"No, I'm just a reporter," I said, grabbing my notebook and recorder, climbing out of the front seat of the cruiser. I didn't know how to talk to a 16-year-old who'd just been placed in the back of a police car.
Several hours earlier, we had pulled over next to a double-parked SUV and told them to move. Here it was now, mid-afternoon, and we went on a high-speed chase across Holyoke, Massachusetts, because the teenagers in that car had been driving around with an air gun, telling people it was real.
When the cop pulled the SUV over, he waited a few moments for backup and then approached the car. The kids had stashed the gun under the back seat, but told the police when they saw it that it was real.
Maybe these folks were better cops, maybe the kids were just lucky. All that happened was they got arrested.
I was on a ride-along that day. I showed up at the police station around 7 a.m., signed a waiver, met the officer I'd be riding with, and climbed in his cruiser. He said that Mondays were typically slow, that we would more than likely park near the railroad tracks and ticket a couple of drivers with expired registrations, maybe get out of the car and talk to some of the merchants.
He couldn't have been more wrong about how the day went.
There was a foot chase, there was a car chase, there was a fatal accident.
It took me two whole days to go over my notes and my tapes and get a succinct (OK, maybe that's not a good word for it) 120-column inch article (about 4,000 words — the equivalent of a 16-page paper).
This was years ago, before we were putting our stories online; only some news outlets were moving their stories from the paper to the web, and they certainly weren't writing with the intent of getting their stuff out there fast.
Twitter wasn't even Odeo yet. Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school. The World Trade towers were still standing.
There were no immediate public reactions unless you were physically in someone's presence. There was no YouTube.
It's not a time I'm nostalgic for. I'm just trying to paint a picture of the world we lived in. Most of you remember that time, but you might not really remember how different day-to-day life was. You might not remember what news consumption was like. You might not remember what our interactions were like.
We relied on storytellers to gather information and tell it to us.
Chuck Palahniuk's short story "Zombies," part of his 2015 collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread, about kids who are too smart to ever be happy, so they start a trend of self-lobotomizing using AED kits from schools and gyms and airports.
It reminded me of our hero in the film Pi, Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette. Exhausted from trying to find a pattern in pi, overwrought by migraines and hounded by both Hasidic Jews and Wall Street firms, Max lobotomizes himself with a drill.
When asked how they made the scene look so realistic, director Darren Aranofsky is fond of saying, "We did one take then rushed Sean to the hospital."
Who are we now?
We are all journalists, inasmuch as a journalist is one who journals. We're all doing it in public, too.
We are not all reporters, however. We react, but we don't necessarily report what's happening. We let someone else do that, then we journal a link to it.
One of the things that I learned while I was a reporter was not just to tell the story, but to give it some context. Not just why did it happen, but why is it important? What are the implications for us as a community? As a species?
We're supposed to have some perspective on things, but in a world that demands everything now, now, now, it's difficult to do enough research to make it worthwhile. A lot of elder statesmen are getting out of Dodge before it becomes entirely impossible to have a reasoned, researched discussion.
So far it's difficult, but yet impossible.
We need an exit strategy.
I'm not talking about anything drastic — not death or explosions or anything.
Hopefully not lobotomies.
We need to take a step back, to slow down, to give things time. To allow ourselves the opportunity for reflection, for observation, for discussion.
In just two weeks, the US has an election. It's an important one: It's between (primarily) two candidates who are not particularly well-liked among the general populace. They are very likely the last people of their generation who will run for president.
There's a half-generation — the one President Obama belongs to — that will be prominent for a few election cycles.
The next younger half-generation, the one I belong to, is called Generation X. We're famously derided for not giving a crap about anything.
Some of that comes from the apathy toward community our parents showed. While Baby Boomers drastically changed the world we live in, they also stayed away from religious groups, recreational sports leagues and social and professional groups like Rotary and Toastmasters clubs, among others. A Harvard professor did a giant study on it.
Gen Xers may or may not get into politics, and if not, we're going to see those Obama's age in politics for about 20 more years and then Millennials will take office. That's the generation that grew up with mobile phones and ubiquitous high-speed internet; the generation coming out of college to have job titles that didn't exist a few years ago.
We have no idea what the world will look like in another couple of presidential cycles. But if it keeps speeding up the way it is, we might need to worry about exit velocity.
When Ori Brafman was asked to help the army figure out how to invite some innovation into its thinking, he thought about the plague. Bubonic plague. Black Death. That period in European history when lots of people died.
Why? Because lots of priests administered lots of last rites and caught the plague and subsequently died. A new group of people took over the Church — a group of people who unlocked the vaults and allowed people to read books on science and history and other subjects that the previous regime had banned.
With that, the Enlightenment came about, giving us art, science, math — Michelangelo and da Vinci and the printing press and all that came after it.
All because a single flea-bitten rat got onto a ship and then got off of it, spreading disease and wiping out a large population.
It's not entirely random, though. Rats sneak onto boats all the time. They sneak off boats all the time, too. Boats carry food that rats eat and rats carry fleas that sometimes bite people and some of those fleas carried plague. The ship allowed for serendipitous chaos — not always a good thing, but, especially for organizations stuck in their ways, certainly not always a bad thing.
Most organizations have a structure and/or hierarchy that won't allow for departmental intermingling or for people of vastly different ranks to share input. So, the authors write, smart leaders will set up places for "controlled chaos" to happen.
