Tag Archives: social media

Vans, Planes, Trucks, and Horses

After our stressed-out rush to get to the airport, we found a line hundreds of passengers deep waiting to check in.  Many had multiple oversized suitcases.

“Maybe the line will move fast,” said Lynn.  She’s such an optimist.  After 15 minutes it hadn’t moved at all.

More than one woman in stiletto heels, sprayed-on makeup, acrylic nails, and wearing 10 pounds of gold jewelry marched up to the desk and demanded to be taken to the head of the line.  They tried lines like, “Do you know who I am?!” and “I have very important business in Bogota!”  The Avianca agent said tiredly, “I’m so sorry madam; you must wait in the line like everyone else.”

Another Avianca agent came along, asking if anyone was there for the 10:30am flight to Bogota.  This is one of those times when knowing some Spanish is really helpful.  I raised my hand, and Lynn and I were led away to the front of the line.  Heh, heh, heh. Or jeh, jeh, jeh as it would be in Español.

We had two hours to kill in Bogota airport, so naturally we reverted to checking on what our friends and family were up to back home via social media.  When traveling in an exotic place, it’s important to keep up with the new Tater Tot hot dish recipe your aunt has tried, the political views of a friend of a friend you talked to for one hour five years ago, and the antics of your ex-coworker’s cat.

I often find the airport network choices amusing. “No me pidas la clave,” means “Don’t ask me for the key.”  Someone is obviously tired of strangers asking, “How do you get on line here?”

In the four Colombian airports we visited, the wifi networks were straightforward.  Maybe this is, ironically, due to fewer terrorism regulations than in the US and Europe, where—at least the first time—you have to give them you name and email and sometimes your address and phone number, and sometimes create a user name and password, and it still takes forever to actually get access.  So “Zona Wifi GRATIS para la Gente” (Free Wifi Zone for the People) isn’t secure. So what?  It’s not like I do online securities trading at the airport.

“I always find it amusing,” said Lynn, “when I land somewhere I haven’t been in years—like Bangkok—and I am immediately connected to a wireless signal because it remembers me.”

Responsible Travel had messaged several times to check we were on track and apologizing for the morning’s no-show driver.  In retrospect, knowing everything turned out okay, it doesn’t seem that stressful of an occurrence but it was at the time.

“He was clearly unhappy about something when he picked us up in Medellin,” I remarked to Lynn.

“Yes.  Do you think he feels they don’t pay him enough?  To not show up at all is grounds for dismissal, so it’d have to be some pretty serious issue.”

“Maybe he had a heart attack?”

“Or slipped on a banana peel …”

We shrugged and turned back to Facebook.  It was one of those mysteries that happen when you travel that you’ll never get an explanation for and it doesn’t matter, as long as ended well.

We exited the second flight in Santa Marta mid-afternoon, and I couldn’t help sighing happily out loud because it was hot and humid, even inside the airport. You could feel we were near the sea.

Our driver was there to take us on the 1.5-hour drive to Tayrona National Park.  He pulled over after a minutes and a second guy jumped into the truck.  “Mi amigo,” he explained.  Just going along for the ride, apparently. Santa Marta was not particularly scenic, at least along the highway.  It’s a beach holiday destination, so I’m sure it’s much prettier close to the beach.

I realized the driver was talking to me.  “I will keep your suitcases with me this weekend,” he said.  “You can’t take them into the park.”

I translated for Lynn and she looked chagrined.  Our itinerary said, “You can get a horse service for the luggage and for the people for approx. 6 EUR.”

Damn, another mystery.

Poetry in Motion

Two days after the party, Michael and Gwen left for Rye on the train and Lynn flew down to Oxford for a day.

I made a last push to get my two proposals submitted, hit a road block, then turned my attention to the attic project.  I would leave in a little over a week and I hadn’t even started painting yet.

“I want your approval to recycle and throw some things out,” I said to Richard.  “I can’t paint if I can’t reach the walls.  Since Lynn is gone ….”

He was all for it, so we began carrying bags and boxes of old magazines and books and empty plastic bags and broken coat hangers and the posters from the wind turbine campaign down to the bins.

There were multiples of some books, including a collection of stories and poems by refugees. I seemed to remember that Christina, their Congolese foster daughter, had contributed to some such book.  They went into the recycling bin.

Richard carried down a dozen suitcases and valises and garment bags and overnight bags and added them to a pile for the charity shop.  Who uses garment bags anymore?  Well, maybe for storage.  Maybe someone would buy these garment bags at the charity shop and use them to store stuff in their attic.

