Thursday, December 14, 2017

Lighting up the night

Holiday lights illuminate more than nighttime neighborhoods. They honor as well as continue and reinvent the annual tradition.

In seasons long past, houses were outlined in single strings of large, multicolored bulbs. Then bulbs got smaller and started blinking.

Suddenly, white lights became all the monochromatic rage. Then came icicle lights, now available as LED strings with falling snow sequences.

This year, more houses have stepped into the digital age, with lighting and color changes programmed by computer and even synchronized to music.

There also has been rapid adoption of holiday projectors to supplement or supplant strings of bulbs. Instead of climbing on rooftops, homeowners just plug in and aim a laser to create a captivating light show of virtual reality decorations. No muss, no fuss, and no emergency trips to the hospital after falls from ladders.

By night, holiday displays are magical. By day, well, it depends on the house. Those with airblown inflatable lawn decorations can look pretty sad. After a night of colorful characters waving and bobbing, the deflated forms of morning are a stark contrast. It’s as if someone rampaged a polyester village and took no prisoners. Thankfully, a flick of the switch at nightfall brings everything back to life.

Years ago, I visited Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas. Everyone I told about my plans mentioned how wonderful the holiday decorations would be. It didn’t occur to me that 18th century celebrations would be everything but electric. Think candles and wreaths and, well, more candles.

Ironically, I have never decorated my home for the holidays. Lighting a menorah is about as close as I get. Still, I do enjoy the efforts of others—from candles in the window to big commercial displays. Seeing bright lights on cold, dark nights never fails to lift my spirits.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Can you be too secure on the internet?

I practice safe surfing on the web and good digital hygiene. Still, news of widespread hacks and security breaches at formerly rock-solid institutions had me wondering whether I was safe enough.

When my internet security provider offered a special deal on its SecureLine VPN, or virtual private network, I decided to give it a try.

Setting up the VPN on my computer and iPhone was easy. Understanding it wasn't. But I don't understand exactly how most technology works. I just know how to get it to work—or who to call.

Everything was going swell at first. Then strange things began to happen. I couldn't access my bank account online or through the mobile app. After a few calls to customer service and some false fixes, it occurred to me to disconnect the VPN. VoilĂ ! I was back in business.

A few days later my credit card provider called—twice, from headquarters and a local branch. There was an issue with my online login. Someone from Seattle was trying to gain access to my account. Actually it was my east coast computer being routed through a west coast VPN server that was the problem.

So...what's a cautious internet user to do? For now, I'm keeping the VPN on for most of my work. And I now know to turn it off when too much security gets in the way.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Fall clearance

Leaves are powerful things. When they change colors in the fall, they become an industry in themselves. Leaf peepers flock to New England and other parts of the country to see the vibrant colors. And they are spectacular.

For years, I pressed fall leaves to send to my folks in Florida. There they enjoyed the warm weather year-round, but palm trees have nothing on fall foliage.

I lived in New Hampshire for a time, which gave me a front-row seat on prime leaf season and its devotees. Even moving back to the Philadelphia area gave me enough colorful falls to fully appreciate the change of seasons.

Now there’s another reason I look forward to fall: I can hear satellite radio again.

I am a SiriusXM subscriber. My go-to stations are Laugh USA, BBC World Service, and E Street Radio. When I’m driving my mom, I tune to Siriusly Sinatra. When I need a change of pace, I can surf the 100+ stations available.

And when I drive tree-lined backstreets, I switch to terrestrial radio to hear local FM public radio stations.

More than just liking public radio, channels on the FM band come in loud and clear wherever I drive around town. Not so with satellite radio. There are constant dropouts driving through wooded areas, such as the state park, shortcuts into town, and various backroads that bypass the highway. Dropouts are particularly annoying when listening to satellite comedy channels, because I always miss the punchline.

All that changes when the leaves fall. Clear reception returns. It’s hard to believe something as thin and flimsy as a leaf can effectively block radio signals.

Consider how satellite radio works. A ground station transmits a digital data signal from earth, traveling more than 22,000 miles to reach two satellites in geostationary orbit, which then bounce the signal down to radio receivers on the ground. The signal is unscrambled and sent to my car radio, with instantaneous channel changes whenever I press a button.

It’s a perfect setup, until it isn’t. I don’t have a scientific explanation for the dropouts I experience under leaf cover, I’m just putting forth my observational theory. More leaves, more dropouts.

For now, all is well. The fall foliage was again spectacular this year. Now that the trees are bare, it's my satellite radio reception that's awesome.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Stand and deliver

It seems I have spent my whole career sitting on my butt. Tied to a desk. Typing on a keyboard. Telling stories.

The work of a writer is largely sedentary. The better to immerse oneself in background materials, research, and blank screens waiting for words to magically appear.

Now it’s time to take a stand. Literally. And I am doing so, thanks to my new height-adjustable sit/stand computer riser.

Standing computer desks have been around for years, but I never seriously considered one. I already had office furniture, and I didn't like the idea of standing all day. As a solopreneur, I figured I had earned my seat at the table, er, desk, and I was going to take it.

