How a Quiet Night Between Holidays Became the Battle Ground Between Me and My Family
The Monday following Thanksgiving, my wife realized that we had an evening in which no one had any plans. Not me, not her, nor our daughter or son. This was a rarity because our children are adults, now, and have lives of their own, and my wife and I keep pretty busy. (Side note: I learned from my father that the secret to a happy marriage is to stay the hell out of the house except to eat or sleep.)
As an amateur writer, an evening without an obligation to attend is one of the greatest windfalls. I struggle to carve out the minimum two hours I demand of myself every evening. With nothing going on for anyone, I looked forward to sitting at my desk in the corner for the entire evening, doing the creative work I love and some of the pragmatic work (planning, admin stuff) needed to move my writing business forward.
So what would we do with our windfall of leisure time?
Alas, my wife scheduled a photo shoot for the family. We hadn’t had a portrait done in about twelve years, and it seemed over due. In fact, one could argue it might be the last chance for a family portrait for another dozen years, what with the disparity of schedules and the onslaught of time.
I agreed. Family activities are one of the few things I allow to encroach on my writing time.
We chose JC Penney “portrait studios” because they’re cheap, they had an opening, and they accept pets. Huzzah and three cheers for the photographer because the first to arrive, our daughter, was a full ten minutes late. Had she canceled us, it would have been my fault.
When the appointment was made, I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize it was JC Penney “portrait studios.” I somehow thought it was a studio on the other side of Lansing and sent my son that address. I arrived on time but to the wrong place, and had to re-route our son.
The photographer, a young lady, exuded chill. (I’m not sure one really exudes “chill,” so much as offers the vibe of chill, and you are free to notice or not.) She liked dogs. She often photographed children and I think had come to prefer animals to babies for getting the money shot.
To sit for a portrait is surreal, as you must be painfully aware that you are sitting for a portrait while painfully attempting to look natural. The only people exempt from this are hand and foot models. No matter what they think of their hands or feet, their faces are not in the picture, so they can make all manner of uncomfortable faces, and it’s only minimally expressed in their farthest appendages.
We had chosen dark outfits and this was a sound strategy. I’m not a big fan of the family photos with everybody dressed in matching pajamas, or in sports fan garb or, my least favorite, western costumes.
Am I a Writer or the Father of a Family?
I’m both, alas, and the push and pull between those two realities can cause me stress. Part of me wants to schedule hard blocks of time for my writing that are inviolate. But doing so means I might miss something that happens with my family, and that’s just not how I want to live. Let’s face it, if the only thing I ever wanted to do was write, I would have abandoned my family years ago.
But I’m not. So I scramble to find time. Just like the time I found to write this.
Our house has been busy, lately, and we found blood splattered across the floor near the front door, leading across the carpet and into the kitchen as if someone had been cut and was bleeding while making their way through the house.
Obviously, this was disturbing.
The mystery was heightened because our adult children are both living at home. We don't know exactly what they're doing at any given moment.
To digress for a moment, having adult children in the house is fun, really, but not quite how we thought things would be.
I'm not being judgmental when I say, "…how we thought things would be." I had been going on the assumption that circumstances would pull them away from us. Instead, circumstances kept them close.
Allow me to digress just a bit more.
I study Stoic philosophy, and one of its tenets is that we must submit to the natural order of things. Stoicism does not promote the idea of a God or gods, but neither does it preclude them. It is based on embracing rational thought, and dealing with the circumstances you are presented with.
Stoicism also embraces the fact that the natural order of the world — nature, governments and people — can mess with you in ways you never imagined.
For example, my wife dropped a jar of marinara sauce the other day in the kitchen and the jar's lid blew off. The splatter of spaghetti sauce went through the mouse hole I cut in the door to our basement and splattered the stairwell wall. Instead of working on my novel the next hour, I was scrubbing the wall. Something in the natural system of the world presented me with circumstances I had to deal with.
The blood appeared the next day. We thought it might be the dogs, and checked their paws very carefully (no cuts!). The cats were similarly checked and showed no signs of bleeding.
We asked both kids, and no one knew how blood could have been brought in through the front door.
I got a bucket and began scrubbing the blood. I worked from the entrance to kitchen, and noticed the trail continued across the kitchen. Because of the color of the kitchen tile, it was difficult to see the blood, but I kept my face low and cleaned it up.
