Author Archive for: jgates

Commuting Rules of Engagement

11 Jan 2009
January 11, 2009

Rush Hour on the DC Metro. Photo by andrew.deci via Flickr.

When you commute five days a week on public transportation you start to see the same people standing in the same places everyday. I’ve always marveled at how our clocks are in sync. Do each of these people get up at 5:30 a.m. like I do, eat breakfast while reading the paper, then go shower and dress for work, all at the same moment?

So it wasn’t surprising when I saw that tall man, in his late 50s, wearing his wide-brimmed leather hat and trench coat on the subway platform. He’s one of those people who not only gets on at my “home” Metro stop but also gets off at the same downtown destination I do. I see him in the morning and in the evening on our way home. Everyday. We live and work in close proximity. There are a few of us. But I’ve never talked to any of them (although I often make eye contact with a guy who brings his wife flowers every Thursday).

I’ve never engaged this man with the hat but I have been keenly aware of him from the beginning. He’s a nervous sort of guy. When the subway car stops he walks fast to the entrance and when the door opens he rushes in to get his special seat. Luckily, that special seat isn’t my special seat. In fact, I have worked hard not to rush in to get my special seat expressly because I don’t want to act like this man.

Now, you need to know a bit about human nature, specifically Washington, DC Metro commuting behavior. When a train arrives what we should do is move to the sides of the doors and let everyone out before entering. This is the civil and evolved way. But this doesn’t always happen. In fact, it rarely happens. There’s a pile up of bodies squeezing to get out and those simultaneously pushing to get on. I try hard to not succumb to this madness.

On this particular day as I waited for the jostling to begin I looked to the left and Mr. Man with the Hat was standing right next to me. I had never been this close to him before. When the doors opened as commuters started to exit the subway car he was already leaning forward in frenzied anticipation. So in play was he that it appeared he was pushing the person in front of him forward. I watched him, inches away, move in. And I could stand it no longer.

“Please stop pushing,” I said in my calmest commuter voice. “I wasn’t pushing,” he replied. “Yes you were,” I softly mumbled back. I didn’t want to cause an altercation but without thinking his statement demanded a reply, even if I was the only one to hear it. We got on –he went his way towards his pre-ordained seat and I went mine.

In order to justify my mumble I replayed our brief encounter as the train moved to the next stop. And during the playback I realized he indeed did not push the person in front of him. His body language and shuffling, like a nervous sprinter just before the gun sounds, made him appear to jostle the woman in front of him. But there was no actual contact. It was his extreme posturing that made me react.

But the deed had been done. I had revealed myself and my heretofore private evaluation of this man. I was no longer just an anonymous person he saw every day at the beginning and end of our mutual commutes. I was that man.

Sometimes it pays to keep your thoughts to yourself.

The Diving Bell and the Brain Tumor

14 Dec 2008
December 14, 2008
Still from the Diving Bell and the Butterfly

From his vantage point: sewing Jean-Dominique Bauby’s eye shut after his stroke. Still from the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Today is my mother’s birthday: more accurately, the 87th anniversary of her birth. She died in 1971 just days before her fiftieth birthday. Eleven years before she was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor: acoustic neuroma, Clinically speaking, this tumor is “a non-cancerous growth that arises from the 8th or vestibulo-cochlear nerve.” But the effects of her illness and treatment were as toxic as any chemotherapy would have been. At 11 I was too young to be included in the discussions of her disease, prognosis, and treatment. Invasive and targeted, today my memories of her illness are still as imbedded in my brain as her tumor was in hers.

Yesterday, while the rest of the family was out on holiday errands I decided to force myself to watch the Netflix movie that had been sitting next to the TV for months. Next in our queue was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. While I couldn’t remember the film’s exact synopsis I knew it had something to do with a man locked in his body, unable to respond to the world around him. This certainly wasn’t on my list of comedic films I’d gravitated to recently, hence its longevity on our TV shelf. And as the plot unfolded I was totally unprepared for the striking similarities to my mother’s illness the film would convey. I was shocked at how raw my feelings and emotions were 48 years after the fact. And I was glad I was alone.

