The Chamber of Commerce meetings almost feel like they come out of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. They feel like they are dominated by upstanding older white men; perhaps not the captains of industry, but the lieutenants of local commerce. They are sincere well meaning supporters of the businesses in their local communities. They gather approximately monthly, for a breakfast in the ballroom of a large hotel near the interstate.
The breakfasts are better then many breakfasts that I’ve often had at conferences. They do run into the problem of having to be produced in bulk. The breakfasts are served buffet style. There are two long sets of tables running down a hallway. At one end of each set of tables are large piles of full sized white plates. These are followed by several large silver chaffing dishes full of various foods. One dish is full of light fluffy scrambled eggs. I’ve often wondered how these eggs are prepared. Are they made from a powered and whipped up and served? Does someone in the back actually crack hundreds of eggs open and pour the raw eggs into some giant bowl where they get beaten by an industrial sized mixer, and then poured on a grill to cook? They seem too uniform, too unvarying to be cooked this way.
The next chaffing dishes are filled with bacon and sausage. Years ago I worked at a summer camp with giant camp stoves. I remember food cooking on the large grills and imagine the rows of bacon and sausage spread out on the grill tops in the hotel’s kitchen. Some conference centers seem to get overwhelmed by the crowds and the need to prepare massive amounts of food over a quick period, and the bacon and sausage isn’t always cooked as much as I would like. I always worry about under cooked bacon and sausage. However, the bacon and sausage in the chaffing dishes at the chamber of commerce breakfasts are usually cooked properly.
Also on the tables are platters of muffins and Danish. This is a staple of many a conference breakfast. Yet too often, they have been stale, as if they sat on a table the day before for some other conference breakfast. Again, this has not been the case at the Chamber of Commerce breakfasts. Likewise, the juice, typically orange juice, grapefruit juice, and often some other juice, perhaps apple, tomato or grape juice, adorns the end of the table. At most conferences, the juice seems to be a safe bet.
Other conferences I attend often have packed food of one sort or another on the tables, although this is more common for a mid morning break. Sometimes there are small containers of individual serving of yoghurt or individually wrapped breakfast bars. These are normally safe but make the conferences feel a little more generic. At a conference at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, there were unique ideas presented. One was of mixed nuts in shot glasses. Another was yoghurt with granola sprinkled on top in similar shot glasses. At times, they provided vegetables with some sort of dipping in similar glasses. All of which seemed much healthier and much more interesting.
As I gathered my food, I spoke with various members of the chamber. It was election day, and many sported little “I have voted” stickers on their jackets. I talked with them about how the voter turnout seemed to be going. Most said that turnout seemed light. Of course, it was early in the morning, and turnout is usually heavier at the end of the day. In addition, many areas were still recovering from a week without power, and some people may have been less inclined to get up early to vote.
I don’t know how many people in the chamber also hold elected office, but I suspect there is a good overlap and I wished one mayoral candidate that I recognized good luck at the breakfast. However, he ended up getting defeated at the end of the day.
One of the big issues in Middletown was about students voting. I remember when I was in college, registering to vote in the town I was attending college. I spent the most part of four years of my life in that college town. I ate there, in the college cafeteria as well as going into town to eat at local restaurants. I attended church there. In fact, with my interest in the varieties of religious experiences, I attended several different churches. I was involved in various civic activities in town. I don’t know who much most Wesleyan students get involved in the town they live in for four years, but for that matter, I don’t know how much people who live in Middletown get involved in their town either.
There were several articles in the town newspapers about whether or not students should be allowed to vote in the town they were residing in, so much so that at least one of the State Representatives and the Secretary of State weighed in, and local elected officials quickly corrected themselves in the local papers, only to then go on and make other misstatements about the voting process.
One person I ran into at the Chamber of Commerce worked at Wesleyan. He had voted already and was actively working to get the college students out to vote. I talked about the issue of the college kids voting in three different districts and pondered whether or not there were efforts to dilute the college student vote by splitting the university into three different districts. The time to redistrict is coming up soon, and we talked about whether or not the current districting should be challenged.
There are the normal traditional trappings to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast, the Pledge of Allegiance, the announcements and introductions. Depending on your perspective, it can be comforting and reassuring; things are proceeding the way they should be, even if there have been disruptions to the economy, to the power system, or simply to our sense of how things should be. To some, it can be monotonous; the same thing repeated meaninglessly and without feeling, month after month. To others it can be disconcerting; traditions propping up an old order of things that needs shaking up. Though I suspect that for most of the loyal attendees of Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, it is comforting and reassuring.
