Help! My Parents are Stuck in 1995!


We made another weekend run down to the Central Valley because my mother needed me to help her with some paperwork related to her stockholdings.  Buying and selling stocks has been a hobby of hers since back in her working days.  My parents have now been retired for twenty years, leaving Mom with plenty of time to pursue her fascination with Wall Street.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, my parents didn’t own a computer and didn’t subscribe to a newspaper (unless you include running out for bagels on Sunday morning and hauling home a doorstop-sized New York Times).  My mother listened to the stock reports on the radio and, every so often, would have my father drive her to the public library, where she’d pore over the latest Wall Street Journal.

Nowadays, Mom turns on the TV at 5:00 pm every weekday (unless my parents are out to dinner at Red Lobster) to watch the stock reports on one of the five over-the-air stations that can be pulled in out on the rangeland.  My parents live in the country, don’t receive cable, and once tried to install a dish antenna on the roof of their house but quickly removed and returned it when they couldn’t get it to work properly.  They still don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but they do own a PC.  Dial-up connection, of course.  Remember those?  Ooooooweeeeeeaaaaahhhhshhhhhhhhhhhh… You’ve got mail!

Yep, my parents are stuck in 1995.

About half the time that I call my parents, I am unable to get through because Dad is online, looking at pictures of old cars and checking out the for sale ads (his own Model A Ford sits in the garage).  When I see him, he rails about the scourge of internet abbreviations and about how people don’t know how to spell anymore.  Meanwhile, Mom is listening to conservative talk radio in the kitchen.  When I see her, she bemoans the atrocious grammar of the broadcast personalities and those participating in the call-in shows alike.

My father, who is 81 years old and had never used a computer until he was retired for several years, knows how to Google search terms, send and receive email, contact me via IM (exceedingly rare) and place bids on eBay.  Each afternoon (after his daily TV dose of theater and opera goes off the air at 1:00), he logs onto AOL and checks my mother’s stocks.  Back east on Wall Street, the market has just closed for the day.  He scribbles the prices and progress of each of her stockholdings (XYZ 128.16 +1/8) on a sheet of paper, after which he hunts down my mother (likely tending her roses out front or watering a fruit tree out back) and provides her with the results.  Mom then transposes this information into neat columns in her stock notebook.  I am impressed with the detail (“See?  This is the PE ratio.  I am watching this one reeeeaaaalllly closely.”), which looks for all the world like a Stone Age version of an Excel spreadsheet.  I am tempted to make a bad Fred Flintstone joke here, but you know, poor Mom.

My mother assures me that she knows how to look up her stocks online without any assistance, thank you, but that she lets my father do it because he’s online anyway and, goodness knows, he sure doesn’t do anything else around here.  She then proceeds to gripe about how he goes to bed early, sleeps until 10 every day, and then takes two hours to get ready and have his cereal with blueberries, which he finishes just in time for his theater and opera show.  Meanwhile, she tells me, she herself couldn’t possibly sleep past 7:30 or 8, at which time she gets up and does all the work around the house with no help at all from peacefully snoring Dad.  I did not exactly ingratiate myself to her when I offered that I plan to do exactly the same when I retire and that I, too, do nothing around the house.  My wife enthusiastically vouched for the veracity of my assertion.  Like father, like son, hey?

My mother has an armload of college degrees and has always been a smart cookie.  Her investments are about as conservative as her politics, but she does make money.  Not a lot, mind you, but the quarterly dividend checks roll in and when the stock goes up just the right amount, she’ll make a stop at her discount brokerage house on the way to Food Maxx and place an order to sell that sucker.  Capital gains tax?  Just a part of the game, son, just a part of the game.

“What’s your strategy?” they ask Mom at the brokerage, marveling at her many small victories.  “I have no strategy!” she snaps back.  The trick, she assures me, is patience.  Like a cat, you stay real quiet and wait for just the right moment and then… Pounce!

Let’s just say that I am seriously impressed with Mom.  What I find particularly amazing about my mother’s investments is that most people spend money on their hobbies, but she makes money from hers.  Whether you’re into golf or sewing or travel or collecting things (or, in my own case, attending Scrabble tournaments), it’s always a money pit.  It would be wonderful if one day I, too, manage to find a formula for doing something I enjoy and have the checks roll into my mailbox every three months or so.

