Thursday, July 23, 2009

What is Twitter?

It seems every time I go to a social gathering these days someone makes a point of asking me to explain Twitter. Granted, I am of that certain age when nearly all of my family and colleagues are, well, more mature. Most seem amazed that I use Twitter and even more amazed when I tell them I can explain it.

So this is what I tell them...

Remember when you were in junior high school or freshman/sophomore year in high school? Remember the school cafeteria at lunchtime? This is Twitter.

Then I explain: So you are sitting at a long table with you immediate friends. Maybe your best friend is sitting opposite you, and around you are your general circle of friends. And at the end of the table are other classmates, but kids you don't socialize with all that much, except maybe in class, or the locker room or here in the caf.

Now at the tables around you are other classmates, kids in your same grade, but with whom you rarely socialize. And as you span out in increasingly larger circles from your table you eventually cover all of the kids in your school, well maybe a big chunk of them, sitting in the cafeteria.

Now, if your school was like my school, there are teachers in the room and there will be the occasional announcement over the very scratchy PA system. Most of these announcements are of no interest to you, but occasionally everyone shuts up and listens.

Got the picture? The scene is rather animated and there is a LOT of talking going on. So much so that it is almost impossible to hear your best friend right in front of you; so everyone talks a little louder. To an outside observer, it is utter din, nonsense. But to those engaged in conversation, it is intense, sometimes personal, and very addictive.

Because you are 12, 13, 14 or 15 years old, you still have great hearing and even better powers of concentration. You follow the conversation with your best friend, but you also monitor the conversations of the kids around you; sometimes engaging in several conversations at once. Every once and a while, there will be an outburst from someone at the end of the table, or the neighboring table and you'll shout down, "Wad-i-dy say? Wad-i-she say?" And the comment is repeated and this is followed by uproarious laughter all along table. Occasionally that will result in kids from other tables, further away from the source leaning in to find out what was said.

This is Twitter. The conversations are ofter between or among a pair or a small circle of friends, but occasionally the conversation is expanded to the surrounding tables.

And then you have a day like we had when Michael Jackson died, or better yet, the day that jetliner landed in the Hudson River. I say that because I was on Twitter that afternoon and remember seeing the innocent tweet, "...a jet has just landed in the Hudson River."

Sometimes these events comes through one of the many news feeds that are broadcast on Twitter similar to the teacher announcement on the PA. But most times these conversations start as something one person says to another and then gets repeated and repeated (retweeted) until literally everyone in the cafeteria is talking about it. They may talk about it for minutes or hours, or even days.

So, what is the content of these conversations on Twitter? Just the same as you would hear in any group of people: he-said-she-said, the latest gossip, what did you watch on TV, what movies did you/do you want to see, the latest ball scores...and on and on. Occasionally, there are serious conversations, "what ya get on your social studies test?" "You going to the dance?" And often times they are rhetorical and frivolous, "Harry Potter rocks!" "55 ways to make a million dollars..."

This is Twitter.

Just like in the cafeteria there are the people who say very little and closely monitor what others are saying. Then there are the motor-mouths who never shut up; the kids who have clever and witty things to say, and those you repeat the same story or joke over and over again and again.

And you find yourself listening more to some, and less to others. And some folks are so obnoxious, you just stop listening to altogether.

This is Twitter.

About then my audience says, why the hell would anyone want to participate in that?

Good question....

The answer? You'll have to try Twitter to find out.

And be sure to follow me!


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meeting Walter Cronkite

As we mourn the loss of the venerable newscaster, Walter Cronkite, ironically just days before the 40th anniversary of one of his most famous broadcasts, the web has been full of remembrances and tributes. Mine is far from unique or noteworthy, but I thought I would share it just the same.

For the last four years I lived in New York City, I had a part time job driving a taxicab. It was the real thing; a licensed medallion cab driven through the five boroughs. And, I lived to tell about it. Well, it wasn’t all that scary, but it was a heady time in the NYC cab industry, just before the fleets disappeared and at a time you could still make a living wage ferrying around New York’s elite.

