Writing on the toilet walls

Who doesn't like writing on walls?
Perhaps it is the medium – a vertical and big space – that inspires; perhaps it is the aura of this being a 'forbidden' activity.

Either way, we decided it could be fun to allow the kids (and ourselves, and our guests) to write on the toilet walls – which are tiled – with whiteboard markers.

Our toilet walls

Now, when we have guests, anybody who goes to the toilet takes a very long time to come out of it, and usually gets back saying "how cool".

Can you see? (Song)

This is a blues-y song I wrote recently, performed with the recently built 'Santa Muerte' cigar box guitar (just in time before it gets picked up by its new owner, I thought I'd test drive it properly…) as well as my Plank "#01" Telecaster.

Pump up the volume, and I hope you like it.

Besides composing, I have been to Italy for the Christmas holidays – for the last couple of weeks; production of 'Plank' guitars is about to resume next week, as kids start school again.

In the meantime I moved the website to a 'better' domain name www.plankguitars.com (but all previous links will redirect) and have prepared 'labels' for serial numbers of my builds:

Plank guitars labels

Cigar box (cookie tin) guitar 'Cellocan' and upcoming builds

I started building electric guitar bodies out of recycled wood while I was in the United States. Anyhow, it wasn't until recently, here in the Netherlands, that I really started looking at the 'lower end' of the instruments world (something I should have probably done earlier, but it's never too late): I discovered a thriving community around 'Cigar box' guitars – enthusiasts have written a manifesto , you can find forums for builders someone has filmed and documentaries about the phenomenon (external sites).

Wikipedia introduces them as follows:

The cigar box guitar is a primitive chordophone that uses an empty cigar box for a resonator. “Guitar” refers to the traditional instrument and to a string bass. The earliest predecessors had one or two strings; the modern model typically uses three or more. Generally speaking, strings are connected between the end of a broomstick or 1″ x 3″ wood slat and to the resonator, the cigar box.

This makes Cigar box guitars perfectly suited for being 100% built off recycled materials (maybe excluding the electronics). Even on this side of the world (Europe) where we have less actual ‘Cigar’ boxes, there are plenty of biscuit tins and wooden boxes out there for reuse as resonators!

There is of course political aspect to this – we live in a society that more and more and more just produces and ‘throws away’ stuff; it’s good if we can make our items live longer, or give things (that would normally be thrown away) new life. This is why – even for ‘regular’ guitars and custom builds/designs – I try to use recycled materials as much as possible.

So, after experimenting with a couple simple diddley bows (single string chordophones), I built also a 3 strings cigar box guitar, and featured that in my guitar site. This is a very crude build, here's how it looks:

Cookie tin guitar 'Cellocan'

This one's theme was to precisely try reuse as much recycled materials as possible and do *minimal* modifications to it: this led to have a broad but thin neck, for example, just because that was the size of the plank of wood I got out of some weird furniture found in a thrift store.
I have to admit that, after the move, I don't have a garage so I have been temporary constrained to my living room, and that's not the most comfy lab to work in 🙂 Anyhow, we have built a shed in my father in law's backyard that I will share to use for guitar building and he will do his other woodwork in:

Nico's creative space

Nico's creative space

He also has some long and straight hard wood poles that he got from his dad back in the days and never put to use: some of those will become guitar necks, I am working on the designs… Stay tuned!

Below you can see part of the process of building the cigar box (really a 'cookie tin') guitar and some other details about this particular guitar.

Partially shaped neck being glued to the fretboard

Broad and thin neck compromise – that's how the plank was – you can see there would be space for more strings, but the risk is that the wood is too thin. Anyhow, this makes it actually very easy to play with a slide. I left it fretless, but the action is low enough that it can also be played with fingers.

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Interestingly enough, albeit the bridge is flat (not an arch like in a violin), the string spacing is enough to allow to play some notes even with a bow – which inspired the name of 'Cellocan'

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Here you can see the string spacing and an aluminum (recycled from another box) string holder I hacked for this headstock (which doesn't have an angle like my future builds will)
Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

And here you can see/hear me play it

The recording is horrible, but hope it gives an idea.
On SoundCloud I have some more 'sound tests' too.


Soon I'll start working on a batch of new cigar box / cookie tin guitars. Probably some 3, some 4 strings, some fretted, some not…

Below you can see some of the boxes/tins I have been collecting and have lined up to be turned into instruments – let me know if you are interested in any particular one!
I'll keep adding boxes to this Flickr photo set – to track individual progress of each 'body'.

Cigar box Dutch cookie tin Dutch cookie tin Cookie tin
Cookie tin Cookie tin Cookie tin Tea box
Cake tin Cookie tin Wooden ANWB box Wooden box

Then after having done some more of these 'simpler' builds, maybe I'll also do one or two full size, 6 strings, neck thru guitars. We'll see. Stay tuned in the next few months.

Three quarters of 2015, my IT career and various ramblings

September is over. The first three quarters of 2015 are over.
This has been a very important year so far – difficult, but revealing. Everything has been about change, healing and renewal.

We moved back to Europe first, and you might have now also read my other post about leaving Microsoft, more recently.

This was a hard choice – it took many months to reach the conclusion this is what I needed to do.

Most people have gone thru strong programming: they think you have to be 'successful' at something. Success is externally defined, anyhow (as opposed to satisfaction which we define ourselves) and therefore you are supposed to study in college a certain field, then use that at work to build your career in the same field… and keep doing the same thing.

I was never like that – I didn't go to college, I didn't study as an 'engineer'. I just saw there was a market opportunity to find a job when I started, studied on the job, eventually excelled at it. But it never was *the* road. It just was one road; it has served me well so far, but it was just one thing I tried, and it worked out.
How did it start? As a pre-teen, I had been interested in computers, then left that for a while, did 'normal' high school (in Italy at the time, this was really non-technological), then I tried to study sociology for a little bit – I really enjoyed the Cultural Anthropology lessons there, and we were smoking good weed with some folks outside of the university, but I really could not be asked to spend the following 5 or 10 years or my life just studying and 'hanging around' – I wanted money and independence to move out of my parent's house.

So, without much fanfare, I revived my IT knowledge: upgraded my skill from the 'hobbyist' world of the Commodore 64 and Amiga scene (I had been passionate about modems and the BBS world then), looked at the PC world of the time, rode the 'Internet wave' and applied for a simple job at an IT company.

