Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's Not What You Know by Jonathan Quist

Jonathan E. Quist is a lifelong resident of Illinois, where he learned everything he knows about government ethics. A graduate of Northwestern University, he has spent the past twenty years failing to escape Information Technology for a less lucrative field.

He wrote his first mystery nearly forty years ago, to critical acclaim, but similarity to another story prevented publication. Similarity. That's a laugh. It was lifted outright from "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken", is what it was. But "plagiarism" wasn't in his fourth-grade vocabulary list, until Mrs. Christensen explained it.

Mr. Quist's turn-ons include sunny days and playful kittens. His turn-offs are mean people and wiggly seats on public toilets.

He currently lives 31.3 miles from the hospital in which he was born, where by day he works for a telecommunications equipment manufacturer, and by night is writing the first novel in a humorous historical traditional mystery series, set in the world of small-time Vaudeville.

It’s Not What You Know
by Jonathan Quist

Every five years or so I replace my wallet.

There is an implied ritual that goes along with the transfer of contents from old wallet to new. It is never as simple as moving paper money, driver’s license, and dry cleaning receipts.

I am a bit of a clutterbug; paperwork of any kind is a stumbling block to me, and so beyond the aforementioned items my wallet usually contains a few others that make little impression on my daily life, at least beyond the one they make on my right hip.

Money isn’t really a problem. Thanks to a high school job that included a boss obsessed with the condition of the cash box, I keep bills sorted by denomination out of habit and ageless dread. Dry cleaning receipts are more or less irrelevant; my dry cleaner always ignores them and asks for my phone number.  He then looks at his computer, looks at me, and asks, “Karin?”.

The driver’s license is just a single card, and there is no question that it is going into the new wallet. But attached to the license are a series of codicils, in the form of insurance cards. There’s a card for my car, a card for my motor scooter, and a card for our camping trailer. New cards are issued every six months, and there are usually duplicates of at least one of them. (Illinois insurance law is written such that the police must issue a citation on the basis of whether you have a current insurance card in your possession, regardless of whether you actually have insurance. I know. I have received such a ticket. I keep the extra cards in my wallet.)

Insurance cards breed like rabbits. Along with the auto insurance cards is a health insurance card. And another, because my company changed carriers two years ago, and there are still unpaid claims against the old policy. Then there are the current and former prescription drug plans. And the vision discount card which guarantees a free eye exam and pair of glasses every year. (I have never spent less than three hundred dollars on these free glasses, but I keep the card in my wallet - heaven forbid that I should miss out on such a great benefit.) There are appointment cards from my doctor, dermatologist, and dentist. Did I mention the dental plan card? No? That’s because my current dental plan doesn’t use a card. So I only have cards for the previous two dental plans.

Tucked in the pockets with the medical-related insurance cards are medical-related business cards. There’s one for a doctor I haven’t seen in six years, but for a workman’s comp claim from a previous employer, and I don’t want to risk not being able to say who failed to cure my carpal tunnel syndrome, should I be ambushed by a company lawyer. Three are from a medical receptionist who hands me a new appointment card every time I enter an appointment in my PDA. I don’t know why.

Phone numbers and addresses are a completely different matter. Twenty years ago, these were kept, quite literally, in my little black book. Upgrading a wallet was no big deal; the address book stayed in my pocket, unless a significant business card was found, in which case its contents were dutifully entered in the address book. I still have that address book, somewhere, though nearly all the phone numbers and addresses are out of date, because for the past ten years or so, I have maintained all contact information electronically, in email address books, PDA s, or cell phones. And every possible combination of the three.

And therein lies a new problem.

The earliest of email systems had no address book capabilities. In those days, electronic contact information was simply memorized. As the online world expanded, email addresses were scribbled on desk blotters (yes, we still had them) or for those on the Cutting Edge, on Post-It notes stuck to the borders of one’s computer terminal screen. Later, as the world at large become more computer-literate, and the phrase “I send and receive mail on the computer at work” no longer prompted calls to Bellevue, rudimentary address book capability appeared. Transferring addresses from one system to another still required manual transcription. While tedious, this manual transfer fostered discretion. Entries were examined one by one, and those known to be out of date, unused, or otherwise superflous were simply discarded.

Enter the age of synchronization technology.

Virtually every modern email system has some capability to automate the task of transferring address book and calendar data to or from other systems. Many of these include the ability to synchronize this information between multiple computers, or between a computer and a PDA or cell phone.

I entered the age of the PDA with a Palm Pilot II. This hand-sized device sported an amazing two megabytes of memory, more than enough to hold a small dictionary. Or a single digital photograph taken on a present-day cell phone, set to low resolution mode.

