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.

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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.

 

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.

 

At What Cost?

I believe you get what you pay for. Case in point: I have a pair of shoes I purchased in 2004, Rockports, and they’re in pretty good condition. Now, sometimes you might get a bad specimen, but for the most part, I’ve been pleased with this brand. I do not recommend buying shoes at Walmart. You will pay significantly less, but the quality is so bad, the shoes will only last about three months. The same could be said for almost anything.

In 1993, I bought a large frying pan, Revere with a copper sandwich plate on the bottom for heat distribution and to help the pan retain its shape. It was my go-to pan for decades. Then, a couple years ago, the welds holding the handle started coming loose. Eventually, the handle broke off completely, and the pan was rendered useless (at least for my purposes). I suppose I could have taken it to a metal shop to have the handle reattached. But I had the thing for nearly 25 years. The cost of the repair would far outweigh the benefits. Besides, a new pan with more modern materials and better construction was on sale, and I couldn’t resist.

But repairing that old beat-up frying pan could have helped someone other than myself. A local artisan might have appreciated the business. I’m sure $50 or thereabouts might not have made a difference in the local economy. But what if everyone went with a similar alternative every once in a while?

Ouch!

Sometimes you really have to spend the money. One of my lenses was almost destroyed when it fell out of my camera bag about five years ago. Thankfully, I had spent about $30 for a protective filter, seen above. The filter took the brunt of the impact and was completely smashed, beyond repair. But I was grateful my lens was undamaged (visibly). It still works just fine. I later purchased another protective filter. It’s like paying for insurance. You hope you will never need to use it, but shit happens.

Back to the shoes. Another pair of Rockports hasn’t held up as well as the first. Actually, I wear them all the time. They’re perfect for work, and they’re also good all-around shoes for any occasion. Unfortunately, the uppers have torn away from the sole, and my initial thought was that I needed to replace them. I did, with a pair in brown, which I wanted anyway. But I hesitate to throw out the now defunct pair. My thoughts went to finding a cobbler in my city. Surely I could find someone who specializes in shoe repair. Surprisingly, there aren’t as many as you would expect. I guess part of the problem is we tend to throw away things that have lost their usefulness. That’s unfortunate.

I make attempts to reuse things, or at least I make the things I have last longer by protecting and maintaining them. I still have cookware I purchased in 1991, when my wife and I first moved in together. We also still have the plates, cups, and bowls we started out with. They’re decent dishes. One reason we hang onto them is also their sentimental value, I admit. But why get rid of them? They’re quite functional, and they serve a purpose.

I think I’ll call a couple shoe repair shops in the morning. I’d like to know how much it would cost to fix those shoes. I’m curious if it might be more expensive than buying a new pair. But what if it’s about the same cost? My shoes would be as good as new, and I could support a local business in the process. It seems like a win-win. If it turns out to be more costly to repair them, I’ll consider that, but I might just spend the money anyway. What could it hurt?

 

Playing it Safe

I take up space. I sit at a desk most of my life with two zero-bezel high-def monitors blasting artificial light in my face, meanwhile sitting underneath a battery of fluorescent lights and the constant din of office chatter, mobile devices and white noise produced by climate control. An utterly gray existence. Actually, gray is somewhat pleasant. My life is more beige.

But, I love hiking and camping; I may have mentioned it before. I’m very fortunate that my wife loves the outdoors. We’ve been on many hikes together, from Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to Hickory Nut Falls in North Carolina. She loves waterfalls, and she’s kind of particular about them. For instance, at Hickory Nut Falls, she loved the mists created by water cascading down a nearly 200 meter cliff, creating a unique ecosystem where ferns and other plants clung to the rocks in the perpetual spray of the falls. Abrams Falls near Cades Cove in Tennessee was larger in volume, but she didn’t like it as much.PaloDuroCCC

I recently went back to Palo Duro with some work friends. We have been on several hikes in Texas and Oklahoma, and one of two of the guys started talking about a hike in Arkansas, the Eagle Rock Loop. This hike is over 45 km, over steep ridges and river crossings. Some can finish it in two days. I question whether our group should attempt it at all, especially since we’re basically weekend warrior types. On our trip to Palo Duro, one of the guys developed a painful blister on his right heel. Fortunately we were able to return to camp and rest. If we had been backpacking, we might have been forced to turn around or add a day to our trek. My proposal was to try one overnight backpacking trip. A couple of us are in our 50s, and not all of us are in decent shape. But I’ve been accused of playing it safe, not seizing the day, carpe diem and all that bullshit. I think a person is only as old as he or she feels, but there are some realities we must face. Mature bodies do not bounce back like they did in their 20s. That said, I didn’t even try hiking until I was in my 40s. Who knows if I would have enjoyed it at all. I did enjoy mountain biking in my 20s, and I still have the desire to ride canyon trails, but I discovered my physical limits when I attempted this in Palo Duro a few years ago.