A lot of my friends were either not even searching for a job, with the excuse that there weren't any, or spending time in university, in a time of change, where all the university-level jobs were taken anyway so that would have meant waiting even more after they had finished studying… I am not even sure they realized this until much later.
But I just applied, played my cards, and got my job.

When I went to sign it, they also reminded me they expected hard work at the simplest and humblest level: I would have to fix PC's, printers, help users with networking issues and tasks like those – at a customer of theirs, a big company.
I was ready to roll up my sleeves and help that IT department however I would be capable of, and I did.
It all grew from there.

And that's how my IT career started. I learned all I know of IT on the job and by working my ass off and studying extra hours and watching older/more expert colleagues and making experience.

I am not an engineer.
I am, at most, a mechanic.
I did learn a lot of companies and the market, languages, designs, politics, the human and technical factors in software engineering and the IT marketplace/worlds, over the course of the past 18 years.

But when I started, I was just trying to lend a honest hand, to get paid some money in return – isn't that what work was about?

Over time IT got out of control. Like Venom, in the Marvel comics, that made its appearance as a costume that SpiderMan started wearing… and it slowly took over, as the 'costume' was in reality some sort of alien symbiotic organism (like a pest).

You might be wondering what I mean. From the outside I was a successful Senior Program Manager of a 'hot' Microsoft product.
Someone must have mistaken my diligence and hard work for 'talent' or 'desire of career' – but it never was.
I got pushed up, taught to never turn down 'opportunities'.

But I don't feel this is my path anymore.
That type of work takes too much metal energy off me, and made me neglect myself and my family. Success at the expense of my own health and my family's isn't worth it. Some other people wrote that too – in my case I stopped hopefully earlier.

So what am I doing now?

First and foremost, I am taking time for myself and my family.
I am reading (and writing)
I am cooking again
I have been catching up on sleep – and have dreams again
I am helping my father in law to build a shed in his yard
We bought a 14-years old Volkswagen van that we are turning into a Camper
I have not stopped building guitars – in fact I am getting setup to do it 'seriously' – so I am also standing up a separate site to promote that activity
I am making music and discovering new music and instruments
I am meeting new people and new situations

There's a lot of folks out there who either think I am crazy (they might be right, but I am happy this way), or think this is some sort of lateral move – I am not searching for another IT job, thanks. Stop the noise on LinkedIn please: I don't fit in your algorithms, I just made you believe I did, all these years.

Teaching my son to code

"How do you write a video game?" – Luca, my 11-years old son, asked, some weeks ago, during his summer holiday.

With Joshua, his older brother, I had made some moderate attempts, years earlier, to interest him in the topic of code and programming, but it didn't interest him. He has many qualities but he's not into Lego building either, or anything remotely connected to engineering, so I didn't push him. It's not his cup of tea.

But kids are all different, and Luca asked. He knows I work at Microsoft… so I was obviously the go-to person for this question.
So, what do I teach him now – where do I start?

Over the years I had kept an eye on what literature and toolkits were available to introduce kids to programming, to keep myself up to date. When I was young, our home computers came with a BASIC. Computers were simpler, they did less things, there were less 'layers'. There was the well-known LOGO out there, indended as a teaching language, but that was it.

Of course by now the situation has greatly improved – there are a lot of resources out there… but do they really teach you well?
To various degrees.

There are more things (sites/toolkits/languages/books) out there, but I find that all most of those resources are somehow missing the point: they focus too much on teaching ONE language in particular, but they do not lay the foundation to how to DESIGN a good program. They teach you to code, but they don't point out good or bad design choices.
In particular they don't lay a good foundation of object oriented programming concepts, and generally seem to be ignoring object orientation and just teaching – the old ways – procedural programming. This is at least my experience with Microsoft SmallBasic, and now with some books (with great Amazon reviews) around Python, such as 'Hello World' (Manning) or 'Python for Kids' (No Starch Press).

I would have actually favored Python, as at least is a modern and open language and not proprietary. Those books might even be easy to follow and learn something, but 'Python for Kids' has a chapter on 'objects' – chapter 8 , starting on page 98. 'Hello World' waits until chapter 14 (fourteen) before talking about objects. And it does for just 3 pages. SmallBasic doesn't really even seem to bother explaining anywhere what objects classes are and why they exist – it just tells you to accept the ones provided as a fact of life and just use them. In the meantime examples are filled with global variables and teach you sloppy practices.

I know that for many people who had started before OOP was common, and learned procedural programming, they later had to get used to the change, and it wasn't easy. Anyone?


So why all these books all have to start with 'variables' and 'loops' and 'functions' and how to get user input (and use it insecurely) and all that sort of procedural crap? That's just syntax. That is NOT the difficult part, every decent coder will tell you. You can look that up. Every language has the same sort of loops, you write them slightly different, but that's not what's difficult. There will always be another syntax, another parameter, another API… but you can look those things up. We are in 2015. We have the internet now.

Understanding object orientation, instead, "Envisioning" your classes and determining what the right behavior to give them, and doing this right is what is tricky. That's why if you want to teach *programming* (and not just language X or Y) you need something better – something that teaches the important stuff FIRST and foremost and makes sure you 'get it' before getting you lost/bored in repeatable details that can be looked up. Better setting some standards from the start – kids are just learning and will be very open to accept the guiding practices you give them.

Then, once that theory is in and you understand that in modern systems you basically always define behavior for objects, then you can do that in any language. Better, you can *think* and design better programs, in any language.

This is why I ended up discovering and liking Greenfoot very much.

Generally I am not a Java fanboy, but the way Greenfoot's IDE is designed demonstrates a lot of effort and thought has been put where it matters – teaching and visualizing the concepts of object oriented programming. The design work takes into account the visualization needs of both teacher and student, and makes teaching object orientation possible even at a young age.

To better understand what I am talking about, anyhow, I suggest you look at the lessons (some for students, but especially those with teacher commentary!) in the videos at http://www.greenfoot.org/doc/joy-of-code

So when Luca asked, I started with him long the same lines of what is described in this blog
In the blog post, the author describes how he coded a simple Doctor Who – inspired videogame in Greenfoot, and talks thru the process of teaching (for the parent/teacher) suggestion how he explained certain things, providing and commenting small working snippets to speed up some parts of the process.

