Technology Work Around

Relatively low-cost technology including a reliable computer, makes freelance work possible for over 53 million Americans. It’s not enough to be able to use the old office suites, now there are multiple suites plus programs and apps. For many talented freelancers serving as their own IT department eats project, or personal, time when least appreciated.

My desktop computer began slowing down months before I was willing to accept it should be replaced or brought to a tech service group. The unit cost about $400 when I bought it on sale five years ago. The manufacturer still sells the exact same unit at a higher price. With confidence built on owning a new primary laptop, I decided to strip the desktop model to the manufacturer’s settings then reload what I needed. There seemed to be no downside unless you count relying on a couple of websites for total tech support.

About two hours later the desktop computer was back in working order and humming along as quickly as its old processer would allow. It isn’t fast, but better than good enough for writing and word processing. My tech confidence soared.

The devil is in the details that I haven’t been able to restore. While I know using the cloud to transfer data from the laptop to the desk unit may be the culprit, I haven’t been able to correct the annoyances. For example, I now have double entries in my contacts. A mess of old files found their way into my Dropbox. One email account doesn’t want to make itself visible. So I work around or ignore these issues and work on correcting them when there is time and energy.

Staying on top of technology is a challenge for many self-employed or retired people. I have a pair of role models that define expectations. My father managed technology fairly well into his eighties when motivated to learn about streaming services to follow his favorite baseball teams. We knew his cognitive skills were slipping when there were more calls for routine tech actions. My mother-in-law was ninety-one when she began struggling with printing photos from her iPhone and keeping up with hundreds of friends online.

Our smartphones and computers are a necessity of a full life. What will be more frightening to the Baby Boomers: giving up their car keys or losing the ability to schedule a Lyft?

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What Work Would I Do if I Were an Immigrant?

Olga*, 42, was an architect in the Ukraine and now she is a homemaker. Gina, 28, was a civil engineer in Venezuela and now she is a server. Deqa, 32, was an accountant in Somalia and now she works as an assembler. When I tutor these adult English Language Learners, I often consider what it would be like if the situation were reversed and I were the immigrant. What work could I do?

I’ve made my living as a writer and a teacher—work that requires a good command of the language, both written and spoken. As a marketing communication writer, understanding connotation (e.g., ‘cheap’ vs. ‘inexpensive’) and nuance (e.g., the perspective of suburban mothers vs. that of urban mothers) were key to being persuasive. Since project management was a big part of my work, I developed schedules and budgets and coordinated the efforts of several other team members.

As a teacher, I’ve needed to use clear, simple wording and examples that would help someone comprehend a word or concept. I’ve had to be quick with alternative explanations, too. When I tutor immigrants, I am also teaching American culture as well as English language so I must remember not to make assumptions about anybody’s worldview or beliefs.

If I lived in Ukraine, Venezuela, Somalia, Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam, or any of the other places my students come from, I wouldn’t know those languages and cultures well enough to make a living as a teacher or writer. My M.A. in English would be irrelevant, just as Olga’s, Gina’s, and Deqa’s degrees are.

When I review my non-language-based skills, my list is short and sounds like the work my students do: cooking, cleaning, factory work, or stocking merchandise in a store. With time and a bit more knowledge of language and culture, I could take care of children or infirm adults. As my language improved, perhaps I could be a sales clerk, wait tables, or drive a cab.

But professional work in which I use my communication, analytical, and organizational skills would be closed to me. What also would be lost to me is the respect that goes with having a professional career. If I were an immigrant with poor language skills, most people would assume I was stupid and uneducated—nothing more than the cleaner or babysitter I appeared to be.

If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t want to be pitied for the challenges of learning a new language and culture (and neither do my students). I would have chosen to emigrate. Or maybe I’d be a refugee who didn’t want to leave but needed a safe place to start over. Either way, before I moved, I would have been aware that it’s hard to learn a new language and work in a foreign country—the bare minimum needed to survive. If I missed my homeland, was lonely, felt disrespected, or experienced outright hostility, it would be mine to deal with. In time, I could hope that safety, security, and a better quality of life would come.

