The Lost Week: A Winter Adventure

   Last month a polar vortex wandered down into the southern regions of the United States, where it met moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these two systems dropped a multitude of winter weather on areas that, unlike America’s Heartland, are unequipped to handle ice and snow. My life, and the lives of my family members, were disrupted by this February winter event, which resulted for us in the Lost Week.*

Forecasters warned us well in advance that winter weather was coming. They knew all about the polar vortex, the Gulf moisture, and the winter weather the two would produce. Usually this mix happens further north, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Those states know how to handle winter weather. But ice and snow are rare in the southern states; when they occur, they usually melt the next day. Prolonged cold temperatures are unusual; prolonged cold temperatures with winter precipitation are even more unusual. Central Arkansas had gone more than one thousand days without measurable winter precipitation before this winter weather event. As a result, states and counties and municipalities invest little money in snow removal and other ways to handle winter precipitation.

On Wednesday February 10th, we were all talking about the upcoming winter event and the likelihood of weather-related closures during the coming days. Some freezing rain fell and hardened on cold surfaces that night and the next morning. In Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, road crews would have salted the roads and bridges even before the rain began, and all roads would have been open Thursday morning. Instead, for the safety of their workers and of those whom they serve, schools and offices and most other businesses closed for the day that Thursday. Although no precipitation was added Thursday night or Friday morning, the temperature remained below freezing. Some places remained closed on Friday, while others (including my employer) opened late and allowed us to work for a few hours.

Heavy snow was expected to begin some time on Sunday. Meanwhile, temperatures had remained below freezing all day Saturday. As a result, churches canceled their Sunday services (or followed the online protocol they had been using for the past eleven months). Snowfall did not begin until evening, but already closings were announced for Monday. Less than an inch of snow had fallen by Monday morning’s usual travel time, but it continued to snow all day. About ten inches accumulated during that Monday snowfall. The snow was light and fluffy, easily moved by shovel. Interstates were kept open through the day, but side streets and rural routes, having received no winter treatment, were impassible.

I have experienced winter weather driving before. My Driver’s Education in high school took place during one of the snowiest winters of northern Illinois history. A few scattered days of classes were canceled that month, but we were rarely off two days in a row. Some years later I attended a meeting in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, living at that time in the southeastern corner of the city. It took about an hour to cross the city to get to the meeting. Around lunchtime, snow began to fall. Plows and other weather treatment vehicles were stuck in traffic as they tried to deal with snow that evening. It took me seven hours on the road to return home. At one point, on the Interstate, I saw three eighteen-wheel trucks side by side, spinning their wheels on a slight incline, blocking three lanes of pointing the opposite direction form which I was heading. The total snowfall from that storm was 9.7 inches. When I got home, I thought surely school would be closed the next day, but I was wrong. Overnight they cleaned up the mess, and in the morning all roads were open and life had returned to normal—business as usual.

Two of my daughters shared an apartment on the west side of town. They chose February 17 of this year to move to a new apartment on the north side. Both had recently taken jobs on the north side, and their new apartment is also closer to my house. Therefore, they had packed many boxes and left them in my house to make moving day easier. Both daughters work in the health care field. One, who works in a hospital, saw the forecast and decided to take a motel room Sunday and Monday nights, sharing and splitting the cost with a coworker. The other, who works weekend nights, followed a normal schedule and managed to make it to work Sunday in spite of the beginning snowfall. Monday, she drove from work to the old apartment, but got stuck on a hill about a quarter of a mile from the apartment. She walked the rest of the way and let us know, by text and phone call, about her situation. Since we had cleared much of the driveway Monday afternoon, we volunteered to rescue us from her apartment—and, if possible, to free her car—Tuesday afternoon. Although my car was nearly stuck on another hill near her apartment that afternoon, we managed to free both cars and to bring her to our place, along with three cats and a dog, who were welcomed (with some hospitality and some apprehension) by our two cats. The other daughter then came to our place from work Tuesday afternoon. With more snow forecast for Wednesday, they agreed to postpone their truck rental and put off the bulk of their move for an undetermined number of days.

Eight more inches of snow fell on Wednesday—again, mostly during the day. Streets and roads that had not been cleared now had double the obstruction. Where people tried to drive and spun their wheels, they often created sheets of polished ice rather than clearing their way down to the pavement. Some used sand or cat litter to try to gain traction. (Sand is a good idea; cat litter not so much—it’s mostly clay, which is also slippery once it gets wet.) Others took the floor mats from inside their cars and, putting them at their tires, managed to get their vehicles moving. My daughters managed to get a key to their new apartment and move some of their boxes out of our place, but they and their dog and cats remained refugees staying with us.

Meanwhile, my son lives in Texas. Like many other people in Texas, he lost power and water. He endured the deprivation for a few days, but then sought relief from us. After Wednesday’s snow, the main highways were beginning to open, so he grabbed both his cats and some perishable groceries and drove north to our place.

My son is an engineer. Living in Texas, he also heard information that was not shared nationwide and was able to understand what it meant. The power failure in Texas was due to solar power and wind power being disabled by winter weather. Texas utility governments petitioned the federal government for permission to burn fossil fuels using available technology, but they were denied permission because of the danger of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. Although other factors played a part in the Texas troubles, the stubbornness of federal bureaucracy played a significant role in worsening the winter weather crisis experienced by residents of the state of Texas.

At its peak, then, our house provided food and shelter for three human refugees along with a total of seven cats and a dog. My workplace was closed all five days of the third week of February. My daughters’ truck rental happened a week later than planned, although they did eventually get themselves, their pets, and their belongings into their new place. My son finally left for Texas yesterday.

It might be years before we face another winter weather event like this in the south. It’s fair to say that no lessons were learned, that no further provisions will be made to successfully cope with ice and snow in the future. Church services were canceled two straight Sundays, and even with all that extra “time off,” I had little success working on writing plans or other special projects. My “to-do” list is longer now than it was a month ago. But the snow has melted, the roads are open again, and life goes on. J.

*The Lost Week is a local joke (which I used at work to satisfying results) referring to the Lost Year of 1958-1959. The Lost Year followed the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, a historic event accompanied by street protests and federal troops. In the summer of 1958, the state government unwisely acted to prevent a repeat of that performance by closing all the high schools in Little Rock. That school year, when high school students had to miss a year of school or find alternate sources of education, is known in Arkansas history as the Lost Year.

False alarms

This Christmas season will be remembered by the Salvageable family as the Christmas of false alarms. It began, not on Christmas Day, but on Sunday December 27th, the third day of Christmas, when the smoke detector in the hallway began to send out intermittent signals that it sensed smoke. This alarm prompted a thorough search of the house—checking all the rooms, even those rarely visited; observing the house from outside, both front and rear; examining all electrical appliances; and even lifting the trap door into the attic to check for heat or smoke. No indication, aside from the alarm, showed any sign of smoke in or near the house or anywhere in the neighborhood. Eventually I set the smoke detector out on the deck, where it rang occasional alarms a few more times before finally settling into silence.

I should mention that the device is not one that needs a new battery every year. It came self-contained, complete with power source, and was guaranteed to last ten years. And, needless to say, the smoke detector is now a few months beyond ten years old.

Two mornings later I heard an odd hum when I got out of the shower. I was concerned at first that something was going wrong with the exhaust fan in the bathroom or possibly with one of the lights. After I got dressed and switched all those off, I could still hear the hum. In short order I traced it to the smoke detector, still out on the deck, and now dealing with moisture from inclement weather. I shook out the moisture, silencing the alarm; then I wrapped the device in a plastic bag and left it on the deck. My plan was to put it into the garbage at the end of the week and then replace it the next time I visited Walmart.

Then the rain came. The bag protected the device for a while, but not for good. Oddly, I heard it at eight a.m.—right after the Christmas carol clocked chimed for the hour. My first thought was that someone in the house had set an alarm to go off at eight, but then I recognized the triple chirp of the smoke detector. So I finally did what had been suggested the previous Sunday—I took the device out to the workshop, broke it open, and disabled it. I had planned to put it, as it was, into the garbage that night to be removed from our property in the morning. But it occurred to me that if our garbage on the curb was beeping, we might worry the neighbors, which could lead to visits from the city police’s bomb squad. Therefore, I disabled the noisy alarm.

This would be the end of the story, but it’s not. Friday night, even as our garbage waited at the curb to be removed Saturday morning, my youngest daughter was told that she may have been exposed to the crisis virus while at work—some of her coworkers had contracted the virus. So she went to be tested on Saturday (locking her keys in the car and needing to be rescued), and I notified people at church and at my workplace that I might need to quarantine. Saturday night my daughter’s test results came back negative, but I had already removed myself from church services this morning. My manager at work had relied my message up the chain of command, but I let him know about the negative result and my lack of symptoms, so I probably will be allowed back to work Monday morning.

These events confirm what I had already been saying—we put too much pressure on the New Year to be a new beginning, an end to our woes from the passing year and a chance for things to be better. None of these events were horrible or tragic, but a few bumps in the road on the first weekend of 2021 remind me that 2020 and 2021 are merely numbers. A new calendar on the wall does not guarantee a better year. And so it goes. J.

Frosty and Karen

Last night my daughter and I watched the Christmas classic “Frosty the Snowman.” She was quick to notice some of the curious foibles of the story, such as the schoolchildren playing in the snow while wearing shorts and short dresses, as if their legs were immune to the cold; also, Santa Claus leaving Karen stranded on the roof with no way of getting off near the end of the story.

But I watched the show with another agenda. Since last Christmas, many of us have become familiar with the “Karen” trope. “Karen” represents a white, blonde, middle-aged woman who carries a sense of entitlement, making her a difficult customer, and known for her frequent demand to “talk with the manager.” With that trope in mind, I wanted to see if Frosty’s Karen might be one of the first Karens, perhaps the original Karen who started the whole image. From the evidence I witnessed and gathered, I would have to conclude that, yes, Frosty’s Karen is a prototypical Karen.

She does not stand out in the classroom scenes, but she first comes to the forefront when she exaggerates her contribution to the making of the snowman by saying, “The head is the most difficult part. Ask anyone.” None of her friends dares to disagree with that assertion.

Next, Karen must intervene with a police officer who threatens to give Frosty a ticket for disregarding the traffic light and the officer’s instructions. Karen is able to thwart justice by pointing out that Frosty has just come to life and doesn’t know all the rules. A well-known maxim states that “ignorance is no excuse” for breaking the law, but the police officer is charmed by young Karen and gives Frosty a break.

She then speaks for the group when approaching the Ticket Master, wanting to send Frosty by train to the North Pole. When he tells them that the ticket will cost three thousand dollars and four cents (tax included), she is as discouraged as the others. Yet she has no misgivings about putting Frosty in a refrigerated car without purchasing a ticket. When Frosty invites Karen to join him on the train, she agrees instantly, assuming the permission of her mother “as long as I’m home in time for supper.”

From this childhood experience, Karen learns the value of going straight to the top of any organization. What higher authority can she find than Santa Claus on Christmas Eve? Though Santa has a job—a slim window of delivering toys and gifts to every good little boy and girl in the world—he still takes the time to revive Frosty and to bring Karen back to her home (even if he did leave her standing on the roof). No wonder Karen grows up to be a woman who assumes that any problem can be fixed so long as she can speak with the manager.

I fell in love with Karen when I was a little boy. Her devotion to Frosty, her willingness to face risks on his behalf, and her vulnerability all appealed to my sensitive nature. If only I had known what kind of adult Karen would become, I might have hesitated to give my heart away so quickly. In closing, let me say that the group of children dismissed the suggestion of “Oatmeal” as a name for the snowman much too abruptly. J.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again and again and again…)

Other years, if you were to ask me to name my favorite Christmas song, I probably would have chosen “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The tune is uplifting, and the lyrics are meaningful. How many Christmas songs convey the precise theology of “God and sinners reconciled,” or, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the Incarnate Deity”? “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” and, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are two candidates for good Christmas theology; many other seasonal songs are weak and shallow and trite.

The original words to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were written by Charles Wesley; today’s familiar version comes from a rewriting done by George Whitefield. The original tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn; text and tune were brought together by William H. Cummings. The hymn has prominent placement in our Christmas memories, showing up in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, among other seasonal favorites.

Perhaps that ubiquity of the song has left me jaded this year. It is the seven o’clock song on our Christmas carol clock, which means that I hear it most mornings after exiting the shower and heading toward the kitchen for breakfast. Then I hear it again most evenings after supper. Perhaps I have overplayed the hymn too much other years—especially the version from Amy Grant’s Christmas album of 1983. That version features an enthusiastic orchestra and choral setting of the hymn, including a repetitive instrumental rendering of the third line which has become an earworm, cycling endlessly in my head while I am trying to access other thoughts. Many years, I have set my alarm to waken me Christmas Day with Amy Grant’s version of “Hark….” Not this year.

Another problem I have with the song is a joke my father told years ago about a commercial version of “Hark…”—one that promoted Beechum’s pills. My father never claimed to have invented the joke. Indeed, it shows up on the Internet with various back stories, no doubt all of them apocryphal. But my father’s version includes a line that I have not found anywhere else, so he may have contributed his own wit to the joke. At the risk of putting these words into your head and ruining the song for you (as it has evidently been ruined for me), here are the words my father sings: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/ Beechum’s pills are just the thing/ Peace on earth and mercy mild/ Two for men and one for child/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Try the new economy size…”

I don’t know whether to say “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome.” J.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror.

The mirror was in our storage shed/workshop, a structure that was replaced in 2017 after an electrical fire. Many of the materials stored in that shed until the fire were discarded, leaving room for the shed to function also as a dance studio for my daughters. Their mirror was tall and narrow, the kind of mirror people often attach inside a bedroom door or bathroom door so they can see how their clothing looks from head to toe. Needless to say, the mirror was also helpful for their dance practices.

I was preparing to cook the Thanksgiving turkey. I always cook the turkey outdoors over charcoal, leaving the oven in the kitchen free for bread, muffins, vegetable casseroles, pies, or whatever else the other cooks have on the menu. Rather than using starter fluid, I ignite the coals with an electric coil. Since I locate the grill a safe distance from any other structure, I need a long electrical cord to work the starter coil. On Thanksgiving, I was leaning over the mirror to plug the extension cord into the outlet when I bumped the mirror and it fell forward, shattering on the shed/dance studio floor.

I am not superstitious. Borrowing a joke from baseball manager Joe Madden, I’m not even “just a little stitious.” I agree with the adage, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” We have a black cat in our household; it crosses my path several times a day without bringing me bad luck. Friday the thirteenth is just another day on the calendar. I don’t bother to knock on wood after saying that things have been going well so far. Breaking a mirror is an inconvenience, and replacing the mirror is an expense, but I’m not worried about seven years of bad luck. (Although I did gash one of my fingers picking up the pieces of the broken mirror, a wound that had to be bandaged for the next five days.)

If there were any truth to the superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, I would like to declare the bad luck retroactive to the breaking of this mirror. I would like to cancel the bad luck of the last three thousand days, extending back to the start of the Mayan Apocalypse in October 2012. In particular, I would like to cancel the shed fire, the various automotive troubles the family has faced, and a few other disappointments along the way. Failing a cancellation of the past, I would like the broken mirror to signal an end to seven years of bad luck. No more quarantines, no more rigged elections (or accusations of the same), no more dark nights of the soul.

Life is too complex to blame bad luck on black cats or broken mirrors. In spite of the darkness, a number of good things have happened in the past seven years. My children have received college diplomas and have started jobs. Our family debts—pretty serious at the start of the Mayan Apocalypse—have been paid. I’ve written and published a few books. Yes, things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse.

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror. The pieces have been hauled away with the family trash, and a new mirror has been purchased and put in the shed. The turkey was eaten and enjoyed. My finger has healed. Christmas decorations have gone up, Christmas gifts have been bought (but not yet wrapped), and Christmas cookies are being baked. Our annual Christmas party at work has been replaced with a gift card—for an introvert like me, that’s a win. We won’t be traveling this Christmas season to spend time with family—a mixed blessing, since I’d like to see these people, but also a massive reprieve from stress and tension. The end of the year is coming. I hate to put too much pressure on New Year’s Day and the change of calendars, but closing the book on 2020 may provide a boost of morale. Life goes on, the good with the bad. What more is there to say? J.

Christmas decorations

If I said I was having trouble raising energy and enthusiasm to decorate for Christmas this year, most people would probably assume that this is a virus-crisis problem. But, the fact is, the last several years I have lacked energy and enthusiasm for celebrating the Christmas holidays.

The Salvageable family has so many Christmas decorations—and has had so many for most of our years together—that long ago I started a custom of adding one decoration a day to the house from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Day. The first decoration, which makes its appearance on Thanksgiving, is a clock which plays one Christmas carol to mark the hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (It assumes that we all want to sleep between ten and seven.) Then, day by day, more items would appear: wreaths, hangings, tabletop displays, books, music boxes, candles, mugs, china, and so on. It became a game for the children, guessing which decoration would appear next, searching the house to find that day’s new decoration. I even kept lists from year to year, keeping track for myself the order of items to put on display. Big projects like hanging lights from the eaves or putting up the tree would be reserved for weekends. Smaller decorations would appear during the course of the week.

The holiday pattern was broken a few years ago when we had a fire May 5 that damaged a storage shed/workshop and its contents, including our Christmas decorations. Our insurance company served us very well, paying to replace the building and those contents that were permanently damaged and paying to clean the items that could be restored. They refused to consider trying to clean our artificial tree, but the same tree has remained in service after surviving the fire. (It was not in the path of the flames, being scrunched into a box on the floor, and so smoke scent was the only problem with the tree… and we were able to air it out pretty well that spring and summer, first in the garage and then in the new shed.

Our most valuable decorations—including two hand-crafted ceramic manger scenes—were successfully restored. Some items were scarred, such as the hand-sewn tree skirt; it has stains from the smoke and heat, but it looks no worse than any tree skirt that has survived for years in a family with children and cats. We got rid of a few things that we didn’t really like anyhow. But the cleaning of the items that summer and fall returned them to us in new packaging and boxes which have made it harder to locate and bring out just one item a day, as I did for years before the fire.

So now things appear as I have time and energy to pull them from the shed. Today, for example, I am ready to pack up the special china in the china cabinet—plates and cups and saucers that are on display year-round but used only on Thanksgiving and Easter—and replace them with the special Christmas china that will be on display for about a month and used on Christmas Day. If it rains today, I’ll get the china out tomorrow, and this evening I will instead hang more Christmas cards on the wall.

When I was little (and, I am sure, even before I was born), my parents would hang Christmas cards on the living room wall. They had red and green ribbons that they stored the rest of the year; but, as Christmas cards came in the mail, they would add them to the display until, by Christmas Day, the living room wall was covered with dozens of cards from family and friends, just as my parents had signed and addressed Christmas cards to dozens of households around the beginning of December.

I began pursuing the same custom with our household, using white ribbons instead of red and green. But years ago I noticed that we were not receiving dozens of cards each December. So I stopped discarding the year’s cards after Christmas and instead collected cards over a number of years, discarding duplicate pictures and pictures I found unappealing. We now have over one hundred cards hanging in our living room, and I have more than one hundred more to put on the hallway wall tonight or tomorrow.

The tree is different this year. Last winter we added a kitten to the household. He is now full-grown, but still filled with energy and curiosity. So instead of putting up tree and lights and ornaments on the same day, we decided to put the tree up last Saturday, to add the lights a couple of days later, and to hang the ornaments this coming weekend. So far he has taken to the tree well—curling up on the tree skirt, not trying to climb the tree. On the other hand, he has cleared the windowsill of candles that we usually display there. Other years we have survived young cats climbing the Christmas tree, but he is the first cat we have had in the family who demanded access to the windowsills even through the Christmas season.

I am decorating this year as I decorated every other year, but it’s mostly for the benefit of the rest of the family, not for myself. Last month I changed radio stations in the car to avoid the annual tradition of playing Christmas songs wall-to-wall from the middle of November until the end of December. (It wouldn’t be so bad if they would include traditional carols in their playlist; instead, it’s holiday drivel like “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” and “All I Want for Christmas is you.” Some mention of the Reason for the Season would at least make it palatable, but the reality is far from sacred.) We have our Christmas DVDs set aside—Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 edition), A Christmas Carol (the 1951 edition), A Christmas Story (1983), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and a few more—but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and watch any of them yet.

In short, my Christmas perspective is expressed by a quote from “When Harry Met Sally”: Boy, the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years. Except that we have two seasons to handle: the Advent season which precedes Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmas which begin on the 25th of December and continue into January. None of the decorations will come down until after the 12th day of Christmas. But the satisfaction of boxing them for another eleven months and returning life to some semblance of normal sounds very appealing to me on this 11th day of December. J.

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.