Archive for category: News Outta My Control

Shooting Spree Too Close

03 Oct 2002
October 3, 2002

A coworker just came to my cube to ask me if I knew about a murder spree in my part of the Maryland suburbs. I didn’t but work to hear the details she imparts while deciding whether I should call my wife or my youngest daughter’s daycare first. I am listening to our news radio station via the Web and reloading the Washington Post site for the latest updates.

It began last night at a large grocery store nearby and continued throughout this morning. A man loading groceries into his car. A man mowing his lawn. A woman vacuuming her car. A man pumping gas. A woman sitting on a bench next to a post office. Five people are now dead. Police are looking for a white small van and two men. All schools in Montgomery County, DC and Prince George’s County are in a lockdown, that is, no one is allowed in or out without permission.

All of us are very aware of our personal safety, given the events of 9/11. We live our normal lives and try to maintain a sense of “rational paranoia,” an oxymoronic expression I use to describe a typical urban existence these days.

But the seemingly random shootings add to one’s angst. And once again this is hitting too close to home. I am struggling with my rationally paranoid thoughts.

My Radar is On

28 Sep 2002
September 28, 2002

Yesterday, a friend of mine and I were having lunch at The Castle, the main building of the Smithsonian. All of a sudden, we heard fighter jets fly low and fast over the National Mall. We looked at each other and and communally thought “this does not bode well.”

While we in DC may appear to be normal these days, our radar remains perpetually in the “on” state. Washington has truly become an international city: a logical target for any number of political or economic protests, peaceful or not.

For the last week we had been warned, via newspapers and internal Smithsonian emails, to expect major disruptions due to the impending World Bank and IMF protests. Our museum’s Renwick Gallery, located directly across from the White House, has been closed by the Secret Service this weekend for security reasons. It’s hard to know what to really expect. Hype or reality. We’re getting it from both sides these days. Protesters told us our morning commute would be shut down. Government officials issue colored alerts.

As I exited the subway and walked to work, the only evidence of anything out-of-the-ordinary yesterday morning was the groups of riot-clad police patiently waiting on street corners near the Mall. They sat quietly or stood, smoking a cigarette. Riot gear rested conspicuously next to them. Later in the day, they were called into service nearby.

As the fighters streaked above us we wondered if this was a Code Red situation or a World Bank situation. I remembered another flyby 10 years ago at the very same coordinates in the sky. It was right after the Persian Gulf War. It was our nation’s Victory Parade.

I had coaxed my wife-to-be to accompany me and my camera to the “celebration.” My personal radar back then detected possible photo-ops. Yet we were still blown away by the atmosphere that day. It was festive as tanks rolled down Constitution Avenue. Military hardware was displayed across the Mall as if we were at a weapons convention. And excited Americans stood at street corners with signs saying “Honk, we won!” They beckoned drivers to join the revelry.

Then came the flybys, jet fighters and other military aircraft flew in low victorious formation right down the center of the Mall. It was amazing to behold. Yet it seemed so un-American. Not anti-American just not American: more like what you might have expected in Communist Red Square or in Axis of Evil countries. The huge crowd cheered.

And it suddenly occurred to me: what if one of those fighters broke ranks and strafed the crowd? War is still an abstraction to most of us Americans. Even watching night bombing forays over Bagdhad on CNN was transcendental. Yet, there is a fine line that separates order from chaos. What if we were attacked? I thought as I looked above me.

Two F-16s broke the sound barrier over the Mall as I ate lunch yesterday. A private plane had wandered into the “temporary flight restriction” area over the Washington Monument. Without realizing it, I simultaneously held my breath, waiting for something to happen and replayed my memories of a decade ago.

The Election Results Are In

17 Sep 2002
September 17, 2002

Overshadowed by 9/11 was the primary election held the day before. There were a number of hotly contested races and agendas taking place in our local campaigns. And this year, my wife and I were interested in a number of important issues.

Campaign signs on suburban lawns festooned our tree-lined streets. In the weeks leading up to the election, the amount of “paper” we received from those hoping to win our votes began to arrive in the mail. The closer election day came, the more brochures we received. This is nothing new. Direct mail campaigns are a tried-and-true method for informing voters. Although the huge volume this time reflected the large number of candidates and the numerous issues they felt passionately about. Our recycling bin was exceedingly full.

I was on “issue overload.” Smart-Growth verses Slow-growth, Good Schools verses Developers (not quite the non-sequitur it appears to be) and two Kennedys running for office. You get the picture: lots to think about and lots of personalities to absorb. As the election approached I was having a hard time figuring out everyone’s positions. It wasn’t easy matching candidates with all the right points of view. It started to seem as if no one person supported everything I believed in.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much worse, we started receiving phone calls at the dinner hour. First we got one every few days but as election day approached they, too, began to multiply. And these weren’t the old time “get-out-the-vote” variety. These were automated pre-recorded campaign speeches. If we were out, they appealed to our answering machine for its vote. If we were home, we hung up (I kept repeating to myself: a recording cannot be offended).

In a report on Marketplace yesterday they laid out the advantages of these voicemail pleas. While the technology is several years old (wasn’t there a Simpson episode where Homer finds an automatic dialer and appropriates it with his own “special” message?) the cost for such campaigns is three times less than TV, radio, and mail. At a cost of 3.5 cents per household 672 homes can be called at once, up to a million per day. Voicemail ads can also target different neighborhoods with different messages. Multiply that by the number of hotly contested races we had and you can see how I felt like I was receiving all 672 calls on my phone.

As I neared my polling place last Tuesday, I was met by a throng of campaign workers, hands outstretched with last minute brochures as offerings. I stopped right in the middle of the group and raised my hands for momentary silence: “How many of the candidates you are working for called my house with a pre-recorded message?” They laughed nervously. “Let it be known,” I continued, “that I will not be voting for ANYONE who employed this tactic to get my vote.” They continued to chuckle as though I was kidding.

I walked past them, thankful they were not allowed any closer than 100 feet from a polling place and could not follow me any further. Let them laugh.

• • •

Update: Remember Nancy Flooren, the candidate for County Council? I looked closely at her positions and voted for her despite her response to my early morning subway entrance question. In my book, good politics hopefully trumps temporary lapses in spin delivery anytime. I hope I’m right.

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)

Conceptual Hobbies: My Primer

06 Jul 2002
July 6, 2002

Once again the news is authenticating my life. The latest example comes from New Scientist magazine. It is reporting that studies now show that people become more eccentric as they age: “Odd and eccentric behaviour increases with age—but flamboyant behaviour becomes less pronounced, according to a new UK study.”

Horoscope for July 6Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about my, um, specialness (ok, quirks) for the last month. This is what happens when an artist moonlights as a bureaucrat. To offset the effects of paper pushing, project managing, and heavy administrative duties most federal workers cultivate outside interests—hobbies: sports, stamp collecting, and primping one’s car, that sort of thing. This is especially important for an artist in my position. And after a long day in my cube, I’ve been encouraging myself to develop relaxing counterpoints. I started by inventorying my interests.

Immediately I hit an obstacle. As an artist much of my free time (the little I have these days with full time job and full time family) is spent vying with my wife (who is also an artist) for time alone to do my work. My Work. This is how artists define our art endeavors. Serious stuff that can be fun and gratifying. Serious, fun, and gratifying? No wonder the general public thinks the word “artist” is an oxymoron? To some our activities are more akin to hobby material. Extra stuff.

When it comes to hobbies, I do, however, have some extra stuff. I continued compiling my extracurricular inventory.

Because my life is so packed, I’ve become good at organization. For an artist/bureaucrat/father with hobbies, proper time management is the key. So I have developed activities that are economical (nothing to buy or maintain), portable (require no space and are easy to accomplish almost anywhere—they are totally “non-object-oriented”), and inexpensive. These are conceptual hobbies. In no particular order, here they are:

First to clap. I like to be the very first to clap at the conclusion of a lecture, panel discussion, performance, or any other venue at which I am part of the audience. I’ve been doing this for about five years. It happened quite naturally actually. I simply took note of it one day when I was the first to put my hands together (artists often notice things others don’t).

After that, it became something I could collect (I’ve been the first to clap at over 120 events). I noticed how powerful I felt (perfect for our post-9/11 world) and it was so simple. Finally, it was something I could do on my own. I didn’t have to consult with anyone, get a critique, or rely on any fancy setup or organization. No highly effective collaboration techniques required. I could do this at will.

Starting Conversations in Elevators with Strangers. This is not something I can plan. It happens when the conditions are just right. And it takes a quick assessment of the other potential participants to determine if they might be open to bucking a strong, very human condition: looking towards the elevator door and staring at it in silence. It helps when the elevator has two sets of doors (often seen in DC’s subway), where you enter on one side and exit on the other. The group desire to face one direction is reduced. Individuals in this type of “pack” often face each other, further reducing the effect of this conditioning.

What you talk about under these conditions depends on the context of the elevator’s location. For example, the elevator at the end of my commute to work surfaces onto an area filled with various federal offices and Smithsonian museums. Early in the morning there aren’t many tourists so, it’s safe to assume we are mostly government workers. Conversations on this particular elevator are harder to start later in the day when the group is more variegated (and more exhausted after all that paper pushing).

Also, commuting with your children enhances the possibility a group discourse will ensue. My children, for example, love to press elevator buttons. And I’ve developed a fair system for making sure each gets her fill every day. We simply alternate (as my children have gotten older, they now allow me a place in this que). Last week, as we entered the lift, there was a small disagreement as to whose turn it was to press the button. It had been a particularly trying commute and everyone could tell my girls were antsy. As we entered, my eldest daughter decided that my bellybutton was considered an official button. Quickly sizing up the group, I stated “Yes, you press my buttons.” It got a nice laugh and everyone started discussing our children.

Incorporating TV advertising slogans in normal day-to-day conversations. I love advertising and the psychology behind it. Developing a previously unnecessary market for some new item facinates me. Home shopping networks are amazing. I love the way the “selling jockey” describes each product. How do they make these things sound so delicious and desireable? Listening to callers convey their pleasure at their latest purchase is equally wonderful to hear.

Before we got cable, I used to go over to my mother’s-in-law to watch QVC. She thought I was nuts and decided to alter my viewing habits (at least to get me out of her house) by buying us six months of cable for our next anniversary. To thank her, initially as a joke, I bought her one caret cubic zirconium earrings for her birthday. This is part of QVC’s Diamondique Collection (which is celebrating its 15th anniversary on the show, by the way). We were all surprised to see how big and and sparkling they were. My mother-in-law loved them (and for $34.95, they were a steal).

This is only background to my interest in speaking advertisese in my everyday life. A few years ago I could be found to inject the McDonald’s slogan “You deserve a break today…” quite often. After all, we did deserve a break as office workers and parents, so injecting it was not out of context. And that’s both the art and thrill of this hobby: incorporating these bits of Madison Avenue totally within the context of your conversation. It has to be seamless. The biggest thrill is when I can do this in a meeting without anyone even noticing. My eccentric hobbies involve some stealth. That’s part of the fun and excitement. See if you can inject these phrases at your next meeting: Can you hear me now? Good. (Verizon), Yeah, it’s kinda like that. (Sierra Mist), and We can’t make you work better, but we can make you better at work. (Allegra).

Amazingly, I seem to have passed this activity on to my eldest daughter. When she was about 17 months old, as we were driving around on suburban errands, my daughter would laugh as she proclaimed “There’s the Starbucks Logo!” How many parents can say that one of their daughter’s first words was logo?

Now that she’s older, she does equally well injecting lines from TV in her daily chat. Yes, we are a little concerned. But, as she gets older, we will just have to pay close attention to her sense of money, value, the marketplace, and need. Each child requires specific direction. And this is now on our list. Of course, I am secretly proud she is showing signs of idiosyncratic behavior. But it must be matched with wisdom and an understanding of the world. In due time.

