Tag Archives: Great Depression

Welcome, New Guy


Well, last week after much teetering on the edge of the pool, I finally held my nose, closed my eyes, and jumped into the deep waters of computer purchasing.

Just to kick things off, I drove to the brick-and-mortar store and looked over the selection like a hunter needing a new gun dog visits a kennel and surveys the young pups. Expecting two or three aisles of selection, I instead found a puny litter of five towers on one shelf. Three brands. Each one not much different from the next. After all, when you’re looking at a litter of yellow Labrador retrievers, you’re going to see yellow, yellow, cream, yellow, and gold. This store’s choice included HP, Dell, or ASUS. When I asked for Sony, the clerk blinked like a vacant android for a few seconds, then a brain synapse fired and he told me those were no longer made. (I wonder whether it was this decade or the last when Sony’s Vaio bit the dust.) Meanwhile, I stood there, clutching crib notes of what to mention and ask for, and trying to remember the sage advice and suggestions from more computer-savvy friends who’d kindly coached me ahead of time.

Then, like many modern consumers, I asked three questions before bolting from the store to go home and look everything up on Amazon. However, my attempt at this additional research resulted in glassy-eyed absorption of 9,000 one-star customer reviews from gamers that freak out over spotting a single dead pixel in the top right-hand corner of their mega-expensive monitors. I read countless complaints about the absence of some kind of special wall mount that’s apparently a case of life-or-death to certain individuals. Then there were discussions of glossy surface versus matte, bevel-edged versus non-bevel, too wide, too low, too much blur, insufficient refresh rates, and a long stream of additional gobbledygook that quickly had my eyes rolling back in my head.

Who knew–in the decade and a half since I last purchased a computer–that you no longer buy a bundled system in a box, complete with a piece of paper featuring nearly incomprehensible connection instructions that usually begin with the command of STOP!!!! Do not push the power button until … lest the world as we know it erupt in flames, or–worse–invalidate the warranty. Now, it seems to be that you either buy a laptop or enter the astonishing world of computer a la carte. Choose your tower, boys and girls! Pick those speakers! Do you want a subwoofer to go with them? Step right up here, and select a monitor. Do you want LCD, LED, blue-light filters, rapid refresh rates, high resolution, tilt stand? And just how BIG a monitor do you want? Twenty-seven inches? Thirty-two inches? How about two monitors? Or three?

I didn’t expect my computer monitor to rival the size of my living room TV. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, it’s analog but of such good quality it won’t die to justify my buying a new one. And if that identifies me as a Great Depression grandbaby, then so be it.) As I was leaving the store, I saw a man with a pickup and flat-bed trailer, loading a ginormous TV with the assistance of two employees, and I took a double-take to make sure it really was a television and not the latest thing in monitors.

Even so, modern monitors are certainly seductive. I’m now dreaming of having sixty inches of monitor hanging on my office wall, with the two-foot-tall words of my next novel looming over my head. After all, isn’t the saying “Go big, or go home?”

Up till now, I’ve been thinking that I was really up-to-date in my campus office, equipped as it is with an ample-sized Apple monitor. HAH! When I took a ruler to it, I found that it’s a mere minnow among the wide-mouth bass. And so, for grins, I measured Ole Faithful’s little monitor. A thirteen-inch pipsqueak. There are laptops with bigger screens. How did I ever write a dozen novels on that thing?

New Guy’s monitor is by no means the biggest on the market. Thank goodness! Because I can barely fit this monster on my desk, and even then it’s set at a slight angle so I can open the printer’s paper feed. My retinas still don’t know how to handle all this generous size.

Even the simple world of keyboards has changed. What I’ve used for years is now trendy with gamers and called a mechanical. The keys are big and take effort to push. They can come backlit with a rainbow array of colors. And you can turn on the clicking sound, or silence it.


Or you can move with the times and use a membrane keyboard with flat little keys and a slight amount of lag time that will slow you down if you’re a smokin’-hot typist.

New Guy came with a wired membrane keyboard. Because I’m a smokin’-hot typist and in no mood to be slowed down, I intended to use Ole Faithful’s keyboard. It’s a mechanical which has held up under years of heavy use, but it needs an adapter to connect it to New Guy and even then it might not work. I think I can buy an inexpensive wireless keyboard that probably costs about the same as adapters, connective cords, and drivers capable of translating Win 10 to old keyboard; however, I must confess that deep in my heart what I really, really, really want is that expensive keyboard with the multi-colored lights glowing around the keys. Yeah, I want more than woo. I want wow. But that’s a want, not a need. I’ll wait until my wallet’s no longer smokin’ from this purchase.

As for the tower, with disk drive or without? Do you prefer that drive tray to open horizontally or vertically? As for the innards, solid-state drive or conventional hard drive? How about two internal drives? Do you want a thunderbolt port, or can you–sigh–live without it? Even the kid at the brick-and-mortar couldn’t explain exactly what a thunderbolt is or will do, once the gizmos it’s supposed to connect actually come on the market. But it’s great! It’s coming! It’s … still a mystery to me.

I didn’t get one, thus ensuring that New Guy is obsolete already.

And I didn’t order my new system online, despite potential price savings. I finished my research and returned to the store, where at least employees could follow me to my car, carrying boxes the way grocery stores used to send out a teenage porter to carry your food across the parking lot.  And guess what? No longer does any box contain a piece of paper with connection instructions. Presumably I’m supposed to perform a monkey-see/monkey-do procedure from YouTube video guidance, although how to do that when the computer isn’t online remains as logical as the Geek Squad notifying you by email that your computer is ready for pickup.

That’s fine. I can match the shape of a plug to the shape of a plug. (I think I learned that skill at eighteen months with my first set of blocks.) But I didn’t know that new computers come with an extra cord that you should not connect unless you’re going to use two monitors. This small piece of consumer ignorance caused a great deal of frayed nerves, frustration, phoned-in tech support which did NOT identify the problem, appointments with technicians that shook their head over the baby, and a great deal of bodily contortion connecting and disconnecting, plus driving back and forth across town in heavy traffic to bring the tower in, to take the tower home, to bring it back, to fetch the monitor, to bring a cable, to not bring a cable, etc.

Fourteen years ago, I went through an equal amount of heinous running to and fro with my new computer tower, trying to get Ole Faithful set up and functioning. It seems to be simply a part of the process, like ritual initiations or being hosed down with Betadine before going under the surgical knife. But, unlike torture by bamboo shoots under the fingernails, once setup is complete and successful, the horrors of the ordeal eventually fade and you resume writing.

Next I have the joy of figuring out Windows 10 and all its quirks.

What happened to the spellcheck function key?

UPDATE:  Thanks to much advice, support, and assistance from my friends out there . . . I have finally ordered a keyboard adapter as this membrane thing is sleek, cool, and w-a-a-a-y too slow. Product reviews say the adapter works great, or it glitches. I’m hoping for the former, but if the latter happens, I can order another adapter or cough up the funds for the wowza, super-snazzy, completely and utterly extravagant rainbow-hued, lighted keyboard. Which, by the way, costs as much as a monthly payment on the new machine. Alas!





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A Touch of Humor

While there was a time when I believed that a story should be totally and deeply serious or else slapstick silly, I’ve come to understand that stories don’t have to be at one extreme or the other. Often, the most effective–or touching–tales evoke a combination of emotions.

While I love drama, if there’s too much grief, gloom, and bleakness unrelieved by any lighter emotion, I can find myself weighed down, depressed, and ready to toss such an unrelenting plot aside.

I enjoy comedy in many forms–usually situational, physical, or farce. In recent years, other types of comedy have become more fashionable, but satire, sardonic wit, and scatological jokes seldom appeal to my personal taste.

Good farce is delightful, but if it’s poorly done it can come across as nothing more than characters behaving stupidly. While there are gems among the American television sitcoms, too many of them rely on punch-line humor–often the hardest to put across–and a canned laugh track. Is there anything worse than so-called humor that isn’t funny? I am so not amused.

The Brits are masters of situational comedy. Such plots build slowly, taking their time in setting up the scenario, but then–like falling dominoes–the laughs come faster and faster to the end.

Physical comedy has been around for centuries, providing people with simple emotional relief. In the twentieth century, it hit its stride in the silent film era–due largely to the genius of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd–and then continued through the Great Depression with Hal Roach’s LITTLE RASCALS, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges.

