Friday, March 16, 2018

Community Values

The TV is on in the Community Room. The community is undefined, but presumably it means the people who live in the building’s 40 apartments, and their guests or friends. The community is entitled to use of the room for family events: birthday parties, wedding or baby or baptismal or confirmation showers, graduation galas, family reunions, divorce or annulment commemorations, book signings, candidate kickoffs or pronouncements, landlord-sponsored and –contrived get-to-know-each-other gatherings with pizza, wings, and soda and coffee, and post-funeral gatherings. We’re in a basement. At the top of one wall are windows facing up at grates on sidewalk level. The opposite wall features glass walls and doors with venetian blinds. The blinds are typically closed. When the TV is on, it most often is tuned to the local Time Warner Spectrum channel with its endless, night-or-day loop of local weather, stories of death and mayhem or small-town thievery or depravity, the scores of high school teams, their success or failure in the sectional championships, the regional marching band competitions, the stray murder or rape, the drunk driver rocketing the wrong way on the Thruway, the statement from the sheriff’s office about the latest suspects, the mug shots of the young and accused with their surprised, scarred, and scared or defiant faces.  All to be repeated again after an appointed duration that viewers are trained to expect, such as “news on the nines” or “weather on the ones.” I walk by in the hallway outside the Community Room. As a resident, count me as a member of the community. No one is in the room. The blinds are drawn. The lights are off. The television is on, the newsreaders’ voices solemn and barely audible to a passer-by. I walk in and pick up one of two remotes sitting on the firm, faux leather chair. I click the O/I power button. Nothing happens. Someone once told me O/I stands for Out of Operation and In Operation. That does not seem plausible three decades later — if that is what I was truly told. Time was, we saw Off / On as the choices. It couldn’t be O and O, for off and on, could it? Too confusing. (I am pausing here to let you Google this modern-day mystery on my behalf. What did you discover? Thanks for coming back to finish reading.) I click the O/I on the other remote, and the massive screen on the wall goes blank, fades and cracles to black-but-not-quite-that-color, accompanied by a palpable silence. The local voices are silenced. The hearth is doused. No smoke puffs toward me or up a chimney. The electronic hearth with its comforting chatter and hum is snuffed out. The Community Room’s temperature is lowered by 1.7°F. I walk out. I do my laundry. When I return to the hallway by the Community Room, its lights are out, its blinds still drawn. And the TV is on again. I keep walking.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

what is a cell phone?

Before we answer the question at hand, let me digress (if one can do so with nothing to digress from). I prefer cellphone as one word. Why? Because the typical evolution in American English is to go from two words to a compound word with a hyphen and then to one solid word combining the original two words. Why not skip all that and go straight to one word? After all, we don't say tele-phone anymore. But most style guides go for cell phone as two words, so I will obey, which is not my nature. Here's a rather fascinating and in-depth look at the issue, from an Australian writing 10 years ago. And I won't digress from a digression to ponder smart phone vs. smartphone.

What is a cell phone? 

Wikipedia says: "A mobile phone, known as a cell phone in North America, is a portable telephone that can make and receive calls over a radio frequency link while the user is moving within a telephone service area. The radio frequency link establishes a connection to the switching systems of a mobile phone operator, which provides access to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Modern mobile telephone services use a cellular network architecture, and, therefore, mobile telephones are called cellular telephones or cell phones, in North America."

Well now! I couldn't have said it better myself. Who knew? Not me. Who knew that this is what that ubiquitous ever-present thing is and how it works, if you understand all that technical stuff.  

But that doesn't get to the existential nature of the thing. I mean, how would Soren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger answer the standing question? And would they possess one? 

I'm going to allow for a lot of wiggle, or wriggle, room and say that defining a cell phone depends on circumstances and intent. I won't foolishly say, "It's all relative." I had a philosophy professor at Le Moyne College, the Rev. John J. McNeill, S.J., who told our class about a debate on situation ethics he participated in around 1970. When his opponent said, "It's all relative" or "Everything is relative," McNeill retorted, "You can't make a statement like that. It contains an absolute. It subverts your argument." I always thought that was quick and clever. 

Where were we?

Permit me the Socratic method. Isn't that when the philosopher (which I am not) asks a series of leading questions so that the student formulates a reasoned response?

Is a cell phone a communication device? Obviously. They say that it is. But --hold on -- I submit it is equally, if not more so, a miscommunication device, especially when SMS, or texting, is employed. So we cannot with certainty claim that a cell phone is a communication device. Even if one texts another saying "bring some milk home," the sender assumes the receiver received the message, on time, in English, and without sarcasm, doubt, irony, etc. Throw an emoji in there and land mines may be planted.

