Category: Life

This is my backpack

Part of the This Is My series.

Thanks to the magic of email, I know that in March 2009 my mom asked if I wanted anything from REI. She had a coupon that was about to expire but didn’t need anything for herself.

REI is one of those stores I love in principle but don’t actually buy from, mostly due to the prices. So I jumped at that opportunity to get something I normally wouldn’t. I considered what I could use and landed on the CamelBak Blowfish Hydration backpack, pictured here over 10 years later in its usual hangout spot by the door:

(You might recognize the jacket next to it.)

It’s slim yet expandable, with just enough compartments, and padding in the back to make it breathable. In the picture it’s stuffed with library books, CDs, and my notebooks, with assorted pens, my sunglasses, and earbuds in the front pouch. It’s not super convenient for transporting my laptop, which I have to wedge in between the tapered zipper design, but it’s gotten the job done for a long time.

And in that time, it has accompanied me on every flight, hike, and trip I’ve taken, to every college and grad school class I attended, and darn near every workday I’ve logged. Somewhere along the way I stopped using the water pouch because it made everything in the main compartment a little damp and took up too much space.

It’s not available at REI anymore, so once the end of its useful life arrives I’ll have to find something else like it. I’ve tried satchels and messenger bags, but nothing beats the two-strapping reliability of a quality backpack.

Build it up, knock it down

My favorite new game with 7 Months is to build a small tower with his rubber blocks—to almost as tall as he is when sitting—and watch him knock it down.

He never does it the same way twice. He’ll grab the top one and bring it to his mouth, the whole tower leaning towards him before it crumbles again. The next time he’ll kick it from the bottom. Then he’ll gently caress the middle section before pushing it, or pulling it.

There’s not much point in enjoying the building part when he knocks it down so quickly. I keep rebuilding the tower so fast because I want to watch him consider it anew every time, because the world is too new for him not to.

This is my wallet

Part of the This Is My series.

Usually I’m a bifold wallet guy. I don’t like how trifolds make two bends in paper money. But once I realized I could just fold whatever bills I have in half and stick them in the middle section of the bill area, my wallet options opened up.

Which brings me to Bogota, Colombia, circa November 2010. I was roaming a street market with some friends from the church I was working at during my post-college Colombian adventure. We came upon a spread of handcrafted goods on a tattered blanket along the sidewalk, presided over by a dirty, dreaded hippie around my age. One of his wallets for sale caught my eye:

It was a trifold with black leather on the outside, yellow on the inside, red string trim, and two metal corner fasteners. I liked that it was slender, homemade, cheap, unique, and would double as a useful souvenir of my time in Colombia.

His price was reasonable, so I agreed to it. He asked if I understood Spanish, which, like now, I did enough without being fluent. He then gave a sort of New Age benediction, exhorting me to be a worthy steward of this wallet and honor the spirit of the universe and so on.

In the nine years since, it has unraveled in parts and gotten slack from use, but I love it. I love how the leather has formed to the shape of the cards inside, and how it takes up just enough space when in my pocket.

One of these days the trim will unravel completely or the leather will break down and I’ll be forced to upgrade. My wife, who’s not a fan of this gloriously decrepit wallet, would rather that day come soon. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the This Is My series, it’s that I don’t carelessly discard things that do their job well.

And she ought to be careful what she wishes for, because I have another wallet waiting in the wings for when the Colombian dies. And it’s the subject of a future This Is My post.

Camcorders and the quotidian

Two things my wife and I are really glad to have are a camcorder and a digital SLR camera.

We got both of them several years ago, the camera as a wedding gift and the camcorder from my mother-in-law. Mostly we wanted them to be able to document family get-togethers, trips, and our nieces growing up. But they became especially nice to have after our son arrived.

We could easily record his cute laughs and squeaks and developmental milestones on our smartphones, and often do. But keeping some high-definition clips in the simple SD card of the camcorder somehow feels a tad sturdier. It’s a self-contained archive that is built for one purpose, that isn’t connected to The Cloud or needing constant updates or competing for storage space with apps of questionable value. It does one job really well.

We look back at what we’ve recorded just as often as most people do with their smartphone recordings—which is to say, not very often. But that’s OK. The benefit of home videos is in their slow and steady accumulation.

