dominion

‘Howard Freeman (2)’ appears on one of the Firefox browser window tabs and, along with the other seven or so tabs, constitutes a small but growing and ornery press corps at 6:30 this morning.

The ‘(2),’ I learn when I click on it, indicates that on Facebook I have a Friend Request waiting (that’s good, as long as it’s not one of the always-slender women from Eastern Europe whom I don’t know, who appear to be photographed with a 1970s Polaroid, and have only male friends and no mutual friends with me—I can only surmise they found me because I listed Darren Aronofsky as one of my favorite movie directors) and also a comment added to something I’ve written—a news item I posted to my Wall, or piggybacking my comment somewhere else…or whatever. Some notice of some thing (if ever there was a good use of that word that all English teachers mark off points for use of) that warrants a number on the display in front of me that requires attention now. The hand from the press corps crowd is sticking up, or rather down—from the menu bar.

But wait! There! On the icons in the dock (some of them doing the put-your-left-hip-in Hokie Pokie out from the screen’s edge to warn me that I have forgotten some thing), and on my iPhone, my life consists of responding to white numbers in red circles. They all tell me I am running late.

Other tabs include my Chase Bank account (which I’ve set to send alerts to my mobile phone if certain things happen, so now I can be warned from several directions and with several tech indicators at once—as though I am Helen Keller and need a strobe, tone, and shifting parquet floor to get my attention), my work email (on which I now respond to a concerned message instead of continuing coffee with the First Lady, who was sitting contentedly on the couch next to me but now turns to her iPad. She plays ‘Godfinger,’ a game where she controls little Wii-looking figures who all do what she says and ‘worship’ her, accumulating her ‘Awe’ in the lower right corner…I have no such currency), my Google calendar (whose full window, with unabashed seniority, itself occasionally pops open in front of any other open window to remind me of an event happening now, much like Helen Thomas, whose diminutive frame—short and wide like the tab—doesn’t limit her from making her agenda known to the 6’2” men around her and to her primary audience, the man facing her…the powerful man in front of her who must listen, patiently, and then, patiently, respond. With a finger he could silence her, but he doesn’t. She is, after all, Helen Thomas, and she is the media. With a finger, he could play ‘Godfinger,’ the way the First Lady still is; he could fling her like a Wii character upwards of 340 metres across the White House compound landing her somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue and she would go back to farming, and worship him, and give him Awe…but instead all his fingers rest on his keyboard—like a podium—which has become the place of finding a false equilibrium and foundation rather than dominion or even dominance.).

Speaking of Google, Reader is on another tab. I avoid looking at that grey rectangle, knowing that the lecture hall found on its window will only lure me in to discussions that will never end. I do care that Bill Gates wants to overhaul America’s schools, but it’s not something I have time for. I need to get dressed in twenty minutes. I spot a snippet from Arts & Letters Daily, my favorite news aggregator, that ‘Economic and scientific innovation helped propel the West past the East around 1770. So did Islam. Timur Kuran explains….MORE,’ where the last word is hyperlinked. It would be so…easy…to just click that four-letter word and learn from Timur about the innovation that Islam helped propel 240 years ago. I didn’t know about this! And If I don’t read all this stuff, I won’t be like the editors who put together these aggregators, like Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters, or even Matt Drudge, or Mr. Reader himself. But I have to get dressed in 19 minutes. BBC News has ‘1000+’ unread items. Same with Christian Science Monitor. Prior to a 2008 trip to Asia, I had signed up for the South China Morning Post to get familiarized with the issues. Now, this paper’s three feeds I subscribe to (I had a choice of so many more!)—Business, Property, and Hong Kong—remind me that we are no longer on such great speaking terms, and the relationship is strained. Among the three, there are 1378 unread items. The last time I actually went through and looked at news items, I read one or two and marked the rest ‘as read,’ summarily dismissing the collective work of approximately fifteen thousand man-hours of journalism. (Could have been more; not sure.) If I read each item from SCMP in summary fashion—using the Reader feature of scrolling down the headlines, which move from bold to roman after a couple seconds hovering over each, I can cover perhaps a few hundred of them in an hour. It would be the ‘receiving line’ of getting re-acquainted: working the rope and shaking hands long enough to smile and wink and let them know I have not deleted them without acknowledging their fleeting existence.

