Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kind of Tricky, that Trikke!

My friend Kathy has been blogging about her latest obsession: Her Trikke, "Bluebird." I was intrigued, so this morning she and Bluebird picked me up and took me to a nearby parking lot, where I got to try this fun, addictive exercise Kathy's gotten hooked on.

An hour later, I'm still feeling like a limp noodle.

I don't think I ever got up to one mile per hour. I didn't care that I looked incredibly silly, or that the construction workers gawking at us were probably making some pretty clever remarks about the silly woman wiggling her hips and trying to balance on this thing. It was fun. And it was work. I can see how this thing could carve inches off hips, thighs, and upper arms in short order. Even when I couldn't get it going, it was more entertaining and a better workout than any treadmill or stationary bike! And because you have to keep moving in order to ride it, the Trikke provides a better workout than a bike, or inline skates. There's no coasting; you have to use your arms, your hips, your legs, your feet.

I finally got into a groove (going downhill, towards the drain) and heard, "Shake it up, baby, now...twist and shout!" running through my head. That's about the right rhythm and movement to get the Trikke moving. It also helped to watch my shadow on the pavement, rather than focusing on my hands, my feet, my sense of balance. "Trust the lean," Kathy said. Clearly, you have to learn to trust your body and the Trikke, itself. Not consciously thinking about it is the first step.

Kathy swore it took her two weeks to get it going like that. But every time she'd point out, "Hey, you're moving!" I'd lose it, start giggling, and stop moving - despite the fact that I was still working my arms, wiggling my hips, leaning, pushing off from side to side... Trikking in place. What a concept: I'd just invented the "Stationary Trikke." I probably wore a sore spot on Bluebird's front tire, too, but since she didn't dump me on my head or my ample behind, I have to assume she's easily amused and forgiving.

After going nowhere fast, but working up a good sweat, I hopped off Bluebird and Kathy took a spin. She makes it look so easy!

Me? I know it didn't look like much, but I'm worn out and riding a happy wave of exercise-induce endorphin rush. I need a NAP!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Get the Log Out of Your Eye

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

It’s a cliché, a logical fallacy: “I can’t be racist; some of my best friends are white!” or “I can’t be racist! My wife is black!”

Nonprejudiced, egalitarian, White individuals were provided with false physiological feedback allegedly indicating that they held racist prejudices against Blacks. In one study, for example, they were shown slides of interracial couples, and the experimenter commented that the subject’s skin response indicated severe intolerance of interracial romance, which was tantamount to racism. After the procedure was ostensibly completed, the participant left the building and was accosted by either a Black or a White panhandler. People who had been implicitly accused of racism gave significantly more money to the Black panhandler than people who had not been threatened in that way. Donations to the White panhandler were unaffected by the racism feedback. The implication was that people became generous toward the Black individual as a way of counteracting the insinuation that they were prejudiced against Blacks.

(from “Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial” by Roy F. Baumeister, Karen Dale, and Kristin L. Sommer; http://faculty.fortlewis.edu/burke_b/personality/readings/freuddefense.pdf; last accessed 5/13/09)

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Another study showed that homophobic men, exposed to videotapes depicting homosexual intercourse, reported low levels of sexual arousal, but physiological measures indicated higher levels of sexual response than were found among other participants. Thus, again, the subjective response reported by these participants was the opposite of what their bodies actually indicated. This finding also fits the view that homophobia may itself be a reaction formation against homosexual tendencies, insofar as the men who were most aroused by homosexuality were the ones who expressed the most negative attitudes toward it.
Prejudice would provide the most relevant form of unacceptable aggressive impulse, because American society has widely endorsed strong norms condemning prejudice. If people are led to believe that they may hold unacceptably prejudiced beliefs (or even that others perceive them as being prejudiced), they may respond with exaggerated displays of not being prejudiced.

(from “Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial” by Roy F. Baumeister, Karen Dale, and Kristin L. Sommer; http://faculty.fortlewis.edu/burke_b/personality/readings/freuddefense.pdf; last accessed 5/13/09)

I think that “racism” and “prejudice” have little to do with skin color, nationality, or ethnicity – even if that appears, on the surface, to be the primary issue. Shared physical characteristics provide a convenient way to lump people together, to form stereotypes. If a child’s only experience with Hispanic people is being bullied, spit on, and stuffed into a trash can at school, she has little reason to go out of her way to get to know more Hispanic people. The objective reality is that a few bullies – who happened to be Hispanic – picked on her. But it was so traumatic it makes her wary of all Hispanic kids. In time, this perpetuates the bullies’ belief that Whites look down on them – and because the first child is now going out of her way to avoid all Hispanics, the nice Hispanic kids start to believe that she thinks she’s too good to hang out with them – and that she is a “racist.”

