I Can Make a Change and Go

At the start of the year, I put together a plan to help me improve my productivity and my mental wellbeing. Last year, I had read “Why You Should Start Your New Year’s Resolutions on March 4th” in Fast Company, and this year I finally took that essay to heart.

Using a bunch of articles I had stashed in Pocket, a selection of Google tools, a notepad and a pen, I compiled a list of goals I wanted to achieve and good habits I wanted to pick up. I grouped my goals based on the Six Dimensions of Wellness Model. To wit:

  • Occupational – Learn coding
  • Physical – Improve diet based on doctor’s recommendations
  • Intellectual – Improve blog writing by planning out series and recurring topics
  • Social – Make plans with people I haven’t seen in a while
  • Emotional – Find time to process dark emotions regularly instead of letting them build up
  • Spiritual – Focus on positive energy instead of defaulting to cynicism

Not all of these goals have obvious completion points (and one of them can’t be accomplished right now in the way I originally intended it), so within those goals are tasks that help me measure my progress. I can adjust those tasks as needed, drop what isn’t working, and reframe as I hit targets.

One of the ways I am tracking it all is through Google Keep. Each day I jot down different beats as I hit them each day. Did I exercise? Noted. Did I work on my next post for the blog? Noted. What is my mood like right now? Noted.

On Sundays, I review my notes from the week. I have a template in Google Docs that shows all of the goals I had written down, and I can note my progress on them all. I pull from the Google Keep notes, health tracking apps, what page I am on the book I have on my nightstand (still page 25!), or anything else that can inform my review. I also note the highlights and the lowlights of the week as well so that I acknowledge how the outside world affects my mood and my progress.

So far, it all has been going well. But I also recognize that whatever I work do during an abnormal situation still needs to work once things like a commute to the office are reincorporated into my routine. A return to normalcy is actually going to be a disruption, and I don’t want to unravel whatever good I am weaving together now. My hope is that if I can manage my mental health in a time like this, then I should be able to take care of myself in less stressful times. Fingers crossed!

The Sound of Musik

Part One of The Falco Project

So let’s talk about Falco. For years, I only knew of him as the guy who sang “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Jeanny,” two songs in regular rotation on MTV when I was a teen. Later I found out that After the Fire’s “Der Kommisar” was a far inferior cover of an awesome Falco song (albeit with a painfully low budget video).

Maybe that’s all you know of him too. But perhaps your significant other is not like mine and doesn’t own a cassette copy of Meisterstücke, a greatest hits compilation purchased on a family visit to Innsbruck. We still have the tape, but I’ve pretty much worn it out. But I made an iTunes playlist to recreate it.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I am obsessed with Falco, but in the years since his untimely death in 1998, I’ve become fascinated by his body of work. It’s this melange of musical influences, from early hip hop to early electronica, from Motown to disco, from folk to funk, all filtered through ‘80s-era European synthpop. It’s all over the place, yet it’s still mostly cohesive.

As much of a music fan as I am, I’ve never really dived deep into why I like certain songs more than others before now. On the Eurovision Lemurs blog this year I really tried to get into the structure of the songs and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

Now I am going to do the same thing for Falco’s songs. I’ve got all his albums and a lot of time at home.

One of the challenges I have is that I don’t speak enough German to fully understand his lyrics. Given his Austrian dialect and his fluid transitions in and out of English and other languages in his songs, I definitely can’t trust Google Translate to help me grok the nuances. So I’m really judging the songs based on other qualities than the depth and breadth of their lyrics. Fortunately, there is still a lot left for me to unpack.

To help me along, I’m reading Falco and Beyond, a book by Ewa Mazierska. She is a professor in film studies at the University of Central Lancashire, so she takes a scholarly approach to Falco’s career. She looks at his ability to create subversive art within the confines of the heavily commercial music industry. She also breaks down some of the lyrical and structural aspects of his songs, which should give me some insight into his creative process. It may not help me fully appreciate Nachtflug, but at least I’ll understand how it came together.

This probably sounds like a goofy project to embark on, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. One of the goals I had this year was to find the time to do more things that I think will be fun. Given the current situation, now seems like the perfect time to go for it. Hopefully, I can make it fun for anyone who isn’t a diehard Falco fan, too.

