Thursday, December 30, 2010

Goodbye 2010 - We Knew You Were Coming

I remember years and years ago working on a “think exercise” project to describe what Social Security (my then employer) would look like in the impossibly far-away year of 2010. We created a planning document, a path-finder, if you will, to keep us moving toward the 2010 we had envisioned. It was hopelessly optimistic at the time: a vision of service on demand without the need to visit an office, citizens filling out applications online - in their robes and slippers if they wanted, and snow-bound seniors in remote areas talking to a representative using video conferencing. And what strikes me as strange today is that most of it is now reality.

Goodbye, 2010. It seems like only yesterday when you were far, far away.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holidays With RVers

How are Christmas and "The Holidays" spent in an RV?

Some decorate any available surfaces:

Som just drive and hope they "run into" Santa:

Some realize Santa needs a latitude adjustment, too:

We hang our stockings, one for for each of us (but which belongs to John?), and one for each of the Keets:

And then our special ritual of the year -- A December Hottub photo!

Happy Holidays to you all!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Usually He Scratches

John and I periodically play pool, the winner for the day taking two out of three games. John is a slightly better pool player than I am, but I win more sets than he does because he habitually scratches on the 8-ball or sinks it in the wrong pocket.

We have our own pool cues with identical cases -- one case is labeled "winner" and one "loser." After each game, we use the appropriate case for our cue stick until the next time we play. I have had the "winner" case for... well, let's just say for longer than would be my fair share.

Today John was brilliant -- he easily won the first game, and almost ran the table on the second. And here is the final shot (children, do not try this shot without pool shark supervision!), on which the victory of his second win depended:

Look out, John... next time, the "trophy case" will again be mine!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Lettuce Entertain You

Location: Yuma, AZ

Every day at the Mexican border, buses pick up scores workers with temporary agricultural visas who have just walked across the checkpoint from Mexico into Arizona. The re-purposed school busses, pulling port-a-potties and hand-sanitizer wash stations, deliver the workers to one of the many lettuce fields in and around Yuma.

And then the day begins, a day that is just like yesterday was and just like tomorrow will be. It is another day of picking lettuce, and for most workers that means picking an astonishing 3000 heads before they head for home.

Yuma is the lettuce capital of the country from November through April (Salinas, CA, claims the honor in the summer). Crops are ready for harvest every 6 weeks or so, and fields are replanted as soon as the previous crop is gone.

Some interesting lettuce facts:

  • There are 70 varieties of iceberg lettuce alone.
  • Iceberg lettuce costs about $2,200 per acre to grow and should produce 700 to 800 cartons to the acre.
  • Picked head lettuce, if kept cool, will last 30 days. That is NOT in your refrigerator -- factor in the time it takes for it to get to you, and you are left with about 10 days of fridge time before the science experiments take over.
  • The Yuma lettuce fields are irrigated by water from the Colorado River. The irrigation pipes are moved from field-to-field as the season progresses. The cost to the farmer for water is $15 per acre/foot.
  • During the winter season, 12 million heads of lettuce are harvested in Yuma each day.

As John and I were driving around the country outside of Yuma, we spotted a group of lettuce pickers that were near enough to the road for us to stop and watch for a while. What we saw was an orchestrated symphony of picking virtuosity.

And it was obviously hard, back-breaking work.

An all-in-one, motorized trailer-esque vehicle slowly moves through the fields, at a stroller's pace (in the photo above, the entire assemblage is moving to the left). The front of the vehicle has filled pallets and boxes waiting to be filled. The rear is the picker's tossing station. And in between the two, workers box the lettuce, stacking the boxes into crates, and then the crates into pallets. The pallets are eventually transferred to trucks for distribution throughout the country.

It is the pickers that draw your eye. The pickers walk either behind or along side the trailer and drop the lettuce into buckets, then other workers put it on conveyors or pack it into boxes.

The pickers move quickly -- so quickly that it takes a while before you realize all that they are doing: bend down, decapitate a head of lettuce with a 12-inch knife, straighten up, hack off excess leaves with a couple practiced swings of the knife, bag the lettuce into the top-most piece of plastic wrap from a stack hanging from their waist, give it a twist and tie off the bag. A few seconds have now passed. They do another. And another. And another.

If they are working ahead of the end of the trailer, they drop the bagged head on the ground to be picked up by another worker as the wagon passes. Otherwise, it is delivered into the packing system in back. The pickers never stop. Pick, stand, hack, bag. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

We were mesmerized watching the operation in this field, and there were at least 3 other operations like this going on just in this one field. As we watched, one of the pickers waved John over, using hand gestures to offer us a head of lettuce. When he returned, John was juggling five.

A journalist named Gabriel Thompson has recently published a book, now on my "must read" list, entitled "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do." A section of this book covers his 2-month stint as a lettuce picker here in Yuma. He found picking lettuce is not merely back-breaking work, but also takes years to build the proficiency needed to keep pace with the trailer. Years of pick, cut, wrap, pick, cut, wrap -- hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

Lettuce doesn't get any fresher than our unexpected bounty. I have never thought of lettuce as having an identifiable smell, but it does -- field fresh lettuce has a subtle earthy smell, pleasant and herby, clean and crisp.

We had salad tonight, and the lettuce was the best I have ever had. And all through dinner I thought about what it took to get all the heads of lettuce I have eaten in my life to my table. Our heartfelt thanks go to "our" pickers-- we enjoyed your gift more than you will know.

Gabriel Thomson said, "I don't eat lettuce in any form without thinking that someone bent down, cut it and wrapped it - and did that thousands of times a day."

