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.

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Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.

The Wedding of a Die Hard Democrat and a Die Hard Republican

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One of my cousins recently posted a commentary about his parents that made me smile. He remarked that one of his folks was a die hard Democrat and the other was a die hard Republican. They used to joke that when they went to vote they canceled each other out. Mostly though they were good people who taught their son to be tolerant and to love his country. He served proudly in the military and learned how to be a  good person in his own right by following their example. He wonders, however, what has changed to cause so much derision, division and incivility today. He wants to know why it is increasingly difficult for people with differing philosophies to get along.

His post got me to thinking about my own parents. In all honesty I don’t really know what political persuasions they had. I only recall my father arguing about a political topic on one occasion and that was with his father. Since I was only privy to the noise of their voices rather than the actual debate I will never really know who advocated what position. It was not any easier to discern what my mother’s thinking might have been. She was an enigma when it came to voting and such. She often told me that she considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the greatest of all the American presidents, insisting that he had saved the nation in more ways than one. She broke into tears when remembering how she had once seen him when he visited Houston. She always spoke glowingly of Harry Truman and John Kennedy as well, but on the other hand, she felt almost as much allegiance to Ronald Reagan as to Roosevelt. In all honesty I can’t think of many times that she even spoke of politics or her feelings about them. To her a vote was a sacred and private thing between her and God. She didn’t discuss her leanings nor did she find it necessary to know about those of anyone else. Her only commentary was that it was glorious to have such a right, even if the elections didn’t always go her way.

Mama was from an immigrant family that was not always treated in the most welcoming way. She told us that her father insisted that in spite of a few prejudices here and there the USA was still preferable to the land that he had left. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the opportunities of being citizens and in turn pay forward the favor by demonstrating their pride in being Americans. When my mom and her siblings were taunted as being foreigners, their father urged them to just ignore the slights. He taught them that there are ignorant folk everywhere, and they need not nurse their anger. Instead he wanted them to become educated and fully involved in the culture and ways of the country. All eight of his children were patriotic, and his sons confirmed their love for the USA by enlisting in the Armed Forces and serving during World War II.

I suspect that my mom would be both confused and amused by the craziness on display these days, but she would have also insisted that everyone has a right to voice their opinions if they so choose. She would often tell us how important that cornerstone of democracy was to her father and ultimately to her and her siblings as well. It was something all too often denied in their homeland of Slovakia, so they were quick to welcome all ideas.

What would have most baffled my mother is the way that so many people are now determining friendships based on political beliefs. She would have first noted that it is none of anyone’s business to judge others, especially with regard to their political beliefs. She would have also wondered why we are talking about such things so openly and so much. Mostly she would have been utterly appalled at the idea of friendships and relationships being based on how people feel about particular hot button topics. I suppose that she had the same high level of tolerance as her older brother who was so fittingly described by his son in the Facebook post.

I often muse that the media is too much with us. There was a time when there was a news hour around dinner time. Thirty minutes were devoted to national events, and thirty to local happenings. Most stories merited only two to three minutes of discussion, rather than the twenty four hour blathering on and on that is possible today. Something has to fill those hours and unfortunately there is a great deal of sensationalism used to attract our attention. We have become news junkies and can’t even escape the grasp of the drama when we are away from our televisions. Our phones and computers constantly alert us to the latest breaking story. There is little or no rest and after a time we become so emotionally involved that we can’t seem to turn off the feelings that send us into emotional frenzies. It sometimes appears as though we are puppets being manipulated by some unseen master.

The reality is that we don’t really need to see every single kook who does something outrageous. The truth is that on any given day most people are busy going about their lives. They are not sitting at home plotting ways to make other’s miserable. They are not evil or uncaring or hoping to undermine the government. Most people are just trying to get by and get along. They do their duty as mothers, fathers, friends, employees, and citizens. They appraise the issues and make choices, and unless they do something illegal or hurt us in some way, it really should not matter to us what their political philosophies may be. Instead we should be focusing on what kind of people they are and admitting that if it actually is possible for a die hard Democrat and a die hard Republican to have a beautiful and loving marriage then maybe we also need to try harder to get along. 

A Tortured Mind

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My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by multiple doctors. There was no cure for her disease, but there were pharmaceutical treatments that worked for a time and then invariably had to be adjusted. She faced a lifetime of dealing with a chronic illness that required both patience and vigilance, which was not always easy because there were moments when she was not a pleasant person at all. In those instances she was unable to sleep, and lost track of time. She was filled with paranoid ideas and conspiracy theories that she felt compelled to share in the middle of the night. Her explosions of emotion and fear sometimes resulted in vile utterances that were difficult to hear. My brothers and I not only had to be forceful in providing her with the care that she needed, but had to worry about what she might do or say to get herself into a difficult situation with strangers who might be frightened by her aggressive and strange behavior. It was a battle that we fought for her for well over forty years.

I was thinking of my mom and the problems associated with her mental illness when the firestorm over Roseanne Barr erupted last week. The egregious and racist nature of Ms. Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarret left me loathing her even more than I already did. I think I only watched her show one time back when it was the original series. I loved John Goodman, but I was unable to identify with the crudity of Roseanne. In other words I was not a fan. Still, I knew many people who loved the show and I had to admit that she had a certain talent even if I did not appreciate it. “To each his own” was my reaction to her fame and popularity while I generally ignored her and knew little about her.

When she and her former cast returned for a reboot of the sitcom I found myself wondering why we have so little originality these days that we keep returning to old ideas. Perhaps it is a longing for a quieter past, a time before 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war of words and political ideas that is so prevalent today. I wasn’t sure what the rationale might be, but I saw no harm in giving a particular segment of the audience the kind of comedy that they wanted while I watched The Middle.

Then came the Roseanne firestorm after her rambling ugly tweets resulted in her firing by ABC. To be clear the First Amendment protects her from punishment by the government, but not from repercussions at work. In fact, all of us would do well to understand that our public statements can and often will be seen as a reflection on our employers who have every right to let us go if they feel that we have gone too far. I can’t imagine anyone believing that Ms. Barr did not go too far. As an educator I recall instances when we meted out severe punishments including expulsion to students who voiced similar racist comments. There are certain lines over which none of us should ever cross, and if we do we must expect to pay the consequences.

By her own admission Roseanne Barr suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. When she attempted to excuse her horrible tweets by noting that it was the middle of the night and she had taken Ambian I found myself wondering if she was in the throes of a manic episode. It was probably not her sleep aid that caused her rants, but rather her disease and the fact that it does not allow her to sleep the way she needs causes her to lose all caution with regard to what she says and does.

My mother once described bipolar disorder as an illness that caused her to say and do mean things when she didn’t want to do. She explained that she felt a compulsion to strike out at people that she was unable to control even when she tried. I know that I was the victim of her hurtful behavior many times over, but I understood what was causing the disturbances. People outside of the family simply found themselves wounded to the point of wanting to avoid her all all costs.

I in no way defend Rosanne Barr. I find her to be a foul mouthed and hateful person. Even if her tweet was indeed intended to be a joke it was far too ugly to be humorous. Her thoughts rarely change, so I believe that the essence of what she believes is contained in them, and that spirit is highly toxic. My mother was truly like two different people. When she was well everything about her was delightful and loving. It was only when she was sick that a kind of darkness prompted by fears came forth. On the whole she was a good person. I can’t say the same about Ms. Barr who seems to take delight in putdowns and shaming no matter what the situation.

An even more ridiculous argument in Roseanne’s favor is to point to others who are just as guilty of horrific comments and note that they have not been fired. That is akin to saying that just because someone else hasn’t been called to task for bad behavior, nobody should be. It is a circular defense that simply does not fly.

Our entire society is a bit sick right now. We need to be honest with ourselves and step back a bit before we find ourselves up against a wall from which there is no retreat. In many ways we have lost our national honor and are all too often guilty of perpetrating disgusting behaviors by our silence and even misguided support of acts and utterances that we know to be wrong. If we do not get a grip on this situation it will overtake us, for surely we are being manipulated by powerful forces whose only goal is to have power.

I actually feel sad for Roseanne Barr even though I find her to be despicable. I think that she is crying for help and nobody is really listening. I hope that those who love her will see the signs of her tortured mind and get her the relief that she needs. That will require a dose of kindness and medical attention. Hopefully her horrific pain won’t just be ignored, and I pray that we will not further divide ourselves by foolishly agreeing with the wanderings of her very sick and tortured mind.

Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.