At that time, many college students drove cabs in NY. We mostly worked on weekends when the regular drivers took some time off. And in the last few years on that job I was making more per hour than I would make in my real first job working for a mental health agency in northern Maine. Go figure.

It was a bright Sunday afternoon in early fall with the sun just setting. I was cruising in the upper East Side looking for a fare to take me out to the airport (the NYC airports could be gold mines on Sundays) or a long fare back downtown. I was on York Ave heading south and I think it was around 84th St when I spotted a young man on the corner. Instincts kicked in and I almost willed the kid to raise his hand to flag me down. As we made eye-contact he signaled me to make the turn east on to 84th. This was a good sign because it meant we were going to pick up someone on the block and they might have luggage, and they might be going to Kennedy, and…anyway, you get the point.

The handsome young man, maybe in his early 20s, jumped in and directed me to the middle of the block of handsome townhouses and brownstones. He explained that I would be picking up their housekeeper and taking her home to her apartment on 96th and East End.

My enthusiasm faded instantaneously as I recognized that this was not a long haul. This was a short hop and one that would take me further way from my desired goal. I groaned to myself and was contemplating my next move when I saw him. He was instantly recognizable and I was immediately drawn to his bright eyes and silver hair attenuated by the piercing late afternoon sun gracing him like a long follow-spot. I want to say he had blue eyes, but I can’t be sure, the golden light washed out any actual color. But the silver hair and the trademark mustache were unmistakable…this was Walter Cronkite.

As directed by the young man in the back, I pulled the cab as far to the left side of the one-way 84th as I could right in front of the man who I had been watching on TV since I was in diapers. The most trusted man in television. The man who had interviewed presidents and kings, who was there on the night men walked on the moon and who told us over and over again on countless replays “…President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time, 2:00 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago…”

This was a lighter moment. Walter reached for the cab’s door handle just as the young man opened the door from the inside. There were others in the small entourage that surrounded a small Asian woman, obviously my fare, who was being escorted into my cab. But I didn’t really see any of them; Walter held my fascination and my attention his eyes squinting in the sun.

The meeting was but an instant. The only words exchanged were between Walter and the woman now in my cab. He closed the door and through the opened window thanked her in that trademark mid-western speech style. She thanked him back and I knew that my brief moment with stardom was over. I pulled the cab back into traffic and picked up my trip sheet, instinctively entering the address, time and destination. The Asian lady in the back explained that that was “Mr. Walter Cronkite” and that she was his housekeeper. And yes, she said this with a thick Asian accent that include a mispronunciation of his last name. “That was, Mr. Chip…” she added. “He’s very nice, he’s Mr. Cronkite’s son, he’s very nice.”

The trip was indeed a short one, nary ten blocks, but during the fare she explained that Mr. Cronkite had been away on vacation and had just returned. She had been staying at this house for the duration, watching over things. It seemed she had been in his household staff for some time and that she really enjoyed her job.

I made an asterisk on my trip sheet with the abbreviation "WC" so I would be able to find the address again if need be. And after dropping off the lady on 96th St, I turned my cab back south into obscurity.

“And that’s the way it was….”


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Farewell to Shifty

Shifty Powers
I think every boy growing up in the US in the 50's and 60's was a big fan of World War II. For most of us, our fathers and uncles fought in that war and it was always described as a noble event, the so-called "moral war."

Of course all that changed in the late 60's when the Vietnam war took away our taste for killing and dying. But for those years of my boyhood I loved to "play war," shooting invisible Nazis and Japs, falling and rolling on the ground and then getting back up to do it all again. If you saw the movie Born on the 4th of July, you'll understand.

As I have gotten older, and patriotism has come back in vogue, I admit that I am still a bit of a WWII nut. I have my own private collection of WWII movies and even gave a donation to the WWII Memorial in Washington a few years back. I think the whole experience made me feel closer to my father who died before the memorial was built. He would have loved it.

So when the movie Saving Private Ryan (SPR) was made I jumped at the opportunity to purchase it immediately when it came out on DVD. I've watched this movie over a dozen times and still find there are parts I can't look at or cringe when I view them. It gives me a visceral reaction.

