Monday, September 18, 2006

Monday - Random Madness

I think movies are overrated.

What I mean is, I've seen a couple of movies lately (which you probably saw long, long ago) that I was very disappointed in. When you have small children, movies are, for the most part, a thing of the past. It's hard to hold a child's attention long enough to see a movie, for one thing; for another, it's expensive for four people to see a movie, even when you do the matinee showing; and finally, it's just not the same as it used to be.

When I was a kid, there were drive-in theaters; remember those? You could pile a bunch of people in a car and pay a flat fee to park, pull the tinny, heavy speaker to your car and honk at people who didn't turn their lights off when parking, obscuring the screen. The kids could get as loud as they wanted, have a conversation with their carmates, have screaming, crying fits, and nobody cared. It was in your car, and the only one missing the movie you paid to see was you.

Now, however, it's a whole other world. Teens haven't been taught how to sit down and shut up, so they don't. They raise all manner of racket and ruckus, so that everyone is disturbed except them. People answer their phones (which they didn't have when I was a kid) and go ahead and talk while others are trying to watch a movie. It doesn't matter what impact that has on your movie-going experience -- it's all about selfishness. It's a "me" generation after all -- and I don't just mean the kids. There are adults that are just as rude and inconsiderate as the teens. They don't care about you; they're focused on themselves. They can't be bothered to be courteous enough to shut off the cell phones, shut off their mouths, and get up politely and quietly to leave the theater if an important call they just can't live two hours without comes along. No, that would be antiquated, this thinking about the other people in the world. It flies in the face of the way things ought to be.

Each and every person thinks that YOU should be considering THEM and THEIR needs, so there's no one around you thinking about anyone but themselves. That's a switch; we're one of the only generations that was taught to be that way, and it's only going to get worse, because no one's teaching the youth of our world anything differently. Think about the rain forests, the whales, dolphins, elephants, rhinos, snail darters, spotted owls, pandas, the ozone, the climate, the ice caps, SUVs, gas prices, food prices, insurance rates, healthcare, terrorism, nuclear threats, whether or not the Ice Man was murdered ... think about anything except the people immediately around you in your day-to-day life. Ah, the irony of tree-hugging liberalism!

Wow, it's amazing, isn't it? We can't figure out why the world is in the state it's in, while we stare at the death of basic human freedoms and common courtesy. Manners are passe, and not in vogue any longer. It's not fashionable to be nice, and everyone knows where nice guys finish, right?

Okay, okay ... so anyway, even though I don't go to the movies for all the reasons listed above and the $9 ticket price, I still think movies are overrated. I wanted for the longest time to see The Fantastic Four. I wasn't ever a huge fan, but I thought that the technology was finally in place to make a very good movie about an iconic comic book staple.

What I forgot about, however, is that movies are formulaic and predictable, for the most part badly written and acted, and visually beautiful. But, the one doesn't make up for the other elements missing. You can't make a good movie out of a crappy story and dialog by dressing it in stunning visual effects. You just can't; The Fantastic Four was a testament to that fact.

The Chronicles of Narnia -- ditto. I could't believe it was so bad; it was beautiful artistically, but lacked in every other way, I thought. (I haven't read the books, and probably won't, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and just assume they're better than the movie turned out.)

I recently watched Flightplan with Jody Foster, too; that was disappointing, which surprised me, since most of her movies have been well-done and fairly interesting to me. (You must know me to understand that statement; I don't suspend disbelief, which makes enjoying a movie very, very difficult. Ask my wife; she hasn't been able to enjoy one since we've been married.) But it was bad, and worse, predictable. I watched things like The Grudge, and was left without satisfaction, despite the fact that I love the horror/sci-fi/thriller genre movies. I've tried watching some animated things recently, but nothing sticks in my mind about them (including titles and stories), and that sort of says it all.

So, what's the problem here? Is it me, or are movies just plain ol' not as good as they used to be? Despite the technological capability to make some of the most amazing movies of all time, are there just no more great stories, writers and ideas out there?

