How to Keep a Secret

There are dozens of quasi-secret, secret and top secret facilities scattered about the Capital Region, employing tens of thousands of workers. Do you know what they do at their jobs all day? No, of course you don’t. It’s a secret. But I know what happens at a few of them, because I worked there, and at a few other highly secured facilities throughout the United States. What did I do there? I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.

Which meant that I couldn’t tell my wife or my daughter or my parents or my closest friendly confidants either. I was sworn not to. That’s part of the process of being authorized to have access to secrets, a sense on the part of your employer that you can keep your lips, your briefcase and your laptop closed once you leave your office each and every day. Which isn’t as hard as it might seem, since one of the paramount rules of working at a secret installation is that you don’t carry work in and out every day. Instead, you start and end your workday with a clean desk, and overnight, all your working materials are locked in strong safes, then locked behind strong doors, then guarded by strong men and women with (sometimes) strong weaponry.

So compartmentalization is king. At a secret facility, you can’t bring the office home with you. In many cases, you can’t even stay in office after quitting time. And there are no 10 PM phone calls to your staff or your boss to review the day behind or the day to come, because, hey, who knows, something might be bugged, or someone might overhear, or it might not even be your boss at the other end of the line. Sounds paranoid, sure, but as Peter Gabriel once sang: “How can we be in, if there is no outside?”

And your outside life and your inside life must remain truly distinct. In one job, I spent most of the day doing, uh, secret stuff with a group of engineers who happened to be on the other side of the negotiating table. Well, if we had a negotiating table, I mean, hypothetically speaking. But anyway, by day, these guys were in, and by night, they were out, as neighbors, on three sides. By day, we talked secrets. By night, sports, the weather, gardening, home repair, family. Ne’er the twain could meet. Ne’er they did.

So it was paranoid and schizophrenic in that regard. But in the same way that delusional people are often quite happy in their delusions, there was a comfort in having a divided life. I mean, think about it . . . you can’t bring work home. You can’t be working at 10 PM each night. You can’t sit at your home office designing, uh, secret stuff. And that’s not a bad thing in this day and age when 24/7 workaholics rule the world, is it? A: No it’s not. And keeping to such a schedule also makes you exceedingly efficient during the time that you’re working at your office, since you know that if it doesn’t get done when it’s supposed to get done, then it isn’t getting done at all.

Discretion becomes the better part of valor when you’re outside, too. Most secure facilities require ornate security passes and badges, but like an army of robots, workers know to remove them from their lanyards or their pocket pencil protectors and stuff them in wallets or purses when they leave each day. Or at lunch. Or when you run an errand. No need to advertise the fact that you’ve got access to a place that few others do. You never know who might be interested in such facts. I mean, other than your wife and kids, who you don’t let visit your office because, well, it’s a secret. And loose lips sink, um, secret things, so you need to make sure that you keep your own under control, which means that you need to be darn careful about what you drink and smoke, and how much, and where you do it, and with whom. Blackouts are no excuse for trading secrets to the other team.

There are other ways to ensure that secrets are kept, too, of course, but I can’t tell you about them, because they’re secret. And no amount of cajoling, or bribing, or teasing, or influence peddling should be able to change that, because above all else, keeping a secret is a trust — bestowed not only by your employer, but by all the taxpayers or customers or clients who fund your work. You owe it to them. Shhh.

Into the Wayback Machine . . .

“Home” is a relative concept for me.

I’m approaching the half-century point on the birthday clock, and I believe that my current house (since 1999) is the 26th one in which I’ve lived, for a life-time average of more than one move every other year. Even by military brat and military grown-up standards, that’s a lot.

Some folks might put on the po’ po’ pitiful face and feel sorry for themselves for their lack of roots after such a peripatetic life history, but I tend to see things from the opposite perspective: I put roots down quick, and I feel a sense of belonging to a lot of places, rather than just a single spot.

In the past month, I’ve made return pilgrimages to two of the most formative of those places where I feel that I belong: Mitchel Field on Long Island (where I lived with my family from 1976 to 1980) and Albemarle, North Carolina (where my father grew up, and where I visited my grandparents regularly during my pre-college days).

I took my camera with me for both trips, both to record things that were meaningful to me, but also to capture the ways that these small communities have changed over the years, for better or (more often) for worse.

If you knew me while we lived in one of these places, then perhaps you’ll appreciate the photos as stimuli for walks down your own memory lanes.

But if you didn’t know me in those places, then here’s hoping that these photos still provide a peek into two small pieces of our country that have seen better days, like so many others, here, there, everywhere.

