Categories
Musing

The Sixth Stage of Grief

1. Denial and Isolation

I was too young. That’s what kept running through my head. I had locked myself in my bedroom and was crying into my pillow. He had been my best friend. But… Maybe my parents were wrong. Maybe the doctor had gotten it wrong. Maybe George was just playing a prank. He wasn’t really gone, that’s it, they were all wrong.

What sort of world takes away the best friend of a ten year old boy, my best friend? For that matter, what sort of world takes away a ten year old boy? No, this couldn’t be real. Someone got it wrong, and any minute now I’d hear the phone ring as someone called us to tell us about the mistake.

This wasn’t reality. This wasn’t my reality.

2. Anger

My mom was in the hospital and I had come to realize she likely wasn’t to come back out. I sat at a stop light, behind the wheel of my car on a March morning in Florida. In that moment I was overcome with a blinding rage. A rage I hadn’t ever experienced, and have yet to ever experience again. I unleashed a guttural cry of anguish, the sort you see in movies, and I started slamming my hands into the steering wheel. And then the light turned green.

I took my foot off the brake and rolled forward, forcing myself to take some gulps of air and wiping the tears from my eyes as I pulled into a gas station and let the anger roll over me.

3. Bargaining

I sat in an empty meeting room at work. I stared at the beige walls and I tried to figure out what deal I could make with God.

When my mom was in Houston, undergoing her bone marrow transplant, there were several nights where I talked to God. I begged him to make it work. To cure her. To bring her back to me. And then she did come back, recovering from her bone marrow transplant for several months until a fateful day when we discovered she had a fever, which led us to take her to the hospital.

This week I sat in that office room and tried to understand if I could do anything. If there was anything I could do, I would do it. I asked God if there was anything I could do to extend the time I had my grandmother on this planet.

4. Depression

It had been a few weeks since he died. I didn’t understand what I was going through at the time. Few people do even as they get older, much less a child. A family from my church offered to take me to Disney World with them. Josh was a boy near my age, we weren’t really close but we were friendly.

A trip to Disney still held the essence of Magic that Walt worked so hard to create and cultivate. Looking back, it was a critical chance for me to remember what being a kid was. At the time, it was exciting not only because of going to Disney but also because I would get to miss school and that was a really big deal.

I remember riding the Tower of Terror, watching Indiana Jones, and going on Star Tours. And in that one day, I was reminded what it was to be a kid. Yanked back from the precipice of adulthood through depression to reclaim a few more years of adolescence and joy.

George was gone, and I had struggled to come to terms with it.

5. Acceptance

“Sure dad, one sec.” I stepped away from my desk and closed the door to the empty meeting room. “Alright dad, what’s up.” I knew why he was calling, but I asked hoping for a different answer. Grandma was dead. I knew that was why he was calling.

And despite hearing the words from his mouth, I was calm. This is what grandma wanted, with her strict “Do Not Resuscitate” order. I sat in that room for a few minutes just waiting for something, anything, to wash over me. It was the same room I had negotiated with God just a few days ago. I waited for sadness, tears, anything. All that I found was acceptance.

Eventually I left the room and returned to my desk. Mike, my editor knew what was going on and he asked if I was okay. When I told him that she was gone, he did something which was exactly what I needed: a hand on the shoulder and an offer to talk if I needed.

6. Living

Death is a part of life. Every time I deal with someone passing, I have to remember what it is to live. Friday night Katie and I put out an email to our group of friends seeking plans for the evening. One couple, then two, then three, all confirmed and dinner plans were made.

At dinner we talked and laughed. We told stories and enjoyed conversations with each other. They all knew my grandmother had died, and they each did a fantastic job of reminding me what happiness and life is.

The five stages of grief are the journey through the underworld of sadness, and it is life which we break out to.

Categories
Life

My Winter Holiday Plans

One of the perks of working at Wizards is the fact that the company closes down between Christmas and New Years Day. I’m putting some vacation to use and as such I am off work until I return to the office on January 2, 2014. Since Katie and I aren’t travelling I’ve put together a starting list of things I am going to do during the break.

Box Up Unused Clothes – The truth is, I wear a fairly slim section of my closet. So I plan to box up clothes which I didn’t wear at all in 2013. Some of them haven’t been worn because I can’t fit into them, others because I no longer want them. So they need to be boxed up and either donated or stored in the garage.

Chores – There are some chores which have built up. Need a good cleaning around the house.

Wedding Website for a Friend – My go-to wedding gift for friends and family is to give them a wedding website. I am working on a website for a friend and so I need to work on it over the holiday.

Learn to Develop Android Apps – I love my Nexus 7 tablet and I have a handful of app ideas. So I’m going to learn how to develop for Android (which is based in Java.)

Exercise – With so much time when I’m not in the office I am making sure I get to the gym here in the apartment complex and exercising. Today’s workout was jumping rope and walking on the treadmill!

Reading – I have built up a small pile of eBooks I’ve been eager to read. I’m aiming to read these five books over the break:

The schedule and plan are still coming together as to how this plan will happen but I’m super eager to enjoy these days off and dive into all these projects for the next two weeks! We’ve also got some plans to get together with friends so that will also have to play into the plans.

Header image taken from Flickr user Sebastien Dooris and is Creative Commons licensed.

Categories
Life

Vacation Part 5 – Sickness and the Giant’s Causeway

When we got back to our hotel room we collapsed for the night and slept. We slept the sleep of the dead. Between our bodies still adjusting to European time and what we would soon learn was illness, the day’s tour proved utterly exhausting and our beds infinitely comforting.

When the alarm went off the next morning Katie and I had a half-mumbled conversation where we unanimously agreed to keep sleeping and reschedule the tour for the next day. So for a few hours more the city of Dublin passed us by while we slept. It was only as we awoke that we discovered that our bodies had been at war during the night, that a vicious flu of sorts had laid siege and broken through our defenses. While my flu was bad, it was Katie’s which proved far worse.

Bless Katie’s heart, she spent the vast majority of our time in Ireland, in the hotel resting. All of Tuesday was spent resting. We stayed in bed, watching TV and playing on our tablets or computers. Between my travel supply of Sudafed and rolls of toilet paper, we battled our stuffy noses.

Eventually the the day was over and the sun had set, we curled up and passed out again. During the day I had called the tour company and gotten our tour rescheduled for the next day, hoping we would feel healthy enough to take it.

Even though I was stuffy, I didn’t really feel sick. I didn’t have the aches, I wasn’t exhausted – so, when the time came to wake up for the tour, I did and determined I felt good enough to go. Reluctantly, I woke Katie up to see how she was. I knew what the answer would be, but I didn’t want to risk being wrong and have her feel up to the tour and miss it. As expected, she didn’t feel well, so she opted to rest. She was also extremely forceful in telling me that if I felt up to, I must take the tour and take lots of pictures to share with her.

So I got up and got dressed, and again caught a cab. This time the cabbie was quite talkative and charged me roughly half what the other guy did (thus confirming my suspicion we had been taken advantage of the first morning.)

During the ride he asked where I was going and I told him that I was going to see the Giant’s Causeway. To which he told me how he had grown up in Dublin and had never been to Northern Ireland.

mirelandNow, I need to admit something. Before this trip I had a very very scant understanding of the issues between Ireland and Northern Ireland. All I knew was that there was the IRA in the 80s. As far as I knew up to a week ago, the island of Ireland was entirely the same country. That is not true. Northern Ireland is technically part of the UK, they don’t use the Euro, they use the Pound Sterling. The political tension has eased a great deal in the recent decades but it’s clear that it’s an issue not too different from the old feelings which still pop up about the “South” versus America during our civil war.

