Monday, July 7, 2014

Shakespeare Could Have Been a Contender

I love Shakespeare. I really do! Every year I spend a few days watching a bunch of my favorites. I know, it’s geeky, but I watch the whole extended edition of The Lord of the Rings every New Year’s Eve, too.

But this time I started to get irritated. You know, Shakespeare is a pretty good playwright, I think we can all agree. These plays are really good, and they could be outstanding if ol’ Bill had gotten over just a few bad habits. Like, he’ll set up the kind of plot and characters that make you watch through your fingers going, “Nooooo!” You laugh, you cry, big wow finish and then just as you’re about to get up, recycle your program and stretch your legs – because he does go on – nooooo, you’ve got to sit there and listen to a character who’s so boring he sometimes hasn’t even shown up yet explain what it is just happened.

Like in Richard III, (Act V Scene V for those of you who care, but just turn to the last page), Richmond, who the only reason he’s not dead is he’s so boring that Richard didn’t bother to kill him, says they should bury a bunch of important dead guys, go to church, and make nice.  Not a lot of people left to make nice, but they should do it. You’re just now figuring this out? After two and half hours we've got to sit through 41 more lines, ending with “Now civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again; That she may long live here, God say amen!” Man. I used to teach middle school.  That sounds like stuff I graded on the weekend. 

Then there’s Macbeth. It’s great. But he has to spoil it all at the end when Malcolm, who the heck is he, ends the play with a party invitation. “So thanks to all at once and to each one, Whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone.” I mean, scun.  At least now we know how to pronounce the baked breakfast good.

Oh, and Romeo and Juliet! Now there’s a play! He dies due to a lack of cell phone coverage just before she wakes up, she dies just before the emergency responders get there! What a choke-up! Then suddenly here’s this Prince-guy, who we were all horrified Juliet might have to marry because he’s the most boring person in the whole world, with a looooong speech about how sad it all is and how this feud got their kids killed. Yeah okay! We can all get together on that one!

And Hamlet. I really like Hamlet. The character and the movie. I mean the play. But I’ve got problems with it. Like when Gertrude describes Ophelia drowning in the creek. What’s she doing, hiding in the bushes? I mean, she goes into such DEtail. I know she can't exactly call 911, but Jeez, lady, have a heart! Don’t just stand there, DO something! 

I think she wanted to silence Ophelia. I think Ophelia knew something and Gertrude wanted her out of the way. 'Cause I'm sure Gertrude knew about her new husband killing her old husband all the time. And by the way, Polonius knew too. Come on. He KNEW. They’re all guilty.

There should be a prequel. I want to see how the uncle seduces Gertrude. There’s a lot of plot set-up that needs to get unpacked. I mean, I had a whole class in college where we argued for HOURS about what Hamlet was doing and what was really going on. The way it’s written now, it’s too confusing. Someone should do it. Jeez, we’ve been waiting 500 years! That’s worse than waiting for the next season of Sherlock.

But then we get to the end. They’re holding a sword fight in the middle of a party – now there’s a great party game, that beats Cards Against Humanity any day! Both Mom and step-dad get killed, plus that whiner Leartes. And Hamlet too! That’s like Game of Thrones where even your favorite guy dies! But Shakespeare has to spoil it all with Fortinbras. We’ve heard a lot about him, but he’s no dum-dum, he waits to show up until everybody but Horatio’s dead. The play’s over! We’ve been sitting there forever and Horatio’s HAD his great flights of angels line. I mean, whatever you think of Horatio – and he is a bit of an egg-head and a cry-baby – that’s a GREAT line. But no! Fortinbras comes on with a bunch of English ambassadors, I never really got why, has a chat with Horatio, claims Denmark because he’s got some vague memory that it really should have always been his anyway, notices there’s a lot of dead bodies and says this “shows much amiss, Go bid the soldiers shoot.”


Bill, we get it. It’s not like a school essay where you tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, then you tell ‘em, then you told ‘em what you told ‘em. We GET it. It’s a TRAGEDY.

Anyway. Shakespeare. You got some good stuff there. Cut out the fat and it’ll be a lot better. Just a little friendly writing advice.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Running Lights

This essay was originally published on PRP.FM as a Carp O'Diem, and expressed my worry about the mix on our roadways of people encased in a car and people not so protected by a big metal shell.

"So I was working out at the gym one morning and on TV I see a story about when people are most likely to run red lights. Apparently you’re most likely to run a red light between one to five on a Friday. Well, yeah!

Which brings me to a pet peeve, which is, we get so focused on our next urgent appointment that we don’t see the human beings who get in our way.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Starman, mostly because I love it when Jeff Bridges, the alien who is learning how to drive, says to Karen Allen, “I watched you very carefully. Red light, stop. Green light, go. Yellow light, go very fast.” Luckily, he didn’t know my first husband, who believed that if you’d seen a green light at any time while you were approaching the intersection, well! Drive on through!

