Friday, June 27, 2014

The Beautiful Dilemma

My daughter Lily has hair that goes down past her waist, and each day my wife Robin must comb and braid it. As I watch them, I recognize that their ritual captures the beautiful dilemma of the mother and daughter bond. I am on the outside looking in, and their small ceremony captures everything that has happened, is happening, or will happen between them.

            A mother combing and braiding her daughter’s hair captures the bond of love. They are like a moving painting, echoing dozens of paintings of mothers braiding their daughters’ hair throughout history. Robin and Lily whisper, laugh, or say nothing, but they are always touching. Knee against knee, the mother’s hand grazes the daughter’s neck, stroking, soothing, pulling, and tying, the movements bringing them closer together.

            The moment captures the drudgery of motherhood. Each day, the mother must do the daughter’s hair. Sometimes twice a day. Sometimes, after swimming, the detangling will take an hour, and there will be yanking and pulling and pain. Robin will tell Lily she should have listened and got out of the pool earlier, and that it’s a long painful process for both of them. There are tears and reprimands. It’s a chore that will always be there, and only her mother can do it well.

         The moment captures the helplessness of childhood. When Lily was younger, Lily couldn’t handle her hair at all. She was born with a full head of hair, and she has the atopic gene, which means her hair would grow to her heels if we didn’t cut it sometimes. She can do some detangling and braiding herself now, but her mother still must help her clean, detangle and braid it, and she is always teaching her how to keep it under control. When there is a problem with her hair she must go to her mother and ask for her help. It is a daily reminder that she is still a child.

            Lily and Robin are at a hotel this week, and a young college student they met at the pool fell in love with Lily and her hair and offered to give her a French braid...but she tugged and pulled it too tight and brought tears to Lily’s eyes. A less painful tug at home will make Lily shout, but for strangers she holds it in -- but then admits to her mother that she still does it best.            
            The moment captures Lily’s growing independence. Sometimes she has a different idea for her hair that day. She may want a side braid, or one big braid in the back, or she might want to keep her hair down. But what Lily wants may not work for her mother -- there may not be time for a complicated new attempt, or leaving her hair unbraided may create a Medusa. It’s always bad if it’s hot day, or there’s P.E. class, or she’s going to a party where her hair will become a play toy for dozens of kids.
            “No,” the mother says, “the hair can’t be down, otherwise it’ll be a disaster of knots.” I see them negotiate and sometimes battle, and the ritual becomes a testing ground for further conflicts:
            “But it’s my hair. That’s not what I want.”
            “Trust me, I know, that’s not the right choice. You’re going to regret it.”
            Now just swap the word “hair” for “life.”
            “But it’s my life. That’s not what I want.”
            “Trust me, I know, that’s not the right choice. You’re going to regret it.”
            The daughter knows that if she wants independence, she’s going to have to do it herself one day.  The mother accepts this, but the mother also knows that the first few times that the daughter attempts to detangle and then braid her own hair, it will go badly. And it will take hours to fix it. But she must let her try. Lily will fail, and then she will resent that she must go to her mother to solve the problem. Her mother will find the extra time to fix it, because that’s what mothers do. She will also secretly be glad, and will fight to keep from saying “I told you so.”
            It is their beautiful dilemma, the pearl that holds their world within it. Each day they bond, and then they test the bond. 

            I asked them if I should learn the ritual, but neither of them want me to participate. It belongs to them, and Lily would rather learn it herself now than to have another parent join in. So I watch their ritual from the outside and wish it could last forever, although I know it won’t.
            Some day Lily will do it all herself. She will come home after dance class and shower and wash and comb her hair, and braid it herself while sitting before a mirror alone in her room, and then the daily ritual will be over. She must, because it is her hair, and it is her life.

            The shrine, in the sitting room, with it’s two small chairs and a desk full of hair products will disappear. She may still sometimes ask her mother to do her hair, or her mother will ask if she can do it for a special occasion, but it won’t be out of need any longer. It will be out of loving memory.

