Another Empty Spot On The Desk

Our IT staff came and took away my old office land-line phone recently, as I have now fully transitioned to communication through my computer. It leaves the empty spot on my desk shown above. That gleaming empty spot now joins other empty spots that have been created over the years, as once-essential workplace items have been pitched into the dustbin, their functionality entirely absorbed into the mighty, all-purpose desktop computer.

Once my desk held a dictaphone, a telephone, a speakerphone attachment, a hole punch gizmo, and a stapler. All are now gone. The flip-top calendar that I have had for years won’t be far behind; I’ve stopped using it in lieu of total calendaring reliance on my computer. And the other essential purpose of a desk–to hold the piles of papers that I’m working on–also is falling by the wayside. I’m old school and still print out some documents to review in hard copy form, but the amount of paper in my office is a small fraction of what it once was, with most of the reviewing and editing work being done entirely on the computer. In short, there are a lot of empty spots on my desk these days.

Thanks to technology, I am finally within reach of “clean desk” status.

What’s the purpose of a desk, in an era when the computer reigns supreme? It’s a convenient place to stash the legal pads and pens that I still use, and I need its writing surface when I’m making a note. It’s a great platform for my collection of aging family photos, kid art, and things like little clocks or fancy penholders. And when people come into my office they can be pretty sure that it’s me sitting behind the desk, staring at the computer and tapping away at the keyboard.

But all of those empty spaces make you wonder how much longer people will be using large, impressive wooden desks. In the computer era, they’ve become almost an affectation, a power device, and a prop, and you wonder if they will be part of the office of the future–that is, if offices as we know them will even exist.

Looking Through Different Windows

Stonington, Maine, has its share of quirkiness. One of my favorite examples of that quality is found at this place on Church Street, where a solitary window freed from the structure of a house has been put on a rock outcropping overlooking the harbor. It’s as if the window escaped from its confines and decided to come to rest where it could enjoy a pretty scene. A window like this is so alluring, enticing you to scramble up onto those rocks and take a look through the other side, just to see that specific, chosen view. So far, at least, I’ve resisted the temptation to trespass and check out the lone window’s perspective.

But in a different sense, I feel like our time in Stonington has given me a chance to look through different windows and gain different perspectives. I never would have considered the plight of lobstermen, ensnared in regulatory and economic issues far beyond their personal control, if we had not come up here to live among them. And I’ve gotten some insight into how powerfully small towns can react when a locally supported facility, like the Island Nursing Home, announces that it is closing. For that matter, I’ve come to learn a bit about what it is like to live in a small town, having never really done so before.

I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to see things from a different point of view and to better understand the concerns and motives of people living in a faraway place. I feel like it has broadened my horizons and made me a bit less judgmental, generally, because I’ve learned that there are typically two sides to every story. It also makes me wish that there was a way to ensure that more people could share in different perspectives and understandings before writing snarling Twitter posts or demonizing people they disagree with. and utterly dismissing their viewpoints. I think it would be helpful if more people tried to look through different windows before lashing out.

The Relentless March Of Progress

In America, the march of progress is relentless, and what once was casually assumed be a permanent thing can be wiped clean by new technology or new approaches and vanish without a trace. The latest evidence of that classic aspect of the American Way is that the last freestanding public pay phone booth has been removed from New York City. The phone booth, which was located in Times Square, had become a kind of kitschy tourist attraction before it was hoisted away last month.

According to the Bloomberg article linked above, New York City once had 8,000 freestanding public phone booths. They were a familiar feature on Manhattan street corners. Phone booths were used by superheroes to change clothes, and figured prominently in countless spy dramas and action movies. Bad guys who were planning to commit bad acts used the booths to place anonymous phone calls demanding ransom payments, and spies used the booths as dead drops or meeting places. How many films over the years featured a star rushing to make it to a particular phone booth on a busy street in time to answer a call?