And this sounds funny, but actually it’s not, because sometimes there’s someone already in the intersection. Sometimes it’s a pedestrian or a bicyclist who doesn’t have a big metal shell around them. Maybe they’re talking on their cell phone, or taking their time. They might even be breaking a traffic rule. And you might be in a rush yourself or have the sun in your eyes, and then someone gets hurt. And it’s probably not you.

So please.  Give yourself a little bit more time today so that you notice the mother with the stroller who is crossing the street in front of your car.

Green light, go. Red light, stop. It was true in kindergarten and it still is."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Let the Little Children

This Carp O'Diem aired on Portland Radio Project June 9. 

"It sure seems like we get a lot of reports of police mistreatment of the mentally ill or people of color. Now last month we got the news that we have to be vigilant about how officers treat little kids, too.

According to the Portland Mercury and The Oregonian, two police officers handcuffed a nine-year-old girl and took her to an adult holding cell at a police station a week after she had been involved in a fight at a Boys and Girls Club. This was a year ago April.

Both girls had apologized to each other. Staff members told police there hadn’t been any obvious injuries. They sent the girl home and suspended her from the club. Okay. A week later, officers came to her house where she was running through a sprinkler in a swimsuit, questioned her, perp-walked her to the police car and took her away. They didn’t give her time to get dressed and they wouldn’t let her mother come with her.

The girl, who was a TAG student at Rosa Parks, is still recovering emotionally.

The police said they didn’t like her answers when they asked her about the fight. I’ve raised two kids and there’ve been plenty of times when I didn’t like their answers, but hey, they were kids. Besides, there’s this little thing we have here in the U.S. called Miranda rights. If you’re going to be treated like an adult to the extent of being led away in handcuffs, I think you should get the full deal including your civil rights.

According to the police bureau, the officers didn’t violate any policies. By the way, the Citizen Review Committee is now evaluating city and police guidelines that govern taking children into custody.

There are many things that disturb me about this. The fact that it took a year for it to hit the news. The language being used. “They didn’t violate any policies.” She was nine years old. I don’t care if they didn’t break any rules. That doesn’t make it right. The child’s mother thinks the officers were trying to scare and humiliate the girl, when all she needed was a good ‘talking to.’ I agree with her."

Thanks for reading, and share it if you think it's important for other people to read it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Bubble Bubble, This is Trouble

This "Carp O'Diem" aired on Portland Radio Project on May 19, 2014.  You can go to that website listen to the audio and download and even share it!  

It drew a heavy mail, well, heavy for me anyway, mostly from people who believe global warming is a hoax.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." 

I'm just reporting what the USDA put in my new growing guide. 

"It was ninety-one degrees here in Portland last Wednesday. Now I feel really like a slacker for not getting my peas in, especially since according to the new USDA’s growing guide, Portland just got bumped from zone 7 to 8, which is warmer. So I could have planted my peas a long time ago. I thought something was up when I heard that we’ve got enough olives growing in the Willamette Valley to warrant an olive oil festival. As a matter of fact, according to the Washington Post, the new growing guide shifted the kinds of plants that need warm weather north all over the country. I must be a curmudgeon, because being able to find Hood strawberries at the farmer’s market three weeks early doesn’t make me happy. I think it’s scary.

Sure, the Midwest is having a long winter – but that’s the difference between weather and global climate change. As a whole, the planet is warming up. Now it’s something you can see. Big chunks of ice melting. Big! Like polar ice caps and Antarctic sheets.

And I’m not irritated about that, because well, how can you be irritated about your home planet turning into Waterworld? And running around screaming doesn’t seem to do any good. I tried that, yesterday.

Time to believe the back of your seed packet. It’s here. It’s happening. And whether or not it’s our fault, it’s time to figure out what to do about it."

Monday, May 12, 2014

People Lie Down, Chickens Lay Eggs

I’m not a grammar grouch. Okay, I am a grammar grouch. And I’ve got just one grammar-related thing to say.
I’ve been waiting for somebody, Noam Chomsky or the President, SOMEBODY, to make an announcement, but apparently they’re not going to. So this is my grammar public service announcement.

You don’t LAY down, people. You LIE down. “To lay” means “to put.” If you say “I’m going to lay down,” you just said, “I’m going to put down.” Put down what? You need to say what you are laying down, even if it’s just yourself. “I lay myself down on the couch!” “To lie” means to rest or recline, or to tell a fib. Here’s an easy way to remember it. People lie down, chickens lay eggs. Now, if you lay down yesterday, that’s OK, because it’s past tense. If you lay something down, that’s OK, because you put something down.

You can tell a lie, and you can lie down.  

Got it? Thank you.

I’m going to go LIE down now.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day Report

I am having one of the most wonderful Mother's Days ever.  The sun is shining.  Ed is upstairs folding laundry and vaccuming.  A  former college roommate, visiting from out of town, is outside planting tomatoes. I am making waffles. And now from another old friend comes this wonderful, wonderful Mother's Day poem by Billy Collins.

