Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fitbit to Be Tied

Yesterday I walked more than 12,500 steps. How do I know this? My smartphone told me so. That phone knows a lot about me, maybe even more than I want it to know. But I’m not upset that it knows how many steps I took yesterday, and I even graciously accepted the “virtual” medal that was posted in an email to my phone, congratulating me on having more than met my steps goal for the day.

No, I didn’t actually establish that goal. A small computer snapped into a band on my wrist set the goal, which was 10,000 steps. If I meet the goal, the computer gives me a tingle on my wrist that is both a little shocking and a little satisfying. I’m happy to know that at least something on my body is tingling these days.

On many days, however, the wrist computer is more ambitious than I am. Many days, I come up short of my goal. In that case, I don’t receive a virtual medal or a tingle, but luckily I don’t receive a shocking rebuke either. At midnight, the computer just begins counting all over again. If I happen to walk in my sleep (perhaps making a small jaunt to the bathroom, for instance), I might find that I have taken 50 or more steps even before I consciously begin a new day. The step total that appears on an app on my smartphone is a sign that I am being tracked by an outside force occupying my wrist. That idea doesn’t always make me tingle.  

There is no great mystery here. The small computer is part of the present I received from my children for Father’s Day. It’s called a Fitbit. It’s an exercise monitor that fits into a band on your wrist. My Fitbit looks sort of like that Lance Armstrong Livestrong band that is now out of favor. But mine is black instead of yellow. Other people wear colored wrist bands that have other meanings and signify other causes. Mine is just there to keep track of my efforts to be more fit, which is a pretty noble cause in itself.

More than a quarter of the way toward today's goal. Am I going to tingle?
Now, things were going fine between my Fitbit and me for several days. It encouraged me to walk more and sit a little less. And I was pretty happy to see that walking on the treadmill, even at a moderate pace, caused my step total to go up quickly, as long as my wrist stayed in motion. So I walked just a little longer. (Then I noted that by just swinging my wrist, even without taking an actual step, the numbers would go up. I logged that information into my memory bank for future reference.)

Then, something strange happened.

On my fifth day of wearing the Fitbit, I received a very disturbing email. The email read:

“Hi Michael G.,

Your Flex battery level is low. Charge your battery as soon as possible.”

The message went on to describe how I could charge my battery, and ended with the cheerful closing: “Happy Stepping!”

The message was friendly enough, but I didn’t feel really happy. It dawned on me that I had truly and voluntarily stepped into the world of “Big Brother” 10,000 steps at a time. I was being tracked by a machine that could not only give me tingles and virtual medals but also make me feel bad about not treating it properly. I had let down my Fitbit. That thought caused me more anguish than it should have. Suddenly, I began to worry that my Fitbit might start communicating with other machines in my life, sharing possible shortcomings or even (shudder!) secrets. What if, for example, my Fitbit and the bathroom scale began conversing with each other. What if both of them told my “Weight Watchers” app that I had understated my actual poundage on weigh-in day this week,  just so I could get an encouraging message urging me to “keep up the good work.”

An old poem many of us memorized in high school goes,

“I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.”

Sadly that message doesn’t really ring true for those of us living in the age when our tools and toys can talk to each other about us.

Friday, May 15, 2015

All Good Men

Near the edge of the porch a ragged man stood.  He swung his head toward Pa.  "You folks must have a nice little pot a money."
"No, we ain't got no money," Pa said.  "But they's plenty of us to work, an' we're all good men.”

--John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

On Saturday night, ten of us gathered around a table in Emeril’s restaurant in New Orleans. The reservation was made under the name “Goodman.” Trying to determine our group leader, the waitress asked which one of us was “Mr. Goodman.” Five hands went up. She could have asked, “Which one is Ms. Goodman?” and every female’s hand at the table would have been raised. There were plenty of us there, and we were all Goodmans.
There is no hiding the fact that
these Goodman men are all related.
Nearly 80 years ago, my father left his home in a small town in Arkansas to move in with his older brother David in a town only slightly larger in Louisiana. The two brothers were far apart in years but close in other ways. And they stayed close in spirit over the years, even when my father left Louisiana and settled in Georgia way back in 1940.

Seventy-five years later—last weekend—my brother and I, our wives, and my children decided to return to Louisiana with two purposes in mind: to reconnect two branches of our family tree, and to sample every way that oysters can be served in New Orleans. I am here to report that we carried out both missions successfully.

The Louisiana/Texas Goodmans and the Georgia/New Jersey Goodmans have gotten together a few times in the past, but this trip was special. This wasn’t a big reunion or a family event attended by lots of outside friends and family members. It was just two nuclear families—all adults ranging from early 30s to early 70s. We laughed; shared some old photos; laughed; filled in gaps in our lives; told stories about the past, present, and future; took a side trip to a gallery displaying my cousin Jonathan’s prints and paintings;


handed out Mother’s Day presents; and ate. Then we ate some more. Raw oysters, roasted oysters, fried oysters, barbecued shrimp (New Orleans style), and some strange concoction that was supposed to be oven-roasted seafood but seemed more like just the breading. (The last item was the only low point in our culinary marathon.) We also did some serious drinking. And we topped things off late Saturday night listening to a remarkable jazz group performing at a fairly empty New Orleans jazz club tucked away on a busy street. (Not to be outdone, we topped off Sunday night with coffee and beignets at the CafĂ© du Monde.)
The next generation-- cousins getting closer and eating together.

We spent two-and-a-half days in New Orleans filling in years and building bonds. We plan to do it again soon, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as my father would say in his Arkansas folksy accent. Our two fathers came from a family of 12 children whose descendants have spread far and wide. It was great fun for a group of us to be back together.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dylan New and Old

The other day, I borrowed a Bob Dylan “Basement Tapes” CD from the local library. Bootleg Series Vol. 8, issued in 2006, contained “rare and unreleased” Dylan songs from the 1980s and 1990s. I was a little amazed to discover a song I had never heard before entitled “Red River Shore.” The song was such a perfect Dylan love song. It was moody and hypnotic, quickly pulling me into its web of reminiscence of past joy and lost love for more than seven minutes. I played it over and over, and then found a You Tube video to listen to it some more:

There is no video of Dylan singing the song on You Tube, just a photo of the CD cover with an audio track.
A scowling Bob Dylan in the 1980s, looking so different
from the 1960s protester  I "met" in 1965.
Without video, the words sink in deeper; the song takes hold stronger. Here is my favorite verse. It’s a little nostalgic and a little self-deprecating—just how I would write a love song if I could. This is a love more of the mind than of the body:
Well, I been to the east and I been to the west
And I been out where the black winds roar
Somehow though I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River shore.

Finding a new Dylan song made me think of when I had first “discovered” Dylan. It happened (shudder) almost 50 years ago. I was part of an accelerated academic summer program for high school students in Georgia, known as the Governor’s Honors Program. I spent six weeks with about 150 really smart kids. There were scholars and musicians and artists and free thinkers. I felt like both a participant and an observer at the same time. I was meeting new people and thinking new thoughts. Which is where Dylan comes in.

Bill Martin, one of the kids from another high school in Savannah attending GHP, had brought along some Dylan albums. We gathered in his room, behind a closed door, to do some illicit listening. I heard “The Times They Are a-Changin’” for the first time. I heard “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The voice was so raw. Who would hire a guy with that voice to make records, we wondered at first. Then we listened more, and the rawness took hold. I had been brought up with liberal values, but listening to Dylan singing Dylan (rather than Peter, Paul, and Mary), made me feel more radical than I had ever felt before.

Eight clean-cut kids from Savannah High School who attended
the Governor's Honors program in 1965. We were proud nerds.
American involvement in the Vietnam War was a-buildin’ during the summer of 1965. I was just entering my junior year in high school, so the idea of being drafted or fighting in a war on the other side of the world was not yet in my mind. But here was Bob Dylan talking about war, any war, maybe that war. It was exhilarating but also a little overwhelming. I went home from the GHP feeling a little worldlier. But that was pretty much an illusion. After all, I was still a sheltered kid from Savannah, Georgia, no matter whose music I was listening to. But Bob Dylan had opened up my mind a little. I’m grateful for that.

And I’m thrilled that Dylan and record producers and other performers are turning back time to let us hear some of Dylan’s songs that have been long hidden. Every new Dylan song, even old ones never heard before, has the ability to grab my psyche and my soul.