Thursday, January 30, 2014

The wide, wonderful, wacky world of technology

I'm no Luddite*. Or at least I try to believe that I am accepting of new ideas and technologies. I have a laptop computer that I use all the time to write, design, research, learn and listen. And while I have so far resisted being constantly connected to the internet via a smartphone or other handy portable device, it's really just because I know my battered, vintage flip-phone amazes, amuses and annoys so many people.
But here's the thing. The wide, wonderful, wacky world of technology really does drive me batty now and then. Not so much because of what the technology itself does, but because of the downright strange ways we react--and overreact--to it.
For example, recent online headlines blared out about this bit of news the other day, including one that exclaimed,
That introduced a story I read last Saturday, the day after freebee email provider Gmail stopped working for, uh, less than an hour for a portion of its users.
I was one of them, and I admit I wondered what was going on for a few seconds. Then I yawned and wondered if was time for a nap, anyway.
But here's the thing...
 "Online panic?"
We're not talking about some earthshaking cyber-emergency threatening the very fabric of our existence and our ability to obtain chocolate. We're talking about an email provider that is free, anyway, that experienced a brief glitch. They even told us that they were experiencing some technical difficulties and politely suggested we try again in a few minutes. Now, I'm assuming the busy, high-powered folks who absolutely need uninterrupted 24/7 access to email tend to rely on providers other than the ones us cheap schmoes use, like Google, Outlook, Yahoo and the like. Heck, they might even pay for the privilege.  And even so, maybe the desperate emailer could turn to some alternate means of communication for a few minutes, like text messaging, a phone call or even (gasp) a face-to-face conversation.
Probably not.
I guess I should have panicked.
Am I the only person left in this world who thinks six thousand bucks is a heckuva lot of money?  Sure feels that way
The extremely rare Nintendo World Championships game cartridge has been spotted on eBay—for $6,000.
Manufactured for the 1990 Nintendo video game competition of the same name, the cartridge is one of 116 total, while only 90 official gray carts were given out to finalists.
Almost 25 years later, the Nintendo World Championships 1990 game is one of Nintendo's most valuable.The listing racked up nine bids totaling $6,100 when reported on, with more than one day left in its auction.
Yowee. Six thousand smackers for a used game cartridge made for a system my kids and grandkids think is old hat. Kinda reminds me of that comic book collection my mom pitched while I was in college.
This absolutely takes the cake...
Have you heard about this? Amazon claims to know its customers so well that they can ship what someone needs before they order it.  They call it "anticipatory shopping"."
I call it pushy.
And invasive.
And just plain weird.
I have, however, enjoyed imagining the kind of conversations that might occur when an un-ordered parcel arrives...

"Look honey, it's the xxxx you've always wanted. What a surprise!  It's a miracle!"

"Oh wow.  You got a xxxx from Amazon. When did you order it?"

"Uh, look. Amazon sent you a xxxxx. I didn't know you wanted a xxxx. Did you?"

"Hey jerkface, If you wanted a xxxx you should have just told me. I thought we were saving up for our vacation."

...and so on.
I saw an interesting diatribe on Facebook the other day. I guess I haven't given it this much thought before. Maybe I should...
Anyway, Bob Lefsetz, an American music industry analyst and critic, and author of the email newsletter and blog, the Lefsetz Letter, had this to say about FB:
"(Facebook is) for "old people" but that's not why we'd leave it behind. It can make you unhappy. It can ruin your relationship. It's ruined dating. It can cost you your job. Most importantly, the ever-shifting, hard-to-decipher privacy settings combined with the massive, Wall Street-driven incentive to pry more insistently into your personal life (the better to sell you) makes the world's most popular social network just a tad creepy."
Gee, and I just thought it was an easy way to keep track of people's politics, grandkids and cats.
He's right about one thing, though. I guess I am old.

* Luddite (n)
1. Any of a group of British workers who between 1811 and 1816 rioted and destroyed laborsaving textile machinery in the belief that such machinery would diminish employment.
2. One who opposes technical or technological change.
[After Ned Ludd, an English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779.]

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Long-lost lesson on living alone

