Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Played A Bunch Of Classic Rock Albums For Our 1-Year Old Son, And Here Are His Reactions

Rock music is powerful stuff, and that's true for adults and for kids.  We found this out recently when Pink Floyd came on the radio ad our 1-year old's face lit up. He began clapping and smiling, which was kind of weird because it was a song from The Wall, the one where the British schoolteacher is screaming at his students to eat their meat, and that's not what you'd call easy listening.

Afterwards, we decided to introduce our son to a bunch of different classic rock albums, to see if he'd have a similar reaction. Here are the photographic results from our unscientific (but very fun) study. 

Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run

Seamus is clearly picturing himself speeding down the highway in a classic American automobile, with wind flowing through those future locks, which should be coming in any day now...

Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon

Whoa, mom and dad. Mind. Blown. 
He immediately asked if we had a copy of The Wizard of Oz. I don't know who told him about that.

Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street

Now we're rocking!

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Are You Experienced?

Holy $%#$ that dude can play the guitar.

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin 4

At this point, ready to rage all night long.

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

We had to mellow it out a little bit.

Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Just some pleasant dinner music to accompany that avocado...*

*This is a joke. We did not really play Nine Inch Nails for our son. That would be f-ed up. 

Phil Collins - No Jacket Required

Not a fan.

Nirvana - Nevermind

He's sad there weren't more albums.

Billy Idol - Rebel Yell

This pic speaks for itself.

Paul Simon - Graceland

Much dancing ensued.

Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

He's drooling over the richness of the double album format.

AC/DC - Back In Black 

So intense, couldn't even.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

He sensed the sexual tension between band members, agreed it probably helped with the album's creative process.

Velvet Underground And Nico

After this album, Seamus began to wonder whether he was cooler than most other babies his age and then decided, no, his parents are just a little too influenced by Portlandia.

Willie Nelson - Red Haired Stranger

He liked the album so much he demanded that we dress him up as the man himself.

We also played some current pop music for him, just to mix things up.

Miley Cyrus - Can't Be Tamed

Saturday, February 22, 2014

These Beijing Bicyclists Were Totally Distracted By The Athens Olympics

It's a Saturday afternoon Beijing in August 2004. The weather is partly cloudy and the air temperature is 84 degrees. It's a little bit humid, if you want to know the truth.

It's a day like any other, except that the Athens Summer Olympics have just begun, and Beijing is abuzz with excitement, because the city is hosting the 2008 Olympic games. Everywhere, there's a sense of yeah, the Athens games are nice, but the Bejing games are going to be the best ever.

I spent an hour with a camera and tripod outside the entrance to the Forbidden City, shooting close-ups of bicyclists going by with a 300mm zoom lens. Frankly, many of the bicyclists looked distracted, like they wanted to just camp out in front of a TV and watch the Olympics, instead on bicycling on a muggy day.

Here are some bicyclists who seemed preoccupied by the Olympic games, and perhaps overcome with anticipation of Beijing getting its turn to host them. Look at their faces closely -- you can really feel their distraction.

The guy on the left just realized the 1500 meter qualifier is on, and he totally forgot about it. He is angry, but mostly at himself. The guy on the right ( the one who looks like he wants to stab someone) is not planning on watching any of the games, however. More than anything, he just wants a beer.

The guy with the sunglasses is just trying to get through the day -- he had a rough night last night drinking whiskey with his buddies. The woman in the middle just went shopping and is like, 'You know what? I need a nap.' The guy on the far right is psyched about watching some track and field events, but his ear is itchy, so he's scratching it.

This woman is checking the time to make sure she'll be able to get home in time for the gymnastics floor routine. That's her favorite part of the Olympics. Her t-shirt is from Baleno, a Hong Kong brand that's sold throughout Asia.

The guy on the right yawns as he passes by, in this shot that faces the north end of Tiananmen Square. He has been pedaling for about an hour, and frankly, he's looking forward to watching some of the swimming events on TV later.

This guy just bought some stuff from a department store but just realized he forgot to get something important. In the split second he's reaching into the bag, he's not paying attention to what's in front of him. Nothing bad happens, this time. His favorite Olympic sport is the javelin throw. He tried it once and almost impaled his next door neighbor.

This older man used to be a big-time weightlifter in his day. He loves the grit and determination of the Olympic dead-lifters especially. He's expecting big things from the Beijing team in Athens. But he's worried about the Bulgarians.

This woman and her daughter go careening across the bicycle lane in search of the nearest TV. They just realized the women's volleyball semifinal is on. They thought it was later. The time change is a real doozy for these games -- Athens is 6 hours earlier than Beijing. The guy behind them in the sunglasses likes archery, and the other guy doesn't care about the Olympics.

This is a classic "Did I set the VCR to record the water polo finals" kind of look. You can just tell.

This young guy is like, I can't wait for the Athens games to end so the countdown to Beijing 2008 can begin. He hates waiting for things and just wishes life had a fast-forward button so 2008 could just get here already.

The Chinese badminton team just got soundly defeated by the ridiculously talented Indonesians. All of these bicyclists just watched the match, so everyone's pretty bummed. The woman with the sun visor pulled down over her face just can't even right now.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

11 Photos That Show How Much My Son Loved His First Ireland Trip


There are lots of Seamuses in Ireland already. Tons. Probably hundreds of thousands.

But the moment I handed over my son Seamus's baby passport at the airport, and saw the immigration agent's face light up, it was clear that Ireland had room for one more Seamus.

Seamus was granted admittance to Ireland despite having a passport photo that makes him look like a little ruffian who's just been cuffed for causing trouble. It's basically impossible not to laugh at this photo. Here it is:

We spent a week in Ireland in September 2013, driving from Donegal in the north to Portumna in the center of the country. We visited two different branches of our family there and saw the sights. In every restaurant and pub we stopped at, people came by our table asking what our little boy's name was. When we told them Seamus, they were always surprised and delighted.

Seamus will not remember this trip, not even in the far corners of his little baby mind. He'll never remember staying in an English style manor house, or going to the northernmost part of Ireland, or seeing his first hurling match. But Seamus will have awesome photos from all of these experiences.

And Ireland, for all of its resident Seamuses, will probably never forget this one.

Here are 11 photos from the trip in which Seamus was in rare form, just basking in the experience of being a baby in a country that's crazy about them.

Here's mom and Seamus in the Connemara region of western Ireland, a place of green, craggy peaks obscured by fog and clouds. It looks like a visual depiction of the 'Led Zeppelin 4' album. Or some parts of 'Physical Graffiti'.

Here's Seamus with his friend Kerry the King Charles Spaniel at our cousin Pat's house. Kerry is a VERY friendly girl and was always by Seamus' side while we were there. She seemed to find Seamus irresistible. And they had a lot in common, being the same size and all.

We stayed at an very cool, very old English style manor house in Newport, a sleepy little town on the west coast of Ireland. I know it looks as if we've stumbled onto the set of Downton Abbey, but this is actually Seamus crawling across the sitting room carpet. As crawling surfaces go, Seamus seemed to find this one excellent for traction. This was the first time Seamus had ever crawled in an English manor house, and he seemed to enjoy the experience.
Here is Seamus trying to suppress a smile while watching his first hurling match. Our cousins, the Cannings, are hugely involved in this sport, which is like a mashup of rugby, field hockey and Gaelic football.

