Triptych: three reasons for me being me

 

“We had very good beer and very bad deviled eggs at a little former gas station behind the venue where Anton did not explain why he works so hard on other people’s behalf.”

My friend Michael Ruhlman wrote that after his book tour through Durham and Chapel Hill in November. He wanted to know why I went to the trouble to facilitate his visit, organize his itinerary, publicize his storytelling, even meet him across Duke’s campus to make sure he’d found the radio studio in time for his interview on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I mumbled something or other to him that night, demurring as humbly as I could. But, I’ve pondered his question often since, especially in the intensity of ScienceOnline2012, my volunteer activity that consumes me, drains me and once again inspires each year.

In the afterglow of the conference, and in reading the outpouring of #scio12 observations and satisfactions and realizations, I cried in relief, laughed in exaltation, nodded in satisfaction and dreamed in exhausted delirium. I was part of something special.

Time now for me to blog again, to try to describe the experience of organizing the conference that I want to attend, but which I can’t participate in as everyone else does because I’m focused on the details, big and small, that help make it a place where amazing people feel comfortable connecting, sharing, collaborating and more. Ed Yong’s Scattered reflections about ScienceOnline 2012 captures the formula.

I get sheer joy from seeing our attendees enjoy the conference, learning and discussing and strengthening their connections. But I don’t get to attend or enjoy in the same way. My satisfaction comes from seeing friendships form, careers blossom, conversations start or continue or broaden, kindness amplify. See Reflections of a First Time ScienceOnline Attendee, Nerd Vegas – Reflections on Science Online 2012 and ScienceOnline 2012 – Behind the #scio12 hashtag for a few (of the many) that lifted me up.

Through all this and over the past weeks, I came upon a trio of reasons to answer Michael and share with others. I hesitate to enunciate these — the limelight isn’t my ambition — but the more I looked into the archives of my blog, the more I realized all the strands have been here all along.

And so, I offer this triptych depicting the details that help me, and perhaps you, understand what motivates my community organizing.

Confidence

I spent the summer before my freshman year of high school living with my grandparents in DeKalb, Illinois. Early each morning, Grandpa Sisco would have me up and out the door so that I could be the first one at the pick-up point, where I waited for the rest of the detasseling crew to arrive for our day in the corn fields. I didn’t mind being so early, so early in the morning. Grandpa was teaching me an important lesson about showing up, and showing up on time. Walking the long rows of corn gave me a taste of hard work, and money well earned. (It set me on the way to becoming DeKalb’s Corn Fest King of 1987, too.)

When the summer was over, but before I could return home to St. Croix, my mother and brothers had left the island to make DeKalb home. We moved into an apartment overlooking another cornfield. I showed up for my first soccer practice in brown corduroy pants straight from an after-hours physical exam at the home of a quintessential community doctor and insisted I could run the end-of-practice 2-mile circuit along with my new teammates. Before our senior year, my teammates chose me to be co-captain of the team, but they reminded me then, and still do whenever we reunite, about my freshman geekiness.

I’d moved much already as a child, and I’d made friends in half a dozen states, but being new in a group is never easy. I’m a loner who needs people. That first weekend of the school year in DeKalb, I sat and cried.

“What’s wrong, Anton?” my mother asked.

“I don’t have any friends,” I answered. “Everybody else is out doing something tonight.”

“Well, you have a choice. You can sit and fume, and you’ll be lonely. Or you can call someone right now and see what they’re doing tonight. Maybe you’ll be able to join him. You can wait, or you can act.”

I didn’t like the telephone. Years earlier, it had taken me hours to find a shred of courage to pick up the phone and dial the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon to pledge a few dollars. But mom was right, so I did call a newfound friend and I did go out that first weekend.

Years later, when I was sitting at my N.C. State University desk and had the idea to organize a bloggers conference, mom’s lesson was ingrained enough that I quickly reached out to UNC friends and asked them to collaborate with me on the 2005 Triangle Bloggers Conference. By then, though, I didn’t need the phone, because email and blogs were faster and easier. I met Bora Zivkovic at this gathering. (See his epic writeup about ScienceOnline2012, and understand my sheer delight in calling him friend.)

I made sure to call my mom soon after the conference to tell her how well the day had gone, because I knew she’d be proud of me. She taught me a valuable lesson one day during my freshman year of high school. I was moping in my loneliness, and mom told me the best way to remedy waiting by the phone for some friend to call was to pick up the phone (my great fear) and call a friend with an invitation to get together.” posted 2/13/2005

I’m over my fear of the telephone, and actually enjoy calling people, though I still can’t talk at length like Erin can. And, new media tools make it even easier to reach out to people.

Social media, to me, has always been best to say, “Let’s get together.” posted 11/25/2011.

My mother’s challenge on that long-ago August day was more than just a challenge to pick up the phone. The deeper lesson was one that I have written and is with me at all times:

Today, I talked with a friend who has recently been in need of some financial help, and we remarked on cultural differences that determine whether someone is comfortable asking for money from family members, friends or a widely distributed community (such as all our overlapping online social networks). One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is the sole line written in the front of my Moleskine notebook: For the asking. As in, ask in order to receive, but also be prepared to provide when I’m asked. posted 9/25/2010

Through blogging, I also met David Kroll. Last year, walking out of the Bon Jovi conference with him, I riffed on how the lessons instilled by my mother and grandfather (and father, read below) give me the confidence to make myself and my world better. I also long ago turned away from the Christian notion of the fall of man, in which humans were once perfect, sinned and need a god to redeem us. Instead, I like the idea that, just as living things are evolving, we humans are adapting biologically and societally. This idea that we can be better is ingrained in the BlogTogether ethos (and, yes, many religious traditions): blog about others as you would have others blog about you.

And you can see this in action right now, and understand why David was a natural choice to be the inaugural recipient of the BlogTogether Community Service Award. He is once again urging our ScienceOnline community to come to the aid of one of our own: #IAmUninsured: An #IAmScience Story.

Consequence

While my mother was building my confidence, my father was informing my vision and directing quite a bit of my career.

As I wrote in the forward to his Peace Corps memoir, Step to Freedom, dad inspired me to travel, observe, act and organize.

What I thought about was Idaho, when I was 10 years old. My father, Joseph, would take all of the sofa cushions and line the floor of the dining room, where we would play a version of floor hockey with wooden spatulas and spoons and a Wiffle ball. By then, I’d already wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. In that same dining room Dad regularly showed his Peace Corps photos on the bare white walls, using a finicky slide projector and a Zuiker penchant for storytelling. The Peace Corps never had so good a recruiter. posted 9/5/2005

So, I wanted to do as my father had done. And, so, I watched with him, learned from him, listened to him.

“When I was in high school, dad would gently warn me about how, in a time of AIDS and underage drinking, my decisions could have deadly results. He wasn’t using fear or guilt—being a good Catholic, he could have used the guilt card, though I might have subconsciously done this anyway, since I didn’t want to get him in any trouble at his job with the State’s Attorney. He was using reason. He was challenging me to play mental chess, to move the pieces in my mind, to pick the path leading to long life. posted 9/7/2004

This lesson made me cautious, but also ambitious. When you think ahead, you can imagine the dire consequences, but you can also dream of success, and see the steps for getting there. (You might say I also have a healthy fantasy — I can solve the cold war!).

In college, I saw a movie that captured that consequence concept in two simple questions.

One person I met through blogging called me this morning to thank me for once telling him about a scene in the film Last Temptation of Christ. I remember this scene as Christ walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, thinking to himself, “What if I’m wrong.” Then, as the drumbeat builds to a crescendo, he wonders, “My god, what if I’m right?” (Turns out I’ve remembered this slightly wrong, but the idea is the same.)” posted 2/5/2006

The accurate monologue is this: “What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say the right thing?”

What I’ve always understood that to mean is this: we won’t know if we’re successful unless we try, and we won’t be successful if we’re not passionate and sincere and inclusive.

Community

ScienceOnline2012 opened with me standing in front of a large group of people, telling a story about my father, encouraging handshakes:

I realized later in that day that, in a real sense, I’d attained a vocation of sorts.

When I was in high school, Father Schwartz captivated me with his homilies every Sunday. I would sit in the pew — we were always in one of the first five rows —- and think about the role of priest and the opportunity to speak before a crowd each week. That is what most attracted me to the priesthood: that power of the pulpit.” posted 3/18/2006

I didn’t become a priest. Instead, I fell in love, got married, and, together with Erin, became a Peace Corps Volunteer after all.

When Erin and I were married in 1996 — in the chapel of our alma mater, John Carroll University — we asked Charlie McCarthy, the Franciscan friar officiating our vows, to begin the mass with the sign of the peace, traditionally done much later in the ceremony. So, we started our marriage with handshakes. In his homily, Charlie talked about passion, both the spark Erin and I share as well as the energy that drives us to better our world.

It was in Vanuatu that I became even more accutely aware of handshakes, and not just because I missed my grandpa’s Zooker handshakes or my dad’s reach-behind-while-driving-to-show-I-love-you handshakes. Everywhere I went, a villager greeted me with a single shake.

The handshake became routine. In a communal society where physical intimacy is never public, the handshake was an important bond. Even this could last. I’ll always remember Noel matter-of-factly holding my hand as he and I walked up the road to the store together.” posted July 2000

At village meetings, school feasts and Sunday church services, there were usually lines of people with which to exchange handshakes, including a woman changed by Hansen’s disease, snotty kids and men with hands made rough from subsistence farming. There were also passing lines for working together. I wrote about those experiences, and an episode of Little House on the Prairie that I watched a few years later with little Anna:

On Paama Island, we formed these lines many times a week: whenever a cargo ship stopped just offshore, we’d jog to the black-sand beach and pass sacks of flour or cement to the waiting (and lone) truck. (One of the most beautiful moments of my time on the island was the day all of the students at Liro Primary School and Vaum Junior Secondary School circled the schoolyard so that Erin and I could shake each of their hands in farewell.)

In the Little House episode, Doc Baker sees Charles struggling through the pain of broken ribs to lift heavy seed sacks high into the shed. Mr. Hansen sees the same need from his sawmill, the blacksmith from his forge and Mr. Olson from the general store. They were observing their world, and their world wasn’t moving at 65 miles per hour. Their individual reaction times led to community action.

Maybe that’s key to community. The men of Walnut Grove were quick to assist Charles because they were all working—and thinking—on their feet. posted 8/25/2004

And that brings me back to ScienceOnline, and The Long Table, and food blogging events with Michael, and our annual BlogTogether backyard barbecue. Each has been my attempt to ask friends and strangers to get together, shake hands, share a meal, tell a story or teach a skill, and through our growing bonds of community, to make our world a little better.

These events, and the people who have gathered and given their time and talents, have certainly made my world better. I’ve gained friends — Karyn Traphagen the newest, unafraid to jump aboard the speeding ScienceOnline organizers bus — and had countless conversations that have broadened my understanding of humanity.

A community made me — grandparents, parents, siblings; friends, lovers, rivals; teachers, coaches, clergy, doctors; bloggers, tweeps, connections, followers. How could I not give back to my community?

Afterword

At the ScienceOnline2012 talent show, David Kroll did a reprise of Minister of Ether, a song he wrote about me and some of the themes above.

David sings “Let’s get together now and see where this goes, Distill us some humanity from this firehose” (full lyrics), referring to the essay Bloggers to talk science by News & Observer editor Dan Barkin, writing about our early efforts to organize the science blogging conference:

The Web has evolved into a tribal Internet of passionate bloggers like Zuiker, and he has become a sort-of local brand. He’s a quiet visionary. He’s a low-key doer. He’s a let’s-get-together-and-see-where-this-goes guy. It’s the Zuikers of this new, interwoven world who may play a significant role in determining how far Web 2.0 goes from being a sociable network to a social force. [Bloggers to talk science, by Dan Barkin, News & Observer, 9/22/2007]

Whenever I see Dan, I shake his hand.




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Written by Anton Zuiker since July 2000
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