Degrees of Success

I suppose that it’s about time that I publicly announce that I have finally graduated from Murray State University with a Bachelor of Computer Science degree. After cobbling together a mix of classes that fulfilled my final three degree requirements and slogging through them over the summer, I officially graduated on August 4th. I was even able to turn my GPA around enough to graduate cum laude!

Yeah, still working on getting it in a frame.

Yeah, still working on getting it in a frame.

My final two classes were web-only, so I didn’t really get the closure of walking out of a classroom for the last time while secure in the knowledge that I was truly done. Instead, as an unofficially non-traditional student, I opted for closure in a non-traditional way: I drove to campus from my office at work after finishing my last final and took a celebratory walk. It felt very much like my favorite scene from The Pursuit of Happyness when Will Smith’s character had finally reached the point in his life where all his sacrifices and hard work had finally paid off (only without all the other people – it was 9pm in Murray, after all).

When I first started this journey before the turn of millennium, I noticed that most of my classes typically had at least one older student. Characteristically, most of these folks either sat in the very front or the very back of the classroom. What I noticed about many of them in particular is that they had a tendency to ask questions that caused the professor to repeat something he or she just said using slightly different words. Even worse, they usually asked their questions right as the professor was about to dismiss the class early. Of course these questions would usually get the professor lecturing for another good fifteen minutes or more on something that nobody in the class was especially interested in listening to because it was either understood already or tangential.

As I returned to school in 2014 at 34 years old, I vowed that I would never be the annoying old guy in the class that everyone secretly loathed. Instead, I planned on keeping my mouth shut, asking any questions I might have directly to the professors during their office hours, and most importantly, blending in as well as possible.76392-How-do-you-do-fellow-kids-30-r-fq7d

I was able to stick to this strategy for most of my classes – especially those needed for my Economics minor. From what I could tell, most of my classmates never discovered my secret identity, or at least let on that they had. I gained pretty much the same reputation that I had before as a younger student: That guy who doesn’t really ever say much.

I said “most” of my classes because there were several occasions when I absolutely could not bear the awkward silence that followed when a professor would pose a question to a room full of bewildered or disinterested students. It pained me to see an instructor’s frustration as he or she tried to get through to these kids, so I attempted to usher things along by speaking up and moving the discussion forward. This was the turning point where I think I finally began to sympathize with those older folks from my days as a Freshman and Sophomore – they were just trying to help everyone get the most out of their education.

I actually found myself wanting to see these young adults succeed where in the past I had come up short – much in the same way that I impose certain expectations upon my children because I want their lives to be better than mine. I spoke up because, like my children, I didn’t want to see them suffer because of something needless or preventable. Call it paternal instinct.

To see these young adults squandering their time and money while not taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge and other resources provided to them was disheartening. The feeling was worsened by the memory that I did the exact same thing when I was their age. A college education is a wonderful opportunity that, contrary to passing observation, is not available to a large segment of the world’s population.

At the same time, I can understand how some of these kids might be so apathetic. I have to wonder just how many of those desks were filled by students who were there only to earn the respect of the adults in their lives who asserted that, “Going to college and getting a degree is the only way you’re going to be able to succeed in life.”

At eighteen years old, having no idea what they’re going to do with their lives, many young adults tend to end up in college by default. I have to wonder how many of them really should have taken another path.

tylerMy dad never went to college, so it was real important that I go. So I graduate, I call him up long distance, I say, “Dad, now what?” He says, “Get a job.” Now I’m 25, make my yearly call again. I say, “Dad, now what?” He says, “I don’t know, get married.”

— Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Here is where I find that I am at odds with myself. I want my children to have successful lives, but the last thing I want to do is to push them into something that is only going to make them miserable and provide absolutely no enrichment. Furthermore, am I mistaken that there truly is no enrichment to be found in miserable experiences?

So when my daughter wants to quit gymnastics, what do I tell her? Do I encourage her to push through the activities that she doesn’t like so that she comes out on the other side with a sense of perseverance and accomplishment? Or do I accept that gymnastics isn’t her thing and nudge her to try something else like dancing or painting or piano or karate so that she can find her true calling? What negative behaviors am I encouraging when I allow her to quit when things get hard? What damage am I doing when I force her to keep doing something she hates?

I feel that I am fortunate that my parents never pushed me into any activities that I did not want to do while growing up. However, I often wonder if I needed a few more kicks in the butt to get me out the door and interacting with other people. Perhaps I needed to spend a bit more time outside my comfort zone.

All I can be confident in right now is that my desire to finish college was purely internal. It was something I did because I wanted to do it – not because of anyone’s expectations. It was also something that I did on my own timeline, instead of the normal four or five year timeline that most people follow. I achieved what I wanted to achieve when I was able to achieve it.

I think that at this point, the most important thing that I can teach my children is something that I’m finally coming to understand myself: Nobody has life figured out. All of these people out there who look like they know what they’re doing? They’re winging it. We’re all just running around pretending that we know what’s going on so that we can have an orderly society.

The good news is that we don’t have to worry about “having it together” in the way that most people think we do. Our duty is not necessarily to live a life that is considered “successful” by other people. Instead, the standard by which the value of our lives is measured is our obedience to God and His commandments. For many people, the appearance of success is going to look very different than what we would expect.

And that’s okay, because as long as we’re doing what we’re supposed to in God’s eyes, we’ll achieve at least some degree of success.

Escape Velocity

I hated growing up in Murray. As soon as I was old enough to realize that it was possible to leave, I made that my solitary goal. It pained me to see the look on my parents’ faces each time I made this proclamation, but I was absolutely convinced that if I was ever to become successful in life, I would need to situate myself elsewhere — someplace with a thriving tech industry that didn’t stop moving after 9 pm.

Now, here I am at 35 years old still living here and have yet to reach escape velocity. Quite the opposite, I’m actually finding fewer and fewer reasons to leave. You could say that I’m running out of thrust, to keep to my metaphor. To put it simply, I just speculate that I have more to lose than to gain by leaving. It’s simple economics.formula6


I’ve lost count of the other individuals I’ve encountered through life who’ve told a similar tale to mine — those who once also counted themselves among the despondent legions of Murray’s youth who vowed to leave this mire without so much as a rude gesture once they had the means. Of those who did manage to leave, the gravitational pull of this place inexplicably drew a good number of them back years later.

Those that haven’t returned yet? Give it some time.

I sometimes imagine that the phenomenon could be used as the main premise of a comedy film in the same vein as Groundhog Day or The Truman Show. I can already hear the trailer now: “Meet Fred, your average, everyday, normal guy. Fred just moved to Murray, KY, a seemingly normal, quiet town. But this particular town has a well-guarded secret. Once you settle there, you can never really leave.” The frightening thing is that those words could actually work for a horror movie as well.

This is a horror film disguised as a comedy.

This is a horror film disguised as a comedy.

... This too

… This too

The distinction between the comedy or tragedy of being bound to a location lends itself to an interesting behavioral experiment. Consider how the classic psychological test of whether an individual sees a glass of water as half full or half empty can purportedly be indicative of whether he or she harbors a optimistic or pessimistic worldview. I believe a similar test can be devised by asking individuals if being tethered to Murray is comedy or tragedy. Do they regard themselves as being blessed beyond measure, or do they feel that they are victims of terrible misfortune?

For the longest time, if you had asked me the Murray question, I would have answered that it was a series of poor decisions, mistakes, and bad luck that kept me rooted here. I would have also answered that God was punishing me somehow by keeping me here to atone for past sins. I spent many sleepless nights driving myself to madness by calculating “what if” scenarios. What if I had made a different decision or reacted differently to a given situation? Would my current lot in life had been any better?

The problem with this thinking is that those “better” potential outcomes would have inevitably led to other unknown potential outcomes. What may appear to have been a better decision in current hindsight may have eventually led to a catastrophic outcome. I am loath to admit it, but the film The Butterfly Effect (based on the eponymous concept in chaos theory) was instrumental in helping me understand this. We all sometimes wish for a chance to go back and change certain things about our past, but there is no guarantee that those changes would have made us any happier.

butterfly effect

Change one thing. Change everything.

Now logically, this all makes perfect sense to me. Emotionally, I’m still working on internalizing it. I have to occasionally remind myself that I am in Murray not by misfortune, but because that’s just how things worked out. Every time I wander into the dangerous thinking that my life should have turned out differently, I have to pull myself back out by reminding myself that things are exactly as they are meant to be.

I’ve been trying to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness to keep myself from going to such dark places in the first place. I have so many wonderful people in my life right now who either would likely not have existed or I would have never met if I had strayed from my path even a little. The thought of giving up those lives and relationships breaks my heart, so even if I was given the opportunity to go back and change things, I would be a fool to gamble away all that I have for some unknown alternative.

So am I glass-half-full kind of person or a glass-half-empty kind of person? In response, I ask, “What is wrong with just being okay with the fact that the glass just is?” Many countless happenings transpired to transform the glass and its contents to their current state. Some were events of nature and others were decisions made by people who were driven by many different motivations. I think it’s presumptuous for us to label the net sum of those happenings as fortunate or unfortunate, as we simply cannot comprehend how those happenings factor into the ultimate future of human existence.



Instead of judging happenings as good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate, we have to remember that we can’t see the big picture of this thing called life. Or as Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey so eloquently put it, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” We have to trust that since God is in control, everything will work out in the end for those of us who trust in Him and allow Him to direct our lives.Romans_8-28

Slow Music For Fast Times

Lately I’ve found myself spending that last few hours of my Sundays listening to Hearts of Space on WKMS-FM, our local public radio station. If you’ve never heard of HoS, here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:

1474-1-hearts-of-spaceHearts of Space is a United States weekly syndicated public radio show featuring music of a contemplative nature drawn largely from the ambient, New Age and electronic genres, while also including classical, world, Celtic, experimental, and other music selections. For many years, the show’s producer and presenter, Stephen Hill, has applied the term “space music” to the music broadcast on the show, irrespective of genre. It is the longest-running radio program of its type in the world.

I vaguely remember hearing a few programs of HoS when I was in high school, before I had really discovered my affinity toward electronic music. I don’t remember why I stopped listening to it, but HoS eventually drifted from my awareness and was forgotten.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was spending a late Sunday evening cleaning out my garage with the radio on and rediscovered it! Now I can’t seem to stop listening to it!

This marks the first radio program I have listened to on a consistent basis.

I think this also marks a subtle shift in my musical tastes. Where I used to favor powerful, driven electronic music when I was working, I’ve lately found myself settling more into slower ambient textures. Through Hearts of Space, I’ve discovered music that has been around for decades, right under my nose. It’s all been really exciting!

I’ll leave you with music from one of the recent programs, entitled “Cloud of Promise”:

Interestingly enough, I also found a totally unrelated but equally awesome song when searching for “forest for the trees”:

Trucks Bring It

I think I’ve finally come to a startling conclusion – something I never thought I’d say since I was first issued my first driver’s license: I really dislike driving. I love the freedom of being able to go where I wish without worrying about someone else’s schedule, but the actual act of operating a vehicle is really wearing on me lately.

My job has me logging an average of 200 to 250 miles per day. I know for professional drivers, 200 a day is just a drop in the bucket. The difference is that I’m not paid to be a professional driver, though I harbor a tremendous respect for those who are. I admire the unsung long-haul drivers of America not only because they are the mistreated and unappreciated backbone of the economy, but because I have no idea how they are able to operate their vehicles safely for such long periods of time, under such strenuous conditions.

Trucks bring it

My biggest shortcoming is that driving by myself gets really boring really quickly. No amount of custom-burned music CDs, audiobooks, radio programs, or mental gymnastics stand against the relentlessness of endless stretches of asphalt for very long. I do enjoy the time I get to spend thinking about things (something I also enjoyed when I worked in a factory), but I find myself drifting in and out of flow, which is actually a very dangerous state of mind for a driver.

So after a while, I start amusing yourself with the finer details. Like the license plates that read things like “404 HTM” and “133 BPM,” which technically aren’t vanity plates, but carry meaning to some, nonetheless. I start to count the animal corpses, viewing their steady decay in a day-by-day time lapse. I start to notice that after a while, those 5 dead skunks on Highway 94 smell almost like a cup of fresh dark roast coffee straight out of the grinder (or maybe that’s just a personal coping mechanism of mine).

coffee poster

Unfortunately, another thing I notice is all the trash lining every highway. As I’ve said before on this blog, you’re never gonna catch me sailing with Greenpeace, but I respect this beautiful planet that God gave us, and do the best I can to take care of it without going to extremes like trying to recycle my fingernails. The trash itself, however, is not what I find so remarkable. It’s the composition of it.

It has been said countless times that the human brain is a relentless pattern recognition device. I imagine this functionality is amplified when boredom sets in. I don’t know if I’m the only one that catches this, but my brain recognizes over and over again that most of the fast food trash is generally from one source: McDonald’s. I’ve even formulated a few theories as to why this might be.

Theory One: Sheer Volume

This theory hinges on the possibility that McDonald’s serves more take-out customers per day than any other restaurant. Due to the sheer volume of food that goes out the window each day versus other restaurants, the McDonald’s litter is a testament to their sales. This theory assumes that McDonald’s customers tend to litter just as much as other restaurant customers. This leads us to Theory Two.

Theory Two: Littering Patrons

This theory hinges on the possibility that a higher percentage of McDonald’s customers versus customers of other restaurants tend to throw their garbage onto the highway rather than a proper receptacle. I won’t go into particulars on this theory, because it can lead to to stereotyping, prejudice, and unfair assumptions. Kinda like how people think of truck drivers. Let’s just say that this is likely another case where a few bad apples spoil the bunch.

