An Encyclopedia of Knowledge

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Discovering something brand new is quite exhilarating, and with the Internet it is far easier to do ever before. There was a time when a family set of encyclopedias often formed the basis of new learning, and many a curious person spent large amounts of time scanning the pages of those glorious collections of facts and ideas. Even the old volumes that were somewhat outdated still offered a cornucopia of information about the world in a time when the only other alternative for vicarious exploring was the library. Many a child lucky enough to live in a house with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica held a world of excitement from “A to Z” at the fingertips.

Of course those old collections of Wikipedia like information have gone the way of the dinosaurs making it less and less necessary for young children to learn how to spell “encyclopedia” from Disney character, Jiminy Cricket. The Internet has taken the place of those rows of volumes that grandly announced that certain homes were purveyors and supporters of knowledge, and the extravagant investment in companies like Britannica or Compton or World Book was physical proof of dedication to learning.

There were often installment plans for encyclopedias back in the day. Patrons would purchase one volume at a time on a monthly payment plan. Each beautifully bound book would arrive along with a bill. My own father being consumed with a devotion to knowledge, books, and libraries had signed on for a set of Compton encyclopedias that were of dubious age by the time my brothers and I had learned to read. Nonetheless, most of the historical information was sound, and they became a kind of centerpiece in our family library that was lovingly stored in bookcases that lined our hallway. When my dad died, purchasing books became a luxury replaced by regular visits to the library. The encyclopedias became cracked and the pages began to rot. At some point my mother must have decided to divest herself of them because I don’t know what eventually happened to them.

Now the Worldwide Web is my go to source of quick research. As with the old books that I used, I have to be a bit wary of what I see, and I must check data against multiple sites. I find that there is always at least one address that contains quite accurate and up to date facts. It’s like living inside the great library that once graced Alexandria. I can lounge in my pajamas and munch on my breakfast while traveling through a virtual universe. Nothing is beyond my scope, and I revel in the excitement of it all.

I often think of my father and how intrigued he might have been by the technology that makes it so easy and affordable to discover faraway worlds and cultures. A good laptop provides more data at a far lower price than even the best encyclopedia. I can almost picture my dad surfing from one topic to another and enjoying all of the latest innovations with the same glee that he demonstrated for his prized books. He was a futurist who enjoyed reading about travels to the moon in an era in which such thoughts seemed to be the purview of dreamers. He had a wanderlust that he satisfied with his vacations and subscriptions to The National Geographic Society. He devoured literature and history, and never seemed to be able to find enough reading material to satisfy his voracious appetite. Having so much available with a few strokes of his fingers on a keyboard would have no doubt made him as giddy as a child on Christmas day.

Like my father I am perennially searching for interesting new ideas, and my trusty laptop is one of my most valued possessions. It takes me to places both sought out and unexpected. Each day I find that I am surprised by the new learning that it brings my way. I am admittedly as addicted to its power to transport me as my dad was to the books and the libraries that satisfied his academic thirst.

A good example of how the Internet sates my curiosity occurred recently when I was reading an article and an image popped up in a corner of my screen that distracted me for its color. As soon as I had finished the essay I clicked on the photo. It was the first in a series of slides about human towers. It seems that each year in Catalonia thousands of people converge to enjoy the tradition of watching organized groups take turns building a “castell.” These castles  are formed by creating a foundational base called a “pinya” upon which two additional bases are built before people then climb as high as nine to twelve feet into the air to form a tower of humans. Each group wears white pants and a solid colored shirt of a single color. Around their waists are sashes that also serve as a means of climbing. The process involves arranging the strongest and sturdiest of the members on the bottom level and then slowly moving upward until the lightest and most acrobatic form the summit. Then the process is reversed, all in a smooth flowing and systematic manner.

The photos that I saw were stunning in their beauty and so tickled my curiosity that I did additional research and learned about the history and terminology of this traditional event. I became quite intrigued by the difficulty of creating this human work of art, and wondered why I had never before heard of it. I suppose that next I will find some videos that show the process from start to finish.

We often complain that all of the technology that surrounds us is taking too much of our time or invading our privacy. We don’t stop to realize just how wonderful it has been in helping us to quickly and conveniently learn about the world in which we live. While the Internet has the power to drive us apart, it also might be the very thing that ultimately brings us together. We now have the capacity to see how true it is that we humans are amazing and to understand how much alike in our dreams we really are. Those dusty encyclopedias were once our bridges to understanding, but the new peddlers of information found at the stroke of a few keys are far more glorious.   

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Mastering Our Machines

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Our high tech world is glorious until it is not. We are surrounded by machines that are designed to make our lives easier, and most of the time they do. When something goes awry, however, we go into a tizzy. Our links with the world suddenly create chaos and frustration. We’ve perhaps taught Alexa to turn the lights in homes off and on at particular times, but when the Internet goes down we have to scurry again to do things by hand. Our phones keep us linked to the world wherever we go, but in a power failure they are as useless as bricks once they lose their charges. Without all systems working in tandem our computers and cameras and irrigation systems go awry. We are reduced to doing things by hand in the old fashioned ways. We get frustrated and because of that the tasks become more difficult than they need to be. The beauty of our mechanized world is glorious, but when it fails to deliver it adds to our angst.

We now take much of our progress for granted. In just a little more than a century the world has changed so much that our ancestors would not recognize the earth that they once inhabited. My own grandparents had no electricity or even indoor plumbing in the homes of their youth. They rode from place to place in horse drawn buggies. Their homes were heated by fireplaces and cooled by open windows. They communicated with far away friends and relatives with letters that often took weeks to arrive. They witnessed radical changes in their adult lives that transformed their daily routines. By the middle of the twentieth century they were literally in awe of all that they had witnessed, and spoke of seeing the first lights and hearing of the first planes with a kind of reverence.

My own lifetime has been dominated by a kind of inventiveness that was almost unimaginable. I am from the first generation that grew up with daily doses of television. I watched mankind venture into space when such feats seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. I worked in a building that headquartered IBM in my city and I recall entire floors of computer equipment that was less powerful than the laptop that I own today. The phone that I used as a child was tethered to the wall by a cord. Now I carry my means of communication inside my purse, and wear a watch on my wrist with powers that would have made comic book heroes of old green with envy The advances in science and technology came so quickly and regularly that we almost take them for granted, so much so that we become discombobulated when something causes them to fail.

The old ways seem ancient and yet it was not that long ago that we were hanging clothes on lines to dry in the sun. Television was limited to three or four channels that often went off the air at midnight. Student research required long hours culling through books in libraries and writing notes on index cards. Calculations were done with paper and pencil or maybe gigantic adding machines with a hand cranks. Somehow we managed without our current raft of devices that have become commonplace, and we’re not quite sure how we did that.

My father-in-law uses a computer that is somewhat out of date. He owns a big screen television and subscribes to a cable provider. His cell phone is quaint because it is not of the smart variety. He has accepted the newer technology only reluctantly, and usually has to rely on his son when problems with his devices occur. He admits that sometimes the new fangled machines frustrate him more than they help. He marvels at what they do, but wonders if it is worth it to try them given that he has done without most of them for ninety years.

I suppose that I might be more inclined to my father-in-law’s way of thinking were it not for my husband. He likes to be a pioneer in the use of all that is bright and shiny and new. He seems to think that he inherited that trait from his grandfather who was always the first on the block to try the latest inventions. He reads Wirecutter regularly and watches the Apple announcements with regularity. His computer reminds him of events and keeps track of business. He’s souped up our home with devices that automatically do all kinds of tasks. He enjoys discussing and installing innovations with my brother and one of my nephews. It all works quite nicely, and admittedly makes life easier, but when it goes amiss he grows frustrated.

I suppose that I most enjoy being able to write with a word processor. I recall all too well the pain of attempting to type on an electric typewriter. One slip of the finger on the wrong key required an application of a white liquid to hide the error. My printed copies were always filled with little polka dots that shouted out my incompetence with a keyboard. I much prefer the forgiveness of my laptop that gives my papers the appearance of perfection.

Once my essay is done I load it onto a website that schedules my work to appear at a certain time on a particular date. It is a lovely process that allows me to enjoy my favorite hobby of writing. Nonetheless, things do regularly go wrong, and then, like my husband I become anxious and irritable. Glitches steal my time and my joy. I bemoan the horrors of things that do not work, forgetting about how hard the same tasks actually used to be.

Our technology is grand, but I suppose we have to be careful not to allow it to overwhelm us. It’s okay to spend a day without cable television. We can wash our dishes by hand if the dishwasher breaks. We don’t really need our phones every minute of every day. Sometimes it’s actually good to take a moment to just enjoy the world without the artificial sounds and workings of machines. Putting them aside for a time stills the soul and puts us back in touch with our connections to nature and the universe. We need to now and again remind ourselves that we should be the masters of our machines, and not the other way around.

Finally Learning Who I Am

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If you’ve followed my blogs even  intermittently you know that I have researched my paternal grandfather for many years all to no avail. I literally cannot find records of him until 1930, even though he was born in 1879. I’ve looked for his father and again there is no sign of him ever providing data for  a census or a document certifying his death certifying his death. Grandpa’s mother is even more of a phantom because she died in childbirth when she was evidently quite young.  My grandfather was supposedly raised by a grandmother, and I have found women with the same name as hers but none of them fit the profile that Grandpa gave me. I’ve had the best luck learning about the man who eventually became my grandfather’s guardian, but I cannot find a familial connection between him and my Grandpa. I once wrote to some of John Little’s descendants and none of them had ever heard about him being a guardian for a young orphan. So there it has stood and my frustrations just grow and grow, but I think that I may have contrived a plan that will unlock the mystery of my heritage. I’m convinced that I will receive a treasure trove of information if I have the courage to set the idea in motion.

So, I am officially throwing my hat in the ring for the presidency in 2020. I’ll be running as an independent because I don’t think either party will have me, and I’m not so sure that I would have them. I disagree with both on far too many issues, so mine will be a lone wolf attempt at winning the highest office in the land. I’ll begin by being open about who I know that I am, and then I’ll let the journalists and politicians do the work of uncovering my past to provide a more complete picture. I suspect that I will learn a great deal that I have never known, and since it really doesn’t matter whether I win the office or not, I’ll at least get the information that has so far eluded me.

I like to think of myself as being like honest Abe. In fact in one of those little quizzes that show up on Facebook I learned that I am most like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. I don’t have anything that I want to hide, so I will provide an outline of what I know to be true.

I joined the Students for a Democratic Society when I was at the University of Houston. There is a photo of me front and center in one of the school yearbooks. It was some time later that I learned what a radical organization SDS actually was. My sole purpose back then was to speak out against a war that I felt was steadily going in the wrong direction. Of course, nobody is going to believe in my innocence when I run for office but it will be worth the brouhaha just to find out about Grandpa. I’ll be branded as a radical, but that’s okay since I know that I’m a rather boring sort and always have been.

Both my maternal grandmother and my mother suffered from mental illnesses so I suppose that someone will decide that my quirks make me appear to be a bit flaky in my own right. I’ll own the fact that I can sometimes be a bit cray cray, but so far I’ve made it without an official diagnosis. I probably could have done a better job of finding help for my mom, but in the long run I feel comfortable in asserting that I did my best.

With all of my years in education there is surely someone who disliked me who will step forward with assertions that may shock me. If I wronged anyone I am greatly sorry. Forty years of working with children can be quite stressful, and I suppose that I may have uttered my frustrations a time or two. I know that when I was in charge of the educational program at one of my churches I, along with my co-director, was accused of being an agent of the devil because I was not a nun. That may eliminate a few potential voters along the way, but surely my own story is so mundane that someone will decide to reach far back into my history to find some obnoxious ancestor to darken my reputation. I’m in the hopes that when they do they will finally solve the mystery of my grandfather. I am tired of wondering if he simply sprang up in a cabbage patch.

He admitted that his father was a n’er do well, so I won’t be too surprised about what will turn up in that regard. I know that my great grandfather was a heavy drinker who preferred good old Virginia moonshine, according the Grandpa’s recollection. My grandfather himself even went through a period of inordinate imbibing until he became disgusted and decided to become a tee totaler. I’ve never cared much for anything more than a glass of wine or a Margarita, so my reputation should remain intact in that regard.

The funny thing is that I have more records about my grandparents who travelled to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I do about my Grandpa Little. I know what boats they came on, what port they arrive in, and even who their parents were and when they were baptized as infants. It’s always seemed strange to me that somehow my paternal grandfather should remain such a mystery. So I can’t wait to use my campaign as a way to launch an investigation. If the FBI can’t vet me, then surely some hungry journalist will do the job. Maybe I’ll even get a spot on that program on PBS that find the formerly unknown ancestors of celebrities.

I’ve got a thick skin, so it won’t matter if they find some embarrassing facts, I just want to be certain that nobody makes things up. I’m looking for accuracy here so I can finally tell my siblings and our children and grandchildren from whence we came. Who knows I might even shake up the race a bit with my really strange amalgam of ideas about how our country should be governed. That alone will probably bring out more information that I actually need.

I think I may be on to something. I’m looking forward to finally knowing who I am.

Quelling the Rage

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I’m nearing the beginning of my seventh decade of life. For nearly seventy years now I have led a rather quiet existence, which is actually the way that I prefer it to be. I love people, but need my space now and again. I am more of an observer of human nature than someone who eagerly joins particular groups. A quiet walk with a dear friend brings me far more happiness than attending a raucous party. I accept change as inevitable and enjoy innovations, but worry about ideas that throw the baby out with the bath water. I am fiercely loyal, and will go to battle for those that I love, but mostly I am a peaceful sort. I tend toward diplomacy and flexibility rather than being an ideologue. I know that I had the talents to attain fame or fortune, but I have always been more inclined to focus my efforts on the pursuit of the smaller causes in my little corner of the world. I can honestly say that I am exactly the person that I seem to be with only a few exceptions and they are minor. I sometimes lose my cool and curse in a manner that would have made my dear mother blush, but I also know how to control such impulses in public out of respect. I attempt to be fair and rational even though my nature is to let my heart rule. I am happy and content with my life.

I once dreamed of living in an upscale neighborhood in Houston like West University Place. I imagined myself driving around town in a Mercedes Benz. I actually thought that the true sign of success came with wealth. I’ve outgrown such silliness. I like my tract home in Pearland. I’ve created my own little island of comfort inside its walls. I no longer desire to spend my money on a big fancy car that will eventually wear out anyway. In fact, there is very little that I want or need beyond the hope that life will be as good for my friends and family as it has been for me.

At this point I realize that our lives are filled with ups and downs. One day we may be on the top of the world, and the next we feel shattered. When my father died I thought that my mother and brothers and I were surely doomed. I learned that it is possible to overcome even the emotional trauma of death. When I finally realized that my mother’s mental illness was chronic I had already gathered the strength, tools and allies to fight her disease. I’ve seen times when there was little or no food in my pantry, but I used my ingenuity to design a meal out of whatever I had. There came a moment when I found the confidence within my heart that I never realized had been waiting there all along. Life has been a fight at times, but I know how to gird myself and enter the fray. I’ve got some battle scars, but then so does everyone who makes it to my stage in life.

Still, I worry, not so much for myself but for those who will follow me. I see so many demanding that we choose sides in fights that really don’t even need to happen. I am more and more often identified not as the unique individual that I am, but rather as a member of one subgroup or another. I much prefer simply viewing myself as a human being with all of the glory and imperfections that the name implies. I am a member of a long history of people who have had the privilege of spending time on this earth, those who for centuries have tried to be their best and to leave a legacy of peace and progress for the young. Like them I have both succeeded and failed. I learned to hang tough and just keep moving forward with each new day. When I arise in the morning it feels almost like a kind of spiritual resurrection in which I have yet another opportunity to set things right. There is something gloriously hopeful about knowing that this is true.

Of late I see things that are contrary to my nature. People are being tried in the court of public opinion without regard to evidence or fairness. There is an anger in the air that is difficult to ignore, and the most vocal often insist that we each choose a side or be found guilty of thoughts and beliefs that we actually do not hold. Rules and mores are crumbling beneath a wave of ideas that suggest that discussions, critical thinking and compromises are not only outmoded, but actually harmful. Friend turns on friend over issues promulgated by people who seek power, and we too often fall for their methods of dividing us. I truly wonder if these trends will only end after we have been scarred and injured by the chaos. Do we have to hit rock bottom before we are willing to change?

I might easily just close my door, pull down my blinds and ignore the furor. It would perhaps be the easiest thing to do. I might just leave all of the trouble to the young folk, and just enjoy the contentment that has found me at last. Still, I feel a sense of duty to do my small part to quell the rage that only seems to grow in our nation. I search for the source but only find frustration, because it seems to me that it emanates from far too many groups to name. There is a kind of hypocrisy that has overtaken our leaders that makes me continually feel as though I am the little boy in the fairytale that my father once read to me about an emperor who had no clothes. I wonder why I can see that it is so, and so many are blind to the very idea.

I suppose that I will keep trying to bring people together, even as I see how often my intentions are misunderstood. It is worth the effort to work to end the bloodless civil war in which our country is now engaged. I may not lead a movement but I have the right and the power to voice my concerns, and hopefully we will begin to get grip on ourselves before the arguments lead to the kind of violence that once ripped our ancestors apart.

I sense that I am not alone in wanting the fighting to cease. I believe that there are enough of us to begin a quiet movement before it is too late. At least I am willing to try.

Don’t Fall For It

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I don’t know about you, but I am drowning in political ads and commentaries. I hardly bother to cull through my emails these days because they are filled with requests for funding, answers to poll questions, and bids for votes. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if they mostly came from local candidates for office, but I get messages from people living in Florida, California, New York and Massachusetts, and they are not confined to one party or another. I find myself wishing for a simple “go away” button that I might push, instead of just ignoring them. Without some sort of response from me the senders may actually believe that I appreciate or even care about the notices that they send me. Sadly I just toss them all in the trash and imagine that there is a virtual dumpster that is overflowing all across the land.

In all honesty none of the political propaganda that I receive ever provides me with a brief summary of what each candidate endorses or believes. Instead they are filled with dubious emotional arguments designed to either pull at my heartstrings or make me afraid. Mostly they are insinuations and outright dirty tricks against one politician or another. I mean I don’t much care for President Trump either, but do you really think I’m ready to pull the old twenty fifth amendment out of the hat to rid myself and the country of him, Elizabeth? I’d prefer instead to know why you are running for office two years ahead of time.

I’m weary of politics, politics, politics wherever I go. I can’t peruse my Facebook feed without encountering sloganeering from the gubernatorial and senatorial candidates from my state. I have to say that all of the celebrities who don’t even live here cannot possibly understand the unique needs of Texas, so why are they messing with us? Please folks, just give me the facts and be done with it. I do have a brain that is still working relatively well, so I am fully capable of making decisions if I have good information.

I turn on the television and it’s not much better. I so love the late night comedy monologues, but can’t any of you find material other than what’s happening in Washington D.C.? Such material may be funny once in a great while, but to pound on it every single night is absurd. There was even one host who recently presumed to know exactly what I was thinking. He got a standing ovation from the audience but I quickly reached for my remote and voted with my fingers.

I’m looking for a vast wasteland of nothing but pure entertainment, untinged by political persuasion. I find myself roaming titles on Netflix in search of old school movies that just make me laugh without some deep hidden motive inside the actors’ lines. I need a rest from all of the rancor and I suspect most everyone else does as well. I really am finished with all of the temptations to react each time I see something that displeases me. I see it for the bias that it is, and would simply ask those who spread such things to please stop.

I recently watched the HBO series on John Adams once again. It was a profound reenactment of the founding of our country from the viewpoint of one of our fathers. It clearly demonstrated how complex and messy politics become regardless of, and maybe even because of, the differing beliefs that we each hold dear. Our votes generally come down to quite personal philosophies and needs. It would be nice to have little outlines or charts that simply list the experience and philosophies of each candidate rather than having to cull through all of the garbage designed to play on our emotions. Unfortunately, that has rarely been the way of things even from the beginnings of our nation, and such is true virtually all over the world. We humans get quite creative when attempting to market ideas.

I’d like to believe that all we have to do is get past November and the detirous that is clogging all of my communication devices will miraculously go away, but experience has taught me that we are now engaged in never ending political campaigns. The beast has a voracious appetite for our attention and will keep devouring our time as long as we react, so maybe the thing to do is just to ignore. When the sound of crickets becomes loud enough, the problem may simply go away.

In the meantime I suggest that we all buckle up, because I fear that we are in for a very bumpy ride. Maybe if we just laugh instead of screaming we might even find some fun in observing the idiosyncrasies of our own humanity. So sit back, slip on your Nikes or not, get that trigger finger ready to mute or dump or tune out, or just chuckle in wonder. Whether it seems that way or not we are still in charge and our votes will create the kind of changes we need to see. Let’s just be sure not to fall for the antics. We’re all much smarter than that.