When Smart Meets Stupid

There was a time when finding one’s way along unfamiliar byways meant pulling a colorful, carefully accordion-folded, paper object from the glove box and waiting patiently (or not) while one’s companion did his or her best to locate one’s whereabouts — and then plotting a route (hopefully) putting one back on course. No dismissive, derisive ‘recalculating’. No accurate-to-the-nearest nanosecond estimates of driving times to the closest MacDonald’s. No choices amongst the ‘fastest, shortest, most scenic’ options. Just a map, the most challenging aspect of which was re-folding.

There was a time too when a telephone was, well, a telephone. Generally found on the kitchen counter or in the front foyer — decadently duplicated in the master bedroom on occasion. Connected by wires of limited length to a household wall. And from which no number of clearly articulated commands would elicit a single change in its complacent, implacable status. No camera(s), no endless repository of information, no music — unless one was placed ‘on hold’, no ‘Siri’.

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And there was a time when I was smarter than the windshield of my car — or so I’d always assumed. If I wanted to improve the reception on the in-dash radio, I would raise the aerial from its stylish wee cavity atop the right front fender. If I wanted to continue receiving clear signals, I would remember to re-seat this tempting target for vandals in the less salubrious areas of cities I would sometimes frequent, on leaving the car. If I wanted to improve nighttime road illumination, I would depress the button on the floor board of my car; and, when blinded by a less thoughtful driver’s headlights, I would ‘flick him the brights’. If it was raining, I would turn a knob on the dashboard and (usually) the wipers would spring to life. If snow had welded my blades to the windshield, I would chip away until — once again — the blades (or what remained) would etch their way across the glass.

And so I watched, more curious than alarmed, as the pea-sized bit of grit arced its way from the box of the truck ahead of me and made contact with my windshield. Nothing dramatic — just a click and a pinhead of a memory on the glass surface. Hard lessons of late teenage years, however, had taught that one does not neglect the trivial — for it will surely fester and foment. The paper cut that becomes gangrenous, the dripping tap that becomes a deluge, the dying ember that morphs into a conflagration — the stone chip that consumes the windshield with its mosaic of cracks and crazes. Immediate action, no matter how minor the insult, is demanded.

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Foresightfully we had bought the ‘platinum package’ for the the sport ute now barely eight months old, assuring us that those little unexpecteds would be addressed, without charge, in the half dozen years to come — windshield ‘work’ included. I placed the call.

“Is it larger than a dime?”, the query from the dealer’s scheduler. I assured her it was not.

“Age?” Mine, I mused — but guessed she was referencing the window injury.

“Today.”

“Any travel over rough terrain?” I was beginning to get a certain ‘drift’ in the line of inquiry — beyond simple diagnosis; and asked as much.

“If we can fill it, it’s free; replacement’s on you.” So platinum is not quite what it used to be. “And you don’t want to replace those babies unless you absolutely have to!” On the surface (as it were), a statement of the obvious. But one that begged a bit of explanation.

“Anything, beyond the cost, an issue here?” One could almost see the ‘Duh’ face paired with her answer.

“Electronics, recalibration. Not just glass anymore — it’s a ‘see through’ computer”. Ouch.

Another ‘used to be’. Used to be that 50 bucks and a helpful trip to Speedy Auto Glass was all it took. All those wonderful little perks that my car now does for me, quietly, efficiently, reliably are courtesy, in large part, to a very, very smart windshield. It toggles between low and high beams at precisely the right moment. It detects a drop (well actually five drops) of rain and turns on the wipers — at just the right sweep frequency. It gently warms these self same wipers. It pulls in AM, FM, satellite and Lord knows how many other sources of signal transmission (SETI arrays have nothing on my windshield) — with no risk of snapped off aerials. And all undone by a stupid stone.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t miss the crumpled maps, the hours spent wandering around the backroads of Virginia in vain search for access to the Interstate, the nervous sweat dampening the armpits, hoping that a filling station would be over the next rise as the gas gauge nudged ‘E”, or leaving ‘days’ early to dodge a feared traffic jam on an airport run. How could I pine for the era of waiting for our neighbor to end the gossip session on our party line (I am that old!), of fruitless dial twiddling to find a station that wasn’t four parts static, of ‘staying in touch’ without being tethered to a ‘landline’, of having to walk who knows how far to the next garage — when Esso failed to win the race to ‘E”.

Smart is good. No, great! But sadly, as it was ever the bully who thumped the geek, the talentless crooner whose three chord rant triumphs over Bach, the smarter than smart windshield that falls victim to a decidedly dumb, agendaless rock. Stupid, it seems will trump smart.

Dave’s Christmas Story 2.0

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I expect there are several pathways into the seasonal spirit. Of shedding light on the ‘true meaning’ of that annual flurry of activity that seizes our culture and compels all manner of uncharacteristic acts in the otherwise private, reticent, and conservative bunch that we are. We are (briefly) possessed of urges that force us outside in the nascent days of winter — when common sense suggests we should be hunkering down in the warm, dark confines of our respective (and socially removed) burrows for a ‘long winter’s nap’.

The subtle pressure began on one of those very early December days when it’s too easy to convince ourselves that the winter may be a ‘light one’. When the temperatures climb into ‘double digits’, the sun comes out, and so do the neighbors, ladders, tie wraps, and strings, nets, icicles, spots, and increasingly, laser-projected light shows. Resurrecting (bit of a premature allusion, but. . . ) the archived pic of last year’s display, I go in search of ‘the box’. The consolidation of all things electrical and seasonal. My wife had carefully rolled, wrapped, and labelled the various configurations of lights and support paraphernalia. So step one was easily managed. I allow a brief exhale.

Schooled well in the early, less reliable days of Christmas lighting — when my father would descend from the attic and begin methodically ‘testing’ each string before threading them on the tree — I plugged and replugged our current candidates. Not bad. All strings, check. ‘Shrub nets’, check — lit but possibly best chucked in favor of less tangled matrices. Extension cords — in themselves a ‘festive’ array of greens, blacks, oranges, reds, and yellows — check. Pre-lit artificial trees, hmm. In need of a little supplemental plumping.

As any student of the Griswold’s ‘Christmas Vacation’ will know — and shrinks from the image — the easy part is stringing. The greater challenge is connecting one’s creative and far-flung outdoor display to a single electrical source. In my childhood, the ‘outdoors’ were linked to ‘power’ via one, decidedly suspect cord, threaded through the mail slot, into the front hall closet, under its mirrored door, covered by the foyer carpet and inserted into an ungrounded ‘adapter’, screwed into a little-used light socket.

A bit too smugly perhaps, hubris being a bitch, I unroll and lay out my contemporary ‘connective tissue’. The ‘light to light’ two-prongers, the multi-headed, grounded, construction graders, and all those wonderfully creative thingies that bridge one cord to another — and ultimately into one, photo-cell activated, programmable timer.

Noma, being a visionary company, has long-recognized — and traded on — the truth of necessity’s relationship to invention. The ‘kit’, including a two-outlet Y-adapter, pigtail adapter, and three-outlet heavy duty adapter, had been proactively purchased last year. With the modest upgrades in this year’s configuration, I was good — right up to the final, magical confluence where, like all the streams and rivulets feeding the mighty Mississippi and finding their way into the Gulf, that ultimate connection of display to timer is made. One power tap, 3-outlet adapter short.

Canadian Tire: the big box that manages to strike a balance amongst ample stock, good value, an extra disabled parking spot or two, attentive and helpful staff, and positioning its Christmas displays adjacent to the entrance. ‘That’s more electrical than seasonal — try aisle 49B, back corner of the store’.

I join another customer and, after a few shared circuits of said aisle, strike a bargain with him: ‘If you find one of these’, pointing to the item shrink-wrapped as part of the aforementioned ‘kit’, ‘could you grab it for me?’ In return I promised to be on the lookout for a six-foot, 14 gauge, grounded extension cord — evidently on the endangered electrical species list as well. No joy — and time to call in reinforcements. As we waited, we exchanged dark thoughts: he of cutting the desired length of cord from its much longer sib; I prying open ‘the kit’ for the only piece I needed. He allowing that his solution was likely illegal and I envisioning the dialogue at checkout as no bar code was forthcoming, thought better of either call.

Staff arrives and I indicate my quarry. ‘Should be right here’. Empty box. ‘Says there’s 23 in the store; I’ll check upstairs’. My co-shopper has retreated. I wait. My helper returns, empty-handed. ‘Things get shifted this time of year — maybe try our Christmas section.’ I re-plead my case to the ‘seasonal young man’ who nods knowingly and adopts a sympathetic, but resigned look: ‘We have them and you’re welcome to wait, but. . . ‘ On to Home Hardware, cursing my inner Scot for not having bought the $20 package to get a $5 plug.

Another swing and a miss; so desperate times call for desperate measures. A telephone consult from HH’s parking lot with my ever-resourceful neighbour: ‘The Dollar Store for two bucks; had lots’ — and I’m off again. It may have been the imposing line at check out or my sinking awareness that Dollar Stores are a cash only operation — and me with a health card and Visa in my pocket, but nary a looney to be seen — that took me to TSC and an end to the odyssey. Eight bucks . . . but who cares. We’re plugged, timed, and illuminated.

So that’s the story . . . and it’s near enough Christmas — so it qualifies. At least as much as the compulsive shopping, the electrifying of most everything in sight, the inflatable penguins and minions, the relentlessly muzak-ed big boxes (and little boutiques), the last gasp of conviviality before the ‘real winter’ descends, and the season that binds Black Friday (not to be confused with Good Friday) to Ordinary Time. But that’s another story.

The Water Feature

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with water. Raised a few blocks from ‘the mighty Niagara’, as kids we swam in it, hydroplaned on it, and crossed over it, seduced by the siren song (and 3.2% beer) of Buffalo. Its currents stole our skis and very nearly claimed my mother. Its waters provided the stage for any number of rights of passage, jumping from rail bridges, spearing carp, swimming its breadth to touch ‘the American side’, then back, far downstream. No surprise then that water should become the defining element, the push-pull of life for me.

No more evident than water’s relentless and (usually) insidious intrusion into real estate. ‘Dug’ wells, to distinguish this weak sister from its more reliable and respected elder sib, the ‘drilled’ version, are notorious for their poor water quality — being little more than accidental repositories for surface water run-off (and all that implies for the country house) — and penchant for drying up when the dog days drag on. A little covert Clorox down the shaft and a UV light under the sink were the ‘adjustments’ required to seal the sale of an early days school house — and a great escape to citified plumbing.

Silly me. Trusting that fluoridated, strained, sieved, and otherwise purified and regulated municipal sourcing of same would also filter out water’s sinister dark side. Next house, a late nineteenth century cottage built on the shoulder of a hill — well, truthfully more on the hip or ‘lower’ body part — several feet below grade of the street behind and overlooking the banks of the Avon. One would have thought that proximity to one river would have been a sufficient teacher. A well known fact, water — as well as other matter — flows downhill. No truer than, as Geoffrey would say: ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote’. . .What Mr. Chaucer failed to point out was that said showers also ‘perced’ the rubble foundation and spawned an annual indoor pool — on their relentless way to mother Avon. Not to mention dragging along several cubic meters of top soil happily migrating to less lofty climes. Swales and sump pumps, drainage tiles and storm sewer connections mere rhetoric to allow another midnight flit and sale of an ark in waiting to the next Noah in line. (By the way ‘hot water is wetter’. . . but that’s another story.)

On to high(er) ground. Pill Hill in the local parlance. A little reminder that penance had not been fully ponied up, water’s poltergeist had arrived a day before us to remind that we’d missed a (now breached) water heater’s BBD by that self same day. But we were learning. Swamp-friendly flora, irrigated landscape (the dark side is drought), and sloping paths to usher those same ‘shoures’ to neighbouring turf felt for all the world that water had been sufficiently placated to allow an exhale.

And so round the corner to the current digs. As noted ‘the Hill’ sat on significantly higher ground than this wee bungalow, a block north — how soon we forget! A mid-60’s gem, recently renovated, it sat beside (and below), well, everyone. Taking possession in Chaucer’s favourite month, the berm separating house and sometime patio from the remainder of the backyard began to make sense as the rains came down and the yard filled up — happily receiving all contributions from East, South, and West. And thus began another ambivalent chapter.

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With plans for a carriage house where Lake Glendon now lapped gently ‘gainst said berm, a more permanent solution was required — and surfaced (as it were). I cared little for the country of origin, but a French drain and some regrading seemed to be the order of the day. A subterranean pit the size of a small garage took shape in the ‘low corner’, filled with ‘aqua boxes’ — bearing an eerie resemblance to grad school book cases / milk crates; and camouflaged with a foot of top soil. As with all good therapies, the trick was to redirect — not resist or attempt (futile) control. As needed, a pump submerged in an access vault and a (significant) length of garden hose returned our element to source — with enormous satisfaction. Coexistence displaced frustration and wet basements. A happy detente.

But, oh, the waste. Gallons and gallons of (now) perfectly good water pumped away, unappreciated. The unsettling drip of a tap at night, the stubborn gurgle of a stopped sink, ice dams, leaking sky lights morph into the soothing sound of water flowing gently over rocks, masking, calming, lulling to sleep. The water feature: cycling and recycling, reincarnating — how gratifying is that! Simple. Tap into our stored resource, salve our conscience, and muffle the squawks from neighbouring pools.

The truly amazing piece is the level of artificiality, frank contrivance that is demanded in the creation of a ‘natural feature’. True, the water doth fall from Heaven. But that’s it — the rest is plumbing, pumps, liners, return rates, pre-drilled ‘bubblers’ (real rocks, if possible — but sprayed styrofoam will do), and a terrifying array of valves, stops, hose, and lighting. In the end though, the water gods are appeased, the carriage house is no longer yet another ark in waiting, our green genes are pacified, and our sleep is sound.

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