Synchronicity, Relatively Speaking

10 Jun 2001
June 10, 2001

Synchronicity. Thursday morning I got two emails. One from another Jeff Gates (this one’s the real estate agent in Michigan who was first to register The second from a woman who wanted to know if I was related to her grandmother.

I answered the Jeff first, informing him we had a “relative” who ran for Senate in the Green Party this year. Then I opened Nina’s email. I was intrigued the moment I saw the subject: my grandmother’s maiden name.

About three years ago I happened upon a geneology site and registered all my grandparents’ names. I’d gotten one dead end inquiry during that time. I opened the email.

horoscopeNina was looking for descendents of her Grandmother Margaret whose siblings were Albert, Grisha, Yuri, Bessie, and Louis Bieber. I am Bessie’s grandson. Wow, I’d always wondered about Aunt Margaret (how’d a nice Jewish aunt get a name like Margaret?). No one talked much about her. The only story I’d heard was that she and my grandmother had had a falling out many years ago. Now that everyone was gone that story sat on the pile of our family lore with the others. I returned her email.

The next day Nina answered by telling me a little about her family and herself. Turns out she’s exactly 8 days older than me and lives in Arlington, Virginia. Now it was getting interesting. My long lost cousin lived right across the Potomac River from me! I told her to sit down before reading my email and gave her my phone number. A half hour later the phone rang. Caller ID told me it was her.

How quickly can one start sharing sacred family stories with a stranger? A stranger who, following the family tree, has lived an identically-filtered life.
She wasn’t surprised by my stories (I’ll save the heavier ones for when we meet) and I wasn’t surprised by hers. Family legacies, even from the Shtetl, run strong. Moisha, our great grandfather, might have something interesting to say about that.

* * *

Yesterday afternoon my immediate family and I went to a party with friends. The adults sat in the shade of the trees while our children played. Harry, someone we met when we went to China, had something to tell us. He recently had bought a used book on on Maryland fossils. When he got it, my wife’s father’s name was inscribed on the inside cover! After my father-in-law had died, my mother-in-law had sold many of his books (he collected rocks and fossils) to a book dealer. Synchronicity.

Parents Con Solo

04 Jun 2001
June 4, 2001

horoscopeShe must have taken pity on us as we told our tale. For when we finished she suggested our daughters spend the night at her house so we could go out for our anniversary!

We were in shock! It was hard enough finding a babysitter for any evening (the reason for our plight), let alone the entire night! Why this was unprecedented (in our house). This was a first! We gladly and immediately accepted.

So on Saturday, around 4, we dropped both of them off. We felt secure for she was my daughter’s teacher and we knew her boys, the same ages as our children, loved to play with them. We immediately headed for the opposite side of the beltway to our favorite restaurant. Bliss. Conversation. Uninterrupted. Margaritas. Bliss.

Then on to a movie, the first we’ve seen outside of a Blockbuster box in about six months. Pearl Harbor. Not our first choice but the only one that fit our timetable after our luxuriously slow dinner. My wife agreed after I told her it was mostly a love story.

All of this was wonderful. But, up until this point it wasn’t much different than if we’d gotten a babysitter. When we came home it was quiet but the kids would have been asleep at that time anyway.

The next morning I woke up at 7:15. I turned to my wife, who is not a morning person and said “Honey, you want to do something really different?” She turned over, eyes immediately open, and nodded. “Let’s get up right now and go to the Georgetown Fleamarket! We’ll get some coffee and a scone at Starbucks.”

We were out of the house in 17 minutes! We just got out of bed, put on our clothes, threw a little water on our faces, and out we were. We were amazed at how many people were driving around at that hour! As we headed out she said it had been so long since we had gone to this fleamarket, she’d hoped it was still there. I replied “It doesn’t really matter. We’ve already done something we’d never have been able to do with the kids.” And we were in a great mood for the rest of the day!

Par for a Saturday Morn

12 May 2001
May 12, 2001

horoscopeThis is a momentous day! First, it’s Le Premier Fauchage de Pelouse du Festival de Saison, a holiday celebrated throughout the known suburban world this time each year (at least in the northern hemisphere). It’s also the fanciest way of saying I mowed the lawn for the first time this season! I never knew that translating mundane tasks using Babblefish could make my life seem so rewarding. But more on that in a minute.

