Back on Trek

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been a Star Trek fan for fifty years (gee, that’s a little scary), since I was in college during the first run of the The Original Series (as it was not known then).

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During and after that run, as I caught up with missed episodes in reruns, I also read most, if not all, of the paperback spin-off novels that came out, some of them written by well-known science fiction writers of the day.

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By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, life, and syndication, got in the way, and I picked up episodes of that and of Deep Space Nine rather sporadically. Didn’t even think about reading the accompanying novels, although over the years I have caught up with watching both series.

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Then came Voyager. By then my life was a bit more settled, and so was the broadcast schedule for the show, now on a regular (if short-lived) network rather than syndication. I watched Voyager from the beginning, fell in love with the ensemble cast, and read the Voyager novels (varying in quality but all featuring the familiar cast) as they came out.

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After Voyager returned to Earth, finishing its seven-year run, I read a few of the “relaunch” novels that appeared, but wasn’t terribly impressed, and there weren’t many of them. I stopped watching for them not that long after the series ended, when I heard that some writer (in a Next Generation novel, I think) had killed off Kathryn Janeway.

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Voyager without Janeway, the redoubtable first female captain with her own series? I don’t think so. Chakotay without Janeway, break my heart again.

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Not too long ago I was wondering what the Trekverse had in store for the cast of Deep Space Nine after that show closed. I knew there must have been any number of novels written in the years since then. So I went poking around on the Internet, where I learned that, this being science fiction, Janeway was restored to life four books into a (currently) nine-book relaunch series by a single author, Kirsten Beyer.

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Full CircleI tried to resist, but I failed. Completely. I devoured the first two books (Full Circle and Unworthy) over the Memorial Day weekend (and these are not short novels), the third (Children of the Storm) during the week, and the fourth (The Eternal Tide) this weekend. Hooked, obviously. I’ve downloaded number 5 (Protectors), although I might force myself to read something else next. Maybe.

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As a reader and as a writer, I’m impressed with how well Kirsten Beyer has handled bringing in backstory from five TV series and countless novels without huge info dumps and without leaving the reader (assuming a certain degree of Star Trek knowledge) totally confused. There are literally hundreds of books out there (if you think I’m exaggerating, check out Wikipedia’s List of Star Trek Novels), and there may well be people who have read them all. I’m not one of them, and never will be, but I am enjoying these.

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However, I’m not writing this to tell you “Read these books, you’ll love them!” Unless you’re a long-time Star Trek fan with a special affection for Voyager, you probably wouldn’t. It’s a niche market.

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What I am sharing, as I babbled to a writer friend recently, is the joy of rediscovering books that keep me up late, books that I can’t put down. Books that have me reading 1800 pages in ten days or so. The joy of binge reading.

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Writers come to look on reading almost as homework, too alert to the mechanics, watching to see how the writer has done something, kicking ourselves because we don’t think we can do it as well, or because we really wish we’d thought of (or written) something on our own. Although most of us are bookaholics, with huge piles of books we really want to read, on our shelves or our ereaders, the book that keeps us up all night, that keeps us away from whatever we think we should be doing, becomes a rare find.

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So when you find an author, or a series, or a subgenre that you fall in love with, go ahead and binge. Reading should be a joy, not an obligation, and I’m delighted, and thankful, to have been reminded of that.

 

More Techno Fun

Yesterday morning I found my computer waiting for its password—it had updated and rebooted during the night. That always makes me a little nervous. The computer is eight years old and often slow. A while back it took me two hours and a lot of experimentation to get it back on after an update, and a few weeks ago an update wiped out my Quicken file (I’ve been more careful about back ups since then). This time there were no update-related problems.

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But when I opened my email, I found some very strange messages. Two were automated “not taking queries” responses from agents I have not queried. There were a couple of “you can’t post here because you don’t belong to this forum” emails from RWA forums that, indeed, I do not belong to. A couple of bounce notices from old email addresses. I later found spam emails, apparently coming from my email address, on a couple of lists I do belong to, and at least one friend received a spam link from me.

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Drat. Spoofed again.

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So I dove into the depths of AOL to change my password. I suspect the spoofing had nothing to do with my password, but it doesn’t hurt to change them, and the one I’ve been using, probably since the last time I had some minor disruption in service, was hard to type. I stuck a couple of unrelated words together and had a new password. My computer and the cloud based email system were fine with it.

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My phone wasn’t.

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I put the new password into the generic email app that the Verizon salesman set up for me two years ago when I bought the phone, and was informed, in no uncertain terms, that it was incorrect. Tried again. And again. The very definition of stubborn stupidity, repeating the same action and expecting a different result. I did not get a different result, no matter how often I tried.

