July 2005

"I'm a performance artist and my medium is irate ladies." - Pintsize, Questionable Content

July 4th, 2005
Welcome to the Alexandrian, the homepage of Justin Alexander. By trade I'm a freelance writer, and this is to become not only a site of news and updates, but also a repository. Here you'll be able to find my reviews, my politics, my stories, and my thoughts. Over the next few months you'll see this page begin to fill up with a lot archival material.

To get things started, let's start at the beginning. The seeds of my professional career as a freelance writer were laid in the summer of 1996. I had been out of the loop when it came to roleplaying games for a couple of years. But that summer I was stuck in Mankato, MN and was bored out of my mind. Seeking some social contact, I returned to my old Usenet haunts of rec.games.frp.misc and rec.games.frp.dnd. There I heard about a nifty new game called Feng Shui. Intrigued, I hopped on my bike and rode down to the local hobby store. There I not only found a copy of Feng Shui, but I also noticed Heavy Gear from Dream Pod 9. It was, without a doubt, the absolutely stunning artwork of Ghislain Barbe which drew me to the latter. And if it hadn't... well, then my life would be different.

To see the ball really start rolling, we need to fast forward a bit to the Spring of 1998 when I submitted a review of The Paxton Gambit, a Heavy Gear supplement, to RPGNet. The review was originally written for and posted to the Heavy Gear Mailing List. RPGNet had been around for a couple of years at that point, but the site was just beginning to get noticed by the larger RPG community. One of the people who noticed was Phillippe Boulle, who -- at the time -- was an editor at Dream Pod 9. He, in turn, posted a message to the Heavy Gear Mailing List asking that fans of the game go to RPGNet and post reviews of their favorite Dream Pod 9 products. When I saw Phillippe's message, I took the review I had already written, popped over to RPGNet, and posted it.

That was a lot of fun. So the next week I wrote up a review of Amber Diceless Roleplaying and posted that, too. After that, momentum took over and, before I knew it, I had a couple dozen reviews and had become firmly ensconced. The quality of my reviews (if I may speak immodestly for a moment) had garnered me a reputation in my niche.

But the niche was growing. RPGNet itself was becoming well-known in the roleplaying industry and community, it's reputation burnished by the hundreds of reviews being posted by enthusiastic amateurs. And among the horde of enthusiastic amateurs there were a dozen or so of us who contributed a constant stream of detailed, high-quality reviews.

By the end of 1998 I was able to flip my newfound, and quite unexpected, name recognition in industry circles into a couple of freelance contracts. Ironically, the first of these was with Dream Pod 9: I sent a query letter to Phillippe Boulle with a half dozen carefully thought-out and cleverly presented ideas for Heavy Gear supplements.

He hated all of them.

But, fortunately, just before sending the letter I had jotted down a random thought:  "After reading the half-page of information in the Terra Novan Sourcebook on Saragossa and the Saragossa People's Front for Independence I was fascinated. Wouldn't it be great to explore the political structure of Saragossa, as well as diving into the past of the Saragossa Conclave? Such a book should definitely include the design for a series of adventures with the SPFI conflict as a backdrop."

He liked that one. And hired me to write it. In another bout of supreme irony, that book never saw publication (although some of the material was eventually rewritten for Storm on the Horizon, the fourth Heavy Gear storyline). The Paxton Gambit had apparently flopped and the format, which served as the basis for the SPFI supplement, was cancelled. But by the time that happened, I'd already flipped my unpublished professional credit -- along with my growing rep as an RPGNet reviewer -- to pick up a few more contracts.

So that's how I got started: RPGnet. Heavy Gear. And my reviews.

But if you go to RPGNet today, you won't find any of my reviews there. What happened? Well, that's another story for another day.


July 6th, 2005
I saw the new War of the Worlds yesterday. Cruise gives us his incredible intensity. Dakota Fanning gives a surprisingly nuanced and subtle performance. Spielberg delivers a breathtaking vision and beautifully-crafted cinematography.