Maybe by contemplating the stories that these photos tell, we’ll realize how much we lost as a nation when we collectively traded in the charms of such distinctive communities for the consistent convenience that Wal-Mart, Target and other character-killing franchises bring  . . . so click on the photos below to see what is now, and to recall what once was . . .

Mitchel Field, New York, April 2011

Albemarle, North Carolina, April 2011

51 Favorites

“A crank is a person with strong feelings about too many topics.”

— Marcia Brom Smith

1. Favorite Professional Sports Franchise: Kansas City Royals

2. Favorite Breakfast Cereal: Puffed Rice

3. Favorite Classic Car: 1973 Corvette Stingray T-Top

4. Favorite Warplane (Propeller Conference, American Division): P-38 Lightning

5. Favorite Warplane (Propeller Conference, Foreign Division): Supermarine Spitfire

6. Favorite Warplane (Jet Conference, American Division): F-4 Phantom II

7. Favorite Warplane (Jet Conference, Foreign Division): Saab JA-37 Viggen

8. Favorite Commercial Airplane: Bombardier CRJ900

9. Favorite Progressive Rock Album: Tarkus by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

10. Favorite Metal Album: Time Waits for No Slave by Napalm Death

11. Favorite Jazz Album: Iron Man by Eric Dolphy

12. Favorite Synthesizer: Prophet-5

13. Favorite Frozen Pizza: Newman’s Own Thin and Crispy Four Cheese Pizza

14. Favorite Bottled/Canned Pasta Sauce: Muir Glen Portabello Mushroom Pasta Sauce

15. Favorite All-Purpose Seasoning: Old Bay Seasoning

16. Favorite Album to Listen to When Going to Bed (Alone): The Broadsword and the Beast by Jethro Tull

17. Favorite Albums to Listen to When Going to Bed (With Company): Ça Va by Slapp Happy

18. Favorite Restaurant (Local Division): River Street Cafe, Troy, New York

19. Favorite Restaurant (National Division): Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida

20. Favorite Restaurant (International Division): Hotel Búðir, Búðir, Iceland

21. Favorite Manned Spacecraft (American Division): McDonnell Gemini Spacecraft

22. Favorite Manned Spacecraft (International Division): Soyuz TMA

23. Favorite Planet: Saturn

24. Favorite Minor Planet: Pluto

25. Favorite Natural Satellite: Enceladus

26. Favorite Man-made Satellite (Earth Orbit Division): Echo 2

27. Favorite Man-made Satellite (Non-Earth Orbit Division): Cassini

28. Favorite Regional Golf Course: Winding Brook Country Club, Valatie, New York

29. Favorite Professional Hockey Team: Washington Capitals

30. Favorite Professional Basketball Team: Washington Wizards

31. Favorite Professional Football Team (American Division): Tennessee Titans

32. Favorite Professional Football Team (Canadian Division): Saskatchewan Roughriders

33. Favorite Animal (Mammal Division): Three-Toed Sloth

34. Favorite Animal (Likable Bird Division): Great Blue Heron

35. Favorite Animal (Grumpy Bird Division): Common Grackle

36. Favorite Animal (Invertebrate Division): Mantis Shrimp

37. Favorite Animal (Extinct Division): Trilobites

38. Favorite Protist: Euglena

39. Favorite Poetry Collection: Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

40. Favorite Poem: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

41. Favorite Song Lyric as Poetry (Songs That Should Be Played at My Funeral Division): “The Black Angel’s Death Song” by Lou Reed

42. Favorite Song Lyric as Poetry (Songs That Should Not Be Played at My Funeral Division): “Mutiny in Heaven” by Nick Cave

43. Favorite Visual Artist (Living): Douglass Truth

44. Favorite Visual Artist (Not Living): Joan Miró

45. Favorite Internet Browner: Firefox by Mozilla

46. Favorite Bloggers (Three-Way Tie): Chris Molla, Rob Heinsoo, Mikalee Byerman

47. Favorite Magazine: The Economist

48. Favorite Local Charity: AIDS Council of Northeastern New York

49. Favorite Shoes: Bass Weejuns

50. Favorite Skyscraper: Chrysler Building

51: Favorite Band: It’s complicated . . .

Nine Types of Industrial Pollution

1. The beloved Kansas City Royals are 10-4, tied for the best record in the American League, and in first place in the Central Division. If the season ended now, they’d be playoff bound. I’m thinking we really don’t need to play another 150 games, right? Please? Somebody? Anybody?