Savings Bonds for Babies. Finally, one of my most gratifying hobbies. Eighteen years ago I was wondering how I could give back to the community I was born into. Trying to approach this creatively (after all, doesn’t eccentricity have a strong creative element behind it?) I decided every year, on my birthday, I wanted to give a savings bond to the baby born closest to the exact time of my birth at the hospital I was born in. As simple as this sounds (idiosyncratic behavior also incorporates an element of simplicity), it was not easy to carry off.

After finding the right department of the hospital, I had to convince them I was not off my rocker, that I was on the up-and-up (yes, this behavior can attract this personality trait too). It wasn’t much, a $50 savings bond with no strings attached. If the child’s parents wanted to get in touch with me that was fine. But I went out of my way to say this was as pure a gift as I could muster. No acknowledgement was necessary and, while I told them I hoped they would use it for the child’s needs, they could use it for whatever they wanted.

Once the hospital and I had established a relationship, we had to reassure the newborn’s parents that this was legit. A US Savings Bond requires a social security number. Many of these families were latino or from other immigrant groups. I could see where they might be a little leery.

For years I wanted to remain anonymous. I didn’t want any focus on me. One year, my hospital contact sent me an article that appeared in their hospital newsletter about an Anonymous Gift Giver. I must admit, I felt a little like the other Gates. Neat. But, again, I wanted no attention from this. In fact, this was a huge relief to me, given that, early on, I was trying to develop my career which did require some often exhausting attention getting.

A few years back, as my birthday approached, my wife and I talked about remaining anonymous. She made a good case for talking about it as it might encourage others to do the same. So, I slowly began to go public, telling a few friends at first and then some coworkers. I don’t know what it is, but it’s difficult to speak about this.

As a bonus for telling people, some tell me little quiet things they do to “pass it around.” Just last week, I mentioned this to someone in my office and she told me her father surreptitiously places $2 bills in arbitrary books in his public library. Amazing. Do any of you know of any other like-minded acts? My birthday’s coming up in the next couple of weeks. It’s time for me to get in touch with the hospital.

I’m hoping the UK study is true. I’m hoping that as I get older my eccentric tendencies will only increase. It helps me make sense of the world, such as it presently is.

Right Hand Over Heart, Ready Begin

26 Jun 2002
June 26, 2002

I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic for which is stands
One nation under God
With liberty and justice for all

What is going on here? Twice in a day my life is imitating, well, the news.

Just yesterday, on the Metro, my eldest daughter (who has joined her sister and I on our daily commutes for the next three weeks) started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When I asked her just who she was pledging allegiance to, she replied “God” with a beautiful smile that reflected her confidence. And, this just in, a federal appeals court has just ruled that the Pledge is an “unconstitutional endorsement of religion and cannot be recited in schools.”

“No honey,” I replied. “You’re pledging allegiance to the many sacrifices people have made so that we could live like we do in this country.” I had to choose my words carefully. I was, afterall, speaking to an almost six year old.

But many adults don’t get it either. Many think we’re actually pledging alligiance to the flag itself, rather than the acts it represents. I’m reminded of a quote by Franklin K. Lane, former Secretary of the Interior, who stated in a 1914 Flag Day address: “I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be an American. I don’t always agree with the policies of our government and of big business. But I realize, especially after 9/11 lifted the veil of ignorance from many of our eyes, that we do live a privileged life here. And I thank those who have fought on the battlefields, the courtrooms, and on the streets to keep these freedoms. I feel it’s my responsibility, though, to pass this message down to my children: the flag is the symbol and we should respect the acts it represents.

So the courts see the Pledge as violating our sacrosanct right to the separation of church and state. It’s the “under God” they are objecting to.

“Everybody stand. Right hand over heart. Ready. Begin.” The verse we so closely associate with our early years and fresh school mornings is to be recited no more.

Update: The decision to prohibit children from saying the Pledge has been stayed until it can be reviewed by a panel of judges. There is a good interview on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge, Alfred Goodwin, who issued the decision. I especially like:

The former Oregon Supreme Court justice was appointed to the 9th Circuit by President Nixon in 1971. He was born in Washington and is a self-professed cowboy who, evidently, shoots from the hip.

Finally! A role model. (via Q Daily News)

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074