Archive for category: Book Reports

An Idyllic Summer Holiday

26 Aug 2003
August 26, 2003

The waves were tiny our first day at the New Jersey shore and the water was surprisingly cold–that numbing cold you never get used to. We’d heard the Gulf Stream was unusually frigid this year. Our neighbor, Joan, had just returned from the beach with tales of wearing a wet suit in order to stay warm in the water.

This made me nostalgic for the Pacific. You expect the water to be icy in the Pacific. Big waves and cold water. I’m not one of those polar bear types, the ones who run into glacial waters as fast as they can, jumping head first into an oncoming wave. I’m a tiptoer. I stand where the salt water meets my ankles for hours, moving incrementally deeper every few minutes. It’s excruciating slow. The Atlantic is usually so much more inviting. But not this year.

How ironic to stay right at the beach yet take hours preparing yourself to walk the 50 feet to the shore. You can look out your window and watch the sunrise over the water. But getting everyone in the family anointed with sun block over every exposed area of our bodies takes the better part of the morning. It makes the view seem like a movie. You know it’s real somewhere, just not where you are.

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Smart Underground Mobs

09 Jan 2003
January 9, 2003

I was deep into Howard Rheingold’s new book, Smart Mobs, when I looked up and discovered that twelve other people in the subway car were reading it as well. As I raised my eyes, everyone lowered their books to give me a knowing glance. Was this a peer-to-peer network Howard and Cory Doctorow were talking about? Persistant and ubiquitous communication. The wireless net on the Red Line just coming into Union Station. Howard’s books were the nodes.

Parts of my new community got off, but more walked in. Almost everyone now sported a turquoise-covered hardback up against their nose. I was starting to receive messages. A woman, a student I think, jabbered loudly on her cell phone to an unseen friend. She was on her way to her 8 o’clock class for a test. But she hadn’t studied at all. In fact, she hadn’t been to class in two weeks. I put my finger to my lips to reduce the interference as our eyes met .

The man sitting next to me voiced his objection to the measly cost-of-living raise government workers were getting this month, our sacrifice to Bush’s War Budget. “The increase cost of medical insurance will surly offset any gain. And my cable is going up 10%.” Pages rustled in agreement. The heated discussion permeated into the two adjoining cars.

As I turned the page, another query came wafting by me. Apparently, there were quite a few Web designers on board. Most worked either for the feds, outside government contractors (some defense-related) or news organizations. “Why the push for broadband?” pages murmured. Mobile networks will be the next social revolution. We should be planning for a very different information broadcast.
“If only our bosses would let us start thinking outside today’s box.” the woman across the aisle responded. Books dropped to the floor.

A man in an oversized brown overcoat and broad brimmed fedora suddenly stood up. He had been reading a Philip K. Dick novel, but I couldn’t make out the title. Taking off his hat he turned to me and said “you’re over burdening the network. I can’t understand a thing I’m reading.” We invited him to join us but he had much more ambitious plans.

As we neared the center of town, static replaced dialogue. We were right between the Department of Justice and the White House when somebody pulled out The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush by David Frum. The static gave way to complete silence. At the next stop I decided I’d better reroute my morning commute to the Blue Line to get a better connection. Others followed. I had never done this before. It was a little out of my way but I hoped it would be a much more pleasant ride.

Everyone looked up from their books when we entered the train. And the chat was loud and clear.

Pessimism By Any Other Name Is Not Pessimism

26 Dec 2002
December 26, 2002

Was it visions of sugarplums that made my Christmas Eve day commute to work so sweet? Or was it President Bush’s “pardon” for all us Federal workers one half day of freedom for the upcoming holiday? No, as I looked around the subway car I realized everyone was contentedly reading the Health section of the Washington Post. More specifically, they were reading The Happy Heretic, an article about Dr. Martin Seligman’s new book, Authentic Happiness. Wellbeing saturated the underground air.

With Christmas just past and New Year’s up next, the burden of marking time (more specifically, marking this point in my life) is great. Happiness is a commodity, to be bought, sold, and listed. It is a benchmark for our success. My discomfort is palatable this time of the year. Something doesn’t fit right: the week between these holidays—the countdown to the new year (as if this point in time was a natural rather than a social construct) and the pressure to create (let alone live by) a checklist of New Year resolutions. Christmas and New Year’s beg me to consider my happiness.

