Drive By

Tesla drive train.

Four years ago I went to a Tesla dealership. I strolled past the sleek chocolate brown coupe and found myself standing in front of a metal bed on four wheels. Wait. That’s the inside of the car? Where’s the engine? How car go?

The salesperson started talking about the battery and plugs and how smart the car was–that it would charge itself when electricity was cheapest. But I was floored by the lack of an engine. It was just a big, heavy battery. No pistons exploding inside of a big heavy hunk of metal. Almost no moving parts, except for the wheels.

Back to smart, the car was run by software that could be updated. And a few months ago, they started shipping all vehicles with self-driving hardware. The hardware is ready for programming so the car can drive itself. I’m thinking that we should stop calling these things cars. And use another verb for drive.

Cars and car ownership created modern America. We built extensive roads, suburbs, cul-de-sacs and drive-through meals because of cars. We have cement and asphalt covering one-third of the land in Los Angeles for our cars. We have people in jail for driving under the influence. More than three thousand people are killed in car accidents every single day, and 20 million are disabled every year. Seventy percent of all the oil in the U.S. is consumed by transportation.

People express themselves through their cars. Many a new parent resisted their first mini-vans because they never saw themselves as that kind of mom. Then there are growling sports cars, the monster trucks and the SUVs with bike racks and kayaks telling the other drivers who you are.

Us humans have a hard time imagining a post-car world. Frankly, we have a hard time imagining any world different than the one we know. But once cars start driving themselves, when they don’t use gas, it’s a new game. Gas stations, highway motels, auto repair shops, windshield wiper makers, will be superfluous.

Personal vehicles might be more like mini trolleys. They’ll be optimized, set routes. People will call for a ride and won’t need to find a parking space. Cities will lose revenue from speeding and parking tickets. Smart cars won’t need stop signs or traffic signals. They will modulate themselves to the other vehicles around via sensors and satellites.

It was only sixty-six years between the flight at Kitty Hawk and when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Maybe we will have hovercrafts. Maybe they will fly. Maybe. But however this new technology and new transportation plays out over the next decade, we are near the beginning of another upheaval in our world. And this one will be faster than the last. Buckle your seat belts, if we have them, that is.


Time Travel

Cartoony drawing of a TV with an antenna and a clicker. So old skool.

Time has shifted. Literally.

The idea of a “prime time,” when families sat around a TV to watch the news on one of the three broadcast channels at 6:00 pm, is long gone. Those kinder, gentler Sunday nights when The Wonderful World of Disney came on–and especially that one time they showed Mary Poppins. Mom made jiffy-pop. On the stove. It always got burned. We ate it anyway. I didn’t say she burned it.

Times when the Olympics were broadcast live, and nobody knew the results of the race until we all did. Or we read it in the papers the next morning. We couldn’t endlessly loop an especially spectacular event. It was live that night, maybe an instant replay or two, and maybe on the TV news on one of the three broadcast channels the next night at 6:00 pm. If there was a finals in gymnastics or skating, mom might let us stay up past our bedtime to watch.  If the games were in China, we could only see them during the day.


This changed with advance of VHS and the proliferation of cable channels. You could program your recorder–well some people could–and go to the gym and still catch this week’s episode of  Buffy or X-files.  There was some ear covering at the coffee machines and admonishments to hurry up and get caught up. And there were the cries of misery that echoed in a neighborhood when someone realized they taped over the recording of their nuptials. No one would ever see her say, “I do,” again. And nobody would ever again see Uncle Bobby doing his breakdance version of the electric slide. The 57 channels, then 157 channels meant that there were many options for news and entertainment.

DVRs took away the messiness of tapes, and their rewinding and their clumsiness. People could store many episodes, concurrent shows, and never watch them. There was a study that said that two of five recorded hours were never watched. I bet that it was more like four of five hours recorded were ever watched.

Netflix started making TV seasons available. Admittedly this was external to Netflix, but most of us got the seasons that way. Not too many of us bought the boxed set of Friends. I hope. Netflix’s automatic shipments of discs brought on the binge watch–hungover after a night of Charmed, a lost weekend to the bloody mess of Dexter, whipping through the entire two terms of President Bartlett on West Wing.  Netflix on demand sped up the cycle because you didn’t have to wait for a disc in the mail.