I was pretty lucky – since Luca also likes Doctor Who, we could basically follow the same 'storyline' the blog outlines and build a very similar game. Ours turned out a little different (by choice) but those articles gave us a fantastic start, and we had a lot of fun going thru it.

He learned enough of it over just a couple of days (I spent maybe 4 hours with him, he tried some other things for another couple hours), that he tasked himself (he came up with it spontaneously!) with building something else from scratch, and he made another simple game with two cars that could freely drive on the screen, and had to dodge trees, that he's now playing along with his little sister!

Young geeks

Does he know all of Java? Of course not. Neither would he know everything of Python, or Basic or anything else. But he got the basic concepts of OOP down, and those will stay. By the time he might want or need to dust this skill for any type of academic or professional use, languages will have evolved and changed anyway… but I am pretty sure this experience I gave him would still hold useful. I am not planning on 'pushing' him any harder than he already pushes himself – after all, he's only 11.

So, thanks, Greenfoot, for focusing on the right things! I would recommend you to anyone who wants to teach programming to kids.

Playing with dolls

Playing with dolls

There are no 'boy' and 'girl' toys. Just toys.
The gender-aligned toys are an evil invention of marketers. Or maybe to an extent it existed before – dolls were given to girls as they had to get used to the idea of being mums, boys were fighting in courtyards with wooden swords.

But to kids, toys are toys.
My daughter joins in the sword fights of her brothers. They partecipate in tea parties with the dolls and puppets. One of my daughter 'dolls' is a Dalek (from the Doctor Who serie) that yells 'EXTERMINATE!' if you squeeze it.

Dolls and puppets are just means for kids to tell stories. It doesn't really matter which toy you give them – in fact if there were more 'gender neutral' ones that'd be better – but kids will make any toy have adventures and do things together with the other toys, whether they are all coming from the same factory/box/series or not. My oldest sons liked cars – but what he was really doing was role playing with them: the cars were speaking to each other and interacting like humans (this was years before Pixar made the movie 'Cars', btw).

The basic need of the kid is to play and replay and practice repeating the type of interactions he's observed in the world: from his parents, from other people, from the television.
The 'where' those interaction are copied is not proportional to any fake sense of 'authority', as we would like to have it. It just depends on the level of exposure: if a kid watches crappy and shallow television programs all day, that's the level and style of interaction he'll absorb, and he will repeat and try to apply in his games with his or her toys, whether these toys were 'boys' or 'girls' toys.

As a kid, I did have dolls (including a Barbie and a realistic-looking baby with a dummy), as well as cowboy guns and hats, as well as music instruments, cars, Legos… A bit of everything.

But in short, I was allowed to explore and not be bound to gender roles.

Not always – I remember I did have to ask and work on convincing my mother to get me that Barbie – I was already 'older' and she was afraid I would get teased. I surely would be, but I didn't care. After all, all those other action figures and 'boys' puppets I had found it kind of boring for it to be in an all-men party. The good of the community must come before my own, I thought.

Of quality time, the last 20 years and the best night of my life

Just around this time at the beginning of August, twenty years ago, is when I first met Jyothi.
20 years is a long time, of which we have been living together for the last 14 and have been married for 12 and a half.
As we approach our 40 years milestones (I turned 39 in March, Jyothi in July) we have now known each other for more than half of our lives.
I am so blessed I met my soul mate, my lover, my best friend and the mother of my kids – and I would have certainly never imagined what booking that cheap holiday in '95, after I had passed my high school exams, would have led to.
The best things just happen, you can't stage them or set them up. You need to be in the flow.

Good morning sun!

While this post is obviously an open Love letter to my wife, you have to be warned that the rest of this article is NSFW (Not Safe For reading at Work). Read on at your own discretion.

As I was thinking about writing this piece and how to best explain what our relationship means to me, I stumbled into this article on the Huffington Post, which describes a relationship that looks just about the opposite… it's so far from my views of how a relationship should be, that I'll use it to explain by contrast what both marriage and feminism – and respect – mean to me, instead!

If I should summarize the article in a single sentence, I would probably do it like this twitter comment. But this post contains the extended version.

In the article, he author (a guy who has an 'open' relationship) mounts an articulate argument to attempt to preserve his self-esteem while his wife happily screws other men twice a week (and he's also allowed to but doesn't do it as much as she does…) and he is the 'stay at home dad' and he's obviously very bothered by it but he's trying to deny it and say he's fine and he accepts this cross because he's a Feminist ?!
Sorry but you guys are doing it all wrong. This is not feminism. This is American capitalism: you guys have chosen quantity over quality.

What I get from the story is that the author seems sincerely convinced he's doing the right thing, but there is an underlying lack of respect for him in all that she does – or what he lets us know about it – and he lets her get away with everything. To me it doesn't sound like it's really working: you don't sound happy. It sounds like she enjoys the other guys more, and you are losing her.
You guys should talk and dig deep and understand what's she finding in those other men that you don't seem to give her, but you should also make her stop hurting you. It's also not clear why you really chose to make your relationship 'open' – there is a short explanation but is very simplistic. You should dig deeper there to analyze what led you to that moment, and how you felt there.

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become" – Buddha

Either get back in touch and try to heal each other, or maybe you should even question why you are still together. It's not necessary that one of the two people in the couple has to take it all but then plays the martyr role. There is a lot of passive aggression that transpires from that article, while stating that he's fine with all of it.
Is also not clear how the kids are taking this – they sound like a 'burden' to you. I am not sure how they are living what they see and what they are learning from it. I would think maybe – just maybe – two independent but fully happy parents might actually give a better example in this case than what you are showing them here.

But why did I pick on this article?
Well, it got me thinking because the topic of 'open' relationships has been another cause of bother in our permanence in the United States: wherever we went, we kept ending up meeting/hearing/reading about many 'open couples' and poly-amorous relationships – and we have even been offered (and gently but firmly declined, albeit temptations messed up our minds for months…) to do exchanges and swaps and orgies from people we'd never expected such proposals… never happened in Europe, seriously. Yes some people do those things, it's known. But not that many, really, and from our recent first hand observation I believe the phenomenon is way bigger in the United States than I had ever known or suspected. We were not prepared for that.

