Monday, April 26, 2010

Celebrating A Cranky Anniversary

On its one-year anniversary, Middle-Age Cranky is moving to Wordpress, where it will be easier for readers to leave comments. Join me here.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Yesterday I rode my bicycle to the library.

In the abstract, it sounds silly for a man in his 50s to be riding a bicycle. But in the moment, I am astounded by how much I love it.

Part of it is just plain old common sense. It isn't far to the library, but that's a smidgen less gasoline used, and I hadn't done any other exercising over the weekend. But there's something more than that.

Mine is not a fancy bicycle. It's got 15 speeds, five more than the last bicycle I had, but I really only use the middle five. It takes me back. I was very independent for a seven-year-old. My working parents would let me cycle to the swim club, a couple of miles away. (I wonder if parents let their kids ride their bicycle that far anymore.) I used to ride my bicycle to the nearest Baskin-Robbins, when a single scoop cone cost 12 cents. That Baskin-Robbins is still there, but of course, the cones are more expensive now.

I remember my friend Jim Scott and I used to take a circuitous route up into the same hills, just to find ourselves at the top of a long and winding road. Sometimes we'd have to walk our bikes for part of the trip, but oh, that wonderful feeling of navigating those rolling curves on the way down. The downhill made the uphill all worth it.

These days, I sometimes cycle up to a nearby county park to go hiking, and it's a bit of a climb to get there. But oh, baby, that ride back down. The breeze, the ability to stop pedaling and be motionless, almost to be flying through the air, like a dream but wide awake.

There aren’t too many ways to feel like a kid again, but being on a bicycle sure is one of them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why I Love Facebook

According to the latest statistics, one-fifth of Facebook users are Baby Boomers. Although our ranks on Facebook aren't growing as fast as they were a couple of years ago, especially compared to younger people, we're still a major presence there. We need to be. It's the only place we can keep track of everyone. It provides pictures along with names, which e-mail doesn't. Let's face it, it’s the best memory aid known to Boomers.

I love it for that and for other reasons. As the following exchange of messages shows, even the most innocent posting spreads out into cyberspace like a rock in a pond and blossoms into advice, insight, and — best of all — serendipity.

4:54 pm

Howard Baldwin
I am sitting here trying to get the string to my sweatshirt hood back through its holes. Shouldn't there be a machine for this?

4:55 pm
Shelley Ewer
There is. It's called: fingers!

4:56 pm
Howard Baldwin
Oh, the warranty expired on those YEARS ago. Part of the problem that Gus is here helping me. He is torn between wanting to be in my lap and playing with the string itself.

5:00 pm
Shelley Ewer
Hire someone to do the tedious work. Why should you be bothered?

5:04 pm
Eva Langfeldt
Attach a safety pin to one end of the string, which will give you something to grab onto as you thread it through.

5:37 pm
Robin Snyder
What Eva said - use as big a safety pin as you can find. Or give up, and entertain the cat. :)

6:06 pm
Clark Buehler
I actually had to do this several times over the last several years and the answer is the safety pin but not necessarily the largest one. It depends on the design of the clothing you are trying to restore. Trust me on this one, some patience required.

6:16 pm
Halsey Royden
Try your knitting needles!

6:24 pm
Megan Diehm Gebhardt
You could pay me to do it! You know, there are experts for everything....

6:27 pm
Eva Langfeldt
Ixnay on the knitting needles . . .

6:33 pm
Mary Schaefer Mercogliano
This must be an ancient sweatshirt - can't buy them any more because of strangulation concerns - you should see the recalls the CPSC puts out on an almost daily basis recalling hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings. Savor your antique :)

6:35 pm
Martie Muldoon
Wait ... I know Howard, and I know Eva. How do Howard and Eva know each other????

7:23 pm
Eva Langfeldt
Wait, Martie . . . how do you know Howard? He and I have worked together frequently (albeit usually remotely) over the years, both of us being editorial freelancers in the high-tech field.

7:28 pm
Edwin Watkins
Tie one end of the string to a cat, put the hoody on the cat, gently place one paw of the kitty in the opening of the string portal, then light the cat on fire.

8:09 pm
Paula Pierce Crockett
Let Gus have the string and buy yourself a new sweatshirt!

8:21 pm
Martie Muldoon
Eva, Howard and I went to school together. Howard, Eva and I have played together in symphony and theater.

9:27 pm
Howard Baldwin
You're all hilarious, especially those of you who suggested Gus help out. Because serendipity rules the world, I found a foot-long twist tie on the kitchen table (I still don't know where it came from) and pushed that through ... with patience. Problem solved. I will try not to strangle myself.

1:45 pm

Amy Helen Johnson
Hey, I like the sound of that for a New Year's Resolution, Howard -- try not to strangle myself. I'm certain I shall be more successful at that than eating less sugar and exercising more.

8:50 pm
Virginia Shea
Eva, I didn't know you knew Howard! Small world!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sensors Gone Wild

I drove a rental vehicle in Seattle recently that gave me a horrifying vision of the future. It was a six-passenger van manufactured by Chevrolet, chosen so that we could drive around with both my friend Andrew and his kids without having to take two cars.

It was sufficiently huge that once the kids were strapped in, they couldn't close the sliding doors with enough force to close them securely. This would prompt a message on the dashboard: RIGHT REAR PASSENGER DOOR AJAR. This would in turn force Andrew to get out and slide the door shut again. But his doing so would trigger even more frantic error messages: PASSENGER SEAT BELT UNFASTENED and PASSENGER DOOR AJAR. (Yes, they were in capital letters; I'm surprised there weren't exclamation points involved.)

Andrew and I immediately began imagining an over-networked world where sensors cause havoc instead of promoting safety. "Can you imagine some poor guy trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital?" Andrew asked. "The car wouldn't start if she couldn’t get the seat belt around her midsection, and then you'd start getting all sorts of error messages: SEAT BELT NOT FASTENED. PASSENGER SCREAMS DETECTED. PASSENGER SEAT DAMPNESS DETECTED."

As a technology writer, I started realizing that all sorts of other nightmare scenarios were possible. At times, do-gooders have suggested that cars should have kill switches, so that the engines can't be started in any of a number of situations: an alcohol sensor indicates the driver is too intoxicated, or the seatbelt sensor indicates one or more of them is not fastened.

So what if car sensors networked with online banking systems? You'd try to start the car and start getting messages indicating you weren't going anywhere: PROPERTY TAX BILL NOT YET PAID; TRAVEL ON LOCAL ROADS NOT ALLOWED. GAS TANK ONE-QUARTER FULL, NO FILL-UPS ALLOWED UNTIL GAS CREDIT CARD BILL PAID.

These belittling warnings, of course, would not just be flashed on the dashboard; undoubtedly someone will figure out how to have that same annoying woman who sighs "calculating route" and "when possible, make a legal U-turn" on your GPS when you've gone in the wrong direction deliver them as well. An added "benefit": the volume would increase depending on how late your payments were.

With Webcams are already standard equipment on many computers, they'll probably migrate into cars before too long. I can only imagine algorithms that analyze how people are dressed, taking into account colors, patterns, and skin tones. Parents could have the car announce to their teen-agers: YOU'RE NOT GOING OUT DRESSED LIKE THAT. The algorithms, of course, could be reconfigured using a Web site based on the appropriate season. Heck, I'm thinking women would order this to make sure their husbands couldn't go out wearing striped shirts and plaid pants.

Hmmm. I may have stumbled on to something that will get people using mass transit.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Living With the Gray

One of my readers has suggested that I write more about controversial issues. This reader is not in my target demographic, and so may be less than captivated by my nostalgic Baby Boomer musings.

However, being controversial at my age is not as easy as it sounds. When you get older, things turn gray. I'm not talking about hair. I simply mean that once you've lived through multiple decades, crises, and presidents, life's political issues don't seem so black and white anymore. For example:

War. History vilifies English prime minister Neville Chamberlain for appeasing the Nazis in 1938; the Germans then overran Europe. Sometimes I think we suffered through the Vietnam War because politicians didn't want to see that same sequence of events — then referred to as the domino theory — replayed in Southeast Asia. It didn't happen, but we spent 50,000 lives and untold billions figuring it out.

We're purportedly in the Middle East today to keep it from being taken over by Islamic fascists, and yet, some of our allies there are as bad as the people we're fighting. World War I sowed the seeds for World War II; are we sowing the seeds for World War III in the Middle East today?

Pre-marital Sex. Once upon a time, pre-marital sex was bad. It brought unplanned pregnancies (the term "unwed mother" predated "single parent"). It spread sexually transmitted diseases. But society's disdain for it, like so many things, was hypocritical. Before marriage, boys were supposed to sow their wild oats and girls were supposed to be virgins. This is mathematically impossible.

Today, of course, there is no such thing as pre-marital sex. It's just sex. To my moderate mind, it helps couples see if they can reach the deepest levels of intimacy before they commit to a lifetime together. The alternative is to wait, discover you've chosen badly, and then divorce. But the same people who are against pre-marital sex seem to also be against divorce. This is emotionally impossible.

At the same time, it strikes me as unfair and even sexist that when young men and young women engaging in premarital sex create an unintentional offspring, it's the women who end up being the single parent. I believe the vagaries of the human spirit require some societal flexibility, but I worry about a world populated by only children who don't have the advantage of two parents who can trade off when one gets tired, not to mention the social graces they learn by having to share with siblings.

Politics. This is my grayest area of all. Rebelling against New Deal-Democrat parents, I registered as a Republican after my 18th birthday. But I went contrary to the tenet "if you're not a liberal by the time you’re twenty, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative by the time you’re forty, you have no brain." I have become more, but not completely, liberal. Like a lot of people I know, I've left the Republican party but still can’t bear to join the Democrats.

I've come to realize that not everyone has had the advantages I had growing up, and the government in its vastness should offer some assistance to people who are trying to better themselves. But I also believe that you can't fund everything forever. We seem to have devolved into government by attention-deficit disorder, wholly reactive and short-sighted as opposed to focusing on how to make the country better and stronger for the next generation. Congress uses the future like a credit card that never comes due, so it can take credit today.

But the bigger problem is that while I'm mired in gray, much of the rest of the country is mired in black-and-white thinking. The result: an increasing polarization of the country, an increasing demonization of opponents (casting a racial slur at John Lewis makes as much sense as calling George Washington a traitor to King George III). One side seems to spend precious little time even acknowledging that there may be another side. It twists the perspective on almost any situation to fit its own. I sit here discouraged because I feel like we've lost a sense of accommodation, of compromise, of working together for a common goal.

Maybe this is my generation, the me generation, writ large: we want what we want and to hell with your opinion. I find myself yearning for less extremism and more centrism, in essence a wider understanding that in a complex world, there is no black and white. There is only gray and we have to get used to living in it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

With A Little Help from Friends

The funny thing about pop culture is the way we amalgamate pieces of it into our lives. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would ask each other "Do you feel lucky?" years after Dirty Harry was released. To this day, I don't have to be standing knee-deep in galactic garbage to intone, "I have a bad feeling about this, Han Solo."

Furthermore, it's something we never outgrow. Even before the series ended, my wife and I had started incorporating bits and pieces of Friends into our lives. That's not surprising — not only was it was a funny, popular show for ten years, but it was one of the first TV shows to have all ten seasons available on DVD. (Some of us are still waiting for the complete Perry Mason and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) And of course, its reruns are as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy once was.

That's why I frequently ask cattily, "Did I say that out loud?" like Chandler, and my wife echoes Jack Geller by insisting, "I’m just saying." Occasionally, we'll quote Phoebe by shrieking, "This is madness … MADNESS!"

But the best thing we've extracted from Friends — and the one most germane to the theme of this blog — actually comes from a minor character: Mr. Heckles, the downstairs neighbor. Mr. Heckles was the neighborhood curmudgeon; even his name connoted someone bothersome. Played with hangdog perfection by character actor Larry Hankin (pictured), he had, among other traits, a bizarre attraction to animals. He claimed that the cat that belonged to Rachel's paramour Paolo was actually his, and he dressed Ross' capuchin monkey Marcel in outlandish outfits.

But mostly Mr. Heckles complained about the noise that came not only from Monica and Rachel's apartment, but from all the friends in general. When he died of a heart attack, leaving all his belongings to "the noisy girls upstairs," they discovered that Mr. Heckles kept a meticulous journal, nicely embossed with the words My Big Book of Grievances.

In this journal, he recorded all of his aggravations. "Italian guy [Joey] comes home late; excessive noise." "Italian guy’s gay roommate [Chandler] brings dry cleaning home; excessive noise."

This is the pop-culture concept we have taken into our hearts.

Mr. Heckles' book is the perfect antidote to the aggravations of life. When someone cuts me off in traffic, my wife says gently, "Put it in the Big Book." When a checkout line isn't moving fast enough, or when dinner doesn't look anything like the picture that accompanies the recipe, we simply look at each other and chime, "Big Book!"

It is the perfect release, a realization that most aggravations in life are not only transitory, but insignificant. And the mental image of recording something in an imaginary book has the exact opposite effect of actually writing it down on a piece of paper — instead of remembering it forever, it vanishes almost immediately. Instead of remembering the slight, we simply remember the Big Book.

That’s what Friends is for.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Slinking Through Time

Why is it that when you're a kid, everything close seems far away, but when you become an adult, everything far away seems close?

When I was a kid, World War II seemed very far away, even though my father and most of my friends' fathers had fought in it. Cars with fins seemed positively ancient, mostly because there had been a profound shift in design principles in 1961, when seemingly every single car manufactured in Detroit got lower and shorter.

I remember watching Some Like It Hot (1959) on television as a child, a movie that took place in 1929. I was horrified by the wanton destruction in the opening scene of what I considered to be antique automobiles. I realize now that they were only 30 years old at the time. When I see cars from 1980 today, they don’t strike me as valuable antiques; they look like candidates for wanton destruction.

But now I can watch movies from the 80s and not consider them dated at all. Movies from the 30s and 40s, not so much. I think it's because I lived through that era; having experienced it, it does not seem distant (that doesn’t explain the thing about the fins, though, because my father owned a 1960 Chrysler Imperial that had two of the most massive fins Detroit ever devised).

This is why I feel perfectly comfortable hearing Beatles tunes coming out of in-store music systems. It only strikes me as odd when I look at the people behind the counter and realize that the music is frequently older than they are. Did in-store music systems play Big Band music from World War II thirty years ago? Will they be playing Eminem and Larry Platt in thirty years?

In trying to understand this phenomenon, I ran across an entry in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy called The Experience and Perception of Time. To be honest, it gave me a headache trying to understand it. I really just wanted an answer to the question I stated at the top of this entry, but I found myself knee-deep in concepts such as A-theory and B-theory and even the Special Theory of Relativity. Heavens to murgatroid.

Since I couldn't grasp those philosophical theories, I've developed my own theory: the AM and PM theory. Anything that came After Me (AM) is familiar and comfortable, and remains so even as I age. My temporal perspective just keeps expanding like an infinite Slinky, and I keep gathering memories that seem like they happened yesterday. Everything what was Previous to Me (PM) just might as well be sitting at the wrong end of a telescope, perhaps close but still appearing distant. I think this is a much simpler theory to grasp.

And they call Baby Boomers self-centered.