So, the cabbie pulls up to the Tourism office and again I’m early. This time though I’m so early there is literally no one else there. The cabbie is clearly questioning whether I’m in the right place, but I insist I am as I pay him.

The truth is, I really considered climbing back into the cab and going back to the hotel. I’m tired, it’s cold, my nose is dripping, and as the minutes tick by with me sitting by myself on the stone steps I begin to worry. Did the tour company forget to tell me the pick up location had changed? Was the person on the phone wrong to tell me I was okay to come, was there actually no tour today?

I did my best to control my anxiety as I waited. And for that I was rewarded as eventually people began showing up. Soon enough the bus pulled up and I hopped on board, finding a window seat and promptly passing out. Again we had a long day’s drive ahead of us as we crossed more of Ireland, this time heading north.

Unlike Mike, Robbie was a man in his fifties and he was still fairly new to the tour bus driver business having done it for less than a year. He didn’t have the personality of Mike, instead opting for a more down-to-earth approach with a fairly constant patter of facts during the tour. After a gas station stop for breakfast (well, for me I stocked up on tissues, OJ, and a few snacks) we headed into Northern Ireland. The driver, Robbie, did a good job of setting the stage and explaining some of the political background to it all.

Our next stop was a small fishing village on the northern coast. Here we were again just stretching our legs, but the stop was next to a nice little marina for a half-dozen boats as well as a pier. Since it was still early I got a few nice shots and this one is another of my favorites.

From there we loaded up and our driver gave us the bad news. Part of today’s tour was supposed to be a rope bridge which had existed (and been updated) for hundreds of years to connect an island to Ireland. Unfortunately due to the day’s windy conditions it was closed so we weren’t going to be able to stop there. This time we stopped for lunch before the tour’s main attraction, lunch was again a fairly simple affair. We stopped at a restaurant which has to be almost wholly supported by tour groups, they had wifi and the food was good.

Next up, the main attraction: The Giant’s Causeway.

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There’s a legend about the Giant’s Causeway as being the battleground between an Irish giant “Fionn mac Cumhaill.” He was also known as Finn MacCool, and he built the causeway as a place to battle a Scottish giant named Benandonner. When Benandonner came ashore, Finn ran and hid with his wife, having her dress him in baby clothes. Benandonner came looking for him and he saw a giant in baby clothes and exclaimed “If that’s the baby, I’m not waiting to meet the father!” He ran off, destroying the causeway so that Finn could not easily pursue him.

Standing among the stones, I don’t find this story hard to believe.

The stones seem otherworldly, formed by some alien or supernatural force, appearing as if they were formed on purpose into the hexagonal columns. The weather as I was there began to turn so I made the most of my time, snapping photos and hiking a bit past the main area to try and get some other shots. After getting as far as I dared I made my way back and sure enough as soon as I neared the bus pick-up the rains began sprinkling. I let the brief shower blow over and I huddled next to a rock formation to find this unique tradition: coins in the cracks.

After re-boarding the bus there was only one more notable stop on our day’s tour and that is the capital of Northern Ireland: Belfast. I didn’t honestly see much of Belfast. I was tired and I wanted to ensure that I didn’t get lost in the foreign city so I hung close to the drop-off spot and snapped only a few photos of the capital before finding a coffee shop with wifi and hot chocolate to pass the time. I relaxed in the shop and enjoyed my warm drink as I surfed the web and posted on social media.

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Eventually the time came to return to the bus, and at that point I was exhausted and yet completely fulfilled. I had seen two life-goal destinations on this trip and it was time to turn my focus to work. I spent the bus ride home staring out the window and enjoying the landscape as we rolled back to Dublin from Belfast.

This final post in the series is long overdue. For whatever reason I lost momentum in my posts and this one languished as a draft. Ireland was a wonderful trip, and is a country I will eagerly look forward to visiting again and again.

Categories
Travel

Vacation Part 4 – Mike Murphy and the Cliffs of Moher

The alarm on my phone rang at 5:30am and I immediately reached over to turn it off. It turns out I had already been up for a few hours. It would take a few extra days for my sleep schedule to get on track, initially my internal clock was somewhere in Eastern Europe rather than Ireland.

We called a cab and headed for the tourist office. Our walk the previous night had proved that unless we wanted to start walking around five in the morning, a cab was needed to get to the tour departure point. Our cabby wasn’t very talkative, he just drove us and overcharged for the trip but I was too tired to realize it at the time.

As we climb out of the cab we look around and realize… there aren’t many people there. We were early. As it turns out, I had confused departure times for the tour so we had arrived at the pickup spot roughly an hour early. Oops. Sorry honey.

The Dublin Tourism Office is the pickup spot for a number of tours by various companies to a number of different destinations around Ireland. Eventually our bus rolled up and the driver popped out to proclaim “Extreme Ireland! Cliffs of Moher!” And so we got on the bus, excited for our day. Once the bus was loaded he closed the tour bus door and off we went.

Lots of people were dozing so Mike, our tour guide, didn’t talk a great deal but he did some initial introductions before winding down and letting people doze during these wee hours of the day.

“I’m Mike Murphy, some people think that’s a fake name but it isn’t. It’s really mine.” Mike seemed to be in his late thirties and over the course of the day shared many stories with us. He grew up in Wexford, or “Wexico,” as apparently it is jokingly referred to. He comes from a family of farmers and he grew up working the farm as the youngest of a large Irish family.

Mike was fun tour guide but he did have a habit of telling a joke and then telling it again a few minutes later. I’m not sure whether it was part of his charming host personality or if he genuinely forgot he had already told the joke but it was something I remembered.

The tour was an all day thing, we got on the road around 7 a.m. and didn’t return to Dublin until 8 p.m. The bus took us across Ireland the country to the west coast. Along the way we stopped a few times, first was just at a gas station which had some food options and was a chance to stretch our legs. Next was a stretch and sightseeing stop in Limerick.

During the short stop in Limerick we saw King John’s castle from across the river, but we didn’t get close to it.

King John Castle

After that, it was time for the Cliffs. Words can’t do the the Cliffs justice. As it turns out, the Cliffs aren’t the highest cliffs in Ireland, those are elsewhere. The Cliffs of Moher are the longest high cliffs in Ireland, they run nearly 8km which is what leads to the spectacular vistas such as the top photo on this post.

I walked a fair ways along the Cliffs while Katie opted to stay back and not keep going. There is a walking path which extends beyond the official Cliffs of Moher site. When you reach the end of the official area they make it very clear that it is dangerous due to the winds on the cliffs, people die every year because they are stupid. I ventured as near the cliff’s edge as I dared, roughly a foot or so from the edge trying to get some awesome photos. Disclaimer: I’m an amateur photographer using a professional grade camera. I did the best I could.

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Eventually, I turned back to go find Katie before it was time for the tour to depart to grab lunch. Up to then the weather had really held out. As it turns out we were treated to some fairly wonderful weather during our time in Ireland, while on the chilly side it was far from unpleasant and, for the most part, the rain held off.