Theory Three: Conspicuousness

McDonald’s packaging is quite distinct from most other chains. It is quite possible that the only reason I’m noticing more McDonald’s litter is because the litter itself is more noticeable. Maybe I’m only seeing what I want to see so that I have a reason to post some more inane drivel on here so you guys won’t yell at me anymore to write something.

Who knows, maybe it’s all three theories combined, or maybe I’m just making a big deal out of nothing. I’m just curious if anyone else notices similarly irrelevant patterns in their daily lives. They tell me it’s a good thing to notice small stuff such as this. Maybe they’re right, or maybe they’re just agreeing with me out of fear. They never know what this crazy guy is gonna do next.

I will close with one more pet peeve of mine relating to all this. More of a PSA.

Your truck bed is not a trash receptacle.

It’s funny how people never make the connection of how they can throw all kinds of garbage in the back of their truck, yet they rarely have to clean it out. It’s like it empties itself! I wonder where it all goes? It’s still littering, whether they mean for it to blow out or not. Seriously, what did they think was going to happen once they got up to 60MPH?

[18-Jun-2009 Edit:  I followed a SUV into New Concord today that sums up the first part of this post nicely: “641 FML.” Almost poetic.]

Goodbye, EGM

I just read and confirmed from multiple sources that Electronic Gaming Monthly, a veteran gaming magazine published since 1989, has been canceled. It seems EGM’s parent company, 1Up, has been sold off to UGO and almost immediately, the decision was made to scrap EGM and lay off several senior staff members. The January 2009 issue will be EGM’s last.

I’ve read EGM on and off since the early 90s, back when gaming was just for us nerds and didn’t command near the popularity and respect that it does these days. I remember the bold sense of humor and no-nonsense reviews were traits that really made the magazine stand out from its competitors.

But alas, as video games have evolved and shifted into mainstream popular culture, so too has journalism evolved away from print media such as newspapers and magazines toward interactive, cheaply-distributed websites. Magazines and local newspapers are going to have some tough choices to make as the years go by. Even the ones that survive may not remain in the same forms we recognize today.

I knew the day was coming when most of my favorite print magazines would disappear in favor of an online presence, but I didn’t expect it to feel like suddenly losing several old friends. I hope all of the recently unemployed staffers find alternate work quickly. For all the laughs they have provided over the years, it’s the least I can hope for.

Yip Yip Family

Most of my generation who grew up in front of public television remember Sesame Street and its host of memorable characters: Big Bird, Kermit the Frog, Elmo, Bert & Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, The Count… Who can forget such gems as “It’s Not Easy Being Green” or “C is for Cookie” or “Rubber Ducky?”

As fun as it is to wax nostalgic with Sesame Street, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the show that much as a child. I was terribly averse to anything that felt like learning disguised as entertainment. My fondest memories from the show actually come from some of the more obscure characters such as the Martians, a.k.a. the Yip Yips.tumblr_mjtvxkvoiT1qb5gkjo1_500

The premise behind the Yip Yips was to teach kids about the properties of certain objects by looking at them from an alien perspective. Although this concept was by no means new or revolutionary, the Yip Yips were able to pull it off in a way that still makes me laugh today.

These were probably the simplest puppets ever featured on Sesame Street, controlled by only a pair of sticks. Yet I remember quoting them back and forth with my dad for years after, well into my teens.

Thanks to the wonder that is YouTube and some other kind souls who apparently thought the Yip Yips were worthy of preservation, my kids have now become subject to my crazy sense of humor.

So now, we’ve found ourselves going around in public saying dumb things like, “Book say Earth person have hands!” And the little ones oblige me by replying with the obligatory, “Yip yip yip yip yip!” It’s a strange feeling, to say the least – I’m so proud of them for having such offbeat senses of humor, but I worry that I’m going to make them as nuts as I am.

Unfortunately, Tabitha is not immune. While digging around for Yip Yip videos, we found one with a Yip Yip family singing a cute song that I didn’t seem to remember from my childhood. Of course, it didn’t take long before we all knew the words and started singing it back and forth, because it embedded itself in our heads. It’s getting as bad as Bananaphone was at first.

So, if you happen to see us over the holidays or any other time in the future reciting some ridiculousness back and forth, please don’t be alarmed. Don’t start making your way to the nearest exit while pretending to take an important phone call – all the while dialing 9-1-1. Just ask us what movie or show we’re quoting and we’ll happily show you what’s so darn funny on the nearest available interweb portal.

For more Yip Yip hijinks, check out what happens when they find a radio, a fan, a computer, and Planet Earth.