Monday, October 24, 2016

Workin' for the good stuff!

I really need to learn how to turn down work. Or maybe just budget my time a bit better. Right now I find myself buried beneath a mountain of tasks, all of them vying for my time: First, of course, there's my actual jobthe one that pays the bills! (And about which I really can't complain. Good people, interesting work, decent boss. So it deserves my full attention during the work week. And there are those bills, after all.) Then there's the writing course I teach at Southeast Community College. And, since I'm preparing to teach an online course next quarter, I'm also taking a course on how to teach an online course. (Yes, the course I'm taking to learn how to teach an online course is itself an online course. Of course!)

This past weekend I delivered an address to the annual APCUG conference in Las Vegas. It was a remote presentation using Zoom, a tool I had never used but which I highly recommend. Very slick, very powerful, very intuitive. The address went well, and it was fun reconnecting with some of the folks that I used to visit back when I was the editor of Smart Computing. The prep work to put together the presentation took several hours, but it was worth it: it was fun and useful, it was a good learning experience for me, and it was a good opportunity to plug the new book. (I may be able to provide a link to the presentation, assuming that the APCUG tech guyJohn Kennedy, who was both incredibly helpful and extremely patientrecorded it.)

Yeah, the good stuff! Now we're talkin'. Maybe we'll
even get a cat!
Then there are the freelance editing gigs. I really wasn't looking for those (yet), but I didn't want to turn them down. A new publisher contacted me (yes, it all boils down to networking, past contacts and friends, etc.) with the first of what promised to be several jobs, perhaps even an ongoing relationship. Since I'm planning to retire soon (in exactly 193 days, as it happensnot that I'm counting, of course), I was hoping to continue doing the occasional (or even regular) freelance editing or writing job, so that after retirement Lesley and I can afford to eat the good cat food; you know, the canned stuff, rather than the generic store-brand kitty kibble. Anyway, those jobs kept coming, and the publisher pulled me off of an initial project to jump on a time-sensitive second one, and then a third. I'm about to finish that off and get back to the original job, unless I get pulled off again. But hey, this is what you need when you're going to retire but still require A) a revenue stream and B) something to keep your brain active, learning, and engaged.
Nature's perfect food.
Anyway, I'm hoping things calm down a bit. I miss hanging out on the porch with Lesley and Annie. Maybe we could even go to a movie or something. (Me and Lesley. Not Annie. Annie would spend the entire movie scouring the theater for spare bits of popcorn and licking up Thin Mints and God only knows what else.)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Student Writing: "The Prisoner"

Teaching writing is hard work, but it's also enjoyable and rewarding, and almost always a learning experience in itself. It's wonderful to witness students realizing that language is a tool, one they can learn to master, and that once mastered, it can be used to powerful effect.

Illuminations is the Southeast Community
College magazine of literature and the
arts. This student essay is reprinted with
permission of the author and of the
And sometimes along the way, we teachers encounter a student who loves and respects the language, who is willing to work hard, and who learns to wield the language with both tenderness and ferocity.

This is one of those. Donna is a strong writer and a wonderful person; a former student of mine, I'm now proud to call her a friend.

Compared to the length of my usual posts, this is a bit of a long read, but it's a worthwhile one.

The Prisoner
By Donna Salas

It was a beautiful October afternoon in my small home town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The weather was warm and inviting—as if fall had forgotten to be cold and gloomy, had an identity crisis, and wanted to be spring for a day. The trees had started their annual art crawl across the city, painting its neighborhoods with splashes of red, gold, orange, and yellow. Even the trees that had completely shed their leaves added a beautiful nakedness to the landscape. The seasons were on the cusp of that beautiful blending that happens as spring slides into fall. It was the time when the earth started to settle in for a long, cold nap, and Mother Nature started to slow life down. It was on this beautiful and perfect day that he decided to settle in, too. He couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to die.

I woke up early in the small apartment in the basement of my parents’ house. I showered quickly, threw on jeans and a t-shirt, and raced upstairs. My mom stood in the kitchen, her back to me, making tortillas. The smell filled my nostrils and woke my stomach, stirring it to growl. She turned toward the stove to flip a tortilla. I could tell she had been awake for hours already. “How’s he doing this morning?” I asked my mom as I kissed her cheek. She looked tired and worn out. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail; small frayed ends of hair framed her face and stood out like fragile wisps at her temples.

“He had a rough night. Didn’t get much sleep,” she said and turned back to the counter to start rolling another piece of masa. I poured myself a cup of coffee and headed out of the kitchen toward his bedroom at the front of the house. I suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore.

His light was on, and the door was open. His TV was on the Spanish channel Telemundo, but the sound was turned down to a muted muffle. His oxygen tank breathed in and out in a raspy hiss like an aggravated cat by his bedside. The police scanner buzzed and beeped on the night stand; disembodied voices broke through speaking in code every now and then. His eyes lit up when I walked in the room.