We ate at a brasserie style pub where I ordered my requisite Guinness and enjoyed a true Irish meal.

Let’s talk for a moment about me and beer. I am, on the whole, not a beer fan. I believe I have an allergy to beer, my throat feels like it closes up after just one or two drinks. It’s not like I have trouble breathing, but between not really liking the taste and that feeling in my throat – I’m not exactly driven to drink beer. Normally when I do try to drink beerh, I stay far away from dark beers, so Guinness is quite an unusual drink for me. Perhaps my allergy would abate if I drank more beer but I’m not planning to work on it with any great vigor, I’ll keep to my Scotch which affects me far less.

1383658_10100666454950859_1807728656_nExcept while in Ireland, where I felt obligated to order a pint of Guinness. As it turned out, I was able to get about three quarters through it before calling it quits. I’ll consider that a win.

After lunch, while everyone else was finishing eating, I snapped a few photos from the town outside before we loaded up again. Our next stop was to visit a unique piece of terrain called a karst. Karsts form by the dissolution of stone by water. It was just as we began approaching the karst that the weather changed and the rain clouds rolled in. At the moment the doors opened it was dry but there was no telling how long it would last, so I raced off to snap pictures.

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Apparently the day before a fisherman was swept out to sea at the karst. The Irish Coast Guard were there monitoring and I assume watching for any sign of him. I was up on the karst plateau snapping photos when I looked out to the water and realized that the rain was getting very close to us. So I began snapping photos like a mad man before dashing for the bus.

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Once we rolled away from the karst we visited the Corcomroe Abbey. It was built in 1182. The abbey was commissioned by the Irish King Conor nu Siudane Ua Brian, who is also buried there. Legend goes that he executed the five masons who built the abbey to prevent them from creating a competing masterpiece.

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The above photo is one of my favorite from this trip. I had run ahead of the tour group so I could get into the area before the others and was able to get this wonderful shot.

After we visited the abbey it was time to turn back and begin the ride home. We all settled back into the bus for the long ride, pretty much the entire bus dozing off during the ride at one point or another.

We had a great time on the tour, once we got back to Dublin we grabbed a cab back to the hotel, ordered dinner, and settled in for the night.

Something that I never really considered, and eventually learned, is the fact that there are people in Ireland who have lived there their whole lives and who have never seen the Cliffs of Moher, or the Giant’s Causeway for that matter. It is silly but I had assumed it was just one of those things that everyone in Ireland would have seen. But as I thought about it I realized it’s like anything else – there were major landmarks in Florida I never saw despite living there the vast majority of my life.

I am so thankful to have seen those cliffs, and barring them falling into the sea – I will eagerly look forward to seeing them again in my next visit to Ireland.

Next time: I talk about getting sick in Ireland and the Giant’s Causeway.

Categories
Travel

Vacation Part 3 – Getting to Ireland

(Be sure to check out both part 1 and part 2 if you haven’t read them yet.)

So the reason for our trip to Ireland was that we could piggyback our vacation onto the Magic Pro Tour Theros event. It was taking place in Dublin, Ireland, and it happened to be taking place the day after my third anniversary. So it seemed like a great idea to turn this into a vacation for both me and for Katie.

I’ve only been to Europe a handful of times and of those times I’ve never been to the UK or to Ireland. Katie had been to Ireland once before but it had been a long time and there was plenty she didn’t do. So, together we headed for Ireland.

Unlike our flight in, thankfully the flight out of Jacksonville went perfectly fine. It was another small plane again but it was empty enough that we had space and we were able to catch a few Z’s before arriving in Dulles.

I’m someone who checks in pretty regularly on Facebook while I travel. It’s good for posterity, government tracking, and letting my friends and family know where we are and that we are safe. So, when I checked in at Dulles, I got an excited message from Allison, a friend of ours, from Orlando. Allison was on her way to Dulles for her own flight to LAX on her way to Australia for the next leg of Beyoncé’s tour. Allison is a light rigger and currently on tour with Beyoncé.

Because I didn’t adequately examine our flight schedule, I didn’t realize Katie and I had a five hour layover in Dulles. A mistake I won’t make again for a while. However this extra time proved excellent because it allowed us to catch up with Allison.

Allison & Katie

Left: our friend Allison. Right: My wife Katie

A brief aside about Alison: When Katie and I were moving away from Orlando Allison stopped by to see us on our last night before leaving. We were taking a break from packing. She brought us some cookies and a mix CD for the road. That CD is one of the the few CDs that is still in the car, we break it out whenever we have a sizeable drive ahead of us. The cookies? They didn’t last nearly as long.

A brief aside about Dulles: I’m not a big fan of Dulles. In fact I’m not a big fan of any east coast hub airport except Chicago. I don’t like Newark, Dulles, or even Atlanta.

One of the things I dislike about Dulles is that if you have to walk from one end to the other, it feels like miles. So for example, if we have to go from one end to the other to meet a friend, it can be quite tiring to wade against the current while carrying carry-ons. But for Allison it was most certainly worth it. I just don’t like Dulles.

The Large-Hadron Collider built in Dulles airport.

The Large-Hadron collider built inside the Dulles airport.

So we met up with her in the terminal and grabbed a bite to eat. She caught us up on her life, told us why she was carrying a bagpipe (it was small and in its case, in fact I didn’t even see it – she might have been lying.) But she also told us about her trip to Ireland and the tour she had taken.

She booked through a site called Viator. Basically it’s a central website for booking tours while traveling rather than having to book it through random questionably trustworthy websites. During her trip to Ireland she said she was a big fan of the Cliffs of Moher tour, with that word of support we decided we would do take it too.

Eventually Allison had to leave for her flight to LAX. We bid her farewell and snapped a goodbye photo. However it was not a simple event for her either. As she discovered, her plane had technical problems and there was no other way for her to get to LAX to catch the same connection to Australia. So she was forced to spend another day in DC so she could fly the next day. So we got to see her again as she left the airport, but that was again in passing.

We had such a great time visiting with Allison that I’ve resolved to always accept opportunities for airport meetups on coinciding layovers. They are wonderful chances to catch up and just generally awesome.

Once we sent Allison off for the second time, Katie and I continued the never-ending layover. I explored Viator and eventually booked reservations to the Cliffs of Moher as well as the one to the Giants Causeway.

Now, I am not normally one to take part in large group tours. Normally they’re disappointing, over costed, and generally sub par experiences. But I decided to do these for a few reasons. The largest of which is that I didn’t want to rent a car, and since both of these venues were far from Dublin, this made good sense.

Eventually our layover ended and we were allowed to board for Ireland. As with most flights from the US to Europe they set it up so we would fly overnight and arrive in the morning. The flight went fine, I slept fitfully some though it wasn’t a lot. I did a fair bit of reading, finishing Alexis Ohanian’s Without Their Permission. Dublin airport was nice, the airport was fairly empty as we arrived. We went through customs and were welcomed to the emerald isle.

After collecting our luggage we found a cab and off we went to the hotel. The cabbie, Declan, was entertaining and told us quite a bit as we drove. He drove a Mercedes and was retired, now just being a cabbie to make some extra money.

Declan the cabbie

His name was Declan, officially the most Irish of names ever created.

We got to the hotel too early to check in so we dropped our bags off and, half asleep, went down to the hotel restaurant to eat lunch. We were bone tired but we needed to stay up most of the day to help get our sleep schedules on track. The secret to adjusting your time zone is to force yourself to be exhausted at the new timezone’s sleep time. I know of a friend who will stand for hours on end to avoid risking falling asleep while sitting somewhere.

After eating and sitting for a little while we got into our room. We took a quick nap and then rested and relaxed watching TV before deciding to head down to the Dublin Tourist Office to scout where we were meeting the tour in the morning. Based on Google Maps it was just 3.3 kilometers (roughly two miles), so we decided to get some exercise and walk down to check it out. We walked by the Royal Dublin Society, which would be the event venue later that week and then walked by a few embassies including the US Embassy. Eventually we found the spot, it was a corner outside a very old stonework building and near Trinity College.

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Our hotel was a converted boy’s school from the 1800s.

We found the spot and realized that walking it was not a reasonable plan in the morning. If we were meeting them around 6:30 then we would need to wake up early enough to allow us to get ready for the day and walk down there. So we decided to cab it the next morning.

As it would turn out, whether it was from timezone confusion or just excitement at the tours, I wouldn’t sleep much that night.

Next time: the Cliffs of Moher and a few other sites we saw.

Categories
Travel

Vacation Part 2 – Georgia

(Be sure to start with part one if you haven’t read it already.)

After the excitement in Jacksonville it was time to travel to a sedate, rural, tiny town in southeast Georgia.

The first stage was a trip to see my grandmother and spend a few quality days with her in the small town of Nahunta. I’ve had ancestors in or around Nahunta for centuries. My great grandfather, James M. Ammons, had a farm in southeast Georgia not too far from where grandma lives now. The family was farming folk through and through. Grandma recalled the one time her family had tried to grow a cash crop: cotton. They grew it, picked it, bagged, and stored it waiting for the buyer to come around. She said it was hard backbreaking work and that she hated every minute of it. Unfortunately for the family there was a leak in the shed and the cotton got moldy before they were able to sell it, ruining its value. They never tried a cash crop again. From her stories it sounds like my great grandfather was an opportunist farmer, he didn’t have any singular crop he grew, he just farmed to support his family and coincidentally make some money.

My grandma, Betty, was the youngest of eleven kids and today she is the last one living. I only have clear memories of two of her siblings: Aunt Hazel and Uncle R.L. Uncle R.L. was the closest thing I had to a grandfather for much of my life, but it wasn’t an especially close relationship. Aunt Hazel was nice enough but was not someone I bonded with when seeing her, she had a tiny chihuahua dog named Sugar that she took everywhere.

Grandma

Before Katie and I moved to Seattle we would have grandma ride the train down to Orlando three or four times a year so she could stay with us for a week or so. I loved spending time with her and just having her around. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to do that was a serious factor for me to consider when deciding whether to move across the country or not.

Grandma was born on Oct. 6, 1930. She was the salutatorian of her 36-member graduating class. She claims she was robbed of being the valedictorian due to school politics. She grew up not far from where she lives now, though she spent a number of years living in Tampa, FL before returning to Georgia in the early nineties. This year she turned 83 and still lives on her own and drives herself where she needs to go. She loves gardening and is, aside from Katie, the most important woman in my life.

One of my fondest memories growing up was spending weeks with her during my summer breaks. The parents would drive up and she would drive down, we’d meet up at I’d be handed off at a central-ish spot to back home with her. I’d spend maybe a week or two with her, seeing my cousins and extended family. Everyone in town calls her “Ant Betty” (misspelled for pronunciation.) In many ways I think of those times as a sort of summer camp for one. I spent a lot of time outside. I shot air rifles, rode dirt bikes, played games. While also watching some TV (lots of The Price is Right) and reading books. All while spending time with my grandma.

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Since I’ve grown up, I’ve driven through Nahunta a number of times while going from Orlando to Atlanta. I would stop to pick up grandma on the way but I hadn’t spent any real time there in almost twenty years.

Nahunta, in my memory, is a speck of a town and while the town has grown some – it is still quite small. According to the 2000 census, it had less than 1,000 people living in the town. It is the small town you might see on television. The economy is low with many jobs coming from lumber, the egg plant (putting eggs into cartons) or farming. I remember grandma telling us about when they got their second stop light in the county, it was a big deal. Now though the town has grown. Now there is a Dairy Queen within walking distance of grandma’s house. That isn’t to say it has seen a lot of growth, just some growth. The library is in the same building as it was in my childhood. The houses remain unchanged and mostly trailers. The roads are mostly unchanged, some got paved, some remain dirt. As it turns out it hadn’t changed too much, just bits and pieces.

When I told grandma that we were coming to visit she was excited. She suggested we could stay at the local hotel: the Knox Hotel, which as it turns out is the only hotel in town. The next nearest town with a hotel was Waynesville, an only slightly larger metropolitan area, and yes – the use of metropolitan here is completely ironic and sarcastic.

The Knox Hotel doesn’t have a website. It isn’t staffed 24 hours a day. In fact they don’t take credit card. When I called to see about booking our room they took my name and the dates of our stay and said they’d see us there. The woman said it all in a syrupy southern drawl that tugged at heartstrings as I hadn’t heard a voice like that in a while.

We had some trepidation about the hotel leading up to the visit. We had no idea what to expect and in the absence of information we imagined all the worst case scenarios. As it turns out, the Knox Hotel was quite nice, though perhaps a bit quirky. For example, the first night there we had to contend with a number of trains rumbling down the tracks right behind our hotel. The beds were built on frames out of lumber and not the most comfortable of places to rest (though far from the worst I’ve slept on.)

Knox Hotel

The goal of our visit was to spend quality time with grandma. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, and it had been two years for Katie. A few months ago we had had a health scare with grandma such that I went so far as to notify people at work that I may have to make an emergency trip to see her. Thankfully that all seems to have passed and she is still able to putter in her garden, but it struck home the urgency with us needing to go see her.

We had been expecting her to attend a family wedding which Katie and I were missing due to our time in Ireland, up to that point the plan was to make the visit just something Katie and I were going to do. When we discovered she wasn’t going to the wedding, the plans changed to include time with dad, Carol, and potentially a visit from my baby sister, Charlotte. Even with the changes to the plan, I had one main goal and that was to spend time with grandma to talk about our family history, and look through her family photos and genealogy records.

The south is I believe, in many people’s minds, a cartoon of itself. Certainly you can find Confederate flag trucker hats on beer bellies. Of course you will find low income living. Racism, while much less than it once was, still exists. But not every southerner is Honey Boo Boo. Far from it. You’ll find southern hospitality is as strong as ever, neighbors go out of their way to help each other as well as strangers.

While grandma lives on her own, there is a small army of family, friends, and neighbors, who check in on her and help her out. From doing laundry, to running errands, to cooking meals, to just checking in on her – she is surrounded by good people who care about her.

We met some of these people, a young family of five from West Virginia. The father and mother were my age if perhaps a year or two older, and they had three high energy bouncing kids. The mother regularly helps grandma with chores and errands and she enjoys redecorating grandma’s apartment by moving photos around and rearranging things.

One of the things grandma wanted for her birthday was to go to her favorite store: the plant store. She wanted to buy snapdragons to plant in her garden. So we made quite a production of going, cramming all five of us in the car. In my mind I was imaging a Home Depot garden section with rows and rows of plants. I think all of us were thinking of something along those lines. What we found though was a feed store which happened to have roughly ten feet by three feet of various potted plants for sale outside.

Sure enough they had snapdragons, so we bought up all they had. Two sets of six plants. They didn’t have very many and she was said about it, but she said she would come back next week after they restocked.

snapdragons

After that, Katie and I loaded up the car and took a quick trip just the two of us. We headed to an island off the coast of Georgia called St. Simon’s island. The island holds a strong place in my memory of those weeks I spent with grandma. We would go out there for primarily one purpose: a used bookstore. The island itself caters to vacationers and retirees, though it too had grown up some since I had last been there and looked like it had grown to be slightly more suburban.

The drive was maybe 45 minutes from grandma’s. As we drove onto the actual island we drove right by an Ace Hardware with a garden section. “Let’s stop and see if they have any more snapdragons.” Sure enough they had a much larger stock of snapdragons so we picked up six more sets of six and paid the hefty $13. With those safely situated in the trunk we finally reached St. Simon’s main “square.” As we walked up it I was looking around, remembering so much and looking for the bookstore.

beachview-books

In the annals of my mind, on the long list of places I have bought books, this store is enshrined near the top. To discover that it was still in business was a real thrill. Unquestionably the store’s glory days, whenever they were, were behind it. The shelves were a bit more bare than I recall. But I was surprised (I don’t know why) to also discover that it was the same woman, sitting in the same chair, running the store. We chatted briefly with her about how I remembered coming to the store so long ago and Katie found a book about the history of the English language which I bought for a very fair $4.

After the store we walked down to the pier, just to see it again. It isn’t anything amazing, it’s just a pier – but it holds a place in my childhood memories. After seeing that the pier remained intact we walked around a bit more, got some frozen yogurt, while I recalled stories from our visits there. There is an old lighthouse on the island and I can remember going up it once as a kid, but it didn’t hold any lure to me now.

pier

We drove back and delivered the flowers to grandma. She was surprised and excited to have more flowers to plant.

Other than that random trip, the majority of our time was spent with grandma. She took us to eat at every restaurant in Nahunta (except Dairy Queen, we wanted authentic southern food, not chain.) We went with her to visit the Ammons family cemetery, which is in the neighboring town of Waynesville. It’s not a big cemetery but in that acre of land there are dozens of relatives buried together.

I think though my favorite memory from the visit will be the shared birthday celebration with my dad and grandma. Their birthdays are two days (and a few years) apart, so we went to a local restaurant and brought our own cake and ice cream. The restaurant staff were completely accomodating, going so far as to put the ice cream in the freezer and giving us spoons to scoop it with.

We had dinner and then did presents and had our cake and ice cream. We sang happy birthday and had a wonderful time just being together. Grandma turned 83 and dad turned 72.

Birthday

I also spent time this trip making recordings as talked with grandma. I recorded a few hours with her, just letting her talk or sometimes prompting her with questions. She talked about history, our family, her life, and more. As an example, here’s a brief clip from a recording I made where she talks about her father having a warrant out against him.

Eventually though it was time to move on so, on the morning of October 5, we packed our bags and loaded into dad’s car and stopped for one more visit with grandma. Dad and Carol then drove us back to Jacksonville and dropped us off with hugs and kisses, sending us on to the next leg of our adventure: Ireland.

Next time: a surprise airport visit with a friend as we’re on our way to Ireland.

Categories
Travel

Vacation Part 1 – Jacksonville

I just got home from vacation and thanks to nearly thirteen hours on planes; I already have rough drafts done for the first four parts of the posts about my vacation. I am guessing there will be seven posts in the series but we’ll see. This first post shares the excitement that was our first day of travel to Jacksonville.


The night before our trip, with the government shutdown on the horizon, I asked if anyone knew whether it would cause the TSA be shut down. I was worried it would cause problems for us traveling on October 1st. Thankfully, it turned out that the TSA was unaffected, and that was the least of the crazy for our day.

So we packed our bags, grabbed a few hours of sleep and woke up plenty early to get to the airport.

I’ve always been someone to arrive early at the airport. Part of it is preparing for the worst. What if we get a flat tire? (Never happened.) What if we get in bad traffic? (Happened but never really been an issue.) What if we get in an accident? (Happened and did cause me to miss my flight.) But even with all that the truth is also I sort of enjoy the airport.

So we get to the airport, check our bags, and head for security. Despite TSA being fully operational on the day, they were woefully struggling with that morning’s traveler traffic. If I didn’t have premier access with United, Katie and I would have a waited probably ninety minutes to get through. It was terrible, and lots of people were frustrated with the security theater. It’s times like that which makes me question all of TSA. How much security do we gain from removing our shoes?

Eventually, we get through the security and get onto our flight. We fly through Dulles on our way to Jacksonville before driving up to the small town in Georgia where my grandmother lives. On our first flight, Katie noticed one of the attendants accidentally dropped a pair of wings. You know, the lapel pins that are almost cliche for kids to get when flying. When she pointed it out to the attendant, the woman just gave her the wings–so obviously I called dibs.

wings

When we landed in Jacksonville we knew something was amiss because we came to a halt, almost immediately. The Captain came on the intercom and told us something was going on with the airport so we were going to sit on the tarmac for a while as it got figured out. Moments later Katie’s mom, who had been in the airport for a while, texted us that they had evacuated the airport, and she was outside waiting to be allowed back in.

And so we sat on the tarmac. I made use of social media tweeting what was happening, and reading news reports about what was going on. I ended up becoming a news source for people on the plane. Between social media, news websites, and an aunt who lives in Jacksonville who texted me news from the local broadcast she was watching, I knew more than anyone on the plane.

During it all, I never felt like I was in danger and wasn’t worried. I mean, we were remotely situated on the tarmac with no one around us. It was just a matter of time before it got straightened out so we had to be patient. That seemed to be the common feeling on the plane, everyone was just relaxed and either talking on their phone or even sleeping. Our flight from Dulles had been just under two hours long, but our time on the tarmac was nearly two and a half hours.

While we waited many people were on their phones texting or calling people letting them know they were indeed safe. Including me. There was almost a phone tree in my family of people making sure we were okay. My grandmother heard about the airport from a neighbor. So she called my dad to see what he knew. He hadn’t heard about it, so he called me and got my voice-mail. As soon as I finished whatever call, or turned my phone on, I call him back and call grandma to reassure them both we were safe and just stuck waiting.

Eventually we are told that we are going to be bused to a nearby “secured location.” Now, I don’t use quotes there ironically or humorously, just to note the verbiage. That phrase feels we are going to be taken to a detention facility. What it really means is that we’re being bused to the Clarion hotel which is directly next to the airport. We arrive to find several hundred other passengers already there. Everyone who has been evacuated from the terminal as well as everyone who has been deplaned and transported there are just left waiting. It’s not a zoo but I had the thought that we would have posed a feeding frenzy if zombies attacked.

Now, my major concern was figuring out how to meet up with Katie’s mom. Katie’s mom was helping us out by driving up to get us and then taking us into Georgia to see my grandma. Katie’s mom wasn’t familiar with either Jacksonville or its airport, and neither was us I. So combine those things with this bomb scare chaos, and I was really worried about how we would meet up. Thankfully the problem was solved for us, the Jacksonville police had already escorted her to the same hotel so we were able to easily meet up.

Now that we had met up we decided to hang around for a few hours in case the airport opened back up and we could get our checked luggage. I even called United to see what they could tell me. I wasn’t expecting any action, just trying to find out if we were wasting our time or how the process would work for getting our bags. Even though the event had begun hours ago United’s phone agents were completely in the dark.

Now, I realize that Jacksonville is far from a major United airport. Also, I realize that Jacksonville is a fairly small airport compared to most airports. But, in this day of terrorism as an ever present concern, it seems like a bulletin about the incident would have been merited. The people were all very professional and apologetic for not knowing anything useful for me.

We leave the airport and drive up to the Georgia border and check into a hotel. We order pizza to the room and just relax, unwinding after our long day, and catching up with Katie’s mom.

So it was the next day that we go back and get our luggage from the airport. JAX was back to normal except for a gaggle of reporters standing around waiting for a press conference about the ongoing investigation as to what happened last night.

What eventually came to light was that the incident started due to a presumably deranged man had a fake bomb in his carry-on. From there, they went on high alert and took two other individuals into custody, one of whom was near my mother-in-law when he was taken down.

Bomber - Zeljko Causevic

Zeljko Causevic stirred up some shit.

What happened was that when the first guy set this whole scenario off they followed protocol and evacuated the airport. So anyone waiting for their flight, or for arriving family, were forced out into the parking structure. As my mother-in-law tells it, she was maybe twenty feet from this man. He was sweating in the Florida humidity and appeared quite agitated. He was talking into his phone in some language she didn’t recognize and pacing rapidly and gesturing widely.

She says that she was planning to offer him a wet nap to wipe his sweat, but when she looked away and then looked back she watched as two officers swooped in from different sides. One took him down and the other pinned him before quickly taking him away. It seems that he was in fact not guilty of anything and released as far as I can find.

All in all, for what was a rather uneventful event for us, it generated a few unusual stories to share and made me wonder what the guy with the fake bomb was thinking?

Was it a statement? Was it a maligned suicide attempt, hoping to be shot by security? Was he hoping to get onto the plane before demanding they fly him somewhere other than what was planned? I have no idea, and I hope I never find out. Life’s too short to spend more time thinking about him and not my own life.

So that was the start to our vacation. It certainly made for an interesting day but was definitely not something I would call a highlight of our trip.

In the next post I will share with you some about my roots in rural Georgia, about and visiting my grandma, and about why she’s one of the most important people in the world to me.

Next time: I talk about our visit to Georgia and share some background around my memories of visiting as a child.

Categories
Technology

Modern Pendulum – My Thoughts on the Fitbit

The mile we know oh so well is supposedly equivalent to the distance covered in 1,000 paces by soldiers in armor for hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Well, that is what I was told in school. The soldiers would drive wooden steaks into the ground every 1,000 paces to track the distance covered. Despite the comparative similarity of the words, the etymology of the word ‘mile’ comes from the Latin for the number one-thousand. Thus the linguistic connection between a unit of measure today and the Roman foot soldier two thousand years ago.

Roman soldier Re-enactors

Well, sort of.

In truth the Roman mile was roughly 400 feet shorter than the 5,280 feet we know today. Well, usually. You have to consider the differing length of steps depending on how rushed the soldiers were, or how tired they were. But let’s assume the distance around 4800 feet is the solid average distance for the Roman mile.

So where did those extra 400 feet end up coming from? Burueacracy. 1,760 yards, or 5,280 feet, was defined as the length of a mile since 1593 when the British Parliament passed an act that officially defined the distance as “eight furlongs, every furlong forty poles, and every pole sixteen foot and a half.” Not exactly a simple thing, but from this declaration came the official measure that we know today. This became known as the statute mile (not to be confused with the nautical mile which is itself another unique length not directly relevant to this discussion.)

That act of parliament wasn’t the final word on the matter though. The actual distance of a mile varied from country to country or even person to person. So, in July of 1959, a handful of nations met and agreed upon the exact length of the international yard in terms of meters, and thus the international mile was also codified as 1,760 yards.

Now that we’ve reached the final distance of a modern mile, lets jump back to the renaissance for a bit and examine the origin of the meter. (I swear I talk about the Fitbit soon.)

John WilkinsIn 1668, seventy five years after the distance of a mile was defined by parliament, an English cleric and philosopher named John Wilkins proposed a unit of distance that he named the ‘metre’ which was defined by the distance covered by a pendulum with a half-period of one second.

It’s a brilliant way to determine distance. He avoided the rabbit hole of dependency in determining length by using the constants of gravity and time, all by using a very simply machine: the pendulum.

I remember being fascinated by pendulums as a kid. The Orlando Science Center had a giant Foucalt pendulum that I would always run up to to and press my face against the glass as I watched its slow swings back and forth.

I can remember drawing a similarity between that pendulum and the way our legs moved. Sure, our legs have extra joints and muscles which enable further motion, but I remember many times standing there watching that pendulum while also swinging one of my legs back and forth freely as if it was a pendulum of its own. Without any good reason I was fascinated by the idea that our legs were pendulums making use of gravity for at least part of the work.

Pendulum

So there I’d stand and watch the pendulum swing, convinced that if I stood there long enough it would eventually slow down and stop. Eventually the parents would tear me away, ready to move onto the next exhibit. And like any good math nerd I’d then count the number of steps it would take me to get to them, or the number of words in a sentence I heard someone saying, or the number of squares in the tile. Etc.

Counting is so fun as a kid. But I can’t imagine it was fun for the Roman soldiers tasked with tracking the distance they covered. I’m sure they all dreamed of some automated way to track the number of paces taken. Unfortunately the Italian peninsula had to wait over a thousand years for the idea of a pedometer to arrive. Leonardo Da Vinci imagined a simple mechanical pedometer in the 1400s and wrote about it in his design journals. It wasn’t until the 1700s when the first mechanical pedometer actually came into being.

The first mechanical pedometer was invented by Abraham-Louis Perrelet. It made use of a pendulum-like system that incremented the counter with each sway of its counting mechanism. Far from perfect, but it remained largely unchanged until the the 1960s.

In 1965 the ‘manpo-kei’ was introduced to Japan along with the notion that 10,000 steps a day was the secret to a healthy life. This is credited as the first digital pedometer in the world, quickly making its way from Japan to the rest of the world. The technology improved incrementally but in the end a digital pedometer was still a fun gadget that never really caught on. Sure most people tried it, but usually as part of some ill-fated weightloss scheme. Among its faults was the that it was a solitary device, and thus you relied on yourself to track and use as a motivational tool.

Forty years later Fitbit Inc. launched the “Fitbit Classic.” In technical terms it isn’t a pedometer like those above, it’s most certainly not mechanical, it is an accelerometer system which analyzes the data to generate step counts, as well as analyze the intensity of the activity.

My Fitbit Activity

Fitbits do more than just count steps. They are wearable at night as a way to monitor your sleeping habits and they track some other points of activity as well. Through the iPhone & Android app you can also track calories eaten, water drank, as well as your weight and body fat percentage.

In all, it allows you to track several points of your ‘quantified self.’