Along the row of tabs also are articles I have not read but want to, intend to, all with lengths approaching that of a New Yorker essay, which means that these tabs are carried over from day to day until my computer restarts at 3 a.m. one night (because it needs new system software to keep up with the bandwidth I require to keep in play the items I do not address immediately). The articles that disappear when this happens are forgotten, and I am not the worse for it. They had been temporary lusts that slithered toward me, waiting to strike, and whose venom is given an antidote by Mac OS X. The next system upgrade from Cupertino should be called Mongoose.

There is a ‘+’ sign to the right of the tabs, reminding me I can start a new conversation anytime. Invite more people to the press conference. Perhaps I do this, and the others—while they don’t fall completely silent, especially not Helen Thomas in the front row, who raises her voice about every 30 minutes—are shushed by the increasing din of the current conversation. My ‘Favorites’ also perch in a row above the current tabs, like gargoyles, waiting to be affirmed as named. They know they will be called on at some point; that’s why they’re Favorites. At one time, I had the power to name them and place them there; now they with the name and position hold the power. If I delete them, I would have to find them again, or at least I’d have to email the IT guy to get the URL to access the work server remotely. This is unconscionable.

I get up from my computer to get more coffee for me and the First Lady—who is happily subduing and having dominion—but it is not quiet that I experience.

It is deafness.

photo: kees straver

Chemistry

“Bromine and hypobromous acid make water at room temperature,” she said, over the rapid clack of the train wheels on the downtown #2 express. “Remember that; it’s going to be on the test.”

Tall and slender, she clicked her gum and swayed her taut black-jeaned hips against the brushed steel pole as her shorter blonde girlfriend and the coffee-skinned boy listened. He leaned against the door, facing them, who together clutched the overhang to my right.

His voice was soft and familiar when he looked at the tall girl, “You know kinetic molecular theory will be on this, right?” A smirk creased his smooth skin.

“Shut UUUP!” she shrieked.

The second girl: “Oh, man.”

“It’s totally going to be on it,” he said. “I am totally ready for it.” His white teeth appeared.

There was silence for a moment as the train hurtled past the 66th Street station toward Times Square, my destination.

“Let’s see,” the tall one began again, “H-G is… H-G…”

“…is mercury,” a new voice piped. The voice was seated below the four of us. “Hg is mercury.” A woman with grey hair falling from her scalp like thirsty weeping willow branches, eyeglasses with yellowing lenses and whitish peach fuzz on her cheeks looked up at the three. “I was a chemistry major.”

“No waaay!” And the tall girl handed the group’s study sheet to the older woman, A Mentor Discovered.

“Well,” as her voice dropped in pitch, and as she looked at the pencil-written one-pager, “it was a long time ago. 1965. A lot has changed.” She held the page between her hands like she was holding butterfly wings. The white, single-ruled note-sheet shook slightly as she glanced over sentences, charts and pictures. The three teens formed a canopy over her.

A lot has changed. Hg was still mercury; the Periodic Table was, is and always would be; but in 1965, was this woman the one with the bellbottom jeans, the sleek blonde hair, the rosy cheeks, or was she always hidden, only to emerge with the answer to a question others were wrestling with in front of her, as though she was the invisible contributor who is ever ready but never intrusive?

She handed back the paper after her brief study, and there was silence. The train wheels clacked, and the long iron tube thrust southward, passing 50th Street, carrying hundreds of the more than five million people circulating like blood through arteries around an island at the edge of an ocean.

The teenagers resumed their chattering. The old lady looked into their conversation—wistful for what was lost? longing for something never gained? judging her popular classmates nearly half a century after the fact?—her eyes participating, probing, tacitly questioning and answering, her lips forming a slight smile.

photo: Howard Freeman