We Must Provide the Heart

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Way back in the nineteen eighties my husband, Mike, came home bearing a big box with almost childlike excitement. Inside the cardboard container was a computer from Radio Shack, an early rendition of the TRS 80 that ironically earned the nickname “Trash 80.” We were very much on a budget at that time, saving for college for our children and working at jobs not known for their generosity in salary. We carefully watched our purchases so it was unusual for Mike to spend what was then a rather large amount of money without discussing it with me. My initial reaction was to be a bit angry but Mike countered my protests by claiming that computers were going to change the world and our family needed to become intimately familiar with them. I was somewhat unimpressed but decided to just humor him since he rarely bought anything for himself.

Our first family computer, if you dare to call it that, was driven by a tape deck and seemed to be operated by a turtle. It did little more than provide Mike with an opportunity to explore a couple of primitive games and learn new ways of incorporating it into our daily activities. If I touched it more than once or twice I don’t remember. It gave Mike something to do after work and so I mostly ignored it.

It wasn’t long before computers were becoming a bit more sophisticated. Inventiveness in that arena was moving quickly and Mike soon enough wanted a bit more power than our machine afforded. In a sweet bow to me and my profession the next model that he brought home was an Apple II of the kind that was showing up in classrooms across the country. It operated with a floppy disk and our model had two drives. Since there were already several educational programs in use in my school I was able to find some practical use for it in my work. Our daughters took interest in the possibilities of the model as well and before long it was a center of family activity. 

My eldest daughter and I learned how to actually create programs for our Apple II but it was Mike who took an understanding of its power to a new level. He found ways to use the machine far beyond games and word processing while dreaming constantly of the possibilities of a technologically driven home and work life. It was as though he had become obsessed with the idea of making the world a better place through the use of intelligent machines. He constantly cornered other aficionados of computing and picked their brains about the future of a brave new world.

I soon realized that Mike was willing to drive a car until the wheels fell off but he was not content with keeping a computer past its prime. Again and again he would suddenly arrive home with the newest and most powerful model of computing and we would learn the ins and outs of the enhanced mechanisms. Before long I was incorporating the technology into every aspect of my work as a teacher. I even had a specially designed spreadsheet for keeping student grades. I got permission from my principal to replace the old style handwritten grade book with copies of my computerized system. It allowed me to keep a running average for each student at the instant I entered a grade. It was tied to a word processing program that gave me the ability to send home a weekly progress report to the parents. I became more and more convinced that Mike had been prophetic in his certainty that those machines were going to change our lives.

Of course things just got better and better in the world of technology. I now hold more power than all of the computers used to send a man to the moon in a tiny laptop that I can carry anywhere. I use technology on a daily basis to get the latest news, communicate with businesses and my doctor, keep up with friends, write my blog, do research, make purchases. The list of how my computer has changed my life is almost endless, and it has enabled me to do more in any given day than ever before. It’s difficult for me to even imagine the world as it was before and yet there are indeed times when technology drives me to the brink of frustration.

It’s quite difficult to communicate with a real human being when conducting business these days. I have to jump through a series of computerized hoops before finally hearing a human voice, often from a continent away. I have so many passwords that I sometimes  become annoyed by the task of having to retrieve them from my memory. I’ve been hacked and had to spend countless hours repairing the damage. I have had to create a routine of checking email and messages on my phone because important information is always coming in electronic form. Almost every type of business in which I engage relies heavily on the internet, which may or may not be up and running when I need it most. The frustrations of our modern conveniences have created their own form of stress including a toxic political environment and a haven for bullies.

For the most part I am in awe of the conveniences that I enjoy as a result of the continually improving technology that I use. Nonetheless I see its flaws and they are dramatic. As a society we have yet to understand the implications of instant communication around the world. We have a power that can go terribly wrong if we are not careful. Our inventiveness is moving forward so quickly that we barely have time to understand it before it changes. The lessons we teach about it are often years behind. It is a power that is both truly wonderful and frightening.

There is no doubt that today’s technology has improved life for millions. I can attest to that on a very personal level. We just have to be careful in how we use this great gift. We must be aware of its dangers and not rely so heavily on it that we become paralyzed when it fails. In the end we have to remember that we are dealing with machines that have no heart. We must be the ones to provide the human feelings.