Now you would think we are bigots. Moralists. Old fashioned.
It's not the point, we are actually quite open – I am not saying people shouldn't do those things. They like what they like, and that's OK if it really works for them and makes them happy.
But I am, anyhow, stating polygamy and various degrees of 'openness' in relationships aren't something for us, because we think they don't work in practice, and everybody gets hurt.
One of my past girlfriends cheated on me once, and she told me, and I was very hurt but I forgave her. But I think she was unconsciously trying to push me away, and the relationship was never the same again. Then she cheated again, then eventually we split up and she went with her new guy, who incidentally was my band's new guitarist – I had lost my girlfriend and my band at the same time. Neither the sexual nor the 'professional' relationships of that guy with my ex girl and the band lasted long, but it hurt like hell, and it took me a while to put myself together.
Jyothi's ex husband used to cheat on her too (and he didn't even tell her but was pretty obvious/under the sun). He also gambled and made them end up with debts. She took the hit for a while, but she eventually kicked him out and divorced him.

We all have had fantasies. We all have our weird thoughts and fears. Our animal bodies and senses, especially in this over-stimulating society, always crave for more. We are stressed and try to fill a void in the absurdity of our societies and workplaces. We are exposed to all sorts of programming and are actively 'targeted' by marketers who want us to always desire more, to buy more, to feel that we have never enough. This extends to desire for more sex, or more love.
There are even folks who start movements and write that they have 'more' love to give and one partner isn't enough for them. Well, you know what? You might think you can handle it – and maybe you can, for a while – but I see you are spreading too thin. You could spend that time better to strengthen the relationships you already have, if you think they are worth it, rather than starting all sort of new ones. Aren't we all already spreading too thin by time slicing seconds here and there for friends on social network, over life on this side of the screen?
But in relationships you need to tackle the issues you have, and you have got to make some choices. You can fight for and fix those issues when you care for it, or otherwise it sounds like you have already given up but can't dare to admit it.
Either way, you cannot want it all and want it now and throw a tantrum like a baby and get away with it, that's not how life works.

The guy of the Huffington post article mentions that when his wife was sleeping with other men he once got worried when she didn't even come back late but stayed out all night. Gosh, I would die at the idea my wife is out for 'fun' on one of those dates! But this is not feminism, she's walking over you! Feminism is about equality and fairness. It shouldn't mean that women now should emulate and repeat all the bad/stupid bossy behaviors they endured for centuries from men. It's bad and disrespectful behavior regardless of which side does it.

I remember with a lot of pain and solitude the many nights I spent out of the house, and not for fun, in a period years ago when we were living in Italy and I was travelling for work a lot, visiting customers all over Europe and Middle East.
I spent those many lonely nights in (sometimes fancy, sometimes crappy) hotels, often working extra hours not knowing what else to do, sometimes masturbating if I could not hold my hormonal levels, but eagerly waiting to get back home and make love with my wife again. And she spent those same lonely nights at home too, in the same frame of mind…

Did I have occasions to cheat? Plenty – the company I work for even hosts to conference in places like Las Vegas (what is more terrible is that this is a place where Americans families – with kids – go on holiday):

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Welcom to Fabulous Las Vegas

But I never cheated.

Many nights in those hotels I really missed ending the day together with Jyothi, after the kids are asleep, when we can sit or lay together and talk about how our days went and the things we want to do together, and everything and nothing… and when we are together we do make love, yes we do enjoy quite a bit of sex with each other, that really I don't think any of us would even have energies to spare and go with someone else… without taking energy away from what we have. And we don't feel the tradeoff is worth.
And even on the days when we don't make love, we talk, read, we feel life together, we enjoy the little things. We really enjoy being together.

Sitting Next To You

Now, when we moved from Italy (where my work was the one that made me travel so much) to the United States, I was hoping the new job to be done 'at the office' (as opposed to travelling to customers) would give me the time to be more present – not less!
Turns out I was physically present almost every single day now, not travelling every other week anymore… but after a while I fell trap to something else: my job's rhythm became so intense that I stopped being 'mentally' present: for several months my head was just focused on the project I was working on, from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, and I stopped having a life… and I was ruining what we have, because I was becoming absent. Sure, I was working 80-hours weeks and therefore paying the bills, but I wasn't doing anything else anymore, and I was growing distant and grumpy. Jyothi helped me see what I was doing, we talked about it, and she helped me remember who my better self was and how he looked like. Because that's what you do when you care for someone – you fight for him or her, you don't just let that grow more and more distant down any slippery slope. It was a very painful period, and Jyothi also got sick due to all the stress of having to do more alone than ever in a country with no other family or support system, and of what I talked about in the previous three posts on this blog.
I dropped some balls, I delegated more, we moved back to Europe and scaled back on the pressure. But in the end we both grew a hell of a lot stronger – and self aware – together, rather than falling apart.

I am a feminist, and I respect my wife by spending as much quality time with her as possible, whenever possible. Every night is a date night for us. This doesn't mean we need to go anywhere or do anything fancy and spend a fortune; I just mean we are present for each other with emotional intelligence, which is what human beings really need.
Also, we share the load of things like cleaning, cooking, etc – those are not 'mine' or 'her' jobs, they don't have anything to do with who works in an 'official' job and who works at home running after 3 kids… we are pretty fluid in that and naturally take turns – but it's based again on being there and understanding the other "I see you are tired, today I'll cook", things like that. I am sorry for a period I didn't do this anymore, when I had lost myself.

I am a feminist, and I respect my wife by not cheating, even if my dick sometimes does feel otherwise (and I won't deny it). But those organs tend to have a mind of their own. Especially if your colleagues fed you Vodka at the company event and you normally don't even drink coffee, let alone alcohol… But it's safe to assume that pussies have the same impulses, and here's the trick: you can actually ignore those impulses like you can control shopping frenzy. You can, right? Because *that* is exactly the problem, and that is the point I am trying to make – in all this flourishing of 'open' and 'poly' that we have seen in America and keep hearing about on the media, the problem is that people are not in touch with themselves – and with others. They think they can just 'shop' for happiness. Get more quantity. Bigger burgers! More dicks! More pussies! More everything!

