Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I recently bought an iPhone and am trying to figure out how to use it. I don't really have a need for all the fancy things it does but I remember the beating George Bush the elder took when he expressed surprise at the supermarket scanners, and I don't want to follow in those footsteps. I may have been weaned on Typewriter 2.0, but I am determined to have at least a passing acquaintence with Web 2.0 before it morphs into the next big thing.

So over the weekend, I set up a couple of applications, downloaded some music and subscribed to a handful of podcasts, and when I boarded the bus to work this morning decided to give it a try. I plugged my earphones into the iPhone, listened to a couple of news items on an NPR podcast, then settled into tunes from Bonnie Raitt and Madeline Peyroux.

But here's the thing: it wasn't fun at all. I felt disconcerted, disoriented. Here I was, connected to a whole world of opportunities, but disconnected from the reality around me. It was really uncomfortable.

Before long, I put the iPhone in my bag and returned to my usual routine of people-watching and looking out the window. By the time the bus reached my stop, I'd regained my equilibrium and went on about my day.

I'm not giving up the iPhone. I'll try the podcasts again, most likely at the gym, where disconnecting from the reality of 45 minutes on the ellpitical machine will be a blessing. I'm already a text-messaging addict, and I love the GPS, the weather channel, the quick access to YouTube and the application that turns the iPhone into a flashlight. That "music genome project" thing is cool.

But if it's a choice between the rich and varied world inside the sleek little iPhone, and the messy business of real people, I'll take the people.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Change hurts for good

My Saturday morning aerobics class is one of my favorite activities of the weekend. It's a "low impact" class, said to be good for all fitness levels -- meaning that those who are overweight, out of shape or getting on in years can participate without requiring an ambulance on stand-by. It is led by a mid-50s looking fellow named Steve.

The routine each week is fairly predictable. Some warm up and stretching, 40 minutes of choreographed bouncing around to thumping remixes of tunes from Three Dog Night, Tina Turner and Fleetwood Mac, about 10 minutes of abs, and some stretching. The occasional newcomer catches on fairly quickly and we regulars don't really need Steve to tell us when to turn to the left, turn to the right or pivot to the back. If I choose to alter it at all, it's to add a little more bounce to my step during Proud Mary or Oye Como Va. I leave a little sweaty but feeling quite successful in having managed the steps, and maybe a little cocky about having been able to put more effort into the routine than some of my more elderly classmates.

Today, however, Steve was out of town, and a substitute named Michelle had been engaged to fill in. Michelle is a couple of decades younger, about as big around as a pipe cleaner and a lot more enthusiastic than the sardonic Steve. She played techno-disco music instead Pointer Sisters, and her definition of low impact clearly differs from Steve's.

She also did different steps, in different order, and with a different sort of count -- I can't quite explain it, but her correlation of limb movements to 1-2-3-4 had me a half-beat off through most of the routine. She had us marching forward and backward at different times and doing grapevines in different directions than normal, sending several of us left when we were supposed to go right and bumping into each other throughout the workout. It was a bit chaotic, compared to the predictable class it is when Steve holds the microphone.

Today, I left a whole lot sweaty and not at all cocky. I already know I will hurt tomorrow -- I can tell I used different muscles, in different ways.

But it's the sort of hurt that comes with accomplishment, like chasing cobwebs away, like moving in a different, better (or at least interesting) direction. The sort of hurt that's good for you. I'll be glad when Steve returns and my Saturday order is restored, but today it felt good to change it up a bit, and I'm better for it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The buzz beyond

There was lots of conversation on the bus this morning. All of it with people who were nowhere to be seen.

A woman in the seat in front of me was discussing weekend movie options on her cell phone. I was reading through and responding to office e-mails on my BlackBerry, getting a head-start on my day. All around me were passengers similarly tapping at keypads, sending text messages somewhere into cyberspace.

As I finished my e-mail review, stuck the BlackBerry back in my bag and took note of the scene around me, I thought about the irony of our bodies bumping along on the bus while our voices and words sped ahead. We must still transport our physical selves in the analog world of the bus, but our thoughts are not similarly bound.

Pretty cool. As long as we don't forget altogether how to connect with each other in the here and now.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A moment of grace

I sing (loosely speaking) in the alto section of a local church choir. There are about 125 of us, but we split Sunday duty over three services, so rarely are we together as a group in anything but Thursday night rehearsal, which I haven't been attending all that faithfully of late. We all tend to know the others who sing in our sections at normal Sunday service times pretty well, but the altos who sing at 8 a.m. (like me) may only know the 9:30 a.m. altos in passing, and may not know the 11 a.m. basses at all. Which is what made today special.

Today there was a memorial service for the son of a fellow alto, one with whom I'm well enough acquainted to say "hello", but she's an 11 a.m.-er and I'm long gone by then. She's friendly, personable, and having stood next to her one year at the Christmas concert I know she sings in tune, but I don't really know her.

