How the other half lives

Steve DeLassus e-mailed me with a computer question. I think he just wanted someone to confirm whether his reaction was right. And it really got me thinking hard.
Friday night after work, I drove up to north St. Louis to help out an acquaintance with a computer problem. For those of you not familiar with St. Louis, north St. Louis ain’t Beverly Hills. It’s not East St. Louis, but I’ll just say this and move on. In my neighborhood, it’s very rare to find a house for $165,000. If you do, it’ll be a one-story. If it has any kind of a yard, it’ll be a two-bedroom house. If it doesn’t have much yard, it’ll be a three-bedroom. In north St. Louis, for $165,000 you can buy an entire city block.

I went up there to install a USB card in her system so she could use her new multifunction printer. She’s a teacher, and she’s taking correspondence courses to get her doctorate, so she needs to be able to send and receive faxes.

The computer is an old Cyrix. I didn’t pay much attention to the clock speed. It runs Windows 98, which means she bought it in 1997 or 1998. It’s adequate for what she does, which is mostly word processing. She told me flat out that the chair I was sitting on cost her $10 at a nearby second-hand store. That’s where she gets all her furniture, she said. She obviously has a good eye, because her stuff matches pretty well. Her desk was $35 in a package deal. She bought it off someone who was moving.

I didn’t really feel sorry for her. I admired her, in reality. Spending her money wisely like that, she won’t have to shop like that much longer unless she chooses to. She may choose to. She may choose to teach in an area that won’t pay her enough to ever afford anything else. But she’ll be doing it for the reward of knowing she’s doing something to make a difference.

I installed the card and left the case open in case anything went wrong. I booted the system, then Windows found the card and dutifully loaded a driver for it. Then I plugged in the printer. It recognized the printer and asked for a driver. I fed it a driver and printed a test page. It worked fine. I was happy.

I closed the case back up. I booted up again and configured the device’s fax subsystem. She told me she paid $1,000 for this computer (complete) at a time when the best price she could find on anything in a store was $1,500. She was glad you can get something now for $799. She wasn’t angry or bitter about it; she was happy that the people buying a computer today didn’t have to stretch their budgets as much as she had to.

I told her that even if a person had as little as $200 to spend, they can get something these days. It’ll be used, but it’ll be something. She was glad to hear it. Even in America, where everybody’s supposedly rich, there are people who can’t afford anything more than a $200 computer.

I remember now when I was in Farmington, New Mexico, back in 1999 or 2000. I went in to a used computer store down there, and in addition to new systems, they also were selling used systems. I saw a 386SX powered on in a corner, running DOS. It had 4 megs of RAM and a 40-meg hard drive. The price on it was $100. Of course, a faster 386 or a 486 cost a bit more. I saw someone buy one while I was there. I was shocked, because in south St. Louis–most of St. Louis, for that matter–you couldn’t give those kinds of computers away, let alone get somone to give you a hundred bucks for it.

Meanwhile I listen to spoiled yuppies complaining about how anything less than 1 GHz isn’t a real computer.

It makes me sick.

Recovery, Day 5.

I didn’t go see Emily on Wednesday night. Instead I went to see From Hell with my friends Jeanne and Tom. The theory it presented was interesting, but anyone who knows anything about Jack the Ripper knows it played awfully fast and loose with the facts. I can’t say much more without spoiling it. I’d have gone to see it just because of my fascination with Film Noir, but From Hell seemed to me like an excuse to show a bunch of closeups of Johnny Depp and shots of Heather Graham dressed up like people imagine turn-of-the-century prostitutes looking. In other words, too much oogle and not enough plot. I think the directors realized this wasn’t enough, so they added a sex scene and a few female-female French kisses. And of course lots of blood. I’d have preferred a less-predictable storyline and a little more intrigue.
Sleepy Hollow played way fast and loose with the story it was based on, but somehow it seemed more compelling to me.

But I didn’t come here to be Gene Siskel.

Last night, Emily was out of ICU. She looked really good. Her color was back, she’d had a chance to wash the blood out of her hair, and a lot of the cuts on her face had healed. To me, it looked very possible that she’d escape this without any noticeable scars on her face. The tubes and wires were gone, and she was sitting up on her own, moving around, and talking. Man, was she talking. She’s been eating solid foods. Someone slipped her some Taco Bell after lunch Thursday, and she had McDonald’s on Wednesday. Apparently they’re having a festival in Millstadt this weekend and she’s a bit bummed she won’t be able to go to it. “Chili and snoots. That really sounds good. Especially snoots. That’s my favorite.”

She turned to me. “You like snoots?” she asked.

“I’m gonna feel real stupid for saying this, but I don’t know what snoots are,” I said.

“Pig snouts,” she said.

I think she enjoyed the look on my face. “They’re good,” she said unconvincingly. “You ought to try some.”

I think I’d rather take up vegetarianism again.

Then her uncle and Norm, one of my congregation-mates, started talking about other–ahem–delicacies. They asked Emily what she thought of pig’s feet, liver, tongue, brain, blood sausage, and head cheese. She turned her nose up at most of them. When she didn’t turn her nose up, she gave commentary instead: That’s just gross.

Then they started talking about their experiences with Rocky Mountain Oysters. “I’ll bet he doesn’t know what those are either,” one of them said, nodding in my direction.

Emily turned and looked straight at me. “Bull balls,” she said nonchalantly. I shuddered and made a face. She seemed to enjoy that.