Alone and Lost

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Humankind’s ingenuity is so incredible that getting lost is almost as much a thing of the past as the buggy whip. It’s been at least twenty years since I found myself driving around in a state of frenzy because I had no idea where I was or how to get back on track. Those were the days of big paper maps that folded into glove compartment sized rectangles that waited patiently for use. Back then we always had one for the city, one for the state and one for the entire country. Using them required stopping the car if I was alone, finding the flashlight and hoping that it was fully charged if it was dark, and praying that I would be able to figure out where I was as a starting point for creating my route. It could be a frightening experience especially before cell phones were as common a possession as a bar of soap.

The last time that I was truly lost was back in the late nineteen nineties. I had attended an evening event on the near north side of Houston, an area that was quite unfamiliar to me. I was a Magnet School Coordinator back then an I had set up an information booth at a fair designed to introduce parents to the various programs in the schools around the city of Houston. The math/science offering at my campus was rather popular and so I had been quite busy answering questions from eager parents. I had not really noticed that most of the other coordinators had packed away their tri-boards and pamphlets and headed to their cars. By the time the last parent had left I realized that I was all alone inside the school and I felt a sudden sense of foreboding.

I gathered my things as quickly as possible and rushed to the dark parking lot where my vehicle sat in the shadows. I felt quite uneasy about being all by myself in a place known for a somewhat high crime rate. I ran across the parking lot in a kind of frenzy, looking over my shoulder and dropping some of my things in my hurry. Once I was inside my automobile I locked the doors and finally felt a modicum of safety. I was only mildly comforted by the fact that I thought I knew exactly how to get back home and I found courage in that fact that I had my flip phone in case of an emergency.

It took me no time to realize that I had somehow become turned around and I soon realized that I was wandering aimlessly around the dark neighborhood. When I drove past the same group of men drinking and arguing in their front yard I knew that I was going in circles an that I was lost. I tried to get a view of the Houston skyline because I reasoned that if I followed the lights of the buildings as though they were stars I would ultimately reach a point that I recognized and be on my way back home. Sadly a fog had added to the mystery of the night and shrouded the sky in a miasmic goo.

I was becoming more and more frantic as I saw one unfamiliar street name after another. I felt as though I was replaying the journey of Apocalypse Now in real time. I finally thought to reach for my phone and call my husband, Mike, who had grown up on the north side of Houston. I was near tears when the phone rang again and again making me worry that he had already gone to bed and was sound asleep. After all it was nearing eleven.

Just when I was on the verge of total panic I heard Mike’s voice on the line. I explained my situation and he calmly told me to find a street sign and tell him exactly where I was by looking at the name and number of the first marker I found. He was stunned when I finally gave him the information he needed and wondered aloud how I had gone so astray, but luckily he knew exactly where I was. From that point forward he guided me block by block until I was finally on the interstate highway that I knew quite well.   

I did not know then that one day I would own a smart phone with a personal guide named Siri who would direct me seamlessly even in cities and towns where I had never before been. I did not even dream that my future car would be fitted with a GPS system that would keep me heading in the right direction no matter where I went. Such wonders were still in the future and getting lost was still a frightening experience, especially on a foggy night in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

We have so many wondrous inventions these days that we tend to take them for granted. There are generations who have never had an experience like I did on that night. It is unfathomable to them that one would be lost and without resources for finding the way back home. Reading of Hanzel and Gretel leaving crumbs in the forest as a guide back to civilization is a quaint idea for them, and yet I am from a generation when being lost was a real and scary possibility. If not for my good fortune of having a phone in my car back then I don’t know what might have become of me because all of the places of business where I hoped to get directions were closed for the night. Hopefully I would have eventually encountered a clue that might have led me to my destination or a source of help but I would have no doubt been overtaken by anxiety before that happened.

We like to complain a great deal about how horrific the world has become but I know that our new fears have been counterbalanced by the elimination of old ones. The days of feeling helplessly alone and lost are not as likely as they once were. For that I am deeply grateful.

Dear Diary

pathtothefutureI received a lovely gift for my birthday this year from Araceli. It was a book with 200 writing prompts to help inspire my blogs. In that spirit the following is a diary entry that might be written ten years in the future. Check back in a decade to see how prescient I was.

Dear Diary,

I celebrated my eighty first birthday a couple of weeks ago. Never did I imagine myself as and octogenarian. I’m still filled with optimism and energy but I don’t get around as quickly as I once did. I suppose that I’ve felt my age more in my joints than in my brain but the glories of medicine and engineering have come to my rescue with all of the conveniences that now do work that I once had to do.

My home is kept tidy by the little robots that whir around each day. I don’t know who invented those little “Hazels and Jeeves” but they make a world of difference in my lifestyle. I haven’t had to pick up a broom or dust cloth or mop for quite some time. The self cleaning toilets are the best. The porcelain is squeaky clean all the time allowing me to concentrate on keeping my body in shape with exercise and my mind working with continual learning. I’m enrolled in an online seminar right now that makes me feel as though I am communicating with the great writers of all time. It is mind boggling to consider how much technology has changed the world.

It was touch and go on earth for a time. We all had to adjust to the changing climate but in rushed the best minds, including those of some of my grandchildren, to invent better ways of living while conserving the resources of our earth. It has been like watching science fiction unfold in reality. I always believed that we humans would find solutions to the problems and people have not disappointed. We suffered for a time and then we get to work doing whatever we need to do. I am so proud of all the people who devoted blood sweat and tears to the cause. Mankind’s intellect is such a glorious gift when it is used for the good of all.

I especially like that I can stay independently in my home without fear or inconvenience to anyone. I have a checkup with a nurse practitioner each morning via a computer program that monitors my health all day long. I felt no pain at all when they inserted the chip that sends my vitals to my physicians 24/7. The surgery that repaired my knees was almost bionic. I really enjoyed hiking in the mountains near my brothers’ Colorado cabin last summer just like I was still in my twenties. I no longer need my glasses either after a painless thirty minute procedure. It’s all quite amazing.

I’m a great grandmother now and it is so much fun. The little ones are bright and happy. I “see” them several times each week via a new kind of Skype that is almost like having them in the same room thanks to Virtual Reality. I never feel alone because all of the people that I love are just a few voice commands away and when they actually visit the new transportation systems get them here almost as quickly as teleporting. I keep thinking back to the world of Star Trek and realize that I now live in it in so many ways.

My grandchildren are doing such remarkable things. They all graduated from college and found exciting jobs in the fields that they studied. They are so sweet about coming to visit me often. I’m hosting a big Christmas dinner this month just as I always have except that now my robots are doing all of the work. All I have to do is program them and then sit back and enjoy the party.

It’s difficult to believe that my daughters and sons-in-law are nearing retirement. Where did the years go? Perhaps when they no longer have to report to jobs each day we can travel together. I’m anxious to try that new high speed plane that reaches Europe in only two hours. I especially want to see Notre Dame Cathedral now that it has been repaired. There are still so many journeys that I hope to make.

I feel a bit like my grandfather once did whenever he spoke of all of the innovations that he had witnessed during his lifetime. I suppose that I often took progress for granted until it was threatened by the whims of mankind. Those years of anger and political divisions were worrisome but we finally realized the necessity of working together rather than continually arguing. We fought a kind of battle against our human failings and have come out stronger than ever. Things are not perfect but then they never really are. Nonetheless we have come a very long way in only ten years. It is truly a better world for the majority of the world’s people. We humans are slowly but surely continuing to evolve in positive ways.

If I live as long as my grandfather did I still have almost thirty years to go. I suspect that I will see many glorious advances and have the privilege of watching my family grow and prosper. There will no doubt be tough times here and there but one thing that never seems to change is the inventiveness and resilience of the human spirit along with the grace of God. I look forward to whatever lies ahead.

We Will Persist

da vinci

We hear about wars, violence, poverty and other ills almost instantly these days. The problems that people face with health and relationships are openly discussed. We debate how to deal with them while also feeling a sense of satisfaction that we are becoming a more “woke” society even as some cling anxiously to old ways of thinking and doing things. We are so anxious that we consume medications, alcohol and even illegal drugs to still our pain. We begin to wonder if we are somehow mucking up our own existences and those of our children. We believe that surely we are capable of doing far better in our efforts to make the world safer, kinder, more peaceful. We believe that we have the tools but somehow fall short. We hear lectures about our imperfections and feel guilt. At least we are led to believe that we have somehow been complicit in the demise of all that is good.

Now that I am retired I have time to indulge in classes in history, travel to places whose evolution of thought shaped the world in which we live today. I have learned that if there are any strict conclusions to be drawn about the state of the society in which we now exist it is that we have come a very long way from the darkness that once ruled. In centuries of old not even kings and queens were immune from travails that were devastating and deathly while the common folk were at the mercy of the whims of a ruling class into which they had little hope of gaining admittance. Slowly but surely the marvelous imagination of humankind has changed all of that.

Queen Anne, of the Stuart line in English royalty, endured seventeen pregnancies only one of which resulted in the successful birth of a child. That son died at the age of eleven. At the close of the seventeenth century life was often brutal even for the wealthiest. Families toiled with little hope of reprieve from their labors. It was not uncommon for a worker to earn less than twenty pounds in a year. The idea of freedoms was only beginning to take hold and would burst forth in the next century in an imperfect but revolutionary form that would slowly but surely change the trajectory of potential for all people.

I think that we all too often underestimate the miracles that are all around us. While we have yet to achieve human perfection in any of our social constructs we have come farther than even our most courageous and enlightened ancestors dared dream. Women still lose babies but not to the extent of long ago times. When a child is born there is a sense of assurance that he/she will grow into adulthood, a luxury that we take for granted in ways that would astound the parents who came before us. We complain about injustice, just as we should, without celebrating enough that we already have so many freedoms that did not exist in the long ago. In other words we may be living in the best of times without even realizing it.

That does not mean that we should be content with the status quo. There is always room for improvement, but our guilty breast beating may be overly dramatic. The truth is that most of the evil and want in the world is an anomaly rather than a way of life. When I drive down a crowded freeway in my city I notice the jerk who weaves in and out of the traffic without regard for safety because he is the exception, not the rule. Millions of people across the globe are living with a sense of decency, thus we take note of those who are cruel and unjust. We see them because they are so unlike what we have come to expect.

I only need sit in the room where I write to witness the ingenuity and glory of humans. I hear music coming from a device that brings the greatest talent of the world into my home. I work by the lights that were unknown for thousands of years. I tap my fingers on the keys of a computer that holds more knowledge than the great library of Alexandria. I am immune from cruel diseases that my grandfather saw firsthand. I have works of art hanging on my walls that might have once been only the possession of kings. I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer because machines that keep me comfortable whir away. I hear the buses conveying the neighborhood children to schools where they receive educations that were at one time only the purview of the wealthiest. I am free to worship and think as I wish and even to openly tell people my thoughts without fear of being imprisoned. How can I not be thankful for my many privileges when I think of how wonderful life has become for an ordinary soul like me?

No, we are not yet perfect, but we are far from being deplorable. We are moving forward continuously and often at a pace more rapid than at any time in history. We will no doubt see many more great wonders that are products of our human capacity to think and invent. There are geniuses and thinkers and visionaries among us who will lead us forward and past the turmoils that threaten our well being. It is our way and I have every confidence that we will persist.

A Kind Revolution

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I think about things all of the time. Some people might call my mental gymnastics worry or anxiety. I simply see myself as having a very active mind. Some people have difficulty standing still. They are always moving about. I find it hard to shut down the thoughts inside my brain. I am always observing, asking questions and considering solutions for problems. Sometimes my mental processes are so active that I have to calm myself just to relax enough to sleep.

Lately I’ve really been considering the effects of climate change and ways in which we might address the issues associated with the storms and droughts and other weather events that are plaguing our earth more and more often. When I look for guidance from experts and I ask probing questions I generally find myself feeling as though nobody is actually prepared to consider all of the consequences, unintended or certain, that may occur from choosing one plan of action over another. It’s frustrating because it sometimes feels as though the issue being presented as a zero sum game regardless of which of the extreme sides one decides to choose. Instead I think that there is surely some alternative that is more viable.

On the one hand we are being told that our time for hesitation is long gone. We must begin to accept draconian measures if we are to avoid economic collapse and social/political chaos. The warnings are dire and not totally unfounded based on scientific research but they also seem to ignore some very basic questions that seem to have no real answers. The very scenario of economic doom might also come to pass if the most exacting sacrifices are indeed enforced. Little thought has been given to how to radically change the ways in which we do almost everything so that people do not lose their livelihoods. It’s difficult to get a major road built in under ten years so why should we believe that we can totally redesign how we live in a short time without leaving large sectors of the world’s population in economic danger?

On the other hand there are the climate change deniers who seem stubbornly unwilling to accept the facts about how we humans have literally changed the workings of the earth. They are gambling with our futures by insisting that the whole idea of climate change is little more than a hoax being propagated on the world as a means of upending political systems. If they have their way we may in fact one day find ourselves having to relocate the people of entire cities and the hardships of the Great Depression will seem like a cakewalk compared to the human upheavals that may transpire.

Somehow I find myself thinking that the most invested groups are running the show while the rest of us sit back ignoring the possibilities. My innate logic tells me that there must be a better way. If we all agree to work hard to do things to lessen the impact of climate change then perhaps we can forestall scenarios of doom and gloom while continuing to search for more intelligent solutions.

The truth is that we have too many cars rolling down the road at any given hour. Back when I was young most families owned a single vehicle. The drivers had to take turns using the family car. I remember going on the bus with my mom to do our shopping because my dad had to take the auto to work. When we had appointments in places not serviced by buses we would drop my father off at the bus stop and he would ride to work that way. We lived by the school so we were able to walk everyday. In fact, we walked and rode our bicycles to a number of places. We managed to get everywhere we needed to go by being flexible and inventive.

With a bit of sacrifice and a willingness to consider other alternatives to having multiple cars much of the carbon footprint from driving might be mitigated. Even better would be to make more and more autos that are hybrids or reliably electric at affordable prices. Neighborhoods should consider allowing residents to move about in electric golf carts or community trolleys. Bike lanes should automatically become standard on side streets. Businesses should encourage employees to ride share by providing bonuses or parking for those who do.  Governments might provide tax incentives for those willing to take such steps as well. Cities need to invest in more viable and environmentally friendly mass transportation systems and be rewarded for doing so. The modern world should begin to look like the imaginary one of futuristic thought. 

There is a home in my neighborhood that is fitted with Tesla solar panels. Our climate is particularly well suited for such innovation but the cost of installing such systems is prohibitive for most people. If lawmakers are truly serious about taking bold steps to reduce the carbon footprint then they need to help make it financially feasible for the average homeowner to invest in solar energy or other alternatives. Just as the government built the nation’s highways after World War II this can be a national campaign to redesign the way we get energy for our homes but it has to be affordable for it to work.

We must also encourage all forms of energy innovation. I know of a man who has been attempting to sell the idea of having personal windmills in every backyard but he has encountered far too much opposition. While his inventiveness may need a bit of tweaking I wonder why nobody has encouraged his designs by investing in research to make it better. Think of how Thomas Edison changed the world as it was known in a very short time because the movers and shakers of Wall Street saw merit in his ideas. Capitalism does not need to be a foe of climate change believers but rather a source for encouraging new ways of doing things that will make the world a better place for everyone.

There has been much criticism of older and past generations of late but we might also take some pages from their stories. They built houses that have lasted for centuries. The designs took advantage of cross breezes so that air conditioning was not required to be cool. They built foundations on pillars that raised homes from the water of floods. They installed clotheslines in every backyard to use the sun for drying laundry. They recycled virtually everything including packaging for purchases. I wore many a dress handmade by my grandmother from the cloth of flour sacks. Old clothes were turned into warm quilts that were used in piles to eradicate the need for heat. Most people kept vegetable gardens in their yards.

We have to educate the populace to be flexible and willing to think outside of the box. This means taking the brilliance of mankind and using it not just to create an uproar but to formulate more efficient and evironmentally friendly ways of living. We can incentivize good habits and create a movement that works for everyone in an ever changing world. We need to begin to think ahead planning our moves with a willingness to quickly adapt them to whatever situation arises.

Most people despise lectures about what they have done wrong but they enjoy the idea of  being part of progress through innovation. Surely the same people who were able to put a man on the moon in only a decade can move the environment to a better place without robbing the rich or leaving the poor in a state of desperation. We can do this as surely as we went from a sleepy and isolated nation to the heroes of World War II. It may take a few sacrifices and changes in the way we live but it will also include exciting new ways of doing things that will be better than anything we have ever seen. We should join together in a spirit of optimism to design a kind revolution for saving our planet that respects everyone. We can do it!