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I checked AOL help and found nothing useful, but after spending way too much time on the problem, the passing mention of an AOL android app finally clicked. I found my way to the app store, downloaded AOL, and was back in my email immediately. (And in the evening I figured out how to stop the old app from demanding authorization every time I woke the phone up.)

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What strikes me as funny about the whole thing is that not much more than two years ago I’d never read an email on a phone. I didn’t have a phone that could handle the job. I didn’t know what I was missing, but now I do. The thought of not being able to access my email through my phone has become completely unacceptable.

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I’ve seen no more evidence of email spoofing since I changed the password, whether that was really a factor or not. My Amazon Fire tablet, which until recently was demanding a password every other time I opened my email, sometimes telling me it was wrong, and then letting me in anyway, still doesn’t seem to have noticed the change. So I have three ways to get to my email—too bad my email isn’t more exciting.

 

A Visit From the Easter Raccoon

Once again, a seemingly minor problem has spiraled into major household repairs (and expense), although fortunately not on the scale of the Great Plumbing Adventure of 2016. I’m coming to expect this sort of thing.

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It all started in January with the pitter-patter of tiny feet—no, make that the nightly stampeding of paws—above my head. We’d just had three days of cold weather so icy I couldn’t even get into Houston for work, and rodents had taken refuge in my attic. It wasn’t the first time in the forty plus years I’ve lived in this house, far from it, but I decided to take action and called in Pest Control.

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The pleasant and knowledgeable man who came to evaluate my situation immediately spotted the Hole in the Roof, which I had managed not to notice despite the fact that it was located low on the roof not far to the left of my front door. No wonder there were rodents in my attic.

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roof 1

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The Pest Control technician came the next day, and after he’d laid out traps in the attic we covered the hole in the roof with a handy wooden crate cover from the garage. The technician knew his business; the noise in the attic disappeared almost immediately and the slab of wood on the roof stayed in place.

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It stayed in place for several weeks, as I became more and more complacent and found any number of things more important than calling someone to repair the roof. I’d glance up there each morning when I went out to collect the newspaper, satisfied that everything was under control.

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Until I woke up on the Saturday morning before Easter to a crash and the sound of paws running through the attic. When I went out to get the paper, it was clear that that the wood had been moved and the hole exposed. What an enterprising . . . rodent, I thought, as I moved the wood back in place. The traps up there will take care of this.

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Nope. Come evening, great banging around upstairs told me that something was trapped in the attic, something larger than my previous tenants. I went out and moved the board, came back in and made loud noises by snapping the door to the attic, and went back out.

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There was a raccoon on the roof, sitting next to the hole, staring back at me.

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I waited half an hour or so, until I was sure the raccoon had gone on about its nocturnal business. Then I put the wooden slab back in place and weighted it down with a large artillery shell (my garage is full of a remarkable variety of strange objects) that my late husband used as an ashtray.

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The next morning, Easter, I heard banging on the roof again, and when I went outside I could see that the wood had been moved again. Not wanting to trap the raccoon in the attic, I left my failed barricade as it was.

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Sometime on Monday, though, I realized that I hadn’t heard any more noise upstairs. When I climbed the ladder to check the hole in the roof, I saw that it had only been partially uncovered. Had the raccoon been unable to get back in? Had it met with an accident, or found a better place to live, maybe a furnished apartment over someone’s garage? I decided to take a chance and cover the hole again, this time adding the second artillery shell from the garage. (Don’t ask me where Jack found them, or why I’ve kept them all these years. Amazing what eventually comes in handy. Besides, it’s not that easy to toss a heavy brass object in the trash.) If I heard furious action in the attic, I could always go out and uncover the hole.

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roof 2

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Meanwhile, I found a local roofer with many excellent reviews. I contacted him on Tuesday, and while I was at work, he scoped out my problem. It would take a full square (a ten-by-ten-foot sheet of half-inch plywood) to repair the rotten decking that had allowed the rodents to tear a hole in the first place, and several hundred dollars. Maybe it wasn’t worth starting to patch a 22-year-old roof? Twenty years is a pretty typical life span for a roof in this climate, and my homeowner’s insurance company had been giving me grief over it for several years.

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roof 3

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So the roofers came on Monday at 7:30. An amazingly efficient crew of six or seven men had the whole job, including clean up, done by 5. It looks beautiful. Well, it looks like a nice, clean, intact roof, and the old gray rodent-chewed vents have been replaced by handsome black ones with caps to keep future rodents out. Of course all the leaves that were on the old roof are now on my lawn, but that’s a minor problem.

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roof 4

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I’m still listening for noise in the attic, but so far so good. According to Nutmeg, my cat, no animal in its right mind would have stayed around with all that hammering going on. I guess I’m lucky she didn’t pack up and leave. She did demand extra treats and a lot of cuddles.

