My Binary Life

Someone was ranting on the radio today. That’s not unusual, of course. But what caught my attention was the subject of the rant. “I blame computers,” the ranter said. “It’s all this TV and video games and computers that’s ruining the kids. There’s no creativity.”

And that got me thinking.

First of all, full disclosure: I’m a geek. Specifically I’m a Mac geek. I love me some computers. And I firmly believe that my computer is a tool that makes me more creative. When it’s not completely wasting my time. God knows I’ve spent many an hour tweaking my configuration  and searching for a better way to do whatever I should be doing and developing intricate systems for managing my tasks and generally procrastinating with the full aid and comfort of my computer. And that’s the thing: if you want to waste time, your computer is the ultimate enabler.

But when you want to get things done, the computer is your best friend. I have used mine to manage my writing, make my photos look AMAZING, produce music and make a multitude of other creative endeavors possible. I update my blog, post pictures on the web, distribute my music and keep up with friends all over the world thanks to my computer and a ridiculously high speed internet connection.

I frankly don’t know what I’d do without computers. Or how I lived without them.

I can actually remember life before computers. My baby sister, who just turned seven, has never lived without one. She was a couple years old when she first crawled into the computer chair and started banging on the keyboard. By the time she was four she would announce that she needed to check her email; and then she would crawl into the computer chair and bang away on the keyboard.

This year I set her up with her own email address (linked to my parents’ address for safety, of course). It’s a riot to get an occasional email from her. They almost always end with “The End” followed by a P.S.

My first experience with a computer was in middle school, on the Tandy TRS80. Or, as it was lovingly dubbed by many, the Trash80. There was a game called Hot Dog Stand, a glorious text based adventure in commerce. The idea was you ran a virtual hot dog business, and you had to learn Useful Math Skills in order to make your business succeed. If you didn’t properly implement the Useful Math Skills, your Hot Dog Stand went bankrupt and you lost. Losing looked something like this:

> You have no more hot dogs.
> _

Don’t even get me started on Oregon Trail. That game was stressful. It was a text based adventure that pitted your knowledge of history against the power of the natural elements. At stake: the VERY LIVES of your traveling companions. Talk about putting some pressure on a kid. Losing Oregon Trail was a very traumatic experience; the computer certainly didn’t break the news easily:

> Your party froze to death.
> _

We also learned some basic programming. And by basic I mean BASIC. It was amazing to me that I could put together literally tens of lines of code to do things like multiply 24 by 24. Or have the computer type out my name ad infinitum. I wrote killer apps, let me tell you. Witness the code genius that freaked the screen out on a regular basis:

> 1 Print Timothy is awesome.
> 2 GoTo 1
> Timothy is awesome.
> Timothy is awesome.
> Timothy is awesome.

And so on.

It was at our local public library that I truly fell in love with technology. It was an Apple IIGS, complete with glorious 256 color display, 1 MEGAbyte of RAM and the power of 16 bit processing. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know is that I could play a text based adventure that also HAD PICTURES AND SOUND! The game was Swiss Family Robinson, which was also one of my favorite books, not to mention the 5,000 or so times that my sisters and I had watched the old Disney movie.

Oh, that game was truly amazing. Not only did it show you pictures AND describe your surroundings, you could move around the game USING THE ARROW KEYS on the keyboard. As you moved about, the pictures might change to give you clues about what you should do next. Of course sometimes it was hard to know what the right move would be.

> Look West.
> You see a bear.
> Look East.
> There is a tree with low hanging limbs. A snake is coiled around the lowest branch.
> Run North.
> The ocean is to the North. The bear has noticed you. He looks hungry.
> Shoot bear.
> You don’t have a gun.
> Pick up gun.
> There isn’t a gun here.
> Make friends with bear.
> The bear doesn’t want to be friends.
> Freak out.
> I don’t understand “Freak out.”
> Run.
> Run where?
> Run South.
> The bear has eaten you.
> _

Of course, you could always try again. And again. And again. Our library had a one hour limit on computer usage, but I’d always hope and pray there wouldn’t be anyone waiting in line so I could try JUST ONE MORE TIME. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever got to the end of that game. But I sure had a good time trying.

In between rounds of Swiss Family Robinson, I explored the Apple IIGS system software. The graphical user interface fascinated me. I was intrigued that you could click on these little pictures and open up new windows with more little pictures in them; and somehow all of this represented knowledge and information – stored in that little beige box. I really took a liking to the thing. And I became the library’s de facto IT department as a result.

Which, it turns out, is kinda the story of my life. I don’t know how many calls a week I get from family and friends asking me a question or wanting me to “come over and take a look.” And I’ve developed a bit of a mantra that has become an almost automatic response when I get those calls. It’s like a scripted dialogue.

Them: Standard computer related question. (I half listen to this part of the conversation. Seriously, I’m on autopilot for the majority of these calls.)

Me: Are you using a Mac or a PC.

Them: PC.

Me: This wouldn’t happen if you had a Mac.

If they ARE using a Mac the conversation’s a little bit different at this point.

Them: Mac.

Me: That’s odd. Have you tried rebooting.

Them: No.

Me: Why don’t you reboot the computer for me.

Them: Okay. (Sound of the famous BONG in the background as the Mac reboots.)

Them: Okay. It’s coming up now.

Me: Okay. Now try to do whatever it was you said you were doing when you had the problem.

Them: Okay. Just a second. Wait, wait. Oh. Wow. It’s working now.

Me: Cool. Talk to you later.

This may happen multiple times in the day. With the same person. And every time I ask if they’ve rebooted, the answer will be no.