Of course, today, almost all TV is on demand. You can watch last night’s, late night comedy bits as they trend on Twitter in the morning. You don’t have to stay up late. You can watch funny people eviscerate pols on your phone as you brush your teeth before work. You don’t even have to watch the entire program, or skip ahead. The sketches are conveniently broken down. Hell, there are gifs with the best mugging. You share your favorite parts of a scene on social media. If you didn’t see it, your buddy sends you a link right now so you can watch it and laugh together.

So when you think about prime time, that time of cohesion from an ancient past when you have to contemporaneously participate in a broadcast viewing experience, there are very few modern occurrences. There’s the MTV awards, if you think Kanye is going to go off or if Beyoncé is going to do anything. The Super Bowl and World Cup. The final ball drop on Dancing With The Stars. That live production of Peter Pan or whatever ABC Family productions did that I didn’t watch.

That’s it, too. These time-bound events aren’t universal. You might not be a BET fan. You might be all hockey and no NBA. You might just set your phone to ring in the New Year rather than stop a party to all huddle around a TV.

There was a time, I’m told, when families listened to the President peddling patriotic bravery on the radio, “nothing to fear but fear itself.” There was a time when everyone tuned in to see the President take his leave, ” I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” There was palpable shared fear when another President addressed a mourning nation on 9/11.

Today there are fewer common addresses, fewer addressed directly to the people. We simply pick and choose what we want as we graze our way, on our own schedules, through the buffet of media.

The Trials of Sartorial Splendor

I didn’t wear a uniform to school when I was a kid. Nonetheless, there were things that we did and did not wear. But, like with many cultural norms, this changed over time. A bit because of shifts in fashion and a bit because of evolving mores.

I wanted to keep up with the changes. I didn’t want to be left behind the other kids. My mother was not as sanguine.

“Doc,” she said, “there are things you wear to school and there are things you wear to play. There’s a reason. You go to school to learn, not to play.”

I disagreed and adjusted my wardrobe. I was shocked to see that I did not get 100% on my spelling test that week. It was the first time. Ever. I went back to wearing my school clothes.

I have often thought about that lesson from decades ago, when I see people going to work wearing what I could only call playclothes. The people that I am referring to are women. In offices. In Washington, D.C.  In the summer, they dress like this:

Before you jump all over me and call me an old fashioned upholder of the patriarchy, hear me out.

The Spouse is an excellent negotiator. He bargained for agreements that kept the union brothers and sisters afloat and extended their jurisdictions. The first time the big-shot attorney was coming down from New York, I told The Spouse to get a new suit. He objected. His well-worn suit would serve him well.

I told him that he didn’t need to look less than the man he would sit across from, that it put him on a more equal footing, that someone might notice his hand-me-down-suit. He bought a power tie, too.

Then there was the story I heard about a Cabinet Secretary that was invited to the President’s ranch for a Cabinet retreat. The secretary was not from Texas and was unsure what to wear. He usually wore wingtips. He could not interpret business ranchwear. He sent his assistant to the department store. She returned with three different pairs of boots. The powerful secretary and his most trusted senior staff reviewed the choices so that the Secretary would look like he belonged.

You NEVER EVER EVER see a man in an office, in Washington, D.C., dressed like this. Unless it’s the kid of the boss.

It’s not about being free. It’s not about slut-shaming. It’s not about there being a uniform or there not being a uniform.

BECAUSE THERE IS A UNIFORM!!  Sorry kids. It’s just how it is.

Men in offices wear a fairly standard uniform of dark suits and button down shirts and ties. The variations can include separates–jackets and pants–but almost always include a tie. Other modifications can be a tan suit, which didn’t go over well for the President, or seersucker suits for the truly affected gentlemen. This is most acceptable for Congressmen from the South. Many many many many men do not like to wear ties. I have heard them express this dislike. Some will carry the dreaded knot in their bag to wrap and tie them at the last minute. This is also followed at the end of the day with an immediate removal of said tie.

Now, the uniform is not uniform. Here in D.C., we are known for our dull sense of conservative fashion. Ties are not removed, even at happy hour. In Silicon Valley, you better not wear a suit. Depending on your industry, it will be different, too. You don’t see someone dressed preppily pouring shots in your favorite dive bar. You don’t see someone who works on the Hill in jeans when Congress is in session.

