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Time Machines Do Exist

September 17, 2013

If you’ve never gone “Back to the Future,” the author advises it’s not only possible but worth the trip.

By Danna Walker

I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I would at my 40th high school reunion, but I cried a bit more than anticipated.

You think you remember a lot from high school. Actually, you do. But you’ve forgotten a lot, too, so be prepared to have your historical constructions rearranged.

As my son prepares to graduate — in the spring, I hope he can look back four decades later, as I have, and come away grateful for his life and appreciative of the privilege of still being on the planet. Not everyone makes it this far.

First, if you’re planning on going, give yourself a pat on the back for taking a brave step. Also, keep expectations low. It’s probably not the time to right old wrongs. Be prepared to accept one of my sayings: Life is cumulative. Your decisions and actions result in something. Be ready to be grateful, even smug at times, but also to understand regret if it stares you in the face.

The way I got through it all was by taking my oldest and dearest friend along. She moved away before high school but had known many of my friends. Plus, she has an uncanny ability to recognize faces changed by years of who knows what — roads taken or not, decisions made or put off, and too many diets that succeeded or failed.

When I got notification of the reunion, I had recently concluded my lifelong to-do list. It included being a Washington reporter, getting a Ph.D., having a couple of kids and buying at least one brand-new car (that was eight years ago). So, I wanted to see how my list stacked up against my classmates’. I imagined lots of joking and do-you-remember whens.

I knew I had my friend convinced to go when I got the list of attendees. On it was a name we had repeated often over the years: Steve Walters.

Think 14, white-blonde hair, piercing blue eyes with black lashes, calculatedly cool motor scooter, ID bracelet waiting for a “steady” date. My friend and I had both possessed that coveted chunk of silver at different times. He was our first boyfriend, and he was going to be at the reunion.

When we walked up to the check-in table at the meet-and-greet fish fry at Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club in Shreveport, LA, we got so caught up in the hugs and “Oh-my-Gods” that I actually forgot about Steve. But my friend was scoping out the room, and then, in the middle of my bite of catfish and hush puppies, said, “I think that’s him.” I didn’t know whom she was talking about, especially after I took a look at the short, bald fellow who wore Western jeans of an odd green color.
“Who?

“Oh my God, Steve?” I asked, finally catching on. “No, that can’t be him. I think he’s that nice looking, gray-haired guy over there,” I added, noticing for the first time that there was a sea of like-colored heads among the room of about 100.

After a stealth mission involving getting close enough to read his name tag, my friend had somehow seen beyond the years to identify the Steve we had giggled over for decades. We gathered our wits for what turned out to be a disappointing encounter – one in which Steve remembered nothing about either of us, and, yet, seemed eager to want to get reacquainted, possibly immediately at a nearby hotel. It was a short conversation.

We couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mother, who amazingly, also remembered Steve Walters and his motor bike.

On Day Two, we did a walking tour of my high school after a ceremony for those who didn’t live to see their 40th reunion, and there were quite a few of those – Linda Inglehart with the beautifully streaked, waist-length hair whom I used to walk behind and try to imitate; Paul Winters, who took me to prom junior year; Debbie Stinson, of course, whose house was near mine and didn’t live through senior year due to a car accident; and Steve Brandeis, whom I once kissed briefly and illicitly.

As I walked the same hallways they used to walk, I started to experience a parallel universe. I went into the girls’ bathroom and could have sworn I saw myself, staring into the long mirror, measuring the progress of my bangs as I grew them out junior year. I had a four-decade-old urge to sneak a cigarette.

But it was on the way home that the real out-of-body experience occurred. On impulse, I pulled the rental car into the circular drive at our former middle school.

My friend of 43 years and I walked to the outdoor breezeway, taking courage in each other’s presence. The memories came slowly at first but gained momentum with each step.

Shocked at the state of the low-slung utilitarian buildings, which seemed stuck in time, we said nothing as our brains churned out images faster than we could put them into words.

We hurried our pace, trying to keep up with the memories — turning here, then there, accurately predicting the names of the rooms as we approached: Choir Room. Cafeteria. Gym.