I'm looking forward to seeing The Wicker Man, a new take on an old story that I've always liked. Lord knows how that will be butchered. But I'll see it anyway -- either on premium cable or Pay-Per-View, depending on my mood.

Movies, at least at this point, are overrated. Seen anything you liked lately? What did you like about it? What were the weak spots? Recommend anything highly? Something I should stay away from completely?

I still think I should be in charge. Movies would have to be good or they'd never be allowed to be made.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Monday - 9-11-01

So many have written so much about what happened on September 11, 2001. Part of me wants to write a tribute too; and part of me knows better than to try.

There wasn't much hullabaloo about the first plane's impact on the radio station I was listening to when I heard about it. In fact, there was a brief note about a plane hitting the World Trade Center by the announcer between songs. For whatever reason, the image in my mind was a single-engine plane, like a private plane, that had clipped the building on it's way to Martha's Vineyard or something. I reached my place of work with no more information than the idea that someone had hit the WTC with their plane.

When I got to my desk, people were streaming by in a fairly steady queue, going toward the cafeteria. Working for Sony Electronics, there weren't many rooms in the building that didn't have at least one television. Someone came to me and said, "Did you hear about the plane that hit the Twin Towers?" I nodded. "Some idiot have a heart attack or something?" I asked; he shook his head. "No, they're not sure what's going on." I was piqued, and noticed more people rushing -- rushing? I thought, what's the rush about? -- to the television.

When I got there the room was crowded with employees, all watching with wide eyes and gaping jaws.

I turned my head, and what I saw sent my heart into my throat.

The pillar of smoke rising out of the gleaming Tower's top was drifting across lower Manhattan on the gentle breeze, billowing furiously out of the shattered windows, being driven by the madly licking tongues of fire leaping inside. The helicopter from which the view was provided gave us an eye-level view of the black serpent that stretched out over the crisp, crystalline autumn morning. I watched in wonder as the second plane came zooming into view, drifted behind the second building, and out of view. The cataclysmic explosion that followed an instant later made me physically jump in my seat, and drew an audible gasp from all of us in the room.

I remember staring numbly for a moment. I somehow was at my desk, calling my wife. I heard her groggy, hoarse voice, heavy with sleep, answer the phone.

"Turn on the TV," I told her, "and behold Biblical prophesy unfolding before our eyes."

All I could think of was Revelation 18:8-10:

8"For this reason (A)in one day her plagues will come, pestilence and mourning and famine, and she will be (B)burned up with fire; for the Lord God who judges her (C)is strong. 9"And (D)the kings of the earth, who committed acts of immorality and (E)lived sensuously with her, will (F)weep and lament over her when they (G)see the smoke of her burning, 10(H)standing at a distance because of the fear of her torment, saying, '(I)Woe, woe, (J)the great city, Babylon, the strong city! For in (K)one hour your judgment has come.' (Rev. 18:8-10, NASB).

I couldn't say anything more. "What?" she said, still trying to focus on my words.

"Just turn on the TV," I repeated.

I heard her walk across our creaky hardwood floor and into the den, where she turned on the television. I heard the sound of the news coming through the handset. Then I heard her cry out "Oh my God ... Oh my God ... I -- I can't talk -- I have to go ... I have to go ..." She hung up on me then before I could say anything.

Our business never stopped functioning that day, but every smoke break reminded me that the world was never going to be the same again. Outside, just a few miles from O'Hare International Airport, the sound of the roaring jets going overhead, whisking people off to wherever they go, for whatever reasons, was a regular part of life. You actually get used to halting your conversations long enough for the screaming planes to pass over you until it was quiet enough to speak again.

I lit my cigarette that day, and I heard the sound of the flint wheel on the tiny stone. I heard the hiss of the gas stream escaping. I heard the birds in the trees around the facility. I heard the fountain in the tiny retention pond splashing away happily, and the quacking of the ducks in it. I heard the swans beating their wings. I heard things.

But I didn't hear any planes. The sky was silent.