I made wonderful use of my Palm. Along with keeping addresses and appointments handy, I wrote the first two chapters of my first novel on it, using only the stylus and Graffiti handwriting recognition. But I never achieved my personal vision of the Palm – that of a single device to maintain my work and personal address books and calendars, allowing my wife to see my calendar, or schedule appointments on my behalf. That’s because when I got into the digital age, everyone had a different idea of how synchronization was supposed to work.

If you had a Mac, one computer had to be the master, and changes made from a second computer would be lost when the first synchronized again. If you had Microsoft Outlook on a Windows PC, it worked well – provided that you also had a corporate Exchange server behind it all. And if you were trying to use these or other popular email/calendar software, you still had to make it work with your Internet Service Provider’s capabilities.

It was not an insurmountable problem, but I did not take time to solve it until it was too late.

I had everything set to go. I had copied in my address book and calendar from my home PC onto my Palm. I had managed to at least partially synchronize this information with my account on my wife’s Mac. And my employer at the time migrated email from Lotus Notes (one of the few companies to truly get synchronization right) to Microsoft Outlook. I had software available to synch my Palm to Outlook. So I installed it, plugged the Palm into the PC’s serial port, and pressed the Sync button.

That button press was the proverbial pebble dropping in the middle of the pond.

Everything synced, yes. But suddenly, all the calendar dates meticulously entered in my calendar – medical appointments, ballet and gymnastics classes, music rehearsals – were gone. They were replaced by my weekly department staff meeting, and once-a-quarter corporate Town Hall meeting. I had missed the hidden setting that would have allowed me to include both; instead, the work calendar took precedence over everything.

The address book was a bit better. I didn’t lose anything – but my Palm and home PC’s address book gained hundreds of new entries. And my coworkers got a phone number for my daughter’s ballet teacher. That went over well.

One job, 2 laptops, 3 attempts to fix things, and 4 cell phones later, I now have an Android phone, which allows me to easily maintain separate address books and calendars for home and work. But I still have a lot of the old mixed with the new, and so I am back to the manual process of preening my address book.

In principle, this is not a difficult task, but the sheer size and variety in the mixture have made it a much more introspective one.

Some are simple. My present employer’s corporate address book is now available directly through the phone and email systems, I can pretty safely delete any current-employer-related contacts from my personal address book. That took care of about 300 contacts. (Yes, I know. They were loaded into my original work phone for me. In five years, I used perhaps 30.)

Then there are the addresses from my previous employer. Many of those coworkers left the old company, so the addresses and numbers are obsolete – but the names themselves are a different matter. Some are on my short list of people to call if my employer starts hiring. Others would make good references, should I need one. In today’s job market, who you know is as important as what you know. Still others from my old department I just could not bring myself to delete. I’ve never developed close friendships on the job, but these are more like family. We worked together nearly ten years; we endured two years of corporate downsizing together, saying one or two goodbyes at a time. Five years later, it’s me deciding who stays or goes, instead of an unseen, anonymous manager. It’s still too soon to make that call.

And then there are the old college friends. I spent a few hours with one a year ago; though he was the best man at my wedding, after me, we had not talked in 10 years. When we got together we picked up where we had left off. We both noticed how easy that was, exchanged a couple emails the next day, saying “Let’s do this more often.” We have not spoken since. But he’s permanently in my virtual black book.

There’s another entry that I have stumbled across, several times in recent years. I considered deleting it from two different phones and my PDA, but I just can’t. It is labeled “Mom room 214”. The corresponding phone number connects to a nursing home; 214 was the room in which she contemplated, with some joy and satisfaction, the completion of a life well lived.

I like to believe that I do not attach myself to material possessions - that things are not important – but when an emotional tie exists, I fail miserably. The entries in my address book are the same way, though they are but a tiny scrawl on a virtual page. I don’t think I want to change this.

It’s not what we have, or what we know, but who we know that defines who we are. The people with whom we share our lives mold us, shape us and refine us even as we mold, shape and refine them. I don’t mind having a few extra reminders.

Still, a tidy wallet would be nice.


Patty said...

Great post Jonathan. I also started with a Palm, did manage to sync it with my work computer and not overwrite anything (but I'm a compulsive manual reader). I tried a Blackberry for about three years, hated the thing and got an Android for my birthday a couple of weeks ago. When they say "smart phone" they aren't kidding with the Droid! So far I'm very happy with the Droid, now I need to see if I can merge some addresses, they have imported my gmail, facebook, and work accounts. Need to do some cleanup!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I too fell in love with the Palm. Still love it!
I've gotten everything from contacts and my calendar copied onto my iPad (which I'm really really in love with).
I have about 300 items on my Palm in "Memos" (recipes and other VERY important items). Those items synced fine into my Outlook Express.
The Palm folks and the Apple folks and my IT folks at work have all tried to help me get them moved to my iPad but so far - no luck.
Anyone got any suggestions??