This is caused by stress of a life that goes too fast, by being bombarded with horrible stimulations about how you should live, and conditioning of consumerism only seeking to make more money but give out all the wrong values and messages.

Why should you spread thin and handle multiple half-ass relationships, when you can have one that is just amazing?
You can do a million things and do them all crap. Or you can try to juggle a lot less and maybe do each thing you do properly.
Relationships don't "just work" – you have to actually be involved in them and spend effort on making them work. From both sides. And the growth you get – together – is wonderful, and totally worth it.

When a hooker in Vegas tried to get my attention telling she would make me spend the best night of my life, I smiled and continued along my road, thinking the best night of my life had been the night my daughter was born and I had to argue with and shout at the nurse to be allowed to stay with Jyothi in the hospital. I helped her as much as I could, at least with my presence, hearing and feeling her go thru the pain of the delivery.

That's why I am a very lucky man. Because with Jyothi we spend time together and enjoy the little things, and we are a fantastic team. Of two.


Holy Cow!

Last December, we were driving northbound, in California, on our way back from a Holiday.

The air was hot, the sky was grey. The whole atmosphere on the highway was gloomy and oppressive.
Then we started smelling something. A stench in the air, was gradually getting stronger as we kept eating up miles.
We were wondering what it was – a lot of pooh for sure but we weren't sure if used to feed the fields or otherwise?
We had never witnessed a smell that repulsive, and it wasn't just pooh – it was certainly a lot of that, but mixed with sweat and tears and sadness and death.
After many miles of that, it became too strong to bear and we were feeling physically cramped up and on the verge of vomiting, and it was then that it appeared. When I saw it I was literally shaken, and I almost lost control of the car: all you could see on a side of the road was miles and miles of bare ground, or rather mud, certainly covered with pooh, till the eyes could see. And those field were literally filled with cows, and more cows, and even more cows – more cows than you can possibly imagine. They were resting on each other, not having enough space to even move, with no grass anywhere, literally standing or sitting in their own pooh, surrounded by clouds of their own farts. Miserable.
I regained control of the car without consequences, and managed to stop the vehicle by the side of the road. I stepped out for a second, I felt like vomiting. I didn't have the guts nor the clarity to shoot a photo. It was like walking in hell.

Now you might think I am over dramatizing – but it really felt that way to me. I knew that high density farms existed, and I knew animals were not treated nicely, but after having seen this, even the memory of it makes me feel the stress and the pain and the desolation of that place in my heart and I can't ignore it.

Think of it – we are what we eat. If the cows have lived that life of stress and pity, do you really want to eat them?

I now largely stopped eating meat – I would not call myself 'vegetarian' as I did not make a strict rule of it – I still eat what I feel like eating (I have eaten lamb twice in the last seven months for example), but I generally found I have little to no appetite for meat these days. I like it, but I don't need it and I don't crave it as I used to.
I am not making an argument for never eating meat. There is place for a bit of that, we are omnivores, but we should making them live happy and treat them respectfully. I am making an argument for moderation, respect, compassion.

There is a passage that Desmond Morris, a famous zoologist, wrote in his book 'The Naked Ape', in 1967:

"[…] It could be argued that, since our primate ancestors had to make do without a major meat component in their diets, we should be able to do the same. We were driven to become flesh-eaters only by environmental circumstances, and now that we have the environment under control, with elaborately cultivated crops at our disposal, we might be expected to return to our ancient primate feeding patterns. […]"

In addition to my ramblings and memories, and a 40 years old book, here I collected a few more recent news/articles I invite you to read and they feature some photos of the horrid place we drove by (and other similar ones):

Besides the 'poor cows' argument, and the willingness (or lack thereof) to eat them after having seen (or just knowing) how they suffer, and whether we need to eat it or not, this type of intense exploitation has side effects for carbon emissions, is responsible for droughts and water problems, and other issues – the articles linked above talk of all these much better than I would. Summary: it is not a sustainable way of farming. It is causing all sorts of issues to the environment, not just the cows themselves. There should be enough warning signs we are doing it all wrong, and yet we continue in this craziness.

Some additional tidbit to note is about the 'diet' of those cows – the last article I linked also brings up some additional information about what the cows are fed:

"[…] Most of the beef consumed in the United States comes from such feedlots, where cattle arrive after living for six months on pasture and grass to be finished for another six months or so on a corn and other grains. Because a diet mainly made up of corn wreaks havoc on the digestive systems of cows, which are ruminants and designed for grass not grain, they are fed daily rations of antibiotics.[…]"

Corn. Cows are being fed corn.
This is because in America there is an excess production of corn (largely GMO) so that you can basically find corn everywhere (directly, or indirectly) in 75% of products in the average American grocery store:

If you read those articles, you'll see the overall corn industry in the states makes it so that you basically have a very hard time if you don't want to eat corn, you can't find food without it. They force it down on you. A lot of it is GMO, and you can't escape it.
Obesity and other issues (heart problems, etc) in the States are largely related to corn, especially in its derivative product, the 'high fructose corn syrup' that is used as a sugar substitute all over the place (and even in places you wouldn't imagine they'd need sugar for their preparation…). Too bad that high fructose corn syrup is actually junk:

"[…] Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, which is not a good thing. This means a greater number of calories—about three times more than glucose—are going through liver processes and that results in a much higher production of VLDL (the bad cholestoral mentioned earlier) and fat. It also results in a higher production of uric acid and a lot of other things you don't want, which is believed to lead to fun stuff like hypertension and high blood pressure.
On top of that, fructose consumption negatively changes the way your brain recognizes your consumption. This is because your brain resists leptin, the protein that's vital for regulating energy intake and expenditure (which includes your keeping your appetite in check and your metabolism working efficiently). As a result, you keep eating without necessarily realizing you're full. […] Your brain doesn't get the message that you really consumed much of anything and so it still thinks you're still hungry.[…]"

Give me 'normal' sugar any day please.

But to go back to what the cows – before the humans – eat, they are also fed antibiotics to 'compensate' for having fucked up their digestive system by feeding them corn in the first place!

Cows are so important for milk – even more so than for meat – but we mistreat them and let them live in hell and feed them things they can't digest and medicines; as a result, even their milk is also of poor quality, carrying over the antibiotics and having little nutritional value.