Don't even mention treadmill desks, which were a thing a while back. You don’t hear too much about them anymore; maybe it’s because better sense prevailed. Writing and walking are too dissimilar activities, with each one seeming a distraction to the other. 

So what changed my mind about working on my feet?

Sitting is being called the new smoking. “There's no running away from it: The more you sit, the poorer your health and the earlier you may die, no matter how fit you are,” reports an article in Runner’s World. While The Active Times website presents a sobering slideshow of “Ways Sitting is Shortening Your Life.” Evidence also suggests the effects of long-term sitting are not reversed by exercise or other healthful habits.

The decision to stand up for myself was further helped by product innovation, which made the choice less an either/or thing and more affordably priced. There are so many sit/stand options available today, one is surely bound to fit any specific circumstance.

I'm still getting used to my new position--and the flexibility I have to work sitting down or standing up. Just a touch of the desktop, and my computer keyboard and screen rise and fall at my command. If only my writing projects were as easy.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Boo on you

Halloween comes early in my neighborhood. September barely fades into October when mystery goblins set the Boo-ball rolling.

They wait until dark to creep to an unsuspecting neighbor's front door, where they deposit a small bag before running away undetected.

This is the start of an exponential spread of seasonal treats. Each bag contains three elements:
  1. A ghostly “Boo” sign
  2. Candies and other Halloween-themed items
  3. Directions for what to do next
Recipients are instructed to post their Boo sign and, within two days, deliver similar treat bags to two others on the street. Within our small circle of houses, it takes no time at all before every door bears evidence of being booed.

I don’t know where or when the tradition started, but it’s been going on in my neighborhood since before we moved here 17 years ago. Many of these years have coincided with election cycles, and while lawn signs promote candidates from opposing political parties, boo-meisters pay no mind what side you're on.

When it comes to Halloween, everyone gets into the spirit. Twix becomes more important than Twitter. Butterfingers over pointing fingers. Snickers instead of snickering.

Being booed is a welcome distraction at Halloween. It’s a sweet reminder about good neighbors, especially in today’s increasingly scary and gremlin-filled world.

* * *
Many websites have variations of the Boo sign and directions, including...

Monday, October 9, 2017

It’s all yoga

Yoga used to seem so exotic. So unknowable. Often undoable. Now it’s everywhere, in everything. And everyone is doing it, goats included.

I was clueless when I walked into my first Power Yoga class 15 years ago. I didn’t know what to expect or what to wear. My heavy cotton T-shirt and sweatpants proved almost fatal after the instructor turned up the heat. A friend confided she cried after every class until, a few weeks later, her body adjusted to the routine.

Now, yoga seems commonplace. It has crept into our culture, much like kale into cooking.

I stumbled across my first Laughter Yoga class while running on a Florida beach. Since it was a beach I visited every so often, and Laughter Yoga was there every Friday morning, I soon followed my curiosity and joined the group. On one occasion, I dragged along my traveling companions for what turned out to be mustache day. We all had a good laugh and, in following directions to keep our fake mustaches on, so did the waitress serving our post-class breakfast.

Yoga is an ageless pursuit. Kids yoga uses fun and simple poses to get children moving and more comfortable in their bodies. At the other end of the age spectrum, there’s Chair Yoga, which is catching on in senior communities. Kinder and gentler on the body, practiced either sitting on or against a chair, Chair Yoga is becoming a thing—and not just for senior citizens.

Then there’s Toe Yoga, not to be confused with YogaToes, the product worn to passively stretch and strengthen toes. Toe Yoga has the same purpose, but there are a series of exercises to perform, as I’m learning from physical therapy for heel pain.

Last but certainly not least—and hardest to believe—is Goat Yoga. It, too, is a thing. And it’s sweeping the country, from Oregon to Arizona to New Hampshire.

I gotta admit, I don’t quite get the allure of Goat Yoga, but then again it took me some time to acclimate to Power Yoga.

All I can say to those trying any kind of yoga is this: Namaste.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Running on empty

I have been running for about 40 years. This summer, I stopped. Heel pain made it so.

When my doctor banned running, I wasn’t unhappy. The mindless pounding out of mile after mile was getting to me. It certainly wasn’t as much fun or as free of aches and pains as it used to be. What running had become was a habit, one that lacked motivation.

On my approved exercise list were yoga, cycling, rowing, and any strength training I could do while sitting. So I trooped to the gym and reworked my workout.

I also renewed my practice in sitting meditation, and this has been the hardest exercise by far. Two years ago, I took an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I continued my meditation practice faithfully, but soon life got in the way. I eventually resorted to app-based guided meditations to keep me somewhat connected.

Then, earlier this month, I went on a week-long retreat led by the founder of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn. We engaged in sitting meditations, followed by walking meditations, followed by more sitting. There were a few sessions of lying down meditation and yoga, but sitting predominated.

What we were really doing was paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. We were cultivating awareness through non-doing, even though, we learned, nothing important was left undone.