Seligman, who is the former president of the American Psychological Association, feels that when it comes to this state, Americans have it “dead wrong.” True happiness is not fleeting pleasure (and in this gift-giving season, who but the staunchest curmudgeon is not prone to this affliction?). To counter this he has developed what he calls Positive Psychology: to be truly happy people must develop more durable strengths—integrety, critical thinking, street smarts, love of beauty, kindness, and perseverance. While daily life (both personal and global) can get you down, drawing on your inner strengths to move through the morass is his key. Antisthenes, who said “I would rather go mad than experience pleasure” would surely have something cynical to say about this.

Despite my reluctance, Seligman’s psychology forced to consider my lot in life. I was voted “Most Pessimistic” in my high school graduating class. True, my early life taught me to be extra cautious. But was this who I really was?

In the intervening years, I rarely thought much my “condition.” Usually, I pondered my reactions to the world with a quick swipe-of-my-hand across the nearby air and the passing acknowledgement: “Well, I am a pessimist afterall.” But recently, a coworker shocked me by declaring in a closed door meeting that I was an optimist! My cynicism, he felt, paled next to his fatalism. When I actually absorbed his declaration I was even more surprised to realize he was right. Somehow I had become an optimist. How could I have miscalculated my personality to this degree?

I had just told my office mate that despite the often uncomfortable intensity of a recent project, I’d learned quite a bit. His words forced me to look critically at the challenges of organizational society. I was surprised to realize I saw them as opportunities to exercise new coping and managerial skills. And, of course, there’s ample opportunity.

Apparently, even back in high school I was drawing on my inner abilities to rise above my notions of the world. Winning that “honor” was only a partial and most clearly an imperfect reflection of my self-perception. When I looked down that list of Most “this” or Best “that,” I was scanning for “opportunity” and this category seemed to be the only one I had a chance to win. And when I told everyone “I’m sure I won’t get it,” it clinched my victory. Yet it also helped cement a mindset that lasted for a long time.

Happiness, from Seligman’s vantage point, isn’t so much about short term pleasure, it’s about the type of gratification Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle wrote about. And he feels, rather than pursuing these more important goals, most of us are just “fidgeting until we die.” This is why I refrain from New Year’s Resolutions. Change doesn’t happen at the stroke of midnight. It requires a lot more effort from me.

And after taking his Authentic Happiness Signature Strengths Survey (registration required, but it’s free), I now have empirical proof of my mental shift. Of course, the Web site states I can best interpret the results by reading his book. However, let me use my inner drive to see what I can glean from this on my own.

My number one strength is Creativity, Ingenuity, and Originality. “Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.” I scored as high or higher in this area than 97% of all Web site users, 96% of all Post-college grads, and (most interestingly) 94% of those in Zip Code 200xx. That’s all of Washington, DC! This might explain a lot of what goes on in this town.

Other strengths I scored solidly on include Judgement, Critical Thinking, and Open-Mindedness (“Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.”) and Bravery and Valor (“You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.”). In both categories I score above 90% of my peers.

Alright, alright already. Please. I am humbled by your applause. I do sound centered, don’t I? Ok, well, I already knew all of this—not in these glorious terms but somewhere between the perceived pessimism of my youth and the hopeful wisdom of my old age (most of us know who we are, even if we’re not prepared to admit it). I am a process-oriented person. And I get it, Dr. Seligman. I resolve not fidget next year.

My brand of cynicism: not the negative notion of distrust. It’s more an acceptance that motives of others will sometimes be alien to one’s own belief system. Rather than constantly being shocked by the behavior of others, I’ve come to accept that I will not always understand what motivates every person I come in contact with. Back >>

The Remains of the Day: One Year Later

11 Sep 2002
September 11, 2002

We are lucky enough to know that we are more than our losses.

Jenna Jacobs, Wife of Ariel Jacobs
who was killed at the WTC

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, Foer’s American protagonist, Jonathan, searches for the Ukrainian woman who hid and protected his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. But it is Alex, Jonathan’s Ukrainian guide, who ultimately understands the meaning behind the search. His narration and letters to Jonathan become our guide. His broken English is hard to understand but if we read carefully we are rewarded with insight and meaning.

Horoscope for 9/11During the past year I have felt like I am made up of two similar men. Like Jonathan, one is involved in the mechanics of the search—arranging for my journey, seeking expert guidance, and collecting facts. I have suddenly found myself in a strange land. Simultaneously, the other part of me is looking for meaning and understanding. Despite my inability to fully express myself and put together my words into some cogent form, it makes me feel better just trying. Ultimately, the effort pays off.

