The Ghost in the Machine

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For years, Robin was famous for leaving off-color, deeply tasteless rants on the phone machines of his closest friends. If you knew Robin, if you worked with him, if you were part of his extended family, you were eligible for this offensive treat. It was hilarious.

When Robin was visiting, he would answer calls on our house phone with a thick accent and an abrupt and shocking spiel. It didn't matter to him who was on the other end of the line. Our children's friends, our friends, my relatives and in-laws could all have a normal call answered by Robin... who would carry on insanely using his phony accent and then pass us the phone, usually to stunned silence on the other end.

There were three personas he preferred: Boris the Russian spy and operative, the southern IRS auditor (a favorite of his when calling me to discuss his production expenses) and his all-time favorite Punjabi Bob.

 Now it's not rocket science to imagine what Punjabi Bob sounded like. While I have a recording, it's too racist and stereotypical to include here. When Robin died four years ago and we honored his memory with a send-off in New York City, I managed to find and play Punjabi Bob for those in attendance. He ranted about human trafficking on Tuesdays and he sounded like a cartoon character. He'd left the message on the phone of a producer at CNN who was so stunned she kept it for posterity.

Fast-forward four years. Like most people, I use the alarm clock in my iPhone to wake me when I travel. I've depended on this feature for years and have never done more than set the time and day. I have always used the most conservative ring tone possible. I don't want to be jarred awake.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to India to film the Bharat Yatra, a march across India led by Robin's dear friend and mentor Kailash Satyarthi. Robin had filmed three prior marches with Kailash over a period of twenty years. Now, in his absence, it was time for me to see to it that this five thousand kilometer march to end human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children was recorded for posterity. Just before leaving, I attended a conference on Child Labor in Light Industrial Supply Chains where I presented examples of the work Robin and I did together and discussed the power of iconic images to galvanize action to end child labor. In other words, Robin was on the screen, on exhibit at the Dodd Center for Human Rights and on the lips, hearts and minds of those attending.

The conference lasted two days. I set my alarm as usual and woke up each day to the same alarm I've used and heard since I got the phone. Meeting up with my co-producer for the Yatra shoot, Petra Lent McCarron, we hopped on a plane to Delhi and after 20 hours arrived and crashed, taking rooms at an airport hotel to rest before setting out to film the Yatra. We set a meeting time and I set my alarm.

That's when it happened. I was dead to the world when the sound of a ranting Punjabi Bob came screaming at me from my phone. In fact, when the rant ended it started over like an endless loop of Robin and a cascade of words about trafficking (on Tuesdays only!). It was so stunning and unexpected and so unsettling that it was three days before I even mentioned it to Petra.

For the whole of the Yatra filming,  Robin awakened me every day as Punjabi Bob. On our return to the states, the alarm defaulted back to the original ring tone and he's not been heard from since.

I am not a techno-nerd. I have never fiddled with my phone beyond using it to check messages and send a few texts. I have had two tech nerds examine my phone to see how this could have happened. They were able to establish how the file made it to my phone but there's no explanation for how it was scheduled for precisely the day I arrived in India to follow in Robin's footsteps. The best explanation they could offer was, "the ghost in the machine theory".

Is the ghost in the machine Robin? Is he still hammering away in the cosmos trying to draw our attention to the work ahead? I would answer yes to both of those questions. No matter how you feel about contact from "the other side", Robin has simply morphed, finding new buttons to push, images, exhibits, voices and personas to keep us on our toes. He is with me every day. I feel his presence and miss him terribly. We are still at it, decades later, and Punjabi Bob is leading the charge.