Archive for category: Commuting with Nature

Par for the Parental Course

25 Feb 2003
February 25, 2003

That sound.

I am driving my daughter to school. We have been on the road for almost an hour, twice as long as it should take us to get downtown. And we are almost there. She sits in her backseat booster and if I angle the rearview mirror just so, I can see her forehead and right eye. Snow banks continue to trespass on city streets, chocking our commute to a crawl. It is a long cold ride. As I listen to the news, the winds of winter fight the winds of the Iraqi War. The heat is blasting. And that sound is undeniable and clear.

My youngest has just thrown up in the back seat of my car. I am stuck in traffic and immediately look for a snow-free space along the road. In the few minutes it takes me to inch over I am imagining how bad this is going to be. I’m calling to her, trying to see her entire face: “What’s the matter? What happened [even though I know]? Are you ok?” Complete silence. Finally: “I threw up, Daddy.” I park and get ready to survey this disaster.

It is all over her coat and pants. This is the part of parenthood they rarely talk about. It’s not for the fainthearted nor squeamish. I have been preparing for a Code Red disaster, stocking up on water, can goods, and duct tape. But suddenly, I find I am totally unprepared for this more personal, familial variety.

All I have are a few tissues in my backpack. I go into triage mode. The scene looks toxic but she seems to be ok, as ok as a little girl can be immediately following a hurl. I feel her forehead. It’s cool. I wipe her clothes as best as I can, remove her coat and hat, and stuff the remains in a plastic bag. The snow becomes my friend, offering me some water to wipe up her dress and the car seat.

I hear myself thinking in stereo: “My poor little girl/will this smell ever go away?” I hang my head in shame. How can I be thinking about my car when my poor baby is sick? I open a crack in the sunroof. I make a U-turn as I silently complain about the odor. What if it never goes away? It’s practically a new car. My poor sweetheart. My daughter I mean.

I had just called my wife to ask her to notify the school we’d be late because of the traffic. Now I place a second call to her: “New game plan,” I announce as I describe the accident behind me. “We’re coming home.”

As I am driving I begin to wonder. She seemed perfectly healthy when we left the house. But you know kids. One minute they’re fine, the next, well, I don’t have to imagine. Was she just overheated? Ordinarily, she rides with winter gear on in the car. But I didn’t expect we’d be riding for so long. And I did have the heat pretty high. I should have taken her coat off before we started. All of this is my fault!

By the time we get home my daughter is on the road to recovery. As we walk through the door, she can’t decide whether to first wrap herself in my wife’s warm and comforting motherhood or recount the events of the last hour in minute detail. It’s a toss up.

• • •

An editorial in today’s Washington Post is now warning us about Pakistan: “[Former Taliban and Al Queda militant concentrations just inside the Pakistani border] confirm the steady unraveling of commitments by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to support the United States in the war on terrorism.”

This Wednesday, February 26 is the Virtual March on Washington. Sign up to call or fax your Congressperson to let them know how you feel about America going to war.

Reality TV verses Reality: It’s a Toss Up

12 Feb 2003
February 12, 2003

Which is scarier: Osama bin Laden’s recent tape or Michael Jackson’s? Each, in its own way, is a reflection on our society and speaks volumes about our values. Osama thinks he can change the world by killing infidels (innocent or otherwise). Michael thinks he can change the world by offering young children his bed (100% innocent). We are responsible for both of them.

Each sees simplistic solutions to the world’s woes. But they’re not the only ones who do. Our government’s reaction to terrorism: batten down the hatches (that’s good), cozy closer to repressive regimes if they allow us a better shot at the Axis of Evil, and continue to pursue a short term oil foreign policy (that’s not so good).

Fatalism breeds fanaticism. Take hope away from people and what do they have to lose if they strap a bomb around their waists. We’ve all got some thinking to do.

It sort of makes you want to curl up with a good book, a sheet of plastic, a roll of duct tape, and a good vintage gallon of water. I’ve got the perfect little closet to hide in.

Not so fast (and not so easy). While living in a Level Orange world is becoming all too familiar, I’m having a hard enough time searching for rationality closer to home. Last Thursday, on the Metro I witnessed the effects of short term thinking at closer range.

On my commute to work, the long escalators were inoperable. Water was dripping from above and officials wouldn’t even let us walk down them for fear of electrocution. Everyone waited for the lone and very slow elevator. Everyone, meaning about one hundred workers who just couldn’t wait to get to their cubicles. When the door opened each person shoved forward. Each had a schedule and each had to get on that ride down.

As we waited our turn, I casually mentioned to one of my fellow commuters (in as loud a voice as I could) that I had a four year old by the hand. In this sea of humanity, it wasn’t easy to see a 3 foot little girl. Yet, when the doors opened, that simply didn’t matter. People pushed both of us towards the door. We were in a fast moving river without a net. I can see how fourteen people could be crushed to death at the Hajj. We are, after all, animals. And apparently, despite our abilities to think, we are governed by the same herding instincts. Luckily, we made it together. But that’s scary for someone so young, even more frightening than my inability to rationalize weapons of mass destruction.

That night, on the way home, I was waiting for a delayed train, again with my daughter. I was talking to a Metro friend (you know, someone you see everyday on the commute). She was still walking with a cane after a recent hip replacement. When the train arrived it was crowded. We got on and no one offered her a seat, despite her voiced concern. I told her to hold my arm and finally another traveler offered his. We anchored her to the floor as the train began to move.

