My Grandfather’s Biography

My first book — a biography about my grandfather’s life — was published in January of 2017. I’ve been writing stories, features, editorials, and articles for years, but I’d never written a book before. It feels different, like it actually “counts” in a way those other writings never did.

Books are strange and wonderful that way.

The journey toward publication was bittersweet, with the smiles associated with aggregating knowledge about my grandfather’s remarkable life tempered by the still-raw sadness of his recent passing. He never got to see the finished product all bound up in book form, but I used to read to him from the manuscript version as I completed sections of it. The stories seemed to take him back, providing a welcome journey for his mind at a time when his body was no longer able to carry him further than a few dozen feet down the hallway.

The genesis of the book — the spark of inspiration — has been difficult to nail down. I had always had an inkling that it was something I wanted to do, but the concept sort of floated around in my mind, indistinct. It seemed like I had all the time in the world to do it, and I kept telling myself I’d get to it eventually. Back before we were married, my wife had spent a few hours chit-chatting with my grandparents while passing through their home in upstate New York. When I talked to her about it afterward, it became clear to me that in those few short hours she’d learned more about who they were and where the came from than I’d bothered to do in all the years I’d known them.

I was ashamed and embarrassed, but even that wasn’t enough to kickstart my drive to actually write the book that, at the time, only existed as an idea in my mind.

That all changed when we learned that my grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They call that disease “the long goodbye” for a reason, as it slowly dissolves the person you knew and turns them into someone you don’t. That sorrow was further compounded when we realized how much family history had been lost along with her personality, the strands of memory containing people, places, experiences, and even recipes becoming inaccessible islands as the bridges connecting them decayed under the onslaught of her illness.

Grandpa did his best to support her, but the illness took its toll on him, as well. He was unable to truly relax or rest, and he was having difficulty getting around. This unfortunate confluence of reality finally jarred me out of my complacency. I realized that there wasn’t going to be time to “get to it” later, and I needed to get the ball rolling right away. But how do you rapidly chronicle more than 8 decades? Where do you even begin? It was a daunting task — one that was made more difficult by the fact that I was living in northern Virginia at the time.

I ended up enlisting the aid of my family members, dividing up grandpa’s life into smaller chunks and assigning them out like homework. My cousins, aunts, and uncles would sit with grandpa whenever they visited and ask questions, listen to stories, and generally be with him as he guided them through their assigned segment of history. Some of them took notes, and others recorded the conversations for future reference, but all of them reported back to me with their findings in full.

In the meantime, I made phone calls and gathered newspaper clippings, official documents, older articles, family pictures, and other such relics and tried to put them in order. This step was important, because sometimes grandpa’s stories were contradicted by other firsthand accounts of the same experiences. I still don’t know which accounts were right and which accounts were wrong, but it was interesting to see how relative something like history can be, particularly when so many hold it to be immutable truth.

There were many aspects of the project that I found unsettling. Indeed, it felt more than a little morbid, like I was creating a premature eulogy about a living person. There’s no logical basis behind it, but that doesn’t change its realty. Death is a natural part of life, but we do everything we can to distract ourselves from the topic. Do we not care, or does thinking about the finite nature of time just make us sad, so we avoid the subject? I suspect it’s the latter, and that is one of the great sorrows of the modern world. No one deserves to be forgotten, and yet we do little to remember those who are gone because doing so makes us question our own mortality.

For anyone interested in reading it, the book is entitled “One of God’s Noblemen” and is available on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Gods-Noblemen-Authorized-Calligaris/dp/1540697541.

Whether you read it or not, I hope this post has made you think about your family’s history — and perhaps inspires you to chronicle it, as well.

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Don’t Go Changing

Adapted from a post drafted in 2011 but for some reason never posted in full.

When I informed my three roommates in Los Angeles that I had accepted a job in Washington, DC, the resulting flurry of comments ran the gamut of “it’ll be so weird without you here” to “hold on, let’s discuss how your decision will affect me personally”.

Here are just a few of my favorites:

***

– “We should get a sassy chick to replace you!”

– “I can’t believe this is how you’re being written off the show!”

– “I don’t want a new person around here. I’ll have to be nice for two weeks, and I’m busy.”

– “I don’t want you to go because I’ll miss you.”
(immediately followed by)
“I don’t want you to go because I legitimately hate change.”

– “This is the last time you screw up my life!”
(immediately followed by)
“…please don’t let that be true.”

– “We should all write different CraigsList ads. The person who finds our next roomie gets a prize!”