Part I

The day started early. I got up at 5:30 am (on a Saturday I’d like noted) to get to the county’s aquatic center to register my children for swim lessons. Registration began at 8:30. Knowing parents as I do (and knowing to what lengths we’ll go to do something of importance for our children), I was sure I had to get there as early as possible. There were, after all, only 10 slots and only one class we were interested in.

And I was right. I arrived to a crowded parking lot at about 6:40. One man dawdled, trying to figure out if this was the right place. I expertly drove around him, parked, and walked as quickly as I could to what I hoped was the front door (without drawing attention to myself).

I saw a group of parents sitting quietly, facing a picture window through which was the longest pool I had ever seen (NBC Olympic coverage not included). I asked which was the end of the line, found a chair, and unwrapped my paraphernalia. I had come prepared. CD player/FM radio to play the latest from Destiny’s Child (too early for NPR), morning paper, two books (appropriate!) I’m presently reading, and my Palm. If I could have stopped at Starbucks I would have, but time was of the essence.

I was twelfth in line. Rules stipulated that no one could hold a place for another parent and that you could only sign up one additional child not of your immediate family. I had two but how many did the others have and what classes were they interested in? With only ten places in a class I didn’t feel I had this locked up. But I would have to wait, so I relaxed.

Time moved slowly. The woman in front of me was reading Tony Morrison’s latest and the man just behind me was reading something in Japanese. Considering he was Caucasian, I wanted to strike up a conversation but decided against it. The line grew longer behind me. As it got close to the appointed time my entertainment focused on watching arriving parents’ faces as they realized how long the line truly was. I kept my smugness to myself for I didn’t want to tempt the Swimming Lessons gods.

With about 20 minutes to go I called my wife to go over all last minute contingencies (if we could only get one child in the class were any other classes our second or third choices?). The time had arrived and we were told to line up by the door. I did finally turn to the man in back of me to tell him I felt I was lining up for a lottery. He smiled but there was something about it that told me that flexing my severely limited, if expertly voiced, Japanese would not have yielded a lasting relationship. Finally it was my turn. I felt like I was ordering from the Soup Nazi, not that the man behind the desk’s attitude was bad. I just had been warned to be prepared with my order: class number clearly stated, proof of residency in hand along with my checkbook.

As he pulled the two class holders from his file I finally breathed a sigh of relief. I noticed two numbers on each of the pieces of paper he gave me: 9 and 10. My kids had just made it and, of course, it was all worth it (my coffee sacrifice included!). I’m sure this will not be the last time I scurry for them. But it was my first and something I will cherish.

Part II

As soon as I got home it was time to celebrate and time to get out the old lawn mower. The first mow of the year is really fun. The tension waiting to see if your children will get into a swim class is nothing compared to wondering whether the mower will start up after sitting through the long cold winter. In addition, I had to remember the whole pre-mow routine. Dress: old everything (made a mistake by wearing my “good” sneakers —it took forever to get the grass stains off of them); face mask for the pollen, old reading glasses to protect my eyes, and my portable CD player. The mask redirects my exhale, steams my glasses, and makes it hard to see where I’m going but my lawn is festooned with boulders (ok, rocks) and branches which have been known to fly up and hit me.

I then had to find where we last placed the key to the mower shed. It took my wife and I 15 minutes to remember when we discovered the lock had rusted over the winter and it wouldn’t open. Then another 10 minutes to hacksaw it off and I was ready to go. Almost.

Of course, they tell you to drain the gas out of the machine at the end of the season (while I have typically ignored this advice in the past, I did try to use up everything in the gas tank this past October). And, of course, don’t use gasoline stored over the winter. I thought about this as I poured the gas stored over the winter into the machine. As I set the choke and pulled the cord, it coughed but started like a dream! I was set to go.

