Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Just a quick update... say yeah, I'm still around. Business travel last week to San Francisco (Always get an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista near Hyde Pier - you won't regret it!) then back to RI over the weekend.

I've had some great ideas I want to write about, but now that I'm back on a semi-regular schedule things are getting fast-paced and I'll be off-line for a week or more. So basically, I'm writing to say I'll write more in a while.

Fucking slacker.

A big part of my time issue is where I chose to rent a room. It's a couple of miles outside the Beltway, so the commute - whether I ride or drive - is a complete pain in the ass. I drove today and it took me almost 90 minutes as the 495 was more parking-lottish than usual from the GW Parkway to Silver Spring. I submit that in addition to everything else, the average Beltway driver is empirical evidence that the National Capitol Region does not attract our best and brightest.

So my quest, once this next (hopefully brief) chapter is closed, is to secure lodging that is closer to R'lyeh to regain some of the 2.5-3 hrs I lose commuting every day. Then maybe I'll get some of my life back.

I'll still be reading and chiming in when I can.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

This is where the good times went...

Yesterday Crum introduced me to a band I'd never heard of before.  Aside from really digging the music I enjoyed his reflection that
"...youthful rebellion is woven into our humanity more as a reality check for the rest of us than just the surface pain in the ass it seems to come off as."
How true.  Even for those of us who were fairly straight-laced growing up.  I think it's woven into our social development as we mature.  The case in which this that made the most sense to me was presented in the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  I'm not going to cover it in detail because that's not really what this post is about.  The crux of his argument is (and he covers it in his reasoning behind why teen smoking is such an epidemic) that once you start socializing with others - in school, etc. - you start taking more and more behavioral cues from your peers than your parents.  There comes a point early on when your parents literally have almost no control over where you are taking your cues from.  So I think that, even if you fall in with other "goody-goody" kids, there are bound to be behaviors you take up from them that your parents won't approve of.  Rebellion, at some level, is always there.

Of course, it really took off for me when I got to college.  Straight-laced ROTC guy started hanging out with a bunch of hippies, punks, Pink Floyd fans, and others who were antithetical to the "Reagan Youth" that I drilled with every week.  The trick was balancing the assimilation of both groups.  I didn't care that some of my friends smoked dope and they knew not to do it in my room/apartment, but there were plenty of times when they were taking hits from the bong I was at the other side of the room drinking my vodka.  Such was the pattern of mutual inebriation.

The biggest thing I remember were the parties my junior year.  My roommates and I had inherited (that is, we were lucky enough in the housing lottery to be able to choose) an apartment that some graduating friends of ours were in that was famous for its parties.  We vowed to carry on the tradition.

The apartment itself was beautiful.  Well, it was for a bunch of college age males who didn't know any better.  It had a huge living room, and the previous tenants had put a huge mural of a moonscape on one wall.  A great lunar landscape with the Earth high and in the background.  They had taped up a cartoon pic of Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, and a floating head of John Madden.  Enterprise was shooting Mr. Madden with phasers.  We added to the mural - usually with whatever photos we thought were cool out of the Weekly World News.  Aliens, 300 lb goat-headed babies, we even had Hitler giving the "Sieg Heil" to a bust of Bette Midler that was emerging from behind a giant moon rock.

They'd left the bar there for us.  And all the alcohol.  They had a rule - drink what you like, but if you finish a bottle you need to replace it.  Over the three years they'd had it, a steady stash had built up, and since they reasoned none of it was their own by the time they graduated, they told us it was ours.  What a great bunch of guys. So we had the bar, we had the new and improved mural, what could we do to improve the parties?  We decided we needed a band to play our parties.  This was our major rebellion.

Parties you could have - more than ten people was a party, and you had to register your party at least the night before.  But campus rules prohibited bands from playing parties.  We decided to push the envelope anyway, knowing that getting caught could get us kicked out, and that would have bad repercussions with my family and with the organization that was paying my tuition.  Fuck it.  We did it anyway.