– “You should stay. Or maybe [your DC-based girlfriend] can move out here and you two can swap!”
“Could you get me a job?”
“An internship, easily.”
“But those don’t pay.”
“See, if you were less picky you’d have a job by now and wouldn’t have to move.”

– “I can’t believe you’re breaking up with LA.”

– “Should we do a party?”
“We literally JUST had one for my birthday”
“But you’re leaving.”

***

Sometimes I still miss the wonderful people and interesting places I encountered in LA, but moving back to DC was the best decision I ever made. I was worried doing so meant giving up on my dreams, but in reality it pushed me toward where I am today — and I couldn’t be happier.

By the way, we did end up having that second party. It was a proper sendoff filled with stories and laughter, and nobody seemed to mind having a second shindig so close to the first. I even hear they replaced me with a sassy chick, too, just like they threatened. And they all lived happily ever after.

The End Beginning.

Modern W1z4rd5

Two coworkers shared a red-and-white checkered blanket in Franklin Square, enjoying a well-deserved springtime lunch break on the grass.

Like the rest of DC, this small green space baked into the middle of the city had once been a swamp, home to countless gators, birds, and insects. And, like the rest of DC, each of these had found themselves displaced by tourists, buses, and brightly colored food trucks with names like Cap Mac, Dangerously Delicious, and Lily Pad.

It was a definitive improvement.

The coworkers chatted idly between bites, pausing to watch groups of Segway-mounted tourists struggle to keep up with their tour guide like so many scattered ducklings. The trees rustled, and a faint breeze caused the pattern of sunlight and shadows to dance across the ground.

“I’ve got a question for you, Sam,” one of the coworkers said to the other.

“Yeah?” She grinned and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Let’s hear it.”

“What is your reaction to this statement,” he continued, splaying his fingers as though picturing the words floating in the air between them. “Hackers are to the modern world what wizards are to the realm of fantasy. That is, hacking is wizardry — the study of complexities manipulated to create wondrous things that break the rules of what should be possible.”

Sam cocked her head to the side for a moment, pondering the implications.

“I don’t know about that,” she said at last. “But maybe you and I have different definitions of wizards.”

“Well, take Harry Potter wizards, for example,” he replied hastily. “They can cast spells, but only if they have a mind for it. They have to study hard to learn how to do it, but that’s the only limitation to their power. That’s a lot like programming, right?”

Sam shook her head.

“But not everyone who studies magic can do it,” she said. “You have to have an aptitude for magic in the Harry Potter world or it doesn’t work.”

“Ok, fair point,” he nodded absently. “But in our world, anybody could ‘cast a spell’ to ‘conjure up immense wealth’. We’d just call it ‘writing a program’ to ‘hack into a bank account’.”

“Coding viruses doesn’t sound much like casting spells to me,” Sam countered with a smile. “Am I supposed to equate hacking with being able to fly and teleport and summon owls? Laaaaame.”

The man shrugged helplessly.

“Look, I’m not saying our ‘magic’ is better than, like, magic,” he conceded. “I’m just saying that we spend a lot of time dreaming about how much better life would be if we had superpowers. But I think we only like the idea of those things. And I think we only want them if they’re easy. It’s like…I want to be thinner and stronger, but since I don’t want those things enough to spend more time at the gym, do I really want them? Or do I just like the idea of them?”

Sam took another bite of her sandwich, chewing quietly before responding.

“No, I want magic. Real magic,” she said, flicking him a mischievous grin, “Because no amount of hacking is going to let me play a real-life game of quidditch. Figure out a way to code that, and we’ll talk.”

The man laughed, leaning back on both hands and looking up at the swaying tree branches.

“Maybe somebody will,”  he replied, raising his bottle of water to her in a halfhearted salute, “But I’ve gotta admit, you make an excellent point.”

Resurrection

It’s almost become a running joke for me to include “end of hiatus” in my first update after a string of absences.  Allow this post, though brief, to serve both as an apology and a promise: 

Mistopia shall return in full force Soon™.

I look forward to seeing you then.  We have much to discuss.

Shooting the Moon

End of Hiatus
It’s been a long time since my last post, which continued the proud tradition of creating completely unreliable predictions about the NCAA tournament. In the months since that time, I have spent my time buried in the world of working for an internet start-up company — with some extra time thrown in to get re-acclimated to the DC climate.

Even still, I regret the lapse of updates, and there’s no better time than the present to put things right.

Moving on.

Today, I was struck by an article going around on Slate.com dealing with the recent death of Neil Armstrong and NASA’s past glory. It’s a fantastic read that goes far beyond the petty controversy alluded to by its title, and it’s worth your time. Seriously.