Learning that sadness and the excitement of discovery can coexist has made me stop and think a bit. There is something to be learned about listening carefully when we try to decipher Alex’s way of expressing himself. We really have to want to understand what he is saying. Funny how someone with such secondhand knowledge of our culture can understand our very American quest and force us think about who we are.

Now that I think about it, being forced to look at things from a new angle is a lesson I’ve had before (and one I’m likely to have again). Like most life lessons, if given the choice, I probably would have avoided it at all costs. But, of course, I didn’t have that choice. As Foer’s title suggests, this past year has been one where many things have become illuminated.

And so today begins a succession of anniversaries.

• • •

To commemorate this day, some of my friends and I will launch a memorial lantern in a tidal basin next to the Pentagon this morning. The official Pentagon ceremony will take place on the opposite side of the building (the side hit by the airliner) from where we will be.

When I was in Japan 19 years ago, working on a film about American POWs killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, I attended such a ceremony for victims of the blast along the banks of the Motoyasu River.

I couldn’t think of a more personal and meaningful way to remember those whose lives where irrevocably altered by the events of that morning, one year ago (thanks, Donna and Susie for your help).

Update: When Randall, Phyllis, and I arrived at our destination (land belonging to the US Park Service, right next to the Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Park) we unloaded the lantern and our cameras.

We walked to the edge of an embankment, directly across from the Pentagon, and looked for a place to launch the memorial. It was a problem as we were about 8 feet above the water. In addition, we were concerned about a burning candle so close to nearby boats moored at the marina. We lowered our lantern but it got wet as we tried to set it to sail in the brisk remnant breeze of Tropical Storm Gustav. Despite the wind, it was a beautiful day. Randall had prepared a CD of music with bells and sirens in the background.

We took video and stills of our preparations. Across the water (about 100 meters away) the occupants of a military humvee observed us. Commercial airliners took off directly over our heads from nearby National Airport.

Soon another humvee with two burly military police in full battle dress arrived to question what we were doing. The head of the Park Service for that area soon joined us. We told them about the memorial. While the military encouraged us to continue, they wanted to confiscate our imagery for security reasons. They asked us to put away our cameras. The music continued to play as they left.

We decided to jettison our initial idea for the ceremony and concentrate on sharing our thoughts. Without having to worry about the structure of the ceremony and without mediation from the media or politicians, we simply talked with each other.

As we started to leave, the Park Service officer returned to thank us for being cooperative. “In reality,” he said, “you have every right to photograph here. This is US Park property and I have jurisdiction here.” Tell that to the military.

Related Outtacontext Stories and Projects:
The Remains of the Day (September 11, 2001)
Hunting for Zippers in the Emperor’s New Clothes (September 13, 2001)
Reliving Ground Zero (January 28, 2002)
Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place (A 9/11 Storytelling Project)

Face-to-Face for the First Time

20 Mar 2002
March 20, 2002

Do I Know You?

Inside each one of us, laid out like a grid, is a network of complementary, anatomical, psychological, hormonal, and linguistic structures, which in turn allow us to function—I’m paraphrasing Dr. Kai here—within a larger social system made up of its own equivalent and parallel structures, and somewhere within this mesh of inner grid and outer grid lie those gray, baggy pockets of indeterminancy which we call human behavior. My own behavior had been very gray.

Mr. Statler in Robert Cohen’s Oscillations

How does one describe their first f2f? Is it like recounting one’s first kiss? Face-to-face, for those of you in the real world, is how we of the virtual realm refer to a meeting in the physical sense. And the first time you actually come in real contact with someone you’ve known online, it’s a special moment. But how to describe it? It all depends. As with kisses, there are variants.

horoscopeLast weekend I attended the SXSW new media interactive conference in Austin. I “knew” no one, yet I had numerous friendships and acquaintances with many who were there. It’s always fun to see friends you haven’t seen for a long time. But what about friends you’ve never seen?

As I moved through the main corridor between sessions that first day I felt quite vulnerable walking back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth alone. But my uncomfortable feeling was mitigated by my anonymity. No one knew who I was so no one noticed me and I could stealthily observe. I literally couldn’t tell who my friends were. But the voyeur in me enjoyed watching others interact. Were they meeting for the first time too or were they old friends, previously identified and marked in previous encounters? Could I actually be enjoying this taut psychological balancing act?

