Jo Joe, by Sally Wiener Grotta

Pixel Hall Press, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) Members’ Titles
314 pages, Publication Date: May 6, 2013

It would be hard enough growing up any different kind of kid in a small rural community. Growing up the only Jew in a poverty-stricken mountain town would be significantly harder. So what would it be like growing up a brown-skinned Jewish girl — the only Jew, the only person of color and the only foreigner — in an inbred narrow-minded fundamentalist Christian town with a strong skinhead militia contingent and longstanding prejudices against anyone who is at all different?

Add it together and it goes far beyond difficult and moves into the realm of nearly impossible.

Judith Ormand spent her early life in Paris, France, the daughter of a Black man and a converted-to-Judaism white mother. After her mother dies of causes never clearly explained, she ends up being raised by her Moravian German grandparents in a small insular Pennsylvania mountain village.

Her growing up years were punctuated by racial attacks, by violence, hatred and fear. Her only protector? Joe Anderson, a handsome blond football player, son of a drunken father and a skinhead, drug-dealer brother. When Joe — her beloved best friend — turns against her, her world is shattered. She vows, encouraged by her grandmother, to never under any circumstances return to Black Bear, Pennsylvania.

But Gramma and Grampa are gone and despite any promises she made, Judith — Jo — must return and face the nightmare of her growing up years and uncover the truth about the people she loved and lost.

The book is a compelling  psychological drama and Judith Ormand is a fascinating character, a perfect target for bigoted small town residents. I found the story gripping and honest …. until it approached the end.

All of a sudden, the book went into overdrive, as if the author had reached her page limit and now had to quickly tie up all the loose ends and somehow give this sad story a happy ending. I didn’t believe the ending. I didn’t find it emotionally honest and didn’t think it made sense based on everything that had gone before. After such a very promising start, it was a big disappointment.

For all that, the book is worth the read. The misery of a child who is so very different trying to find happiness in a frightening and hostile environment is heart-wrenching. I wish the author had stayed the course and written the ending with the same integrity she gave to the story’s beginning and middle.

Jo Joe  is available as a hardcover from Amazon. It will be available in paperback and on Kindle in June 2013.

A coming out story

Marilyn Armstrong:

Being a different kind of kid in America is hard. And this is a good post about it.

Originally posted on Sunday Night Blog:

Last year at this time a facebook status, some stories in the news and a number of You Tube videos on “coming out” compelled me to write on a topic I might have otherwise avoided.  As you will see below, I could not find a dramatic You Tube video at the time on the harrowing coming out story to which I referred.  I subsequently found it and posted it in a follow-up article.  I have linked it to Angel‘s name here if you would like to see it.  It is a tough 12 minutes.

Despite everything that has been in the news lately, I thought I would shy away from this topic. It is often a political hot potato fraught with emotional arguments that have little to do with rational thinking. There seemed no reason to be another voice among the already countless raised voices. Then I caught a…

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Those halcyon days of yore or whatever

Now that my high school reunion has passed and I’m no longer besieged by nostalgia from a half century ago, I feel safe in saying it. I haven’t any idea in what world my classmates were living, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same one I inhabited.

I understand that time can cast a gentler light, a rosy glow over events that took place in one’s youth … but there’s a difference between a rosy glow and a full revision.

For months, I have been bombarded by email from people with whom I attended high school. They are sure they remember me. They recall the fun stuff we did together. After giving it careful consideration, I have concluded they are deranged, on drugs, or senile. Whatever it is they think they remember, it didn’t happen.

Who are these people? Why do they keep talking about relationships that never existed? These people were not my friends. I remember them. They didn’t like me. They either ignored me, made fun of me, or conscientiously ostracized me. I belonged to no cliques, no fun groups. I wasn’t invited to parties. I was not popular.

I had a few friends, but these people who are so happily remembering me? They weren’t among the few people I counted as friends.

Did someone — me or them — slip through a wormhole into an alternate reality? That must be it.

High school was not a good time for me. Neither was junior high school or elementary school, for that matter. Even amongst the unpopular kids, I was unpopular. By the time I had survived junior high, I’d learned how to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and over-crowded if you kept your head down, no one would notice you.

I was a klutzy kid with no athletic prowess, I avoided the humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. Every semester, I showed up at swimming class.

“You again?” said the coach. “Just keep out-of-the-way,” It was a win-win for me. I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of the pool and completely avoided gym class. I believe I was technically on the swim team, but I never actually swam in an event. I was a bench warmer. That was fine. I liked the water, but I wasn’t going to win any medals.

All I had to do was get acceptable grades, not fail math courses after which I could go to college. I heard from other survivors that in college I might meet people who I’d like and might like me. That sounded too good to be true, but I had it on good authority. It turned out to be true so I guess making it through high school alive was worth it.

This was not the first time I’ve had to fend off a reunion. I dodged the 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th. I think there was a 40th too. But like a bad penny, it keeps coming back to haunt me. On the up side, we are now all so old, there is very little likelihood of any more such grand events.

I have repeatedly gone over this in my mind. I know with absolute certainty that high school wasn’t a fun time. It wasn’t only not fun for me. It wasn’t fun for most of us. We were young, hormonal, lost, unsure where we were going or how we would get there. Everyone felt ugly or deformed. Many of us had dreadful home lives that we hid from everyone else.

Yet now those years have become one long golden memory. At the reunion I did not attend, they actually got together to sing the school song. Never once in the years I attended did we ever actually sing the school song. It was a joke. We used to make fun of it because it was so dumb. Now, it’s a warm fuzzy memory. Bizarre.

My husband says this is typical of reunions. He says that when he went to his reunion — he actually attended one — people were reminiscing about the great times they had together, none of which he could remember nor could he recall the people claiming to have been there with him.

He says people need to pretend that they had a great time. It makes them feel better.

Not me. Even after fifty years I can’t think of a single reason to revisit a time and place I would just as soon have skipped in the first place. Oh, and to put this in perspective, our high school prom was cancelled due to no one but me and my date signing up for it. So exactly how terrific was the experience really?

Does pretending the past was perfect when it wasn’t even close make you feel better about your life? It doesn’t work for me. But maybe I’m the one with a problem. What do you think?

And now, a word from our sponsor:

That Rosy Glow

With the big day coming up — the 50th high school reunion to which I am not going — I’m getting deluged with emails from The Reunion Group. I no longer read all of them, but every once in a while, I open one up and I’m always sorry I did. The primary area of discussion has moved on from each person telling the story of his or her way better-than-mine life to reminiscing about the school song, almost the definition of “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

We never sang that song. Not at assemblies, not in chorus, not at all. Almost no one knew the words. I knew the words because they were so funny to me, given the real school and who we were, that I memorized the words for kicks and was usually the only kid who knew all three verses.

Here’s to her the school we love,

Jamaica, tried and true – oo,

Source of all our dearest aims,

Dear School of Red and Blue.

Red and Blue

Red and Blue

School of Red and Blue!

In love our hearts go out to her,

Dear school of Red and Blue!

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If that doesn’t make you cry, you have no soul. It makes me laugh, so what does that make me?

What compels otherwise sane folks to transform a mixed experience rich with the good, the bad and a big dollop of indifferent, into “the best years of our lives?” It wasn’t. Not for anyone.  They cancelled the Senior Prom due to lack of interest. I know because I actually had a date for the prom, but he and I were the only two people to sign up, so they cancelled it. What does that say about reality versus memory?

