Archive for March, 2010


I Know It’s Spring When…

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

I’ve come to realize there are very definite events that must take place before it can be said that a particular season has arrived. Summer usually begins with a Memorial Day cookout and the kids getting out of school; Autumn usually begins right after the Labor Day cookout that marked the end of Summer, and the kids returning to school. Winter begins soon after Thanksgiving, when Christmas shopping reaches a fever pitch and the kids are once again out of school for the holiday break. 

Using this same logic the obvious question is, when does Spring begin? There are some traditions surrounding it, such as “right after the last frost”, or “when the daffodils are in bloom”, or even that old standby, the March date on the calendar. I have discovered my own personal event that takes place and, for me at least, most definitely marks the point when Spring has “sprung”. That event is when the first wasp of the year flies through my house and someone screams at me to kill it. 

The scene is a classic: the family is spread throughout the house doing various things such as watching television, cooking dinner, playing video games, doing homework, or surfing the Web. One fortunate individual begins hearing a faint buzzing sound, usually coming from behind them. They turn and find a wasp slowly making its way across the room, bouncing off the ceiling and looking every bit as menacing as the swarms of insects in all those B-grade horror films you used to find on TV at 2 in the morning. The person quickly ducks down, hoping the creature hasn’t spotted him as a target for exercising its stinger, and then calls out to everyone else, “There’s a wasp in the house!” Some of the other members of the household will run to the doorway of the room, peering inside all so carefully so that they don’t become targets as well. No one asks how it got into the house in the first place; that’s a question for later. At the moment it is simply accepted that it’s there.

If I am not the person who first spotted the wasp, the next thing that happens is that all-too-familiar call of “Mike (or Dad), there’s a WASP in the house!” The extra emphasis on the word “wasp” is usually a good indicator to me of how dire the person perceives their predicament to be – if it’s spoken fairly calmly, they’re okay and I can take my time; if it sounds a bit shaky, they’re sort of nervous and I need to start moving; if it’s said very loudly, they’re just this side of panic and I have to drop everything that instant to deal with it.

I move toward the room in question, usually grabbing something to swat at it like a notepad or an old magazine – whatever I happen to find along the path from where I was to where I am wanted. When I arrive, those in attendance quickly point out the current location of the intruder, and then clear out of the room…it oddly reminds me of those police shows where the bomb squad is called in to defuse an explosive device, only I’m not wearing any protective padding. Fortunately for me, I’m not allergic to wasp stings, but I’ve been stung enough times in my life to know I don’t like it, and I usually try my best to avoid it. With that in mind, I enter the room slowly and cautiously, never taking my eyes off my quarry. I follow the wasp as it bounces around the ceiling, waiting for it to alight on some fairly solid object long enough for my swatting effort to be lethal. The cat-and-mouse game can go on for several minutes, with the wasp sometimes almost taunting me by flying in my direction and then turning away. Eventually, it lands somewhere to take a break (I know I’d be tired after all that flying around) and I make my move. With a swing of my arm and snap of my wrist, the deed is done. Everyone breathes a big sigh of relief, and then they all go back to whatever they were doing prior to the wasp’s appearance. 

With that, it’s official: Spring has arrived.


Sibling Parity

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

I have two sons aged 15 and 13. They’re both bright and talented (I’m not bragging – they get straight A’s in school and both play in the school band), and they are both really big into PC-based video gaming, especially sports like baseball or football, and role-playing games involving a lot of shooting and blowing things up.

Up until a few months ago the boys shared one computer, which seemed to take care of their needs. I’ve had to upgrade it a couple of times so it could run the more complex games they keep getting, but it’s done pretty much everything they’ve asked of it. They would argue over who would play what, and sometimes things would get pretty ugly, but they have always worked out their differences and no bones have ever been broken in the process. The conflict finally came to a head when both of them claimed the need to use it more for schoolwork, and between that and the constant bickering over games it finally reached the point where another machine was needed to restore peace in the house.

I’ve built most of the home computers I’ve ever used. As late as two years ago, I was still using a machine I had built from scratch, while everyone else in the house had a “store-bought” PC. Then, in a very sudden and dramatic fashion my homebuilt machine died, and I needed to repair it very quickly. When I found out it would cost as much for new parts as it would to buy a fully-loaded computer ready to run, I bought a new one; but, forever and always an electronic packrat, I held on to that old box, figuring I could use some of its parts one day to repair another machine.