All it would take is to just eat less meat. Just eat less meat. I am not saying none at all, but just a lot less. We don't really need as much of it. Then you need a lot less cows, and you can make them live in comfortable conditions, eat grass (non GMO please) which would be good for them, and enjoy the good healthy milk they'd then start producing again. Live in balance with Nature, not exploit it.

This article about 'the Cows in Hinduism' makes some very good point as to why in India the cow is 'holy' (as in – treated with respect):

"[…] Milk is just as important, if not more so, to Indians as it is to Americans. We use it so much, for so many things, that the respect for the product carries over to affection for the source. Cows are the lifeblood of many small communities, and the size of a herd can indicate a great deal about the status or health of villages in India. We use ghee (clarified butter) and milk in ceremonies, and we revere the cow for providing it. We drink the cow's milk, as though it were our mother's. So indeed, we respect the cow as if it were our mother.
However, the question about 'worshipping cows' is based on misinformation. Hindus do not 'worship,' cows, in the implied sense of the word. There is a religious relationship between us, but it is not one of worship. In its place, there is a deep reverence for life in all forms. […]"

While I wasn't raised a Hindu, this actually resonates with me – I love nature and all of creation, and I think we should always remember we are all interconnected, and hurting nature ultimately hurts ourselves. And it is already making us suffer, because deep down we know we are hurting mother earth, and the environmental issues are showing us that.
Even the Native American knew and told us that. Chief Seathl (Seattle) wrote a letter to the President of the United States of America in 1854:

"[…] Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. […] Whatever befalls the earth befalls he sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. […]"

We should have listened, but you know how that went.

Me and my wife are pretty sensitive, my digestive system was pretty messed up as a kid, from the too many antibiotics the doctors fed me in the '70s, and my youth is a history of food allergies and intolerance that had progressively gone better as I became an adult and gradually de-toxed. In America it all came back, as it is really hard to 'pay attention' to what crap is in each product, each and every day. But as I paid more attention, in the last year I started dreading the sight of the cafeteria's at work and I was often escaping for lunch and heading to a small Indian place that at least used fresh veggies and didn't use GMO-vegetable oils; my wife developed Ulcerative Colitis and literally changed 'shape' from being overweight to underweight, in the last 2 years. Partly due to the food, partly due to the stress of various situations a couple of which I wrote about it my previous posts: http://www.muscetta.com/2015/07/03/imaginary-friend-sara-about-public-school-in-the-united-states/ and http://www.muscetta.com/2015/06/30/when-i-stopped-sleeping-well-at-night/ , and other ones – some of which I won't write about.


But specifically in regards to food, in our shopping, we support local farms and try to buy all organic, biologic farmed food. This was the case in America – albeit it was hard to find and *extremely* expensive – and continues to be the case now that we moved to the Netherlands. Granted, you can find plenty of crap also on this side of the world, largely from the multinationals, but it is way easier to find better quality products, and to do so without completely breaking the bank.

I think if America would invest the right resources in supporting sustainable farming it would do a lot of good to all sort of problems the country has.
There is evidence of this all over the place, and yet fueled by the corn lobbies, the pharmaceuticals, and other industries, the intensive planet-destroying methods of food production continue to be supported.

I recently moved to the Netherlands (whose milk – and cheese! – tradition is famous), and the cows I see now are mostly happily roaming in the grass, and watching them is helping me and my wife heal. And healthy, organic Dutch cheese and bread, too.

Dutch cows

Imaginary Friend Sara (about public school in the United States)

This is one more post about things that disturbed us in America, and eventually led to the decision of coming back to Europe.

No, I don't mean to say everything about America was bad. It wasn't. We have learned a lot. We did amazing things, met some incredible people and visited places and nature that is so beautiful it can't be described with words or pictures: my limited attempts to portrait the beauty of that continent are on my photos on Flickr… but in real life it is so much more fantastic. I loved to see Eagles flying over us; I enjoyed camping like primitives among huge trees that have seen an ancient world and shared those spaces with the Native people, in harmony; it's not in many places in the world nowadays that you can drive thru forests or deserts or prairies so beautiful that take your breath away for hundreds of miles; I even had a good laugh when the occasional raccoon decided to climb on our tree at night and eat all the plums (which sounded like a Pig was stuck on the tree, by the way – another strange night episode, but actually funnier that the one with the police I wrote about in my previous post).

But we also experienced a society that, weighting all factors, is not the one we want our offsprings to grow in, and after the first euphoric and exploratory years we couldn't really see ourselves growing old there.

So, here's another story that happened to us. And – as the pain it caused is starting to heal – I am still grateful it did happen and life manifested itself this way, because it truly opened our eyes.


One day in November Sara said to my wife: "You know, mum? I have a friend called Sara – she stays out of school, and Sarah enters the school. Then we meet again when I come out."

Sara and Sarah. A trailing 'h' and a fairly different pronunciation (you'd pronounce it 'Sara' closer to 'Zara' than how you say 'Sarah' with an American-English accent). But wait, it's not just about the name – the kid was really telling us she was not allowed to be herself – Sara – in school, where she has to pretend to be someone else – Sarah (the only way people in the States were able to pronounce her name), to meet expectations and handle the pressure in school. The name was just a label for the different 'roles', but this was to us a wake-up call: hearing this from your 5 years old, as a parent, deeply hurt my wife (and myself, later).

Sara had always been a very happy and nice little girl.
But she was telling us she had been wearing a mask, doing everything according to the book in school, while she was being deprived and denied in her own self-image and esteem.

This was her first year in kindergarten – previously she had been in a 'cooperative' pre-school, which had been a relatively nice experience, as basically all the mums were co-teaching the toddlers, so my wife could really be involved in her education and have a clear idea of what was going on.
But at the public school, the school year had only started for a couple of months, and we didn't really know what to expect – sure, Luca, our older son, had started school in America when he was 7 – before that he had done kindergarten and began elementary school in Italy – and his first couple of years had been largely 'English full immersion'. With Joshua we had seen junior high and high schools. Lots of math, largely, I wasn’t particularly happy of the programs either… but with Sara we saw the public school system from the start and that made us even more unhappy.

We expected that 5 years old kids, even if they had to start learning something 'mental', would still be allowed to play and to interact to some extent with each other.
That is not what we found: it was more of a crash course in obedience, submission and a rat race to learn things way too fast and way too early, that completely stressed out our kid.