When Everyone Gives Everything

I have found myself, during quiet moments in the past few weeks, vaguely longing to go back to Vienna. I‘ve been lucky enough to travel there for work, and I have always wanted to go there for a week just to hang out. I don‘t know when I will be able to make that happen right now, which probably adds to that vague longing.

I have a list of things I want to do in Vienna that I haven‘t done before. The Central  Cemetery, where Beethoven, Brahms, and Falco are buried. The Belvedere Museum, which houses Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. The Hundertwasser House, designed by the eccentric artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

And I have a list of places where I want to return. The Leopold Museum, home to much of Egon Schiele’s body of work. Grinzig, the wine neighborhood and home to the wine bars known as heuringer. The Augarten, a quiet respite in the middle of the city.

And very specifically, Fischer Bräu, which makes and serves some of the best beer I’ve ever had. Their house beer is Helles, a style of lager popular in southern Germany and in Austria. Fisher Bräu’s version is rich and creamy, with a sweet wheat flavor. It goes down alarmingly easily, and it has a mysterious lightness that convinces me that I have room for another one.

I’m always on the lookout for a lager available in Maryland that can help me imagine I’m in Fischer Bräu’s biergarten. Manor Hill Brewing’s Pilsner comes pretty close. It’s smooth and zippy with an astringent tang and a sweet, light bran undertone. It’s a cozy beer, like a well-worn pair of slippers or a nice plate of spaghetti and meatballs. I’m also a fan of RavenBeer’s Pendulum Pilsner, a sweet and malty beer with a surprising richness. Both hold up well to schnitzel or käsespätzle or any of the other Austrian dishes I’m cooking up these days.

Food is the easiest way to explore the world when I can’t travel, and sometimes I don’t even bother trying to be authentic when I can create a simulation of the experience.

Let’s say that one day, I get a craving for a Käsekrainer. It is a sausage stuffed with Emmentaler cheese that is widely found at Würstelstands around Vienna. Apparently, it is often referred to by locals as “Eitrige,” which roughly translates as “pus-filled.” This is because the cheese oozes out when the sausage is cut.

If I’m in Aldi and I get lucky, I will find Emmentaler cheese and Kaiser rolls in stock. That’s all I need, because I usually have a stash of Costco’s Kirkland brand hot dogs in my fridge. I grill and chop up the hot dogs then serve them with chunks of Emmentaler, a lightly toasted Kaiser roll, and dollops of Dijon mustard and ketchup. It misses out in the oozing cheese area and lacks any semblance of authenticity. But if I’m drinking a Maryland-made Pilsner-style beer and pretending it’s some of Vienna’s finest, then authenticity is never a part of the equation.

Another thing I try to replicate is an Austrian soda called Almdudler. It’s sort of like a ginger ale with citrus and elderflower flavors. I adore it. The closest I’ve gotten to it is mixing together Sierra Mist and Ikea’s elderflower syrup. It’s not quite right, but it will do in a pinch.

Coincidentally, one of the hotels I have stayed at in Vienna is walking distance to the Almdudler House. My work colleagues thought it was amusing that I had to stop by and take a picture. But let’s be honest, when you have a doorway shaped like a soda bottle, you are inviting tourists like me to post photos of it on Instagram.

To be honest, I can’t tell if I like Almdudler because it tastes good or because it instantly makes me feel at home when I get to Austria. Or maybe I am amused by the strange looks I get from waitstaff when I order one in my broken German. I might be reading a bit too much into that. It’s not like I ordered a Hugo.

Except for the one time I did order a Hugo. It came like this, which probably tells you all you need to know about it:

I realized as I was writing this that I have done quite a bit to recreate much of what I like about Vienna at home. I can cook schnitzel like a pro. I can buy Austrian wine locally. If I really feel adventurous, I could try to make authentic semmel at home.  Sure, I can’t immerse myself in Viennese culture right now, but I have ways to scratch the itch a bit.

And sometimes a little taste of what I love will help tide me over until I can make my way back. Someday. Hopefully soon.


Music for All and Not Just One People

I love the Beastie Boys. I really do. This blog is named after one of their songs, and I reference other lyrics in the titles of blog posts all the time. Those references inspired me to use lyrics as post titles as my shtick.

