Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

“Hello, my name is Joe”

From time to time I dream of winning a grand victory over an evil intelligence, as Captain Kirk so often did in Star Trek. Yesterday, on a small scale, I finally had my chance.

The telephone rang while I was working on my desktop computer at home. I did not recognize the number showing on caller ID, but that did not necessarily mean the call was not from someone I know. I haven’t memorized all the phone numbers of people I might want to speak with on the phone.

I picked up the phone and said hello. A cheerful voice introduced himself as “Joe from Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m fine, Joe; how are you?”

Instead of the usual, “I’m-fine-thanks-for-asking,” Joe moved immediately into a description of what his company offered. He implied that someone in the household had a need for a hearing aid. “I don’t think I’m interested,” I told him, but Joe then said that someone in the household had contacted his company.

Given the name of the company, I didn’t think that was likely. Instead of saying so, I offered, “Let me write down your name and number and ask my family if any of them have contacted you.”

“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” Joe assured me. “This is a free service.” I thanked him and asked again for a way to contact him if someone in the family indeed had an interest in what he was offering.

Instead of giving me a phone number, Joe said, “I’d just like to ask you a few questions, OK?”

By this time, Joe’s failure to respond to what I was saying made me suspect that Joe was not a human being, but rather a computer-generated voice. His pauses before responding were just a smidgen too long; along with his unfitting responses, our conversation made me picture a 1960s, made for TV, room-sized computer with whirling tapes and flashing lights. I knew that if I said “OK,” Joe would start asking his questions, so I said, “I don’t think I want to answer any questions.”

“OK?” Joe asked again.

“I know what word you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it,” I told him.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, OK?” Joe repeated.

Although I was tempted to tell him that logic is a chirping bird, I instead chose a more fitting line. “Joe, what we have here is failure to communicate,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having that problem,” Joe said.

“I don’t think the problem is on my end,” I told him.

“My name is Joe,” he said, more slowly than he had said it the first time. I pictured the face of an android, eyes blank and staring, smoke starting to rise out of both his ears. He continued, slowly and distinctly, “I am from the Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” After that came a silence long enough that I figured it would not be rude to hang up on Joe.

In three different episodes, Captain Kirk was able to save an entire planet and its resident civilization (not to mention his life and the lives of his crew) by talking a computer to death. I’d like to believe that, in a small way, I have now shared in the good captain’s victories. J.

First Friday Fiction: An Incomplete Stranger

I don’t know why Annabelle Valentine is taking the class on World Religions. What is more, I’m not even sure why Annabelle is taking any class at Tech.

Every Tuesday and Thursday she strolls into the classroom and drops her backpack on the table with a weary sigh. When she speaks about the textbook or about the writing assignments—which isn’t often—she speaks in a tired and bored voice. “Can you believe how long that chapter was?” she asks in general, or, “Is there any chance we’ll get out early today?” She sits in her chair during class, curled with her feet underneath her as if she was in her living room rather than at school. While the instructor talks, she takes no notes. Instead, she twists the ends of her long black hair around her fingers or studies her brightly-painted nails.

Annabelle is not always bored. She talks with animation about recent books and movies. She can discuss Hunger Games at great length and with authority and conviction. She can match music groups to their latest tunes with unerring accuracy, and she can remember who is in tour and when they will be in the area. All these things she can do, but I don’t know why she is in college.

I know why I am in college, and I know why I am studying World Religions. For as long as I can remember, I have needed a good reason for everything I do. Before I signed up for this class, I reminded my parents that all sorts of people shop at the farmers’ market. It helps our sales if one of us knows at least a little about our customers and what they are thinking. If someone shopping at the market should happen to be Hindu or Buddhist, or—God help us!—Muslim, the information I’ve gained about their beliefs and practices can help me to connect with them. There may not be any more Hindus or Buddhists in this city than there are Mennonites, but surely there are some. A little knowledge about their religion, I told my parents, can do me no harm.

My parents and I are Mennonite. We live on a farm about fifteen miles east of the city, where we raise much of our own food and enough extra food to sell to others. Companies like Tyson have taken business away from small farms like ours, but interest in fresh and local food has never entirely disappeared. Lately, such interest has grown.

When I tell people that I am Mennonite, I always must add, “but not Amish.” My parents and I do not go to extremes. We wear clothes with buttons and zippers. We drive cars and trucks. We have electricity and running water. Anything that is useful, we can use. We strive, though, to avoid the empty and useless luxuries of the world. What we do not need, we do not have. We have no television. We have a radio, but we only turn it on when we might be in danger from the weather. The clothes we wear are simple and durable, with no bright or flashy colors. The food we eat is healthy, not laden with sugar or with factory chemicals. We do not dance or play cards or go to movies. My father brews his own beer, mead, and wine.

My parents taught me at home for as long as they felt that they could. Beginning in the seventh grade, I went to public school. I entered school at a difficult time. My fellow students had already made friends with one another. I was an outsider. They quickly noticed that all my clothing is the same. They laughed at me for missing their favorite TV programs and for knowing none of their favorite songs.

After two years, I finally persuaded my father that I need a computer to do my schoolwork. He bought me a desktop computer, but he had a man at the store remove all the games before he brought the computer home. Internet access was only added later after another long discussion and many promises about what I would not do online. 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.”

In spite of his protests, Father usually allows me to do anything I can defend to him as a useful activity. I am their only child, so Father and Mother plan that I will take over the farm when they no longer can manage it. Meanwhile, they expect me to prepare myself to be diligent and productive. After another long discussion and a year of waiting, I convinced Father and Mother that a high school diploma is no longer enough in today’s world, even for a farmer. College classes are necessary now. Together the three of us look at the class listings and discuss which classes will be most useful for my education. Nothing frivolous is permitted. Whenever I enroll for a class, I already have found a reason for me to take that class. Whenever I walk into a classroom, I know exactly why I am there.

Perhaps Annabelle needs someone like Mother or Father to question her about why she is in college, forcing her to defend every class she chooses to take. On the first day of class, the instructor had each of us say a little bit about our religious background and to say why we are taking the class. Annabelle said, “My parents used to take me to a Baptist Church, so I guess I’m a Baptist. I guess I signed up for this class because I’m curious about what other people believe.” Father would never allow me to guess about anything, least of all about matters of faith. “Know what you believe,” he says, “or you don’t believe anything at all.”

We have read about and discussed Indigenous Religions, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians. Annabelle seems bored by all of them. Last Tuesday’s class was livelier than the earlier classes. We began discussing the chapter on Judaism. The instructor spent much of the hour summarizing Old Testament history. At least half the students in the class recognize names such as Abraham and Moses and David. Several of us took part in the discussion. The instructor promised that on Thursday we would cover Jewish history from Roman times until the present, as well as Jewish holidays and observances.

As we were packing our books, Annabelle turned around and said to me, “I guess you know your Bible pretty well.”

I was startled. She had never spoken to me before. “I should. I’ve been taught from the Bible all my life,” I stammered.

“You said on the first day that you’re a Mennonite,” she said. I nodded. “I want to learn more about Mennonites,” she commented. “My boyfriend’s a Mennonite.” Then, without even taking a breath, she corrected herself. “He’s not my boyfriend, though—he’s the one that I love.”

Her words rang in my ears as we walked out the doorway. I am sure that I know all the Mennonites for miles around. Could she mean Caleb? Surely not! Caleb has been married for almost a year. Could she mean Frank? Frank would never be interested in someone as worldly as Annabelle, and I find it hard to imagine that she would see anything attractive about him. Every other Mennonite man I can remember is either too old or too young to be her boyfriend, or the one that she loves. She must know some other Mennonite family that I have never met.

We were walking together down the hall, so I asked her, “What do you mean by that expression, ‘not my boyfriend, but the one that you love’?”

“He doesn’t know that I love him,” she answered, and she smiled at me with glowing eyes.

“I see,” I said, although I didn’t understand her at all. I wasn’t sure what question to ask to find out what I wanted to know. I saw that we were near the restrooms. “Excuse me,” I said, and I darted into the men’s room.

“See you on Thursday,” she called after me.

We did not see each other on Thursday. Wednesday night the instructor sent out an email saying that she had fallen ill and would have to cancel Thursday’s class. She told us to keep up our reading and work on our essays, and she would catch up on the lectures when she had regained her health.

The instructor addressed her one email to all the students in the class. I don’t know why, but I skimmed through the addresses to see if I could guess which is Annabelle’s. Undoubtedly hers was the last on the list: ABHeart, then a number, and then @aol.com . My address is even more prosaic: the letter d, then my last name, followed by my zip code, and then @gmail.com .

The week passed slowly. Annabelle’s name came into my head again and again, even though I tried to drive it away. I kept on seeing her face, her eyes, her smile. I did not dream about her, but I woke in the morning thinking about her, just as if she had been in my dreams.

Thursday night I did something I had never done before. I typed the name Annabelle Valentine into Google. Thousands of listings appeared in fifteen hundredths of a second. I added the name of our city to the search. The Annabelle who sits in front of me in World Religions rose to the top of the search. She won awards in high school as a cheerleader. Her grandfather died a year and a half ago. She has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

I could feel my heart pounding. If Mother or Father should see what I was doing, trouble would follow, as surely as an east wind brings rain. They would not punish me, of course, but they would disapprove, and their disapproval would be worse than any punishment.

Annabelle’s Facebook page does not allow me to see anything about her unless I create an account on Facebook first, which of course is something I must not do. Her Twitter account is just the opposite. I skimmed through the last six weeks of her tweets, merely curious to see what she was saying about her life. Scattered among comments about a wide range of subjects were three tweets that made my heart race. The first read, “A cute boy in religion class. Need 2 find a way 2 talk 2 him.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “Does he know how he stares? A little creepy but strangely instead I’m flattered.” Then, on Tuesday night, “All but told him today I love him. His turn now.”

My head swam. Of course I had thought that she might mean me when she spoke of someone she loves who doesn’t know it. How many Mennonites can she have met? I persuaded myself that I was being vain and worldly to think such a thought. Now that I knew what she meant, I had no idea what to do about that knowledge. If it was my turn now, I had better find out first what sort of game she is playing.

Friday night I was online again, researching for my paper. An incoming email box appeared in the corner of the screen. “Danny, R U there?” I read. The message was from ABHeart.

My mouth was so dry I could not swallow. I thought about ignoring the message, but my parents had taught me never to be rude. “I’m here,” I wrote.

“What R U doing?”

“I’m doing research for school.” I wrote. “And you?”

“Just sitting in my little apartment thinking about U.”

I wasn’t sure what to write next. What are the rules to this game? “I’m not sure Mother and Father would approve,” I typed. As soon as I pressed “send” I grimaced. I could tell that I should have written something else instead.

“Approve of what?”

“A young lady starting a conversation with a complete stranger. That was never done in their day.”

“So do U need Ur parents approval? Haven’t U grown up yet?”

I had made a mistake mentioning Mother and Father. I did not know if I could recover. “I figured you wouldn’t understand. Approval means a lot in my family. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ doesn’t come with an expiration date. Not in our way of seeing things.”

“Whatever. I just wanted to schedule an interview with U 4 my paper. I want 2 write about Mennonites.”

“Maybe before or after class on Tuesday.”

“R U busy all weekend?”

“This is short notice for tomorrow. Sunday’s out of the question.”

“OK. Fine. Tues then. BTW, nobody’s perfect.”

“I never said that I was perfect.”

“U did 2. U called Urself a perfect stranger. lol.”

I scrolled through our conversation to check my memory. I remembered correctly.

“Wrong. I said a complete stranger, not a perfect stranger.”

There was a delay, probably while she scrolled too.”

“U win. But make sure U R complete. No pieces missing.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Never forget U told me that. Good night. C U Tues”

“Good night.”

I closed the email before Mother or Father might walk in and see it. I wondered what they would think of Annabelle. I know they would be aghast that she contacted me via the computer. As I told her, in their time young women were not so forward. Perhaps Mother and Father would see Annabelle as another Eve, already tainted by the serpent of the world, now tempting me with its forbidden fruit of idle pursuits and empty pleasures. But I am no Adam. I do not live in a perfect Garden, and there is no one woman created only for me. I am more of an Isaac, surrounded by worldly unbelievers. My Rebekah will have to be found among our own people, no matter how far away she lives. My parents and I have never discussed my future marriage openly. Still, I know their thinking. First I must prove myself on the farm, showing that I am ready to support a family. Then a Rebekah will be found for me.

All weekend I pondered Annabelle and her messages. I thought of her as I fed the chickens, as I gathered the eggs, as I helped Father check the newly-planted crops, as I pulled weeds from Mother’s herb garden, and as I milked our one dairy cow. I confessed to myself that I could not picture Annabelle at my side helping with any of these chores. Nor could I imagine her taking Mother’s place baking bread in the kitchen, sewing and mending our clothes, or leading a group of eight Mennonite women in Bible study and prayer.

As I thought of Annabelle, though, I realized that I could not see myself as an Isaac, waiting for Rebekah to be brought to me. I would rather be like Moses, a “stranger in a strange land,” who found his own bride and married her.

This morning I opened my email and saw that Annabelle had left me a message on Sunday. “Tues after class works for me if it works for U,” she wrote. Then she added, “U do realize that I was messing with you about being in love with a Mennonite, don’t U?”

My answer was deliberately short. “After class is fine. See you tomorrow.” I wanted to write more, but I didn’t dare. I wanted to ask if she was messing with me on Twitter too, or if her tweets were sincere. I wanted to ask if she had changed her mind about me—and if so I wanted to know why. I wanted to tell her that I had been thinking of nothing but her for days. All these things I left unasked and unsaid.

Instead, I am preparing myself mentally for tomorrow’s interview. I want to show Annabelle that I am not incomplete without all her worldly distractions and vanities. I want her to see the strength and dignity of our ways. I have no wish to convert her, for I am convinced she is happier as she is. But I want to open her eyes to another way of living so she can know who I really am.

When the final exam has been given and the World Religions class is over, Annabelle Valentine and I will go our separate ways. She will have learned, I hope, a few things about people whose lives are different from her life. In the future, for her, perhaps strangers like me will not seem so strange. Meanwhile, I have learned something too. Even though it was not in the instructor’s plan and schedule for the class, and it was not among the reasons I gave Mother and Father for me to take the class, I have discovered what I need to make my life complete. The time has come for me to begin talking to strangers.