A few people go way back. We didn’t merely attend high school together. We also went to elementary school and junior high school in one big batch. We got to know each other a lot better than we wanted, a huge dose of too much information. By junior high, I was too miserable to remember much of anything and was being actively bullied by the same mean girls I swear are still hanging around hallways and school yards today. Maybe they are clones of the same girls.

Thank God for the special program that got me through three years of junior high in two years. At least the misery was shortened by a year. Pity about never learning fractions and all. It certainly didn’t improve my shaky math skills.

So all of these people are singing (literally in some cases) the praises of the school and the school system. It was a better than average school academically, but fantastic? It was huge, crowded and if you didn’t measure up and get yourself into the “brainiac college-bound” group, you got nothing from the school except a place to sit in class. The school was academically better than most, but otherwise was no better than every other overcrowded New York city high school. I had some interesting teachers. I had a few really good teachers, and at least one that seriously influenced my future. There were also one or two memorable ones, though not always in a good way.

With current planning involving all these aging nerds and geeks singing the school song, I cannot begin to imagine myself standing around (probably sitting since my arthritis is pretty bad) howling a school song no one ever sang while we were going to school. I think I’d collapse from laughter, genuine ROFLMAO stuff.

What urge makes people cast a rosy glow over a time that wasn’t rosy for them?  So many of my classmates seem intent on reliving a past that didn’t happen at all. Is it because we are getting old and want our youth to have been much happier than it was?

Life was what it was. I am not a fan of revisionist history. I occasionally get an email from someone who has found my blog or my Facebook page. They want to renew our friendship. But we weren’t friends. Ever. Some of them are from that group of “mean girls” who turned my life in elementary school and junior high into a small personal hell. Now they want to be my pal? Really? Why? Have they actually forgotten the way it was? Why does no one ever talk about the one really cool thing we had: a gorgeous Olympic-sized swimming pool. Maybe I was the only one who always chose swimming instead of gym. I didn’t mind getting my hair wet, but apparently I was unique that way.

Is this whole collective stumble down memory lane a bizarre form of self-hypnosis whereby we erase real memories and replace them with stuff that never happened? Are we that old and out of touch?

I remember. Many of us suffered from, as did I, difficult home lives. We did a lot of acting out, each in our own way. I buried myself in books and didn’t emerge until college. Fortunately, that turned out to be a lot less destructive than other possible coping mechanisms. I’m watching my granddaughter do her own version of self-destruction for reasons painfully similar to mine, minus the abusive parents, but adding in social ostracism impossible until computers and cell phones. I have serious doubts about the human race and supposed social progress.

But here I go waxing philosophical again. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point God was making when he took Job, beat him to a pulp, then told him he had no right to question why it was happening to him. That’s my very  favorite Bible story. Life in a  nutshell. Shut up Marilyn. Apparently everyone but me has been highly successful and had insanely perfect lives. It’s just possible that I didn’t live the past half century on the same planet as they did. It doesn’t sound like my planet. Does it sound like yours?

This is far too weird for me though it makes good fodder for writing. And inserting lots of question marks in my tired old brain.

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Avoiding the Reunion

There’s no way around it. I was not good with money, so in retirement I am not exactly where I wanted or hoped to be. That doesn’t mean I’m unhappy with my life. I’ve had a lot of fun, adventure and a pretty good career. Both life and career were different than anything I imagined. I became a writer — which I did plan and wanted — then fell into technical writing because, against all logic and reason, I am good at it. For a kid who could barely pass basic high school math courses, elementary physics, or any other hard science, winding up in the high-tech arena was a surprise. That I liked it was even more of a surprise.

96-Me Young in Maine

It turns out that I could learn anything, including math and science, if it was explained in such a way that I could see its purpose. What I couldn’t do was manipulate numbers or concepts in a vacuum, which is pretty much how math and science were taught back in my day. I suspect they aren’t taught much better now as I watch my granddaughter struggling with the same stuff with which I struggled 50 years ago.

The thing is, that my high school’s 50th reunion has come around. No, I am not going. It’s too expensive in view of the fact that I don’t remember anyone from high school. I recognize some of the names, but we weren’t friends. We didn’t hang out. We have no shared memories except those shared by everyone who went to Jamaica High School during those years. I wasn’t friendless. I had some good friends, but we haven’t kept in touch and none of them are attending this reunion. There’s no reason for me to go.

Jamaica High School is huge. Was huge and over-crowded too. My graduating class was slightly more than 1200, in which I was something around 280 or so. The entire school (10th through 12th grades) was just shy of 4,000 students shoe-horned into a building meant to handle 1300. We were packed solid.

For all that, it was a better school than most and more forward-thinking than most schools of the period. Possibly more forward-thinking than many schools right now. Academically, girls and boys were treated equally. No girl was told not to aim for medical school or an engineering career because it was for boys. If we had the will and ability, there was support.

I was not a super achiever nor overly ambitious. I was an educational minimalist, an under-achiever par excellence. I did exactly enough to get by unless I was particularly interested in a subject or it was one of those so easy for me I could have aced it in my sleep. I never bothered to study for English or history (Social Studies, back then). Math and science were my nemeses and I was glad if I could merely pass. Languages were also difficult for me. I don’t have an ear for languages, something that I proved conclusively by living in Israel for 9 years and never mastering Hebrew.

I graduated with a B+ average, got an early acceptance (11th grade) to Hofstra University (then Hofstra College). I had no passion for higher education,  but I just knew if I didn’t go to college, I couldn’t go to Heaven. Can’t get through those pearly gates without showing your diploma. Besides, I was barely 16 when I graduated high school, so what else was I going to do? I had managed to score a couple of scholarships based on competitive tests, which made the choice easier. I always tested well, probably because I didn’t much care. I just assumed I’d do okay and for the most part, I did.

I wanted to be a writer. Or a musician. Or an artist. As soon as I learned to read, I started writing. I’d been playing the piano and studying music from age four. And I had a good eye, could draw and paint pretty well, an itch that has been well scratched by photography.  In the end, writing was the thing I did best and came naturally to me, so that’s what I did. Tech writing was a sideways drift, but turned out to be a good fit. I’ve had a long, if somewhat peripatetic career that apparently isn’t quite over yet.

Jamaica High School

I thought I’d done pretty well until this reunion thing came up.

In the movies, people go back to their high school reunions. They were nerds and social outcasts in high school, but now are successful, attractive and get to feel superior to their former classmates. There are so many movies with this plot that one might think this is a typical reunion experience. Not me. Mind you, I’m not going to be there, but I have not escaped unscathed. The organizer of the event has sent us all a questionnaire, a “what have you been doing for the last 50 years?” thing. So I filled it out. Why not? I’ve had an interesting life and a long career. I got to be a player in the birthing of technology that now rules the world.

Then I started getting other people’s filled-in questionnaires. With each email, my ego has gotten thumped.

This is not, for obvious reasons, a reunion of the entire graduating class of 1963. These people are a subset of the class, the group into which I fell by virtue of winning a Westinghouse Scholarship (proving I actually knew more science than I realized) and having a high IQ. I was counted as a brainiac, but I wasn’t really one of them. I had brains. Theoretically I still do though there are days when I wonder. What I lacked — something apparently everyone else had — was ambition and drive. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I never aspired to be a professor. I wanted to be me, whatever that was, and one of my goals was to find me. I wanted adventure. I was going to write novels, do exciting, creative stuff. I was more into living than studying.

As far as I can tell, the small percentage of my “group” that are not medical doctors, have doctorates in chemistry, physics and so on. No more than a handful of humanity or arts degrees in the crowd. No one has less than a masters, except me. And as far as I can tell, everyone went to Princeton, Johns Hopkins,  Albert Einstein, Harvard. If not Ivy League, than at least prestigious. Everyone but me seems to be having a comfortable retirement, if they aren’t a professor or still practicing medicine. The one or two people who went into the arts have multiple best sellers or are managing editors of major publications. It’s demoralizing. The one other woman who went to Israel married a diamond cutter and is apparently wealthy beyond my imaginings … and even she’s got a masters.

Every time another filled-in questionnaire arrives in email, I swear I will not further torture myself by reading it, but a certain morbid curiosity forces me to open it despite myself. Oh, I forgot to mention that everyone has beautiful and extremely successful children.

I am glad I’m not going to the reunion. I don’t think my ego can take much more of a drubbing. If I needed humbling, I’ve gotten it. What is success anyhow? Do you gauge it by financial well-being? By awards won? Personal satisfaction? Experience? Friends? Fame?  I think this will be the last reunion, so I’m safe from having to again calculate the value of a life richly enjoyed, but somewhat lacking in material wealth … otherwise known as money. I think I’ll go take some pretty pictures now.

Scholars Say Bones Belonged to Richard III

See on Scoop.itIn and About the News

LEICESTER, England — Until it was discovered beneath a city parking lot last fall, the skeleton had lain unmarked, and unmourned, for more than 500 years. Friars fearful of the men who slew him in battle buried the man in haste, naked and anonymous, without a winding-sheet, rings or personal adornments of any kind, in a space so cramped his cloven skull was jammed upright and askew against the head of his shallow grave.

On Monday, confirming what many historians and archaeologists had suspected, a team of experts at the University of Leicester concluded on the basis of DNA and other evidence that the skeletal remains were those of King Richard III, for centuries the most reviled of English monarchs. But the conclusion, said to have been reached “beyond any reasonable doubt,” promised to achieve much more than an end to the oblivion that has been Richard’s fate since his death on Aug. 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, 20 miles from this ancient city in the sheep country of England’s East Midlands.

Among those who found his remains, there is a passionate belief that new attention drawn to Richard by the discovery will inspire a reappraisal that could rehabilitate the medieval king and show him to be a man with a strong sympathy for the rights of the common man, who was deeply wronged by his vengeful Tudor successors. Far from the villainous character memorialized in English histories, films and novels, far from Shakespeare’s damning representation of him as the limping, withered, haunted murderer of his two princely nephews, Richard III can become the subject of a new age of scholarship and popular reappraisal, these enthusiasts believe.

“I think he wanted to be found, he was ready to be found, and we found him, and now we can begin to tell the true story of who he was,” said Philippa Langley, a writer who has been a longtime and fervent member of the Richard III Society, an organization that has worked for decades to bring what it sees as justice to an unjustly vilified man. “Now,” Ms. Langley added, “we can rebury him with honor, and we can rebury him as a king.”

Other members of the team at the University of Leicester pointed to Ms. Langley as the inspiration behind the project, responsible for raising much of the estimated $250,000 — with major contributions from unnamed Americans — it cost to carry out the exhumation and the research that led to confirmation that indeed Richard had been found.

Ms. Langley’s account was that her research for a play about the king had led her to a hunch that Richard’s body would be found beneath the parking lot, in a corner of the buried ruins of the Greyfriars Priory, where John Rouse, a medieval historian writing in Latin within a few years after Richard’s death, had recorded him as having been buried. Other unverified accounts said the king’s body had been thrown by a mob into the River Soar, a mile or more from the priory.

Richard Taylor, the University of Leicester official who served as a coördinator for the project, said the last piece of the scientific puzzle fell into place with DNA findings that became available on Sunday, five months after the skeletal remains were uncovered. At that point, he said, members of the team knew that they had achieved something historic.

“We knew then, beyond reasonable doubt, that this was Richard III,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’re certain now, as certain as you can be of anything in life.”

The team’s leading geneticist, Turi King, said at a news conference that DNA samples from two modern-day descendants of Richard III’s family had provided a match with samples taken from the skeleton found in the priory ruins. Kevin Schurer, a historian and demographer, tracked down two living descendants of Anne of York, Richard III’s sister, one of them a London-based, Canadian-born furniture maker, Michael Ibsen, 55, and the other a second cousin of Mr. Ibsen’s who has requested anonymity.

Dr. King said tests conducted at three laboratories in England and France had found that the descendants’ mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element inherited through the maternal line of descent, matched that extracted from the parking lot skeleton. She said all three samples belonged to a type of mitochondrial DNA that is carried by only 1 to 2 percent of the English population, a rare enough group to satisfy the project team, pending more work on the samples, that a match had been found.

When she studied the results for the first time, she said, she “went very quiet, then did a little dance around the laboratory.”

Marilyn Armstrong‘s insight:

For anyone who loves history, this is totally cool. I want more information!! Lots more.

See on www.nytimes.com

Living Mom’s Life

The other night, I was poking around the music section of Amazon. Since getting my cute little Kindle Fire HD, I have started to listen to music again. It’s been a while and I wasn’t aware how much I missed it, especially classical music. I often hear the melodies in my head, distant echoes of my younger self. I played the piano for a long time and was a music major in college, completing all the requirements except for 1 credit of chorus, at which point I changed majors. I didn’t want to graduate with a degree in music, already knowing it wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go professionally. I loved music and I was a pretty good pianist, but that’s not a career. It’s a hobby.

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I was particularly good at Bach. The music fit my hands, something which could not be said of  my hands in context of Chopin, Grieg, or Beethoven. My hands are tiny. Child-sized hands on a full-grown body. It’s especially odd because I’m not petite. Short, yes, but not petite. I have big feet, broad shoulders. Solid peasant stock. So what’s with the tiny hands? Don’t say anything. It’s all been said before.

Anyone who tells you the size of hands doesn’t matter to a musician doesn’t play piano. Once you get past kiddy music, you need hands that can span at least a 10th, more if possible. You need full-size grown up hands and a good deal of physical strength. To put it simply, the piano was the wrong instrument for me. I needed an instrument for which the size of my hands would be irrelevant.

I wanted to play the drums.

“Girls don’t play drums,” my mother said.

“Why the hell not?”

“Watch your language.”

“Who says girls don’t play drums? Is there a rule written somewhere?”

I dragged in my high school band teacher into the argument. Still no go. GIRLS, said my mother, don’t play drums. There was nothing for it. I was a girl so no drums. It was a bit strange because my mother usually was a pretty strong feminist and frequently reminded me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t need to be a nurse: I could be a doctor — except I wanted to be a nurse. Had Life not crashed into me when I had just started my MS in Nursing, I would have been, though I wonder if I would have wound up writing anyhow. I wanted to run public health clinics. It was my reformer persona taking charge. Life had other ideas.

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Meanwhile, on the music front, I suggested voice lessons. I had a decent enough voice and I was pretty sure girls were allowed to sing, but Mom always wanted to play the piano. It was too late for her, but her daughter was going to be a pianist. I was living my mom’s dream. It’s a pity her dreams and my hands were so incompatible. I had some talent, but I was studying the wrong instrument. After a great deal of effort, I achieved a high level of mediocrity as a pianist. If I’d been more dedicated, I could have achieved “almost good enough for concert work,” a special Hell exclusively for aspiring but unsuccessful classical musicians.

Getting stuck in your parents’ dreams happens in all kinds of families. It is not exclusive to any ethnic group, class, color, religion or even nationality. Wealthy parents want their kids to do what they weren’t able to do as much as poor parents. We all try to give our kids what we wanted, even when it’s not what they want. It’s almost a reflex.

I needed freedom as a child; even more as a teenager. I was self-disciplined. I merely wanted to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do without being watched all the time. Since that was not going to happen, I became highly successful at sneaking around. I went where I wanted to go, with or without permission and I just didn’t tell my mother. It was one of the important lessons I learned about parenting: You can’t stop a determined kid, so you might as well help him or her do what they want to do safely.

I was never interested in hanging out at the mall or a movie. I snuck off to museums and libraries. My nerdy idea of adventure was a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a world-class museum and if you are ever in New York, it’s worth a day of your time. It isn’t just one museum, either. My favorite part of it is the medieval section, The Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.

“Too dangerous,” said Mom. When I pointed out that she was going on ski trips to Bear Mountain when she was 14, she said she had been more mature than I was. I believe I chipped my first tooth during that conversation. I got to say classic lines like “How will you know I’m responsible until you let me have some responsibility?” and she got to give me the “As long as you live under my roof … ” line. Stalemate. I was going to live my mother’s dreams and be beholden to my mother’s fears.

If I were easily bullied, I’d have done the rest of my mother’s life for her and become a teacher. I have nothing against teaching as a career and believe it’s as important a job as you can do in this world. I simply didn’t want to be one.

My Geekscape

Despite sporadic side trips, deep down I knew I was going to be a writer. I toyed with other things: nursing, music, photography. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of being an author, seeing my name on book jackets, the smell of printer’s ink and the soft crack of the spine when you open a new book. A writer I became and remain, but my mother was always sure I would never be able to earn a living as a writer. I did well, but she never believed it was a “real” career. It was not substantial, like teaching.

It is hard to resist giving in to the pressure and doing what mom or dad always wanted to do because it makes them happy. Pressure to do their thing rather than your own can be very intense yet subtle. In the end, it doesn’t work, unless your dream happens to be the same as theirs. Everyone needs to do what he or she was born to do.

As a parent, it can be tricky to teaze apart the strands of what you want from what your kids want. It can be painful watching them fail and failure is always possible. You have to let them sink or swim on their own. It’s not a choice. Kids grow up to be who they need to be. The best we can offer is support, to help them find and follow their own paths.

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You get what you pay for

There is a lot of internet discussion about kids having no manners, offspring who display a complete lack of civility towards adults in general and their own families in particular. I hear a lot of squawking from families how “they didn’t learn this from us!” which I find amusing. They learned it somewhere, so I’m guessing home is exactly where they learned it.

The way you treat your children, each other and the rest of the world is going to be exactly how your offspring will treat you.

Almost Dinner Time 1

When we were younger and on predictable schedules, our extended family had nightly (or nearly so) family meals. As we’ve all gotten older, I got tireder. I stopped being able or willing to cook for a crowd every night and figured there was no reason I should. I’ve been cooking family style for more than 40 years. I’ve served my time (yes, it’s punny). These days, I try to keep life and meals simple. Garry and I eat differently than the kids. My son hates fish, mushrooms and other stuff that Garry and I love. My granddaughter won’t eat anything with even a hint of hot spice. My daughter-in-law won’t eat steak. Bottom line? It’s easier and more fun to cook things Garry and I like. Nowadays, making us happy is my priority. The younger generations are welcome to do the same for themselves. It doesn’t exclude communal family occasions, but it shifts the responsibility for making it happen from me to them. Fair? I think so.

My husband and I eat together, mostly in front of the TV, because the tray tables are cozier than the big dining table. When the whole family sits down together about once a week, it’s pleasant but everyone is off in a different direction as soon as the last bite is chewed. It’s not so terrible. Everyone has their own schedule, especially “the baby” who at 16, is a young woman and wants to do her own thing. It would be odd if it were otherwise. I was much the same and I think I turned out alright.

Despite no longer dining together, we are reasonably nice to each other. We have our beefs, but “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” and similar expressions are normal parts of conversation. Our ability to get along isn’t tied to the dinner table. If it were, we’d be in serious trouble.

Not having family dinners has not turned us into barbarians nor did having them make us civilized.

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I keep reading posts deploring the loss of family dinners. It’s apparently the clearest sign of the end of society, of civilization itself. I don’t agree. Society’s disintegration is a lot more complicated than that.

All over the Internet you hear it. The younger generation has no manners! Hot flash! The older generation is incredibly rude too. As far as I can see, out in the big wide world, parents talk to each other and their children without so much as a pretence of civility. They order the kids around like drill sergeants or ignore them except to complain about them. They threaten them with dire punishment, shout at them until they are hoarse. The kids don’t hear them and eventually ignore them. The shouting combined with toothless threats becomes background noise. This is true with kids and pets. If you always yell at the dog, the dog ignores you too.

And of course there are all those posts promoting spanking as the ultimate solution. Spanking teaches only one lesson: whoever is biggest and strongest wins.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Eventually, all offspring rebel. It’s normal, natural, inevitable and healthy. They should rebel. However, if their entire upbringing consisted of being alternately yelled at, nagged, bullied and threatened, interspersed with an occasional hug, they aren’t going to rebel then come back. They’re gone. Mom and Dad figured a bit of hugging and an occasional “I love you” would fix everything and make it all better. They were wrong.

Kids become teenagers, so now their folks want civil behavior and (drumroll) respect, but it’s a bit late. Their children don’t respect them and don’t see any reason they should. Respect isn’t something you can demand. It was and remains something you earn. You can make them fear you, but not respect you. Why would anyone expect respect if they’ve never shown any?

“My kids never talk to me.” This classic is right up there with “I don’t get no respect.”

What are they supposed to talk about? If you have some interests in common with the young adults your kids have become, it would help. Most parents are only interested in what their kids are doing so they can stop them from doing it — something of which the kids are well aware. Their folks have no interest in their world. If they aren’t outright scornful of it, they are completely disinterested and ignorant . You don’t have to love everything the younger generation does, but it doesn’t hurt to know something about it and what it means. It is a very different world than the one in which you or I grew up. No need to be proud of ignorance.

They tell the entire world how much they don’t like their kids’ movies, music, games, personal habits and relationships. They announce with enthusiasm via Facebook, the modern intra-family bulletin board, how clueless the kids are.

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The kids may be clueless but so are their parents. To coin a phrase, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I doubt most of them have made any effort to understand the world their kids live in. Why are they surprised the disinterest is reciprocal?

Kids learn by experience. They treat others as they have been treated. You can’t expect respect from kids who have never experienced it, nor good manners from youngsters whose parents wouldn’t know manners from a tree stump. Your children are unlikely to make an effort to understand you when you have never tried to understand them.

If you think you don’t need no stinkin’ manners when you talk to your children, husband, friends and strangers, your children probably agree. Why should they be nicer than you were to them?

Raising kids is the ultimate example of “you get what you pay for.” Or less.

Dumb and getting dumber

Our books say a lot about us ... maybe too much.

Our books say a lot about us … maybe too much.

I’m a big believer in research, checking and double-checking sources. But I also learned a couple of important lessons writing documentation and other educational and explanatory material for almost 40 years.

Relax, Chicken Little. The sky is not falling.

The first rule of survival is to keep a sense of proportion. Whether it’s your personal life or national news, not everything is equally important. Lighten up. Develop a healthy attitude of skepticism. If you keep believing everything you read, I have to assume that you aren’t very bright.

Assume your friends are kidding, not trying to insult you. If they really are insulting you, maybe you need different friends; then again, maybe you deserve it. The problem may not be them: it could be you. Just consider the possibility.

It’s been a rough period for everyone. We need to laugh, not get enraged at everything we read, at everything anyone says.

As far as “news” goes, most stuff in the news isn’t news. It hasn’t happened. It will never happen. Not only has it not yet happened, but is isn’t even at the proposal stage. It’s the stuff people run up the flagpole to see who salutes. Somewhere between 99 – 100% of it won’t make it to proposal, much less law. If you let everything get to you, you will spend your life outraged. That’s hard on your nervous system, blood pressure and those around you. Not everything is life and death. Chill.

More rules for surviving the information age

Stop blaming technology. Technology doesn’t do anything. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, I never said technology is “bad.” God forbid I should be so hypocritical.

I love my electronic goodies. My point continues to be that people — especially young people — confuse the tool and the purpose. They become so pixellated by the glamour and total coolness of widgets and gadgets that they forget  these are not an end, but a means. You are supposed to use this stuff to accomplish things: communicate, create, learn. Write a book. Edit a photo. Make a movie. Design something. Think amazing thoughts.

On the communications, front, if you use nothing but electronic communication for your relationships, you aren’t going to know how to talk to people.Eventually you will have to talk to someone about something important. The sooner you get the hang of it, the better. I watch my granddaughter and her friends sit next to one another while texting. How can you learn to relate if you don’t know how to have a conversation?

Worse, if you use computers to think for you, you won’t learn think. The substitution of automatically gathered data for focused research and thoughtful analysis is particularly alarming because (wait for it, drumroll, flourish of trumpets … okay, now) computers can’t think.

That’s right. You heard me. Computers can’t think. They are processors that collect and find data. They follow rules embedded in the software that runs them. Which, I should point out, you probably didn’t write (if you did, excuse me, you are exempt). After that, we the humans, Earthly creatures who sit at the top of the food chain, are free to use that data to whatever purpose we choose. But what do we choose? Good question. Mostly, far as I can tell, nothing much.

The big problem is that with the help of a computer or any one of a zillion computer-like devices (telephones, tablets, pods, pads, doohickies and wazoos), anyone and his cousin George can collect information by the bushel.  Having collected oodles of data, most people figure they’ve done their part but their part hasn’t even begun. Most people cannot figure out what concepts or ideas the collected information supports, what conclusions can be drawn from it, how to analyze what — if anything — it means. Nor can they connect two related ideas without a flow chart …  and many can’t connect two related ideas even with the flow chart.

In a world where we actually need to warn people not to text while driving, something is seriously wrong with the whole thinking thing.

The widespread outbreak of stupid is alarming. All over America, mothers are wondering how they produced such stupid children.

We don’t think. We don’t read. We skim over information, ideas, articles, gathering buzzwords and slogans, never stopping to figure out if this means anything. Worse yet, half the stuff we learn by this process is wrong

– Α – 

It’s not what you don’t know that will get you; it’s what you DO know that’s wrong.

Information is not knowledge.

Information is not communication.

– ω –

It takes human brains and thought to change information from raw data to concepts and ideas. You need to synthesize, postulate, consider. Determine what is important and what isn’t, what is relevant, and most of all: what is true.

We don’t seem, as a society, to believe that thinking is required anymore. Google it. There’s your answer. But whether or not you can get the answer by looking it up depends on the question. If the question is “Who got the best actor Oscar in 1974,” you can look it up. If the question involves right or wrong, good or evil, the existence of a deity, the value of anything … the meaning of anything … looking it up is part 1 or an infinitely long list.

Then, there’s telling other people about what you’ve figured out. Just because you collected a vast amount of information doesn’t mean that it will mean anything to anyone else. Does it mean anything to you? Seriously? If it’s just a bunch of facts that anyone could collect, does it matter? You need to do something with the information to make it mean something. After that,  you can disseminate it in a form that others can understand. If you don’t take this final step, it’s just noise. Or spam.

I think here, therefore I am here. I think.

I think here, therefore I am here. I think.

How dumb are we?

The dumbing down of society is not because of our tools and toys. It’s because we’ve forgotten they are just tools and toys.

We have fantastic resources and waste them on drivel. Modern processors are amazing. We have access to any data, any information ever written, yet we have not improved our ability to communicate, relate, think, or create. Without a context, all our fancy stuff is expensive, silly playthings on which we waste time and other precious resources.

We have tools. If only we were using them better, our world — our own personal world as well as the great big world we share — would be a better place.

P.S. Those weird characters before and after the big quotes are an alpha and an omega. If this doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. You can look it up.

Strange Little Town

I live in a small town in the center of the Blackstone Valley, a place that is also part of the National Park system and is considered a “National Historic Corridor.” Which means our quaint little town and beautiful river has historical importance.

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This is where America began to build working mills, using the Blackstone River to power them. Eventually a river and canal system was built and eventually a railroad to bring American goods to the markets of the world. The mills and factories caused lot of pollution, but that’s what industrialization does.

Room for everyone

Our little town hasn’t quite entered the new millennium. For that matter, it never accepted the previous century, either. It crawled unwillingly along until the mid 1950s, and then dug its heels in and said “Hell no, we won’t go.”

Church on the Common with Artillery

There we have stayed. World War I artillery pieces sits next to our Civil War memorial and just a few feet from the World War II bronze and stone grouping. Vietnam never met it, nor any war since. The Common isn’t very large and it’s filling up with all memorials. They make an interesting juxtaposition with churches surrounding the common on all sides.

Guns and churches. At various times of the year, there are miscellaneous events on the common, also known as “the green.” The grass doesn’t care. It just sits there being lawn-like.

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We have book sales, rummage sales, cake sales and fair-like occasions that usually coincide with some national holiday or other. We have a Christmas Parade and our local version of first night, but we hold it so early in December that it always feels a bit odd and out-of-place.

Other events include porkettas and pancake breakfasts, all to raise money for something and probably, they do. We used to have great local fireworks on the high school’s athletic field, but one year, we ran out of money and that was the end of fireworks. Other towns have them and I can see bits of them over the tops of our trees plus  private events staged by neighbors who’ve gone up to New Hampshire to buy fireworks that are legal in that state, but not in Massachusetts.

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Most of the private events are more noise than show and scare the dogs out of their fur coats. Other towns complain that Main Street has been destroyed by big chains like Walmart. We do not complain. We don’t have a Walmart or any other chain. If you want to buy anything other than hardware and lumber (Koopman’s sells that), groceries, or fast food, you’ll need to go elsewhere. If you want a decent meal, you will have to go to another town. If you want to see a movie, go bowling, see a play, hear a concert … well, you know,

Boston’s not so far and Worcester is just up the road a piece. You can get to Providence in about 45 minutes. Depending on traffic. Whatever you want, you probably won’t find it in our town. We have a beautiful albeit underfunded public library.

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It’s in an old, elegant building that has somehow managed to remain alive despite having its budget cut and cut again until it can barely keep the doors open enough to maintain membership in the public library system. And progress is encroaching, despite all resistance.

After 20 years of arguing about it — after allocating millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school and having funds vanish with nary a trace — our little town was told by the Commonwealth that we must build a proper High School or lose accreditation (which would make it tricky for our graduates to get into college). So we are building a high school.

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Our taxes have gone way up. The town has been so mismanaged for so long no one can remember it being any other way.

There is a mythos surrounding small towns. It stars James Stewart or someone like him, and a cast of caring local citizens (cue up “The Andy Griffith theme). In these Television Town, people may disagree, but everyone has the best interests of the town at heart. The families that run our town are a different.

Using nepotism, threats, bullying, and a willingness to make life unbearable for anyone who gets in their way, they have successfully maintained a stranglehold on the town.They aren’t especially concerned with the best interests of the town except insofar as it advances their own business and financial interests. They take what they want from the public till, refuse to answer to anyone for it, give out contracts based on the best kickbacks and live a good life.

Town meetings end in fistfights and verbal brawls that create enough bad feeling to last into the next decade. I opposed the new High School, not because we don’t need a new one. We did and do need a new high school. The problem is the same incompetent, dishonest bozos who have been stealing the town blind for the past 50 years or more will run the project. Anything to which they set their hand is tainted.

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They asked Garry to run for town council when we’d only been here a year or two. He was still an easily recognized  figure from all his years on television, so despite his not being white, his color was less important than his celebrity. He could be useful. Garry declined the honor, explaining that it would destroy our lives. We’d have mobs in the driveway throwing rocks at our windows.

I didn’t understand until a few years later when I covered debates preceding town council elections for a local paper. Good grief! The level of personal vindictiveness and venom was a wonder to behold! Where were the good guys? Each  candidate was worse than the other, ranging from merely venal, through clueless, to possibly psychotic.

It was closer to Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery” than Andy Griffith. And yet, I do love the valley. Although I try not to think about why they do what they do and how they do it. The less I know, the happier I am. All the towns around here are pretty bad. This town may take top prize for worst-mannered and blatantly dishonest government, but the other towns are close behind, just have slightly better manners.

Shadows on a path

There are so many genuinely wonderful people here: caring, intelligent, well-meaning people who would gladly help improve our town and this valley. Pity that most of them, like Garry, are unwilling to face down the powers that be.

And life goes on. White picket fences and green lawns. Big shade trees, lots of room for children to play and safe streets. Only two traffic lights in town, one of which is probably redundant. It’s a pretty place to live. Just don’t get too involved. Things aren’t always what they seem. Think Chevy Chase in “Funny Farm.” Yeah, that works.

It’s a Wonderful Life … All Over the Universe!

We were going to visit friends right after Christmas. We haven’t seen them in a while and we have really been looking forward to it. So were they. Except she’s sick. Pneumonia, some kind of resistant intestinal virus and now it has morphed into asthmatic bronchitis. She is clearly in no kind of shape to have guests. She’s in no kind of shape to be out of bed.

I was going to wish her a Merry Christmas, but it seemed inappropriate. She isn’t going to have a merry Christmas and as far as I can see, no kind of Christmas at all. She can barely breathe.

It’s been this kind of year. My husband’s cousin died. They weren’t close, but it’s another reminder that the family is getting smaller, a generation is passing away and we are that generation. Mortality is too close for comfort.

Nonetheless we are making an effort, however feeble, to get some kind of holiday spirit going here. We aren’t doing as well as we might, but hey, we are giving it the old college try or something along those lines.

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Which is why I need to see “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I need to believe, if not in angels, that despite everything going wrong, it can somehow be set right in the end. That there can be happy endings, even when everything seems hopeless. Hope is the single component that can overcome everything else. If we lose hope, life loses its flavor. We lose our energy, we stop wanting to do things, we stop caring about each other and ourselves. So we need to hope, we need to care, we need to believe.

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I have long recognized that the goals and plans we make are artificial, created by us to make us feel like we are accomplishing something. I don’t need the goals anymore, but I need to feel like I’m a participant in the world on some level. Yesterday, I hooked back up with SETI. Remember “Starman?” The representative from SETI who kind of saved Jeff Bridges so he could return to his home planet? The guy who prevented the government from stopping Jeff from meeting up with the mother ship?

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Well, not only does SETI exist, but you … any and all of you … can participate in a variety of projects, including the original SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) as well as a wide selection of other worthwhile projects. You don’t need to be a scientist. You just need to own a computer or two that you don’t use all the time. You hook up with SETI, fill out a bunch of moderately confusing forms, all of which boil down to letting them use your computer to process data when you aren’t using it. You can specify that they can pop in anytime you aren’t actively using it … or indicate that they can only use it during hours you specify. It is extremely cool, they send you newsletters, you get a special screen saver which tells you in which projects you are participating, and you get to feel … by doing absolutely nothing … that you are involved in a really big and ultimately enormously important set of projects.

To join, you’ll want to start with Seti@home. That’s where you sign up to let them use your unused computer time for processing:

System requirements

  • There is an initial download of about 10 MB.
  • You’ll need about 20 MB of free disk space and 64 MB of RAM.
  • with a typical computer (such as a 2 GHz Pentium 4), you’ll need to let SETI@home run for at least 2 hours per week (slower computers are fine but they’ll have to run proportionally more).

Rules and policies

The rules for participating in SETI@home – read this first.

Download

Download and install the BOINC software used by SETI@home.

Help

Get help installing or running SETI@home.

Tell a friend

Like SETI@home? Email your friends about it.

Porting and optimization

Compile SETI@home for other platforms or with processor-specific optimizations.

Add-on software

Check out add-on software developed by other participants.

Applications

See the latest versions of applications.

Customize graphics

Learn how to change the appearance of SETI@home graphics.

But that’s not all, not by any means. There’s also the SETI Institute where all kinds of other stuff is going on in which you can participate. If you own a telescope. or are a scientist yourself, or just an interested amateur, this is the real deal.

SETI

Maybe it’s a small thing, but it something. And I’m glad to have the chance to be a part of a project that’s busy exploring this world and our universe. Sure, they’ll take donations if you have money available, but if you just have a computer and can donate your unused processing time, that’s fine too. No age limits, not much in the way of rules or regulations. Pretty cool, eh? And you can participate and never have to leave home.

Merry Christmas, happy “The World Did Not End Day,” and Joyous Solstice to you all.

It’s that damned wormhole again …

2013 is the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. That’s five zero. Half a century.

After so many years, one might suppose my memories would be fuzzy enough that I could delude myself into believing I had fun in those opening years of the 1960s.

This has come up because a few of the people with whom I apparently attended high school want to have a reunion. Not the entire graduating class of more than 1200 people. This is a smaller sub-group of people who claim to actually know me and want to see me again. They say they remember me and all the neat stuff we did together.

I think they are deranged. Whatever they think they remember, as far as I can tell, didn’t happen. I do not want to go to the party.  I said no when I was contacted by phone, but they keep sending me invitations by email … endless variations of the same thing. Lists of names I don’t recognize. I know I’m not young, but I’m not senile either. Who ARE these people?

I am considering the possibility I slipped through a wormhole and am in an alternate reality, which would explain how come they know me, but I don’t know them. Yeah, that’s probably it.

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I was not a popular high school student. Even amongst the unpopular students, I was unpopular. Fortunately, by the time I had survived junior high, now known as “middle school” but back in those good old days, referred to simply as Hell, I had learned to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and crowded, you could slither through all three years (10th, 11th and 12th grades) and if you kept your head down, no one would know your name. I only got attacked by junior thuglets once (not bad considering what an oddball I was) and participated in group activities only if dragged screaming and kicking, usually because someone needed an accompanist and I played the piano.

A klutzy young thing, I avoided the traditional humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. When I showed up, the swimming coach would say “You again? Just keep out-of-the-way,” and thus I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of our Olympic-sized pool. I think I was on the swimming team, but I didn’t actually ever swim in an event. I was a bench sitter. And, apparently, the only girl in high school who didn’t care if my hair got wet.