The uniform is a symbol of your role and of your corporate/job culture. It’s what you wear to signify that you are at work and that you are serious.

So, you want to be taken seriously? Then make sure that what you are wearing does not get more attention than what you are doing. Be neat. Be clean. But dress like your peers.

If you are a woman and you work in a D.C. office, wear your work uniform. It’s not about “covering up,” it’s about looking the part. The Doc is not a fashion blogger and would not be so bold as to provide guidance, but this might help.

Oh, and when you go to the White House, wear shoes. The guys do.

Who Tells Your Story

Preface to the new edition of a history of the US written by former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He was a bigot, too.

I was driving back from the Italian specialty store. They have fabulous capicola and even more fabulosa salami. I bought a bottle of wine for dinner. Oddly I selected Spanish, not Italian.

I had one more stop to make before home. The “you’re almost out of gas you idiot” indicator appeared as I pulled into the parking spot at my earlier destination where I bought a bag of dog food. The Shell station was next.

As I was pulling out of the parking space, I flipped the radio station from the droning trance music. Who knew they played trance on commercial radio? I settled on the left side of the dial. I was sucked in by an intoxicating southern timbre.

A man was talking about historical preservation and public reckoning, but his story was about an old building that was being preserved. The preservation was wrong. You see, the preservationists had confused the front of the house with the back of the house. And, more importantly, they omitted any context for the structure. This was discovered and then reconciled by research that consisted of talking with the people who had actually lived there.

The historian learned that the story about the house that the museum was sharing–the history–was not just incomplete. It told a story different from the truth of the people who were there.

The history hewed to a narrative that supported the dominant culture. It supported the idea that the people who lived there were broken and weak. But the truth was that the people who lived there were strong, with tight families and decent means.

Dr. King said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So the history that we are told makes the people in our heads. It informs not only how we see the people in the past, but how we see their descendants.

It’s important (at least I think it is) to not only seek and share multiple perspectives, but also–and this is from the historian on the radio–to allow ourselves to be surprised. Surprised by what we find, what we learn and to let it challenge what we have believed and what we thought was truth.

Striving to understand people, to accept that their truths may be different, and even that their truth (or my truth, for that matter) might actually be the truth can help align what history makes us with who we actually are.

Wow. That’s a lot of thinking between the salami store and the gas station. If this symposium snippet on c-span was any indication, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place with a surfeit of surprise. I am open to it. You?

Unfashionably Late

General Ambrose Burnside. Better remembered for his facial hair than being a general. Not remembered for a mullet.

You should know something about mullets.

You know what I’m talking about. A mullet. It’s a haircut or a “hairstyle,” when the hair is cut short in the front and on the sides but left long in the back. Long can be anywhere from just brushing your shoulders to maybe a quarter down your back.

Wait. Let me show you.

A mullet. When people thought they looked good. And people watched that stupid show, "Full House."
This is definitely a mullet. He thinks he looks good.
It could be longer than mid-back, I guess, but that might actually be a different hairdo. This style is infamously worn by that county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses, which is part of her job by the way, because she disagreed with the law on who can marry who. Not to be mean, but her hair made me think that she might be behind the times in more than one way. Even though it’s men who usually sport the mullet.

Anyway, the thing you need to know about mullets?

They used to be considered high fashion. MacGyver, the character who could make a fission bomb with a Doublemint gum wrapper, a paper clip, some volatile salt that he scraped off of a barnacle then using his infamous Swiss Army knife as a flint to spark the nylon string (had to be a petroleum based string) from his windbreaker on fire to launch the bomblette. Yes, him. He wore a mullet and still got the ladies–despite being a notorious science nerd. Actually, he had mad swagger for a science nerd.

The Arnold’s boy wore one. I remember seeing mullet shots when his dad was the Govinator of Cal-ee-forn-eye-yay. I wondered if he chose that look for himself. Maybe his parents did, but I somehow couldn’t imagine Maria giving it the nod. He wore it in the days before the family was caught in the maelstrom of the old man’s tawdry scandal. I wonder if Arnold’s love child had a mullet, too. I didn’t wonder before now.

