Locker rooms’ loo-HOO-ser ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ code

JasonCollinsIt’s not shocking NBA free agent Jason Collins is the first active athlete in U.S. sports’ Big Four (basketball, football, baseball, hockey) to come out as gay. What’s shocking is that it has taken so long for such a “first.”

Apparently there is some unwritten “don’t ask don’t tell” policy in men’s locker rooms. Why else would this even make news today?

Seems to me that women are less hung up over the idea of sharing showers with potential lesbians. I guess we innately understand that gay people are no more or less predatory than any other people.

On the modesty vs. exhibitionism spectrum, everyone is unique. No generalizations can be made based on sexual orientation whether we are more or less comfortable being ogled or ogling others in a dressing-room situation. And no doubt we ALL look. It’s human to admire the human form. I’m thinking that athletes, though, of all people, are far more accustomed to group nudity and should be more comfortable with it than the average person, given their well-toned physiques — maybe even proud of their nakedness or a bit obsessed. I would expect they even strut. Not to mention, they’re strong and could certainly handle any unwanted advances, if any ever were made.

So why would this institution, of all institutions, be so stupidly prejudicial against someone who might admire them in a slightly different, more responsive or even effusive way?

And I say might, because it probably doesn’t happen often. In any professional arena, whether medicine, theater or sports, a professional knows how to erect that fourth wall and tamp down any inappropriate responses or behavior, no matter how the brain’s arousal radar behaves. Think gynecology, ladies. Do we have qualms about the sexual orientation of our OB-GYN, or what his/her intentions or ulterior motives are? Such issues rarely come into play. Even a professional sex worker is but acting.

Why would a professional athlete cross the line of propriety? They are the most physically disciplined of us all.

So it’s about time this ridiculous wall of prejudice — or whatever is causing the heebie-jeebies among these big-baby male athletes — comes crumbling down.

Bravo, Jason Collins, bravo. Now the question is: Which NBA team shall proudly scoop him up?

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Living in an age of telepathy

The age of communicating via telepathy is upon us, and its name is Twitter.

Journalism's good ol' days. Except it wasn't too good for women, or non-smokers.

Journalism’s good ol’ days. Except it wasn’t too good for women, or non-smokers.

Long ago and far away, news was dictated by “the public’s need to know.” Journalists had to sift through the facts surrounding an incident or figure, decide what was relevant or newsworthy while taking a step back to filter out (or let their editors filter out) biases so that the public could form its own opinions. In this one-way show ’n’ tell, people extracted news and views on a daily — maybe twice-daily — cycle, giving time for dust to settle and for story tellers to fit the right frame to the story. It was a way of telegraphing the news — send it out there, as if on the wires, to get a point across that hits close to one’s intended target.

The age of Twitter power: Use it wisely.

The age of Twitter power: Use it wisely.

A week ago, I experienced something entirely new. As the apprehension of the Boston Marathon suspects unfolded — and I mean “apprehension” in every sense of the word — I couldn’t sleep, feeling an untapped energy I couldn’t put my finger on. Part of that was no doubt the jangly communication device I keep in my pocket that I can’t keep my fingers from tapping. Images of those ordinary college kids on a video loop that had replayed on the airwaves were also coursing through my brain, so I checked my Twitter feed once more before bed, and discovered there was trouble afoot at MIT. Turned on CNN — not much to go on there, as the anchors somersaulted over themselves to make sure no one would infer that the chaos unfolding in Cambridge or Watertown had anything whatsoever to do with the story at the top of everyone’s minds. Our “need to know” was trumping everything else in our lives, it seemed. How? Why? Who? These questions haunt us each time something bad happens.

On display on Twitter, though, was more than a need to know. It seems fueled by “a need to tell.” Twitter empowers every single human on the planet who has a data plan and even the weakest signal to feed the need-to-know machine. It’s so instantaneous and so exponentially more than two-way communication — try a billion-way — that the news feed, a feeding frenzy, becomes a blur. You’re not even sure at times whether your thoughts are your own or someone else’s. Retweeting, favoriting, hat-tipping, direct-messaging, sending modified tweets, partial retweets, subtweets, little ehs, uhs and half-thoughts that spend little time churning in your brain before they’re out there, disseminating.

In psychological terms, “telepathy” is defined as the communication between people of thoughts, feelings, desires, etc., involving mechanisms that cannot be understood in terms of known scientific laws — also called “thought transference.” OK, that’s definitely happening. Does anyone really KNOW how Twitter even works? How we are connected to other beings we’ve never encountered and maybe whose real names we don’t know? We are followed and followed-back at lightning speed. We blink, we process, we share.