After a week of relatively little movement or exercise, I felt rejuvenated. I realized I had been running on empty in the larger sense. Sitting and paying attention brought clarity, helping to identify what truly was on my mind—and watching these thoughts come and go.

Mindfulness is something I can apply to everything I do. Even running. All I need now is the doctor’s go-ahead, and I’ll be off exploring miles of mindfulness. Step by step. Moment by moment. On purpose.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Seeking comfort in good bakes and adorable reality

The harder it is to watch the daily news, the more I seek the TV-equivalent of comfort food. Real people making real cakes, biscuits, pies, cupcakes, tartlets—or even the French ham-and-cheese sandwich known as croquet monsieur.

All these and more are the stuff of comforting programs like “The Great British Baking Show,” which in the UK is known as “The Great British Bake Off.” Each season 12 amateur bakers compete in three areas per episode, with signature, technical, and showstopper challenges. At program’s end, one competitor is named Star Baker, and one goes home, with the process continuing over 10 weeks until a single winner emerges.

USA Today has called the show “one of the most adorable reality shows on-air today.”

Food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry and celebrity chef Paul Hollywood set the challenges, then taste and judge the results. Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins provide structure, comic relief, and the beloved countdown “One, two, three—BAKE!”

The settings are as gorgeous as the confectionery creations, always on the grounds of some castle or manor, with a large white tent providing shelter for all the action. And, yes, there can be quite a lot of action in baking shows, with cream to be whipped, eclairs to be filled, berries to become jam, dough to prove, and dozens and dozens of identical sweets to present for judging.

All the while, the clock ticks, hosts and judges hover, and proven recipes prove fickle and difficult to reproduce. Bakers can’t help but watch their creations through the oven door, often sitting on the floor and willing them to rise or crisp or lightly brown. It’s the kind of gentle tension necessary to at least temporarily forget the hostile tensions erupting all over the world.

Helping to make “The Great British Baking Show” so comforting is how pleasant and supportive everyone is: competitors to one another; hosts and judges to everyone under the tent. For bakers who shine and those who go pear-shaped (a British idiom for failing) there are hugs all around and words of encouragement.

Even when Mary finds pastry with the reviled “soggy bottom,” she praises some other element: a flavor, the presentation, a topping. Likewise, Paul will declare something a “good bake” even if the flavors don’t wow him.

Now that the current season is done, changes are underway. The series is leaving the BBC for a rival UK station, taking Paul with it—but not Mary or hosts Mel and Sue. The good news is viewers can catch up on previous seasons, both on PBS and Netflix.

And for those of you who like a little more American flavor to your bakes, watch the spin-off series “The Great American Baking Show” (previously called “The Great Holiday Baking Show”). Mary judges alongside celebrity pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, with hosting duties shared by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and husband Ian Gomez (“Cougar Town” and “Supergirl”).

Whichever version you watch, the show reverses the old adage about staying out of the kitchen if you can’t stand heat. With the way things are heating up these days, the kitchen has become a comforting place to be—especially as a spectator watching tasty treats rise to perfection.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eclipsing terrestrial strife…temporarily

Double-eclipse image using binoculars
One of the best things about the solar eclipse on Monday was it also eclipsed all the troubling news that has become a staple of our world. Instead of bombast and confrontation, there was wonder and awe.

While not in the path of totality, the Philadelphia area experienced a partial solar eclipse—79.9 percent, to be precise. And, thanks to streaming video from NASA, I was able to clearly see the sun’s corona, the eclipse “diamond ring,” and the effect known as Bailey’s Beads.   

Later, I saw photos of International Space Station silhouetted against the sun, in perhaps the best example of photobombing in our solar system.

I didn’t have the requisite solar eclipse glasses, but people on the streets of Media were generous in sharing. And even though I had seen bigger and better images from NASA, putting my eyes on the small orange disk with a bite missing was an awesome experience.

So was seeing people spilling out of offices into impromptu gatherings. One law office I passed looked more like a tailgate party, with family and friends gathering in the parking lot—all wearing their eclipse glasses. One man called to me, cautioning against looking up without the right eyewear, so I’m guessing he was the personal injury attorney at the firm.

Once home, my husband and I broke out the cardboard boxes, white cardstock, and pins. We made all sorts of pinhole cameras, which worked amazingly well. As did using binoculars to reflect a double image onto cardboard.

The short window of the partial eclipse in my neighborhood lasted about two hours and 40 minutes. Enough time to remind me about the importance of putting daily distractions into perspective and keeping the long view. Think of the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees,” then take it to an astronomical level. Or, as my mother used to say, “This, too, shall pass.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

Three’s a crowd

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Manny, Moe, and Jack. This, that, and the other thing.

The rule of three proves itself time and again. In writing, sets of three characters or events are more effective for engaging readers and telling a story.

More broadly, three examples are frequently used to prove a point.

Three things set a cadence, making the overall idea more interesting, memorable, and enjoyable. At least that’s the theory. But there’s always someone who doesn’t get the memo.