So when I saw  Beastie Boys Book was available at my local library, I borrowed it. Then I renewed it a few times because it was taking me a while to get through it. Then I bought it because I realized it was taking me forever to get through it. Then I put it down and picked it back up…

And then I realized: I didn’t really like it.

There are two obvious problems. One couldn’t be solved: Adam Yauch died in 2012. The surviving members of the Beastie Boys acknowledge that Yauch was probably the most interesting person in the band. The loss of his voice in the story is a profound one.

But my main issue is that Beastie Boys Book is less a book and more an encyclopedia of anecdotes. It’s chronological, but it has no flow. There are some interesting bits scattered here and there. But there is no sense of structure, just one story after another dotted with an occasional guest essay that brings the book to a halt.

I probably could have seen this reaction coming. Two of my other favorite artists are Prince and XTC. I wanted to love Prince’s book The Beautiful Ones and XTC’s documentary This Is Pop because I love their music. And there was just no way those offshoots could live up to the music I’m obsessed with. Same goes for Beastie Boys Book. I don’t regret buying it, and maybe every now and then I’ll check out an anecdote for fun. But I couldn’t finish it because I just want to listen to their albums instead.

A Post About Slack That Isn’t Really About Slack

This is a post I wrote a few years ago for the old blog. I’m reprinting it this week because, as my colleagues and I continue to telework full time, Slack has become our primary communication tool. We also do meetings on Zoom, but I have to comb my hair for those.

There used to be a website called Meebo. It was a web-based instant messaging system that could be integrated with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and other IM systems. Users had the option to create their own rooms, which allowed groups of folks to chat in one place at the same time.

Meebo was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2012, Google bought it. Google integrated the Meebo team with its Google+ team, then quietly closed Meebo up.

There also used to be a website called FriendFeed. You could hook it up to all of your various social media accounts and blogs and so forth and all those accounts would feed into your FriendFeed account. You and your friends would be able to see and comment on everything you were populating the web with.

Over time, the function of collecting posts from your sundries became less important than just posting stuff directly into FriendFeed and talking with your friends and followers about it.

FriendFeed was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2009, Facebook bought it. Facebook took whatever code it needed for its Newsfeed feature and… well, let FriendFeed continue to exist. Gradually, FriendFeed began to deteriorate: features would stop working and the site would sometimes go down for awhile. For six years, FriendFeed users felt like it was not long for the world, but it only closed up shop in 2015.

Which brings me to Slack. The bureau I work for licensed Slack a couple of years ago with an eye towards improving telework. The idea our Bureau’s leadership had was that we would use Slack to get quick responses to short questions and to converse with coworkers about projects rather than bogging down inboxes with emailed conversations or interrupting a telework day with unnecessary phone calls.

At first, I didn’t really get it. I have been teleworking regularly for years, so I already had a routine down. (In other words, I’m a bit stubborn.)

And then light dawned on Marblehead: Slack is like a combination of Meebo and FriendFeed, except for work. It takes a lot of what I liked about Meebo (channels here instead of rooms) and a lot of what I liked about FriendFeed (integration with other resources, private group discussions and archived direct messaging) and packages it up for a work environment.

Granted, it lacks things I liked about Meebo and especially FriendFeed: for example, the threaded conversations in FriendFeed were unique in a way that even Slack’s threads don’t quite capture. But once I made the connections between resources I had used before to this resource, I could start to think about ways I could work it into my job.

The lesson here is that everything you have learned informs everything that you are going to learn. Just making some simple parallels can be the cognitive breakthrough you need to understand how something works and how it can work for you.

Welcome to the House of Fun

Years ago, I wrote a brief article about telecommuting for the 2014-15 edition of LexisNexis Best Practices for Government Libraries. Rereading it got me to thinking about how the telework landscape has changed a lot since then.

While my office has always been very supportive of telework agreements, it seemed that this wasn’t broadly the case in other parts of the bureau. So when recent events made it a requirement for me and my colleagues to do work from home, I was fascinated to see how this was going to work out.

