Say Goodnight, Gracie

April 3, 2007

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When something that started out as fun begins to feel like an obligation, it’s time to put it to bed (as they say in my real-life business) for the last time.

To all of you who have read my posts, thank you.

To all of you who have read my posts and left comments, your validation has meant a great deal to me.

Goodnight, Gracie.


St. Valentine

February 14, 2007

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My father sent me a card on St. Valentine’s Day every year of my life up until his death. In the early days, he painted them himself. The first one, sent when I was 11 months old, shows my favorite things of the time: a clock that sat on the mantelpiece; a spoon; a box that had held 100 Player’s cigarettes (my parents smoked in those days); and a particularly gruesome rag doll made of pale green stockinette and named Gwynedd, which is the Welsh spelling—my mother was Welsh—of Gwyneth. My father’s cards were almost always unsigned because tradition, now lost, says that Valentines should be anonymous.

My father also sent Valentines every year to my mother. At the beginning, they were delicate pencil drawings or watercolors, sometimes with quotations and sometimes with original verse. My mother saved them and now I have them. Over the years, my father moved to commercial cards, but the very last Valentine he sent my mother—in 1996, the year of her death—is hand-made.

By then my mother had Alzheimer’s. Confused, frightened, and angry, she was no longer the gentle, loving person we knew. Yet she apparently had a vague comprehension of the significance of the card because I found it among her effects after she died.

A heart and daffodils are drawn (crudely by my father’s standards—the Parkinson’s disease from which he suffered was rapidly advancing) with magic marker. The message: “When we first began to think of such things as Valentines, it was some 60 years and more ago. But the feeling does not change. You are still all the world to me.”

I have many of the Valentines my father sent me. Somewhere I think—I hope—I have the very last one, but I can’t put my hands on it right now. The card is a leftover Christmas card. Apparently my father—by then well into his 80s and in a nursing home—had obviously left it too late to have someone buy a Valentine’s card for him, or maybe he felt that someone else shouldn’t buy something so personal. His once vigorous, sure handwriting on which I modeled my own is shaky. The message of love is not. He crossed out the Christmas greeting and wrote “Oops” followed by a message I can’t call to mind but that I know expressed my father’s love.

My mother and I are fortunate to have been on the receiving end of that unreserved love.


Waste not, want not

February 4, 2007

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Eventually rechargeable batteries won’t recharge, and that’s what happened to my Palm Tungsten E. It lasted around two years, which is the useful life the reviews gave it, so I can’t complain that I wasn’t warned. Palm’s astute marketing strategy is to make PDAs with batteries you can’t replace, so you have to buy a whole new device. I removed all the data from my fast-fading E, smacked it with a hammer for good measure (producing the interesting abstract above), then zapped it with my magnetic tape eraser and dropped it in the trash can.

If I had any vision, I would collect moribund PDAs, whack them around, and get the Hirschorn or the Tate Modern or MOMA to put on a show of my work. They’ve all done far sillier exhibits. But rather than launch my new art career, I simply bought another PDA. I chose a Palm TX because it is WiFi-enabled, so I can check my e-mail when I’m overseas (which I will endeavor to do without drawing attention to myself); but even if I’d chosen the E2, which is the new, improved E, the charger and the sync cable wouldn’t have transferred because the connections are all different. This sort of thing drives me crazy. I ended up with a useless-to-me U.S. charger/power cable; international charger/power cable with interchangeable plugs depending on whether you’re in the U.K., continential Europe, or Asia; and sync cable.

Thank goodness for Freecycle. I advertised the spare items just after lunch today, and at around 4:45 this afternoon, Brian, whose Tungsten E is still working, stopped by to pick them up. I could have put them in the Goodwill bag and taken a small tax deduction, but I’d way rather give them to a person I know can use them.

Freecycle and Craig’s List make me feel a bit better about planned obsolescence.


Accented at last!

January 26, 2007

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A month ago, my wave keyboard died. I’ve been using that kind of keyboard ever since I was treated for early carpal tunnel syndrome, and that’s a long time ago. I’m so used to it now that if I have to type on a regular keyboard my fingers don’t know where to go, and some words end up looking like Polish. I figured that in the years since I bought the defunct wave, technology had undoubtedly advanced, so I did some research on ergonomic keyboards. There are some truly weird ones and some very expensive ones.

I settled on the Kinesis Maxim. At $150 it’s not cheap (especially when you can buy an ordinary keyboard for under $20), but I spend all day at the computer and my wrists are worth it. The keyboard splits by varying amounts or not at all and tents in the middle to three angles. It is ultra-cool, comfortable to use, and I love it. But …

The “but” is that there’s no embedded numeric keypad on the right. I knew that when I ordered it, but since I always use the numbers along the top anyway, I figured I wouldn’t miss it. What I’d forgotten is that in order to type in French and Italian, you use the ALT key plus the ASCII numeric codes to generate accented letters–and you have to use the number keys on numeric keypad. Off I went to CompUSA for a standalone keypad, but it didn’t solve the problem because it and the keyboard weren’t on speaking terms, and pressing ALT on the keyboard had no effect on the keypad.

You can create keyboard shortcuts in Word to produce accented letters, em dashes, copyright symbols, and so on, but that doesn’t help you if you’re in another application, even another Microsoft Office application.

There are programmable standalone keypads (expensive of course), but the specs I read on the manufacturers’ Web sites didn’t make it clear to me whether one of the keys could be remapped to take the place of the keyboard’s ALT key. Kinesis tech support and the couple of keypad manufacturers I contacted were no help at all.

I don’t even remember what I typed into Google this afternoon, but it gave me the solution: Install the Windows U.S.-International keyboard drivers. (Several years ago, I installed the drivers for the French and Italian keyboards, but some of the letters are in different places. Switching back and forth was a pain and keeping three keyboard layouts straight was impossible).

