Monday, September 12, 2011

Old School

The other day, Teelay and I made a run to the local library. It's a pretty fantastic place. A couple of years ago, they remodeled things, so now it's mostly a self-checkout setup, unless there's some kind of glitch with a bar code or something. You drop your library card into a little slot and up comes a screen on a monitor asking for your "pin" number. You also have to declare if you want the instructions in English or not. Once that's done, it tells you to place three books/items on the flat surface where some invisible scanner reads the book titles. The titles are listed on the monitor and turn green once they pass inspection. You repeat the process until all your items are swooped. Then it asks if you want a print out of the items or not. You can also pay any overdue fees with this machine.

Eons ago, when checking out a book from the county or school libraries, the procedure was quite different. Tightly glued to the reverse side of the front cover was a little envelope-type thing. Inside the little envelope was a "check out" card, about the size of a recipe card, with lines on it. You took the book to the librarian and told her who you were. She took the card out of the envelope and stamped the date on it. Then you put your signature on the appropriate line and knew you had two weeks from that date to return it.

Both systems work and I don't mean to criticize either. There was, however, something wonderful and personal about pulling out that little card and adding your signature before it went on file. It's a tad ironic to me that we go to a library which only carries items meant to communicate, yet never communicate with an actual library employee, just Ms. Machine. I understand the cost-saving issues and even the possible time-saving issues, and really love the way you can renew your items by phone or online rather than having to drag them all back and forth, but it was a little more wonderful when someone smiled at you on your way out.

A few more things that have become retro are:

Handle-wound pencil sharpeners. Mostly now they have the electric kind. You jab your pencil in and pull it back out in less than two seconds. With the old kind, you turned the handle on the wall-mounted sharpener several times. It seemed so much more satisfying. What I've noticed is that both types have the same downside; certain operators empty the shavings into the garbage on a regular basis even if they've only used it once that week and certain other operators find that effort beneath themselves.

Typewriters used to be manual. To you youngins, that means they weren't plugged into an electric socket, nor did they have batteries; you were on your own. The "keys" back then were not the same type (pun intended) as the keys we use now. They were striker keys, more like how a pianist plays the keys which hit some other gizmo which causes the sound (that's the best description a non-piano player can do). These typewriters weren't attached to printers. You rolled a sheet of paper in the top and turned a knob on the side, feeding the paper into the proper position. The keys would strike a fabric ribbon, which was pressed against the paper. If the words weren't showing up very well, it was time to get a new ribbon. You had to clean off the key strikers now and then or they would smudge, especially letters like b, d, q, those with open parts. You set the margins by hand with a little sliding thing and when it reached close to the right side margin, you would hear a little "ping", letting you know you had maybe 4-5 more letters before it froze up. That meant you had to manually slide the big lever attached to the roller on the left, placing it at the left margin before you could type a new line.

I hadn't used a typewriter for many years and had occasion to use one for work one time on a marriage license. Good grief. You have to deliberately PUNCH each key down to make it work. I felt like a wimp. My favorite typewriter in high school was the IBM Selectric. It had a little interchangeable ball that had all the letters etc on it. Instead of needing keys to strike, this little ball zipped around and did that work. We thought it was near-magical. We had no correction tape, no delete, edit, move, cut, copy, or paste options. There were two kinds of fonts (pica and some other kind) and you had to physically change out the ball to change the font.

Before Xerox or Whiteout came along, we had duplicating machines. These had a container of rubbing alcohol attached to the top, upside down, so it could somehow blend with the carbon paper and make copies. This is not the same carbon paper as kids use to make images. This was the kind with the white front and purple back. If you had a typo, you had to unroll the paper, making sure it didn't slip or come all the way out, use a razor to scrape off the typo, roll it back in and make the best repair you could. At BYU we had a mimeograph machine that was a royal mess to use. You put some tar-like ink on top of the master and rolled it over the pages. It's benefit was that you could print thousands of copies from the mimeograph while you could only get a couple hundred out of the carbon kind. No electric staplers or sorters either, just staff members. The help button in our high school typing class was Mrs. Frederickson, the teacher.

This little ditty, The Typewriter Song, might give you some idea of how it was, though there was no cheery little music playing along in the background:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Windchimes and Lawn Mowers

I love windchimes. Some people hate them. Such is life. I can't help it if people are weird :o) My neighbor, Carolyn, had a wonderful big windchime that went bong bong bong, in a low tone. I told her how much I enjoyed hearing its soothing sound. (Had it bonged constantly, I would have felt differently.) Another neighbor complained to her about how annoying it was and next thing I knew, here was Carolyn standing on my doorstep with a gift...her windchime. I put it outside my back door and considered myself one lucky duck.

When my granddaughter came to live here, we had a few nights of canyon breezes, and the bonging scared her so much that she spent the nights wide-eyed, like Calvin and Hobbes waiting for the boogey man under their bed. So, unfortunately, my windchimes are resting in the shed for another day.

This all comes to mind because I need to mow my lawn. Here's how that ties together.

We had purchased probably three lawn mowers in five years. The salesmen, of course, always say how wonderfully the mower starts up at the first pull. Invariably, sometime the next year, I'd end up all but pulling my arm out of the socket trying to make the thing start.

