Dave's Excellent Adventure, Part II

So the flight back to Raleigh proceeds uneventfully except for a bit of weather-related turbulence. It's funny. I've traveled a lot over my life. When I first started, turbulence didn't phase me. I just got a kick out of being on a plane. Then over the next 10-15 years as air travel lost its novelty, I became more and more bothered by turbulence and thinking about falling out of the sky would make me nervous about flying. But at some point, I looked back at my early life and how enjoyable I found flying, and I decided I simply didn't want to be one of those people who allowed irrational fears to affect what I do and keep me from enjoying my life. To me, that's weakness of the worst sort. I don't want to be controlled or even slightly influenced by stupid shit like that. Life is challenging enough without inventing obstacles to worry about. So I just mentally decided I wasn't going to let it bother me. And now it doesn't. Simple as that, I just willed myself out of letting it affect me. The mind is an amazing thing.

Anyway, I'm in the next to last row of seats due to my crummy boarding sequence number. But considering the relative ease with which the airline allowed me to do a last-minute change to my travel plans, I'm not complaining. At least it's an aisle seat. The plane touches down at RDU near midnight, and I do the half hour drive home. I'm in bed by 12:45AM.

Normally, I'm an early riser and don't require an alarm. But this week I've accumulated a sleep debt, so that night I set my alarm for 7:30AM. It's a good thing because the alarm wakes me out of a deep sleep. I get showered, pack clothes for the weekend, and I'm ready to go at 8:30. But I can't leave. Remember when I said that the kids were staying with neighbors? Well, they're now waiting outside across the street for the school bus. They don't know I'm just inside our house. I haven't seen much of them for over a week (remember, I was sick, then they went on the fishing trip without me, and then I went on a business trip). I really want to go outside, give them hugs, and tell them goodbye before I drive to Alabama. But I resist the temptation because they're at an age where seeing me may make them decide that they want to go with me to Alabama and they won't understand why I won't take them. I don't want to have that conversation and make them get on the bus after rejecting their pleas to go with me. So I wait inside for their bus to pick them up before loading the car and starting for Alabama.

The drive to Alabama goes without a hitch. I-85 is packed as usual. Everything is flowing well, but all that traffic means that driving requires constant concentration. There's no mental downtime. I bring my camera because, well, that's what I do. But I'm in a hurry and I don't stop to take any photos (although I do make a mental note that I'm going to have to do some sunrise photos of Jordan Lake very soon!). I only stop for gas, food, and to pee. As I said, traffic on I-85 is flowing nicely. But I hit the usual traffic jam on the I-285 loop around Atlanta. Now, I'm used to shitty traffic as I lived in Houston for a few years. But Houston has nothing on Atlanta for shitty traffic. Atlanta is like one giant parking lot.

I arrive in Tallassee in the late afternoon/early evening. Unfortunately, through a miscommunication they ended up scheduling the funeral for Friday. So I've missed the service! This really sucks. Partially because I don't want it to appear that I didn't care enough to attend the service, but mostly because I would have liked the opportunity to pay my final respects to my father-in-law. But what's done is done and it doesn't do anybody any good to worry or complain about it. I'm here now and I can still serve a purpose in supporting my wife and grieving and reminiscing with the family.  So I do that. I've said my prayers and have gone through my mental tributes to my father-in-law on the drive out. So that'll have to do.

We spend Saturday at my in-law's home where my wife receives a few of my father-in-law's possessions that hold sentimental value to her. I'm really glad she got those because those kind of things mean a lot to her.

We get back to the hotel late on Saturday night. Honestly, I think it would have been better to have another day there, but we've got to get back to the kids and I've been out of the office for two weeks already. The drive back home goes basically the same as the drive out, which is to say, uneventfully. I share the driving duties with my wife though, so at least it's less exhausting.

When we get back home, I find out from the neighbors that my oldest son was really missing us and asked several times to come home. So it was a good thing that I didn't go out say "Hi" to him before he got on the school bus. That would have probably set him off and made the whole thing a lot harder on him.

So right now I'm at work, typing up my blog post. This little chapter of my life is over. Lots of stress, lots of sorrow, lots of reflection. But I'm glad to be home, healthy, and with my family. The events of the past couple weeks have reminded me that I have a good life and that I should pause every so often and appreciate it.