Two years later and faced with the prospect of buying another computer, I looked at that old box and thought, “maybe I could find some cheap surplus parts and rebuild it.” After some complicated negotiations, my youngest son decided he’d be brave and take on the challenge of working with one of Dad’s electronic creations.

It took some time to find parts, but once I had them I was in my element, my hands deep inside the metal casing hooking up cables to components that would bring it back to life. A few last connections, and voila! The old computer was running again! After some testing, I turned the resurrected PC over to my son so he could begin installing and playing games.

He learned what worked and what didn’t, and fortunately the “didn’t” list was fairly short. But, he started clamoring for upgrades to be able to play those games. With Christmas around the corner, I decided to give him some of the parts he needed as presents. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t work. The new parts would fit, but the older pieces were unable to support them.

By this point, I was committed to getting the PC working. So, I ran to the nearest computer parts store (about 60 miles away) to get the pieces I had tried to avoid buying in the first place. After several more round-trips to the store over the next three months, and some strategic purchases off eBay, over this past weekend I was able to FINALLY get it running the way I originally intended.

But, now that I’ve got little brother’s computer running smoothly, big brother starts to complain that his machine’s graphics aren’t as good, and wants to upgrade his to match.

So, the arguments start all over again. This time, at least, the boys aren’t complaining to each other.


You Say “Potato Chips”, I Say “French Fries”

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

One of the benefits (or perils, as the case may be) in being a member of a creative writer’s group is having your writing reviewed and critiqued by the other group members. Oftentimes those critiques come with constructive comments, such as suggestions for restructuring a sentence to express an idea more clearly. At other times the critiques are more drastic, recommending that entire sentences or even paragraphs be altered or removed. These other points of view are important to a writer because it provides them with a perspective on their work they may not otherwise be able to see. They may not always like what they hear, but they do appreciate the input, for it helps them to become better at their craft…but sometimes it can make for some awkward situations.

Such was the case with a recent piece of writing I critiqued for another group member. Like me, she has a blog and makes regular postings on it for her readers. She asked me to review a posting she was working on that was very long and complex; she was hoping I could make some suggestions for shortening it up a little. Since I had done that for her a couple of times previously I felt okay with doing so again. I read through it a couple of times, found some pieces that I thought could be removed and others that could be changed around a little, and sent it back to her with my suggestions. A short time later, she sent it back to me with responses to almost every one of my notes explaining why she included all those pieces, why she wrote things a certain way, and even why she selected specific words. This person has a gentle soul, I love her dearly, and she goes out of her way to keep from hurting others, but it was painfully clear that my suggestions just weren’t going to work for her.

Many people would have felt hurt (or even insulted) by this, but I wasn’t. I have learned that creative writers tend to be a very subjective group, with no two ever looking at a piece of writing in exactly the same way. They also offer and receive criticism all the time, both good and bad, and learn to take it all in stride. If they can’t, they probably shouldn’t be writing in the first place. There will be other writings she will ask me to review in the future, and items I’ll ask her to review as well; just like this time, we’ll each offer our recommendations, and in return we can take them or turn them down. It’s just the way writers work.

I still liked my suggestions, though…

Postscript: She rewrote her posting, and asked me once again to have a look at it. I happily obliged. Such are the ways of the creative writer…


Double Vision

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Yesterday's Memories

About three weeks ago, my ophthalmologist told me I had finally reached the point in my life at which I needed to wear bifocals. Either it was that, or I would have to start taking my glasses off and putting my nose into the page to read anything smaller than a newspaper headline. After stalling for a couple of weeks, I finally went to the eyeglass shop. They came in today, and I’m wearing them now as I write. The doctor recommended progressive lenses, or “no line” bifocals, and that is what I ordered.

I have to say, they’re definitely different from what I’m used to wearing! On top of getting used to the “distance” part of the lens, I have to adjust to the “reading” part of the lens at the same time. And, because they’re progressives there’s a “transitional” area between the two lens strengths that I have to figure out how to use as well. It usually takes a few days for my eyes to adjust, but this time I think it might take a little longer to get used to them…after all, it’s like wearing two pairs of glasses at the same time.

I’m nearsighted and have been wearing eyeglasses since the 4th grade, which by my count was about 37 years ago. Until now I’ve worn single-vision lenses, which are relatively inexpensive compared to bifocals. Four decades ago, most of the people I knew who needed bifocals were unable to afford them. So, they would go out and get single-lens “prescription glasses” from the eyeglass shop for everyday wearing, and then pick up an inexpensive pair of “reading glasses” from the local drugstore. I suppose to them it wasn’t a problem to carry the second pair around, and switch them whenever they needed to read something.