            Mono No Aware.  That’s the Japanese phrase for the transitory beauty of life. It’s the wonderful awareness that life is happening right in front of you, yet as it happens you know it’s also slipping away. It’s a joy and a hurt at the same time, yet you know you’re alive. That’s what I feel that as I watch them, my own moving Vermeer painting.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Water Always Wins

I got great advice when I was first learning how to surf, at age ten. A Hawaiian local on a long board gave me a few pointers on my pop-up, and then finished his lesson with a short phrase that has kept me alive and safe over many decades:

Never forget -- water always wins.

It’s summer and my daughter Lily now wants to dive into the ocean and swim, snorkel, boogie board and surf, and she wants me to teach her. I plan to pass on the same phrase to her, and hopefully it will keep her safe and alive through dozens of summers, like it did for me.

Water always wins.

This simple truth applies to the ocean, to lakes, to streams, to creeks, and to L.A. streets flooded by storms.  Water can be deceiving because it yields and then follows the path of least resistance, but that gentle power also carved the Grand Canyon. If you think you can beat water, or if you don’t recognize the power hiding under its placid surface, you’ll regret it.

To be safe you should stay out of trouble in the first place, but if you get caught in a bad situation you should use focus on another phrase:

Relax and go with the flow.

Let’s break it down. Michael Phelps, swimming top speed, moves five miles an hour, for less than two minutes. While he’s breaking a world record in the 200 meter freestyle, you can walk briskly on the pool deck and keep up with him. A regular lap swimmer can swim two miles an hour, with lots of rest between laps.

Deep water moving just two miles an hour looks like it’s standing still. When you’re in the ocean, you may be in a one mile an hour current, and not even realize it, and then when you fight against it you end up exhausting yourself. Even the best swimmer in the world will lose that fight in twenty minutes or less.

I’ve seen it happen. Someone swims out, plays in the waves, and then drifts too far down the beach. He panics and sprints for the beach -- and doesn’t make it. He’s too exhausted to beat the constant current and he gets into trouble.

The same applies to a mountain stream. You step into the water and you feel an invigorating and brisk current against your ankles. You decide you can cross it.  After all, that stream is only moving a few miles per hour. But in the middle you discover the water moves slightly faster, and the faster current has made the creek bed slightly deeper.  The water is now at your calves. Your backpack seems heavy, and the cold water has stolen feeling from your feet. You slip and fall -- and suddenly you are moving in a cold current that’s faster than two miles an hour. 

I’ve seen it happen. I saw the lead backpacker in a group try to get across the gentle but steady current, and then get swept off his feet and tossed downstream. 

Water always wins

Then there’s the temperature. Our normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but even warm tropical water is around 75-80 degrees and saps your energy if you’re in a long time. Ocean water off California is even colder, and you can feel it stealing your calories. Add in a slight breeze while you’re sitting on your board, and that chill happens even faster, even while wearing a wet suit. The longer you stay in, the less energy your muscles have in reserve, and the calorie drain will cloud your brain. 

When I’m out surfing or swimming for a long time, I can feel my muscles tighten and my jaw feels thick. I think and speak at a slightly slower speed -- a difference no would even notice --  but that’s my signal to get out. My brain is moving slower and I know I’m one wave away from a bad outcome.

Don’t get me wrong. The water is fun and only turns dangerous if you underestimate its strength, or you don’t read her messages. And the messages are everywhere -- water has been winning battles on Planet Earth since time began and her victories are carved into the mountains, canyons, lakes, beaches coastlines. 

You just have pay attention, and ask around!

Don’t be the first one in. Sit down and watch.
A great beach has lots of sand because a current dumped it there over millions of years. Watch where the water flows. Within a couple of minutes you can tell where it’s safe to go in and come out, and what areas to avoid. 

If there are rocks at one end and curving sand at the other, it happened for a reason. There’s usually a spot where the water likes to come in, and a spot where it likes to retreat and rush out. Look for where water likes to win, and don’t fight a losing battle by going against it.