So I'm sharing this poem for all you mothers.  But before you read that, I would like to thank my children from the bottom of my heart for transforming me into a mother. It has been the most incredible experience any human being could have.  I am so grateful to the universe for sending you to us! 

And I'd like to thank MY mother for teaching me so much about how to love little children.  And I'd like to thank HER mother...because she got it from somewhere and I'm pretty sure that's where she got it.

Happy Mother's Day!

The Lanyard - Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Giants Are Falling

First there was Mickey Rooney.  Almost a century of Mickey being a bad boy, delighting us with his round face, wry fast delivery and flying feet.  Gone.

It’s getting a little nerve-wracking.  In recent years we’ve lost Steve Jobs and Neil Armstrong.  Now just this year, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize in Literature.   Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Phil Everly, who gave us “Bye, Bye Love.”  Shirley Temple, who helped keep depression out of the Depression.  Pete Seeger, for crying out loud!

But now there’s Jack Ramsay.  In case you aren't a basketball fan or a Portlander and so don’t know his name, Dr. Jack led the Trailblazers to their national victory in 1977.  Sure, he coached a few other little teams, I guess, but for those of us who remember driving around in the wee small hours of the morning after that memorable win, screaming “We’re Number One!” he was the Trailblazers coach for all time.  Plaid pants and all.

And now he’s gone, too.  I know he was old.  But since when does being old mean we can do without you?  Mt. Hood is old too, and I don’t know about you, but I need it in my skyline.  I know there’s a natural span here, and most of these people had been around for over eighty years.  But I don’t have to like it.

And I don’t.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Well, sports fans, I don’t have a Carp today. Today I have a Swish. Three points!

Last week the big news was the release of a recording of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend that she shouldn’t appear in pictures with black men or bring Magic Johnson to Clippers games.

Fans and players, not to mention the NBA leadership, were talking sanctions. Should we fine him? Give him a heads up? That we’re in a post-racism world? Any two-and-a-half million dollar fine isn’t going to get the attention of a man worth almost 2 billion. So what else can you do? Fans boycott, teams refuse to play? Corporate sponsors started to desert. Here in Portland, fans were waiting anxiously to see how the league would respond. 

But just as Rip City and the Green Sports Alliance has led the way in protecting our environment, sports has long led the way in changing our attitudes towards people of diverse backgrounds and colors. 

So now comes the news that Sterling has been banned from the NBA for life. He’s still fabulously wealthy. But according to the Portland Business Journal, Adidas is back to sponsoring the Clippers. And for most of us, it’s good to confirm that our intolerance for bigotry is bigger even than our love of being in the play-offs. 

Swish. Three points!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Be a Drip!

This commentary was originally posted and aired on Portland Radio Project.

Okay folks, cue the music...or just go to this YouTube of the Manhattan Transfer singing my theme, song, "Java Jive..."

I love coffee. I don’t mean that in the generic way that most Portlanders say, “I love coffee.”  I mean that I refuse to get out of bed until someone brings me a cup of coffee. Fit the paper cone into a funnel, put in two scoops of Stumptown, pour hot water over it.  And you can even compost the grounds.  How Portland can you get?

Portlanders recycle, we bike, we compost, we garden, and we drink coffee.  A lot of coffee.  Pour over, lattes, grande decaf skinny mochas with double whip, single-cup…whoa.  Back up.  Single-cup?

The Harris poll reports that the market for single cup brewers doubled in the last year alone.  You know, those machines that use a little teensy plastic container with two tablespoons of coffee and flavoring to make just one special cup of coffee?  According to the Oregon Business Journal, even our very own Boyd Coffee is now making single-cup coffee pods.  They use less packaging than other single-cup brewers, so I guess that’s good, the Oregon reduce/reuse/recycle aesthetic meets crazy-individual-serving-waste.   But really, people!  Even John Sylvan, the founder of Keurig, says that coffee made the single-cup way creates ten times more garbage than the drip method!
We’re talking hundreds of millions of pounds of coffee-pod trash going into landfills every year.

So I say, don’t be a derp, be a drip!  


Monday, April 21, 2014

Teenagers Are People Too

This post originally appeared and was aired on Portland Radio Project.

Hey, can we stop treating teenagers like they’re nuts, dishonest, or predatory?

Where did this COME from? I’ve taught a lot of middle and high school kids here in the Portland metro area and this seems to be one of the last legit biases.  Most young people I know are loving, funny, they work hard, and they have personal integrity to burn. At first it just made me tired to have people say things like, “And you believed him?” or “I’m sorry, I can’t trust a boy to babysit my children.” Well, now it just makes me mad. According to the class in Adolescent Psychology, adolescents are inherently idealistic, not dishonest. Yeah, they are a bit self-centered, and wouldn’t you be if you were doing all the grown-up things for the first time and hoping that you were doing them right? Most teenagers I know are trying as hard and as anxiously as they can to please the adults in their lives, and they’re running scared because they don’t think it’s possible.  

Cut ‘em a break, folks.  You were there once, remember?