2. I love films, but not films based on comic books, video games, toys, or amusement park rides, nor sequels, nor remakes, nor films based on kids’ books, nor films that require me to wear headache-generating 3-D glasses, nor films starring any combination of Kate Hudson, Jack Black, Drew Barrymore, Owen Wilson, Mila Kunis, Matthew McConaughey, Ellen Page, Mel Gibson, Katie Holmes and/or Tom Cruise. Should I just give up on movies for the next six months? I’m thinking I don’t have a choice . . .

3. I love, love, love extreme metal/grindcore band Napalm Death, as I’ve mentioned before. I also love, love, love jazz, most especially the works of Yusef Lateef, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Charles Earland, Elvin Jones and the great Miles Davis. And in an inspired moment of “two great tastes that taste great together” insight, I absolutely adore the “Napalm Death + Jazz playlist I created on my iPod a few weeks ago. It’s magic. Seriously.

4. Carl Johnson’s new local history-oriented Hoxsie! blog is a wonderful counterpart to his long-running My Non-Urban Life. Well worth bookmarking. Go ahead. Do it. Right now. I’ll wait . . .

5. One for the prog-rock geeks: the line-up of Yes that recorded 1980’s under-appreciated Drama (long-time stalwarts Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White, plus Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles and, later, Asia and Art of Noise, respectively) has reunited, joined by former Yes tribute band singer Benoit David, and will be issuing a new studio album this summer. I’m actually excited by this, since Drama is probably the Yes album I listen to the most these days, as uncool as both of those facts are to admit. Here’s a classic clip of this line-up making magic with “Tempus Fugit.” Progtastic!

6. Tax Day is Monday, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that we have a larger than expected refund coming our way this year. While I know it’s bad financial planning to let Uncle Sam have an interest free loan of our over-payment, there’s still something satisfying about getting a nice surprise in April instead of a dire one. Time to plan our August vacation.

7. One of the nice things about being a prolific/obsessive-compulsive writer is that I occasionally find things I wrote years and years ago, and then completely forgot about, so when I stumble upon them, I sort of get to experience what it’s like for other people to read my stuff. Most of the time I wince at these discoveries, since there’s usually a good reason as to why I’ve forgotten these things, but sometimes I find lost texts that really make me happy and pleased with myself. Like this one:

Toothless old Odegaard Ellis
ate porridge and peas for supper
while watching ‘The Wheel of Fortune’
in the kitchen of his old trailer.

When finished, he washed his dishes,
had ice cream, watched re-runs of ‘Dallas.’
(So why is it we’re not as happy
as toothless old Odegaard Ellis?)

8. I’ve been digging around online recently for classic soul videos, many of which originally aired (while I was watching) on Midnight Special or Soul Train, the latter hosted by the great Don Cornelius, who was surprisingly formative in shaping my creative aesthetic, such as it is. Personally, I think our world would be a better place if we all dressed and danced and sang like The Manhattans.

9. Marcia and I are going down to Long Island for a work event tomorrow night. We’ll be staying at a hotel right next to my old stomping grounds at Mitchel Field. Needless to say, I and my camera will be roaming and reminiscing. Stay tuned . . .

Trouble Every Day

1. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster now rates as an International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) Level 7 event. For perspective, Chernobyl is the only other reactor plant accident in history to have received such a rating. Based on the training I received during a decade spent working in the nuclear power industry, reports from Fukushima from the very beginning of the crisis clearly indicated to me that this was going to be a major radiological event, deserving of the highest levels of media and government attention. The problem is, though, that in the absence of a photogenic mushroom cloud, our domestic media outlets seem to have lost interest in this nuclear event, I think largely because the economic impact and casualties right now pale in comparison to the visceral, visual impacts of the triggering earthquake and tsunami that led to the nuclear crisis. But that’s stunningly short-sighted, given the long-term impacts of ionizing radiation. Interestingly enough, the American media actually did seem to have a better handle on the severity of this evolving, long-term radiological event in its earliest days, but then they seemed to back off when ill-informed members of the American blathering class (both on television and in the blogosphere) started jumping up and down and shrieking like howler monkeys about “media hype,” for reasons that to this day strike me as perverse and inexplicable. Consider this: the Japanese government is preparing to evacuate upwards of a 30 kilometer radius around the Daiichi plants, which would be like the Feds here sweeping in and telling everyone who lived within 18 miles of the New York State Capitol (essentially the entire Capital Region) that they had to leave their homes, now, and perhaps never come back. That’s not hype, that’s horrifying, and I think the bloggers and pundits who created the impression that this was all just a media kerfuffle did a grave disservice to their readers and viewers, and were tremendously disrespectful toward the present and future victims of this nuclear disaster, including those who will lose they have everything now, and those who will suffer in years (and generations) yet to come from the physiological consequences of this event. At bottom line, radiological safety and control is a tremendously complex and complicated field, with far-reaching ramifications, and if the only things you know about it are what you or your staff found on Wikipedia one afternoon, and you’ve never worn a dosimeter to work, then you really have absolutely no business at all waxing profound about it in public, under any circumstances. Seriously.

