Bit players upon the stage

Sharing something I posted to Facebook a few weeks back, but I thought had a place here.

One morning as I walked into work from the parking lot I saw a strange mound of stuff propped against the wall of a building. It looked like a pile of garbage. As I watched, the pile shifted position and I saw it was a homeless man with his possessions piled all around him. He was on the other side of a chain link fence, but I asked if he was okay. He angrily waved me away and pulled his stuff back around him. When I came out later he was gone.

The next night when I arrived at a restaurant the hostess seemed a little down. I asked her how she was doing. She gave a quick reply and I think was a little surprised when I asked her more questions. I got her to laugh, and she said today not everyone had been so nice to her. I told her I’d be there for the next hour and to send anyone over to me that gave her grief. As we were leaving she gave me a big smile and said “Customer of the day!”

sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

Sonder | The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows from John Koenig on Vimeo.

This is far from a new realization for me, but with those two encounters the difference really struck me between my two small roles in their lives.

And the roles they had in mine.

The ghosts who haunt us

On Halloween, 1926, the legendary Harry Houdini died. Houdini was not just a magician, but a noted debunker of spiritualists and mystics who claimed to be able to contact the dead. He even arranged a code with his wife that he would use to try and reach her after he died if could find a way. It never happened.

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty

There is no world beyond this one. I don’t find that frightening; it just makes the time we have here all the more precious. It also means the only ghosts that wander the earth are the memories of people we keep and cherish.

So it is on this day that I make special time to recall those people I’ve cared for who are no longer with me, but whose spirit will always be a part of my life.

Happy Halloween.

Star Trek’s descent into marketing spam darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Spam Trek: Into Darkness

I was a Star Trek fan when Shatner was the only Captain the Enterprise had ever known, so it’s sad for me to say I’m so disgusted with Star Trek right now I’ve lost all interest in seeing the new movie.

The first problem was the lack of a new story. I liked the 2009 reboot overall and took some of the changes to “Star Trek history” (aka canon) as part of what J.J. Abrams needed to do to tell his own stories. So when I learned that Into Darkness was still borrowing from the original series and the original movies I was a little disappointed, but not fatally.

The second problem was this esurance ad. There have been product tie ins before, but this one somehow felt like all pretense of connection to the spirit of the original show had been abandoned. The original Star Trek was radical for promoting racial equality and peace, and the new movies were radical for their low, low insurance rates? A little more disappointed, but still I hadn’t given up.

What killed it for me is their spam marketing campaign. Star Trek: Into Darkness launched a promotion push called Are You The 1701, with the relevant hashtag #IAmThe1701. I signed up for the promotion because I thought it might be interesting, and I’m always curious to see how different companies run promotional campaigns.

It started out poorly with emails to win passess to screenings I couldn’t attend (I don’t live in Los Angeles), then got worse as the emails began coming in daily. After about a week I’d had enough and tried to Unsubscribe.

Nope. The Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the emails doesn’t work. It says I’m not on their list so they can’t remove me, yet the emails keep coming. Then I tried replying to the email directly, but it bounced back from an unmonitoried address. Since Paramount continues to send me email I don’t want, and have tried to stop, they are technically spamming me.

I was getting mad but I thought maybe someone else involved might be able to help. I tweeted @StarTrek and @StarTrekMovie asking for assistance. Nothing. They don’t care, and/or don’t appear to do any listening. Paramount’s only interest is pushing as many people to their theaters and car insurance tie ins as possible.

Fans? They can boldly get lost.

Digital marketing campaigns are designed to get people excited about a product or event, but if you do them poorly they can have just the opposite effect. If my reaction seems overkill, remember that for the past nearly two weeks the bulk of Star Trek mentions I’ve seen were a source of increasing frustration. Even something you like can get annoying in a big hurry if the business contacts you excessively with offers you can’t use, doesn’t give you any way to make them stop, and ignores you if you ask for help.

Paramount, I am sure that Star Trek: Into Darkness will makes gobs of money for you at the box office without my support, even with your rehashed story ideas, discount insurance, and spammy, incompetent promotion. But as a life-long fan that you’ve managed to annoy so thoroughly that for the first time my life I’m avoiding something with the name “Star Trek”, let me just say: Screw you.

