Dragonfly

On my drive home today, a dragonfly struck the window of my Mini Cooper. Curiously, the impact did not kill the creature, though it certainly was stunned. Instead, its tail somehow became tucked beneath one of my wiper blades.

I was sad to see it happen, but I didn’t do anything about it. What could I do? It looked alive, but I couldn’t be sure. And what good would stopping the car do? I figured it would be dead by the time I got home.

It wasn’t.

As I unloaded the groceries, I noticed the dragonfly was very much alive. It was flailing to escape from the wiper’s grasp.

“Kris,” I called. “I need you to do something for me.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“There’s a dragonfly under the wipers. It’s still alive, and I can’t bear to look at it. Can you take care of it?”

Dragonfly

I know this is a reversal from typical gender roles, but that’s how it is in our house. Kris deals with death and destruction all day long. I write about the psychology of money. I’m the sensitive one; Kris is matter of fact. Killing insects is her province (though I’m responsible for spiders.)

She carefully freed the dragonfly and held it in her hand. “One of its wings is broken,” she said.

“What should we do?” I asked. She gave me a look as if to say that I shouldn’t be such a baby.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It’s just a dragonfly.” She hung it from a clerodendron blossom. I tried to ingore the thing as I went about my business, but I couldn’t. I found its plight heartbreaking. I stood by and watched it closely for several minutes.

Dragonfly

The dragonfly was beautiful, a sort of crystal blue with deep liquid eyes and lace-like wings. It was conscious and active. It gesticulated with its forelegs, it rotated its head, it vibrated its wings.

Eventually, it made a futile attempt to fly, but merely swooped to the grass. The dragonfly could walk just fine, but could not take to the air.

A part of me knows that it’s ridiculous to be so concerned about an insect. Eventually, I had to leave. I don’t want to know how this creature’s story ends. Its destiny seems clear enough. It’s a shame that something so beautiful cannot live forever.

Postscript: Now I know how this dragonfly’s story ends. Simon finds it and eats it. Alas, poor dragonfly.

Who Owns the Memories?

This article was originally published at Foldedspace on 11 January 2002.

Recently I’ve given a lot of thought to the responsibilities and obligations of a journalist. When I say journalist, I don’t mean a reporter; I mean a person who keeps a journal, or a weblog, or who writes a personal history.

Through my weblogs, I share many of the important events in my life (and, some would say, many of the unimportant events in my life). To what degree am I obligated to edit what I write in a public forum? To what degree am I obligated not to edit what I write here? To what degree is this obligation to the truth in blogging different than the obligation to the truth when I create a scrapbook/album that contains my personal history?

These are tough questions.

I am generally an open and honest person. I see no sense in hiding the truth. However, I recognize that in some cases the truth:

  • may not be productive,
  • may hurt somebody else, and/or
  • may not be mine to share

(There are other cases, too. Sometimes people are morally or legally bound to avoid the truth. If you cannot imagine such a case, you’re not thinking very hard.)

I have a friend who is undergoing a gender change. While this is not a huge component of my life, it is a huge component of his her life. When we spend time together, it becomes a rather large issue between us, for good or ill. This is something that I’d normally be inclined to share at my personal weblog, and certainly in my scrapbook/personal history. Is it something I’m allowed to share, though? Is it something I should share? Tough questions.

In this case, I’ve opted not to discuss the subject in my weblogs. However, I’ve asked (and been granted) permission from this person to incorporate this particular aspect of our relationship into my personal history. I have a greater degree of control over who accesses my personal history, as it’s a physical object — a scrapbook — that I alone grant permission to view. My weblogs are open for the entire world to see.

But even my personal history raises questions about honesty and truth. Where should the line be drawn regarding what I put in my scrapbook? I have another friend that is gay and semi-out. However, he’s not completely out. How much of this should I put in my personal history? It’s always there when I’m with him — it’s a huge component of who he is. It seems senseless to skirt the issue when I’m documenting my life. Yet, is it really my decision?