In the photo below you can see how she had developed an eczema from continuously biting her lower lip – basically respecting the 'stay quiet' and 'listen' and 'don't talk unless you are asked to answer something' she was given as rules. You can also see she was forced in a stiff 'standard' type of smile, not natural at all. If it wasn't that the topic is about my daughter and it hurts, it would almost be ironic this is the 'official' picture for the picture book of the year… so the school can keep good record of how they did that year…

Sara school photo america 2014
What were they asking of her, you might be wanting to know.

Well, we found it pretty intensive that in 12 hours a week (3 hours a day for 4 days):

  • The kids were supposed to learn to read, write, and count and do math with numbers under the 20 – way too much 'logical' thinking at that age, too fast, too soon.
  • No time (or not allowed) to interact with each other (kid to kid) during the lesson and learn social skills and boundaries – just listen to the teacher and return the results, fast, because they need to be measured. Wikipedia has a good comment on those standardized testing and programs:
    •  […] Critics argue that the focus on standardized testing (all students in a state take the same test under the same conditions) encourages teachers to teach a narrow subset of skills that the school believes increases test performance, rather than focus on deeper understanding of the overall curriculum. For example, a teacher who knows that all questions on a math test are simple addition problems (e.g., What is 2 + 3?) might not invest any class time on the practical applications of addition, to leave more time for the material the test assesses. This is colloquially referred to as “teaching to the test.” […]                        
  • They only had a break of 10 minutes each day: 10 minutes are not enough at that age they still need to run wild and play spontaneously…
  • Even in those 10 minutes, they were NOT even allowed to eat anything. Because of other kids with food allergies. About this, we even arranged for her brother Luca – who was in the same school but a higher class and was having break at the same time – to provide her snack in the courtyard. The teacher 'closed an eye' on it, until someone found out and complained to the Principal of the school. No, really, my kid needs to eat, and even eat something healthy, *especially* if you expect them to be able to focus and use their brains. They won't offer them to others, and it's easy to implement some slightly more tolerant policies (i.e. please don't give you kids snacks of some categories that cause allergies. Albeit a future post on food allergies – and food in general – in the States is probably something I'll write in the future.). I know that when I am short on sugar, I get grumpy and I can't think straight myself – good sugar is actually good for your brain
  • There was, however, time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (almost) every day. If you don't know what the pledge of allegiance is – it's because you come from a (even if only slightly) more decent country like myself. Also, if you are European, you might have studied that the Americans came to rescue us from the evil Nazi's in second world war, so you might have this feeling that Americans wouldn't do the same things as the Nazi's… would they? Well, you can read about the pledge on Wikipedia but essentially it is a ritual where you swear your loyalty to the American flag that you'll love it and respect it and be a good robot citizen, to say it my way. The whole thing is coupled with holding a hand on your heart, or with a military salute. There is an interesting photo (and its comments) you should read
    • A photo of a child is titled: “little girl giving the Heil Hitler salute 1934.” It is so funny to read comments from U.S. citizens (and others) remarking that the photo is disturbing because it shows how pliable children are. No one is aware that it was the salute used in the U.S. and originated in the U.S. (see the work of the symbologist Dr. Rex Curry). None of the U.S. citizens is aware that the photograph could be of a U.S. girl (and not a german girl) and the commentators would not know. The thought has never entered their minds. They cannot even make a comparison to the modern Pledge of Allegiance ritual and gesture in the U.S.   
[About similarities in the american public school system and the Nazi schools, you should also watch this Disney movie, which ironically was part of American's Anti-Nazi propaganda during World War II]
  • No real 'playing' as kids are not really allowed to touch/get close to each other during play – everywhere they stress about respecting 'personal space'
  • Kids were given 'rewards' when performing what we would consider simple normal tasks – i.e. putting back your chair next to the table (rather than leaving it a mess in the middle of the room) is something we do expect kids to learn early on and do simply out of respect and courtesy. Not something that has to be specially 'awarded' like having been heroic or patriotic. Especially if the reward is this stupid bottle with more Stalin-style (I compared to the Nazi – let's use a different totalitarian example) propaganda:


  • Kid's behavior was tracked and also 'rewarded' with stickers and ribbons and tickets every week – green, yellow and red. I think it's what they use in some prisons in Europe, not in toddler schools:

Stayed Green all week


The above list should have given you an idea. And I am sure I am missing and I have forgotten about some details.

If the above looks 'normal' to you – it doesn't have to be like this. It's not like this across the ocean in many countries.

And by the way – we were not leaving in a 'bad' or 'poor' area either – this is one of the 'best' school districts around Seattle, where a lot of educated people live who work for big companies such as Microsoft, Google, Nintendo, Boeing, Amazon, etc…

I broke down when I understood what I made my kids go thru, by coming to work to the States. Thru this and to other episodes.

I am convinced that many people – both Americans from previous generations (when schools were better) or even immigrants like us – don't even *realize* they are exposing their children to this type of programming. Largely because life is frenetic, work is demanding, and both husband and wife both work.

We (me and my wife) like other school systems and methods, like Waldorf, or even Montessori (for some kids it works well, albeit not for all) – that place an emphasis on raising individuals that can be critical thinkers and self-standing humans, not obedient calculating machines.
Anyhow, I didn't even like a 'mitigation' such as sending them to a private school of that kind – they do exist, but private schools are *so damn expensive* that they are really only affordable by a very small rich segment of society. If I had one kids, maybe, but with three – 20 thousand dollars a year per kid are just not something many families can get by, and those are the prices… but even if I could afford it, I believe that gating access to 'better' schools thru money just makes the school environment an 'elite' one: not only unfair for those who cannot afford to access it, but even detrimental for the students who can, as they get no exposure to 'real' society and are raised in a 'bubble', which kind of defeats the purpose and premise of those schools' supposedly more 'open' views. This is of course also what allows some people to go to 'prestigious' colleges and get jobs easily, while others can't even try getting close to the bottom of the ladder. But higher education and access to workforce – is another topic I might look at in a future post, not right now.

Back to the specific effect this school experience had on Sara: I showed the 'stress lip' physical sign above, but there were also deeper psychological effects on her (not) growing up – in fact even regressing in some sense. For example, the summer before she started kindergarten, she was starting to draw more detailed 'puppets' – not just a head with 'sticks' – she was starting to add bodies and fingers and more details… and then, only a couple of months in kindergarten, she was only drawing heads again. And small ones.