2. Very, very, very, very much less seriously: I’ve been trying not to notice that the beloved Kansas City Royals had the best record in the American League Spring Season standings, and that they’re playing .667 level ball and competing for the top of their division a couple of weeks into the regular season. Were I of an apocalyptic bent, I would certainly be looking into the deeper corners of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine for clues as to how this most unlikely of scenarios fits in with the coming end of times. If the beloved Washington Capitals manage to turn their number one seed in the Eastern Conference into something other than a 7-game series loss to Pittsburgh in the second round (after squandering a 3-1 series lead), then I’ll definitely be buying some Beast Insurance and keeping my eyes peeled for the Whore of Babylon. On the upside, I hear that Gog and Magog have got some fantastic giant warriors on their side, so perhaps the beloved Washington Wizards can swing some trades there that’ll get ’em out of the lottery for a year or two . . .

3. Years ago, I realized that I over-used the phrase “Odds and Sods” when I was titling multi-topic posts (like this one) on my blog. So, since I’d cribbed that phrase from an album title by The Who, I decided to just use other Who song titles for such posts instead. Then I ran out of Who songs that seemed to fit, so I moved on to Bee Gees song titles, and when I’d exhausted that list, I started in on song titles by Emerson, Lake and Palmer that seemed to fit. That list, too, seems to have run its course, so I’ve picked a song title from the canon of yet another artist tonight, one so prolific that I figure I should be able to get at least a couple of years’ worth of omnibus blog post titles out of his work. An Indie Albany gold star for the first reader who identifies him, without checking on Wikipedia for the answer . . .

On “Best Of” Polls (And Why I Hate Them)

It’s “Best Of” Season in the Capital Region, when all of the traffic-conscious local bloggers hereabouts are falling all over themselves to provide you with links to the big local newspaper’s “Best Of” readers’ poll website, while demurely batting their eyes and saying, “Oh, I’m just showing you where it is as a public service, but of course, don’t vote for me, I’m not worthy, really, vote for somebody, anybody, but please not me . . . .”

Riiiiiiiiight . . . .

I’m not going to point you to such a site, but if you find it yourself and want to vote for Indie Albany or in one or more categories, well, hey, go right ahead and do so. I’d vote for us, too, if I were inclined to vote in such things.

But I’m not, as a general rule. Even though I’m an inveterate list maker, these sorts of open-ended readers’ poll surveys tend to leave me cold, as I think they are better indicators of “Most Popular” or “Most Active Ballot Stuffing Street Team” than they are arbiters of “Best Of ” anything. Once you factor in selection bias and statistical significance (or, more often, lack thereof), readers’ polls are actually among the most useless survey instruments possible when it comes to determining quality, especially when the readers are encouraged to vote in as many categories as they possibly can (whether they know anything about them or not) as part of a prize eligibility requirement.

I used to think more highly of critics’ polls than I did of readers’ polls when it came to music and film, until I actually became a paid music critic, and grew to realize how often we picked things that were obscure to the point of absurdity, especially when they were made by our friends. So now I look at such critics’ polls with a jaundiced and cynical eye, assuming that if I haven’t heard of someone or something that the critics have cited, then odds are it’s the art editor’s girlfriend’s band.

So what I really like these days, when it comes to learning about new things that I might like, is not reading aggregated readers’ poll results that are subject to ballot-stuffing, nor anonymous group pieces crafted by a cabal of nepotistic critics, but rather something that falls between those extremes of gang mentality and willful obscurantism.

Where do I get that sort of perspective? By reading blogs or print articles by people whose opinions I respect, who lay out their own personal favorites in categories that really matter to them, and in which they are knowledgeable. I consider these folks my trusted online advisers, and that has nothing to do with whether or not the local newspaper’s readers consider them vote-worthy or not.

I’d encourage you all to develop your own list of trusted sources, if you’ve never done so. You’ll certainly get more out of doing that than you will by engaging in sheep-like adoration of the things that get listed in a readers’ poll, largely because the people behind such things are trying really hard to appear there.

Here’s a closing note to those folks who are desperately spinning their blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter follower lists, and e-mail rosters to whip up the votes for themselves. For the record, since I’ve been there, an appearance in a local newspaper’s “Best Of” readers’ poll plus a cup of coffee equals . . . a cup of coffee. So, please, stop embarrassing yourselves by groveling for something so meaningless in the big scheme of things. Dignity matters, you know?