Back to the style.

In it’s day, it was quite the look. Chuck Norris rocked the short on top, tresses in back. Tennis star Andre Agassi had quite the fetching mullet, his locks tamed by a headband as he returned every serve for eight Grand Slams.

You need more? Google “mullet” and “Mel Gibson” (he was YOUNG!), “mullet” and “Charlie Sheen.” Try Brad Pitt, too. Don’t forget the famous mullets of David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Lionel Richie and Paul McCartney. Patrick Swayze and Kurt Russell had leading men mullets. I almost forgot George Clooney. Yes, Clooney, too.

Then there was this.

Wow. Just wow, bono with your mullet. And that frock coat.
In the name of love, Bono, what are you thinking?
The mullet came under disrepute over the years. To be honest, I don’t think it was in repute for very long. People still wear them occasionally, but it’s become a shorthand for being unfashionable and unsophisticated. In the movie Joe Dirt, the loser title character “is a janitor with a mullet hairdo, acid-washed jeans and a dream…” according to Sony Pictures. The mullet defines the anti-hero.

But here’s my point. You don’t want your wedding pictures to show you in a mullet. Wedding pics don’t go away. When the album gets pulled out, everyone laughs. At you. Your wife insists on hanging the portrait prominently despite your apparent lack of style because over the years she feels she never looked better. Your grandkids may only know you by your mullet from this forever photo from the old days. You’re stuck with that mullet. Forever. Like General Sideburns. Without the naming rights.

And you guys sporting those long, luxurious hipster beards that you treat with oils and a special tool set? Take heed. You’re next.

I Swear

An F-bomb

My favorite video from the past few weeks was former Presidente de Mexico, Vicente Fox, dropping the F-bomb on Fox Business News in relation to a proposed construction project.

He was responding to a question by the reporter and did not intend to be misunderstood. He spoke clearly and deliberately. He began by pausing dramatically before hissing out the “f”-sound. He emphasized the harsh middle K sound and then punctuated the ending of the word with a guttural G from the back of his throat.  [He used the gerund form of the F-word.] His enunciation was excellent.

Language fascinates me. I can barely speak my native tongue, and to hear others glibly communicate in more than one language puts me in awe. I notice this especially when non-native English speakers use colloquialisms, and, especially, when they curse.

Now I learned to curse, as my children after me, from my mother. One day, when The Big Guy was seven, he was standing with her on the back deck as they observed the dog taking a crap. She casually remarked to him, “Boy, that dog sure does shit a lot.” I think she was impressed with that specific movement’s volume. The Big Guy knew that “shit” was a word not used by or around his other grandmother and most nice old people–especially old people at school. My mother followed with, “I guess all that shit is good for the lawn.” [We never had a dog growing up, so she didn’t have a good reference. She was just a city girl making farmer conversation.] I’m not sure if The Big Guy was more shocked or more impressed.

I didn’t, however, learn the F-word from her. I really didn’t have much exposure to it until I got to college. I was a quick learner, though, and immediately incorporated it into my cursing repertoire. I may have been a bit too facile in my adoption, but so be it.

It’s impressive to hear different accents and different English proficiencies deliver the F-bomb. A friend from a Spanish-speaking Caribbean island brilliantly described the potential of having her folks and her in-laws in town together at Christmas using FML, not the acronym but the words. Perfection.

A colleague with only a hint of her first twenty years in Moscow frequently asks about the meaning of English slang, but she definitely knows when something is Eff’d-up. I know this because she expresses it with the perfect lowering of her voice a half-octave because she means it.

Maybe it doesn’t really count when Irish friends use it. You’ll hear more feck than the short-U sound, but the longer they live in the States, the less feck you hear. I always delight in hearing a well delivered F-U from the Irish.

When I hear French or French Canadian use of the American F-word, mon Dieu! So bon! [Yes, I did that on purpose.] There is a speed or an acceleration of this short short word that isn’t heard with other non-US speakers. I have heard it usually as an insult, or accompanied by a frustrated throw of something to the ground.

I must say that I have never, and I mean never ever, heard the F-word misused by anyone. Ever. Not everyone uses it, but if they do, they do it right.

Maybe you just can’t get it wrong.