26 July 2011

After a good meal and a good pipe

Borkum Riff. About once a year, I'll catch the distinctive smell of whiskey-soaked pipe tobacco, and for a moment I turn to look for my dad. When I do, I look up, because I'm six years old: my dad hasn't smoked since the 1970's. But that smell, of tobacco and sweet cream, was such a constant part of my childhood that it's burnt into my memory so deeply it would take a pipe cleaner to remove it from my hippocampus.

Whenever this happens I don't really know how to feel. On the one hand, it's a smell that never fails to transport me to my youth. On the other, my dad quit smoking after I had a long outburst telling him with all the earnestness of a child that I hated the fact that he smoked and that it gave me headaches and that I was sure it was going to kill him and I wouldn't have a father. I remember that I couldn't stop shivering for hours from the emotional surge. I am, of course, very glad that my father did stop smoking, as he's still with us today.

And yet. My father owned several pipes and they were all beautiful. He had curved rose-colored pipes made of burls (cherrywood? walnut?) that looked wise and mysterious, he had sharp-angled black pipes that looked like they belonged to Mr. Fantastic. He even had a corn-cob pipe that was hokey and wonderful. He had pipe tools for tamping and scraping and cleaning and a carousel that he kept his pipe in. And he had tins of tobacco with pictures of three-masted ships and peculiar European men and maps of the world on them. And when he read the Hobbit to my brother Robert and me and he got to the part about Gandalf and Thorin blowing magical smoke rings I knew exactly how that must have looked.

My ambivalence about pipes can be summed up nicely by Curious George. In the original H.A. Rey book from 1941, the monkey George is unceremoniously removed from the jungle by the Man in the Yellow Hat for sale to a zoo; Upon arrival in America, he spends what is supposed to be his last night of freedom in the Man's home, where we are told After a good meal and a good pipe, George was tired."

When my kids were little, they constantly watched a VHS recording of the 1982 stop-motion version of Curious George, which faithfully stuck to the text of Rey's book and did in fact show George enjoying his pipe; however, immediately after George takes a couple of puffs the film shows George becoming ill and the Man in the Yellow Hat guiltily putting the pipe away—presumably shamed into quitting himself. And this part always made me very, very angry. Why? Why the need to editorialize? Children already know that George is doing something wrong, something forbidden. That's what makes it fun. And Dad, I'm glad you stopped smoking. But I hope you can still find something wrong to do now and then.

25 July 2011

Hertz schmertz

So I haven't blogged in a few weeks and this is where I give a lame excuse like my computer died. Except in my case, my computer died: the screen developed a dead stripe about 2 inches wide, slightly right of center. Googling (on my iPod) seemed to confirm that the LCD had become disconnected and would need replacing, which was probably more than the machine was worth, and so time for a new one.

I had been planning on getting a new Mac for some time; in spite of my reputation amongst friends and family as the guy who knows a lot about computers, I'd been nursing along an obsolete machine for many years now, running an operating system that was two generations gone. So I should have welcomed the death of my old box and skipped to the store with plastic in hand. Instead, I found myself begrudging the purchase; when I brought the bulky box home I felt a strange lack of enthusiasm.

There was a time when a new computer was a big deal, a life event, a first kiss. I remember my wife and I purchasing our first Mac (a Classic II) back in graduate school; I believe with an academic discount and a newly-introduced inkjet printer it cost us about $2K. We brought it home like nervous parents who feared crib death. It was hard to believe we had anything that valuable in our apartment. For the next five years we wrote every one of our grad school papers on that nine-inch black and white screen and dipped our toes into the exciting new world of Compuserv with our blisteringly fast 28.8K modem.

We've run through a lot of computers since then, and while each has been faster and prettier, acquiring them is less and less glamourous. As technology becomes more advanced, I care about it less and less. There was a time that I could rattle off the hertz for any of a dozen CPUs. I can't begin to tell you any specs for my shiny new iMac. Is it dual core or quad core? For that matter, what's a core?

Maybe it's better for me to not care so much about this stuff. In the end, tech lust is more materialism, and maybe letting go of that is another step towards enlightenment. Maybe what's good is the ubiquity of computers and smart devices means I'm not interested in the tools but what I can do with them. But to be honest, I miss the obsession.