 

Golden Heart Calling!

Wednesday, March 21, was a Big Day in the romance world, the morning calls went out to notify the finalists in Romance Writers of America’s® two big national contests, the RITA® (for published works) and the Golden Heart® (for unpublished writers). The calls go out fairly early in the morning: the RWA board members who make the calls love doing it, and the writers who have entered one of the contests are on pins and needles. (The Golden Heart takes up to 1200 entries; the RITA is capped at 2000.)

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I got very spoiled when my manuscripts made the Golden Heart finals in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Spoiled, but not sold, so I kept on entering, without success, in the following years. Last year I swore I’d never enter again, but when the time came I couldn’t resist. 2018 will be the last time, I said to myself. I’d rewritten the beginning of Jinn on the Rocks after getting some constructive criticism from the judges in the Emily contest last year. Good to go.

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By Wednesday morning, I was almost wishing I hadn’t entered, sure my poor Jinn wouldn’t final yet again. Humor is too subjective; it would never find five judges who thought it was funny. Then my phone started chiming—with text messages. My friend Leslie Marshman was a finalist in romantic suspense. Then my friend Sara Neiss got her call, a finalist in short contemporary. But no phone call for me.

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So a little after 9 I left for my Tuesday through Thursday job at the Scorekeeper, a thirty-mile commute, most of it on the freeway. Surely the calls had all gone out. Bummer. I’d never enter again. My phone kept chiming, and I pulled over into a restaurant parking lot to read the rest of the text messages, and to text Jo Anne that I was on my way in, no call, done with the Golden Heart. Loyal friend (and three-time Golden Heart finalist herself), she texted back, “Maybe later.” “Not holding my breath,” I replied, and got back on the road.

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For the next twenty minutes I ran through all the reasons I didn’t really want to be a finalist this year. Too much pressure. All those emails and Facebook posts. So many events to juggle at the National Conference in Denver in July. Finding a decent photo to send to RWA. The list went on.

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And then my purse rang.

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Congratulations balloonNormally I do not answer my cell phone while driving. Especially not while driving into Houston on I45. But this was Golden Heart day, so I pulled my phone out to look. “Restricted,” said the Caller ID. No phone number.

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I answered it anyway.

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And it was Donna Alward, an RWA Board Member, calling from Nova Scotia to tell me that Jinn on the Rocks is a finalist in the paranormal category of the Golden Heart.

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I managed to stay safely in my lane on the freeway, but it wasn’t easy. Probably a good thing the call only lasted two minutes (thanks to Donna, who knew I was driving). I broke another rule before I put the phone away, and texted “Me too” to the morning texters, confusing most of them.

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And suddenly all those reasons why I’d rather not final disappeared. I’m welcoming all the emails and Facebook posts, almost 50 new Golden Heart sisters, a giant ego boost. Golden Heart finals for all three of my Jinn stories. I am, once again, thrilled. (The balloon is from Jo Anne.)

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Contest judging is always subjective. No more than ten percent of Golden Heart entries make the finals; many excellent manuscripts don’t. I judged eight (in another category, of course), and I would have been happy to see two of them on the finalist list, but they didn’t make it. After all, ninety percent don’t final. We chalk it up to experience and move on.

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But, oh, what a thrill to make that list!

 

Flash Drives!

Recently the topic of backing up computer files came up at my local RWA chapter meeting. The next day I had a minor back up problem of my own. Either the monthly Windows update or the middle-of-the-night reboot that accompanied it scrambled my open Quicken file beyond repair. The most recent back up I had of the file was almost three weeks old, and it took a lot of paper (check book, bills paid, debit card receipts, etc.) to reconstruct the missing time (I’m a little OCD about financial records). Not a disaster, took me an hour or so to fix, but it did get me thinking about backing up files.

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I have an external hard drive to which my computer backs up frequently, but I’ve never bothered to learn how to retrieve specific files from it. It just sits there on my desk. I’ve always backed up (with varying degrees of frequency) to flash drives (or, back in the day, diskettes, and I’ll bet I have a box of those in the attic, with no computer in the house that will read them).

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I had been using a pair of 16GB drives, but I’ve been warned they don’t last forever, and they were starting to feel small (!), so I stopped by Office Depot and picked up a pair of 32GB drives (between the sale price and my OD rewards, the two drives cost me 16 bucks and change, sales tax included).

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flash drivesAnd I discovered a cache of seventeen flash drives in a small drawer on my desk, with no idea what’s on most of them, how old they are, how much they hold, or why I’ve kept them. So I decided to take a trip down (computer) memory lane.

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Four small round drives, 16MB each. The blue one is empty. The red one has a tiny file called “autorun.” One yellow one has a few files from 2007 and photos from the surprise birthday party my friends gave me that year. The other yellow one has an early version of a novel (all 640KB of it). Ten years ago those 16MB drives were quite roomy.