One more thing about our lawn mower. Like most big purchases I researched this one to make sure we got the features and reliability we needed. Since this was the first mower I’d ever bought it took a while to pick just the right make. Because we’ve got a lotta lawn, with some nice little nooks and crannies, we felt a self-propelling model would be best. And, when it works, it does make the mowing experience a pleasure. Problem is, the belt keeps coming off so I generally have to stop at least twice a mow for both my wife and I to put it back on (yes, it takes two of us!). This gets tiring and a pain. The machine is so heavy that it’s a bear to push it up even the mildest incline. And, despite my insistence that the hardware store fix the thing, year after year, the story’s the same.

This premier fauchage was no different. Three times the belt slipped off. I think it’s time for a new mower. Maybe one without self-propulsion (which, of course, would make the thing a lot lighter and, therefore, easier to push).

In years past I’ve thought about doing something creative with my mowing, like blocking out ironic, postmodern sayings in the grass. But my wife nixed the idea. As a compromise, this year I created a simple rectangle of unsheared lawn on the side of the house. I can’t wait to see how it develops as the season progresses.

Ok, equipment problems aside, mowing the lawn the first time is an anal-retentive’s dream. By now the dandelions and wild onion grasses are high. The pressure’s on to keep up with your neighbors (thankfully, we were not the last one’s to mow this year). When you complete the task, you’re hot, you’ve exercised, and you feel like you live in a picture perfect house, right out of Metropolitan Home. And of course, three weeks later you get to do it all over again!

The Economics of Great Ideas

05 May 2001
May 5, 2001

I was at the Digital Arts and Culture conference in Providence last week. This meeting began a few years ago to discuss the issues surrounding hypertext literature and media and represents a new subculture for me within the digital art world. As always, the best part of these “doos” is meeting people in between sessions or over dinner. Good to see you again Donna, Judd, Nick, and Vika. Nice meeting you Myles, Lori, Ron, Edie, and Jack Ox, who won’t mind if I use her full and real name.

There was a little too much theory at times (this coming from a former academic). Rhetoric is an excellent way of limiting your audience. Since implementing technology is based on a set of social interactions that should bring people together, the dialogue shouldn’t impede that relationship.

horoscopeHypertext is much older than the web. And there is a venerable history to it which include people like Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop (the granddaddies of hypertext fiction, although it’s hard to think of them as being the right age to be anyone’s grandad) and institutions like Eastgate, the developer of hypertext software before the advent of the web.

The first keynote speaker was Ted Nelson who has developed Project Xanadu, a hypertext product he hopes will change the way we work with our computer screens. Here’s his statement on it:


Since 1960, we have fought for a world of deep electronic documents– with side-by-side intercomparison and frictionless re-use of copyrighted material.

We have an exact and simple structure. Our model handles automatic version management and rights management through deep connection. (Explained on succeeding pages.)

Today’s popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.


He’s quite a dynamic speaker. And I was jazzed as I listened. When he started to talk about how the “standards wars” between Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux have limited our potential and experience, I understood. Project Xanadu, he said, would change that by providing context for our editing cuts and pastes: a trail of “linkages” from one version to another. This would allow us to use others’ material to convey our thoughts yet allow them credit and credits (payment) for that use.

Nelson has been working on this model, in various forms since the 1960s. According to his web site, it was the inspiration for both Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web, Ray Ozzie’s Lotus Notes, and Bill Atkinson’s Hypercard. He coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia in 1967. It is clear he is a visionary.

But as I began to think about it, how many visionaries had I gotten excited about and followed into battle over the years (to continue his war metaphor)? So, during the Q&A that came after his talk I asked: “I’m willing to follow you up the hill, but what are your strategies for beating Bill and Steve (Jobs)? What’s your business plan? And, how are you going to protect us? (I can’t decide if I’ve become overly jaded or simply a yuppy pragmatist!) The audience laughed but when the laughter died down he answered: “you’re on your own.” And that was that.

I’m not faulting Nelson for his ideas nor his enthusiasm. Not one bit. And I think there is room in the world for people like him. In fact, it’s very important to have people like him.

