How Helen met Cliff

Today would be the 75th wedding anniversary of my grandparents Cliff and Helen. In the oral history of her life, Helen talked about how she met Cliff:

I was nineteen when I met him. He asked me if I was twenty-one and I said no. He was twenty-seven, so he was an older guy. I met him at a dance ballroom. In Baltimore, at Gwynn Oak Park, they had a ballroom and an orchestra there and it was fancy. I had gone with my girlfriends. About three of us would go to these USO dances and we would never, ever give anyone our phone number, and we would never let anyone take us home.

After I met Cliff, I danced with him quite a few times. He asked me where I lived, and at that time I lived with my girlfriend, her name was Bertha Mae. She had been my next-door neighbor in Elkins and we had been in the senior play together. I met Cliff, I think it was in August, and over that winter we danced in several of the USO dances. He asked, ‘Are you ever going to give me your phone number?’ And I’d say, ‘Nope. We just don’t do that.’ Then, around Christmastime, another fancy place had a dance. It was called the Alcazar. We were there and I saw my girlfriend dancing with Cliff and I thought, ‘Where’d she find him?’ So I danced with him. And after a few more times of this, he said, ‘How am I ever going to get to know you if you don’t give me your phone number?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘My intentions are honorable.’ [laughs] What do I say then? So I ended up giving my phone number. I didn’t know what to say. So he’d call and we’d go to movies.

It was a very small wedding. Some of his friends in the Army were there. I was taking a huge chance, wasn’t I? He was straightforward. He said just what he thought. He didn’t gloss over a lot of things and pretend they were better. I thought he was a gentleman. And Cliff had a good voice. When dancing, he always sang, ‘cause he knew every song there was.

It seemed like he filled a vacancy in our family. It was the first Christmas without Jake. But that’s when he asked me to marry him. And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, whoa!’ I hadn’t even thought of that, so I said no. But he kept asking me. He wanted to tell my folks and I said no because I knew that they wouldn’t go for that at all. He was at Fort Meade in Maryland and he was being transferred to Nashville, so that’s probably what stepped up this thing. He sent me a ring from Nashville. I was going to go down for a visit in Nashville over Valentine’s Day in February. He kept calling me and finally said, ‘Why don’t you just buy a one-way ticket. Let’s get married.’ So that’s what happened. My mother and dad did not want me to get married. Not at all. But that was the first time I ever did anything that was against their… Well, Cliff just seemed like a nice person. A good person. The Lord was watching out for me, believe me. He was just a gentleman. He had a lot of empathy for people. My mother liked him. My dad never really said anything for a while. It seemed to her, I think, that he sort of took Jake’s place. It seemed like it filled a void there. It just worked. But she thought I was too young. And I know that, I realize that. I was just very fortunate.

Not a proper typewriter

Among my blog’s available stats are search terms people used that brought them to my site. One recent search made me chuckle: “smith corona corsair not a proper typewriter”

This most likely brought them to my post Cursing the Corsair. Let me tell you, I’ve called my Corsair far worse things than “not proper”.

My favorite notetaking apps

C.J. Chilvers wrote about the pros and cons of popular notetaking tools. Out of the four he features—Apple Notes, Evernote, Ulysses, and Bear—I have used two previously, and none currently. So, having already examined my favored podcasts and newsletters, here’s a look at the tools I do use and why I use them.

Paper

The once and future king of all notetaking apps. I keep a plain, pocket-sized Moleskine in my backpack for odds and ends, a larger journal as a daily diary and scrapbook (previously a Moleskine classic hardcover and currently a Zequenz 360), and a good ol’ composition notebook for my filmlog.

WorkFlowy

Dynamic, lightweight list-making with blessed few bells and whistles. Perfect for hierarchical thinking, tasks, and anything else you can put into a list. It’s built for marking tasks complete, but I use it mostly as an archive for reference, split between Work and Personal. Plus a To Do list at top for quick capture of tasks.

Simplenote

Good for taking quick notes in plain text. I often use it for first drafts of blog posts, taking book notes, and whatever else I need a basic text editor for. Helpful when trying to remove formatting from text you want to paste cleanly elsewhere—”text laundering” as I call it. Clean, simple, works well on the web and mobile.

Google Drive

For when Simplenote isn’t enough. Good for collaboration and as a document repository. Among other things my Logbook spreadsheet is there, as are lots of work-related docs, random files shared with my wife, my archive of book reviews, and my Book Notes doc filled with (at present) 121 single-spaced pages of notes and quotes from 108 books.

Apple Reminders

Used mostly for sharing shopping lists with my wife, because it’s easy to regenerate lists from completed items. Unfortunately it doesn’t sync well between devices without WiFi, which is a bummer when we’re out shopping.

Google Calendar

Google, don’t you ever get rid of Calendar. I mean it. Some former Google products had it coming, but you’re gonna ride or die with Gmail and Calendar, ya hear?

Dropbox

Essential for quick and easy file backup. Through referrals and other incentives over the years I’ve accumulated 5.63 GB in free storage on top of the 2 GB default. I’m using over 95% of it.

Going to the movies is a gift

As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.

Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:

  • I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
  • I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
  • I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
  • I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.

(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)

My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.

I can certainly sympathize with the people driving away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.

For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.

The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”

A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.

Sunday in the living room with Olympia

Spent one of our last pre-baby Sundays repairing a typewriter, watching Jeopardy, and enjoying the snow. This caseless Olympia SM4, owned by a friend of a friend, was rescued from their deceased relative’s basement. It’s in fine shape mechanically. Just needed its metal polished, body scrubbed, innards dusted, and ribbon replaced. Now is (almost) as good as new:

Four quotes from The Overstory

Here are four context-free quotes I like from The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book I’ve only just started and am not sure if I’ll even finish:

“Makes you think different about things, don’t it?”

“Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything.”

“A tree is a passage between earth and sky.”

“They can’t believe a kid worked for months on an original idea, for no reason at all except the pleasure of looking until you see something.”

A modest grand bargain

Charles C. Camosy has a modest proposal—a “grand bargain to save the planet and call truce in the abortion war”—that triggered my Pragmatic Centrist Solution alarm. This alarm seems to go off only for ideas that sound great, would help a lot of people, but will never, ever get through Congress:

Democrats get a Green New Deal in exchange for a law that mirrors Portugal’s abortion policy. Under a law passed in 2007, Portugal bans the procedure after 10 weeks (with significant exceptions) and requires a three-day waiting period.

Democrats may balk at this proposal, but the current pro-life majority of the Supreme Court could well create law that is even more restrictive — for which they would get nothing. Plus, it would take the political wind out of pro-life sails for years, as most Americans would think that they got more than enough. It may even be the beginning of the end of the abortion wars, which have disproportionately helped the GOP.

Republicans (though many are quite eco-friendly) could also balk. But there is almost no legislative chance for a dramatic change to U.S. abortion policy without some kind of grand bargain. My proposal would test just how important pro-life priorities are for GOP leadership. Do they care more about neoliberal economics or about justice under law for prenatal children?

It would also test just how strongly Democrats believe that climate change is on the verge of causing catastrophe. If the lives of millions hang in the balance, adopting Portugal’s abortion policy ought to be an easy decision. Does Democratic leadership really believe in an existential threat from climate change or is a 10-week limit on abortion the real end of the world for them?

I look forward to this becoming law in my dreams.

How to help someone use a [insert frustrating digital device]

Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
  • Be aware of how abstract your language is.

As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.

Agre has advice for these situations too:

  • Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.

Oh boy, can I criticize a bad interface…

Making Migrant Mother

You probably know of Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” (aka Florence Owens Thompson), an icon of the Great Depression. Perhaps you don’t know, as I didn’t, just how much the photo was staged and later altered.

Evan Puschak of the video series The Nerdwriter breaks down the photo’s origin, the alterations (ghost thumb!), and the other photos from the session (h/t Kottke):

My favorite podcasts right now

After examining my current newsletter situation, I thought it would be a good time to look at the podcasts I’m into right now.

I say “right now” because since my September purging, I’m constantly looking for reasons not to follow a podcast. (For the record: I use Apple Podcasts, and I never increase the audio speed.) There have never been more to choose from. It’s a good problem to have, but the need for discernment has never been higher. Even with the ones I do follow, I don’t feel obligated to listen to every episode.

So these are the ones I’ve stuck with, that bring me joy or enrich my soul or challenge my mind or lighten my mood:

Regular Listens

Filmspotting, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Judge John Hodgman, On Being with Krista Tippett, Armchair Expert, This American Life

Depends On The Guest

Typology, WTF with Marc Maron, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, ID10T with Chris Hardwick

Depends on the Subject

The Rewatchables, The Bill Simmons Podcast, This Movie Changed Me, Ask Science Mike, Slate Political Gabfest, The Liturgists, The Big Picture

What are yours?