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A 128MB drive last used in 2010 has copies of four novels and a financial program Microsoft discontinued, and 45MB of empty space. Took me a minute to figure out how to open that one.

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Another 128MB drive from 2007 (a Corsair Flash Voyager) contains a few random files, a couple of fonts, and a collection of pictures by the artist Kliban.

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A 512MB drive shaped like a bullet has one back up each from my home and work computers, dated 2007. A 512MB Lexar drive holds the 2011 version of my novel that made the Golden Heart finals that year and a collection of landscape photos.

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A red Lexar drive holding about 1GB contains back ups from my work computer dated 2010. A matching blue drive, labeled “downloads,” holds a list of random files and a collection of wildlife photos from 2008 and 2009. Another 1GB Lexar holds birthday party pictures, software I don’t even recognize, and a few random files.

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Moving up to 2GB drives, I have two that I probably bought because they have pretty floral cases. One has a copy of a novel and a back up from December 2012. The other one contains the set up file for a Sudoku program that has long since disappeared from commercial availability and the chapter affiliation files for 2011 for West Houston RWA (I was president of the chapter that year). A 4GB drive in a floral case has back ups from 2014.

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Then came a pair of Lexar 8GB drives, both holding back ups from 2015, and another pair of Lexars, 16GB each, that I started using in 2016.

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Clearly, I could throw most of these drives out right now, and never miss them. But I don’t think I will. It’s fun to poke through them and see what I’ve saved over the years. I’m impressed by the fact that, despite dire warnings of shelf life, every one of these drives opened without a problem (at least digitally—a few of them were a bit puzzling to open physically). I am not impressed by my rather spotty back up practices.

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I resolve to do better with my new 32GB flash drives, rather like carrying an umbrella on an overcast day. If you have it, chances are you won’t need it, but if you need it you’ll be glad you have it.

 

Resplicing the Cord

On October 16 I came home to find my cable service was out. A few days later the technician who came to fix it was unable to fight his way through the bamboo to reconnect the cable, which had come loose from the tap (Nature vs. Technology).

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Thanks to a number of domestic distractions (the check engine light in my car, requiring a new set of fuel injectors; the onset of cold weather, requiring not one but two visits from the furnace repairman and several very cold nights) and the difficulty of finding someone willing to cut down the necessary bamboo, the cable remained unattached until December 21.

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I didn’t go entirely without video entertainment over those two months. Several shows I enjoy on CBS were available on line the day after they were broadcast. I discovered the Comcast streaming app, which allowed me to watch most cable shows on my Fire tablet (but not the local or broadcast channels, which require the user to have Comcast Wifi—my Internet and Wifi are provided by my phone company). I made considerable use of Amazon Prime and watched the second season of The Man in the High Castle on my tablet. I did not dip into my fairly extensive DVD collection except to watch a couple of old movies (Breaking the TV Habit).

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So many weeks of no activity on my TV boxes may have triggered something in the Comcast computer system: a week or two into December the streaming app stopped offering me anything but random college athletics, and the web sites for TNT and the History Channel stopped recognizing my Comcast log in.

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That’s when I finally got serious. Through a friend, I found a handyman willing to help me cut the bamboo (amazing how much bamboo landed on the ground in my back yard—twenty or so 55-gallon bags of the stuff have been chopped up and disposed of, and we’re only half done with that). That’s when I found out that the utility pole actually is in my yard; there’s a fence and a large tree blocking it on the other side of my fence, and it serves at least three houses.

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Bamboo 2

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A Comcast technician came out a couple of days later. Between getting his ladder into position, replacing several ancient connectors, and using his tablet to reset all three of my TV sets (why one person needs three TVs is a question for another day), he spent about an hour and a half on my problems, but when he left everything was working as it should.

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That was almost ten days ago, and I find that much of my habit breaking has stuck. I’ve caught up on a couple of shows On Demand, but on the whole I’ve been much more selective about my TV use, reading more, going to bed earlier, listening to the radio more. I’m glad to have the Music Choice Smooth Jazz Channel back—I’m not a person who thrives on silence, I need background noise.

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Other habits have changed as well. I used to do the Houston Chronicle puzzles every evening, apparently while I was ignoring something on TV, because I now have over a month’s worth of puzzle pages piled up on my coffee table. I used to fall asleep watching TV in the bedroom—now I rarely turn that one on.

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Am I thinking of cutting the cord on purpose? Not any time soon. I like the convenience of cable service. I don’t want to have to manage several different sources for the shows I want to see. But I’m definitely keeping my Internet and Wifi with Frontier. I’ll keep those eggs in multiple baskets for the foreseeable future.

 

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.

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