Excerpt – Hummingbird Wars

Note: Narrator is about 35 – kids Emily, about 9 and Jamie about 5 – Wade is the husband. If the reader has not read my post “Parabolas and Long Tails,” please do in order to get some sense of what the writer is doing!

August 4, 1985

For the first time since I went with my parents to the Expo in Montreal back in 1967, I am really thinking about what the future might look like – the future of humanity in general, I mean. As far as my specific future, I have given up guessing (which does not mean I have stopped worrying). Anyway, the Expo was probably the last family vacation I had with my family of origin – the three of us kids packed in the back of the Buick with all the windows open, my father complaining about the French signage in Quebec and my mother blowing smoke out of the window which bounced off the wind and ended up in the backseat with us. Dad had had heart palpitations that winter and had been convinced to give up the cigs; at this point he was having even more palpitations watching my mother blow smoke all over the place. Lovely time had by all.

Anyway, back in 1967 I remember being impressed by two things at the Expo – the wrap-around theater in the Bell Telephone (now apparently NYNEX we have been notified) Pavilion building and the geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller which was being touted as the most efficient method of construction. The 360 degree movie hasn’t become a big hit and I haven’t noticed too many geodesic domes around, so I’m not sure how good the futurists are at predicting things. However, I must say that I’ve seen a few things in the past year that made me take notice and impressed me even more than anything I saw that summer in Montreal.

I encountered the first wonder just over a year ago. It was this gizmo (some kind of computer I guess) called a Micom that Phil insisted on using all our equipment budget for and then teaching four of the clerical people to use so it would never stand idle. It’s called a word processor and allows you to make your corrections right on the screen. It works great and we’ve have become really spoiled. Nice clean copy every time, no white-out, no sorry tears, and no need to feel bad about making corrections – the clerical people don’t have to start from scratch and five pages worth of edits take them about three minutes. Anyway, the gadget has been great and I have personally coveted the office Micom even though I don’t know how to use it. And now all staff are getting computers for our desks. IBM personal computers that have word processors built in – everyone’s been taking classes and I have to admit I love it. Yes, I love a machine. It has a word processor in it called WordPerfect. Well named. You could write a book with it – it might not be a great book, but it wouldn’t have any errors in it and the margins would be justified!

But that’s not the best part. The new computers also have this spread sheet thing called Lotus 1-2-3. Amazing. One of those things that – when you see it – looks so simple that you don’t know why you didn’t invent it! You surely wish you had! The system all works around little boxes which reference each other – you can add boxes together, subtract, multiply, duplicate. I can use it for budgets, financial summaries and histories, projections – not only does the program calculate for you, but no one has to type up the report. Just tell the program which of the calculations you want to show and – voila! Magic! When I think of all the time that I spent with ledger paper and blue and red mechanical pencils. Of course, it’s not really magic. You have to have some idea what you are doing in order to use it, some common sense – people in our workshop would go through a whole procedure and not realize the answer they got ($220 for a pound of tomatoes?) was ridiculous. No, not even IBM can save us from the idiots (or from ourselves). Anyway, I love it.

And we have finally ditched the computer cards for the mainframe – input is now through terminals. I’m still finding the punch cards everywhere (they make great bookmarks and work for grocery lists), but they are going the way of the ledger paper. It’s a whole new world. And quieter too. Between the computers and the digital calculators, the office is now as hushed as a library. However, technology at home is not working out in quite the same way.

We just got our first color television a few years ago when someone told me kids are more captivated by Sesame Street when it was in full Technicolor – and Emily did seem to pay more attention when Cookie Monster was really blue. But now we have something that Emily and Jamie like even better. We bought our first VCR last month and we are up to about our 123rd viewing of Pete’s Dragon. The kids know all the lines, all the songs; Emily even knows how to pause it and start it over from the beginning. We have some other tapes, but just like the bedtime stories they liked to hear over and over again (Jamie still will listen to any number of repetitions of The Berenstain Bears Go to School), they cannot get enough of this movie. Their four year age difference makes no difference. They love that dragon.

I don’t really mind that we can never watch the news now. And I confess to love being able to make dinner without any complaints and only the happy sounds of the kids singing along with Helen Redding. But is this good for them? There are no commercials, so that’s a plus. And Pete’s Dragon has a nice message about being different and using your imagination – but how much imagination are they using the 124th time through? Ah. And I hear that Disney is going to gradually release all their movies on tape. Hannah’s been picking up the kids from camp everyday, but when I get home it’s not Mr. Rogers I hear, it’s… “He’s got the head of a camel, the feet of a crocodile, it sounds very strange…” See, even Mom knows the words.