It's quiet around here.
Too quiet.
Those are, of course, the last words some hapless cowboy usually delivers before an Apache arrow thunks into his back in a whole host of grade-b westerns. But I'm not too worried about that happening to me.  What I am worried about is how I'm going to eat all the soup, casseroles, desserts and other wondrous goodies that have been appearing on my kitchen counter ever since my spouse left for a few days to take care of an out-of-town family commitment. It seems her many gal-pals have joined forces in assuming I am entirely incapable of feeding or otherwise taking care of myself while she's gone, and have begun showing up at all times of the day and night to deliver my dinner and check my pulse. Note to self:  Consider wearing something a bit dressier than plaid boxers, a Grateful Dead t-shirt and a wool stocking cap when hanging around the house.
Now don't get me wrong. They're probably right to think I'm fairly helpless, as my typical strategy for existing as a quasi-bachelor has been to buy a couple of extra-large pizzas at the get-go and live on cold slices, reheated coffee, sticky buns and Fresca for the duration. The delectable alternatives those nice ladies have provided are quite generous and wholly delicious. To say I'm grateful for the loving attention would be scarcely saying enough.
In truth, living by myself is a kind of an unique experience for me, in that I went directly from a childhood bedroom shared with my brother, to a series of cluttered college dorm rooms and crazy college roommates, straight into married life and the Lake Superior log cabin where I convinced my new bride to begin our adventure together over four decades ago.
So, I guess I'm probably no expert.
Yet I still feel there are a few things you gotta do to survive a solitary experience.
While the food situation has been much more than adequately covered, there are a couple of  other challenges to consider while the commander-in-chief is in the field.  Firstly, her loving kisses have been replaced by the tangy, point-blank fish breath of the bad cat Max, who believes it is now his duty to keep me from getting too lonely by standing on my chest whenever I stop moving for a minute. Either that, or he thinks I'm going to die soon and wants first dibs on my still-warm corpse. Likewise, Annie, the little white rent-a-dog I'm caring for while her owner is away has decided she might as well fill that awkward empty space in my bed, where her tendency towards sleep-growling, nocturnal ear-scratching and raucous all-night snoring drown out even the freight trains rumbling through my home town.  But hey, I can manage a little overblown pet-love, no problem.
I'm less sure about handling the housekeeping that is now my sole responsibility.
The thing is, the place was tidy when she left it, and I'm fairly determined that it be that way when she returns. As I surely don't want to clean it myself, the obvious solution to me seems to be to carefully maintain an MHF, or minimal household footprint. Now, I'd like to tell you that's a term used by sociologists and ecologists to describe a certain minimalist living condition, but actually, I just made it up. But I think it does a good job of describing the way I've attempted to exist without tracking in, dirtying a dish, messing up a bed or generating too much in the way of laundry, clutter, dustbunnies and trash.
Now, anyone can sleep on top of a neatly made bed, shed shoes before entering the house or wear the same socks fourteen days in a row. But it takes determination, skill and forethought to be virtually invisible in one's own home.  Take the whole dish-and-silverware thing, for example. Avoiding the need to actually wash them has led me to spend up to 10 minutes attempting to decide whether the fork I'm about to re-use is the one I wielded at breakfast or the one I used to divvy out dog food the night before.  A few years ago, a backyard neighbor once mentioned she saw me through the kitchen door doing dishes one day when Megan was out of town. I let her believe that, rather than dash her high opinion of me by admitting that I was simply eating over the sink in order to avoid using a plate.  On the garbage front, I noticed the guys who pick up our trash and recycling actually tossed me a cheery wave the other day when, instead of the masive piles generated over the holidays when my entire family was on deck, my refuse output was more akin to that of one of those Sierra Club-types who compostes every scrap of organic stuff and fabricates used coffee filters and leftover aluminum cans into sweaters, rugs and useful vases and bowls.
The list goes on and on, but all in all, I think I've done a pretty good job of maintaining my MHF, though I confess, despite all my efforts,  I have begun to see a few subtle signs of a need to do a few chores before her return, as the gap between her definition of clean and mine slowly widens.
Now if I can just figure out where she left the vacuum cleaner... .

Thursday, January 16, 2014

You've gotta believe

I believe in modern medicine.
I believe in the good karma that comes from the positive wishes of friends and neighbors.
And in the astonishingly generous acts of complete strangers.
I believe in the spiritual, holistic approach to healing and health held by a young practitioner who was quick to insist on more tests when early results didn't match my symptoms.
I believe most definitely in the power of prayer.
And mostly, I believe in the great-good things that happen when they all get a chance to work together.
It was just a few months ago when some mysterious pains in my back, sides and abdomen slowly led to some kind of scary conclusions.
"It's malignant."
"It has spread to your spine, liver and lymph glands."
"We don't know what kind of cancer it is."
"No cure, but we'll try to slow it down."
"Maybe not."
And so the journey began, with an aggressive combination of powerful chemotherapy and natural supplements, plus a huge dose of prayer and support.
We wondered.
We hoped.
We believed that the best approach to the whole situation was prayerful and positive.
And then we waited.
Finally, it was time to take a look. Time for a scan that would reveal if the treatment I've received over the past few months and weeks was doing anything at all to stem the growth of this still-mysterious cancer.  After my first scheduled test was cancelled due to the cold, snowy winter weather we experienced awhile back, we headed to Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital for an early morning scan before a long day of blood work, consultation and my regularly scheduled chemo session.  I doubted whether there'd be enough time to receive any results from the scan before I met with my doctor, but was glad enough to get it done without having to schedule another Chi-town visit.
We got the answer when we met with my oncologist a couple of hours later.  She is a young, positive, enthusiastic, kind person who exudes the sort of hope, spirituality, competence and confidence I want on my side. She entered the exam room, and after a minute or two of doctor-speak, she paused and interrupted herself.
"You know, let's cut to the chase here," she said. "I just saw your scans. They look great."
Tumors are shrinking. Something good is happening.
The doctor  smiled. I swallowed hard and tried to get my head around the news. And the other person in the room--the one who hopes, believes and prays the most of all--softly began to cry.
Don't get me wrong, it's far from over. It's still Stage IV cancer of an unknown origin.
And it is, as that Chicago oncologist reminds me, not going to be a dash, but a marathon.
But for now, some good news is good enough.
Quite good enough.
Because you've just gotta believe.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Baby, it's cold outside

We needed something to talk about, anyway.
After all, Christmas is over, the Bears lost to the Packers, and it's really too early to start worrying about the Cubs yet. So the dramatic blast of extra-cold, super-snowy winter weather that threatened to turn us into popsicles earlier this week provided a handy conversational topic for all of us, not to mention just about every newscaster and weather forecaster on the tube.
Suddenly, downright scary phrases like "dangerous temperatures," "life threatening wind chills"  and "historic cold" entered our vocabulary, along with an ominous new term that I--for one--had never heard before.
The Polar Vortex.
“It’s not really a phrase I like," said Todd Heitkamp, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service out in always-chilly Sioux Falls Falls, South Dakota. "It makes it sound a lot worse than what it actually is."
Well, Mr. Heitkamp, we didn't make it up. You guys did. And if you can think of something much worse than minus-40 wind chills, let me know.
I, for one, knew it was unusually cold when Max, the devil-may-care cat took one sniff of the frigid backyard air and turned tail towards the litter box we keep in the basement in case of emergencies. Ordinarily, Max makes it outdoors in any kind of weather, preferring his toilet to be private and unremarked on, while enjoying a lordly spin around his domain. LIkewise, fur-ball Annie, for whom we are currently dog-sitting, had to be bundled into one of her ensemble of fashionable dog coats, then force-marched outdoors in search of a spot out of the wind and a shallow patch of snow.
The temperatures in much of our usually comfortable home seemed more like what folks encountered before the discovery of central heating. Heck, at times, it felt like it was like living there before the discovery of fire, even. But happily, heat rises and steam travels, so our upstairs bedroom and the small sitting room next to it stayed almost sauna-like throughout the cold snap, a happy bit of circumstance for my skinny, easily chilled body, though it did seem a bit crowded when the two of us, plus the cat and dog, huddled under the same blanket.
We had travel plans on Sunday, with an important scan scheduled for me in Chicago on Monday that would tell us whether the current round of chemotherapy I'm undergoing is doing more than making me bald and queazy. But the combination of road conditions and extreme temperatures scared us off. We considered taking the train on Monday morning, but luckily decided to skip the whole thing, a decision that turned out to be brilliant when we heard about the Amtrak trains stranded between Kewanee and Chi-town.
"That could have been us," she said.
I'm glad it wasn't.
Instead, like most people, we hunkered down.
She made beef stew and biscuits. We watched the birds crowding around our feeders. I ventured out to start the car once in awhile, and we hauled the trash cans to the street in a desperate maneuver that seemed more like Admiral Peary's trek to the North Pole than a once-a-week household chore.
But mostly, we stayed in, caught up on our reading and enjoyed the happy phenomenon that allows us to enjoy long periods of time together.
Meanwhile, there are only 162 days until summer. Then we can start talking about the heat.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot

She found a picture.
It was tucked into a box sent along by my sister after our last visit to her family's home on the rugged shores of Lake Superior. It shows a little blond boy and a dark-haired man smiling at each other over a card table. Between them is a checker board.
"This is grampa," she said to a wondering grandson "And his father."
Yes. It's me and my dad, and not only do I recognize what we are doing, I know precisely when we are doing it. The card table is a dead giveaway, because, while the two of us played a lot of checkers over the years, it was only on a certain evening that we moved our game from the kitchen table to a special spot set up for us by my mother in the living room.    
New Year's Eve.
I suppose some folks made a little more out of a big night like New Year's, but around my house, it was a time for a few snacks, ginger ale, a hot game of checkers and a few pots and pans to bang on come midnight.
And like the entire holiday season, it was a time for memories.
It still is.
It’s hard to imagine something more wonderful than having children and grandchildren home at Christmastime. We know that it might not always be that way, as jobs, schedules, commitments, distance and weather all play a part in making it tough for us to get our wish every year. So when we do, we know enough to appreciate what we've got. We smile and sing and laugh and talk and simply glow at the sight of grandchildren filling our pew at Christmas Eve Mass, at the sound of stories at bedtime, at the sight of their faces around our table. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she looked at me in surprise.
“I’ve already got the only present I want,” she said.
I know what she means.
And when the house finally grows quiet, we sit and dream and smile and remember. We think of the golden days just past, and gather memories from years gone by. I look at that old picure. I remember. And I smile.
I'm betting he let me win.