I won't say that the movie is an unqualified success, but I will say that it sets a new and impressive standard for alien-invasion flicks. (I hesitate to say that, because I've seen some people mouthing the opinion that this movie somehow spells the death of Independence Day. I don't see how this conclusion can possibly be drawn, given the fact that War of the Worlds and Independence Day exist at almost opposite ends of the spectrum: One doesn't truly take itself seriously. The other is firmly rooted in reality.)

This post isn't really meant to be a review, however. What I'm really aiming to do is comment on the stunning stupidity of audience members. There seems to be a sizable number of people who need to have everything spoon-fed to them: If a filmmaker asks them to give the slightest thought to the film; to provide the slightest bit of closure; to ponder the most immaterial of mysteries... these morons are lost at sea.

This is not surprising to me. What is surprising, however, is the willingness for these mindless fools to trumpet their lack of mental faculties far and wide. Apparently they are truly incapable of distinguishing the difference between a shortcoming in themselves and a shortcoming in the filmmaker.

With a certain degree of synchronicity, I first started to notice this trend with Cruise's Mission Impossible. I thought the movie was clever, stylistic, and very well done.

I was shocked to discover, a few days later, that apparently there were many people who were incapable of following the film's plot. In fact, I've never been able to truly comprehend what, exactly, baffles these people. But, apparently, it has something to do with the false-flashback sequence used to show Cruise's character piecing together the truth of the catastrophe that befell him early in the film.

I remember watching Jay Leno make fun of the movie's "incomprehensible" plot in his monologue and thought to myself: "If we ever wonder why Hollywood thrillers are so utterly simplistic, this is the reason why."

In War of the Worlds, Spielberg quite intentionally leaves the true motivations and machinations of the aliens a mystery: The protagonists aren't in a position to know such things and neither are we. From what we see of the aliens' actions, intuitions can be drawn. But true answers are not to be found. In fact, we even see the characters in the film itself struggle to find the truth behind the invasion. Some of their answers are insightful. Others are simply absurdities.

For many audience members, however, this is simply beyond their ken. Somehow their minds leap directly from "Spielberg has not given us an answer engraved upon tablets of stone" to "this movie doesn't make sense" before making a slight detour into the cul-de-sac of "this movie sucks". Perhaps most amusing to me are those who accept the paranoiac rantings of a red-neck survivalist driven to near-insanity as gospel truth. They are apparently able to recognize the fact that these rantings are nonsensical, but are apparently incapable of grasping that this is entirely intentional on the part of the filmmakers.

So the next time you find yourself wondering why Hollywood produces so much simplistic crap, stop and reflect upon those who are baffled by the subtle intricacies of "complex" film like Mission Impossible and War of the Worlds. They get what they deserve. Unfortunately, we're taken along for the ride.


July 8th, 2005
On the 4th of July this year, I was frustrated in my attempt to attend the fireworks at the Stone Arch Bridge by the failure of my girlfriend's alarm; the questionable quality of my car; and the first symptoms of a rather virulent flu. Stranded at home, I was nevertheless in a patriotic mood, so I grabbed my copy of 1776 and stuck it in the machine.

I really love that musical. I've loved it ever since I first listened to it in the 8th grade. I have since come to understand that the delegates of the Second Continental Congress did not, in fact, spontaneously break into song, but it still stands as a stirring testament to the strength, principles, and sheer intelligence of those extraordinary men who we have come to call the Founding Fathers. It also reminds us that the United States of America was not a nation whose fate was assured: Its existence and its character, as defined now in the twin pillars of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, rested upon the thinnest reeds of chance, and were forced into being only through the determination and ability of truly remarkable men. In my opinion, it is this generation, and this generation alone, which can truly be described as the Greatest Generation. They not only gave birth to a nation, they possessed a singular vision which shone a beacon upon the world.

Shortly after discovering 1776 on my own, I was introduced by my U.S. History teacher to Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1776, a book by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier. If I loved 1776, then I was enraptured with Decision in Philadelphia. This phenomenal volume takes up the Constitutional Convention of 1776 -- the birthplace of our nation -- and presents it with page-turning intensity.