The trail led me back to the door to the basement, the one with the mouse hole cut in it. Then it hit me: it wasn't blood, but spaghetti sauce. One of the dogs had stepped in the mess while I was getting a bucket to clean the spill.
The dog tracked the spaghetti sauce through the kitchen and towards the front door. We, however, didn't notice for two days. In the meantime, I forgot about the spilled spaghetti sauce, and jumped to the conclusion that blood was in the house.
It bears repeating: no animals were injured when my wife spilled spaghetti sauce.
A Primer on Treating Digital Assets More Like Physical Assets to Protect Valuables
Our lives are wrapped up in a digital world. We have scattered usernames, passwords and personal information all across the internet. We have created and stored a lifetime of documents stuffed with banking info and tax information on personal computers.
Then we use smartphone to connect our personal repositories with internet destinations, where we conduct day-to-day living.
Protecting those three digital worlds is of utmost importance. If you're overwhelmed by the thought of it, or just not sure how to get started with protecting them, the rest of this article will get you started.
What me worry?
Bad things can happen that severely disrupt your ability to function. Some threats come from bad people. Other threats are just bad luck. For instance:
If your computer crashed right now, do you have a notion of how to fix it or at least recover your files?
If your computer is infected with malware or ransomware, how will you get it fixed?
If you accidentally delete important files do you know how to get them back?
Do you password protect your computer? What about your wireless network?
When you travel, do you use just any old wireless network you find?
What should I do to feel secure?
There are a few principles of safety from real life that you should follow in your digital life as well:
Be wary when you talk to strangers, especially those bearing gifts
If need to visit a place you know nothing about, try to learn about it before you go there
Lock your doors
Don't leave valuable out in the open
That won't prevent any bad thing from ever happening to your digital life, but they are things you can control and taking a few easy steps of prevention will protect you from some obvious risks.
Let's cover these security principles one by one.
Secure your valuables
The first principle of securing your digital assets is backup and recovery. Whether you use your computer for managing your family life or earning a living, you need to backup up your data at a minimum. Ideally, you would also backup the system so that, in case of a disk crash, you can recover and get back to work.
Backing up data
The easiest way to back up your data is to use a cloud service such as DropBox or OneDrive. You place your critical files in the folders managed by those services, work from those folders, and let the cloud service manage the versions. It's affordable and effective (but not perfect).
Using a cloud service means you have to be connected to the internet to get the benefit. That's doable.
The bigger challenge is that, should someone hack the cloud service, or steal your password, your critical data is vulnerable. That caveat notwithstanding, I think the risk is worth it, and use both services myself.
Backing up a system
Slightly more challenging is effectively backing up your system so that it can be recovered. if you've ever purchased a portable external hard drive, they frequently toss in a free backup and restore software system. I have never found one of those to be effective. They require you to actively backup the hard drive, and I would forget. I would forget for years at a time.
That was so useless, I went in search of a better way.
I found Macron systems, which has both a free and a reasonably priced solution, called Reflect, that will schedule the backups automatically, and can be used to recreate the hard drive should it crash and have to be replaced. It demands a slight learning curve, but once you get it set up it's okay to forget it because you don't have to worry. Once again, here is the (non-affiliate) link to Macron Reflect.
You purchase an external hard drive, schedule the system backups to be made on that external drive, and let it rip. If you use a laptop, as I do, you'll need to plug the external hard drive in whenever you're back home, and the software will continue the backups at that point.
Lock your doors
If you use a laptop and take it with you places, you should have a password on your Windows account. If it's lost or stolen, at least make someone figure out your password to access your files.
If you have a wireless network in your home, assign a password to gain access to the network. Almost all recent wireless routers come with the network password protected. However, you should still log into the router and change the admin password. Once you're there, change the wireless network name and password to something of your choosing.
Learn about the place you're visiting
If you travel and hope to use wireless networks you encounter along the way, be extra careful. A recent exploit is for bad guys to set up wireless networks in public settings — coffee shops, libraries, etc. — that sound like the locally hosted network. Something like "Starbucks 2" or "Barnes and Noble Alt." sounds legit. It may not be. By routing your wireless network traffic through their machine, they can stiff the traffic, crack encryption, and steal your passwords.
If anything unusual takes place while connecting to a new wireless network, don't give them a second chance. Find another source, or wait until you're in a safe place before connecting.