After a time, a plane approached from the west. I watched it as it slowly roared and shrieked away over our building, bound for O'Hare, and I knew it was being carefully watched. When it passed over, the silence slid in around it again like water as it glides back from a boat wake. It washed over the whole world, and there was nothing but the thunderous quiet.

My son's life wasn't going to be like mine, I knew. And I knew that, from that day forward, nothing would ever be the same in my life again. I wondered that day if my wife and I had made a mistake in deciding to have a child. We both knew the world would never become a better place, but we thought ... I guess we thought the changes would be more subtle, more insidious, less noticeable, and more gradual. I don't think we ever expected the world's changes to seize us by the lapels and slap us across the mouth, then slam us to the ground and spit on us.

My wife wondered who hated us -- the United States, the land of freedom, the land of generosity, that had given so much to so many throughout her life; the country of heroism and decency; the nation that rescued nations in time of need -- who would hate us so much to perpetrate such a horrific, heinous, incomprehensibly evil act? She couldn't understand. She couldn't see how we could do so much for so many and be so reviled. Who?

It was rhetorical, of course; she's no fool. I think she knew the answer, she just couldn't wrap her mental arms around it.

I couldn't answer her specifically, but I did tell her that the world at large does not think well of our country. They hate us for any number of reasons, but the primary one is that they envy our wealth, our freedoms, our power and our position. I told her that, among the western nations, we are considered a "bully" that is too strong for its own good and one that needs to be stripped of some of its might. I told her that among the eastern nations, we are not well-thought of either; but the middle eastern nations are where the real hatred resides. The photos of the celebrations in those countries as our civilians died and our monuments collapsed into dust and rubble brought it home -- for both of us.

Naturally, I didn't tell her anything she didn't already know; my wife is much more aware of the world's goings-on than I am. But she, in her shock, just couldn't find the handle on those things.

For the next few days, our eyes were fixed on the television. We watched and we hoped; hoped for word of survivors, for word of the capture of the villains that perpetrated the horror, for an end to the fear and the anger. We hoped, of course, in vain.

Nothing will ever be the same again after September 11, 2001. If there is, however, any small grain of benefit from the monstrous deed, it is that we still remember.

I just wonder for how long. People were complaining about the increased security just DAYS after the event; they complained about not being able to fly immediately. Business whined that they needed the air travel to conduct their business. Passengers complained that their plans had been altered. The airlines complained that they'd lose billions -- yes, billions -- of dollars and have to file for government bankruptcy protection, oh, and by the way, we're going to need to be held in indemnity for all this, too; wouldn't want any angry family members suing us, would we now? All of this occurred on September 12, 2001. Yes, the very next day people were complaining. We, as a nation, still didn't even know what fate had befallen those that were trapped above the impact zones of the building, but it was not too soon to complain. They started, in short, to forget ... almost before it ever happened.

I know that many remember, but I think a lot of people have gotten distant from it, too. I think there's been enough time that people can cluck their tongues and shake their heads now, and say, "Wasn't that awful? That was just terrible. I remember how horrible it was that day."

But do they?

Lord, may I never forget. May I never forget the fear, never forget the pain, never forget the anguish ... and may I never forget the oppressive, blanketing, deafening silence.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Wednesday ... Heartache

Well, it's done.

As soon as I did it, I knew I was going to be sorry. I made the decision that, so much time had gone by, it didn't matter. A couple of more months wasn't going to make any difference.

But it stings; oh man, does it ever.

Tonight, I packed the last of my art supplies.

All my pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners, leads, holders, curves ... all boxed and wrapped and ready to go for the end of the month.

I've packed my papers and pads already; these were the last things left out. I think, somewhere in the back of my head, I thought that at least I could draw on any paper if the inclination so struck me. I could scribble on index cards, printer paper, envelopes ... anything at all. As long as I had my pencils and pens out, I could reach them, touch them, hold them -- and use them.