Another example: I have strong feelings regarding my parents, both positive and negative. Whether I place my positive feelings in my scrapbook is not an issue. Nobody minds reading positive things about themselves. But what about my negative feelings? My father is dead, so it’s less of an issue. I don’t mind putting down the things that bugged me, the things that made our relationship difficult.

Is it fair for me to write only the positive things about my mother and not mention the less flattering things (which are nevertheless a portion of her character, and a portion of my relationship with her)?

Similarly, I have a letter from a friend in which she confesses things that she might consider secret. The letter is very much meant to be communication between me and this friend. However, it is a huge component of my personal history. How can I edit it from my scrapbook? Yet, how do I handle its presence? Do I black out the most provocative lines, so that when others read the history they are left in the dark? Blacking out these lines makes the letter mundane, unworthy of inclusion in my scrapbook. Allowing the lines to remain raises issues regarding secrecy and trust and friendship.

Who owns the memories? How much honesty is too much?

Crossing the Streams

Kris turns on the radio in the kitchen and immediately my writing ceases. “Ahhhhh…” I groan. It’s NPR again — “noise pollution radio”.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Do you know what it’s like every time you turn that on?” I say. “It’s like I’m building a wall in my head. It’s a carefully constructed wall with every brick in the right place. I’m trying to get the wall down on paper.” (By paper I mean into my text editor, but Kris understands.)

“And every time you turn on NPR — every time — that wall comes tumbling down and I have to start over.”

I’m always amazed when I read about people who can write while listening to non-music audio. Trent claims that he listens to podcasts while writing. How? I could never do that. It’d be like crossing the streams! (Which we all know would be bad, right?)

I can listen to music while writing. I can write in silence. But I cannot write in a situation where there’s discernible dialogue. No radio. No movies. No television. Not even coffee shop conversations. If I can hear speech, I want to parse it, and it prevents me from forming words of my own.

Which is why I’m now outside on the lawn; I’m attempting to rebuild the wall in my head.

Small Rodents in Paradise

Hey!” Kris whined when we returned from lunch this afternoon. We had just parked the Mini Cooper in the garage, and she’d stepped up to the potting shed to grab a bag of birdseed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. I was trying to put away some of my camping supplies from last weekend’s hike to Opal Creek.

“Come look,” she said. She pointed to the ground.

On the floor of the potting shed was a bag of birdseed. I expected that. But on top of the birdseed was a bag of peanuts, a bag that had previously been stored on a nearby shelf. And the bag was no longer sealed. It had been torn open by tiny claws and teeth, and there was a sea of peanut shells scattered all around.

I laughed.

“It looks like some squirrel gave himself a belly ache,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Kris. “But look.” She pointed at several other objects on the ground. The squirrel (or squirrels) had managed to pull down all sorts of painting supplies from nearby shelves in an effort to get at the peanuts. They had also torn open a bag of rose fertilizer. (Did it smell like peanuts? Or maybe they were hoping to bury their peanuts there?)

As I left the garage to carry a bag of birdseed to the house, I was bombarded by acorns. One of our squirrels was above me in the oak, tossing nuts at me. (The squirrels do this all the time.) Was he protecting the bag of peanuts?

Kris and I always wonder why so many people view squirrels as pests. We think they’re cute little rodents. Just this morning I had commented on Walnut, up in his tree, chit-chit-chitting away while chomping on a walnut. But if they’re going to start doing commando raids on the food supply, we might have to re-think the “cute” label.

Personal Finance on Film: The Up Series

“Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” — attributed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order

 

Though there are many fine books about money available for the general reader, I’ve always been disappointed that there are so few movies about money. Anything directly about finance tends to be sensationalist in one way or another.

Despite this, I think that excellent films about money do exist — you just have to know where to look for them. Two years ago, for example, I reviewed The Farmer’s Wife, a poignant six-hour documentary about a Nebraska family struggling to make ends meet. “This is a great film,” I wrote. And it is. Today I want to share a series of documentary films that’s just as good.

In 1964, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) produced a short film called Seven Up that explored the lives of fourteen seven-year-olds from various cities and social classes. Every seven years since, director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, James Bond’s The World is Not Enough, and the forthcoming The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) has returned to interview these same fourteen subjects, documenting their growth into adulthood.

“[These children are] like any other children, except that they come form startlingly different backgrounds. We’ve brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.” — from Seven Up

 

The Up series is fascinating. Sure, we all get to see our families and friends grow up around us. (And then we watch their children grow.) But that happens in slow motion (well, in real time, actually.) These films allow viewers to watch fourteen people grow from childhood to middle age in a matter of hours. We see them pass through adolescence, get married, have children, lose their parents, become grandparents, and more.

Here’s a clip from the most recent installment, 49 Up:

 

Though the Up films explore all aspects of their subjects’ lives, there’s no doubt that questions of money and class play a huge role in their biographies. Viewers are allowed to decide for themselves whether the Jesuit maxim is true: Can one actually see the future adult by examining a seven year old child? Or even a fourteen year old? Do our class origins dictate our lives? Does wealth bring happiness? And what is it that gives life meaning?

Each participant has a different relationship with the films and the filmmaker. Some of the group actively dislike director Michael Apted and are reluctant to be forthcoming. But the most illuminating stories come from those who are willing to open up and share everything — warts and all.

    • For example, Tony was brought up lower class in London’s East End. He dropped out of school at fifteen to become a jockey, but it didn’t work out. He became a taxi driver instead, a job he’s held for nearly thirty years. By 42, Tony and his family had left the East End after buying a second house in Essex. By 49, they’d taken out a second mortgage on their London house to buy a third house in Spain. Tony seems to have pulled himself up to the middle class — but I wonder how much of this was financed by debt.

 

    • Suzy comes from an upper-class family. Hers is not a happy family, though. During the 1960s, her parents become divorced. Suzy grows disaffected. Up until the age of 21, one might guess she was headed for a life of spoiled indulgence. Ultimately, however, she settles down and raises a lovely family. Though she lives a comfortable life, she faces a different sort of money worry than the other participants. Her husband undertakes a business venture that puts some of their capital at risk.

 

  • The participant with the most poignant life is Neil. As a seven-year-old, Neil is happy and bright, a charming lad from a working class Liverpool family. By 21, though, he’s dropped out of college, works odd jobs, and squats in an abandoned building. For the next twenty years, he’s essentially homeless, roaming around Britain. He’s dogged by mental health problems. But Neil is a deeply intelligent man, and he appears to turn things around during his forties. He still lives on a pittance (including some public money), but he’s become involved in local politics and seems content with his situation.

The participants sometimes chafe at the roles they believe they’re forced to play. In 21 Up, Apted asks the subjects if they think their class has affected their choices. The answers are surprising.

The three prep school boys (John, Andrew, and Charles) argue that their situation has actually limited their choices, that they’ve been boxed in by a rigid set of expectations. The three East End girls (Jackie, Lynn, and Sue) make the same argument, but from the opposite end of the class spectrum. They believe they have more choices than those in the upper classes have.

But as they age, the answers to this question change. (Perhaps people are being more honest.) In 49 Up, for example, Andrew admits that his origins played a big role in granting him the opportunities he’s had in life.


A clip from 49 Up showing some of Neil’s background.

 

Again, money is just one of the subjects these films cover. The Up series also explores family, love, spirituality, and more. As with The Farmer’s Wife, these films aren’t for everyone. I think many would find them boring. But for those with patience, the Up series can provide a rare glimpse into what it means to live.

“There are many things that might have happened in my life that haven’t happened. There’s little point in being regretful and angry about it. Life comes once and it’s quite short. You have to appreciate what’s good in it.” — Neil Hughes, 49 Up

 

In Praise of Local Business

“Do you know what my wife usually orders?” I asked at the Oak Grove Coffeehouse this morning. I wanted to bring her a surprise. Kris stops there once or twice a week, but I don’t go in very often. I don’t like coffee. I guess I should know what Kris orders (since she orders the same thing every time), but I don’t. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to guess.

Jason, the owner, thought for a moment. “She orders a medium latte extra-hot,” he said.

“Who’s your wife?” asked the kid behind the counter.

“Her name’s Kris,” I said. “Long red hair. Works for the crime lab.”

“Oh, Kris,” he said. “I love Kris.”

“Yeah,” said Jason. “CSI Milwaukie.” Everybody laughed.

“Do you want anything?” the kid asked as he took my money. The coffee was $2.75, but I left $1.25 for a tip.

“Nah,” I said. “I don’t like coffee. Besides, I just walked up the the grocery store, and I have donuts and chocolate milk in my bag.”

I love this sort of thing. I love local businesses owned by community members. (I bumped into Jason a couple of weeks ago as he was leaving his home to go to the coffee shop. I was walking down the hill as he was walking out his driveway to go up the hill.) This is the precisely the sort of thing I want to support over shops like Starbucks, etc.

And yet I rarely frequent the Oak Grove Coffeehouse myself. As I said, I don’t like coffee. I’m not a fan of their hot chocolate. It’s vastly superior to Starbuck’s hot chocolate (which basically tastes like muddy water), but it’s still made the same way: add some chocolate syrup to milk and heat.

All the same, I could be giving the shop some of my trade. At lunch, they serve sandwiches. Also, they have a few breakfast croissants every morning. And they carry Mexican Coke. I’ll bet they have bottled water, too. It’s important to me that Jason and his family are able to make a profit from their shop, yet I don’t do much myself to support them. In fact, I’m sort of a drain on their income.

Today, for example, as I was walking out the door, Jason stopped me and gave me a lemon pastry. “Take it,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s from yesterday, and I’ll just have to throw it out if you don’t take it.” Jason’s given me stuff in the past, including free drinks. I’m grateful for this, but I feel bad. I want to be adding to his income, not taking away from it.

I guess maybe I should make a point of eating lunch at the Oak Grove Coffeehouse once each week. I wonder what sort of sandwiches they have…

Addendum: Kris and I had lunch with Susan this afternoon, and she pointed out that I forgot to end the story. “Were they right?” she asked. “Did they get Kris’ drink order correct?” Indeed they did. Kris orders a medium extra-hot latte.

Opal Creek Hike 2009

Last weekend, I joined Andrew and Tim and Josh and Paul for our annual trek into the Opal Creek wilderness area, which is located between Stayton and Detroit. This is the first time I’ve been able to make the journey in several years. On my last trip, I made this photo, which was published in Audubon magazine:

Opal Creek Pool
Opal Creek swimming hole

As usual, we left early Friday afternoon. The five of us piled into two vehicles (including my Mini Cooper!) to make the two-hour drive. Here’s a map of our destination (I don’t know the source of this map or I’d provide credit — it’s not mine):

We parked at the locked gate located at the left edge of the map. The first part of our hike followed a pot-holed gravel road along the Little North Santiam River. A bridge over Gold Creek provided a scenic view, and was followed by a brief passage along a cliff-side that reminds me of something out of World of Warcraft.

After 2.2 miles, we turned south to catch the trail along the creek. (On our outward hike, we took the north route along the gravel road through Jawbone Flats.)

Hiking Along Opal Creek
Andrew, Tim, and Josh hiking along the creek

We hiked east 1.4 miles to Opal Pool, then another 0.6 miles to the washed-out bridge. Only the bridge isn’t completely washed out. It’s a log that has fallen across the river, and which had been “drafted” for use as an official bridge. But the log has settled over the past couple of years, so the Forest Service has closed it to the public. That didn’t stop this group of scofflaws. We scampered across, and then hiked the final three-quarters of a mile to Cedar Flats. There we pitched our camp.

Over a meal of “Greek burritos” (read: Andrew’s hodge-podge dinner) and scotch whisky, we talked about resource depletion and economic collapse. Tim is a self-professed “doom and gloomer” who is concerned about the implications of a growing population in a world with finite resources. It was a fine discussion, one that lasted the entire weekend, but we did not solve the world’s ills.

Around the Campfire
Andrew and Paul, sitting around the campfire

Most years, the group spends Saturday hiking upstream to our favorite swimming hole. (The swimming hole depicted in the first photo on this page.) This year, however, nobody was interested. The weather was cool. Swimming in cold water didn’t sound fun.

Instead, Andrew and Tim made the 16-mile round-trip hike up Whetstone Mountain and back. The rest of us stayed in camp. Paul read and so did I. I spent a several hours pacing the 40 steps between two fallen logs, reading The Shipping News for book group. (I’ve become a master of reading while walking. It’s awesome.)

While we read (and napped), Josh explored. About 100 yards from camp, across some fallen trees, he found a sort of voluntary huckleberry farm — and an interesting fungus. He summoned me and Paul to see:

J.D. and Paul
J.D. and Paul on a log. Photo by Joshua Bennett.

On Sunday morning, I woke early. The air was cold. (Later the group agreed that the temperature was probably around 5 or 6 degrees centigrade.) Despite the chill, I crossed the creek and found a deep-ish spot where I could bathe. The water was not much cooler than the air, so it wasn’t a big deal. And it felt great. You can be sure that I was very alert after taking a cold bath on a cold morning.

There are few things I love more than spending time in the woods. I’m not sure why I don’t do it more often. It brings out something vital in me. I love exploring off the trail and playing in the creek and gathering wood for a fire and sleeping under the stars. And I love being surrounded by scenery. There’s so much beauty that one’s senses almost become dulled to it.

Opal Creek
Opal Creek just below Jawbone Flats

On Sunday morning, we packed up, hiked out, and climbed into our cars. After stopping for burgers and shakes, we drove home to our workaday lives. I’m already thinking of next year’s trip.

Old Man

It’s not often that I allow another “official” photo of myself to enter the “canon”. (Like all the “quotes”?) But every once in a while I find one that I like.

Two weeks ago, I played photographer at Celeste and Nikki’s wedding/commitment ceremony. I’m only just processing the photographs today, and I found one that Kris took when she commandeered the camera from me for a few minutes:

Old Man

I have to admit that despite all of the numerous flaws I see in myself here, I like this photo. It captures how I think of myself nowadays: an aging rascal. Time to add another “official” photo to the “canon”, I guess.

Taming the Trolls: Dealing with Negative Blog Comments

The key to a great blog is a great community. Readers return to a blog if they believe their comments are valued, and if they receive value from the comments of others. This interactivity is one of the things that sets blogs apart from traditional media, one of the things that makes them more valuable.

But it’s easy to lose control of a blog. One rotten apple can spoil the bunch. One negative commenter, one jerk, one asshole can drag down the level of conversation. When this happens, readers can — and do — leave.

A Taxonomy of Trolls

I’ve been blogging for over eight years now, three of them at Get Rich Slowly. I’ve been on the Internet for 16 years, and in online discussion forums (or BBSes) for almost 25. Dealing with jerks and assholes is just part of online communication.

That said, it can be tough to take when this sort of negative vibe infiltrates a community that you run. When it’s elsewhere on the Internet, it’s fine. But in your own yard? Not so much. I’m fortunate at GRS that I rarely have Negative Nellys squawking and complaining. All the same, they do appear from time-to-time.

There’s a fellow named Dean, for example, who appears every few months to leave a new nasty comment. In March, during a discussion of “traditional skills”, Dean left a particular gem:

This site is retard. Seriously, goats? Other sites are talking about investing and new tax laws and stimulus bill and you’re talking about raising goats and eggs. Jesus fucking Christ this blog is fucking stupid.

To be honest, I usually publish Dean’s comments because I find them entertaining (and don’t feel hurt by them). But that’s not always the case. Sometimes I withhold comments because I feel they’ll cause problems.