I recently received a donation thank-you letter from a local charitable organization involved in literacy. As a freelance writer, I tend to read such written materials more closely than others might. I pay attention to phrasing, grammar, and the rhythm of the language.

There was nothing wrong with the one-page letter, but it felt jarring to my ear. The rule of three went out the window. Instead, it hit hard on a diminished version—the rule of two—as excerpts below show:
  • With your involvement and backing
  • …providing open and free access
  • …to information and enlightenment.
  • …variety of materials and programs
  • …that you and your fellow patrons
  • …our lively and exciting summer schedule
  • utilizing and supporting
And there are more examples, but you get the point. None of these, individually, sends up a red flag. But after a half-dozen, they begin to stand out. At least to me.

I don’t know why the writer so heavily favored pairs of examples instead of the more common sets of three. Maybe three really is a crowd. Or maybe I’m overthinking this. I'm guessing the latter.

So, here is my delayed response to the thank-you letter: You’re welcome.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Call me a victim

I am happy never to have been a victim in my life. Except for the two times when I chose to be. And those I thoroughly enjoyed.

As a non-medical volunteer for the Medical Reserve Corps, my greatest contribution has been playing a victim in emergency training exercises. So far, I’ve been in an airplane explosion and a train wreck—at least those have been the scenarios. I’ve also had some nasty-looking but not life-threatening injuries, thanks to the moulage makeup added for high-fidelity realism.

My first experience had me laying on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport, in 2014, waiting for medical attention. The critical patients were carried away first, by stretcher. Then it was my turn. With my dislocated shoulder, abrasions, and crushed hand (with third-degree burns), I was strapped onto a stretcher and loaded in an ambulance. Inside, I was miraculously cured and scampered away. 

Most recently, I spent a beautiful Sunday morning at the SEPTA Media station in a scenario where a train and a car met on the tracks. There were bad outcomes for the dummy in the car (an actual training dummy) and several passengers. I was lucky, just suffering burns and abrasions on my arms. With a mix of silicone, pigmented creams, and fake trauma blood, my arms soon looked like they’d been through the wringer. My only discomfort was minor, and that came when it was time to pull off the silicone-backed wounds.

The hardest part of playing the victim is all the moaning and groaning. I can do it for a few minutes, but after a while it gets tiresome. So I wait until I have someone’s attention before I turn up the misery volume.

For me, being a volunteer victim involves a lot of hurry-up-and-wait to be rescued. For emergency responders, they get to train in somewhat realistic conditions. The point, I’ve been told, is not just to get it right; the point is to practice until they can never get it wrong.

These exercises take on a greater sense of urgency the more the world tilts off its axis. Emergency responders have a hard road ahead, and I appreciate their service more than ever, having seen what they do from the center of these training events. I am happy to play my small part—and to see everyone walk away safely afterward.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there

Even with dashboard GPS, Google maps on smartphone, and an old fashioned paper foldout map, we still missed driving one of the National Tourist Routes on our Norway vacation. We took what we thought was the right turn, but ended up on a single-lane windy road into a mountainside neighborhood. We might have been in the right place, but could have walked the route faster. So we turned around in favor of the two-lane "highway."

My husband took the wheel for the three days of driving around the fjords, and I was navigator. Actually, I was joined by GPS and Google maps in this task. And, for some reason, he didn’t mind three women telling him where to turn.

While GPS technology is marvelous, it isn’t perfect. It asks if you want to go the fastest route or the shortest route. I couldn’t find the option for scenic routes. And so if I hadn’t been following along on my Hele Norge Kart (Entire Norway Map) we would have missed two ferries and possibly the most spectacular scenery ever.

Apparently, GPS doesn’t like water crossings, and goes out of its way to take you out of your way to avoid them. When it eventually recognized our non-compliance with its directions, ours recalculated itself enough times to get back on track with our planned agenda.

Overseas isn’t the only place where GPS is not to be followed blindly. I recently went back to my old hometown for a visit, after decades away. I had both a dashboard GPS and Waze on my iPhone. You would think both would recommend the same route—and you would be wrong. Several times, I was left to arbitrate between the two. And when neither route seemed appropriate, I had to dig deep into my memory to find a better way.

What I have come to realize is that you need to know where you’re going before you can trust GPS for navigational guidance. Only then can you determine whether the prescribed route through town hits every stoplight or finds the bypass. Waze has the added bonus of showing traffic jams and speed traps, but it too can lead you on strange routes through even stranger places.

I have come to rely on GPS technology, but not solely. I will often check  Google maps or paper maps before I set off somewhere new. I agree with Sindre, the travel consultant from Nordic Visitor who provided us with our much-needed and well-used Hele Norge Kart, who said, “I feel that a good old map can come in handy to get a better overview and see what´s up next and it has some useful side information as well.”

And, as our trip proved, it’s especially helpful when traveling the fjords of Norway.

* * *
For my previous post on GPS, see "Why I don't quite trust my GPS."

