Surveillance Anyone?

As happens with some frequency, I was listening to a podcast and it got me thinking. It was Stay Tuned with Preet. Preet Bharara interviewed Nita Farahany, someone I had never heard of before but learned that she explores the intersection of law, neuroscience, and technology. She is a law professor at Duke University and has a PhD in philosophy. She has quite an impressive resumé (I looked it up).

They discussed the implications of emerging technologies in brain monitoring, as part of the larger issue of society’s increasing capacity for surveillance. During my first listening (yes, I listened more than once and you’ll understand why in a moment), I was outraged. Why? Because she said the following, “We have cameras in our kids’ bedrooms. Our oldest, who is now seven, she wouldn’t cry, she would look at the camera and wave….”  On first hearing that, I thought she was saying that they had still had a camera in their seven-year old’s bedroom. Most parents these days have baby monitors that include video, but I assumed once the child was able to climb out of bed and come to the parent’s bedroom, the monitoring device would be removed.

Would you find that outrageous, having a camera in a seven-year old’s room? I think children deserve to have some privacy. I don’t think they should be monitored 24/7 unless there are unusual circumstances. I believe we removed the baby monitor, it was limited to audio, from our child’s bedroom once they were out of the crib. Why wouldn’t the same notion apply to monitors that include video?

It is possible that I misunderstood what she said. She was making the point that children growing up today are accustomed to being watched. In the comment above she explained that by the time her daughter was one, she would wave at the camera to get her parents to come get her, she didn’t cry. For her it was normal to be watched in that way and that could have implications about how they felt about it as they got older.

Thinking that she was still surveilling her daughter with a camera, though, my immediate reaction was, “And you are an ethicist?!?” I then thought that I didn’t really want to hear the rest of what she had to say, and I turned it off.

Upon further reflection, I wondered if I heard right, perhaps I misunderstood. And then, as I thought more deeply about it, I wondered if, given the emphasis on security these days, if cameras in children’s bedrooms and throughout the house are common and are simply a given. If that is the case, what does that mean for privacy? Who is watching?

Recently when our daughter was pregnant and putting together her baby registry, she explained something to me that her brother, who’s child is now four, explained to her. When you buy a video monitor you can choose one that is wifi enabled or not. Our son and daughter-in-law selected one that was not, in other words it worked over a certain distance in a house but didn’t utilize the internet. Our daughter and son-in-law made the same choice, believing that it reduced the risk of being hacked or monitored by uninvited individuals. Our children face parenting decisions that we didn’t dream of. I don’t envy them.

Realizing that I may have misunderstood Dr. Farahany, I decided to listen to the entire podcast, and to replay the part that got me so angry. I was calmer and realized I may have leapt to a conclusion. I also realized that perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, though I stand by my belief that children deserve privacy, too.

I’m glad I listened. First, it was not clear that cameras were still in use in her older child’s room. I would love to ask her to clarify and hear her thoughts on the idea. Second, they discussed a lot of important subjects that we need to consider as science and technology evolve.

One area they discussed was use of brain monitoring on long-haul truckers, and this technology may not be limited to that job. We might agree that monitoring truck drivers’ level of alertness, which can be achieved using several different types of surveillance technologies, is a good thing since drowsy driving is the most frequent cause of accidents on our roadways. The issue gets stickier when you think about what other data might be collected along the way, who might have access to the data and how else it might be used. If we can be sure of the narrow use of the information, to inform the driver (and the employer?) that they are sleepy, then the intrusion on privacy is warranted. One can imagine a whole host of possible misuses of the information, though, especially if the monitoring isn’t limited to tracking wakefulness. And even in that limited application, what does it mean for employer/employee relations? Does the trucker get disciplined? Hopefully, these issues have been worked out before the technology was implemented. Sometimes that planning doesn’t happen, and the horse is out of the barn before the implications have been considered.

Privacy is a sensitive subject, especially when balanced against safety. In many areas of our lives, including in our own homes, we make calculations about what is more important to us. We are often willing to sacrifice privacy for security, but we need to be mindful of unintended consequences. And, like many things, we won’t all agree on the proper balance. It is an important conversation to have, especially as parents of young children.

The Threads that Bind Us

Our family gathered in Groton, Connecticut for a wedding this past weekend. We converged on the Mystic Hilton, coming from upstate New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia and California. On Friday as we were each on our way, my brothers and I received a text from our aunt reporting that she and my uncle ‘made a stop to tell our loved ones the good news about our trip,’ meaning they visited the cemetery in Saddle Brook, NJ where my father, uncle and Nana (among other family members) are buried and shared the happy news of the upcoming nuptials. She included several pictures of the graves. I appreciated that they had done that, as irrational as the gesture may be.

I don’t believe that going to my father’s gravesite puts me closer to his spirit, but at the same time visiting is a demonstrable show of respect. In the Jewish tradition, when you visit the grave, you leave a small rock or pebble on the headstone as a tangible sign that someone was there – at least that’s the reason I have in my head and heart when I do it (there is likely some obscure reason for the ritual that dates back to ancient time, but I have no knowledge of it). I was glad that my aunt and uncle did it on our behalf. When we gather for these milestone events, it is bittersweet. We are thankful that we have something so special to celebrate, but also painfully aware of those who are no longer with us.

While chatting with one of my cousins, I mentioned that my aunt and uncle had done this, and she explained that for her going to the cemetery was an empty experience. Her mother died 35 years ago, and she still feels her mom’s spirit with her all the time, she is in regular communication with her (just to be clear, she didn’t mean that literally) but she doesn’t feel anything at her gravesite. I know other people feel the same way and have no need to go. My cousin wasn’t casting judgment on those who find meaning in a visit, but it just doesn’t do anything for her. On the other hand, I have a friend who visits her parents’ graves regularly – she finds it comforting. I’m trying to decide how I feel about it – not just with respect to loved ones who have died, but also in terms of what I want for myself.

This isn’t a subject most people want to talk about – all topics revolving around death tend to make people uncomfortable. I have always found it interesting and, more than that, important. I want to sort out my conflicting emotions, in part to plan for it so my children aren’t left with painful decisions when the time comes.

I have a recollection of an irreverent George Carlin comedy routine where he lamented that cemeteries were a waste of space. He suggested the land could be better used for affordable housing! (He was equally merciless about golf courses). Seriously, it is reasonable to ask whether our burial practices make sense from a use of resources and an ecological point of view. Is it sustainable?

Some of our feelings about this are probably the product of the traditions, either religious or cultural, we observed growing up. In my mother’s family, when she was a child, they went to the cemetery at least annually to pay their respects. She even remembers picnicking there! For her those were warm memories. The departed were still included in their lives. Though that tradition was not continued in my childhood, we never picnicked, I was aware that Mom and her brothers went at least yearly to the cemetery. As an adult, after my dad died, I took Mom to the cemetery a few times. Dad is buried in Mom’s (the Spilkens’) family plot, he lies near his mother-in-law. In life he loved being part of their family, it seems appropriate that he rests there. There is a spot for Mom, when the time comes, next to Dad.

The photo my aunt, Barbara Spilken, sent

Cremation was not considered when Dad died. It is my understanding that cremation was frowned upon among Jews. That attitude seems to be changing, and apparently was not rooted in agreed upon Jewish law. More Jews are choosing that option these days. Then you have to decide what to do with the cremains – scatter, bury/place in a mausoleum or keep in an urn somewhere. For other Jews, like my husband, irrespective of tradition or law, the legacy of the Holocaust makes this an unacceptable option.

On our drive back home from the wedding I asked Gary what he thought about all of this, including whether it was meaningful to visit the cemetery. He finds comfort in the idea of leaving a marker behind. He also expressed a desire to go to visit his dad, who is buried in Liberty, about a 2 hour drive from our home. Regardless of whether we go regularly, or not, Gary believes it is fitting that his dad’s existence has a marker, a place and a stone that memorializes his life that will be there for decades, maybe centuries, to come. He wants that for himself, too. Gary noted that he had not visited deceased family, he was thinking especially of his Bubbe, who are buried on Long Island in many, many years. He would like to, but couldn’t see making a separate trip, it is long and inconvenient, only for that purpose. If we were traveling in the area, then he would make a point of going. The location of the cemetery is obviously a factor in the frequency of visits.