Now New York City is a phone booth-free zone. I’m not sure if there are any phone booths left in Columbus, and I frankly can’t remember the last time I saw a phone booth anywhere. They have been so rare for so long that I wrote about an unexpected sighting of a phone booth in upstate New York in 2011. Of course, screenwriters long ago adapted to the demise of the phone booth by using burner phones as the new anonymous device to move plots along.

In short, phone booths have officially joined the horse and buggy, television static, and Blockbuster stores as relics of a bygone era. That’s the American Way.

The Power Of A Room

Since my trip to D.C. included a Georgetown University Law Center class reunion party, I figured I should visit the law center itself. It has changed a lot since I was a student in the early ‘80s, but the lecture halls look pretty much the same as I remember.

As I opened the door to this lecture hall—where I think I attended my very first law school class in 1982—I felt anew the angst and concern about whether I could handle law school that a much younger me experienced 40 years ago. The ghosts of professors and cases and Socratic method questions of the past still live on in those halls.

I’ll probably have a fresh set of nightmares about being late for an exam as a result of this visit.

Celebrating “Trolling”

If, like me, you’ve got the ESPN app on your phone, you’ve undoubtedly seen some kind of notice lauding such and such team or player for crushingly “trolling” another with some devastating putdown that bursts their bubble. Of course, it’s not just sports stars and their teams that engage in trolling–you see it in politics and other areas as well. And there, too, “trolling” is often applauded.

“Trolling” is an apt term for this practice, conjuring as it does the creature living and lurking in the shadowy, dark, dank areas under the bridge–scary, creepy, and disconnected from the rest of society, but always ready to spring up when you least expect it. The derivation of “trolling” in its modern sense isn’t a reference to Norse mythology, however, but rather to a fishing technique: “trolling” occurs when the angler puts a baited line in the water, hoping that a fish will bite. That’s what internet or social media trollers do. They say something outrageous and provocative, and hope that someone will engage and they can display all of their powers of insult humor, ironic commentary, and smart-alecky know-it-allism.

“Trolling” isn’t kind or polite behavior. It’s snotty and snarky and over-simplifying. You wouldn’t countenance it from your kids at home, and you wouldn’t hang around friends who engaged in it all the time. So why do ESPN, political website, and other internet and social media outlets celebrate trolling comments, and encourage those people under the bridge to emerge? How are we ever to de-coarsen our society if we’re constantly patting people on the back for a “perfect” or “hilarious” trolling effort?

It’s weird to think we’ve reached the point where some people aspire to be great trolls. They’re not exactly aiming high.

Wealth Porn

We’re down in Naples for a fun getaway weekend with friends. During the visit we took a guided boat ride that took us past some of the Naples area’s toniest areas.

Much of the boat ride featured the guide advising us of the cost and square footage of the huge homes and yachts that we passed. As we heard about $2 million tear downs, 10,000-square-foot guest houses, enormous pleasure crafts, and waterfront estates that passed the nine-figure mark, it felt like we were on a floating episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It was kind of hilarious in a weird way.

My grandmother used to say that polite people don’t talk about money. That rule obviously is out the window. Now the reverse is true: we’re reveling in a kind of wealth porn.

Human Composting

When you get to be a certain age, some subjects begin to have a lot more interest than they would have had, say, 40 years ago. Thinking about what should be done with your mortal remains is one such topic. So it was interesting to read that a few states are beginning to allow human composting–also known by the much more clinical name “natural organic reduction”–as an alternative to the standard burial and cremation options for disposition of human bodies.