It would be trite to say that it makes the material accessible, because that would understate the authors' real ability to present the complex political issues of the Convention as a compelling drama without losing any of the depth and detail which make this book a true jewel. Without any pretense or conceit, they place you right onto the Convention floor and insinuate you into backroom bargains -- allowing you to watch, first-hand, as the greatest assembly of political philosophers (in that or any age) create the greatest government the world has ever known.

In a very real sense, this book represents the birthplace of my political beliefs. Of course, in many ways, it did so at a remove: In reality, its the political philosophy of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, and George Mason that captured my attention (and later led me to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among others). But the Colliers are so cogent and clear in their presentation that the book serves not only as a brilliant piece of history, but as a valuable political primer.

If you truly want to understand the American government - the manner of its conception; the theory of its function; the brilliant compromises which give it endurance -- then I strongly encourage you to hunt down a copy of Decision in Philadelphia. You won't regret it.


July 10th, 2005
I simply have to declare my inexplicable passion for The Arcade Fire. For the last two weeks I have been constantly listening to their single "Rebellion" over and over and over again. I don't know why, but every time the song comes to an end I feel compelled to flip back over to WinAmp and hit "play" again. Every. Single. Time.

Props to Questionable Content for bringing this musical epiphany into my life.


July 16th, 2005

The site’s been quiet for a few days because I’ve been down in Decatur, Illinois visiting with my family down there: My great-aunt and great-uncle and a clan of second cousins. They’re like immediate family to me and I love them dearly. We had a wonderful time, although I discovered that my bowling skills have sadly rusted over from disuse.

While I was there, the subject of heritage and lineage and genealogy came up. This led my great-aunt Jean to relate the following story of my great-grandfather (on my father’s mother’s side):

When America first joined the Great War in Europe – what we would later come to call World War I – my great-grandfather was just barely too old to be caught by the draft. But, as the war dragged on, the nation’s need for brave young men grew. So, inevitably, the draft age was raised and raised and raised again.

But somehow my great-grandfather always stayed just a little ahead of it. Or, rather, he stayed ahead of it for awhile, because his lead was shrinking: At first he was a few years beyond the maximum. Then only a year. Then a few months. A few days. And, in the end, the draft caught up with him.

So my great-grandfather boarded a train and left the Midwest, bound for New York City. And when he reached New York City he was put onto a ship, and the ship was sent out into the Atlantic. Soon he would be in the trenches in France, and then God alone knew what might happen to him.

But when that ship was halfway ‘cross the ocean, the Germans surrendered. Just like that the Great War was over. So that ship turned right back around and came back to New York Harbor. They got back just in time for the ticker-tape parades, and in one of those ironic twists of fate that you couldn’t put into a novel (because no one would believe it) they – and others like them – made up the majority of those who were feted as returning heroes.

Forever after, whenever he was asked about the Armistice which ended World War I, my great-grandfather would say: “Well, when the Kaiser heard I was comin’…”

Tomorrow, or possibly the next day, we’ll have a more substantive update (at last!).


July 17th, 2005

The Bibliography is no longer under construction. That tingling you're feeling is almost certainly not excitement. You probably want to check to make sure your power cords are properly grounded.

This is not, in fact, the substantive update mentioned yesterday. That's still to come.


July 18th, 2005

As promised on Saturday, we've got our first substantive update of real, honest-to-god content in the form of five What I'm Reading reviews:

  1. Nightside City - Lawrence Watt-Evans

  2. Garden of Iden - Kage Baker

  3. Gods in Darkness - Karl Edward Wagner

  4. The Ruby Dynasty - Catherine Asaro

  5. The Stars My Destination/Demolished Man - Alfred Bester

These can also be accessed through the Reviews page, of course.