I tried that only once, many years ago when the eyeglass shop offered me a second pair of glasses for free. I had the bright idea to have the second pair tinted so I could use them as sunglasses. They worked great as long as I remembered to take them with me, which I usually didn’t…and if I had a convenient way to carry them, also which I usually didn’t. In the end, I put them away and didn’t use them.

Since I learned that I needed two different lenses to see with, I have come to admire all those folks who remembered to take their extra pairs of reading glasses with them wherever they went. They certainly seemed to have more discipline and determination than I did. I still don’t have any discipline — but at least I realized I would be better off putting both lenses into one pair of glasses. Now if I can just get used to wearing them…


The Great Debate… er, Discussion

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

The real hot-button topic today has been the passage of the health care bill last night by the U.S. House of Representatives. Each side in the debate had their reasons for supporting their views, and each delivered a spirited defense. In the end, those in favor of passing it prevailed. Now it is set to become the law of the land, and we all get to find out what it really means for this country’s health care system.

I do not get overly-involved in political issues, mainly because I’m not good at debating the pros and cons of anything. If I were, I probably would’ve been on the debate team in school. As far as my personal political views, I would generally call myself a conservative, but there are some issues where I’m more liberal in my thinking. And, there are still others where I’m squarely on the fence, unsure of which way to go.

With health care, I’m on the fence. There are some provisions in the bill that I like, and some that I don’t like. I’m not going to list them here because my intent is not to start a debate. I don’t do debates very well, remember?

Either way, pro or con, I still have some questions. Maybe you have some as well. Here are my questions:

  • How will the country pay for the new programs, which have been estimated will cost approximately $1T (trillion) dollars over the next decade?
  • Will it really improve the accessibility and affordability of health care to more Americans, as its supporters expect it to do? Or will it be a “black hole” that takes more money away from taxpayers and provides little or nothing in return, as its detractors claim?
  • How does this plan really compare to programs in other countries such as Canada or Great Britain, which parts of it supposedly were modeled after?

No one seems to have a clear answer to any of these questions; both sides in Washington have been saying “trust us – we know what we’re talking about”. Given the general lack of trust in our elected officials (Congress’ approval ratings have been in the cellar for the last few years), I am sure there aren’t many people who are willing to accept “trust us” for very long without seeing some sort of results in return.

What is clear to me is this: the debate over health care is still far from over. And, I still don’t do debates very well.


Writing Today, Remembering Tomorrow

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Tomorrow's Dreams

In response to one of my other postings, a fellow SharedWords member made the following comment: “In years to come pieces of your writing, like this blog, will be treasures to you and your family.”

I hope she’s right.

I’m sure it’s the wish of everyone who writes to have their words remembered long after they were written, and still longer after they have left this world. In days past, this was a lot tougher to do because of more limited access to the tools a person needed to create and properly preserve their work. In this age of word processors, CDs/DVDs, the Internet, and instant publishing, almost anyone with an idea and a keyboard can write and preserve it for posterity, even if they use nothing more than cryptic abbreviations (i.e. text messaging) or write one short sentence at a time (i.e. Twitter). And soon enough, even a keyboard won’t be needed – there are several very good speech-to-text converters on the market that take spoken words and type them out on a computer screen, and each year this technology continues to improve.

So, it seems nowadays anyone can acquire the tools to write words and make them last. But, even with all those things at everyone’s disposal, some people seem more destined to be remembered for their writing than others. Why?

Here’s my opinion: A person’s writings are better remembered for the feelings and emotions they stir within the reader than for the words themselves. On their own, words are lifeless and bland; but, in the hands of a talented writer, they can be brought to life and filled with color, leaving behind all manner of feeling and emotion as they tell their story. The better a person can accomplish that,  I believe, the more likely their writings will be remembered in the years to come.

So now I ask myself: will the things I’m writing today be remembered tomorrow?

I’d like to think so, but only time will tell for sure.


Driving Lesson

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Have you ever tried to teach someone how to drive? My middle child, a 15-year-old, has been clamoring for his mother and me to start giving him lessons so he can get his learner’s permit and start driving with us on the open roads. Since my wife taught our now 18-year-old daughter how to drive, it seemed only fair that I take on the task with our son.

With the time change this past weekend, we now have a little extra daylight in the evening. So, I decided to take him out to the car after dinner last night and give him his first lesson. As he sat in the driver’s seat, I pointed out all the controls and switches and gauges and what each one did, and then walked him through starting the engine and shifting through the gears (it’s an automatic, so this part went pretty quickly). Finally, I had him s-l-o-w-l-y back the car out of its parking spot and head down the driveway (that doesn’t sound like much, but my driveway is over 600 feet long and has a barn near the street end of it). When we reached the end of the driveway, I had him turn around in front of our barn and head back up to the house. We did that a couple of times, and by then the darkness made us end the lesson.

He did remarkably well for his first time behind the wheel. He could see and feel how the car reacts when he does something like turn the wheel slightly or step on the brake pedal, and I think he’s beginning to realize how complicated the task of driving really is. He managed to make me panic only once during the entire lesson: while backing up I asked him to stop, and instead of stepping on the brake he stepped on the accelerator, causing us to surge unexpectedly. Now heading rapidly toward a tree, I yelled “STOP!” He caught himself and quickly stepped on the brakes.

I would have simply written that off as first-time jitters and kept going, but what he said immediately afterward surprised me: “Now I understand why sometimes people step on the gas when they meant to step on the brakes. I wasn’t paying attention.” It makes me feel really good to know that not only am I trying my best to teach him, but he is also doing his best to learn. And, that little incident is now an experience he’ll never forget.

Neither will I.


Time Machines

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Yesterday's Memories

Do you own a wristwatch? These days, it seems more and more people don’t, relying instead on their cell phones and computers to give them the time. There are some people who say the wristwatch will become obsolete in 50 years, or even less. Of course, 50 years ago there were people saying we would all be getting around in flying cars by now…and we know how right they were about that.

I like wristwatches. I have several, most of them battery-powered quartz watches, but I do have some that are mechanical; in fact, my newest one is the most old-fashioned of all – a wind-up watch. If you’re around my age, more than likely you learned how to tell time with a wind-up wristwatch your parents gave you for your birthday, or that Santa brought you for Christmas. That’s how I started, proudly wearing a “big” shiny Timex on my wrist. You don’t see new wind-up watches very often these days; usually they are made and sold in far-away places such as China or India. My new wristwatch was made in India by a company that has been using the same design since the early 1960s. It’s very simple and inexpensive (about $12), but at the same time it’s a prime example of the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I think of wristwatches as little “time machines” (no pun intended) that help us look back and remember people and places and events. I have one that was given to me as a Father’s Day gift when my youngest child was not yet a year old. He’s 13 now, and while the watch may have some scratches and dings on it, it’s still there reminding me of the days before my son knew anything about computers or video games. And, it will continue to remind me when he heads off to college in a few years. Likewise, this new wind-up wristwatch reminds me of my own youthful days, when my life didn’t have all the complexities of maintaining a house, earning an income, and raising a family. Another one I have was given to me by my mother-in-law shortly after my father-in-law passed away, and brings back memories of his kind and gentle nature.

How about you? Do you have your own “time machines”? Perhaps yours is also a wristwatch or a piece of jewelry passed down to you, a well-worn stuffed animal, or maybe a hat or other piece of clothing. What memories are they holding for you?


“What Are You Going To Do With A Blog?”

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in General

So, here I am writing my first blog posting. Just as the title says, I spent a long time thinking to myself, “Okay, you think blogs are cool, but what in the world would you do with one?” For the longest time, I didn’t have a clue…and if you don’t have a clue, you certainly don’t need a blog.

But, now I have a clue, and a blog to go with it. And it all came from listening to a song.

You’re probably wondering where the blog’s name came from. I was listening to music one day and came across a song by The Doobie Brothers called “Time Is Here And Gone”. This tune is a story presented from the perspective of a middle-aged man who is taking note of how much has changed in his life over the years, both literally and figuratively. Since I’m fast approaching my middle-age years, I can relate to this story very well.

And so, it is in that spirit this blog was created. My plan is simple: I will be writing about the memories of yesterday, the realities of today, and the dreams of tomorrow, all from the point of view of a person who’s about to reach the mid-point of his life. My goals are equally simple: I want this blog to be informative, thoughtful, and entertaining. I don’t expect to accomplish all three of these goals in every post, but I’ll certainly be trying to achieve at least one of them (if I miss them all, the posting would be utter nonsense anyway).

I invite you to come along with me as I ramble through the hallways of my memory, deal with the trials of daily life, and look optimistically toward the future. Please join in and contribute your own comments and thoughts to the discussion. I look forward to hearing from you!