Breaking the TV Habit

They say it takes three weeks to establish a habit, although I suspect that’s a very optimistic estimate. Does it take the same time to break one? Tomorrow it will be three weeks since my Comcast cable detached itself, perhaps with the help of the vegetation shrouding the utility pole and preventing the Comcast tech from reconnecting it.

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I would have been a lot more aggressive about solving this problem if I had ever been convinced to bundle my phone and Internet connections into my Comcast account. Fortunately, those are provided by my phone company, Frontier, and work just fine, along with my Verizon smart phone. With Frontier’s wifi, I have full use of the Amazon Fire tablet I bought a few months ago. It’s not a full-scale tablet for writing and I’m not impressed with the browser, but it’s a great little entertainment machine, which is exactly what I wanted.

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So Cable TV is all I’ve been doing without. That’s not only a first world problem, but folks not far from me are still displaced from their flooded homes, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. I am not complaining.

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I’ve been surprised to discover how quickly I’ve adapted to the lack. (It helps that I’m not a rabid baseball fan and probably wouldn’t have watched any of the recent Astros games anyway, for fear of being a jinx.) I use the TV for background noise at least ninety per cent of the time, running marathons of shows I’ve seen dozens of times or listening to jazz on Music Choice. That’s easily taken care of—I have radios all over the house, including two HD radios that pull in the jazz and classical music stations that Houston seems unable to support over the air (a disgraceful situation in such a large metropolitan area, if you ask me).

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I have discovered that I actually watch very few current shows. I don’t watch reality shows, and over the last year the news has become the worst reality show of all. For what I do want to see, I’ve found alternative methods. CBS.com shows current shows the day after broadcast. (No, Star Trek fan that I am, I haven’t subscribed to their pay service.) The Xfinity Stream app I downloaded to my Fire tablet allows me to watch most cable shows live (I watched the return of Major Crimes on TNT the other night), as well as access to the Music Choice Channels. (Apparently one only gets full service and broadcast channels with an Xfinity home wifi network, but there’s the eggs-in-one-basket thing again.)

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On the Fire or the computer, there’s a lot to enjoy on Amazon Prime: movies, TV, and some very good Amazon-produced shows, and a wide range of music. And then there are the three shelves of DVDs, many of them as yet unwatched, in my living room. This week I’ve rewatched Topkapi and Heavenly Creatures.

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What I have escaped from, I now realize, is the schedule. I’m not planning my evenings by what’s on TV, or when some show starts. I’m not searching for something to “watch” (largely meaning ignore) while I’m getting it all together in the morning. I’m not staying awake at night to watch something I’ve seen a dozen times, just because it’s there. I’m not planning my lunch break to coincide with some show I’ve seen seven times, or hurrying home from something to catch another rerun. The next time my cable box gives me trouble, I’ll probably get one without a DVR.

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Yes, I will get the service reconnected one of these days. I have a new understanding of those who cut the cord with their cable TV providers, but I still like the convenience. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more, getting to sleep earlier, and not watching reruns (well, I have been keeping up with Deep Space Nine on Amazon Prime, but that’s it, honest). I’m going to try to stick with that. We’ll see if three weeks plus is long enough to change a rather mindless habit.

Nature vs. Technology

One of the hazards of living alone is that there’s no one else around to handle some task I don’t want to do. If I can’t do if myself, I pretty much have to hire it done. (The benefits include eating cereal for supper, knowing what’s in the refrigerator, and never finding the toilet seat up in the middle of the night.)

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Monday afternoon I came home from the grocery store to find the TV, which I had left playing the smooth jazz station on Music Choice, displaying the dreaded “One Moment Please” signboard. Well, once in a while, the channel really does come back on shortly, so I turned on the radio and waited half an hour to call Comcast. The mechanical woman who answers the phone there (and does her best to protect any human being from having to talk to a customer) assured me there was no outage in my area and offered to send a reset signal to my cable box.

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I have never ever had a problem solved by a reset signal, but it was worth a try. When I got a text message half an hour later asking if the reset had succeeded or failed, I replied “failed.” By then I had checked my other TVs and discovered that none of them were working. I tried to explain that to the thickly accented Comcast agent who called me back, but he insisted on trying to fix the living room box. The usual procedure of unplugging the box and plugging it back in resulted only in a total failure of the box to reboot. At that point the agent (in India, I’m sure) gave up and scheduled a tech appointment for Friday morning, the next day that I could be home.

