Archive for category: Commuting with Nature

Whine Connoisseur

15 Jun 2002
June 15, 2002

I knew it was going to be a bad day. The whining began immediately at our front door as we rushed off to school and work. By the time we were safely ensconced in our secure subway seats my daughter was broadcasting loud and clear to the hundreds before us! “I’m tired.” Not just just like it reads but more like “Iyaaaaaaam tirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRD.” Oh, it defies transliteration! Ask any parent to repeat this to you over and over and over and over for its full effect.

My usual, logical next step is to accommodate my little one. “Put your head on my thigh. Cuddle up here.” But she twists and turns. No position is comfortable. All the while she is moaning her call to the wild. And I’m repeating silently to myself: “I’m in a public place, I’m in a public place. I’m in a public place that is turning into a beautiful sandy beach: endless gentle waves rolling over my feet.” “I’m TIRED!” I’m in a public place.

horoscope for June 15You’d think by the age of four some sort of rational thinking would have kicked in. No matter how much I try to help her, nothing is right, even when I do exactly what she asks of me. [Note: I finally got her back on track by using my ace-in-the-hole, the Big D: distraction. I simply feigned shock as I told her I had just seen Winnie the Pooh go flying by outside the window. This has never failed me—she forgot she was tired and all whining immediately ceased).

An actual physiological transformation takes place when one is subjected to the sniveling whine of a child. It’s been proven that an infant’s cry can drive people to the brink of insanity. Soon after our second child arrived home I saw a TV report on this. I was so interested in reading the full study I even tracked down the story to a local ABC affiliate in North Carolina. I needed scientific confirmation that if I was losing my mind, it was all within the norm.

Technology. Where is good technology when you need it? A white noise anti-whine machine would be a good idea (especially good in public spaces but with a home version available). A Cone of Silence would be perfect. Technology has served me so well recently, I don’t think this is too much to expect.

Two new technological marvels have entered my life and I can no longer function without them. First, keyless car entry. How did I live without it? And the power. From across the parking lot I can now unlock my doors. Of course, that may not be a wise idea. My initial exhuberance at long distance unlocking has given way to a more practical, safer, and shorter unlock stance.

But now I loath unlocking my wife’s late-model, but hopelessly outmoded minivan You have to use a key! Can you believe it? I’ve been trying to convince her to sell our five year old, perfectly functional (and otherwise very nice) vehicle for one of those new models, you know, where you can not only unlock the doors remotely but instruct them to open for you. Last summer we rented one for a family vacation to the Bay Area (well, we actually rented a midsize Plymouth something-or-other but they were out of them so they gave us a Voyager minivan instead). I was hooked. Maybe they sell an aftermarket version.

The second hit tech gizmo I’ve become enamored with are toilets that flush automatically. I’ve become so used to the auto-urinals at work that I am finding myself walking away from normal ones without flushing. It can be embarrassing. Sort of like being caught not washing your hands as you leave.

My children, I must admit, have been slow to embrace this neat little item. In fact, they are downright scared of auto-toilets. You see, these things can flush when they’re not supposed to, automatically as it were. Like right in the middle of, well, you know what. At best, you get the sense of being on a bidet, sort of. It’s not very relaxing and if you’re in a public restroom, people begin to wonder why it’s taking you so long to exit the stall.

It’s not as bad at the urinals, except when they fail to work (the institutional plumber has been notified). Last summer I passed a kidney stone while standing there. I have passed two in my life and I must be blessed as I have never had any pain or inkling that it was happening until it was all over and out.

As I looked down I knew immediately what it was and what I had to do. If I really wanted confirmation, I’d have to retrieve it for analysis. But I had to be careful and swift. Any false moves and it would go down the drain, automatically. I held completely still as I slowly, very slowly reached forward.