I think playing it safe can save your butt. It means being better prepared and better informed. I watch other people’s videos about a trail before going on it. I listen to what other people are saying about what to watch for. I also like to take my time because the reason I hike is not to reach point B quickly. I want to see the nature that I’ve surrounded myself with. It’s also important to be aware of hazards like poisonous snakes, ticks, biting insects, and large animals like bears and pumas. Large cats are not present in most of the US, but black bears are found in large parts of North America. Oh, and there’s this:

Maybe playing it safe takes the fun out of things. Well, Dwight wan’t likely to maul Jim for encroaching in his space. Fact: bears eat anything they can find, including food in your tent. Backcountry camps sometimes provide food storage cabling like those along the Appalachian Trail. You can not play it too safe out there.

I’m hopeful I will be able to persuade my fellow hikers to wait before taking on what some have called, “the most difficult Arkansas has to offer.” But eventually, we’ll need to do it. It is what our beige existence requires, apparently.

 

The New World

This year, Thanksgiving in the US is on Thursday, 23 November. I have always enjoyed this holiday, mainly because the day itself has escaped a lot of commercialization that other holidays in the States attract, like Christmas and July 4th. Most of the time, holidays are simply an excuse to spend money on things we either do not need or can’t afford. The Lexus December to Remember campaign, while very effective advertising, reveals a very materialistic world, where getting what you want is automatically assumed. Christmas, therefore, is all about what’s in it for us.

With companies working so hard to get our attention, advertisers have ignored Thanksgiving. Well, not entirely. But somehow, Thanksgiving has managed to stay pretty much on course as a celebration of this country’s blessings, rather than being used for marketing purposes. For many of us, we remember being taught that in 1620, “pilgrims” came from England to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to establish an American colony in the new world. These undocumented immigrants arrived and immediately ran into trouble. They were only saved by the help of the native-born people of what is now Massachusetts. A Patuxet man by the name of Tisquantum, or “Squanto”, was instrumental in assisting European settlers, really keeping them alive amid hostility by the Patuxet and Nauset people, the harsh winter, and unpreparedness of the pilgrims.

The real first Thanksgiving has been so romanticized that we could hardly recognize the reality if we were actually able to witness it. This event has been depicted so many times in film and literature that it’s nearly impossible to replace those images of the Native Americans, or Wampanoag, and the English settlers gathering at a large outdoor spread, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce. We can see women in their white bonnets and aprons, and men with tall black hats and buckled shoes; and the “Indians” in their buckskins with fringe hanging from their sleeves. These images are almost certainly false. Be that as it may, Thanksgiving has become a truly unique American holiday.

These days, Thanksgiving is celebrated in as many ways as there are families celebrating it. My personal preference has always been to serve a roast turkey with Better Homes and Gardens Harvest Stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and homemade croissants. Others might choose a picnic (in warm climates), or traveling to New York City to witness the Macy’s Parade. American Football is also a huge part of the Thanksgiving tradition. I spent one Thanksgiving playing halftime at an NFL game. But that’s a story for another time.

The main reason for the holiday, according to Abraham Lincoln, who first declared it as a national holiday in the height of the Civil War in 1863, is to set aside a day for giving thanks for what we have. In Lincoln’s time, as in times thereafter, we see trouble in our midst, as did those first European settlers; but we must pause to be grateful, to recognize that we have more than we deserve. Many people are going hungry tonight. There is great need out there, and yet we live in one of the richest nations on earth. Perhaps while we are giving thanks we could also think about giving of ourselves.

Maybe that first Thanksgiving wasn’t only about the Pilgrims being grateful for what they had relative to the loss and the suffering they had endured. For the Native people who assembled that day, they might never have known the fate of their civilization at the hands of European encroachment. For them, that event might only have represented the feelings of brotherhood, of sharing what they had so that others would not starve. Some Europeans (Thomas Hunt) did not treat them with as much love and respect. And hostile feelings persisted between some tribes and the English settlers. Tisquantum’s Patuxet village, the entire tribe, was wiped out by the plague, to which Native Americans had no immunity.

Thanksgiving is therefore a more complicated day than we usually consider. The classic* American image of the feast, as the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want” depicts, may be far removed from anything seen in modern times. Then again, most holidays are not celebrated with any historical accuracy. Christmas, for instance is an appropriated pagan winter festival, and Jesus was most likely born in April, not December. Saint Patrick would probably be abhorred if he saw what they do in his name. Yes, Thanksgiving is now what we have made it. Maybe there will be no turkey. Maybe there will be no dinner at the table. But Thanksgiving is not going to be removed from the calendar where it sits, on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s there. Why not take the day to celebrate something?

freedom-from-want_3_5

white, privileged, middle-class