And if I try to turn off the VCR and replace it with Mr. Rogers or maybe even some time on the swing set in the backyard, Emily starts right in. Jamie doesn’t say anything but he stands  holding onto his sister’s arm to make sure I know he’s on her side.

“We want to watch Pete.” Emily takes a firm stance and throws out her bottom lip making sure I know it’s an implied threat involving tears and general emotional chaos. Jamie hangs on to her (to the side but slightly behind) and sticks out his lower lip too.

“You have watched Pete dozens of times. Let’s give it a rest.”

“That’s because we like it. And we do rest watching Pete.”

“We can’t always do the same things over and over. Sometimes we need to try something else.”

“We brush our teeth over and over. We go to camp over and over.” Jamie smiles. He obviously thinks his sister’s debating skills are superior to mine.

“Those are healthy things. And camp is not the same every day. And we’re not having this discussion anymore.” Emily stands there like she is waiting for someone to translate, so I turn off the TV and add, “No more Pete’s Dragon today, is that clear?”

Emily stomps off to her room, a door slams, and Jamie starts weeping. I comfort Jamie, giving him an ice cream sandwich which his sister will certainly find out she has missed out on, and tune in Mr. Rogers. And go back to the kitchen in a foul state to finish the meatloaf. I could use a little of that dragon happy music. Being a mother is hard and I have a feeling that new technology might not make it any easier. And when Wade gets home and Emily gets to him, they’ll probably get their movie back anyway. Then I’ll cry and slam a door!

Rachel says her husband is buying porn tapes for their VCR, but she doesn’t seem to mind. You can rent VCR tapes in the market on campus. Wade and I have tried watching a few (non-porn) movies, but our taste differs, to put it mildly. And some movies just don’t hack it on the little screen. I got The Sound of Music (which Wade wanted no part of), but it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, we hardly ever get out to the movies, so it’s nice to curl up on the couch and watch something and if it’s something the kids can watch too (other than Pete), I make popcorn and we settle in for the evening. So can this new technology be a totally bad thing?

We still don’t have a computer in the house, but I would like to someday. I could keep this journal on a computer – we could put our budget (which we ignore) and tax stuff on spread sheets. I understand they even have lessons for kids.

Wade is not interested in having a computer, although he was happy to get a VCR and even figured out how to tape programs from the TV, which I have bungled every time. He doesn’t want to hear about the new computers at the office or take a class, even though it’s clear that everyone will have to know a little bit sooner or later. However, Wade does love the new arcade games down at Dave’s B&G. Particularly, he and all his buddies play Space Invaders after work and apparently, the better you get the longer you can play on your quarter, so he’s been spending more and more time at Dave’s. I’ve suggested he buy one of the video game things for home, but he says the professional ones (read bar variety where beer and friends are at hand) are better. Wade has not been any harder to deal with than usual, but he’s out more than he used to be and we’ve had a few good ones about him not making it home for dinner. Why do I care? Why do I care about anything? Let the man have his dinner at the bar with the guys, let the kids watch their movie, let Jamie exist on ice cream sandwiches and Eggos! Sometimes I think I am just making life difficult for myself.

Truly, I have learned something from technology though. Whenever you insert the same input, you get the same output. What’s the acronym? GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Every time Pete’s Dragon goes into the machine, out comes Helen Redding. Every time someone puts the wrong equation into Lotus, they get the wrong answer. So, maybe computers have taught me something. Arguing with Wade never gets me anywhere except providing him with further verification that I’m a bitch. So, on a lot of things (drinking too much beer is a good example), I’ve just stopped saying anything and he becomes completely confused. And drinks less beer.

So I am now experimenting with dinner. When he doesn’t show up by six, the kids and I eat dinner by ourselves. If he comes in, he sits down. If he’s late, he has to fend for himself and I say nothing. It’s hard to do – to bite my tongue. But harping on him when it wasn’t working – that surely does not compute. Though, as I asked earlier, why do I even care? Why don’t I just plug up my ears with my new Walkman (ah!) and retreat to a world of virtual music?