When I was a teenager, we had an electric lawn mower. It did, indeed, start the first time every time. The problem was that you had to flip the blankity blank cord over the mower every single round! I tied enough knots to make a boy scout jealous trying to keep that cord plugged into the mower, to no avail. It was the one time (back then) that I allowed myself to swear. This was done at the same time I was beating the cord over and over on Grandma's fence post.

About this time of year, maybe five or six years ago, I became near-apoplectic over the latest machine, which had sucked the cord back into itself like a Jack Benny penny and would not relent one iota. No idea if I was swearing then or not, but it's possible. Right then and there, I made the judgment call, got in my truck, and drove directly to Lowe's. While in the mower aisle, I noticed they were playing music, windchime music. How relaxing and amazing is that? Then I went to Sears. Guess what??? They were playing the same music!!! My first thought was what a coincidence! Then it dawned on me that maybe some big corporation, possibly Coca-Cola or Pepsi, owned BOTH Lowe's and Sears. It could happen, you know.

Meanwhile, after driving home carefully with my new acquisition, I went in to get some help unloading it. Nik said, "Mom, why don't you ever answer your phone?" I said, "What do you mean? I didn't hear my phone ring."

Then I remembered.

Nik knew how much I loved the sound of windchimes and had given me a set years before, so when I recently purchased my cell phone, I programmed it to have a tinkling windchime sound when he called...

You can guess the Rest of the Story.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Grandma's Coal Chute

(I have retyped this blog entry three times and cannot get it to format right, so "it is what it is.")

Clunkers? Clinkers? Apparently it's clinkers, though the only clinks I've heard mentioned are the ones like hoosegows, the kind bad guys were "thrown" into in the Wild West. Clunkers are old cars/things that either don't run or just barely run...Cash For Clunkers. You might say the grand old car John Candy drove in Uncle Buck could be a clunker. Others might call it a "classic."
I don't think anybody would call it a clinker.

What started this line of thought is a mystery, but somehow I got thinking about Grandma Rice's coal chute. There was a little room in her basement, next to the wringer washer & tub area, with a door of its own. There must have been a furnace beast in there somewhere, but I have no recollection of it at all. It borders on my vision of hell.

I do remember the magical-looking chute on the north side of her home, at basement level. How the loads of coal got transported from the yard to the chute is anybody's guess, but I'd guess my dad. The fence wasn't movable, so anybody unloading coal had to probably use a wheelbarrow and make ten trips.

My family's coal was stored west of our house in a pile. There were big hunks on down to the slack coal, which basically nobody wanted to mess with. During the worst of the winter, you brought in two buckets of coal; by the end of the day, what was left were clinkers..."The incombustible residue, fused into an irregular lump that remains after the combustion of coal"

Well do I remember the Nasty North and Wicked West windy days that forced the coal soot back down the chimney and into the house, gagging us all and filling the house with big billows of black smoke. More work for Mother. We had two coal stoves, one in the kitchen for cooking and heating bricks and dad's feet in between chores on frigid winter days, and the Warm Morning one in the living room. When the coal in the kitchen stove burned down, we'd dig out the clinkers and take them outside. It runs in my mind, though it could be phantom memory, that there was an old hook with a long handle, like the ones we used to catch chickens by their legs, that was used to "fish out" clinkers from the Warm Morning, but I never had to do that, so who knows? Clinkers were a real drag. They were scratchy and uneven and you had to take them outside to put into another pile that either magically disintegrated or got hauled off, probably by Dad.

One of the funnest experiences I've had with coal did not involve making eyes for snowmen. There were 30 kids or so in our class at West Side High. Somebody came up with the idea of us unloading a train car of coal, by hand, for a fund raiser. On the appointed day, about 14 of us reported for duty with our shovels. I remember Kenny Kendall, Robert Bingham, Randy Howell and I (and probably others) working our buns off for several hours unloading that big car of coal. It was a memorable experience, and those who participated probably still remember it as a satisfying experience, though not necessarily one they'd like to repeat. Also, I have no idea where the $90 went.

Coal starts out as leafy compost. Block out the air, add some pressure and let it simmer for ages. The longer it simmers, the harder the coal. The harder the coal, the hotter the burn.

Graphite, used often on bicycles and pinewood derby cars, is a type of coal.

Coal is the official state mineral of Kentucky, even though coal is not a mineral, and is the official state rock of Utah.

"China is by far the largest producer of coal in the world and relies on coal for about 70% of its energy needs. An estimated 5 million people work in China's coal-mining industry. At some place in Tajikistan, coal deposits have been burning for thousands of years, creating vast underground labyrinths of unique and beautiful minerals. Wild coal fires were reported by Lewis & Clark. In Centralia, Pennsylvania, an exposed vein of coal ignited in 1962 due to a trash fire in the landfill. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continues to burn underground to this day."

Australia exports more coal than any other country in the world, followed by Indonesia. Japan, China and South Korea are the biggest importers.

The current price of coal is $30-50 a ton, depending on the quality. The current price of a cord of wood (4'x4'x8') runs roughly $150. Harder wood goes for more.

My suspicion is, if you plan to stock up on either coal or wood, now would not be too soon.