I’m holding “tryouts” for a Staff Writer position at Get Rich Slowly right now. When I asked my readers for feedback, Ben thought it was acceptable to write, “Pick April, she’s hot.” This was the third comment I’d fielded — and nuked — about how April was “hot”. What the hell does that have to do with her ability to write about and convey personal-finance information? Why is it acceptable to write this sort of stuff about women writers and not about men? Sexism like this has no place at Get Rich Slowly.

Perhaps the most extreme example, though, came after a guest post from The Motley Fool’s Robert Brokamp. A reader named Kevin left a long rant attacking Brokamp and his advice. Kevin followed up with a rant accusing me of censorship because I refused to publish his first comment. I replied by e-mail:

A blog is not a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship. I am a very benevolent dictator, but I’m still a dictator. There are certain things I don’t allow. You can criticize me and my guest posters all you want, but I’m not going to let you do it in a nasty manner, and I’m not going to let you spread misinformation and hysteria at Get Rich Slowly…Refusing to publish a comment is not censorship. I am not a government. I am not the mass media.

These trolls — and many others — are a blight. There are many earnest, intelligent bloggers contributing quality content to the Internet. It takes time and effort to create useful information. It takes almost no intelligence and no time and no effort to tear down somebody else’s work.

Taming the Trolls

Fortunately, taming the trolls is relatively easy. After years of dealing with problem commenters, I’ve developed the following series of technique for keeping the tone civil and positive on my blogs:

  • Set an example. If you want the tone to stay positive, keep your posts positive. If you want the discussion to steer clear of politics and religion (as I do at GRS), then don’t bring those subjects up in your posts. Do unto your readers as you would have them do unto you. Lead by example.
  • Nip problems in the bud. If you have a new reader that is intent on trolling or who always seems to be harping on the same subjects, take care of the problem early. Don’t let it become a site-wide issue.
  • Let your readers defend you. This one is huge, at least at GRS. I have a tendency to want to justify myself every time somebody complains. It just makes me seem whiney and defensive, though. Instead, Kris has taught me that if the complainer is out of bounds, my readers will defend me. Better to let the community swarm the problem (like white blood cells attacking an invader!) than to try to come off as self-righteous.
  • Take it to e-mail. There are times to engage commenters head-to-head on the blog, but those are few and far between. If I really want to discuss something with a complainer, I try to reply by e-mail. When I do this, the commenters are sheepish and apologetic nearly every time.
  • If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song. Really obscure music reference there (Google is your friend), but this is a mantra of mine. When somebody complains, I try to see things from her point of view before I do anything else. I try to see her side of the argument. Then, when I respond (especially via e-mail), I lead with empathy, trying to discuss their point of view, and then describing how mine is different. This very often defuses the situation.
  • Edit ruthlessly. Chris Guillebeau taught me something recently that has become a sort of mantra for me: “A blog is not a democracy.” If somebody has infected your site with poison, cut out the wound. You’re under no legal or moral obligation to leave up crap that’s just going to weaken the site and the discussion. Here’s an example: Last week, I posted a short bit about an “accidental slumlord”. A semi-regular GRS reader came in with a snide comment about liberals, which I let stand, and a crack about “Balack Yobama”, which I removed immediately. I also e-mailed him and told him why I was making the edit, but that wasn’t a requirement. Remember: A blog is not a democracy.

One final tactic is to take the complaints and respond to them in a blog post. If you do this, it’s important not to make this a power play. Don’t use your position to denounce your critics and to build up your own position. Instead, try to spur a thoughtful discussion. Present your argument and present the other side and discuss the pros and cons of each. Then open it to the readers for discussion.

The Fruits of My Labor

I’ve received a lot of complimentary e-mail about the way I handle the GRS community, particularly negative commenters. (And The Wall Street Journal praised the level of discussion at the site.) To be honest, though, I don’t get many bad apples, primarily because I’m pro-active in plucking them from the barrel before they can spoil everything.

I like to think that my own blogging style discourages negative responses. (Don’t mean to sound arrogant here; this is just something I really work at, and I think I do a good job.) I’m proud that some of my worst critics have become my most ardent supporters through the use of these methods.