But, I do care. I bite my tongue. I listen to the music from Pete’s Dragon one more time. I look forward to getting to the office and playing with my new Lotus cells which all add up correctly and on time and without whining. Is all this technology making us spoiled for real life? Or is this our new real life?
Buckminster Fuller (the dome guy) died a few years ago and someone published this quote which I copied down in my journal: “Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.” Not sure exactly what he meant, but maybe we’re learning.

Note: Narrator is now about 55. Missing daughter is Emily, son is Jamie, husband is Jim. Further rift on technology started when the narrator was younger last time.

August 8, 2005

Here we go again. Yet another version of Banner on the University computer system and this one is being touted as a complete and total rewrite of the last one (touted as new and updated only three years ago) – which means that it will take a complete and total relearn by everyone who touches it – in the case of the University that means a couple of hundred people. But I’m not worrying about them – I’m worrying about me. I have no interest in spending months trying to figure out how I can make a machine give me the reports I need. But that’s what is going to happen. And then a few years from now it will happen again. When will we get to good enough? Electric lights have been good enough for decades. Flush toilets haven’t been much improved since they were invented in 1851 (thank you Google). But we never get to the end of computers.

And the funny things about it all is that I remember when we put in the first rendition of the software and moved off punch cards and into terminal input – the promise was greater accuracy (still depends on the input), greater service (maybe in some cases), and cost efficiency. Nyet on the latter. We actually have more administrative employees per student than we did before we had any computers at all! Many more! So what is going on? And our employees are now spending an average of three weeks every year learning how to do their job on the new and improved model! And now that we’ve replaced all the terminals with PC’s, we also have to worry about whether employees are playing solitaire or e-mailing their illicit lovers on University time!

I know, I know – I’m guilty too. How long did Jim and I exchange flirty e-mails before started living together and didn’t need the constant tickle to our relationship? And then I discovered you could buy things on the internet and never needed to go to the mall again. Heaven! And, of course, I go searching for Emily all the time on the net and have even joined some chat groups about missing adult children. But, really, think about it – if I’m doing all these things in the office, what else is going on in the name of new technology? No wonder we need more employees.

Jamie – who has been conscientious about his new job in every way except getting up on time in the morning – brought a laptop home from the office the other day. He uses it when he goes out to see clients about their HVAC systems – I guess he has programs that compute how much horsepower (isn’t that an anachronistic word?) it will take to keep them warm or cold. Anyway, it was fascinating. We actually have four computers in the house now – Jamie has the new laptop and the old Dell he took to college, Jim has his Mac, and I still have my beloved Hewlett-Packard. Our internet connection is so bad that it hasn’t made sense to for me to upgrade, but Jamie is pressuring us to get wireless and we will probably succumb. Really, what technology have we not succumbed to? Well, Jim refuses to carry a cell phone. I use the Blackberry the University gave me. But I have learned to mostly leave it turned off. I cannot stand the idea that someone can beep me anytime, because when it can happen, I am somehow expecting it to happen, and that changes the whole tone of whatever I am doing.

I was impressed by computers at first – I still am in many ways. I think my problems as a young mother could have been somewhat allayed by getting into chat groups with others with similar issues – or, on the other hand, I might have read about mother who truly did go berserk and scared myself to death. And there’s this – the very thing that impressed me about computers in the beginning – that they always came right answer when you fed the right information into them – still impresses me. But now the Garbage In/Garbage Out things scares me even more– how do we know we are always putting in the right information and then we believe whatever comes out! I read this quote from Picasso the other day: “Computers are useless. They only give you the answers.” And how on earth do we know if we have asked the right questions?

And they suck our time away. Sometimes a piece of a poem or a song rolls around in my head (like a loose marble) and I have learned that I can get on Google and put in my fragment and come up with the original context. Then, of course, I move on from there until inquiring about which Dickinson poem I was looking for morphs into surveying B&B’s in Amherst and wondering if that Susan something I used to go to school with still lives in Boston. And then I am googling old classmates and… an hour has gone by and all of a sudden, as Emily Dickinson said, “life is over there.”

But oh, the computer is captivating. In many ways, it’s more exciting than life. No boredom. Just click the mouse and there is something else to look up, something else to find out about, something else…. And it’s not real. You don’t have to worry about asking a stupid question. First of all the thing that you are asking is called Google, so how worried are you about saving face with something with a name like that? How long do you boil sweetcorn? This was something I couldn’t remember the other day and would have felt stupid calling anyone to ask, but Google provided the answer. Of course, how long you cook corn is exactly the kind of question that Google excels in – but try asking it what you should do with your life!