July 20th, 2005

Three years ago I ran for the Minneapolis School Board. I believed then, as I believe now, that education is the fundamental bedrock on which a successful democracy is built. And I believed then, as I believe now, that the dire and worsening condition of the American education system is the largest and most troubling threat to this nation's long-term security and prosperity.

I believe that many of the problems in our educational system today can be traced back to the fact that, by and large, we have no understanding, at a very basic level, of exactly what our schools are attempting to accomplish. And that's a charge which I direct not only at our community as a whole, but, more importantly, at the school system itself.

The problem is that our educational goals -- our standards -- are often left unspoken. And because they are unspoken, they are unclear. The result is, inevitably, not only a lowest common denominator, but a lowest common denominator which becomes poorer and poorer with every passing year.

To make matters worse, when attempts are made to set goals for our educational system, the standards which result are usually vague, poor, or both. For example, when I was attending public school in Minneapolis (I graduated in 1998), students were required to pass a Basic Skills Test in order to graduate. This test was given in 8th grade and then, if the student failed, given again in 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades until the student passed. For all intents and purposes, this Basic Skills Test was the graduation standard for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

And what did the Basic Skills Test require? Basic reading skills. Arithmetic, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and basic geometry.

In practice, the school district waited until we were in 8th grade to test whether or not we had skills which should have been learned in 3rd. If we didn't have those skills, we were simply promoted into 9th grade and given the test again.

It shouldn't take too much effort to understand the fundamental problems with this system. And it shouldn't come as any particular surprise to learn that, in 1996, only 50% of 8th grade students managed to pass these tests.

But here's the scary part: The Minneapolis Public Schools consistently test in the top 10% of the school districts in Minnesota. And Minnesota is routinely ranked somewhere in the Top 5 states for education. So when we talk about the problems of the Minneapolis Public Schools, we're talking about the problems of the top 10% of the top 10%.

Things have gotten a little better in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Four out of every five 8th graders are now passing the Basic Skills Tests on their first attempt. This tells us that merely setting goals and then assessing our success at meeting those goals can be an effective way of achieving improvement in our educational system. When clear goals are communicated, those within the system can work towards achieving those goals in a substantive and meaningful fashion.

But I still believe there is a fundamental failure to take meaningful and substantive action to address the educational needs of those who fail the Basic Skills Test. And I am even more concerned by the fact that the Basic Skills Test are, essentially, an expectation of mediocrity.

Over the next few days I'm going to be posting the three position planks I used for my 2002 campaign. I'll be following that up with a very general outline of what I believe a truly effective educational standard would look like. Then I hope to wrap things up by posting my thoughts on the No Child Left Behind initiative, which has begun to change the landscape of public education.


July 22nd, 2005

Education - Minneapolis School Board 2002

Goal 1: Setting a Standard

For the past three decades, the state of our educational system has seen nothing but consistent decay. In math, science, literature, language, history, and every other subject, the educational standards to which we hold our children are lower than the standards to which their parents were held. We are supposed to be a nation of progress, and yet our children suffer in an educational system which continues to backslide out of control.

This is not the way it is supposed to be.

So we have a problem. What’s the solution?

Well, if our standards have declined, then it’s time to draw a line in the sand. In fact, we need to do better than that: We need a set of standards that says we can do better. We need to challenge ourselves. We need to challenge our teachers. And, most importantly, we need to challenge our students.

You may think we already have a set of standards: The state’s Profiles of Learning. But the truth is, they aren’t doing the job. There are two important areas where they fail:

Nature of the Standard. The state’s standards are vague, emphasizing methods of learning over the content of what is learned. Setting those standards as a minimum would result in students dotting i's and crossing t’s… instead of knowing what the i's and t’s actually mean.

What I’m proposing, on the other hand, is a knowledge-based standard. A standard which sets out what students need to know, and which can be used in an objective manner to determine whether or not students have learned what they need to learn.

Application of the Standard. The other problem with the state’s standards is that they are applied at the end of a student’s career, instead of being used as an integral part of the educational process. The Basic Skills Tests are given in 8th grade, and are then given again and again – while the student continues to advance in school – until they are passed… at which point the student is allowed to graduate.

