 1) the government 2) taxes or 3) politicians if they’re not going to bother to read up on the issues (and yes, reading MUST be involved – watching things on TV or the Internet doesn’t count) and vote in every single election they can. Here in Virginia that’s every year — I wish more states were like that. Helps keep folks in the habit of giving a damn (which in my experience is indeed a habit that can be fallen out of just as easily into). Oh, and no more talking about term limits — that’s just lazy. It’s like saying “I don’t want to vote and the system is broken, so let’s get rid of everyone because I can’t be bothered.”
  • I’d like 2012 to be the year that “entertainment news” and “entertainment journalism” become obsolete terms. I don’t care which actor is schtupping which actress (or other actor). I don’t care which actress or actor is on drugs, in recovery, or “reportedly out of control.” I don’t care about their diets, their fitness “secrets,” or their deep and abiding concern over [insert issue here]. NONE of this is news, none of this is important, and no 1/2 hour show, let alone entire channel should be devoted to covering what artists do WHEN THEY AREN’T EVEN CREATING ART. Oh, and if you still read People magazine, the National Enquirer or go to Perez Hilton more than just accidentally, well no disrespect, but I hate you. If you want to find out about what movie might be made or have some interest in the business of entertainment, well there is Variety and similar coverage and that’s fine, but I’d truly love if all the rest disappeared.
  • Can we all agree that now being well into the second decade of this millennium, some things should stop being an issue? I mean, let’s be a mature society and agree on some stuff, e.g.
    • The Earth is much, much older than 6,000 years, we all evolved from less complex lifeforms, and like stars, black holes, galaxies, and all the rest of it, we weren’t created by anything other than stupendous chance and a universe that was cool enough to come up with both us AND digital watches.
    • Science is the single most useful intellectual tool the human race has come up with, and is by definition, the only way we as a society and a planet can move forward. I think we gave all the religions enough of a shot at it, and to be frank, their record is pretty awful.
    • Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Male, female, or transgender doesn’t matter. That’s it — pretty much all there is to say about it.
    • All those illegal aliens in the U.S.? Yeah, we can’t ship them all home — not only would it be morally wrong in some instances, but it’s just a physical and logistical impossibility. So please quit using the debate on illegal immigration to further your own bigotry about *legal* immigration. If we can’t, with a straight face, tell the rest of the world “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” — well then we should probably not have bothered creating this country in the first place.
    • Flying cars,jet packs, portal guns and teleporters. I want them all, and I want them this year.
    • In the end, it doesn’t matter what the size of our government’s debt is or how much millionaires get taxed. What matters is that we quit squabbling like a pack of hyenas over a corpse and start accepting the fact that as Americans (or even just citizens of the world) we have certain inalienable rights and certain unavoidable obligations to ourselves, our neighbors, the planet and future generations.

And really, that’s it. Honestly if any single item on that list came to pass, I’d be pretty damn happy. To all of you who read my sporadic and seemingly randomly posted blog entries or my eclectic and chatty Twitter stream, I say thank you and I wish your own wishes and aspirations come true this next year. Especially if any of you are really set on me winning the lottery or getting a nice big fat contract to write some books.

While 2012 is being bandied about by select kooks as the end of the world, it — like every year — is the beginning of a brand new world, and hopefully it is one of our own careful and thoughtful making.

I’d like to end this with a special thank you to all of you who made this year quite spectacular for me personally. That would include my wife Kathy (who has managed to put up with me for 18 years), my kids, and the most amazing friends anyone could ever hope to have: Kylee, Jess, and Ruth. I love you all.

What I’ve learned as a husband and father

Yesterday, my wife (@KatMByrne for those of you on Twitter) and I celebrated our 17th anniversary of being married and a total of 18 years being together — and today is Father’s Day. I’d given some thought about writing a mushy tribute to her, but realized that didn’t feel right. And then I realized why — who I am today as a person is the best tribute to her there is because in large part, she deserves a lot of the credit. I also realized that my kids deserve credit as well for teaching me so many things. My family has made me a better person over the years, and so I figured I’d share what being a husband and a father has taught me. This is, by no means, saying you have to have a spouse or kids to be complete as a person – it’s just the only thing that worked for me.