My children, if they could read this report, would immediately admonish me for using bathroom words. Rules, as I recently wrote, start out as black and white ideas. And, what I’ve written here would be a clear violation in those terms. But, as I learned in art school, once you learn the rules, the hard part is learning how to break them successfully. I expect my daughters will forgive me. By the time you’re able to read this, hopefully, I will have taught you this fine art of rule breaking.

I love technology! And I can only imagine what inventions will be common place when my girls are my age. But for right now could one of you forward thinking practical inventors do something about that whining?

How to Grow a Longer Nose

21 May 2002
May 21, 2002

I lied. I flat out lied and it was so effortless I was shocked to hear the words slip so easily out of my mouth.

I am never fully awake when we ride the morning Metro. I’m not sleepy, though I’m in some closely associated world. I’m coherent enough to be a good parent to my accompanying little girl and be engaging and interactive with her early morning banter. But it takes a good amount of effort to maintain my equilibrium. Coffee is not a sufficient antidote for this condition.

Horoscope for May 21So when a woman we’ve seen at the subway elevator a few times smiled at us I smiled back, easily and without concern. All my instruments were in the green: everything was within tolerance levels. She asked how we were doing and I replied. “Fine” is an answer I don’t have to think about. Then, without warning, she asked me where I work. This was the antidote. I suppose our morning “meetings” made her feel familiar enough with us to broach the subject.

Riding public transportation (along with surfing the net) has forced me to constantly evaluate my and my family’s sphere of privacy. It’s an odd mix and the boundaries are in constant flux. There is no doubt we are on display on our daily commutes. I’ve likened it to being in a play on stage. To ignore or deny that seems unreasonable. Children are a natural attraction in a world where we’ve come to question everyone around us. But there are limits and dealing with the fuzziness of those boundaries is not easy so early in the day.

Just this morning, when boarding the packed subway elevator, a older man queried my daughter: “What’s your name dear?” My daughter looked down silently. “Can she hear me?” he asked, turning to me. “Yes,” I replied. “But we’re teaching her not to talk to strangers.” All eyes or ears were on us. The spotlight was too bright. So he asked me her name. I had to tell him I didn’t feel comfortable divulging that information. I’m protective of both my and my family’s personal information. But the path of least resistance would have been simply to provide him with the information he requested. Often I am required to take the rougher road. And I need to be in full possession of my faculties in order to do that.

Within the boundaries, I’ve got to say, we are one of the Metro’s best entertainment venues. DC’s subway is relatively tame compared to other cities’s. There are no platform musicians and no one walking from car to car asking you for anything. So we are often the only entertainers aboard. Watching us play is a viable alternative to hiding behind the local news.

But like any production, the interaction is usually only between actors. Audience participation is limited. We do, on occasion, invite selected individuals to join us. Sometimes simple eye contact insures one a good time. While at others the unfolding play between my daughter and I requires additional participation.

Last week, as we were commuting home after a long day, I told her that mommy wouldn’t be home and I would be her chef for the evening. I’ve learned it’s always a good idea to prepare a four year old for out-of-the-ordinary events. And this was one of them. She knew an opening when she saw one. “I want candy for dinner!” she countered. “No, chicken nuggets tonight” (her main food group). “Candy.” “Nuggets.” You can see where this was going.

I spied a woman across the aisle laughing. Others were peeking above their PDAs. I turned to all of them and projected in my best stage presence: “How many people here think my daughter should have a good dinner tonight?” Seven people raised their hands. “And how many think she should have candy?” I simultaneously watched my daughter’s face as I polled the audience on this second choice. No hands. “See, sweetheart, everyone thinks you should have a good dinner.” So you see, I do not shy away from public interaction.

“Where do you work?” is, on the surface, a natural and common question. Yet, this was personal enough to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t prepared for it so early in the morning. And not when it was delivered by someone I didn’t know. This wasn’t an art opening. And without thinking, I lied. “At the IRS,” I stated as if I’d worked there for years and was already in the final stages of planning for my retirement. I’ve got to hand it to me, instinctively, I used my best repellent. I didn’t want to tell her where I worked. There was something about her.