Look for tell-tale lines in the water, where it changes color. That line could be a wind line -- inside the line you are sheltered from the wind, but if you go past it you’ll feel the breeze coming down off the mountain or from around the point. It’s hard to fight that wind, especially on a surfboard, paddle board or ocean kayak. Go too far out and you might not get back. That line could also mark a temperature difference, which means there’s a current.

The same goes for a mountain lake. Don’t dive off that rock into that deep dark water. Watch other people do it first before risking breaking your neck.

Best of all -- ask someone who knows the place!

Don’t turn your back on a wave, or think you can brace yourself against it.
An ocean wave is a enough water to fill a house. You can maybe outrun it.  You can maybe dive under it. You can maybe dive over it and let it tumble you up on the beach. But you can’t stand still against it, and if you turn your back, it will knock you down.

And girls forget your bikini top! I can remember a dozen times when a girl turned her back or braced against the wave and it knocked her down and the force undid her top or took it right off. To avoid embarrassment the girl frantically tried to stay submerged in the impact zone while trying to re-tie or even find her top -- while getting hit again and again. Rescue was required.

When in Doubt, Get Out
Be aware of that tiny twinge of cold, that slight slurring of words, and that weakness in your muscles, that slight current that pushes you ever down the beach. That’s water winning. Let water win and get out.

Relax, and Go with the Flow
What do you do when the wave knocks you down and rips off your bikini top?  Or you get held underwater by a wave that grinds you into the sand? 

Don’t panic. Go limp and put your arms up and try to cover your head. No amount of fighting will make a difference.  Grab a breath and try to relax. Get out if you can, or go into deeper water and gather your senses and look for a way out. Crawl out on your hands and knees, that way the water can’t knock you down again. And wave and yell for help. Don’t be proud. 

What your caught in that rip current that’s pulling you out to sea? Or you’re too far out and you’re drifting down the coast?  

Again, don’t panic. You breathe, float and see where it takes you, and wait for the water to bring you to an eddying spot where you can get out. It may be a mile down the coast, but you will have gone with the flow instead of fighting a losing battle. But again, don’t be afraid to wave and scream for help.

On Zuma Beach in Malibu the waves pound into the shore and the rip currents tug you down the beach. The lifeguards may rush in and rescue you, but if you’re calm out there, they may wave and point for you to drift further down the beach to a spot where they know it’s safe for you to come ashore. They will keep pace with you, and then will help you get out where it’s safest.

If you’re in a mountain stream and you get knocked down, you don’t fight. You turn over, get your feet up and point your toes downstream and you flow with the current, waiting for it to push you into some spot where you can get out.

Water always relax and go with the flow.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I Still Think of Myself as a Swimmer

For years, my personal identity was framed by one word  -- swimmer.
            Between the ages of 10 and 20, from grade school through half of college, I was a competitive swimmer. I swam at least five days a week, swam in swim meets on weekends, and earned money in high school and college as a lifeguard, swim instructor and coach. Even as late as my mid-20s, I taught swimming in the summer time, updating my Red Cross Instructor cards and teaching at Montessori School summer sessions.
            And then I stopped. While I once wet at least two hours a day, I have swum regularly in years. Since my daughter was born, going to the pool every morning has become too time consuming; it’s easier to run, jump rope, and or leap around to my P90X DVDs in my garage until I pull a muscle and hurt myself.
            I now have lived more decades dry than wet, yet I still think of myself as a swimmer. Why? If I had been a pole vaulter or a football player, I would have stopped calling myself either noun long ago.
            I think it’s because swimming welcomes you back. It is a sport you can do it your entire life, so it allows you to hang on to the persona for a long time.
            And now I’m swimming again. Lily is on summer break, so I’m sneaking back to the pool for the first time in two years, getting to the outdoor fifty meter pool in Sherman Oaks at 6 a.m. with thirty other people. 

Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Pool

            The first day I wondered whether I should even bother, but when I saw the steam rising off the pool and smelled the chlorine and the damp concrete, it all came flooding back to me, and I felt like the 20-year-old in me was just a hundred meter swim away.
              After two hundred meters of freestyle enough muscle memory came back that I decided I could resurrect my past identity, and now I look forward to it every morning like when I was a kid. 
            Why does it still work for me? There are several reasons --
Swimming is easy on the body, if you’re doing it right.
            Running wrecks your feet and your knees, tennis destroys your knees and your back and your elbows. Basketball destroys everything. Swimming is easy compared to those sports. There’s no gear, special shoes, no big prep, no uniform, no ball. You can show up in your pajamas, as long as you have your suit and a pair of goggles. And you can actually slide in the water with torn ligaments in both knees and still exercise without hurting yourself more.
If you swim well once, you can be a lifelong swimmer
            Swimming is all about the breathing. When people say that swimming is exhausting, it’s because they’re not breathing correctly, so they’re never in a rhythm that works and they end up holding their breath (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) without realizing it. Imagine running around a track while holding your breath, then gasping in intermittent staccato bursts that don’t ever fill your lungs. You wouldn’t make it more than a lap. That’s how most people breathe when they swim, without realizing it. People don’t think about their breathing when they run -- they just fall into a rhythm that they don’t even notice. You must go to the pool regularly for six months to reach that same point with your breathing while swimming.           
            Those six months are easier when you’re a kid. You weigh less, you have more energy, and your life is already full of challenges that you don’t question-- so the six months of struggle pass easily. It’s much harder for adults, but, rest assured, if you put in your six months, five days a week, you will get there.
            Like learning the right tennis stroke or golf stroke, the sport isn’t even enjoyable until you feel yourself doing that basic movement correctly. But once you find that sweet spot, it’s an “ah-hah” moment and everything changes, and you won’t need to buy a set of golf clubs to keep chasing it.

It’s about the Perfect Stroke, Not Strength or Speed
            Olympic swimmers aren’t just swimming fast -- they’re swimming fast while maintaining good form. If you can keep your stroke perfect and keep up the pace, you swim well. If you get tired and lose your form, it’s like digging a hole in the water and you just sink deeper.
            I like to compare swimming to running hurdles in track. You can’t just run blazing down the blacktop and fling yourself over each hurdle. You must find a pace -- step step step hurdle, step step step hurdle, step step step hurdle. You then must keep that pace throughout your race, never wavering, otherwise you’ll miss a hurdle and crash and fall. Maybe at the end you pick up speed, but again, you must accelerate up to a new pace and keep that new perfect rhythm, no matter how much it hurts.
            The same is true in every swimming stroke, and it’s especially true in the butterfly. If you lose your pace, or back off, others will pass you like you’re going backwards, and it feels like a baby grand piano has been thrown onto your back halfway down the pool.
            When I slip into the pool now, I don’t try to light the world on fire, but I do try to maintain my stroke and work on my rhythm. And again, swimming is kind. Once I find my groove, I feel a Division One swimmer again. I feel smooth and efficient. The truth is, however, that although I have a decent stroke, I only swim half as fast as a collegiate swimmer while taking twice as many strokes, and the hot shots leave me in a trail of bubbles. But it still feels sweet.
It’s Yoga and Meditation all Rolled into One
A swimming pool is a water sensory deprivation chamber. Your hearing disappears. There’s nothing to look at but a white bottom and black lines. You hear your own breath and your own heartbeat. Breathe, rotate, extend, glide, pull, breathe, repeat. I’m stretching while emptying my mind, and I often forget what lap I’m on. It’s a three-in-one endorphin ohm exercise high, all in one hour, and when I get out I feel amazing.

 I like being with other near naked people
It’s nice to swim with the same people every morning. I can take a break from the sport and return six months later and most of my compatriots are still there -- Mike, who survived cancer, Joanne, who had twins, Sam, who swam in the Olympics, and Nate, who’s a lawyer and brings his suit in a garment bag every morning. We chat, we know each other, we swim together, but we don’t really speak too much. We’re not socializing, we’re ritualizing, and although it’s a solitary sport, we still do it together. It matters that we’re bare-skinned. Sure, there are some people with amazing bodies, and you can admire them stretching before they leap in the pool, or you see their boobs, torsos, butts and legs close-up in the lane next to you as they churn past. But there are just as many swimmers who are thirty pounds or more overweight, plus men and women in their 70s and older, and people who must use crutches to get to the side of the pool. The full spectrum of life is before us in the morning mist, a memory of our younger selves in the fast lanes to the right and a vision of those who age gracefully in the slower lanes to the left. Me, I am somewhere in the middle.
            There is a Japanese term for this kind of bonding, called “sukinshippu,” which can be translated as “skinship.” In Japan, the public bathhouses and the onsen (hot springs) are full of people bathing, relaxing and meditating alone, or talking with friends, and they cherish the closeness. Everyone is equal, the young, the old, all four generations together, and no one is in uniform. The public swimming pool is our American version of “sukinshippu” and it’s something we can cherish. If the California drought gets worse, bathing at the pool may be one way to save water, and out of necessity the unintended consequence may be that “sukinshippu” will take root.
            Sometimes I see someone in the neighborhood who I recognize, but I can’t quite place him or her, and he or she does the same with me -- and then we both realize we share pool “skinship” and we smile, and say that we’ll see each other tomorrow morning.

Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Pool, 1961

Friday, June 6, 2014

Don't Let Them Ruin the Internet...Send this Letter!

Dear Readers,

We have until September 10th, 2014, to send our comments to our elected officials and to the FCC before they vote on Internet Neutrality.

Please read this letter, and then copy it so you can alter it and send in your own letter, both to President Obama, your two senators, and to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Dear President Obama and Chairman Wheeler,

As the cable companies finally build a much-delayed and much-needed fiber optic network across the country, it is crucial that you stand up to these monopolies and not institute any new rules that will allow them, when they have no true competition or oversight, to charge substantially more money to customers to get faster Internet service.

They should not be able to maximize their profits by controlling the price and the scope of this infrastructure system that they are building, without guidance or oversight. Their plan to offer two kinds of service, with a faster service going to consumers willing to pay more, should NOT be allowed.

They should not be allowed to charge the price they want, where they want, providing fiber optic access when they want, with limited government regulation, which is what the news rules you are considering would allow. It’s bad for consumers, bad for cities, bad for education, bad for competition, and bad for the country. 

We are far behind countries in Europe and Asia where government and private industry have worked together to lay down these fiber optic lines, and the citizens are enjoying all the efficiencies provided by the fast data moving through these fiber optic networks. Businesses thrive, innovation grows, education improves, and economies prosper.

As the cable companies finally start building our infrastructure for fiber optic broadband across the country -- they should be treated as public utilities and be obligated to deliver the same access to the Internet to everyone, not just those people and those regions who can afford to pay more money to get it first.

There was once a time when running water, electricity, heat and indoor plumbing were considered luxuries. Now, they are considered bottom base necessities for any American, no matter how rich or poor you are. 

Good roads did not exist in many parts of the country until after World War II, and then, in the 1950s, Republican President Eisenhower understood that a decent interstate highway system was crucial for economy. Now anyone can drive across the country without having to pay a toll to be in the fast lane.

Now the Internet has become a basic necessity, like water, electricity, plumbing, and decent roads. For any person or any company to compete in this country, they must be using the Information Superhighway. Equal access to the flow of information should be the base starting point, just like with roads and electricity.  We should not have to pay a toll to get our information faster.

I am not saying it should be free. But as the system is built it should be made accessible to all, with close oversight of the pricing and product so that it can be affordable to all.

We also must allow local and state governments to use their tax revenues to team with companies to create this much needed new system on their own, independent of the cable companies. The cable companies should be working with governments to facilitate that construction, to help cities get what they need, to compete.

Yet the cable companies used their clout in Washington to create regulations so difficult to follow that it’s impossible for cities to create fiber optic systems of their own, like they do in the rest of the world. In 19 states the monopolies have made it impossible or illegal to compete with them.

Even worse, the cable companies have not kept pace with the demand. While they took in 1.4 trillion dollars in profit in the last five years, they have only used 15% of their profit  on researching, developing and building this crucial new system.

