Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cutting the cord

I thought I was dying.
I thought it was a heart attack.
But really, it was just the sudden shock brought about when I had the overwhelming misfortune to look closely at my cable bill. Like many of us, I have most of our monthly obligations on an online auto-pay system, whereby the money is magically swooshed out of our checking account and into the waiting arms of the gas and electric guys, the cell phone guys, the water and sewer guys, and all the other great, grand guys who expect prompt payment from me on a regular basis. This is a good thing, in that it's a task that gets done right when it's supposed to, without any need for me to sit down, find the bill, dig out a checkbook, track down a pen that actually works, locate my glasses, and then, despite all odds, actually mail the thing. The bad news is that it's easy to forget just how much money we're spending, except on the occasions when I take a closer-than-usual look at what's going on with our incredible shrinking bank account.
Who knew I was paying sixteen million dollars a month for basic cable tv, an internet connection  and my home phone?
Well, not quite. But over time, our regular charges have grown--and grown--to represent a fairly significant chunk of change. Significant to me, at least, especially when you consider the relative quality of said television programming, online content and most of the telephone calls received. I suppose I could cut back somewhere else, and maybe cease smuggling home those pricy little chocolate and yogurt-covered thingees that I adore. But we know that's not going to happen, so why bother talking about it?
But I do believe something has gotta go.
The reason the cable folks seem like good candidates for the cut-back has to do with the way their attitude towards me has evolved--or, rather, devolved over the years.
Why is it, I wonder, that they practically sent candy and flowers to get my business in the first place? But now that I've been a good, faithful, steady-paying customer for years, they treat me like the guy who dumped their sister on the night of the senior prom.  My bill has steadily grown, while potential new customers receive a never-ending stream of amazing low-cost offers from the same darn company, plus an ever-growing host of competitors. I have friends who have called and threatened to cancel, and then received temporary discounted deals of their own. But it's my feeling that the company already ought to know I'd rather pay less if I could, but is pretty happy with the way things are right now. And anyway, the nearly two months I've spent in the grip of these modern marvels since we came back from our no-technology beach house on the North Carolina shore have just about worn me out. At the very least, the experience has convinced me of now much I don't miss when I'm away from television, the world wide web and the phone on the wall.
Because, here's the thing. Most of what I end up viewing on the tube is dumb, mean-spirited, semi-obscene or a repeat, and the Cubs seem to manage to lose every time I watch them. Constant access to the internet just means I have more chances to see pictures of people's cats, streaming videos of embarrassing moments in the lives of total strangers, and cajoling emails from desperate, expatriated Nigerian princes. And while I kind of like having a home phone, along with the phone number that's been associated with us for just about 40 years, about 99.9% of the calls we receive are home improvement and repair salesmen, interest group pollsters and purveyors of fabulous vacation trips that I'll never take.
So, I'm giving serious thought to cutting the cord, so to speak; to canceling our cable tv, internet and home phone service. A set of digital rabbit ears ought to give me access to some network tv and local news, weather and sports. I have a mobil internet hotspot that we use when we travel, so I can check email and those cat pictures anytime I really need to. And while I still have a few friends who still use my home phone number when they want to get ahold of me, I'm sure they'd be happy to call my cell phone or send me a postcard instead.
Meanwhile, I'll read more and we'll resume having conversations that aren't timed to the next commercial. Social networking might be replaced to something more akin to a real social life. And I won't even have to embarrass myself by lying to the next storm window salesman who calls.
And who knows, maybe I'll even have the time to stop and think about things a little bit.
Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Here's to dad