Thursday, June 29, 2017

I can’t run metric miles

#ThrowbackThursday: After recently returning from vacation in Norway, where conversions of currency and metric distances were a daily exercise, I was reminded of the following column I wrote in December 1996. It was  published in “Keeping Contact,” then the newsletter for members of the Delco Road Runners Club.
On a recent Saturday, I was sitting down to breakfast with my running buddies after finishing an easy four-and-a-half-mile jog. The topic of discussion was the Philadelphia marathon and its companion race, an 8K. The question was asked: “Hey Amy, why don’t you run the 8K tomorrow?”

“No way,” I said. “That’s too far for me. I can’t run 8 kilometers.” Or could I? I was stumped. What’s 8 times .62? Who’s got a calculator? After doing some mental figuring—I can run a 5K, which is 3.1 miles; a 10K is 6.2 miles, so an 8K, it’s somewhere in between—I finally decided to bag the race. I could do the miles, but not the math.

Later, I did my homework and found an 8K equals 4.96 miles; a distance I can handle. But the thought of running in metric was another story. One that didn’t really interest me. Would I have to run on the other side of the road? Would I start running with an accent?

It was beginning to get complicated. I run to relax, not to practice metric conversions. I’m more of a words person; I just tolerate numbers.

In the lexicon of our language, miles rule! The beach resort of Avalon, New Jersey, advertises itself as “Cooler by a mile.” If you know a little bit about a lot of things, you’re said to be “A mile wide and an inch deep.” If you want to really get to know someone, you’ve got to “Walk a mile in their shoes.” If you do much more than is expected, you “Go the extra mile.”

It just wouldn’t be the same in kilometers. There’s no frame of reference. Is winning by a kilometer better than winning by a mile? Do condemned prisoners gain or lose time by walking the last kilometer? Nobody knows. At least not without thinking it through.

The very question causes people to scratch their heads and wonder why metric measures never caught on in the United States anyway.

In running circles, the only rationale I can think of for using kilometers in races is so entrants can set more personal records. They can have both a 5-mile PR and an 8K PR. Never mind that they’re virtually the same distance. There are sticklers who will argue that the .04-mile difference really matters!

For the rational runners among us—and that may be an oxymoron—why don’t we join together and start a movement to “deep-six” kilometers and go back to miles.

Who are we trying to impress anyway? A marathon will always be 26 miles and 385 yards. What’s THAT in kilometers? Quick. Who’s got a calculator?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Knit one, purl one, breathe…repeat

My grandmother was a champion knitter. Two of her handmade sweaters still sit in my closet, 38 years after her passing. One is a pullover she made for my late father when he was a teenager. The other, with a repeating diamond pattern of sequins, she made for me.

Wherever she went, she brought in-the-works projects. Sweater sleeves. Yarn balls. All sizes of knitting needles.

I would watch her click-clacking away, passing the hours, the days. She would wrap skeins of yarn around my outstretched hands, so she could untwist and wind them into more usable balls. She even let me knit a few stitches of her projects, under her close supervision. Back then, it was a passing interest for me. I don’t remember ever knitting anything myself.

Now I often find myself thinking of knitting. Maybe it’s because I am dog-tired of spending so much time in front of screens (computer, iPhone, Kindle, TV). Maybe it’s because I find knitting almost as calming as meditation.

On my last visit to my mother’s apartment, I tapped her stash of knitting needles and yarn. At first, she kept pressing me about what I wanted to knit. This would determine the size of knitting needle and the particular yarn. She didn’t quite get that I wasn’t looking to knit anything specific—I just wanted to knit. To practice the activity, not achieve an outcome.

I then tapped the great educator that is the internet, searching for knitting lessons. I quickly discovered there are two styles of knitting: English-style and Continental-style, which is what my grandmother taught me. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind came memories of how she cast on stitches, held the yarn, fixed a dropped stitch, and worked her knit and purl stitches.

The last thing I tapped were those memories, as I picked up a set of knitting needles and began. The process was soothing and peaceful. I could feel when I was doing something right and see when I made mistakes—which were many. It didn’t matter because the only point was to knit.

I would get to a certain point, then rip out all the stitches and start over. The ripping out was just as relaxing as the knitting, because all it took was one pull to make everything unravel.

It feels very Zen to knit, even—or especially—without knitting some thing. To knit is to be present, to stay in the moment, to let go of distraction. It’s a kind of woolly meditation, one with its own texture, sound, and rhythm.

Just knit one, purl one, breathe…repeat.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Retro tech: First gen is the new gen

Old tech still sought.
It’s classical conditioning. Pavlovian response. Each year, new technology is unveiled, and suddenly we hunger for the latest, shiniest thing.

My 2016 iPhone SE? That’s so yesterday. Today? It’s the Nokia 3310. Wait, what? Yes, it’s back and being heralded as iconic and a timeless classic.

Originally introduced at the turn of the 21st century, the simple Nokia cell phone has become “a modern classic reimagined,” with extended battery life and low price of 49 euros. Yes, euros, because the phone won’t be sold in the U.S.—at least not with its current incompatible frequencies.

