The Commute

The alarm clock clicks to life, and I wake to the sound of the radio announcer reciting the news. I sigh, reach out and shut it off, then swing my legs to the floor and start my routine. Let the dogs out, shower, shave, dress and eat. Each step must follow the other in precise order, or my morning will come off the rails, and I will have no alternative but to wake up. On a good day I can be halfway to work before that happens.

This isn’t a good day.

After standing in front of the refrigerator for 5 minutes trying to pack my lunch, I give up, throw fruit into my lunchbox, and go say goodbye to my wife. She rolls over in the sleep warm bed, and her embrace is like a siren calling me back into the depths of slumber. The Dogs sigh, to let me know where they have curled up, and I reach over and scratch their bellies for good luck. No bad day has ever begun with a kiss, and a belly scratch.

Outside, the neighborhood steams in the silent darkness. At this hour only a few lights have blinked on in the houses. I follow the street as it leads down the hill like a stream, flowing into an ever widening current of traffic, until at last I am out on the highway, pulsing in lines of red and white, like blood through the arteries of the city. This is my 14th year of making this drive. 20 miles one way. 5 times a week. 48 weeks a year. 134,000 miles of yo-yoing between two worlds.

With any luck I will only have another 20 years of doing this.

Christ, that’s a depressing thought.

Each morning is a choice. I can choose to participate, or I can choose to stay in bed. Either way the machine grinds on as of its own will.

I think of the millions of others who have come before me. Picking up their tools, and going about their work, by foot, beast or wheel, and I wonder. Is this malaise as old as mankind, or just some modern disease?

The Great Safety Razor Experiment

Yes, the highlight of my weekend was shaving. It’s come to this.

After 20 years of hacking away my hirsute Middle European whiskers using Gillete Mach-Turbo-Exel-etc, I have decided to try something different. Over the weekend I made the change to an old fashioned double edge safety razor.


Why not?

I needed a new hobby, and running across the wet shaving subculture, I thought what the heck. So last weekend I did some online research, and went out onto Amazon and ordered a double edge safety razor, some shaving soap, and a shaving brush. It cost me about $40, or roughly the price of 6 months worth of Gillete Mach-Turbo-Exel blades. One of the great attractions to safety razors is the frugality. Also the aesthetics.

Behold, the Edwin Jagger DE89.

As an engineer, I love good, clean, simple design. The razor itself is three pieces, about as simple as could be. But hold it in your hand, and it feels solid. A smooth, chrome, nicely balanced piece of metal that will outlive me. There’s something reassuring about buying something that could be passed on for generations and never wear out.

I spent a few hours doing research on the proper technique to using the thing, lest I end up having a Frank Pentangeli / Godfather moment. And after three days I have to say, it is definitely an art. Not the sort of thing you want to do with your eyes half closed.

But I also have to say, I can totally understand the fascination with it. Lathering up with a badger hair brush, and bay rum scented soap makes me feel like a character out of a Sherlock Holmes story. But it’s not just the Steampunk aesthetic, it’s also the luxuriant indulgence of it all. A ritual complete with it’s own tools. It doesn’t get anymore satisfying than that.

Genuine Badger Hair Shaving Brush

Yes, I’m getting old. Next I’ll wax poetic about oil changes.

I figure if I dress like a Grandpa, I might as well shave like one. Did I mention that the blades are 10% of the price of the Gillete-Mach-Turbo-Exels? Nothing is more “manly” than being frugal.

Even though there are a lot of websites out there catering to this hobby, the tools are impossible to find anywhere in town. It’s ironic that to shave like a Victorian you need to have internet access to order your supplies.

1940 - Truck drivers shaving at truck stop on U.S. 1 - photo by Jack Delano - LOC

So the great Double Edge Safety Razor shaving experiment has begun. Please try to contain your excitement.

Stay tuned, later in the week I’ll be writing blog posts on the price of gas at the various stations around town.

Why do chicks dig hockey players?

I have been on this earth for 43 years now, and I like to think I am an astute observer of the human condition. Well, as attentive an observer as any male can be. Ooo! Look! Shiny objects!

Where was I?

Right. I am an astute observer of the foibles and paradoxes of this strange mammalian beast we call man. What I have learned of this creature could fill volumes of scientific essays. However, what I have learned about his partner on this earth, this strange creature called “woo-man” would only fill half a page. If not for this great mystery I would have lost interest in life a long, long time ago. So rare are these insights that when I do uncover a truth about the behavior of the female of the species, I hold it up like a prospector finding a pure nugget of gold, and shout EUREKA! Then I feel a sudden urge to share my great discovery with mankind.