Upon first meeting, some people are exactly as you’ve come to know them online. Some are not as they seem. And some think they come across very differently than they really are. It was comforting to realize this mimiked human nature in the real world.

It’s somewhat like meeting a movie star. You “know” them. Or you think you do. With online friends you hope their online personae match the ones you are about to encounter. But like meeting film icons it’s not always safe to assume they are the sum of their film roles.

I once waited on Bobby Darin when I worked in the camera department of the May Company. Bobby Darin. I knew him. I certainly knew who he was. But when he paid for his film with a check, I asked to see his driver’s license, just as I did for everyone I waited on. I acted as if I didn’t KNOW him. And he didn’t counter by singing Mac the Knife (although that would have been proof enough). I ignored his celebrity. The transition to the real was complete.

What do you talk about when you first meet your online familiars? With my first f2f encounter of the day we picked up right from where we left off in our last email exchange. I looked at his conference badge and saw his eyes lower as he searched for mine. His look was delivered smoothly and effortlessly. I almost missed his glance it was so facile. And I could only hope mine was equally fluent. Why doesn’t someone just invent special glasses that display a person’s name in large block letters on their forehead. Seen only by the observer, it would make meeting like this a more pleasant task.

Without missing a beat I asked him if he’d lost his job. He nodded. I told him I was sorry. It was a seamless transition. As simple as I’ve encountered. But I still felt like I’d gone through a Trekian transporter during a minor fluctuation in the transporter beam. You’re “here” but you’ve just been “there.”

I waited for my next encounter. Here it was. Again, the conference tag glance. But this time our mutual recognition yielded only a brief handshake. She turned back to her conversation. I was naked and slowly stepped backwards as if that would clothe and protect me.

Suddenly, I was back in junior high. It was the first day of the year and I was the new kid. I guess having your first kiss, uh, f2f under your belt doesn’t make it any easier. I remembered being voted most introverted in my high school senior class. No wait. It wasn’t most introverted, it was most pessimistic. How did that memory come out so misshapen?

Prophetically, the man sitting next to me on the plane out was reading Robert Cohen’s Oscillations, a short story about a man who loses his ability to speak coherently. Whenever he talks everything he says is incomprehensible to everyone but himself. Office calls are surreptitiously rerouted to other agents and anniversary toasts end as long, unadulterated babbles. I suddenly found myself wondering if this condition might be contagious.

My airplane neighbor was right at the part where our unfortunate protagonist, Mr. Statler, has just checked himself into an “institute” for evaluation and testing. Dr. Kai is delivering his diagnosis:

The term we employ for a condition like yours is an intention tremor…What I am saying is that your ability to process phonetic and semantic information is not organically impaired. You are for example able to understand what I am saying right now, are you not?

In the same way you are able, phonetically, to communicate, to be understood. You have simply chosen, on some unconscious level, not to. This is the oscillation of semantic intent we must correct.

I felt myself turning an indeterminate shade of gray.

I retreated to the safety of a panel discussion about to start. While I waited I looked around and thought I spotted the name tag of another online acquaintance. I LOVED his writing. He found a way to be human in under a hundred words a post. Now that’s talent! We had corresponded some and I had posted comments to his online journal.

Apparently undaunted by my last encounter, I went up to him and introduced myself. He gestured reserved recognition but I ignored it I loved his writing so. I was effusive, unabashed and unprotected. Obviously, I’d forgotten who I was. Now, all the while in this physical space your mind is actively seeking equilibrium. You’re trying to form coherent thoughts while simultaneously controlling your exterior persona. Unlike my previous encounter this one was not so clear cut. He didn’t turn to his neighbor to continue an interrupted conversation. He simply stopped speaking.

I almost started babbling to fill in the silence when I was mercifully interrupted by the moderator’s opening remarks. I slipped back to my seat. But my mind continued to analyze. Why, he was shy, incredibly shy! Could this be possible? His online self was very different, often revealing of so many things. But I suppose I either missed the shyness or, like many actors, it was easier to BE than to just be.

With the panel over, I was alone again. Walking the corridor I spied a group of people sitting in a circle and talking on the balcony outside. One was an online friend from a virtual community I inhabit. Our initial meeting the night before had been brief but inviting. Everyone else in the circle, however, was new to me. Our tenuous connection propelled me forward through the doors to the outdoors. As I slowly walked to towards them I brushed aside a continuous flow of insecure thoughts.