I’ll start off with an anecdote that sums it up in a nutshell. Four years after my own wedding, my sister was getting married and my far-flung relatives came to attend. One of them was my dad’s oldest sister Yvonne (usually just “Aunt Y” to all of us). She was 13 years older than my dad, and as with most of us in the Byrne family, she tended to speak her mind but loved us all very much. So while she was in town, my wife Katherine and I volunteered to take her around town and ended up going to Great Falls Park outside DC. There we walked and talked for a bit, and at one point talking about weddings, family, and my own marriage, my aunt turned to me and said “Jason, I’m glad you found Kathy. Marriage has been good for you — you’re not such a little shit anymore.” I would have been insulted I guess, except for the fact that I immediately knew it to be true. I wasn’t such a little shit anymore. What Aunt Y really meant was “Jason, being married to Kathy has given you confidence and made you happy,” because frankly being unhappy and not confident generally translates as “being a little shit.”

On the road to not being such a little shit . . .

Which brings me to the first thing I learned:

If you’re going to get married, make sure it’s to someone who helps you become the person you want to be.

Notice I did not say “makes you the person you want to be” or “helps you become a better person.” Those are quite different and/or open to interpretation. I also purposely didn’t say “going to be in a relationship” — marriage is different, often times because it isn’t until we’ve dated other people that we have any idea who the hell we even are or what we want. But “marriage” in this case is just shorthand for “long-term committed relationship between two adults,” which is all it really ever is, despite what meaning people keep trying to ascribe to it. Before I met my wife, I tended to date women of a certain personality type – you might call it “impassioned”, many of my friends called it “crunchy-granola eco-fem-nazis from hell,” but what it came down to was I kept picking women who were passionate about many of the same issues I was. We had great discussions and even greater arguments and I was miserable most of the time. And then I met Kathy and in addition to a number of other things, she was a passionate advocate for me, and suddenly I was happy.

The key here is that I believe the best marriages are based on not only the sum being greater than the individual parts, but that each partner in the relationship allows opportunities and offers support to the other in terms of becoming the kind of person they want to be. Luckily I had good role models with my own parents. Neither of them would have accomplished all that they have without the support of the other. Which brings me to the next item…

It’s a cliché because it’s true: there’s no more important aspect of being in a relationship with someone than communication

This one I think is not only true for marriages and relationships with significant others, it’s true for every relationship we have as adults, including with our children. When you’re growing up, you learn to take different types of communication for granted. You interact with your parents and authority figures one way, peers another, etc. And then you go out into the great wide world and discover that those types of communication don’t work anymore — either because you or the other person learned bad habits growing up or neither one of you has adapted to the fact that part of getting to know anyone is discovering how to communicate with them. [Note – “communicate” does NOT mean “talk” — communication implies listening as much as talking, and being in tune with each other’s verbal AND nonverbal cues]

Growing up as an introvert with social anxiety, I was not a natural communicator. Growing up as the youngest in a family of over-achieving Type A personalities, I also did not communicate well with my close friends and family about what I was thinking or feeling. That’s a lot of bottling up to deal with. As I came to adulthood, I tended to communicate too much, too fast in my romantic relationships and without having bothered to learn they liked to communicate. The result? Clingy, needy Jason who then got hurt when things tended to go off the rails and didn’t understand why. The first three years my wife and I were together were wonderful, but it also tested each of us as we came to accommodate how each other communicated (especially during arguments!). At the end of that, not only did we have a stronger relationship, we had each undergone significant personal growth (which as distastefully new age-y as that sounds, really is the best term for it.)

Don’t forget the kids

This was the moment I realized I *was* a dad . . . (the day Thing1 was born - that's my finger)

We ended up not having kids until almost 8 years into our marriage for a number of reasons, and that had both pros and cons, but the biggest bonus was the foundation it provided once we did have children. If you think communicating with a significant other is tough, try throwing in keeping that going while dealing with parental roles, finances, logistics of a busy calendar out of your control, and learning to communicate with your own kids. And if you don’t think you have to learn how to communicate with your own kids, you’re crazy.