Dave's Excellent Adventure, Part I

So, here I sit in Houston Hobby airport, in the middle of a surreal segment of my life. I've just finished a surprisingly good (for airport food) meal of fajitas from Pappasito's airport location and listening to a surprisingly good flamenco band playing in the food court. Not a bad bit of travel downtime in the big scheme of things.

Let's go back to last week. On Monday 3/28, I went to work as usual. It's the last week of the quarter and therefore Potential Hell Week. Which means that, every deal closing has the potential for an all-hands-on-deck exercise to ensure the sales rep gets whatever he needs to close it. Whatever he asks for, he gets. Urgently. But that's fine, I know the score.

Unfortunately, just after lunch I started feeling bad. A little dizzy, a little nauseous, slight sore throat. It wasn't the food. I was coming down with something, and it was coming on fast.

By that evening, I had a full-on headache. The little bit of nausea turned into a lot of nausea, and my sinuses were screaming. The flu perhaps? So the rest of the week, I was home sick in bed. Last week of the quarter; absolutely the worse timing.

But there were no fire drills to help reps close deals. That's fortunate from the standpoint of my flu. But the reason there were no fire drills, is because deals were not closing. And that's not good from the standpoint of continued gainful employment. Frankly I don't know what, if any, fallout there will be on that, but that's not really where this story is going anyway. Another day on that one.

My week in bed, I spent binge-watching Dexter on-demand. Made it through most of season 5, including the big season 4 finale where Rita dies. A great show and I'm enjoying it immensely, although being sick in bed and watching a series about a serial killer is not a recipe for a bright, optimistic outlook. But dammit, I like the show and I press on.

Anyway, another thing I'm doing during my illness is desperately hoping I get a leg up on the illness by Friday (4/1), as I have a small vacation planned for the family. I've been looking forward to it for six months. It's going to be opening day of trout season and this will be year two of what will hopefully be a family tradition of renting a cabin in western NC, getting up at the crack of dawn on opening day, and trying to catch river trout.

Unfortunately, by Thursday I'm really no better and I decide I'm not going to go. However, the cabin's already been paid for so I encourage my wife and the kids to go on without me and they do. While they're fishing, I continue watching Dexter and convalescing. I think the loss of Rita has eroded a bit of soulfulness from the show, and for this subject matter you need that heart lest the show become fall into just being a murder of the week. I'm curious to see if and how they'll restore that balance. But I digress.

On Thursday night, I start to wonder if all the pollen in the air is part or all of my problem. There's a layer of green/yellow dust on everything outside where all the trees have blown their spores in the air. Allergies or not, that shit can't be doing me any good. So on Friday, I go out to the drug store to stock up on allergy meds and get some distilled water for the neti pot.

Now that actually did some good! I don't know if my illness was ready to turn the corner anyway or if flushing pollen out of my sinuses with the neti pot actually made a difference, but Friday I seem to get a leg up on it and start recovering over the weekend.

Damn good thing too. Because I know have a business trip coming up the next week. By the time my wife and kids get back from fishing on Sunday (caught only one fish between 'em!), I'm feeling a lot better and confident about my business trip.

On Tuesday (4/5) I leave for Wichita Kansas. I'm scheduled to talk to some customers about our product roadmap plans. On the next evening, I'm scheduled to fly to Houston to do the same with other customers.

The flight to Wichita occurs without any sinus issues, so that's a huge relief. My business meeting goes well. During the meeting my wife leaves me a voice mail but I don't have time to check it. I get to the airport to catch the flight to Houston and have some spare time, so I listen to the message. My wife sounds distraut and wants me to call. So I do.

My father-in-law has died.

I won't spend a lot of time talking about him – once again that's a post for another day. But let me just say he was a good man and I will miss him.

My wife of course was broken up. We'd been expecting it for quite some time with his Alzheimers, but no amount of knowing it's coming can really prepare you to lose a parent. It's a shit sandwich no matter how you prepare it. My wife was hurting, but I was literally a thousand miles away. And my mind's reeling because I'm processing the news, while simultaneously trying to figure out what I should do in terms of my travel. I don't think I was properly attending to my wife's emotional needs on our call because of this. So about 10 minutes after we talk, I call her back to talk some more, this time letting my heart do the talking instead of my head.