The band was called "Dead Men on Holiday", taken from Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

"For all over the country there were small groups of men who called themselves 'dead men on holiday', and devoted their lives to proving they still possessed life."
They were a punk band, not to be confused with a country/rock/soul band named "Dead Men on Holidays" from Germany, that comes up when you google the name.  They had the usual repetoire of original songs that sounded good to and would only have meaning to their fans, with cool titles like "It Must Suck To Be You" and "Store 24" because I guess every college band needed a song about the local convenience store, who the fuck knows.  Anyway, they were popular.  They had come out of nowhere and placed second in the battle of the bands the year before, turning the stage-front of our beloved and esteemed theater hall into a frenzied, thrashing pit to the horror of school officials and visiting families.  The front man was a fellow ROTC cadet in my unit, known as "Stain" who went on to run nuclear reactors for the Navy and command submarines.  Smart guy, great guy, showed me that just because I wore the uniform it didn't mean I had to grow up as some right-wing Niedermayer that my future charges would want to shoot.  More bad influence to add to my pothead friends; I'm sure my parents would have shit had they known what their good little Catholic boy in ROTC was now doing.

The pattern was simple.  Buy a keg, buy some cheap vodka for a Kool-Aid punch, advertise by word of mouth, charge two bucks at the door, and Bob's yer' uncle.  They took off something huge.  By the third party we were turning big profits, enough to finance the next two.  Fuck, we could even start paying the goddam band! We started being less covert.  Well, the band started being less covert.  They would put up posters a week before they played, always tasteless.  The mid-December poster showed Santa and Mrs. Clause in a threesome with Rudolph, almost every one had a beer / barf motif.  People started coming from Boston, from Providence, the punks from the local scene started showing up.  Even the fucking frat douche bags.  It usually started with them knocking on the door.  I'd answer and notice the usual gang of fucks who I didn't like and didn't like me.

"What can I do for you?"

"Hey, we need to (use the phone / use the bathroom / borrow a cup of sugar / verify what this week's physics homework is).  Can we come in?"

"You need what?  I can't hear you.  The music, you know.  Try a quieter place if you need a phone."

"Can we (borrow some dental floss / see if our escaped hamster is in here / gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today)?"

"Look, guys.  For $2 you can come in."

"Oh."  And $20 or so bucks later, frat douche bags were in.  Whatever, it was a business.  It was fun hearing what excuses they would come up with.  I think they changed with every one and it became something of a game.

They had a rash of great covers, too.  Mostly of the classic, "Oi!" genre.  The favorite was "Someone's Gonna' Die Tonight" by Blitz.

What a great fucking song.  The way it builds up, unleashes into a frenzy of sound and gives way to a crooning/shouting anthem to violence and football hooliganism. It usually signaled a high point in the party.  They knew when the crowd was worked up and it put us over the edge a few times.  The cops usually came after that.

One of our roommates wasn't really into partying so he holed himself up in the attic (Okay, there wasn't an attic.  We cut a hole in the ceiling and put a table and chair up there...) listening to the police scanner to see if any complaints would come in and alert us to quiet down before the campus rent-a-cops got there. We normally could quiet down enough (i.e. - get the band to take a break) that they just drove by.

Until one day in mid-January when they finished up the song and we noticed that the air conditioning had kicked on.  Except there was no AC.  One of our buds had gone straight from the pit head first through our front window.

Shit.  Fuck.  We had blown it.  The cops came, shut us down, party ended early.  That Monday, the letter came telling us we were meeting with the housing administrator to discus the party, the damage, and our futures as residents at college.  We thought we were done.  I thought I was losing a freaking scholarship.  Rebellion had backfired.

So the meeting came, and we all dressed in our best unwashed shitty college kid clothes and went to see the housing administrator, a lady in her mid-30's who immediately threw us for a loop.

"Now boys, you know the school policy is that you cannot have a band play at a party."

"Yes, we do."

"And you know that what you did was dangerous, and your friend could have got seriously hurt.  This is entirely unsatisfactory."

"Yes...we're sorry."

"Well, you're going to have to pay for the window.  And I'm going to have to ask that you please don't have any more bands play your parties and that you keep it down in the future."