Looking closer at his latest proposal for Project Xanadu on the web (now that the web has become so ubiquitous a series of standards it can’t be ignored) I have some further concerns. Nelson proposes a new file type for virtual content (tentatively called .XVF), browser plug-ins to present and editors to edit the .XVF file format. Each of these would require the cooperation and approval of the powers-that-be, unless, of course, Project Xanadu is so big and so revolutionary it, in turn, can’t be ignored.

Which brings me back to my initial question. Am I a fool to follow someone who has great ideas but no vision as to how to really implement them? I can enjoy, appreciate, and even get very excited by what Ted Nelson thinks. Economics, though, has become as important to me as idea. And I’m looking for a revolutionary who can take this into account. The older I get the more important this is to me. Cynicism, I mean, experience has led me to this point.

I’m willing to follow you, Ted, but what’s your plan for success? Keeping these new formats as open standards is important and certainly will encourage “critical mass.” But I don’t think it’s enough these days. I’m starting to get pretty concerned about how we’re going to get around that other “mass” created by the successful powers-that-be.

Ahh, the knot in my stomach is starting to feel better already.

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

Meeting My Past Once Again

07 Apr 2001
April 7, 2001

horoscopeLast week two boxes of family artifacts arrived unceremoniously from my father’s wife. I had half been expecting something as my sister had called a few days earlier to say she’d received a package of Dad’s coffee mugs in the mail. We laughed at that. Neither of us had rated these cups on our respective lists of important memories. We both realized how beholden we were to a woman who, while sharing 27 years of our father’s history with us, did so with apprehension. It was she who now filtered our history for us. I was hoping my bar mitzvah photographs were included in the shipment. I valued these above all else my father held over the years. They had been number one on my list.

About 15 years ago I’d asked him for these images and he swiftly declined. His refusal was strong and immediate. On the one hand, I was glad Dad felt so strongly about keeping them. He could be sentimental, but mostly he shared those feelings with no one. But as he grew older and as we grew apart, more and more I felt the desire to gather and protect these aspects of our lives.

When I was 24 and my father married my stepmother he sold our house, the home I grew up in, without ever asking us if we wanted anything from it. Many of my own possessions, let alone things from our family, were thrown away or sold. I was afraid that might happen again.

My wife called me at work to tell me of the boxes’ arrival. I got home early in hopes that I might have some time alone to go through them before the children and chaos returned. When I saw that powder blue padded photo album I felt a sense of relief. I could now protect these memories.

I hadn’t seen these images in years. I remembered them but, seeing them before me now, I was able to view them filtered by recent events and recollections. And things had changed since my last viewing. I had my own family now. And I was older.

Even the most mundane photographs become important when enough time has passed. These images were almost 40 years old. Certainly each held critical importance to me. It was my coming of age and my family. Yet time might also elevate their interest to others as icons of a history growing more distant. Where these two interests intersected might prove fruitful ground for some art.

In addition, I had been focused recently on the rituals of our family, such as they were. I was primarily interested in our familial interactions. These photographs signified a great deal, simulacra, if you will, of relationships, illness, happiness and sadness. I was reading a lot into these pictures as I turned the pages of that album in solitude. The mixture of quiet and memory gave my emotions a chance to surface.

I looked further into the box to see what other feelings it held. There was an envelope with my name written on it in my stepmother’s handwriting. This was the extent of our communication. Inside was a runaway note and a will I had written when I was about 10. I suddenly laughed so loud it startled me, my reaction being so different from just moments before. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of these documents. I don’t think they were related to each other. I was glad my father chose to save them.

There was my mother’s birth certificate, my birth certificate, my parents’ marriage licence and even the receipt for its payment. There was my father’s teaching credential from the 1950s along with his first teaching contract (Dad had loved teaching but couldn’t make a living on what they paid so he went to work for Lockheed). I continued to dig through the boxes. A pocket watch. It looked old but whose was it and what memories did it hold?

The second box contained the tie my father wore at my wedding and a sweater he wore at a photography exhibition I had had in L.A. a few years ago. Did my stepmother know I attached meaning to these things? It’s hard to tell. The tie was one of many ambiguous ones she sent. Along side were various golf trophies, most in a state of disrepair. And, of course, some of his coffee mugs.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074