Friday, September 6, 2013

Stranger in a Strange Land

 Let us assume that you have been dragged, as I have, kicking and screaming into a world dominated by gadgets. Cyberspace. The virtual world. A Strange Land.
            Unless you live in a convent or go to extraordinary lengths to isolate yourself, it is barely possible any more to get by without a computer or a mobile telephone. In addition to this, your automobile, clocks, printer, electronic reader, sewing machine, kitchen range, coffee maker, television and microwave all operate on some kind of computer system which may (and usually does) go wrong. The sewing machine, for instance, must not get below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or the computer will not work until it is warmed up again.
            New gadgets will appear minute by minute, and the pressure is on for you to have the most recent versions of the various gadgets.
            There are manuals to all these things. They are filled with errors and flat-out misstatements and are sometimes only available on line, which is not much help when it is your computer which is acting up. There are also help lines available by telephone; good luck. If you are very patient and your computer is still working, you may be able to get a chat window where a person in a distant land will eventually politely offer to assist you. It is the prepositions which give these people away. They do not know that “in the wireless gateway” is quite different from “on the wireless gateway.”
            The vocabulary for all the devices is ever-changing and non-standardized. Waiting in the electronics section of a department store, we asked the clerk “What do you call the device which records from the television. It isn’t a VCR any more, we know.”
            “Oh, you mean a DVR,” the clerk replied.
            “O.K.,” we said. “Can we buy one of those?”
            “No,” he replied. “That’s only available from your cable company.”
            Clue: Most of the gadgets are known by initials. Nobody knows what the initials stand for.
            Add this to your list of things obvious to natives of the Strange Land but maybe not to the rest of us: When entering letters on your new telephone handset (just purchased, because the expensive three-month-old telephones were not compatible with the new wireless gateway): Each number on the keypad (where you punch in the phone numbers) has three or four associated letters. Say you would like to have the airport taxi number on your quick-dial. To enter the first of these letters, press once. To enter the second of these letters, press two. So if you want to enter “cab”, you press three times, then one time, then two times. You may have to manually move the insertion point, but then maybe not. Something so obvious nobody would dream of mentioning it. The way “a space is a character” came as a computer typing revelation when somebody told you about it off-handedly.
            Your friends do not want to help you with this. It’s just the way they got tired of helping you move the piano in the old days. They figure if they had to suffer through useless manuals and unending bad music while being on hold for the help lines, you can jolly well do your own suffering.
            Clue: Sometimes turning everything off and starting over will work. Or you can do as the teenagers do and just try anything which occurs to you until something works. You may, however, have to get a technician to re-install your system if you get too wild.
            I got my first computer because I wanted e-mail. The computer stayed in the box for a week because I was afraid to hook it up. I joined Facebook because I wanted to find out what my grandchildren were doing. But you see what a slippery slope the Strange Land can be.
            “You are like your brother Les,” Nicodemus says. “You like your gadgets.”
            “I do not like the gadgets,” I answer. “I can’t figure out how to do without them, is all. And you don’t want anything to do with them.”
            “Yes, well,” he says.
            “I’d rather have two tin cans and a string,” I say, peevishly, trying to figure out how Skype works so he can talk to his friend Michael in England. (The new wireless gateway does not support 10-10-987 calls, which was the cheap way to go when we had a land line.)
            “I used to talk to my friends with tin cans and a string,” he says.
            “It would have to be a really long string to reach to England,” I answer.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

James Gandolfini

            James Gandolfini could have created the role of Tony Soprano without any dialogue at all. He had an uncanny ability to express the entire spectrum of human emotions on his unlovely face.  The eyes alone told you what he was thinking.
            I was such a fan of James Gandolfini, who died this week at the age of 51. I think his television character Tony Soprano in the Home Box Office production "The Sopranos" will join the likes of Candide, Blanche DuBois, Lieutenant Kije, Willy Loman and other figures in our drama, music and literature who have had a life beyond fiction. Maybe even Hamlet.
            Most of the media response to Gandolfini’s death at the age of 51 seems to think that age 51
was too young to die and that if the actor had taken better care of himself, he’d still be with us.
             I read the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song “Temporary Like Achilles” again, expecting to see some reference to the Iliad and the choice of leading a short life full of glory or a long life full of very little. The title, however, was about all Dylan had to say on the subject. The lyrics could have been made up on the spot.
            Some of the news stories used Gandolfini’s death to preach about the virtues of a low-fat diet. (The actor had eaten paté and shrimp for dinner.) I’m sure somewhere there were sermons mentioning his obesity or his cigar-smoking. But we don’t know enough to judge Gandolfini or others whose lifestyles may have contributed to an early death. Maybe their choices were what allowed them to reveal themselves to us in such a public way. Maybe the choices were crutches. Maybe their minds were just elsewhere. Who knows?
            I don’t think the death of a genius should be used as an occasion for sermonizing. I think we should be grateful for what we got, not what their longer life might have given us (look at J.D. Salinger.) I think their spouses and children should be grateful and not blame them for spending time and energy on extending their earthly days.
            My brother Les, speaking about a talented departed friend with bad habits, said “We respected his right to live his life as he wanted to live it.”
            Really, we owe them that for the moments of revelation they gave us.