Operation Gastric Disquietude

I don’t write about politics here; I mean, I made an attempt once, but I quickly recognized that this was not the forum to get mired in the us-vs-them arguments we find ourselves constantly faced with. Political discussions will always be off-putting to one side or the other, and many issues are very polarizing: immigration, healthcare, taxes, and gun control/rights. Just mentioning these topics gives me an uneasy feeling where I feel my jaw tightening and my breathing becomes shallow. Many people even claim to have what therapists are calling “Trump Anxiety“.

In a few weeks this country will be holding elections where every US Representative and about 1/3 of the US Senate will be asking for our votes. Historically, turnout for mid-term elections has been relatively low. But in our current political climate, voter enthusiasm is expected to be quite high. Many states allow early voting, which will allow voters to go to the polls while avoiding the potentially long lines expected on the 6th of November. Democrats are hoping for a “blue wave”, possibly gaining a majority in the House. The Senate is much closer, but anything can happen in this final stretch.

Back and forth we go. One party will gain control of one or both houses of the Congress. Currently, the Republicans are in control of most branches of the Federal government. In another two years, the US will see the presidential election of 2020, and I promise you it will be a total shit show. (I stopped in the middle here and just watched the video for a while; it was easier to watch than the news.) The pendulum will swing a little to the left I predict. Then it will either keep swinging in that direction or it will swing back to the right in 2020. Either way, it is bound to swing in the opposite direction eventually. And so it goes.

I still vote as often as I care to, although I don’t totally agree with George Carlin about why he didn’t vote; but I do believe there is a lot more going on than we citizens dare to know. In the long term, our culture will change by small increments. Some change happens in dramatic fashion, but it is often argued that the change didn’t happen fast enough. Street signs and monuments are altered or removed. Sports teams might be next; the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins to name a couple. Years from now we will look back at the hear and now and judge it with the benefit of hindsight. We’ll say, “I can’t believe people believed they were right.” Maybe we will all benefit from this. People who were opposed to desegregation kind of faded, but there is still rampant bigotry in this country, and around the world.

A lot of money is spent constantly on election campaigns. The US Senate race in Texas has seen tens of millions of dollars in fundraising. A lot of that money will be spent on TV and online ads. Many people already made their minds up after the 2016 presidential election, but there are always the undecideds, those who may not even be motivated to vote, especially in the mid-terms.

I’m reminded about the pirate ship ride you see at theme parks and state fairs. The ship swings back and forth (or is it to and fro?), swinging higher and higher with each period of the pendulum. I’m kind of sick just thinking about it, and I have to wonder what good can come from all the money and the political ads and the shouting matches on TV. This is why I just don’t bother talking about it. I don’t think that would help. I’m more interested in making life better for other people, as much as I am able, that Green Day video notwithstanding. I’m going to take some Alka Seltzer.

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Perceived Isolation

I switched mobile carriers and platforms this week. My timing was off; and, as a result, I have had 48 hours without a working mobile phone. This troubles me, not because I feel a profound sense of isolation from my contacts and the world. In reality, I am not disconnected. And seclusion is not a loathsome condition for me anyway. I rather enjoy camping out in the Smoky Mountains, where you would be hard pressed to obtain a wireless signal. No, my dilemma has been that I have a nauseating sense that people have been desperately trying to reach me at my old number. (I relinquished that number deliberately for a number of reasons; more on that later.)

Part of my problem is that I paid for express delivery, and, naturally, the shipment has been delayed. I did visit a brick-and-mortar shop, but the staff were not competent, or they were condescending, or I’ll come up with some other not-my-fault reason why I didn’t stick around. Chalk it up to low blood glucose. In any case, I stand by my decision to order things online. My unlocked phone arrived sooner than expected, so at least I was able to configure some settings and download apps in preparation.

Now, I realize I sound like someone for whom this handy little bit of technology has become a necessity. I freely admit that I carry the devilish little microcomputer with me everywhere. I find myself looking up obscure or inconsequential data, like the fact that Nick Offerman and Megan Mallally (Ron Swanson and Tammy II) are real-life husband and wife. Going without the portal to all the world’s knowledge in my pocket has made me feel oddly out-of-commission, but mainly due to the feeling that people have been unable to reach me. I imagine there have been group conversations, where someone keeps asking for me to respond.

I admit to my self-conscious, perhaps egocentric, attitude. In reality there should be a world in which any one of us could be out of reach for a weekend. I remember the ’90s, when this was the norm. Not many of us had mobile phones back then. We didn’t have the possibility of staying connected beyond our immediate companionship. But I’m not going to make this a rant about how things were “back in my day”. There are plenty of posts from people of every generation bemoaning the loss of their youth and complaining about the youth of today, about how we or they take everything for granted. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Monday may be back to normal. But I’m reminded of where we are as a culture, dependent on mobile technology, where even going to the movies requires an app. I wonder where we’re headed. A few TV programs like Black Mirror and The Orville have showed us one version of the future. I think it’s possible we might be making a move toward society where public opinion can overrule truth. We’re already seeing this. Facts are valued less than emotions. Opinion is presented as fact. I’m not worried because every generation has witnessed what they perceive as a decline of civilization. First it was a proliferation of contractions in our language. What’s next?

Everything will change. Even the things that seem to be constant have changed. For example, currency has been with us since the beginning. Crypto-currency, however, is revolutionizing how we think about money. Someday, perhaps gene therapy may replace our current methods of fighting diseases, but we will always have disease. Having mobile internet is so commonplace now. I wonder what will change as a result of generations of people being accustomed to the wealth of knowledge. We’re always ready to record events and non-events. We can produce movies with smartphones. And a lot of this has all happened within a lifetime.

As for me, I’m hardly secluded. Even without my mobile, I am excessively connected. But this brief hiatus has reminded me that human interaction is fundamental to our society. I’ve come to cherish my local board game dinner group. Four to six people sitting around a table, sharing a meal and playing Pandemic or Tribune or Bootleggers (one of my favorites). If you prefer keeping to yourself, reading or doing a little writing is a great way to pass the time without being “connected” (although I feel like I’m transported when I read.)

My anxiety is mounting, and I think it’s mainly because I am disconnected in a perpetually connected world. My friends and family members might be freaking out now. Possibly my employer is wondering about me. No emails today, so probably everything is okay. And today is Sunday. I’ll find out soon enough when I reconnect with my people and provide my new number. Some apologies will be made, and things will be back to their 21st century state of normalcy. For now, it’s a little weird.

Did You Really Try?

Yesterday I received an e-mail with the subject, “trying to reach you,” which is funny when you examine it; because, as made evident by the fact that I received it, the sender of the e-mail was successful. The person who wanted to reach me in fact did. What they might have said is, “I am reaching out to you,” or “I hope this reaches you.” When someone says, “I tried,” I wonder if they actually made any effort. I don’t wish to sound like a total fan-boy, but in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker, “Do or do not; there is no ‘try’“.

His point is that if you want to accomplish something, you should do what you can to achieve your goal. If you decide you want to learn to play the guitar, for example, you can “try”, which is what people say when they were unsuccessful after making feeble attempts. Or you can take lessons, purchase instructional material, and watch videos. We use the word “try” way to often. I can’t count the number of times when someone said, “I tried calling you, but…” I would then look at my phone, not seeing where that person actually left a message or even dialed my number. “Tried” to call? How about you failed to call me? Or you intended to call, but you either forgot or you couldn’t trouble yourself? You can see that I am slightly miffed. It’s like the sender of the e-mail, who said he was trying to reach me. Reach me you did, as Yoda would say.

Maybe we should work on getting rid of this word altogether. Let’s not try anything; instead, we can start things. We can say, “I’ve started to lose weight,” or, “I was almost successful in completing all my tasks.” I think we do not want to admit failure. We say, “I tried calling you,” when we know we didn’t actually pick up the phone. What we cannot admit to ourselves or to others is that we failed. We failed to make time. We failed to be disciplined. We failed to set goals. It happens. I get it. But let’s not make excuses. Let’s stop saying we tried.

I catch myself saying it all the time. The other day, I heard myself say, “I’m trying to get all this done.” What I meant to say was that I was overworked and feeling frustrated about it. I had a lot of work piling up, more than I could possibly do in the time allotted. What I should have said might have been, “I am doing what I can do.” Still, that does sound a little frustrated. But that’s understandable. Trying is nothing. I didn’t try to make breakfast. I made breakfast. Success. On the other hand, I didn’t try to learn to play the saxophone when I was in college; I failed at learning the sax. And I mean I didn’t really work at it that much. In other words, I didn’t try.

In sports, particularly American football, we hear the word “attempt”, which is another word for try. You’ll hear the announcer saying something about a 40-yard attempt, for instance. The kicker will line up and, in most cases, kick the ball through the uprights. Really there are two possible outcomes: either the kick will be good or it will be bad. Perhaps there is another outcome: the kicker might miss the ball entirely. Tony Romo didn’t try to hold the ball for the kicker. No, he failed to hold the ball. Oftentimes, the parlance of the game gives the impression that there’s something more going on. This was a field goal attempt. There’s a lot riding on this moment!

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Let’s stop trying. Let’s strike that word from the English language. That is easier said than done, I know. I still find myself saying it everywhere. I’ll try to get more sleep. I’ll try to call my brother. I’ll try to get more done. I think I have been habitually making excuses my whole life. I didn’t really try to do those things until I really worked at it. I never tried to have breakfast everyday. Then one day we started the tradition, and now, years later, we have breakfast together every morning. There was no try. There is only do. Thanks, Yoda.

You’re Doing it Wrong

I do a lot of things; singing, photography, cooking, making a spectacle of myself. But I make my living in technology, specifically the software side of it; however, I have helped out in other areas like networking and systems. Non-technical people just accept it when I tell them I work with computers. Then they ask me to fix theirs. That’s fair, I suppose. I sometimes get a nice meal out of it.

internet screen security protection
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Being asked to poke around in somebody else’s computer feels like going through their sock drawer; it’s more revealing than you might think. My friend’s grandmother invited me to come over to fix her home computer. Her other grandkids also used it, and it was almost completely unusable, riddled with malware and viruses. I knew from some of the spyware and adware on this machine that the grandchildren were up to no good. Some sites are like visiting a toxic waste dump. You come out of there with a lot of stuff on you, and it takes some effort to clean up. I spent about two hours cleaning up this computer. I installed a free pop-up blocker, as well as some anti-virus software and something to block spyware. I told the lady she should keep on eye on her grandkids.

That was a while ago. Many people are more savvy about the internet these days, or at least they listen to the stories and take some precautions. Still, I am confident that most people don’t know how vulnerable they really are. If you are cautious, maybe even a little paranoid, that can work in your favor. Being skeptical of whether a website is legit is at least the first step in protecting your self. It’s like knowing that taking a shortcut through a dark alley isn’t safe. It only takes one incident to teach a very valuable lesson. In the meantime, hackers and spammers are working just as hard, or harder, to break into systems and steal information. Big companies get attacked all the time, and they have to employ teams of experts – some ex-hackers – to stay one step ahead of them.

One simple way you can protect yourself is to choose strong passwords and change them periodically. That’s easier said than done, I know. There are several good password managers out there. They are trustworthy and secure. The idea is to keep all your passwords in a sort of vault or safe. The benefit is that you don’t have to write down any passwords, and you can have the password manager (PM) generate a complex password for you. Secondly, the PM program validates the site you are connecting to, keeping you safer from phishing and pharming attempts. When you log onto a website, the PM assures you that it is the correct one.

On the subject of secure passwords, security specialists have recommended passphrases as an alternative to randomly generated passwords. There is some debate around whether one is better than the other. In my experience, anything longer than 10 characters and containing some numbers and upper- and lower-case is secure enough to last a few months. I usually go with 21 to 25 characters, no special symbols, and 2 or 3 digits. How secure is your password? Here’s a variation of a password I no longer use: doorbell887Agitate. I entered this in the above link to check how secure it is. It was rated as “very strong”, with one suggestion to add a special character, and we know how I feel about that. On Howsecureismypassword.net the estimated time a computer needs to crack this password is 145 trillion years. I feel better. I’m changing my password again in a month anyway.

I’ve worked in offices where people wrote their password on a post-it note and kept it under their keyboard. Others used variations of the word password (Password1 is very popular). This is probably the worst idea ever, and I want people to know. The thing is, I am guilty of being stupid. Years ago, I did these idiotic things, and someone scolded me, and now I know better. People are stupid. We walk around thinking we’re doing the right thing when it came to outsmarting the bad guys, when all along we were playing right into their hands. Thieves are working hard on ways to break in. Sometimes we make it very easy for them.

So lock your front door, unless you live in a utopian wonderland. Lock your car or keep it in the garage. Don’t leave valuable items in sight where someone could be tempted to break a window and take them. And don’t leave your personal information where anyone could just snap a picture – everyone has a camera these days. Lately, I’ve been using only cash, lest my card gets skimmed. It’s a constant struggle. Stay safe. Be alert.

The Way Back

I just finished watching The Village, which is a film written and directed by M. Knight Shyamalan, who also wrote and directed The Sixth Sense. The Village is one of my favorite films, and I will most likely watch it many times in the future, even though I know how it ends. Actually, if you’ve seen it (please, no spoilers), no one really knows how it ends. The setting is a very small town, or village – shall I write about the nomenclature of civilization? – somewhere in North America. The fact that there is no one of color in the village tells us it is a little out of place, but somewhere in the late 19th century is about right. It is a scene of idyllic and pastoral bliss, with a conspicuous absence of religion (actually I wanted to mention the Quakers here, but I really need to learn more about it.)

Took 10 months to solve! Sandymount Castle, Dublin.

The ideals pursued in this place are those of bold honesty (and yet there is a mystery – that of which we do not speak) plus the virtue of hard work, and for some reason everyone speaks very proper American English. Children play outside, and there is no electricity; there are no phones, and no roads. Villagers walk everywhere, and everyone knows everyone else. It is an extremely tight-knit community. Oh, and there are some spooky woods on the edge of the cove, and no one is allowed in them (cue the bone-chilling howl).

We love romanticizing the “good old days” if that ever existed. We look at old, B&W photos of very severe looking people wearing wool suits, and we imagine that those were simpler times, where life was a little slower, and people took their time to appreciate and savor the good things in life. We like to think there was less to worry about, but in reality, infant mortality was higher, and antibiotics hadn’t been invented, so a simple cut could kill you.

I was talking to someone clearly born in the 21st century, and I mentioned how you can’t pick up any signals (mobile) in dense forests and near mountains. Appalachia is one such place. The young person seemed horrified at the prospect of being cut off from the rest of the world. I wanted to inform her that there was a time not so long ago that no one had mobile devices, and you really were “cut off” when you left home for any length of time. I didn’t bother; she could always just watch Cheers or any other show made prior to 1994. Pay phones were everywhere, but we didn’t have to check in all the time. No one could reach you when you went out with your friends, and that was just fine. Good old days, indeed.

On the other hand, if I wanted to take a picture of something, I needed to carry a camera with me, and I had to send the film off to be developed to see how the pictures turned out. We carried “wallet sized” photos of our moms or girlfriends. I can’t remember when that stopped being a thing. It seems some things from the past weren’t all that great. When I took a trip I had to carry a map with me in case I got lost. Stopping to ask for directions was unthinkable. You always had a couple of dollars worth of quarters so you could make a call, or wash some clothes. Oh, and email was really new, and not everyone had an email address, so sending letters and cards was still in practice.

I wonder sometimes about how this life in the early 21st century might seem quaint and old-fashioned someday. It makes me a little uncomfortable to think what kind of world that will be that this is the “good old days”. I mean, right now there is a robotic pressure cooker in my kitchen, and it’s going to make me breakfast in about 5 hours (I’m a night-owl, something of a luxury for 19th-century people.) This quaint time period, where people have to hold their phones to take a selfie, or where we still use the drive-thru at Starbucks, are going to be such antiquated notions someday. The robotic assembly line, proton therapy, virtual-reality MMORPG’s, and so much of what we consider ultra-modern may seem passé in our lifetimes. And yet, we still use internal combustion to power our cars (maybe that’s on its way out, too), and we still have incandescent lamps, both more than 100-year-old technology.

After watching the movie tonight, I really sympathized with the townsfolk. I want a piece of that life, sometimes. Other times, I like being able to access all the information the world has ever known from right here in my kitchen. I suppose you can’t have it both ways, not all the time. That’s why I love places like Appalachia and the wilderness of Utah. I know I would want to live there. But I love the solitude and the peace, and then I love the city life when I return to it. If I could visit the 20th century for a week, would I wish to return to my own time, or would I want to stay where I left my twenty-year-old self? Well, since time travel isn’t going to happen, I guess I’ll never have the answer to that question.

 

Customer Care

When I was younger I and I first heard someone say, “the customer is always right,” I was sure that wasn’t true. How could someone always be right? Didn’t people sometimes make mistakes? Later I realized what this phrase meant. And now I know that was never true to begin with.
Customer

The relationship between the merchant and the customer is based on the transaction. Someone has something to sell, and someone may or may not want to purchase it. In the US, most people buy the things they need or want without haggling over price, and taxes are not included. Other countries have different customs, but it’s basically the same all around the world. In my neighborhood there are gas (petrol) stations across the street from one another. When one station lowers its price, the one across the street does the same. It’s a weird little ballet, but it keeps the gears of commerce from rusting over. (By the way, ever wonder why is petrol sold by the tenth of a penny?)

Anyone who has worked in retail can tell you horror stories about customers from hell. There’s always one. How can the customer be right and be so wrong? Well, customers are human beings, and people have good days and bad days. Sometimes the customer is wrong. Also, often the company is also wrong.

Complaints about Youtube demonetizing content may reveal how imperfect some companies can be. In my own personal experience, I can no longer access my own Flickr photo stream. It’s probably for best anyway, since most of my older work is shit. But I have not been able to log in. Maybe I should just shift my work over to Instagram.

It appears that there are flaws throughout our economic system. Capitalism isn’t perfect, but neither are any of the other systems. In ancient times, before the invention of currency, people traded, bartered. But we don’t make things anymore. I don’t produce anything people generally want. I can bake bread, but I don’t usually, because I can get it cheap. I don’t make soap for the same reason. But if the economy collapsed, money would be meaningless, like in Venezuela. People there are stockpiling things like sugar to use as currency. Certain trades would be valuable, like welding or carpentry. Some skills that are valuable today might become obsolete (taxi!)

But today, and for the foreseeable future, people in many countries are going to buy things using some form of currency, cash, plastic, Google Pay. I’ll go shopping tomorrow, and I won’t haggle over the price of anything. That’s just not done here. I probably won’t even pay attention to where my tomatoes are coming from, or whether the coffee I buy is fair trade. And since I stopped caring, companies probably stopped caring, too. But there are some that care about the customer and about the producer and the environment. Fair trade chocolate is expensive and doesn’t taste better. In truth, the growers probably don’t see any benefits. The customer is probably wrong, and most likely ignorant. But we’re happy as long as we get what we want for the lowest price.

Rhymes with Orange

I think a lot of us are searching for meaning, in the things we do or say, how we treat one another and ourselves, what we are becoming, and where we feel we are meant to be. Practically everyone of us has asked ourselves at some point, “what am I supposed to be doing with my life?”

A big part of the answer is what opportunities are available; not everyone can change their circumstances. Of course, there have been exceptions, notable ones, where someone rose from a desperate situation to achieve great wealth and financial success. Most of them would tell you they worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity. Of course, these rags-to-riches stories sometimes also involve some luck, a wild coincidence or an occurrence of fate that makes all the difference.

Calder Hart Paper Airplane
“Mountains and Clouds” Calder sculpture in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC

There have been about 1,300 individuals who have served in the US Senate since 1789. It goes without saying that this is a very exclusive club. I’ve met one former US Senator, David L. Boren. If you have ever hiked in or near Beavers Bend State Park in Oklahoma, this name may be familiar, as he has a trail system named for him. I’d say he’s built up quite a legacy. When I introduced myself and shook his hand, I got the feeling that he would never remember me. Politicians really do shake a lot of hands and meet a lot of people. Having never lived in Oklahoma, I would not have voted for him. I did not attend Oklahoma University, where he is soon retiring as president. No, it was just me, private citizen, plebeian, among the dwindling middle class in America.

 

Paper Airplane on Calder
Closeup of the Calder sculpture showing the paper airplane

 

I’ve often pondered my situation. Sure, I graduated from college, but I wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar. Okay. I have a lot of friends (real friends, not Facebook friends). But I don’t have constituents. Rather than counting this as an us-versus-them soliloquy, and avoiding any references to Nietzsche about our place in the universe, let me simply say we each have our own unique purpose. I don’t mean to suggest we are driven by fate, that all our lives are predetermined and therefore meaningless. I won’t go into my particular, weird theology, and how I arrived at it. That’s for another time. I do, however, believe we all have a purpose. Finding that should be a person’s mission, that is until one’s purpose is identified, then that is the primary mission.

I have avoided politics, for the most part. I have considered taking part in city government in some capacity. But I have no aspirations of running for national office. (I honestly don’t understand why anyone would want to become president of the US.) But even if I had, I imagine I might use my office to further my mission. What is that, you may be asking. What is my purpose? For me it is simple, yet nearly impossible: my purpose is to ease people’s suffering. (I’ve written about it before). Not everyone will have the same realization. Someone else’s purpose might be to make great films for the pleasure of the masses. Someone else might be a match-maker. Still another person’s purpose might be to raise a large family. It will be different for everyone. It’s unique to everyone, like a fingerprint.

It is comforting knowing that I’m different from everyone else. I’m okay with where I am in my life. I’m not going to be a US senator. I may never be famous. Historians will find this blog and come to misguided conclusions about my culture and my generation. I’m proud that I was in a large stage band back in the 1980’s. I’m glad I finally saw the Grand Canyon. I hope to see the first human set foot on Mars, and I hope it’s a woman. And I’m okay that there are questions that will never be answered, at least in my lifetime. In the meantime, I hope I can fulfill my purpose, as far as I have understood it to be at this point in my life.