Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Smart" Tools & Back-Up Plans

It is no secret that I have a love/hate relationship with technology.  Mostly, I love it when it's working for me, and hate it when it's not.  It seems that everything that's supposedly "smart" or loaded up with a gazillion gigabytes, anything that has multiple "apps," or is marketed as a convenient way to network, a time-saver, a multi-functional tool of epic proportions that will revolutionize, organize and prioritize the most complex of professional and personal worlds, in the end just ends up being...well a disappointment that will be replaced by a better, faster, beyond 4G version of itself in six months or less. Maybe I'm cynical, or somewhat old-fashioned, or completely jaded by the fact that I'm more of a PC than Apple person, and therefore programmed to believe that eventually no matter how slick the packaging and how cool the tool, my warranty is going to expire.  

And yet, despite the inevitable disappointments, glitches and short-circuiting I know will ensue, I'm first in line when my cell phone contract is up for a new phone purchase, I can't log more than a 5K without being plugged into my iPod (the only Apple product I own), and I'm hard-pressed to remember friendships (not to mention birthdays) pre-Facebook.  It is technology that allows me to have a small but invested audience for my written ramblings (thank you loyal blog readers).  It is technology that gives us cute new terms and ways to connect in succinct and simple ways -- just Tweet or text it.  It is technology that allows me to toggle between magazines, newspapers and ebooks with a tap of my finger and it is technology that allows me to carry an entire library of music, books, and film in my purse without putting even the slightest strain on my shoulder.  And perhaps my personal favorite -- it is technology that allows me to send a shower gift that shows I care without ever having to set foot in a "Babies R' Us" or "Bed, Bath and Beyond" again.  Ever.  Click to purchase, click to gift wrap, click to ship and send.  No traffic, no check-out lines, no questionable customer service.  Some of my best gifts have been purchased under deadline at 2 a.m. while wearing pajamas and fuzzy slippers.

But I'm learning that the seductive lure of technological gadgetry is a dangerous one.  Like the quest for the perfect pair of shoes (trust me, no matter how cute or expensive the pump, they're still going to leave blisters after walking a certain number of city blocks) our tech-driven culture promises us efficiency, function and flair  but our devices lack the commitment to meet our long term needs.  It's a lot like dating in your 20's.  Everything looks so good and feels so perfect until about date three when flaws begin to surface, conversations begin to short out and the battery life is on a slow, steady drain, until eventually...the charge is completely gone.  Time for a new battery, an upgrade, or a completely new model.

Moral of the story?  Buy the cute shoes, but wear them when you know you're going to be sitting for a leisurely dinner or a night out at the theater.  Date a few people for superficial reasons so you recognize your soulmate and life partner when he (or she) comes along.  And, use the tools of technology that are at your fingertips, but don't rely on them to be there for you.  Have a back up plan.  Preferably one that involves paper and ink and doesn't require batteries or an outlet.  

I continue to learn these lessons.  I'm guilty of wearing impractical shoes on occasion and of setting up friends with the best of intentions but that result in brief courtships that ultimately fizzle or perhaps never even come to fruition in the first place.  And no matter how many times I tell myself not to get too close to the latest gadget or tool, I still end up trusting it just a little too much, and being burned by it in the end.  Just this week my "smart" phone dropped three phone calls, my emails were delayed in cyber space, stuck between who-knows-where and my inbox, somehow I lost a document in the "cloud" where things are never supposed to be lost, my sweat or my ambitious pace shorted out my iPod leaving me song-less for the last mile of a five mile tempo run, and worst of all, my precious little Nook (ereader) is acting up.  I haven't gotten a newspaper delivered on time in two weeks without having to manually reboot and re-register the device.  

Sometimes I miss the thudding sound on our driveway in the pre-dawn hours that formerly signaled my newspaper was safely waiting for me to rescue it from the cold, concrete driveway.  Sometimes I miss the glossy feel of the advertisement inserts and the gray residue the newsprint left on my fingertips.  I didn't always read the paper daily, but each day's news was reliably there for me if I needed it.  No worrying or waiting for it to download.  No re-booting or forced shut-downs.  No dropped or finnicky wi-fi signal.  No sporadic sound bytes or tickers running across a screen, but full-length articles and the sound of crisp pages turning.  No clicking required.  