I was painting in the attic the following afternoon when I heard Lynn come home.  I worried that she would inspect what we had tossed, but didn’t hear any protesting downstairs.

I came down a little while later to find the poetry books on a bench outside the kitchen. My stomach turned.  Richard exited the kitchen, head down, and headed upstairs without making eye contact.

Lynn was in the kitchen, chopping something with a large knife.  She didn’t look up when I entered.

“The…uh…uh…books,” I stammered.

Lynn set down the knife and looked at me.  “I’m not angry….” She started.  She was disappointed, which felt much worse.  “Chrissie contributed a poem to that collection.  It was part of her program of adjustment.”

I, of all people, should have known better.  I, who work for an organization that helps asylum seekers recover from trauma .

“I…I assumed she kept a copy,” I said lamely.

“Yes, well we don’t know that,” Lynn said.  “She’s moved from to Belgium with two children and who knows what she was able to take with her.”

“You’re right, you’re right.  I am really sorry.  I feel like an idiot—I guess I was focused on my goal and in my zeal to Get it Done I just didn’t think.”

I carried the books back up to the attic and stayed there, painting, until dinner.  The three of us were a bit quiet that evening, but by the next day things felt okay.

“I won’t be removing anything more from the attic,” I murmured to Richard when I caught him alone in the hall. He nodded in agreement.

It was a warm, sunny day so Richard set lawn chairs out in the garden after lunch and the three of us read and drank wine.

Richard fell asleep first.

“This is unbelievable,” Lynn remarked, “There’s an article here about an 18-year-old girl who has 27 million followers on Twitter, and if she says something about a product, they are suddenly swamped with orders!”

I was working my way through the latest issue of Private Eye, which is like Mad Magazine only strictly for adults and with British humor and inside jokes that I often don’t get.

“Ugh,” I responded lethargically.  “I’ve been writing blog posts of—what I consider good-quality writing for years, and I only have a couple hundred followers.”

“You should write about fashion,” Lynn suggested.

“Right.  Have you seen what I’m wearing?”  I had been rotating the same four outfits for three months.

“You could try to get her to Tweet something about your organization.  You’d get millions in donations overnight.”

“I doubt torture is her thing.”

But Lynn was asleep, and soon I was too, plus a dog or two.  It had been a busy week and guilt is exhausting.

Finally, Dubai

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

Toni was very serious.  She was a teetotaler.  She didn’t get my sense of humor.  She was divorced and her kids were out on their own, so she was seeking.  She had grown up somewhere in the boondocks of western Canada and was fascinated by eastern traditions like meditation.  I was an on-again-off-again meditator but she was seriously devoted and would go on to live in an ashram in India and become a follower of some swami rami someone or other.  Like most Canadians, she made a point of telling people she was Canadian so they wouldn’t mistake her for an American.  Since I had fled the US, in part, to escape the George W. Bush era, I couldn’t really blame her.

When we arrived at our hotel I realized why the package had been so cheap.  When most people think of Dubai, they probably picture phantasmagorical hotels like these:

dubai burjhotel-dubai

Our hotel was in the old part of town and was a concrete bunker something like this except the windows were slits:


I suppose all that concrete kept out the heat, and in retrospect we were staying in a more authentic part of town, if anything about Dubai can be called authentic.

The first thing I did was go to the bar and order a beer.  The two bartenders looked at each other sideways, clearly uncomfortable.  One disappeared, maybe to consult with a manager.  He came back and wordlessly opened a beer bottle, then wrapped it in a cloth napkin and slid it across the bar to me.  Message received: I was a whore and an alcoholic, possibly both.

Toni disapproved too, and after pointing out the maple leaf on her back pack to the bartenders, left to go to the room.  “I don’t drink alcohol,” she reminded me when I showed up with my beer wrapped in its shroud of shame.  “But if I did, I wouldn’t drink it here out of respect for their culture.”

“They sell beer here,” I said.  “So what you’re saying is that you respect their culture of treating women unequally.”

Toni harrumphed furiously and shot back, “I don’t know. I’m going to have some silent me time now.”

Our package included some free tours.  I had bought a beautiful scarf in the airport to drape around my head.  Not like a hijab, more like a glamorous, Audrey Hepburn-style nod to being in a Muslim country. I thought it advisable to leave my Star of David at home.