Cousin Joe is known throughout Ireland as one of the top hurlers in the country, and in this game he played for the Portumna team along with cousins Ollie and Ivan. Cousin Frank was the coach. It was a tight match, with Portumna defeating the Ardrahan side with a point deep in injury time. Seamus monitored the proceedings closely, pausing briefly here to permit himself to be photographed.

Here's Seamus with his grandma beside the road going over the Gap Of Mamore, a path that passes between dramatic mountains and takes you down to the sea at the northernmost part of Ireland. In the background are many sheep and cows grazing in green pastures.

You can't see it from this photo, but the Gap of Mamore looks like a set of Lord Of The Rings. It also has an interesting history: In 1811, inhabitants of the area were fined by the government for making Poteen (Irish moonshine), so they formed their own independent republic, which lasted for four years.

Our cousins Annemarie and Jim gave Seamus this leprechaun doll, and he was ecstatic when it was shown to him for the first time. He still goes crazy with giggling every time we bring it out. We keep it stashed away for time when he's not in the best of moods. It's been very effective so far.

Which isn't surprising, because let's face it, everyone loves leprechauns. They're prominent in Irish folklore, and they're always laying a smackdown on some greedy human who tries to force them into giving up their gold.

Here's mom and Seamus at Banba's Crown in Malin Head, the northernmost point of the Irish mainland. The farmland here goes right down to the edge of the sea. Normally this is a raw, windswept place, but on this day the weather was downright balmy, and Seamus appreciated that.

Here's dad and Seamus standing in a peat bog in Connemara, with fog enshrouded green mountains doing their thing in the distance. You can't see the tops, but these are some of the tallest mountains in Ireland.

Here's mom, dad and Seamus at a particularly scenic roadside spot in Donegal, with Lough Swilly in the background.

Here's dad and Seamus at Banba's Crown, Malin Head, with the wild North Atlantic in the background. Just offshore a couple of miles is Inishtrahull, an island which has Ireland's oldest rocks, known as gneiss in geologic terms. These rocks are nearly 1.8 billion years old.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Challenges (And Empowerment) Of One-Handed Parenting

After two months of parenthood, I can hardly be considered a font of child care wisdom. But one thing I’m getting really good at is one-handed parenting -- my term for a delicate dance that involves groping for light switches, reaching carefully to open doors, cabinets and dresser drawers, and picking things up and cleaning things up, all with the benefit of just a single hand, with a baby cradled in the other arm. 

I’m getting plenty of practice at one-handed parenting because my son demands it. He’s happiest when perched in the crook my of arm, where he can get a good view of everything that’s happening around him. He’s not a huge fan of being placed in his crib, and tends to start shrieking when I try, so I end up carrying him around with me quite a bit.

All of this is physically exhausting, of course. My advice to first-time parents would be to do everything in your day-to-day life with one hand -- while cradling a pumpkin or watermelon in the other -- for about 3 months prior to the baby’s arrival. Sure, you will look ridiculous, but this exercise will help you develop the dexterity and physical endurance you’ll be needing to perform vital parental functions.

Diaper changing, of course, is at the top of this list. You’ll be using both hands, but one will always be occupied with grabbing your child’s feet and lifting him or her up during the changing process. So you’ve got one free hand to do everything that needs doing. Which works fine as long as the baby is in a good mood. If not, you’ve only got one hand to handle the diaper changing AND the flailing of legs that is meant to thwart your attempts.

After a while, diaper changing starts to feel like a game -- a Jenga of delicate motions played with one hand. One false move, and someone (you) is going to have a mess to clean up.

Nighttime diaper changing missions have a higher degree of technical complexity. I often find myself scooping up my hungry, agitated baby and navigating groggily through the darkness to the changing table, all the while repeating ‘Do NOT fumble’ like a mantra in my head.

When I’m standing there half-asleep and my son starts screaming mid-change -- or when the velcro from the dirty diaper grabs onto the clean one while I’m pulling it off, leaving the changing table momentarily unprotected from disaster -- I feel like a zombie MacGyver trying to cobble together a hasty fix in the limited light.

In addition to changing diapers, I’m constantly gathering, sorting, arranging and fixing things with one hand. When my son is in a squirmy mood, and I need to hold him with both hands, I’ll use my elbows to perform basic tasks. The other night, I twisted open a door knob using my foot and toes, Karate Kid-style. Come to think of it, one-appendage parenting would be a more accurate description of what I do.

Cooking might not seem well suited for one-handed parenting, but I’ve found myself performing remarkably well in the kitchen. I started out opening cans of soup with one hand and have since graduated to making oatmeal cookies, obviously keeping my son away from the heat of the oven. Ultimately, my goal is to pull off a 5-course Chateaubriand dinner for six -- using one hand, naturally.

One-handed parenting is borne of necessity and is rooted in human beings’ innate ability to overcome difficulties and meet challenges. In many ways, new parents are like Chinese acrobats spinning plates on sticks, doing logistical parenting with one hand and emotionally supportive parenting with the other, maintaining balance all the while. Juggling all these things can be chaotic, and there are times when I can hear the dry, husky laugh of the universe, amused by my predicament.

But you know what? I've found one-handed parenting to be very empowering. Once you’ve been doing  it for a while, you look back with amazement at what you’ve managed to pull off with limited physical resources. You start gaining a deeper appreciation for the challenges people without the use of both arms go through every day. And you feel more capable of tackling other parenting challenges that lie down the road -- ones that will involve much more than just the use of your hands.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Five Things I Learned In My First Week Of Parenting

I knew that becoming a parent would be an intense, life-altering experience. How could it not be? What caught me off guard was how the cocktail of emotions associated with the event -- the combination of waiting, worrying, sleeplessness, joy and awe -- would leave me feeling like I'd been trampled by a herd of water buffalo.

Fortunately, it's a happy sort of fatigue. After an 18-hour labor, a C-section, and a subsequent four-day hospital stay, my wife and I are back home with our son, Seamus. He tipped the scales at 9 pounds, 4 ounces and was one of 22 babies to arrive Feb. 15 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Yes folks, the economy is getting better, and births at CMPC are up 26 percent compared to last February, according to one of our nurses.

Anyway, so far I've learned how to change a diaper -- and been reminded that little boys can spontaneously urinate surprisingly long distances. I've learned the difference between hungry crying and crying to be held. And I've felt the thrill of seeing my kid smile at me for the first time, then realized immediately after that he was probably just wincing from gas pain.

Obviously, there are tons more lessons coming. But what I've learned about parenthood so far has amazed me. Following are five examples of things I've learned in the early days of a never-ending journey.

1. Dogs Are Fascinated (And Freaked Out) By Babies IMG_7411

Babies have all sorts of wonderful smells. Which is why our 7-year old Golden Retriever, Natasha, was transfixed by Seamus from the moment we brought him home. While she seemed to understand Seamus' status as the newest member of our pack, and will no doubt protect him as she does us, Natasha sniffed and licked him in a way that suggested he was, to her at least, potentially quite delicious.

Once Seamus starts eating from the table, Natasha will no doubt be parked under his high chair waiting for the inevitable cascade of food scraps. And she'll probably blimp up as a result. Guess we'll have to keep an eye on that.

In the weeks before Seamus arrived, we tried to prepare Natasha for the experience by playing sound clips of a baby crying at full volume. She was spooked by the sound, and skulked around meekly with her ears flattened. Now that Seamus is here, Natasha is getting to experience those cries firsthand, not to mention the sleeplessness they bring. Now when we make coffee in the morning, we make an extra cup and pour it in her water bowl.

2. Big Babies Create Wardrobe Challenges


While we were delighted to have such a big, healthy baby, his sheer size meant that many of the outfits we'd received as gifts from friends and family were too small, sometimes comically so. Which sucks, since much of the fun of opening those gifts came from picturing what Seamus would look like wearing them. Especially the tie-dye.

Given the voracious appetite Seamus has shown so far, I imagine he'll outgrow his current lineup of outfits pretty soon.

3. Sleep Deprivation = Hell On Earth


Everyone knows that new parents don't sleep much, but I mistakenly thought this wouldn't be a big deal for me, since I'm now firmly into middle age and find I don't sleep as much as I used to. Boy was I wrong. What I didn't realize is that having a baby in your bedroom is like living next to a firehouse. The cries are like alarms waking you with a shock. For several long seconds after, you find yourself standing in darkness, trying to rediscover basic motor functioning.

What's ironic about this, of course, is that in the midst of this intense fog, you're often carrying your baby to a changing table, and sometimes, you're doing so in near-total darkness. You're holding the most important thing in your life in your hands, but you're essentially still asleep. What could possibly go wrong?

The good news is somehow, humans are programmed to handle sleep deprivation and perform their parental duties. That doesn't mean my shins aren't black and blue and scraped up all to hell from all the things I have run into during these nighttime diaper changing missions. It also doesn't mean I don't feel like a flesh-eating zombie for much of the day. Wait, when do babies start sleeping through the night again?

4. Ma Vie En Diapers


Well, one thing I was nervous about was whether I'd be good at changing diapers. It's not exactly the sort of thing you can practice at home before the baby is born. I'm happy to report that I've already changed about 100 diapers and am pretty good at it. I've also become acquainted with "blowouts" and have begun experimenting with different methods of sealing a diaper to minimize collateral damage.

What I didn't realize is how often diapers need to be changed, and how many of them I will change over the course of my kid's pre-potty training life. I mean, wow.

We're planning to switch to cloth diapers at some point, but for now, we're using the traditional kind. And the boxes full of new diapers keep arriving every day. In fact, in the time it took to write this blog post, three more boxes of diapers showed up from Amazon.

As a side note, we found a diaper pail that is frankly quite attractively designed. I find myself admiring it sometimes. It's clearly going to be a big part of our lives for the next couple of years, so I am happy we got one that fits with our decor.

5. Flameless Candles Are Awesome IMG_7442

Confession: I've always thought flameless candles were stupid, the kind of thing slack-jawed TV addicts purchase while watching Home Shopping Network and emptying of bag after bag of potato chips into their insatiable pie-holes.

Well, turns out I was wrong. Flameless candles are pretty cool. At a friend's suggestion, I bought a 6-pack of votive-sized ones and brought them to the hospital the night my wife went into labor.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the candles helped us a LOT by bathing the room in a soft glow and helping to calm her down. Their flickering is so life-like that each new shift of nurses, upon entering the room, would primly announce that candles weren't allowed. Then I'd pick one up and smugly inform them that these weren't real candles. I derived no small amount of enjoyment from doing this.

We're planning to put the candles in Seamus' room so their soft, relaxing flickering will calm him down when he's worked up, and hopefully allow mom and dad to sleep.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Like Skydiving, Parenthood Is A Lot To Contemplate


I’ve only been skydiving once. The part I remember most isn’t the initial shock of falling, the wrenching tug of the parachute opening or the wonderful reunion with terra firma. It’s when my dive instructor, strapped to my back in accordance with the rules for first-timers, held me in doorway for several long seconds before we jumped. This gave me a chance to look down 14,000 feet at the dazzling patterns and colors of the farmland below, feel the freezing cold air, get incredibly nervous, and almost throw up.

“It’s minus-20 Fahrenheit at this altitude,” my dive instructor shouted helpfully in my ear just before we jumped, in an apparent attempt to calm me down.

I’m bringing up skydiving because I have a very similar feeling right now. I’m two weeks away from the birth of my first child, and just as I did in the doorway of that plane that day, I’m contemplating something I can’t fully grasp, no matter how hard I try, until I experience it for myself. But instead of jumping out of a plane, I’m going to be assuming the biggest responsibility there is in life. And it's almost here.

At 43, I am arriving late to parenthood. Most of my friends had kids years ago, and more than a few are looking at me now and saying, “Good, now Kevin will get a taste of the chaos and sleeplessness that comes with having kids.” The truth is, I’m not worried about the sleep deprivation aspect of having kids. I’m already in that mid-life stage where I don't sleep a lot anyway. Plus, I’m cranky no matter how much -- or how little -- I sleep. Just ask my wife.

I will confess to being more than a little nervous about becoming a parent. In the map I’ve built in my head about how this will play out, there is a lot of uncharted territory. You might say I’ve just got a case of butterflies, but to me it feels more like the panicked flapping of pterodactyl wings.

Millions of questions are swirling in my head. Will I be a good father? What if I don’t bond with the baby right away? How does one practice changing diapers? What happens when the kid asks for the car keys? What if I have a girl, and as a teenager, she ends up having some derelict boyfriend that I will have to beat the crap out of?

Here's a scenario that really freaks me out: At my kid's college graduation, will I be so tottering and arthritic that other parents will think I’m someone’s grandfather?

OK, deep breaths. Husbands need to take them too. My wife and I have been to the classes, we’ve read the books, and we’ve listened to wisdom from friends and family who’ve been there before. We’ve set up the crib and the changing table, organized shower gifts based on what age the baby will be using them. We’re “ready,” if such a description could ever be used to accurately describe what we’re facing as first-time parents.

Apparently, the baby is ready too, as evidenced by the non-stop mixed martial arts session of punches and kicks taking place in my wife’s abdomen. In a sense, all three of us are up there in that plane, getting ready for our first tandem skydive. We’re in the doorway looking down, thinking about what’s coming, and feeling a level of excitement that is almost too much to process.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

An Ode To Mr. Fischer, My Grade School French Teacher


Have you ever had a teacher with such a fiery temper that he would throw chalk and blackboard erasers at you if you weren’t paying attention? Ever failed a test and had a teacher scrawl the ‘F’ on the page with such force that it was warm to the touch when he handed it back to you? Ever witnessed a teacher make fun of the school principal in another language in front of students -- and parents?

Mr. Fischer, my grade school French teacher in the early 1980s, did all of these things. Which probably sounds unbelievable, since behavior like this today would earn a teacher a starring role in a trumped up CNN expose on 'Teachers Gone Wild', leaving viewers shaking their heads and fretting about the impact on the children.

Well, it’s true that Mr. Fischer did have an impact on his students -- but it was a positive one. He was youthful, dedicated, energetic, passionate, proud of his culture, and yes, a bit volatile. His teaching methods could best be described as unconventional. You never really knew what would happen in Mr. Fischer’s classroom, and that’s what made it so fun. When it came to teaching us about France, a faraway place we might never see with our own eyes, he had a creative approach that was extremely effective.