Still, the new-old Nokia is a sign of the times. This year also saw announcements of an Android-powered Blackberry with a physical keyboard. I had been a blindingly loyal Blackberry fan, spending many hundreds of dollars on new devices I was sure would return the company to its former glory. No such luck; hence my switch to the iPhone SE.

Smartphones aren’t the only technology in the midst of a nostalgia boom. How else to reconcile buyers' interest in these items:
  • My old Aiwa boombox was essential to my short stint as aerobics instructor, but had been stored away, unused, for decades. Last month it sold on eBay. And this week a colleague emailed in hopes of borrowing just such a boombox for an event.
  • eBay also came through in attracting buyers for several old-tech items: a Polaroid Land camera, which went to China; a Mamiyaflex twin-lens film camera, sold to an art student at UCLA; and an early-model Garmin Forerunner GPS watch, to a runner with strength enough to wear such a big and bulky device while exercising.
  • My collection of vinyl LP records has moved with me since college days, and that’s been a dog’s age. Finally I found an entrepreneurial couple in the business of buying and reselling albums. They sat in my basement, using a raking light to illuminate the grooves and detect scratches, warping, and other imperfections in each one. Eventually, they bought 100. 
I don’t know if this retro trend is here to stay, but I certainly hope so. New is fine when there are worthwhile advances in technology, but I still have closets and drawers full of old technology. It's good to know someone somewhere might someday want to own a piece of it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Making and breaking contacts

As a freelancer, I’ve learned it's both what you know and who you know. The combination of expertise and connections keeps the business flowing.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of clients. Sometimes with individuals, other times with project teams. Out of habit I would add every person to my address book, along with their support staff and accounts payable.

As a result, my contact list overfloweth. In the digital world, this isn’t as much a problem as when I had stacks of business cards on file. Still, it was slow going to scroll past old and outdated contacts to find the ones I wanted.

My unwieldy list became a bigger problem when a syncing glitch led to duplication of all contacts on my computer and smartphone. That's when I knew some digital spring cleaning was in order.

First to go were the deceased contacts – and there were several, sad to say. Next were people associated with dead-in-the-water projects whom I haven’t heard from in years. Then the people who consistently called for quotes about projects that never materialized also disappeared. I trimmed a number of contacts I haven’t worked with in many, many years. Rounding out the business deletions were people I met at conferences and workshops ages ago and haven’t heard from since.

I wasn’t too worried about losing business contacts because I can find most of them through LinkedIn, if need be.

Where things got brutal were with personal deletions. I had contact information for the most casual of acquaintances: people I ran with once or twice in my life, people I met in airports, friends of friends, and friends from past lives. If there was a question to delete or not, I used this criteria: Would this person have me in their contact list? If not, they went from mine.

This isn’t as anti-social as it sounds. It’s more a matter of cleaning out the clutter that hadn’t been accessed in a dog’s age.

I still believe in making and keeping contacts. But I’ve decided not every contact needs to be kept forever.

If you want to make a fresh connection with me, just let me know. I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter and the AMY INK website.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life hacks for aging boomers’ aging parents

Many of us baby boomers have been lucky enough to have parents and relatives live long enough to still be around. As the years go by, roles shift from cared for to caregiver.

Just about everyone I know either has been there or is now going through it. Advice, resources, and tips are mouse clicks away. But because every situation and every person is different, there are no universal solutions.

Still, it’s worth sharing a few life hacks I've found in case they work for you and yours.

1)    More is less with meds
There is a pill for everything, but not every condition needs a pill – or, if it does, there's no need to take it forever. More meds mean more potential for drug interactions and greater confusion about what to take when. So I was glad when my mother’s doctor cut out medications that were “nice to have,” “could be helpful,” and “not necessary at her age and could be harmful.”

2)    Play along
The lung disease COPD has no cure, but that doesn't mean the music ends. Some brilliant person made the connection between breathing exercises to strengthen lung function and playing the harmonica. Now “Harmonicas for Health” is a program offered by the COPD Foundation and Pulmonary Education Program. (Musical talent not required.)

3)    Daily reminders
We all have asked: “What day is it?” But when it becomes a daily or hourly question, it can signal a deeper problem. External memory aids sometimes help, at least in the short term. Among the tools we’ve used in the family are big wall calendars, wooden-block perpetual calendars, digital time-and-day calendars, and even Alexa. Yes, there is an Amazon Eco Dot in my mother’s apartment. When she asks, Alexa tells her the time, the day, or the temperature—and will even play Willie Nelson for her. She just has to remember to ask.

4)    Go for the assist
When broken hips mend, flexibility can be lost. Some helpful aides we’ve found include the Carex Upeasy Seat Assist, with a hydro-pneumatic spring that slowly activates as the user leans forward to stand. Even less high tech is the sock horse for help in bending down to put on socks.

5)    Help I’ve fallen
…And I can’t get up. Baby boomers have laughed at commercials for medical alert systems for years. Now the joke’s on us, as we scramble to research the various companies to determine what’s best for elderly relatives. Is it waterproof for the shower? Does the range extend into the yard? Can it detect falls? Is it GPS-enabled? Some independent-living communities even have their own devices. While any of these options are viable, there’s a bigger issue: getting Mom (or Dad or Auntie) to wear it. After a few accidental activations, my mom resists wearing her pendant necklace. It now sits on a nearby surface, safe from being activated but very unsafe for her.

The biggest change for me at this stage is being in a position to make life decisions for those who once cared for me. I'm sure I was no picnic for them back then. When my mom says I slept like a baby, she probably meant I cried all night and wet myself. I guess turnaround really is fair play.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Just four questions?

Four questions are an essential element of the Passover Seder. This was one of the first things learned by the non-Jewish Wikipedia-skimming couple who celebrated with us this year.

The purpose of the four questions is to engage children in the story of Passover, with the youngest asking why the holiday’s customs and foods are different than those of all other nights. That’s a lot of information to convey through just four questions.

Journalists use at least six in their reporting: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

I’m not a journalist, but I do interview clients to get to the heart of a story. And I do ask a lot of questions.

In some cases, clients ask for a list of questions beforehand. And while that’s easy enough for me to generate, it isn’t always helpful. After the first few questions, interviews usually take on a life of their own. They become what I call fishing expeditions. I let the conversation go where it will so I can discover things I may not have known enough to ask about. 

Questions don’t even have to be fully formed thoughts. If there’s good back-and-forth in an interview, just mentioning a key word or phrase can prompt the subject-matter expert to respond.

Generic questions also work better than you might expect:
  • Why is this topic important for readers?
  • What are the two or three key things you want them to know?
  • What are competitors saying about this topic?
  • What haven’t we covered?
  • Is there anything else you want to add?
I might even ask “Anything else?” a few times, until the final answer is: “No. I think we’ve covered it all.

One of the best questions I’ve found is a single word: Why? By asking “why” over and over, you can drill down into any topic until the relevant detail surfaces. It’s an approach most of us used as small children, to annoy our parents: Why? Why? Why? 
As an adult asking the same question, I can see why it’s so effective. The answer either starts with “Because…” or winds up providing background or rationale that puts the content into perspective.

Questions are useful tools for acquiring information...which leaves me with a final question about the Passover Seder: Why only four questions?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sweat the small stuff, big stuff, and all stuff in between

We live in a world of “stuff.” Stuff bought in stores or flea markets. Stuff received as gifts. Stuff inherited or donated. As long as this stuff is used, loved, or valued, there’s no problem.

Eventually, however, there comes a time when everything will need to find new homes. Over the years, I have pitched in during the cleanout process as relatives have passed away or downsized from houses to apartments. Lots of stuff was pitched out or donated to charities, while precious little was claimed by family members.

Their lack of interest surprised me. Years ago, I would spend hours browsing antique shops or refinishing hand-me-down furniture. If something was old and interesting, especially with family history attached to it, I raised my hand. These days, no hands are raised when younger generations are offered their grandparents' belongings.

Apparently, it’s a trend. I read as much in “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” subtitled: “Advice for boomers desperate to unload family heirlooms.”  The story relates how baby boomers and Gen Xers are faced with the task of disposing of their parents’ possessions – and nobody wants them. So much for sentimentality.

Even though people love the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” and HGTV’s “Flea Market Flip,” it is more as spectator than enthusiast. The lure of rusty gold or vintage collectibles doesn’t extend beyond the TV screen. After watching someone else dig through dusty barns or recondition old dressers, it’s time to visit IKEA or HomeGoods for trendier products and faux vintage stock.

My own experience helping to dispose of several households has left its mark. I now look at my belongings with a sharp, judgmental eye. If I don’t cherish it or use it, I toss it – and by toss I usually mean donate to charity. A while back, I found an entrepreneurial couple willing to comb through my vinyl record collection. I was happy when they carted away about 100 albums, but not as happy as if they’d taken the whole lot.

My husband has had some success on eBay, particularly with vintage photography equipment. His Polaroid 180 Land Camera shipped to China, his Mamiyaflex C2 TLR to someone at UCLA School of the Arts, and the Gralab 300 darkroom timer to Austin, Texas. He even sold my Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS watch, which was both cumbersome to wear and depressing, because it accurately recorded my continually slowing running times.

As much as I try to live lean, without too much stuff I don’t want or need, my house remains full. There still is stuff my mother wishes I would take after she downsized from a three-bedroom house. And she talks of thousands of photographs that were taken over the years of who knows who.

What to do with all this stuff? The good news is there are several donation centers nearby. Some even have a drive-thru. With these final options, giving stuff away has never been easier. Especially when family members don't want much more than mementos.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Falling hard for inline skating

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published August 2, 2002, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

I was sitting on the front porch the other day, watching a young couple playing in the street. They must have been twenty-something, but I still think “playing” is the right word. That’s what we always used to call it when you went roller skating around the block. I guess “inline skating” is the term now, and the skates are certainly much more upscale than those metal skates we used to tighten around our sneakers.

