Monday, July 27, 2015

The Inescapable Cellphone

Back at the beginning of May, I worked with a group of 9 girls from one of the local colleges, organizing a clean-up along the trail at a local state forest. It was part of an effort called "Into the Streets," where teams of students go off and do community service projects throughout the area.

The group was very nice and energetic. We spent a chunk of time hauling a fallen tree out of the picnic area (the forest ranger had cut it into movable chunks but had not had time to move said chunks out of the area), and then we walked a 2.5 mile loop, trimming back some overgrowth, moving the occasional tree detritus off the path, picking up a stray piece of litter. When we broke for lunch, they still had a couple of hours left on their day, but there wasn't a whole lot left to do.

The group's leader--I don't know if she was the official point person for the group, or if she just assumed command--asked me what the plan was for after lunch, and I told her honestly that there was another section of trail, but I had no idea what condition it was in (I had not had time to get up there and pre-scout it). I gave them the option: we can walk that next section of trail, or you can call it an early day.

She said they would discuss it, and we sat at the picnic table. The girls were amusing to listen to. They all had their cell phones out and were checking out Facebook and e-mails and the like, sharing pictures with each other. After about 20 minutes, the leader says to me, "We decided. We'll go home early."

In the time we sat at the picnic tables, there had been no discussion at all.

How had they decided? Was it just a given that they'd knock off early if given the chance? Had they talked about it in their cars on the way up to the forest? "Hey, maybe we can go home early, let's see." Did they have some sort of telepathic link that they were beaming messages back and forth into each other's heads while we ate lunch?

Of course they did. They all had cell phones.

What amazed me about their decision is not that they would make it via text message, but that they could have that discussion via text message and I would have no clue that they were having it. There was never any sense at all that a discussion was taking place: no verbal tip-offs, no changes in behavior or direction of the conversation, nothing. I was completely in the dark on this. It made me wonder a little what else they might have been talking about behind my back--"What's with the cheesy mustache?" "Get a load of that hair!" stuff like that.

Despite knowing how useful they are, I have long resisted entry into the cellphone era. Oh, I've had two previous phones, but one contract we dumped when we moved up here because AT&T was only able to provide us a signal if you stood in. Just. The right. Spot on the front lawn, and that was about it in the entire county. A second one...I don't know what happened with that one. But 3 years ago, my wife jumped into the smartphone era, a necessity for her business, and hasn't looked back. I continued the resistance, even though there were lots of times when it would have been great to have one. Now I have one.

It's a hand-me-down, which is fine. And on the very first day I had it, it proved itself useful, as the Catbird wasn't where I was expecting to find her following graduation rehearsal. Two minutes out on the road, my phone chimed with an incoming text from my wife, alerting me to the Catbird's new location. While I was glad not to have to go traipsing all over town in search of her, I also did a silent curse--think Seinfeld saying, "Newman!"

Don't get me wrong, in just a month the cell phone has proven quite convenient, quite necessary. What's amazing--and alarming--is how easy it is to start relying on it for everything. I've already used it as a watch, a camera, a flashlight, a document scanner. Oh, and I've made a few calls with it, too. It's almost insidious, really, how you can get by fine without one, until you have one. Once you've got it, you can't do without it. Not surprisingly, as much as I'm glad to have the phone, I'm trying to avoid complete dependence on it.

Are you totally reliant on your cellphone? Do you even have one?


Monday, July 20, 2015

The Mockingbird Sings A Different Tune

Of all our feathered friends, the northern mockingbird has one of the greatest, most descriptive names ever: Mimus polyglottos. Rather than have some awkward Latinized name to memorialize the person who discovered it (see: Bachman's warbler, Vermivora bachmanii), the mockingbird's name pretty much sums up what the bird is all about: "Many-voiced mimic." Here's a sample:

Of course, the mockingbird is also famous as the central metaphor for Harper Lee's renowned 1960 book, To Kill A Mockingbird. Never out of print, taught in high schools all across the country for years, held up as a condemnation of racism (at least among white Americans) , the book is once again on the minds of many people after the release last week of Go Set A Watchman, and a lot of people are not happy.

First, a caveat: I have not read Go Set A Watchman. It's also at least 4 years since I last read Mockingbird (one thing I miss about my girls being out of high school is they're not bringing books home from English class that I want to read--or re-read; I have to find them on my own!). Specifically, people are not happy about the portrayal of Mockingbird's hero, Atticus Finch. In Mockingbird, he defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in a 1920s deep south town. Finch is revered among a large segment of (white) America: he is portrayed as brave, honest, tolerant, and, presumably, free of the racism that pervades his small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Not so fast. Again, without having read Watchman, based solely on the reviews and criticisms and reactions that have been rolling in for the last week or so, it seems that Atticus has another side, one that was not revealed in Mockingbird, and this has sent shockwaves through the legions of Atticus admirers. Atticus, it turns out, is a racist who supports segregation. The result is a lot of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over how this could happen, how could Ms. Lee tear down this amazing hero in such a way? And again, I say, Not so fast.

Though Watchman is set some 20 years after the events of Mockigbird, though it was published some 50 years after Mockingbird, it is not a sequel. It looks like a sequel, yes, but it was not conceived of as a sequel by Ms. Lee. For those not familiar with the story, Go Set A Watchman was written by Lee first. She submitted it to her editors, who instead guided her through a re-write process that resulted in Mockingbird, a very different story with a very different approach. Those of you reading this who are writers know how much a story can change from one draft to another, even when you're not setting out to make huge changes. For non-writers who may be reading this, the short answer is: a lot. Lee changed a third person point of view in Watchman to first, and put herself squarely in the head of a 6-8 year old girl to tell the story, instead of a 20-something looking back. Changes of this nature are going to lead to all kinds of changes throughout the manuscript, whether intended or not. It's a literary version of the butterfly effect. Atticus in Watchman is not the same Atticus from Mockingbird. Same name, yes, same house, same law practice, but not the same man. He's more like "Alternate Universe Atticus," and his presence should not stop you from enjoying what we might think of as "the original Atticus Finch."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Carrie's Query Critique

For those of you who may have a query in need of perusal, get thee to Carrie Pestritto's blog for a chance to get critiqued by an agent (and the chance to get 'the Carrie Treatment' your first 100 pages!). Good luck!

It's Invasive Species Awareness Week!

Yesterday marked the beginning of Invasive Species Awareness Week here in New York. The purpose of  this week is to promote awareness and understanding of invasive species and to help stop their spread. Invasive species are plants, animals or other organisms that can cause harm to the environment, the economy, and/or human health. They are usually not native to the area in question and have high reproductive capacity. You may remember a few months back I linked to a short article I wrote for our local newspaper on a species called the emerald ash borer; last month I had another run on steps boaters and fishermen and women should take to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. That article can be found here. I should have another article running this week, on efforts in New York to keep the Asian longhorned beetle in check.

Invasive species are an issue that can affect us all, with potentially enormous costs. Check with your state and local resource agencies to find out which ones are in your area and what you can do to help keep them under control. And here is a video that was put together by some good friends of the organization I work for:

OCCA - Clean, Drain and Dry from Blue Water Studio on Vimeo.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Monday Musing: Hugs and Brain Cramps

Over the last few weeks there's been a flurry of hugging going around. It's a natural consequence of high school graduation--people suddenly come at you with arms open, as a way of saying both "Congratulations!" and "I understand the emotional whirlwind you're going through, I'm there, too." It's not unpleasant, but it's a little strange considering that some of these folks are people I would not classify as great friends. Friendly, yes, but not friends.

At any rate, because my mind works the way it does I found myself in one of these clinches (oops, better be careful there, that gives it significance that it didn't have) wondering how it is that we don't have more head-on collisions with people we don't know well when we hug. What I realized is there seems to be some sort of hug protocol where the default is to lean to the left (Interestingly, thinking about it some more, we seem to tilt our heads to the right to kiss); you don't generally see people leaning to the right when initiating a hug. I'm not wrong on this, am I? Do you notice this, too? I'm curious if this is a universal approach or more of a western culture thing.


Major brain cramp last night. I went to brush my teeth before going to bed, looked at the toothbrushes lined up in the bathroom--and had no idea which one was mine. They're all the same basic model except for color. "Is mine the green one or the orange one?" It was a strange moment, a piece of information that either went missing from my brain or where the information retrieval system broke down for a minute. I actually had to ask my wife. It was more amusing than disconcerting, but definitely a strange thing. Every have something like that happen to you?


The two men who escaped from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility last month have been recovered, one shot and killed, the other shot (just 3 miles or so from the Canadian border) and now back in prison. From the beginning, this breakout captured the public's attention and imagination, with it's Shawshank Redemption-style breakout. It was an audacious plan, we can admit that, but before we start writing books and making made-for-TV movies about it, let's remember this: the two men who broke out were (are) killers, plain and simple. They're not heroes; let's not lionize them.

That's about it for me today, how's things by you?

Friday, July 3, 2015


It took longer than expected, but the latest manuscript is off to Carrie. Can I go to sleep now?