Prejudice stems from our fear and loathing of all that is strange or “other” – “not our kind.” We are affected by our families’ prejudicial attitudes from infancy to adulthood; we form our own along the way. Outwardly, it seems that skin color, nationality, and ethnicity are the root of racism, but I would argue that it’s a superficial excuse.

It seems to me that real distrust and loathing has more to do with ideological differences, disparity in terms of wealth and education, and differences in basic values and priorities. It’s easier to be “racist” than to try to get to know one another, or to try to understand beliefs and ideas that are anathema to us.

Some of these differences are truly irreconcilable. There are angry people in the world, and some of them have every reason to be. There are people who would kill one another over insults and injuries incurred over a thousand years ago. Multiple generations of families have been destroyed by violence and rage. Religious fanaticism and power hungry individuals have thrown great civilizations into the Dark Ages. There are people who feel their rights have been trampled, their privileges denied, and their interests ignored for far too long – and they would be right.

There are people who feel entitled to a certain way of life – people who may, in fact, have worked very hard to earn their place in the world – who feel threatened by a “mingling” of what they see as “low class” and “high class.” God forbid we should learn (or acknowledge openly) that the trash collector loves his family every bit as much as the banker.

Gandhi is said to have pointed out that “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And yet, when we feel that our identity, our most cherished values, and our way of life are threatened, it is the most difficult thing in the world to stop nurturing old grudges and to stop seeking vengeance.

For most of us, though, the perceived differences stem from ignorance and a lack of personal experience when it comes to living, working, and playing with people from other nations, creeds, and cultures. It takes bravery, because we’re not always welcome. Attempts at friendship may be rebuffed or ridiculed. Our shields go up; constructive criticism (such as someone pointing out that in protesting how non-racist you are, you actually prove otherwise) or an innocuous question like, “What a nice accent. Where are you from?” becomes a “racist” remark in our eyes. We’re too quick to deny each other half a chance. But what is the solution? To isolate ourselves further? In a world with vanishing borders, it is more important than ever that we at least try to appreciate and understand one another. We may never agree on every issue, and it’s time we learned that vigorous debate needn’t be rude or threatening. Animated exchange of ideas need not degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

Sure, there are some dearly cherished values, like “Thou shalt not eat thy neighbor” or “Thou shalt not have sex with swine” that don’t really lend themselves to civil debate. But each of us should be free to worship God – or not – as our conscience dictates. Each of us should be free to define “family” according to our hearts. “Freedom” comes with responsibility; responsibility implies respect for the rights and freedoms of others. None of us should go out of our way to offend – and we would all do well to remember that words, once spoken or written – cannot be taken back. But none of us has the absolute right to go through life unoffended, and excessive avoidance of controversy can lead to festering resentments and reinforcement of our own narrow-minded beliefs.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Champagne and Strawberries = Vindication!

From 1988 until 1994, I was a SysOp (old-fashioned term for “Moderator”) on GEnie. Many of you are too young, or too new to high tech even to remember GEnie, but for a while there it was a hot competitor of CompuServe, back before there was such a thing as Prodigy or AOL or Earthlink, and long before the days of DSL. (I won’t bore you with those old sob stories about how we chatted on an ASCII text based system at 300 baud and thought it was blazingly fast, or how in the early days of “chat” on CompuServe, it was called “CB” to make clear the similarity to Citizen’s Band Radio, which had been all the rage not so very long before that...)

I was a Senior Assistant in the Writers’ Ink RoundTable. Writing.com is the closest thing I’ve found to such a warm, funny, serious, playful, supportive, argumentative, kind, snide, silly, close-knit community of writers online since Writers’ Ink. It even has the same hierarchy of newbies, old timers, Assistant SysOps, Senior Assistant SysOps, and Head Cheeses (not to be confused with head cheese, most of the time).

Being a forum moderator has always been an unpaid and thankless job, and mostly a labor of love and addiction. I had assistants reporting to me, and I assure you they were paid every bit as well as I. For the most part, we had a blast interacting with the members of the RoundTable (or “RT” as I shall call it henceforth, to save typing). We ran writing workshops, held online conferences with famous authors (including Anne McCaffrey, Tom Clancy, and Michael Crichton, just to name a few), and we posted endless messages about writing and not writing and ways to avoid both. For kicks on a boring Saturday night, we’d play the online version of “Truth or Dare.” Dares often involved such things as sending the hapless victim over to a serious conference in the Political Science RoundTable with instructions to impersonate a radical left-winger (or right-winger, depending on the night’s topic) or to wander into the Science Fiction and Fantasy RoundTable (our natural rivals, since they laid claim to the SFWA members) and start a virtual food fight while nibbling on pickled alien eggs. I should add that it's distressingly easy for these folks to get revenge; all you have to do to start a flamewar with a bunch of writers is to walk into the room and ask, "So, what's so bad about using passive voice, anyway?"

Okay, so maybe you had to be there.

Point is, most of the time, we didn’t have “troublemakers.” Troublemakers are rare, when they’re paying $6/hour for the privilege of being online at all. All that changed, however, when GEnie introduced the $9.95/month all-you-can-eat plan, in competition with Prodigy’s ridiculously cheap offerings and flashy GUI interface.

Suddenly, we had “troublemakers.” We had people who logged on and couldn’t figure out how to log off again. We soon had people who logged on and wrote scripts to keep them from logging off again. (Unlimited bandwidth is nice; however, someone’s got to pay for it, and at this rate, it wasn’t the members. But I digress...) It was all good, until the day I met R.F. (I’d love to tell you his real name, but the lawyers won’t let me.)

R.F. was bored one sunny Saturday afternoon. (It might’ve been a Sunday, but that’s not important to the story.) R.F. began to post, in the Message Board, “Is anybody online? Wanna chat?” Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. Except that when he didn’t get an answer quickly, he did it again. And again. And again. In just about every topic on the board. Everyone ignored him, of course. I mean, if you see 100 messages that say “I’m bored, anybody online? Anybody? Wanna chat?” from someone who hasn’t even bothered to introduce himself or join in any of the ongoing conversations, are you gonna bite?

He started posting this in an ongoing, collaborative story that a number of us had been working on for quite some time. And he watched the thread closely; any time a new addition to the story was posted, R.F. would chime in with “Anybody online? Someone talk to me!” We tried to make his outbursts part of the storyline, but that got redundant and tedious in short order.

Several of us emailed and explained how the Real-Time Conference Rooms worked. (Every RoundTable had its own RTC “chat” area, and GEnie itself had a whole area devoted to social chit-chat with many, many rooms – much like a tiny version of today’s IRC.) For some reason, though, R.F. had fixated on us.

I was young and stupid then. I dragged R.F. into the RTC chat one afternoon, and spent nearly four straight hours patiently explaining how our little community of writers worked, and giving him hints on how to fit in if he wanted to be a part of it. At that point, I sincerely believed that he was a clueless wonder who genuinely wanted to belong. He even made a little effort at staying on topic and joining in some ongoing conversations in the Message Board. I felt the same high that Evangelists must feel upon learning that a sinner has heard their words, seen the light, and converted. Hallelujah!

The next day, I was chagrined to see more drivel from R.F. “Why won’t anyone talk to me?”

Fed up, I deleted his messages. He’d been welcomed, cajoled, ignored, warned... well, shoot. Enough is enough. Delete, delete, delete.

Next thing you know, I have mail.

R.F. is going to report me to the New York Times, the L.A. Herald, the AP Newswire, CBS, NBC, ABC, the BBC... basically, anyone who’ll listen, and tell them how I’ve single-handedly stomped on, trampled on, mutilated and spindled his First Amendment Right to Freedom of Expression.

Yeah... whatever.

Fortunately for me, I was in law school at the time. I was not a government entity, nor was GEnie a public forum. That pretty much solved that worry. I had the absolute right to delete his messages and even lock him out of the RT, if I chose to be snotty about it. The contract holder for the RT, and GEnie itself, might have something to say about it (along the lines of “be nice to the nasty customer, because he IS a customer”) but basically, R.F. didn’t have a leg to stand on. I wrote back something to the effect of Fine, yeah, you do that – and next time you write to me, please cc: my boss. I’ve already sent him copies of all our previous correspondence.

And then I watched the news just to be sure...

Oh, yes, I did.

Somehow, and I don’t remember all the details now, R.F. managed to make a sufficient nuisance of himself that I ended up having to lock him out of the Writers’ Ink RT altogether. By then, I didn’t even care if my name was on the evening news. I’d had enough. I was tired. I was tired of trying to bring the lost wolf in sheep’s clothing into the fold, and tired of arguing with him about the First Amendment, and tired of being stalked and hounded in the RT at every turn. So I just slammed and barred the door. Next time he logged on, the electronic bouncer kicked him to the curb.

I’d never locked anyone out before. Never. I felt bad. I tossed and turned and lost sleep over it. But it was quiet; things quickly settled back down to normal, and a number of people thanked me for taking decisive action.

Then I got a phone call one morning, on my way to work, from the Boss. Oh, what a softie he was! (This guy had the patience of a saint, I tell you. He’d back his assistants against all comers, but he was always the diplomat with everyone, as well - whether they deserved it or not.) “I called R.F. on the phone last night. We had a little ‘man-to-man chat,’ and I think he’s straightened out now. He wanted back in, and I really think he understood what was expected of him. I’m confident he’ll behave himself now, so I let him back in.”

What? I thought. Oh, $#!^! “Well, you’re the boss. If you’re sure...” I reminded him that I was going out of town, on a family vacation, and would not have a PC with me. He’d have to keep an eye on things and deal with R.F. personally, in my absence, should he start giving other staff members or member members a hard time.

I called my assistant long distance and explained. I heard a protracted groan on the other end of the line. “You’re kidding, right? They had a ‘man-to-man chat’? Is that even possible with R.F.?”

“Look,” I said, “if anything happens while I’m gone, you guys will have to deal with it. I’m betting R.F. does something to get himself locked out, or at least make S. wish he’d never let him back in, before I get back. And I’m dying to know what that is. So here’s the deal. If S. has to lock R.F. out again, I want you to call our hotel and order a bottle of their cheapest champagne sent to me by room service. That’ll be our code. Since there’s nothing I can do about it from there, I might as well drink champagne and get some kick out of it.”

We got to the hotel about three days later, and there was no message. No champagne greeting upon our arrival. All was well. Or was it?

A couple of hours after checking in, there was a knock on the door. My husband had gone downstairs for a drink with a friend and former coworker, and Katie and I were getting ready for bed. I pulled a robe around myself and peeked through the peephole. It was about 9:00 PM! Who would be knocking? Ahhhhhh. Yes, room service. A very nicely dressed waiter bearing a silver tray, upon which was a silver ice bucket bearing a bottle of champagne, and – what the hell? A huge, crystal bowl of strawberries. Fresh, luscious strawberries – probably forty of them – each as big as a small plum, and each one utterly perfect and unblemished.

Oh, dear God, what had R.F. done now? There was even a card, “signed” by R.F.!! “Having a grand time, glad you’re not here!” I took the tray, and immediately called my assistant, K.

“Okay, what’s the scoop?”

She laughed and asked me to give her a minute to catch her breath. “Well, the minute R.F. got word you’d left town, he started posting messages all over the board with the lyrics to ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead!’”

“Hah! But that surely wasn’t enough to get him locked out.”

“No, it should’ve been, but of course it wasn’t.”

“Well, what did it?”

“He posted a message in the main Message Board topic consisting of a thousand blank lines.”

I didn’t get it at first. “1000 blank lines? So? What was the point of that?”

“Think about it. Most of the members log on at 2400 baud or less. At 2400 baud, it takes about 5 minutes for a blank message that size to scroll across the screen. By that time, most people think their PC has just locked up, so they force a disconnect, reboot, and log on again.”

“Oh, God.”

“Wait, it gets better. Because they never finished reading the message, it’s still marked ‘unread.’”

“And it happens again.”

“You got it. People have been calling customer support, thinking it’s a system problem.”

“So S. locked him out?”

“For life.”

“So much for their little ‘man-to-man chat.’ S. must be terribly disappointed.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Okay, that explains the champagne, but K., what’s with these incredible strawberries??”

“Oh!” K. laughed. “That’s on the house. A gift from the hotel. When I got room service, I explained the whole story to them. They agreed that the champagne was good vindication, and threw in the strawberries for free!”

* * *

Don’t think I learned my lesson. Oh, no. I went on to run a forum on another network, and later took a real, paying job with them as a Product Marketing Manager.

That company went bankrupt four months later. My boss assured me that he wasn’t disappointed in me and that “Jesus Christ himself couldn’t have saved it.”

As if that weren’t enough, I went on to run another forum on the Internet for just over a year, until they realized they didn’t have to actually pay their Moderators – they had people lined up begging to do it for free. (I think the word I’m searching for here is “masochists,” but that would be admitting I once was one, wouldn’t it?) There are various reasons for wanting to be a Moderator – some involving “phenomenal cosmic powers!” but most stemming from a much simpler desire to be active and helpful members of a community they’ve come to love.

Would I ever do anything like that again?

Please don’t ask me. I’m weak, and they don’t have a Twelve Step program for online addiction yet.

* * *

Send a note of appreciation to your favorite Moderator(s) today. Sure, it’s a prestigious position and lots of fun, most of the time. But if you’ve never been one, you have no idea the shit they put up with and how very much it means to have a little note saying “Gee, you do a great job around here. Keep it up!”

Learn Something New Every Day (May 12, 2009)