You must use your position as FCC chairman to not only regulate these companies, but to de-regulate these restrictions in place, and encourage these civic start-ups

When a mayor wants his or her city to have a fiber optic system, that mayor knows how much fast Internet can help that city. It can attract businesses. It’s a boom to universities and schools. And it creates money-saving environmentally friendly efficiencies. If you want to monitor water usage, traffic flow, road repair -- anything -- a faster Internet can make your city run better. 

A city is not livable unless it works with a well-run regional utility that delivers good clean water at a reasonable rate. The same argument should apply to decent Internet service, which is why mayors want it.

The EPA just instituted new regulations that will require states to work together to reduce our country’s carbon emissions by 40%. The states can do it however they wish, as long as it gets done. To do so, allowing cities and states to build competing efficient high-speed Internet system will help. 

Using the Internet, Los Angeles could then team up with Portland to trade carbon credits, and while also tracking emissions, monitoring and helping consumers tweak home energy usage, and creating a shift-time work force -- which gets carbon usage down through efficiency and innovation.

These are just a few benefits of what an open and accessible Internet can provide.
If it doesn’t happen, here are my fears, which I share with many Americans:

Fear 1 -- The Internet will become as bad as Cable:
My Internet will become like my cable. No choice, no service, hidden costs, high prices.

Fear 2 -- Comcast and Time Warner will Merge:
if allowed to merge, the resulting monolithic monopoly will control too much traffic and content. The cable box is destined to become the web browser/cable box. That is the merging of the TV and Computer that people have been predicting. But imagine one company controlling that box -- a company that controls the highway (fiber optic line) and what gets delivered on that highway (content). Once they control the road, they can control the speed of who is on that road, which means they control choice.

That’s because speed will determine content. If I need to watch or purchase something, the choice that is presented to me first and most often becomes the default choice for many.  The cable companies will control that choice. Pay them to be first, and you will become the default choice. If you don’t pay, you may have a great product or service, but you will be harder to download or just harder to find.

Netflix already knows this, which is why they’re paying through the nose to Comcast to maintain current Internet speeds. Not better -- just the same!

Fear 3 -- Education and Innovation and Efficiency will Suffer
There are children born every day who have amazing potential.  A child could be another Steven Hawking -- but he may be disabled, live in the ghetto, or in rural Oklahoma. He or she could attend Harvard or UC Berkeley on-line and change the world -- but the cable company has determined that getting fiber optics to him isn’t profitable enough yet, or the school he wishes to attend hasn’t paid the higher price for better Internet access. He will be left behind.

Fear 4 -- Health Care will Suffer.
There are sick people who want to find doctors, treatments, and medicines. They may want to hunt for a better deal on their insurance. Imagine being sick and watching your computer buffer your video endlessly as you wait for your information to appear, all because you can’t afford the faster service, or because Comcast hasn’t gotten around to your town yet. Why? Because there’s not enough paying customers there to make laying new cable that profitable. They’ll get to you, but they’re skipping your town this cycle.

Fear 5 -- Democracy will Suffer
There are activists who want to change the world, and citizens who want a better community.  There are workers who want to organize, women who want fair treatment.  and people who fear their constitutional rights will be taken away. Now imagine all these people, who want to work within the democratic system, being shut out of the process because they either: 1) don’t have the money to get on the information highway and they’re stuck on the DSL side road 2) they can pay to get on the highway, but another opinion has paid more gets to be in the fast lane of the highway and gets disseminated first -- or 3) worst of all, there’s no highway on-ramp in their neighborhood at all.

Fear 6 -- We will create a Two-Tiered System
People who have enough money, or who live in wealthy communities where the fiber optic system will be created first will benefit from the high speed data highway. Those who cannot afford it or who live outside of the big cities will not. The rich will become richer and the poor will continue to struggle.

Less than seventy years ago, there were many wealthy US cities that had clean water, electricity and good roads and highways -- and one state away there were towns that had none of it. That was a two-tiered system for the delivery of basic necessities.

We are in danger or creating the same scenario again, concerning data.

Fear 5 -- We will continue to lose our standing in the World.
Meanwhile, other countries are innovating, helping their citizens learn, get healthy, become more efficient, and more green, we will fall behind.  

Fear 6 -- Mr., Tom Wheeler and President Obama will sell us out
Mr. Wheeler, please do the right thing. You have us worried.

You tried to rewrite the FCC rules about the Internet twice and the court struck them down both times -- because the new rules are confusing. You can’t write rules that deregulate the industry to favor companies who want to corner the market, while also insuring that they will also somehow deliver true net neutrality. It doesn’t make sense, and the courts sent you back to write better rules that make sense.

You raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Obama campaign, and I fear that you are beholden to the cable companies because you took their money, and because you once worked for them. 

President Obama, as a candidate in 2007, you said that a fair and accessible Internet was crucial for a growing prosperous democracy. Since the last election you haven’t said much on this subject at all!  I’m afraid that during your golf games with the head of Comcast, you may have changed your mind.

Mr. Wheeler and Mr. President, you may honestly believe that these monopolies will operate with the best interest of the country, and they will be run the Internet like a Public Trust, with fair access for all. But I disagree.

Please keep our Internet neutral. That’s how it grew our economy in the 1990s and how it will work best far into the future.

Donald Ian Bull

P.S. I compare the interstate highway system to the new fiber optic system we need. It is true our country does have toll roads. However, they are always local, built by states or counties working with private business. There are no tolls taken on interstate highways, and there shouldn’t be tolls for access to a faster Internet. If a city then wants to add an additional layer for public FTP sites or public wi-fi and charge a slight toll to recoup the investment, I see that as the equivalent of toll roads in New Jersey or Southern California, for instance. 


Tailor your letter and send it to Mr. Tom Wheeler at:

To send a comment to President Obama, you can start at:

If you want to know more about this important subject, you can:
Watch John Oliver on HBO or on Youtube.

Read Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.

Check out these links:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

I Tortured Chewbacca

Out of all of the Star Wars life forms, wookies are the best. They’re a combination pet, best friend and handy fixer-upper. They are wonderful companions who fight by your side while making growling noises, but they can also repair your broken space vehicle. 

I am a Star Wars and Star Trek nerd, and I can hold my own in any Comi Con conversation on whether Hans Solo shot first and what the Borg represents in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Years back, when I heard rumors that for Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, there would be a full on battle on Kashyyyk, planet of the Wookies, I became even more obsessed with the towering carpet creatures and I did everything I could to get cast as a wookie extra, but I never made the cut. 

Chewbacca, of course, is the most bad-ass wookie of them all, and my hero. He helps save the galaxy, he’s great with a wrench, he’s loyal, super-intelligent and his life span is over two centuries.  

Unfortunately, I have a dirty little secret. I managed to frustrate Peter Mayhew, the actor who plays Chewbacca so much that he begged me to stop torturing him, and I’ve been ashamed of it ever since.

In 1997, MTV awarded Chewbacca a Lifetime Achievement Award at the MTV Movie Awards. In a roundabout way, I was involved in the production of that particular TV show. One of my tasks was to send Peter Mayhew, who lived in England at the time, the crucial information he would need to come to Los Angeles, to make his appearance in costume as Chewbacca, and then receive his award for distinguished achievement. There were contract adjustments, scripts, hotel reservations, plane and car service and restaurant information -- I had stacks of documents to send to him from Los Angeles.

I didn’t want to bother my hero with an actual phone call and I was too nervous to actually talk to him anyway. There was no need. After all, his agent and the VP of Talent and Specials at MTV had arranged all that. I just had to make sure he got his documents. That was my job.

1997 was in the BEM era -- Before E-Mail. It was the Facsimile Machine ruled the office -- the fax. So they gave me his fax number. Actually, I got both his fax numbers. Plural -- the man had TWO! I figured one must be for his office, and the other must be for his agent’s office. Or one must be for his London office, and the other was for his mansion in the country.

So I started sliding the documents in the tray, dialing the number and hitting Send. Sometimes it would go through, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Actually, most of the time it wouldn’t. So I kept dialing and kept trying, and when one number didn’t work, I’d try to other one. The fax machines in the office were cumbersome and hard to use, and there was a line when it was busy show show season, and I had dozens of pages to send him, so I started to take the documents home, where I had a phone fax combo machine. I was so intent on making sure he got his paperwork, I was fine with running up my phone bill so that my hero could get his international faxes.