That's the thing about temperamental technology.  When it's on the fritz it reminds us that there was a time when we did without.  When we lost ourselves in books despite not being able to adjust the font size.  When we called friends and family on landlines instead of texting them abbreviated greetings.  When we hand-wrote birthday cards and invitations, licked and sealed envelopes, affixed stamps and snail mailed them to recipients, instead of relying on Evites to collect our RSVP's for us. 

I believe technology is neither good nor evil it just is -- it's a part of our world and it can lead to wonderful (and frustrating) things depending on the circumstances.  But I will never again give tools credit for being "smart."  Our devices and gadgets are not smart.  The human ingenuity that created them is...and so is having a back-up plan -- knowing when to unplug the device, call tech support, and pick up a book.  The kind with real paper pages and a hardcover or paperback jacket.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Mourning: Bacon, Eggs & A Side Of Profound Loss

I love Sundays.  For me, they are about rituals, routines, relaxation and re-connecting to my spouse as we ready ourselves for another busy work week.  On Sundays we get to take a deep breath and just be...

Sometimes life gets in the way of our Sunday schedule, but a typical Sunday for us includes mass at St. Michael's (the 8:45 or the 10:30 service, depending on how many times we hit the snooze button), followed by breakfast at our neighborhood Village Inn, and a leisurely afternoon doing something fun or frivolous -- maybe a matinee movie, a game of racquetball, a run, some bookstore browsing, or simply a day vegging out in front of the television watching re-runs, while the rhythmic sound of laundry spinning and tumbling and the even breathing of three sleeping Schnauzers at our feet serve as our afternoon soundtrack.

There is a peace and balance that the predictable pattern of our Sundays brings to my sometimes chaotic and over-scheduled life.  Part of this peace is the friendships we have found by being "regulars" at our neighborhood Village Inn.  Our two favorite waitstaff members - Jimmy and Julz expect us each Sunday and treat us like family, or in most cases, better than family.  We can always count on them for a free slice of the pie-of-the-month, free beverages, free friendly banter, and only the best in customer service -- extra green chili on the huevos rancheros, eggs cooked to perfection (over-easy for me, over-hard for Kevin), Cholula ready on the table before we ask (even though Tabasco sauce is the standard for other customers' tables).  At the end of our meal, the manager, Joe, rings up our total and sends us off with good wishes and maybe a joke or two, and we know, that no matter what the following week has in store for us, we just had a really good breakfast and easy conversation with people who care about us (and not just because we're paying customers).  In essence, we're spoiled.  And it's nice to be spoiled at a run-of-the-mill breakfast chain on a Sunday morning.  So for the past few years, regardless of how long the wait is or what the rest of our morning entails, we are content to read the newspaper in the lobby and wait on the list just to sit in Jimmy or Julz's section, and exchange a joke with Joe.

So you can imagine our shock when this Sunday morning, our weekly ritual was smothered by a shroud of sadness.  

Bounding up to the hostess' podium, I chirped to Alisa, "The usual -- two for Jimmy or Julz's section!"  She took a deep breath, a funny look darkening her usually bright features, "Oh...Julz isn't here today, she's on vacation," she replied.  "No problem -- how about Jimmy then?"  Again, the weird face, the awkward pause, the hushed tone, and then, "He's...passed," escaped her lips.  A stupor of shock and disbelief made me take a step back and run through all of the possible things she could have meant by those two words.  Passed out sick or sleeping, unable to come to work?  Passed on the shift and he'll be back next week?  Passed on the opportunity to stay at this location and is transferring to another?  Because I couldn't possibly figure out exactly what she meant by "passed" I said the only thing I could think of for clarity:

"What...?" and I leaned in to make sure I heard every syllable she uttered.  

"Jimmy...died.  He was in a fatal car accident two weeks ago."  She proceeded to rattle off the names of every other waitstaff member working today, determined to give us our third choice and usher us to a table, wanting to believe that pancakes and bacon would cushion the weight of the news we had just forced her to divulge.  "Anyone else is fine," Kevin and I whispered in unison, exchanging furtive glances of disbelief.  

Settling into our booth, a lump the weight of a syrup bottle formed in my throat, working its way down to my stomach.  Impossible.  But true.  Looking around, I began to take in the somber air that filled the restaurant and permeated the lobby, tears welling in my eyes for the server turned friend, who would never get a final farewell or generous tip from us again.  I began to experience what Village Inn would feel like without Jimmy -- heavy and empty.  No white teeth flashing smiles and pleasantries.  No joyful greeting of, "Nice to see you again, Mr. Kevin and Miss Jessica," or for customers he didn't know on a first-name basis, "Of course, ma'am!" and "Let me bring you a piece of pie, sir!" or, "Be right there, Boss Man," when Joe needed him in a pinch.  

Before this morning, we didn't know Jimmy's last name.  We didn't know what he looked like out-of-uniform, or that he was only 23 years old, born in 1988, the same year as my baby sister.  Before this morning, we didn't know that Jimmy was a boxer with a 26-6 record who was never knocked out in the ring.  Before this morning we didn't know that Jimmy was a Hinkley high school graduate who made all-state in both football and basketball, and the academic honor roll 3 out of 4 years.  Before this morning, we didn't know that Jimmy's favorite colors were red and black, that he loved hip hop music and that he had so many girlfriends he sometimes got into trouble.  Before this morning we didn't know that Jimmy was raised by his grandmother who passed away when he was 14, and that despite having a father in prison, a mother in California who couldn't be bothered to raise her own son, and siblings sprinkled in various states across the country, he maintained a clean lifestyle and made an honest living, choosing not to follow in the footsteps of his would-be role models.  

So, what did we know about Jimmy?  We knew that he treated every one of his customers the way he treated us -- like royalty.  We knew that he could memorize the most complicated and convoluted order without ever writing it down, and that he wasn't satisfied unless he knew his customers were.  We knew he had a heart of gold and that he was a hero to the kids that were lucky enough to sit in his section.  We knew he never missed a shift or an opportunity to showcase politeness -- to regulars and strangers alike.  We knew that he brightened our Sundays and set the tone for our week.  We knew he was humble, handsome and hard-working, gentle and generous, with a soft competitive streak that compelled us to root for his team in the recent restaurant World Cup pool.  We knew he gave honest advice about what was good on the menu (and what to skip), and that no matter how busy he was, he was never too busy for us.  

Today, as we reminisced over pancakes and coffee, Joe shared that his service was standing room only, and that he missed the beginning of it because he was trying to bring in more chairs to accommodate all of the mourners.  Family, friends, his VI family and customers flooded Orchard Road Christian Center to say goodbye to a man taken from us too soon.  Jimmy wasn't wealthy or famous, he wasn't powerful or what most people would call prestigious.  Before today we didn't even know his last name.  But his smile and his impeccable manners touched every person he served.  He made a difference -- to us, and to so many other customers who breakfast at Village Inn just to sit in his section and feel better about themselves, and about the world.  

I'll never eat another piece of pie without thinking of Jimmy.  The Birthday Cake pie was his current self-proclaimed favorite.

Joe comped our breakfast this morning.  I guess he thought we shouldn't have to pay for bacon, eggs and a side of profound loss.  Maybe he was moved by our shock, our sadness, and the tears that pooled in our plates and dropped into our coffee cups.  Or maybe he did it because he felt it's what Jimmy would have wanted. Whatever the reason, we thank you, sir.  

And to Tyrell Cornelius Jimmylee Kinard -- we'll miss you.  Thanks for making our Sundays.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reading Between The Lines

One of the blogs I follow is titled "Beauty in the Ordinary."  Since completing the Denver Writing Project I've been challenging myself to look at the world through this lens.  I've been trying to see the world through a "writer's eyes," to see something special, unique or distinct in the mundane.  Some days where I look for beauty I just see the ordinary -- people shuffling around disconnected, plugged in and tuned out.  But today I saw something truly beautiful.  Something I would call extraordinary.  Something that made me smile.  Something that as hundreds of students fill backpacks, pack lunches, and board buses this week in preparation for a new school year, gives me hope.