Mr. Fischer was probably in his early thirties when I knew him, thinly built and of average height, with hair that would get longish at times, giving him kind of a wild look. I’m pretty sure he was born in France, but he had lived long enough in the U.S. by that time not to have much of an accent. He also dressed differently than the other teachers at our school, preferring sweaters to button-down shirts. I never saw him wear a tie.

Mr. Fischer had a mischievous side that sometimes made him feel like a co-conspirator against authority. Like the one day when the school principal, Mr. Dunlap, stopped by Mr. Fischer’s class with a group of visiting parents.

We were in the middle of a grammar lesson when Mr. Dunlap strolled unannounced into the classroom, smiled patronizingly at us, and began explaining to the parents that this was where Mr. Fischer dispensed his daily wisdom on French language and culture. Mr. Dunlap inquired as to what we were learning that day, and then asked Mr. Fischer to say something in French for the benefit of the visiting parents.

Mr. Fischer never was a big fan of these sorts of interruptions, which happened regularly. The slightly wicked look on his face as he contemplated Mr. Dunlap’s request seemed to say, “Oh, you want to hear some French? Well, here you go!”

I recall feeling that something memorable was about to happen, and it did.

“Voici Mr. Dunlap. Il est un merde-tete,” Mr. Fischer said with a big, friendly smile.

With that, 25 students clenched their jaws as tightly as they could and fought to suppress their laughter, tears of strain running down their cheeks. Mr. Dunlap nodded to Mr. Fischer and herded the parents to the next classroom. Fortunately, neither he nor the parents understood French, so they had no idea that Mr. Fischer had just called the principal of the school a “shithead”. Once Mr. Dunlap was safely out of earshot, the students erupted.

Classrooms are usually drab, orderly places smelling of wood, old paper, and boredom. Walking into Mr. Fischer’s was an entirely different experience. It hit you right away: the posters of French cities and portraits of famous French people on the walls; the French stamps, coins, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia laminated into the desktops. There was French music to listen to and French games to play during our free time. It was as if Mr. Fischer had airlifted a smoldering chunk of French culture over to the U.S. and dumped it into his classroom, where it could bathe us all in its glow.

It was here that Mr. Fischer guided his students through the contours of the French language, teaching us about the passé composé, the imparfait, the conditionnel, informal pronouns, dangling participles, and other grammatical nuances. Irregular French verb conjugation has an algebraic complexity to it, and some lessons felt like dentist appointments. Mr. Fischer never coddled his students, though. He had no patience for whining, and if he sensed you weren’t putting enough effort into your studies, you were going to hear about it.

Mr. Fischer graded all of his tests with the same red pen. If you got an ‘A’, he’d write “excellent travail” (great work) on the page, with a friendly penmanship. On the other hand, if you got an ‘F’, he would angrily scribble “Un Desastre!” (a disaster), and his disgust would emanate from the page with all the subtlety of a 20-pound hunk of Limburger cheese. When you did well, Mr. Fischer handed you back you test with a friendly smile; when you didn’t, he would toss it to you as if it had just been used to clean a bird cage.

Mr. Fischer’s teaching style could best be described as asymmetrical; he didn’t just stand in front of the class reading from a book, he would move about the room and present lessons in unique ways. He was like a guerrilla fighter on patrol, hiding in the hills and ducking behind trees, firing shots of learning at his students.

Sometimes, Mr. Fischer would fire actual projectiles at us. One time, he saw me passing a note to a classmate and nailed me directly in the nose with a blackboard eraser heavy with chalk dust. It didn’t hurt, but it was embarrassing, and my classmates sure thought it was funny. With a thick layer of chalk dust coating my face and nostrils, I looked like the Tony Montana in a 7th grade production of Scarface. It took hours for the taste to go away.


Mr. Fischer was a big fan of outside-the-box teaching methods. A couple times every year he would take us on a field trip to his house to cook crepes in the French style. One highlight of these trips was petting Zazzy, his chubby white beagle-mix, who would waddle over to the school grounds every afternoon to check things out.

Mr. Fischer let me bring Watson, my four year old Springer Spaniel, into class one day as part of a class assignment. I was to give a presentation, entirely in French, on how to care for a dog. It was harder than I’d expected, as it required me to speak entirely in French for about 10 minutes straight. But after initial butterflies, I settled in and got it done. Later, my classmates -- and Mr. Fischer himself -- roared in laughter when Watson dropped a deuce in the hallway.

Mr. Fischer never did anything halfway. This was apparent when he accompanied the eighth grade on our annual trip to Camp Susquehanna in the mountainous wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania. As organizer of the class scavenger hunt, Mr. Fischer brought an obvious enthusiasm to the hiding of items, placing them in locations no student would even think of looking. I bet some of the things he hid are still right where he put them.

Mr. Fischer was also really into telling ghost stories around the campfire. The guy could really spin a yarn, and enjoyed making his tales as terrifying as possible by making creative use of noises from the surrounding forest. Rustling leaves, he suggested, were the sounds of skeletons that had clawed their way out of a nearby graveyard to pay us a visit. Tree trunks creaking and groaning in the wind were moans of misery from undead souls lurking nearby.

By the time Mr. Fischer was done telling his tales, I was half-expecting to see a disembodied head floating around the campground. I probably slept about 17 minutes that night.

People that attack life’s challenges instead of shying away from them are usually at home on the ski slopes, and so it was with Mr. Fischer. He led many Saturday school trips to the Poconos, and he was with me the first time I strapped on skis. Just as he was in the classroom, Mr. Fischer had a way of motivating you on the slopes when you thought the going was getting too rough.

Later that day, which included several high-speed encounters between my face and the packed powder of the bunny slope, I was taking off my skis outside the lodge and Mr. Fischer skied up.

"What are you doing? There’s still a half-hour left!" he shouted at me through his ski mask.

Mr. Fischer pointed to the top of the mountain, barely visible through the fog and falling snow, at a tiny strip of white meandering down the side. “Let’s go, I’m taking you down an intermediate trail.”

I’d been hoping to quit while I was ahead. But Mr. Fischer wasn’t having any of that. He was always pushing his students to be better, inside and outside the classroom. To reach down within ourselves and get over whatever obstacle stood in our way. So I put my skis back on and skied that trail with him, and at the end I was glad I’d done it, even though I ended up collecting several more bruises along the way.

That was Mr. Fischer in a nutshell: He was all about getting his students over the hump. If he had to, he would've strapped us on his back and carried us over. But it never came to that, because he always insisted that we get through the difficulty on our own.

Mr. Fischer was all about challenging his students, laying down the tough love, and making us into smarter, stronger people than we were before we first ventured into his classroom. And on all of these counts, I'd say he was a success.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Island Dog Prefers To Avoid Technology News


Hey what's up, I'm Island Dog. It's been a pretty crazy week in the technology industry. At least, that's what I'm hearing from my contacts who don't live in a gorgeous beach paradise like I do, and have to slog their way through day after day of trudging to and from work to try and eke out a living.

I heard that Yahoo got a new CEO -- Marissa Mayer, the longtime Google executive. Also that VMware's CEO Paul Maritz is moving over to EMC in some kind of vaguely defined strategic role, with Pat Gelsinger, COO of EMC's storage products and a guy who spent 30 years at Intel (!) taking over as CEO of VMware.

Granted, it's surprising stuff. And you know what? I just don't give a shit.

No offense to anyone, but what's going on in Silicon Valley tech companies affects me about as much as a sandstorm on Mars. I live on a tropical island, and in case you haven't noticed, this water is insanely clear and inviting, and the sands silky and smooth under my paws.

My island beach is definitely nicer than anywhere on the California coast, or whatever skanky New Jersey beach you might think is all that. Newsflash: My beach could kick your beach's ass, if beaches could fight.

You want to know what my life is like? Every morning I walk up and down the 2 mile long stretch of sand, stopping along the way at resorts to get fed and lavished with attention by tourists. All I have to do is look cute and act friendly. It's easy work if you can get it.

In the afternoon, I take a nice long siesta and stay out of the sun as much as possible. Then when evening rolls around, I go out again and beg for scraps from tourists eating dinner.

It's a simple life. Which is why I resent the intrusion of Silicon Valley tech news. I couldn't care less what challenges Pat Gelsinger will face in transitioning VMware's business to the cloud, or whether Marissa Mayer will be able to right Yahoo's sinking ship. I'm too focused on enjoying every damn minute of this laid back island lifestyle to even devote a single brain cycle to thinking about things like this.

Now if you'll excuse me, I am going for swim. A couple hundred feet from shore is a coral reef, and there are like 800 different types of fish there, and sea urchins, and all kinds of crazy plants. I saw freaking Nemo the other day.

Island Dog = OUT

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Seriously, Get Out Of My Way


"Oh look, a hermit crab!"

That is probably the worst sentence that I can imagine being spoken, in any language. Because every time I hear it, I get picked up by a grubby handed kid, or some insensitive moron adult, and then passed around like some kind of freaking toy while everyone is like "How cute!" or "That's so cool!" or my personal favorite, "I wish I could carry MY home around!"

Actually, you don't wish that. That's just a dumb thing you thought up to sound all witty and ironic. Just stop.

Truth be told, I carry my home on my back because it's the only way I can avoid being eaten. This shell is really heavy, and in case you haven't noticed, I am very small, so yeah, it's not fun lugging this thing around all the time. Think of it this way: Imagine you're carrying around a piano and someone comes up and starts tickling you. That's what it is like when you see me on the beach and pick me up.

However, I am glad you think I'm "cool". You know what I think is cool? Jellyfish. As in, annoying tourists accidentally walking on them and getting their toes stung. That always makes me laugh. I think of it as karmic payback.

Now if you'll kindly get out of my way, I've got some business to attend to. Oh, and one more thing: You are lucky my claws are not large enough to pinch, because if they were, you would be howling with pain right now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Jetlagged Middle Aged Curmudgeon's Impressions Of Shanghai


After arriving at my hotel in Shanghai around midnight, the first thing I notice is that an alien spacecraft has landed smack dab in the middle of the city's Lujiazui district. Stuff like this always gets my attention. You know how nightmares about seeing ghosts are scary? Well, I've had ones about seeing UFOs, and being stalked by slimy, aggressive alien creatures, which to me are way more terrifying. Seeing an alien would shake up my worldview way more than seeing a damn ghost would, I can tell you that much.

This spaceship is shaped like a rocket, but it's massive, probably 1,500 feet high. Its base looks like a tripod, and a couple hundred feet above the ground there's a giant, bulbous pod, shaped like a ball, that I figure might serve as the cockpit. Above the ball, probably 500 or 600 feet higher, is another, smaller ball. After that, there's a long, thin antenna like thing, pointing skyward. The whole spaceship is covered with flashing dots, and they're constantly changing color. I would not be surprised at all to see E.T. come shuffling out of this freaking thing.

I assume I'm just hallucinating. It was a tough 14 hour flight from San Francisco, and the little kid sitting behind me was kicking the back of my seat the whole way. That is, when he wasn't screeching, or demanding candy from his pathetically overindulgent parents. I slept very little as a result, probably less than 30 minutes total, and it was the fitful, twitching kind of sleep that actually makes you more tired and cranky instead of refreshed.

Jin Mao Tower
But soon I realize I'm not seeing things: This garishly lit monstrosity is right there in front of me, and now the top is obscured by fog. It occurs to me that it might actually be a permanent fixture of the neighborhood. Seeking answers, I look up Lujiazui on my phone and learn that the "spaceship" is really the Oriental Pearl Tower, built between 1990 and 1994 by the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co. Ltd. Until 2007, it was China's tallest structure.

And you know what? I don't care, I really just want a beer at this point. Lujiazui is filled with modern looking skyscrapers and the whole place is bathed in neon glow, with cranes and construction sites everywhere, suggesting imminent expansion. But for all that, Lujiazui might be one of the boring places on the planet. There are no bars, not even closed ones, so what looks like an area that should be full of life and energy is actually a dead zone with few visible signs of life. Well, that is, unless you count the creepy pimps, who slink out from the shadows every couple of minutes asking "You want lady?"

This would happen to me a lot during my week in Shanghai, and after I while I started wondering if I had some sort of sign on my forehead, invisble to me, which said "Yeah, I'm that guy".

Old Shanghai, right across the Huangpu River, more than makes up for the soullessness of Lujiazui. Here you can see how real people live, with streetside vendors selling corn on the cob to schoolkids, tiny shops selling impossibly niche items, like fuses and birdcages, and old folks sitting streetside, reminiscing about the good old days before the scourge of modernization started changing the city's complexion. You'll often see kites floating high above this section of the city, diving and darting on the breezes blowing in from the East China Sea.

I first came to Shanghai in 2000, but like many places in China, this city has changed a lot in the past 12 years. It used to be difficult to get a cup of coffee -- a good cup, I mean. But in Shanghai, there are now coffee shops all over the place now. To me this makes sense: Shanghai is a galloping city where everyone is running around eager to taste the next new and exciting thing, and so it makes sense for them to get all caffeinated first. That way, there will be no regrets later on that anything was missed.

Shanghai World Financial Center
In one Shanghai neighborhood, there is a museum where hundreds of Chinese Communist party propaganda posters are exhibited. Calling it a 'Museum' actually is a stretch: It is basically some guy's basement apartment, albeit a spacious one by Shanghai standards. The posters on display date to the beginning of the People's Republic in 1949 all the way up to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. There are plenty of images depicting Chairman Mao with Stalin, Lenin, and Fidel Castro.

The most common theme centered on smashing U.S. imperialist aggression. China's leaders really have always hated that about us, though they don't blame individual Americans: One of the most interesting posters voices support for the U.S. antiwar protestors who demonstrated against the Vietnam War in the Sixties.

But if you only have time to see one museum in this city, make it the Shanghai Museum. It is magnificent, with a range of exhibits that will take you way more than a day to truly do justice to. There are 4,000 year old wine containers, which I found fascinating because it's fun to wonder what people got up to back then when they were hammered. There is a whole wing dedicated to Chinese calligraphy, and walking through one realizes the power of the written word in this culture. Jade pieces that are thousands of years old, coins several hundred years old, including some from the Silk Road era that are basically just mashed up pieces of metal with some bearded guy's face on them, are also among the museum's finest attractions.

Getting around Shanghai is easy: There is an excellent subway that goes all over this sprawling metropolis. Be ready for crushing crowds though. I made the mistake of taking the train to the Shanghai Pudong airport on Monday morning rush hour. The amount of people in the subway was actually frightening. But, I was calmed by the soothing sound of Angry Birds being played by my fellow passengers. By the way, iPhones are very popular here -- one marketing poster I saw on a mobile device shop said "If you don't have one, you're a loser". Well, the 4GS is pretty nice I guess.

Before leaving, I headed back over to Lujiazui to take photos of the skyscrapers, which were lit up brilliantly at night. As I was taking a shot of the Shanghai World Financial Center, which at 1614 feet is currently the tallest building in China, the bright lights illuminating the building's exterior switched off. It was fascinating to watch, though it happened in the blink of an eye.

And I thought to myself, someday I'll be telling my grandkids, 'Your gramps is so old, he once saw a skyscraper get shut off'.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Ode To Mr. Smith, My Seventh Grade Grammar Teacher

Class has just ended, and I am waiting in line with my classmates to hand in my homework to Mr. Smith, my seventh grade grammar teacher. He has taken up his customary position beside the classroom door and is collecting each student's assignment as they leave, giving it a quick glance to ensure that correct procedures have been followed. This is troubling to me, because once again, I have not done my homework.

Now, this is not unusual: It is probably the 18th time this year that I have found myself in this very position. You might say I've got some experience in this field.

On previous occasions, I've managed to slip past Mr. Smith unnoticed without handing over my homework. But lately, he's taken to watching me like a hawk -- a stern looking, British hawk with bushy white hair, thick-rimmed glasses and an intimidating air of authority. Nope, there is no way I'm getting by this time, because Mr. Smith is blocking the doorway, and he's wearing the game face of an NHL goalie.

The line is moving quickly and there are now only five kids ahead of me. My heart rate kicks up a notch. Running out of options, I grab a piece of blank notebook paper, scribble my name on it, and hand it over to Mr. Smith, avoiding eye contact as I walk out. Fortunately, just at that moment, some howling eighth graders came running by in the hallway, distracting Mr. Smith momentarily from his homework collecting.

"Boys! Stop this roughhousing at once!" he booms at the eighth graders, as I skulk down the hallway in the opposite direction. For a moment, I think I'm in the clear. But approximately 25 seconds later, after Mr. Smith has had a chance to scan my "work", the jig is up.

"Mr. McLaughlin, come back here at once!"

And just like that, Mr. Smith has busted me, again. Not that this is any great surprise. If you looked up “problem student” in the encyclopedia in those days, you’d have seen a photo of me. I was a legend at Newtown Friends School, but not for good reasons. In sixth grade, I set a school record by getting sent to the principal's office 37 times in a single school year. As far as I know, that record still stands.

Great teachers bring out the best in their charges, pushing them to greater heights of achievement, imploring them to look beyond the surface for deeper levels of meaning, and helping them discover abilities they hadn't previously known they possessed. Mr. Smith, the assistant headmaster at Newtown Friends School, was all of these things. Later in life, I came to realize that he was the best teacher I ever had.

However, as a mayhem-minded seventh grader in Mr. Smith’s homeroom class in 1982, I didn’t have this perspective. He was just a big old adversary to me; a formidable one, who despite having a funny accent seemed to always be one step ahead of me, waiting to foil my devious plans.

It was Mr. Smith's job to teach us the ins and outs of the English grammar -- proper usage, diction, irregularities, and so on -- and he viewed himself as a defender against lazy habits he saw creeping into the American version of the language. As someone instilled at an early age with the virtues of the Queen's English, Mr. Smith approached his grammar teaching with the seriousness of an air traffic controller.

Mr. Smith could be very strict and authoritarian when the occasion called for it. In my case, that was all the time. His aforementioned booming voice had a fierceness to it that filled me with dread. It was the voice of the tyrannical teacher in Pink Floyd's The Wall, the one who shrieks "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" Actually, if Pink Floyd had not found that guy, Mr. Smith would have been a perfect second choice.

Now, I don't want to paint Mr. Smith as some sort of harsh disciplinarian, but he was by no means averse to corporal punishment. He was quite skilled with the yardstick, as I personally found out on numerous occasions. You would never see it coming with Mr. Smith: You'd just be running around, or laughing and screaming, when suddenly, "THWACK", you'd feel the sharp sting of the yardstick on your butt. It didn't hurt as much as it was embarrassing, and that "THWACK" definitely got your attention.

The most memorable yardstick episode came during class one spring day. We had broken out into groups for an assignment, and a few of us -- I think it was Ben, Dave, Mike and myself -- were leaning out the classroom window staring intently at something that had captivated our attention. It might have been a shiny car, a pretty girl, or two squirrels mating, I don't quite recall.

Suddenly, we felt the "THWACK" of Mr. Smith's ruler, hitting across all our butts with a single stroke. We returned sheepishly to our seats as the other students roared with laughter. Later, we figured out that Mr. Smith must have used something longer than a yardstick, because we measured our butts with a yardstick and the width was way more than 36 inches.

Another memorable seventh grade episode came during the month or so when I became very skilled in the production of spitballs. I experimented by chewing many different paper types, including notebook paper, brown bags, and glossy magazine pages, and eventually developed an arsenal of short-, medium- and long-range spitball projectiles. I didn't use a straw, and instead would lob my soggy projectiles at the classroom walls, and more often than not, they would stick, with an audible "splat".

Naturally, since I wasn't paying attention to Mr. Smith's grammar lessons, I had plenty of time to devote to spitball research and development, though I did have to be careful not to get caught chewing (Mr. Smith did actually see me chewing paper once, but mistakenly thought it was gum).

As luck would have it, there was a large, five foot tall relief map of Africa on the classroom wall near my desk, and I figured out that I could easily hit just about any country on it. A majority of the spitballs ended up landing on northern Libya and Egypt, which soon became decorated with more than a dozen little dots. After a while, I recruited my classmates to join the fun, and other countries on the map became similarly adorned.

The best part about all of this was that Mr. Smith seemed completely oblivious. He wore thick eyeglasses, and I suspected that they were not of sufficient strength to allow him to see what was happening to the map. But eventually, Mr. Smith did catch on. He always caught on, no matter what subversive activity I was engaging in.

In classic Mr. Smith fashion, he approached the situation like a move in a chess game. He asked me to stay after class one day, and then began questioning me.

"Mr. McLaughlin, can you tell me, does Libya have mountains?"

"Um, yes, it has some, I think."

"Where are the mountains located? Show me on the map."

With a familiar feeling of impending punishment washing over me, I walked over to the map and pointed to the mountains in the central part of the country.

"Are there any mountains in northern Libya and Egypt?"

"Uh, no, it's pretty flat, I think."

At this point, his voice rose, becoming edged with irritation. “Dear child, then why are there mountains on THIS map?"

Needless to say, I spent the next couple of recess periods removing the crusted -- and surprisingly adhesive -- spitballs from the map of Africa.

Mr. Smith was a tough, no-nonsense teacher alright, but when your work met with his high bar of approval, you could rightly feel proud. This was especially true of his grammar class, in which he required students to memorize a series of poems over the course of the school year, including Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"and "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee" by Mildred Plew Meigs.

It is important to note that we didn't just have to memorize the poems; we were also required to recite them aloud to Mr. Smith at his desk. If you didn't demonstrate an acceptable mastery of the poem that day, or hesitated between verses, Mr. Smith would send you away to study some more. You really had to nail it perfectly to receive his stamp of approval.

Some poems were short and easy, others long and difficult, but at the end of the school year, when you came to the last one -- the task of memorization made more difficult by spring breezes wafting through the window -- you felt an indescribable surge of accomplishment.

The most important thing to remember about Mr. Smith is that he was much more than just a teacher. He played piano in the weekly school assembly; he ran the weekly soft pretzel sale; he dressed up for school Halloween costume parties; he whacked our butts with a ruler when we got out of line; and it was his voice you heard on the school public address system at the end of the day, announcing the arrival of your bus. He was, quite simply, everywhere in our lives as students.

More than any other teacher, it was Mr. Smith’s caring spirit that made Newtown Friends School feel like a family. Which is why many of us were moved to tears on graduation day, when we realized that he would no longer be part of our everyday lives. No longer would we be able to snicker among ourselves about his plaid pants, or see the twinkle in his eyes when we pleased him with our hard work. That was a tough realization, for all of us.

When you were on his good side, Mr. Smith’s demeanor was more kindly uncle than imperious disciplinarian. He really was a good man.

Though I was a perennial thorn in Mr. Smith's side, I always felt that he and I had a certain kinship, like that which exists between a warden and inmate. After all, it was his job to maintain order in the classroom, and I saw it as my duty to disrupt it. His main problem with me was that I was lazy and could be a much better student if only I would apply myself. Every teacher has students like this, but Mr. Smith cared enough not to let any of his fall by the wayside.

In 1988, while home from college on break, I went back to Newtown Friends School, dropping by unannounced to see if Mr. Smith was still there. I wanted to let him know that I was doing better; that I had stopped slacking and was on the right path. Also that I still remembered him and appreciated what he'd done for me. I hoped that he would remember me, too -- and not as the borderline sociopath who had once taken up so much of his energies and attention.

Mr. Smith was there, and he did remember me. We chatted for a half hour, and his face lit up when I told him I was majoring in English. Despite the irony of one of his all-time worst grammar students having chosen such a path, Mr. Smith seemed genuinely happy that I had come back to see him and deliver this news. And perhaps a bit proud as well.

Before leaving, for old times' sake, I gave Mr. Smith a recital of "The Road Not Taken", which I somehow still remembered, word for word. Nailed it on the first try.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Entering HP's World: My Meeting With Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman crop

Monday morning 6:45 a.m., and its pouring rain and still very dark as I'm pulling into the parking lot at HP's corporate headquarters. Suddenly I hear the sound of a baby wailing. It's the radio -- the San Francisco 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game last night in overtime, and a local sports talk show is playing a loop of baby tantrum sound clips to match the mood of the depressed fan base. I switch off the radio -- I'm bummed about the game, too, but there's no crying in the National Football League, there's no crying at HP, and there's definitely no crying when you're about to meet Meg Whitman.

I'm here to interview Whitman, who joined HP last September as its CEO. She's best known to people outside the tech world for her unsuccessful run for California governor in 2010, during which she reportedly spent $144 million of her own personal fortune. Whitman was also CEO of eBay for a decade, transforming it from a startup with 19 employees into an ecommerce powerhouse that had $8 billion in revenue when she left in 2008. And during her time as an executive at Hasbro, Whitman also managed the Mr. Potato Head brand.

After meeting up with my HP hosts, I'm led to a front desk and given a badge with my name on it. I'm wearing a suit, though, so it's impossible to clip on the badge in a way that doesn't make me look like a moron. After a few attempts, I'm able to fasten it to my lapel so that it dangles out sideways. I'm hoping Meg won't notice.

My hosts lead me up a stairway to a second floor hallway, and the first thing I notice are the high ceilings. The walls are sparsely decorated. It's quiet, and no one is around at this early hour. It feels kind of like walking in a museum, and in some ways it is. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, HP's legendary co-founders, would have been up in years when this building was built, I think to myself, but they probably walked these hallways. Likewise Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and other executives whose ideas form the bedrock of Silicon Valley innovation.

I'm led into a small conference room with very comfy chairs, but comfort is the last thing I'm looking for right now. I'm about to meet a big time shaper of the future of the largest IT company, in terms of employees, on the planet, and in my head I'm nervously sorting through the collection of questions I've come up with.

After a few minute, Meg and her assistant walk into the room. We shake hands, and the first thing I notice is that she's tall -- around 6 feet -- with a strong grip. She is pressed for time, and I get the sense that she's not into trivialities, so I dive right in with questions.

It soon becomes apparent that Whitman is a great interview. She is actually answering the questions I’m asking, and she is acknowledging that her company has been through a rough patch and needs to get better. You don't often get that from tech company CEOs, and it's refreshing. The most surprising thing she tells me is that HP used to have a barbed wire fence that separated the executive parking lot from those other employees. Silently, I'm floored by this.

Whitman has a sense of humor, too, and by the end of the 30 minutes I'm already looking forward to going through my notes and pulling out the best quotes, of which I'm certain there will be many.

Later, Whitman gathers her team of five executives, who each run gigantic businesses with tens of billions in annual revenue, for a group photo. They seem to like each other, and they're joking the whole time. The photographer keeps them in pose for 20 minutes or so, and after a while, one of the execs says hurry up, because another one of the execs rents his suit by the hour. That sends the whole group into peals of extended laughter. The photo shoot is over.

As I'm walking back to my car, I try to imagine the old parking lot barbed wire fence, and I picture a low level employee gazing wistfully into the executive parking lot, with its row upon row of gleaming Lexuses, Jaguars and BMWs.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Descent Into Madness: My Three Days At CES 2012


Monday 9:07 a.m.

Got in last night. I have to admit, I'm really pumped about CES! Yeah, the event is always pretty crowded but it's just so awesome to be here this year. I can't wait to see all the latest and greatest products that are being unveiled. It’s my sixth straight year at the show, but I still feel like a little kid on Christmas morning, just brimming with anticipation.

The CES opening press event was last night and I was blown away by the innovative products the sponsors were showing off. And there's a great energy in general in Vegas right now, a very upbeat vibe. Even the Vegas Strip's unrepentant soullessness seems to have dissolved, replaced by a glowing friendliness that’s evident in the smiles of passersby. There is also a pervasive sense of camaraderie from my international media brethren.

The weather is excellent too -- clear desert skies and surprisingly warm for January.

Monday 10:33 p.m.

Went to Samsung and Microsoft press conferences this afternoon. Samsung launched about 20 products -- TVs, monitors, notebooks, a tablet and a smartphone. All kinds of stuff. People were eating it up.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer keynote was fun. He brought out Ryan Seacrest and they sat together and talked about all the cool stuff Microsoft is doing, in an informal chat type of presentation. I enjoyed it.

Heading to bed now. Hope I'll be able to fall asleep after all the excitement of the day. Can’t wait to walk the show floor, which opens tomorrow.

Tuesday 9:45 a.m.

I’m standing outside South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, in a crowd of around 5,000 people all waiting for the doors to open at 10. It’s pretty chaotic. For some reason, people seem to think that shoving and jostling their way up to the entrance means they’ll get in faster. Pretty irritating if you ask me.