This is not an effective way of solving the problems our schools have. We have to address these issues earlier – and that means detecting problems before they become insoluble. Furthermore, we can no longer ignore problems in the hope that they will disappear of their own accord.

What does this mean? It means we begin assessing the progress of students at every grade level. And, furthermore, it means that we actually take action – on an individual basis – as a result of those assessments.

In the system as it exists today, we already conduct aptitude tests – but we ignore the results. Applying a standard means making those aptitude tests mean something. It means applying a minimum standard of knowledge for advancement.

Why is this important? Because the first time you push someone beyond their capabilities, it’s over. You’ve doomed them to failure. If you take someone who cannot read and promote them ruthlessly until they find themselves in a high school setting – still unable to read – you have not done them a favor: You have crippled them for life.

Is testing going to solve our problems? No. But setting a standard – and having a willingness to enforce that standard – will. A child who cannot read should not be prevented from graduating; they should be prevented from reaching the second grade. Why? Because the high school setting is not – nor should it be – designed to teach reading and writing: That’s what the first grade is for. And attempts to rectify in high school a problem which should have been corrected ten years earlier compromises the educational quality of the high school experience. If we make sure that the only students who reach second grade are those students who are ready for second grade, then we’re going to have a lot fewer students reach high school who aren’t ready for the experience.

It’s a matter of not letting children slip through the cracks.

Knowledge, not process.

Teachers, not bureaucrats.

Education, not socialization.


July 23rd, 2005

To keep things a little mixed up, today we've got the next five What I'm Reading reviews:

  1. Sky Coyote/Mendoza in Hollywood - Kage Baker

  2. Cyteen - C.J. Cherryh

  3. Archangel Protocol - Lyda Morehouse

  4. Memory - Lois McMaster Bujold

  5. Digital Knight - Ryk Spoor

These reviews were originally written for the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup. Although originally rather informal productions, their scope and purview quickly grew to become substantially more elaborate. I've often thought of reviewing as an attempt to communicate an essentially experiential phenomenon -- in other words, I am more interested in describing what it was like to read a novel rather than describing the novel itself. In many ways, therefore, the writing of the WIRs was (and is) an essentially blog-like activity.

Once I've finished reposting the WIRs originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written, I'll continue posting new WIRs as they're written.


July 25th, 2005

Education - Minneapolis School Board 2002

Goal 2: Forming a Foundation

My first goal in running for the Minneapolis School Board is to establish comprehensive, knowledge-based, grade-by-grade minimum standards that students must meet in order to advance.

The reason this is necessary leads to my second goal: Guaranteeing that our children are given a firm foundation for success.

In the big picture, this means guaranteeing that when a student graduates from a Minneapolis high school they have been given the tools necessary for success in life – that they have been given a foundation on which the rest of their life can be built.

But for that goal to be a reality, the first building blocks of that foundation must be laid down in the first year of school. Any architect can tell you that if the first layer of bricks isn’t laid properly, then the building will fail – but that’s a lesson we seem to have forgotten, and which the Minneapolis Public School system will need to relearn before the deep, structural flaws in our educational process can be corrected.

Starting in Kindergarten. It should not come as any sort of surprise to learn that students enter kindergarten with a wide range of capability. Some students enter kindergarten already able to read, write, and perform simple arithmetic. Others enter kindergarten without even knowing which way to hold a book. Armed with this knowledge, it shouldn’t take much for us to realize that these students will not perform at comparable levels in the first year at school. Nor is there anything we can do about that.

But what we can do is acknowledge that the problem exists, and take the most logical course to resolve it. If we set a standard of what a kindergarten student should know before entering the first grade, and then hold students to that standard, we level the playing field.

Does this mean that some students will be held back at the end of kindergarten? Yes. And, in fact, that is the purpose of the standard.

This is what I’m talking about when I say we need to form a foundation: By ensuring that the student does not leave kindergarten until they are armed with the knowledge that kindergarten is meant to impart, we have given that student the foundation they require to succeed in first grade.