The choir director had asked for volunteers to sing at the memorial service, and I had dutifully signed up. But as the time drew near to head to the church for a pre-service warm-up, I wavered. I've got a busy week ahead at the office, and some catch-up work to do today... nobody will actually notice if I don't show up... she doesn't really know me....

Ultimately I heard my mother's voice in my head, telling me I had committed to be there, and whether anybody cared or not I should keep my promise. So I went.

As did virtually all the rest of us, from all sections, all service times. I haven't seen that many of my fellow choristers together since last Christmas. The look on the grieving mother's face when she entered the sanctuary and saw all of us... well, I knew I'd made the right choice.

I learned that my fellow alto's son had been a vibrant young chef at a ski resort in Idaho, with a passion for skiing and snowboarding before lymphoma cut his life short at age 39. I learned that she had endured not one, but two major losses -- first her husband, then her son -- in less than two years. The minister's words were comforting, the choir sniffled its way through "Be Thou My Vision" and "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," and many of us lost it altogether when a pair of sopranos sang a breathtaking "Pie Jesus."

It was a lovely service, but more to the point, it was a collective moment of grace, an hour of my time that mattered a whole lot more than the office work I would have otherwise done this afternoon. To her... and to me.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Leap of faith

The sound of sirens in the distance pierced my early morning reverie one day last week while I waited at the bus stop for my transport to the office.

Newly conditioned to attend to the moment, I noticed the scene as the sirens came closer and closer. Cars on all sides came to a halt and in moments, two police cars and an ambulance barrelled through the usually busy intersection.

As traffic resumed I thought about the leap of faith the drivers of those speeding, screaming vehicles must make every time they set their course for emergencies. Will drivers of the cars on the road hear the sirens and respond? Are they even aware of the rules that call for them to pull over and stop? Or in their haste to solve someone else's crisis, will those who drive emergency vehicles become victims of one themselves?

Of course all turned out as it should at this intersection that morning, as it almost always does. So the police and ambulance drivers are justified in the faith they place in others on the road to know and abide by the rules.

Today, as I contemplate the close of an amazing week in our country's history, I think about the leap of faith we the people all take every four years when we choose a president, and many times in between when we vote for a host of other local, state and national leaders. Did we study the issues sufficiently to make informed choices? Did the candidates represent themselves honestly? They can't possibly keep all the promises they make in the course of a campaign -- but will they be able to do what's necessary to take action on those that matter the most?

The sirens are screaming for our economy, for energy independence, health care, national security and a host of social and policy issues. There's a fair possibility some or all will come crashing together in the intersection, with consequences I prefer not to ponder.

But today, I am feeling good about the leap of faith we collectively took this week, and hopeful our leaders can navigate the road ahead with the fewest fender-benders possible.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

As I type this, the outcome is unknown. I'm glued to the tv and will continue to be so until a winner is declared or I fall over, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, this day has given me a lot of things to think about. Among them:

Tim Russert. I'm sorry he's missed this election, I hope he's watching it from wherever he is, and I really miss his genuine passion and exuberance in following and reporting the political process.

Uncle Walter. Today is Walter Cronkite's 92nd birthday. He covered the elections of my youth, as well as everything that mattered in my formative years. Happy Birthday to someone who was at one time the "most trusted man in America" in a time when some journalists actually earned and merited that kind of trust.

Nastiness. Living in a "swing state" our snail mail and voice mail have been barraged with absolutely scurrilous and clearly untruthful messages. This stuff must work or they wouldn't spend money on it, but I hate what that says about us.

21st century marketing techniques employed by the Obama campaign. We in the business world should take note.

Hope. Not as a political slogan, but as a fervent wish that those who emerge as our leaders have the smarts, the will, the tenacity and the persuasive power to work together and confront the difficult issues ahead. I hope we can talk through our differences and look for common ground to move forward. There's too much to do to continue to spend energy in kneejerk partisan sniping.

History in the making. It's historic whichever way it goes... but the very idea that an African American man is knocking on the White House door is particularly stunning for me to contemplate, given that it wasn't so long ago that African Americans were not even permitted to cast a ballot. One more step forward. Many more to go.

And mostly, community. I have complained about my state not offering early voting, and I think it's ridiculous that we continue to hold elections on Tuesday - a decision first determined in the agrarian era to be convenient for farmers bringing their crops to town. But when I got in line at 6 a.m. this morning, and emerged a little over an hour later having accomplished my civic duty, I felt like I'd contributed to something important, and part of that was the collective experience of the voting process. There's so little we do together any more, at least in our physical presence, that I think maybe Election Day is worth keeping as a day to literally stand up (even if it's in a long line) and be counted.