And – what kind of questions to ask the computer is a serious issue. Let me try that again. What are the important questions and can a computer answer them? For example, I’ve been asking where Emily is for years. (I’ve tried Google to no avail.) Might I better ask why she left? (Garbage from Google.) Or better, should I ask how best I live with a missing daughter may never be found? Well, the answer to that is clear isn’t it? The answer that Krishna gave Arjuna, that God gave Job. Acceptance. And neither Krishna nor God gave any rational analysis to come up with their answer. Hell, their answers weren’t even related to the questions asked. Arjuna asked Krishna how he could get out of going into battle. Job asked God three questions: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” “How can a man be just before God?” and “If a man die, shall he live again?” As far as I can see, God never answers any of these questions. Maybe they do not matter. Even the Buddha said that metaphysical questions were not worth asking – the only things that mattered were the way we lived our lives to minimize suffering. Well, I’m all for minimizing suffering.

Jamie has been using this site called MySpace where all his friends are registered and I guess they can share news and music and pictures – I’ve asked him if there is anyway that Emily could be on it – she loved technology. She was the first kid I ever knew who walked around with earphones on – not those little ear bud things that kids are using now, but the full apparatus. She had indentations in her hair even after she took them off. If her first attempt at distancing herself from us was her wailing as a baby, perhaps her second was those earphones. You could hear threads of music escaping (usually Madonna) and I was constantly warning her about what she might be doing to her ears, but… obviously, it wasn’t her ears that I should have been worried about. Maybe if she contacted us first by computer she could maintain the kind of distance she always seemed to want and still communicate. Would it be enough for me? Ask a drowning man if he wants a teaspoon of water if that is all that’s available.

But, as time as passed, I have to admit that I came close many times to cutting myself off from my family. In some ways I did and in some ways I still do. I haven’t given any Mom or the sibs the number for my Blackberry and our line at home is heavily protected by an answering machine that lets me decide to who (and when) I return calls. Every time I hear someone talking about how we’ll all be connected 24/7 and my heart turns to lead. Imagine if my mother could talk to me anytime she wanted? Or if Lissy could call me in the midst of each and every emotional crisis? No, I am more like Emily than I would like to admit.

This same guest on NPR said that it was going to be harder and harder for individuals to disappear with all the technology that follows us around. Maybe so – perhaps Emily just made it under the wire. Too late for me and my daydreams of turning up in Las Vegas claiming amnesia. But I wouldn’t do it now that I know how it feels like from the other side.

One more thing about technology. Photographs. Snapshots. Or “pix” as they call them now. They are everywhere. With these new digital cameras you can take hundreds with no films and just upload them on your computer. Our neighbors just came back from a vacation to Thailand and we had to sit watching hundreds and photos on their computer. It’s too easy. Everything is going to be documented. No need to keep a journal – here’s pictures of what you did that day. Ah, but my journal is not documentary. It is selective. I’ve looked through the negatives, arranged the order, and created my own version of the story to put down in words – and, by the way, I have now kept this journal on the computer for two years! There are advantages to keeping it on the computer – you can search for things. (When was my sister here last? What did we serve our neighbors for dinner?) And you can cut and paste – for instance, I sometimes do this with sections of e-mail messages. I did have to get used to converting my thoughts through pecks (rather than scrawls), but with all the other use of computers this was an easy transition. I wonder sometimes if it makes a difference in what I write, though. That would be an interesting study – to compare someone’s writing from the time they were writing longhand to the computer version. My guess is that the computer version would look better, but actually be sloppier. Our entire lives are getting sloppier I think.

Well, my life is surely sloppier. My body gets sloppier – I’ve weighed the same amount for years, but the parts no longer stay tucked in neatly. I’m losing the ability to remember things – I’ve been trying hard to memorize music for my lesson and I usually squeak through the page or two of Bach just in time for the lesson, but if I try to play the same piece a couple of weeks later – nothing! It’s a good thing I keep a journal or my past would have completely slipped away. And of course, I keep losing things. Jim goes crazy. Yesterday it was his favorite umbrella, which may turn up yet at the library or somewhere. And, of course, I have lost a daughter and a husband along the way.

Plato (through Socrates) said that before writing was invented, humans had prodigious memories, but when script came into being, they lost the ability to remember. And now we have computers – what have they made us lose? The ability to think? Journal or not, there are probably things I am better off forgetting. And some things – as Elizabeth Bishop says – are meant to be lost. But not everything. Not everything.