Perhaps because the movie was a big hit and because interest in WWII was clearly increasing at that time, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the talents behind SPR, produced and directed a 705 minute TV miniseries on HBO called Band of Brothers. This incredible re-enactment of the lives of a few handfuls of young GIs during WWII has brought me to tears many, many time as I've watched episode after episode over and over again.

When you first watch it, you can be easily confused because the cast of characters are monumental. There are so many names, some you meet only once, and others who stay with you the entire story. Then the producers slowly introduce us to some of the actual vets - now all old men - who tell the back story. And it is then that you really realize, really understand, what war is all about.

As you start to link the young actors to the old gentlemen, you see and feel the experience of World War II and the men of Easy Company. In some magical way, the casting directors found young actors who often looked like the real men. Eventually you find yourself simply astonished how any of these guys made it through those hellish experiences.

And yet the evidence is right there...they were still alive and talking about.

Talking about it is perhaps not an accurate description, for it was clear that for each of these great and noble men, the experiences of battle had left painful, lasting scars. It was in the remembrance of their fallen comrades that they talked; each man played down the role they had taken in the war.

Each time I watch the film I am so impressed that these were all just everyday, average guys. Most of them volunteered to be in the service and chose paratroopers because it paid a few more bucks per month.

At the very end of the film, the narrator tells about what happens to many of the members of Easy Company in the years that followed the War. Some died in accidents, others from poor choices, and others would go on to live on long full, relatively uneventful lives - not as war heroes - but as everyday Americans. Just like my Dad and uncles.

Well last night on the evening news there was a short and sweet tribute to one of those men from Easy Company. Shifty Powers who was known as a marksman and and all-around nice guy passed from us last month to join his band of brothers in the great beyond. It brought a tear to my eye again and a feeling of loss that is usually associated with the death of a close friend or family member. I think after watching Band of Brothers an innumerable amount of times, each of these men have become, in some ways, like family members and close friends.

I salute you Shifty and all of the others who went before you and who are waiting their time to join you.

In closing, perhaps Maj. Dick Winters, Shifty's CO said it best:
During the interview segment of the miniseries Band of Brothers, Winters quoted a passage from a letter he received from Sergeant Mike Ranney, "'I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said 'No… but I served in a company of heroes…'"
Here are some background links on Shifty and Band of Brothers

Shifty Powers of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame dies

Band Of Brothers Hero, Darrell ‘Shifty’ Powers Dies

War Hero E-mail Goes Worldwide -- But Who Really Wrote It?

Wikipedia on Darrell "Shifty" Powers

D-Day Normandy site - in his own words (Note: you may have to use the search to find this link)

Band of Brothers - IMDB and about Shifty's character played by Peter Youngblood Hills


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

More Wyeth Lore

I’ve already posted My Andrew Wyeth Story in this blog twice; once two summers ago and again last winter when Andy died. And since this Sunday, July 12 is Andy's birthday, and proclaimed A Day for Andrew Wyeth by Governor Baldacci, I thought it was appropriate to share this latest yarn.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to drive to New York for the wedding of one of my nieces. I stayed at my sister’s house in north Jersey for the whole weekend. As Saturday turned into another one of our all too common rainy days, she suggested we drive down to Montclair, NJ and visit the Montclair Museum of American and Native Art. The sister explained that they were currently exhibiting The Wyeths: Three Generations and that she had been there a few weeks earlier with her kindergarten class. She was knowledgeable about My Wyeth Story although I reminded her of some of the highlights and the post script involving Andy’s granddaughter Vic. The sister howled.

We arrived at the Montclair in the early afternoon and learned that there would be a gallery walk and talk starting in a few minutes. It turned out that the docent that was giving the walk was one of my sister’s colleagues and I was introduced as being the brother from Maine who had had some personal experience with the Wyeth family.

As we had viewed the collection shortly before the gallery walk began, I told the sister a few more recent Wyeth stories that I had heard Jamie tell on the local TV station a few weeks earlier. But I made her relieved/proud when I indicated that I would be keeping my mouth shut once the gallery walk began.