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I use the TV for background noise ninety per cent of the time; I’m used to it, but not having it isn’t a great sacrifice (albeit, given Comcast’s rates, a rather expensive one). So for several days I listened to the radio, watched video on my tablet, read, and went to bed earlier than usual with no TV to distract me.

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Then the reminders kicked in: one email and two phone calls, one leaving a voice mail, on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, I was up early, in time for another phone call at 7:30 and a text message saying the tech was on the way. The next text message, at 8:23, telling me that the tech had arrived, was a bit disconcerting, since there was no tech in sight, but a nice young man did arrive at 9:05. He listened to my description of the problem—the TV box in the living room was out, the one in the bedroom had the right time and the program guide, but no programs, and the ancient TV in the sewing room had no video signal—he immediately knew that the problem was in the outside wiring, specifically in the line coming from the utility pole out back.

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And that’s where Nature came into the picture (or lack thereof). The utility pole is shrouded in bamboo. Wet bamboo, thanks to the overnight thunderstorm we’d just had. The Comcast tech couldn’t get his ladder close to it. He went around the block and approached it from the other side (the pole is actually located on the other side of the fence in a neighbor’s yard). He could see the disconnected line from there, but couldn’t reach it.

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Comcast, he told me, leases access to the utility easement and poles from CenterPoint, the company that handles all the electrical infrastructure around here. Hacking through the bamboo is not the cable company’s responsibility.

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So I called the local tree service that contracts with CenterPoint to trim trees. I had their phone number because they’d left a note on my door a few weeks ago, but as far as I can tell they never did any work in my yard. It seems to me that if Comcast can’t get to the utility pole, neither can the phone company or, more to the point, CenterPoint’s own workers. When the tree service supervisor called back, he seemed pretty unconcerned about pole access, although he did promise to send someone out to look at the problem next week.

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So I’m contemplating the thought of spending a chunk of this weekend hacking down bamboo myself, waiting to see what the tree service says, or looking for someone I can hire (spending a chunk of money rather than time) to solve the problem. And then calling Comcast back and finding someone to actually listen to what I need.

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I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was horrified by the thought of no TV—but she wanted to watch the Astros game last night. Missing that didn’t bother me—I’m glad they won, but I wouldn’t have been watching. I have radios, books, Amazon Prime, piles of DVDs, and the Internet. I can weather a few more days without Comcast just fine.

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But it makes me wonder just who really has jurisdiction over something as simple as utility poles (alas, my neighborhood was built up long before buried lines came into use). And maybe it would be nice to have a husband, son, brother, or nephew who would go out and cut down that bamboo while I read a book.

More Adventures in Technology

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the phrase “easy self install” going back years. When I first got a DSL line for my computer (after surviving dial-up Internet access far longer than I should have put up with it), it took me several hours, moving the entire computer set up to a different phone jack (and a different room) and a long conversation with a technician in the Philippines to get the little modem working. I avoided making any changes, even when I began to feel the lack of home WiFi, for fear of being told to self install another modem.

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Avoidance didn’t work with Comcast, as cable boxes over the years either stopped working or were declared obsolete. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to change my own boxes (sometimes including searching out the nearest Comcast store front and hoping they had what I needed in stock), and I don’t think I’ve ever done it without at least one phone call to tech support. On occasion even that didn’t help, and I’ve had to sift through multiple web sites and forums to solve a problem.

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So a few months ago, when I called Frontier Communications in frustration over the latest Internet outage, I resisted the idea that my (by now antique) modem was at fault. The woman on the other end of the phone insisted there was no general outage (although two friends in my general area had confirmed that their service was out, too), but she said she would send me a new modem, which I could easily self install. Yeah, right.

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My Internet service was back to normal before the new modem arrived. I put the unopened box aside, despite a growing suspicion that the modem hiding in it probably handled WiFi (these days does anyone even make a modem that doesn’t?). I wasn’t going to invest several hours of frustration trying to find out.

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Then a couple of weeks ago I came home to find that my land line phone was dead. Even with my spiffy smart phone, I’m too old and set in my ways to give up my land line, even if most of the calls I get are ones I don’t answer (thanks to Caller ID). And worse, the problem on the land line was making my Internet connection hopelessly unstable.