Stunned silence for about 10 seconds.  Is THAT it?  We looked at each other.  I think one of us managed an "Okay" or "Yes, ma'am", or "We've learned our lesson" or something equally mundane. The window cost about as much to replace as 1.5 future parties.  Hell, the band even chipped in by refusing their cut for that night.  So we took one party "off" and didn't have a band, and made enough cash to subsidize another one.  A month after that, we proved we hadn't learned our lesson - or simply decided to say "fuck you" to the administration - and brought the band back.

We were back in business.  And housing didn't seem to mind.

It's good that some people recognize rebellion is part of growing up.  So, for old time's sake.  Do you feel alright?

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I sit here, this evening, a convert.

I converted.

But not how you might think.

Yesterday, seeking a break in my daily grind I proceeded to the gym for a workout.  It looked like a pretty hard core workout and I was looking forward to it, as it had two of my favorite exercises - power cleans and kettlebell swings.  So, like a good cross-fitter I scaled it to my ability - dropped the swing weight to 35 lbs (about 1 pood) and the clean weight to about 80 lbs and reduced the jump height to about 15" and only planned 5 rounds instead of 7.  Cuz I'm older, still fairly new to cross-fit and knew I'd be working up a good sweat but didn't want to hurt myself.  You know, throw out my back, blow a knee, that sort of thing.

I never thought I'd throw my ticker out of whack.

I got into a good groove - I was pushing myself hard, and getting enough rest between sets, so I thought.  Going into my last circuit, I decide "Fuck it - I'm going to push it HARD".  So I finish up my last round of swings and all of a sudden my sternum feels like someone firmly tapped it with a rubber mallet.  I can feel my heart beating hard and a weird reverberation at the bottom of my esophagus.  I get a little dizzy, and I know that that's it.  I am done with this workout.  So I calmly put everything away, ignoring how wobbly I am because I know that if I just cease activity and rest my heart will calm down.

After I put the gear away I go sit on a bench and try to take my pulse.  It's freakin' funny.  Not getting a very strong one, but fast.  I'm getting several fast beats, a pause, and then two or three quick, arrhythmic beats.  Here's where the tiny voice says, "Dude, this isn't right.  Maybe you should go to the front desk and see if they can call someone from the clinic to come down and check you out." But the big, stupid voice said, "Look, you're breathing okay, you're not in pain, just clean up, go back to your cubicle, hydrate, and you'll be good."  So I listen to the stupid voice.

Indicator #1 that I might be wrong is when I step in the shower and get dizzy again.  I ignore it.

So I get back to the office and the Executive Assistant for my group reminds me that one of my wonderful "staff tasks" is "pre-due" today.  Pre-due means the boss needs to look at it two days before it is due so that when it is coming up for approval when it is due then the approval will be expedited.  We all know what that is.  An artificial due date before the due date that adds pressure to you to get the job done faster, and makes you give less time to those who you need to delegate parts of the task to.  In all fairness our office handles it pretty well; the product is not expected to be polished, just a "show me what it looks like as is" that can be reviewed at leisure in the two days before formal approval starts.  And in this case the job was almost done anyway so it was fairly easy to gather everything together and get it ready.  Indicator #2 came when I got up to go to the printer and got dizzy again.  That's when I said as soon as I finish this I'm going down a floor and walking in to acute care.

Indicator #3 came when I had to get to the printer again.  FUCK. THIS.  I stapled everything together, handed it to the person in the cubicle next to me and said "I really feel like shit.  I need to get to the clinic.  When you hear about such-and-such being due today, this is it.  Could you please give it to so-and-so?" She said yes; we are assigned as back-ups to each other on most of our work, so it's common place.

Let the fun begin.  I walk down to the clinic, walk in, take my number, think "screw filling out the form" and walk right up to the civilian receptionist.  She's doing something besides looking at me so I lean over and say "I took a number but I don't care.  My heart is racing and beating funny and I almost passed out twice. I need to see someone now."

She looks at me and says, "I'm sorry, do you need to see someone?"

"Yes.  My heart is in arrhythmia and I have almost fainted."

"Sir, did you say you feel like you are going to pass out?"

"Yes, ma'am. I need to see someone please." (My inner monologue: "I FUCKING TOLD YOU TWICE! CALL FUCKING TRIAGE YOU DUMB FUCK!!!") In all fairness, they are quite an overwhelmed staff most of the times.  20,000+ people working in the building, too small a staff to handle it all...but I was in no mood.  Things seemed screwed up and I was getting scared.