While ordering an iced coffee at the Barnes and Noble cafe, somewhere between swiping my bank card and pushing a straw through the top of my drink, my gaze fell upon an unlikely text-immersed trio: a father sat with his two sons, tucked away at a corner table, settled in and content, completely engaged with the written word.  The father was taking turns between scanning the content of his magazine and marveling at his two sons who looked to be between the ages of eight and twelve.  The younger of the two, brow furrowed, concentrated on his e-reader, oblivious to everything around him.  The older one sat, stooped shoulders and eyes lit up behind the cover of the latest Alex Rider installment, silently mouthing the words and moving his finger line by line down the page, radiating sheer pleasure at getting one sentence deeper into his paperback adventure world.  As the barista completed my order, the father made eye contact.  He must have read my face, a mixture between surprise, awe and delight, because he smiled widely, matching my grin, and looked from me, back to his sons, then to me again, his eyes silently affirming, "Yes, on this Sunday afternoon my sons choose to read."  

As I walked away from the scene and into the shelves of beckoning titles, I couldn't decide if the  human tableau should leave me feeling satisfied or sad.  Seeing  a father choose to read alongside his sons on a Sunday afternoon left me hopeful about the future of the printed word and the power that teachers and parents have to support and safeguard the next generation of readers.  But the fact that this scene caught me by surprise made me sad.  Why can't I remember the last time I saw engaged readers in action (especially outside the walls of a classroom)?  And why did this scene feel extraordinary when really, shouldn't parents and children reading side-by-side be among the most simple, routine and ordinary events we encounter? 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Polishing & Pleasantries

It's a warm waiting room filled with obscure magazines, filtered water and a fake fireplace.  It's reclined, cushy seating and soft rock playing in the background.  It's the powerful taste of gritty cinnamon encasing each tooth and tickling your tongue.  It's rinsing, re-rinsing and suctioning through a tube.  It's flossing and scraping.  It's welcoming first-name-basis greetings from the friendly receptionist.  It's being punctually escorted into a sterile examining room that smells like Lysol and spearmint gum.  It's leaving 45 minutes later with a goody bag, an appointment for six months later, and a gentle scolding to use the Waterpik you invested in after the last visit.  

It's going to the dentist...and for me, it's one of life's little perks.  

Am I mad?  Masochistic?  Just plain eccentric?  I don't believe I'm any of those things.  True, I'm lucky --  I've never had a cavity, a root canal, or a painful experience in my dentist's chair.  True, I find dental hygienists to be among the most genuinely perky and pleasant people I know (especially considering they spend eight hours a day inside human mouths).  True, my dentist has salt and pepper hair, twinkly blue eyes, a charming sense of humor, and Listerine clean breath that when mixed with his cologne makes you feel a little heady without actually having to go under with nitrous oxide.  True, the photographs that line the walls of the waiting room and capture wide-mouthed smiles from exotic places - Ethiopia, Senegal, Nicaragua - a living scrapbook of third world pro bono dentistry work make the twinkly blue eyes even more compelling.  True, I get some sense of satisfaction out of having him tell me that I have impeccable oral hygiene and that he can tell I've been flossing, when truthfully I only floss once every six months (the night before my appointment) and just 48 hours before sitting in his chair for an examination I enjoyed two glasses of staining red wine, and six hours prior to the cleaning consumed two cups of coffee.  True, I go faithfully every six months for the cleaning, the conversation, and the delicious homemade banana bread they send customers home with in addition to a new toothbrush.  

Today I experienced high-quality customer service.  Today I took my mouth to the spa and left feeling clean, tingly and validated. Today, my insurance picked up the tab for "preventative care" that felt better than an out-of-pocket pedicure.  Today, I blushed as my canines and incisors received compliments.  I reclined, relaxed and unwound in my dentist's chair.  

Some girls need grand gestures - rare gems or beds of roses.  Not me.  Polishing and pleasantries from polite would-be strangers that have become bi-annual friends.  That's it.  And an invitation to sit in the chair every six months to be showered with courtesies and cinnamon paste.  

And in the meantime, in between visits, on the days when the skies are cloudy, I can't find a pair of matching socks, I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, feel fat in my favorite pair of jeans, or spy another stray, stubborn gray hair sprouting from my scalp, I will brush, floss and be thankful that my teeth haven't betrayed me.