The U.S.-International drivers, however, are simplicity itself. They use two- and three-key combinations. Type apostrophe then e and you get e acute; ^ then e and you get e circumflex. The driver is smart enough to pick out the letters that do have accents and those that don’t, so when you type apostrophe plus s, you don’t come out with an accent on the s. It’s a far less cumbersome method than the old ALT + ASCII codes. The only thing it doesn’t seem to work in is WordPress text entry (for that you apparently do need the numeric keypad method), which is why I can’t show you here.

I know that some of my readers type in foreign languages, so perhaps this information may be useful. The international drivers are already on your computer and install in about two minutes through the control panel. You’ll find instructions here and a clear explanation and list of the key combinations here.

Now I’m going to send a properly accented e-mail to my French penfriend.


Omsk, Tomsk, and Nizhni Novgorod

January 14, 2007

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My interest in the Trans-Siberian Railway goes back a long way. Some parents spoon food into their recalcitrant offspring saying “Here’s one for Mummy, here’s one for Daddy, here’s one for Teddy …” and so on. For reasons best known to herself (and she is, sadly, no longer around for me to ask why) my mother chose the main stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I was an unenthusiastic eater, so by around age two, there had been enough repetition that I could recite them myself. My favorites were Omsk, Tomsk, Nizhni Novgorod, and Vladivostok (which last caused great amusement to my parents, as I said what I heard and it came out as “Bloody boss dog”).

While the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t a tourist line but an important passenger- and freight-carrying part of the entire Russian railway system, there are travel companies that specialize in organizing tourist travel from Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Moscow to Vladivostok is 9,258 km (6,152 miles) and takes seven days. If you get off and on the train and spend a night or two anywhere, it takes longer, of course.

I adore trains, so it immediately became something I have to do before I die, which better not be anytime soon, since the trips aren’t cheap and I need to start socking away the money. You could probably do it on your own more cheaply if you speak Russian and know your way around, but I don’t. Maybe this will be my retirement present to myself.

And once you get to Vladivostok, it’s only 36 hours by boat to Tokyo, and it’s been more than 30 years since I was there … . On the other hand, you can take it to Beijing, where I’ve never been … .


Weighty matters

January 12, 2007

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Happy New Year, albeit 12 days late.

As a baby and a toddler, eating was not one of my greater accomplishments. My mother had to coax food into my mouth and used all the games at her disposal. Not for her the approach of “Here’s a spoonful for Teddy; here’s a spoonful for Mummy; here’s a spoonful for Uncle John.” My mother shoveled spoons of strained peas in to the stations on the Trans-Siberian railway. Given my lack of enthusiasm for food, I could apparently recite them by heart at a very early age. I am told that I obligingly tucked the food away in my cheeks like a hamster, and when I ran out of room, I simply blew it all out. I don’t know why my mother didn’t strangle me, but she didn’t, and it’s thanks to her unfailing patience and creativity that I didn’t starve myself to death. (And yes, she did try leaving me alone on the assumption that I would eat when hungry, but when day four rolled around and I hadn’t eaten anything, she decided that wasn’t a viable option.)

Fast forward to now, some never-mind-how-many decades later. I have clearly overcome my reluctance to eat because I am carrying extra weight–not much, but I am 5′ 1″ and small-boned. The 10 or so extra pounds show and mean that 75 percent of my clothes don’t fit.

So I (1) joined a gym, and (2) joined a diet program at the gym. The eating plans are flexible and easily adapted to my semi-vegetarianism (fish and eggs but no meat or poultry) and they aren’t of the annoying kind that include half a grapefruit, a quarter of an avocado, and two-thirds of a can of tuna in week one. What the hell are you supposed to do with the remaining fractions? Give them to the deserving poor? Those of us who worry about the starving Armenians don’t like to throw them out, so we eat them, and that screws up the diet.

And (3), with this post, I’ve gone public. I’m on a diet starting Monday.

In the meantime, every vegetable I own that isn’t in the week one meal plans is sauteeing and will become a frittata with the three remaining eggs (from Monday on it’s Egg Beaters for a while) for tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch. After which I am going to watch Ladies in Lavender, courtesy Netflix.


$5, $10: Does it really matter?

December 23, 2006

5.jpgI went to Barnes and Noble this morning. On my way out of the parking garage, I passed an old man who had just found a discarded fast food container in the trash can and was eating the leftovers. I waited until I was past him then looked in my wallet for some money, hoping I had a $5 bill or some singles. I had a $10 bill and a $20.

Ten dollars seemed too much and the small amount of change I had–less than $1–would have been an insult. I hurried to Barnes and Noble, close to tears at the thought of how desperate you’ve got to be to eat someone else’s leftovers out of a trash can. The quickest way to get change was to buy a cup of coffee. There was one person ahead of me, so it should have been quick, but he had mistakenly proffered a Starbucks gift card, and the barrista had mistakenly tried to ring it up, and all this had to be sorted out while I stood there impatiently shifting from one foot to the other. When I’d bought my coffee, I dumped the cup on a table and ran back to the garage with a $5 bill in my hand. I was too late. The man had gone.

I keep thinking about him and wishing I’d given him the $10 bill. I have never in my life been hungry because I didn’t have enough money for food. And it’s not that I couldn’t afford to give him $10. Tomorrow I am going to give $50 each as Christmas presents to three young people, the grown-up children of a friend. They will be glad to have the money but they won’t want for food without it.

I don’t know why $5 seemed right and $10 seemed too much. What I do know, though, is this: It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the act. I’m pretty unhappy with myself at the moment.