Our own parents took hours and hours of home video of us as kids, first on tape and now converted to DVD. Some of it is the expected banner moments you’d expect parents to record: soccer games, concerts, holidays, graduations. The rest is the small, everyday stuff between those highlights that comprise most of one’s life: playing at home, playing at grandma’s house, running through the sprinkler in the summer. (At least this is what we did in the pre-internet era.)

All of it matters. And when you play it back, everything blends together into one stream, a confluence of the capstones and the quotidian. Such is life.

This is my pocketknife

Part of the This Is My series.

When my grandpa died in 2007, I informally inherited several of his possessions. Nothing from an official will, mind you—just my grandma saying “You should take this” as we were clearing out his stuff. That’s how I got, among other things, his wallet, a few shirts, an old cufflinks case, and this pocketknife:

It’s very small. It’s grimy. It’s probably older than I am. But because I almost always have my keys with me, I’ve used this small, grimy, old pocketknife far more often than my bigger Swiss Army knife and fancy Gerber multi-tool. The file and bottle opener I could go without, but the knife reminds me of its utility over and over again.

It’s also fortunate. Several times I forgot to remove it from my key ring before flights, but it must have blended in with the keys enough to evade TSA’s detection. I wasn’t so lucky with another bigger multi-tool several years ago; I completely forgot it was still in my carry-on backpack until it got flagged at security and confiscated.

One day I’ll clean and sharpen the knife at least. Even if I don’t, it’ll probably outlive me in usefulness.

This is my jacket

Part of the This Is My series.

If you have met me in the last 15 years, there’s a decent chance you have seen me in this orange jacket:

I acquired it in 2004 on a trip from Madison to Kansas City with a few people from my youth group to attend a conference. We stopped at a Salvation Army somewhere along the way, which is where I spotted it. Don’t remember how much it cost, but since I’ve worn it for darn near half the year every year since, I’d say it was a sound investment regardless.

It had the same appeal then as it does now: a bold orange color, accessible pockets, and the perfect thickness for use as a spring and autumn jacket—not too thick and not too thin.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s time to find another light jacket. It’s starting to fray now, having served me and previous owners well for who knows how long. Something more waterproof or muted might be a better look and practical move.

But by Jove, I’m sticking with it, because I stick with useful things to their bitter end. It’s my only play against planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumerism. Until I accidentally lose it or it disintegrates beyond repair, it’s staying on my coat rack. That’s the only way to honor such a reliable companion.

When we make our art

“When we make our art, we are also making our lives. And I’m sure that the reverse is equally true.”

— Wendell Berry, in the beautiful documentary Look & See (currently streaming on Netflix). Might have found my new life motto.

Going to the movies is a gift

As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.

Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:

  • I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
  • I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
  • I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
  • I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.

(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)

My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.

I can certainly sympathize with the people driving away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.

For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.

The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”

A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.

Queer Eye and Straight Guys

Karamo Brown of Queer Eye recently gave a free talk nearby, so I availed myself of the opportunity to see him in the flesh. He was the same as you see on the show, except this time he made himself cry. He got emotional as soon as the talk began because an old college friend of his was in the audience, someone who reminded him of how far he’d come in life. He then briefly told stories from the show and about being a dad.

Unsurprisingly, he was very open with feelings and implored us not to make fear-based decisions. His sons probably do not appreciate when they bring girls home and Karamo pulls them aside and asks “Have you done anything out of fear lately?” But that’s something youths can only appreciate in hindsight (and something only a therapist/motivational speaker like Karamo could get away with).

I never watched the original Queer Eye, though vaguely remember its cultural impact. But while I was in Denver for a wedding last fall, my straight-dude friends were effusive in their praise for the new version. It’s so much more than fashion, they said. They were right. It’s fun to see the Fab Five work their magic: Bobby remodeling homes and Jonathan transforming hair and Antoni inspiring cooking and Tan remaking wardrobes and Karamo shepherding the show’s “heroes” to a new self-awareness.

But, like Karamo, I think I’m most interested in seeing what makes the subjects cry, or at least be vulnerable. Those moments are water wells, openings to the deep reserves of emotional underground that’s usually in darkness. Drawing from that space, for me anyway, involves work and risk but almost always reward. It happened for me that weekend in Denver, which is why I’ll always associate that time with the show. The ability to be vulnerable among friends—straight male friends, no less—and to do it so easily when it’s otherwise so daunting, meant it was good in the richest sense of the word.