Quantified SelfIn 2008, Kevin Kelly (ex-Wired editor) and Gary Wolf (contributing writer for Wired), held the first Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco. QS is a movement for “self-knowledge through numbers.” With the Fitbit, as well as a few other entrants in the field of self-tracking gadgets, they saw the opportunity for an organized group dedicated to using the technology, sharing the knowledge they gain, and seeing just what can be done. Since then thousands of people have gathered in various city-based meetups, as well as at larger conventions around the world. Some make use of gadgets like the Fitbit, others code their own digital tools while others do it with simple old fashioned way with a spreadsheet and a graph.

I’ve never gotten to attend one of these gatherings but I follow Quantified Self’s website and, as exhibited by the careful tracking of my weight loss and body fat, I do have an interest in the realm of QS.

Up to now I tracked my weight loss through a scale and a spreadsheet. I tried a handful of other things, mobile apps, etc. but I found that I preferred just having a raw Google Doc to work with. I also tried tracking more, things like hours slept, calories eaten, etc. But in the end I always found the extra tracking cumbersome.

Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up

In the mind of wanting to track more and understand my body better, I’ve been eyeing QS related gadgets for a while. Largely though the focus centered on the Fitbit, the Nike Fuelband, and the Jawbone Up. Fitbit is a company founded to make their flagship gadget. Nike’s Fuelband is an obvious accompaniment to their growing athletic brand offerings. Jawbone is perhaps a surprise given that the company is most famous for their bluetooth earpiece, but I dutifully researched each before making my purchase.

There were three things which really sold me on the Fitbit:

1) I didn’t want a bracelet. – Bracelet trackers appear to be slightly less accurate than those worn on the belt or pocket clip, though they do have two benefits over the belt clips which I’ll get to later. Note, I don’t have any conclusive evidence that bracelets are less accurate.

2) Access to data – I really want the ability to do data exports. Of the three companies, Fitbit is the only one to have any such functionality though they include it only as part of their premium subscription benefits.

3) Customer service – The customer service stories about Fitbit are all positive from what I could find.

Now that I’ve owned my Fitbit for almost two weeks I feel ready to draw some conclusions and make some comments about the gadget as a whole.

I find wearing a Fitbit fun. That probably says a lot about me and where my mindset it. I really enjoy being able to look down and see how many steps I’ve taken today. Fun is good. Fun means there is a positive feedback introduced for simple activities which it tracks and makes it much more likely I’ll continue to work on being active.

Stairs to Elevator

On the opposite end of the scale, the Fitbit causes me distress when I know I’m bypassing things which would up its count such as taking an elevator rather than climbing the stairs at work. It’s not major distress, but I find myself feeling guilty. Which is also a good thing. Sure, sometimes I have a good reason to skip the stairs such as continuing a conversation with someone who takes the elevator – but all things being equal it is the push I need to make me take the stairs when traveling between floors at work.

There is also one very clear truth that the Fitbit makes blindingly clear: Between the office chairs at work and the couch at home, I live a sedentary life. I spend a lot of time sitting around and that further emphasizes the need for me to carve out time for exercise.

As for criticisms, there are perhaps a few things I’m not thrilled with.

You have to be careful with this thing. I had a scare nearly losing my Fitbit after having it for less than a week. Initially I wore my fitbit with it hooked onto my jean’s change pocket putting the Fitbit on the outside. This seemed reasonably secure and allowed easy access to the view screen.

Bad plan.

It got caught in my seatbelt when I was in the car and was pulled free of the belt clip without my noticing. Thankfully it fell out in the car and not in a parking lot so I was able to find it. But this event taught me an important lesson: keep the Fitbit tucked inside your pocket, not outside it.

Clean ad infinitum

Beyond the risk of it falling off your belt there also lies the risk that it remains in you pocket all the way to the wash. This thing is small. The size of a USB drive. I know of one friend who washed his Fitbit only a few weeks after getting it. If the Fitbit is in the middle of a pile of laundry there is no way you will notice it.

While the battery life seems quite good, one of my complaints is around the proprietary charging cable. They use a proprietary cable for charging and I really wish they had just used Micro-USB so that I could use my own cables and not have to keep track of this proprietary dongle.

Lastly, and perhaps most damning: I’m not actually convinced that it is… well, useful. Yet.

The Fitbit can be a passive tool. If used solely for personal tracking, it is not too different from the pedometer we already discussed. And in that case, it has the same downfall as pedometers. But Fitbit and the other companies have begun working beyond this by adding a social layer and introducing achievements based on your levels of activity. In an attempt to be more than a passive tool Fitbit has also set it up such that when you’re within striking distance of a goal your smartphone and email can pop up a note urging you to push a bit further to hit your goal. But these are not aggressive pushes.

There is one feature for the Fuelband that I hadn’t considered before buying my Fitbit. More of my friends have a Fuelband than have a Fitbit.

Fitbit, Nike, and, I assume, Jawbone, all have built in social capabilities where you can add friends to compare and compete with your levels of activity. Taking this feature, where your own little daemon reports regularly on your progress, the social activity should not be overlooked as simply a tacked on part of these tools. This is what I did before I had one of these. I believe the social aspect is actually the most critical thing for these gadgets.

While the Fitbit appears to be the better technical gadget, it is in truth lagging behind Nike’s Fuelband for this very fact. Where as I have one coworker who owns a Fitbit, I know of a half dozen who have Nike Fuelbands and, had I chosen to go that way, I’d be in a bigger pack for fitness.

Wolves

They say that surrounding yourself with fit people will help you with your fitness goals. I think, as we grow to be more and more enmeshed in our digital lives that this sort of digital flocking could have the same effect. Seeing my friend Paul cross the 12,000 step mark for a day, or that Brian might have doubled me up in terms of activity, can definitely be motivators.

I think it says something that after I had a few people read the early drafts of this article they weren’t sure how I actually felt about the Fitbit.

I like it but I don’t love it. I enjoy having it and seeing the counter increase, but I do not regard this as a must have gadget – yet. I do think, for those who live mostly sedentary lives, it has definite value as an additional motivational tool and quantifiable survey of just how active you are. For those who are already mostly fit and simply look to tread water, I don’t think this qualifies as a tool that will really benefit you.

Photo credits:

Categories
Life

Beating Bowser

Nintendo’s NES was originally released in the US in 1985, four days shy of my second birthday. It was the first move by Nintendo to move from the arcade into the home. Almost 62 million units were sold worldwide before it was eventually discontinued, but not before it had an impact on my life.

I can remember video games at home before Nintendo. The parents would code games into our personal computer, but at the time I was too young to fully appreciate them. I can vaguely remember watching my brothers play King’s Quest and a specific scene where there was gold under a bridge, but that’s it. The NES was the first gaming system that I really got to play.

It was 1990, after we moved to Orlando, that we finally got it. It was a brisk Florida night, probably January. We drove to Wal-Mart and went in as a family. I remember us rolling the Nintendo box out to the van and I held the box in my lap the whole ride home. I was ecstatic. We got the NES with Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, and man I could not wait to get into it.

It was a family game system, I clearly remember both my mom and my dad playing with us. We’d gather in the family room in front of the TV and we would take turns and pass the remote, or we would have boys play Mario and girls play Luigi.

On level 3-1, the first above ground dark level, there is a place where you can bounce a turtle shell off the steps repeatedly before taking the flag. The way Mario games work is that if you chain events together the points awarded continue to increase until it begins awarding extra lives. So if you repeatedly bounce a turtle shell against a wall such that you can keep jumping on it without hitting the ground you could gain a very large number of lives.