Nah, ain’t happening.  I’d rather sleep until ten like Dad.

Dial-up modem notwithstanding, my parents do have cell phones.  They each have their little TracPhone, which Dad likes to hang on his belt when he goes out, while Mom keeps hers tucked in her purse.  My sisters and I find those two cell numbers mighty convenient for times when Dad is online again and we just have to tell Mom something right now.  All three of us know that if the house phone is busy, you call Dad’s cell, which may be plugged in to charge somewhere, so if there’s no answer you proceed to calling Mom’s cell.  My father even knows how to navigate his little black and white screen to key in his contacts.  It took my parents years to advance to this stage, so I suppose I should be grateful that they’re not still stuck on a plain black wall phone and no “answering machine.”  Really, Mom, you know it’s called voicemail, right?  My wife reminds me that rolling one’s eyes is impolite, mister.

Of course, my parents still don’t text.  Even their funky TracPhones have that capability, but my parents are just not interested.  Texting leaves Mom cold.  If she can’t see my face, at least she wants to hear my voice.  I guess I should be flattered, but oy, Mom, it’s a pain in my tokhes when I need to tell you one little thing and can’t without getting on the phone with you for an hour.  I don’t always have an hour, Mom.  What?  You don’t have an hour for your old mother?  Not when I’m at work, Mom!  Not when I’m at the supermarket, Mom!  Not when I’m barreling down the 99 and I know I’m about to hit that dead spot between Nicolaus and Natomas.  The upshot is that you lose out on a lot of stuff that might bring a smile to your face and make your day.  To date, my arguments have been unsuccessful.

Mom and Dad have now become accustomed to the way it is when my wife and I are visiting.  Most of the time, we have our iPhones out.  It’s not like we’re texting all the time or anything, but we keep one eye on email and my wife is aware when someone posts a comment on her Facebook status.

My phone buzzes.  “What was that?” Mom asks.  I have a new follower on my blog, I tell her.  Ohhh, she says sweetly, do you still do that?  Barely, I tell her.  These days, I only have time to post on Sundays.  But do you still have a lot of followers?  I don’t feel like explaining that followers don’t just go away; you have to be really boring for them to take the time to go into their WordPress Dashboards and unfollow you.  It’s okay, Mom, I wish I could say.  I’m so glad that you don’t really understand about this stuff and that you don’t read my blog because I write about you quite a lot and some of the things that have come out of my fingers would make the hair stand up on your graying head.

My father’s eyes dart back and forth between my wife’s purple phone and my orange one.  And he sighs.  Maybe we’ll have to come into the 21st century eventually, he offers.  “I really, really wish you would!” I reply.  It’s not that expensive anymore, I tell him.  The prices have come way down from when Apple first came out with this.  Dad is very good about keeping his TracPhone charged, but should I tell him about wifi and 4G?  He is impressed when Mom asks me for the address and phone number of one of my cousin’s ex-wives and it takes me about 30 seconds to locate the information on my phone.  “It’s really quite useful,” I say of my iPhone.  I want to tell Mom that she can tap an icon and see the latest prices of her stocks, but I bite my lip and refrain.

If my parents are to take the plunge off the deep end, I know it will have to be Dad first.  I wonder whether we should just get it over with and buy them a pair of iPhones with protective covers in some cutesy his ‘n hers colors.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could text Dad “good morning” every day?

I know, Dad, not before 10 a.m.

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!


    How Are You? I Am Fine!


    I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter in the mail.

    We don’t have mail delivered to our door in our rural location, but when I turn the key in our post office box, I know exactly what I will find:  Advertisements, junk mail and trash.  Insurance forms, maybe a bill or two.  It’s as if the whole world spews up vomit into my mailbox.

    If it were up to me, I’d probably check the post office box about once a month.  And then I’d forget for months at a time, the box would become stuffed with garbage, and the post office would start returning mail to sender because the box was full.  Ah, that sounds lovely!  You send me trash?  Back at ya, losers!

    My wife, however, is addicted to snail mail.  She absolutely has to drive to the post office and check the box every day.  She is disappointed if a day goes by without any mail for us.  She hates federal holidays because… no mail!

    I fail to see the point.  Anyone who wants to contact me sends me an email or a text.  Except for my parents, the only people who still use a telephone to call me because, well, they don’t do technology.

    When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from anyone?  You know, sent the old-fashioned way, where you have to affix a postage stamp and drop it in a mailbox?  Sorry, birthday cards don’t count.

    Back in December, I did receive a Christmas letter from a friend with whom I had lost touch.  I felt badly because he was informing me that he and his wife had divorced.

    But before that?  I haven’t a clue.  It must have been years since I’ve received a letter.

    Part of the reason for this is technology, of course.  It takes days for a letter to make its way through the mails.  Why wait when you can send an email or a text and have it arrive in a matter of seconds?  And who wants to go through the hassle of going to a mailbox or a post office?  Plus, email is free!  My young nephew, who was laid off from his job recently, informed us that he hadn’t sent in the documentation needed to receive unemployment benefits because he didn’t have the money to buy a stamp.  See what I mean?

    Another part of this equation, I believe, is that we no longer have the patience and writing skills necessary to compose personal letters.  Just think of it!  You have to find a sheet of paper and an envelope and a pen.  And then you have to think of something to say.

    Perhaps you do have something to say.  But it’s something like “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?” or “Hey, come check out my new blog!”  Back in Victorian England, notes such as these might show up via post.  In our modern world, however, no one would bother to write a letter to express such brief thoughts.

    Or for any other reason, for that matter.

    If you want to discuss the pros and cons of dumping your skanky boyfriend or tell your friend about the cute things your baby is doing, you’ll probably go for a phone call.  Either that or you’ll post a pithy remark on Facebook.  My wife tells me that entire family feuds go on over F-Book.

    I keep hearing that people can’t write a coherent sentence anymore, much less string together enough sentences and paragraphs to compose a letter.  Perhaps it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Letter-writing has become technologically obsolete, so we lose the skills that writing letters requires.

    I grew up in the Stone Age, before the advent of personal computers and cell phones; letter-writing, while past its heyday, was still common.  I learned to write letters by watching my mother write letters.  I remember being five years old and trying to copy the loops and swoops of her neat cursive (called “script” back then).  Before my mother was born, letters regularly went back and forth between immigrants arriving in America and their parents and siblings back home in Europe.  But she grew up during World War II, when letters were strongly associated with sons fighting far away in foreign lands and writing home to Mom and Dad.  Some parents wrote to their boys each week, faithfully, until they came home or a gold star was solemnly placed in the window.

    When my mother was barely a teenager, living at home in New York City, her older sister took a train to the west coast to work in San Francisco.  We have family stories about my mom and grandma sitting down at the kitchen table to write her letters every week.

    In my day, many kids learned to write letters while they were away at summer camp.  The counselors would always expect the campers to stretch out on their bunks and write home once a week.  I myself learned to write letters because I couldn’t wait to see my grandparents who lived a 2½ hour drive away in Connecticut.  Writing a letter was the next best thing to being there.  Once I got the hang of it, however, I wanted to write to everyone, from people I saw every day to people whom I barely knew.  I would routinely begin them with “How are you?  I am fine!”  Then I’d relate every little thing I could think of, from my favorite cartoons to a recent stomach ache.

    My maternal grandfather remarried when I was about six years old (not long after Grandma passed on), and his new wife had two grown sons, one of whom loved to travel.  He used to tell me that his goal was to visit every nation on earth.  He probably succeeded, too.  Knowing how I loved fancy stamps from exotic countries, he’d send me post cards from places I’d barely heard of.  His tag line was always the same:  “There goes Global Sobel!”  It was always exciting when one of his post cards showed up in our mailbox.

    When I was about eight years old or so, I was disappointed when my maiden aunt (great-aunt, really), whose fancy accountant’s adding machine and elegant high-rise apartment on West 57th Street I adored, moved to south Florida.  We immediately struck up a long-distance correspondence via U.S. Mail.  I loved receiving her letters on fancy perfumed stationery.  And I wrote back to her all the gory details of my life, including, much to my mother’s consternation, the blow-by-blow of my parents’ constant screaming arguments.  Of course, if there was any game or book I wanted and couldn’t wheedle out of my parents, I simply wrote to Aunt Iris and asked for it.  She would always oblige by sending something my way (A package in the mail!  Just for me!), although rarely the exact item I had requested.  I’d ask for a Scrabble set and Jeopardy! would show up on the doorstep.  I’d ask for a Bible and would unwrap a prayer book.  The poor woman tried!

    Then my beloved grandparents moved to Florida as well, starting yet another wave of letters back and forth from New York to the Sunshine State.  Often, when I finished my letter, I’d hand it off to my sisters to write a few lines at the bottom.  Sometimes they’d add our cat’s name at the very end, lest any member of the family be left out.

    Among my favorite letter stories involves the time we moved about an hour away and changed schools.  My sister and I both found ourselves attending John Jay High School, she a freshman and me a junior.  When I finished my latest later to my grandparents and passed it to my sister, she added a few lines of her own, including the statement “John Jay is great!”  When the letter arrived in Florida, my grandmother quickly got on the phone with my Dad.  “Who the heck is John Jay?” she demanded, thinking my thirteen year old sister had picked up some kind of boyfriend of whom she was particularly proud.

    Even in my college days, during the summers I’d write letters to friends who I missed.  After graduation, I briefly corresponded with two of them who had gone overseas, one to work in Germany and the other to toil in the Peace Corps in central Africa.  As time goes on, however, our friendships of younger days tend to recede into the past, and the letters slowly petered out.

    And when I wrote back to my friend who sent me the Christmas letter, I realized that this was the first personal letter I had written in many, many years.

    My college student niece, whose little one we babysit while she is busy at classes, recently asked my wife and me for a favor.  She recalled how, when she was just a bit of a thing, she cherished the letters that my wife would write to her.  When our grandniece starts to read, she asked, could we please send her letters through the mail so that she can experience the same excitement of opening and reading them?

    You can count on it, my dear.



    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.



    I’d like to thank my many readers who so kindly left comments on my recent post, “No Text Please, We’re Parents.”  Many of your comments described technophobic experiences with your own parents.  Quite a few of you agreed with my parents’ objection to texting as “impersonal.”

    More than one comment mentioned that text-based messaging is rendering conversation a lost art.  When my parents visited for my birthday last weekend, they agreed, pointing out that abbreviations commonly used in text messages are destroying both written and spoken forms of the English language.  By way of example, my mother stated that it grates on her nerves when even radio personalities say “that’s how they do” (omitting the implied “it”).  My father cited the deplorable spelling and grammar that he regularly sees in email and on websites.

    I tried to point out that any language changes and grows over time, adding new words and changing acceptable forms of grammar and spelling.  The English of Chaucer’s fourteenth century works and that of Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century works barely resemble each other, much less modern forms of English.

    Every generation seems to bemoan the increasing informality of language embraced by their children.  Slang lingo has been a part of teenage culture since the dawn of time.  Kids seek to separate themselves from their parents by embracing vocabulary and grammar alien to their elders.  There was a time when the words “groovy” and “cool” annoyed adults; when I was growing up, it was considered “hip” to tack the word “man” on to the beginning or end of every sentence.  “What’s up, man?”  “Man, that sucks.”  And then there was the ultimate expression of disgust, disappointment, amazement, sympathy or any other emotion of the moment:  “Maaaaaaaaannnn!”

    It’s nothing new for parents to believe that their children are destroying the English language.  And yet English soldiers on.

    As for abbreviations, I fail to see much difference between today’s CUL8R or ILY and yesteryear’s SWAK and XYZ (“sealed with a kiss” and “check your zipper”).  And it is easy to forget that keystroke-saving abbreviations were rampant on the internet long before text messaging came into vogue.  When I first got online in the mid-1990s, I had to acculturate myself to a whole lexicon of BRBs, IMHOs and FWIWs.  These have found their way into the spoken language; I’ve heard people say “imho” and I myself have been known to say “bee ar bee!”

    It is my belief that text messaging, both the kind on cell phones and the kind on the internet, brings people together rather than separating them.  Any form of language that makes it easier for people to communicate is, in my view, a positive development.

    And so, I concluded my recent conversation with my parents by telling a story about some text-based communication that I enjoyed on Friday night.  In my goofy way, I took a photo of my dinner using my cell phone, typed the word “Yum!” and sent it to my nephews and nieces using SnapChat.  Every last one of them responded.  These are young people who won’t bother to call me and, likely as not, won’t answer their phones when I call them.  If I want to have much of a relationship with them, I need to be able to send and receive text and photos.  This is one of the main reasons I procured a cell phone in the first place.  So texting or SnapChatting them is my way of saying “I love you” and “I’m thinking of you.”

    My niece’s response to my photo was particularly poignant.  “I love how you randomly Snap me!” was her text response.  We all feel loved when we know we’re thought of, now don’t we?

    And if that’s “impersonal,” then I’ll take impersonal any day of the week, man.





    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.


    Code is Poetry: Why a Liberal Arts Education is Still Relevant

    I keep reading that a liberal arts education is a colossal waste of time and money, that all it’ll get you is unemployed.  This line of thinking holds that what the world of the 21st century needs is computer programmers and health care professionals.  STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) is where it’s at, baby!  Shakespeare is out.  Coding is in!

    Colleges and universities have been placed in the prickly position of defending their humanities and social sciences programs against the battering rams of the STEM people.  Don’t say you can’t do anything practical with sociology, literature or philosophy (they tell us).  In today’s market, every job requires excellent critical thinking and communication skills.  Why, you can do anything with these backgrounds!  As in the classical Greek tradition, a broad education steeps students in history and ideas, providing them with a frame of reference for taking on any challenge of modern society.  After all, our statesmen, lawyers, teachers and, yes, artists, have to start somewhere.

    I’ve been laughing at a humorous-yet-serious video posted by the English Department of our local college, California State University Chico.  My favorite line is about halfway through the video, where an English student composes a tweet to #imgonnaliveinabox.  Wow, members of the younger generation are afraid that a liberal arts education will doom them to a lifetime of poverty!

    Prestigious Stanford University, located in California’s Silicon Valley (and therefore about 150 miles from my home), is known for its computer science and technology programs.  Students come from all over the world to study to become engineers.  And yet, most of Stanford’s professors don’t teach science, math or engineering.  The New York Times reports that 45% of Stanford’s faculty is in the humanities, but only 15% of its students are.

    While it must be wonderful for Stanford’s political science or comparative literature students to receive individual attention in small classes, many other colleges are financially unable to keep sparsely-attended liberal arts programs going.  So departments of Romance languages, music and art history fall by the wayside.

    Some say good riddance to useless studies (what employer wants to hire an anthropology major?) while others bewail the loss of intellectualism in favor of job preparation.

    I think about my own college experience, well over a quarter century ago.  As a freshman, my heart’s desire was to major in theater arts.  Following some wonderful high school experiences both as a thespian and as a student of several teachers who knew how to bring drama alive, I was willing to paint scenery, gather props or do whatever was needed just to soak in the atmosphere of the seniors who surely were headed for Broadway and Hollywood.  Let’s just say that my parents vetoed this misguided notion right off the bat.  They wanted me to major in political science in preparation for law school.  That was all well and good except for one little thing:  I had no desire to attend law school.  But since my parents were paying for my education, political science it was.

    At the start of my sophomore year, I transferred to a larger state university, where I learned that it was possible to major in two disciplines rather than just one.  Although I had given up the theater dream, I quickly signed up to double major in English along with political science.  One for my parents, the other for me.

    I hadn’t really strayed too far from theater arts; all I had done was move from one liberal arts major to others.

    But what I never, ever considered was majoring in a STEM area.  I am grateful that my parents didn’t insist that I study science or math so that I could land a job upon graduation.  They knew that would have been a disaster.  And they never suggested that my choice of college major could affect my ability to support myself.  Why would they have?  Mom may have been a biology major, but Dad was an English major. Both of them earned advanced degrees, went into teaching and eventually became administrators.

    Indeed, not everyone is cut out for the STEM disciplines.  Even those so inclined may have a tough time making it through introductory science courses if they attended high school in low income areas where science education may have been sparse.  I took one math class in my freshman year, failed, and graduated without taking another math or science class again.  In the Chico video cited above, one student says “math sucks.”  While I was a bit startled to hear that in this day and age, the sentiment is not far off from my own undergraduate attitude.

    Then again, I hit college in the mid-1970s, just in time to witness the tail end of the three Ps:  Petitions, protests and pot.  I wisely stayed away from all of those things.  This was partly out of fear, particularly since I knew that my college had nearly been torn apart during the Vietnam War, and particularly after Kent State.  But the shadow of the early ‘70s still hung over the campus like a pall of pot smoke in mid-decade.  Science and math just didn’t seem all that important.

    The start-ups of Silicon Valley were just beginning to heat up during my college days, but this didn’t seem a blip on our radar on the east coast.  The hot major was business administration.  Accounting, marketing and economics textbooks were everywhere.  Arbitrage, anyone?  Wall Street, here we come! Everybody say moooooney!

    I had nothing but disdain for that stuff.  It was like another world that had nothing to do with me whatsoever.  In my junior year, my sister joined me at the same institution of higher learning.  She was a STEM gal who breezed through calculus but had a hell of a time getting through freshman English.  She started out majoring in physics, then changed to biology.  Yep, my parents again.  Med school.

    But my sister did not attend medical school.  And when I graduated, rather than attend law school I proceeded to spend six years working in a field in which none of my coworkers had more than a high school diploma.  Some took a few classes at the local community college, but most quit before long.

    However, it was the early eighties and I saw where things were going.  Slowly but surely, manual processes were being computerized.  When I started my first job out of college, the clerks still used typewriters.  I hadn’t yet heard of Microsoft.  IBM and DEC computers were all the rage in the business world.  No one had a computer at home.  What on earth would you do with it?  And Apple?  That was a little toy computer that the kids used over at the high school.  But Hewlett-Packard peripherals began appearing in our office and I began hearing whispered stories of incredible things going on in places like Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San José.

    I saw that political science and English weren’t going to do it for me.  I needed a do-over.  I began taking night classes in computer science and business.  And yes, I retook that math class I had failed back in freshman year, and this time I earned an A.  Another thing that happened is my discovery that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  I was the one in our office who figured out how to use this stuff called “software” that the company kept purchasing.

    Once my sisters married computer engineers and migrated out to Silicon Valley, I began to understand just how badly I had blundered in my education.  Or had I?  Maybe I didn’t know anything about math or science. But at night, I discovered that I could learn to write code.  And during the day, I was the one who wrote the documentation and the reports, the one who could proofread the technical manuscripts we kept receiving in French and Spanish.  I was the one who taught the grammar class.  I became a manager.  And eventually, I even went to law school after all.

    I began to understand that STEM and liberal arts are not diametrically opposed, but in fact go hand in hand.  A well-rounded education requires significant exposure to both.  Engineering students go into management and end up giving speeches and writing white papers.  Liberal arts students end up as technical writers at software companies.  Every field needs readers and writers.  So yes, if liberal arts majors are to understand the way phenomena such as text messaging and the internet affect society, they do need to know a little about algorithms and graphical user interfaces.  By the same token, engineers need to know how to construct a proper sentence in the English language, and how to string together a series of such sentences into coherent paragraphs.

    I’ll always be in awe of those who have a deep appreciation of things like Linux shell scripting.  But that doesn’t mean that a little bit of Shakespeare, Dickens or T.S. Eliot ever hurt anyone.  After all, how will the computer and biomedical people create our future if they know nothing of our past?

    Or, as the magicians at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) like to say, “code is poetry.”



    Gopnik, Adam, “Why Teach English?” The New Yorker, August 27, 2013.

    Hamman, Kira, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Conversation, April 12, 2013).


    On Scott Berkun and Working Remotely

    remote working

    As disappointing as it was to be laid off recently, not working has provided me with a lot more time to read, both here in the blogosphere and offline (those bound-up paper thingies called “books”).  When I was working, it might take me a month or more to get through a book.  But today I did something that I haven’t done in many years:  I read an entire book straight through in a single day.

    Some of this reading was accomplished at the kitchen table, some on the living room sofa and some seated on a pew outside the entrance of the church next door, while batting away moths that persisted in landing on my book, on my shirt and in my hair.

    The book in question was Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants.  Sure, I was curious about how Matt Mullenweg started Automattic and I was interested in learning a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes of the bloggy world we so love at  The real reason I picked up this book, however, was to experience Berkun’s take on working remotely, what he refers to as “the future of work.” 

    You see, I am considering pursuing an employment opportunity that would be almost entirely online, “working from home.”  And despite the obvious advantages of such an arrangement, I harbor more than a little trepidation.

    I am duly impressed by the “distributed” environment in which Automattic’s employees can be (and often are) all over the world, collaborating with the aid of such tools as IRC and Skype.  (IRC?  Seriously?  Is that dinosaur still around?  I’d rather not think about it.  Too many stories of misspent nights on IRC in the not-so-halcyon days of my youth.)  And yet, Berkun points out that something is definitely missing when coworkers type to each other.  It is difficult to gain a full understanding of another’s remarks when such cues as body language and tone of voice are stripped away.

    There has to be something exciting about collaborating with colleagues in Europe, Asia and Australia, right?  I would think that the cultural diversity involved, rather than constituting barriers, would contribute depth and breadth to the conversation.  Not to mention that, when working on a product, it is helpful to have firsthand feedback on ways in which the interface and documentation could be interpreted very differently overseas than it is in the United States.

    But then there is the fact that Automattic is a “flat” rather than hierarchical organization. It is one thing to provide and receive assistance from colleagues when everyone is on the same level.  It is quite another to have to constantly report to a boss, and to monitor employees, who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

    On a personal level, how would I deal with the challenges of working remotely?  Would my work habits fit in with this mode of operation?  Berkun is right on target when he admits that working remotely is not for everyone.  To succeed at remote work, he points out, people must be “masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.”

    Bingo!  My chief fear about working remotely is that I am simply not disciplined enough to be successful.

    To date, all of my employment has been within established work hours in a traditional brick-and-mortar office environment.  About five years ago, however, I experienced a tiny taste of what it’s like to work remotely, and it did not go well.  My wife was in the hospital for a few days, and rather than using vacation time and absenting myself from my projects entirely, I promised to work online in between running back and forth to the hospital.

    Bad decision.

    Aside from the obvious distractions (the doctors were trying to figure out whether my wife had fallen victim to the H1N1 virus and my mind was not really on work), I quickly discovered that when I was not at work physically, I was not there mentally either.  Even though I had access to the corporate intranet and was supposed to be working (our crude collaborative efforts consisted of instant messaging), I found myself drawn to such other occupations as:

    • Sleeping
    • Playing turns in my ongoing email Scrabble tournament
    • Reading blogs
    • Messing around on Facebook
    • Did I mention sleeping?

    After four days of this, my wife was back at home, I was back at work, and I breathed a sigh of relief on both counts.

    Berkun posits that some folks need to have that barrier between their home life and their work life, and for them, a traditional work environment is more suitable than working remotely.  My wife, however, says that I just need to buck up and learn some self-discipline.  She may be right.  Perhaps I could do this if I just set my mind to it.

    Think of how practical this would be if I could pull it off.  We now live in a small town in northern California, surrounded by family, and with expenses a heck of a lot lower than they would be down the road in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.  I could be working right now, in the middle of the night, on a laptop dangling off a TV tray, sitting in our living room listening to Steely Dan over headphones.  Or sitting in Starbucks with a soy latte.  Or out in the fresh air on the church pew next door, batting the moths away.  And who knows?  Maybe we’d finally be able to fulfill our dreams of living part of the year by the ocean in Pismo Beach.

    This working remotely thing is starting to sound better and better.