Here’s the thing about the reboot: sometimes it really does fix an actual computer problem. But, more often than not, the reboot is for the user, not the computer. Rebooting makes the user I’m talking to slow down, retrace their steps and do the task the right way. It’s unbelievable how many times the person on the other end of the phone will say, “Oh. I see what I did wrong!” when I have them go through this process.

I hear a lot of people complain about computers. Many see them as annoyances, however necessary they might be. Some see them as unnecessary gadgetry that stands in the way of getting any real work done. And others, like the ranter I heard this morning, blame them for the downfall of western civilization.

Me, I think computers are as useful as you let them be. I happen to love mine. Whether I want to get things done or just kill some time, chances are I’ll be using a computer to accomplish either goal.

Telling Stories

I was thinking today about how we in “the business” often refer to our pieces as stories. It’s an odd name, when you think about it. But I still like it better than the other common name we give our work: article. While story is, perhaps, a bit of a misnomer (it’s not fiction, after all; at least, in the newspaper biz, it better not be), it avoids the cold impersonality of the word article.

Articles are simply objects that may or may not matter. They’re means to other ends and have no intrinsic value. Articles can be anything or anyone’s; there is no ownership of an article – things only get names when we make them our own.

No one every says “let me tell you my article” – no, it’s always a story when it belongs to someone.

And that’s why it’s such a heady thing to be a journalist. We are responsible for telling everyone’s story. That’s an awesome responsibility; and a wonderful privilege. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help many people tell their stories over the years. Every now and then, I go back and read those stories; I often find I’m moved all over again – both by the story itself and the great honor to be asked to tell it.

I love writing. I love hearing stories; and I have a blast telling them.

First Taste of Fall

The morning after a rain is one of my favorite times. It’s like the world has cleansed itself, rinsed away the heat and dust of summer and put on a new shirt. Everything is relaxed, refreshed and ready for whatever comes next. Life is filtered through a fresh perspective on days like this; anything is possible and the world is new and shiny – nothing is quite as bright rain-soaked grass in the morning.

It’s been a long, dry summer. We needed rain that never quite seemed to come – at least not like we needed it to. Summers like this remind us how connected we are to our environment; they remind us how fragile everything can be.

But then the rain comes, and reminds us how resilient we are; the summer was long, the rain short-lived, but it’s enough to refresh us, to keep us going. And now, with this first, crisp taste, relief is in sight. As long, hot and dry as the summer days have been, very soon they will evaporate into the mists of cool Autumn air.

It's Not There Anymore

Today I was thinking about a place that I barely remember. It’s not that the memories themselves are hazy; there are just so few of them. I grew up in a very small town in the middle of Indiana farm land. You might say it’s a town that time forgot, but these days time has a better memory than it used to.

It’s the same town where my father spent his boyhood. Dad grew up in the 60s; and by the time I was in grade school, the town he knew had become a shadow of itself. But even in shadow, some silhouettes are more clearly defined than others; and in our small town, there were edges that had not yet completely blurred into the dark mass we call what used to be.

Ruch’s Confectionary was one of those edges – a long, tall building with heavy, creaking doors and display windows stuffed with toys, games and advertising displays that had gone out of date ten years ago. The “Open” sign was only turned occasionally, whenever Mrs. Ruch felt like being there.

Dad used to talk about taking a break from his paper route to sit in Ruch’s and drink an ice cold Coca Cola and eat a bag of barbecue chips. It sounded like heaven. So, one summer day, I decided to take a break from my own paper route and enjoy a Coke and a snack. The open sign was turned – Mrs. Ruch was in and I was in luck.

I pushed the door open with both hands and sauntered to the soda counter. Sitting on an old high stool I gazed around and took in the shelves that ran floor to ceiling. They were packed solid with merchandise I barely recognized. Trinkets, games and toys lined the walls and even fell onto the floor; the smell of mildew stung the air and I felt as if I was trespassing time itself.

I sat and waited for Mrs. Ruch to make her way to the counter and wondered if I was allowed to be here. I felt as if I had stepped into a scene never written for me; I was a stranger in time. I had no business here. Almost as a protest, I ordered a Coca Cola and a bag of chips when Mrs. Ruch shuffled in from the back room. I sat in silence and tried to imagine what it must have been like before the air went stale — before the life began to slowly fade into the shadows.

The Grand Adventure

I don’t have the foggiest clue what this is going to be about. This happens to me sometimes, I just start writing with no idea what’s going to come of it. It’s like jumping in the car with no idea where you might end up. You just take off – windows down, radio up, speeding off into an overused metaphor.

I’ve often found myself comparing writing with driving; and, for some reason, when I write I really do feel like I’m moving. Perhaps it’s the sense of adventure I get when I start putting words together – I see these sentences and ideas taking shape and becoming something that didn’t exist seconds ago. Suddenly, I’m swept away into this world of my own invention. It’s a place populated by my imagination; nothing and no one is here without an invitation. My mind races through this brand new world of its own accord, carrying me along for the ride.

I write a lot of fiction – short stories, a play, I’ve even tried my hand at screen writing. I’d start writing, usually in the evening, and, often, I wouldn’t stop until dawn. As I worked, I’d find myself pushing back from the desk, standing up to stare at the computer screen from a different angle. I’d pace the room with my fingers in my hair, reading a print out of the last few pages, so excited about what would happen next that I could barely sit still long enough to write it.

Needless to say, it took a lot of energy to finish a project.

I’ve found that creativity is almost a possession; the work takes over, and you’re not your own again until it’s done. For better or worse, you’re bound to culminate the idea or it will never let you be. It may sound a little scary, but it’s the biggest thrill in the world.

So, when I sit down to write with no idea what’s going to happen, it’s electric. I know I’m in for the ride of my life and there’s no telling where I’ll end up.