As I Was Saying…

Chatter, memories and rants. Please, don't stop me if you've heard this one before.





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Archive for March, 2008

Did They Have to Call It “Word Processing”?

March 13, 2008

Almost 20 years ago, we bought our first computer, a Laser 128, the only Apple IIe clone that was successful as far as I remember. It came as an integrated unit with the keyboard and a disk drive (for those black 5.25″ disks) built in.

The computer came into our house pretty much over my dead body. I practiced law in those days and could sometimes feel pretty important in my three-piece suit.

Marge and Elizabeth were using computers at their respective schools and therefore had some actual information about what a computer might do for us at home. But I was having none of it. You could practically hear me harumph every time anyone raised the subject.

“What,” I asked repeatedly, “is a computer going to do for me? Why should I ever want such a thing in my home?”

“You can play games on it,” said Elizabeth.

“We already have games,” I answered.

“You can do word processing on it,” said Marge.

“Why would I want ‘processed’ words?” I asked, somehow imagining that “word processing” was to writing what SlimJims are to steak.

After a few months, of course, I relented. The equipment we bought was recommended by someone Marge knew at school and cost about $2,000. We took the components out of the boxes and put everything together. When the computer booted up and the cursor began blinking at me, I had the nearest thing to a “white light” conversion experience that I ever expect to have. It was love at first sight. Since that moment I have hardly gone a single day of my life without using a computer. A game called “Oregon Trail” quickly became one of our favorites. You can still play it the Apple II way in your web browser by going to virtualapple.org.

After two or three years, we moved to a Macintosh LCII and I took the Laser 128 to the office. It seems farfetched now, but in 1993 it was perfectly possible to run a small law office with a Laser 128. Appleworks produced documents and enabled me to build a simple client database. Quicken handled the operating and trust accounts. There was as yet no reason to be linked to the Internet.

Even today, however, I still don’t like the term “word processing.” Maybe it’s because we had a “food processor” first.

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Let Us Now Praise…Revisited

March 12, 2008

I dredged up that grad school memory yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. When I began to wonder what else the Internet had to say about the subject, I found myself reading a Fortune magazine article from 2005. This was the magazine that sent Agee and Evans to Alabama, and then declined to publish their report.

In 2005, Fortune went back to Alabama. This time the article made it into print, with the title The Most Famous Story We Never Told. Three generations removed from the summer of 1936, the families Agee and Evans immortalized have worked their way out of poverty. Younger generations are well on their way to escaping the anger the families felt about the book. The older generation is not.

Charles Burroughs, with whose family Agee and Evans lived, was a small boy at the time. Past 70 in 2005, he had neither forgotten nor forgiven “We never even got one of the damn books,” he said, “They should have had enough respect to come back afterwards. I know I would have. At least send a copy of the book.”

Leona HelmsleyMaybe it’s a class thing. We aren’t supposed to have a class system in America, but we do. Everyone knows it. Hemingway and Fitzgerald argued about whether the rich really are different from you and me, but most of the non-rich agree that it is so.

Remember Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean”? At Helmsley’s 1989 tax evasion trial, her maid testified that she once heard her boss say, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

The remark, whether Helmsley actually ever said it or not, is a good barometer for measuring your own class identification. When you hear those words, how do you feel down in the pit of your stomach? If your first thought is something along the lines of “That was a reckless thing to say. No wonder she went to jail!” your people probably don’t come from the same place my people do. If the words stir up anger and the feeling of powerlessness, then you can probably understand why Charles Burroughs is still angry.

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Let Us Now Praise…

March 11, 2008

The way my home office is set up, the wall across from me is pretty much covered with bookshelves. The books, I confess, are not in good order. Each shelf is a jumble of old textbooks, classic novels, “brain candy” novels, computer references, and so on. When I looked at the shelves this morning, however, my eye for some reason went directly to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the photo-essay classic by James Agee and Walker Evans about sharecroppers in Alabama.

My relationship with the book has always been uneasy, for reasons that have more to do with me than with the book. The copy on my shelf is a paperback edition that I bought in the ’70s for a graduate school seminar at the University of Tulsa. I wasn’t prepared for the effect the book would have on me and didn’t actually read all of it, although I did the best I could. There was something about it that attracted me and repelled me at the same time. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

In the seminar session for which the book had been assigned, I had nothing to say. I was always a talker in class, and my silence struck the professor as odd. During the half-time break, he approached me and asked why I wasn’t contributing to the discussion. By this time, however, I had a pretty good idea of what was wrong. It was intensely personal. I told the professor that the class probably wouldn’t benefit from anything I might say, but he wasn’t having any of it. He kept trying to draw me out, and by the end of the break I agreed to say what was on my mind.

Which was this:

James Agee and Walker Evans were a couple of rich boys who set out to display poverty to other Northerners of their kind in such a way that everyone could cluck their tongues sympathetically but no one would have to get their hands dirty.

In 1936, they traveled to Alabama, about a thousand miles from the environs of Harvard University, their alma mater, in order to find the noble poor. As if poverty were a Southern problem, sort of like slavery, a thing that land-owning Southerners did to less fortunate Southerners.

But other things also happened in 1936. My parents got married that year. They lived in rural Maine, about 100 miles north of Harvard. The town of Stow, Maine, was a dirt-poor place where people set each others’ broken bones and pulled each others’ rotten teeth because there was no alternative, a place pretty much in the backyard of Agee and Evans, the concerned poet and photographer who felt they had to travel a thousand miles to get a look at poverty.

My parents lived on $300 for the first full year they were married. They made their home in an unpainted two-room house without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Nobody with money gave a damn about them. For me, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was essentially a diorama of my parents’ harsh life as newlyweds, and it made me sad and uncomfortable.

By the time I was done talking, the seminar was effectively over. Perhaps the silence in the room was partly about what I had insinuated about Agee and Evans. But mostly, I think, it was about what I had revealed about myself. In those days at TU, my New England accent was the same thing as money. Money mattered a lot in Tulsa. Everyone in the class, professor included, probably assumed that I came from money and that I naturally identified with Agee and Evans. But I identified with the sharecroppers, and I still do.

There are no photos of my parents’ wedding, by the way. The picture here shows my father, my grandmother, and three of my father’s sisters as they looked in about 1930. The little girl second from the right in the picture is the only one still alive. She is now past 80. No one in the family lives in poverty any more, but that’s where we came from.

I think that if Agee and Evans had grown up the way my father did, they would have produced a very different book.

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Fun for Geeks and Travelers

March 10, 2008

I spent way too much time this morning playing with the various features available on timeanddate.com. You can use the site to find out what time it is in other parts of the world, but it will also tell you truly geeky things, such as how old you are in days, hours, minutes or seconds. The site also calculates great circle distances between many domestic and international locations and provides dialing codes for international telephone calls.

The spiffy and highly accurate clock you see at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page is available courtesy of timeanddate.com. Keep this page open to track exactly how much time you’re wasting on the computer.

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With a Lie Upon Your Lips

March 9, 2008

It’s a secret of my Yankee upbringing that I’ve always had a taste for Southern storytellers like Brother Dave Gardner. I also went to law school in Oklahoma. Maybe this is why I thought it was common knowledge that, in the great American Southwest, trial lawyer and tent preacher can be pretty much the same job.

I learned otherwise seven or eight years ago when Richard “Racehorse” Haynes came up from Texas to speak at the winter meeting of our state bar association.

I thought Haynes was in fine form that night, but the story he told got mixed reviews from the Maine lawyers who heard him. Like many southern preachers, he structured his talk around a couple of repeating phrases, the most memorable of which was, “And I asked myself, ‘What would a real lawyer do?'”

We had heard him ask himself this simple question several times when he began to tell us about cross-examining a prosecution witness in a rape and murder trial. The witness, Haynes believed, was the actual rapist/murderer; and the goal of the cross-examination had been to get a Perry Mason-style courtroom confession. After the preliminaries, Haynes had begun a series of rapid-fire questions of the sort not every lawyer can get away with.

“You forced her into your car. Didn’t you?” thundered Haynes.

“No!” croaked the witness.

“Then you raped her! Didn’t you?”

“No! No!”

“And then you killed her and threw her poor little nekkid body in a ditch and drove away! DIDN’T YOU?”

“NO! NO”

At this point, the witness clutched his chest, cried out in pain and fell out of the witness box onto the carpet in front of the bench.

“He was having a heart attack!” said Haynes, his voice rising. “And I asked myself, ‘What would a real lawyer do?’ And I got down on the carpet beside him. I pointed my finger in his face, and I said, ‘Tell us the truth before you die! Don’t you go to your God with sin in your soul and a lie upon your lips!'”

Well.

I don’t know what Haynes was expecting from his Yankee audience at that point, but it probably wasn’t the stony silence he got. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting it either. I thought Haynes had a hell of a story going and that he was telling it brilliantly. But the silence broke the rhythm. To be honest, I don’t even remember how the story ended—whether Haynes got his confession, whether the witness died on the courtroom rug.

All I remember is the Maine lawyer who turned to me and said, “You know, I once had a witness who had a heart attack on the stand. I gave him CPR. I’ve always felt that was the right thing to do.”

I agree, but Haynes had a better story.

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The Prophet in the Supermarket

March 7, 2008

1 Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.

21 Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born.
22 The children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram.

31 These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.

Genesis 10

I stood in the checkout line at the supermarket. The checkout clerk’s name tag said Sarah, a fine Old Testament name. The bagger was a Somali woman with her head covered, in keeping with her Muslim customs.

Not more than six feet away a man sat on a bench located at the front of the store. He was the sort of person with whom we learn early in life to avoid eye contact. A street person, probably homeless. In terrible health and obviously crazy.

His skin was sallow and his clothes were torn and strangely knotted together so that one emaciated arm and shoulder was exposed. In his hand he held a tattered Bible, and he seemed to be gazing into another world, talking constantly.

A schizophrenic, I thought. When I practiced law, I had a schizophrenic “client” named Jim who came to my office unannounced about four times a year, trying always to initiate legal claims against those who wronged him in the world I did not see.

The man on the bench, I thought, is like Jim. Homeless. Off his meds.

With my purchases bagged up, I was ready to leave the store when I heard some of what the man was saying. He lamented the fate of Noah’s son Shem, from whom according to Genesis all Semitic peoples, Jews and Muslims alike, are descended. Who will comfort Shem, asked the man on the bench, when 4,000 years after the Flood his descendants are still slaughtering each other?

Well, I thought, Sarah and the Somali woman seem to be getting along all right.

Today the news is filled with reports of how a radical Palestinian gunman slaughtered at least eight yeshiva students in Jerusalem. Some of the murdered students were found still clutching the books they had been studying.

Suddenly it’s a fair question: who comforts Shem today?

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The Old Man and the TV

March 5, 2008

Television came to southern Maine in 1953 with the arrival of WPMT, Channel 53, a UHF station affiliated with the long-defunct Dumont Television Network.

In hindsight, it’s safe to say that Dumont and Channel 53 were doomed from the start. By 1953, the big three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC – the usual suspects) had the VHF band sewn up. Every TV sold in those days came equipped to receive the VHF channels (2-13) but a tuner adapter and special “bowtie” antenna were required for UHF. Most of Dumont’s channels were UHF, and the network did better in markets where no VHF channels were available. Portland was such a market.

When word got out that WPMT would soon begin broadcasting, people started buying television sets. The TV my parents bought was a 21″ Zenith, with the UHF adapter for channel 53 built right into the set. This was a special selling point. Selling points were necessary because TVs were expensive. By my rough calculations, the price of the TV equaled about six of my father’s weekly paychecks. When it came to electronic devices, the old man figured that quality didn’t come cheap. And we were going to have a TV. The time had come.

But there were also other things to buy. For starters, you needed a roof antenna. The antenna had two functions: it made television reception possible, and it let the neighbors know you owned a TV set. This was a bigger deal than you can imagine now.

More expensive TVs (the 10 to 12 paycheck models) came in elaborate wooden cabinets and sat on the floor. Ours was a table model enclosed in a “natural woodgrain” cabinet with a dark mahogany finish. We needed a “TV stand” to put it on. My mother selected a three-legged model, in matching mahogany, with a swiveling top so that the TV could be turned easily.

You also needed a TV light. Popular belief was that it wasn’t good for the eyes to watch TV in a room with no light source besides the TV screen. Thus the TV light industry was born. Ours was a sort of ceramic aspidistra that provided indirect lighting for the room. The Sylvania company tried to undercut the TV light business by wrapping a fluorescent tube around the TV screen, the “Halo Light.” The old man’s brother, my Uncle Alfred, bought a Sylvania. For the record, and probably under the influence of the old man’s burning sibling rivalry, I always thought the Halo Light was a stupid idea badly executed.

Anyway, for television viewing, you were to position yourself at a considerable distance from the TV. The rule of thumb seemed to be one foot of distance for each inch of screen size. We had a small house. To achieve the necessary 21 feet of distance, it was necessary to sit in the kitchen to watch the TV in the living room. My parents soon tired of this, and we began watching from the living room. There was no talk at all of the 21 feet after I spent a week on the couch watching TV as I suffered through mumps or measles or something. Once I was recovered, the old man claimed the couch and did his TV watching from there ever after.

With only one channel, you had no choice of programming. You were watching TV or you weren’t. The whole concept of watching a particular program came after the arrival of competing channels. So, we watched what came on. There were some surprises for me, too. For example, despite their New England prejudices against Catholicism, my parents hung on every word from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on “Life is Worth Living.”

Bishop Sheen, by the way, sometimes really was worth listening to. One of my favorite Sheen anecdotes is this:

A heckler asked Bishop Sheen a question about someone who had died. The Bishop answered, “I will ask him when I get to heaven.”

The heckler then said, “What if he isn’t in Heaven?”

The Bishop replied, “Well then, you ask him.”

Other TV preachers got less respect in our house. My mother, for example, reserved a special animus for Billy Graham. I was never exactly clear about the reason for this, but it seemed to have something to do with his hair and with the way he “slapped” the Bible when he was preaching.

There was also Oral Roberts. In later years, Rev. Roberts went more or less legit and founded a university and so forth. In the 1950s, however, he was a TV faith healer. His show was broadcast on Sunday afternoons.

One Sunday, we watched as Roberts turned to the camera and spoke directly to his television audience. What he said was to the effect that home viewers could be healed by touching their TV set with the afflicted body part while Roberts delivered himself of a prayer of intercession.

When he heard this, the old man was off the couch in a heartbeat. He unfastened his belt, dropped his pants and backed up against the TV screen.

“Let’s see what the sonofabitch can do for these piles,” he said.

Not much, as it turned out. Coincidence perhaps, but the old man never liked TV much after that.

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Mushy Peas? Just Say No

March 4, 2008

People in the U.K. endure a lot of comments about their food. IMHO, not all such comments are undeserved. The comedian Mike Myers, for example, is alleged to have said, “My theory is that all of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.” He may have been envisioning a haggis-based scenario like this:

Scot #1: Now, laddie, are ye worthy to call yourself a Scot? I dare ye to eat this oatmeal mixed with sheep heart and liver.
Scot #2: Aye, I’m eating it…(chews and swallows resolutely)
Scot #1: Now I’m adding the sheep lungs. Are ye with me, laddie?
Scot #2: Aye…(chewing slows)
Scot #1: Now, laddie, we boil it up inside the sheep stomach and add a bit o’ this and that…
Scot #2: (face fades to green)…um, is it too late to change my mind?

The Mitre Pub, 24 Craven Terrace,  Bayswater, London,  W2 3QHSomething similar must be going on in England. It’s the only explanation I have for the mushy peas, a staple of pub food and apparently a traditional accompaniment to fish and chips.

I was sitting in The Mitre Pub in London with Marge and Elizabeth when Elizabeth and I decided to share a plate of fish and chips. The menu said something about mushy peas, but we didn’t know what that meant and didn’t pay much attention.

In due course, the fish and chips arrived at our table, looking pretty much like what you see in the picture. I’d like to say that the green of the peas was less fluorescent, but that wouldn’t be true. I have no idea how that green was achieved. Fish, chips and mushy peas...Artificial coloring seems the obvious explanation, but I really don’t know. The color, however, was only the first of three surprises for us.

I took a small forkful of the peas and was astonished to find they were served cold! Then the peculiar taste began to register, but what was it? What was it? It took us some time to figure it out. The flavor was mint!

On the flight home, I asked the English woman seated next to me about mushy peas. She drew a deep breath and explained how the things are made. You soak dried peas overnight in water mixed with what she called “a tablet of bicarbonate of soda.” Then you boil them for two or three hours, until they have cooked down to mush (hence the name). Then you add butter, salt, pepper and mint.*

She made a face and confessed that she hated mushy peas. I’m with her.

MEMO to self for future trips to London: when they offer mushy peas, just say no.

_____________________

* This explains the consistency and taste, but not the toxic waste color!

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Of Communion and Canoes

March 3, 2008

The outdoor chapel at Pilgrim LodgeDuring church yesterday, the excited voice of a toddler filled the sanctuary several times. The little girl’s mom and dad faced the usual parental dilemma of deciding at what point the rights of others not to be disturbed trumped their own desire to attend worship, but I don’t know if they left before the service was over or not. By the time Communion was being served, something in those joyous cries had transported me back to September of 1982.

Our daughter Elizabeth was two that year. Marge and I had taken her to Pilgrim Lodge for a weekend of family camping with a group of people from our church. I wasn’t a natural as a family weekend camper. In all honesty, I had tried everything I could think of to get out of going. But there we were.

The weekend was planned and organized way beyond my capacity to enjoy group activities. There was no “down” time and no privacy. Every minute was scheduled. I soon found refuge in the kitchen, however, where a fellow malcontent and I ran the dishwasher. The noise level was such that conversation was impossible and therefore unnecessary. For about 45 minutes after each meal I was not required to interact with anyone, and this pleased me. Even better, I was actually receiving thanks for my willingness to tackle such a dirty job meal after meal. I could barely suppress a smirk.

On Sunday morning, everyone gathered for outdoor worship in the little chapel shown in the picture. During the service, Marge and I took turns holding Elizabeth who, despite the length of the service, was behaving perfectly. The man who was offering the sermon was someone I admired for his dedication to our church and for the good things he did in our community. As the minutes ticked by, however, I began to see that he didn’t know how to end his little homily. I mean, he really, really didn’t know.

You may remember that old movie, The Way We Were. In about half a dozen places, the camera pans back, the music swells, and you just know you’re about to see the closing credits. But then it doesn’t end. This sermon was like that. Just as I would be tying the threads of it together in my mind, the thing would sputter and skip and start up again in a whole new direction.

Those of a more fundamentalist religious persuasion than my own might suggest that the Devil began to lay claim on me at that point, but I prefer to think of it as sweet inspiration. I had already toyed with the vague notion that if Elizabeth couldn’t sit still and be quiet we would have to take her out so that she wouldn’t disturb other people. But she sat in my lap behaving perfectly—quiet, still, adorable. Relentlessly adorable, it began to seem to me. If only she would act up just a little. If only. Then it came to me, and I began whispering quietly into her ear.

“Elizabeth,” I said, “if you make noise, we’ll have to leave.” She remained silent.

“If you can’t sit still, Elizabeth, we won’t be able to stay to the end.” She didn’t move a muscle.

So much for subtlety. My little girl was a model of rectitude and was not going to be tricked into misbehaving. I thought for a minute, and the answer came to me.

“Elizabeth,” I whispered, “if you make noise so that we can’t stay here to the end of the service…we’ll have to go for a canoe ride right now.”

For a moment or two, her innocent mind grappled with this proposition. Then she threw back her head and let out a yell, and another, and another.

I leaped to my feet, holding Elizabeth in my arms, doing my best to look embarrassed and mouthing concerned apologies for the disruption to those around me. Once outside the chapel, we practically ran to the canoe.

On the lake a few minutes later, we were enjoying the languid September morning.

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