This month’s breakfast, falling a few days before Veteran’s day, was focused on the men and women that have served our country in uniform. Before the breakfast started, a local chorale performed patriotic pieces. The Governor’s Foot Guard was there to present the colors, and performed with the full pomp that has accompanied them for centuries. As an old bagpiper, I enjoyed hearing the pipes played as part of the ceremony.
Various veterans were recognized, including a World War II veteran wearing his uniform from over half a century ago. It was touching, but the words of “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” came to my mind
And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men answer to the call
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all
The keynote speaker answered the question, talking about how he had served in Vietnam and come home to find no crowds waiting to cheer him and his men and how he has vowed not to let that happen again. Yet he spoke with a decidedly political twist, talking about how important it is that the United States honor its commitments to the men and women that served in uniform. He spoke about making sure that we provided jobs for our veterans, and health and retirement benefits. He ended off with a touching story of a Vietnam veteran, recognized with a medal of honor, who was killed when he tried to rob a liquor store to get enough money to pay for medical coverage for his wife who was hemorrhaging as the result of a miscarriage. He ended his speech, which he gave without notes, perhaps because he has given it so many times before, to a standing ovation.
The story seemed so compelling that I thought it would be easy to find on the internet. I searched out the story and found a different version. The veteran had been killed in a liquor store robbery, but there was no mention of a wife hemorrhaging from a miscarriage and being denied medical treatment. Instead, the story was about a veteran who most likely had PTSD and had snapped. With any story, there is always more to it than is reported, and I wonder what the real story was, but without definitive sources, I didn’t link to it.
Whatever the story, the Chamber of Commerce meeting felt like it came right out of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, from a day before Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The men were sincere and well meaning, and while I felt a bit like an interloper from a different world, I have to respect their civic engagement and wished that more people from other walks of life were as engaged.
A year or so ago, Kim’s father bought her a Nook for her birthday. Kim had always spoken against the e-book readers. She liked the feel of the book in her hands, the small, and the look of a book. Books work nicely in many different levels of light. They don’t stop working when the power fails.
Kim is a voracious reader and around our house are various piles of books Kim has been reading. She makes regular trips to the library to pick up new books, and probably spends more time reading each evening than the average American spends watching television, or geeks like me spend on the Internet.
So, it was interesting to see her reaction. The first thing she did was hand the Nook over to me to set it up, configure it, and give it a test drive. I found it an interesting device. Basically, it is running Android, the operating system on more and more telephones. It had wifi connectivity to download books and a micro USB connection so that you could connect it to the computer. I was concerned that only way to get books for the Nook might be to buy them from Barnes and Noble.
Yet I did a bit of research online and found that we could download books from our public library onto the Nook. Shortly before we got the Nook, we had been camping out on Cape Cod. The first few days were rainy and we stopped at the Truro public library. People who summer on Cape Cod, even if they are merely there for a week in a camping trailer, can get a library card. So, we got a card, and checked out some books and movies for the trailer. Back in Connecticut, I did a little research and found that I could check e-books out of the Truro public library for the Nook as well.
Further research revealed many public libraries we could potentially use, including libraries where my mother lives, my sister lives, and Kim’s brother lives. One library that particularly jumped out at me was the New York City Public Library. Apparently, they have an incredible collection of e-books. We could probably work things out for my brother to check out e-books for us there. The New York City Public Library also has another interesting option. People from around the country can purchase a New York City Public Library card for a hundred bucks. We might do that some year as Kim has now read many of the books from our public library.
Doing more research, I checked out Project Guttenberg. This is a project that has been around for a long time, at least by Internet standards. The goal is to put as many public domain texts on the Internet as possible. There is a related project called LibriVox which is an effort to get these texts read and recorded as Audiobooks. I’ve used these audiobooks from time to time on my cellphone and have even burnt a few to CDs to listen to during long car rides, such as our frequent trips to Cape Cod.
I had downloaded a few ebooks Project Guttenberg to load on an ebook reader on my cellphone. I was glad to find I could do it, although the cell phone was not a great device to read the ebooks. The screen was just too small. Nonetheless, I’ve read a few ebooks on my cellphone. I was pleased to find that I could also load Project Guttenberg books to Kim’s Nook, although I’m not sure how many Project Guttenberg books she has read there.
One book that I read on my cell phone was Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. It talks about the life of George Babbitt, following him through his daily activities, including his boosterism for his local community. It provides and interesting counter point to what I am writing.
Another book that I read several years ago provides another back drop to this week’s stories. In 2000, Robert Putnam wrote a book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. It was based, in part, on an earlier essay he had written, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. It was a book that I first read during Gov. Dean’s 2004 Presidential bid. It lamented the decline of civic organizations from the League of Women Voters and Rotary Club to bowling league. An important focus of my activity in the Dean campaign was to help revitalize civic engagement, a task that still needs work today. Social media has changed the nature of our civic involvement and the way we look at social capital, but there is still much more engagement to be encouraged.
All of this provides background to the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce breakfast I attended this week. The health center where I work is one of the sponsors of Middnight on Main, an effort to bring a First Night like New Year’s Eve celebration to Middletown, CT. For the past couple of months I’ve been going to Middlesex Chamber of Commerce events to promote Middnight on Main. At the events, I’ve run into various friends from politics and social media.
I’m not sure what time the breakfasts are supposed to start. I believe it is 7:30 in the morning. However, I’ve always arrived early to help set up the Middnight on Main display and greet people as they arrive. On a normal morning, I leave the house around 7:30, but for the Chamber Breakfasts, I’ve been leaving an hour earlier.
At 6:30, the traffic is lighter, although the sky is darker. The drive may be a little further than my drive to work, but it requires less turns and is highway almost all the way. The breakfast takes place in the ballroom of a large hotel just off the Interstate. When I arrive determines how far I have to walk to the main entrance.
This week, the parking lot was full of the large trucks of the line crews that have been in the state working on restoring power after the October snow storm. I walked into the hotel along with others arriving early, and found a couple of my coworkers already there and the display nicely set up. I chatted with others that have been working on Middnight on Main and handed out brochures.
For swag, we’ve been handling out small clear bouncy balls. Inside is fluid filled with some sort of sparking glitter that floats around much like the snow in a snow globe. In the middle is a small electrical device made of a battery, a couple LEDs, one red and one blue, that start to flash when the sensor feels the ball bounced on the floor. Not all of the sensors work, or perhaps some of the batteries are dead or these is some other failure, since several of the balls don’t light up.
Members of the Middnight on Main team bounce the balls on the floor to make sure they light up before handing them out to the arriving guests. The balls are a big draw and many people approach the display to get a ball.
We also have a large wicker basket full of plastic golden kazoos. The basket is very similar to the old wicker laundry basket we had when I was a kid and that I often had to carry out to the clothes line and then later back into the house after the laundry was dry.
It is mostly older men that take the kazoos. Perhaps they remember them from their youth. One man talks about making toys from materials lying around the house; the simple homemade toys that we had before all the toys were manufactured overseas and sold in big box stores or before kids started spending most of their playtime on computer games.
There may be another reason it is the older men that stop to get kazoos for their grandkids. Kazoos can be great fun, but to a parent, they can get annoying after the kids play with them for too long a period. Grandparents, on the other hand, head back home after the visit and don’t need to deal with the continuous pervasive noise that kazoos can create.
Slowly, I slip further and further behind, but in the number of words written and in the material that I have been hoping to cover. If I ever do get some time to really sit down and write without distractions, I’ll have plenty to say.
Yet this evening is another evening of distractions. As the work day was winding down, I saw an alert flash by on Twitter about an overturned motor vehicle on the parkway near the exit I normally get off on, on my way home. The alert said the road was closed and it could be four hours before it would be cleared.
Kim had an evening meeting for work, so I was supposed to pick up Fiona from extended day at her school. It wasn’t clear if I could make it on time. We exchanged phone calls and she tried contacting various people to be able to pick up Fiona if I couldn’t make it on time.
I checked Google Maps which seems to take into consideration at least some traffic information, and it projected my commute home would take over an hour. I would not make it to the school on time. However, I had plotted a different course that takes less than an hour.
I set up the GPS on my cellphone to let me know of the turns. It also tells me how long it was expecting me to get home. Initially, it was saying an hour and ten minutes. As I approached the next exit, it suggested that I get off at the exit and turn around to go back to the my normal route that I knew would be significantly delayed.
When I passed the exit, the screen would flash, “Recalculating”. It would then say that it would take even longer for me to get home, and suggest I turn around at the next exit. The phone repeated this several times until it was saying it would take me an hour an a half. Then, it recalculated a new route, the one I had been planning on, and all of a sudden, it was telling me that I would be home in forty minutes.
That was at about 5:18. If it was right, I could pick up Fiona with two minutes to spare. I called Kim and she called around. She let her father know that I would pick up Fiona. She let the school know that I might be a little late, but I shouldn’t be that late.
Yet coming from the new direction I was coming, I would pass the school before getting home, so I would actually be there even earlier. Ultimately, I arrived with about ten minutes to spare.
It was still crowded at the school. Not only were many parents delayed because of the traffic on the parkway, but others we delayed by the traffic that had spilled off of the parkway onto the side streets.
At home, the immediate order of business was to attend to Wesley. I took him outside and he sniffed around for a bit and then went back inside. He didn’t seem to need to go pee. However, he was very thirsty and I got him some water. With the cone around his head so that he won’t lick his wounds, he also has problems getting to his food dish, so I sat on the floor, holding a small food dish for him. He ate voraciously.
There wasn’t much for food in the house so I ordered pizza. There is a great new pizza place the next town over and we ordered two small ones. As we waited, I sat with Wesley on the floor. He really seemed to need the attention.
A bit later,, he asked to go outside again, and after a few trips, he finally went pee. As we walked around outside, we could hear the horns honking on the distant parkway. Through the woods, I could see the lights of cars backed up a long ways.
Finally, the pizza came. Fiona and I ate several slices and she gave a couple crusts to Wesley.
When I got a chance to sit down and write, I saw other news alerts flashing via twitter. Normally, it is a distraction I don’t mind. I pick up important information along the way. The accident on the parkway apparently claimed two lives. Other distractions can be amusing. There are a few people that I follow on twitter who post some various humors messages. Other messages become humorous only because of the mixed contexts. For example, this evening there is another GOP debate going on. At the same time, there are Tweetchats about health care and about cooking. I sometimes have to stop and figure out what people are looking for a recipe for.
I grabbed a few minutes to write, but I really need to sit down with Wesley a little bit more.
When I started, I knew it would be hard to hold down a fulltime job and still get my writing done. Slowly, day after day, I slip further behind. There have been moments that I worried about having enough material. I knew I could go into great details about the moments of the day. I knew there were be some expected plot turns, and I suspected there were be some unexpected plot turns.
Here I am, about a quarter of the way through and I still haven’t gotten to the daily commute to work. Given the way this week is going, we’ll see when and if I’ll make it to the daily details.
Today, I was expecting I would write about a partly expected plot twist. I went to a Chamber of Commerce meeting and there is much that could and should be written about it. The meeting was honoring veterans, and at the end of the meeting, before the color guard left, they played taps for those that did not return alive. In this solemn moment, my cell phone started ringing. I tapped on the Reject phone call button and silently reflected on those who gave all.
After the color guard departed and the meeting was declared over, I glanced at my cell phone. There was a text message from Kim that read, “Wesley has been hurt. At vets”. There was also voice mail. I checked the voice mail and it was very brief. “Please call.”
I called Kim and started getting bits of the story. Wesley had come into the house and was bleeding. Fiona had a dentist appointment and our neighbor took her. Kim took Wesley to the vet where they sedated him and sent Kim home. Actually, the vet is closer to Kim’s father’s house, so she went there instead. She was waiting for more information.
I wrapped things up at the Chamber of Commerce meeting and went back to the office. I let me co-workers know what was going on. I work with other dog lovers and they were understanding. I knew that there wasn’t much I could do for Wesley or Kim, so I buckled down and tried to focus on my work. There were several projects I needed to work on and the day went pretty quickly.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of pets. One of my first pets was a hamster I had in second grade. I named it after my teacher. However, I as a seven year old, I was not well prepared for having a pet. My mother ended up taking care of the hamster. It did not live long and I was very distraught when it died. Later, we got a kitten. The first one was killed in the first day or two that we had it.
We lived on a farm and the kitten was expected to be an outside cat, but some predator got it on one of the first nights. The second cat lived a long time, however. One of my chores as a child was feeding the rabbits. We raised these been New Zealand white rabbits. Yet these were not pets. They were food. With that, they never were all that friendly and I never grew all that close to any of them. We also had goats which we raised for milk. Through all of this, I developed a bit of a detachment for animals. Yes, I would cuddle with the cat on cold winter afternoons, but that was it.
Later, we got a dog. After I got married, the family got a dog. He was part of our family for many years. When I met Kim, she had a dog and he became part of the family for many years as well. It may well be that when they were sick or injured, I was as sad as I was today,
In the nineties, I worked for a large international bank and for a period was flying to Europe monthly to negotiate the firm’s technology strategy. The car service would take me to the airport for an early evening flight. This was before 9/11 and the bank paid for me to fly business class, so I could get to the airport, through security and onto an international flight quite quickly. They had an option for a quick dinner which I would eat, have a couple glasses of wine, and then settle in for the flight.
The airlines provided sleeping masks and earplugs which I would use, and drift off to sleep over the hum of the jet engines. Several hours later, as we were approaching the airport, a flight steward would awaken me. I would fill out the necessary forms and prepare to disembark.
Most of my flights were to Zurich. We would land in the morning, and I would take the tram to the hotel, where I would check in, deposit my luggage and then head to the office. I would be a little groggy, but I found that it was the easiest way to adapt to the new time zone. By the end of the day, I would be dragging, so after going out to dinner with coworkers, I would head straight back to my hotel and go to sleep. The next morning, I would awake, pretty well settled into the routine.
The corporate politics were complicated. The organization was matrix managed, and this was compounded by the international element. I managed to survive this fairly well, but as I became more deeply involved, the politics became more complicated. On the advice of a coworker, I recruited the help of an organizational consultant. She had a Ph.D in applying Freudian psychoanalysis to organizations. The basic idea was that just as individuals had healthy or neurotic reactions to stress, so do organizations.
I was fascinated by the idea and besides availing myself of her recommendations on navigating the complex matrix managed international bank, I took the opportunity to study as much of the underlying work as possible. This led me to a topic where people in an organization shared their dreams. They reacted to one another’s dreams, not by trying to analyze the dreams themselves, but by exploring the groups associations and reactions to the dreams.
I’ve been to various meetings where people explored this and it changed my whole approach to dreams. Yet still, I don’t remember my dreams as often as I would like. That said, there is one dream that often comes back to me in various formats. Typically, I have returned to college, but I’ve somehow gotten distracted and not made it to various classes. Often, I can’t remember which classes I have and when they meet, let alone my assignments or the material I was supposed to have learned. To make things more complicated, the courses are not ones that I’ve normally been interested in.
Rarely, do I end up actually going to a class in these dreams, instead it is a sense of dread of the incomplete. I’ve often wondered what these dreams are about. Are they attempts to work through unfinished aspects of my real college experience? Are they some variation of the dreams that others have about not being prepared for an exam in school? Do they reflect some aspect of being concerned about not being about to please some authority figure? Is it because of some general aspects of having things unfinished?
The office where I write is littered with piles of clutter. How much of this clutter is the result of unfinished projects? Are there other symbols of unfinished projects? Does it reflect some truth about myself, about how I approach things. I’ve often identified myself as an innovator or early adopter of technology. I like to explore something new and exciting. Finishing up things seems boring.
I haven’t had a dream about unfinished college work for quite a while, but just recently, the dream came back. Is it related to working on National Novel Writing Month, and some anxiety of whether I’ll be able to finish it this year.
I’ve also been curious about other dreams in the household. I awoke in the middle of the night to hear Kim whimpering. I figured she was having a bad dream and I stroked her back for a little while and the whimpering ended. There have been other times when she has clearly been having a really bad dream. Not only would she be crying out in her sleep, but she would be having goose bumps. There are times that Fiona also has bad dreams. Often they are early in the morning, and she comes into our bedroom and crawls into the bed next to Kim and I. I don’t often hear details of her dreams, but at times she will become scared during dinner or at some other time, and it will be because something reminded her of a scary dream she had had.
I got me thinking, I rarely have scary dreams. Why is this, when my wife and daughter both have scary dreams? One idea I’ve floated is that it has to do with television. As a general rule, I don’t watch television. I read blogs, social media and the news online and spend time writing online, but I watch very little television.
In the evening, I often hear the television in the background. I can rarely hear enough of it to make out any dialog, and it is in a different room, so I don’t see the images, but I hear the music, and the general tenor of the sound. It often sounds like there are scary sections and I wonder how the media affects each one of us.
This applies not only to television, but to all media. What sort of impact does reading a wide variety of blogs have on me? What sort of impact does the stream of social media have on me, or the news as it is presented after going through various online filters? Does the more interactive nature of my media consumption have a different effect than the broadcast nature of so much of media?
All of these thoughts come to me as I try to write. This weekend, we set the clocks back. That gave me an extra hour of sleep. However, it means that I’m writing later in the evening than I normally do. This comes after having gotten up early for a work event, something I must do again tomorrow.
Perhaps my words are rambling, like they may have during less coherent hours of my European trips. Perhaps, I’m just writing, to avoid that fearful dream of not being able to finish what I set out to do. Yet even with that, I am slipping further behind.