Watching this couple weave and turn and glide was a wonderful sight. They were smooth. They were natural. They stayed upright. I was amazed. That certainly wasn’t my experience during a brief fling with blades. The first time I strapped on inline skates, I fully expected to embrace this new sport. Instead, I found myself embracing the asphalt. Again and again and again.

Originally, I thought this would be a great cross-training activity to complement running. What a great way to build building leg strength without overstressing the knees. My enthusiasm was bolstered by a colleague who swore by skating. He even took mini-sightseeing trips on skates. He promised to teach me the tricks of staying vertical while actually moving forward.

I should have taken him up on his offer. Instead, I wanted to conquer gravity by myself. I thought I could follow the same course that worked so well in learning to ride a bicycle and drive a manual-transmission car. I went to the far end of an empty parking lot and stubbornly kept at it until I could get the hang of this new “thang.”

My first clue that this might not be my forte should have been apparent in the first 10 minutes. It took me that long just to figure out, untangle and put on all the special padding—with knee, elbow and wrist guards and a helmet. Then I had to struggle into the skates, which are sized to be snug, for support. Ever try to walk in shoes you’ve outgrown? Now put yourself on wheels, and you’ve got the picture.

Once suitably outfitted, I slowly rolled away from my car…and panicked. Even though my speed was barely perceptible, I was fearful of not being able to stop. So I fell. On purpose. Somehow it hurts less when you do this while cross-country skiing. I guess it has to do with a sufficient cushion of freshly fallen snow. No such luck with skating. Ouch.

Back to the car to consult the how-to book I had bought. The directions were clear. I understood the concepts. But once I finally got rolling, I quickly became concerned with stopping. And so I lurched around the parking lot, glad that no one was around on a Sunday afternoon to witness the spectacle. After an hour, I was pooped. I probably hadn’t gone but a half-mile, but I’d had enough.

After several such Sundays, I went looking for my colleague. Surely he would have some comforting words or practical advice. As I rounded the corner, I saw him coming down the hall. Actually, he was limping down the hall. On crutches. With his foot in a big, white plaster cast.

I might have guessed. He, too, had been skating. He and dozens of others were zooming through New York’s Central Park when the collision occurred. Skater to skater. Broadsided in broad daylight. It took months of recuperation, corrective surgery and ongoing rehab before his ankle returned to near normal.

And that’s when I reevaluated my need to take on this particular sport. I had been having trouble finding long, flat expanses where I could practice, and I certainly wasn’t having much fun picking myself off the ground.

So, I packed up my skates and protective gear and stashed them in the basement. After three years, and two housing moves, I finally got tired of looking at them. Rather, I got tired of being reminded that my roller skating days were well behind me—and that inline skating was better left a spectator sport. At least for me.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Want a lift from failure? Weight training will help

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published March 29, 2006, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

I’ve been lifting weights for about 18 months, and it just now occurs to me why I like it so much. The way to success is through failure, and that relieves a lot of the pressure.

From my years in the corporate world, I’m used to hearing, “Failure is not an option.” To fail in school always meant dreaded discussions with parents and educators. In today’s fast-paced, success-driven culture no one wants to fail. The only exception is in the gym.

Here, failure is a good thing. It’s what you strive for in your workouts. The goal is to tax your muscles to the point of failure. That’s how they get stronger.

To give in to failure is a strange sensation. The temptation is to stop while you’re still in control, but you need to push up against that boundary.

Say I’m doing a bench press, and I’ve got a little more than half my body weight on the bar. The first few repetitions are easy enough that I can still hold a conversation. Suddenly, I start slowing down. Things…get…tougher. And tougher still.

Finally, I can only get my arms halfway up. I’m stuck. I can’t finish the rep. That’s when the trainer steps in with an assist. I feel like a failure; I can’t even complete the set. He says failure is good. How could you not love such positive reinforcement of a negative result?

The funny thing is I had been avoiding the gym for years because I feared failure. I was intimidated by the svelte spandex babes and the muscle-popping he-men you see in gym advertisements. I didn’t want a lifetime membership to a big-box exercise mill. I felt that having a personal trainer would be a bit too, well, personal.

I finally found my way to a small, comfy gym by way of another kind of failure. An injury had caused my shoulder to fail, and so my doctor prescribed physical therapy. Treatment included working with a therapist and working out in the onsite gym. Once I was healed, I “graduated” from being a patient to a client, a logical next step.

I already knew and liked the staff, so staying on became a no-brainer. And that’s exactly what my workouts have been: a no-brainer. The trainer designs my workout program. He keeps an eye on my progress and suggests changes when needed. And he encourages failure. When I finally master an exercise, he hands me more weight to make things harder. I may curse him the next day when I’m stiff and sore, but I know I’m getting the results I’m after.

It’s not that I want to be a bodybuilder or a female version of Jack La Lanne, often called the godfather of fitness (although he looks great at 91). It’s just that from everything I hear, growing old is not for the faint of heart. My goal is to build up enough strength and resistance to live an active life for the next 50 years. Then that 18-wheeler with my name on it can flatten me like a cartoon character.

Until that final failure, I’ll be lifting weights like there’s no tomorrow.