When I work with student immigrants, I keep in mind that it’s hard to do what they do, even though they chose it. I admire their grit, persistence, ability to work toward long term goals, and overall resilience. I wonder if I would have the same qualities if I were starting over in a new country?

*All names have been changed to protect student privacy.

Reduced Focus

For the past four years my eye prescription remained relatively unchanged. Unfortunately, my glasses haven’t remained unscarred through an infant’s grabbing hands, a puppy’s curiosity, and life in general.

I took advantage of a coupon to buy an emergency pair of bifocals for $250. During a recent week of travel I wore that pair. My eyes never adjusted to the left lens, the one the optical tech said was stronger than my old prescription. Each afternoon I found it difficult to zip through messages on my phone, enjoy a book, or read small print on a menu. Headaches started early in the day. I panicked about fulfilling writing obligations and tried to not think that maybe my eyes were in trouble.

This is the kind of bad decision I made because of a high deductible health insurance policy. The $175 eye exam would be out of pocket so spending $400 for the security of back up glasses felt prohibitive. I shopped around and spent less. Fortunately, my discomfort ended when I returned home and put on the old glasses. Scratches and all, my vision cleared, and the headaches stopped.

Others are making more difficult decisions—taking the gamble of not purchasing an asthma inhaler for themselves to make it possible to pay for a partner’s insulin, cancelling necessary lab work or tests to pay for their child’s asthma inhaler, not following a physician’s directions in using an expensive medication to stretch its use, staying in a hated job to hold on to health insurance, not replacing bald tires on the family car because of a health emergency.

Most of my adult experience was in a health maintenance organization. We groused about wait times for appointments, lack of choice in the optical area, going to a hospital across town, but we never faced decisions like today. If we hesitated about taking a child to clinic for a possible ear infection, it was about traffic or workload and not about the $125 bill.

These decisions are made in all zip codes throughout our wide metropolitan area. Only the very wealthy or very fortunate are exempt. We don’t comment on a good friend’s darkened tooth, push a neighbor to join in a night out, or question why a kid’s wheezy cough doesn’t improve. We’re all too polite to talk about the healthcare monkey choking America’s sense of comfort and scared about what’s coming next.

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Living in the Wisconsin Woods

The nearest stoplight is about 20 miles south. McDonalds and Target are another ten minutes away. Spend a few weeks in a small town 75 miles from the nearest Best Buy or a hundred miles from Macys and a whole lot of the advertising during prime time is meaningless.

This is life for many United States residents. Here fast food means leftovers warmed in the microwave. There isn’t much to buy unless you are a tourist looking for art and jewelry. Local wages don’t leave a lot for casual spending. A pair of good jeans, two pairs of everyday jeans, and old work jeans plus a good pair of black pants satisfy most women. When the local stores have sales there are nice enough shirts and sweaters for Sundays or socializing. A seasonal dress rounds out the wardrobe.

Contrary to Madison Avenue’s wish most people don’t work to buy fancy lattes on the morning commute, fill a closet with the new season’s clothes or decorate their homes in the latest trends. The average American appreciates those who do well and share it with the community, and thinks poorly of people in houses with gold desks and lamps and feathery things in vases who don’t share.

I grew up like this. Shopping became a pastime after we moved to a city and walking through stores grew into weekend entertainment. It’s not like FedEx and UPS trucks don’t stop in our Northern neighborhood, but the boxes are frequently from Amazon and contain things like a book the local store doesn’t carry, special dog food that can’t be found locally, light bulbs, or rubberized boots for working outside. More replacement focused than acquisition.

Returning to the city requires adjustment back to the importance of outward appearance, busy lives and a different sort of community life. I’ve spent my adult life in the city and know comfort there. But the peace of being 20 miles north of the last stoplight is precious.

Cynthia Kraack is an award-winning Twin Cities author, whose novels include The High Cost of Flowers, which won the 2014 Midwest Book Award in Literary Fiction. Her blogs will appear regularly in WordSisters.