The alternative is what we do now: Promote the student to first grade, even though they lack the skills needed to succeed there. Doing so, of course, condemns the student to failure again. Not only are we permanently degrading the educational experience of that student, but we are degrading the educational experience of the other students in the class.

Now, extend the principle. Standards are set not just for kindergarten, but for every grade level thereafter. Instead of playing a hopeless game of catch-up, we get on top of the problem from the very beginning by making sure that a student has been given the foundation to succeed at the tasks they are given.

Assessing the Student. At the city-level we can enforce the formation of this foundation by assessing the students according to a set of knowledge-based standards. The term “test” is not a good fit to what I envision: I cannot perform an objective test to determine whether or not a student is “capable of discussing the Civil War in a comprehensive fashion” – the bulk of education is not something that can be tested in a standardized fashion.

But I can test a knowledge-based standard in order to perform an assessment: If the student cannot tell me that Abraham Lincoln was the President; that the Dred Scott decision was passed by the Supreme Court; and that the North won the war, then I do know that the student can’t discuss the Civil War.

The danger in such a system is that students will simply learn by rote: They won’t learn how to discuss the Civil War – they’ll learn a collection of trivia (who was President, who made the Dred Scott decision, who won the war). So where’s the other half of the assessment come into play?

The teachers. Because they’re the only ones who can make an informed, case-by-case judgment. The assessment provided by the standards will enforce a minimum, and the judgment of our teachers will provide the rest.

Knowledge, not process.

Teachers, not bureaucrats.

Education, not socialization. 


July 30th, 2005

Education - Minneapolis School Board 2002

Goal 3: Opportunity and Support

The first two goals of my campaign deal with the need to create and enforce knowledge-based standards. Education is the bedrock on which the future is built, and we need to guarantee that the foundation we provide to our children is a firm one.

But our educational system should not be a lowest common denominator; it should be about giving our children the opportunity to be the best they can be.

The great fallacy of our school system as it exists today is the demand for conformity. Instead of acknowledging that different students learn different skills at different rates, our current system demands a rote progression defined by some sort of mythical average: If a student is capable of achieving more than that average, they are held back. If a student is unable to maintain the pace demanded by that average, they are dragged along in ignorance.

There needs to be opportunity for our best students; support for our worst. We can no longer endorse a system whose first interest is making sure that no one feels bad about themselves. An educational system must encourage success, or it will breed only failure.

By the same token, we must be careful: A mistake of the past has been segregating students into “smart” groups and “dumb” groups. The educational system should not be about choosing which students are going to be given a chance to succeed and which students are not: The system should give the same opportunities to all students, and those opportunities should never be taken away. A student who needs help in third grade should be given the chance to blossom in twelfth.

Implementing opportunity means allowing students to prove they are capable of more – and that requires a standard against which they can measure themselves. Implementing support means allowing students to see where they need to be – and that, too, requires a standard against which they can measure themselves.


Principle of Opportunity

If a five year old is capable of doing what a high school senior can do, then the five year old should be given the same educational opportunities as that high school senior. Because otherwise we’re cheating that five year old of their potential: Instead of teaching our children what they can be, we are telling them what they can’t.

Opportunity – Extracurricular Classes: Let’s offer extra classes as an extracurricular activity. Our schools are already open to support sports, theater, debate, and other after-school activity, why not take the extra ounce of effort to give those students who want to learn more the chance to learn more?

Opportunity – Independent Study: At the high school level, the challenge of setting standards which allow students to get ahead is that students will exceed the opportunities we have defined for them. But if a student is capable of outrunning our system, then the student is capable of charting their own course. Independent study programs will allow them to define their own curriculum, and post-secondary opportunities will give them additional opportunities to get ahead in their preparation for college or the professional world.