And we will always remember that, too.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Dandy Don Died Today

It came out of the blue on the Evening News - Dandy Don Died Today! I should research this more carefully, but just excuse me and let my memories take over.

Monday Night Football exploded into our lives as the war in South East Asia was grinding to an ignominious halt. Those of us who participated in the latter got no parades, but parades come and they go and they are over. Our welcome home was MNF with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Dandy Don Meredith, forever after known as "Jeff and Hazel's Baby Boy". He was the perfect foil to Cosell's dry wit.

I remember the "Ice Bowl" in Green Bay in 1967. That was the beginning of "the Frozen Tundra". Meredith was the Cowboy quarterback in that most exciting game. I forever after was a Cowboy fan as a result of that game (and possibly because a classmate of mine at the Air Force Academy played defensive end on the '68 thru '81 Cowboy teams).

Anyway, I'm rambling about great memories and good people. After all, it's Monday night, and guess what's on TV.

Turn out the lights, Don, and thanks for the memories.

Your friend,


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Changing Technologies as a Boomer Grows Up

I don't know how to be older. I've only ever been younger.

When I was growing up, television sets had one big dial, which you turned through the numbers 2 to 13 to find one of three networks -- ABC, NBC, or CBS (for simplicity, I'm talking only about VHF). As I got to early adulthood, a wire into the house was installed, and that "cable" filled up those 2-13 channels with an amazing array of programming, most of it local. Later, a box was added, and the box gave us more channels than we ever thought possible, opening up a world of networks.

My first computer was a TI 99/4A, and I used it to learn how to program using Basic (a computer language). Hard drives were unheard of then -- programs came on a cartridge and saving data was done on a simple audio cassette recorder. The video was displayed on a TV (the one already in your living room!), and I can still remember the whiny wheep-wheep sound the recorder made as the data was saved or loaded. Pong was amazingly high tech.

Next, an Apple IIE, and an Apple IIGS came into my life along with text adventures, floppy disks, and mono color monitors (your choice, amber or green text). Then came a series of PCs, each increasing in computing power and memory. Color TV was the newest and greatest gadget, although the reds looked eerily other-worldly and seemed to shine and fluoresce.

I was a full-fledged adult when some odd geeky whisperings could be heard about a thing called the "internet." I originally connected when Arpanet was the mover and shaker, finding servers in far off places with interesting articles and documents just waiting to be downloaded. There were no pictures, and no search engines. Things were found by stumbling upon lists of resources other people had found. Mysteriously named protocols like Archie, Veronica, FTP, WAIS, Telnet, and Gopher helped to navigate. Eventually Yahoo came to the information-discovery rescue by creating a way to really plumb the depths of the internet.

I was mid-career when the World Wide Web hit -- at first text-based experience, but graphics could be viewed if a separate application was installed. I was working in Information Technology (IT) -- as a Local Area Network (LAN) manager and a Systems Operator (SysOp), which led eventually to work as a web programmer/database administrator (DBA). At one point, I even knew how to rewrite an .ini file to optimize memory and why a DOS machine beeped at you as the operating system loaded!

Fast forward three short years ago when I left those hi-tech jobs for the fun and excitement of the gypsy life of a full-time RVer. It has not disappointed. But in that short time, it feels like the rush of technology is already zipping past at sonic speeds. I have a phone; it does not have "apps." I have a TV; it does not have Google, it does not connect to the internet, and it does not display 3D. I have an e-reader; it does not have color displays or play games, and it takes 60 seconds instead of 5 to download a book. I do not know what the difference between 3G and 4G really is. The electronics of my world are not synched with each other in any meaningful way.

The distance between being on the cutting edge and feeling vaguely disassociated happened in only three years. 36 months. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1100 sunrises and sunsets.

Being older used to mean being out of touch with technology and not understanding how to interface with objects that only understand interfaces. My father, born in 1910, could not figure out how to make "the HBO" appear on his television. It required turning the TV dial to 3, and then turning a knob on the cable box from pointing right (for channels 2-13) to pointing left -- but those two steps left him confused and frustrated, and undoubtedly feeling old and left behind.

In the late 1980s, I heard that, by the end of the century, people who did not understand how to use a computer would be the "new illiterate." And I think that prophesy came true. How many people today do not have email? How many businesses can afford not to have a website? John and I tend to avoid campgrounds without a website, preferring to check each one online before we pull in. And I keep in touch on a daily basis with many old and new friends on social networks like Facebook, but I almost never contact those who are not connected.

So where is this leading? Today John (and I) unexpectedly moved a little further into the 21st century through the acquisition of a new phone. It started innocently enough: the battery on John's phone died. So we jumped in the car and trekked to the Verizon store to get a new one. They didn't carry the right battery (for one of their phones? Come, on, Verizon!), but we saw a Best Buy next door and decided to see if they could help us.

On the way over, I remarked that it seemed like it had been 2 years since John got his phone, so maybe he was due a new one? An hour or so later, and a Best Buy gift certificate cashed, John walked out with a new Android phone, the first smart phone for either of us.

We have now entered the world of "there's an app for that," a world where we can get our mail during lunch at Paneros, or play computer games while waiting for the dentist to call our name. We can now Google as we travel, and find the nearest Trader Joe's when we are in a strange city and have an emergency need for perfectly seasoned lamb chops.

We may not be young, but we are not ready to be old either. As we replace our technology gadgets and gizmos, we will have fun learning what they do and how to use them. My phone is due to be replaced this May. Will it be a smart phone?

You bet. There are still a lot of Freecell games I haven't won -- and the older I get, the more time I seem to spend in dentist's offices. I guess there's a kind of "technology karma" to that.

John receiving his first smart phone call (from me!)