So far, the legalization of human composting is limited to Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, which always seem to be among the first states to legislate new approaches in the social arena. It makes you wonder whether legislators and lobbyists in those states sit around brainstorming about possible new laws that will send a jolt through the rest of the country. Washington, Oregon, and Colorado are a kind of holy trinity of experimenters that substantiate the notion that states are the “laboratories of democracy.” That phrase comes from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1932 wrote in a famous dissent in New State Ice Co v. Liebmann that “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” 

In any case, human composting involves a process that speeds up what would otherwise be the natural decomposition of human remains. Recompose, one of the companies that provides the service, describes the process as follows: “After you die, your body will be laid into the vessel onto a bed of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Over the next 30 days, everything inside the vessel breaks down thanks to natural decomposition. The soil is removed and placed into a curing bin, where it is aerated for several more weeks. Then, it can be donated for conservation efforts or given back to the person of your choosing.” Recompose charges $5,500 for the whole process, which produces a cubic yard of soil.

What to do with a cubic yard of soil that used to be a loved one? You can read about one survivor’s story about the composting of her late husband, an organic farmer, and what she did with the soil here. Some people take it all, some distribute it among the friends of the deceased, and some donate it to reclamation projects. Not surprisingly, there apparently is a bit of squeamishness about exactly where the composted soil should go. The Colorado law, for example, prohibits businesses from selling the soil or using the soil to grow food for human consumption. (In the interest of legislative completeness, incidentally, Colorado also bans putting multiple bodies into the composting containers without prior consent from either the deceased or the person who has the right to dispose of the remains.)

Why would someone choose human composting? Recompose notes that it avoids producing the carbon dioxide that is generated by cremation, and some people like the idea of “giving back” and returning to the soil, in the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sense. Some religions object, but it’s hard to see why anyone would object to giving people another option in the disposition of remains category. After all, “human composting” is basically what happened to countless generations of humans in the pre-burial, pre-cremation days.

Treadmill Rules

Lately I’ve been taking my morning walk on a treadmill in a small workout facility, rather than via a walk in the open air. It’s the first time I’ve really consistently used a gym and a treadmill. I’m getting in about the same amount of steps, but it is an entirely different vibe.

There are positives to the treadmill experience, of course. The primary benefit is that you aren’t subject to the whims of the weather and the possibility of some weather-related mishap, like slipping on ice during the winter or being sprayed with the splash when a passing car rockets through a rain puddle. But whereas walking outside, for me, tends to be a solitary exercise, treadmills in a gym are communal–and that means there are rules to be acknowledged and obeyed.

One of the rules involves respecting the personal space of the other treadmill users. In our little gym, there is a row of six treadmills. If you come in while some of those devices are being used, you need to find an empty treadmill that gives you at least a one empty treadmill buffer zone from any other user, if possible. Picking a treadmill right next to another user when there are plenty of unused machines would be viewed as unseemly and, well, weird. Another rule is that there is no talking, period. Even though multiple people are within a few feet of each other, everyone seeks to remain in their own little workout world, following their walking, jogging, or running routines, listening to their music or podcasts, and maintaining careful social separation. The other users don’t seem to even acknowledge each other’s presence with a nod or a smile.

Another big difference between walking outside and the treadmill experience is the looking presence of the machine itself. Outdoor walkers can always stop to tie their shoe or admire a pretty scene. Of course, you can’t do that on a treadmill, unless you want to be swept away by the moving belt and hurled into the exercise bikes behind you. There’s a pressure element, because you’d better keep your feet moving, and at the right clip. And the machines are very clock-centric. You program your time and start your routine, and you can’t help but look constantly at how much more time is left before the routine is over. That ever-present time concept simply doesn’t exist on an outdoor walk.

The Great Divide About The Great Reopening

Yesterday the B.A. Jersey Girl, the Bus-Riding Conservative, and I went out for a “taco Thursday” lunch. As has been the case since September, we faithfully donned masks when we entered the restaurant, wore them until we sat down, were served by masked employees, and donned masks again for the brief period between leaving our table and reaching the outside sidewalk. After we removed the masks again, we wondered: when is the City of Columbus mask mandate going to end? When are we going to get back to what we used to think of as “normal”?

Across the country, there are signs that society is on the cusp of what we might call the Great Reopening, with some states lifting their mask mandates and changes being made to vaccination requirements and other COVID-related policies. But it’s pretty clear that there is a very strong difference of opinion about whether a Great Reopening right now, or even in the immediately foreseeable future, is a good idea. The Atlantic recently ran an interesting article called “Open Everything” that argued–persuasively, in my opinion–that it is time to end all COVID restrictions. The reaction to the article on social media showed, however, that there is a sharp divide about what to do, and when. And the opinions on both sides are being voiced in the strongest terms possible, with reopeners being depicted as reckless morons who are putting lives at risk and non-reopeners presented as crazed Karens who revel in the ability to control every aspect of our lives and want to preserve that power.

The country has been through a lot since COVID first entered the lexicon two years ago, and superheated rhetoric about what to do next isn’t going to help us get over that experience. There’s nothing wrong with people expressing their views, but it sure would be nice to see the differences discussed in a reasonable and respectful way, with some effort to understand the differing views and without the inflammatory epithets. That’s part of the true “normal” that we need to get back to, and demonizing people of opposing viewsas killers or lunatics isn’t going to help us reach that goal.

The Lost World Of Two Sleeps

We tend to think that the basic elements of human lives–things as fundamental as sleep patterns–have forever been as they are now. I’ve always assumed, without thinking much about it, that sleep means going to bed and sleeping straight through until waking up in the morning. The BBC recently published a fascinating article about research that squarely refutes that assumption–and shows instead that our current approach to sleep is inconsistent with the accepted practices that prevailed for many centuries.

According to the BBC article, humans used to have “two sleeps” as a matter of course. The “first sleep” would last for a few hours, until about 11 p.m., followed by about two hours of wakefulness–a period known in medieval England as “the watch”–after which people would return to bed and sleep until morning. This pattern was confirmed by sworn testimony in court records and multiple references in literature, and the research indicates that it was followed across different countries and cultures dating back to classical times, during the prolonged period when life was much more communal than it is now and it was typical for multiple humans to share beds or other sleeping quarters.

What did those who awakened from their “first sleep” do during “the watch”? The research indicates they did just about everything from the exalted (it was viewed by some as a good time for quiet religious observances and reflection) to the productive (peasants completed some of their many daily chores, stoked the fire, and tended to animals) to the mundane (the newly roused typically answered the call of nature). The BBC article also reports: “But most of all, the watch was useful for socialising – and for sex.” People would stay in their communal bed and chat with their bedmates, and husbands and wives, refreshed from the day’s exhausting labors by their “first sleep,” might find a place for some alone time before “the watch” ended and it was time to hit the crowded sack again.

At some point, the practice of “two sleeps” ended and our current approach of seeking one, uninterrupted “good night’s sleep” became the norm instead. But, as the BBC article points out, a sleep research experiment from the ’90s suggests that it wouldn’t take much for people to be nudged back into the world of “two sleeps.” A careful look at some remote cultures also indicates that the practice of “two sleeps” still prevails in some areas. And of course, in some cultures where an afternoon siesta is commonplace, a different form of “two sleeps” is practiced.

What would the world be like if humans still followed the practice of “two sleeps,” and what would they do during “the watch”? I would guess that they would do just about everything that their medieval ancestors did–although with modern technology I imagine that many people would take “the watch” literally, and use the break in sleep to catch up on the latest offerings on streaming services.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I’m a big believer in specifically identifying at least some of the many things I’ve got to be thankful for, and then reflecting on them when Thanksgiving Day rolls around. Here’s this year’s list:

  • I’m thankful that I and the other members of my family made it through the last, star-crossed year in good health.
  • I’m thankful for the family, friends, colleagues, and clients who have added color and dash and interest to every one of the 365 days that have passed since last Thanksgiving.
  • I’m thankful that I have happy memories of Thanksgiving days gone by that I can recall with pleasure, like the little wax turkey candles (like the ones shown above) that Mom put out on the dinner table when we sat down for our big meal.
  • I’m thankful that, this year, our extended family will be able to get together to celebrate Thanksgiving as families ought to do, after skipping last year due to the COVID pandemic.
  • I’m thankful for the fact that the apparent supply chain problems won’t keep us from enjoying turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a slice or two of pie today.
  • I’m thankful for living in a free country where my friends and I can agree to disagree, even about crucially important things like appropriate Thanksgiving pies.
  • I’m thankful for the people who laughed at my jokes, for those who gave me the benefit of the doubt from time to time, and for the kind words, the compliments, the encouragement, and the attaboys that helped me make it through every day.
  • I’m thankful for the people who take a few moments from their day to read my random thoughts on this blog, post likes, and leave comments.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks!

The Concept Of Applause

On Saturday we had the pleasure of watching the Austin Symphony Orchestra perform in a program that included a beautiful choral selection from Mozart and ended with a bravura rendition of Beethoven’s titanic Ninth Symphony. After the last, moving notes were sounded the crowd leapt to its feet and gave the performers (who included Julianne Webner on the lead oboe) a richly deserved and prolonged standing ovation. In fact, it was probably one of the longest and most genuine standing ovations I’ve ever experienced, as everyone in the audience clapped furiously until their hands hurt and their arms grew tired.

After the performance, I thought about the concept of applause. The concert had been such a wonderful experience, shared by both the performers and the audience. Imagine how different the experience would have felt if, after the concert ended, the audience had simply quietly filed out of the auditorium without any reaction, while the musicians gathered their scores and packed away their instruments! Fortunately for us all, the basic human urge to show appreciation for such a fine performance and to participate directly in the shared experience is irresistible. The impulse to clap like crazy and cheer loudly under such circumstances seems to come from deep within.

That’s why I suspect that, although some people date the concept of applause back to the ancient Greeks, I suspect the history of applause is much, much older. I imagine it probably dates back to the first performances of music, dance, epic poetry, or plays around a campfire by fellow members of the tribe. The notion of making positive noises to express approval is intuitive; it bridges the gap between performer and audience and establishes a connection and a feedback loop of encouragement and support. And since every audience member has hands and mouths, clapping and cheering were pretty much inevitable.

I love going to live musical performances and live sporting events, and part of what makes them so enjoyable is the chance to participate in cheering and applauding. To whoever first beat their hands together and shouted with pleasure, at the dawn of human history, I salute you. In fact, I applaud you.

20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

The Old Cemetery Gate

The Stonington town cemetery, which I walk past on my morning jaunts, is an interesting place, and not just because of random deer encounters and the gravesites of Civil War veterans. I’ve also been fascinated by this battered cemetery gate, which looks like it has some interesting stories to tell, about each of the many twists and bends in the aged metal.

But the most provocative untold story is the one about why the gate is there at all–since there is no fencing whatsoever around it. Why add a gate to an otherwise open area? My guess is that the gate was added as the first step in what was supposed to be a process that involved some kind of fencing–a stone wall, perhaps–that never came to fruition.

The plans are long gone, but the old gate remains. It helps to give the cemetery an identity, and a bit of a wistful feeling, too.

A Tale Of Three Boats

We visited Bar Harbor yesterday. Unlike Stonington, where virtually every boat in the harbor is a working lobster boat, there are a variety of different types of pleasure crafts docked in Bar Harbor.

I was struck by this scene of three boats docked side by side near the Bar Harbor Inn. The guy in the middle must have been feeling pretty good about himself when he eased his big, bright, gleaming boat into the harbor—until the huge yacht parked itself right next door. And some day, of course, the big yacht will be outdone when an even bigger super yacht shows up, because there’s always someone with a bigger boat, somewhere.

And what about the guy whose Boston Whaler looks like a shrimp in comparison to these two monsters? I bet he’s happy he’s not paying for their upkeep, storage, outfitting, maintenance, and crew. And I’d guess that he has more fun zipping around in his little boat than the other two boats combined.