Sunday, April 18, 2010

Another Day in the Life of a Techie

Each day there is a new letter in my mailbox from the health insurance company. It is part of our cultural birthright to detest bills in the mail, but bills are predictable and very clearly dependent on our own actions. They are our responsibility to pay, no matter how much we might dream about their getting lost. These insurance company notices are different.

And, as a technophile, each day I marvel at the cool new stuff out there to capture my lust to buy things. As a cheapskate, I've found that I can earn compound interest regarding technology purchases by following my most basic rule of economic survival: don't ever buy anything (or repair anything on your car) until you absolutely must, or until not spending the money will cost more than spending it. This avoids the regret of sunken costs, such as might be incurred by purchasing a satellite radio before you discover Pandora on your smartphone. Or getting a really good deal before the better one comes out. Especially, it avoids closets full of now obsolete gadgets which seemed really useful in their day.

Think ever cheaper memory and storage costs, and ever changing standards for how to present stuff. You don't really need it. You just want it. And looking is as good as it will ever get. Trust me.

But it's always fun to look and imagine the things you could do if money were no object. It's almost unbelievable now how many wires I have coming out from my tiny new laptop, just to take advantage of all the legacy stuff I hate to throw away. An old CRT, a keyboard I once liked, the scanner my daughter got for free with her MacBook, but didn't have room for in her dorm room, the KVM switch will allows me to share files for backup purposes by seamlessly navigating to an ancient computer which still works and therefore won't grace a landfill yet. I could keep going on, but you probably get the idea.

The trouble is that as a techie, I actually do spend more time trying to understand the gizmo in its context than I do deploying it for its supposed purpose. I have no use for the stuff beyond writing here, but I am fascinated by it! Take my new smartphone, for instance. There is a whole slew of stuff it simply doesn't do so well as the broken one it replaced. Some of this can be traced to new ways for the various companies involved in the transaction to make money where maybe they used to be looking for market advantage by giving away some bundled cool processes for free.

Some of this is because the new stuff was pushed out the door too fast, just to keep up with something Apple will always be able to do better. And some of it is because no company seems to employ thoughtful users like me, who are always more interested to examine all the ins and outs and logic trees. I spend more time optimizing my usage than using my devices. And, to tell the truth, I could not possibly care less about most of the stuff they seem to gear these devices toward; games and amusements and social engagement tools.

I'm a reader and a thinker and a seeker after good information, who would, however, really appreciate new and clever ways to do it better. Just like any fool embedded in our cultural certainties, I remain both surprised and disappointed when new isn't better. It's almost always better in whatever category forced the newness. The screen size, for instance, or its resolution. But it's almost always not better under the covers, ho ho.

The assumption always is that the very best person for a particular job is the one who's been hired to do it, right? Our economy rewards skill and competence. Well, or maybe it just rewards boldness and self-promotion, since I sure would never let something with my name on it go out the door with as many flaws as much new technology contains. I would never sacrifice my reputation for a few more bucks on the near side. Any good company should know this.

But I suspect that the economy generally works rather more like the economics of the health insurance industry than not. Some people would like to think that its perverse economics of screw the customer is some sort of anomaly. But it's not. Bold self promotion to take advantage of people's gullibility generally makes a lot of money.

Each time I find a new envelope from my health insurance company, I feel something more like terror than the common  dread of yet another bill. Reliably, each new envelope contains a new denial of coverage. In addition to the "contracted" amount which they have found some technical reason to deny, there is the amount I will have to pay without their bargaining power to lower it. This is terrorism, plain and simple. And still somehow I am made to feel as though this might be my responsibility for not having mastered their arcane rules as well as they have. Like I'm supposed to know ahead of time what will be paid, despite what my doctor tells me I need.

The IRS might come back at me for having done my taxes wrong, and I will be liable for the charges plus a fine. The cellphone company might ding me for usage when I cross borders which are in the sky and not clearly marked on the land. I might not have closely read some fine print I clicked off on, and be found responsible for theft of intellectual property when I do some technical manipulations to lend a friend an electronic copy of a song or a book or a film or whatever. Even though Amazon helpfully offers to lend me a hand reselling old hard-copies of stuff I buy new cheaper on my Kindle, but can never resell. Yes, new is indeed better. Newly descended responsibility and fault.