We peered through a window to see that the hallway flooring was the same mottled asbestos tile that was old when we were students, chunks of it missing. The home economics room still had its kitchenette where we learned cooking and witnessed a classmate lose control of her bladder and run out of the room, mortified and teary-eyed. Neither of us had remembered that moment until we were there, through the looking glass of our former lives.

We turned to see the playground’s splotchy turf, and I stared at the worn sidewalk with the once familiar runners of St. Augustine grass crawling across its cracks. Then, we cried, too, at seeing the then and now so starkly and the sudden understanding of the enormity of all that had occurred in our lives since we had left that place. We had far exceeded its innocent expectations and that made us both sad and grateful.

If you’ve ever watched one of those movies in which people return to their pasts and you’ve pined to do just that – I advise going back, preferably with an old friend. I took the journey with a spirit of forgiveness for my struggles and mistakes. Look at me, I thought, as I stared at a mirage of myself in the corridors where I had once walked, never imagining where I’d be in the world 40 years later.

There’s something about being in the same physical space in which you once lived such an intense daily existence — rife with new experiences — that allows you to feel the full force of the years gone by.

I was up for whatever came my way the final night of my 40th high school reunion.

We entered the ballroom of the East Ridge Country Club in Shreveport, LA, and at least one member of my old gang was there – my friend, Carolyn, who didn’t go off to college with us but got married, instead, and remains so, to the same man, with a grandchild and another on the way.

I looked for familiar faces and I panicked a bit when I remembered people who didn’t remember me. At the high school that morning I had recalled so few of the teachers and I had forgotten what an amazing football team we had; we were state champions during my tenure.

But then the reverse occurred — some people lit up when they saw my face, though my recollections of them were vague. It made me believe that somehow the universe’s tally sheet was balanced, for once.

Perhaps most astonishing was that I recalled some events exactly right: the field parties in some poor farmer’s cow pasture, the black-light room at Jay Singleton’s house, the crabby English teacher who kicked Kay Miles and me off the newspaper staff.

There were also the weekends when a group of us would explore old buildings in downtown Shreveport, LA, once lying to a cop that we were architecture students and so had business being there.

I remembered the summer parties in an African-American neighborhood during a time of imposed segregation. The Jax beer in tubs was cold under lights strung outside wood-framed shotgun houses. We danced and lolled on the grass.

I had my share of adventures, and four decades later I got to share them with some of those who were there.

The day after the reunion, a classmate whom I somehow missed seeing there called and asked if he could come to my mother’s to catch up. He had a confession to make.

He had tried to find me because he said he felt guilty for years over something he had done in a fit of jealousy in 1975. Upset that I had gone out with a friend of his, he bashed in a headlight on my date’s car, he admitted, and he hoped I could forgive him.

Mark Goodin stood in my mother’s driveway, hemming and hawing a bit, and for a moment I was 16 again, standing barefoot in cutoffs and a t-shirt, feeling freshly powerful. He remembered vivid details of my past, confirming my own recollections and naming names I had long forgotten.

I thought of the possibility that perhaps he and a long-known friend had talked about me over the years, just as my friend and I had done with Steve.

Why do we remember so vividly whom we remember? Once upon a time I would have had to analyze it. But after 40 years, it didn’t matter. Opportunities and connections were made and lost. My past was my own but part of others’ lives, too.

Ultimately what I took away was some knowledge about my place in the world then, an acceptance of how I spent my time and what I was interested in. It was a brief chance to assess an important part of my life and claim it as my own.

This essay was originally published Jan. 2, 2012 on Columbia Patch. A shorter version appeared in the Shreveport Times. Some names have been changed.

Obama booklet captures his “elegance and essence”

June 4, 2010

Guest post by Sharon O’Malley, freelance journalist

I’m up in the mountains for a few days by myself, and I finally had an hour to sit down and read Obama: The President’s Historic First Year in Quotes from cover to cover. I enjoyed reading it so much–I knew I would, because I find him so inspirational–that I jotted down a few notes about it.

Although the book is about his first year in office, it brought to mind his emergence on the “scene” at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The rapture of his speech that night is something I’ll never forget. Starting then, it was his words that made America notice him; his words that made so many of us fall in love with him and place our hope and trust in him.

