Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saying Goodbye to My Hands

For more than fifty years
My hands have been my life
My fingers have made my living
My hands have fed my family
My hands have built our home
My fingers played the music,
Said the things my heart could not.

Now, old man’s disease, arthritis
Is putting an end to all of that.
With hands that are becoming claws
With fingers that jerk and stall
I can’t hold a handkerchief to my nose
I can’t swing a hammer, hold a guitar pick,
Wield a soldering iron, squeeze my wife’s hand.

The fingers that I broke years ago
Now twist and deform like wilting flowers.
The bones that were smashed by work
and careless disregard for the future
are getting their revenge on the brain
that said “Keep going, keep working.
Play through it. Ignore the pain.”
Today, I can’t.

They won’t perform on command.
My hands are dying.
My fingers are putting an end
To any dreams I might have
Of a future as a builder, a maker,
A musician, a lover, a man.
Goodbye my old abused and tortured friends.

I woke up at 3AM a few nights ago couldn't close my right hand, even a bit. My left was slightly less impaired, but certainly not useful or strong enough to make up for the loss of the right. At that moment, I realized that this might be my last year for a lot of things, like playing guitar or construction projects or typing. There was no chance that I’d sleep more that night. I got up and worked on a Tom Waits song I've fooled with for the last year: “Shiver Me Timbers.” I wrote a half-dozen essays. For the first time since I was a teenager in love, I wrote something the Pressure Press folks call "a poem" That was the bit that opened this essay.

The "poetry" is exaggerated. But I have known way, way too many people younger and older than me who have lost a lot of their ability to be themselves due to arthritis. Some even decided they’d lost enough of themselves to give up on life. A friend of my grandmother--a woman who had been a musician and an artist and a gardener and an inspiration to everyone who knew her—was reduced to wandering around her backyard looking at the weeds overtaking her once-beautiful gardens and staring at her crabbed hands. She managed to turn the gas on her oven, stuck her head into the stove, and smothered herself. No one wondered why. A cousin--a man who is a decade younger than me and was once one of the most active people I’ve known—can’t write his name, drive a car, hold his wife’s hand, or help one of his kids into the car thanks to arthritis.

Personally, I hate this disease more than cancer. Cancer is, usually, terminal and often fairly quick. Arthritis is endless torture.

I have hammered these poor appendages into submission for 67 years, but they are starting to fight back. It does remind me of something I've said for decades, though. "If I'd have known I would live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.

Seriously, I'm in pretty good shape. The whole prose thing came from the "inspiration" of waking up unable to use my right hand and thinking that someday could be the last day I can do the things I take for granted. The next day, I met a young lady who has been dealing with this pain and incapacity since she was a young teenager. Forty years ago, the girlfriend of the keyboard player for a band I was in was so stricken with degenerative arthritis that she was unable to receive a hip transplant because her pelvis was so wreaked. I'm not whining, feeling sorry for myself, or asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m just shouting at the night.

I'm 67 and have broken bones in my hands (and other places) so many times I couldn't begin to get a straight count. I quit hitting the heavy bag in 2013 because my hands were so messed up the next day. This isn't a sudden change but the obvious disability feels sudden.
I'm sort of inspired that the pain aimed me at doing a breed of writing I haven't attempted in 40 years. I'm humbled that I have so many friends who were moved by that inspiration.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Making Your Own Pace of Change

I attended a discussion group at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls last weekend on the topic of “The Pace of Change”: “The culture around us is evolving technologically and this affects the way we live as familiar ways of doing things become outdated. As the pace quickens how do you feel and what do you think about that? Choose an example that affects you directly and share your thoughts and feelings.”

A lot of the group’s feelings were centered around disgust and/or paranoia about “planned obsolescence.” Some of that conversation was pretty much outside of my own experience with product design and manufacturing. Assuming that engineers are capable of good design is often a gross miscalculation. I saw unintentional fatal errors like placing temperature sensitive components next to parts that run hot by design, seriously underestimating the need for component selection safety margins, and completely idiotic part placement in vibration-prone products in at least five different industries and a dozen companies; four of which were highly reliability-sensitive industries. Another common and valid complaint was regarding unrepairable products. This isn’t planned obsolescence, this is terrible design. Design Magazine has a column titled “Designed by Monkeys” that highlights stupid stuff like this and it’s always refreshing to hear an engineer ridicule his fellow monkeys in this format.

In audio, lots of people resort to buying “old school” products to avoid the unrepairable issue: vintage microphones, analog tape recorders, etc. Another, more practical approach, is to hunt down and support those companies whose products are known for reliability and whose customer service is known for providing a quality response. In practically every area, we all know who the low quality vendors are, but figuring out who the good guys are is much harder.

One obvious clue for the good guys is available service information. In my own recent consumer experience, Volkswagen is the most customer-hostile car company I can imagine. They make service information difficult and expensive for independent service centers and even more impossible for customers who want to service their own vehicles. Volkswagen’s dealer service is nationally notorious for incompetence and high cost. Nissan, on the other hand, makes service manuals available (for free) in PDF format on the NissanUSA website. Nissan is extremely helpful to independent service centers. Parts and service information is as available to independents and customers as those commodities are to their own dealer network.