Is a cell phone a weapon? You would think so, the way the "device" is brandished. Especially on business calls, isn't the object used as a weapon in the arsenal of persuasive tools? Just watch someone's posture, mannerisms, volume, and word choices.

Is a cell phone a walkie-talkie? It can be, especially if someone is in the attic talking to someone in the basement, if there's service coverage.

Is a cell phone a tether? Is it not a cable, a rope, a binding to the mother ship, your network, your friends, even your enemies, your spouses (plural in my case), your lovers, your ex-lovers, your would-be lovers, and your would-be ex-ex-lovers or would-be ex-ex-spouses? Ask yourself this: what happens if you sever that tether? Can you do it? What happens when baby's pacifier pops out of the mouth and rolls onto the pavement and slips down a storm drain? Tantrum, right? And what does the unshackled slave do without the familiar grip of tyranny?

What is a cell phone?

Tell me.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Capturing En Passant

The gray car in front of me dawdles. It's a compact sedan, of the Subaru-Suzuki-Toyota-Saturn class. It has mildly snarky enviro-gendero bumperstickers on the back. When I say "dawdles," I mean driving at the appointed city speed limit of 30mph, obeying every caution light, cautiously proceeding without changing lanes. Steady. The driver is a young female, so you can dispose of your notion of a geezer refugee from Florida driving in snowy Syracuse.

As would be the case, I am in a hurry. Or I am in a hurry more than she is. Rather, I am in a hurry more than she appears to be. Even that's wrong. The only "hurry" I'm in is in my head; I have no pressing appointment I am late for, no work-related or social appointment ahead of me. I just want to get home. It's not even that. Ms. Dawdles slows me down, alters my rhythm, puts me at 45rpm when I want 78rpm; she's frustrating me. Can't she see that?! I assume she's not doing it on purpose, because when I pass her (that's how I know she is a young female, in her twenties), she is stoic, impassive, determined, focused on the task at hand, blinders on, oblivious to me, as she should be.

I pass her.

As in a video game, I snake around her and weave through traffic, not hazardously, but quickly enough to erase the frustration of her vehicular dead weight in front of me. I turn right at the light at the crest of a hill and sail toward my apartment building. For no known reason, I sneak in through the western entrance, from the front, not through my typical entrance, near the parking lot.

Have you heard that experts claim weaving in an out of traffic gets you no further along more quickly? I don't know if the so-called expert findings apply only to highway traffic. Nevertheless, I can testify that on more than one occasion I have passed a slo-mo vehicle only to find I have beat him or her to the next red light, where we both wait, as equals, one on the left, another on the right. True, sometimes I have sensed victory be squeezing by, through the caution light, leaving the passed car in the dust, captured there by time and space until the light turns green -- and initiating the remote possibility we shall meet again, as equals, at the very next red light.

Chess has a move called capturing en passant. It means capturing in passing in French and refers to a change in the rules, so to speak, that enables a pawn to be captured when it advances two squares just as if it had advanced one square. Sort of like the aforementioned meet-at-the-red-light scenario.

When I turned right to go to the parking lot for my apartment, approaching from the south not the usual north, guess who slowly glided past me? You got it. Ms. Dawdles! She beat me! How? And don't recirte that turtle and hare fable.

She got out and walked toward the building entrance. She must have been a visitor because I did not recognize her car.

I chuckled to myself, not being someone who typically erupts into LOL. (Who really is?)

I don't know what this portends or what lesson to learn.

I'm refraining from easy metaphors.

I'm not so "quick" to go there now, anyway.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