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The phone went out sometime on Wednesday. It came back on Thursday evening, and went out again on Friday morning. So Saturday morning I followed the troubleshooting instructions on the Frontier web site, took my one remaining corded phone (which works when the power goes off and my cordless phone system won’t work—useful for calling the electric company) out to the connection box and plugged it in. Perfect dial tone. So I called Frontier and arranged a tech appointment for the following Friday (the soonest both a technician and I could be here at the same time).

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When I got home from work on Wednesday, a week after the initial outage, both the phone and the Internet were working perfectly. But I wasn’t going to cancel that tech visit, knowing full well that the moment I did, the phone would die again.

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new modem

Yay! WiFi at last!

Fortunately, the Frontier technician, a very nice and very competent young man named Seth, agreed, and quickly traced the problem to a bad wire in the phone jack handling the cordless phone base and the computer line. Once he’d fixed that, he looked at my ancient modem (circa 2010) and asked if I wouldn’t like a new one, a decent one with WiFi.

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So I handed him the unopened box Frontier had sent me, and he had the new modem installed and the WiFi working perfectly with the computer, my smart phone, and my Kindle within ten minutes. I’m absolutely sure it would have taken me at least two hours and a phone call—if I was lucky.

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And I am no longer the only person without WiFi in my house. Just think of all the gadgets I have done (quite happily) without because I didn’t have WiFi. Maybe I’d better lock up my credit cards for a while.

Retail Memories

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about the changes in the retail industry, as so many sales move from brick and mortar stores to the convenience of shopping via computer, and those neighborhood stores seem to fall like dominoes. I hadn’t given it much thought until I read a story in the Chronicle business section this morning about the long and possibly terminal decline of Sears.

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Back in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Florida State, I worked at the Sears on Coral Way in Coral Gables, Florida. It felt like a step up from the previous summer, when I worked in the office of a small department store, part of a local chain called Jackson Byrons. At Sears I worked in the cash office, filling and handing out pay envelopes. Yes, back then Sears paid its employees in cash, and my job involved accepting the cash from the registers on the floor, running it through the counting machines, and making up the pay envelopes. A larger office next to ours handled all the checks and Sears credit card transactions. In 1967, that was it—cash, checks, and Sears cards.

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It was not an exciting job, but I liked the women I worked with, and I didn’t have to work on the sales floor, a job I am totally unsuited for and have successfully avoided all my life. In fact I seriously considered bailing on my college career and staying on at Sears, encouraged by Mabel, the kind-hearted woman who ran the office. My parents did not think that was a Good Idea, and eventually neither did I. (Maybe the dress code was the final straw—dresses, stockings, and high heels.)

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My next encounter with Sears was not so pleasant. A few years later, living in New Orleans while I attended grad school at Tulane and Jack worked on an archeological project in the French Quarter, I innocently tried to change the Sears charge account I had had for several years to my married name. Sears’ reaction was to close my account and offer to open one for Jack. This was not uncommon in the 70s—the same thing happened to a friend of mine when she attempted to replace a card her dog had chewed on—and it inspired me to open accounts of my own as soon as the credit industry began to recognize married women as independent people. (The Discover Card was one of the first, and I’ve had mine since 1990.)

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Sears used to be the Go To place for appliances—in fact, my dad bought a refrigerator on my employee discount—but no more. The Big Box stores are just easier. I bought my current refrigerator at Conn’s (I was in a hurry and they had quick delivery; as I found out later, they had very slow service) and my washer and dryer at Best Buy. I haven’t shopped at the Sears nearest me, in Baybrook Mall, in years, partly (and ironically) because Baybrook is still a healthy mall, the stores and the parking lots always crowded.

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Every time I drive into Houston, I see, from the lofty viewpoint of the freeway, the freestanding downtown Sears store that opened in 1939. I have never set foot in it, although I have lived here for forty years. I wouldn’t know how to reach it via the surface streets (well, it’s at Richmond and Main, I could figure it out). It was once, they say, the epitome of elegance, art deco exterior, interior decorated with murals, escalators connecting all the floors, and, surely a treat in Houston in 1939, air conditioned.

Sears Downtown 1940

The downtown Houston Sears circa 1940

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Sometime in the 1960s, management chose to cover the entire exterior, including the windows which once housed lavish displays, with corrugated metal. Today it looks, as a writer for the Chronicle described it, like a store wrapped in cardboard, as it sits alone in a part of the city that was once a shopping mecca but is no more.

Sears Downtown

The downtown Houston Sears today

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Here in Houston, Sakowitz is long gone. Foley’s was swallowed by Macy’s, which is now closing stores. Montgomery Ward is gone. Borders Books more recently. Whole shopping malls have been torn down or repurposed as something else entirely.

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Back when I was handing pay envelopes to my fellow workers at Sears, none of us could have imagined the Internet, or a computer in every home, much less on line sales hubs or the Amazon app on my smartphone. Maybe home delivery by drone really is right around the corner.

Writer Wednesdays: Favorite Phone Apps

The Wednesday Writers are back, with a new list of slightly wacky topics for 2017. This month we’re asking one another “what is your favorite phone app?”

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WW 2017

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It was the prospect of phone apps that pushed me to move to a smart phone after years of carrying a basic Tracfone in my purse. I insisted for years that I didn’t want or have any use for a cell phone, until I started commuting to a job thirty miles from home. Shortly after I found myself marooned on the side of the freeway at twilight, waiting for a Good Samaritan to happen by and tow me to safety, I bought that first Tracfone.

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I seldom used it. Didn’t give out the number. Didn’t even turn it on very often. And then one evening, twilight again, about a year and a half ago, my car stalled on the way to an RWA chapter meeting. And I found out just how hard it was to contact AAA, and to punch in my account number, on that little phone (my sister-in-law swears I somehow called her before I got AAA).

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There must, I thought, be an app for this.

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phone apps 1So about a year ago, I finally marched into the local Verizon store, bought an expensive phone (an LG V10), and signed up for service. Among the first apps I downloaded were AAA and my car insurance company. Thankfully, I have yet to use either one of them.

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I still don’t make many phone calls with my cell phone, but I have learned to text. I give out the number now. I get robo-calls, which I have learned to recognize and ignore.

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But I certainly use the phone, the little computer I carry in my purse or park on my kitchen counter. I check my email and Facebook with it when I’m away from my computer (or my Internet connection goes down), but I don’t use Twitter or Instagram. I’ve never even opened any of the games that came with it. I don’t have any music on the phone, and I don’t watch videos. I use the Kindle app now and then, usually when I’ve forgotten my Kindle. Last summer I used the RWA Conference app quite a bit, and it’s still on the phone.

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I use the calendar all the time, and I’ve developed an obsession with the Google maps timeline feature, since the day I was startled to discover that the phone knew where I was. Most of the time. For some reason the maps app is convinced that my phone wanders off from time to time, usually at night, and apparently without me. But as long as I keep an eye on its roving, I find it a useful record of where (and when) I’ve been from day to day.

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My bank app makes it super easy to deposit my weekly paycheck from my kitchen counter. And speaking of the kitchen, I no longer keep a grocery list on the refrigerator door, where I all too often left it when I went out to shop. Now everything goes on the QuickMemo app as soon as I think of it, and I always have my shopping list with me.

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But I think my favorite app is the camera. My last Tracfone included a camera, but I never phone apps 2used it because I had no way to transfer the pictures out. (There probably was one, but the useless operating manual kept it a dark secret. It also claimed it could reach the Internet, but I never succeeded in making that happen.) The camera on my smart phone (far better than the digital camera I never remembered to carry with me) takes beautiful pictures and easily sends them to email addresses, Facebook, or someone else’s phone. I’m pretty sure I haven’t figured out half of what that camera will do. But I always have it with me, and I frequently remember to use it.

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What do you use your phone for? Any great apps I should know about?

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For more favorite phone apps, visit this month’s Wednesday Writers: Tamra Baumann, Pamela Kopfler, Priscilla Oliveras, T L Sumner, and Sharon Wray.

Money Tree

I am by no means known for my green thumb. I do remember to water my houseplants once a week (well, most weeks) and most of them appear to be happy. My outdoor plants are largely dependent on rainfall (my rain gauge picked up 66 inches last year), although I do water them now and then during dry spells. I live southeast of Houston, not too far from Galveston Bay, and last night we had our first freeze in several years. I won’t know for a while which plants survived, and I won’t worry about it until spring.

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But a sad case came into my life a couple of weeks ago, and I have resolved to nurse it back to health. A day or two before Christmas, a friend left a money tree plant for me on my desk at the Scorekeeper. This is probably what it looked like at the time, but I wasn’t there to see it.