Your book is an homage to his words–and so vividly and in a beautifully balanced way, shows his progression (or maybe I should say regression) from Inspirational Obama to Practical Obama to Come ON, People! Obama–from candidate/beacon of hope to down-to-business president to stymied-by-politics-but-still-in-charge potential one-termer.

The quotes you chose to include reveal the breadth of the man: inspirational, tough-as-nails, full of common sense, a little bit funny, a dad, powerful, humble, hopeful and above all, clearly honored to hold the office of president. I’m not sure I “got” that last bit until I read your book. The book captures his elegance and his essence. I think I like him a little better than I did before I started reading it.

Here are my two favorite quotes from the book. Both resonate with me personally:

“I come to embrace the notion that I haven’t done enough in my life; I heartily concur. I come to affirm that one’s title, even a title like president of the United States, says very little about how well one’s life has been led–that no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.”

I absolutely feel that way about myself (except for the being president part!!!) and how amazing that an icon of world history feels that way, too.

The other one I love:

“One of the things that I think is most valuable about sports is that you can play a great game and still not win.”

I’m reading Tom Peters’ new book, the Little Big Things, and one of his things is to “celebrate failures.” Obama’s quote put that in perspective for me.

Speaking of perspective, I appreciated so much having your notes under the quotations. A quote like the one about his new dog was readable and memorable on its own, but in the context of Truman’s prior comments about his own dog, made so much more sense–and was much funnier.

The other “editing” victory in this book is this: Although the quotations are tiny snippets of speeches and statements, you didn’t stop at the obvious “sound bite.”

In many cases, you continued the quotation to give it context and follow-up. So often as reporters, we stop at the cool part of the quote, which serves our purpose but doesn’t always reveal the speaker’s purpose. That you allowed Obama to ramble just a little added texture and background that really helped engage me as a reader.

The layout and photos are beautiful as well. I know you got stock photos from the White House so they are, of course, all flattering and somewhat staged, but they piece together like a scrapbook of anyone’s special year. We always choose our best photos–and the ones that tell the story the best.

“Scrapbook” probably isn’t a word that you kept in mind when compiling the book, but I mean it as a compliment.

It’s a warm and positive look back at a year in the life. (My favorite photo is the one of Obama saluting with the soldiers. He’s smaller than they are and dressed differently, and it brought to mind the stark reality that he’s the commander in chief of a military that he never served in.)

Thanks for giving me this lovely book. I’m going to save it and offer it to others to read. I hope they’ll leave it, as I did, feeling about Obama a little more like I did when he was using his gift of language to win my vote.

Journalism: Time to Buy and Time to Lose

May 9, 2010

People will say I’m bitter and vindictive, but we all have those moments. I’m going to indulge my nasty mood. So, read on.

I’ve been a writer and journalist for 30 years and I’ve spent the last five teaching undergraduates how to write like journalists — good journalists.

During that time, I’ve worked at some swell places — United Press International, CNN, CBS News, and I’ve free-lanced for The Washington Post Magazine and other outlets. In later years, I’ve written peer-reviewed articles for prestigious academic publications. But my attempts over the years at making it to the truly high ranks in long-form journalism have been met mostly with silence.

That’s why I had to laugh recently when I read Nathan Thornburgh’s complaint to the Poynter Institute’s Joe Grimm about standing face to face with that stone wall in his new life as a blogger and free-lance writer.

Thornburgh spends most of his interview touting the advantages of his life after being a senior writer and senior editor at Time. (At 34, he took a buyout, he said, “because the timing was right for me and my family.”)

He’s lucky, he said, that he still gets to write for Time and other well-known publications in addition to the blog he co-founded, DadWagon.

“I’ve had good opportunities since I left Time,” he said. “Not only was I able to keep working with Time, but I’ve been able to write for The New York Times, The New Yorker’s Web site and others. Any year in which I can travel and report from Berlin, Istanbul, Tbilisi and Wasilla is a good year. I’m very fortunate.”

But then he just can’t help himself. He whines, just like the rest of us who have been caught at one time or another whimpering that we didn’t get into the magazine he saw from the inside, and others like it. He’s on the outside now.

The hardest part of his new situation, he said, was “dealing with some stupendously unresponsive magazine editors from publications I hadn’t written for before.”

