Monday, July 25, 2011

I'm going crazy. Want to come? Got two tickets!

 What’s your most frustrating experience? Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
What rankles you, turns you from mild to monster, from a prince to the Prince of Darkness? Dealing with a bureaucrat raise your dander? A spouse? Waiting for the cable guy? Biting down on an unpopped kernal of popcorn and busting your new crown, the one that paid for the the dentist’s kitchen renovation?
Me—it’s dealing with Technical Support.
Big respect to the folks who answer call after call from no account thumble thumbs like me, impatient morons without the stamina to wade through a 300 page users manual, Type A SOBs who touch “0” as soon as the call connects.  We’re an unpleasant constituency and the folks in call centers who put up with us have enough patience to stare down Mother Theresa.
 But…tech support calls makes me crazy. Like this one. True story, no exaggerations.
My old copier died so I bought a new one. It arrived—free shipping!—and  a few hours later I staggered along the Stations of the Cross, a trip to the Veil of Tears known as Tech Support.
I got Nimitzed. That’s a word I coined to describe the state of being discombobulated, disconcerted and confounded. I swiped the term from the Nimitz Freeway, a belligerent strip of asphalt that connects Oakland and San Jose, California, like Chinese water torture connects you to irrational rage. In fact, the Auto Club of America dubbed it the Bay Area’s Rudest Road. To drive the Nimitz during rush hour is to be saddled with disorienting mania. That’s being Nimitzed.
I was flush with Nimitzosity as I struggled through my new copier’s “Quick Start Guide”; that term, BTW, is a triple oxymoron. The publication was written in cuneiform and imparted all of the benefit of an eighteenth century anatomy text. Imagine the the crisp prose of the U.S. tax code suffused with the warmth of Hoboken, New Jersey’s zoning regulations and you get a sense of the “Quick Start Guide” for my brand new Brother MFC-5490 copier. 
The instructions directed me to open up the top of the copier to plug a USB cable inside the machine. Don’t ask why an engineer puts the port inside of the machine—that’s grist for an different mill. My trouble was this: once I opened the machine, I couldn’t get it closed. Tried and tried. No dice. It sounds simple yet there’s nothing so uncomplicated that I can do it all by myself. It was time to call support, to cascade through an escalating series of technical agents and hold music, to enter the geek version of Dante’s Inferno. When it comes to mechanical objects, I’m naturally drawn to the ninth and seventh circles of Hell—treachery and violence.
I placed the call.
A pleasant voice advised me that my call would be on hold for no longer than the duration of the last Ice Age. Finally an agent answered. “Hello. My name is Tanya. How may I frustrate you?”
I explain the problem, then attempt to ward off an interrogation worthy of a prison guard at Guantanamo. I begged, “Just tell me how to close the thing, please”
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience. What is the serial number of the machine?” says Tanya.
“I can’t read it. The numbers are too small, and I can’t find my magnifying glass. I think Sherlock Holmes took it. But I just need to know how to close the machine.”
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience. What operating system is your computer?”
“What difference does that make? I just want to close the machine!”
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience. What operating system is your computer?”
“Windows 7,” I sighed. Defeat registered in my voice. Sensing a moment of vulnerability, Tanya pounced.
“I’m sorry for your inconvenience, but that is a software issue. I’ll transfer you now.”
“No! Wait! I don’t need software support. I just want to close the machine.”
“Yes sir. Sorry for your inconvenience, but I only deal with product registration. Closing the machine is a software support team issue.”  Software support team? What, they have intramural competitions there? Potato sack races at recess? Tanya was back. One moment sir.” Then the inevitable hold music. 
A generation later, I’m connected with a software support center located somewhere in the Mariner Valley, on the planet Mars. The man who took my call had a thick Martian accent. He said that his name was…Peter. Very Martian.
I repeat my question and Peter jumps in to help. “May I know the operating systerm, Mr. Harry?” The telltale accent is growing stronger.
I did not wish to vent my spleen on poor Peter. I did finally got the copier closed. Sheer brute force. In the meantime, as I move back and forth between the computer and the copier, my dog, Phoebe, positions herself so that I trip over her each time I move. It’s an instinct bred into Beagles. I don’t know how she can anticipate my every move, but each time I turn, she is directly in my path, stretched out,and gazing lovingly at me. She licks my face when I crash to the floor.
I’m beginning to think that Phoebe the Beagle and Peter from Mars own stock in Pfizer, the manufacturer of Xanax. I could use a bowlful about now. Meanwhile, I think I got the copier working, but I’m going to start using carbon paper, the way other people use stress balls.
Hand to God, this is a true story, except the carbon paper. (I’m quite certain about the call center on Mars.) In the end I got the machine working and, really, the spike in my blood pressure did me no good. I don’t know if the complexity of simple things or the impersonality of individual attention bothered me more. But I seem to pull a nutty more and more often when I have to deal with technical objects. Give me a barking dog to train or stinky diapers to change any day, thank you.
What about you? What are some of your most frustrating events? Tell me the story—I’d love to compare notes. I’ll even immortalize your mania on this blog.
And remember, there’s always a dog.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ancient roots for a modern celebration? Honoring National Ice Cream Day!

Preserving the Ice Cream traditions of an early people
National Ice Cream Day is the year's spiritual apogee for my people. The year’s sins are washed away by creamy soft serve swirl, a balm to our souls as we prepare for Holy Sundae, the third one of July

This family celebration follows a month of determined preparation. Children enjoy the ritual, Find the Wafer Cone--it's a way to prepare for the High Holy Day's adult responsibilities. Mothers and fathers offer a traditional responsive reading, “Hot Fudge or Butterscotch”. This moving recitative celebrates the oneness of all toppings.

Ice Cream anthropologists tell us that the holiday's roots date back to the ancient Celts, circa 800 B.C. Excavations of a two-thousand year old Mr. Softee shrine provides a rare glimpse into how the holiday was celebrated in its earliest form. Cave drawings--remarkably preserved for two milenia--depict temple priests. They were stiffly garbed in white attire with a band of black cloth that resembles a modern necktie. Many of the cave drawings show the attendants with a round white snap brim cap. The meaning of their vestal garments is yet uncertain but suggest purity or possibly vanilla. 

That the ancients could maintain a frozen custard in the July heat puzzles scientists today who have been unable to recreate the ancients' recipe. Working from fossils and fragments, the excavation team was able to recreate a device that turns out to be remarkably similar to today's ice cream scoop. It is almost certain that the scoop was used to dispense the ceremonial ice cream dessert. 

Early Celtic Ice Cream Deity?
That this rite anticipates the Passover Seder of the Jewish tradition is a theory that is hotly debated by archaeologists today. Other scholars speculate that the 'tester spoon', a small device for sampling just a mouthful parallels the Christian communion ritual. Certainly, the communion wafer and the Celtic cone share a common heritage. But to suggest a connection between the cone and topping of the Celtic tradition and the blood and body of the communion ritual strikes some scholars as unlikely. For now, this eerie correspondence will likely remain a mystery, awaiting a Rosetta Stone like decoder, before we can pronounce the universality of Ice Cream with certainty.

Some accounts of the Ice Cream ritual include mention of self-flagellation with the leaves of the now extinct Irish Banana tree. Each tribe had a  moyel--thought to be a tree trimmer or similar--who begins the festivaly when he utters the Lepontic words, "Tá mo bhríste trí thine" which translates loosely to, "My trousers are on fire"  The congregation chants a responsive interchange, "Pero la carraterra es verde," or 'but the highway is green.' 

(The exact route by which the Spanish phrase worked its way across the North Sea to Ireland is still a mystery. Proponents of the Universal Appearance school of ice cream development point to this inexplicable phenomenon as evidence that ice cream worship sprang up independently in places as diverse as Leitrim Ireland to Hoboken NJ (the site of a complete Teaneck Man skeleton that shows the distinctive forearm development of a scooper).
The fate of the Celtic
Ice Cream Cults?
Topping masters show their craft

Today’s National Ice Cream Day festivities include the Parade of Begging Dogs. While today's celebrants regard begging canines as a cheerful nod to the past, it should be noted that some the earliest Ice Cream cults died out, possibly the result of having bred ice cream loving giant Irish Wolfhounds to excess. Sic transit gloria glacies cramum.

However you celebrate National Ice Cream Day, please, allow me to extend the fullness of my heart and belly in friendship. May your hot fudge pot never become congealed, may your whipped cream dispenser always have spare whippets.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Killing For Art: Can a Snuff Filmmaker Be Redeemed?

How do I square dog love with Tom Otterness’ sculpture?
I love dogs and I enjoy the sculptor’s cartoon-like creations. That’s a combination that recently put me in the crosshairs of my fellow animal lovers.
Killing For Art? Sculptor Tom Otterness
Brooklyn based Otterness’ installations dot the New York city landscape, subways and parks. But according to animal activists, Otterness is a murderer, a charge that the artist would like to see go away.
Thirty five years ago, the sculptor, whose whimsical creations have made him one of the most successful commercial artists alive, adopted a young dog from a city shelter. Then twenty five, Otterness chained the small black and white dog to a fence, shot the animal and filmed its slow death for a movie he titled, “Shot Dog Film.”
Thirty one years later, Otterness apologized and called the shooting a ‘mistake’. The horrific act came to light recently when Otterness received a $750,000 private commission to install one of his pieces at the Battery Park City branch of the New York Public Library.
As word of Otterness’ crime and lack of punishment travelled throughout the blogosphere I  began to wonder, Can an animal abuser be redeemed? Could the apology have been sincere? His contrition genuine, although private?
I posed the question on Facebook, where my friends include fellow dog trainers and animal lovers. Not one of the 50 or so comments on Facebook allowed for the possibility that Otterness’ apology balanced the killing. Many heatedly questioned why I would even consider the possibility that the deed could be forgiven. A behavior expert at a Boston animal shelter told me that it is the shelter’s policy to monitor abusers, not rehabilitate them. A psychiatrist told me that that kind of violence requires a considerable core of rage. My wife refused to discuss it with me.
The problem is widespread but unmeasured and it is poorly defined. Is animal abuse limited to cruelty? What about neglect? Hoarding? Dog fighting and cock fighting? Animal abuse, child abuse and spousal battery are closely related with cruelty to animals often leading to violence to people.
Can Otterness be redeemed? How about Michael Vick? Did his 21 months' incarceration balance hanging or electrocuting the dogs in his kennel? Can any abuser be rehabilitated? Or we a world condemned to tolerate, if not nurture, the Bad Seed? 
Comments, anyone?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What the caveman saw--lessons from a 17,000 year old blog post