Last Thursday was not a good day for Michael Jackson or us.

So how can I wonder about solving world problems when I’ve got so much to consider right here? Osama, Michael, and, now George W scare me. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but you are scaring me. Maybe even more than bin Laden frightens me.

But rather than run to my bunker, I’m trying to stay connected to the surface. What I’ve learned so far: the shortest path is not always the best. What worked before won’t necessarily work now. Listen to everything but don’t always accept it at face value. Accept some responsibility for what’s happening now. Long term thinking is a way to best insure our security. Let’s see, what else?

Osama, Michael, and George W, did you get that? No, I didn’t think you would. My fellow commuters? Well, I’ll deal with you on the way home tonight.

New Age Etiquette: It’s Easy as A-B-C

25 Jan 2003
January 25, 2003

I saw Michael Jackson on the subway yesterday. Not the present version but the one from the 70s: medium, well-shaped Afro and that angelic, before the shit-hit-the-fan face. It’s been oh so cold here in DC (coldest it’s been in seven years) and this MJ was wrapped in what looked like a duct tape goose down tubular jacket: something he might have worn in his Scream video. Past and present in one neat package.

Coincidentally, just as I was observing Michael someone’s cell phone called out. Obviously, the user had been downloading too many tones as the Jackson Five’s A-B-C beckoned me to answer. Ring tones are becoming the Musac for the new millennium. The public commons is undergoing a facelift. And I don’t like what I’m hearing.

Last week someone sat right behind me on the Metro and started talking REAL LOUD on his cell. So loud, in fact, my daughter and I actually jumped off our seats. I wonder where he thought he was.

Cell phones that double as walkie-talkies are also becoming a popular public technology. Instead of listening quietly to the other person via the earphone speaker, your conversation is broadcast for all to hear throughout the bus or subway car.

Recently I’ve written about pervasive technologies: gizmos and applications that allow you to be connected to a network of people no matter where you’re sitting (not just in front of your desk-anchored PC). I’m most interested in the social ramifications these new connections are bringing to our relationships and daily lives. But it seems we need some updated etiquette books to help manage our new working spaces (which would be just about any- and everywhere).

Of course, no amount of etiquette will help those who use new technologies for more traditional twisted behaviors. Take the man in Kenosha, Wisconsin who was recently arrested for placing a GPS (global tracking) device under the hood of his ex-girlfriend’s car. He tracked her every movement and showed up wherever she went: to get gas, on dates, and to the grocery store. Or the problems parents and schools are now encountering with bullies who use cell phone text messaging to intimidate their classmates. Evolution at its finest.

While someone somewhere is, at this very moment, penning the last chapter in such an etiquette book, IDEO has come up with another solution to the problem: Social Mobiles, five concept phones designed to “modify” users’ behavior in situations just like this. I like their SoMo1, the electric shock mobile that sends a variable shock to someone who is speaking louder than is morally acceptable. This might be an appropriate technology for stalkers and harassers too.

I’ve written IDEO with my own idea for a social cell phone: one that intercepts music ringers and substitutes voice ads for personal hygiene products. Maybe I should write my own etiquette book.

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.

Commuting with Spin

29 Aug 2002
August 29, 2002

“Are you pro-growth or anti-growth?” I asked the candidate standing outside the entrance to the subway this morning. “We’re pro-people,” she answered. I grimaced and flicked my head in the direction I wanted to be moving. “Well, that isn’t saying very much.” I replied. The rest of my body began following my head’s lead.

Nancy Floreen is running for County Council in Montgomery County, Maryland. According to the brochures and endorsements she handed me, her ideals seem to be in the right place. But doesn’t she know we know spin when we hear it? We’re into people?? This reminded me of the Miss Teen USA pageant I flipped past last night on TV on my way to American Idol.

Button-holing commuters as they enter the Metro is a quick affair. We don’t have time to stop and debate. Perhaps living in DC has jaded me, but I’m a little tired of debates. I’m looking for honest, thoughtful, albeit short responses.

Usually, I sidestep anyone handing out leaflets with my usual “no thanks.” But I couldn’t avoid Ms. Floreen, dressed in my bright yellow rain slicker and no child to suddenly turn to as we passed.

If you’re going to stand at the entrance to our commuter tunnel, please keep in mind the context of the place. Think twice about quick, nonsensical answers. Be prepared. A more appropriate response to my initial question might have been “It’s about targeted smart growth” (thanks to Amy for that one—her business is spin). That doesn’t say it all but at least it’s on the subject.

If we must live in the fast-paced world of spin, the spinmeisters should at least try to make it logical and we, the public, should accept nothing less. Good luck, Ms. Floreen.

That Which We Call a Gesture

12 Jul 2002
July 12, 2002

Morning Short #1

On our morning commute: my eldest daughter (age 5 3/4) told me she wanted a phone in her room just as a real live version of Abe Simpson passed us on the street. I almost dropped my teeth.

Aside from the great weather we’ve been having in DC this week (think San Francisco in May), I’ve had the pleasure of observing thousands of people in the neighborhood of my office signing to each other: walking down the street, waiting in Starbucks lines (which are much longer these days), and in restaurants. All are here for Deafway II, an international arts festival and gathering “to celebrate the experiences of deaf people” (more on NPRReal Audio: 4:20 min.).

To all of you I say:


The city streets aren’t discernibly quieter but they are infinitesimally more beautiful.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074