How to surf the web safely while traveling
The safest method is use a mobile hot spot of your own. If you have unlimited data on your cell phone, you may be able to use the mobile hot spot feature on your phone to provide your own private and secure connection. Just remember to use a password on the wireless network.
You can also purchase a mobile wireless network hot spot and take it with you.
Beware strangers bearing gifts
The greatest modern risk today comes in the form of email attachments or website downloads that are malware, spyware or ransomware in disguise. The bad guys use social engineering tactics to convince you that the attachment or download is low risk and very routine contents. Once activated though — usually by opening a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or executable-in-disguise — the exploit works in the background to establish itself on your computer.
Then it gathers information and sends it back to the bad guy. Or it encrypts your computer files, holding them ransom.
You probably can't tell from this blog, but I'm well into middle-age. I'm not horrified by the prospect as I feel fine and my mind seems sharp.
But a thing happened this past week that give me pause.
Family photos at JC Penney
Our adult children, both out of college, are living with us at the moment. It gives a weird vibe to things, as routines from 20 years ago have now morphed into very different things, like we still watch television together but, instead of Dexter's Labratory or the Power Puff Girls, it's Ru Paul's Drag Race and Japanese language soft-porn anime with subtitles.
We decided to get a family portrait done for our holiday greeting cards. Next year may see all of us in different places. This could be one of the last such portraits we take (you just don't know).
JC Penney is cheap, true, but we chose them also because they allow pets. The photo shoot was a testament of all things Americana:
Each of the four adults drove separately
JC Penney is a department store that has seen better days
It's located at a mall that has seen better days
I had the wrong location, and led my son astray, but thanks to our cell phones, he and I were only fifteen minutes late for the appointment
We used coupons to save money on a thing we really didn't need in the first place
Someday, far in the future, our portrait might end up in a Ken Burns III documentary about the demise of department stores and shopping malls. I hope he uses the one with the dogs looking up at the camera.
Last week was a kick in the stomach reminder about harsh weather. We got around eight inches of snow in brutally cold fashion. It doesn't help with the days growing shorter. Harsh weather messes with your mood, and it's for real.
I'm tempted to think of escapist strategies at such times. Wouldn't it be nice to have a place in Florida? Should we sneak off to Arizona? (Am I the sort of Boomer with enough discretionary money to do such things? Not really, but I have good credit.)
But there's a much healthier way to deal with harsh reality
Tough problems have to be dealt with directly. Escaping (or ignoring) the problem only worsens the situation. The solution might take an indirect route, but your mind, and your heart and your spirit will be stronger for confronting the problem.
In my case, I cleaned out enough of my garage to park a single car in it. That may seem a bit ridiculous, but it opens up enough driveway space that I can shovel when the snow falls.
I also took my snow blower to the shop for repair. It's not a big honking thing, but it's enough to help me when the worst snow falls.
I picked up the leaves before the storm, put away my rake, and stationed shovels at all the doors so I could dig my way out of the garage, the side door, and the back door.
Finally, I bought a new pair of water proof shoes. I've worn half-assed boots for fifteen years and decided that having dry, warm feet might help me deal with winter. I found a pair on clearance and I love them.
I'm not looking forward to winter, but I'm not afraid of it either.
I spent this past week trying to get my act together. My writing act. Namely, I'm working on more of the shorter pieces I had been writing before I tackled the novel over the summer.
I've worked on my content strategy for several years, but never implemented it. I know a few things about the topic, taking courses and reading books, and using it at my day job. Like the cobblers barefoot children, I never did it for myself.
In my defense, the cornerstone of my strategy is to write novels that people love and share. Everything else depends on that. So I'm laying the ground work, and you'll see an upsurge of shorter, entertaining or enlightening stuff.
In a not-so-subtle call back to dealing with problems directly, and dealing with harsh reality, I'm doing what I can to be a Climate Changeling. I'm composting, added insulation to our house, and installed high-efficiency furnace, hot water heater, and A/C.
Really, I should just get rid of the A/C. I'm considering installing a green-house pit garden. My next car will have a battery, and I'm going to commute to work on a scooter. (As long as my credit holds out.)
I'm certainly not looking to escape anywhere because there's no where else to go. We all need to do what we can without looking away. It's painful, but we've wandered into hell. We need to keep walking.
Read this if you need help looking at the problem without flinching: