A Little Help From My Friends

Along the trail of debris that constitutes one’s life, all our experiences, we’ll come across decisions we’ve made, good and bad, and the resulting pain to accompany the lapses in judgement. Standing out in the debris field are those nagging memories, the I-told-you-so’s when friends, masquerading as sage mentors, offered their unsolicited advice. We never appreciate wisdom when it’s offered. I know. I have given advice to people, sometimes in an earnest effort to ease any suffering, believing I possess some knowledge earned through rites of passage and the Royal College of Hard Truths. People who have reached my age often deem ourselves to be imbued with this knowledge, or at least we feel we are entitled to telling younger people how wrong they are, and that we are confident we know better.

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“Sergeant Pepper’s” photo session, 1967

The truth is many people, no matter their age, are no better at giving advice than anyone else. I cannot confidently offer lessons on life, mainly because even though I have made colossal mistakes, I can’t be sure I have truly learned from them. And I can’t be sure that my closest friends’ advice has always been the best. On occasion I have received helpful teachings, lessons in life that made a huge difference, fortunate that I accepted. Naturally, I missed some points, and continued to make errors until I figured things out on my own. This was a stupendous waste of time, as you might deduce. If I had listened to advice and really lived by such wisdom, I might be better off, not that I suffer now. But I wonder if I’ve missed out. What if there’s some guidance I’ve been denied just because I wasn’t there to receive it?

I suppose this is another aspect of the human condition we must accept as the cost of doing business. Of course, just because no one ever cautioned me on the dangers of hitchhiking doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a bad idea. (It should be noted that at one time this wasn’t considered dangerous). Also, growing up in the 20th century, I was surrounded by smokers. But I don’t smoke, not because of the prevailing wisdom at the time, but because I never saw the appeal. I think by the 1970s it was kind of obvious that it was unhealthy. No one ever said, “don’t smoke, kid,” but they didn’t have to, despite Joe Camel looking so damned cool.

I’m a bit of a contradiction. Later this month, my wife and I will celebrate our 27th anniversary. But I have been a supporter of arranged marriages. I have my reasons. But that practice flies in the face of the whirlwind we experienced falling in love and deciding to get married. The thing is, however, a marriage isn’t about the couple. It involves a large number of people, not the least of whom are the parents. Nearly 30 years later, the main source of conflict is our families. Therefore I never give advice on marriage. It worked for us. That’s all I know.

I sometimes wish I could be source of wisdom, but there’s a down side to that. People would keep coming to me for advice on everything, from whom to marry to what career to follow. I’m no expert, and few of us are. Even the most successful people in their fields know that their successes are unique and might not be the same for everyone. Just because something worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for the next person. I think what we ought to do is look within ourselves for wisdom. If we have doubts, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with not being 100 percent sure about a decision. But do ask for help if you need it. Otherwise, I believe most of us are capable of making our minds up for ourselves. Sometimes we might be okay even going against advice. That’s the beauty of experience: it’s your life, and you can live it the way you want, even with the inevitable consequences, whatever those may be.

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I am Scrooge (or at Least I Want to Be)

If you are familiar with the short novel by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, you know of the book’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is, at first appearance, a surly, disagreeable, decrepit miser. We can all concur, based on Dickens’ depiction of the old curmudgeon; he hates Christmas; he hates people. He is full of self-loathing, and we soon discover what likely led to his complete misery as he is visited by various spirits through the night before Christmas.

Illustration by John Leech

That’s at least what we think we know, based on all the movies we’ve seen over the decades. Or perhaps you did read the original, like I did years ago. I read it again recently, recalling some of the forgotten passages, or maybe I never really read it before. For instance, I didn’t remember all the details about Jacob Marley’s ghost, how Dickens described every detail, the long iron chains he dragged behind him (all his sins, I suppose), or the way he kept his jaw shut with a tied handkerchief (if you were born in the 21st century, ask your parents or grandparents about handkerchiefs).

Marley’s ghost, who was really one among hundreds or thousands roaming the streets on Christmas eve, tormented in death by their inability to do anything to help the poor and suffering, having squandered their opportunity to do so in life. Dickens delivers his message a little heavy handed, per his style to put a bright spotlight on things we would rather not see or visit. There was a great divide between rich and poor in his time, and we might very well see it again in our lifetimes. Who will be the 21st century’s Charles Dickens?

As I’ve mentioned before, movies don’t come close to telling the stories of the works that inspired them. I’ve seen many depictions of this classic, and none of them mention the Ghost of Christmas Past being dispatched by Scrooge himself, after he had had enough. That first ghost reminded him of such loss that Scrooge was almost immediately repentant and reformed during that initial visit. But it wasn’t complete. The 2nd visit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, took Scrooge on a journey across space and time, visiting not only Bob Cratchit’s meager celebration of goose and boiled potatoes, to a humble gathering of miners, a few huddled lighthouse operators, and some shipmates being tossed on the sea, all managing to celebrate Christmas in their little way. They visited other countries, too, and eventually saw children during their 12th Night celebration (on 5 January, according to the English tradition). It seems this “night” lasted nearly 2 weeks when you do the math. The Ghost of Christmas Present was a giant figure, and first appeared to Scrooge reclining on a sort of couch made of piles of meats and fruits, all piled up, along with a huge fire in the fireplace, vats of wine, greenery, and just an absurd abundance. It made my mouth water reading about it. The Ghost’s companions, two sickly and pale youths representing Ignorance and Want, really stood in alarming, unpleasant contrast to his bombastic jubilant appearance. What a complicated and elaborate scene!

Finally, Scrooge was confronted with his own mortality, and Dickens really pours on the righteous indignation of grifters and con artists here. We overhear conversations between people who profit from Scrooge’s death, which we see clearly, but he is unaware. Eventually, Scrooge learns that he is the unloved, a life uncelebrated. Thieves take the clothes off his dead body, believing his shirt has more value than his life had ever amounted to. Pitiful. No film ever depicted this. Dickens loved to bring us into these dark places, where spirits are haunted by the deeds they missed and the situations where they have no power to affect. Needless to say, his proselytizing seemed to work. Scrooge sees the light, and is reformed. Some people are skeptical that someone could make such a dramatic transformation overnight. But they aren’t aware that his journey took some time, at least from his point of view. When Scrooge finds himself back in his own bed, he is surprised to find it is Christmas Day. He even remarks to himself that the Spirits were able to do things with time that he couldn’t explain. He reconciles with his nephew, sends Cratchit a humongous turkey, gives him a raise, and ends up turning his own life around completely. He becomes a champion of Christmas, quite a turn-around from the Scrooge we first met.

As Dickens points out, anyone of us is capable of going from one end of the spectrum to the other, as did Scrooge. Being a Scrooge is not quite the insult we might have associated to his name, because when it came down to it, he made up for all the years he scorned everyone, even his own family. I should be so gracious. I’ve steered clear of some of my family, mainly because they always want to bring up politics when we’re together, and they assume I’m of like mind. So I just avoid them. Humbug! But I could make things better. I could bring people joy, like Scrooge did in the end. I could just show up and tell stupid jokes and sing songs and play games with everyone. Maybe I can just bring a little cheer into their lives. I wonder if they’d let me. Scrooge’s nephew and niece were glad to see him, in spite of the scorn he heaped upon them over the years. Maybe I could be like Scrooge.

I want to be Scrooge. He turned out okay, better than Marley. Marley would be pleased if he would just stop rattling those chains for a minute so he could hear what ever happened to his old friend. Well, peace be with us, the living. And Merry Christmas!

Feeling Small, or not Feeling, or Feeling Insignificant – What I’m Trying to Say…

Have you ever heard someone talk about how insignificant they feel looking up at the multitude of stars in the night sky? Living close to a major metropolis – comparatively speaking – I don’t see many stars when I look up in my backyard. I have to travel for hours to find someplace bereft of light pollution. West Texas is a popular place for star gazing, and therein lies the irony; you won’t find a dark site if too many people know about it. A couple weeks ago I went camping with some friends near Possum Kingdom Lake, 167 km west of Fort Worth. The sky was clear, and the temperature was around -4 C, but we were excited to be able to see the Orion Nebula through a telescope. Looking up, it took a minute for us to get our bearings because even though the familiar stars were clearly visible, so too were the myriad of unfamiliar celestial bodies now in our view.

If there is anything that makes me feel like I am insignificant it would be the realization that many, many people came before me, and I am the culmination of generations of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types, the tireless builders of our republic. I am a direct descendant of someone who fought in two important battles during the American Revolutionary War. He not only survived the battles, but he would later resettle in Texas and lived to be over 100 years old! Meanwhile, here I am, wondering about what it all means.

Another thing that makes me feel less important in the grand scheme of things is that I am not really contributing to society in a measurable way. Yes, I work and pay taxes. I vote. I think many of the forgotten people in history were like me, and that’s pretty depressing. When I think about all the millions of people who are no more than faces in old photographs, I cannot help but feel like there is something I need to be doing with my life. The same could be said for my generation. We don’t have an Andy Warhol or a Brian May. My generation produced Adam Sandler and David Spade. Actually, I shouldn’t complain, but I can and I will. The thing is, I loved Tommy Boy and Happy Gilmore. Anyway, I live in this age where all the information the world has ever produced and retained, and it is essentially available at all hours, instantly on my desktop and my mobile device; all the information, fact and opinion, and lunacy.

Human beings have existed for a comparatively minuscule portion of earth’s timeline. But in the relatively brief time we have been here we have made important advances. We have redirected rivers, connected all points on earth, and reached beyond our solar system. We might eventually make contact with other civilizations, but the vast distances between stars and planets makes it unlikely any one person could ever live long enough to travel to another habitable world. I personally don’t believe we are alone in the universe, but a civilization can be born, thrive, and vanish before anything may be heard from them. What if that should happen to us? What of Euripides, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart? The works of Hokusai, gone. Puccini, wiped from existence.

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When I get to work Monday I’ll have to put my own feelings of insignificance aside so I can be productive. It’s my small part as a cog in the awesome mechanism of our information age. Many others like me work to keep the lights on and keep this country moving. Maybe we won’t be remembered in the grand scheme of things, much less in the enormity of our lasting yet temporary civilization, but here I write, while others paint. Still others make music and write plays. Skyscrapers and monuments are constructed to inspire us and remind us of the achievements of our predecessors. These things are here today for us to see and hear and experience now. The most influential and significant remnants of our existence will be our artistic endeavors. The great Pyramid of Giza is the only remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But no one knows the names of the builders. Who am I? I haven’t put my hands on a single thing that will last for thousands of years beyond my lifetime. What can I do that would make me feel significant?

Indeed, what will remain of humanity when the pyramids are dust?

Giving Thanks

What am I thankful for? I might complain about my petty, first-world problems, like when my internet connection is slow, or how long it takes for my washing machine to wash clothes (my great-great grandpa would be astounded). But I have a lot to be thankful for, and it shouldn’t be simply an annual exercise to express one’s gratefulness. Nevertheless, I would like to do that now.

I am thankful for the wretched excesses I have within my reach, and I have limits to my ability to get whatever I want. I’m thankful that my life is so easy; I eat everyday; I can find food without hunting it down, but I can hunt if I wish, provided I pay for a license. I am grateful for the freedom I have to say and write anything I want, even in criticism of our leaders, which is punishable in some of the countries we support.

I am free to worship the way I want, or to renounce my faith, if were so inclined. I’m thankful for the many liberties afforded me. I am also thankful that I have family and friends who support me, even though I am an insufferable asshole.

I’m thankful for the dirty dishes, for they are evidence that I am well fed.

I am grateful for my wonderful wife, who loves me, supports my every whim, and argues with me; and even goes tent camping with me! (I think she would prefer we live in a rustic log cabin in the woods, off-grid and fairly isolated.)

I give thanks for my health, which could improve. I’m a work in progress.

I’m thankful that there are people in my life who not only tolerate me, but they encourage me and seem to be forgiving. It’s not as if I have transgressed to great extent. But I am a self-conscious individual, and it helps to know that people don’t hold grudges, or that they don’t tell me if they do. Whatever.

I am grateful for my sense of humor. Not everyone gets my jokes. But I get theirs.

And I’m thankful for today. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. Neither does yesterday, for that matter. Now is the only reality, and I am grateful for that. This is by no means the end of my list of things to be thankful for, but I have a lot to do in the kitchen, and I’ll continue reflecting on this as I’m chopping and dicing and sautéing.

Cheers!freedom-from-want_3_5

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.

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.