After some minutes pondering it, I decide that my odds of getting back to Raleigh that night are very low. My best bet is to go ahead and travel to Houston and try to get back to Raleigh from there. My original itinerary had me flying from Houston to Raleigh on Friday (4/8), but I think that I can do my Thursday meetings in Houston, then catch a flight back that evening, arriving home a day early. I make the calls and get it arranged. By the way, at this point, I'd like to give a shout-out to Kathy at Southwest Airlines for getting me on the flight with no change fees or airfare differences. She probably pulled some strings to make that happen.

So I arrive in Houston, call my wife and do some more feeble consoling over the phone. The funeral service is scheduled for Saturday, with a Friday viewing at the funeral home. While I'm doing my business meetings, my wife will fly out to Alabama where her dad lived. Then I will fly back to Raleigh that night, and drive out to Alabama on Friday. I will miss the viewing, but at least I'll be able to attend the funeral service. The kids will be staying with neighbors since they're not old enough to really process all of this. Heck, I'm not old enough to process all of this.

To recap, here's my itinerary:
  • Tuesday – Fly from Raleigh to Wichita
  • Wednesday – Fly from Wichita to Houston
  • Thursday – Fly from Houston to Raleigh
  • Friday – Drive from Raleigh to Tallassee Alabama for the funeral service
  • Sunday – Drive back to Raleigh
Yikes. It's a crazy schedule, and occurring while I'm still a bit woozy coming off the flu. But it is what it is.

My meetings in Houston on Thursday go well. And that brings us to this moment. I'm in the airport food court waiting for my flight to Raleigh. I've finished a good meal and I'm listening to flamenco which I've always liked. So it's a nice little respite in the middle of an insane schedule – the eye of the hurricane.  At about midnight tonight, I'll land in Raleigh, drive home and, try to get as much sleep as possible before the 10 hour drive to Alabama on Friday.


Opening the Box

Last week I ordered some prints of my favorite photos to hang in my office. I ordered them on metallic paper from Adoramapix, as I'd had some other prints made in the past on metallic from Adorama and and I absolutely love them. Unfortunately, this batch wasn't quite as fabulous. Well, some of them were, but overall the prints were a bit darker and had a warmed tone that my other metallic prints don't have (and weren't apparent when viewing the photos on my computer). The prints do look cool, but decidedly different than they look on my computer.

Now, I realize there could be a variety of things going on:
  • My monitor is not calibrated, so it's entirely possible that my monitor is brighter and cooler-toned than it should be which is causing me to compensate and adjust my photos to be overly dark and warm.
  • I had Adoramapix do color correction on them (because my monitor isn't calibrated) and maybe I just didn't care for the job that whoever worked on my photos did.
  • Maybe Adoramapix uses a different metallic paper than they did before and the current paper (Kodak Endura Metallic) imparts that look.
It's impossible to tell exactly what caused the problem because there are too many variables. All of this points to the need to calibrate my monitor and get serious about color management. I've been avoiding getting into it because color management is a bit of a Pandora's box - there's a lot to learn and a whole lot of tedious work to get all the tools and workflow set up just right. I've been fortunate in the past that either my photos have printed pretty true to how I see them, or I've not had the discerning eye to be bothered by the differences. But I think I've reached the point in my photography where I need that control and the box needs to be opened.


The Best Camera

I'm an early riser. Yesterday I woke up at about 6:30AM. My 11 year old had had a sleepover for his birthday the night before, so I was planning to go to the store to buy some bacon to make breakfast for everyone. I got downstairs and looked out the window and saw that it was foggy. Prime photo opportunity! But I had a dilemma: My cameras were in the bedroom. My wife is not an early riser but she is a light sleeper and I usually let her sleep in on weekends. So I could go creeping back in there and surely wake her up, or I could just let the photo opportunity to pass. I decided instead to just use my phone and live with its photographic inadequacies. I went to a nearby lake and snapped a dozen or so shots before heading off to the grocery store as per the original plan. This photo is my favorite of the lot, and if I say so myself it's not bad at all.

The old cliché is true: The best camera is the one you have with you.