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money-tree-plant

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Jo Anne didn’t give it much thought, and she had no reason to go into my office, so when I came in to work on Tuesday morning after Christmas, I found the plant pushed off the desk onto the windowsill, with most of its leaves chewed off, the victim of Sam, one of the office cats. Jo Anne thought the poor thing was a goner. It definitely wasn’t safe from Sam on my desk, and it wasn’t going to get enough light anywhere in my office, so I brought it home. This is how it looked on New Year’s Eve, with just a hint of new growth.

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money-tree-123116

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I’ve left it in my kitchen (yes, it’s sitting on the stove, giving you a hint as to my cooking habits—the microwave is on the other side of the room), following the instructions for a bright, well lighted area without too much direct sunlight, and it seems to be on the road to recovery. This is how it looks today, two weeks after its encounter with the plant-eating cat, still hanging on to the largest surviving leaf. All the other leaves are new, with more to come.

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money-tree-010717

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According to my on line research, the braided trunks of the money tree symbolize locking in good fortune for someone keeping the plant in her home or office. This particular money tree has certainly seen the ups and downs of fortune. I’m hoping we’ll thrive together.

Happy New Year 2017

Well, here we are in 2017, not a year I ever gave much thought to, back in the day. Anyone remember Y2K? The world didn’t end, or even falter, on January 1, 2000, and I’m going to assume that civilization as we know it won’t collapse this year, either.

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happy-new-year

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This morning my blog post from one year ago popped up on my Facebook feed, reminding me of my annual attempts to take stock. My resolutions, such as they are, remain the same. Write more. Publish something. Declutter the house. Lose a few pounds. Read more.

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I didn’t do well on “write more” this year. I did some editing on my Jinn books, and some for friends. I did not start a new manuscript, but I have some ideas for a fourth Jinn story. I entered the third Jinn story, Jinn on the Rocks, in two contests, and it made the finals in one, the West Houston RWA Emily contest. Fifty percent is about my standard—folks tell me that’s because I have a “strong voice.” I hope that’s true. I’m still dragging my feet on independent publishing.

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I wrote 53 blog posts, about one a week. That’s down from when I started in 2011, but fairly steady, and it gives me an outlet. I’ve written a few columns for my RWA chapter newsletter (Grammar Gremlins—you can find them in the articles section of this site if you’re interested). I went to the RWA National conference in San Diego in July, had a great time, learned a lot, and came home with every intention of diving back in. It was a very shallow drive.

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I have done a bit of decluttering—the old office is clearly in mid-process, just as it has been for months. The garage has a long way to go. The old sewing room, where my exercise bike sits mostly ignored, is in pretty good shape, with a work table for editing and a very old TV for noise. The plumbing jumped up and bit me when I tried to install a new washing machine, and the extensive work that caused took most of September, and a serious chunk of my bank account.

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Lose a few pounds? Yeah, well, I’ve gained about four. Better luck this year.

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In February I finally bought a smart phone. I won’t go so far as to say it has changed my life, but it sure has made some aspects easier. Contact with the outside world when the power or the Internet connection goes out. I deposit checks with it, and my relocated address book ties into navigation. I love the camera! It takes beautiful pictures (in spite of my minimal photographic talents) and sends them anywhere. I still don’t use it much for phone calls, but I have learned to text, usually in complete sentences, with punctuation. Some things don’t change.

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I did pretty well on reading, although it often feels like I never have enough time for it. I bought myself a new Kindle this year, a Voyage, and it’s a big improvement over my old keyboard Kindle (which I thought was pure magic when I got it in 2011).

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I raised my Goodreads Challenge target from 50 books to 60, and read 69 (compared to 72 in 2015). 41 of those were ebooks, a number that has risen steadily over the years. I’m sticking to that target this year, five books a month. According to Goodreads I read 19,705 pages this year (20,131 last year).

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In 2016 I read 14 romances, 21 mysteries (mostly cozies), 19 science fiction novels, five mainstream novels, and ten nonfiction books. Most of them were good; my average rating on Goodreads was 4.5 stars. I suppose I tend to be generous, knowing how hard it is to write a book.

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I plan to Keep Calm and Carry On in 2017, and wish you the best of luck with whatever comes your way.

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Happy New Year!

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