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I woke up crying this morning.

I have a new way of crying…it doesn’t involve sobbing, or diaphragmatic contractions, or really any physical sensations at all.  My throat doesn’t even get tight.  I’ll just become aware that my sight is blurred.  It gets hard to see, and then I feel water spilling down my cheeks from my eyes.  They just fill up with water and then overflow.

Where is this coming from?  There’s a lot of undifferentiated Weltschmerz going on, I know.  Or maybe not so undifferentiated.  The New York Times estimated that between 7,000 and 17,000 people will die each year because of Republican governors who have repudiated federal dollars to extend Medicaid to their constituents, just to vent their political spleen. 

That kind of thing used to make me mad.  But now I don’t have the energy that anger takes.  It just makes me sad.
The recent reports provided to the U.N. on global warming – I’m sorry, climate change – which was accompanied by the conclusion that we really have just about ten years in which to make the huge changes in carbon emissions necessary to avoid catastrophic events such as the “collapse of ice sheets, a rapid rise in sea levels, and difficulty growing enough food,” -- which said that 95% of the world’s scientists are convinced that not only is global warming real, but it’s much worse than the worst case scenarios for this spot in the apocalyptic timeline had envisioned in the last report – has me feeling a little bit blue.

That’s an understatement.  A little blue?  I feel like I’m Spock.  Remember the Star Trek movie, “The Search for Spock,” where his aging was tied to the aging and death of the Genesis planet?  I’m almost 58, and I keep hearing doomsday predictions of what kind of case this ol’ planet will be in, in the year 2050 – about the time I’ll be 94.  Not the age you want to be about the time the Earth starts to resemble the set of Waterworld.

So there’s that, and the propensity of the Supreme Court to redefine corporations as individual human beings, at least in terms of freedom of speech and religion, and don’t even get me started on the NRA and how many more freedoms we have to bear arms in the wake of the slaughter of five-year-olds at Sandy Hook.  What happened to the evolutionary adaptation of taking care of your tribe?

No.  What’s really got me lately is that for the first time in thirty years, this was the first Easter that I didn’t sneak into a kid’s room with an Easter basket.  Last year, I snuck into my nineteen-year-old son’s room at six a.m.  Why in the world would any teenage boy be awake then?  I have the weight of dozens of scientific studies that say that teenagers’ bio-clocks are set on a time zone from another planet completely.  Well, my son must not have kept up with science because he sat up in bed, pointed at me and said, “I KNEW you were the Easter Bunny!”  Finally.  He was elated at having evidence, PROOF, at last.  I guess after that he could move out.  Mom is the Easter Bunny.

But this Easter, we got up, Ed went downstairs to work because he’s trying to meet a deadline, I went outside to do battle with the dandelions and then we went to brunch with my mother and father-in-law. We didn’t even dye eggs. Happy Easter.

If I were to be completely honest, I would have to say that I think the real reason I’m sad is that my job of parenting is done.  My job of mothering a daughter is over – she’s thirty, so this isn’t big news.  That job has been replaced with a relationship, and it’s a happy one, so good.  My job of mothering a son is over.  He’s twenty, so again, it was time for him to join the Navy or the Peace Corps or go to college.  It doesn’t matter which one he chose. What matters is that for the last year, instead of cuddling a little warm body in a blue footie sleeper or following around a chortling two-year-old or mentoring a clueless middle school boy with out-of-control-hair or driving around a popular high school music star, I got nothin’.  When I want someone around who gets my sense of humor and dishes it back effortlessly, I got nothin’, and when I want to hug my kid, feeling a little bit of soft fat over hard muscle and a big heart, I got nothin’.

And during this seismic shift, my best friend decided that for some reason she doesn't want to talk to me anymore…so now I don’t have her to gripe to.

So I’m sad.  And the big question now is, what to do about it?

Hey, this is me.  So what I did was write a 340-page novel.  And get involved in local independent media and learn to write commentary and edit audio files.  But at the end of the day – and eventually you have to acknowledge that the day is over and it’s time to do something other than work or sleep – what I’ve got is sadness.

So I’m feeling sad right now.  And that’s just a fact.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Feel the Pulse

Everyone in my family is a musician and performer and our son is no exception, so when we chose a neighborhood to move into years ago, we were careful to choose one with a school that had a performing arts program. We bought a house that would let Robin go to Cleveland High, a large inner city school with one of the three good music programs left intact in the city's public schools.

At the end of Robin's Junior year, we learned that the district was cutting the music program in half and replacing the full-time teacher with a half-time middle school teacher who had mostly taught band. In case you're wondering (and you may not be), music teachers are not interchangeable. Middle school kids are not high school kids, and teaching students to play a musical instrument is an entirely different skill set from teaching choral singing. As far as the community could tell, this meant that our wonderful music program was going down.

And this is a school where parents send their talented young musicians, because they believe that the arts is an important part of a culture and that their children should have a musical education and that the creation and enjoyment of music is as important to our quality of life as, say, learning calculus.

So far, kids at Cleveland are still receiving music instruction and having the opportunity to learn and perform in a nationally recognized music program, but it's because we were lucky enough to be assigned a teacher who is energetic, optimistic, smart, skilled beyond her credential and was willing to spend her first year at Cleveland working a 60 hour week for 20 hours of pay, while retraining herself by taking classes in choral literature, vocal production, and conducting, and because there were and continue to be many volunteers, parents of kids in the program, who put in close to another 40-50 hours each week to raise money, communicate with parents and kids, organize the choir retreat and tour, and keep up with the music library.  (That was three years ago, by the way, and the story has a happy ending -- our marvelous choir director is up to speed and is now being paid what she's worth, there are hundreds of kids in the choral program, and volunteers keep signing up, thank goodness.) 

I've been curious about why it seems to be okay with us, as a society, to treat music as a profession and as an academic offering in this shoddy way.   Would we put up with having to run an MBA program on volunteers and contributions?  We seem to believe that music itself is important.  Who among us could get along without hundreds of songs loaded onto our phone or iPod? But we still think of music classes as one of those peripheral things, easy to drop when the funding gets tough. We don't have to pay musicians. They should just make music for free. And it's true that most musicians will sing or play for free, because we just can't help it. But we need to pay the bills too.

There's more to say about this, and someday I'll write a post about the "sacralization of art" -- that is, imbuing the arts, and music in particular, with a mystique that is, for some of us, reality -- the reality that music touches our souls, and therefore doesn't fall into the category of something that has to be paid for, any more than you pay to go to church.

But just for those of you who want or need one more example about the power of music, here's a little story from a few years ago.

Robin was admitted into the hospital for a heart procedure. It was  his third one, so you'd think we would have gotten used to it, but you never entirely get used to the idea that a cardiologist is going to thread a catheter into your son's carotid artery and down to his heart, look around and maybe cauterize a troublesome electrical pathway in there. Robin was anxious, shall we say. It was 7:00 a.m. and his pulse rate was 100 beats per minute. And he was just lying there waiting for an IV.

Then his dad started singing a British pub song, "Country Life," and Robin joined in with some harmony. Then they sang a camp song about a sailing ship, "The Golden Vanity." Robin's pulse dropped to 72. They started to wheel him down to the operating room and Robin sang "We're Off to See the Wizard" all the way down the hall. Just before they took him in, Robin took my hand and said, "I'm okay, Mom. I'm not afraid any more."

They wheeled him into the room and the nurse, who had noticed that Robin had brought his ukelele with him, turned on the stereo with Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Through the door, I could see Robin smile. Then they closed the double doors and his Dad and I went upstairs to wait.

Six hours later we talked to the surgeon. They had found two pathways that were creating odd heart rhythms, one right on the AV node. They were successful in ablating the pathways. We were able to go in and see him, once he was awake enough to pay attention, and could tell him that the procedure was successful and that he could enroll him in a driver's education program now.

And although I don't have any scientific reason for knowing this, I am sure that one reason why he did so well is because of singing harmony in a hospital room and listening to his favorite singer and having his ukelele with him, right beside his bed.

And I know why his parents did so well, too.
Music heals hearts.

It's a Choice

This post originally appeared and was aired on Portland Radio Project, the brainchild of the friend of my youth, Rebecca Webb -- a very cool pastiche of radio, digital newspaper and social media.  Check it out in all its glory!

Here in Sellwood, we’re getting a groovy organic non-GMO food store, the Moreland Pantry.  My neighbors and I were all excited about this.  Then we learned that the owner had posted on her Facebook page that she believes homosexuality leads to pedophilia and bigamy.  Now, she wouldn’t refuse service to homosexuals, although she believes that businesses should have the right to do so.

Now I know that just because someone agrees with me about food, they may not agree with me about religion or politics.  That’s Thanksgiving in a nutshell.  And they might not approve of some of my friends’ marriages, because they’re both men or they’re both women.

And I understand that for some people, it’s an article of faith that people who have similar plumbing shouldn’t have sex, and religious freedom is a right protected by the First Amendment. And they have the right to express those beliefs  – there’s that First Amendment again.

But if you want to open a groovy store in a neighborhood full of tolerant straight people and married gay people, then you might not want to go Facebook with those beliefs.  

Because now a lot of my neighbors and I don’t want to shop at the Moreland Pantry.  And that’s our right too.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Seize the Day

Well, sports fans, since I'm going to hike the Dolomites when I'm 100 years old (and you wouldn't just do that once, right?) I realized I've got another forty years ahead of me, so that's another whole adult lifetime, starting now.  So I've decided to re-set my age to thirty.  Which is a little awkward, since my daughter is thirty, but hey.

So I had to come up with a new career.  Obviously, it’s gotta be writing!  Well, and a little music.  You know my new mission statement, “Saving the world through words, music, and not looking before you leap.”