Opportunity – Support for Gifted Students: At the elementary level, the challenge of setting standards which allow students to get ahead is supporting those students who are gifted in certain areas. In some cases, students will be best served by skipping grades. In other cases, special study groups will allow those with an aptitude for math or science or art to push themselves to whatever level of excellence is right for them.


Principle of Support

If a sixth grader has not yet learned the things a sixth grader needs to learn, then the sixth grader is not yet ready for the seventh grade. Indeed, promoting them to the seventh grade would be a punishment, because we would only be forcing them into failure.

Support – Kindergarten Plus: There is a great disparity between the students who enter kindergarten for the first time. If we can win this one, big battle – and even the playing field before students enter the first grade – then all our other battles become easier. Many disadvantaged students will be able to benefit for Kindergarten Plus – a summer program which would extend kindergarten education for those who need it.

Support – Summer Self Study:  At higher levels, district-supported self study programs will allow students to catch up – or move ahead – through home study.

Support – After School Study: Opportunities will be made available for after school study, to give additional help to those students who need and want it.

Knowledge, not process.

Teachers, not bureaucrats.

Education, not socialization. 


July 31st, 2005

Yesterday evening I was talking to my oldest friend in the entire world about the general discontent and dissatisfaction we were feeling with our lives. I sit here, at twenty-five, and I wonder where my life took a wrong turn. And, basically, I know where my life took a wrong turn: Sophomore year in high school. That's the year where the utter mediocrity of the education system broke my soul. After an illness which took me out of school for the better part of a month, I returned to discover that I could, in fact, catch up on an entire month's worth of school work at A+ levels in two days. Two days.

Up to that point I had always faced school as a challenge. A competition which could be won. And, as a result, I was an over-achiever. Just a year earlier I had stayed up for 48 hours straight to complete an 80-page biography of Shakespeare... for an assignment which only required a 5-page research paper.

But, ultimately, the lesson I ended up carrying away from school was this: I can put off any assignment to the last minute, crank it out in a couple of hours, and expect marvelous success. I can slack off to an astonishing degree and still succeed, because I am so gosh-darn smart and my teachers love me for it.

These are piss-poor lessons to learn, and I wish I never had. Because once I became actively conscious of the charade I had been playing, the new challenge became, "Just how far can I push before anybody holds me to account?" Well, the first and easiest answer: If I miss two months worth of school, they'll knock down my grades from their former highs (even if I've completed all the work). But that was just playing games with the backwards absenteeism policies of a bureaucratic school system. So now I focused on procrastination and putting the least amount of work into assignments that I could manage while still pulling down A+ grades.

The worst part is that, actively conscious of the charade as I now was, I wasn't actively conscious of the new games I was playing. Not for awhile, any way. And I learned a very bad life lesson.

I lack discipline.

I don't meet the goals I set for myself. I don't achieve the things I want to achieve. I don't have the life I want to have.

And I've known that for awhile now, and I still can't fix it.

That's the conversation I had this evening. And then I got off the phone, logged into my e-mail account, and discovered that Kris Okins had died. She was a friend and classmate when I attended the Minnesota Arts High School. We hadn't talked since we graduated, so I didn't know that in the years since she'd moved to Portland, Oregon. That's where she was hit by a truck while riding her bike.

The e-mail that delivered the news to me included a news article, which read in part: "When Melissa encouraged her to get back to her career as a graphic artist, Kristine shrugged it off. She had had a taste of sitting all day in front of a computer screen, she said. Right now, she loved her life, loved her freedom and wanted to enjoy it a little while longer. She had a whole lifetime ahead of her to spend in front of that screen."

Thus, we have a moment of personal crisis, a moment of tragedy, and a moment of synchronicity. (One might even say serendipity, since a picture of John Cusack just popped up in the background as I type this.)

The lesson I should be learning here is simple: Life is short. Live it. Don't Waste it.

But the thing which frightens me is that, even knowing this, I still won't have learned it. Twenty-five will become thirty, thirty will become thirty-five... and I'll still be sitting here. Living the hollow shell of a the life I could have had.

My dreams shall be the stuff of nightmares...