The Pencil Is Mightier Than the Laptop

I'm a note taker. Have been for more than 30 years. When I was in college (before laptops became ubiquitous), I had a set of loose leaf binders – one for each class in the semester – that I'd fill. Mostly handwritten notes from lectures but also handouts, tests, quizzes – anything associated with the class. I had decent handwriting and the ability to organize things pretty well on-the-fly. I developed a little system. I devised a set of symbols and abbreviations to shorten common words and phrases. I used mechanical pencils so I wouldn't have to sharpen them, nice drafting erasers so I could erase errors cleanly, and a 3-hole punch so I could incorporate any printed material into my notebooks. It was a great system, the creation of which help me memorize stuff and made a great study aid for tests. I was so attached to my notes that when a semester was over, I'd seal up the notes for each class in manila envelopes and file them away in boxes, which I still have in my attic! Nuts, huh?

When I joined the working world, I continued my note taking. Ironically, as a working professional my notebooks were less organized. In retrospect I suppose it's because college lectures are usually (hopefully!) monologues delivered in some kind of orderly fashion, but works days are haphazard and require you to be an active participant, not just a listener. So my work notes were more unstructured and chaotic. But they were still essential to helping me remember things. When laptops became ubiquitous my notes became electronic. First as text documents filed in folders. Then eventually I discovered OneNote and became a big fan. With OneNote I love how you can incorporate any media into your notes, insert web links, embed other documents, and link notes to appointments in Outlook. And I absolutely adore electronically searching for things - that's a huge time saver.

But I'd noticed that my retention of material when I take notes on a laptop is much reduced. Honestly I thought it was the slightly diminished memory of my middle aged brain. But then I listened to a Freakonomics podcast that talked about studies showing that understanding and retention of material is significantly eroded when you take electronic notes. It wasn't just me! The suspected (but unconfirmed) reason is related to the fact that you can't write as fast as you can type. This forces you to listen and assess what is being said so you can figure out what are the important bits to commit to your notes – as opposed to typing where you become a machine just transcribing words without a lot of thought. Also, the physical act of writing might have an impact as well. Regardless of the reasons, it's been proven: Handwriting notes leads to better understanding and recall.

So a couple weeks ago, I decided to try out my old way of doing it again. I bought a notebook and a couple of mechanical pencils and drafting erasers. I decided to not use OneNote for my business meetings. I would still use it for research because of the multimedia abilities, but otherwise I'd commit to using pencil and paper for at least a couple weeks. And I'd try to make my paper notes a little more structured and suitable for later referral than my earlier work notes on paper.

This week was the real test. I had a series of customer meetings, each was 2-3 hours long and covered several topics with multiple speakers. I used completely handwritten notes for all the meetings. In these meetings complicated problems were being discussed, important information was being revealed, key decisions were being made, and critical tasks were being handed out. So it was very important to my job to stay engaged.

The result? I'll be damned if it didn't freakin' work! A surprise for me is that, for some reason, my mind doesn't wander as much when I'm writing on paper. Honestly, in the past I've found it difficult to stay 100% in the game beginning to end in these sort of long intense meetings. But this time I was fully engaged the entire time. And I definitely have a much better understanding and recall of the meetings, I'd say the experiment was a big success.

I'm still a bit worried about losing the ability to electronically search my notes, but I think there's really something to handwritten note taking. I'm going to keep it up. I need to re-think my system a little because I'll need to refer back to my notes longer than just one semester. Maybe. Come to think of it, once a note is 3 months old, it's a rare event that I need to refer to it again. And once it gets a year old, I can safely toss it 99.9% of the time. I will need to figure out how to best divide and organize my meeting (handwritten) notes and research (electronic) notes so I can find things. But I think the effort will be worth it.


Review: J. Rockett Animal

I've had the Animal for about 5 weeks now and have played it with several different amps, at varying volumes, by myself and with a band. So I feel like I'm sufficiently past the honeymoon stage to give it a review that I won't regret later. That said, I'll start off with a superlative statement:

The J Rockett Animal is the best overdrive pedal I've ever played.

There, I said it. That's my honest assessment. And of course by "best" I mean the one that works best for me. I really love this pedal. It may not be all that for somebody else, but for what I want at this point in my guitar life, it's as close to ideal as I've found.