Now, however, they're sealed beneath cardboard, flotsum and jetsum, plastic bags and padding from my daughter's burp-rags. They're locked away, safe for the move, where I won't be able to even see them again until after the move.

In truth, I know that so much time has gone by I couldn't draw anything. Much rust must be scraped for me to even get back to the low-level where I was before. I haven't practiced, I haven't set aside the time I need to do it. I've been busy with work, family, friends occasionally, and when I wasn't busy with all that, there was football to watch, blogs to update, cigarettes to smoke, groceries to buy, and a million other things that needed doing. My artwork was again set aside, just as it has been so many times in the past, to collect dust in the corner, patiently waiting for me to come back and pick it up again.

One day soon, I won't be able to anymore. My hands will be unsteady, my eyesight too poor, my joints too achy and stiff to wield the pencil anymore. One day, my world will be dark and my heart unable to stretch itself onto the smooth blank surface of the paper. One day, the graphite won't obey my commands anymore, and on that day I will weep bitterly, longing for the lost years when I let my talent be buried and forgotten, wasted amid the ruin that once my life was. I'll wish for one more of those lazy afternoons I spent wiling in front of the television back, so that I can spend it sketching and being creative. I'll pray God for one more chance to exercise that ability that He so graciously bestowed upon me, despite knowing that I would waste it instead of cherishing it. The fat, wet tears that roll down weathered and wrinkled cheeks will be as fleeting as my youth was, and the ability to render what I see will be dimmed as my vision fades to foggy darkness, testaments to my folly and stupidity that has cost me so dearly ... more than once.

For now, I have taken one concession ... one tiny cheat that I took, probably subconsciously.

I left my Graphire hooked up to my computer. Photoshop is still installed on my computer.

Can ten minutes a night really hurt? Well ... maybe fifteen. :)

I don't want to spend the end of my life sorry for everything. There should be one thing that I can do and do well, even if it's not as well as others. It's something that I love to do; shouldn't I do it then?


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Saturday ... Another Week Slips Past ...

Here it is, Saturday night, and now I'm facing September.

Most folks don't mark the passing of time the way that I do. It's kind of interesting to watch me get more and more anxious as the year rolls past; you'd think that I'd be used to it by now. After all, I've had four decades of instability and insecurity from which to draw experience. Yet I'm never the calm, collected, ready-to-face-another-year kind of person. I'm the jittery, skittering little squirrel, rushing about to collect and shutter away as many nuts as I can for the long, potentially unfruitful winter to come.

You see, I'm a contractor in the IT field, and that's as uncertain as a frozen pond in March. If, for some reason, that's not a functional analogy for you, then it's as uncertain as the most uncertain thing you can think of in your context. :)

What that translates to, for those of you in other industries, is that I don't know if I'll have a job beyond the end of this year. While there's no guarantee that I'll have a job AT the end of the year, it's even less certain that I'll have one beyond the end of the year. For me, the world lives in six-month blocks of time; that's how long a contract extension lasts. I was told earlier this year that I'd been extended to the end of the year, but that meant very little to me after I watched no few than two other contractors get "extended" to the end of the year only to be released shortly after said extension. One of them was released less than six weeks after being given a raise for merit.

The promises of corporations don't mean anything anymore. I was promised a career with the last company I was with, and I got laid off four years into it. Sure, there was the whole industry cave-in during 1999-2000, and there was 9/11 in 2001, but somehow the company fared through all that and caught us with our knickers about our ankles in 2002 when an "organizational decision" was made to eliminate the jobs of 24 individuals, among whom I was numbered. It went on in other areas before affecting me, but we were told that we were "safe". I have since learned that there is no such thing as "safe".

Since that time, I haven't had a full-time job. The only work I've had has been as a contractor, and a low-level contractor at that. I'm not one of those highly-paid, flashy "consultants" that come in and bill companies for criminal amounts of money, or even one of those project managers that rush around and go to all the meetings to pass on what they're doing and then delegate what they're assigned to someone else. Nope, I'm the bottom-feeder, and if this were a different sort of work, I'd be called a "temp" instead of a "contractor". Pick your own euphemism, it's the same thing. I'm a commodity, a tool that's used like a spare tire to keep things moving until someone more permanent can be put in place.