Why I still love Ignite Phoenix

Image (cc) Sheila Dee on Flickr

Image (cc) Sheila Dee on Flickr

When Ignite Phoenix started several years ago the goal was to create a venue for people to share ideas and topics they loved. There are now a lot more events and groups in the Valley that encourage people to share in different ways, and Ignite Phoenix has evolved. There are still two aspects of it, though, that are incredibly important to me, and why I keep investing time in this crazy thing.

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

We rarely share the things we truly love with each other. We talk about work, politics, and the weather, but what about the things we obsess over until the wee hours of the morning when we know we should be in bed? People think nobody wants to hear their weird passion, and that’s just plain wrong.

When someone gets past the things they like, and past the things they love, and into the things that really consume them, we all want to hear it. We connect with that energy. When people share their passions they start waving their hands around, they talk faster, and they lean in. And we see that and lean in ourselves to listen. There are many stages for professionals and luminaries to share their ideas from the top down – Ignite is a stage where we can share them with each other.

Encouraging Serendipity

Ignite Phoenix brings people together in unplanned ways. We don’t have enough happy chaos in our lives. We go to the same places, same jobs, same social events, with the same people. Our lives have patterns. The range of topics at Ignite means someone may come because they are curious about storm chasing, but leave blown away by 3D printing. Or vice versa. You will meet people you have never heard of, doing things you never knew existed. Ignite Phoenix doesn’t have an agenda other than to bring people together in unusual ways.

When I hear people have started a new hobby, changed careers, launched a business, or made new friends because of something that happened at Ignite Phoenix, it’s because that little bit of chaos and serendipity entered their lives.

Pure Selfishness

I love ideas and hearing people talk about what drives them. I love it when experienced speakers get nervous because for once they’re talking about something really important to them. I love it when people who are scared stiff still walk out on that stage because they want to tell people their message. I love it when people tell me months (even years) later that they did something they never would have otherwise done if not for their Ignite talk.

I love it when I find myself looking at my friends, myself, and community around me in a new way because of something I learned from presenters and their topics. I love it all.

If you’ve never been to Ignite Phoenix, you should come. If you have an idea you want to submit, you should do that.

But whatever else, figure out what your own passion is and tell people about it.

What if you forgot everyone you ever knew?

Morning Fog Emerging From Trees by A Guy Taking Pictures

Morning Fog Emerging From Trees by A Guy Taking Pictures

What if you could no longer remember your past? Would you still be you?

The food you love, the hobbies you enjoy, the job you have, and all the other parts of your life were partially shaped by other people you met and knew through your life. What if all of those people and what they meant to you were gone?

In this fascinating and haunting articleAmnesia and the Self That Remains When Memory Is Lost, Daniel Levitin talks with Tom, a man suffering retrograde amnesia as a result of an inoperable brain tumor. Nearing the end of his life, is Tom the same person Daniel knew from back in college?

Whether you prefer chocolate ice cream or vanilla, action movies or comedies, is part of the story, but the ability to know those preferences through accumulated memory is what defines you as a person.

Tom doesn’t remember Daniel when he arrives, but asks patient questions about how they know each other, and what they meant to each other. Tom is a man who knows he has a past, knows he cannot remember it, and is curiously exploring it in the time he has left.

“Please forgive me for asking this, but I do this with everybody. Could you tell me your name again and how it is that I know you?” – Tom

This isn’t the tired TV trope of someone getting knocked on the head and getting amnesia for the next hour. The strands of Tom’s life are completely and permanently gone for him. As he asks the people he meets how they know each other, he understands the complexity of the question. He understands that these people helped make him who he is, sitting here now, even if he can’t recall what brought them together.

“There’s often this . . . gray area, I guess you’d call it, in human relationships, isn’t there? We meet people, we see them every day, we say hello, but we don’t really know them. We say they’re our friends, but really, you can’t be friends with the hundreds of people you meet, can you? It’s enough that we had a shared history together. We were in the same places for a time. We were part of each other’s fabric.” – Tom

The people we encounter, whether friends or lovers or casual conversationalists in line at the coffee shop, all help shape you in both little and large ways. You are who you are partially because of the people you meet along the way, and even if one day their names and faces are forgotten, you will always carry them with you.

Taking a break from the world today…

View from our cabin porch

View from our cabin porch

There are many different types of vacations. My personality tends to favor the Go Somewhere To Do And See As Much As You Can vacation. On these trips I factor in some time to actually enjoy things, but there’s still a plan in place to make sure we get to the right places at the right time and see everything we wanted to. Even that enjoyment time is in the schedule.

The type of vacation I need more often, and finally got last week, was the Disconnect And Reboot Your Brain vacation.

A disconnection vacation is more about taking a break and realigning yourself than seeing the sights. It’s tougher to do in our world of constant connectivity and working vacations, but I think that makes it even more essential.

It’s when an athlete rests that his body heals and grows stronger. It’s when an instrument takes a pause that you hear notes instead of a screech.

Disconnecting gadgets and habits

This past week I was able to get away almost entirely up to some cabins in Oak Creek Canyon outside of Sedona. We took our Prius v from the Prius Challenge to see how it would handle the rain, hills, and curves in the canyon. It held up like a champ.

I had one previously-scheduled class I had to give via wifi at a coffee shop, but other than that I stayed out of email, and off of Facebook and all those other ridiculous networks. This was easier since we were so deep in the canyon we couldn’t get cell signal even if we wanted to.

I hiked, sat on our patio, read (Cloud Atlas – loving it!), practiced sketching, drank some tasty beer, learned some new software programs for ebooks, ate some great food, wrote for my own neglected book, watched the stars, and smoked a few cigars. (some pics, if you’re interested)

Most importantly, I put some distance between myself and my daily habits, not all of which were good ones. Some of those habits I’ll pick up again, others hopefully not, but I gained a little bit more perspective for the distance.

What is yours if not your life?

Tony Nicklinson has died. It is what he sought, but not through the means he hoped.

Tony suffered a severe stroke seven years ago, and had been trapped in his own body. His mind was unaffected, but he could do nothing more than move his eyes to communicate. For him it was a “living nightmare”, and he wanted to be free of it.

He was unable to commit suicide, so fought instead for a doctor to be able to assist him without fear of prosecution. The British High Court refused to change the laws regarding assisted suicide, so Tony did about the only thing left to him – refused to eat. He then caught pneumonia, went downhill fast, and died yesterday at the age of 58.

As I’ve said before, we need to talk more openly about suicide as a culture. Both to help people who mistakenly think it is the only way out, and so that we can compassionately help people who, for their own reasons and conditions, no longer wish to live.

One measure of a free society is having as little as possible forced upon you. Of having no one intrude on your life and how you live it. If another person seeks to end their life of pain with dignity, how dare we refuse them and still call ourselves free. How dare we force them to a slow, painful death of starvation and sickness.

Rest in Peace, Tony. I’m sorry it was so terribly difficult to come by.

A moment for a friend

Time is a horribly tricky thing. It may seem simple, tick-tocking along, but it’s really a slippery river with an endless number of currents that tug at your life and twist it around.

One day you’re rushed for time, and you find a stray dog. He’s sweet and friendly, so you devote time to finding him a home.

But he’s a pitbull mix. All the rescue shelters with space say the most time they could give him would be two days before putting him down. That’s not enough time for this big-headed dog who will not stop kissing you, so you reluctantly keep him.

You name him Monty. In the blink of an eye this undernourished mutt wins you over with his curiousity, his intelligence, and his determination. He gets into everything with an honest enthusiasm you can’t help but catch, and he quickly learns all the rules of the house for the express purpose of challenging them.

In a flash he has become your dear friend, with his loyalty, tenderness, and energy carrying you through anything the world throws at you. He wins over friend after friend with his antics and, of course, his big wet kisses.

In a twinkling he has become your Buddy, your confidant, your unwavering companion in all manner of mischief and exploration. Always at your side when you need him, always waiting patiently when you’re too busy. When you have time again for him, he has kisses ready to go.

In a heartbeat he has become such a part of your life you can’t recall a time when he wasn’t curled up warm and snoring at your feet. Then you realize that heartbeat was really a decade in the making, and his eyes are getting dim, his joints ache, and he has become very, very tired… but still he kisses you.

And you can’t understand where all the time has gone.

When time finally runs out, a million moments come rushing back to you. Wonderful, goofy, sweet, crazy, touching, and precious beyond words. They remind you that time falls apart when you look backwards at it. It must be viewed from the inside, with each individual moment being cherished for as long as they last.

And when you view these wonderful moments in their totality, you realize what an indescribably lucky person you were to have such a dear friend for so long.

Sometimes friendships only last the briefest of times, sometimes they last a lifetime.

Sometimes both.

 

Captured cruelty towards a bus monitor reminds us being human is a tricky thing

Sams Cemetery by keva999

Sams Cemetery by keva999

I’m fond of old cemeteries. They’re quiet.

Newer graves show off flowers or flags. There is someone still alive who cared about and remembers the person beneath the soil. A wife, a son, a grandchild, or a friend.

The older graves are barren. Dusty. Sometimes full of weeds. They get that way quickly. It takes just a few decades before everyone who once knew and loved that person is dead themselves. A few dozen years more and nobody will even remember their name.

Three graves together, nearly a century old: a child “Taken Too Soon“, a “Beloved Wife And Mother” dead the same year, and a year later the father “Resting With God and His Angels“. Was there an accident? A suicide borne from grief?

I doubt anyone alive knows more about them than me, a stranger walking by, reading the etched stone. Everything else they were is gone.

Meanwhile, the Living…

Karen Klein, a elderly bus monitor earning about $15,000 a year, was captured on video being harassed and bullied by the children on her school bus. The kids mocked her for her weight, her looks, her clothes, and even the deaths of her family members. Her son committed suicide ten years prior, and those comments reduced her to tears.

You can watch the video if you wish, but I don’t recommend it. I’ve been online a long time, and I’ve seen some amazingly bizarre, disgusting, horrible, vile, brutal, weird, and crazy things. With just words and insults, this video ranks as one of the worst of them.

People are raising money to give this poor woman a vacation. Their $5,000 goal was obliterated, and they are at $550,000 and climbing. It’s a nice gesture, and I’m happy for her, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about what happened.

Kids on a Bus

This woman still endured a horrible situation that nobody addressed until a video of it went viral. She had been bullied by these kids before, and nobody took action. These kids thought it was acceptable to threaten and mock this woman to tears. None of that has changed.

It’s easy to point fingers at the parents, or at the kids, or at the administrators, or… anybody. But the real anger is because stories like this make us doubt ourselves. How could one human just be so hurtful to another?

That’s why the donation is so high – what happened to Karen taps into our collective guilt over how poorly we can behave as human beings. We’re trying to apologize on behalf of humanity for every time we were cruel as children, mean to someone who didn’t deserve it, or stood by and didn’t defend someone who needed it.

We’re not apologizing to Karen, we’re apologizing to ourselves. To the universe. “I know we’re a mean little species sometimes, but we don’t want to be, and we can do much better than that… right?”

We know this part of us. We know it, and we hate it.

Taking Time

We can’t make it go away. We can do things like financing Karen’s retirement, and supporting anti-bullying organizations like the It Gets Better Project and Stand for the Silent, but the biggest thing we can do is always be on guard against that cold piece of ourselves. We’re too often focused on the race, the grind, the competition, and the acquisition. None of those things endure, but they often fuel the part of us the kids on the bus put on display.

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.
~ Banksy

You’re not going to matter forever. In a hundred years someone may lovingly place flowers upon your grave. They might do it many times, but eventually they will stop coming and the flowers will give way to weeds.

The only time in which you matter is right now. Right where you are. To the people around you.

How you treat them, and the impact you have on their lives in this brief sliver of time together, is your real legacy.

Have a care with others. Never back down from defending someone who needs it.

Use these moments well. They’re all you really have.

Life… there’s an app for that, right?

In a nearly unprecedented event, when I decided to go for a run this morning I felt really good about the prospect. This was new ground for me, but I decided to roll with it. I stretched out, warmed up, and resolved to pour it on and see what I could do to break my personal records for one of my routes.

I continued to feel good the entire way. My calves grumbled a bit, but my knee didn’t complain at all. It was a beautiful morning, and I hauled some ass.

When I got back home, sweaty and satisfied, I checked RunKeeper to see how I did.

It said I had a grand speed of 0.00 mph for most of my run.

WTF? On the best run I’ve had in a year is when the app decides to crap out on me? I have no idea how I did, and I have no stats to post to Twitter, Facebook, or this blog!

All I was left with was a strong run on a gorgeous morning through tree-lined streets as the sun came up and the birds were singing.

Barbaric, really.