kit-kat club

Driving upon the snowy, slushy streets of Liverpool, the one in New York, not the one of Beatles fame, I paused because the traffic in front of me had paused, as the parade of vehicles waited for a light (officially called a "signal" by transportation officials) to change (having mentioned The Beatles, I owed you "A Day in the Life" reference). (Notice that the preceding sentence, discursive and parenthetically laden as it is, constitutes one legit grammatically and anatomically correct sentence in the English language. One of the most annoying observations by lay people is that a long-winded or Proustian sentence is "a run-on sentence." Wrong. A run-on sentence has nothing whatsoever to do with sentence length; size does not matter. Go ahead; Google it if you must.) I noticed that the light had indeed changed (with nobody blowing their mind out in a car, by all appearances). The traffic started moving again, imprinting the white-gray mush with snow- or all-season tires' signature treads. A bluish-gray Mazda hatchback inched along immediately in front of my 2007 VW Rabbit (141,000 miles). Without warning, my eyes caught a flash of fuzzy-furry white jumping onto a shelf (not exactly a shelf but I don't know what else to call it) in the back of the Mazda. It was not a projectile of knitting wool as one might purchase a skein of in Reykjavik (not white), as I had bought for soon-to-ex-wife in 2016. It was not some plush toy tossed by a frustrated, hungry, or unruly child sitting in a carseat in back. No. It was a cat! A living, alive, moving cat. A cat whose catface expression conveyed annoyance, adventure, impertinence, play, irritation, and frustration. A cat whose movement was swift and certain. It jumped up, scouted the shelf and the scene outside, and darted away out of my sight. gone. I saw it. It was not a vision. The frisky feline gave no evidence of seeing the driver who was arrested by his or her sudden movement. What evidence could there possibly be? Beats me. It couldn't wave. Hold it. As a matter of fact, it catpawed at the air, as if trying to capture an invisible mouse or sparrow. It couldn't help doing that. Its catnature demanded such alert alacrity. Could the feline  -- I wanted to say felicitous feline, just to be alliterative, but I can't be certain said cat was felicitous or infelicitous -- have signaled a quick wave to me, a hello, an acknowledgment of a fellow-living-creature's presence, a greeting, or a fuckyou message? I'll never know. I can't interview the cat because the car moved along, the cat stayed in the car as I did in mine, and we went our merry human and feline ways. The thing is, have you ever seen a live cat in a car before? Not a cat in a cat carrier. A live-prancing-around-as-if-in-the-wild-or-in-a-living-room cat? (That's a lot of hyphens, buster.) I don't recall ever seeing a cat catting around in a car before. Is it legal? Is it safe? Do dogs mind? (Mice and birds don't mind, as long as the cat stays in the car.) Is there a risk of escape and therefore cats in cars is only a wintry, closed-window phenomenon? Finally, there's the most solemn and deep question of all: why?

Saturday, December 02, 2017

eyes wide closed

I've been a napper for as long as I can remember. I was a preemie, and my mother says I've always needed more sleep. I invoke that to defend any nap, anytime, all these years later. About twenty years ago, a colleague and I would leave our workplace and drive to Snooze Alley, as my co-worker labeled it. Near a strip mall a mile down the road from our office, we would eat our lunches in our respective cars and then take a little snooze. Chris would go all in, reclining his seat all the way back. I was not that radical. Nevertheless, we never overdid it. Our snoozes never made us late for returning to the office. Close, but not quite. A good 15 or 20 minutes was fine. This was before the term "power nap" came into vogue. Chris and I believed in the restorative benefits of our nearly daily habit. In Japan, sleeping on the job is a sign of diligence. It's called inemuri, "sleeping on duty." It says, in effect, that this person is working so hard they need a break. But it is fraught with cultural distinctions. Men get away with it more readily, as does upper management. No inemuri on the assembly line. The culture also dictates that inemuri practitioners obey unwritten norms regarding form and space. In other words, don't sprawl out under the conference table, or take up half the subway seat or park bench. I suspect drooling is frowned upon. Don't you agree that America could use a healthy dose of inemuri? I do. Along somewhat different lines, the Japanese have traditionally put employees out to pasture in ways that differ from ours. Sometimes an employee regarded as a has-been is assigned to become a window watcher, a member of the “madogiwa zoku,” or the “window seat tribe.” They sit by the window, with nothing to do, and get paid for it. This would not be allowed in our Puritan-work-ethic-driven society. I guess the idea is to force the members of this glum lot to resign. I suppose they could simply sit by the window and snooze, combining the best of inemuri and madogiwa zoku. These practices make me want to go to Japan, or to evangelize such practices in America. America has forgotten the virtue of laziness. People in hot countries enjoy their siestas. They've been around a lot longer than we have. In the long run, they are not lazy. They are sensible and human. This year, France instituted a law that limited after-hours emails. Workers have a right to disconnect. Volkswagen did this with its employees in 2012. Glad I have a 2007 VW Rabbit. Time for a nap. See ya.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