Fascination
I’ve always loved NASA. As a child, I was enthralled by outer space in a way most kids are absorbed with Tonka trucks, dinosaurs, and Legos. I liked those things too, of course, but I could never learn enough about the solar system to satisfy my curiosity. What were the other planets like? What might lay hidden upon them? Could we ever make the journey there ourselves?

Lots of kids say they want to grow up to be firefighters, police officers, famous athletes, paleontologists, or astronauts. As for me? I wanted to be an astronomer.

I held no illusions about the astronaut thing — I never wanted to visit an unexplored planet on an untested craft in an experimental spacesuit. No, I wanted to visit our neighboring planets only after they’d been safely inhabited with futuristic space stations, and until then I’d be happy to simply read about them and learn what I could from good ol’ terra firma.

Early in high school, I realized several important things that changed my plans completely: First, that astronomers used an enormous amount of physics to do their work, and second, that I was very bad at advanced math. With main strengths skewed toward language, music, and the arts, I resigned myself to learning more about the fascinating universe around us by reading about it, and to leaving the science-y stuff to those who were better equipped to make discoveries.

My parents, both of whom are chemical engineers, weren’t super thrilled about my decision to tackle journalism as a trade, but hey — you’ve got to play to your strengths, and even they had to admit I wasn’t likely to figure out how light bent by a distant black hole translated into the presence of clustered heavenly bodies that even our most powerful telescopes can barely discern.

I’ve always been bothered by how little the average person knows about our solar system and its surroundings. There are dozens and dozens of fascinating moons, asteroids, planetoids, and more floating around out there, many of which contain the ingredients necessary for life as we know it — though in their extreme states. It’s an amazing universe out there, for anyone wondering.

What Else Awaits Us?
It’s not that we’ve lost our drive to explore since landing on the moon, either. We continue to pepper Mars with exploratory rovers, and we have satellites actively firing past the known reaches of our galaxy. Any day now, we expect to complete the first truly intergalactic transmission thanks to these latter explorers. Big things continue to happen, even as NASA hemorrhages funding and people lose their patience for projects measured in years instead of hours.

These achievements would be very inspiring, if only people could parse the daily chatter about inane celebrity antics and political bluster to hear about it.

I still think we’ll reach Mars someday, perhaps even in my lifetime. In doing so, I hope we can renew our tenacity toward expanding into the unknown, in peeling back the void.

We can be so much more than the bickering squabble media outlets would have you believe is the best humanity has to offer. The question is: Will we?

Aaron’s Extra-Good, 100% Accurate, Completely Unbiased NCAA Bracket Analysis – 2012 Edition

In light of the enduring popularity of last year’s bracket, Mistopia is ready to once again dive into March Madness. 68 teams are entering the dance, but at the end of the day, only one will walk (or hobble) away with a pair of high-quality nets from New Orleans.

Round 1
The first four games continue to baffle me. Each of these teams has oozed blood, sweat, and tears for this moment: a shot at being the knocked out in the next round by a team that actually deserves to be in the tournament. VCU did prove me wrong last year, but I’m confident the 2012 crop won’t repeat the feat.

Miss Valley State over Western Kentucky — the Hilltoppers’ freshmen are no match for Miss Valley State’s experience.

Iona over BYU — Scott Machado can carry the Gaels at least this far.

Lamar over Vermont — Bobby Knight’s son won’t go home just yet.

South Florida over California — Cal choked vs Colorado and USF went down to Notre Dame. Edge: The defensive might of the Bulls.

Round 2
We’ve got some of the weaker basketball games out of the way, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Onwards toward glory! (Or soul-crushing disappointment, depending).

SOUTH

Kentucky over Miss Valley State — this one’s no contest, and a great example of why the previous round should be considered “cruel and unusual punishment.”

UConn over Iowa State — the Huskies have enough gas in the tank for one good game.

VCU over Wichita State — I’ll avoid jinxing myself by knocking VCU out on their first game this time around.

New Mexico State over Indiana — the Hoosiers suffered some unfortunate injuries, and the Aggies are a tougher team than they look on paper.

UNLV over Colorado — the Buffaloes haven’t seen the NCAA from anywhere but their living rooms since 2003. The Rebels will advance.

Baylor over South Dakota — the Bears have beaten Kansas. They can handle a few Jackrabbits.

Notre Dame over Xavier — the luck o’ the Irish will keep them from falling flat just yet.

Duke over Lehigh — much as I detest the Blue Devils, Lehigh won’t be able to knock ’em out of the Dance.

WEST

Michigan State over LIU Brooklyn — the Spartans will march all over the Blackbirds, no matter how impressive their alley-oops have been in the past.

Memphis over St. Louis — the Billikens haven’t been to the tourney for more than a decade, which make’s ’em Tiger food.

New Mexico over Long Beach State — Long Beach won both championships in the Big West, but the Lobos boast a deep bench that’ll give them that extra edge.

Louisville over Davidson — The Cardinals have a strong enough defense to blunt Davidson’s assault, and put consistent (if hardly impressive) numbers on the board to advance.

Murray State over Colorado State — Murry State’s mostly made up of juniors, and that experience has helped them become the only single-loss team in the tourney. They’ll advance.

Marquette over Iona — The Golden Eagles can really put up the points, so long as they avoid a much larger team that can beat them on the boards. Iona can’t outpace them and will end up short.

Florida over Virginia — With VA’s Brogdon and Sene out, Scott can only carry his team so far. The Gators’ strong perimeter style will prevail.

Missouri over Norfolk — The Tigers have a lot more offensive power than Norfolk knows how to handle.

EAST

Syracuse over UNC-Asheville — The Bulldogs owned the Big South and deserve their spot here, but they’re no match for Syracuse.

Southern Miss over Kansas State — The Golden Eagles upset the Wildcats with consistent, unselfish play and by abusing Kansas State’s poor performance at the charity stripe.

Vanderbilt over Harvard — Vanderbilt has at least two (and maybe three) players going pro next year; the Crimson is a respectable team, but they lack that kind of raw talent. Plus, Vander just beat Kentucky. They’ll move on.

Wisconsin over Montana — The Badgers will put up a tenacious defense that Montana just can’t match.

Cincinnatiover Texas— The Longhorns have J’Covan Brown, but the injury sidelining Wangmene points to a Bearcats victory.

FSU over St. Bonaventure — Florida State has six seniors, and that kind of experience will pay off for at least one more round.

WVU over Gonzaga — As long as Jones and Bryant stay out of foul trouble, the Mountaineers have the edge here.

Ohio State over Loyola — There have been times when 15 seeds upset 2 seeds, but this is not one of them.

MIDWEST

UNC over Lamar — Lamar’s a solid team with a good coach, but Roy and the Tarheels are in a league of their own.

Creighton over Alabama — the Tide’s lack of discipline will be their downfall here as foul trouble and panicked plays nudge Creighton onward.

Temple over South Florida — The Owls manage to hold on, but it’ll be more of a struggle than it should be.

Michigan over Ohio — Ohio’s a good team, but they can’t match Michigan’s backcourt talent.

NC State over San Diego State — The Wolfpack has proven they can hang with the likes of Duke and UNC; they’ll inch forward here looking for another shot at a powerful team.

Georgetown over Belmont — The Hoyas have a balanced squad, and Belmont will simply be outplayed here despite their deep bench.

Purdue over St. Mary’s — Robbie Hummel deserves to advance here, and will work harder to do so than the Gaels can handle.

Kansas over Detroit — The Jayhawks may not be the talk of the town, but they’ve got enough talent to take down Detroit.

Round 3
We’re left with a collection of likely and unlikely teams that are all still nursing high hopes. Some harsh lessons will be learned this round, and while most will involve knowing your place, a few will teach the value of humility.

SOUTH

Kentucky over UCON — The buck stops here for the Huskies; Kentucky’s just too strong.

VCU over New Mexico State — The magic of last year’s run is still alive and well. For now.

Baylor over UNLV — Baylor’s a very athletic team, and will wear down UNLV for the win.

Duke over Notre Dame — Again, I want to send the Blue Devils home, but I just don’t think the Irish have enough fight in ’em to do the trick.

WEST

Michigan State over Memphis — Despite the Tiger’s NBA-caliber talent, Michigan State works better as a team.

Louisville over New Mexico — It was all the Lobos could do to get here; the Cardinals will put ’em down for the count.

Marquette over Murray State — Buzz Williams’ offbeat style will win the day over the Racer’s predictable pacing.

Missouri over Florida — The Gators are good, but they’re not THAT good.

EAST

Syracuse over Southern Miss — There’s no way the Orange will let themselves be sent home this early.

Vanderbilt over Wisconsin — The Badgers boast a powerful defense, but eventually you have to outscore your opponent.

Cincinnati over FSU — Florida State has beaten some of the best teams in the country and took home the ACC tourney to prove it, but Cincinnati’s tough. After a close match, the Seminoles march home.

Ohio State over WVU — The darlings of Morgantown will come up short against Sullinger and company as long as they refrain from taking pot shots from the arc.

MIDWEST

UNC over Creighton — Creighton puts up a lot of points, but not more than Carolina can handle.

Michigan over Temple — The Owls had a hard time getting here; Michigan will gently show them back to the bleachers.

NC State over Georgetown — It’s an upset, sure, but the Wolfpack is used to that this year. Expect a fast-paced, brutal game.

Kansas over Purdue — It’s a close match, but Purdue’s 2-7 vs Top 25 teams. Plus, and Kansas is better at the boards.

Round 4
There aren’t many surprises this year in the Sweet Sixteen — these programs know what they’re doing, are hungry to advance, and have the talent to do it.

SOUTH

Kentucky over VCU — The fairy tale ends here for the Rams; no matter how many times you steal the ball, sometimes you have to put it in the hoop afterward. Go with the sure thing here.

Baylor over Duke — The Blue Devils have been inconsistent all year, and Baylor has the staying power to shut them down hard.

WEST

Michigan State over Louisville — Michigan State is a little undisciplined, but should be able to pull off this win.

Missouri over Marquette — Missouri has a power-packed team, and Marquette won’t be able to exploit their merely adequate defenses for the upset.

EAST

Vanderbilt over Syracuse — Melo is out and Vanderbilt has defeated top-ranked teams before when they were at full power.

Cincinnatiover Ohio State — Early foul trouble for Sullinger swings the ball to a somewhat surprising contender.

MIDWEST

UNC over Michigan — The Wolverines struggle against talented big men, and Zeller may be more than they can handle.

Kansas over NC State — NC State has a history, and it involves getting tired after a few games. Edge to Kansas for this one.

Round 5
Welcome to the Elite Eight: a trio of 1 seeds, a pair of 2s, a 3 seed, a 5th seed, and a 6th seed. That seems like a good mix of luck and skill to me.

Kentucky over Baylor — Much as I would like to see Baylor pull this one off, their 1-4 record vs Top 25 teams shows a glaring weakness I just can’t ignore.

Missouri over Michigan State — The Spartans lack the poise to stay focused, opening the door for a minor upset.

Vanderbilt over Cincinnati — It was a good run for Cinci, but Vanderbilt’s got more raw talent.

UNC over Kansas — Kansas isn’t a bad team and matches up well with UNC. Provided the Tarheels are healthy, their experience gives them an advantage here.

Round 6
The Final Four. The field has narrowed significantly now, and the players are starting to feel real fatigue. It’ll all be worth it if they can just pull it together for two more games, but that’s easier said than done.

Kentucky over Missouri — Missouri’s powerful players finally go down to Calipari’s Wildcats.

UNC over Vanderbilt — UNC’s experienced roster knows how to handle the high-octane energy of the tournament better. Vanderbilt will run out of steam after a long, surprising run.

Round 7
Two will enter. They’re both number one seeds, which makes me nervous, and only one will be leaving with heads held high. SPOILER ALERT: They’ll be wearing blue.

UNC over Kentucky — As long as the Tarheels have their full roster, they’ll be able to outmaneuver an opposing team where four of the top seven players have never been to the NCAA before.

And there you have it, a completely unbiased approach to the 2012 NCAA. Best of luck with your own brackets, and feel free to send me a portion of the sweet, sweet loot you collect from your friends and family after putting this valuable advice to good use.

Stop SOPA/PIPA

Today, Mistopia is joining in with the online movement to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.

Despite their feel-good names, both of these initiatives seriously threaten free speech by giving a handful of powerful companies the power to unilaterally shut down sites that may or may not host copyrighted content or links to such content.

This bypasses the legal system’s current copyright protection tools and places the burdon of proving innocence upon their targets, most of which will not be flush with lawyers and liquid cash to fight such claims.

There will always be criminals in this world, and they will always find new ways to break the law. Legislation like SOPA/PIPA sets the dangerous precedent of allowing governments and companies to censor huge chunks of the internet, severely harming online communities by making gathering spots (Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc.) responsible for policing the content uploaded by their users. This is an impossible task for even the largest social media networks, and will make investment in new similar ventures impractical.

Pirates, of course, will just create new sites as quickly as their old sites get shut down.

For more information, please watch the below video:

Write your representatives. Explain to them that civil rights and a vibrant, innovative internet cannot be colateral damage for the greed of media license holders. There are better ways to protect copyrighted content, and they should be explored.

Use a language they’ll understand: Economics. Tell them that the opportunity cost of this legislation is far too high.

Edit (1/20/12)
Looks like the internet wins this round, but we need to remain vigilant against such measures in the future to ensure we are really only inhibiting criminal activities.