Anonymous said...

Hello, JEQ, from one clutterbug to another. Your post gave me my laugh for the day.

But seriously -- I don't have a PDA or any of those gadgets you mention, but I would really like to print out the e-mail addresses in my gmail account. There must be a way -- if only I knew??

I'm old fashioned. I only trust hard copies of anything. I know -- they're highly flammable, but still -- (:

Your friend,
Pat Browning

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Hi, Patty.

I'm lucky - my employer uses Google for company email, so the corporate address book is already there, and anything I add remains somewhat separate. I still haven't quite worked out calendaring - I noticed today that my phone is subscribed to my personal Google calendar twice!

Kaye - I think I managed to pull memos off my Palm and into plain text files, once upon a time. I'll let you know if I come up with anything useful.

Pat - I think you have the right idea. I shrunk the Rolodex picture, so you can't quite make it out; it looks to be an announcement from an old magazine:
"The last word in filing convenience is offered in a new revolving card file recently placed on the market. [...] Manufacturers claim the system is speedy."

There was a time when the most valuable thing a salesman carried from one job to the next was his Rolodex. It was an elegant solution to the problem of contact organization. While the PDAs and smart phones of today are just as effective, they aren't nearly so elegant, in my opinion.

jenny milchman said...

If your humorous mystery series is as funny (and poignant) as this post, it will be well worth checking out! Great piece.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

In the words of Forrest Gump, "Hello, Jenny."

And thanks for the kind words. I aim to entertain.

Mason Canyon said...

Kaye, thanks for hosting Jonathan and his interesting post.

Jonathan, I enjoyed your post very much. However, it made me realize just how out of touch I am when it comes to technology. I still keep all of my address and appointments in a calendar that I pencil in every day. I do have my phone numbers in my cell phone but I am so far away from a Palm Pilot or iPad. LOL Best of luck with your writing.

Thoughts in Progress

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Thanks, Mason.

I go back and forth on technology.

I've been using email since 1985, but get more excited by a letter or card in my mailbox. I work in IT, but 5 years ago filled out the application on a 50-year-old typewriter. I switched to a fountain pen a few years ago, because they are much easier on my hands, but had to switch back because of problems using them with modern paper...

I have yet to make mt own ink or use a quill...

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for a lovely post. I've never had a Palm and I don't use most the functions on my Google phone, but I know what you mean about not being able to delete certain numbers. After my sister died, I had to get a new phone. It broke my heart to see her name, but I could not delete her. So I put the phone in a drawer and started over.

Peg Brantley said...


I had a Palm. Until the day it quit working and I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to be next. That was the end of that program.

And L.J., I know what you mean about wanting to delete some names, and being completely unable to delete others. I still see my mom's name on phones and email lists. Can't, can't can't, take her off.

Dave said...

I don't claim to be a Luddite ... using a computer, after all! ... but I also don't have any of the "modern" conveniences like Palms and Androids (I picture Data here). My cell phone still has numbers in it from two previous jobs ... and it won't LET me delete them. I have a "black book" too and every once in a while I go through it with an eraser (I doubt I'll ever have to phone my daughter's Japanese home stay number again, for instance.) Oh, and my wallet is pretty thin compared to Jonathan's. I guess I'm straddling the world, one foot in the past and one in the future.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

You hit it on the head, L.J. I've got a bunch of apps I have installed on my Android phone. I use a few - for example, the bubble level came in handy setting up the camper - but most, I don't even remember what they were, or what they're called, or why I installed them. I suspect many iPhone users could say the same thing.

Jaffar - if my company was not paying for the phone, I don't think I'd have it. I like geeky gadgets, but I'm also a cheapskate...

Peg - I've been there. My Palm phone worked great, if I kept the battery charged. And if it got too low, plugging into the computer didn't work as a charger. So I got more than one last-minute or late meeting reminders that arrived only after I found my charger.

Dave, if I was organized enough to keep my appointments straight, I'd go for simple, too. The desk phone in my home office was made in 1925, and the phone on our headboard is also rotary dial. But try to get that simplicity in a cell phone, in North America, and you have to pay extra for the "assistive" technology of large, readable buttons and uncluttered display. Go figure.