Super Mario Brothers 3-1

My dad excelled at the timing needed to rack the lives up. Even if I was playing the game by myself, when I got to that point I would pause and go run and get dad and ask him to come get the extra lives for me.

As I grew bored with Mario my dad issued a challenge: $100 if I could beat Mario twice back-to-back. And I can say that doing it is perhaps my greatest video game success of all time. I don’t think I’ve ever come close to that level of satisfying when it comes to beating video games.

See, when you first beat Super Mario Brothers it loops you back to the beginning but this time all the goombas are replaced by the beetles. In the first Mario the power-up was fire, which killed all the bad guys except the beetles. This was a brilliantly simple way for them to make Mario more difficult for the second run. So I had to beat the game without using warp tunnels to skip any levels. I did it of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be part of this story. As far as I can recall I used that money to buy more NES games, including Super Mario Brothers 3.

Super Mario Brothers 3 was the video game which I can easily say was the most impactful on me as a kid. It was mainly just me playing, sure my mom and my sister might play, but my dad sort of waned in terms of his interest.

This week I connected our original NES to our 55″ tv and proceeded to lose myself in the nostalgia of playing Super Mario Brothers 3 again. The NES is actually my wife’s and not mine, and is in perfect working order.

The first game I put in was Super Mario Brothers 3. As I played it, I kept laughing out of joy as things I had forgotten about came flooding back to me. But even more often than that I found myself simply automatically going towards hidden areas or secret power ups. It was as if I was at the fairground standing in front of the Zoltar machine wishing to return to my childhood. I sat cross-legged on the floor far too close to the TV and enjoyed the world of Mario.

Super Mario Brothers 1 required players to always move forward, never backward off frame. This let players know that the important thing was exploration and continuing down the rails of the game experience. Super Mario Brothers 3 rocked my world because it not only allowed me to go backwards on levels (and sometimes required me to) but the ability to navigate a map and choose which level I wanted to play. Sure it was still a limited pool of options but at the time it felt like a completely open world for me to explore.

As I played again, I found myself doing things without thinking. Ducking bad guys and jumping traps without thinking, pure muscle memory from twenty years ago. I played Super Mario Brothers during my formative years, the time when ‘my brain was a sponge’ and I have, in the annals of my mind, locked away hundreds if not thousands of facts and tricks to the game.

Meanwhile I can barely remember what I ate for dinner three nights ago.

Super Mario Brothers 3 - 1-2

Last night though I can clearly remember it. After playing on Friday and then leaving the Nintendo on overnight I sat down and beat Super Mario Brothers 3 on my first play through. I think it took roughly four hours of play. I beat every airship, though I had two warp whistles I didn’t use a single one. I kept maybe half a dozen levels unbeaten since I could bypass them, and then on level 8 I put to use the clouds and skipped several of the levels. Oh, and I got 30 extra lives on level 1-2.

Beating Bowser on Super Mario Brothers 3 is a theoretically simple task: You have to use Bowser’s size against himself. Every time he lands you want him to land on the bricks such that he breaks a level of them. The area you face him on is three rows deep, so you need him to land in the same area three times. When he does, he falls through and tumbles to his death. It’s easy enough once you understand how it’s done, but definitely still requires twitch timing. And I did it in the first go.

When this screen came up I had a gut wrenching moment of panic trying to remember if indeed this was just another castle, but thankfully it wasn’t. And I was left to enjoy the end of this epic love story.

Super Mario Brothers 3 Win Screen

This screen is literally the end of the game. There’s no denouement sort of wrap up, or epilogue. In today’s world where usually there is a story of richly animated wrap-up, this brief finale made me laugh out loud. The NES is my time machine, transporting me back to my childhood, and reminding me just how amazing many video games of that era were are.

Thanks to my brother Adam and my sister Charlotte for their assistance and proofreading this post.

Categories
Musing

Priorities

What happens when a swimmer stops prioritizing forward motion? He ends up treading water.

I have memories of sitting at the dining room table with my mom on my left, my dad on the right, and my younger sister sitting across from me. As a family we would assemble the monthly issues of “The Get Organized! News.” TGON, as we called it, was a monthly newsletter my mom wrote and published out of our home. Usually it was eight pages; two 17×11 sheets folded and nested within each other.

Like a well oiled machine we would assemble hundreds of newsletters, label them, and rubber band them for mailing.

Despite my mom writing a newsletter about organization, I was slow to pick up on it. Organization that is. She did her best to impress upon me the need to make my bed, pick up after myself, put things away when I was done and actually put my laundry actually inside the hamper as opposed to around it. As a kid, I just couldn’t understand why these things were important.

One thing my mom did teach me though, with some help from the author Steven Covey, was to recognize priorities. Covey uses an analogy about having a jar, and all these things you need to fit in the jar. They’re different sizes and shapes, from golf ball sized down to sand, so it is no easy feat. He explains that what you need to do is start with the big things and then once they’re in there do the small stuff like pebbles and sand.

This is, of course, his metaphor for time and how we spend it. And for much of my childhood I took it as just that, but I think the critical second part of this lesson is that while it’s about managing your time it’s also really about setting your priorities.

The above triangle was a commonly quoted aphorism at Georgia Tech (and other colleges I’m sure.) In humor it speaks truth, in reality it speaks about priorities. As it ended up, I prioritized social life and the Internet, much to my academic chagrin. In retrospect I don’t think I consciously deprioritized school, and in fact I believed I was still doing enough even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary (namely grades).

I remember my parents calling me one day while I was at school and my mom tentatively asking, “Honey, we’ve been reading your blog and… well… you never talk about studying or doing homework on there.” I waved their concerns away, saying that I was studying but it didn’t exactly make for riveting blog reading. Which was true, but also the truth was: they were right. My priorities had been steadily shifting away from school.

I clearly remember staying in the computer lab all night to work on a project and after getting stumped, staying up the whole night anyways screwing around on the web rather than working or seeking help. It makes me sick to think about what I wasted because I didn’t set my priorities for school.

Tech Tower by hectorir

Over the past year with my weight loss I attribute the majority of my success to making myself aware of and paying close attention to my priorities. Exercising was bumped to a top priority overriding things like TV, Internet, and social lunches at work.

Eating right became a high enough priority that I began passing on candy, having epic battles of self-control when presented with buffets of poor choices.

To me, priorities are the overlooked part of the goals & resolutions equation. Gurus and self-help experts talk endlessly about the importance of setting goals and striving for them, but they seem to gloss over the part where success for goals comes from making the goal a priority and becoming conscious of how it ranks in your life. You have to decide how they are prioritized amongst your life, and then consciously act on this change.

Changing habits is hard. I can’t tell you how many times I caught myself, change in hand, standing in front of a vending machine. Or found myself rummaging in the kitchen, not because I was hungry, but because I was bored. These were (and still are) actions so deeply ingrained in my mind that it still takes a conscious decision not to do some of these. And I come to these decisions because… I’ve set my priorities!

Over the past month I’ve been treading water and I’m fed up. I held onto most of my good eating habits but I’ve been snacking more, and even indulging in an occasional soda.

So, now I’ve come to terms with my lack of progress and found the stirrings which will drive me forward again. Namely, my 30th birthday is fast approaching. And I badly want to be in the best shape of my life for that birthday.

This week I am prioritizing ‘working out and moving forward’ to be the top of my list.

Where do your priorities lie?