Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.


Just Words


I was annoyed that some kind of message had popped up on my iPhone screen while I was attempting to play my turn in a Words with Friends game.  My annoyance turned to horror when I read the inconvenient little missive, warning me that the sexting app I was about to download contained graphic images.

Where the hell had this come from?

Sitting a few steps away from me, my wife could see that I was perturbed.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.  “You tell me!” I blurted out in response.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a techno-idiot.  As my wife likes to remind me, I break computers.  If there is a way to mess up an electronic device, I will find it.  Those who create foolproof hardware and software never bargained for a fool the likes of me.

In this case, not only was I alarmed by the nature of the warning, but the message box covered most of the little screen and I had no idea how to make it go away without clicking “Download.”  This I most assuredly was not about to do.  I expressed my opinion that this was horrible stuff and that I had no idea how all manner of trash seems to download itself spontaneously onto my phone by some sort of electronic voodoo.

I brought the phone over to my wife, who pressed some buttons, swiped her finger, gave the phone the evil eye, and did a bippity-bop and an abracadabra, quickly returning the phone to its normal state and me to my Words with Friends game.

But she was clearly annoyed with my reaction.  “It’s not horrible, it’s just words!” she insisted.  Her remark returned me to a dilemma I’ve faced for years.

I believe that words are powerful.  I have always loved the aphorism that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”  I don’t think that I could be a writer, even of a lowly blog, if I believed otherwise.

I find that words can inspire, disgust, convince, perplex, soothe, and yes, even change the world.  However, I have also discovered that not everyone agrees.  When I was a kid, my father liked to recite “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.”  I, of course, knew otherwise, and not just because of some of the choice bits of vocabulary leveled at me by my schoolmates.  I witnessed the visceral reaction of my mother when my parents were arguing and my father used certain Yiddish invective against her.  And, as a bookworm from an early age, I knew how those black letters on the white page could toss me about on an emotional roller coaster.

Three or four jobs ago, I found myself engaged in a running argument on this topic with one of my coworkers.  The usual context of our debate was the appropriateness of profanity.  My position was that the use of certain words raise powerful reactions in the reader that are likely to derail the author’s intended message.  “Oh, they’re just words,” she’d roll her eyes and tell me, implying that I was some kind of prude or maybe just a big baby.

Just words??!!  Does that mean that the Bible is just words?  Does that mean that the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just words?  I’m sorry, but when I recite the ninety-first Psalm or the Pledge of Allegiance, these are not just words to me.  They mean something.  Granted, what they mean to me may be very different from what they mean to you.  But to utterly dismiss our means of expression, our innermost thoughts and our fondest desires as mere words is a nihilistic proposition that exceeds the bounds of even our most existential of philosophers.

Another pithy saying I learned as a child was “actions speak louder than words.”  I quickly came to understand that this meant that politicians, and almost everyone else as well, were liars and big talkers who would say one thing and do another.  Once again, words were discounted as worthless and devoid of meaning.

And then there was that other glib saying, “silence is golden.”  Apparently, words were so misleading and evil that they were not even worth uttering.  Even the solitude and separation imposed by silence was preferable.

As I grew up, I became amazed by the extent to which people feared words.  Eventually, I came to see that one way of dealing with fear was dismissal.  If you convinced yourself that words were nothing but a load of trash, then you could rob them of their power.

In junior high, when I first studied the Bill of Rights in detail, I learned that freedom of speech is not unlimited.  Because words do indeed carry the power to injure, they have to be reined in to some extent.  The example with which we were provided is that it is unlawful to precipitate a deadly panic by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

This was something of an “aha” moment for me.  So words do have meaning.  Actions may speak louder than words, but boy howdy, words sure can lead to action.  Action like a mad stampede out of the theater in which scores of people are crushed to death.  Just as surely, effective words can inspire people to perform good works and to engage in amazing acts of kindness and beauty.  Or they can rouse people to fits of anger, to die for a cause, or to commit crazed acts like the murder most of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo.

It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that words themselves could be beautiful or ugly.  This is not because of the shapes of the letters of which they are composed on paper or the contortions of the mouth in which one must engage in order to pronounce them.  True, the very sound of a word may be mellifluous or grating.  But the inherent beauty of words lies in what they represent.  They are symbols that stand for real things, ideas, emotions.  Say “daisy” and I will likely picture the wildflowers that popped up unbidden on the lawn of my childhood home or the yellow lovelies that now sit in a vase on our kitchen table, courtesy of our generous niece.  Say “war” and I will conjure up images of blood and guts and deafening explosions and tanks and planes and smoke and fire and mortally wounded soldiers writhing in pain.

So no, it’s not “just words” when someone uses profanity and I feel an involuntary jerk in my gut.  And it’s not “just words” when a message pops up on my screen warning me that I am about to download porno.  Horror and disgust are valid reactions to words because words do have meaning, do have import, do have power.

What I have learned is that there are some who I will never be able to convince.  To them, all of my arguments on the subject are undoubtedly “just words.”

Sock Puppet

sock puppet

Thank you for letting me borrow this image, Wikipedia, even though I did not ask your permission.  I guess that means I’m joy riding and may be convicted of grand theft sock puppet.  Oh, and thank you to the web series Totally Socks, on which this lovely sock ass is a character.  You see, I nearly always take my own blog photos (Thank you, Apple.  Thank you, OS 8.1.  Thank you, tiny camera on my iPhone, to which I am joined at the hip these days.  And thank you, dear wife, for purchasing said iPhone for me two years ago and for keeping it updated.  And thank you, Lord, for bringing me my beloved some 16 years ago.  Oh, and if I left anyone out, it’s not that I’m not thankful for you, it’s just that I’m getting old and forgetful.  Forgive me?), but I couldn’t for the life of me find a decent sock puppet to photograph.  Perhaps I’m just not cultivating the acquaintance of the right people.

See, there’s this job I want to apply for, but I can’t get the employer’s HR website to cooperate.  Apparently, I have a little sock puppet problem.

I may have to ask my two year old grandniece for advice.

The error message consists of a long string of gobbledygook where the job application should be.  It ends with something about mysql/mysql.sock(2).  Talk about a kiss-off!  I suspect this is just a fancy, high tech way of saying “Ha ha ha!  And you really thought we were going to let the likes of you apply for this job!  Sucker!”

Well, not so fast.  I don’t give up that easily.  Let’s take a minute to break this thing down and figure out what it could really mean.  First of all, I’m not sure what all this folderol about “mysql” is.  I’ve heard of a database program called SQL, but I know that’s not it, because how can I be in the company’s database when I can’t even log onto their blessed website to apply for a job?

So what does that leave us with?  It could stand for “my squirrel,” but I haven’t seen any squirrels around here for quite some time.  Now that the wind and rain here in northern California has finally washed the leaves off the trees, there are no more tasty acorns in evidence.  The squirrels must have all gone into hibernation with the bears.  Or else maybe they’ve flown south for the winter along with the Canada geese.  I saw a flock of them (geese, not flying squirrels) zoom over the parsonage in the pre-dawn darkness as I headed out to work of a recent morning.  Employing the classic V formation, they were hauling it double-time in the general direction of Tijuana, screaming their fowl heads off against the wind and the rain, as if to say “I told you we should have gotten the heck out of here last month!  What were you thinking hanging around so long?!”  You’d think they’d have heard of Interstate 5 by now.

Perhaps this mysterious coded message stands for “my sequel.”  But what would it be a sequel to?  It figures.  I’m always behind the times.  Here I am expected to know all about the sequel when I haven’t even been exposed to the original yet.

Then again, it could stand for “my squiggle.”  This might make more sense, as I see many squiggles as part of statements written in various and sundry computer languages.  I don’t even know much Spanish, so don’t ask me to try to converse with a computer.  I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce those squiggles.

Finally, we come to the part about “sock(2).”  On the face of it, this seems pretty clear to me.  As part of my daily routine, I do indeed put on (2) socks, one on my left foot and one on my right.  I do this by performing a subroutine that involves accessing my sock drawer and then following some good old computer logic.  IF a pair of clean socks is in the drawer, THEN pull apart the paired socks + set my feet up on the ottoman + pull socks over my cold toesies = aaaahhhhh!  I haven’t yet figured out where in the program to put the part about removing the lint balls or doctoring up the blister that has mysteriously raised up on one of my toes for no other reason than to annoy the bejabbers out of me.

When running this subroutine yields error messages, it is generally either because I have been left with sock(1) after the dryer has mysteriously made off with sock(2) once again, or because neither sock(1) nor sock(2) will fit on my big old dogs.  In the latter case, I simply proceed to the next subroutine:  IF we are dealing with ankle socks(2), or IF socks(2) are striped or in pretty colors or are anything other than dark blue, THEN return socks(2) to wife’s sock drawer ELSE socks(2) belong to Pastor Mom.  It’s fairly simple, really.  BASIC, one might say, or possibly FORTRAN.  No need for Java or C++++++ or even mysql.

As for my job application, a little research revealed that I have probably run into a sock puppet.  As a general rule, I don’t like to run into anything (the mere thought of it makes me say “Ow!”), but at least sock puppets tend to be nice and soft.  Sock puppets, I have learned, are a form of false identity, basically going online and pretending to be someone you’re not.  So if I were to create another WordPress account under the name of, say, Tasty Avocadoes, and proceeded to praise to the skies this Uncle Guacamole guy and recommend that everyone read A Map of California, I suppose I would then be a sock puppet (not to mention evil, and stupid, and juvenile, and… oh, well, you get the picture).

I have no idea why my prospective employer thinks I am impersonating myself or anyone else (honestly, you get to an age where you have enough trouble just being who you are).  But this gives me an idea.  The next time I run that subroutine and end up with an error because instead of socks(2) I am left with only sock(1), I can turn sock(1) into a sock puppet forthwith.  I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, so I am certain that it will not look anywhere near as pretty as the lovely donkey in the photo that I stole from Wikipedia.  Perhaps I can find some loose buttons to use as eyes, and some threads that have been hanging off one of my shirts as a mouth.  I would then slip sock(1) over my hand, and voilà, sock puppet!  If I impersonate a high, squeaky voice, who knows what adventures I might be able to conjure up?  I bet I could entertain my little grandniece for hours!

Alright, who am I kidding?  My grandniece is two years old, which means that she can’t be entertained for more than three minutes at a time, and that’s pushing it.  Besides, if it’s not Mickey Mouse or Barney or those darned Teletubbies, she simply wouldn’t be interested.  She’d just ask to borrow my cell phone, please.  Not that she wants to call anyone.  She just wants to entertain herself with videos of people taking apart eggs or singing in Mandarin Chinese.

That’s okay.  She may not have any interest in sock puppets, but at least it’ll be a while before I have to break the news to her that responsible adults use the internet for things like applying for jobs and puzzling over Dr. Seuss caliber computer code about sock(1) and sock(2).

Aw, Snap!

I switched over to the Google Chrome browser a few months ago.  I had been using Internet Explorer just about forever (at least since Netscape days . . . remember that?), but I was scared off after constantly reading dire warnings about “Heartbleed” and the security issues that IE users are allegedly experiencing.  I tried Firefox for a little while, wasn’t all that thrilled, and finally settled on Chrome.

Well, let’s just say that I’m not all that thrilled with Chrome either.  For one thing, I have to keep reminding myself that I have 479 windows open.  I can’t see them until I click on the colorful Chrome logo, so I tend to forget that they’re still open.  It wouldn’t be that bad if all my windows showed up on visible tabs so that I could close some every once in a while.  But I really miss the days of each open window appearing at the bottom of the screen.  You could easily switch between them and close the ones you no longer need.  I haven’t forgotten that if you open too many windows in the same program, Internet Explorer no longer allows you see them individually, but instead see a message that reads “10 Microsoft Word…”  Regardless, I miss IE.

The most annoying thing about Chrome, however, is the way I am rarely able to access documents, particularly PDFs, from hyperlinks on the web.  This is particularly important for me in that I spend hours each day on my job search, which generally involves clicking on links to access application forms.  Far too often, Chrome greets me with an error message that reads “Aw, Snap!  Something went wrong while displaying this web page.”

The annoyance of being unable to access my document is compounded by Google insulting my intelligence.  It seems to me that the use of the phrase “Aw, Snap!” indicates one of the following:

  • Google assumes that I am 13 years old and in middle school.  The only person who I have ever heard using the phrase “Aw, Snap!” was the teenager who I used to mentor as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.
  • Or, Google is using this phrase as a euphemism for “Oh, Shit!” that removes the defecation reference in favor of an expletive that, unbelievably, is even more juvenile.
  • Or, Google is merely a huge fan of Rice Krispies.  As I become more experienced with Chrome, I’m sure that I’ll run across “Aw, Crackle!” and “Aw, Pop!”  The latter will prove somewhat awkward for those of us who, like myself, don’t happen to be fathers.
  • When “Aw, Snap!” rears its ugly head, Google provides a hyperlink to a list of suggested troubleshooting techniques that it invites Chrome users to try in an attempt to solve the problem.  Inexplicably missing from this list is the obvious:  Close Chrome and open your document in Internet Explorer.

    Works every time!



    Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may recall that, before I was laid off from work, my wife and I used to travel a lot between my job in the far reaches of southern California and our families up here in northern California.  Among the skills I acquired in the course of our travels was how to write a blog post on my phone.  While doing so is a pain in the patoot, I must admit that it has come in handy.

    Like right now, for instance.  Because my faithful, trusty laptop has officially been jacked.

    I don’t mean hijacked — just plain jacked.  As in the cheese from Monterey, the card between the ten and the queen, the tool you use to raise up your car when it has a flat tire, the fast food clown who serves breakfast 24 hours a day, and Jill’s companion in going up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

    No, my computer hasn’t been waylaid to Cuba.  It’s still right here, although confined to sick bay.  In the capable hands of my wife the computer doctor, my computer is receiving a massive dose of antibiotics and getting some well-deserved rest.  We shall see how it is responding tomorrow.  We hope to avoid having to take it to the computer hospital.

    Apparently, one of my apps sneezed and my computer contracted a Trojan virus.  Either that or it was having safe sex while I was out grocery shopping.  I figure that’s the only time it could have happened, because I’m always using it unless I’m asleep.  And then I’m dreaming about using it.

    I’m really not sure how this happened.  I mean, I know my computer had a really rough Valentine’s Day.  You see, it had recently broken up with Mr. Orange, known affectionately as Orangey, the phone charger that always remained plugged into it.  It was so convenient to be able to charge my phone while I was using my computer.  But alas, nothing lasts forever.  Orangey began to fray, no longer did its job very well, and had to pass on to the happy phone charger grounds in the sky.

    Still, it really hasn’t been that long since the breakup, so I certainly didn’t expect my computer to be going for the Trojans so soon.  As much as it saddens me, the conclusion is inescapable.  My computer is a slut.

    Get well cards recorded in the comments section will be delivered to my computer promptly.  The little hussy.




    We are forever reinventing ourselves.

    Even at my age, I feel a bit little like a hairy caterpillar, belly stuffed with macerated spring leaves, boldly curling up into my cocoon in a quest to emerge as something else.  I’ve had enough of this old, outdated mode, so let’s make it something quite different, okay?  Something, say, less hairy and hmm, maybe with a pair of wings?  Far-fetched, for sure, but you never know.  Give me a few weeks and let’s see what develops.

    “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.”  Ol’ Blue Eyes sure knew what he was talking about.

    In my case, I’ve been a typesetter, a graphic artist, a desktop publisher, a secretary, a technical writer, a data entry operator, a telephone operator, a trainer, a first-line supervisor, a middle manager and a legal researcher.

    And as I’ve walked along my journey from the halls of high school to the employee break room to the unemployment line, I’ve occasionally turned my head just in time to catch the corridors contract and the doors silently shut behind me.

    In his masterwork, Catch-22, novelist Joseph Heller asked “where are the snows of yesteryear?”  And where are the ditto machines that spewed purple ink all over your hands and the paste-ups assembled at light tables with tri-squares, Exact-o knives and non-repro blue pens?  Where are the shiny galleys pulled out of the dryer on RC paper, ready to marked up with funny, squiggly symbols by the proofreader?  Where are the TTY users typing out their LED messages on a narrow one-line screen to a distant relay operator in half-English, half-American sign language?  Where are the Vydec and the Wang, the IBM Electronic Selectric Composer, the CompuGraphic EditWriter, dBase II and Wordstar?

    Constant change is the only thing guaranteed not to change.  With rapid advances in technology comes the need to be flexible, to bend with the wind, to acquire new skill sets, to embrace new ways of doing and being, to metamorphose into something different and more beautiful.

    The alternative is to be relegated to irrelevance and destitution.  As the saying goes, “you’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”

    Or, as Douglas Coupland put it in his novel, Microserfs, “time to learn for real.”

    Where once I could declaim knowledgeably about fonts and kerning, em-spaces and X-heights, and then about hearing carry over, speech-to-speech relay and VCO phones, and still later about preliminary hearings, felony arraignments and writs of habeas corpus, today I find myself in the strange new world of domain mapping, cascading style sheets and SQL queries.  It’s a foreign language and some days I feel as if I am an enemy spy who has been dropped in by parachute in the dead of night.

    I am a stranger in a strange land.

    And in this land, the only currency that’ll buy you anything is zeroes and ones.  And knowledge.

    As one who was schooled in the liberal arts, I have been cast into the darkness with only the searching beam of a flashlight to find my way.

    My most fervent prayer is that there is no truth to the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

    For I have many new tricks to learn.  And with a little luck, one day soon I will emerge from this decades old chrysalis, shake off the dew in a flutter of wings and proudly fly away.


    Dorothy and the Nabi

    elmo dorothy

    Now I’ve seen it all.

    At my age, there’s not a whole lot that surprises me anymore.  But thanks to my little grandniece, yesterday I had what is, for me, a new experience.

    I have attended a birthday party for a goldfish.

    If you have a child under the age of five, or if you are familiar with Sesame Street, you probably know what I am talking about.

    Apparently, our Muppet friend, Elmo, has a pet goldfish named Dorothy.  And yes, you guessed it, she’s another year older.

    The special day was celebrated by adding a birthday cake toy to Dorothy’s fishbowl and by having all the kids demonstrate how they wrapped their gifts for their favorite ichthyologic friend.  Behind the window shade, Mr. Noodle appeared in the cloud window to further demonstrate gift wrapping technique, but not before wrapping himself in orange paper and winding an entire roll of tape around his neck and body.  Silly Mr. Noodle!

    Following a segment showing how birthdays are celebrated around the world, Elmo closes by singing a rousing chorus of “for she’s a jolly good goldfish.”

    Please tell me that Dorothy doesn’t have her own fan page on Facebook.  Oh, she does, huh?

    Unlike Dorothy, my grandniece is not celebrating a birthday this week (she turned one year old about three months ago).  But that didn’t stop us from buying her a present anyway.

    Nabi Jr
    We found a good buy on a kids’ tablet computer known as a Nabi, Jr.  Now, the Nabi website says this product is for children ages 3 to 7.  But we know Little One is going to have a grand old time with it, judging by the way she plays with all of our iPhones.  We have to keep an eye on our phones or she will swipe them and disappear before we know what happened.  The fact that they may be plugged in to charge will in no way deter her.  She will simply tug on the cord until the phone comes loose.  Once in possession of said phone, she will touch every part of the screen with reckless abandon.  My grandniece’s explorations have resulted in her sending texts to our friends, making phone calls and even deleting most of our apps.

    I think I get it.  Our phones are a whole lot more fun than a birthday party for Dorothy the fish.

    We figure it won’t be long before Little One will be speaking to us in an intelligible manner, and we know how that scene will go.  I fully expect her first full sentence to be “I want my own iPhone!  Now now now!”

    We will cross that bridge when we come to it.  For now, however, we know that she will go crazy over all the colors, the games, the drawing and music — both kids’ tunes and classical (Mendelssohn, anyone?).  Most importantly, she will get to touch every part of the screen and making fun things happen.  At least until she throws it across the room (she likes to fling things).

    My wife and I were playing around with the Nabi after we got it charged up today.  I accessed an app called ABC Color, where, after reaching the letter E, I used the drawing tools that appeared at the bottom of the screen to fill in an outline picture of an elephant with a gray colored pencil.  Like any infant worth his salt, I was unable to stay within the lines.  No problem there; I simply used the eraser tool to make the picture look perfect.

    Well, I’d better sign off here and get myself to bed.  I want to make sure to be up in time to see the look on my grandniece’s face when we present her with the Nabi.  And to hear the crash when she flings it into a corner to go play with a spoon or hide behind my mother-in-law’s easy chair.

    So good night, and uh, happy birthday, Dorothy!  Or, in your language, glub glub.


    My Crazy, Addicted Scrabble Tournament Life

    Let's Play

    My parents owned a Scrabble set since the 1950s, but I cannot recall ever seeing them play the game.  The three of us knew that it was stored in the big bottom drawer of the hutch in the dining room, with the cancelled checks, newspaper clippings and the pieces of my mother’s old Monopoly set.

    Occasionally, my sisters and I would ask permission to pull out the Scrabble box.  We had some fairly imaginative ideas of what could be done with it.  We didn’t play Scrabble; we played with the Scrabble set.

    We’d display one of the racks on the living room carpet, lay a candle in its cradle and refer to it as Candlewood Lake (a place I had seen on a map).  We would set out the tiles in curving lines to represent a path, not unlike the slate path just outside the front door of our house.  We’d set the mauve board in an upside down V to represent a roof or a house or a tent.  We would make up fanciful stories to go with our Scrabble props.  This was a lot more fun than spelling dumb old words!

    During my college days, I played many dozens of games of Monopoly and backgammon, but never Scrabble.  I had forgotten about the game.

    In fact, twenty years went by before I rediscovered Scrabble.  After Donna and I, two certified Internet addicts, were married, we began playing Upwords and Tangleword online.  We bought another computer and a few games on CD.  Among them was Hasbro’s Scrabble for Windows.  After that, there was no turning back.

    For our first Christmas, one of the gifts I bought for Donna was a tiny ring box that looked like a folded Scrabble board, colored squares and all.  Inside was a tiny Scrabble rack holding itty bitty tiles.

    Not too long after that, Hasbro updated its electronic Scrabble game, much for the worse in our opinion.  The formerly snazzy board now sported an ugly dark border and the speed of the game slowed down to a snail’s pace.  When I complained to Hasbro, they indicated that we could return the CD with its jewel case to the place of purchase for a full refund.  We did so.

    That’s when Donna discovered the Internet Scrabble Club (www.isc.ro), then as now the best place to play realtime Scrabble online.  I was instantly hooked.  I was able to choose my level of competition — not too easy, not too hard.  And I was able to play with opponents from all over the world.  Once we offered up $20 for a paid membership, I was even able to play against “the bots,” ISC’s artificial intelligence that guaranteed that I would have a worthy opponent any time of the day or night.  When I worked the swing shift and returned home well after midnight, I knew I could still get in a couple of games.

    I kept hearing online that there were people who got together IRL to play Scrabble.  I kept signing up for a theoretical local Scrabble group on a site called Meet Up.  Only problem was that the meets always were canceled due to lack of sufficient interest.

    Many of my coworkers were book nerds like myself, and I frequently asked what they were reading.  One night, I saw one of them had a book with an unusual cover; square cut-outs revealed Scrabble tiles beneath.  The book was Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, and I immediately ordered a copy.

    This fascinating book introduced me to the world of Scrabble clubs and tournaments.  I just wished I lived in area where such things were available.  Before long, I switched jobs, we moved, and I found myself in a city with a weekly Scrabble club that met at a local pizza joint.  After joining this group, its members regaled me with stories of distant Scrabble tournaments they had attended.  Just like in the book!  I knew this was something I had to do.

    I started by attending a Sunday afternoon Scrabble tournament in California’s Bay Area, about a five-hour round trip.  Several of us from the club would pack into a car and cruise down the highway studying Scrabble words densely printed on index cards.  The idea was to identify the “bingo,” the seven-letter, rack-clearing word that netted players a 50-point bonus.

    “AEINSTZ!” the reader in the front passenger seat would call out.

    “ZANIEST, ZEATINS!” would come the response from the back seat.

    I was amazed at how on earth they managed to accomplish this feat of mental gymnastics.  Soon, I learned the secret.  It was a matter of studying, I was told.

    Studying what?  Studying endless, lengthy lists of words.  It turns out there are particular letter combinations that occur over and over, are likely to be drawn out of the tile bag, and hence are worthy of the time to memorize.

    I bought a study book and started with the most basic combination, TISANE.  These six letters combine with nearly every letter of the alphabet to create multiple bingos.  Initially, the list seemed mind-boggling, but in a few months, I was able to recite “TISANE + A: ENTASIA, TAENIAS.  TISANE + B: BANTIES, BASINET.  TISANE + C: ACETINS, CINEAST.  TISANE + D:  DESTAIN, DETAINS, INSTEAD, NIDATES, SAINTED, STAINED.

    It took me about six months to memorize just the first word list (and there are hundreds of them), but I learned that, with enough repetition, I could do it!  More than that, I found that I had become “one of them.”

    I had turned into one of those crazy Scrabble addicts that Stefan Fatsis had written about.  I was still losing most of my games, but I also won a few.  I realized it wasn’t about winning or losing, however.  It was about the love of the game.

    As a bookish nerd, it didn’t take much for me to fit right into the Scrabble culture.  And a culture it is.  Spending hundreds of dollars and driving hundreds of miles to reach one Scrabble tournament, I could hardly wait for the next one.  And at every tournament, we, the far-flung competitors, greeted each other as the best of friends before competing fiercely against one another across the board.

    We might be in Reno or Phoenix or Portland or San José.  We might be in a hotel ballroom below the crystal chandeliers or in a pizzeria, picking pepperoni off the board.  The location didn’t really matter, however, as we were together doing the thing we loved.

    We were home.