“Good morning, Dad. How’d you sleep?”

He smiled and said in his most serious voice, “With my eyes closed.”

We both giggled. This was a running joke we said every morning to each other. I kissed his cheek and sat in the big red recliner at the end of his bed.

We made small talk. How’s work? How’s the truck running? (I had been having belt issues with my truck, and he had walked me through changing the belts and setting the timing over the phone.) We talked about everything except his illness. I didn’t ask how he was feeling because I could see how he was feeling. I knew he was in pain every waking second. His body had swelled to twice its normal size. He was an athletic man of 5’9” and about 250 pounds. I remember thinking, “My daddy is the toughest, strongest man alive. Nothing can defeat him.” I could have never in my life believed that he’d be done in by a 12-ounce aluminum can of beer. Now here he sat, his body so swollen that he couldn’t move or walk; he literally could not lift the weight of his own leg. All he could move were his arms and head.

We talked briefly about nothing special when I asked what time it was. I had to leave for work soon. He told me I had about ten minutes until I had to leave. He fell silent at those words. A melancholy fell on him, and he suddenly looked so sad. I pretended not to notice; I refilled his coffee and kissed his cheek. “OK, Dad, I gotta go. I love you, and I’ll see you after work.”

He looked straight ahead, a blank stare filling his eyes, and said, “OK. I love you, too, mija.” He said these words to the nothingness outside the bedroom window, not making eye contact with me. I knew deep in my soul that something was wrong. He didn’t say “I’ll see you later” back.

I worked an uneventful eight-hour day. For some reason, I decided not to call home at lunch like I normally did. I know now I was scared that I would get bad news. I would call, and Mom would have to tell me that he had taken a turn for the worse, and I should get home now! I had told my mom that if she needed to get a hold of me during the day to call my boss’s office phone, and she would come get me. But as my day progressed and Marilyn never came out of her office to get me, I began to think my fears of that morning were just paranoia. Maybe I was overreacting.

3:30 p.m.—I had made it! I’d worked all day and had no word from Mom. As I walked confidently through the parking lot toward my Toyota pickup, I thought about stopping by the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread and other odds and ends to get me through the week. I had my hand on the handle of the truck door when Marilyn came running out of the building.

“Donna! Your mom just called. She said you need to get home now!” My stomach tightened, and my throat closed. For a moment, I just stood there trying to process her words. It was almost like they had been said to me in a foreign language that I knew only the curse words to. The ten-minute drive home seemed to take an hour. I don’t remember much about the drive, but I remember thinking, Please let it be something stupid, like, “Get home now! Your dog made a mess in the basement.”

When I finally pulled in the drive, I noticed my Aunt Cathy’s car parked in the street. Nothing unusual there—she would often come and spend the whole day with my dad. My grandmother had moved in when dad got sick, so my aunt would come over and visit her, too. My aunt and my dad were as close as a brother and sister could be, and there was no place in the world she would rather be than with her baby brother. They shared a birthday, and twelve years later, just a week short of my dad, they also shared their final breath.

What was out of place was Andrea’s old maroon Toyota Camry parked outside. Andrea was a good friend of the family, and I’d known her my whole life. She was also a hospice nurse and had been assigned to us when my dad was put on hospice two months ago. She had been to the house only a few times during the day to help Mom bathe Dad in his bed since he couldn’t get out of it and to change a dressing on his leg when he came down with thrush. Most of the time, she was there was as a friend. This was not good.

I ran into the house through the front door since that was closest to his room. He was laying in his bed, his arms folded on his chest; the fleece blanket Mom had made him a few years ago for Christmas covered his bloated body. We had bought him a hospital bed a few weeks ago, and it took up so much of the room that we had to put it in at an angle, covering up the closet door. My aunt stood on his left, my grandmother was at the foot of the bed, and my mom was standing on his right. I pushed my way into his cramped room and took my mom’s place on his right. I took his hand; it felt cold and still. I scanned the room looking from face to face and saw that everyone looked worried. “I think it’s time, mija,” my mom said as she put her hand on my shoulder.

“Did anybody call Adrian?” I asked, just then noticing that my brother wasn’t there. He would be crushed if he couldn’t be there. He would never forgive us! Looking back now, I know that a small part of me didn’t want him there. I felt that if he wasn’t there, then Dad would not leave. It was a childish wish. My aunt nodded and said he was on his way. Dad’s breathing was so shallow it was almost non-existent. We stood watching him sleep, nobody ready to cry just yet.

Adrian finally ran into the room and took up post on the left side where Cathy had been standing. He took Dad’s other hand. We looked at each other, and a quiet understanding passed between us. We both leaned in at the same time and whispered in his ear, “It’s OK, Dad. You can go now. We’ll be OK.” A silence fell over the room, like someone had sucked the air out of it and we stood in a vacuum. A clock ticked somewhere, and the angry cat hissed in and out on the nightstand. Then, like that, he was gone. We all just looked at each other. Andrea came into the room and checked his pulse and looked for a heartbeat. She shook her head and said he had gone home. And just like that, on a beautiful fall day in October, my dad went to the clearing at the end of the path.

The most profound heaviness fell on me, and I ran out to the front porch and wailed. I cried like I had never cried before. The weight of my grief fell on me like a 20-ton cement block, and I collapsed to the floor. I felt paralyzed and numb from head to toe. My girlfriend scooped me into her arms and carried me into the living room. People all around me were in different stages of sorrow. My brother was in shock and just sat at the dining room table. My mother and Aunt Cathy were holding my grandmother. I went to her and hugged her. I began to cry again. I told her I was sorry that she had to see this. I was sorry she had to watch another son die. No mother wants to see her children suffer or feel sad, but deep down, all parents are selfish and hope to pass away before their children. In the end, nobody wants to lose someone they love and would do anything to not have to feel that pain.

Someone called hospice, someone called my Aunt Joanne, and someone called the rest of the family. I had moved to the back yard with my girlfriend and my brother. He had called his wife, and she was there, too. We began to tell stories about how funny Dad was, and we started to laugh. Our laughter floated into the house, and before I knew it, everybody was outside. One by one, we each told a story, and our tears of sorrow were replaced by tears of joy.

The funeral home had come to take Dad, and they waited with us for over an hour until the last of the family could see him. Family and friends came and went for the remainder of the evening, and by 9:00, we had said goodbye to the last of the visitors. It was just Mom, Grandma, my girlfriend, and me. We stripped his bed and cleared all his medication from his room. We cleaned that room until it was spotless. The hiss of his oxygen machine had been silenced. The TV had been shut off hours ago, along with his police scanner. There was a sense of peace now, like the weight of his sickness had made the room sick, too, and now it was healed.

It had been an exhausting day, and I was surprised to find myself yawning. We were all drained and needed a good night’s sleep. I said goodnight to my mom and grandmother and went with my girlfriend down to the basement apartment. As we lay in bed, she asked me if I was OK. I laughed and said, “Not really—my dad just died,” but I was going to be OK.

I rolled over and looked at her. “I never thought it would be like this. You prepare and prepare, but when the time comes to say goodbye, you’re never really ready. It hurts like hell that he’s gone. It hurts so deep in my soul that I am forever changed—forever. But I also feel this sense of relief that it’s finally over. I’ve lived on edge for months now. I’m not afraid of the telephone ringing anymore. I don’t have to worry about getting THAT call.”

She stroked my arm. I could see the tears running down her face. “But you know what else I feel? I feel honored to have been there. I felt dignity come back to him. He isn’t this sick person that can’t take care of himself anymore. He is a whole man again. He’s not trapped in that body filled with disease and pain.”

I began to cry again, but these were tears of joy. My dad was free, and I didn’t have to worry about him anymore. He wasn’t in pain, and he wasn’t scared! Death had given him his pride back and taken him out of a world of pain and shame. The cell doors had been opened, and he was free from that prison of a body. Death had given him freedom, and because of that, I was happy to let him go.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"Attending" APCUG

I'm not much of a joiner, and have never really been into club membership. (And besides, as Groucho Marx is reputed to have said when resigning from the prestigious Friars' Club, "I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." Back when I was editing Smart Computing magazine, I did try to start a motorcycle gang. It was going to be called "Hell's Editors," but the plan came to grief when no one could agree on the placement of a semicolon in what was to have been our Mission Statement.) 

Clubs and organizations do serve a purpose, of course; for us technophiles, they provide an opportunity to discuss, learn about, share, and commiserate regarding new technologies. Hence, the computer club: a place for hobbyists and technologists and just plain old users to get together and share information and advice. (Drinks may occasionally be served, but usually only at the post-meeting meeting.)

Gordon French, one of the cofounders of the Homebrew
Computer Club. This photo was taken in 2013. Photo used
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported license.
Among the earliest of such clubs was the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon Valley hobbyist group that met from 1975 through 1986. (Fittingly, the first meeting was held in a garage.)

The HCC was an informal gathering of what would prove to be many of the industry's future movers and shakers, including engineer Lee Felsenstein (the designer of the Osborne 1 microcomputer), activist Fred Moore, Paul Terrill (who would go on to open The Byte Shop, an early computer retailer), and Roger Melen, the future cofounder of Cromemco, an early microcomputer company. Steve Wozniak was a member, and Woz has said that the first meeting of the club (at which was displayed the first MITS Altair microcomputer) inspired him to design what would become the Apple I.

So, computer clubs have a long and storied history, although membership seems to be declining now. Perhaps as a technology becomes more familiar and more integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives, the perceived need for special gatherings to explain, popularize, and celebrate the technology is diminished. You never hear of a light bulb club, these days, or an indoor toilet club. (If there happens to be one of the latter, I really don't want to know about it.)

Clubs do remain, of course, often more and more specialized. There are clubs for computer "modders," for instance: hobbyists who modify or enhance their computers to make them faster, quieter, cooler, or simply more aesthetically appealing. (Check out CPU Magazine for some great info on modders and modding, and also to learn more about high-powered computers and gaming in general.)

But organizations aimed at general users (rather than at specialized practitioners of the modding arts) do still exist. The grandfather of those clubs is APCUG, the Association of Personal Computer User Groups, an international group that holds its annual meeting in Las Vegas. APCUG isn't really a "computer club" so much as a consortium of computer clubs, an umbrella organization that has spent the past 30 years encouraging communications among computer-oriented user groups.

I have been privileged in the past to attend the APCUG convention, sometimes just wandering the floor, sometimes manning the Smart Computing booth. In either case, it was always fun to meet with readers, attend presentations, and check in with the many clubs whose members supported the magazine and who seemed to genuinely enjoy talking, learning, and teaching about computers.

And, as luck would have it, I'm about to "attend" the convention once again! Sort of. I'm scheduled to give a remote presentation on some of the tech topics in my book. (The book is called Leveling the Playing Field. I may have mentioned it once or twice.) So, come Saturday, October 22nd, I'll be hunkered down in my little basement office in Nebraska using some of that incredible technology to beam my face and my words to what I'm sure will be throngs of enraptured attendees in Las Vegas, many of whom will no doubt be nursing tremendous hangovers, because . . . hey, it's Las  Vegas!  

Saturday, October 01, 2016

We Have A Winner!!

Aaaaannnnnd we have a winnner! Woo-hoo!

But first, in a blatantly obvious attempt to ramp up the suspense just a bit, let me start by thanking everyone who entered. There were some awesome photos of people reading and posing with their copies of Leveling the Playing Field, and some even awesomer shots of various pets reading . . . well, someone's copy of the book. (I'm almost positive that Roxy-the-Dachshund, being a bit spoiled, has her very own Amazon Prime account, so I'd imagine she ordered her own copy. And also a new Macbook Pro, because she's very tired of trying to surf the web on that antiquated Dell of hers.)

"I bought this book, but I . . . I just realized . . . I don't have any
! Mom! Come open this book for me!"
There were also a number of people who garnered additional entries by sharing my original contest announcement, thereby spreading the word even more. That was greatly appreciated, of course; my ace marketing department informs me that spreading the word is key. (My ace marketing department also informs me that I've been loading the dishwasher incorrectly.)

All in all, it was a well-received contest with lots of entries and quite a bit of buzzand most of all, a lot of people had a lot fun. Fun is always good.

We chose the winner by throwing all of the names up into the air and then trying to decide which person was most likely to invite us out to visit them when we're vacationing in our travel trailer.

No, that's not what we did! My ace marketing department wrote each name down on a Post-it (multiple Post-its for those who had multiple entries) and then shuffled them around while making chanting noises. We then wrote numbers on the back of each Post-it, and I wrote a very sophisticated program to generate a random number between 1 and the total number of entries. 

Well, not really. I just said, "Hey, Siri! Generate a random number between 1 and X." So Siri, being Siri, said, "Hmmm… Let me check on that," and displayed a list of Wikipedia articles about the history of mathematics, a Quora discussion on the nature of randomness, and 37 movie titles, including Random Encounters (2013), Random Acts of Violence (2012), and The Random Factor (1995). (And also an article about malware making its way onto the Google Play store. Not sure how that got in there.)

Brian Wilcox and his prized possession. Also,
he has a book.
When Siri did eventually spit out a random number (OK, so technically it was a pseudo-random number), it turned out to be Post-it #6! So, there you go! Our lucky winner is #6!! We certainly hope that #6 enjoys his or her $50 gift certificate to either Amaz . . . 

Wait . . . I'm being told that we can't give the prize to a number. It has to go to an actual person represented by that number. Sheesh. Man, I didn't realize this was going to be so complicated!! OK, so it turns out that Post-it #6 belonged to Brian Wilcox, of Huntington Beach, CA. We'll get in touch with Brian (or his representative, whose name, we're almost positive, is Alison) and mail him/them a $50 gift certificate for either or Barnes and Noble, his choice.

Stay tunedI'm sure there will be more contests in the near future! In the meantime, keep in mind that the holiday season is approaching, so you'll want to have on hand as many copies of Leveling the Playing Field as possible. Because what could possibly make a more thoughtful and heartwarming gift than a book?! I'm almost positive that you can get a discount when you buy them by the case.