So the nice nurse comes out, I explain to her what is happening and she asks "Do you want a wheel chair?"


"Sir, look at you, look at me.  If you fall, how am I going to get you where I need to get you?"

"I ain't going to fall.  I walked down here from the second floor, I can make it another 50 feet."  Stupid, but I made it.

So they hook me up to the EKG, take my vitals and yeah, things are screwy.  Heart rate is 170, in a-fib, BP 150/113, talking amongst themselves.  Doctor comes in, looks at it.

"Are you feeling any pain?"

"Nope.  No pain in my left shoulder area, no numbness in my left arm, I can breathe fine."  And believe me, I'm constantly thinking about this..."Hey I'm 42, I work out, okay I haven't been eating as well as I could be in the last month or so, but come on! This can't be happening."

Cardiologist confirms I'm a-fib, I get a couple of doses of beta blockers, and that gets my HR down to about 85-100 within 90 minutes. The staff starts looking more relieved around me, and talking like things are going to be okay. "Sir, you're heart rate is down, which is good. That's the primary danger.  But you're still in arrhythmia, and we need your heart rate to 'convert' back to a normal, sinus rhythm. Now we can keep you here until that happens on its own, but with the weekend coming up we want to make sure you aren't in any danger, so we're sending you to the ER."

Great, that's encouraging.

An hour or so later I've been in the ER, they've taken blood for all sorts of lab work, done a chest X-Ray and everything is clean.  No heart damage, no thyroid issues, no blockages.  A seemingly perfectly healthy heart in a-fib. Hey that's great, except it's fucking uncomfortable and what the heck are you going to do about that?

Doc informs me that they'll keep me overnight and see if I convert by morning. If not, they'll stick an endoscope down my esophagus to ensure there is no blockage, and then they'll perform a conversion by sedating me and giving a low-level shock to my heart to unfuck the rhythm.  Kind of like a defibrillator but without the huge jolt.

Great, that's encouraging.

I think the doc notices this on my face and assures me that my current condition is not life-threatening and neither is the procedure.  By now I've talked with my wife a couple of times and the big question is should she come down from Rhode Island?  After many discussions involving dozens of variables we decide to wait until early morning to decide.  If I haven't converted and want her to be here, she'd hop a flight. Until then, the best place was for her to be with the kids.

Why? Because this is not a big problem. I'm not in the ICU, the doc was very thorough in explaining what was going on (and believe me, I make them explain everything - the mechanisms at work in the body, the risks, everything.  If they charge every time they talk to me as a consult, then I am going to get my fucking information!).  I wasn't in any danger and I had come to trust the doctor so that I didn't believe he'd do anything risky to rid me of a low-risk condition, the reason part of my brain said "Hey, this is going to be an annoying 12-16 hours and then I'll go back to my room." Also, I could feel that the a-fib was slowing down.  The events were fewer and farther between.  I was pretty confident I was trending toward normal on my own and I'd convert before morning.

However, that wasn't guaranteed.  And even though the risk in the "procedure" is miniscule it is still there.  And it doesn't depend on how much good luck you've had in your life, or you being due to catch a break, or some being who may be looking out for you or deciding to turn a blind eye at that moment.  It is sheer, unadulterated probability based on a number of factors.  And if you fall within that small probability, then that risk gets bigger.  Much bigger. So the question in my mind as I went to sleep - and it was really bugging me - was:

"Even though it is a very, very small risk, am I willing to accept that the last conversation or contact I have with my wife may be over the phone?" Really.  I think when the lights go out, they go out.  No afterlife, no nothing.  The last contact with anyone I truly valued possibly being a phone call.  In hindsight it seems silly, but in the moment it was a point to ponder.  If I have the option to be with someone I loved in the moments before I could lose everything - even if the risk of doing so was so small - should I take it?

I wake up at 3 am, because I can't sleep and I need to "go" and can still feel the occasional fibrillation.  Great.

At 5 am I was awakened by a knock and the nurse coming in to check my vitals. "Good news, our monitor shows your heart rate has converted to a normal sinus rhythm.  As soon as our EKG techs can confirm that, you'll be able to leave."