 I just finished my first novel, Baltimore Daze.  Cool beans.  But even cooler is that I'm making a foray into being a Radio Personality.  You may catch my new weekly commentary, Carp O'Diem, at the Portland Radio Project.   I even get groovy theme music!

Here's my first "Carp," which was originally aired on PRP on April 7, 2014.
Have you heard about the “Hobby Lobby” case now before the Supreme Court?  Here’s the question:  If an aspect of health care violates an employer’s religious beliefs, should they be able to deny those aspects of health care to their employees?  Even if those employees don’t share those beliefs.  

This could have an effect on a huge number of U.S. citizens.  And we could be talking about not just contraception.  Could employers opt out of funding vaccinations, blood transfusions, or mental health care?  Never mind that MSNBC reported Thursday that Hobby Lobby’s 401(k) plan is heavily invested in pharmaceutical companies that produce contraceptive drugs.  They could have divested those holdings instead of attempting to turn the First Amendment into Silly Putty, to justify yet another attack on the Affordable Health Care Act.

I used to teach the Constitution.  The point of religious freedom as protected by the First Amendment, as I understand it, was to keep a minority from imposing their religion upon others as a mandate.

Which is what this sounds like to me. The Supreme Court could decide to give private employers the right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees to the point of restricting their access to health care.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Play the Game

A friend of mine has been part of the Google Glass Explorer program for the past six months.  You know about Google Glass, right?  It’s “wearable tech,” in other words, a holographic smartphone screen that’s projected from a pair of glasses.

He was invited to be part of this beta program last year.  He’s one of the 8,000 people world-wide who were invited to spend $1,500 to wear Glass for a year, as Google explains it, “to help shape the future of Glass.”  That is, to help prepare the market – that’s us – to accept and want this product when it is released for public sale next year.

I met this man 25 years ago.  I hired him out of a temporary secretarial firm, where he had landed as he was trying to break into the professional world in my mid-size, West Coast city. I hired him because he was articulate, because he was willing to change himself to fit into a system until he could figure out how to change the system, because he was a cheerful problem solver who could get along with anybody, and because there was not one grammatical or punctuation error in his cover letter or resume. 

John is a funny, energetic guy who, upon learning that he’d been accepted into Stanford’s MBA program, did a back flip into my office, narrowly missing a display of antique tea cups.    And yes, as you would expect a Silicon Valley venture capitalist to be, he’s brilliant.  Not as much as some software designers I know who can’t talk to people with IQs less than 140.    His brilliance lies in his ability to think sideways, and he doesn’t see the boundaries and limitations that most of us accept as really there.

The other thing that is unusual about John, at least in my experience with techno-geeks, is that personal connections are important to him.   Even though we haven’t seen each other in a quarter of a century, he was happy to schedule two hours out of a busy day of changing the world to talk to his old boss.

And I trust him enough that I’m willing to entertain his point of view, even when it runs entirely counter to my most closely held opinions and beliefs.

I had asked to meet with him because I had just gone to a conference in Portland, Oregon where leaders in industry, education and regional governments were meeting to talk about how to solve the problems posed by global warming, and I’m interested in that.  I had signed up – as a spectator, not a participant – for a session on how to get the word out on global warming, so grass-roots groups (I guess Intel and the Trailblazers and the local governments in the Pacific Northwest counts as grass-roots) can help to get some traction on this world-wide problem.

As I listened, I was struck by a disconnect that nobody else seemed to notice.  One panel participant had said, “It’s a question of how to get the data out there.”  I thought about my computer screen and how, every time I go to Facebook or YouTube or Amazon, I’m slowed down by pop-up ads for Disneyland and Star Trek memorabilia and classes in Italian, and suggestions that I click on this article about sustainability or that article about education.  And I thought about how my very conservative aunt complains about getting pop-up ads for resorts in the Bahamas and suggestions that she click on this article about how 90% of the scientists in the world are involved in a hoax to make us all believe in global warming.  She sees a very different version of the world than I do.

When the facilitator asked if there were any questions, I got up and walked to the microphone.  There were probably 500 people in the ballroom, but I was an opera singer in a previous life so this didn’t bother me.  This was my question.

“Every time I use my computer, marketing algorithms make sure that I see things that reflect what I’m interested in and beliefs I already hold.  My aunt, also, is presented with information that reflects what she’s interested in and beliefs that she holds.  I’m a liberal who’s worried about global warming and thinks universal health care is a great idea.  She’s a Tea Partier who thinks global warming is a hoax and that poor people have brought their problems on themselves.  We see entirely different versions of the world.  Because of how the use of the Internet has evolved in the last few years, each of us now sees the contents of our brains amplified and reflected back to us, reinforcing what we already think and connecting us only to people who think the way we do.  It’s polarizing.  Until you solve this problem, it doesn’t matter if you get the data out there, because most people either won’t understand it, or believe it.  And worse, this fragmentation of information makes it impossible for us to have the rational, educated discourse that we need to solve global problems.  What’s being done about this?”