I’m more of a recovering introvert. I’ve learned to compensate well, but my formative years loom, just behind my shoulder. Every step I took was a counterbalance to my past. I pulled up a chair and joined them.

They were discussing art and contemporary culture. Someone was video taping the conversation by passing around a camcorder as every one spoke. Immediately someone asked me what I thought. The camera focused tightly on my eyes. What was the question?

I was suddenly grateful we were all seated. I realized it would take a
certain effort for all of them to suddenly rise and disperse, leaving me
talking to myself. Something made me feel as if I’d been sitting with them for hours. The circle felt rooted and comfortable. I was grateful, relieved, and coherent, all at the same time. It wasn’t quite as good as that first kiss, but it came very close.

“Communication,” [Dr. Kai] shrugs. “A complex art. So many signals. It is a wonder we have even the success that we do. In fact it’s counterintuitive. Your affliction, Mr. Statler, should be not the exception but the rule.”

Parenthood: A Borderline Schizophrenic Experience

02 Mar 2002
March 2, 2002

horoscopeI am an actor. I act in morality plays. I am a street performer of sorts, displaying my lessons on the DC subway. I captivate some, yet most are captives. My daughter is both my unwitting foil and the object of my ulterior motives.

While my focus is on her (just yesterday, we performed a One Act about a nearby little girl whose father was no where to be found), she teaches our captives what they need to know. Her admonishments are clearly enunciated, perfectly timed, and to the point. Recently, in that famous scene from our wildly popular delight called Rules from the Underground, she chastised someone in the first row for eating. Oh, she appears to be talking to me but it’s clear THAT WOMAN WITH THE PLUM PIT is the object of her disdain. I try to read her her correct lines but to no avail. She repeats her edict with equal, if not greater force: “she should NOT be eating on the train!”

I look around for a quick diversion and find it sitting next to me. A woman smiles while she reads her copy of Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good. Is there something I should know?

She’s just at the part where married Dr. Katie Carr finds herself in a parking lot after having fallen from grace by sleeping with another man. This, as it turns out, is the beginning of a long spiritual journey. Simultaneously, her husband, David, is having his own ecclesiastical awakening. No longer the newspaper columnist of, nor, in fact, the “Angriest Man in Holloway,” he is, indeed, determined to be a saint.

I confess, both daughters and I have struggled with these same issues. You think you’re teaching your children limits when you suddenly find yourself on your own precipice. Your toes are dangling over the edge! You feel it. And yet you move forward undeterred. Parenthood is, afterall, a borderline schizophrenic experience. I’m sure of it.

One minute you’re glowing, inspired by your children’s innocence and pure love. When, out of the blue, you have entered a parallel and utterly chaotic universe. Your shock at how you ended up at this point must take a second seat to extricating you and your loved ones immediately. Step back! Step back from the edge this instant!

I wonder just where my family and I are in our spiritual journey. Just like Katie, who blurts out her intense desire to divorce David from her cell phone in that parking lot (when her initial reason for calling was simply to remind him to write a note for their daughter’s teacher), I find myself in the audience of our little morality plays laughing and crying ironically.

How many times have you found yourself as both actor and audience in a scene from real life? The tension between active and passive participation is great. Timing is critical.

At this very moment my daughter has stubbed her toe. Is there a lesson here, is my simple parental sympathy needed, or do I just continue writing while acknowledging her condition from a room away? The initial injury is over but the fact remains: she is totally incapacitated or so she would like us to believe. This could be great acting or it could be the truth. She is equally capable of both. The tension in the audience is palatable.

“I want more apple!” “Come and get it. I’ve got 3 more pieces sitting here just waiting for you!” “I can’t. My toe still hurts.” I deliver the fruit while trying not to lose my train of thought.

Minutes later, I hear the rumblings of sibling rivalry from that same room. It’s always hard to say what my role will be in these scenes. If I ignore it, it might dissipate. Or not. I enter, stage left, and tell my injured daughter to stop rocking the chair my eldest occupies. “My toe really hurts.” [She moans]. Don’t rock your sister’s chair please.” Her moaning intensifies the more I suggest she step away from the chair.

The portal between universes suddenly reveals itself. [Applause. House lights up.]

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074