As you can see, I'm having a hard time understanding how to write, or what I'm doing up here anymore. I used to think I had something important to say, but, of course, it's more the quality of how you say it that counts, and just like when I sing Cohen's Hallelujah over and over again with my guitar, it's never going to sound very good, even if I were able to memorize it. I just don't have it in me.

But, you know, everyone needs a gimmick, right? I heard about this guy who wrote a book called the Year of  Living Biblically, or something like that. I hear he's not a great writer, but he has some kind of genuine faith now, plus a readership. And then there's Julia and Julia, and people have always done stuff like rowing boats across the Atlantic. It never works, like going into the wild, there's just nothing there to be found that can't be found inside yourself if only you know how to look.

So, I'm performing these almost daily calculations in my head about the cost to transport stuff out West where the job prospects are better. I'm pretty employable. I have quite well refined Microsoftie skills. I "get" technology and can make it work really well. Plus I'm incredibly good with security, if anybody's willing to listen (which they're usually not). I have a background as a Chinese teacher, and understand just a bit more about Chinese tradition that most Chinese do, simply because I know that culture in a comparative sense, and that's the only way really to know anything. Knowledge is dialogic, no matter what claptrap anybody tries to sell you about there being only "one truth" (I actually heard that the other day), or even only one reality.

It's all metaphorical, and there's no kind of root understanding except for the body, and these days my body isn't all that reliable either. Among my calculations is the danger to attempt existence without health insurance. It's going to run out in a few months anyhow, likely before we get sensible new regulation, since a year is almost up since I quit my last job. (quitting isn't accounted for among the "socialist" help packages on offer) I have a couple of critical medical specialist appointments in the summer just before it runs out; one for the heart, one for the lungs. But it's hard to imagine that these will actually mean anything significant for my health. The cost of them would be terrorizing without the insurance, but it's not so fun either to live in terror of your own body's possible betrayal in the first place.

Then there's the car. Already with 300,000 miles on it, it would seem a bit silly to pay to have a trailer hitch installed just to tow a trailer across the country because it's that much cheaper than to rent a truck (and pull the car on a trailer for its preservation). I don't even need a car here in Buffalo, where everything I need is within a walk. And the insurance (that insurance again!) costs a bundle. Using the car to cross the country with a trailer would surely be the end of it.

Just yesterday, I finally "disposed of" my old wooden sailboat. Both it and I have grown too old together. Her engine is beyond saving, and the cost now to own such a plaything - like the cost to pay for your own healthcare - has grown grotesque. Even were I to live aboard as I once did, the cost for the dock would exceed the cost to rent and heat a nice apartment. Not to mention hauling and painting and repairing. A boat requires a bit more critical care than a house.

Of course, I'd long since betrayed the old girl. Leaving her high and dry for seven long years while I indulged my hermetic desire to do nothing other than read, watch movies and fulfill my obligations as a good Dad. Last night late, my older daughter crowed to me that she had gotten her new laptop, and that it was totally outside of my recommendations or, apparently, even my awareness of the existence of this particular gem.

Anyone who knows me is familiar with how painful it is to ask me for a recommendation on a technology purchase. "It's all a question of money and desire, and these things I can't help you with." But I can offer pretty good orientation among the terms if you have that first part sorted out. Only Dads can know how happy it makes me to see my daughter do that much better than I could have done with or for her. (No, I'm not telling what she got - it's not relevant here!)

You know, I loved sailing when I did it every chance I could get. Down in the hold of that old boat, I achieved a kind of epiphany which has stayed with me ever since. But I lack the skill - utterly - to sing it out in any way that you will be able to stand.

So, this morning, still quite frozen from my drive last night from Canandagua, where I was invited to join as family for dinner among good friends there after having dropped off the last of the boat parts from my apartment's basement storage, I watched a movie I'd picked up according to my usual random methods. (It's easy to know what to avoid, but sometimes it's hard to know what to watch in a positive sense). Nói it's called. A bleak and frigid-to-watch film about isolation, made in Iceland, from the perspective of disaffected youth. A perspective I've never left, if you want to know the obvious truth.

My car's heater core is clogged just like the arteries (veins?) in my lungs. The cost to repair it far exceeds the value of the car. I am led to believe that I could not do it myself, although there isn't much I haven't done with cars. But having spent a few weeks recently in Seattle squirming under really old cars in the cold (I still have an occult splinter in my thumb to "show" for it, peeled from the soft metal of the car's underbelly, while muscling loose her bearings), and my body protests at the thought of any more car wrestling.

So, here's my gimmick. I have a date to transport my younger daughter back from the Big Apple at the beginning of May. She has earned an academic scholarship to a much more suitable college than the one which placed her on Manhattan, where she thought she wanted to be. As you can see, I'm bursting with pride about both of my daughters, and feel fairly confident of having discharged my responsibilities as well as can be expected (you know, given human shortcomings, the dangers out there, and all that).

Sure, they're sad to see the boat go, but as with me when Mom gave away my beagle while I was at summer camp, they also know that they never properly loved the boat. Mom thinks this harmed me somehow, and she feels guilty, but it didn't and she needn't, although it seems to be in her genes to feel guilty, so I'm glad to oblige the need. I don't want my daughters to feel guilty that they never really wanted to sail all that much. Just happy for me that I don't have that absurd lust any more. That the boat has a good new home with a fine woodworker (although it was just a bit disconcerting to find a newly cut-apart old and clearly rotten sailboat just off to the side of the spot my boat now occupies).

I'm hoping they're happy that Dad is free!

Anyhow, the car should still be worth a few bucks. And the apartment would be perfectly comfortable for anyone - say a newly divorced guy - who needs a fully equipped and non-fussy place to live on short notice. Apart from my books, there's nothing here I have a very hard time disposing of, except for the financial calculations. And these have moved into the realm of the same strangeness which makes people still love cars when "public transport" costs a small fraction of the cost to drive. My math is not nearly sophisticated enough to undertand how keeping my old stuff might make financial sense.

So, I think I'll just simply take off on foot. I have a miniature laptop and a permanent connection over the cellular grid for phone and  for voice and for internet and for texting. Shoes are pretty cheap, and I have a brand new pair. (I wonder how many miles a pair of shoes gets? Stay tuned and I'll find out!). I learned on my recent trip out West that I can live pretty indefinitely with what fits into the overhead bin on an airplane, and I never even touched half of what I'd packed, including an extra pair of shoes! Plus the weather is getting nice.

A hat, a small backpack, enough money to keep in contact and to buy a bed most nights. For my body, it's at least as good a cure as all the expensive testing they propose for it. Even buying prepared food and staying in motels with hot water and battery-charging electricity should cost a lot less than to transport all my stuff. (I never did understand the sense of driving a Winnebago when the cost to own it so far exceeds the cost to stay at the finest hotels).

Sure, flying would be the cheapest way, but I'm back to that employability thing again. I've recently discovered that nobody talks to anybody on airplanes anymore. I guess we're all afraid of one another, maybe checking each other out to see if someone's harboring a bomb or something. I figure, walking I would have a much better chance of learning stuff than by flying.

Sure, I did this once already on a motorcycle, after trying it on a bicycle (which was just nuts with all the truck traffic and hooting from cars. You make too good a target on two wheels). It wasn't the fault of the conveyance that I didn't make a whole lot of human contact from my motorcycle. It was my own damned hermetic predilection. It became more of a silent geography tour, indulging my almost incredible rapture with aloneness. It was like sailing alone in a squall. My very favorite pastime. So, I figure, walking, I'll have a better chance to be taken out of myself.

I think I have just enough money to make it West while still meeting all of my obligations. Plus, it would make a really good gimmick to get people to be interested in what I write about.

Someone will surely die along my way. It might be me, or I might have to take a few plane rides, but these can be fitted into the budget. It's not like I'll be heading out into the wild, though friends and family will likely call me crazy. I've been called that and worse before, and I've earned it! I might as well do what I'm good at.

Well, it's an idea. We'll see how close I come to pulling it off. Meanwhile, I have a script to prepare for reading at an Earth Spirit "conference" I plan to attend. I'll post it up here in case you're interested.


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