But I regretted it immediately, for lying, yes, but even more, for the quality of my lie. I answered without thinking of the possible consequences. What if she worked at the IRS? What would I have done when she asked which department? She looked like she could work at the IRS. I pictured myself begging for forgiveness from someone I didn’t even know.

As our train moved downtown I watched to see if she got off before our transfer. Not a chance. Hmmph. We changed trains. She followed. But on the next platform she went the other way.

Relief. I’d dodged a bullet. But it still didn’t feel right. And this was not over. There would be other mornings. I had never pictured myself working at the IRS. With this knowledge, would she start querying me about the latest tax laws and her deductions? She seemed the type. Would I find myself digging an even bigger hole, having to tell her I worked in the audit department (the strongest repellent known to man)? Would this dissuade someone who felt no compunction asking a stranger WHERE THEY WORKED at this hour?

I was awake. And I ruminated for at least an hour after I got to my office cube. I had created an unexpected persona for myself. My daughter’s father was a tax auditor at the Internal Revenue Service.

How does an auditor act when commuting? I pictured myself wearing Sansabelt™ slacks, a short sleeve white shirt with broad blue vertical stripes (too wide to be subtle), and a necktie with the Rugrats on it. My federal ID was on a long chain around my neck and neatly tucked into my shirt pocket (pocket protector and pens optional). I had given myself this part. It wasn’t something I had consciously aspired to but the role was mine. Did I have the talent to pull this off? What would I do the next time I saw her?

I didn’t have to wait long. Two days later, as we marched up to the Metro turnstile I saw her waiting for the elevator. This time I took the initiative. “How are you this morning?” She scowled. “I’m angry.” My heart dived. Had she found me out? She pulled a letter out of a folder and handed it to me to read.

It was from her supervisor advising her of her unsatisfactory performance review. My instincts had been correct. She had few boundaries. What could I say? I was so amazed that a total stranger would share her personal and personnel facts that I could only gloss over the details on the paper in my hands. I scanned while I decided quickly how to respond. My daughter was bouncing around me while we waited for the elevator door to open.

“I’m sorry.” I neither wanted to say more nor anything that might prolong the conversation. I truly was sorry. I knew how tough office relationships can be. All of a sudden, I was no longer worrying about my IRS status. The tables had turned as I held my invitation to be part of her morning drama. My daughter and I walked to our seats as the station lights dimmed.

Coming of Age Underground

05 May 2002
May 5, 2002

I started taking my 4 year old daughter to school on the Metro (DC’s subway) without a stroller this week. We are now walking, hopefully hand-in-hand, across the Metro platforms. She’s simply getting too big to be pushed around.

Too big physically: the wheels of my $40 umbrella stroller (meaning it folds up neatly like its namesake) can no longer support her weight and the wheels suddenly twist and turn in directions you don’t wish to go. horoscope of May 5thThis is bad when you find yourself around the milling multitudes and moving trains underground. And too big mentally: our stroller is the last in the designated parking space for such transportation at her daycare. She knows she’s the last to be brought to class that way and her sense of self, not to mention very strong evidence of peer pressure, no longer sees this as tolerable. “I’m a big girl,” she declares. There are days I wholeheartedly support her initiative. If only she were more consistent. But I digress.

This morning we were making cookies (a daily traveling ritual where my rounded arms serve as the bowl and my daughter adds all the ingredients) when the train stopped and a man took his seat in front of us. While our bench faced the front, his faced the opposite side of the car. So, by default, we had an unobstructed and close view of him.

He was dressed in a shirt and tie, his goatee neatly trimmed. He carried a briefcase. Upon initial gaze he looked no more nor no less a typical morning commuter. Only some sort of a bandage on his head, capped with what looked like a woman’s shear stocking seemed slightly out of character. As the train continued its push downtown I began to notice he was talking to some unseen person.