As for doing the work yourself, I recommend it. In fact, I really recommend either carefully researching the products you buy for available service information or when a particular product’s service information is absolutely not available from any vendor in the market, pay the least possible for the product. Paying a premium for Apple’s iCrap is idiotic, now that the company has embraced the “Retina” design philosophy. I don’t have a problem with “throw-away” products as long as they sell for throw-away prices. An iPad sells for $600 and, for the most part, can’t be repaired in any practical sense. There are a large number of Android-OS pads that are well under $70 and they do every useful thing the iPad can manage. The things the iPad does that can’t be done on an Android pad would quickly be available on the cheaper devices if Apple’s sales collapsed. For that matter, Apple’s prices would follow the market if it weren’t for their Kool-Aid drinking fanboys and girls.

In the last two years, I have installed SSD’s in four computers (including a 2009 Apple MacBook Pro), installed operating systems and programs on a half-dozen computers, repaired the cooling system of my MacBook Pro, upgraded the video on my 2008 Mac Pro tower, rebuilt one motorcycle fuel injection system, rebuilt one lawnmower carburetor, changed the oil on all of my vehicles and lawn care appliances, troubleshot and repaired the electronics package on a Winnebago Rialta/VW Eurovan,  fixed the AC on two vehicles, learned how to pour a new floor and wall in my underground garage, repaired a small pile of pro audio electronics and music equipment, wired a good bit of two houses, disassembled and repaired the lens mechanism on my 8 year old digital camera, and repaired more things than I can remember for family, friends, and customers. I’m not convinced that all modern products are unrepairable or even designed so they can’t be repaired. I am convinced that most people are so helpless that they are walking Darwin Awards waiting for the moment that solar flare-generated EMP takes out the technology they cling to so precariously.

One of the things you learn from owning an old home is that engineers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, and everyone involved in product design 50-150 years ago had the same diverse collection of “talents” today’s technicians exhibit. Some were good and some were awful.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Intuition Is Sometimes Right, Even Mine

When I decided to retire from teaching, I felt pretty strongly that Id overstayed my welcome. My patience for bureaucracy, students, and even a few of my friends at the school was wearing thin. I’d stopped having fun teaching more than a year earlier, for multiple reasons. While the subjects still fascinated me, my never-particularly-tolerant tolerance for fools began to suck the life out of my classroom attitude. My last couple of labs were so painfully pointless that I could barely stand the idea of showing up to class on those days. And four of the work days required me to be in those two labs. Between the cell phone addictions and the “Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom . . .” interruptions from a couple of ADHD-diagnosed kids with no more self-discipline than baby bobcats I was back to dragging myself out of bed to go to work. So, two years ago, today I decided I wasn’t going back for the 2013 fall semester.

Off and on, I’ve wondered if I retired too early. If I still had something worth providing to the few students who actually give a crap about music, audio, technology, and the rest of the skills that are required to make a few bucks in the “music business.” One piece of evidence that I’d made the right decision was, oddly, from LinkedIn.com. My youngest daughter, Genya, turned me on to LinkedIn years ago, after I’d left medical devices and was wandering around looking for a 5th (or 15th) career direction. The site never really did anything for my career options, until I’d already began my teaching career. However, it has been an interesting social networking resource, allowing me to keep in touch with past co-workers, friends, students, and employees. LinkedIn has a silly feature that allows users to “endorse” their connections with a button-push; not exactly a rousing recommendation or even something that requires much thought. My friends have generously provided me with hundreds of endorsements for my “skills” ranging from electronic design to recording engineering to musical capability. The last 12 years of my career certainly provided me with more LinkedIn endorsements than the previous 30 years of my career, mostly (I hope) because this kind of resource didn’t exist until recently.

I don’t pay much attention to stuff like this because its no longer relevant to whatever future I have left. I haven’t counted my endorsements or tried to encourage (or discourage) anyone to endorse me. I’m not really looking for work and I don’t care all that much who knows what I know (or used to know) or what my talents are or were. I’m done with a lot more stuff than I expect to do.

However, when I was in New Mexico over the winter of 2013-2014, I offered myself up as an extra-curricular instructor for the Truth or Consequences high school; teaching the same subjects I’d taught at McNally Smith College of Music. Not much happened from my offer for a month or so and I decided to rattle the music department’s cage to see if I’d fallen through the cracks. What I learned was that the school was pretty much dropping music and art in order to concentrate on bringing the state and the school’s ranking up from dead bottom. The only comment the about-to-be-unemployed music teacher had for me was, “Nobody had much to say about your teaching ability on LinkedIn.”
As far as the button-pusher rankings, he was right. I hadn’t noticed that, but I didn’t have a single vote for any aspect of teaching/education/classroom/mentoring bullshit. Not a subtle hint.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.