“I realize that editors are overworked,” he said, “but I when I was in their position, I think I always made an effort to be responsive (if I wasn’t, feel free to e-mail me to gloat). It’s disappointing that not everyone has that same approach.”

I see this same hint of betrayal in another news magazine executive’s eyes while he jokes on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, was told this week that the magazine would be put up for sale. He seems to waffle between trying not to make the development the end of journalism and believing it is the end of journalism.

“I do not believe that Newsweek is the only catcher in the rye between democracy and ignorance but I think we’re one of them,” Meacham told Stewart, losing all traces of his previously breezy smile. “And, I don’t think there are that many on the edge of that cliff.”

The painful developments in journalism are disconcerting to be sure, and I sometimes grieve as well for the good old days when the Big Boys like Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker ran the show.

But I can’t help but feel just a bit less sympathy for those who fashioned themselves the all-knowing arbiters of good writing and good journalism until technological developments opened the floodgates to those who were held at bay for so long.

“My Personal Story is Not So Unique” — President Obama Captured in Quotes

May 6, 2010

President Obama Captured in Quotes

Obama: The President's Historic First Year in Quotes


President Barack Obama’s first year was captured in quotations by the James B. Simpson Fellowship at the School of Communication. Click here for the full color PDF.

OBAMA: The President’s Historic First Year in Quotes is a comprehensive and authoritative collection of presidential quotes marking every major news event of Barack Obama’s first year in office. Sponsored by the James B. Simpson Fellowship in the School of Communication at American University and edited by Simpson Fellow and SOC professor Dr. Danna Walker, it furthers the Fellowship’s mission to portray contemporary times through the words of world leaders and thinkers.

The booklet includes quotes from the president’s inaugural speech to his State of the Union address, providing context and factual background for each of its 93 entries, punctuated by photographs courtesy of the White House. Reading the quotes in chronological order presents a unique picture of a period of historic transition through the words of the president.

The quotes reveal a year of intense debate over some of the most contentious issues of our time – a massive federal bailout of corporate America, unemployment, health care, and racial and gender equality – as well as moments of humor and lightheartedness. The booklet documents major shifts in policy, including the decision to end the combat mission in Iraq, lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and create the first White House Council on Women and Girls. It highlights breaking news such as the shootings at Fort Hood and the Haiti earthquake. Read in their entirety, observers have said the passages present a unique picture of leadership.

Some examples:

* “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” – Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration address.
* “This is America. We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we certainly believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset – and rightfully so – are executives being rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, many of whom are having a tough time themselves.” – Feb. 4, 2009.
* “Now, much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in American, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores.” – June 4.

The late Rev. Simpson published several volumes under the name of Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, which have become a trusted resource for scholars, academics, and quote enthusiasts. The Simpson Fellow for the 2009-2010 academic year was Dr. Danna Walker, booklet editor. White House specialist, Mark Knoller, CBS News White House correspondent, provided expertise.

The booklet can be downloaded in PDF format here or on the Simpson Fellowship Web site, www.profundity.net. It is also available in printed form by contacting Simpson Fellow and SOC professor Danna L. Walker, author of this blog, Emmappeal. More information about the booklet can be found here.

Technology Can Make You Younger! or how not to act old around a computin’ machine

April 18, 2010

No, this isn’t about those new anti-aging face creams with micro-currents. But it is related to how technology can make you look younger — figuratively at least.

Ever noticed how when young people are trying to do something on a computer that takes several steps — such as sending an email with a link or attaching a document — they move their cursor quickly all over the screen, searching and clicking, clicking and searching? They go by instinct and if they click on the wrong thing, they just abort and move on.

My IT guy does this, too, while I usually stare slack-jawed.

Me? I look around for just the right icon, usually while arching my neck so I can peer through the correct prism in my progressive lenses. I’m not about to waste all that energy.

Then, one day, while a student was looking over my shoulder as we worked on a class project, I found myself sweeping across the screen as though I were a video game master, clicking here, closing and opening things there, hovering for just a second, click, click, nope, yep, well that didn’t work, here it is, yes, that got it. I was showing off, I realized later. I was acting. In a flash, I had been transformed from Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote to Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Or, at least that’s how it felt, as I wielded my mouse like a rapid-fire weapon.