And so far, it’s been fine. We had been hampered a bit by the limitations of our teleworking tools. Not surprisingly, they were originally designed to work for the average number of telecommuters, not the maximum number. So it’s been nice to see how much work has gone into improving the resources and streamlining the set-up process in the past couple of weeks. It’s a difficult job to implement rolling upgrades while also communicating with a large number of people whose work lives have been totally disrupted and are learning how to get set up and use everything all at once. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone working on this, because as much as we all like to complain about things not working perfectly, the fact that they work as well as they do under extraordinary circumstances is pretty great.

A bright spot in what is broadly a miserable time for everyone is that this whole experience will probably permanently alter how telework is done here. And not just from the technical and logistical end of things. I think a lot of people who were resistant to telework before will discover that it’s not so bad, and even has a lot of advantages. Not to say we all won’t be itching to get back to the office as soon as it is safe enough to do so. Even me, who teleworks more often than I work onsite.

One of the things that I noticed for myself is how loud my commute into DC has been. It takes me one hour and 15 minutes each way to get into the office. A significant portion of that commute is spent on a Metro train, and a significant portion of that Metro ride is spent underground. It is noisy down there, to the point where I bought noise-cancelling headphones so I could hear the podcasts I like to listen to en route. I have tinnitus, so I thought I was protecting my hearing this way.

But I realized that despite the use of those headphones, my ears were still buzzing at the end of the day. The reason? I was still turning up the volume on my podcasts so I could hear them. Even with the noise cancellation on, the din from the Metro tunnels was still too loud to hear properly. I’m only listening to people talking, but I’m listening to them at a stupidly high volume.

So when things back to whatever normal is going to look like, one of my personal tasks will be to figure out how to rectify this situation. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, because I have a backlog of podcasts to get through now that I’m not listening to them while commuting.

Life Is What Happens to You…

… while you’re busy making other plans.

I spent quite a bit of time planning out content for this blog, and I had a schedule in place and everything. But current events are inspiring me to reframe that a bit.

I want to keep writing, because it is a soothing hobby as much as it is a constructive method to work through stuff that I struggle to grok. I just need to reframe what I want to do right now.

One of the things I am going to start publishing soon is probably going to seem a bit bizarre to you. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years and am finally getting up the gumption to do it. It involves two of my favorite topics: music and Austria.

Another thing I have planned is jumping back into the productivity well that I like to dip into from time to time. I had been wanting to revisit some of those old posts and update them, and right now is as good a time as any to do so.

I’m going to continue to do book reviews on a monthly basis, but I’m not sure yet if I’m going to take a break from the beer reviews. On the one hand, I was trying to visit a lot of my favorite breweries in person. On the other hand, 7 Locks is experimenting with home delivery… 🍻

Until next time: be well, stay safe, and remember that we are all fellow passengers, not different creatures bound on separate journeys.


Things Can Only Get Better

It‘s a bit ironic to be reading Factfulness at a time of a global crisis when factual information is necessary and disinformation is rife. Factfulness’ late author Hans Rosling was trying to battle the perception that the world is falling apart using simple, readily available data, and maybe right now that battle seems a bit naive.

But one of the side effects of reading Factfulness is discovering the ability to take comfort in hard facts. As intense as the spread of COVID-19 seems, looking at the raw numbers indicate to me that the recovery rate is high.

I’m not kidding myself into believing that those numbers are perfect. For example, the number of cases may be artificially low based on how many people are getting properly tested and how (or even if) governments are reporting their stats.

And I’m not kidding myself that the spread of COVID-19 won’t get worse. It probably will, which is why my home state of Maryland has closed schools and libraries. But while living in a time when people are panicking because they’re not finding accurate information and when some leaders dawdle as some leaders act, the best thing I can do is be informed by reliable sources and take precautions, both with my physical health and my mental health.

So I will close this out with two quotes. They are keeping me as grounded as I can get during a tough stretch of time.

People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious “possibilist.” That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.

Hans Rosling on page 69 of Factfulness

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien on page 82 of The Fellowship of the Rings
(Ballantine Books edition, 1986 printing)

(To be fair, the rest of Gandalf’s quote isn’t as inspiring as that, so maybe just stick to the version from the movie.)

Introduce Yourself… Right On

It may seem odd to write an introduction to a two-year-old blog, but here’s why I’m doing it: I’ve been working in a non-traditional library environment for a decade and at some point in the past 10 years, I convinced myself that it is too hard to write about my work because only my colleagues would understand.

