On Seinfeld and Wake-Up Calls

Photo of the restaurant used in the series "Seinfeld." Used under Creative Commons.When Karen and I moved into our current apartment, we reversed a decision that we had made only a couple of months into our marriage: we purchased cable. The reason was not actually that we wanted to, but that we received a better deal on our Internet package by doing so. For the first several weeks, we did nothing with it. Eventually, however, I connected the equipment, because why pay for something and not use it?

This decision has met with mixed results, but occasionally there is good. Stumbling onto occasional Seinfeld re-runs when staying up late is one of those unexpected positives.

I was enjoying one of those late night positive Seinfeld experiences last week. The episode centered it’s comedic digression around Elaine using a wake-up call service. Essentially, she paid someone to call her at a given time each morning and wake her up with conversation instead of an alarm clock.

Does this sound familiar? The premise might, if you’ve been around long enough. We used to do this at hotels, and you’ll still see it occurring in movies that we might now refer to as “classic.” When was the last time that you requested a wake-up call at a hotel, though? Some readers may see this as a completely foreign concept, something that they had never done. We have no need of this now, after all. We carry our alarms with us, in the personal computers in our pockets, likely also using them to track our sleep patterns while we’re at it. After all, health is important.

I think that the wake-up call service depicted in this episode of Seinfeld would have been a “disruptive” industry then, similar to ride-sharing now. Similarly, I know people to whom calling a cab is an alien idea, for whom “Uber” is a verb. Indeed, in the episode in question, Elaine be-friended her wake-up caller, and I often strike up friendly conversations with my Lyft drivers. These aren’t far apart, and these sorts of cultural changes are often a good thing. Of course, conversely, the wake-up call service also assumed a landline telephone, considered a concept of antiquity in many homes today.


For all of the excitement that accompanied my first mobile phone (a huge bag phone in my car that required an external antenna mounted on the back glass), I also remember the gift of my first landline telephone to connect in my high school bedroom. It was bright red. I remember calling friends. I remember using a post-it note to keep the request number of the local radio station next to the phone.

I also remember using physical maps and directions written on scrap paper to navigate long road trips to places I had never before seen, and wonder today if that part of my brain has atrophied, as the idea of asking for directions doesn’t even occur to me. I simply reach for my phone.

I read a post recently in which the author expressed longing for the days when we discovered blogs organically instead of by social media algorithms. I miss those days, too. I miss a different era more, though. This was an era of landline phones and computers that were luxury items instead of necessities. An era in which we thought about things before shouting them out, in which getting from one place to another required intentionality, not whimsical abandon. An era in which we looked for the thoughts with which we wanted to engage, and were not willing to have others make those choices for us.

This was a Seinfeld sort of era, a radically modern era at the time, too quickly left behind in our frantic scramble for the next new thing.

It’s one to which we can never return.

“The frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness.” Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, and Thought” p. 163

Image attribution: dnorton under Creative Commons.

Non-Social Networking

Photo of a conference keynote presentationI usually go to two professional conferences per year. One is a smaller weekend conference here in Boston that requires no travel on my part. As with most tech conferences, all of the talks are posted on YouTube within about a week, so that conference attendees can catch the talks they couldn’t get to at the event (you frequently end up with good ones overlapping each other), but also to make the information available for everyone else. There’s always great presentations at these conferences, accompanied by the belief that everyone should be able to benefit by it being available to the world. So, the real value that you get for the admission price is the networking.

Being an introvert, networking has never come easily for me. In fact, I had to be taught how to do it while I was in school. That thing that extroverts do when they work the room and exchange cards and handshakes, making professional connections that will benefit them later in their careers? That’s completely alien to me. And, honestly, it’s completely alien to most writers and programmers. Both fields tend to be largely dominated by introverts, in my experience. Still, though, we have to network because the world is built to work the extrovert way, so….we suffer and move forward.

It’s not that we don’t like people. I love meeting new people. The concept of being in a crowd or group of people that I don’t know, however, and needing to interact with them at any sort of meaningful level, is completely exhausting. Like most introverts, I need hours of quiet time after to recharge my batteries.

This weekend, two things struck me about my conference attendance. One was that, by lunch, which is the prime networking opportunity, I was already drained. I retreated to an outside park bench on the school campus at which the conference was being held, on a beautiful Boston afternoon, and ate alone. I even saw some colleagues across the way that I hadn’t seen in a year, but I just couldn’t get into the head space of talking to them.

Honestly, though, those sorts of moments just happen when you’re an introvert. Even though you might gear up for one of these events as an athlete would for a game (which is required when we’re to have a lot of people contact), sometimes you still just can’t pull it off. It happens.

There was another moment, however, that struck me as particularly apropos of our time in a bad way. Another conference-goer and presenter followed me on Twitter after liking something that I had tweeted.

This happens a lot. For tech conferences especially, it’s another way of networking. The conference always has it’s own hashtag, and developers especially tend to hang on out on Twitter, so you end up connecting with people there. This one grabbed my attention because this person’s profile claimed a lot of geographical similarities to me. So, the confluence was sort of cool. What was telling, though, is that I passed this person later in the vendor area. We looked at each other, but exchanged no verbal greeting at all. We just kept moving.

Now, some of this could be that awkward moment when you’re not certain if that is who you think it is based on a profile photo. In fact, I could have been completely wrong that it was who I thought, but I doubt it. I also don’t think that acquaintances that begin virtually are always shallow or nonexistent in this way. I’ve experienced quite the opposite, and, lest we forget, I met my wife on Facebook. I just think that, from a professional networking standpoint, it’s telling that these sorts of things happen. Perhaps networking professionally and social networking are alike in that they are both shallow events? The goal of professional networking, in my experience, is ultimately to advance one’s own career, after all. Rarely do I intuit the motivation to be selflessly giving back.

Perhaps I’m being curmudgeonly on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps this was just an awkward introvert moment. Perhaps, though, our networking should be less about connections made than relationships entered. There would be exponentially fewer of them, but the relationships that existed would be much less virtual and much more substantive.

Or, perhaps that’s just an introverted way to look at things.

On Immaturity and Language

Wisdom comes with age.

I’m not just saying this because I feel…well, older…of late, but rather because we’ve already discovered this. There’s not only a time-honored tradition of, but a natural order to, learning from those older than us, those with more experience in life. That, after all, is the promise of apprenticeships, still required in many professions.

We’ve stopped rewarding this, though. Education has replaced experience and deference to elders as the point of recognition in the professional world, and post-modern philosophical relativism has replaced listening to experience in the personal realm. Thus, we have people in their 20’s with MBAs managing people in their 50’s who have been in their profession since they were 18, and a perspective that there can be no higher truth than what one sees in the moment.

The end result, I’ve come to see, is an immature culture, and this is nowhere more evident than our politics. A mature person displays careful use of language, but we use our language instead to incite conflict, resentment, and hate for personal gain. Instead of finding common ground, we paint those with diverging opinions from our own as the enemy. We take no care with our words, and thus our words consume us.

“for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body…And consider ships: though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies; it pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.” James 3:2, 4-6, HCSB

I think that we don’t have to look around much to see the course of our lives set on fire at this point. There is power in words, but we don’t recognize that power, because we are immature.  Our immaturity breeds a disrespect for our language, and the cycle continues. Language is so much more powerful than military force or laws, because language brings both of these into being.

“War is what happens when language fails.” Margaret Atwood

Our language as a culture is the result of our maturity, or rather lack thereof. We would do well to grow up a bit before we continue speaking.

Inspiration in Print

During one of my first journalism classes in college, I read a story about a new reporter who was working with obituaries. The story went that the reporter found a small detail in one of the obituaries that was about to go to print, and followed up with the family, ending up with a hugely influential piece.

This far removed from reading that (my adventures in journalism were a long time ago, and my college career even longer), I don’t recall the small detail that the reporter found. I remember the point of the story: that the smallest detail could uncover important news.

The town in which Karen and I live has a weekly paper. It’s tax-funded….delivered to every resident each Thursday. In the years since my byline appeared on a few front pages, I’ve honestly largely assumed the extinction of the newspaper, but have found since we’ve moved back to New England that I enjoy making the time to read this small paper each week. It’s a distinct point in the week. It marks time. I know what’s happening in the town. I feel more connected in a way that local broadcast news can’t provide, being mostly good only for weather and traffic. There’s some substance to print journalism, here complete even with local op-ed writers. It’s….refreshing.

This last week, I found myself wandering into the obituary section. I read the story of a local artist who had worked for Disney, then lived nearby and who had recently passed. This man’s life made for a compelling story to me. There’s an art to telling someone’s story, and I felt as though I knew this man after reading his obituary. I wasn’t struck so much by any specific aspect of the story, as I was by the totality of the story.

This will sound morbid, which isn’t my intention, so as earnestly as I can write this: I wonder how my obituary will read? As old as I sometimes feel (having a two-year old ages one prematurely, I’m convinced), I still have a lot of life left in front of me. I have no way of knowing what that will entail, and I’ve read enough dystopian science fiction to know that I don’t want to know. I hope, though, that an otherwise unremarkable life lived might inspire someone at an earlier point in their own life when it is read. I hope that I will leave a legacy of a good life lived to my children.

In short, there’s much that I gained from reading this stranger’s story, much that I will carry forward.

I miss newspapers.

 

A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch  Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,  making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.