Sometimes, I’d dial his fax numbers at 6 p.m. at night, and I’d keep trying every hour, at 6, 7, 8, and then 9 p.m.  Yes, I am aware that there is an eight hour time difference between London and Los Angeles. 

What I did not know, because no one knew, was that Peter Mayhew’s fax number was actually his home phone number.  His home phone numbers, actually. Plural. There was no London office, no mansion in the country, no high-powered agent’s office. There were two phone lines in house...or flat...or wherever he lived. 

I was calling Chewbacca’s house in the middle of the night, and I’d keep calling, ever hour. His phone would ring at 2, then 3, then 4 in the morning. I suspect that he had a phone/fax machine combo on one line, so that if you answered and heard the buzz of an incoming fax, you could hit Receive and paper would spew out with the printed document. He must have rushed to answer the phone, pick it up, and hear a fax tone, and then hit the receive button. That’s what was probably happening when it went throuugh.  When it didn’t go through, I imagine that he just didn’t want to get out of bed, so he’d just let it ring...and ring...and ring. But then, just as he was drifting off...his other home phone would ring. Me, the dedicated jackass in Los Angeles, was so intent on sending him his faxes, I would then start dialing the other number at three in the morning.

This went on for four days. 

Each night he was probably going to bed and pulling up the covers, wondering whether the jackass in Los Angeles would call that night. Then, when the jackass did call, Chewbacca would wake up and lie there, hearing his phones ring. Sleep deprivation is torture, and I was torturing him.

For the first few days, in my stupid enthusiasm, I never noticed how the second fax number I was dialing never worked. No fax EVER went through on it. The first number sometimes worked, but when it didn’t, I’d diligently dial that second number and walk away and let the fax machine do it’s thing. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. It automatically would dial it again and again. 

On the fifth day, I looked at my confirmation of delivery fax reports and noticed the difference in success rates between the two lines. The fax never went through on the second number. In fact -- the machine was attempting to dial the second number right then.

So, on a whim, I picked up the receiver. 

I heard Peter Mayhew’s voice --

Hello? Hello? 

I inhaled sharply when I heard his voice, and he must have heard it --

Please! We need to sleep, in God’s name please stop calling us!  What do you want!? Who are you?

Chewbacca had lost his wits. My hero was desperate. So I did what any rational caring person would do in that situation, when his hero is in pain from the torture of sleep-deprivation.

I hung up on him. 

And I never mentioned it to anyone, ever, until now.

Peter Mayhew eventually got his faxes, and he made it to the MTV Movie Awards. I saw the large trunk arrive from LucasFilm that contained the actual Chewbacca costume. George Lucas was in the audience, and Carrie Fisher gave him his award. I saw Chewbacca backstage, and was there when this photo was snapped.  

However, I didn’t dare introduce myself. He must have known it was a jackass from MTV who was calling him, but he never complained to any higher-ups, and no one ever found out how I tortured Chewbacca.

Some fun wookie facts:

The wookie planet of Kashyyyk was also the setting of the rarely seen Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, which was supposedly one of the worst and most surreal pieces of TV sci-fi variety ever made. George Lucas has tried to destroy every copy of that TV show.

Chewbacca's voice was created by the original films' sound designer, Ben Burt, from a mix of recordings of walruses, lions, camels, bears, rabbits, tigers and badgers in Burt's personal library.

In the Empire Strikes Back, another actor played Chewbacca because Mayhew was ill, but his performance was so lacking in creativity and “wookie-ness” they had to reshoot all his scenes with Mayhew.

I have a Chewbacca Pez dispenser.

Peter Mayhew will reprise the role of Chewbacca in the upcoming Star Wars VII, set 30 years after the Return of the Jedi.

I will be doing my best to wear a wookie suit and be an extra in that film. Maybe then I will confess my crime to Chewie.

Here is a link to him getting his award: