Archive for the ‘Columns’ Category

Echo Arrives Out Of -Uh- Necessity

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Thanks to my Depression-era mom, I run every purchase through the same drill. Do I really need this? Or do I just want it?

I can’t say it’s saved me a ton of money, but it sure has made me a more creative thinker. Through years of diligent practice, I’ve learned to rationalize – no sweat – the necessity of just about anything.   This was my downfall when I bumped into the Amazon Echo.

Ridiculous! I first said to myself when my friend Beth consulted the little black tower on her kitchen counter by firing questions at it – always addressed to “Alexa.”

“Alexa,” she asked, “How is the traffic?” To which Alexa promptly gave a rundown of the morning rush hour on the DC Beltway.

Two days later, visiting young cousins, I bumped into the Echo again. “Alexa, tell me a joke,” said Katie, to which Alexa replied “What’s black and white and dead all over? A zombie in a tuxedo.”

Even with her bad jokes, want soon became necessity. Why? Because everyone else was consulting Alexa. Because with young grandchildren, I needed to keep up with technology. And – the dealmaker – because on Amazon Prime deal day, I could buy two Echos for the price of one and present one to my son and his family for their July birthdays. Mom would be proud.

Since Alexa moved in, I have pushed aside all obstacles to believing she is absolutely essential. I’ve had ample help from Amazon on this. “What’s New With Alexa” e-mails appear at least weekly urging me to try out some new skill Alexa has learned.

According to these messages, I could now ask her what the dollar to euro exchange rate it, play music all over the house (by purchasing multiple Echos, of course), get a “flash briefing” of Jimmy Fallon’s latest show plus news from the BBC, and ask her to start reading me a book on my Kindle at exactly the spot where I last stopped reading.

I could also enable “sleep sounds” that would put me to sleep with rain or heavy rain or the ocean, order paper towels and tacos, and ask her to play Rock Paper Scissors with me.

I’ve tried them all. So far, the biggest appeal is playing sleep sounds at bedtime and having her read from my Kindle, so I can actually get through my monthly book group selection while I’m doing the dishes.

In fact, I talked myself into buying a second Echo – the junior-size, junior-priced Dot – for the bedroom because if good sleep isn’t essential, what is?

This is not to say my decision was flawless. I’m well aware that reasonable people worry that Alexa is always listening and might be spying on me, for what little it might be worth. But she assured me, when I asked, that she works for Amazon and not the CIA.

To other questions, she is not so responsive. For example, she has not been able to explain how my daughter-in-law could access my grocery list on her new Echo after I asked Alexa to phone her. Or why Amazon delivered a package of dog biscuits to their house. They don’t have a dog.

My granddaughter provided the likely answer: “Aiden ordered them from Alexa.” Aiden is her four-year-old brother, who talks to Alexa all the time. He wants a puppy.

Fortunately, Amazon doesn’t sell them. Yet.

Copyright 2017 Pat Snyder

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Multiple Marriages Bring Multiple Perspectives

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

I couldn’t resist. After writing a (pretty bad) poem that spoofed the elaborate strategies for perfect eclipse viewing, I am myself headed to a spot two hours south of Portland, Oregon along the Path of Totality.

“The perfect tribute to Bill Hurley!” friends have exclaimed. And they are right. My late husband, an amateur astronomer and believer in Carpe Diem! would have not missed the August 21 event. Since he died last August, it does make the perfect anniversary tribute.

The more I thought about my adventure, though, the more I had to smile. The Bill mode of eclipse-viewing vs. the Pat mode is strikingly different.

With Bill, it would have been precise advance calculations, escape plans via low-traffic highways in case of cloud cover, sleeping bag, tent, telescope. I know this because he was already planning it.

With me, it is a hotel departure in an air-conditioned motor coach with bathroom (I asked), box breakfast, quick hike to the viewing site, then off for lunch at a winery.

I could say I’m taking the easy way because I don’t have the necessary skill or equipment to do it the hard way, and that would be partially true.

But the real truth is, at this stage of the game there’s more to the story. My mode of eclipse-viewing – and many other modes – is influenced by being married 40 years and not to the same man. To three, to be exact.

While Husband #3 inspired a love of stargazing and carpe diem adventure, twenty-six years with late Husband #2 inspired an appreciation for keeping it simple.

“Knock yourself out,” he’d say when I came up with some cockamamie scheme. “Tell me how it all worked out.” This passion for simplification extended to grocery lists ordered according to supermarket aisles and written vacation post mortems designed to plan the perfect experience in the exact same location the following year.

Somehow, living with these two different styles has morphed me into a weird sort of hybrid that I’ve gotten to like. Isn’t the box breakfast on the air-conditioned bus on the way to an eclipse actually the best of both worlds? Haven’t multiple marriages sort of taken things to the next level?

At least that’s what I tell myself as I stare longingly – twice widowed and once divorced – at the Facebook couples from my high school class who are celebrating 50 years of wedded bliss, all to the same person.

I count backwards and realize that if I’d stayed with Husband #1 (the high school ex) all these years, I’d have been inching my way toward 50 next year. His death this summer caused me to call up long-forgotten conversations from our too-early marriage, a tutorial sort of relationship that too much resembled the likes of Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins.

At one point – I can still see it – he scribbled instructions to Drink More Water! on a legal pad. It was actually not bad advice.

Maybe in #1’s honor, when I board the bus on my carpe diem adventure, I will knock myself out and pack a water bottle in addition to the provided breakfast.

But only if I write it on a list ahead of time.

Copyright 2017 Pat Snyder


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Family History Buff? Try Pocket Edition

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017


When you’re grounded with foot surgery, what could be better than a compulsive genealogy project?

Chocolate, probably. Or binge-watching The Crown. Or ordering Pad Thai online.

But I’m happy to report that I took the high road and wrote the story of how my dad’s family came here from Czechoslovakia at the turn of the 20th century.

Truth be told, it was not so much the high road as a time-honored compulsion to discover one’s family story after the children are grown.

I remember when the genealogy bug bit my mom. Newly widowed and down-sized into an independent living facility, she ordered that all her family pictures and letters be crammed into four plastic under-the-bed chests.

“I am going to write my family history before I meet the neighbors,” she said.

An extrovert to the end, she produced one type-written page and left behind a myriad of snapshots labeled, if at all, with the date on which the picture was taken. Happily, a cousin of hers took over the project and hungrily grabbed all the bits and pieces she had for her side of the family.

Left behind were remnants from my dad’s side: some naturalization papers, a few birth certificates, more unidentified pictures, and a riveting description by a distant cousin of life in Czechoslovakia.

A quick glance at revealed that the family name – Ondo – was extra common in Czechoslovakia and that the Ondos had a bad habit – as my grandparents and their parents did – of naming every male in the family John, Paul, George or Michael.

“Good luck with that!” said a responsible genealogist friend. “You’ve got a lot of digging to do.” She said something about consanguinity charts and libraries and graveyards in any state where they’d ever mined coal, forged steel or raised chickens – all early occupations of my forebears.

I said “Of course!” and thought “No way!” To date, the most family history my children have absorbed is the family tree I’ve scribbled on a cocktail napkin in flight to a reunion.

So how to hook the Twitter generation on family history? Easy. Write a pocket edition that satisfies the universal hankering for in-the-genes brilliance.

With apologies to genealogists everywhere, I stuck to the generations of Johns, Pauls, Georges and Michaels I already knew about, pictured them once and threw in a few good stories. Not because I’m lazy. Certainly not!

Who cares to see a chart of third cousins once removed if you can know instead that great-great grandpa was a village blacksmith, smoked his own sausage and may have owned a tavern? Or that great grandpa skinned rabbits and made wine? Or that his oldest son (“the black sheep”) was a daring racecar driver? Or your second cousin (honest) is a rock drummer in Portland?

Isn’t it more important to know your great-uncles rose through the corporate ranks with elementary school educations and your grandpa was a stickler for hard work?

My dad, I might add, would have endorsed my pocket edition approach to his family. He had an opinion about genealogies.

“Don’t look too hard,” he always said. “You might find a horse thief.”

Copyright 2017 Pat Snyder




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Fidget Spinner Outs Me

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

I like to think I have each of my grown children figured out and properly categorized: The wise, contemplative oldest. The never-knew-a-stranger sales guy in the middle. The sensitive, empathic youngest.

I thought this game was a comfortable one-way street till Mr. Wise One sent a care package to entertain me after bunion surgery.

“I think you’ll like this stuff,” he said. “It’s the real you.”

I could hardly wait to find out what that was.

A smashing collection of classical jazz? A volume of Chekhov prose? A Black Belt Sudoku book?

When the box arrived, it contained three things: a novel about a widow with grown children who got bored and joined the CIA, a 550-piece travel puzzle and a little white box with a three-sided thing-a-ma-jig in it.

My granddaughter, 7 (sales guy’s daughter), gasped when she saw it. “A fidget spinner!” she cried, and grabbed it out of my hand. Seems she and all her friends have these, buy them by the fistfuls, stash them in their backpacks.

In seconds, she had it spinning between her thumb and second finger. “Watch this!” she said. And suddenly it was spinning perfectly on the tip of her thumb.

“This is a really good one,” she said. “It will help you when you’re fidgety.”

The more I read about fidget spinners, the more sobering all this became.

It’s not just that Wise One believes a toy invented to calm down children with ADHD is the perfect thing for me. It’s also the fact that I’d somehow missed a craze that has spun through the national media like a tornado for at least two months.

The calming part makes sense. The first time I spun it, I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing.

“This could be the perfect meditation tool,” I told him. And I meant it.

How could I leave the present moment when I was totally absorbed in watching a whirligig?

“Is that why you sent it?” I asked him. “So I could focus?”

“Use it as you will,” he said. Did I mention he is also superbly polite?

But the more I ponder this, I’m thinking that the real me it has outed, is someone who despite ardent post-election efforts, is still living in a bubble. I’m in my own little world, uninhabited by fidget spinners or news reports, fake and otherwise, that have warned of the dangers of these whirligigs gone airborne.

Some schools have banned them. Classroom teachers have seized them. ADHD experts have wrangled about their usefulness. All off my radar screen. All on my seven-year-old granddaughter’s.

After awhile, I was bothered less by the idea of being fidgety than the fact I had missed all of this. Was it a generational thing? Was I aging at an alarming rate?

My only comfort is that when I mentioned the fidget spinner, my Sensitive and Empathic Youngest had no idea what I was talking about.

“So he gave you a “Sit ‘n Spin?” she asked. “How is that good for your foot?”

She went on to ask if I had heard the news that Ohio farmers were producing camel milk – a topic she said everyone was talking about. In Oregon, where she lives.

At least living in a bubble is not about age. It’s apparently genetic.

Copyright 2017 Pat Snyder




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