Technology Grandma

When technology surpasses my ability to understand how it works

Me, eventually

Back when my mother sold the family home in Menlo Park and moved out to Pacific Grove, me and my eight sibs were cautiously optimistic. I remember asking her if she needed instructions on how to record on the VCR (this was the early Nineties). It was a seriously old top-loader VCR, complete with corded remote that could pretty much only STOP, PAUSE and PLAY. Anything else, you had to get up and do it directly on the machine. Setting the timer to record was a complicated process that was super easy to screw up, so I wasn’t too surprised when my mom responded to my question with a laugh. “I don’t think I need to know that,” she added.

I got it. All she needed to know was STOP, PAUSE and PLAY, and that was on the remote, cord or no. I used to think to myself, all this new technology must be confusing. And I was probably right. She never did get herself a cellphone. Why would she? She only went outside for walks or maybe to the grocery store. And when she relocated eventually to assisted living, she had even less use for technology. There were nurses for that shit.

Meanwhile, technology has surpassed my own capability to understand it. Case in point: I recently started watching WandaVision streaming on Disney+. At home, I have an ultra-easy Roku. But I’m dogsitting this weekend, and last night, I decided to pick up watching on my client’s Apple TV. And as I touchpadded my way to the correct episode and got it to play, I was surprised to hear a female robot voice describing everything that was happening on the screen:

“Agent Monica Rambeaux materializes, surrounded by an ashy substance. All around her, people are appearing as ash whirls around them…” says Magic Voice. What’s happening? Is this on purpose? Is this another kooky Wanda Maximoff trick? I mean, she is forcing a town to take part in her dream sitcom life. Adding a narrator wouldn’t be all that weird, would it?

But yeah, it was weird. And I quickly realized that in my struggle to pause playback on the tiny Apple TV remote, I’d somehow managed to turn on voiceover narration…but only for Disney+. Shit. So I for-real paused it and went to the Disney+ settings…..okay, nothing there about audio or accessibility. I found the accessibility settings for the Apple TV, but voiceover narration was already turned off. So…..what now?

Stuck, I did what everyone else in my age group or younger would do: I Googled “how do you turn off voiceover narration on Disney+ on Apple TV”? At least I’m young enough to know that Google still has all the answers. The Apple TV forum had the answer at their seventh option: swiping downward on the touchpad would bring up the option to turn voiceover narration on and off. Somehow, when trying to pause the playback, I’d swiped downward and then arrowed down and then clicked, turning on the narration option. It’s such a random but specific set of actions! How could anyone know that without instructions?

I guess I, like my mom, “don’t really need to know that.” But when I did need to know it, at least Google could bail me out! I know that probably won’t always be the case, so I’d better get all my binge-watching in now.

Our Neighbor, Sasquatch

“Yeah, so I’m a little loud. So what???”

A while back, I was chatting on the phone with my friend Pam. We were in the middle of chatting about work and movies and daily life, when my floor and walls shook a bit. I looked over at my husband, Mike, who was sitting a few feet away, working on his computer.

“Exists is home,” we both said. A distant BOOM followed, as if someone just dropped an anvil downstairs. Then a door slam and more structural quaking caused by the being that occupies the apartment beneath us.

“What’s ‘Exists’?” Pam asked.

“Our downstairs neighbor,” I reply. “We have no idea what the hell this guy is doing down there, but either he’s throwing heavy equipment around, or he himself is a Sasquatch. We prefer to think it’s the latter.”

“But what does ‘Exists’ mean?” Pam is still confused, and I don’t blame her. I forget that Mike and I speak in a near-secret language comprised almost entirely of obscure film references. Like “Mike Brady,” our name for our other neighbor with kinda ’70s Dad/Mike Brady hair. Or “Andy Richter,” a former neighbor who used to live down the hall who reminded us of Conan O’Brien’s sidekick. “Stuart from Big Bang Theory” lives on the first floor, a few doors down from “Tony Stark.”

“Oh! You haven’t seen Exists? It’s an awesome Bigfoot movie. I mean, the found footage thing is kind of played, but all told, it’s legit scary and the creature effects are the best I’ve seen of all the Bigfoot movies.” And I should know, because I’ve watched almost all the horrible Bigfoot movies out there. Or at least the first 10 minutes of the really bad ones. But out of those, only Willow Creek and Exists are worth multiple viewings. “Our neighbor is super loud and stompy, so we call him Exists. It’s kind of a compliment, if you think about it.”

Pam is amused enough by this to give Exists a viewing, and agrees: it’s downright scary and even a little sad when you realize why Bigfoot’s so pissed off. Maybe our neighbor is pissed off by something sad and that’s why he bangs shit around at 1 a.m. and stomps his way up and down the stairs, rattling the building. Whenever we feel the vibration of the building around us, we have to wonder if the pandemic is what’s troubling Bigfoot, because his walks in the woods are now crowded with people who can’t go sit in a café like they normally would. Plus, the guy downstairs shares a name with a tree, so that’s gotta be a little harsh.