They make note of a hospital where all the nurses were complaining about there being no hot water on one of the floors — something that was news to the higher-ups when the organization implemented meetings of people of various departments and ranks regularly. The hospital was undergoing some repair work, but rescheduling everything to address that problem first would have cost lots of money. Fortunately, a janitor was in on one of the meetings, and he asked if the valve was open. Everyone just assumed it was and wouldn't have known where to look anyway. It turns out it wasn't, and through an organizational structure that allowed for some serendipitous chaos to occur, the problem was solved quickly and cheaply.
The other concept Brafman and Pollack discuss at length is "white space": making room in your brain to innovate. They hold up as an example Albert Einstein, who was the only member of his graduating class not to get a job in physics after college. Instead, he would have long discussions with friends of various backgrounds about art, music, government and whatever else came to mind. He worked at a patent office. Without having to concentrate on physics all day, he was able to develop his theory of relativity.
It turns out that downtime — the time for "white space" — has some basis in science. MRIs show that when someone is focused on a task, one part of their brain is active. When the person moves off that task, however, the "focused" part of the brain goes inactive, but the rest of the brain goes active, processing and synthesizing the information from the task.
If you're stuck creatively or on a project, or if you run an organization that seems to be stuck in its ways and not moving forward, this book is for you. It might not give you the breakthrough you need, but it'll tell you how to get to that breakthrough.
The photo at the top of this post was taken with a cell phone on a plane while I was listening to Tchaikovsky on Sirius XM through headphones.
Can we break all of this down for a minute?
First off, I'm sitting in a chair in a metal tube in the sky with 150 other people. We're going 1,000 miles in under two hours. What a giant fuck you to gravity — and pretty much everything else we thought we knew 125 years ago.
125 years. Seriously. Your grandfather's grandfather was an adult already. That's a blink ago.
While sitting on this plane, I've got headphones in. There's sound coming through these little wired pods in my ears that only I can hear. Specifically, it is an orchestral recording that has been committed to some digital medium and sent from earth to space and then bounced back to me moving 500 mph through the sky in a metal tube.
An orchestral recording? That's 100 different people sending sound through instruments we built and shaped to make sounds. All the sounds are coordinated because we came up with this language drawn in symbols we could all agree on that say, "On this instrument, play this sound for this long." And one person put all those instructions down on paper and someone else is standing up and reading it and leading a whole bunch of other people who are reading it to make sure everyone's in the same place.
At the same time, the sound is traveling into some sort of device that captures that sound and can reproduce it in a format that is readable by other devices, including the one that can send it into space for me to hear.
Now, can we look at the stuff in the photo?
I don't even know where to start. Maybe with the book? It's full of words. Printed words. We not only agreed on sounds that mean something, we drew symbols to represent those sounds. Then we figured out how to pulp wood to make paper, have some ink and a press to permanently impress the symbols onto the paper, bind them together, and reproduce that a whole bunch of times.
We then took that ink, created a container that can leak just a little bit, in a controlled manner when in contact with a solid surface, and put the ink inside.
Now look a little to the left. We got more ink to stay on that napkin, which is a different version of the reconstituted pulped wood. The cup is yet another version of reconstituted pulped wood, also with some ink, and it's full of hot coffee — a drink that is amazing in itself. We took this berry, got the seed out, roasted the seed and steeped it in hot water. And we managed to get it hot in a metal tube in the sky.
If you can look at everything around you and not be AMAZED at our ingenuity, you might need a perception adjustment.
We mark today the turning of the Jewish calendar to a new year.
The way the calendar works, actually, the new year holiday began Sunday evening at sundown and continues until this evening at sundown.
The 10 days that begin with the opening of the holiday mark a period of reflection in my faith, culminating with Yom Kippur, known for its day-long (sundown-to-sundown) fast.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, which likely dates back to the way the Bible is written: "...and there was evening, and there was morning, a first day." Maybe it's from before that. Phases of the moon and the path of rotation through the stars are much easier to detect than are phases of the sun, particularly in an equatorial environment when the seasons would have changed only subtly.
Shortly after Yom Kippur — about a week, typically — we celebrate Sukkot, a harvest feast. A week after that, we celebrate Simchat Torah, reaching the end of a cycle of reading the Torah. The Torah is the Bible laid out in a scroll. Each Sabbath we read a prescribed portion, and Simchat Torah marks the time when we finish one reading of the Torah, wind it all the way back to the beginning, and start anew.
It's a month-long welcoming of the new year, both somber and celebratory.
We say to each other as we turn the calendar, "A good year. May you be written." As in, may you be written in the Book of Life. Jewish belief is that God has a book, and over the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God writes in the names of the people who will live for the next year.
Don't look at me funny. These beliefs date back almost six thousand years. You think putting candles in a tree to celebrate the birth of a guy who was executed and disappeared from a tomb three days later is better? We can reserve the discussion of superstitions and wars and stuff for another time.
I know I typically do a post at the end of December every year, looking back at the year ending. That becomes more of a roundup, I think, while this late-summer or early-fall holiday really provides that period of reflection for me that a lot of people account for heading toward resolutions for January.
I also think this makes more sense for a calendar, switching the year as we gather our food for the cold season, giving the ground a rest before our spring planting.
Running water tends to be my reflection point during this season, so you'll probably find me out at Tybee, toes in the water, staring off toward the horizon, thinking.