Guess what happened once we moved to the Netherlands and she started attending a (public, tax-funded – here it's normal) Waldorf school?
In this last couple of months her drawings 'evolved' again, and they started featuring bodies again (in fact, the body is now drawn before adding a head on top of it – and it even gets a belly button!) and hands and feet have become more detailed due to the stimulation of being immersed in physical/practical/interpretive activities as opposed to just 'mental' ones like it was the case at the public school in the states.
Besides drawings, she has had a growth burst – she grew a few centimeters all of a sudden, and started changing not one but FOUR teeth, and she's literally blooming with vitality.

And the imaginary friend? We have not heard from her again – there is just the real Sara now:

Sara and the windmill

When I stopped sleeping well at night

If you are here for IT content – this is not one of those posts. It also doesn't feature any new song and it's NOT politically correct. But it is a true story that happened to us while living in the United States.

It was Friday night. Or you could call it Saturday 'morning' – basically it was fairly late, like quarter to 2 AM in the middle of your weekend, after a very hectic week – we were finally relaxing: we had had dinner, watched a movie, the kids had all gone to sleep, me and my wife had made love and we had been talking in bed and we were finally starting to fall asleep. We both were in that in between state between darkness and wonder, when you aren't completely in Morpheus' arms yet but not fully awake either. But pretty damn relaxed and almost ready for some great night sleep…
I start hearing noises – are they from outside? A car? People? Not sure, I try to ignore them but they kind of broke the spell already… Is anyone with military boots walking in my dream or in my front yard? Are those our crackling wooden steps to the door that I hear? I have never been scared for burglars and the like – we simply don't own anything that is worth stealing… wait, are they knocking at the door?
I realize my wife's breathing has also changed, she is half awake too, I ask: "Is that our door that they are knocking at?" – and they knock again, harder – this time we are sure we heard it right. Is this a nightmare? I try to crawl out of bed, put something on (I was previously naked)… the knocking continues and my temper starts raising as I get worried they – whoever it is – might be waking up my little daughter (or her older brothers, but she'd be more effort to then calm down again if she wakes up with nightmares…). I walk thru the corridor, down the little stair (the house was on a split level) and reach the door – still in the dark. I ask: "Who's there?" and I receive a thunder in return: "Police!".
Not sure I can recollect all that went thru my mind – now even more confused if this was some kind of nightmare I was in – and my heart started racing. I froze. I have done nothing wrong, I thought. What could they possibly want at this hour of the night?
I try to mumble something like "I am trying to open the door" – which was indeed what I was trying to do, but I was still in the dark, incapable of thinking straight and finding the light switch.
I fiddle with the doorknob and lock enough and eventually I manage to open the door on a gap – I am still in the dark indoor, and the outdoor lamp is still on and blinds me from behind two tall, dark, male figures with weapons et all… I am frightened but I nonetheless attempt to pull out a straight face and say something. In the absurdity of the situation, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is: "Whatsup?".
The police officer does not seem amused, and he asks for Joshua.
I think a million things again – has he done something wrong maybe? He's such a good boy…
I say I am not Joshua, that my son is downstairs, in his room, presumably sleeping. I hear in the back that now my daughter has woken up from the noise (and the tension in the air) and my wife is attending her, trying to calm her down. The officer explains that there is no time to lose, that they had received a call from a very good friend of Joshua and she thought he might be committing suicide because he was not returning her messages and had turned off his phone (!?). It takes me a minute to register what I just heard – did he just say that? Suicide? Joshua? What does he know about Joshua anyway? Since when is it a felony to switch off a phone? I am the teen's parent, I have seen him grow up, he's a stable boy (especially when I see other teenagers). Whatever 'very' good friend – since we had only been in the states a couple of years at that point and Joshua had changed schools in between – is probably just some hormonal teen who wants attention, I think – but I of course I don't say this. I just say "yes, I know that he broke up with his girlfriend, but we talked about it and he seemed pretty fine with this, almost relieved. I don't think he would commit suicide; certainly not for this.". As a matter of fact, the counselor and principal of the school had spoken with my wife about this during the day, and they had informed us they knew about the 'break up' and that they had spoken to Joshua and he seemed fine (and may I admit that this thing *already* looked like over-protective and privacy invading to us?).

But the police men insist they have received a call and they need to perform their duty and make sure he's fine. My wife also comes by, I tell her something quickly about what's going on, but basically we have to walk down and make an entrance into Joshua's room, and turn on the lights and brutally wake him up and have the office verify that indeed he seemed quite fine. Joshua explained he had just turned off his phone as he wanted to sleep. Thank you for coming by.
They eventually concluded there was no evident risk, and left. Nothing happened, no 'formal' consequences…
…but I didn't sleep that night until 3 hours later, and I think the rest of the family slept uneasily too.
And I have slept crap since that day for the couple of years afterwards, and I never felt safe in my own house again. Or anywhere.

How do they dare to think they know our son better than we do?
How can they listen to a report of a hormonal teen and just raid into people's homes like that?
What a fuzz, and what an annoying invasion of privacy – into my son's private life as well as in our home!
American citizens worry for the NSA but they don't worry for this kind of behavior. Most don't even seem to 'see' the issue here – the scariest thing of all is the reaction of some of our American friends once we told them this story: some of them were along the lines of "how good/nice that they came to check! Makes you feel safe, doesn't it?". And they were not being sarcastic – they positively thought that was a good thing.
You can keep that if that makes *you* feel secure.
It make me literally pooh-pooh my pants. I felt I (we, all) were at the mercy of total randomness and we had to be scared of the people around us, because they could easily be following their paranoia's and get us into trouble, with no proof whatsoever needed to initiate the process.

I had never heard of or lived anything like this. Besides in the stories of the people deported by the Nazi's to the concentration camps – in no country in Europe you get the police at your door in the middle of the night for something like this!

This type of situations is one of the reasons that made us really stressed and sick (call us over-sensitive) in the last couple of years we have been in America, and we eventually decided it was not the place for us, and we moved back to Europe. I will be sharing some other stories and reasons in future posts… stay tuned.