Relief. Text my wife. Relief.

Realization that working here in DC while the wife and kids live 500 miles away SUCKS ASS. Things like this that don't entail serious risk but still benefit greatly from being able to be together suddenly become huge problems.  Being a "geographic bachelor" could be the dumbest thing I've done in my 20+ year career.

Realization that damned near everything in life is a risk-decision.  The decision to bump the intensity up just a little harder.  The decision that something is happening but I'll "wait awhile and see what happens". The decision that it's too close to the weekend to just let you go without being sure. The decision that based on science and reason I'm going to be okay and I'm willing to accept that this is almost certainly not going to be the last time we talk, so just stay put.

And, strangely, I'm good with that.  The only things I'm going to do differently are not "wait and see what happens" when I know something is really not right and, as part of that, not wait to tell my family when shit does happen, just in case it does happen to be serious.

Postscript: It turns out that, as I mentioned, I am fine.  Of all the reasons a-fib could happen, this was "it just happened".  I'm clear to resume my life.  The doc recommended that, even though I'm healthy now, I get a stress test given that my family has a history of heart disease.  Every indication is that it will be fine, but I should do it.  So that is the next step.

Oh, and there is a third thing I'm going to do differently - make them shave the spots where they attach the electrodes.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Answering the Questions that Affect Us All: Obscure Midwest Rock Bands

Research Question: What’s up with late-70’s / early-80’s obscure rock bands from the Midwest?

Thesis: Obscure and moderately successful Mid-western rock bands from the late 70’s and 80’s rock for a variety of reasons.

Case 1: Head East, “Never Been Any Reason” (1978).
What it’s got going for it:

1. Lots of cowbell, including a cowbell solo.
2. A key-tar solo.
3. Two vocalists trading off with some killer dude-harmonizing in a proto-Bruce Dickinson sort of way.
4. Drug reference from a time when drugs were cool, and even the kids who didn’t do drugs (like yours truly) pretended they did.
5. A damned catchy guitar riff.
6. A badass fucking pancake on the record jacket.
7. I was living in the Midwest at the time and rocked out to them.

What it’s got going against it:

1. A second key-tar solo.
2. Some lyrical non-sequiturs that make it seem as if my seven year old came up with a verse or two.  Case in point: “You’ve been talking in circles / since I’ve been able to cry / there’s never been any reason / for never telling me why”.  Apparently there’s never been any reason to make sense, either.

Overall Score: 3.5 Kumatoes

Case 2: Michael Stanley Band, “He Can’t Love You”, (1980)

What it’s got going for it:

1. Butt-cuts, mullets and skinny ties.
2. A damned catchy guitar riff.
3. Percussive keyboards that accompany the guitar well.
4. Two saxophone solos buy a guy who could probably kick Kenny G’s ass.
5. Sexy 80’s nurses in the video.
6. A message that spoke to a pre-teen living in the Midwest who had a crush on a girl who liked someone else.

What it’s got going against it:

1. 80’s beard combined with a butt-cut.
2. Designer jeans and white platform shoes.
3. A basist who looks like a car-bomber.
4. No key-tar.
5. He “almost made Cleveland famous” for which he should be held accountable at the ICC.

Overall Score: 15 kegelcisors and a Garbage Plate

Conclusion: While analyzing every obscure to moderately successful rock band that emerged from the Midwest in the 1980’s is outside the scope of this brief paper, the above two examples may indicate that despite sometimes numerous and serious flaws in instrument choice, lyrical talent and grooming, these bands can still rock based upon individual appeal.

Areas for further study:

1. While over-application of a key-tar may have a detracting effect, the lack of a key-tar is perceived as universally negative among the sample.  How can an obscure Midwest late-70’s / early-80’s band employ a key-tar and achieve strictly positive results?

2. A comparison of food imagery vs. health care professional imagery in providing visual stimulation to enhance musical enjoyment.

3. Shooting Star as a candidate for the best obscure late-70’s / early-80’s rock band ever to emerge from the Midwest, and an accurate representative overall score.

Edit: Seems to be a theme running around about musical tastes. Check out Randal and one of Randal's regulars whose site I just decided to check out.