We interrupt this program…

When we bought this house, the previous owners submitted a disclosure through their realtor which assured the buyer, among other things, that the house was not subject to insect infestation. I am unsure what definition of “insect” the previous owners had in mind. We have enjoyed the Parade of Ants Festival every spring in our kitchen. We have battled gnats and houseflies, wasps and moths, crickets and cockroaches. In addition to insects, we have also hosted spiders—including a tarantula in the garage and a black widow by the water heater—and scorpions—four individual visits within a dry twelve-month period. This time of year especially the insects creep in from outdoors to avoid the falling temperatures.

We resist as well as we can. We try to keep the house clean, not leaving dirty dishes in the sink, not allowing too much dust to accumulate in the corners and under furniture. For cockroaches, we purchase those lovely poison bait boxes. They crawl into the boxes, eat the poison, then leave again to die some time later in some dark and distant corner.

Unfortunately, this year my Mr. Coffee machine has become the corner where poisoned cockroaches go to die.

Today was not the first time I found a dead cockroach in the coffeemaker. This time it was right at the top, clearly visible when I took out the basket to make coffee. I unplugged the coffeemaker and shook the dead insect into the garbage; then I inspected the inside more carefully and saw a second dead cockroach wedged into the drain. It required the tip of the breadknife to dislodge that roach. Then I rinsed the coffeemaker thoroughly, three times, successfully removing a third dead insect with the first rinsing. All that time I am coughing and gagging. I have a strong gag reflex, one that is closely linked to my imagination, so I cannot deal with dead insects near my food supply without making a lot of disgusting noises.

[Cultural reference #1: while cleaning out the coffeemaker this morning, I continually made the kind of noises Malcolm McDowell made while portraying Alex in A Clockwork Orange. For those of you who have not seen this movie, this mention is not a recommendation! But those who have seen the movie will understand when I say that, for me, the most revolting scene in the movie is when the parole officer drinks from the glass containing Mum’s teeth. Even typing a description of that scene, I cannot stop my stomach from churning.]

[Cultural reference #2: when dealing with dead cockroaches, my family and I tend to make jokes about Gregor, the main character in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I do recommend that book to anyone who has not read it. However, this morning, alone in the kitchen, I made no Gregor jokes.]

 I respect insects and their place in the environment. Unfortunately, the place of cockroaches is not in Mr. Coffee. Mr. Coffee does his job just fine without the help of insects. If I want to add protein to my diet, a slice of bacon will do just as well. I now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming, already in progress. J.

Thanksgiving patrol

Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. Since I’m a writer, that can be a good thing. Stories come from the question, “What if?” and some of those stories are worth sharing. Others belong in the trash bin. This is one of those stories.

I imagine the local police patrolling the neighborhood this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. When they spot a house with several cars parked outside, they look more closely. Especially if they see out-of-state plates, they call for back up… and then they invade. For the good of the people, they arrest those violators of quarantine and put them in a special holding cell for the next fourteen days. Those who remain healthy are released, free to go about their business. Those who fall ill remain in quarantine until they are cured.

Can’t happen, you say? Impossible in this country? Do you remember Elian Gonzalez?

Twenty years ago, Elian, with his mother and some other relatives, escaped from Communist Cuba and fled by boat to the United States. Elain’s mother drowned during the attempt, but Elian, with other members of the family survived, and they found homes with family already living in Florida. The United States government decided that it was in the best interest of Elian to be taken away from his relatives in the United States and returned to his father in Cuba. On Easter morning they entered the house where he was staying, seized him, removed him, and started him back toward Cuba.

No, I don’t see the police and the National Guard patrolling our neighborhoods this Thanksgiving, breaking into houses and seizing families gathered to celebrate the holiday. It won’t happen—not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But, considering all that has happened this year and all that could happen, I can imagine. I can imagine Americans calling the police to report Thanksgiving gatherings next door, then watching from behind the curtains as the house across the street is entered and the scofflaws gathered and taken away. I can imagine church services raided and ministers and congregants rounded off to prison for breaking quarantine regulations. I can imagine all this justified by the need to overcome the virus crisis and return the country to normal… whatever normal will be like after such things have happened.

It will not happen. This is just my imagination running wild. But American citizens have a responsibility to continue to treasure and protect freedom so that stories like mine remain unthinkable in our land. J.

Still disturbing, two years later

A bit over two months ago—October of 2018, to be precise—I was driving with the radio on, and I heard two songs played back to back. They sounded like they should be interspliced, as a conversation between the two singers. I created a post at that time, portraying the conversation, and describing it as “disturbing,” given the age disparity between the man and the woman. Imagine my surprise this week to find the two of them posing together on the cover of Rolling Stone. I will try to insert that picture [here]:

And here is a transcript of their songs, as they appeared on my blog two years ago:

Posted on October 26, 2018

WARNING! Some people will find this conversation offensive and disturbing.

Very disturbing.

Paul McCartney: I saw you flash a smile, that seemed to me to say

You wanted so much more than casual conversation

I swear I caught a look before you turned away

Now I don’t see the point resisting your temptation

Taylor Swift: This ain’t for the best

My reputation’s never been worse, so

You must like me for me

We can’t make

Any promises now, can we, babe?

But you can make me a drink

Paul: Did you come on to me, will I come on to you?

If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

Taylor: Dive bar on the East Side, where you at?

Phone lights up my nightstand in the black

Come here, you can meet me in the back

Dark jeans and your Nikes, look at you

Oh damn, never seen that color blue

Just think of the fun things we could do

‘Cause I like you

Paul: I don’t think I can wait like I’m supposed to do

How soon can we arrange a formal introduction?

We need to find a place where we can be alone

To spend some special time without an interruption

Taylor: This ain’t for the best

My reputation’s never been worse, so

You must like me for me

Yeah, I want you

We can’t make

Any promises now, can we, babe?

But you can make me a drink

Paul: If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

Taylor: Is it cool that I said all that?

Is it chill that you’re in my head?

‘Cause I know that it’s delicate (delicate)

Is it cool that I said all that

Is it too soon to do this yet?

‘Cause…

Paul: Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do-do-do, do

“Delicate” © 2018, Taylor Swift

“Come on to me” © 2018, Paul McCartney

More choices, please

The thought that led to yesterday’s post somehow slipped my mind while I was typing yesterday. I wanted to complain that my computers’ software often seems to offer too few choices to fit the situation. For example, at work I will sometimes get a message on the screen that says, “This program is slow to respond. What do you want to do?” The only two choices are “quit” and “wait.” What if I don’t want to do either? Why isn’t “jump off the roof” one of the choices? Or, “throw computer out the winder”? How about “eat chocolate”? That would be an acceptable alternative to choosing between “quit” and “wait.”

Another blogger commented on my post about the way we adjust to technology when technology is supposed to make life easier for us. One of my coworkers has commented that every time our computer systems are improved, it takes more clicks and commands to accomplish the same tasks. Part of the cause of that problem is too many choices. But “eat chocolate” is still, somehow, missing from the programming.

The QWERTY keyboards that we all use were invented for mechanical typewriters. The most common letters are kept distant from each other to reduce the likelihood of key jams. For roughly forty years we have been using digital keyboards without keys to jam. Yet no one has successfully introduced a new keyboard with a more intuitive arrangement of letters. We all learned the QWERTY locations, and we keep teaching them to the next generation.

Many robots are designed to go places where the human body cannot go, places too small or dangerous for a human worker. Many other robots have a humanoid design. My son (a mechanical engineer) explains that robot designers often follow the human form, not because it is better, but because the robots are expected to go the same places where humans go. Therefore, they need to be able to do the same things, such as climb steps or place objects at a certain height.

When I submit a book to Kindle for publication, a number of steps have to be followed. At one point, the automation requires several steps, and they take a few minutes to complete. The suggestions on the screen go beyond “quit” and “wait”: they recommend getting a cup of coffee or making a sandwich. This is not artificial intelligence at work; this is the cleverness of human programmers who understand that the work they do is for humans and not for machines.

We remain in control. The computers exist to serve our needs, not the other way around. And “throw the computer out the window” will always be an option, even if the computer does not realize that it is so. J.

Insert clever title here

Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

That comes from “An Incomplete Stranger,” a short story I wrote and published a few years ago. It reflects my long-standing opinion about computers—when they work, they are useful tools, but much of the time they are inconvenient, annoying, and exasperating.

When I arrive at work and log into my computer, it takes ten to fifteen minutes before I can check my email, log into my timesheet, and get started at my job. Several other programs have to “do their thing” before my computer is usable or useful. Java must tell me that an update is available, and the anti-virus software has to report, and Microsoft Teams has to log in, and several other programs have their tasks or reports to accomplish. I’ve taken to leaving tasks that don’t require the computer in place at the end of the day so I can start my computer and then be productive while it tries to wake up and get ready for the day.

Meanwhile, my home computer is logging off the Internet connection at random times, requiring me to restart the computer to reestablish the connection. I have no idea why it logs off when it does; I just have to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Microsoft Word is trying to make me a better writer. It consistently suggests “must” in the place of “have to,” “can” in the place of “is able to,” and “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Sometimes I agree with the suggestions; sometimes I like the rhythm of my longer phrases better than Word’s terse Heminwayesque style. The other day it helped me to spell “dysfunctional” correctly; it seemed to me that the word ought to begin with “dis-,“ and the correct spelling seems… well, it just does not seem to work.

Science fiction has for years conveyed warnings about allowing the machines to take over the world. Captain Kirk and Doctor Who regularly encountered societies where humans had become the slaves and computers were doing all the thinking. Kirk had a particular knack for talking a computer to death. Artificial intelligence may compete successfully with human intelligence in some areas—chess, for example—but it remains far less creative and flexible than the human mind.

People and their machines will always have a partnership in the world. In theory, machines could replace and exterminate humanity. In reality, it will never happen. They continue to be our tools, and we continue to have the last word. J.

That’s what he thinks. J’s computer

Happy Halloween

Early European cultures—including the Celts and the Germans—observed holidays on the solstices and equinoxes, and also on the mid-point dates between those events. Those four “cross-quarter days” remain on our calendars as Groundhog Day and May Day, but the most popular of those celebrations is what the Celts called Samhain and what we now call Halloween.

This festival comes at a troubling time of year. The weather is growing colder; days are shorter and nights are longer. In the United States, on even-numbered years, voters choose their leaders right after Halloween. Also, for no particular reason, clocks are adjusted by an hour in much of the country, making midday closer to noon but also advancing sunset by a wrenching hour. (Having more light in the morning is a small gain from the adjustment, but scarcely sufficient reason to toy with everyone’s personal schedules.)

Christian missionaries adopted some festive customs from the pre-Christian population of Europe, turning Yuletide into Christmas and blending springtime fertility celebrations with the observance of the Lord’s resurrection. As for Samhain, Christians invented a second resurrection observance that they call All Saints’ Day. Instead of fearing ghosts and goblins, Christians celebrate their conviction that those they love who have died are not haunting them here on earth but instead are with the Lord in Paradise awaiting their resurrection on the Day of his appearing. When they observe All Saints’ Day, Christian remember Biblical saints, saints from later Church history, and saints they have known: grandparents, parents, friends, and the like. All Saints’ Day is also called All Hallows Day, making the night before the holiday All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

At one time, Halloween was a children’s celebration. They had parties at school or at their homes, wearing costumes, bobbing for apples, eating sweets, and generally having a good time. They wore their costumes and visited their neighbors, threatening tricks and demanding treats. They were entertained by scary stories, comfortable with the knowledge that they were hearing these stories in a safe environment and that the fear and dread of these stories was only make-believe.

Then there was a generation that didn’t grow up. They were not content to let their children enjoy Halloween in childish ways; they clung to the fear and dread of the season and enhanced it for adult minds and hearts. From macabre decorations in their homes to horror movies to carefully staged haunted houses, this generation has turned Halloween into an entire season that rivals the Christmas season in buying and spending.

Many adults love Halloween. Some wish that Halloween would last the entire year. They wear costumes to work; they even dress their dogs and cats in Halloween costumes. The “hallowed” part of Halloween is largely forgotten. Ghosts, goblins, witches, monsters, and politicians are on everyone’s minds. The thrill of being frightened means more these days than Christian promises about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Some well-meaning Christians attempt to tone Halloween down to a “Harvest Festival.” Others remember the great Halloween prank devised five hundred years ago by a monk in Saxony who posted some controversial sentences about forgiveness on a church door. However you choose to celebrate this cross-quarter day, I hope and pray that your celebrations are safe and enjoyable. J.

A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

Tropical depression Beta

I have already used all my tropical depression jokes. The rain began before dawn yesterday, brought by Beta, and it has continued right up to the present. The gentle splatter repeats drop by drop, minute after minute, hour after hour. Already autumn has begun. Mornings are dark and cool. We won’t change our clocks until November, in the senseless pretense that we are saving daylight to use in the evening. It would be easy to remain in bed, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. But there are tasks to accomplish, deeds that must be done, and a tropical depression is no excuse to be lazy.

All year I’ve been working on a book about depression—the inner kind, not the weather kind. My working title remains The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. Thinking about depression, analyzing depression, describing and discussing depression: these are depressing things to do. The first draft is nearly done, but I expect to do a lot of rewriting, reorganizing, and other editorial work. Yesterday I tried to summarize the ideas found in The Dark Night of the Soul, and I realized that I will have to sit down and read the entire book again to be able to share it properly.

Last night I was reading in the family library. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed a biography of Ernest Hemingway and read the last fifty pages. His own story, as you may recall, does not have a happy ending. In some ways I relate to Hemingway—we were both born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, and both of us write. Of course his writing brought him fame and fortune, something my writing has not been able to achieve. He traveled and saw more of the world than I have seen. Also, I don’t own a gun. But I’ve read Hemingway’s novels and short stories. Even though we disagree about some important matters, I admire Hemingway’s ability to see the world and to describe it vividly. I also admire his ability to see into people’s thoughts and feelings and to describe them vividly too.

Twenty-five years after Hemingway died, his publisher printed an edited edition of one of Hemingway’s unfinished projects. Garden of Eden is a powerful novel, at least in its abridged form. It describes sordid and ugly actions by sordid and ugly people, but its narrative is not easily forgotten. Ten years ago a movie was made from the novel, although it was not widely distributed. I happened upon a description of that movie recently, which may have contributed to my impulse to read again about the author.

Many things combine to create a tropical depression. Clouds and rain and wind are only part of the story. We are what we eat; but we also are what we read, what we remember, and what we ponder. We cannot always choose our frame of mind; often it is imposed upon us. Some days we can do no more than take one step at a time, firmly confident that each step measures a little more progress toward our destination. J.

Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

Do you remember the Pepsi Challenge?

In the late 1980s, competition between the two largest brands of cola was fierce. Pepsi Cola ran a campaign they called “the Pepsi Challenge.” Their workers set up booths in public places and invited passerbys to taste two colas—Pepsi and Coke. The labels would be hidden, so samplers would not know which cola was which. They would take a sip of each cola and report which they preferred. According to Pepsi, a large majority preferred their product to that of their rival, Coca Cola.

I took the Pepsi Challenge once at the DuPage County Fair. After tasting both samples, I truthfully told the worker that they tasted the same, that I had no preference. However, I also stood by and watched them work. Each time someone agreed to take the challenge, the worker would pour about an ounce of cola from bottle A into a cup, then would pour the same amount from bottle B into another cup. The worker would then hand the cup from bottle B to the sampler, and after he or she had tasted that cola, he or she would receive the sample from bottle A.

No wonder more people thought they preferred Pepsi! Invariably, bottle A was Coca Cola and bottle B was Pepsi Cola. The Pepsi sample would always be fresh from the bottle still bubbling, while the Coke sample would have had a little time to go flat. The contest was rigged; yet, most people who took the challenge probably left the booth convinced that Pepsi tasted better than Coke because of that single experience.

People are easily fooled. Studies and surveys and polls offer copious amounts of information, but often they are skewed by procedures as subtle as the Pepsi Challenge. Average people are not often able to observe the way information is gathered the way I was able to observe the Pepsi Challenge. Professional surveys contain many kinds of data that help a person to determine the reliability of the results, but that data is not distributed as widely as the results themselves. Without that data (and knowledge of how to interpret it), a person has little chance to know which surveys and studies are accurate and which are rigged. Healthy skepticism is always recommended. J.