Its overall tone is, as advertised, very Marshall-esque. It can really ape an old metal or plexi panal Marshall very well. What I like about it is that, with the Snarl switch off and the Bass and Treble controls set properly, it's very balanced sounding - there's no mid-hump, scoop, or other obvious EQ anomaly going on. Unlike the OCD that I've been using for years, it's very open-sounding. And there's plenty of output to use it as a clean boost, if you want to do that.

I love the character of the distortion. It sounds great at both low and high gain settings. Unlike, say, a Tube Screamer, it's raw, but not too raw. The clarity and harmonic overtones are very nice, with no weird harshness or dissonance so chords with extended voicings sound coherent. Low strings sound sufficiently tight, while high strings sound sufficiently fat – like I said, very well-balanced. Best of all, the distortion is extremely touch-sensitive. It's as responsive as the English Muff'n which was my previous champ in that department. You can play the Animal like an old school amp, leaving the pedal on and rolling back your guitar volume for clean tones. And those clean tones are nice; not at all woolly sounding.

I've read some posts on Internet forums complaining about the noise levels of the Animal. While it may be a little more noisy than other pedals when you crank up the Gain and Treble controls, it doesn't seem unreasonably so. Let me put it this way – I wouldn't feel like I needed a noise gate or anything. Also, I get the best tone by setting those controls moderately anyway, so it's a total non-issue for me. I've also read some talk about "clean bleed" on the Animal. Some people are hearing clean signal mixed in when they stack the Animal with another overdrive pedal. To be honest, that doesn't make much sense to me. I can't see how one pedal would cause that behavior in another. But accepting that claim at face value, I can tell you that my Animal does not exhibit this behavior. I'm using it stacked with the Voodoo Lab Giggity as my go-to lead tone, so I've spent a lot of time listening to the Animal in that configuration and I'm not hearing any sort of "clean bleed".

The Bass and Treble controls do not have a wide boost/cut range, and are most useful for fine-tuning the sound to the guitar and amp being used. To me that's a good thing because there's not a bunch of unusable range in the two controls. There's no mid-range control, but by setting the Treble and Bass appropriately, you can fake it well enough.

The secret weapon in my opinion is the Snarl switch. Flip it on (in the up position), and it adds a small upper-mid boost and a slight increase in gain. The effect is subtle but significant. Essentially it sounds like a vintage Marshall goosed with a clean boost pedal. It's more aggressive and rockin' with the Snarl switch on. In my opinion, it transforms the Animal from a plexi-in-a-box to an EVH-in-a-box, which is a lot of fun. Every time I turn it on I can't help but play every Van Halen lick I know. It apes that sound really well.

Okay, so this review is positively gushing. Is there anything I don't like about the pedal? Maybe a couple nit-picky items. I wish the pedal wasn't black. It has a super-shiny plexi panel over the top and being black it shows scratches and fingerprints really badly. Like I said, nit-picky! I'd also prefer if the input/output jacks were on the backside of the pedal instead of the left/right sides; that configuration works better on my pedalboard. On my wishlist: It would be wonderful if the Snarl function were footswitchable! I'd be willing to sacrifice more pedalboard real estate to accommodate the wider pedal in order to get that!

Anyway, the Animal is now my go-to overdrive/distortion pedal. I'm predicting a long reign for the new champ.


Ned's Retirement Plan

Winter Storm Jonas hit the east coast yesterday. The worst of it was north of North Carolina, but we did get a fair amount of freezing rain, sleet, and a tiny bit of snow. It was enough to lay down a thin layer of ice over everything. The ice was weighing heavily on the trees in our yard and then the wind came in. One of our tall pines was swaying a good 15 feet from erect and I was worried it would come down last night. But so far it's held. It could still happen though since the trees are still very weighed down with ice. We also lost electricity for a half hour or so but it was restored and it's held steady since. Knock on wood.

This morning I bundled up and walked over to the neighborhood golf course to shoot some pictures. It was beautiful with all the frozen trees. There were a ton of kids on the course sledding and I shot photos of them as well, which I'll post in the future. Tomorrow, if the trees are still frozen, I may brave the roads and drive out a nearby lake to see what I can shoot there.