Saturday, April 29, 2017

Alexa, Write My Blog Post

So another type of device boomers first saw on the original Star Trek is becoming a normal part of our lives.

Many things in Star Trek, from computers to daily logs to elevators, were operated by voice control. That was fantasy in 1967. Ten or fifteen years ago, some cell phones had a voice dialing feature and some secretarial duties were assisted by software called Naturally Speaking. Today we have Siri on the iPhone, Cortana on some laptops and Alexa on that thing that looks like a hockey puck.

I work around technology daily but I'm not an early adopter. I prefer to wait for the new product bugs to be worked out and for prices to come down. My first four cell phones were free with the $39/month Verizon plan. One, a Motorola Star Tac flip phone, looked like the 'communicator' on Star Trek.

My first iPhone was the 4, which I bought the day the 4s came out because I couldn't justify the cost of versions 1, 2 and 3 and I didn't want Siri, newly available on the 4s. And prices on the 4 dropped dramatically the day the 4s came out. My next iPhone was the 6s, which had a price drop a year or two ago because of the rumored 7. I still can't believe I paid $200 for a phone, but that's better than the $700 price for the same phone a week before.  And my $95 monthly charge is considered by some to be low.

By the way, I rarely use Siri. But I do use most of the other features and I wonder how I lived without this silly-but-now-indespsensable device. No maps on road trips, no booting up a desktop computer to check email or Facebook, no CD player to hear my favorite music, sometime no camera for my photography, no waiting for the 6 o'clock news to get the weather forecast, no paper ticket for airline or train travel.

No laptop or paper needed to write this blog post either, although I could probably write this without thumbs by dictating it to Siri.

And then there is Alexa, that lonely table top hockey puck that lights up when I speak her name. I did not plan to buy an Echo Dot (reread my 'not an early adopter' sentence) but I got one as a Christmas present.

Months later, I'm still in the novelty phase with her. Alexa, what's the weather forecast? Alexa, how old is Alan Alda? Alexa, did the Caps win last night?  Alexa, play some Beatles music.

Alexa could do a lot more, of course. She's a blood relative of Amazon, so I could ask her to do all that shopping I currently do on my Dell. If I purchased some of her siblings, she could coordinate with them to play music through my stereo, adjust the volume, turn the lights off and on.

Alexa must get lonely sitting on the corner table because sometimes she'll speak without being spoken to. Something on the TV sounds a little like her name and she lights up and says "I didn't understand the question."

Voice recognition technology is a wonderful thing for the visually impaired, a safety feature in many new cars and Alexa's soothing voice could provide some degree of companionship for the lonely. As with most technology, voice systems can also invade privacy by listening in and we wouldn't even know it.

Well, that's all for this post. I think I'll take a short nap. Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes. "Twenty minutes, starting now."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Learning Appreciation

He hit her during another drunken stupor. Her aunt beat her. An uncle raped her. Her husband regularly insulted her, berated her, called her the 'c' word. Her brother raped her. The father got the daughter pregnant, the daughter had the baby, the wife stayed and endured the embarrassment. The husband threatened to kill his wife, mother and children. The father regular made his daughter fondle him. The adult celebrity was beaten and abused by relatives in her youth. The husband went to the ex wife's house to argue about visitation with the son, leading to a shouting match during which the husband ran up the stairs, kicked in the door of the room where the 4-year-old son was hiding at the insistence of the mother who feared for his safety.

Each of incidents noted above happened, each sentence referring to a different person or persons, some to people who I read about in the news and some to people I know. I actually witnessed the last incident and kept my involvement verbal rather than engaging in physical intervention that could have harmed the son. No physical harm came to any of the parties that time, or any other time that I know of, but the regular arguments did have a negative psychological impact on the son, who is now around 30 and possibly a parent himself.

When I see or hear about abusive or dysfunctional family situations, I thank God none of that happened in my family. The only negative in my immediate family was a healthy disagreement between my dad and I on just about every topic someone could disagree on. We had 'spirited arguments' about war, race, hair length, music, sex, religion, where I could live. He meant well. At the time I failed to appreciate the sacrifices he made to support our family and send me and my sister to college.

I note two thoughts when I think back to how 'normal' my upbringing was: one, it seemed boring, and two, it was stable and drama-free. Over the years I've learned to appreciate my family and my youth. If my dad was still alive, we would still disagree on many things, but I believe our conversations would be framed by respect.

An observation about myself over the past several decades: I'm a magnet for the dysfunctional. Several friends and ex girlfriends grew up in abusive or dysfunctional situations and apparently I was the 'normal' person in their lives. On some level I appreciated being viewed that way, but in many cases I was taken advantage of. When I was no longer needed by them, they were gone.

Appreciation is probably the main thing I want in life. I mostly am the nice guy people often say I am. I don't say that to brag; it's just part of who I am and maybe my stable youth contributed to that personality trait. I don't expect anything in return, other than maybe I'd like my actions to be appreciated.

I wonder sometimes if I express my appreciation for all the wonderful things people do for me. Do those closest to me know how much I appreciate them? I regret not thanking my parents more often for all they did for me.

I'm happy to say that most of the people in the first paragraph that I actually know in real life turned out fine and currently live what I believe to be normal, drama-free lives, even though some scars of their earlier lives might remain. I hope I played a healing role in their lives and I hope they appreciate me for that.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

One by One

Facebook is a much kinder, gentler corner of the Internet lately. At least it seems that way to me. It's probably because I have blocked regularly negative feeds, one at a time.

No, I'm not afraid of reading views that are different from mine. In fact, I think it is a good idea to consider a variety of opinions on various topics. I am opposed to the loud and biased link between opinion and fact, presenting them as if they are the same thing. I dislike people presenting opinions as facts and thinking that their solutions to problems are the only solutions. I'm annoyed when my ultra conservative Facebook friends claim that everything a Republican says is good and everything a Democrat says is bad. I have blocked the one-sided, overly biased feeds of ten or fifteen friends in recent months.

Conversely, I am annoyed when my ultra liberal friends claim that everything a Democrat says is good and everything a Republican says is bad. I recently blocked the feeds of one such friend and more blocking is coming.

Spirited debate is great and, as I've said many times, our great country was built on the blending of opposing ideas and opinions. We make no progress as a country when we think we have all the answers and nobody else's opinions count. We enter dangerous territory when we confuse opinion and fact. And that's my opinion.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Do You Remember Them?

The tall, black wrought iron fence was new but the small cottage was right there where it's always been, three doors from the corner. The house was wider than I remembered and the small porch was now a southern-style wraparound veranda.  Red and pink azaleas flanking the steps were in bloom as they had been at this time of year for decades.

Dad stood on the top step in learning pose, head looking slightly down as he intently studied what appeared to be an iPad. He wore his signature khaki pants, plaid short sleeve sport shirt and thick-soled working man shoes. He seemed to be in his early 60s.

With the blink of an eye, Mom appeared in the foreground of my view, slightly to the left, partially blocking my view of Dad. It was a 50-year-old version of Mom. She smiled and said something unintelligible about Dad and looked as surprised as I was to see him on the porch. Her mouth and eyes moved in her signature storytelling manner but I heard no sound.

Moments later my eyes popped open, hours later I remembered the scene clearly and today, several days later, I described it to you in great detail.

Do you remember your dreams when you wake up?  I rarely do. I often hope to remember a dream as vivid as that one. Mostly what I remember is what time it was when I woke up from a dream and hours later I only remember that I had a dream.

Do you think your dreams mean anything?  I don't. But for days now I've been wondering why that one lingers so clearly.

In typical fashion, many pieces of that dream don't exist together in real life. The house in my dream is the one where I grew up but it's much smaller than in the dream. Mom was six years older than Dad in real life, not the other way around as in the dream, and both died years ago, a few years on either side of 90. There is no fence in front of the house and Hurricane Katrina killed off the azaleas almost twelve years ago. My sister lives in that house now and last time I saw it, in November, there were no new azaleas.

So why was I dreaming about my parents, especially younger versions of them?  Mom's birthday was a few weeks ago, so maybe she was on my mind because of that. I don't know.

Why was my Dad standing on the steps looking at a digital device not even imagined in his lifetime. Why did Mom seem surprised to see him and appear surprised to be in my dream?  Where did that fence come from?

The most significant unanswered question about that dream is this: why do I remember it so vividly, days later, when I rarely remember a dream minutes after waking up?

Something tells me these thoughts and questions will continue spinning in my head for awhile.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

It's Only A Number

Why are we often obsessed with the number we get when subtracting the year of our birth from the current year?  Age is just a number, right?  So what if you're 50, 54, 62, 67, 74, 100?

I've been writing (whining) about age since the beginning of my blogging. I'm pretty damn comfortable with my age (it's one of the numbers in the first paragraph) but I'm not comfortable admitting the number to all but a select few friends, relatives and drinking buddies. Why? Because of stereotypes attached to certain age numbers.

Facebook friends frequently flaunt their age on their birthdays while others claim to be "officially old" as they turn 35 or 40. If you think you're old at 40, wait till you hit the next decade marker. Or the one after that.

I'm certain I celebrated my 40th live on the radio station where I was a DJ at the time. It felt good. I did not celebrate 50 outside of my house. It was memorable, however, because those were better times in my now defunct marriage and my ex's sense of humor was still intact then. She brought a mid-sized cake down to our rec room with fifty lit candles on it.  Her out of tune rendition of "Happy Birthday" was backed up by the melodious smoke detector.

My birthday is an important day for me but I only began to enjoy celebrating it again during the past few years, mostly because of who I celebrate it with.

I fully expect to have a 100th birthday. I've already invited some people to the party, although it's more than thirty years away. I hope I make it, enjoy the party and recognize the attendees. Don't ask me to blow out a hundred candles.

I hope to retire from full time work shortly after I hit the next zero number mile marker, but I'm struggling with the specific vision of what happens after that. I'd love to be a writer but I could probably make more money as a Walmart greeter. I'd love to be a DJ again, part time, but the sad reality is that most DJs are put out to pasture long before my current age, much less 70. Don't get me started on the topic of 'subtle age discrimination'.

Music and photography are my other two passions. Reality check: I'll never be a good enough guitarist to make money with it. Photography? Everybody with a smart phone thinks they're a photographer now, so there isn't much of a market for well paid photographers.

I'm a stubborn optimist, however, and I know I'll figure all of this out at some point. I'll be a good role model for creative aging. Maybe I already am. If only I really believed that age is just a number.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Balance Dilemma

Work/life, work/play, work/work/work.

The strategy of finding a work/life balance is to not work so hard or so long each day that it interferes with the rest of your life. I'm balancing laughing with crying as I write this paragraph because it's 8 pm and I'm in my office at work. I've been here since 10 am. I'll go home, eat dinner, sip wine, go to bed. The work/life thing ain't balanced tonight.

THIS paragraph is written two days later, on a Saturday afternoon. I'm so tired and exhausted from work that all I've done today is grocery shopping and napping. I'm sitting in my guest room/home office, attempting AGAIN to make progress on my ongoing cleanup project. It's a beautiful, sunny day. I can see that through the window. I should be on the other side of said window, soaking up sunshine instead of sitting inside shredding old documents and searching for my long lost car title.

Guilt keep me indoors today. This project has to get done. I repeat that sentence every Saturday. I should spend time on this every weeknight, freeing up the weekend for fun, but I work so much each day that all I want to do at night is nothing.

Balance leans toward work lately. The goal is for work and 'life' to, well, balance.  Fortunately I love my work and sometimes it's actually like play. But the balance is still off balance. I know I'll figure it out eventually but I'd like to get it right now.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Older and Wiser?

A quiet voice deep in the background on one side whispers, "Do it. You've earned it."  Another voice from deep on the other side whispers, "Don't do it. There's no real reason to do it."

And so goes the simple, recurring conversation in the back of my brain, a not-so-subtle debate about retirement.

The whispers turn to shouts every time I learn about an 'old person' doing something that defies the aging stereotype. Recently my internal debate intensified when I saw a local TV news report about a 92-year-old school crossing guard celebrating her 50th anniversary on that job.

The do-it-don't-do-it chorus crescendoed a few mornings ago as I watched a Today Show report about "super-agers".

Super-agers are people 70 and older who have brain power and physical abilities like 20-somethings.  Scientific studies including brain scans back this up.

How do they do it? According to the story, they challenge both brain and body and learn new skills. They push themselves and push through challenges, obstacles and pain. Many of them learn a new language or learn to play music.

One source for this news report is a book called "Dynamic Aging" by Katy Bowman. I'll probably order it as soon as I post this blog. The short summary of the author's advice: Reduce stress, stay hopeful and stay positive.  One of the seniors profiles in the story says it simply: keep moving.

I've been visualizing retirement lately, as you know, but I have two concerns about giving up full time employment: how will I fund my life and how will I spend my time? I have some time to ponder those concerns. One certainty: I can't imagine sitting around and doing nothing.

There's an old idea that with age comes wisdom. Maybe these "super-agers" reinforce that concept. Maybe the wise part of growing old is to not think old. The only aspect of retirement that gives voice to the do-it side of my internal debate is the desire to cut back on the work load, which would probably reduce my stress.  I am already fairly physically active and my job fuels mental acuity. In addition I do take music lessons and hope to resume language lessons at some point. Working around young people keeps me young too. Maybe retirement, for me, will just be a less intense version of what I already do.

My brain debate will continue, as will my search for a clearer vision of my future. I also plan to balance that pursuit with a philosophy of carpe diem. Maybe this is the kind of thinking and attitude that makes us boomers wiser as we get older. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 3, 2017

I Don't Get It

They could only sit in certain designated seats in the back of the bus. There were separate designated water fountains, rest rooms and entrances to buildings for them. Some businesses denied them access or service. Signs indicting these restrictions were posted in highly visible locations.

'They' were called colored or negro or other things I won't write here; words and slurs that were a regular part of white American vocabulary as recently as the 1960s.

People under 50 might only recognize those scenes as something described in history books. Boomers like me lived through those scenes. I hate to admit it, but my parents, their siblings and their friends were racist for much of their lives. It didn't occur to them that there was anything wrong with that attitude. Thinking of African American people as a little bit subhuman was passed on from generation to generation and that belief was often reinforced by limited personal exposure to black people. If the only black people you met, or more likely saw from a distance, were undereducated, you assumed they all were.

Prior to high school, the only black people I ever had a conversation with were the husband-and-wife maid and gardener employed by our next door neighbors. Corrine and Jasper were friendly people. I didn't understand why white people held black people in such low esteem.

My private, Catholic high school had exactly two black students out of a 300+ student population. One of them gave up after his first year, presumably because of the unfair treatment he received. The other one played trumpet in the band, which is how we met. Maybe he got better treatment because he was the son of a locally famous restaurant owner or maybe he just didn't take any shit from white students.

I met more black people in college but none were actually friends. The first time I had a meaningful conversation with an African American who eventually became a friend was in the Army. My bunk mate Ron and I had middle-of-the-night guard shifts together once a week and we had some great, perspective-building conversations. I wish I had keep in touch with him after basic training.

I semi-dated a black woman many years later. We were really just friends but we went to movies and restaurants often, laughed a lot and occasionally held hands walking down the sidewalk. We also occasionally got odd looks from white people and even one almost insult from a black waiter once. And this was in 1993. How can people, black and white, still have negative thoughts relating to race? I don't get it.