That inspiring of goodness is one of my takeaways from the show. The Fab Five dedicate themselves to new and challenging experiences around Georgia for the first two seasons, and in doing so demonstrate their goodness to everyone. Being willing to share their expertise for the betterment of strangers, prodding when necessary but remaining open to being changed themselves—that’s good. That takes guts, and vulnerability. And that’s what I look forward to seeing even more of in season 3.

2018 in Review

What am I doing New Year’s Eve? Looking back at my 2018 calendar and logbook to remember the notable happenings that made up my year. In roughly chronological order:

  • Started a paper logbook (a la Austin Kleon) in a Moleskine notebook I got for Christmas. Have actually kept it going regularly, and enjoy it much more than my previous journals in composition notebooks, probably because it’s not lined. This encourages me to do things like magazine mashups and tape other life ephemera and keepsakes inside. It’s a much richer diary because of that.
  • 2/24/18 log: “Today at work an older guy was looking for White Heat, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I found them on the DVD shelves and he said, ‘You’re the nicest guy on this side of the tracks.’ Thank you?”
  • Started going to a local independent barber shop and love it
  • Wrote or quoted some opinions about Donald Trump and have yet to be proven wrong
  • Got a real, professional massage and why don’t I do that more often?
  • Saw I’m With Her in concert at Thalia Hall
  • Wrote several Refer Madness columns for Booklist
  • Bought a Royal Arrow typewriter and then sold my rickety Royal Quiet De Luxe
  • Saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Music Box in Chicago
  • Saw The Okee Dokee Brothers at Lincoln Hall
  • Went to a college friend’s wedding at my alma mater
  • Switched to Firefox, fixed Twitter, and made other tech improvements
  • Hosted a type-in at an Evanston bookstore
  • Went on a pontoon boat with family in Madison
  • Had octopus and a sake bomb for the first time in Wicker Park with college friends
  • Went to Midsommarfest in Andersonville, where I bought my first pair of real Birkenstocks and got roped into a Swedish dance circle
  • Learned my wife was pregnant with our first child, visited Starved Rock, then saw Hamilton on stage, all within 24 hours
  • Walked the Custer Street Fair with friends, got dinner and dessert and talked tech ethics
  • Acquired, cleaned, and quickly sold a gorgeous Royal Empress
  • Went to wife’s cousin’s wedding at Illinois Beach State Park
  • Visited Colorado for my friend Tim’s wedding in Denver: stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb in Maintou Springs, hiked in the Rocky Mountain National Park, rode a vintage Otis elevator at the Hotel Boulderado, ogled the stunning Boulder Public Library, toured the Celestial Seasonings headquarters, wended through the hoodoos of the Painted Mines Interpretive Park, shot billiards until 1 AM, cried and danced and gave a speech at Tim’s wedding
  • Won my case on Judge John Hodgman
  • Celebrated 10 years of filmlogging
  • Spent a few days fishing and lounging in the restorative Northwoods of Wisconsin
  • Saw Rayland Baxter at Lincoln Hall
  • Went to a Cubs game on a super hot day
  • Gave my Royal Futura 800 to a neighbor who needed it
  • Went to another Cubs game on a super beautiful day
  • Got a Fisher space pen for my birthday and it’s fun to use
  • Visited Colorado again for my friend Taylor’s wedding: whacked balls at Top Golf, beheld the Crush Walls, sang the processional along with the wedding party, cried and danced hard
  • Tried to make a typewriter emoticon happen ‘(:::)
  • Canned homemade applesauce with the family
  • Dressed as Fred Rogers for Halloween
  • Went to Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for the first time and sat in the Al Capone booth
  • Saw sound designer Gary Rydstrom speak at Northwestern
  • Acquired a new Olympia SM7 with an interesting story
  • Had fun putting together a LEGO Delorean
  • Released a full-length album of old demos called The Wonder Of It All
  • All things Baby C: baby showers, appointments, clothes, toys, books, classes, and so much more
  • Got a portable washing machine
  • Wrote some good blog posts, like:
  • Watched 70 movies (old and new) and read 72 books, according to my logbook
  • Read 2 presidential biographies: John Tyler and Harry Truman
  • Watched several good TV shows: The Crown season 1 and 2, Big Mouth season 2, Queer Eye seasons 1 and 2, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and Big Little Lies