The history of holidays is sort of fascinating to me. I mean, it's pretty clear who came up with some of the most popular ones. For instance, Christmas was invented by Christians, Thanksgiving was the brainchild of the pilgrims (or maybe the Indians,) Valentine's Day is meant for lovers, and Groundhog's Day is all about hope. And so on.
Even the faux-holidays, the ones that were, apparently, invented by greeting card companies and chocolate manufacturers, have some basis. But the one special day that continues to puzzle me is coming up this month.
It's called Father's Day.
Father's Day is kind of an interesting holiday in that nobody ever seemed too shook up about making it official. After it was first suggested back in 1910, the day was generally ignored until the manufacturers of neckties and pipes glommed onto it in the 30s. After two attempts to formally recognize the holiday were defeated by Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Six years later, the day was made a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972
So, why the delay? Why did it take so darn long to make dad's day an official U.S. holiday?
The answer is simple.
How do you celebrate a holiday with a person whose only real desire on that special day is to be left alone?  Even my own dad, who was usually a pretty good sport about things, seemed kind of lukewarm about an event that required him to gratefully accept a truly hideous necktie, then give up his only day off so he could fete, feed and otherwise entertain us in a celebration of his own fatherhood and the bright, wonderful children he had sired.
Or at least that's how we saw it.
"Don't take the chicken," he'd mutter while watching us gleefully cherrypick our way through an overpriced restaurant buffet. "Eat the roast beef," he'd add, while comparing the price of poultry and prime beef.  He would then, I imagine, mentally calculate the number of starving children that could be fed with what we left on our plates, and wait for it all to be over.
But we weren't done with him yet. Not by a long shot.
Besides working long hours in the pharmacy he owned and dozing in front of the tv, my dad's favorite things were gardening and fishing. Now, normally, we'd allow him to pursue those pastimes without too much interference on our parts.
But not on Father's Day.
Instead, we would hasten to join him in the large plot where he grew vegetables and flowers. Anxious to "help" him,  we would step all over the rows of young growing stuff, pull plants and leave weeds behind, bat peony buds into the air with badminton racquets, and otherwise bring chaos to an otherwise peaceful, well-ordered section of yard.  If fishing was the game, we would lose his bait, tangle his lines, tip over his tackle box, and make so much noise that the fish would literally laugh out loud before diving for deeper, safer waters and fish-father celebrations of their own.
Finally, my dad would do something I still admire for both its wisdom and sense of restraint. He would disappear.
Instead of doing what most sensible guys would do, and burying us in a hole in the garden or drowning us in the lake, he would simply go somewhere else for awhile.  Usually, it was an "emergency" of some sort down at his drugstore.  By the time he returned, my siblings I and would have, thankfully, all but forgotten him and the need to force-feed a celebration in his honor. Finally, he would be free to enjoy the rest of the day in relative peace and normalcy, puttering around in the yard and the garage, and hanging out with my mom, who had done her best to shield him from the worst of our over-attentive efforts.  She would pull together the kind of meal they both liked, consisting, mainly, of vegetables from his garden.  We would eat and talk and laugh and just enjoy being a family for awhile. The late afternoon would gently ease into nighttime. The house would finally be quiet.
I hope it was a pretty good day in spite of us all.
Years and years later, I look back at those those days and remember.
I remember those ugly ties. And the pricy Father's Day meals that he paid for.  I remember the summer days and nights, the garden, the lake, the family store, and all the other places and things that made him happy, and made us happy, too.
I remember my father, who was modest and quiet and hard-working, and who loved us all. And I realize now that it doesn't really matter what you do on Father's Day, just as long as you love him right back.
Here's to dads.
Here's to my dad.
Happy Father's Day.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's a brave new world, I think

I was sitting around with some friends the other day when, as it inevitably happens, one of us had a question no one else could answer. We were doing our best to come up with a solution that made some kind of sense when one person in the group stopped the rest of us in our tracks.
"Wait," she said. "I'll look it up."
She grabbed her smartphone and as quickly as you can say "Alexander Graham Bell," she was able to provide the rest of us with the gross national product of Togo or whatever it was we were trying to figure out.
Just like that.
Now, I realize that the concept of phones, tablets, pads, pods and other itty-bitty handheld devices with more brainpower than the NASA computers that sent men to the moon and back is nothing new. In fact, the rocket scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently announced that they had, indeed, used smartphones as the computing power in three new nanosatellites, a kind of small-sized spacecraft that are often launched to work together in a so-called "satellite swarm," which is a bit of terminology, by the way, that sends absolute shivers down my spine.
Another recent newsflash said that more than half of the adults in the United States now own a smartphone.
Not me, though.
As a result of my own special combination of cheapness and stubbornness, I continue to wield a vintage flipphone that actually receives an occasional admiring glance from teenagers and other folks who are supposedly in the know, because they assume it is some kind of hip, retro uber-phone that is merely posing as something you might find in the bottom of a Cracker Jacks box. Ergo, while others are determining important stuff like the population of Sri Lanka in 1947 or the names of each and every one of the Seven Dwarves, I am engaged in more mundane, yet equally important tasks, like calling home to see if we're going to fix dinner or not.
Believe it or not, though, I was one of the first kids on the block to own a cell phone. Thinking that it might save me from being stranded and eaten by raccoons if my car broke down on my daily commute to and from Peoria, I purchased a bulky, bag-like affair that only worked occasionally along the rural routes that connect my hometown with the big city by the Illinois River.
But I liked it. And here's the thing.
I admit It made me feel safer. And cooler. And more in touch. And smarter, even.
And before I begin to make you think I'm some kind of rugged individualist who only learns those things that can be found by pouring through dusty tomes in the catacombs of the local library, let me hasten to admit that I am often more than happy to let Google do the research via my handy laptop Mac.  I guess what worries me a little is, that as computing devises grow smaller and smaller and more incredibly interactive, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when everybody will have the ability to know, well, everything.
I worry that people will no longer be curious. That they will no longer ask questions or hazard wild guesses or even just admit they don't every little thing there is to know.  Sometimes, it almost seems to me like the ability to get instantaneous information on nearly every subject is almost like thinking without a brain!
These are the things that keep me up at night, along with wondering if I remembered to feed the cat and pay the power bill, or if anyone has eaten the last of the chocolate chip ice cream.
But here's the good news.
I'm pretty sure I'm wrong.
While there are going to be some folks who mistake sheer data for knowledge, there will always be those who know that information is only a part of the process; those who understand that what we really know is a unique combination of facts, opinions, fears, dreams, desires and all the other things that drive the wonderful process of thinking.  Like the great old UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said,
"It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts."
But hey, I know I'll have a  new phone or some kind of fancy smart-gadget someday. My old friend is bound to die of old age eventually, even if I don't manage to drop it in a toilet or forget it on a bus. And who knows, if I wait long enough, I might even be able to get a microchip imbedded into the back of my head and hit the game show circuit in this brave new world.
Or maybe, just maybe, I'll keep trying to using a devise that's been around even longer than the first computer.
It's called a brain.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

'Tis the gift to be simple

I  miss my wife.
No, she hasn't run off with some rich Italian playboy, though I wouldn't really blame her if she did. Instead, she has rediscovered an old favorite from years ago.
It all started when she was looking for something to entertain her bachelor brother when he stays with us at our part-time place on the Carolina shore.  Uncle Matt's not really up for surfing, beach-biking or kayaking, so she felt like she had to look a little further afield to find something he'd like to do when he's not sitting in the sun, watching TV or talking to the neighbors who walk by on their way to and from the beach.
Finally, she found it.
Not the kind that's filled with water, but the game you play with a felt-covered table, a long stick and a bunch of balls with numbers on them. Turns out, the local senior citizens center has a couple of tables, along with a group of guys who play on a regular basis. It's a game he's always enjoyed, so she coaxed him into giving it a try. Once they got to the center and he found the poolroom, she wandered around until she walked past a room filled with ladies of a certain age, who were sitting around a long table.
"Hmmm," she thought. "That looks like fun."
Well, actually, I have no idea what she thought at the time, but I do know that she signed up for the class right then and there, then set about trying to remember how to turn colorful balls of yarn into items that are both pretty and useful. Her grandmother taught her the art years ago, but marriage, motherhood and a busy career as an elementary school teacher meant she seldom had time to even catch her breath, much less sit in one spot and knit a jolly Christmas sweater or a pair of warm socks for her deserving husband. But I guess knitting is kind of like swimming or riding a bicycle, because, before you know it, she was churning out a steady stream of simple stuff, like knitted dishrags and colorful scarves. With the help, encouragement and sometimes firm ministrations of her instructor, who is, like many of the local retirees, an ex-Marine from nearby Camp Lejuene, she began to move into a few more advanced projects, including a blanket for a niece's new baby and a warm shawl for a disabled friend.
I began to notice a subtle change in our relationship. Instead of keeping up a steady stream of chatter and gazing admiringly at my dashing good looks and fashionable wardrobe, she was often totally engrossed in the task at hand, with little to say except certain short words and phrases.
"Wait a minute, I have to finish this row."
Most of the time, she knits in the car or those other times when she finds herself sitting still for awhile.  Most of the time, I don't really mind that she's distracted, except when we're in the car and I'm counting on her to glance at a map or help me spot the next turn I'm suppose to take.
Me: Hey, weren't you going to tell me when we got to the exit for Des Moines?
She: Of course I will, I was just finishing a row. What did that last sign say?
Me: "Welcome to Ohio."
But there's something I really, truly do like about her new hobby:
The people.
I think that's what she likes, too, because there is an unmistakable sense of community that exists among the folks I like to call "those knitwits." And along with that connection comes what seems to be a universal spirit of caring, kindness and giving.
"You don't see people knitting for themselves very often," she said one day.
And she's right.
We know several groups that knit prayer shawls for folks in need of a little extra spiritual and material comfort. Another group makes and sells fancy scarves for the benefit of their Relay for Life Group.
And then there was the lady in the doctor's office.
We had taken a friend to an appointment and were waiting in the lobby when a woman a few chairs down reached into a familiar-looking bag and pulled out a half-finished shawl.
The whole community thing kicked in, and soon they were discussing their latest projects.
"It's beautiful," said my spouse as she looked at her new friend's work in progress.
"It's going to look like this when it's done," replied the lady, as she pulled out a beautifully finished prayer shawl.
"You've inspired me," said my wife. "We have a friend who is battling cancer. She could really use a shawl like that. I need to get started."
"Here," said the lady after a pause. "Give her this one."
"But, you can't... " protested my spouse.
"It's what I do," was the reply. "I pray for the person I'm knitting it for, and if I don't know who's going to get it, I just pray while I'm knitting."
As I think I've mentioned in other columns and essays, the events in my life are often accompanied by a sort of internal soundtrack that steadily whirls through my head, whether I'm happy, sad, thoughtful, confused, excited or all of the above. In this case, the tune that kept repeating in my brain was an old Shaker song called, "Simple Gifts."
"Tis the gift to be simple
'Tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the garden of love and delight."
It seems we were in just the right place that day. And while the gift was simple, it was also freely given, made with love, and packed with good thoughts and prayers.
And that's gotta be the best kind of gift there is.