Thankfully I have a blog to share these pearls of wisdom. So today I would like to contribute this one great truth for the betterment of mankind.

Are you ready?

Are you sitting down?

OK, here goes.

Chicks dig hockey players.

Shocking, I know. But trust me on this one. Hockey players are second only to rock musicians on the scale of womanly desire. Please, don’t ask me to explain it. I leave that to greater minds than mine.

It was the Junior year of High School when I first discovered this. As hockey season rolled around, I noticed that half of the girls in class would talk about the previous night’s Sabres game with the same sort of interest usually reserved for Rainbows, and Unicorns. Wondering what this was all about, I asked The Girl Next Door why she followed hockey, and she made it abundantly clear. Hockey players were H-O-T.

This revelation came as a bitter blow. Not only had I dropped out of guitar lessons in the 6th grade, but the Ice Arena in Batavia hadn’t even opened until I was 12, and our school did not have a hockey program. Somehow I had missed out on the two best ways of picking up girls before I had even known what was at stake. Fate is a cruel mistress.

So I decided I would make the best of a bad situation, and become a hockey fan so that I would have something to talk to girls about, other than helping them with their Trigonometry homework.

As that winter progressed beneath the gray permaclouds of Western New York, I began to watch as many hockey games as I could so that I could get in on the conversation with the gaggle of hockey mad girls in school. Before long, The Girl Next Door and I were calling each other between periods to breakdown the game like Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. Who knew talking to girls could be so easy?

But my discussions about hockey weren’t just limited to my puppy dog infatuation with The Girl Next Door. I soon struck up hockey friendships with half of the girls in my class. And to make things even more remarkable, NONE of these relationships involved either beer, or make out sessions in clandestine locations. What was happening to me? How could I suddenly relate to women so easily, and frequently that I could choose to be selective about which girls to lust after?

Amazing days indeed.

As much as our mutual love of hockey brought me closer to The Girl Next Door, I had no illusions. The root of her interest was the inexplicable, carnal desire that cute hockey players created in the loins of teenage girls. Yes, I may be able to talk for hours about a Sabres game with her, but I could never turn her on the way that Phil Housley, or Tom Barrasso could.

As for my platonic hockey relationships, I actually learned more about the game of hockey from Maria and Dina than I did from any guy I knew. When I went to a game during Senior Year it was with them, and not any of my supposed “guy” friends. These girls not only lusted after players, they also were walking encyclopedias of hockey knowledge.

When the game was over, we walked down the dank, smelly caverns of the Aud, to stand outside the Sabres locker room so Dina could introduce us to Mike Foligno, as she babysat his kids. In retrospect, going to a hockey game with 2 girls has to count among of the highlights of my teenage years. When Maria almost killed us by driving under a Semi in a snow squall, the epic nature of the night was cemented in my memory. Not many men come close to having their obituary mention you died while on a date with two girls.

Sigh… if only I had been a hockey player.

Risky Business revisited

I had a presentation to make to the board of directors of my Dark Corporate Overlords this morning, so I was too preoccupied with worry to write a proper blog post. So instead I will recycle another story from my misspent well spent youth. Enjoy while I clean out my desk…

If there are two constant themes in all of my stories, I think we can agree they are “Drunkenness” and “Sexual Frustration”. The two always seem to go hand in hand. Well class, today’s story is no different. Imagine the coincidence!

It was late winter of 1985, and my teenage social life was taking off. For a brace-faced, acne-riddled, wallflower with a bad Beatles haircut, I had somehow stumbled into a steady girlfriend, and circle of coeds with amazing access to alcohol. Surely all those years of serving as an altar boy were paying dividends, because God was smiling on me now.

For the first time in my natural born life, I was the only child living at home. My Bratty Big Sis was living in Oneonta with her husband, my Big Bruddah was working at the Buffalo Bar in Idaho Springs, Colorado and the “Middle Child Sister” had moved out of the house again, and was in her own apartment. As the Golden Child of the family, I had already enjoyed more than my fair share of my parents attention, but now I was positively swamped with it. It was all about me, all the time, and with 2 cars in the household, and no siblings to have to share them with, I had the freedom to take my girlfriend parking whenever I could slip her out of her parents’ sight. My friends, life was about as good as it could get, but then it got better.

My Bratty Big Sis living in Oneonta just had her first baby the previous summer. My folks were suddenly finding reasons to drive to Oneonta about one weekend a month. Not only did I have wheels, I soon found myself left alone like Tom Cruise in that movie with the awful Bob Seger song. I know, I should be more specific as ALL Bob Seger songs are awful, as are all Tom Cruise movies for that matter. You know the one the one with Rebecca De Mornay? Yeah, THAT one.

I found out on a Friday that they would be leaving the next morning, and coming back on Sunday night. The Middle Sister was over for free dinner on Friday night, and I was able to pull her aside, and give her the $30 from my secret cache to buy me a couple of cases of beer. I could have elected to go cheap, but I wasn’t that sort of guy, yet. I specified a case of Molson Golden, and a case of Michelob dark, and whatever else she could find that looked good at Angotti Beverages.

It only took a few clandestine calls on the old rotary dial in the upstairs hallway to set plans into motion. I called my friend Tim, and told him to come by Saturday afternoon to help set up then plan on spending the night, then I was on the phone with Bella making sure that she could gather the Girl Next Door and other female friends. Chris & Dan were a given. Now I had been drinking for a little less than a year at that point, but in all that time I had never been able to bring my girlfriend to a party. She spent most weekends babysitting for a couple down the street, or cleaning house for a little old lady in town. But on this particular night, the stars had aligned and she was free to come to the party. She arranged a cover story of going to the movies with her best friend so as to hide the fact that she would be drunk and half clothed by 9pm, from her strict parents. Things were shaping up.

My parents left bright and early on Saturday morning, and the game was on. My sister dropped by after lunch with the two cases of beer plus a six pack of some Philippine Beer with a grass hut on the label. (Ooo exotic!) Tim arrived at the appointed hour, and we proceeded to carry my Big Bruddah’s stereo downstairs from the bedroom, and set it up in the living room. I put on my best long sleeve Ocean Pacific T-shirt, we grabbed some dinner from Burger King, and by 7 pm the guests started to arrive.

I had only invited a small circle of 12-15 trusted friends, as the last thing I wanted was for my party to turn into a scene from John Hughes movie. We kept the shades drawn, and nobody drove to the party, walking instead after putting together suitable alibis. We were amazingly responsible for a bunch of hormone addled 17 year olds.

My girlfriend was one of the first to arrive. As people showed up by ones and twos, we started playing quarters around my Mom’s huge kitchen table. I kept jumping in and out of the game, to change the tape, or answer the front door, peeking out each time half expecting to see Johnny Law standing on the front porch.

The party was going great, everyone was in fantastic moods, and the beers were going down easy. This was so much better than drinking warm Old Milwaukee in the woods behind the blind school. Once everyone had arrived, there was little thought or worry about getting caught. Now I could turn my attentions to entertaining my guests, looking forward to later in the evening when I could slip upstairs with my girlfriend. In the mean time I was suavely working the crowd like Sinatra in Vegas, making sure everyone was having a good time.

I’m not sure when I first noticed it, but at some point my girlfriends best friend came up to me, and told me that they had a problem. My girlfriend was about to pass out. Now, this was shocking news to me, and I had just been talking to her not 10 minutes earlier, and she had only had half of a beer. I followed her into the kitchen, and sure enough, there was my girlfriend, her eyes rolling around in her head like pinballs as she slumped against the table. This was definitely not on the agenda.

I helped her up, and tried to figure out what was wrong. She smiled at me, slurred something about how much she loved me, and fell against my shoulder sobbing, “I’m sorry I’m so druuunnnnk. You’re going to hate me aren’t yoooouuuuu.” None of the John Hughes movies I had ever seen had prepared me for this.

I cut her off from drinking, and her best friend started freaking out about how we were going to take her home in this state. Someone suggested she drink some coffee like they did to sober people up on TV, but this being 1985, none of us had ever considered actually drinking coffee. Ick! Then her best friend had the brilliant idea that she should take a cold shower. This seemed to make sense at the time. Perhaps we confused the TV remedy for horny husbands, for the one for drunks. In any case, we helped her upstairs, and her friend took her into the bathroom to help her undress and get in the shower. This wasn’t exactly the way I had hoped to get her out of her clothes that night, although, I may have been amenable to the part about her best friend helping get her undressed.

I went back downstairs to the party, but my mood was pretty much ruined. I proceeded to get myself drunk, muttering under my breath. Then I began to turn my attentions to the Girl Next Door. We had been flirting pretty heavily in school lately, and she seemed to be enjoying the attention I was giving her. I had almost forgotten that my girlfriend was in the shower upstairs. It might have been minutes, it might have been hours, but eventually she came back downstairs, looking sleepy and remorseful. This only ticked me off more, because now the drama began.

“You’re going to break up with meeeee…..”
“No, I’m not. I’m just upset that you got so drunk.”
“You hate meeee….”
“No, I don’t.”