It's not very comforting for me to say that, and it's even less so to live it. IT used to be an industry that was worth working in, but it's done this to itself. Those who worked in IT before the industry was forced to change (and quickly) can recall the "glory days" of the late '90's, when we were recruited all over the country if not the world for big salaries and with unproven skill sets. We wrote our own tickets and priced ourselves into fossildom; the cost of running an IT department wasn't even a company consideration before, it was just something that had to be paid, period. Whatever the cost of running the IT department/division, the company either found a way to pay it or went out of business. The hope was that these expensive people would position the company for that boon in the enigmatic "e-commerce" and give them the competitive edge that would balance the king's ransom they paid out to get to that successful plateau.

Of course, IT is now considered expendible. In just those short six or seven years, companies have starting looking off-shore for lower costs in technology personnel. Some companies don't have an IT department at all anymore, and what is being used for their technical support is likely based somewhere in China or India. What jobs are available here now only pay a fraction of the amount they did before the "crash" and are temporary positions so that someone new can be brought in and the pay scale reset every couple of years -- or worse yet, a couple of times a year. The qualifications for those positions can't be what they were in the late '90's, either; I've seen ads requiring -- yes, requiring -- more training than I'd been able to afford or garner over the last decade, and that has to be coupled with practical, working experience to match or it's a no-go. I know it's enforced too, because I've been turned away from positions for which I know I was over-qualified because of either training requirements or experiential requirements.

So, I'm again faced with a dilemma; do I train for more work in this industry, and possibly face this whole six-month life-cycle again, or do I try to find another way to make a living and see if I can score the same (or better) salary that it's taken me a full 10 years to rise to in THIS industry?

The question is one that I'm going to have to face sooner rather than later, because the end of the year is coming. If I survive the next 90 days, that is. I go in every day to work and work as hard as I can to demonstrate that I'm worth hanging onto, and worth the money I'm costing, but that doesn't always work. In today's corporate IT setting, I find it succeeds less and less, because the driving force is the bottom line, not the ability to be positioned in technology for the ambiguous future. Companies waited patiently for the over-burdened cost of IT to right itself, and fate took that one better. The industry didn't right itself, it capsized itself. Now, "business" has the upper hand and seems to relish leveraging that against the IT world that took advantage when it had the chance.

The gravy train stopped long ago, and now I have to decide what I'm going to do with my life until someone comes along and reads my blog then blurts "My GOD! You're a BRILLIANT writer! How would you like to write a book for me? Here's a multi-million dollar advance on the first thing you grind out!"

My options, while not great, are as follows:
  1. Continue down a path as a VB/VBA programmer, which will mean being a contractor forever probably, and is very risky. It's risky because I have no experience and will have to take whatever pay is offered and hope it's high enough to make ends meet.
  2. Take a new path. One fork of that new path is SQL; I can probably learn to be a database administrator, and get certified by someone for it, which would help get my foot into doors that are currently closed. On the other hand, I again have no experience doing that, and that leads me back to not being able to control the pay scale very well.
  3. The other fork in this new path leads me to SAP. Now, that's a whole other ball of wax, and isn't as easy -- or even as clearly defined -- as it sounds. There are a billion options for SAP, depending on what combination of things you want to do in that. In fact, SAP is almost an industry in an industry, and it's been kept a dark and mysterious vault of secrets for a long time. I have a penlight with which to navigate it. So, the first thing I have to do is find out what options are available to me in SAP, and then find out what training is required to pursue those options, and then find out what benefits that will provide me, and then commit to getting said training ... all before the end of the year.
So, based on all that, I'm looking for input anywhere I can get it. What, if anything, are the thoughts of those that happen across this blog? What, if any, suggestions can you offer me? What advice can you give? And if nothing else, where can I get a cup of coffee?

Stay tuned, faithful viewers ... the tension is rising.