Technical (Non-)Advances (I never wanted to be a secretary!)

What was your dream job when you were young? Did you dream of piloting a huge airliner? Writing a book? Starring in a movie? Discovering a cure for some dread disease? 

Being a secretary?

I have the greatest respect for secretaries. I’ve worked in offices or departments that would never have functioned if not for the secretaries. They knew where everything was, who was responsible for what, the protocols in place for everything that needed to happen. Secretaries make the world go around, for sure. But I never wanted to be one.

But I am. Because of computers.

In the past, when I needed to sign a document, a secretary would mail it to me, I’d sign it, and send it back. Done. Simple. All I needed was a stamp.

Now, someone e-mails it to me. Then I have to supply my own ink and my own paper (both expensive), I have to fight with the combination printer / scanner / copier that follows its own mysterious rules and sometimes works the way the online instructions say it should. 

There is no manual to refer to. I’m on my own. That doesn’t always go well.

This week, I spent an entire morning — 4 hours! — trying to print one insurance policy page. Blinking lights indicated that ink was low — and then that it wasn’t. (No, not that ink; the other one.) Another blinking light told me some other conflicting information I didn’t need and couldn’t do anything about. Somewhere along the procession of alerts, I discovered that something was amiss with the cartridge. But, unable to find a way to open the recessed gateway to said cartridge, there was nothing I could do about it.

Online, after much searching, I found information about similar printers, and then — after more searching — finally about mine…but in a language I couldn’t decipher. English, it said, but most of the words meant nothing to me. And I’m a linguist. I can get by in 8 or 9 languages. But not in this one.

All this so I could sign it, then scan it back into my computer with my signature, then e-mail it back. Instead of simply signing it and mailing it back.

My ink (very costly!..more so each year.). My paper (not cheap). My machine. My time (hours of it!). My new job — secretary. For everyone I have dealings with.

I never wanted to be a secretary. 

Computers have made our lives simpler, they tell us. They save us time. That’s what they tell us. But I’m old enough to remember otherwise. 

I’ve wasted hour after frustrating hour trying to second-guess a computer or a printer or a scanner or a “smart” phone, trying to fool it into doing what I need it to do despite the fact that it’s clearly telling me it doesn’t want to or can’t. 

It’s not a question of competence. I can follow basic instructions in an instruction manual just fine — but there are none anymore. One must go online. Where? Not always clear. To look up…what, exactly? I often call things by a different name than the one that some tech nerd gave it. Often, when I see my issue in some forum or online discussion board (what a waste of time!!), I don’t recognize it because I don’t call it that

It often seems that all of the time I ‘save’ by using computers to do my work is then spent trying to find answers online. 

Life is frustrating enough. 

Yes, computers can diagnose diseases and design a work station or a financial spreadsheet that will, indeed, improve our lives in the long term. But the cost is far, far higher than we recognize. Some of us who remember do recognize it. But we can’t do anything about it. We don’t have time.

The Next Generation — or, What Would I Have Asked?

Cleaning up Christmas is a chore! I love Christmas, love the once-a-year decorations, the colors, the musical scores that sit on the piano for a month or so — the specialness of it. Putting it away seems like slamming a door too hard. 

Putting away the Christmas cards often makes me stop, go make a cup of tea and think — about the ones I sent, the ones I never had time to send, the stamps, the special paper for inserts, the photos I meant to include. The lists. And the address books.

Remember those? Not the digital kind, not a ‘Contacts list’. The kind where we used to actually write stuff. Longhand. In script.

My mother’s address book was a small red leather book with gold lines around the edges, and its pages were edged in gold, so if you held it up in the light, it glittered. And it was a wonder of organization! Family names were written in blue ink, friends in black. Foreign names were in a special section toward the back. Little notes of special information were printed in tiny letters in the margins: (“Rosie’s stepdaughter,” or “house in the Poconos,” other cryptic words to help her remember who they were). And those who were no longer with us were crossed out.

Crossed out. Nullified. X’ed out. Gone. No longer part of the Christmas list.

My own Christmas mailing list has dwindled. I used to have scores of relatives who all wanted to be acknowledged at least once a year. Great-aunts and second or third cousins and children of those. Now, when I pull out my address book (yes, I’ve had one forever), and my printed list (from my computer), I find lines everywhere. Crossing outs. X’es. 

My maternal grandmother and grandfather both died in their 70s. My father’s father was gone before I was old enough to know him, and Nanny was buried on my third birthday, when she was in her 70s.

I’m 70 now. This year, I summited El Capitan. Several times. 

The only thing I remember my grandmother doing was sitting in her rocking chair in the huge kitchen, shelling peas, cutting beans, peeling potatoes. Watering her plants. Rubbing my back as I watched TV. Making dinner. 

Next year, I’ll have a granddaughter. What will she remember of me? I’m the Next Generation. Many of my relatives are gone. Some of my friends, too. I’m the only connection she’ll have to What Came Before. What will she want to ask me?

So MANY things I wish I’d asked my mother, before it was too late! I couldn’t talk with my grandmothers, since neither of them spoke much English, and after WWII we kids spoke only English. I was too young to care. But my mother could have answered anything. 

But as they say, ‘Education is wasted on the young.’ We don’t know what to ask, when we’re young. Or we don’t care enough to ask it. And then we’re old, they’re gone, and it’s too late. 

But then Christmas will come around again, and I’ll delight in putting up the red, green and gold decorations, and I’ll pull out the cards and address books and my Contacts list. And I’ll wonder, again, what I would have asked, had we had the time….