It was at this point that I decided that maybe she wasn’t really the girl I wanted to be giving my class ring to. Maybe I should have stuck with the Catholic girls from ND. They could handle their liquor, AND had no issues with fooling around. I guess this was what you might call one of those “teachable moments”.
The rest of the night I spent convincing my now inconsolable girlfriend that I did indeed still love her, despite the fact that I wanted to break up with her more with each passing minute. Eventually the beer ran out, and I missed the rest of my own party. One by one people left for home. I managed to step out onto the porch to say goodbye to the Girl Next Door, and tell her I would give her a call the next day. Then I went back inside, and help my girlfriends BF to walk her home, stopping at the corner of North Street and Bank, so that I wouldn’t be seen by her parents.

I went home and cleaned up. Tim spent the night on my couch, and in the morning we discovered that someone had puked all over the floor of the downstairs bathroom. He denied doing it, and I know it sure as hell wasn’t me. The morning was spent mopping the bathroom, and getting the smell out before my parents came home. He never did own up to it either.

Needless to say, it was a memorable experience. I learned several lessons that night that would serve me well in later years.

1.) Never date a girl that couldn’t handle her liquor.

2.) Parties are WAY more fun when they are at someone else’s house.

3.) There’s no point spending money on good beer, when cheap wine coolers or Franzia will get the girls every bit as drunk.

4.) When a girl is crying hysterically about how you are going to break up with her, keep your mouth shut and go along with it.

5.) Catholic School Girls Rule

I must confess that I knew #5 already, but the party did drive the point home.

When the moon hits your eye, like a big almond pastry, that’s Amaretto…

As I’ve said before, I was the tag-a-long child in the 20 Prospect clan. A full 7-10 years younger than my siblings, I inhabited a different world than the one they knew growing up. While they were going through High School I was sitting on the floor of the living room playing with my Evel Knievel stunt cycle. By the time I hit my teen years they were out of the house and I had become an only child. Needless to say, being the baby in the family I was spoiled rotten, getting to experience a family where Mom & Dad both worked and only had one kid to support. Our vacations became more frequent, and to more exciting places.

The response from my siblings to my golden child status varied. Big Bruddah couldn’t have cared less, and bequeathed to me his stereo and collection of 70’s LP’s while he was out hitchhiking his way around the country. My Bratty Big Sis still hasn’t forgiven me for stealing her status as the baby of the family 43 years ago, and has spent most of her life either tormenting me, or pointing out repeatedly what a spoiled brat I was. But the Middle Child had a completely different approach. She indulged me. It was always the Middle Child that bought me Pepsi and Funyuns when she babysat me. She was the one that took me to see the latest Disney movie at Mancuso’s Theater.

By the time I hit High School, the Middle Child was the only one of my siblings living in Batavia. So it was she who was tasked with looking out for me when my parents were off visiting one of the other siblings. That is when I discovered that one of the great benefits of older siblings is the access to illicit substance that they can provide during your formative years. The Middle Child was always willing to buy me a case of beer, or a bottle of booze if I was planning a party. I doubt anything I do can ever repay her that favor.

When she started asking Bella to babysit my 2 year old nephew things got even better. Now I have told the story of my adoration of the blessed Bella during my first few years at ND, and how over time we became the best of friends. So it wasn’t unusual for us to spend 5 nights a week talking on the phone together, and plotting and planning our next party in the woods behind the Blind School. But having her at my house when my parents and siblings were away was something new entirely.

The first few times that she babysat, I hurried home from practice to spend the evening sitting on the couch with her watching MTV, or old movies, after she had put my nephew to bed. In retrospect, it’s funny that it took us so long to give in to our hormones, and switch to making out. All it really took was a bottle of Amaretto, and a long winter evening while my parents were out of town, and the Middle Child was out with friends.

Now before anyone accuses either one of us of getting the other one drunk, and taking advantage of them, I must say it was completely innocent, and sweet, in a John Hughes coming of age story kind of way. I don’t think either one of us had planned for it to happen, it just did. My Nephew was asleep, and I had just hit up the Middle Child to pick me up some booze with the $10 I had available. The result was a bottle of cheap Amaretto, which must have been on sale. Neither one of us had had Amaretto before, so we decided to open it up and have a taste. That taste soon turned into a game of quarters at the kitchen table where we both ended up winning. Half way through the bottle we emptied our glasses, and decided to move into the other room.

I must say, sticky Amaretto kisses are like almond flavored pastry, and kissing my best friend in the world was a very different sort of thing than kissing my girlfriend. I think that was the night that I discovered that love has more flavors than Baskin and Robbins. When we heard the car in the driveway, we straightened ourselves up, and looked at each other wondering what it was that had just happened. Saying goodnight to her as my sister took her home I wasn’t sure what it would mean for our friendship. Would it be over now? Would it turn into something else?

The next night we spent decorating the ND Gymnasium with our dates for the Christmas Dance. It was a little awkward at first, to be so close together, and pretend that nothing happened. If it had been anyone else, I would not have known what was going to happen, but looking into her eyes, I knew that she felt the same way that I did. Things were new, and different. We had a secret now. A secret we would never tell anyone about, but one that we somehow both decided we didn’t want to spoil by feeling guilt or regret.

In the end our friendship survived, and we both went about our way exploring the pleasures, and pitfalls of High School relationships. We returned to our platonic state and became even stronger friends. Maybe that night of silly exploration had something to do with that. I don’t think that either one of us would have survived it if we didn’t have the other one to lean on through the hard times that were to come. Even now, 20+ years later, she would be the first person I would call if the world started falling down around me.

Still, I must confess, whenever I eat almond pastry I think of Bella.

Knowledge is Power

I came across an interesting article on the web today (boy if I had a $1 for every time I’ve said that). It concerned online education, and the transformation of learning. Now online courses are nothing new. I believe they have been around almost since the beginning of the internet. In fact, if you are purely interested in learning for its own sake you can access courses from some of the leading academic minds at world renowned universities like MIT, NYU, and Stanford for free. While the quality of the online course materials can be a little uneven, the fact exists, the information is there and it is free for the taking.

This has always interested me because of the paradox that it presents. Most academics that I know have a love for learning, and are advocates of keeping knowledge accessible and available to all. However, the very concept of the University is the exact opposite. By making knowledge scarce the University can control who gains access to it. This is a business model that is not much different than a medieval guild’s. (or Apple for that matter.) By controlling the accreditation process, the University can grant you the license to practice as a knowledge expert in your field. Think of Doctor’s, Lawyer’s, Nurses, and most other professions. No matter how knowledgeable or brilliant a person may be, they cannot practice their profession without licensure.

Which brings me to the rub of online education. Making the information free and available is wonderful, but without certification from a socially recognized institution you may as well be a freelance surgeon. No one is going to believe you, or give you a chance to practice in your field. Since the rise of online education the Academic world has been in conflict over who has the right to grant such certification, and how much worth can be attached to it. The reluctance of traditional Universities to embrace online degree programs led to the creation of “for profit” schools like University of Phoenix, DeVry, Capella, etc.

The reputation of for profit schools, is that of a “diploma mill”. A place with low standard that will grant you the certification for a price. Given the outrageous cost of traditional colleges, the for profit schools had a large, untapped market of students to draw upon. However, the for profit schools, despite their embrace of online knowledge delivery still has the same business model as the traditional University. Limited access of a commodity in demand, for a price.

For all the bickering in Academia about the role of for profit institutions, most of the arguments can be reduced to just disagreements over the price & value of the degree. That is why traditional Universities eventually embraced online courses. It wasn’t so much the methodology they objected to, as to the quality of the end product versus the price. The result has been a peaceful co-existence of both for profit, and traditional University models.

That is all about to change.

All that is needed is for one reputable, and well known University to begin granting degrees to students who take their courses free and online, for the whole business model to collapse. With each passing year that day gets closer and closer. The most recent news is the move by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to grant certification to online graduates, for a small fee.

While the MITx certificate is not the same as their diploma, the academic rigor of the program will be. Furthermore, MIT has the credibility to back that up, something that a DeVry, or University of Phoenix will never have. It will not be long now before other institutions or employers begin to recognize this new “degree”, and once that happens it is all over for the University as we know it.

Other institutions will follow MIT’s lead, and before long the line between MIT and MITx will blur to the point of irrelevance. The lure of a virtually unlimited base of students, and the near total elimination of the overhead cost associated with courses will be too much for University administrators to resist. They can charge less for these degrees, but make it up on the sheer volume. Now no market is unlimited. (There are only 7 billion people in the world.) So sooner or later it will become saturated. When that happens the price will begin to fall. It will become a race to the bottom, where only the largest survive. Which institutions will it be? Who is going to become the Walmart of Colleges?

My prediction is that this will happen within the decade.

My advice to academics. Start saving for retirement, and consider learning a secondary trade.

My advice to students. Don’t plan on becoming a college professor, unless you are willing to compete for a job managing online course content with several thousand unemployed PhD’s.

My advice to University Administrators. Start planning for the future today and figure out how your institution is going to survive the earthquake. The sooner you embrace it, the more likely you’ll survive.