The young woman giving the presentation did a beautiful job and clearly had done her homework. Although I know a lot about the family and the history of many of the paintings, this woman had a few tales that even I had not heard before and it was all very interesting.

A crowd of about 30 people following the walk as we strolled through the large gallery and there were only a few questions asked, all of which the docent securely and authoritatively answered. The exhibit sponsored by the Bank of America is traveling around the country and would be in NJ until mid July.

We were almost through the end of the walk and coming to the last few painting by Jamie Wyeth when the docent stopped in front of one of larger pieces. Called (I believe*) “Harbor, Monhegan,” this is a very colorful painting of a young boy, standing in front of a large oil tank that has been converted into a furnace riding on spoke wheels and spewing large orange flames and thick black smoke. I remembered seeing the painting on the television and hearing Jamie telling a little about the background of the painting. It seems that because of the limited ability to landfill trash on Monhegan Island, that summer, the locals hired this young boy, Cat Bates, to burn the trash in this makeshift furnace which he dragged up and down the beach each day. As the smell of garbage attracted the sea birds, the air and ground in the image, and in the real scene, was full of sea gulls flying and clamoring around the boy.

As the docent was finishing her presentation one woman in the crowd asked about the meaning behind the image of the boy and the fire. I think she may have half expected to hear some wild tale evoking images of Satan and Hell. The docent looked furtively through her notes and then admitted the she didn’t know the origin of the painting. I looked over at my sister who gave me a knowing glance and non-verbal permission to finally open my mouth. So, never being a shy individual, I piped up and detailed the story about Cat and the reason for the conflagration.

I immediately noticed that the flock started to gather around me as I detail more of the specifics. There was soon a dialog. “Is the boy still there? What happened to him? Is his name really Cat?”

I answered to the best of my knowledge that Cat was all grown up now and that Jamie had included him in several other paintings. And, no, I don’t know why his mother named him Cat, but that was indeed his name. (More info about Cat on this website)

We talked for some time about the Maine ecology, sanitation and the independent thinking individuals who inhabit Monhegan Island, Maine.

I was on a roll; I had a captive audience.

Next, I moved to another series of two paintings of sea gulls and told story that I recalled from the television interview with Jamie Wyeth. In this, I explained that Jamie indicated that while painting the gulls one day one bird came very close to his canvas. “I always wondered how much a sea gull weighs,” the junior Wyeth explained. “So, I just reached out and grabbed the bird.”

It seems sea gulls, like most wild creatures, don’t take too kindly to being handled by humans and put up quite a fuss. “The bird started pecking at me and took a nip out of my eyelid,” the artist pointing to some wrinkles above his eyelid to show the scar made by the bird. “They don’t weigh very much at all,” he added.

The small, thinning crowd went wild with enthusiasm.

I decided that I had probably said too much and deferred back to our leader to continue with the tour. But I could see that I had impressed even her.

Soon the walk was over and sister and I joined to thank the docent for her presentation and apologize for perhaps speaking out of turn. She warmly indicated that my contribution has clearly added to the presentation and that she would be using this new-found material in her future gallery walks.

We talked for several more minutes about my experiences and where in Maine I lived. Several others from the tour gathered around and wanted to know if I was a relative. Demurely, I explained I was a mere mortal and that I had was just a big fan of Andrew Wyeth and had seen a number of their exhibits in Maine. I didn’t waste any time and put in a good plug for our wonderful state and invited them to all come and visit us this summer. The Maine Tourism Bureau would be proud.

But before we ended our little Wyeth Love-fest, my sister encouraged me to tell The Story. Coyly, I set the mood and told a much abbreviated version of the tale. My new fan club glowed in approval and absolutely loved the story. They of course wanted to know if I ever took Vic up on the offer for coffee. I told them no, but that may be some day I would.

Perhaps I’ll head down to the Farnsworth this weekend and look for Andy’s granddaughter.


* In listening to the WCSH6 interview with Jamie Wyeth, I learned that there are five paintings of this same theme. Not sure which one is in the Montclair exhibit