Thursday, July 29, 2010

Just Showing Up

Yesterday the New York State legislature failed again to pass a state budget for 2010-2011. The budget was due in April. The governor has put several budget proposals before the legislature, but so far the lawmakers will not approve one.

Wednesday brought a new low to our legislator's record: the House and the Senate did not even vote on the budget proposal. What kept the vote from happening? We might blame partisan politics (as if that's not redundant) as usual. However, this time we have something far more significant to notice.

Senators did not show up.

"What?" you say: "Elected legislators failed to show up to solve a problem which, among other things, has held up the payment of unemployment checks to taxpayers?"

That's right. They just didn't show up.

I consider my vacation time precious. I consider my family time precious. I intentionally avoid sacrificing either of those for the demands of my employment. However, every job has moments when events demand the sacrifice of vacation, family, and leisure time. I daresay after four months of holding up services to New Yorkers, our legislature ought to spend every moment creating and passing a budget.

And when a proposal comes down the line, they at least to show up for the assembly. If my representative can't bother him- or herself to be present for these crucial moments, I think it's time for me to get rid of that representative.

If they don't want to show up and vote on what needs to be voted on, maybe they need new jobs--jobs for which they do want to show up.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Future . . .

keeps getting closer.

I composed a fantasy fiction novel. I enjoy reading the genre. I make a living by imagining new possibilities and trying to get folks to follow. You'd think I would have anticipated this. But I didn't.

I got on the bus from Binghamton to New York City at 8:40am. I sat down in a clean, spiffy seat and put my feet up on the foot rail. My eyes cast a casual glance around the front of the bus. There, written in white paint-marker in two places, stood the word WIFI.

Uhr? (Like Scooby-Doo used to say.)

The first explanation to strike me was that some Gen-X urban geeks had formed a cyber-gang, and this was their tag. The second was that someone (maybe a sarcastic bus driver) had put up the words as a practical joke. The third was, Why not?

We have satellites and wireless routers that fit on an office desk: why not on a bus? So I fired up my like-new laptop (thanks to Sara for ordering me a new battery) and opened Chrome. Next thing you know, I'm writing a blog entry about finding wireless internet service on a Short Line bus to NYC. Saccharine.

The most astonishing thing, to me, is my astonishment at discovering it. I'm having a moment that echoes with both "Well, duh!" and "Wow, cool!" at the same time. And I'm connecting other dots: on a plane flight that will cost me a couple hundred dollars and several hours of time waiting in security checkpoints and gate areas I can't use my cell phone; on a bus ride that costs $35 I can use both cell phone and internet. Hmmm . . . .

~ emrys

Monday, July 19, 2010

More Tails from the Pack Rat Hole

As I think I've mentioned before, my dad acquired some pack rat tendencies from his parents. Combine these tendencies with a concern to be fiscally responsible, and voila! We have boxes of cancelled checks from years ago. So one of the boxes to be sorted included about twenty pounds of cancelled checks to the mortgage company:

These are from 1999--within the IRS limit of seven years to hold financial data--but I found packets of checks rubber-banded together from the early 80s.

I believe in keeping some things for sentimental reasons, but not old checks:

Worthy of note, however, is that my dad's account was with Keystone Savings Bank. Their branch across from Nitschmann Middle School in west Bethlehem is where I got my first savings account. (Maybe I was attending Nitschmann then?) At that time they still issued books that you brought in with every deposit or withdrawal, and the teller would run the book through a mini-printer to record the transaction and running balance.

That's also when savings accounts gave you 4% or more annual yield. More than average inflation! Remember those days?

I had that account until I graduated university. Then I got my first credit card: a Discover card. And the savings account was history . . . .

~ emrys

Monday, July 12, 2010

Storming the Bastille

A week ago I declared my independence from one of the greatest tyrants our present world knows. With the training of a colleague to equip me and the expertise of my wife to encourage me, I installed a new hard drive in my laptop and loaded a Linux operating system. I had become fed up with the royal machinations of an OS that demanded users conform to proprietary software. I revolted against the ten to fifteen minutes it took to boot up or shut down my computer, due to processes beyond my control. I stormed the prison of slogging background virus protection programs and freed the political prisoners of processing speed languishing therein.

I joined the liberte of open-source programs, the egalite of non-proprietary software, and the fraternite of users who want to have more control over what's going on behind the screen. I also entered the uncertain world of mob-democratic programming, in which you have to trust programmers without sue-able credentials.

I did not behead the king: I have Windows partitioned off on my hard drive, so the projects that demand Microsoft compatibility can still come to fruition. But I have entered a new world with new freedom, and new responsibility. I have yet to wade all the way into the sea of Linux lingo and knowledge. But I will get there.

La roi est mort! Vive linux!


Thursday, July 08, 2010


Today I attended a training seminar led by a volunteer instructor. Well, she wasn't quite a volunteer; she was an intern completing the final requirements for her Masters degree. She looked to be within the average age range of Masters candidates: finished with the four-year undergraduate course plus two or three years, or twenty-four to twenty-five years old. I shall call her Jackie.

Jackie had the slim physique one would expect from a student of the health sciences; and she had an attractive face as well. Concomitant with these traits, she told us that she had been a cheerleader in high school. At first glance, these characteristics might have assured us (the students being trained) that our classroom experience would be enjoyable.

Early on in the day-long session, however, I perceived something in Jackie that soured my experience of her. I do not know how to describe this in one word or phrase, but I spent a good part of the training day trying to put into words (in my own head, that is) what I experienced.

