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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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).

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.)

.

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.)

.

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.

.

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

.

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

.

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.

.

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?”

.

WW 2017

.

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.

.

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).

.

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

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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

.

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.

.

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.

.

money-tree-plant

.

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.

.

money-tree-123116

.

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.

.

money-tree-010717

.

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.

.

happy-new-year

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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

.

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.

.

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).

.

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).

.

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.

.

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

.

Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas!

Last night I watched A Christmas Story, the only holiday movie I’ve watched more than once or twice. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen it: at least once all the way through every year, and even more in segments. I can turn it on at any point and know exactly what’s going on. In fact it’s playing in the background right now.

.

Santa BearI love this movie because I see so much of my own childhood in it. Oh, not the BB gun, or the bully Scut Farkas. But the nerdy little kid? That was me, frequently broken glasses and all.

.

I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee in the 1950s, a few years after the movie setting (I think—the year is never specified and the world outside Ralphie’s immediate view is never mentioned).

.

I grew up walking to school in a snowsuit that barely bent at the joints. I lived in a house much like the Parkers’. We had a coal furnace, although it was better behaved than the one Ralphie’s Old Man fought with. The school room, the clothes, the weather, all bring back memories.

.

I grew up listening to the radio, my mother’s favorite source of entertainment, even after my grandfather gave us an early TV set with a roundish screen about ten inches across. “Little Orphan Annie” was before my time, I think, and I never sent away for an official decoder ring, but I did drink Ovaltine.

.

My dad worked at an advertising agency in downtown Milwaukee, and on Thanksgiving we would join all the families in the business in the office, several floors above the main drag to watch the big parade and the arrival of Santa Claus (back in those days the Christmas season did not begin before Halloween!). That is, the kids watched the parade from the office windows. I suspect the adults were across the hall drinking martinis.

.

Ralphie’s ambitions for his theme ring a big bell. Heck, I still hope for a rousing reception for my written words (and I’m just as disappointed as Ralphie when the praise doesn’t materialize).

.

And his daydreams! Mine didn’t involve creeping marauders or a Red Ryder air rifle, but I definitely lived in them (and sometimes coerced my friends into acting them out).

.

And, of course, the broken glasses. I spent a large part of my childhood wearing glasses held together with tape at the bridge. I don’t remember ever breaking a lens, but I was hell on frames.

.

So did Ralphie grow up to be a writer? Of course he did—he grew up to be Jean Shepherd. Thank you, Mr. Shepherd, for all the stories, and thanks to the movie crew for a treat that makes my holiday brighter every year.

It all started with the dryer . . .

On August 20, my clothes dryer died, in the middle of the day’s last load of laundry. I wasn’t surprised. The dryer came from Montgomery Ward, years before they closed in 2001; it was at least twenty years old, probably older. I’d already gotten a couple of extra years out of it by replacing the main belt. The washing machine sitting next to it still worked, but it was just as old. Aha, I thought. My birthday is coming up shortly. I will treat myself to a new washer and dryer.

.

I shopped around, but there really isn’t much of a price range on appliances. I picked out a pair of machines from LG (I already had an LG refrigerator and an LG smart phone, why not go for something in the middle?) and ordered them on August 26.

.

Delivery was scheduled for the morning of Friday, September 2. After numerous calls and a long day of waiting, the truck showed up about 6 p.m. The dryer was installed without problems. The washer had a slight dent, but by then I didn’t care. Sending it back seemed much more trouble than a dent.

.

Unfortunately, the washer wouldn’t drain, producing a puddle on my adjoining kitchen floor. The installers, whose competency rating was sliding rapidly downhill, blamed the problem on the drain hose. They chopped the end of it off and told me all would be well. It wasn’t. More water on the floor. The installers went out to their truck, made a phone call, and assured me someone would come fix it Monday morning.

.

I didn’t believe them. The drain hose explanation made little or no sense. The next day I went back to the store and spoke to the saleswoman. She checked with the delivery company and the service department—no record of any call or any help scheduled for Monday. And no one thought the hose explanation made sense.

.