 In 1940, four teenagers and a dog named Rocket stumbled into a warren of caves in southwest France. Inside, they discovered Paleolithic man’s most elegant blog, the Lascaux Cave Paintings.
When I googled the term, “Lascaux Cave Paintings”, the legend below the search box showed over 175,000 results. If the Lascaux art is a pre-literate kind of blog, then it must be the all-time, most upon commented blog.
What is it about these animal, human and abstract images that compels our attention? What did the Cro Magnon storyteller-artist know that we don’t? And can we use Alley-Oop’s technique to enhance the quality and popularity of our own storytelling?
The answer comes from an unlikely source, a small, brown macaque monkey with a hairless pink face that wanted a peanut.

You’ll find the legume loving monkey in the late 1980s, about a half century after the Lascaux discovery. It’s a time when women dress fashionably in power suits—big shoulders with big hair. Men sport the Miami Vice look, and, sadly, mullets. Drive ten hours east to Parma, Italy. Find your way to the university research laboratory of Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti. There you’ll spot the macaque, amid a tangle of computers, microscopes and arcane gizmos with unpronouncable names. Electrodes, pasted to his skull, trail wires to a monitor like a simian bridal veil.
Dr. Rizzolatti was measuring the primate’s brain activity to understand the role of neurons—nerve cells that carry information to and from the brain. Rizzolatti’s goal was modest—he wanted to learn which specific neurons fired when the monkey reached for a peanut.
Another round of testing was about to begin when the monitor’s alarm buzzed—an alert cued to sound when the monkey reached for the peanuts. But it was Dr. Rizzolatti, not the monkey, going for the goobers. This was an “Aha!” moment. Rizzolatti realized that the monkey’s “reach for a peanut” neurons fired simply because the critter watched someone else reach for the treat.
Scientists dubbed the nerve cells that fired mirror neurons. They fire not only when we perform an action but also when we see someone else perform the action. About twenty percent of our neurons are mirror neurons and many experts believe that their appearance is related to the explosion of human language and culture some 75,000 years ago.
Understanding a bit about mirror neurons can make us better storytellers. What the Lascaux cave artists did is exactly what you do when you write or tell a damned good story. You paint a picture of an experience, fashioning words on a keyboard rather than daubing paint on a cave wall. The word picture causes the reader’s mirror neurons to fire. She feels exactly what you are feeling. Author and audience share a biological experience to complement the literary one.
When Paleolithic storytellers donned pelts or painted themselves in the guise of animals, they wanted to look like the subjects of their campfire stories. Intuitively, they happened onto the neurobiology of a compelling story.
The action of mirror neurons extends beyond the campfire. An amputee can sometimes relieve the phantom pain in a missing limb by watching the limb of another person being massaged. When an athlete takes a nasty spill, spectators wince.  A lack of mirror neurons, experts now believe, may be the cause of autism, the condition characterized by difficulty in forming social relationships. 
Mirror neurons are most active with face-to-face observation. But reading can fire them. Science writer and deputy editor of Time magazine James Geary told me, “Neuroimaging studies show that when we read or hear stories, we mentally simulate the action described… Many of the brain areas active while reading are also active when we actually take part in or observe similar situations in real life.”
What’s this got to do with successful storytelling? Everything. The more word pictures you create, the more your reader experiences what you feel. Writing coaches beg us to create word pictures. They say, “show, don’t tell”. The researchers’ findings explain why this is crucial. The reader must see the action for her mirror neurons to engage. No word picture means no visual experience for the brain. That means no mirror neurons firing, no shared biological experience.
The implications are staggering. To write without word pictures is to ignore millenia of storytelling success and to create a “So what?” tract fated for the slush pile or delete key.
Look at this blogpost as an example. Compare your reaction to a visual phrase like, “a small, brown macaque monkey with a hairless pink face,” with, “a condition characterized by difficulty in forming social relationships.” Not only does the first example carry more oomph, but scientists say that reading it triggers something in your brain that was triggered in mine.

Science makes art fun for me. Know why something works, and I believe that you can better your craft.  I won’t guarantee 175,000 comments to your own blog, but I predict that you and your readers will enjoy your writing even more.
Like the four French teenagers and Rocket the dog at Lascaux, I’ve stumbled into my own warren of caves, filled not with primitive art, but with the science that explains why some writing is so darned compelling.
What about you? Do you have a good story that’s been spiced up by mirror neurons? Comments? Do say.