When I stepped outside, a wall of searing heat descended on me.  I started sweating profusely and the glamor wilted.

Toni made up and were picked up at the curb by a guy in a giant gas guzzling vehicle—the only kind allowed in Dubai, apparently.  He drove around and pointed out the sights.  It was mind boggling, as you would expect if you’ve seen photos of Dubai.  Then he took us to a “museum.”  I was excited to learn about the history and culture of the Emiratis.

The museum was gleaming and glitzy, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors, and sleek escalators that might have been designed by Lamborghini.  Strangely, the displays reminded me of shop windows in New York or London.  Wait.  They were shop windows. These weren’t historical artifacts or objects of art, they were items for sale.  All of them were labeled as originating in Iran or Egypt or other places that actually had cultural traditions, and nothing was going for less than $1,000.

Back at the hotel, I went to check my email at the computer kiosks in the lobby but Yahoo wouldn’t load.  What the hell?  I Googled “weather in Dubai” and a local site came up that claimed it was 85F.  That was weird.  I had checked Dubai weather in Dublin and had expected 110F today.

It didn’t take me as long as it had in Cuba the previous year to realize that the Internet was controlled by the government.  I was in for a six-day involuntary Internet sabbatical.

To be continued …

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.



I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.


This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

Reductive Seduction

There’s a great article circulating among international development people that also addresses mass incarceration in the US. Who knew there were so many connections between these two worlds of mine?

Written by Courtney Martin, it’s titled, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” I’ll quote the opening here:

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

“You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

“Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the ‘Global South.’”

These are real Tindr photos from her article:

World SaverWorld Saver2

Martin goes on to write about the problem of mass incarceration in this country—where are all the new graduates lined up to campaign for change on that? I’ve never met one. I have, however, met many young people who fervently want to work for my organization. Whenever we post a job, we get hundreds of applications, even for admin positions. We get a lot of candidates who can recite all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they can’t enter names into a data base without lots of mistakes. They have no interest in fundraising, finance, HR, or any of the other jobs that keep a nonprofit organization humming. They want to get their foot in the door, then jump to the first “meaningful” job that comes open.

They’re not bad people. I don’t blame them for wanting a job that might send them off around the world to help torture survivors, a job that will cause their peers to fawn over them with admiration. As an English friend once said, “You’ve got a job that’s every Lib Dem’s wet dream.” I once had a woman bow down to me when I told her where I work. Super uncomfortable.

And let’s face it, for those of us who crave the exotic, Nairobi fits the bill a lot better than Moose Lake, Minnesota.

When I was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories … there — I did that thing that my set does. We start sentences with, “When I was in Peru …” or Ethiopia, or wherever. I’m sure people who don’t travel to those places, or who wouldn’t be caught dead in those places, find it really annoying.

But, when I was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I was invited to write an article about it for a local publication. I did, but I also wrote about Vince’s being in prison, mass incarceration, and how people in the US seem to care a lot more about Palestinians than prisoners who live a few miles away. I can’t be sure why, but they never published it.

You may be thinking, “Who is she to criticize–why doesn’t she work on prison reform?  Erm…I am, in my own way.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work on international issues; just be aware of your motivations and your ego.

To quote Martin’s article further: “Most American kids … have some sense of how multi-faceted problems like mass incarceration really are. Choosing to work on that issue … means studying sentencing reform. The privatization of prisons. Cutting-edge approaches already underway, like restorative justice and rehabilitation. And then synthesizing, from all that studying, a sense of what direction a solution lies in and steadfastly moving toward it.”

Maybe Martin’s article will inspire someone to become the Martin Luther King Jr. of prison reform.

Jailbird Rock

Wow!  I got another enthusiastic email from JPay, whose slogan is, “Making it Easier.”  I feel my blood pressure rise as I read that.  Nothing—nothing—makes having a loved in in prison easier.  And to the contrary, being ripped off in order to communicate with them adds financial strain on top of the shame, worry, anger, disappointment, and all the other negative emotions.

I will just repeat here what I wrote early on in this blog.  When people said, “At least you know where he is, and that he’s got a roof over his head and three meals so you don’t have to worry about him,” my response was, “That’s true.  There have been months and years when I didn’t know where Vince was and I worried myself sick imagining he was dead in a cornfield.

It was always that cornfield.  Maybe, as a city person, it was my worst-case scenario.  If I were going to be found dead, I would hope it was in my own home, fully dressed with my makeup on, after I had taken the empty wine bottles out to the recycling bins.  I shudder at the image of being found dead in a cornfield, where in my imagination it is always winter and crows are circling overhead.  Ugh.

All you have to do is watch the Prison Rape Elimination Act video to know that there is still plenty to worry about if your kid is in prison.

Back to JPay.  Here’s what they say about video visits:

There’s nothing quite like seeing your loved one in person. Visiting them at their correctional facility, however, can often be difficult; the prison or jail may be far away, and the security procedures can be invasive. Sometimes there’s just no way to be there in person.

“When physical visits are impossible or inconvenient, JPay’s Video Visitation lets you talk face-to face with your incarcerated friend or relative from the comfort of your own home. When you can’t be there, this is the next best thing.”

Wow, it almost brings a tear to my eye, how compassionate they are and how they want to help!  It’s almost like they know I was ejected from Moose Lake and banned from visiting my son for six months.

So, even though Vince is no longer incarcerated, I’ll share with you all the marvelous ways that JPay helps families stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones.

You could send them money so they can buy ramen and instant coffee—that’s only $9.95 per $100.  You could buy one short email for $2.00.  Or how about a first-class stamp?  JPay charges 40 cents to buy a 49-cent stamp.  That’s not a 9-cent discount, that’s 89 cents total for one stamp.

Finally, you could pay $9.95 for a 30-minute video visit.

This is new information to me; when I visited Vince the last time before he was released they were just rolling out this option and the rumor was that it would cost $99—not $9.95.  So, my apologies to JPay—$9.95 is actually a bargain compared to taking the day off work and driving for four hours to make a physical visit.

But on this day, JPay was emailing me to say I could fund a media account with no fees for this one day.  I could not figure out what a media account was; maybe it’s not available at the facility from which Vince was released.  Again, they show hip, attractive, young people having a great time … listening to tunes, I guess.

And at the very bottom are Apple AppStore and Google Play buttons—are these corporate giants getting in on the easy cash to made off of prison families?

Alone in the City of Dreaming Spires

I spent Thanksgiving in Wisconsin with my cousins, which is what I do every year. Vince couldn’t come because he is not allowed to leave Minnesota.

After eating way too much food, I made the mistake of checking Facebook right before I turned out the light. There were a couple posts from Vince. He sounded so lonely.

I couldn’t fall asleep. I laid there thinking about the time I learned to be alone. I think this is one of the most important skills we have to master in life.

I had moved to Oxford, England four months before my birthday. I rented a house with a three-legged cat named McCartney and housemate who went home to Scotland every weekend. I had a great job. I had joined a posh gym. I had made some acquaintances through work and Alanon meetings.

Red Door

This was before Skype or Facebook or What’sApp. My family and friends used email to communicate with me, but there was no internet at the house.

I don’t normally even care about my birthday. I hadn’t told my housemate or acquaintances it was my birthday because I didn’t want to seem like I was fishing for a fuss.

I walked into town to see a movie. February in England is dreary and drizzly. Well, most months are. In comparison to November, the sun was setting later (almost 5pm!) but the sky really only went from murky black to dark grey and back to murk again.

I got some popcorn and found a seat. Someone behind me said, “Pssst!” Hurrah! It was a friendly woman from my Alanon meeting named Rebecca. I wouldn’t spend my birthday alone after all! But she just said, “Nice to see you,” and that was that. I thought, unreasonably, “Why couldn’t she have invited me to sit with her and her friend?” I felt really put out.

The movie was Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic. There’s a scene where Johnny is drying out and his family confronts a drug dealer with shot guns. The theater exploded in laughter. “Typical Americans!” I could hear around me.

I had picked a bad time to move to England. George W. Bush was using their air bases to transport terrorists and political prisoners in black helicopters, and most Brits were not happy about it. Most people were nice enough—if reserved—but I had been confronted by several very angry people who took me to task for everything my country had ever done wrong.

It really hit me that I was not only lonely but alone. I was on an island with 64 million people and I didn’t know a single one of them beyond asking the time of day. It was piercing.

I went home and had a few beers while I stared out the front window like some tragic heroine in a period movie. People strode past with their hands deep in their pockets and their heads down. I wallowed in self-pity. But somehow I knew I would get through it, that I wasn’t going to die of loneliness, that everything would change eventually—if not the next day then next week or next month. Everything did change. I’ve had a lot of great adventures on my own and with other people.

Now we can feel like we’re never alone by floating along on endless social media streams of cutsie platitudes and cat videos and political rants and “breaking news.”

Did Vince know that nothing stays the same forever? I finally fell into a worried, fragmented sleep. I dreamed that Vince fell into a river and was swept away into a big pipe. I ran along the river bank until I came to an opening in the top of the pipe. I could see his face underwater, looking up at me. The iron bars over the opening were wide enough for my hand to slip through so I could touch him, but too narrow for me to pull him through. Ugh. I woke up crying. I don’t need a psychiatrist to analyze that dream.

Have a Little Kidney with that Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you in the U.S.  I’ve been kind of mired in negativity lately.  Here’s a little story that jolted me back into an appreciation of how good I’ve got it.

A woman approached Vince on the train platform to ask if he would sign a petition.  For those of you who started reading this blog in the last month or so, Vince is my son who was released from prison a few months ago and who is living with me.  He blogs here.

Anyway, on his way home from work, this woman approached and asked if he knew about … wait for it … organ harvesting in China.

Organ Harvesting

I work at a place called the Center for Victims of Torture and had a son in prison.  I thought I had heard everything.

Apparently, back in the 90s, the Chinese government gave the stamp of approval to a Buddhism-derived religion called Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa), which promotes truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.  I guess the government approved of it because it represented traditional Chinese ways, including meditation.

Falun Gong became wildly popular, and soon people were meditating in public parks by the thousands.  The government saw this as a threat and began to crack down.  Adherents are now routinely thrown into labor camps and tortured.  According to the brochure, captive Falun Gong practitioners are blood-typed and used as a large, live organ donor bank, killed on demand for “transplant tourists”—people who travel from other countries and pay for an organ transplant.  Do they know that someone will be killed to save their lives?  How can they not?  Again, according to this brochure, the wait for a kidney in the U.S. is five years.  In China, it’s 15 days.  Well that is slightly suspicious, don’t you think?

So why isn’t the west up in arms about this, like they are about the Palestinians or the Syrians?  Maybe it’s because China doesn’t have freedom of the press?  We know about the plight of the Palestinians because, ironically, Israel has a free press.  We know about the horrors Syrians have endured because they’ve managed to escape to other countries where reporters can talk to them and we see them in our Facebook feeds and on Yahoo News every day.

I don’t know who this young woman was who approached Vince on the train platform, but he thought she was Chinese.  So apparently Chinese in the U.S. are getting organized.  The brochure and their website are pretty basic.  If the Chinese can hack into the CIA’s websites, why haven’t they taken down the Falun Gong one?  I am very skeptical on a lot of issues, but this woman cared enough to stand on a train platform on a very cold Minnesota day and approach strangers with brochures.  If it’s not true, why would there be an organized effort against it?

I’m sorry if I ruined your appetite for turkey and mashed potatoes.  This story makes me feel grateful to not be in a gulag waiting to be murdered so my organs can be sold to wealthy transplant tourists.  No, wait…that’s kind of extreme.  I’m grateful that I can write about this, share the story, spread the word, and maybe contribute in some way to ending it.  Here’s a petition you can sign and share with others if you want.  Thank you.

Enough, Already!

This post has nothing to do with mass incarceration or terrorism or any of the other lighthearted subjects I write about, but I wonder if it wears away at me nonetheless, day after day.

Have you noticed the proliferation in unnecessary noise and lights?

For instance, I spent a night in a hotel this weekend and I counted the unnecessary lights as I tried to get to sleep.  There was a white light on the smoke detector, a red one on the TV, another one on the DVD player, one on the phone, a green one on the key card holder by the door, another on the bedside clock.  Why?  I had closed the drapes to block out the millions of lights from the skyscrapers surrounding the 23rd floor room, but that didn’t do anything to block the lights inside.  Were the technicians who designed all these gadgets worried I might get up in the middle of the night and crash into the TV screen because I can’t see it in the dark?

The previous week, my friend Sarah and I were hanging out at the Mississippi River.  We meet up there every couple of weeks on nice days, bring chairs, and watch eagles soar and the sun sparkling on the water as it rolls by and we update each other on our lives.

There is an off-leash dog park across the river from the park we hang out in.  It’s a source of occasional irritating noise pollution in the form of barking, but on this day it was incessant.  There must have been 10 dogs barking for a half hour or more.

Then, a guy backed his boat trailer into the river and proceeded to rev his engine, which in addition to generating annoying noise, produced billows of diesel fumes.  Sarah and I and the others around us exchanged looks.  How long would this go on?

Being a direct person, I walked over and waved at the guy to get his attention.  I asked how long he would be revving his boat engine.  He said, “Five minutes—why?”  I said, “Because it’s noisy and the diesel fumes are unpleasant.”  He said, “It’s a boat landing!”  I replied, “It’s a boat landing that’s part of a public park.”

Sarah and I and our neighboring nature lovers picked up our chairs and moved upwind of him, which didn’t do anything to decrease the noise.  We expected him to purposely keep on for longer than five minutes but true to his word he finished and left.

“I was thinking the other day,” said Sarah, who is as curmudgeonly as I am, “of all the ways this park could be ruined.

“First, they’ll install wireless, and put up signs everywhere announcing it as a great new feature.”  As she said this, a couple strolled by on the beach with their two young children, both the parents staring down at their phones while the kiddies toddled near the river’s edge.

“Then they’ll install a massive screen across this space in front of us, so we can watch videos of the river, at the river …”

She was interrupted by a loud buzzing noise.  I’m not kidding.  It was a drone.  Everyone stared over at it, and Sarah whipped out her camera to take a picture.  “Don’t encourage him!” I pleaded.  But she wanted a photo to show her son.  The drone droned on for 10 minutes or so, then the owner must have gotten bored and left.  So much for watching eagles soar.

There are lots more unnecessary lights and noises at work, at home, in bars and restaurants, on trains, and especially in airports.  Argh!  Don’t get me started on airports and airplanes.

Does all this screen presence and beeping/barking/buzzing/bloop bloop blooping bother me so much because I am old?  Do younger people, the so-called digital natives, just not notice it?  Maybe they actually like it?  Maybe they actually need it?

Being There

There’s been a lot of righteous indignation that people are so heartbroken over the Paris terrorist attacks—so upset that they’ve taken action, by changing their Facebook profile photos! But no one changed their Facebook photo when terrorist attacks took place in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Nigeria.

Is this Islamaphobia? Well sure it is, with some people, but not for most.

I think it has a lot more to do with familiarity, in two ways.

First, in 2014 there were 16 terrorist attacks in Lebanon. 16! So far in 2015 there have “only” been seven. I looked it up on that great scholarly source, Wikipedia, because I had been thinking, “Bombings happen all the time in Lebanon” and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imagining that. I wasn’t.

In 2014 there were three terror attacks in France, all carried out by lone extremists, and one person died. So the attacks that came in January were the launch of a new era.

I’m not saying, “So what?” about terror attacks in Lebanon. I’m just saying that the frequency of them numbs us to the point where we might roll our eyes and shake our heads and maybe think for 10 seconds, “Those poor people. What a terrible way to live.” But we don’t change our Facebook photos.

Then there’s the other aspect of familiarity: Many westerners (North Americans, Europeans, Aussies, and Kiwis) have been to Paris. We may have studied French in high school or college. We’ve certainly seen Paris, and France, in films and TV shows and heard it referenced in music. How many westerners have been to Beirut? Studied Arabic? Can you name one movie set in Lebanon?

When I googled “films set in Lebanon” I found 16. I’d only heard of one—the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. When I googled “films set in France” there were so many I couldn’t count them. There were 16 alone that started with the letter “L,” including the good old oldie Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh.

So my point is, empathy is about being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation. Even if we’ve never been to Paris, we have seen it so many hundreds of times that we feel it’s familiar, and it’s easier to imagine ourselves in that MacDonald’s where one of the terrorists blew himself up.

I went to the Middle East for work earlier this year. I was fortunate to be able to take some extra time to visit Petra, a 2,000-year-old city built by a people called the Nabateans who have since vanished from history. I hiked, bullshitted with the Bedouin guides, and savored the astonishing beauty of the place and the silence—so rare in our world.


A few months later, ISIS starting destroying ancient sites in Syria and Iraq, most notably Palmyra. Palmyra was built thousands of years before Petra and had similarly stunning structures.

A year ago, I might have rolled my eyes and shaken my head and thought, “That’s terrible,” then gone on my way. But now I felt sick to my stomach and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

So having been to a very similar place, I got it. I got it on a visceral level what a loss to our world the destruction of Palmyra was and I started worrying that ISIS might get to Petra eventually.  Stone buildings aren’t people, but you know what I mean.

Travel creates empathy. Not always, but often. Ironically, the attacks in Paris will probably cause people to stay home or travel only to the safe, sanitized foreign destinations like all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and Ibiza.