Sunday, July 16, 2006

Confessions of a Geek

A little over three years ago, for our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband gave me a Dell Axim PDA. After 25 years he’s well trained in the rules of buying me gifts – no clothes; NO kitchen appliances! Garden tools are all right as long as they don't come with small gasoline engines. (The "Weedeater" for our 15th anniversary was a bit of a bust but still better than a blender.) Technology is good. I loved the PDA. It’s even appropriately silver.

The point of a PDA was to have easy access to the library holdings while shopping. Most of the videos for the library come from Wal-Mart. With a Pocket Excel file of all the videos in the library, I can stand in the store and make sure that the video in my hand is not already on the shelf at the library. Or if I see bargain books in a bookstore, I can check to see which titles we don’t have. Very nice.

It turns out that getting the list of holdings out of the library database and into manageable Excel spreadsheets on the PDA is not as trivial as one might hope and it’s past time to update my files again, but it has been useful. And, besides, PDAs do more than spreadsheets. My Dell has calendars, notes, contacts, and task lists that sync with Microsoft Outlook. This means that in one small silver box I keep my address book with phone numbers, my datebook, my grocery list, my to-do list, and miscellaneous notes such as the estimate for a car repair, the hours of the recycling center, the part number for buying vacuum cleaner bags from Sears, and how to update the cell phone. That’s nice. It’s not perfect. I’ve totally missed meetings and appointments because I forgot to check the calendar and didn’t notice the reminder message, but it’s still nice.

Back a year or so, someone mentioned on an internet message board that they used their PDA to play midi files for church services, plugging it into the sound system. This caught my attention. I knew that my PDA would play .mp3 files but the sound quality is certainly nothing to write home about with its chintzy little speaker. I seldom messed with music on it. What was this about plugging it into a sound system? I examined it and discovered something I had completely overlooked – a headphone jack! Voila! I have an mp3 player! It does playlists and shuffles between songs and works with the tape adapters we already had in our cars for portable CD players. This opened up a whole new career for my PDA. Except I needed more memory. I could only squeeze 16 songs onto the SD memory card I had for it. I put a bigger card on my Christmas list. I also found a small CF memory card for the other slot that would hold four songs.

Last week I attended the “Women of Faith” conference in Chicago. During a break, the bag I was carrying somehow became inverted and the velcro pocket holding my PDA wasn’t fastened shut. The PDA hit the floor and the stylus fell out. I gathered it up and was relieved to discover that it still worked. It wasn’t until the following day on my way home that I discovered my music selection was drastically reduced. Closer examination revealed that the SD card slot was empty. All my nice music was in a little memory card left on the floor of a restroom in the United Center in Chicago. I felt such loss. Which is ridiculous. I still had the PDA and it still worked. I still had all of the songs on my laptop at home. I had actually lost nothing except the memory card. But it was gone. Forever gone. (OK, I could contact the United Center and ask them to check lost-and-found and mail it back to me, but short of making that effort it’s gone.) I was sad.

Less than a week later, my husband and I took our daughter to the airport and had time to shop on the way home. At the first store, we headed to “Electronics”. And there it was! The purchase of my dreams. A 512 MB SD card packaged with a translucent reader which converts it into a USB jump drive. I excitedly made the purchase and started the arduous process of extracting it from its plastic armored packaging. So much memory. I wondered about adding more software to my PDA. The one thing it hadn’t become was a portable Bible for when I found myself facing a sermon without the proper resources. I started looking around stores for software and discovered it’s rather pricey.

As we made our way home, my husband spotted a Verizon dealer and decided to take care of a family cell phone crisis. I asked to be dropped off at a nearby K-Mart while he did that. I thought I’d look at clothes. Or maybe luggage. But where did I end up? “Electronics,” of course. This time I found a 64 MB CF card – four times as big as the one I had – marked down to $7. How could I pass up such a bargain?

I came home and, with a greater awareness of the value of software for the device, downloaded a couple of demo programs, including a $14 Bible reader and one free Bible translation. Now, along with the address book, notebook, library card catalog, and .mp3 player, my little silver box contains a portable Bible for life’s little emergencies. And there are yet untapped capabilities. It would happily serve as an alarm clock if I found myself in a Motel 6 and had forgotten to bring my clock radio. I have map software that I need to find a way to load onto it.

I was so excited about my buys I wanted to tell all my friends. But who really cares about memory cards and software for my geeky PDA? I didn’t have a single sensible “girl purchase” to show for my day.

It’s true. I’m a geek. I love my technological toys. Did I mention the GPS I thought I was buying for my husband a few years back? Oh well, maybe another time.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Celebrating God and Country

Being a critical thinker can be a pain sometimes. For one thing, it tends to make one critical, which is not exactly the way to win friends and influence people. Who could ever love a critic?

This morning I found myself participating in a church service designed to celebrate the independence of the United States of America. It was nicely done and attracted a good crowd. There was a color guard with several World War II veterans. All former service personnel present were given Bibles. The songs that were sung spoke of God and country. The speaker spoke of maintaining his Christian faith while serving in the military. The congregation pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

Wait. They did what?! They pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the country for which it stands. In the sanctuary of a Christian church on Sunday morning. They did not pledge allegiance to the Christian faith or to the God they gathered to worship. They pledged allegiance to a particular flag representing a particular citizenship.

Now, granted, every single person present in the service was born in the U.S.A. and learned the pledge to the American flag at an early age. This is in the center of the U.S., hundreds of miles from the closest border. While there are many non-citizens in the county, there are few in the immediate community and none of those have ever stepped foot into this particular church. Everyone present was a red-blooded American and glad to pledge allegiance to the flag. Well, almost everyone.

It’s the internet that has ruined me for this type of service! Where else would I have had personal conversations with Europeans who are shocked by the way Americans mix up God and country? Where else would I have learned to cringe when Americans cite our country’s great wealth and power as indicative of God’s special favor? Where else would I have encountered the crazy assertion that God is not a Republican? Worse, that He’s not even an American? Certainly not in this community where almost all local officials are selected in the Republican primary.

I’m torn. Even before the internet I was bothered by secular holiday traditions being brought into the church. Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. There’s nothing evil about those symbols but they are irrelevant to the mystery of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The secular side of the holidays can be found anywhere. Only in the church is the holy lifted out of the holiday and the mystery of God in flesh dying on behalf of mankind and being resurrected from the dead made known. Why would we invite Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny into the church when we have the real deal! Our entire faith rests on the events behind Christmas and Easter. Shouldn’t we focus on those awe-inspiring events and provide a sanctuary away from what they become in the hands of retailers?

I noticed on my own how shabby Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny look when set up against the Incarnation and Resurrection. It took the internet to show me how shabby the worship of the most powerful country on earth looks when set up against the least powerful aspect of the kingdom of heaven. This world is not our home. Why are we pledging allegiance to a civil government during the one time of the week set aside for the express purpose of renewing our commitment to living as aliens in a country not our own?

Like I said, I’m torn. There was an unusual air of excitement this morning. Something was happening. We weren’t gathered simply to pay homage to a God who declines to send fire to ignite the sacrifice on the altar. There’s so much more substance to the worship of country than of God. The color guard was lined up on the platform stirring our hearts to patriotism. The sanctuary was much fuller than usual. The singing was more enthusiastic than usual. We finally found something that will bring people through the doors so that we can teach them to appreciate how special it is to worship God. By making the worship of God secondary in importance for just one morning. How could anyone be critical of something that gets people into the church who would not come for an ordinary service where all we’re doing is ordinary worship of the "immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes"?

How, indeed?