All the news that was fit to know — during the three hours that it took the established (establishment) news organizations to verify a single fact — was out there for anyone to see on Twitter late last Thursday night into the wheeeeee Friday hours. We had raw video from folks holed up in Watertown, Mass., their laptops held up to windows framing the story as it unfolded. We had nearly live audio of gunbattles, play-by-plays from people peering out bathroom windows on the second floor. It was incredible, as if we had an aerial view of the universe, like God, if I may, honing in on this one distress signal. And yet I was safe in a spare bedroom of my house, curled up with pillows, gnawing on raw veggies. 

Sunil Tripathi, in his Brown University hoodie, gets a group hug in the family kitchen.

Sunil Tripathi, in his Brown University hoodie, gets a group hug in the family kitchen.

And that was about the time I saw a tweet that the young suspect seen in the video was almost surely a college student from Brown University who had been struggling with depression and missing since mid-March: Sunil Tripathi — one of those odd names that Americans have a hard time placing, pronouncing or spelling, thereby rousing instant suspicion. Even friends of his were tweeting and retweeting their theories and shock. “Oh, God, no, unbelievable, that’s Sunil.” And, without thinking, I shared it. Because it was “new” — thus, “news.”

Eventually, Tripathi’s name bubbled up to Twitter’s top-trending-hashtags list.

The need to show and tell and know. It was out of control, yet honing in like radar, connecting every synapse in our collective brains, with retweets revictimizing one young philosophy major caught in the cross hairs of supposition.

Today, of course, we know better. Today, Sunil’s body was identified after being pulled out of a river near his Rhode Island campus. Whether he was already dead at the time the innuendos swirled around the ether, I’m unsure.

But as if by telepathy, I feel connected now to his grieving family. On the Facebook page they used to reach out for tips and support while missing him (and, of course, they will  miss him eternally), they wrote:

“This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too. Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”

That’s 203 characters. Too long for a tweet. They wrote much more, all of it excellent context, but that was the part that resonated most with me. That’s the part I’m sharing on my slice of the social-media pie. Lending my hand, the only way I can, to type more words.

And now, when people say:  “My thoughts and prayers are with you” — I’m thinking, yeah. I believe that. Here’s hoping the Tripathi family can also sense mine.

5 ways modern technology steals our humanity

Let’s start with the obvious.

1. Automatic flush toilets (and soap dispensers)

Yeah, that's EXACTLY what I was thinking about the misdirected shots of soap.

Yeah, that’s EXACTLY what I was thinking about those shots of foam.

Not everyone overflows with creativity, but one masterpiece (‘fess up) that anyone is proud to admire is that morning dump. Don’t mean to be crude. Part of the enjoyment of “going,” though, has gotta be reviewing where you’ve gone.

Pooh on automatic flush toilets for stealing our glances. Meaning: Neither my doctor nor my mother gets the information they need at routine check-ups. You have to be gymnastic and quick on the uptake, or downtake, as it were.

It’s even more annoying when just a shift in your seat prompts a premature flush (some toilet designs double as bidets, in those cases). I’m left feeling: What?! Am I invisible here?!

The automatic flush also trains people not to flush; when suddenly encountering the rare hand crank, they then neglect to clean up their business, which is just wrong and leaves the next person thinking: “Animal!”

Automatic soap dispensers (also known as “hands-free” — ah, the irony!) are simply toying with us. It’s like the bully at recess who takes your cap and won’t give it back, raising it higher and higher … we keep swiping in the air — c’mere sensor … where are ya’? … ahhh, gotcha! … oh, crap, on my sleeve. Embarrassing. You end up talking to the sink, or yourself, or worse — some waiting stranger not in the mood for discourse who might decide to just leave without washing her hands.

2. The DVR

Sure it was a marvel when it first came out. Just like in the Seventies, when VCRs were replicated everywhere and, upon receiving the monthly cable movie guide, I would start with the A’s, cross-reference each movie airing against my AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies of All-Time tome (a book) and then set the must-sees to record so I could knock them off my bucket list then transfer them WITHOUT COMMERCIALS to a pristine tape to keep FOR ALL TIME (until the tapes disintegrated, which they now have done) and decorate each tape spine and load them into the bookshelf sorted alphabetically and by genre to admire.

I’m sure you all can relate. A very human thing to do.

Looking forward to the next time Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take their synchronized vacations so I can catch up.

Looking forward to the next time Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take their synchronized vacations so I can catch up.

Problem with the DVR: You can’t see or touch your stash. And you can’t possibly “save until I delete” all of it. You must constantly choose what to part with, or set it to “save until space is needed,” in which case things get recorded over each other that you never even see, and before you know it, you are missing “American Idol” Season 12 Audition No. 3, or the entire week of Feb. 18 Daily Shows and Colbert Reports. You just can’t see it all. I repeat: You can’t see it all.

Moral: If you don’t have time to watch a show in the first place, chances are you don’t have time to watch the accumulation of shows you’ve missed, unless you sentence yourself to sucking up all of your “free time” with “West Wing” marathons and “Game of Thrones” binges, in which case … you are left with no worthwhile life with which to live.

3. Speech-to-text tools

Yay, now everyone on the street can hear your texts!

Yay, now everyone on the street can hear your texts.

Rewind to when predictive text was new and we were all carrying those phones with the alphabet clustered by threes on the number pad keys. That design dates to the mid-20th century when people memorized phone number exchanges by province (like the old Glenn Miller hit “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” or the Liz Taylor movie “Butterfield-8”), giving rise to the 1960s touch-tone phone. We bravely attempted to tap out texts based on this arcane schematic, which never would have been designed this way if They could have seen the future and spaced out the most frequently used letters more logically. And we would hit the wrong keys and have predictive text predict the wrong words. This also emitted big chuckles and sometimes, yeah, we sent it with the typos because we knew the recipient would be perplexed — superfunny.

Speaking into a phone to coax it to text seems even funnier, not only due to the warped results but the image of everyone talking into their wrists like special agents … then raising voices louder when it doesn’t work. WHY NOT JUST CALL THE PERSON INSTEAD?!?!?!? ‘Nuff said.

4. Keyless entry

Feeling password strong!

Feeling password strong.

This includes push-button car ignition devices and such. If, eventually, no one carries keys, what clue will we have that we are experiencing “senior moments”? The “where are my keys?” routine is eliminated. Instead it’s “What was my password?” repeated 50 billion times across America every nanosecond. Or “Can I have your digits?” in the case of a car-jacking and other crime.

What’s funny is that with an average 2,738 passwords per person per lifetime that we are forced to recall, we end up keeping the passwords mostly from ourselves. Reset, reset, reset, reset, reset ….

Remember in preschool when the password was simply: “Please!”?

5. Drones

Drones really bug me. They make me miss the bees.

Drones really bug me.

This inhumane advance is possibly the most devastating strike against humanity. We live in an age when video games have gotten too real and virtual reality stands in for actual reality.

Whether spying or killing, drones are the height of impersonal.

And with them, all of the apocalyptic artificial-intelligence specters and sci-fi plots about the robots we create turning on us and imprisoning us are finally coming true. We are the drones, and we’re the ones pushing the red buttons, mostly because it’s easy and makes us callous … and I’m not talking just our fingertips.

Enough with droning on already.

Donde esta el bano, por favor?

Putting aside my obsession with what goes on inside men’s rooms (See “The Daily Journal Urinal: Who knew?), I’m freshly fixated on how owners of establishments, typically bars, seem to go out of their way to disguise restrooms. It’s enough of a challenge to navigate one’s way to the potty after American-style partying, but having to puzzle out which door is for men and which is for women (The Lady or the Tiger?) seems a dangerous hurdle in emergencies.

Is this a sign that strict lines of gender matter less and less in modern society and that it wouldn’t much matter if we chose the wrong door?

These recent examples go way past Damas y Caballeros. If you enjoy these, please send me yours, so I can compile them. Maybe I’ll even sign up for Pinterest for this.

Starting with the highly judgmental World of Beer (this shot was taken in Evanston, Ill., but they’re the same in Arlington, Va.). They also have those machines on the wall that you stick your legs through and they vacuum-pressure things dry and shut — at least I THINK that’s what those machines are for.

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What language even is this? Greek to me. Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

At Piero’s Corner, an Italian restaurant anchoring Fairfax, Va.’s Main Street, these made me LOL. Go ahead, read them aloud:

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Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

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Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

The dignified Samuel Beckett’s Irish Gastro Pub in Shirlington, Va., caters to linguists. Luckily they come with translations, if you can decipher the script after one too many Black & Tans.

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Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

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Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

Finally, these are clearly labeled, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the preponderance of ants near the ladies’ room at the Artisphere in Rosslyn, Va. Is it because women are sweeter and they’re following the sugar trail, or are men’s rooms too toxic even for insects? Perhaps the buggy décor simply helps cut down on lines, weeding out the squeamish.

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Somebody call sanitation, the ladies’ room is crawling with ants! Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

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Photo by Terry Byrne, 2013

A bad week in April

TitanicLifeRaftOur family’s favorite tragedy has always been the sinking of the Titanic — maybe because it never touched our lives yet summed up the immensity of human ambition and error, hope and calamity. There’s something haunting about the fantastical image of rich men at the helm of society clutching the rails or smoking cigars and clinking glasses while draining the ship’s bourbon and going down with the ship, honorably, as the band played on. While not a realistic image, it’s a stirring one that levels the injustices of a stratified society where third-class “second-class” citizens, mostly immigrants, stowed in the hull like cargo were, the fable goes, trapped by locked gates and an every-man-for-himself attitude. Doesn’t quite jibe with the “women and children first” directive of every ship’s captain.

Yet the romanticizing of tragedy, the “what would you do?” unknowns of facing a similar life-or-death situation, imagining that feeling of powerlessness while still summoning the will to live and a balance of compassion for your fellow humans who happen to be in the same boat as you … namely, Mothership Earth … heady, heady stuff.

We all know how the story ends, for any one of us: We die. And we won’t be here 100 years from now to read what history might say about us or our era. And yet, while here, we wake every day with some unseen directive, striving to make our mark on the callous measure of time, balancing some level of compassion for our fellow passengers.

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Tax Day, the day we are reminded there is no free ride, when we all pay our share in return for what we expect to be a civilized society with a reasonable safety net. The Titanic’s doom wasn’t the first disaster to occur in the third week in April, but certainly one of the most notable. And although April 15 didn’t become the nation’s iconic tax-filing deadline until 1955, bad stuff, terroristic stuff, has increasingly been happening during the week bracketed by Tax Day through April 20, which is that ubiquitous “4/20” date that somehow celebrates the stoning of America, a holiday for hedonist potheads.

After a week like this past week, in which the Boston Marathon bombing and cascading events held us all hostage to the news from April 15 through April 19 — also the day Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, my employer, died — a journalist such as myself, OK, myself, is forced to take stock.

Consider the havoc and gloom:

  • April 15, 1865: President Lincoln dies after being shot by John Wilkes Booth the night before
  • April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech massacre
  • April 17, 2013: West, Texas, fertilizer plant fire and explosion, leveling town
  • April 18, 1983: U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut
  • April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City bombing of federal building
  • April 19, 1993: Deadly finale to Waco, Texas, siege (Branch Davidian fire)
  • April 20, 1999: Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
  • April 20, 2010: Start of the BP oil spill caused by explosion that terrorized the Gulf region

Just a random collection of dates and news events, perhaps. One could compile a list of good and bad milestones, no doubt, for any week of the year, And yet these were all stories with “legs,” as we say in the biz … stories that stretch across time and grow exponentially in significance. Like the Boston Marathon attack, which I’ll propose tackily and tactlessly, forgive me, is a story with legs about heroic athletic achievement by runners and everyday heroes, as much as traumatic amputations, shattered lives and a severed sense of security. So many of us have “running a marathon” on our bucket lists, yet no one imagines any fatal risk involved. Like the Titanic, this tragedy is also a tale of immigrants. Unlike the hundreds who perished in the frigid Atlantic in 1912, these were two wayward immigrants, neither one a life preserver but hell-bent destroyers who exacted revenge on their adopted country, one cowering cowardly in a dry-docked boat in Watertown, ironic twist. A “fluid” situation, the newscasters said all week, that in the end wasn’t. But not since 9/11 have we, as a nation, felt more vulnerable. And mortal.

Here I add one more tragedy to the bulleted April list, because personal tragedy, we know, is universal: My daughter was raped April 18, 2009. My beautiful, powerful daughter. The attack thrust her and our family into a period of gloom and loss of security from which we are still fighting to recover, which makes this past week all the more horrible to review.

As they say, it’s not what happens in our lives but how we react to what happens that matters. Our response. Our emergency response. Our resilience. Except, of course, from death, which is the only thing from which resistance is futile.

So, while we can, let’s postpone the inevitable. Let us live. Let us imagine better tomorrows. Here, in the third week of April, amid the rekindling of spring, the promised resurrection of slumbering crocuses and cicadas, we are reminded that, among all of the germs out there, the germ of hope and endurance can truly reign supreme. It’s what motivates most immigrants to this country, where many of us live only by accident of birth, and what makes each of us free to be our own ambassadors of peace. From hell on Earth to hell-on-wheels.

conflagration-jim-finch“Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

Just as easily it could all disappear

Along with whatever meaning you might have found.

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

Go on and make a joyful sound!

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive

And the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive

But you’ll never know.”

— The immortal words of Jackson Browne, from “For a Dancer,” which is quite possibly my favorite song of all time. He wrote it for a friend who died in a fire, a friend who had been sitting in a sauna in a house that burned down and was unaware what was happening — out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.

Just a little blog post to accompany your lighting-up 4/20 celebrations. And now, I’m gonna catch up on some rejuvenating sleep.