So I went home and called the best appliance man I know, who said, “Nonsense. Your drain is blocked. You need a plumber.”

.

I couldn’t argue with that. The house is sixty years old, and I knew the plumbing wasn’t in good shape. In fact, plumbing-5I’d wondered if I might come home one day and find the ceiling on the floor after a pipe broke in the attic. So I called the plumbing/electric/air & heat contractor that I’ve used in the past, and they sent a plumber out on September 6. The drain was blocked, all right, and he couldn’t do anything with it.

.

On September 9, another Friday, three weeks after the demise of the dryer, a senior plumber came out with a pipe camera, and the project began to spiral.

.

No hope for the pipes draining my kitchen and utility room. They would need to tunnel under the house and replace the broken sewer line, running a new one across the back yard to join the old one. The city inspector would expect all the plumbing to be in working order, so he’d better check to see that the water heater in the attic was up to code. Good news: the relatively new water heater was fine. Bad news: the ancient pipes were not, and looked ready to burst any time. Worse news: since the inspector would look at everything, that included the guest bathroom, where nothing had worked for years.

.

Verdict: total re-pipe of the house, two tunnels under the foundation, two new sewer lines. The job would take a week or so. Not exactly the birthday present I was hoping for.

.

The diggers started on Monday, September 12th. The contractor’s pest control guy came by and gave me a plumbing-4price for rodent-proofing the house (I didn’t want poison in the attic, and they don’t use it) and spraying for termites. Both needed, still on the to-do list.

.

That night it rained, almost three inches. When I looked out the back door of the garage, the partially dug tunnel was full of water. Literally. Up to ground level. To my amazement, the diggers had the water pumped out and were back at work by mid-morning, but there was mud everywhere.

.

Meanwhile the inside plumbers got started, Nutmeg the cat began her exile to the only room in the house that had no plumbing and a door that stayed closed, and the electrician came out to look at my sixty-year-old circuit box. A total disaster, everything in it fused solid. Along with several other problems, including new GFI outlets throughout the house, that job is also now on the to-do list, above the pest control.

.

On September 19, the re-pipe was finished and the washing machine was hooked up and draining, through the sewer line that was laid but neither covered nor attached to the main sewer line. The diggers had moved on toplumbing-1 the tunnel on the other side of the house, and everyone waited for the city inspector.

.

Still waiting for official word from the first inspector on Friday the 23rd, and now a second inspector, from the water district, wanted his turn, but not until next week because it was raining. And he only worked part time. Meanwhile the contractor’s office was asking the job supervisor about the rest of the money (we both said, “When it’s finished!”) and the sheet rock repair man came to cover all the holes the plumbers had made (and a few they hadn’t).

.

Sheet rock guy was back the next day. So was the rain.

.

On Monday the 26th, the painter came to tidy up all the sheet rock repairs, and the tile man came to repair the damaged tile where a new faucet and shower control was being installed in the hall bathroom (along with a new toilet—by now I was saying, “Oh, sure, why not?” to just about anything).

.

More waiting until both inspectors gave their final approval—and posted it to the computer system where the plumbing-3contractor could see it. The diggers made quick work of refilling the tunnels and trenches (leaving my back yard awash in dirt, but some things can’t be helped. I’ve bought a pair of rubber boots), and on September 30 the plumber finished work on the hall bathtub and shower.

.

On Sunday, October 2, a friend from out of town stopped in, and I was able to say, for the first time in years, “Bathroom? Down the hall and to your right.” It wasn’t decorated yet, but everything worked. I hung the new shower plumbing-2curtain and arranged the new towels, and I had a bathroom that functioned.

.

On Monday, October 3, the job supervisor came out. We walked around the yard, looked at the indoor work, and I wrote another check.

.

I figure when I’m finished (if one is ever finished fixing up an old house) I will have spent just about as much as the house cost us in 1976 (it was twenty years old then). I still have to have the electrical and pest control work done, and there’s still a lot of mostly cosmetic work I’d like to do. But my plumbing problems are over.

.

And it all started when the clothes dryer died.

Previous Older Entries