Though I can’t articulate my reasons, it is important to me that I visit Dad’s grave once in a while – I can’t say how often it should be, though annually feels about right. I think of my dad all the time of course, but there is something about the visit to the site that formalizes it. Time and effort are carved out to honor my relationship with him by being there, looking at the inscription on the stone and placing a pebble on it to signify my presence. I am glad I can pay my respects to Nana and Uncle Mike at the same time.

I am of two minds for myself. I like the idea of being scattered in the wind, in a particularly lovely spot. I also see the appeal of leaving a marker, even if my children and grandchildren don’t visit. There would be a place where my existence was noted. I suppose the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps that is the answer I’ve been looking for – my cremains strewn about a lovely spot, (could they fertilize a garden?), and a memorial marker somewhere (a bench in Central Park?). Maybe I’m on to something here.

Do you visit loved ones at the cemetery? Does it feel meaningful? What do you want for yourself?

It is ironic that this piece started with the family gathering for a wedding but explored our recognition of death, but that is the nature of life. We gather for these events. The judge who officiated the ceremony, and it was a beautiful one, began with “Dearly beloved….,” just a word away from “Dearly departed…” It is all of a thread.

Gratitude, Part II

Note: I wrote a blot post about gratitude a while ago (you can find it at https://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2019/03/11/gratitude/). The impetus for that essay was International Women’s Day and I reflected on the women in my life for whom I was most grateful. Interestingly, that post is the single most read offering among the 305 (!) posts on the blog. That piece was planned. The other day a feeling of gratitude crept up on me from an entirely different source and I was inspired to write about it. I wanted to share it – perhaps it will lead you to find gratefulness in something you might otherwise take for granted.

I plugged ‘Untermyer Gardens’ into my GPS and drove the designated route. It was simple enough to find, though I was not familiar with Yonkers at all. I had heard of it from several sources and knowing how much I enjoy gardens, I wanted to check it out. Plus, it’s free!

It was the day after taking Mom to see the pulmonologist, which went uneventfully, I’m happy to report. It wasn’t my best visit with Mom, but it went smoothly enough. Driving to Mom and back is a lot for one day (about 7 hours) so I usually do an overnight at my brother’s home or in our apartment in New York City to make it more manageable. I decided to reward myself by going to the garden before I headed back to Albany.

As I pulled into the small parking lot, I noted there were still some spots available. The website had warned of the limited number of spaces, so I was prepared to search on nearby streets. I was glad that wasn’t necessary; it was a good start.

As I got out of my car, I felt especially grateful, and not just for the parking spot. Gratefulness is not a feeling that sneaks up on me all that often. As I made my way to the entrance, I realized I was grateful for many things. Though it was overcast, rain was not in the forecast, so the weather was cooperating. More importantly, I thought about the fact that I had the wherewithal to make this trip, from Albany to Freehold, New Jersey, to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Yonkers and then back to Albany by myself over the course of less than 36 hours.  I had the time, the financial resources, and the physical ability to do this. Not every 62 year old woman can, not every human being can. I took a moment to appreciate my good fortune. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk the grounds of the gardens. My legs are pretty strong, by heart and lungs are in reasonable shape – I didn’t know what to expect but I knew I could climb up and down stairs, I can walk 3 to 5 miles without too much difficulty so I was confident I would enjoy the experience.

I write this not to brag, but to acknowledge my blessings. There are challenges in every life, mine included, and I tend to hyper-focus on those. Here was an opportunity to appreciate what I have and take pleasure in something that brings me joy, the combination of natural beauty and human creativity. Untermyer Park and Gardens embody both.

Turns out Mr. Untermyer, who established and bequeathed the gardens to the people of New York State, is also worthy of admiration. Samuel Untermyer, a Jewish-American born of German immigrants, was a successful lawyer who advocated for financial regulation to protect against corruption and monopolies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was even more impressed that he initiated and campaigned for a boycott of Nazi Germany beginning in 1933. He recognized Hitler as a threat early on. Unfortunately, Untermyer’s efforts were not successful in isolating Hitler, but he was on the right side of history. It is uplifting to learn of people who made positive contributions to our world – someone I had never heard of before.

I went through the entrance and found a map of the grounds. My children tease me about always wanting to know the ‘lay of the land.’ Whenever we traveled, I looked for a map or floorplan so I could scope out where to go and what were the highlights. Much of this information is available today on smart phones, but I still appreciate a guide on paper. I set out to explore.

The Gardens are located in view of the Hudson River. It includes structures that borrow from the architecture of ancient times. Some of the buildings have gone to seed – in some cases the ruins have been incorporated into the landscaping. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether the decay is intentionally left, or if it will eventually be restored. Perhaps they don’t know. It made for interesting viewing.

In one case, graffiti decorated the walls of what had been a gate house (you know you are on an estate when there is a gate house). I posted a picture of the scene on Facebook and Instagram, asking if folks thought the graffiti added or detracted from the look.

The picture I posted on social media

Some thought it detracted, some needed more context (was it ‘allowed’ or invited, or if it fit in with the history of the place), while others simply thought it enhanced the view. My visceral reaction, while there, was positive. I liked the juxtaposition of the colors, the new art and the old stones, the lushness of the plantings and the intrusion of urban expression on a structure from a time long gone. When I read about it, after the fact, the guide says that the graffiti was “intentionally preserved as an artifact from a troubled time in its history.” That raises even more interesting food for thought.

After exploring for about two hours, I sat in a shady portico (see photo below) and considered the blessings of the day. I felt energized when I returned to my car. I headed north, stopping first to have lunch with a friend before continuing the long drive home.

I carry that gratitude with me now.

Our Promise, Our Obligation

It is the 4th of July. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day and we will do one traditional thing – barbecue some burgers and hot dogs. Otherwise, the holiday doesn’t have much meaning this year. I’m not taking much pride in being American, sad to say.

I am a baby boomer – slipped in under the wire, being born in 1959. I don’t know who decides these things, who defines the generations, but I meet the criteria. As a product of that time, I believed in American exceptionalism. The lessons learned at school, and the broader culture, taught me that this country was special, born of an idea that we were all created equal, and we were free in ways other citizens in other countries were not. I was born into the Cold War – people in the Soviet Union could not criticize their government without fear of imprisonment, they did not enjoy the riches and abundance of the free market, they weren’t allowed to practice religion (I was especially aware of this as a Jew) among many other rights. But, not only that, I thought we were better even than England where people were born into a class and couldn’t rise above it. When America won gold at the Olympic games, my heart swelled with pride when our national anthem played. I believed we were the good guys.

I came to understand that we weren’t always the good guys in foreign policy. We sometimes supported regimes that were repressive or corrupt because we thought it was in our economic interests. As I became more educated and experienced in the world, I didn’t dismiss these instances, but I accepted that there were some limits to our choices; our country existed in a real world with bad actors. I still had faith, though, with effective leadership and if our values informed our policies, we could be a force for good.

As I grew up, and became more educated about our history, I came to understand that we weren’t quite as exceptional as I thought. I still believed in the essential values that were our foundation, freedom and equal opportunity, but I realized that we had not fulfilled those promises. Race riots and the women’s movement made me aware that we didn’t all have equal opportunity. When the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, they used the term ‘men’ purposefully. We needed to expand the concept. We had work to do to make that a reality. But, I accepted that this was something that could be achieved through new laws and improved education. I believed that the majority of Americans wanted to realize that promise.

Today my faith is shaken. It seems that a powerful portion of the American people don’t share my understanding of the foundational values that I thought inform our institutions. I thought freedom meant that people could worship as they chose, if it wasn’t infringing on others or violating laws, but that religion was not endorsed by the government. Increasingly it seems that our Supreme Court has thrown that idea by the wayside. A coach, an employee of a public school system, can lead his team in Christian prayer in the middle of the football field. A Christian concept of when life begins dictates a woman’s right to reproductive choice. The right to bear arms outweighs sensible limitations. If polls are to be believed, though, the majority of Americans don’t agree with these policies. So, where does that leave us?

The very idea of democracy, that the will of the majority of people determines the government’s course of action, is being thwarted. Everything I learned, that we have a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” is at risk. I just re-read the Gettysburg Address, from which the phrase I quoted above derives, and I remind myself not to give up. I highly recommend refreshing your memory by reading it (here).

These ideals are worth fighting for; all is not lost. These Supreme Court decisions need not be the final word. Congress can act. State legislatures can act. Governors make a difference. Local school boards are relevant. We need to be vigilant, and we need to vote – in primaries and in November. Perhaps this holiday, this 4th of July, can help to remind us of our promise and obligation.

Okay, I’m feeling better about the holiday. I hope you are too.