Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tech Yeah

I wrote recently of my confrontation with the future, and especially about a computer program that nearly defeated me. I want to correct any impression I might have given of being opposed to progress and uncomfortable with new ideas. I’m not. I only want to be sure that what I do embrace is useful, workable, and at least moderately necessary. I have, for instance, in the last month, discovered what all this "sent from my phone" tagging is all about. I have finally, after years of saying I was completely at home with my flip-phone, taken the leap to what is known (probably to all of you) as a smart phone. It is.

I can tell the phone to take me somewhere, and provided there is service (not here where we live), a pleasant, easily understood voice, emanating from a speaker in the headliner of my car, will take me mile after mile, turn by turn, error correction by error correction ("At the first available opportunity, make a U-turn") guiding me to where I think I want to be. Charming! And it will display the route on a screen on the dashboard. Unless I’m in reverse, in which case I get a real-time image of what I’m backing into. Getting into a parking space or my garage is as easy as looking at you, kid.

Which brings me (propels me) into the future. What next? Next is, in limited mode, already here. From U-haul to Haul-U is I guess the best way to express it: self-driving cars. Now that’s not a new concept, and in fact it isn’t even a concept any longer. It’s a reality. Some of you are, I’m sure, old enough to recall at least hearing about "The World of Tomorrow." At the 1939 World’s Fair there were self-driving cars you could ride in, on a closed course with no deviation permitted. It was a dream. In the 1950s, when I worked for a national business organization, one of my jobs was to accompany a slide show to national business meetings to present our own version of the future, and it included that World of Tomorrow promise of the self-driving car. And promise it was. Now it’s happening. As a competition driver, as a business traveler, as a tourist, the idea of a self-driving car had little appeal. I like driving, we both do, and traveling thousands of miles in our car is something we enjoy. And we want to keep on doing it.

A little more history: when my mother graduated from high school in the early 1920s, her first job was in the office of the local Chevrolet dealer. Women were just coming to driving at that time, and as an adjunct to her secretarial duties, she was called on to teach other women how to drive. She continued driving, accident and incident free until she was 90. At that time she surrendered her license (but not her car), explaining to me that she felt she was too old to drive safely (though her eyesight, hearing and mental acuity remained competent). Some years later I discovered that when she went to take her license renewal test she evidently scared the inspector by running off the road, bursting a tire, and forcing him to call for assistance to get her back to the office. And that prospect, being considered too old to drive, is there before me as I get older. And I don’t like the prospect. So I embrace the new technology.

We live far from any form of public transportation. We also live beyond cell-phone range. The idea of getting into the car and simply telling it where I want to go is a comforting view of the future.

I don’t want to be one of those automobile safety recalls.

Tech, yeah!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Living Here

I’m glad we live where we do. Many of the things we have done here, acquiring land, building a home, becoming a part of our community, have been accomplished with the least amount of paperwork and the greatest amount of handshaking, so to speak.

More than once, in a town thirty miles away, I’ve been told that identification wasn’t necessary to write a check, since it was on our local bank, and we were residents of the county. That was all the surety necessary.

That’s changing, of course, as it is everywhere. Being from a small, isolated and homogenous community does not have the honor it once had, I think. The universalization of information, communication and trade has made us all one, perhaps, but not better.

There was a time when your name, your town, your country stood for something solid and real. It may not have always been good, or even strong, but it stood. If you came from a place like ours, you were automatically considered upright and worthy. In the same way, of course, if you were of a particular background, you were considered less than desirable in many places. I’m glad that’s not true (as much) anymore. It still happens, is happening with greater frequency in some other countries, but (despite what you see on television) more people reject such labels or "profiles."

The subject of living here came up just the other day when a reporter for the local weekly called. Her editor had assigned her to write about why those of us who have come from beyond have stayed on. This is a destination county, and over the years we have met and then said goodbye to people who moved in, built new or bought old, and then after a few years, moved on. Some of us, however, came and put down new roots and stayed. Why?

Though we have lived in big cities, worked in foreign lands, traveled over much of our own country, this remote and sometimes difficult place we call home is just that: home. More so than any other place we’ve lived, including the places of our growing up. Now, having lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, we can’t imagine any other place we’d be comfortable, be at home.

Part of it is people. We have friends who have grown up here, friends who came as we have, from big cities, even found links to some of the early settlers though neither of us had ever heard of those connections. But that isn’t what has kept us here. The word that comes to mind is "acceptance." We have been involved in the life of the county since we settled here. In a place with just about two-thousand residents, every soul is valued, every pair of hands has work to do. Much of what gets done is by volunteers, just as much of what is done to help our neighbors. The firefighters and emergency medical folks are volunteers, as are some of the people who help out at the school, or help run our community health center. There are 4-H and Future Farmers for young people, and service clubs for the grown-ups. We are part of the life of our community because without us there would be no community. And that is a large part of what keeps us here.

There is more to the story, though: privacy. If you want to be alone, want to do what you do and not have to explain yourself, well we appreciate that, too. Not mean things, not destructive, against-the-law things. There is little tolerance for that here. We appreciate privacy, protect it, and most of us are prepared to defend it if need be, but we aren’t paranoid by any means. We do understand, though, that what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine. We let the bears cross the yard, tolerate the deer eating the garden or the succulent plants that grow by the door, but we are also ready to stop two or four legged adventurers who get too close, take too much advantage of our good nature. That’s what it means to be neighborly in a place as small as this.

It comes down to this: we live life on a human scale here. The tallest things are the trees, the lowest are the rivers. It can be an easy place to put down roots, but a hard place to keep them healthy. It is not an easy place to live. We depend on each other, on our neighbors and friends. Yes, the local highway department will plow your road after the snow has stopped, but your neighbor is more likely to get to your driveway first (or you to his) with a tractor or pickup equipped to move snow. We take care of each other, we check up to make sure our neighbors are okay, we offer to drive those who can’t, we take food to homes facing a family loss, we drive across the mountains to area hospitals to visit neighbors, we are part of the lives of our friends, neighbors, distant relatives and we welcome those who want to be a part of these mountains and valleys we call home. It can be difficult, to be sure, but it is also better than any other way of life we can imagine. You just have to want it.

If you’re over 18, you don’t live here by accident.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Tech-No, or When Technology Drives You Mad

Remember the film, "Network"? Peter Finch shouts "I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!" Me too. I’m mad (as in angry) because I’ve spent most of the last week trying to make Windows 10 work on my laptop, and now, after much aggravation and web-searching, I’ve finally returned to Windows 7. But it was a struggle.

I’m happy to be back where I started. I’m not really a Luddite, though there are many things in today’s world I wish we didn’t have to face. Computers, for all the great things they have brought us, and bring us every minute if we’re not careful, are high on that list. I am certain that things take longer with a computer than without.

It’s a bore, dealing with the unseen using poorly understood technology and all the time wishing for a yellow pad and a cheap ballpoint pen or, better yet, my old underwood portable. I could bang on that all day long and it never broke, almost never had a key jam (except when I was whamming the keys too fast and too hard), and any mistakes were found and corrected by a secretary. I have spent more time sorting out "how-to-fix-its" than actually writing over the last several decades.

There was a time when I could sit down to write and have no distractions. It takes great discipline to keep your fingers off the in-box button or the search button or the delete key! There are enough distractions in life today without some eye-catching enticement to leave what you’re doing and catch up on whatever one doesn’t really need to catch up on. I long for the days when my fingers pounded the shiny black-on-white keys that hit the paper with a satisfying "thwack" and left a readable mark on paper. And a person who corrected my typing; I miss that, too. What I don’t miss is the pressure from others to finish what I’m writing to meet someone’s imposed deadline. I guess that if I could choose, and the choice was between using a typewriter and being free to write what I want, when I want to, by being both independent and having a computer, I would probably come down on the side of the computer, but I’d still like to have someone on hand to fix things. Some 16-year-old who does computers after school.

Early in my computer-aided life, when I worked in a large organization, my desktop computer developed a problem. I called another department, where they were the first users of computers and had some experts on staff. I outlined my problem and my colleague said he would send his expert around to see me in the afternoon.

About four O’clock a very young man presented himself at my desk, said my friend had sent him to help me and asked if he might sit down at my computer. I happily vacated my seat, he sat down, asked what the problem was, turned to look at me as he hit a few keys and said, "That does it. Did you see what I just did?" Did? He did something? No. No I didn’t see anything. "Well," he said, relinquishing my chair and heading out the door, "Shouldn’t happen again, but if it does, call me. I come in every afternoon after school."

I’m still mad as hell, but there isn’t anything I can do about it until after school.

Monday, August 3, 2015

One of Those Days

They are few and sometimes seem to be purely imaginary. This is one of them. Magical, with a sky so blue you could not find it on a pallette, probably couldn’t mix it if you were van Gogh himself. And the air: clean, thin, sharp – a real edge to it, yet not enough to demand a coat even at first light. Temperature just a shade over 50 degrees, a breeze so light that the leaves seem to wave in slow motion.

These are the days of summer we have waited for since winter; waited for with the feeling they might never come. It’s August, and instead of hot, sultry days we have cool, dry and delectable hours of daylight. And with it, a noticeable shortening of the day. One day less in our lives.

The early morning cool will give way to warm, even hot afternoon, but only until the sun passes the mountain to the west. It will be a day for working outside. We are already thinking of the month to come, when here on our rocky slopes the leaves will start to turn, the grass will grow less aggressively, when we will start gathering small stuff to start the wood furnace, making the first effort to cut and split and stack the coming winter’s wood. Given the long run-up to hay making this year, we will be watching for signs of a second crop, hoping it will come before the first frost.

Country life for us – mostly retired, no proper schedule to follow, fewer and fewer entries on the calendar for things yet to be done – still has its demands, imposed not by other people so much as by the nature of nature itself. Every season brings work generated by weather, by expectations, by needs. Time passes quickly – more quickly than one would like, even when there are days that one wishes were over and gone. We know, regardless of age, there will be people we will not see again, places we will not visit another time, things we will no longer be able to accomplish or even enjoy. Yet a day like today, with a forecast of at least a whole week of days like this, reminds us that there are still many joyful times ahead, days that quicken the spirit, urge you to breathe deeply, look carefully, listen closely.

Life is calling. Be sure to answer.