Then it dawned on me that this was a failure of imagination on my part. While writing “Libraries Gave Us Power,” I realized that if I am looking to find connections with librarians and other professionals that would be mutually beneficial, then it is up to me to write clearly and concisely about what I do.

So, what do I do for a living? I manage data about and electronic resources for the U.S. Department of State’s American Spaces program.

What are American Spaces? They are a network of more than 600 cultural centers supported by the State Department. Modeled after modern American libraries, they  provide free access to information about the United States and give local audiences the opportunity to engage with Americans on issues that are important to them. This description may raise more questions than it answers, but I will explain it all in more detail in due course. I need blog content, after all.

Anyway, my official title is Program Support Specialist, but the jargon-free title is contract librarian. I was hired to manage electronic resources, but as our program has developed and matured, I began to tackle my office’s data collection and management needs.

What I haven’t been able to do is analyze that data. I’ve left it to others to do, even though I have a good handle on what we have collected. Therefore, my next major task at work is to learn how to be a data analyst.

So when I talk about not getting what I need out of professional associations, that is what I was getting at. My professional journey is taking me in a different direction now, so I am reevaluating how I manage my career. And where this takes me will dictate what I write about here. Again: content!

Come Down From That Bough

When it comes to beer, I don’t stray too far from my adopted home state these days. Heck, I don’t even stray that far from my own neighborhood. If I can walk to a brewery, why the heck would I go to one that’s further afield? A 10 minute drive to True Respite or 7 Locks is just too far away.

And if that 10 minute drive is a daunting distance, then going to a brewery in Baltimore or Frederick is like going to the moon. It takes planning!

Fortunately, distribution of local beers is such now that I can develop a strong loyalty to a craft brewery without ever setting foot in it. For example, I’ve been a fan of Union Craft Brewing for three years almost to the day, according to a post on my old beer blog. That was when I wrote about their Balt Altbier. I don’t really like Altbier, which I usually find too bitter and too syrupy. But Union’s version was special: bittersweet chocolate flavor without being bitter, smooth and creamy without feeling like I was drinking Hershey’s syrup straight from the bottle. It was love at first sip.

So what better way to celebrate an anniversary with the one you love than by going to a special place that means a lot to both of you?

The Union Collective building is massive, with plenty of room to brew beer, have a tasting room and a beer hall, a restaurant, a creamery making fresh ice cream on the premises, a distillery, a coffee shop, and an indoor climbing park. It’s altogether impressive.

There was no Balt Altbier available, and although they had my other favorites on tap (Blackwing Schwarzbier-style lager and Duckpin IPA), I made sure to try stuff I had never tasted before.

I got a three-beer sampler and started with Divine IPA, as classic an India Pale Ale as I will ever find. It was clean and crisp and citrusy without being overly hopped. I then moved on to Michele’s Granola Porter, which at first glance, seems bizarre. But it’s really just a classic porter with a little extra oomph. It has an aroma of chocolate milk and starts off sweet before dissolving into a bitter, malty finish.

Lastly, I tried Kev’s Winter Warmer. Kev refers to Kevin Blodger, co-founder of Union and an all-around hero of mine. A lot of brewers will find their lane and stay in it. But Kevin and co-founders Adam Benesch and Jon Zerivitz brew stuff that would make even the hippest beer hipster feel like a frat boy stocking up on Natty Ice. They make an Altbier! Who else in the United States makes an Altbier?

It’s Kev’s favorite, by the way, in case you needed further reason why he’s my hero.

As for his Winter Warmer, it tasted of hazelnuts and nutmeg. Union pulled it through a nitro pump, so it had a smooth body with a toasty finish. It’s the type of beer I’d like to sip in front of a warm fire, which is an odd obsession of mine because I never sit in front of a warm fire. But I like to find beers that I would drink in front of one in case I ever do.

Needless to say, it was worth the visit. Not just for the beer, but also for the Duckpin bratwurst and the popcorn from Well Crafted Kitchen, the brown bread ice cream from The Charmery, and the nice cup of tea from Vent Coffee Roasters. If I’m going to go there, I might as well GO THERE, right?

Yes, brown bread ice cream: malt and cinnamon ice cream with Grape Nuts. I probably should have had it with Kev’s Winter Warmer. That would have been amazing.