The red letters on the flimsy faux-concrete facade declare: "Geddes Plaza Aparts." The tired seventies look is forbidding, a look that says transients, retired with walkers, and fresh-out-of-rehab renters. Nothing against any of them. They could be me or someone I know and cherish. The sign is what arrests me. This complex, featuring balconies with plastic chairs, is reserved for the aparts. Though I see no one stirring inside or outside on the front step, I understand that the aparts apartments are reserved for those who are estranged, distanced, adrift, separated, or coming apart at the seams. Applications are by invitation only. The owner is a mysterious bald-headed, gender-nonspecified seer with golden eyes. No one knows how the invitations are extended or what criteria are used to gain acceptance. And there's no telling how many occupants reside there. Word is, most residents stay temporarily, but not all. Visitors are prohibited, by definition. We can surmise how one leaves the premises: a break from the identity of apartness, be it via conjugal union, some other brand of bonding, enlightenment, or -- let's face it -- the Eternal Apartness. (This is not the place to debate concepts such as the Eternal Apartness vs. the Eternal Oneness, or anything in-between.) One would hope, for the most part, that apartees enter with a frown or a sad visage and leave liberated, lighter, freer, if not with a smile then at least the shadow of one accompanied by optimistic eyebrows and tranquil yet hopeful eyes. No photographic or other visual evidence exists to support this theory. As for myself, I cannot recall if I have ever lived at Geddes Plaza Aparts. Legend has it that amnesia is a common trait of former residents. In any event, I can report having had recurring dreams of television-less living rooms, empty refrigerators, and hot plates instead of stoves. But I haven't had any of those dreams in several years. So, next time you drive by Geddes Plaza Aparts, offer a friendly wave, maybe beep your horn. And tell me if you see anyone coming in or out.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Hard 2 Get

Does abstinence make the heart grow fonder? How about calmer?

As our “devices” own us ever more, we hear talk of digital fasting and abstinence. (It’s curious how in America the primary meaning of “device” is an electrical invention connected to the internet, a meaning that supersedes older denotations such as scheme, trick, plan, rhetorical tool, or signifying mark. It is also instructive that the roots of the word go back to both “discourse” and “division.”)

Don’t be alarmed. This is not a sermon preaching a Luddite message of unplugging, however worthy that be.

This is something else.

Does the less you connect make you that much more coveted? The novelist Thomas Pynchon is legendary for his elusiveness, his absence. Photographs of the author are rare. J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, was famously anonymous, to use an oxymoron, even though he was living in plain sight in Cornish, New Hampshire. Their unreachability presumably made reaching out to them all the more alluring. When we see a sign that warns us to avoid “WET PAINT,” we want to touch it.

I have a friend, who happens to be a writer, who has never had and does not now have a cellphone. That makes him singular in my universe. (Actually, not so: my mom, 101 years old, had a cellphone she never used and does not have one now.)

Does this lack of a device make such people “special”? I have my doubts. From my vantage, such folks surrender such status by relying on other cellphone users to breach the digital divide.

My personal history in this vein is inconclusive. I resisted owning a smartphone because I thought the device would own me. I surrendered in 2015. Although upgrading my phone had little to do with feeling either more or less connected, I couldn’t be special anymore by smugly declaring, “Oh. I don’t own a cell. You kidding? Not me.”

I would suggest that the business world and the personal world abide by different social norms regarding digital abstinence, fasting, and promptness — a category similar to fasting, though paucity and duration are different aspects.

As for my own personal world, my data set is a small sample: one person with a limited circle of family, ex-wives and girlfriends, friends, and acquaintances.

I aim for a daily text to my children. Some days I miss. If any of us were to go silent for more than a day, two the most, we would find a need to check in more actively.

What about intimate friends (there’s a euphemism if there ever was one)? What are the 21st century protocols — if any — for response rapidity and frequency? What is the fine line between playing hard to get and crossing over into the phenomenon of ghosting? Is the notion of “hard to get” an ancient artifact of another century?

If I am interested in someone, my obsessive personality makes it nearly impossible to refrain from checking my phone (ahem, device) for any morsel of communication at any hour of day or night or under any circumstance, time, or place.

Is this constant temperature gauging an infinite neurosis, or merely the commonplace anxiety of the modern age?

Send me a text. Now. Don’t leave me waiting.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Cone of Uncertainty

During hurricane season, we hear the term “cone of uncertainty” frequently, accompanied by graphics to show the projected path of a tropical storm or hurricane. The projection indicates the exact location of the storm accompanied by estimated tracking five days hence. The experts get it right roughly two-thirds of the time.

Cone of uncertainty.

We all live within in a cone of uncertainty. More than a cone, it is rather a sphere, bubble, or atmosphere. But the aura of uncertainty is pervasive and palpable.

As for certainty, we know we are born and we die, but the details elude us — especially at the mortality end of the spectrum.  We hold gigantic ice cream cones of uncertainty, either with dollops of sprinkles and syrupy flavorings or rapidly melting soupy disaster.

We inhabit a cone of uncertainty within each moment of each day.

These cones illustrate both practical and transcendent uncertainties.

On the practical side, the cone of uncertainty is applied daily to matters big and small. Will I be late for work? Did I turn off the stove? Have I locked the door? Will I get the report done, pass the test, make the plane, see the soccer game, or make it home in time to start dinner before everyone else gets home?

From the transcendent angle, we might ask: Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is good? Evil? Can I stay clean and sober today, stay off the cigarettes, not lose my temper, zip my mouth shut, safeguard that secret, keep that promise, stay on that diet, or be kind to strangers and loved ones?

If we were to calculate — or have someone or something else calculate — the uncertainties of these daily challenges, would we feel better or worse?

I vote for not knowing the precise uncertainties, or certainties, for that matter. Too torturous.

Besides, the models are not perfect.

Cone of uncertainty originated in cost engineering and project management on the premise that uncertainty decreases as a project moves along and more is known. Credit for the concept is given to the American Association of Cost Engineers in 1958. The weather-related term means virtually the opposite, starting with certainty and becoming more uncertain. Incidentally, officially it’s the National Hurricane Center Track Forecast Cone. Dull. Popular variations include Error Cone, Cone of Probability, and the Cone of Death. Now we’re talking!

I understand that the science of it all yielded the cone image, but what if instead the science took on a different visual vocabulary? Anyone for cornucopia, hand fan, or vagina?

What about the grander scheme of things? Would you want to pore over projections of how much life you have left, with all its probabilities? Someone has already done this for you and me; that’s why the insurance industry, Social Security, lenders, and medical providers have actuarial tables. (Isn’t actuarial a curious name for something not yet actual?) Experts are already estimating your life (or mortality) expectancy.

Are they within or outside of the cone of uncertainty?

There are other ways of looking at this. For tropical storms and hurricanes, a European intergovernmental approach considers 52 distinct forecasts. Lines that resemble strings or strands illustrate this method.

I am tempted to call these threads of uncertainty, with no strings attached. But I’m not sure.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

to the eclipse

As I drove down Interstate 81 South, I spotted a hitchhiker in his twenties, either scraggly or merely “roughing it,” with a cardboard sign. His branding tool was of the sort that panhandlers on urban corners employ, with captions such as: “Veteran” or “God bless” or “Anything helps” or “Hungry.” This particular hitchhiker on this particular day sported a sign that read, “TO THE ECLIPSE. 

Good one!
This was 10 days before the predicted solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. Predicted? Yes, it had not occurred yet. Although NASA scientists can forecast precisely when and where the solar eclipse will be, it still has to happen on its own. Cue Little Orphan Annie to sing about the sun coming up tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow… only a day away, etc. 
I attribute my dose of skepticism to the epic letdown of Comet Kohoutek in 1973. Experts hyped it in advance as a spectacular, mind- and soul-blowing cosmic event. It was a dud.
Presumably, the pedestrian pitching for a ride was aiming to get to somewhere like Nashville, near or on the eclipse’s path of totality. But that’s an assumption. Maybe he merely needed a ride down the road to Marathon, New York. Maybe he wanted to hit up a Good Samaritan driver for a few bucks or a pack of cigarettes. I’ll never know — unless by some strange Reverse Kohoutek Effect he reads this and tells me.
The eclipse’s expected shadow swath through the United States was “kohoutekked” as a destination for a rare and spectacular event. Madras, Oregon. Casper, Wyoming. St. Joseph, Missouri. Nashville, Tennessee. Columbia, South Carolina. Let me pause here for a cranky disclaimer. For years, I’ve heard media reports claim that a notable eclipse, either solar or lunar, would be the last one so intense and dramatic in a designated area for the rest of our lives! And then inevitably the experts conjure up ANOTHER “last-chance-to-see-the-intense-and-dramatic” eclipse. I’ve grown skeptical. Or old. 
Can you actually go to an eclipse? Wouldn’t you have to go to the sun, the moon, and the Earth? Aren’t you just going to see the results of the solar eclipse? At its climax it is two or three minutes of darkness in daytime. Spare me. I’ve had more than two or three minutes of darkness in daytime plenty of times. 
Did the hitchhiker’s TO THE ECLIPSE request mean, “Take me to the path of totality”? Our stranger may have wanted to go where the hottest (figuratively; these days “literally” means “figuratively”) solar-eclipse action was predicted to be.
Path of totality? Don’t even. I’ve been on a path of totality since forever. I don’t know anything short of totality. The path of totality is riddled with casualties. And they want to sell tickets to it?!? Gawd. On my metaphysical Google Maps, the Path of Totality is a highway with two lanes, marked All and None. It has few exits and no speed limits.
Speaking of highways, in retrospect I should have swerved to the shoulder, picked up the hitchhiker, and driven him as far as he wanted to go. I could have asked him about his own path of totality: Did he have one? Was he seeking one? Was he fleeing one? 
Oh, the places we’d go, the stories we’d trade!