It’s tough being a Bigfoot in the City, I guess.

What’s in a Genre Name?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

So, I have some exciting news: at long last, I have a literary agent! This is huge for me, obviously. I’ve been writing pretty much my entire life, but only recently has it become of high enough quality that someone who doesn’t personally know me thinks it can sell.

But the question is: what genre does this new story fall under?

I think the overarching and oversimplified answer is simply: HORROR. If you want to get fancy with it, I’d say paranormal mystery. But the thing is, some publishers who may be super into HORROR are less excited by the term “paranormal mystery”. I was hoping my agent might have a snappy answer for me, but then she asked me what genre I felt this book was. So naturally, I turned to the Interwebz for answers.

I came away with about a million different answers, a lot of which ended up at “paranormal mystery” and “horror.”

My agent then brought up the idea of using the subgenre term Magical Realism, and HOLY SHIT that sounds cool! And look at the amazing writers who fall under that (sub)category: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Milan Kundera, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King… of course, that’s super-specific but it adds a lot of class to HORROR.

Now I’m wondering why HORROR has such a bad rep? Is it because it’s a genre fiction category that some consider automatically cheesy or bad? If so, why is that? Is it all Twilight‘s fault? Discuss.

Which leads me to want to create some new subgenre that’s accurate without undercutting deeper themes within the book. So here are a few ideas:

  • Modern Gothic Horror (I like this one the best!)
  • Natural Horror (This sounds like what would happen if David Cronenberg set a film in the woods)
  • Ghost Mystery (This one is confusing! Like, is it about ghosts solving mysteries, or what is it…?)
  • Cabin Gothic (This sort of sounds like the shabby-chic of fiction, like a style of furniture called Rustic Baroque. HARD PASS.)

Did Shirley Jackson have to struggle with this? Or did they only use the term FICTION back then? Not that I’m as amazing as Shirley Jackson. (I wish!) But I have to wonder if the writers I love would even get published now because breaking down the barriers of genre can be so tricksy. But worth it! I hope…

A Comfortable Sort of Terror

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

A friend recently told me, “I love how you’re all deep cuts, only with bad horror movies instead of music.” And I gotta say, I love that people both love and notice that about me. But after this crazy Pandemic Year, I got to thinking: I wonder why this is? Why is it cheesy horror that often comforts me in times of stress?

I suspect it has a lot to do with nostalgia. When the Pandemic first started last March, I spent at least six weeks watching Night of the Comet repeatedly. It got to the point where I’d just turn it on while playing computer solitaire late at night until I was finally tired enough to go to bed. It was such a cheerful portrait of the Endtimes, after all, in that ’80s consumer bliss way. It’s the story of two sisters, one a teenager and the other just out of high school, who find themselves in L.A. after a passing comet has vaporized almost everyone on the planet but a handful of survivors…many of whom start turning into mutant zombies. The apocalypse itself was blissfully fast, something that seemed sooooo enviable from our standpoint of stay-home-and-wait while our government did little if anything to give us guidance.

A lot of the movies I turn to for feel-good vibes (or at least, survival vibes) are films that I associate with younger, carefree days. Sometimes, they were movies that scared me as a kid, but now are more funny/bad/cheesy than they are scary. Yet, the times they take me back to fill me with fond memories and feelings of security that only come from a pretty well-adjusted childhood.

Example: When I was about twelve, I was visiting my oldest sister Ginny in Seattle for a few weeks. She always had the latest thriller paperbacks or would buy me whatever book I was interested in reading. And when it came to television, she was more than happy to make recommendations for movies to watch. In retrospect, she probably just wanted to keep me happily busy while she went about her day, but I think she also enjoyed chatting about the movie with me afterwards (to a POINT…before I just got nerdy-chatty and started basically reciting entire scenes from the film). I’ll never forget one such recommendation: Burnt Offerings, a mid-’70s schlocky horror film with Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Bette Davis as their aunt.

An incredibly detailed lobby card for Burnt Offerings (1976) by United Artists

It’s your basic family-wants-a-cheap-summer-rental, become-summer-caretakers, then-become-possessed-by-the-house-and-somehow-consumed-by-the-house story. It’s effectively creepy, mainly because everyone in the cast is effectively creepy. Being only twelve, it totally worked for me for the same reason Let’s Scare Jessica to Death worked for me when it played on Creature Features late one Saturday night. Basically: I had no better thrillers in my frame of reference to compare them to. But also, there was something undeniably foreboding about that grainy filmstock and the telltale signs of what I now recognize as a low-budget film: bad sound that echoes because of only one boom mic and lighting filled with unintentional shadows. Things that would be a turn-off to a schooled moviegoer just added to my this-is-creepy meter.

Also, I just plain loved being scared, preferably by the supernatural. