Semper Wi-Fi

Recently, more and more reports and interviews have been appearing in the news about the rise in cyber bullying. Teens are being harassed to the point of self harm or suicide as a result of comments from people online who mean them harm. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and ask.fm, are remarkable for their ability to connect people like never before, but also bringing more people, anonymous and strange, right into your life.

Many people use Facebook daily to connect with friends and family far away. I admit, I check on my friends’ statuses several times a day. After all, I have a big family – about 95 first-cousins – and I have some friends who live on other continents, halfway around the world. It’s probably the best way for us to stay in touch (even though the USPS still offers some of the lowest rates in the world.)

The “Millennials” generation, those people who were born between 1980 and 2000, do not remember the pre-digital world we live in. Many teenagers right now have come to expect that they need to be connected at all times. I’ve talked to many adults, even, who think it abhorrent to actually switch their mobile devices off (oh, the horror!). I took my film camera, a Minolta X-370 SLR, with me one day about ten years ago, and I shot a picture of my niece, who was almost six at the time. After I snapped the picture, she said, “let me see it,” and she reached for my camera to look at the back. She was suddenly confounded when she expected see an image and instead saw only the black backing. I explained to her that it was a film camera, and that it needed to be processed. She was even more confused at this.

Now, she and her friends are so constantly connected – many of them using multiple social media sites at once – they cannot contemplate a world where you just disconnect. They gather at a friend’s house and sit on the sofa, smartphone in hand, and communicate – to other people who are not in the room, completely ignoring one-another. To my astonishment, adults are following this pattern, now.

Stand at a busy street corner and watch as people stop, pull out their phones, and proceed to text, check messages, or play “Angry Birds”, if not doing these while actually driving. It’s shocking to see how these devices have become part of our anatomy. We’re unable to be apart from them, and we receive “phantom” vibrations, perceiving a call or a message coming in, and discovering that no such thing has happened.

What strikes me as puzzling – and perhaps because I’m old and not in touch with the trend-setting demographic currently placed on the throne of public adoration – is that these teens who have been the victims of cyber-bullying did not simply block the offenders, or better yet, just drop off the network altogether. I have, on occasion, deleted my Facebook account after one or more individuals pissed me off with some political or religious bullshit. But I have some very important people in my life, and the internet is the very best way to stay in touch.

The internet has produced some wonderful things: streaming video, crowdfunding, finding missing persons, and stress-free shopping. But there are also scams, viruses that destroy your computer, and spyware. But I believe there are a still decent people out there. It’s just that the crooks and those who want to injure and cheat are pretty smart, and they have a plan.

There are good ways to protect yourself. Just as you would lock your doors and be aware of your surrounding to avoid being a victim of crime in the physical world, in the cyber world, we must be vigilant also. Being constantly connected and “always on” makes us more vulnerable, and we could all stand to take a step back, turn off the phone, and clear our minds (after you’ve finished reading this, of course).

It’s easy to forget, I suppose, that many people in the world today never knew what it was like way back. I myself have had trouble remembering what it was like when, to look something up meant reaching for a dictionary, and calling someone meant going into the kitchen to use the phone. When we left the house, people could not reach us. When we returned, we never knew how many calls we missed. And if we wanted someone to talk to, it was much easier just to go to their house.

Girl using a mobile phone

My teenage niece has 800 friends on Facebook. I asked her if she really knew that many people. She insisted that she did, albeit unconvincingly. I have a rule on social media, that a “friend” is someone who I know well enough that I have been to their home. Of course, not everyone whose home I’ve visited is considered my friend. But it keeps me from accepting requests or suggestions for people who I don’t know personally, but are “mutual friends” of someone I do know. It gets so messy!

Sadly, the people who have lived next door to us for ten years have never invited us over for dinner, nor we they. It is a disturbing commentary that we live in a time where the community is now in cyberspace, and human civilization, for the first time in history, can exist purely in a virtual environment, allowing a “village” to be made up of bytes instead of bricks. It’s no wonder that people have become slaves to their social media accounts. If I knocked on your door instead of texting you, would you answer?

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Repeat After Me

A few thousand years ago, give or take, humans decided to become monogamous, taking a mate who would accompany them for the rest of their lives, which wasn’t very long. You might live to see your grandchildren, but your chances weren’t good. Since most people couldn’t afford to hire help, you had to produce as many offspring as you could as quickly as possible to produce heirs and laborers to carry on after you were gone, which could be any moment now.