The room went absolutely silent.  The silence lasted for a few seconds.  Then the facilitator said, “That’s a good question.  Does anyone have an answer?”

More silence.  Finally the head of the Trailblazers said something about sports being an experience that could help people find some common ground.  An interesting idea that I hadn’t thought about, since I’m not a sports person, but not really the answer I was looking for.

So I had flown to Palo Alto, mostly to ask John this question, and incidentally to talk to him about Google Glass, since I’d recently learned that he had a pair.

His answer wasn’t comforting.  “Essentially, people pay attention to whatever media choices they want to.  It’s deeply ingrained.  It’s comes down to democracy, freedom of speech…and you know, no matter if we’re liberal or conservative, we’re going to go to a black and white answer to minimize the time we spend being uncertain.  We’re more comfortable with dualities.   The answer is fixing the education system.”  He looked at me wryly. He knows I’m a former educator.

“And good luck with that,” I said, equally wry.  The problem I see with this is, as big-brained primates, it takes at least twenty years to educate us enough to be functional adults, and another ten years or so to mature enough to make wise decisions.  Meanwhile, the technology that gives people the power to control what we think we know is changing monthly. 

Technology is literally changing the physical structure of our brains.  More than that, it is changing how we communicate, and what information we receive, and how we engage in the world – the “real” world, that is, as opposed to the “virtual” world. 

In his excellent book The Shallows:  What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains that technology rewires how we think.  He pointed out that autopsies on the bodies of London cabdrivers showed that the spatial part of their brains was bigger than most people’s.  They needed it to navigate London.  When you rely upon GPS to get everywhere, the part of the brain that learns directions and navigational skills is pruned – your brain doesn’t waste energy maintaining unneeded systems.  Socrates didn’t embrace the new technology of written language because he thought humans would lose the ability to store memories.  Well, he was right – cultures that rely upon oral tradition do have what we would interpret as unusual abilities to store memory.

Technology changes how we engage with our fellow humans, too.  My friend Marcia went to live in Shanghai, China, some years ago.  She comes back to visit once a year, and looks to me to interpret the changes she’s seen since her last visit.  Two years ago, as we sat over tea, she asked, “I see people staring into their palms all the time, at some glowing thing.”  She pantomimed thumbing a smartphone.  “What are they doing?”

“They’re communicating.  At least, that’s what they think they’re doing.  They’re texting.  Sending short bursts of conversations back and forth to their friends.”

“But I’m their friend.  And I’m sitting right there.”

Well, yeah…

Our relationship with the Internet is changing us, individually and as a society, profoundly, maybe too rapidly for us to be aware of the difference most of the time.

For instance.

A friend of mine is the IT guy for a health clinic.  Turns out Comcast changed their IP address suddenly, in the middle of the business day.  Poof!  This clinic suddenly lost its online presence. It took him a day to find out what had happened and to talk Comcast into changing the IP address back.  Until then, they were frantic.  As far as most people were concerned, the clinic didn’t exist until he got the web site back up.

Another example.  A startling number of airline pilots don’t do the right thing if the onboard computer navigation system crashes, because they are only used to controlling the plane for a few minutes per flight and they don’t have the built-in reflexes to do the right thing automatically anymore.

In ten years, the percentage of young people who had read at least one book in a year dropped from 53% to 43%.  That’s a lot of people losing the attention span necessary to follow a long or complex argument. And according to Google researchers, if a YouTube video is longer than 3.5 minutes, on average – it’s too long.  Most viewers don’t have the patience for anything longer.

Okay, geek disclosure.  I watch a lot of Star Trek, and I remember an episode called “The Game,” where everyone on the Enterprise wore a device that looked a lot like Google Glass.  It was a wearable video game that shot a beam of light into your eyes when you made a point, and directly stimulated the pleasure center of the brain.  Highly addictive, as you may expect.

Science fiction?  Not really.  Anyone who’s gotten hooked on on-line solitaire knows that you can lose two hours just hoping for a fireworks display.  My twenty-year-old son thinks this is absolutely pathetic.  But I notice that he plays Assassin’s Creed for hours on end.  Behaviorism works, people.  Reinforce that positive behavior!

Just remember how positive behavior is defined, and who defines it.  Because the people deciding what you’re going to see on your screen define positive behavior as “Buy my product,” or, “Believe what I want you to believe.”

And what happens when the system goes down?  Someone hacks into Facebook and Gmail and ADP, the system that controls our paychecks, or the GPS system, and all of a sudden you can’t talk or get your money or find where you’re going?  Remember the classic Star Trek episode where everyone was controlled by a computer?  “Llandru, guide us!”  I grew up in the sixties and I know what I’m talking about. 

And then I lived through the 1990s, when Wesley Crusher got hooked on Google Glass – sorry, playing the game on Star Trek Next Gen.

So there I was in California on a November afternoon to talk to John, wanting to do an expose on Google Glass and how it’s going to take down Western Civilization.  And even though he’s a big proponent of Glass, somehow I’ll talk him into helping me do it. 