It used to be easy to categorize people who were talking to themselves. Using public transportation brings you in contact with all sorts of interesting individuals. But the number has swelled perceptively in the last few years with the introduction of those clipon ear “buds” for cell phones.

I must admit, I’m still not used to seeing people walk down the street talking on the phones in this manner. Don’t they know how funny they look when they get mad at some unseen coworker? I start laughing along with these protagonists when they laugh at some “imaginary” punchline. Then I catch myself, shake my head in wonderment, and immediately look for others on the street to share my disbelief. But this man had no ear bud. And no phone.

I looked around but the only one who seemed to notice was my daughter. She stared at him and I must admit I was afraid she was going to say something. “WHO IS THAT MAN TALKING TO?” I could hear her saying. Now I was hearing voices too. But she continued to stare quietly. And I wondered what she was thinking.

Yes, my daughter is growing up, I mumble to myself. I take note of every little step.

* * *

Speaking of growing up, Verisign, the parent company of Network Solutions, the first domain registrar, sold Leslie Harpold’s domain name,, to someone else before her registration expired! And they are continuing to drag their feet on this one. Return Leslie’s domain to her! I get better service at one-third the cost here.

On a related note (su domain es mi domain), I’ve added a new feature, Jeff’s Fret List to the left column. As noted in my April 22 story, sometimes I ruminate about where I’ve put my pleasurable possessions. Now you can keep up-to-date with my mood by using my patent pending Fret O’ Meter®.

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.]

Marching to a Postmodern Beat

08 Feb 2002
February 8, 2002

horoscopeMy ride into work this morning: I take the subway but it’s elevated much of the way in. It’s getting lighter earlier and my commute and the sunrise are almost in sync. I’d say by next Wednesday it should be rising just as we come to the surface.

When waiting for my morning train I usually position myself towards the middle of the platform. That way I’m perfectly situated to transfer to another line at the Metro Center stop. Today, however, the train was pulling into my station just as my daughter and I exited the elevator. So we raced to catch the last car as it pulled up.

When you commute everyday, you often see the same people. We are, afterall, creatures of habit and most, like myself, know the shortest line between points home and office. A man commuting with a small child cannot blend easily into the background. No hiding behind our Washington Post. We are often magnets for either knowing looks or small talk as my daughter and I interact with each other. Today, however, she slept (not a normal occurrence but she had gotten up at 4 am, completely awake and ready for her day). With none of my regular commuters nearby, this gave me time to watch the pink sky and look around.

The man sitting next to me was reading an intriguingly titled tome: The Postmodern Military. Military personnel, on their way to the Pentagon, often ride with us. But this man was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, a baseball cap, and Nikes. Book and dress: a postmodern combo to be sure.

This only peaked my interest. And I almost turned to him but decided the effort was too much so early in the morning. What would Roland Barthe say about this? Is the military able to distiguish between simulacrae and the real thing? I laughed to myself, just a little too loudly. He looked up.

According to Charles Moskos, the editor of The Postmodern Military,
the Modern military, a product of the 19th century, was closely associated with the notion of the nation-state: “a combination of conscripted lower ranks…a professional officer corps, war-oriented in mission, masculine in makeup and ethos, and sharply differentiated in structure and culture from civilian society.” The Postmodern military, by contrast, is a much more loosely tied to the nation-state, as global financial forces and transformations in telecommunications, to name a few changes, erode the power of the self-enclosed state toward a looser confederation of ideas and ideals. The military in this context is shifting towards a volunteer force, more androgynous in nature and more integrated with civilian life. Without the threat of invasion, the armed forces need no longer be seen as distinctive from the rest of society.

Perhaps this fellow rider’s “uniform” was an example of this new paradigm.

I was amazed to read the other day of the US military’s most recent Predator mission over Afganistan. Usually these unmanned observation planes are used for reconnaissance and spotting targets. However, on Thursday, it was armed with a Hellfire missile which was remotely used to “eliminate” a trio of white-robed men, one of whom appeared to be very tall and whom the media hopefully speculated might be Osama.

Stephen Wilson, in Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology, questions whether physical bodies and space are still relevant in this postmodern age. “Digital communications and telepresence allow people to perceive and act at a distance, disregarding old constraints of physical space…The body and physical space may decrease in importance.”

I started to wonder how our new Postmodern military might be simultaneously distancing and integrating itself into our reality. Suddenly, the sun peeked out in the distance and the man and his book sitting inches from me faded away. I can’t wait for next Wednesday!

[Update: It wasn’t Wednesday, but Tuesday! And it wasn’t Osama but “scavengers” Jahan Gir, Mir Ahmad, and Daraz who were looking for scrap metal!]

Keep on the Sunny Side: The Right Side

23 Apr 2001
April 23, 2001

As mentioned earlier, I take my daughter to school on the Metro (DC’s subway). Well, actually, I take both of my daughters to school. When commuting downtown with a 4 1/2 and 3 year old at 7 in the morning, you never know what to expect. What are my fellow passengers thinking of this trio of two highly-charged youngsters and one aging adult? Despite my daily scans of their faces, it’s often hard to tell.

horoscopeOn our better days we bake cookies and read books. But mixing make-believe ingredients can quickly change to sibling screams as one invades the other’s space. I don’t know if trying to keep up with my children’s energy is the cause of my morning lethargy or Mother Nature whispering “it’s old age” in my ear. It’s a constant struggle to be attentive and awake, while trying hard not to encroach into the private worlds we sit next to.

The last couple of weeks our journey has been complicated by the fact that the elevators at our destination are out of order. This means I have to use three escalators to get to the surface. The first day they were out of commission I had to quickly devise a strategy for safely getting both kids and the double stroller to the top.

The oldest actually listens to her daddy and is good at following directions (a wonderfully typical first child and God’s way of making sure you’ll want to have another). With supervision she can get on and off the escalator with no problems. I hold my 32 pound youngest in one arm and the stroller with my other hand as we all go up together. Only once has someone offered to help me but luckily each escalator is a short ride.

So here’s the problem. There is an unspoken, but sacrosanct ordinance in the DC Metro that one should always stand to the right on escalators to let others walk past you. With the advent of the Vernal Equinox and the cherry blossoms comes the tourist season. Without any official signs announcing this rule, map-toting out-of-towners have no idea they are in violation and subject to, at best, snears and at worst…

I’m just happy to have control over two children and a stroller. But, in order to do so, I must take up the entire width of the escalator. Friday, as I neared the end of my morning ordeal, just a few feet from the top, I heard a distinctive commuter grumble just behind me. I turned to him and said: “I have no choice, the elevators aren’t working.”

He looked at me and uttered the words I feared most: “You’re a tourist, aren’t you?” I have to admit, I sure looked like one: faded jeans, backpack, two kids, and a stroller. Only my job ID, resting quietly in my pocket, would have saved me from this. For once I wished I had been wearing it around my neck, a civil service accessory no one should be without. I was shocked! Without thinking twice I retorted: “I am a Federal Worker!!” like I was wearing a Purple Heart on my sleeve, wounded in the line of active duty!

The intensity of my declaration surprised even me! “And even if I was a tourist, you should think twice before saying something like that.” By this time we had reached the top and he started to apologize. “Yes, you are right,” he said as he walked away to his job. I wanted to ask him just what he did that made him want to get to his highly-paid cubicle so quickly. But all I could wish for was that he’d think about this the next time he saw a parent traversing the Metro with children.

There’s a dark and troubled side of life
But there’s a bright and sunny side too
Though you meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side you also may view

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side
Keep on the sunny side of life
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life

empty spaceThe Whites

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074