So, they invented marriage. This was a way of formalizing the bond between two (or more) people, and it was intended to, more or less, seal a contract between (among) them. In the beginning, the contract was simply between the couple and their god or gods, and the rest of their community. Eventually, the contract would be more formal, and it required authorization from a bishop or a magistrate. And, as today, the marriage event would need to be presided over by someone given the power to declare the bond. Nowadays, that role is typically filled by a cleric, like a priest or minister, or an officer of the court, like a justice of the peace. Also, ship captains while at sea are granted the authority to perform a wedding ceremony.

The wedding ceremony has evolved with the times. And wedding rituals vary greatly from one culture to another. In the US, weddings can range from an elaborate church ceremony, where the bride’s gown can cost as much as $30,000. Receptions involve a band or a professional DJ, and the cake can cost more than a family makes in a month in most countries. It is traditional, again within certain western cultures, for the bride to be “given away” by her father, as he presents her to her groom. Funny word, groom. I’ll probably come back to that. In other countries, the traditions are much different, like in India, where the female members of the party wear intricate henna designs, and the bride never wears white.

I have been to several weddings, three just involving me and my wife (more about this later). One ceremony was for a dear friend of mine. She and her husband were married in a formal ceremony in autumn. I felt underdressed for the occasion, wearing only a two-piece suit. It was held in a stone church surrounded by elm trees. There was a fantastic jazz combo for the reception, and the entire affair was very classy.

By contrast, my aunt and uncle renewed their vows in an outdoor ceremony. While it was decidedly less sophisticated than the other one, it was still beautiful and fun. Suum cuique, I suppose. Actually, my wife and I, having repeated our vows twice so far, have experienced a wider spectrum of ceremonies: first, a visit to the JP, then a relatively solemn and orthodox church wedding, and most recently, a wedding in Las Vegas, with an Elvis impersonator performing the rites. We are in the planning stage for the next one, in about five years.

We do!
Courtesy Paul Hart / Atomicjeep

What I know is that when two people decide to “make it official”, it suddenly becomes something very serious, even if it’s just a trip through the drive-through wedding chapel.

A month ago, I attended the wedding of my niece and her new husband. They’re pretty young to be getting married – she’s almost 19 – but who am I to say anything? I have a lot of hope for them. Seriously, everyone deserves some happiness, but marriage is like a career. You have to stick with it if you want it to work. It requires a lot of dedication. Okay, that’s enough from me about it. I’m hardly in any position to be offering advice. Now, my grandparents. well, that’s another story. Before my grandfather passed away at age 97, he and my grandmother had celebrated 73 years of marriage! They had 13 children, and about one hundred grand- and great-grandchildren. Talk about work!

Of course, their wedding was nothing like the lavish ceremonies seen on television. Things were much simpler back then. Besides, it was during the Great Depression, so everyone was counting pennies. I’m sure it was beautiful. Too bad they didn’t have a photographer.

There are always going to be “bridezillas” and outrageous examples of what many would say a wedding should not become. We have Hollywood to thank for distorting the image of marriage, both on- and off-screen. We can listen to politicians argue about how to define marriage, when it essentially only comes down to two people who want to spend their lives together, and have it recognized by the community. For most of human history, marriage did not involve the government. If two people said “I do” in front of a priest or a volcano it didn’t matter to anyone more than 10 km away.

So, “Mazel tov!” to every newlywed couple out there. Don’t skimp on the photographer.

Different

We seem to love to point out what is wrong with another person. We can hear ourselves say, “What’s with that guy?,” or “look at that freak!” Human beings find it easy to pass judgment on others, primarily based on their appearance and behavior. And we seem to find fault with anyone different from ourselves. We use words like “crazy” or “stupid” to dismiss someone’s behavior (we love to use that word, “crazy” so that we don’t have to explore the possibility that someone’s aberrant behavior is not their own fault.)

It seems that television is an all-you-can-eat buffet of human deviance. It wasn’t always like this, of course. Back in the early days of TV, Robert Young and Hugh Beaumont showed audiences that the nuclear family nothing close to dysfunctional could provide us with hours of entertainment. Decades later, Roseann Barr dislodged this standard. But perhaps “Leave it to Beaver” was part of the cause for this shift, if only a knee-jerk response. Humans have seemingly always had this desire to gawk and jeer at others, especially for their differences, perceived though they may be.

Genetic research has revealed that all human beings, from the Inuit to the Maori to the Maasai to Northern Europeans, we all share 99.9% of our DNA with the other. We are, essentially, all the same. Surely, if extra-terrestrial visitors were to look at humans, they would observe little to no difference, just as when you or I look at a flock of flamingos.