I waited to meet him in a California-Mex restaurant on a subdued, elegant Palo Alto Street, Teslas and Priuses parked outside.  John walked in the door and I instantly knew it was him, not just because he was the only one on the restaurant wearing Glass.  It had been a quarter of a century since I’d seen him but I told myself that neither of us had changed that much.  John grinned at me.  We started to shake hands, but then hugged.  I led him to our table where guacamole and chips awaited.  He took off his Glass, put on his reading glasses (Google hasn’t rolled out the prescription model yet) to look at the menu and order, and then left his glasses on the table.  I took off my glasses, too.

“John, you just took off your glasses,” I said.

He shook his head.  “I don’t like to wear glasses when I’m talking to people.”

“Me too!” I said, surprised.  “I always take my glasses off.  I’d rather have you be a little blurry than see you through plastic.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’m making a big sacrifice to wear these as part of the program.  If I’m in an intense social situation, I don’t want it in the way.  It can be distracting.  I think it’s a little disrespectful to wear it, actually.”

We chatted, catching up, and gave the waiter our orders.  We discovered that he’s interested in the Singularity and that I’m a big Vernor Vinge fan.  Then I asked, “If you have to wear computer glasses at work, and you don’t like to wear glasses when you talk to people…how much do you really wear Glass?”

He looked thoughtful.  “Well, when I’m out and about.  I was excited to wear it traveling…people will come up and ask me questions.  It’s not for introverts at this stage.”

The waiter arrived with our drinks and burritos.  I checked my list of questions.  “Why did you want to be part of the Glass Explorer program?” I asked.

John laughed.  “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.  I applied, but $1,500 seemed like a lot of money.  Then I thought, Oh!  Why am I even pausing?  I grew up on science fiction, and then realized that things didn’t move along as fast as I wanted them to.  Here I can buy into a magical, unique experience!  I’m not buying into Glass.  I’m getting to experience the future before everyone else does.”

“Tell me something.  What’s the point of Glass?”

He put down his marguerita.  “It’s just a smartphone that you don’t need to hold.”

Huh. That’s all it is.  That doesn’t seem so bad.  “How do you control it then?”

“It’s voice activated.  You can say, Glass, take a picture.  Or, Glass, show me where the Stanford campus is, and it’ll show me a map and directions. You can do Google searches and that’s awesome. Or you can set it up for a feed.  I figured out how to get my Twitter stuff piped to it, so now every few minutes a little bit of the world comes to me, and that’s a game changer.”

“Cool.”  That could come in really handy, I thought.  Except that…

I thought of the QWERTY keyboard.  Technology that was made intentionally clumsy, to slow us down.  Recently, our ability to miniaturize our devices has been limited, not by our technology, but by the size of our thumbs.  When you take that limitation away, you remove another barrier between yourself and the Internet and whoever is deciding what information you should see.  Would that always be a good thing? 

“So will we see Google Glass contacts in five years?”

He shook his head.  “No.  More like ten.  You see, this…” and he tapped the thick part of what we think of as the earpiece leading from the glasses to what hooks over the ears.  “…is the computer.  The battery fits behind the ear.  We won’t be able to make it that much smaller for awhile yet.”

And I thought, small enough to implant behind the skin behind your ear so it’s just hooked directly into your brain.  I didn’t ask how far away that technology is. 

And I thought about the Google ad for Glass.  Happy people on roller coasters, riding in hot air balloons, watching kids blow bubbles.  Only why would anybody do these real world things when it’s much more interesting to sit in front of a screen?

And now you don’t need the screen.  The computer that you must go to a desk to sit in front of became a lap-top, then a netbook, then a smartphone.  Now it’s attached to your face.

“I have to go in a couple of minutes,” he said.  “Do you have anything else you want to ask me?”

“No,” I said, getting out my wallet to pay the check.  “I really appreciate you giving me so much of your time.”

“This was great.  Let’s not wait another 25 years before we have lunch again, okay?”

“Deal.”  I started to put my wallet back into my purse.  

Then he tapped the Glass, which was still sitting there among a few shards of tortilla chips, almost hidden beside a bowl of browning guacamole.  “Don’t you want to try it on?”

I thought of Shakespeare’s wonderful quote from Hamlet.  “The devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape.”  I thought of Wesley playing the game.  I even think of the pilot of Sherlock, when the evil cab driver tries to get Benedict Cumberbatch to take the poison by saying, “You’ll do anything to keep from being bored.  Come on.  Play the game.”

I shook my head.  “That’s okay.”

“You mean you flew all the way down here to talk to me about Glass, and you’re not even going to try it on.”

Well, that would be stupid.  I picked up the Glass and put it on. I looked directly at John, who was smiling.  “I don’t see anything.”

“Look up and to the right.”

I looked up.   There, floating in space, was a little screen.  It informed me that the temperature in Palo Alto was 72 degrees and that the traffic on highway 101 was light.  There was a little picture of a beach behind that information.

I said, “Oh.  Wow.”

“I want one.”