What can I say? I’ve lived a sheltered life.

I’m mostly glad to have seen her looking and acting like her old self. That’s worth a lot of laughs and gross-outs at my expense.

She gets to go home today.

Recovery, Day 3.

I saw Emily again last night. My heart sank a little when they said at the front desk she was still in ICU, but Emily was a lot better yesterday. She was much more alert, and I saw her give a couple of people dirty looks, including me. She talked about the people who came to see her. She remembered me coming to see her, but she thought it was during the day rather than Monday night. Narcotics do that, and she’s still on strong stuff. I’m surprised how much she remembers from yesterday, but I doubt she’ll remember a whole lot a week from now. I know when I’ve messed myself up seriously, codeine seriously killed the flashbulb effect, and she’s on stronger stuff than codeine.
She was still in ICU, but it had nothing to do with her. They had a busy evening in the ER, so they didn’t have adequate available staff to move her. I heard some rumblings she may get to go home Thursday.

Hmm. There’s more to say but it’s late and I’m tired after having just spent all night on the phone. But I think I can sum most of it up in this. On Monday, I saw someone who was vulnerable. On Tuesday, I saw a fighter.


I went and saw Emily last night. She was beat up, but not as badly as you’d expect someone who’d been thrown from a car to be. She was still in ICU because they’re worried about her spleen. She was in pretty good spirits considering everything she’d been through in the past 36 hours.
I mentioned to one of my coworkers that I was going to the hospital after work to see a friend in ICU. She said those kinds of visits were hard. I guess they are, but I’ll take an ICU visit over a funeral visitation any day. Maybe it’s hard to know what to say, but I guess I’ve found it doesn’t matter too much. Look at Job. Job lost everything, then was struck with leprosy, so then he went out to the town dump and sat there. His three friends went out there to be with him and spent a week there with him, without a word. Then when they finally did speak, they said, “You idiot!”

During those times, I think it’s good to remember the words of Mark Twain. If God had wanted us to talk more than we listen, he’d have given us one ear and two mouths.

I looked into her eyes and saw someone who’s fighting, but she’s tired, frustrated, and impatient. What I didn’t see was someone at the end of her rope. I could tell she looked into my eyes and saw someone who cared. I didn’t really have to say much else.

Revisiting my childhood

Yesterday morning I needed my checkbook. I pulled it out of my desk drawer and set it on my chair for safekeeping. Then something else crossed my mind for a minute, distracting me. Then I remembered I needed my checkbook. I turned back to my open desk drawer, dug around for it, and got frustrated. Where else could my checkbook be?
I proceeded to do an archaelogical dig through that desk drawer. Beneath the mending kit I’d torn my apartment apart looking for a few months ago and a big unopened box of staples, I found a St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports section dated Sept. 18, 1988. Yeah, I know.

I also found my Swatch.

Swatch watch
Swatch is still around. The 1980s Swatch watches we wore were more garish than this one. I would have liked this one in the ’80s but it wouldn’t have made me cool.

Yeah, a Swatch. Remember those? Bright-colored plastic Swiss-made watches. I remembered their slogan: The New Wave in Swiss Watches. Well, my Swatch certainly looks New Wave. With its bright red plastic band and black body, with doses of blue and yellow tossed in, it could have come straight off the cover of a pop album of the time.

I’d forgotten I ever even had one of the things. But of course I had one. Everyone did. I told my buddy Sean about my find after church. “Oh yeah! I used to wear three of ’em at once!” He raised his arm and drew an imaginery line with his other hand, grinning. He was cooler than me in the ’80s, I see. Then another GenXer piped in, talking about her Swatches, while a couple of bemused Millennials tried to figure out what we were talking about. Next thing we knew, we were talking about Atari and Smurfs and everything else imaginable. I think they thought we were weird.

Just between you and me, I don’t think I blame them. It seems silly now the big deal we made about these things. It wasn’t enough to just have the watch, after all. No, you had to outfit it with guards and other stuff. We told our parents it was to keep the watch from getting scratched. But secretly, we all knew the idea was to make sure your Swatch didn’t look anything at all like anyone else’s.

The original Swatch Guard was this molded rubber thing, brightly-colored of course, that blocked your view of the time. This was a brilliant maneuver on the part of the company, because you’d shove the guard out of the way so you could read the time, and before long, it would snap and you were off to the store to pay another $3.50 or whatever for another molded rubber band. Then there was the Guard Too (at least that’s what mine says on it), which covered the outside rim and actually did afford some protection. A lot of people would outfit their Swatch with a Guard Too, then they’d buy several of the original guards, in different colors of course, and twist them together. The additional bright colors made you visible from another mile or so away and definitely made you look cooler, but then you never knew what time it was.

I seem to recall other companies realized they could mold rubber bands just as easily, undercut the price of the real thing, and still turn a nifty profit. Knowing myself, I’ll bet my guard was a cheap third-party imitation.

I also noticed it doesn’t work anymore. The battery probably died well over a decade ago. Not that it matters much. Swatches were never about knowing what time it was anyway.

Then I turned around and saw my checkbook lying on the chair.

Father’s Day and wrist injuries

Father’s Day… Go find your dad and thank him. If he’s not around anymore, like mine, remember the things he taught you. And use them.
Down again. I can’t say it any better than Ecclesiastes 3:1,7: “There’s a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven… A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak up.”

I did too much yesterday. Lots of tearing, little mending. So now it’s time to be quiet.