Cartoons are another source of humor. Among the best would be the Looney Tunes from Warner Bros. Starting in 1930, when the Great Depression was probably at its worst, these cartoons served up zany slapstick combined with farce, situational humor, and punch-line jokes. As old as they are, they can still make me smile at the difficulties of a cat being trapped in a roll of sticky flypaper. I love the machinations of Tom and Jerry–provided the cartoons haven’t been sanitized for cultural sensitivity. And most of us can probably quote lines such as Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, doc?” or Elmer Fudd’s grumbling about that “wascally wabbit.”

Still, with a few exceptions among the Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton movies, I think the most effective comedy is short. String it out too long, without mixing it with drama or romance, as Buster Keaton was wise enough to do, and it could become mindlessly silly like the antics of the Keystone Kops.

Which brings me back to the point of the post … the advantage of mixing emotions in fiction.

Writers sometimes refer to this blending or combining as “the roller coaster technique.”

The delightful farce, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, combines horror, suspense, romance, and touching little moments of relationships along with the crazy comedy. Without those other emotions, the comedy alone would be impossible to sustain.

Or, give your readers sadness, but then switch up things with a touch of humor.

An example would be in the funeral scene of the film STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Sally Fields has lost her young daughter. The funeral is over, and her friends have gathered around her in sympathy. Sally starts chewing the scenery, with her usually controlled character finally letting go. She’s ranting and weeping, venting all the pent-up emotions that she’s been suppressing through her daughter’s illness, coma, and death. And then, just when this outpouring of grief has us reaching for our hankies, just when if the director had stretched it any further we’d have detached from it, Sally cries out, “I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard.”

And Olympia Dukakis shoves Shirley Maclaine forward and says, “Here! Hit this!”

There’s a moment of shock, then everyone but Shirley Maclaine starts to laugh. Even Sally Fields’s character can’t stop her spurt of laughter. Olympia shrugs as she explains, “I thought we needed to lighten up.”

So true.

The tragedy, when contrasted with an appropriate amount of humor, will seem that much more moving.

One of the important themes of Preston Sturges’s film classic, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, is that we need humor in order to keep our balance and our hope, no matter how strong our problems.

The film is set during the worst of America’s Great Depression. Sullivan is a rich, successful filmmaker who mistakenly believes that the poor and downtrodden need movies of heavy drama. He thinks bleakness is all that poor, out-of-work people can identify with.

He’s totally wrong, of course. As he sets out on his journey among the homeless, he gets himself into genuine and deep trouble, so deep that he lands in an Alabama prison, the worst of all places to be. After chain gang work and much torment, he’s taken with the other prisoners to a small country church to see a film. Zany cartoons are shown, and Sullivan is at first offended as the convicts around him laugh. But then he’s caught up by the silliness, and soon he’s laughing with them. He learns that in times of trouble, we need anything but stories of grief and tragedy. We need to laugh.

This principle works for characterization as well. In the SF television series BABYLON FIVE, Security Chief Garibaldi is portrayed as a gruff, pragmatic little bulldog who’s very good at a very difficult and dangerous job. He’s also a recovered alcoholic who’s not so terrific at relationships. One of the lighter quirks assigned to his character, however, is that he loves Warner’s Looney Tunes cartoons. It humanizes him and shows us that there’s more to this man than a semi-paranoid, distrustful, wary grouch.

In the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, there are two creatures that are products of a secret lab conducting genetic experiments. Both creatures escape. One is a beautiful and highly intelligent Golden Retriever that everyone loves. The other is a hideous, deformed, violent monster that everyone fears. At a certain point in the book, government agents find the monster’s lair and search it for clues as to where the beast might be hiding. Koontz describes the agents picking up magazines where every photograph has been torn to remove the models’ eyes. When the monster kills, it always tears out the eyes of its victims. It’s so ugly that it doesn’t want anyone to see it and cringe in revulsion. But amidst the few possessions, there’s a battered, rusty statuette of Mickey Mouse.

It seems that in the lab, both creatures were shown Mickey Mouse cartoons as they were maturing. And now that they’re out in the world, the beautiful dog still shows delight whenever he encounters a Mickey symbol or cartoon. And in the monster’s den, Mickey represents possibly the only scrap of decency or vulnerability in an otherwise brutal beast.

In this example, Mickey doesn’t provide humor. Instead, he provides a poignant insight into a character that’s more dimensional than we first suppose.

Make ’em laugh. It might be the best way to also make ’em cry.


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