All of Jackie's non-verbals--the lazy perch of her torso on her elbows at the desk, the closed eyelids that barely hid frequent rolls of the eyes, and the repeated dismissive turn of her hands--broadcast in the physical lingo of our day an air of disdain. Her tone of voice made it clear that what was obvious to her--marked by heavy repetition of the word "obviously"--if it was not obvious to the rest of us, served to display our stupidity. Her remarks that might have been attempts at humor, were they cast by a different person, tripped on their tendency to demean--the coursework, the classroom, the video tutorial which was one of our training tools--and died in the air in the absence of a look or smile that might suggest wit or levity. Everything about her said, "Whatever."

I found her teaching presence affected me like a lemon: I might appreciate the vitamin C, but when I put it to my lips, I can't help but scrunch up my face at the sourness.

Once I stood aside from this sensation--as best I could, given that her words took up most of the time in the training--I reflected on the broader meaning of Jackie's demeanor. She's well into her twenties, and on the cusp of professional life; yet she's fulfilling a semi-professional instructor role with all the charm and suaveness of an audition for Mean Girls. Is this the presentation that she has learned to front when she's in a role of teaching authority? Worse, could this be what she's actually like in day-to-day life?

I have a daughter who, in a number of years which I'm assured will pass too quickly, will go through the gauntlet of middle school and high school--an ordeal whose culture produces the likes of Jackie. Suddenly the stakes for us (parents and daughter) are higher, because I've just been smacked with the reality that what we laugh at when we see it in sitcoms and comedies about high school life might actually adhere permanently to the psyche of adolescents. I would do almost anything within the limits of the law to keep my daughter from turning out like Jackie. Of all the responses that she might have to the world and her fellow humans, deep-seeded disdain and continual condescension are among the ones I want least for her. If I can do anything for her, I want to impress on her that contempt and disdain lead to a downward spiral of relationship and engagement. But how?

In a broader view, what do I do when confronted with such an offensive twisting of the human condition? Jackie's whole being grated on my nerves; it was all I could do to keep my focus on the material I was supposed to learn. (Thank God this was a re-certification for me: material I already knew.) What did her presentation mean to the three ladies in the room, all about Jackie's age? They must deal with the dichotomy of a course in which they're supposed to feel free to ask questions, and an instructor who behaves like that girl in high school who terrorized every uncool female in the class. I noticed that they weren't laughing at Jackie's humor either.

When I filled out the evaluation of the course, none of the questions asked, "How was the tone/affect/behavior of your instructor?" There was not even an open-ended question like, "Is there anything else you'd like us to know about this course?" I could have approached Jackie after the class time--without too much risk, since I'll likely never see her again--and said to her . . . what? "You act like a casting reject from Mean Girls"? "Everything about your non-verbals just oozes disdain, and you make me afraid for my daughter's generation"? How do I describe this to someone whose whole persona foreshadows a response of, "Whatever"?

I left without addressing my experience to her or on the one-page evaluation form. But now it's stuck in my craw. I have always hoped that by the time folks get to the point of having a Masters degree (in anything), they've outgrown the character tics that make us unpalatable when we're new to adulthood. I guess that expectation isn't worth much.

I wish I could walk through the experience and say, "Whatever." But I can't. I think something of my daughter's future depends on a better response than Jackie's training has given her.

~ emrys

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Service Medals

Dad died in August of 2005. The spring before, I had taken the opportunity to sit down with him and begin a biographical interview. I asked Dad about where he was born, his early memories. He told stories of high school, university, medical school, and his first marriage. After two days of interview, we left off at the time when he was headed to Vietnam.

Dad and his colleagues knew, in 1969, that "their numbers were coming up," so they entered the military voluntarily as medical officers rather than waiting to be drafted. As a result, Dad served a year on forward fire bases in south Vietnam.

I came across my Dad's Bronze Star, a military service medal awarded for bravery, acts of merit, or meritorious service. Because Dad never talked about this award, I wrote to Veterans' Affairs in order to procure a record of the circumstances for which Dad received it. VA did not send such a record; but they sent me new versions of all the decorations that Dad received for his time in the Army.

Here's what they sent me:

The box with the star and red and blue ribbon devices is the Bronze Star. Mom tells me that Dad recounted to her a story of Dad crossing a line of defense to retrieve a medic who had fallen on the way back to the base. He pulled the medic to safety under enemy fire. (Dad never told us this story.) I asked Dad's friend, a fellow physician whom he had met during duty in Vietnam, and he told me the Bronze Star had been awarded for meritorious service in general, not a particular incident. Since the VA did not send me details, that one may have to remain a mystery.

The silver caduceus and cross medal is the Combat Medical Badge; the small green and white ribbon is Republic of Vietnam Campaign ribbon; the medal with yellow, red, and green ribbon is the Vietnam Service medal; with red and yellow ribbon is the National Defense Service medal. As I understand them, these were all awarded because of Dad's assignment, rather than any exemplary acts of service. I have not yet found any of these (besides the Bronze Star) in Dad's stuff; I only discovered he had earned these when I sent to the VA about the Bronze Star.

I'm not sure the significance of the fact that Dad never wore or displayed these medals. I know from his book, Mist Over the Dong Nai, that his view of the Vietnam War was ambivalent at best. And I can only imagine that joining the officer core to stay ahead of the draft does not make for the most enthusiastic memory of one's time in the military.

Since Dad died before we could really talk about that part of his life, we may only be left with his book and his medals.

~ emrys