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The Composite Sum of Obama’s Face

06 Dec 2008
December 6, 2008
Obama lookalike

Beauty has always been a product of the social attitudes of the time. During the Renaissance voluptuous Rafaelesque women were the standard aspiration while in the 1960s, and certainly today, thin –even an emaciated look– is often what people admire.

While waiting for the subway after work yesterday I found a new back-lighted dental ad at my usual standing spot. Quick! Who does this man look like?

Is it a coincidence this model reminds me of Barack Obama? His election was more than the total electoral votes he garnered –some even calling it a post-racial social revolution. Oh, our propensity to overstate and overstate prematurely. His election was only a beginning. We’re all still racists. How could we not be, given the importance and effect race has had in our society? We’ve got a long way before race is not the issue. But we did learn this time that something else was more important to most of us when it came to our vote. That’s a watershed.

From his campaign logo to his iconic visage for change, the visual in social politics and contemporary culture is once again on its ascendancy. And it was inevitable that Obama’s “look,” beginning as a political critique, would find its way into advertising.

Right now, this is all about Obama and what political and social changes his administration with usher in. But, ultimately, this will be less about him and more about how we see ourselves. An ad for a Dupont Circle dentist is an interesting beginning.

The couple pictured above could be black or white or a mix of cultures and races. I’m reminded of Nancy Burson’s 1980s computer composite photographs, and her Human Race Machine which allows us to see ourselves as a mix of ethnicities. Yes, this couple could be a composite. Then I look at my own family, a mix of European and Han and Mongol Chinese –our transracial family. Each of us literally comes from a different part of the world. We’re less a composite and more of a sum.

Whether composite or sum, it’s the understated mix that Barack Obama’s presidency heralds. A norm. Expect to see more racially mixed or ambiguous advertisements. High style is often at the forefront of cultural shift. But dental ads are another little step. This isn’t Vogue. Suddenly it will seem as if it’s always been this way. And, in a way, it always has.

Update: Washington’s local NBC affiliate picked up this piece and wrote about it on their Web site. The most interesting part of their reportage was the comments. Most readers felt it must have been a slow news day for the station to write this up. Reading NBC’s post I can see why. Rather than treat the dentist’s advertising photo in the context of a larger cultural identity shift, they chose to write it up with comic overtones: times must be tough if Obama’s looking for a second job. Using humor to talk about serious issues is difficult (especially about people trying to find work). NBC, you might want to stick with reporting facts from now on.

The Boxer Rebellion

23 Nov 2008
November 23, 2008
Boxer puppy

So cute. And just perfect for the First Family and the Gates family.

While the rest of the country recovers from the election, Washington is swimming in a sea of Obamamania. It’s not surprising considering that Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha will be moving in just down the road. For us all politics is local. You see, while I live just outside the Beltway, I often connect with the Politicos of DC in more intimate ways –sometimes directly and sometimes in an off-the-cuff chit chat moment. They’re locals, just like us. Many of my neighbors work directly with political higher ups. Oh, the stories they tell –all off the record of course. Of course. We’re neighborly but definitely discreet. Yeah, that sort of thing is commonplace around here.

So while the Washington Post dutifully reports on Obama’s cabinet choices with brevity on its front page, the social aspects of the First Family To Be are treated as local news in the Style section. After all, this is our hometown paper.

So I wasn’t surprised when I spied another “what dog should the Obama’s get” story in this morning’s edition. But I was riveted to the article when I noticed a big picture of a Boxer dog. The Post, with all the authority it could muster, was recommending the First Family get a Boxer. While the Poodle was the choice of the 42,000 people who voted in the American Kennel Club’s poll for the best dog for the Obama girls, the Post had what it thought a more appropriate choice:

Given all factors considered, though, we’re going for something else. We’re going with something fitted to your size, physique and the temperament of your chief of staff. Yes, we’re talking about what the AKC calls “the well-conditioned middleweight athlete of dogdom,” the boxer!