Looking back on it now, it becomes pretty evident that at least part of human’s extended childhood (in relation to other mammals) is at least partly due to not only them needing to learn, but the parents needing to as well. It starts off pretty simply – sleeping, eating, and diapers are the basis for all initial communication. Then once the “Terrible Twos” hit (usually it seems actually at about the 18 month mark) you get a communication crisis — and the cause of the so-called Terrible Twos. They’ve been soaking up an incredible amount of information on EVERYTHING and suddenly lightning strikes and they want to start communicating and by extension taking some measure of control of their environment. The cosmic joke is on all of us though, as they usually can’t even speak worth a damn at that point. So you have this widely exploding intelligence trapped behind poor muscle control and a lack of syntax — and thus the tantrums…and really, who can blame then? If no one listened to you and you couldn’t express yourself, you’d be throwing tantrums as well (you know, like Sarah Palin).

So what I learned early on is even when your kids are newborns, talk to them like they’re more than just a cute blob – talk to them like they are human beings — not only is that just a good habit to get into, but you’ll actually be teaching them how to communicate. As some of you who have met my kids can attest to – they can talk in a manner well beyond their calendar years.

Now my oldest is nine and my youngest is almost three, so I don’t have any pearls of wisdom to offer on teenagers – and at that point, you’ve either taught them well or you haven’t, so there may be no special trick to offer. The only salient advice I have — and this applies to any child — is don’t talk down to them. Simplify only as absolutely needed to make yourself understood. If you talk to your kids like their idiots, all you get are idiot kids.

With great power, there must also come great responsibility…

Early pic of Things 1 & 2

While this one sounds like strictly a parenting tip, but it applies to relationships with spouses/significant others as well. For kids, it’s pretty straight forward. You are the parent first. That doesn’t preclude the idea of being their friend to, but that can never come before being their parent. Many of the baby boomer generation were all about having a different kind of relationship with their children than their parents had with them, which is fine in theory, but too often resulted in parents giving up the mantle of authority in favor of warm fuzzies. Now as a rampant liberal, why am I in favor of being an “authoritative parent?” (and not “authoritarian” as I had originally written – Thanks @markzero!) I sure wasn’t when I was a kid. My parents were notorious for being much stricter with my sister and I then my friend’s parents, and I hated it. Some of my friends could be out to all hours, had outrageous amounts of things bought for them, and were basically answerable to no one.

But now with years of parenting under my belt, I’ve come to (grudgingly) admit how right my parents were. Because while they were strict, they were also fair, consistent, and reliably communicated expectations to me. Most of all, that structure gave me the freedom to get my own feet under me and later gave me the tools to stand on my own. Without the self-discipline they instilled in me, I don’t believe much of what I love about my life would have been possible. So my model with my own children has been a sort of benevolent co-dictator (with my wife of course). We don’t control every aspect of what our kids do, but what we do ask (and we still do ask politely — another lesson for the kids), we expect to basically be taken as an order. Orders can be questioned within reason and clarification and alternatives can always be suggested, but we expect our kids to do what we’ve required of them. This perhaps sounds tough to some, but the importance of the heading comes into play here — when you yield great power over someone, you have an equally great responsibility to exercise it well.

In a romantic relationship, it’s a slightly different perspective, but the same general concept. Any relationship like that should ideally be one of equals. The phrase “wearing the pants in the family” is one of my pet peeves and to me underlines much of what can go wrong in a relationship. Despite what you may have heard, in a healthy relationship there is not a “top” or “bottom” to use rather direct phrasing. Two much better phrases come to my mind when it comes to relationships:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. – Karl Marx

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send. – Jon Postel (Postel’s Law)

The first is straight up Marxism, and a healthy relationship between two people is about the only place it can actually work 😉 The second is from Jon Postel, one of the founders of the Internet, talking about best common practice in network communication – but it applies remarkably well to many types of communication. To tie it in to what I was discussing earlier – ideally in a relationship, each of you finds that right balance between self-identity and serving the common purpose of the relationship — there’s no room for power plays or one seeking to push authority over the other. And that also applies to how you communicate – be liberal in what you accept (meaning you shouldn’t place limits on how you’re communicated with) and conservative in what you send (meaning think before you speak).

And that brings me to the end of what is likely an unnecessarily long piece — but these are just some of the things I’ve learned from being both a husband and father. As I said at the beginning, I don’t believe you have to be in a committed relationship or have kids to be a complete person, but I do know that for me, I didn’t become the person I wanted to be until I had. Many people probably learn this stuff in other ways or don’t learn it even after having been a spouse or parent, but I thank my wife and kids for teaching me.