There are a LOT more people in Vegas than yesterday. Huge monorail line at the Venetian stop where I’m staying. Yep, CES is definitely under way. I had forgotten what a mad crush of humanity the show can be. Now I’m heading onto the show floor.

OK, I’m walking around in North Hall and it’s a little less crowded here. Problem is, I haven’t seen anything interesting yet. What I am seeing is row after row after row of booths displaying iPhone and iPad cases. Some are ridiculously outlandish, like the ones encrusted with Swarovski crystals. Are you kidding me? Hey, I guess there’s no accounting for taste. These cases look like something you’d see in a Jersey Shore episode.

Tuesday 1:14 p.m.

I’ve made my way over to Central Hall, where all the television vendors are showing off their latest models. It’s loud in here. And by loud, I mean, deafening. Good thing there are a massive amount of people here, packed into the exhibit areas like a bunch of helpless sardines, powerless against their desire to see more HDTVs.

The HDTVs on display are truly amazing examples of humankind’s ability to harness technology. But though it’s easy to fantasize about owning one, I realize that I’d never read another book, or have another meaningful conversation, if I did. This is scary technology, and after craning my neck at a few companies’ booths I move on.


Tuesday 11:49 a.m.

Chaos in the LG exhibit area. An impenetrable thicket of humanity. I snap a quick photo and hightail it outta there.

Tuesday 2:37 p.m.

Everywhere I turn, there is bad mobile etiquette on display and frankly it’s starting to piss me off. Literally 95 percent of the people I see walking around have their eyes glued to their devices and are paying ZERO attention to where they’re going. So of course, they’re constantly cutting people off, while remaining completely oblivious. I actually saw a guy texting while walking backwards down one of the bustling hallways.

The irony is that these idiots with their smartphones are rushing around so they can look at other, newer smartphones on display at CES.

Tuesday 5:12 p.m.

I’ve walked probably about three or four miles at this point, although it could be a lot more. Still haven’t seen anything all that interesting, except for a couple booths here and there surrounded by useless garbage. Oh goodie, ultrabooks. Oh wow, more tablets. E-writers? What, regular paper doesn’t work anymore?

There comes a point at CES when you’re on the show floor, and you’ve been walking for hours, and you just hit the wall. The noise of the hucksters in the exhibit areas braying for attention is getting inside my head, and it's not going away. I’ve seen enough and am heading back to the room.

Tuesday 9:37 p.m.

Exhausted, but still intact (physically, if not entirely mentally) after Day One on the CES show floor. I’ve heard the first couple of days climbing Mount Kilimanjaro are pretty easy, but then the difficulty ramps up dramatically. If that’s true, I can’t even imagine what tomorrow might have in store for me. A deep sense of foreboding washes over me, and I have trouble falling asleep.

Wednesday 9:19 a.m.

Back on the show floor. Still pretty wiped out. I’d rather be having my wisdom teeth out right now than on the CES show floor, if you want to know the truth. Thankfully it’s my last day here. Hopefully I can make it through the day without snapping. That is by no means a given, though, as the show floor has already attracted its customary hordes of attendees.

I’m walking around South Hall and again, there’s not much going here. Unless you count the hazy, eye-stinging cloud of international, mostly male colognes that's hanging over the proceedings. It occurs to me that this is a regular CES feature, the sampling of liberally applied fragrances. Fortunately I am distracted by the noise, which is also reaching a painful level.

I walk for a while and realize I’m surrounded by booths selling iPod docks shaped like pigs, whales and Charlie Brown characters. Many of them are smiling. That’s great, I’m happy you’re in a good mood. But I can’t get around the fact that these things are made of hard, heavy plastic, the kind that’s destined to sit around in a landfill for millennia. I keep walking, trying to forget what I’ve seen.

Wednesday 10:52 a.m.

The burning fatigue in my legs has started up again. I don’t even know what hall I’m in at this point, but there’s a bunch of home automation products on display, with pitch people loudly proclaiming their benefits. I pass by one booth and they’re talking about how their product lets you adjust the temperature of your home using a tablet. ‘Great,’ I think to myself, ‘because people in our sedentary culture need more reasons not to get off their couches.’

Walking further I come to a booth showing off little video cameras that you can hide places, and presumably, capture footage of people doing stupid and/or illegal things. Around another corner, I come across yet another booth selling iPhone cases, but these ones have hair. I try to scream, but the sound catches in my throat and is muffled. No one hears, and so after collecting my thoughts, I keep walking.

Wednesday 1:07 p.m.

Still no idea where I am. Was seeing darkness at the edges of my vision, so I stopped to get something to eat. Waited in a long line, then got to the counter and all they had was a hot dog wrapped in a soft pretzel. It looked disgusting, but I ate it anyway. I needed the sustenance.

I feel slightly less dizzy, but am still finding it difficult to process what’s going on around me, all these products of dubious practical value, being loudly hawked. I keep walking, hoping that I will come to the edge of the convention center soon, or that a forklift will fall on me and I won’t have to see this any more.


Wednesday 2:58 p.m.

I think I’m hallucinating. I close my eyes and see rows and rows of iPhone accessories. For some reason, Hello Kitty -- a human sized version -- is peeking at me from around corners as I approach. Soon I realize that it’s following me around, like the penguin in Billy Madison.

A couple more days here and I will have to be institutionalized. Actually, maybe just a couple of hours. I just have to make it until 5 p.m though. Almost there.

Wednesday 5:02 p.m.

I make it to 5 p.m., and stagger outside into the sunlight. I look around -- no Hello Kitty -- and my heart rate starts to drop into the normal zone. I breathe in the crisp desert air, and cough, because someone is smoking a cigar nearby. I've wandered into the smoking area. But it's so much better than the show floor.

I survived CES, again. But it left a toll on me this year, just like it always does. You know what’s really pathetic? I’ll probably be back again next year. Because I love the pain and the chaos.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Good Time For A Cleansing


It's tough to really call any year forgettable. Even in the worst of times -- when all the news is bad, and every time you see a newspaper or television you feel like screaming in frustration -- there are still moments that make you laugh, and maybe even feel hopeful.

Still, there's no denying that 2011 has been a tough year. Natural disasters. Political violence. Stupid politicians spouting a never ending stream of hateful nonsense. Dumb movies. An economy that many people feel is about to blow up like a faulty M-80. And general societal irritability and uncertainty that makes it seem like the wheels are about to fall off -- of everything.

Thankfully, it's 2012 now, and it's time to forget all that. Right?

Not really. The Gregorian calendar doesn't mean a damn thing to a subsistence farmer in the most primitive reaches of Papua New Guinea. Hell, they don't even have the iPad 2 there yet. And so tonight, when all the champagne corks are popping, and amateur drunks are committing more faux pas then there are stars in the sky, nothing meaningful will change.

However, New Year's can be a time to let go of bad things, to let them float away from the front of our minds to a comfortably insulated part somewhere in the back brain area. Let me be clear about this: I don't mean forgetting all the bad stuff that happened last year by sweeping it under the rug and pretending it wasn't real. Flipping the calendar page doesn't change anything. But it does give us a chance, as humans, to compartmentalize the past and move on. And that can be a valuable thing. A cleansing thing.