I grew up with Boxers. And I melt when I see one. I will stop and talk to total strangers when they are walking one. They are wonderful family dogs. And I’ve been working on my wife for years to add one to our family tree. The article continues: “According to Kennel Club’s Web site: ‘The breed is known for standing up on its hind legs and batting at its opponent, appearing to box with its front paws.’ Perfect for dealing with Congress!” But more importantly, it goes on to say: “One of the breed’s most notable characteristics is its desire for human affection, especially from children. They are patient and spirited with children, but also protective, making them a popular choice for families.”

So true. So very true. My two girls are on board. But it’s been a hard sell for my wife. You see, she was bitten by two “huge” German Shepherds as a girl and is a little dog shy of bigger breeds. After taking the family to see Beverly Hills Chihuahua a couple weeks ago she tried to convince me that pint-sized, um, dog would be a perfect choice for us. Really? You’ve got to be kidding, Wife!

Of course, I’m sensitive to her early childhood experiences. And I try to help her rise above them whenever possible. Early in our marriage, even before we had children, I tried to “de-sensitize” her by taking her to a local Boxer dog show. Seeing hundreds of Boxer dogs in one place was pretty funny. And not one pooch was biting anyone. But she wasn’t totally convinced. Dear, Boxers are not German Shepherds. Way different temperaments (and much cuter).

I can’t wait for the rest of the family to wake up so I can show them this article. Barack and Michelle, heed the advice of the venerable Post. As dutiful Democrats, we will fall in line right behind you. Well, that’s what I’ll suggest to my wife.

Notes from an Exhausted Real American

30 Oct 2008
October 30, 2008

Orlando News Anchor Asks the “Fair and Impartial” Questions.

I’m exhausted. Obsession can do that to you. During the primaries I was disconnected. I didn’t read much about politics or watch the campaigns unfold on TV. But the moment (the moment!) I heard Sarah Palin speak at the Republican National Conversation I was hooked. With little faith in the general electorate’s ability to see “truth” beyond her sharp delivery I was immediately drawn into the fray. My lack of faith has become a quadrennial problem of mine.

From that point I began to listen to every word Obamabiden and McCainpalin uttered. I combed numerous Web sites for analysis. And the moment I got home from work I tuned into both CNN and MSNBC while multitasking with my iPhone. My mood rose and fell with each and every poll.

As the campaign developed I began to prioritize my pundits and spokespeople. Early on, interviews with independent voters provided the most interesting information. Party members and their surrogates provided the least. I categorized reporters left to right and on any particular day, depending on my stamina, I might be able to stomach listening to at least one deeply Red. But I often quickly reached my limit as I did yesterday watching Tom DeLay spew with a sardonic smile on Hardball. (If you want to see a person’s true persona watch him on a slow fast forward with no sound.)

Truth be known, I tuned to Fox News every now and then. I wasn’t looking for “fair and impartial” but I was looking for intelligent discourse wherever I landed. There’s nothing wrong with a biased media. Plurality is good for a vibrant society. But Hannety, what can I say? You and Rush Limbaugh exude boogieman tactics, pandering to the fears of others and catering to the lowest common denominator. You call Obama an elite but what about the racial and religious elites you’ve stirred up?

In his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America Thomas Frank suggested that people would often vote against their best economic interests, instead letting cultural issues determine their votes. But when we hear “We’re voting for the n***er.” stated flatly to door-to-door campaign canvassers, it’s safe to say Frank’s theory has finally found its tipping point. John McCain, the economy and your attempts to place your opponent on the fringe of society did you no good. You weren’t nimble enough to turn this election around. Instead, you tried to turn the rest of us into ugly, unpatriotic Americans. You even banished those in your own party who questioned your narrowed party orthodoxy, your faux conservatism as George Will calls it in today’s Washington Post. Colin Powell and Christopher Buckley, you’re out. David Brooks, you’d better watch out, you’re next. Exclusion rather than inclusion has marked your campaign and the 2008 edition of your Party.

Instead, Barack Obama’s curiosity drew me in –looking at life with a handful of questions and looking for those answers even when they were ultimately unanswerable. Obama’s message isn’t about liberals verses conservatives: a divisive “us” verses “them.” It’s about looking forward with hope rather than fear. And it has ignited millions who are curious about the future instead of fearful. Last night’s Obama informercial was stirring. Pie in the sky? Just a bit, but a potent piece of pie after the last eight years. McCain, you dismissed the power of this message.

Yelling above your guest won’t get you far, Fox News.

But now I’m tired –tired of being wired to the pundits, spokespeople, and this election cycle. I need some rest from Pat Buchannan. Poor McCain spokesperson Nancy Pfotenhauer was recently skewered by Chris Matthews when she defended Sarah Palin’s definition of the V.P. Never want to hear from you again, Nancy (and I’m sure you’ve had it with Chris). Tucker Bounds? I’m dumping you for someone who doesn’t believe in elevating obfuscation to a high art form. Carla Fiorina, where will your next job be? Oh, you won’t need one with your $21 million golden parachute from HP. Almost forgot about that. NYT columnist William Kristol: he’s all yours Sarah.

So when Obama decided to take two days off to see his ailing grandmother, I was ready to go with. Two days away from this political circus could do me good: a time to re-energize. When he said he missed his mother’s death in the 1990s and wanted to do things differently this time, I was reminded of my own parents’ final illnesses and the similar decisions I had to make. And suddenly I was back in the real world again. Rather than operating on instruments, Obama decided he needed to step out of this political vortex. When faced with the media in Hawaii, he went back home without saying a word, a strong indication he knows what’s really important.

Mr. Obama, it looks like the economic dive and John McCain’s missteps formed your Perfect Storm. And you just may be front and center for the next four years. (If it’s any indication I’ve just added your name to my Microsoft dictionary.) I’ll be keeping tabs and speaking out when necessary. Election rhetoric aside, I’m counting on you and Congress to make fundamental changes in how we conduct our affairs. But while you’re doing that keep your intellectual curiosity in high gear. It’s what first made me believe in you.

As for me, I’m ready to give up my election analysis and go back to my regular job as a middle class working real American.

Leveraging Political Power in the Blogosphere

19 Oct 2008
October 19, 2008

Hotlinking. I’ve written about this netiquette faux pas before. And as you can see I’ve found a number of ways to get even (here and here). If you’re going to use my images don’t even think of linking to them directly. Internet providers charge us for bandwidth when you do that. It’s costly and it’s just not nice.

But in this time of social and financial upheaval, when we’re watching the powers-that-be vying for control of the message, I have ways of maintaining authority over my own images. Link directly to them and you may find I’ve swapped your my favorite photo for something else, something a little bit more pithy.

Worship Warriors decided it liked the large iCal icon it found on my blog post about the application’s iconic July 17 date. So, they linked directly to it. But this time, given the political season and the very close presidential race I found a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Blog who hotlinked to my image: before

Before: This blogger thinks it’s okay to link to my image directly.

The election is providing unique opportunities to place candidates in heretofore untapped markets. For example, when someone hotlinks to one of your own images, simply replace that image with one of your Presidential favorite and you have free political advertising. From now on, when someone hotlinks to my graphics I’m swapping that image with a none-to-subtle political endorsement.

I’d like to say “All Power to the People” but I don’t want to risk a robocall attack connecting me with a 1960s fringe radical group. So lets just say who needs another 527 when I can do it myself? If you’re for my candidate then I suppose you can let it ride. But if you don’t favor impromptu politics on your own site, you might think twice before hotlinking. Remember, I control my own images. It’s how us ordinary citizens leverage power in these very uncertain times.

I’m Jeff Gates and I approved this message.

Blog who hotlinked to my image: before

After: Remember, if you chose to work this way, you don’t control what appears on your own site.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074