Flamingos Partying

Being the same with only slight differences means that any difference is amplified. If you are within 1.6 and 1.83 meters tall, and your hair color is a shade of brown or blond or red, you blend in, sort-of. But what if you’re 1.8 meters with a pink Mohawk and a handlebar mustache? Or what if you are extremely short (dwarf)? Are you albino? We have so many terms as labels for the differences among us, don’t we?

We like to say we as a species relish our differences. But there are places – yes, even today in this country – where if your skin is dark, you will be treated poorly. And if you are considered obese, you will be judged unworthy by some people. In certain circles, skinny, young, and pretty is the only acceptable state. (Being blond gives you extra points.) But in general, Americans think they have risen above this. But then someone wants to build a mosque in their neighborhood. And everyone starts talking about “them”. Never mind that this country is supposed to be a “melting pot” and embrace differences. Remember that kid, Sebastien de la Cruz, singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the NBA Finals last year? Twitter was inundated with racist and xenophobic, bigoted comments, even though he was a US citizen. Such ignorance is to be expected from people who don’t bother to understand the world they inhabit.

Okay, so we have some work to do. I think it’s acceptable to notice differences, just as it is fine to be different. Places like Burning Man seem to embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly. Austin, Texas, prides itself on the motto: “Keep Austin Weird”. And Venice Beach, California is the current capital of Different. Seriously, though, it’s all too often that we dismiss someone as being “crazy” when it is entirely possible that that person has a bona fide neurological or psychiatric disease. Would you condemn someone for having Parkinson’s disease? Are we in the dark ages?

Someday, perhaps in a century or two, we will live in a society where people are cherished, and their differences are honored. Maybe we will consider each human a beautiful creation, unique and special. Maybe someone who doesn’t think the same way you or I do will be respected, and people will not scream at one another on television. Maybe.

It’s All Fun and Games…

People, for whatever reason, love pranks. Some people, that is. There are entire television shows where people are set up for colossal practical jokes. The ratings for these kinds of programs – as well as their ostensibly amused audiences – suggest that people approve of this kind of behavior, and from some of the things I’ve seen – “Honey Boo-Boo”, et al. – I think television producers believe we are mostly Hot Pocket-munching ignoramuses.

Recently, I watched a YouTube submission that was actually a paid promotion for a remake of Brian DePalma’s 1976 masterpiece, Carrie. In the promo, a young woman is playing the part of an inconspicuous coffee shop customer who is “harassed” by another customer, another actor, who is suddenly pushed and levitated – telekinetically, mind you – by the young woman, to the shock and horror of the unsuspecting patrons, or so we are led to believe.

Prior to the paranormal antics of said actors, we are privy to seeing the setting up of the mechanisms – the false walls and suspension cables – that allow the actors to pull off such convincing feats. Back to the café, the woman is now causing tables and chairs to move around the place, like a time-lapse vision of furniture tectonics. Meanwhile, customers are screaming and running for the exit.

Now, the good people, and the lawyers, at Sony Pictures likely had this all worked out to mitigate any liability beforehand. So it stands to reason that these “customers” could also be actors. Be that as it may, the reactions are presented to us as genuine terror. The patrons, or participants, are convincing.

But, what if these are real customers? What about the “false-drivers seat” pranks of late? You may have seen them. A car pulls up to the drive-thru window with no visible driver. Or, recently, a skeleton is driving the car. In reality, there is a driver, but he’s concealed within the false seat cushion. The  unsuspecting fast food workers are confounded when the ghost car pulls up, and I’m sure they can’t be compensated enough for the usual antics of the late-night munchies hunters, not to mention the occasional possessed Pontiac.

When I come across these little gems on YouTube, I’m reminded of one prank played on me when I was a teenager. One night, I was at my friend’s house a few blocks from my home. Let’s call him “Steve”. Steve and I were watching TV when two other friends showed up, “Mitch” and “Dan”. Dan had brought a pistol and wanted to show it off to us. I should tell you now that this turned out to be a prop or a starter pistol, which had blanks. But to an untrained eye, in the dark, it looked authentic. Fast-forward to to Steve’s front yard, where Dan is waving the gun around and shoots Steve in the gut point-blank, as I looked on in horror.

What happened next is kind of a blur, but I found myself running to the house to call 911. The three guys stopped me before I got inside, and I realized Steve wasn’t hurt. He didn’t even appear to have been shot. But I saw him take that bullet. He bent over like Oswald that day in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters.  Seeing it happen like that was very real for me, and it remains that way today. It doesn’t matter that I later found out that the gun had no bullets. I saw my friend shot by another friend.

Since that night, I haven’t been able to tolerate practical jokes. Seeing someone gunned down wasn’t funny. And I’ve had a lot of years to try to erase it from my memory, but that image won’t go away. I can still see the blast coming from the barrel of the gun, and I can hear Steve groan in agony – albeit, feigned.

I guess this is not going to stop anyone from pulling practical jokes on people. These antics will find favor with people, I suppose for the rest of human history. But take comfort in the knowledge that I will never “prank” anyone. Now, you might be saying, “but no one in their right mind would do something that cruel.” I hope that is more prevalent a reflex than laughter. Unfortunately, history shows us that people are willing to perform unspeakable acts just because someone told them to do it. One such example comes from the results of the “Milgram Experiment”, where subjects were led to believe that other subjects were administered painful shocks. The experiment raised serious ethical questions, and some subjects experienced psychological trauma.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. But how are we to predict when this could happen? If what we are about to do is potentially harmful or cruel in any way, we ought to stop and think so that  something truly bad does not happen.

The Law of Motion

A few years ago when I was returning from a gallery show in Dallas, I witnessed something surreal and horrific. I left the McKinney Ave gallery row and headed north on Central Expressway. Traffic on Saturdays is not usually heavy, and everyone this day was moving around 120 kph (74 mph). I had moved into the left lane to pass some slower vehicles, but I had to slow down when the cars ahead slowed. Just then, an older-looking Civic rushed by me on the right, travelling considerably faster than the rest of us. The Civic sped in front of me to occupy the lane ahead. Since I was only driving as fast as the car in front of me, I backed off a little to give Civic some room. He tapped his brakes, and I thought, “of course you had to slow down, asshole!”

On US Highway 75 north of Dallas, the “HOV” or carpool lane is separated from the other lanes by one-meter tall plastic pylons. These pylons serve to deter drivers from entering the lane from just anywhere on the highway. Civic was ahead of me about 100 meters. Then he began to drift left into the HOV lane, crashing through the pylon barricade, plastic shrapnel flying everywhere. I thought, “okay, go ahead. I was only driving as fast as the car in front of me. But you have somewhere important to be.” Then, suddenly, Civic hit the brakes and jerked the steering wheel to the right. My initial thought was that he drifted by accident, being preoccupied with gloating or mocking the slow-pokes behind him. The little car quickly lost control. It was so fast! But I remember it with such clarity, almost in slow motion. Civic did a kind of fish-tail maneuver and began swerving completely out of control. I immediately eased off the accelerator and tapped my brake pedal gently, signaling the drivers behind me to get ready to stop. Civic slid slightly left of center and the front-wheel drive regained some traction at the precise angle to propel the tiny car into the concrete wall.

Image
Single vehicle crash on US Highway 380 in 2013
Photo by Chris Zuniga

Something I didn’t realize until recently is that the concrete barrier in the center median of many freeways is designed to prevent cars that crash into it from going through the wall and into oncoming traffic. Instead, it has a kind of slope at the bottom which serves to lift a vehicle off the pavement and toss it in the air like a kite. At certain speeds, like this day, the wind will catch the underside of the car and make it sail!

Civic, upon colliding with the wall, was suddenly hurled upward into a spiral, spinning and flipping like Greg Louganis, somersaulting in a macabre ballet of atrocious design. The car must have completed three full turns in mid-air before gravity brought it back down to earth, upside-down, crashing to the pavement and skidding forward to an abrupt stop. Pieces of metal and plastic and rubber and glass littered the five lane roadway. Sparks flew from the wreckage as Civic glided to its horrible end. Everyone on the freeway had come to a complete halt by now. Some drivers, unaware of the horror that had just happened began sounding their horns in protest to the non-movement of traffic ahead of them. A few drivers who had gotten out of their cars to offer help were screaming obscenities back at the ignorant horn-blowers. It was a gorgeous spectacle. I, along with many other witnesses, proceeded to call 911. The driver and passenger of Civic crawled out of their upturned, derelict Honda and sat on the pavement in the middle of North Central Expressway, holding their heads, either because of the pain, or from the shock of having been in such a spectacular crash, or from the shame that comes with having caused the wreck, or maybe sheer trauma-induced disorientation. Either way, I told the 911 operator to send an ambulance. Some people, perhaps medically trained, ran to offer help. The operator cleared me to leave, and traffic resumed, passing the accident scene as a fire truck arrived. The whole sequence of events only lasted about three minutes. Or so it might have been, but it plays back in my mind much slower. I cannot imagine what was going through the mind of the two in the car as it was tossed in the air. It was terrific. Not terrific in the modern sense, but the more archaic meaning: causing terror.