A Lack of Uniformity

On my commute to class this morning, I had the unfortunate task of navigating around several accidents on the post-Frankenstorm highways in Massachusetts. As I eased past one of these smash-ups, the state trooper standing watch over the epilogue looked over my vehicle with the scrutiny of one used to finding something wrong and acting on it.

I have a lot of friends who are in law enforcement. I’ve been on multiple ride-alongs with them in my life, in different states, both rural and urban areas, for personal interest and even for class projects. I’ve seen some of the action that makes you think of an episode of Cops first-hand (my only experience to-date of being in a vehicle traveling over 100 mph was on one of these ride-alongs). This small handful of experiences has left me with a profound appreciation for what these men and women deal with on a daily basis. They really are heroes, heading into situations that you or I run away from. They spend most of their day dealing with people that you or I really would not want to be around. They’re hypervigilant constantly because the most common of their job responsibilities can escalate into a violently dangerous situation at any time.

All that to say, I respect what these people do every day.

Because of this odd fascination of mine with law enforcement (I suspect because they are everyday heroes in our urban mythology), I notice the police officers when I visit a new area, and especially when I move into a new area. I notice the colors of their vehicles and uniforms. The uniforms, specifically, convey a powerful visual rhetoric.

And, the Massachusetts State Police uniforms seem…well, overly authoritarian. What I’ve seen of them (primarily along the roadsides) has been triangular hats (many if not most state police organizations use circular brimmed hats), bandoliers, and pants tucked down inside of tall boots. I’ve read some less-than flattering historical comparisons of these uniforms in various corners of the Internet, and I’m not going there, but I do see these uniforms as being overly intimidating in nature. The most effective police professionals I know or have encountered approach situations from the launching point of being helpful and working to resolve a situation. In fact, I think that most of them approach situations this way. I’m not sure that any police officer begins the work day wanting to take someone to jail.

So, the issue that I have with these uniforms is that they go beyond conveying a demeanor of authority. They convey a demeanor of intimidation and fear. That’s not effective. What concerns me is that I see the non-verbal cues of these troopers match the demeanor that their uniforms display.

I suppose that I’m of the opinion that sworn peace officers are there to serve and protect. I recognize that this involves doing things that will make them unpopular with most of us at some point or another (typically this involves being on the wrong end of a radar gun in a moment of carelessness..I have most certainly been there). To carry an appearance of being distant, untouchable, and in the role of watchful enforcer, however, seems to be counter-intuitive to the roles of serving and protecting.

I suppose that the costume of a hero says something powerful.

And, now I have an entirely new post coming to mind about that whole hero thing, again…

My Computer has a First Name…

Because I’m a Mac user, I listened with interest to Apple’s recent iPad announcement, just as I do to all of their product announcements. I’m very loyal to that brand, and Apple’s tools are the tools with which I manage not only my workflow, but also my day-to-day life.

What’s interesting about listening to the discussions and analysis of these sort of announcements, though, is the quasi-religious fervor that they can cause. As much of a Mac lover as I am, I will never wait in line at an Apple store for hours just to be one of the first to get a new product. At the end of the day, the product is just a tool to help me do life. A very elegant, beautifully designed and functional tool, but a tool nonetheless. So, when I hear others begin to personify their devices, I find it interesting, and a bit concerning.

And, in the interest of self-disclosure, Karen and I name our computers, so its not like I’m removed from this phenomenon.

I think, though, that its a natural progression of our creative impulse. A few years ago, Karen and I put together and directed a workshop on the spiritual components of creativity. One of our basic starting points was that everyone is creative. I think that plays out in our technological developments, because it proves that collectively, as a culture, we are creative. We find creative solutions to manage our evolving lifestyles, to make our work easier, and to then solve the problems that those solutions create. Just as we were created, we in turn make things in our own image.

And that theology really begins to play out as we enter the realm of potentially self-aware artificial intelligence that science fiction authors have predicted for years. There begins to be a point when the technology we create begins to be something that we worship, at which point it stops being a tool that we use and begins to make us a tool at its disposal. In a sort of twisted progression, we have deified ourselves in our ability to make technological progress, only to lose our power to the technology that we’ve created.

A natural progression of this was discussed this morning in this NPR piece about how researchers are already considering a concept of “robot rights.” How will we treat the machines that do our dirty work if those machines are one day self-aware, feel something like emotion, and expect the same rights that other sentient beings hold?

Its easy to feel like technology has a life of its own, especially as it progresses so quickly. What I see to be almost universally true is that the technology outpaces the other cultural structures within which it is developed: the legal system cannot keep up with the Internet (i.e.: copyright law), philosophy and theology struggle to keep up with our explosions of creation (i.e.: can a robot have a soul?), and now sociology struggles to anticipate how we will incorporate the devices that become increasingly a part of us into our cultural structure (i.e.: how do we define personhood?).

This is something that is as almost as frightening as it is fascinating to watch unfold.


when I say “I wish they would turn this book into a movie” what I really mean is “I wish they would turn this book into a 17-hour-long spectacle that includes every single solitary detail and doesn’t deviate at all from the storyline and has perfect casting”

The Nature of a Hero: Epilogue II

Every time I think that this theme of the nature of a hero is finally settling itself in my head, I’m confronted with yet another example of it in everyday life, books, television…or, in this case, music.

It’s always really cool to listen to a track from a long time ago with fresh ears. A few months ago, I purchased a couple of my favorite songs by the Spin Doctors…a band whose pop-infused tracks were laden with popular culture and literary wit that always brought a smile to my face in my college days. One of my absolutely favorite songs by the Spin Doctors has always been Jimmy Olsen’s Blues. The song tracks the feelings of a frustrated secondary character in the Superman mythology, who dreams of having a relationship with Lois Lane, yet must live with unrequited love due to her relationship with Superman. Thus, Olsen resents the Man of Steel.

Throughout super-hero mythology, the normal human beings who encounter a hero in any way…whether as the potential victim saved from harm’s way, the companion, or the defeated villain…are unable to leave the encounter the same as they entered. Their lives have been forever changed by the hero, and they must choose how to respond. This song is a really interesting take on how those closest to the hero experience a very specific life-disruption, a sort of bittersweet ramification of their relationship to the larger-than-life figure who rescues those in need. This not only raises the stakes in their choice of responses to the encounter, but must also cause the hero more careful consideration of those whom they permit to become close, or those whose lives may be incidentally impacted in a negative way by their mere presence (Dr. Who’s two-part story arc, “The Family of Blood,” is a great example of this).

This is a really interesting aspect of the nature of a hero, I think. Part of what makes a hero character so compelling is when we see their humanity, and the painful choices that they must make due to the fact that they are not like the rest of us. When the hero chooses to sacrifice, he or she shows a heroic nature more profoundly. Yet, none of us think less of them when they choose to enjoy a simple human pleasure, even though it may have consequences to those around them.

Or do we? Do these simple decisions carry the same weight as life or death decisions when made by a hero? When the hero makes the choice to permit himself a romantic relationship, do the feelings of resentment caused elsewhere result in magnified results because the actions were taken by a hero? Isn’t that sort of tragic in its own right?

I’m not sure, but it’s a fascinating part of this thing to consider.

And, it makes for a really great song.


Autumn Recollections

I’ve had a lot of things on my mind as I’ve plunged into the weekend, one of which was that I was really intending to write this post on Friday, as I normally do. I’m glad that I waited, though, because there’s something that I was missing on Friday, and that was the realization that I miss things.

Fall is a beautiful season in New England. The oranges and yellows of the canopies of leaves are quite striking. I took some time late Friday evening to just stand outside under the tree in the back yard and appreciate how cool that was. The scents and warm breeze (uncharacteristically warm for this area in mid-October, which would have made it just about right for where I grew up) took me back to childhood memories of fall festivities. I had the good fortune of a big back yard when I was young, and there were many piles of leaves in which to jump and play.

I’m glad that I paused during the hectic, emotional race of a day that Friday turned out to be to let those sensory-experience-triggered-memories occur, because I think it’s very healthy to give ourselves time to have those moments. The appointments and to-do lists can wait for a bit as we let ourselves be taken back. Especially with our daughter growing so amazingly fast, I realize that my ability to provide secure, happy memories for her now are contingent upon my ability to recall my own safe and happy memories from my own childhood.

A beautiful fall day was a wonderful vehicle to take me back, and there are others waiting all the time, if only we notice. Here’s to hoping that I notice more. I hope the same for you.