That’s right, a big part of being up on the new technology is swagger — being able to pretend you’re up on the new technology. Haven’t you caught on yet that the first thing your IT gal does is re-boot the machine? That should tell you that she really doesn’t know what’s going on but hopes the computer will resolve the issue on its own. The next step is clicking around and seeing what happens (and never being able to replicate whatever it was that fixed things).

The second biggest part of looking like you’re technologically younger and hipper than your years also involves acting, but it’s more in the style of Angelina’s better half, Brad Pitt. It’s all about the cool factor — pretending that whatever gut-quivering error message you just received when you went to save a day’s work was really no big deal. It’s part of the secret handshake of binary code, which sees operating systems as a bit organic. The IT folks are forever saying the network isn’t feeling well or has been temperamental today, poor thing. You want to see temperamental? But, now, now, if you want to seem young, the appropriate response is one of laid-back nonchalance with an overwhelming confidence in your abilities to recover your lost document.

Ahem. Well, the point of this is not to rant to the patient and talented IT people but to reveal the social and generational interactions that surround our use of technology. Truth be told, it has been my generation that has led the way in digital media, and my mature colleagues are more knowledgeable about electronic networks, code languages, media platforms and social media, as well as the social, political and historical ramifications of the current information revolution than the young people they teach.

But young people, not having ever lived in our once static, totally analog world, are more comfortable not knowing, if that makes sense. They explore technology at will and move forward without angst, understanding that if they click around enough they’ll either figure it out or they won’t.

So, if you want to instantly look 10 years younger, use digital technology. It works. All it takes is a bit of bravado and cool detachment. Oh yeah, and lose the bifocals.

a field guide to now

March 18, 2010

The Blood Brain Barrier or No Wonder I Can’t Think Straight

March 2, 2010

You know how you’ll hear or read something unusual that seems clever, interesting or different and you’ll notice it, maybe without realizing it. Then, a few days later you’ll hear or read a reference to that same thing, and then again a month or two later?

This probably happens most to people who use their analytical brains a lot for a living — teachers, writers, psychologists, etc. It’s how catchy names and phrases like “Google” and “think outside the box” go viral, I suppose.

This has happened to me lately with something I knew nothing about previously — the blood brain barrier.

It came up in a couple of books I’ve been reading, though I can’t remember which ones, which might say something about my blood brain barrier. It was also mentioned on a health segment on cable news not long ago. Then, last night it surfaced again on House, the Fox doctor show, in regard to a patient’s cancer treatment.

Looking up the concept is fruitless because of all the medical-speak, but I found a site called “Neuroscience for Kids” that was helpful. It turns out that not everything in the bloodstream can get into the brain’s own blood supply because the brain knows that it is the most important organ in the body.

It reminds me of something I read many years ago that portrayed the brain as a character in a drama supremely interested in self-preservation, which is why we usually duck our heads first and ask questions later when physical danger approaches.

The brain also dodges substances in the blood that other organs blithely absorb despite their dangers. One caveat: Lipid soluble molecules, such as barbiturate drugs, rapidly cross through into the brain — an indication perhaps that even the obsessive cerebellum needs an escape now and then.

I suppose I’ve been tuned in to this knowledge about the brain because of an evolution in my thinking toward the idea that the brain has a mind of its own, so to speak. I’m sure my brain doesn’t like that I’ve discovered that I can argue with it, but that’s too bad.

For example, our brains are geared toward finding the negative. Happy, positive events are nice but since the brain’s major goal is self-preservation, it is more attuned to anything that might be a threat. That means our brains can make us believe there is an impending negative event when there is none.

Also, some of us have brains that constantly seek stimulation, so they introduce drama and pathos where there is actually mostly peace and harmony, or at least lots for which to be grateful. Our brains tend to survey the landscape and look for anything that doesn’t fit. The brain has a bias toward dualities — good/bad, black/white, smart/dumb.

It’s good to know this about the brain because life is really more complicated than that, and less dramatic. I call it thinking in mutualities. It’s not easy to do; it goes against the brain’s natural tendencies. But it breaks through the psychological brain blood barrier that can keep us locked in our own negative thinking.

Things usually aren’t as bad as they might seem.

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