So all I had to do was get decent grades, try not fail my math courses, and then I could go to college where I heard I might actually meet people who I’d like and might like me too. It turned out to be true, so surviving high school was probably worth it. But now, like a malevolent spirit,  fellow graduates of Jamaica High School want me to come to their party. They even think I should pay for the privilege.

If I could remember any of them, I might consider it. No, that’s a lie. You’d have to drug me then drag my unconscious carcass there before I regained consciousness.

High school wasn’t a fun time. Not for me. Fifty years later I can’t think of a single reason to revisit an experience I would as soon have skipped in the first place.

And now, a word from our sponsor:

Why tablets can’t replace computers. And why they shouldn’t.

I keep reading articles telling me that tablets will replace laptops and desktops. Every time I read one of these articles, I want to reach through my 24-inch super high-definition monitor, grab the author by the throat and shake him or her until his/her eyes roll back in his/her head.

I don’t have anything against portable devices. I have a smart phone. I have a tablet. I have a netbook. I have a medium-size (but very powerful) laptop and a big desktop with a super monitor. Each of these devices has its own place in my world.

The difference between me and the people who write articles suggesting small portable devices — Smartphones, iPads, android tablets, or Chromebooks — are going to replace desktops and laptops is twofold. The reviewers don’t seem to do any real work and they think whatever is their favorite device should be what all of us use for everything.

Not only do they not do any work, they apparently don’t even have hobbies.

My life includes work.

Have any of these the people extolling mini devices as the total computer experience ever designed a book? Made a movie? Edited RAW? Converted a book to a PDF? Or for that matter, have they tried playing Castleville on a tablet? It’s close to impossible. If it doesn’t crash or refuse to run, you still can’t do it because the screen is too small.

Do you take pictures? If you are a snapshooter and your idea of serious photography are  pictures in which you can’t see who is who because they too dark and blurry, a tablet or smartphone may do the job. But even if you do nothing with your photos … not even cropping … I can’t figure out how you can even download pictures without a computer. How can you decide which ones you like? Even if I accept blurry, poorly framed snapshots as photographs … how can you see anything at all on a little tiny screen?

Virtual keyboards are good for virtual typing …

I just read an article explaining how you can type perfectly fine on the iPad’s virtual keypad. Having tried it on other peoples’ iPads, not to mention my own android-based table, no, you can’t. With two fingers, sort of …  but not if you are a touch typist and believe it or not, some of us are.

There are so many issues involved that I can’t even begin to list them all, so I’ll start with the most obvious ones.

You need memory and a hard drive to run embedded applications.

You can’t run Photoshop on a tablet. Any tablet. Or a Chromebook. Or even a Netbook. Or Smartphone. It’s not that it won’t run well; it won’t run at all. It has to be installed and without a hard drive, you can’t install it. Without memory, you can’t run it. If you use a real camera … something beyond a very basic point and shoot or, oh Lord spare me, a telephone … you can’t even download photographs, much less edit them. If you shoot RAW, you might not be able to fit as much as a single photograph on your device.

You can’t edit a 16 X 20 photograph on a 10 inch tablet, much less a telephone.

This is not a matter of opinion. It’s a hard and fast truth. Can’t do it. Can’t see enough of the pictures to know what you are doing. It does not matter whether we are talking about a Chromebook, an android tablet or an iPad. The operating system is irrelevant. The device is physically too small to do the job. Assuming it had a hard drive and sufficient memory (none of them do), you still could not do it. Physical limitations would prevent it. But, if you don’t care what your pictures look like and think anything showing, however fuzzy,  a member of your household is so adorable that blurriness, bad color and creepy backgrounds don’t matter, everything I say here will mean nothing to you. Enjoy your pictures. I beg of you, do not show them to me or worse yet, request my opinion.

Typing with 10 fingers requires a keyboard.

Virtual keyboards are perfect for tapping out a couple of lines in an email. After that, if you know how to type, you will become increasingly frustrated until you are ready to toss your high-priced device through the nearest window. “But wait!” you cry. “I’m in college and need to write papers. I’m a master’s student and I have to turn in a thesis. With footnotes and all that jazz.”

Sorry,  bud. You’ve got a big problem. You can’t do that on your tablet or telephone. I guess you’re just going to have to give up on higher education because you don’t have a computer. No? But didn’t you tell me that you don’t need a real computer, that they are obsolete?

Who needs footnotes? Engineering drawings? Spreadsheets? We don’t need no stinkin’ spreadsheets!

If you’re a budding young filmmaker, good luck trying to edit video on your tablet. Let me know how that works for you.

And about that thesis: footnotes and bibliographies, much less cross references? Really, no problem. Just explain to your advisor that you can’t include references and attributions because your tablet doesn’t support those functions. Surely they will understand. After all, computers are obsolete. Who needs attribution anyhow?

If you’re an architect or engineer? Return to your drawing table and start doing them by hand. I hope you still have those old-fashioned tools and remember how to use them, because you aren’t going to be doing them on your tablet. Need a spreadsheet? Not going to happen. Even if all you are trying to do is track your own household budget, you can’t do it on your tablet or telephone.

It’s a big world with room for many operating systems and devices … you don’t need to dump one to have the other.

My point is simple enough. There is room in our world for many kinds of devices, many types of operating systems. Many of us like having various devices dedicated to particular tasks. I love reading books on my Kindle. I edit on my desktop with the big HD monitor. I use my laptop to play games, write, and work when I don’t what to be stuck in my office.

You love your iPad? Enjoy. Recognize that it is great for what it is. It has limitations, but if you remove the limitations, you also eliminate its advantages. If you make it big enough to edit film or photos, add a hard drive and a keyboard, it stops being small, and portable. By the time you finish adding all that functionality, it’s a laptop. We have them already. Add a bigger monitor? You’ve got a desktop.

You can’t replace everything with one thing  and there’s no reason on earth you should. There appears to be a widespread assumption by manufacturers and marketers that we all do the same stuff and therefore one size fits all, technologically speaking.

It’s not true. What is wrong with supporting more than one operating system? Is Microsoft unable to deal with two operating systems? It had both NT and Windows for decades … you mean now it’s whatever Microsoft wants to sell or nothing? Why?

Why can’t we have both Windows 7 and Windows 8? And Linux? And Macs? Androids and iPads? Smartphones and iPods, iPhones and Blackberries? Why can’t we own a variety of computing devices that run on various operating systems? Who says one device needs to do everything? Is this etched in stone somewhere? Or is it just some marketing guy’s idea and we do whatever we are told like mindless sheep.

For years I owned Macs and PCs until it became too expensive. Then I had to decide what would serve me best … and for a variety of reasons, the answer was PC. It wasn’t a decision made without considerable thought or because I have something against Macs. I just prefer the working environment of a PC for my task-driven world. If I did different kinds of work and the other people with whom I worked used Macs rather than PCs, my decision might well have gone the other way. I am not one of those people who have a cult-like attachment to one operating system versus the other. There are pros and cons for each and we all should make decisions based on what’s important to us. The nearly religious devotion a lot of Mac users have for their computers is scary. It isn’t a religion. It’s a computer.

One size does not fit all, not in technology and not in clothing.

English: A woman cuddling a pile of digital de...

One size fits all in clothing usually means that it will be too big for 40% of the population, too small for another 40%, and it will look crappy on the remaining 20%.

Technologically, one device, one type of device, one operating system will never do the many jobs computers perform for us. We are not alike and thank God for that. Do we want to be all the same? Do we want to enforce a total lack of diversity? Is our goal to eliminate choice? If not, then it’s time to rethink the concept that whatever works for you will automatically work for me or the guy down the street. Enjoy your choices, but recognize that choice is what it is. That you are devoted to your Mac means that your Mac works for you. If you find that your iPad or other tablet is more than sufficient for your computing needs?  Fine. If you feel that doing everything on your telephone suits your lifestyle, you are probably a teenager and you’ll grow out of it.

It’s okay to be different than your neighbor. You do not have to like the same things, do the same things, or need the same things. It’s diversity and our differences that make the world an interesting place. We don’t have to go to the same church, read the same books, believe the same stuff. We don’t have to live in the same environment or own the same appliances. Nor do we need to enjoy the same restaurants or cook the same food. We don’t need to celebrate the same holidays or be the same color.

If everybody would stop trying to force their beliefs and opinions on everyone else, this world would be a better place. Whether it’s the computer operating system you prefer or the political party you vote for, that is your right and privilege and it’s about time everyone stops trying to make other people adhere to their beliefs. It will never happen and all that you will accomplish by trying to coerce others is that they will resent you. The harder you push, the more resistance you will encounter.

Live your life as you prefer. Let others do the same.

Buying the Big Lie

I posted about this subject a while back, but yesterday, when we were out visiting friends, the conversation over dinner turned to chasing dreams versus using your abilities. Both Garry and Jim have spent their lives working in media, though from different sides of the camera.

We all agreed was that advisers, parents, and others who influence young people to choose a career path usually have an agenda. Mom and dad want to see their kid be a “professional.” Pastor thinks Joey would be a great minister while the lad’s guidance counselor is telling Joey that he should try for that sports scholarship. The voice of the youngster is lost in a cacophony of bad advice.

I watched my brother, who wanted to be an engineer, who had always wanted to be an engineer, be bullied into pre-med by my parents who didn’t think engineering was a real career (no, I do not know why). Matt didn’t want to be a doctor and lacking whatever that something is that lets some kids swim against the tide, he went along until flunked out of school.Self-destructive rebellion: if he could not do what he wanted to do, he wouldn’t do what they wanted. He would have been a great engineer.

I was a more strong-willed than the average kid. My mother felt very strongly that I should become a teacher, because teachers, in her experience, always had work … even during the depression. Once I got past my side drift into music, I said “I’m going to be a writer.”

Dire predictions of a lifetime of poverty living in unheated garrets notwithstanding, I never strayed from that path and guess what? When many of the kids with whom I’d grown up  and who had taken “safe courses” were out of work, I always had work. My future was limited only by my unwillingness to trade a bigger career for a personal life.

The lie has is so ingrained in our culture that we accept it without question:

“If you want it bad enough and try hard enough, you can achieve anything.”

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That is not true. You can try until your heart breaks, but to succeed you need more than a dream and determination. You need the right skill set, the right instincts, and usually, some actual talent. A bit of luck doesn’t hurt either.

We cannot achieve anything because we want it. Working hard can take you only so far. The rest of the distance requires ability in your chosen field: the talent to make the dream come true.

You can’t be a blind artist. You can’t be a tone-deaf musician. You can’t write when you’ve no gift for words. You can’t be physicist if you find mathematics incomprehensible. You can’t be a carpenter or an engineer if you cannot visualize in three dimensions. You can’t take pictures if you don’t see them in your mind’s eye. There are things you cannot be taught.

For several years, I taught technical writing to adults who were trying to change career paths, often from computer programming, developing, research, or accounting to technical writing. They figured that what they had done before was so much harder than merely writing, it would be a snap. Many of my students were far better educated than I was. Some had advanced degrees in mathematics or a hard science.

My first assignment was a test to give me an idea if any of my students had a hope in hell of succeeding in the field. I asked them to give me a no-more-than 4-page set of directions, including illustrations, explaining how to use a ballpoint pen, written for someone who’d never seen one. They were to assume the person could use a pen and could write, but had never used this implement. Sounds simple, right?

I got 20 page essays on the history of writing and writing implements, ink and quills. Before the first real assignment, I already knew who had any chance at all and who was wasting his/her money. That first class had 31 students; probably 2 of whom went into the business and stayed.

The question that always made my heart sink was “How do you know what to write?”

If you have to ask, you are already in trouble. Writing “how-to” material only looks easy. It isn’t. You have to be able to look at a piece of hardware or software and see it as a process, be able to visualize all the steps that someone with no prior knowledge of this “thing” will need to know to make it work. It’s a way of seeing things, a fundamental of the job along with the ability to use words. It is as basic to a technical writer as seeing a picture in your mind is to a photographer.

These days, anyone who objects to the myth that effort can substitute for talent is labeled a defeatist or an elitist. I am neither. I am a realist.

I don’t know when realism morphed into defeatism and/or elitism. It infuriates me. It’s cruel. It takes people with all kinds of potential and makes them feel like failures, not because they can’t succeed, but because they are doing the wrong stuff. When someone tells me I shouldn’t give up on a dream because if I keep trying, I will surely succeed, I get angry.

It is neither courageous nor wise to spend a lifetime tilting at personal windmills. It’s a foolish waste of time.

I’m in favor of dreams as long as you recognize the difference between a dream and a realistic expectation.

I’m very much in favor of having a thorough understanding of who you are, what gifts and talents you have, knowing what you want to do, then doing it with your whole heart. Other people’s expectations and childhood day dreams are baggage that will weigh you down.

If you combine your own abilities, passion, and determination: that’s a winning ticket. But you need the whole package. One or two out of three won’t get it done.

We all have dreams and gifts. Sometimes the two come together and you can ride your dreams into a fantastic future, but this is not in everyone’s cards.

Sometimes,you are better not taking that other path. Going the wrong way won’t get you where you need to be.

I used more than half my college years trying to be a musician. I was pretty good. The problem is that “pretty good” is not good enough. My real talent lay in words. I could write as soon as I could read. It was as natural to me as breathing. I never even thought much about it because it was so easy. I figured anyone could do it.

I had to revise my thinking and self-image. I also had to rethink the definition of writer and separate it from “author” in my mind.

It was difficult. I kept music as a hobby, refocused my energy on writing and life turned around. I stopped plodding and leapt forward. I started working as a professional writer with my first job after college and never did anything else professionally for the next 40 years.

I never took a writing course. Not creative writing, anyway. I don’t think creative writing courses help anyone become creative or a writer … at least not the ones they teach in college. I did start one, lasted two sessions, dropped it. It was clear the professor was not a writer.

I learned my profession on the job. It turns out that The Great American novel was not in my personal future, but there are many other career paths requiring writing skills, from academia, to news and journalism, to Madison Avenue.

No one can create talent. That’s why talents are called gifts. You get them free of charge along with the breath of life. Gifts come from God, not hard work.

Yet we keep hearing that same enchanting deadly lie. Don’t give up your dream! You can make it happen!

Thus we waste years to achieve the impossible often dismissing the achievable. We neglect our real gifts in favor of magical thinking. If I were God, I would find that really annoying.

Dreams are not the goal.

Creating a good and satisfying life should be everyone’s goal. We all need to take stock of ourselves, look at what we do well, focus on our strengths, hone our talents, and build a future that works.

The freedom you gain when you stop trying to do what you can’t and put your heart into using your natural gifts is inestimable. You stop feeling like a failure. You find that you love your work. You dump the dead weight of childhood dreams and other people’s expectations.

Distinguishing dreams from reality is a winning strategy.

Like it or not, dreams are not real. Don’t buy the lie and don’t foist it off on your kids. Help them be themselves, the best selves they can be. They weren’t put here to fulfill your dreams.

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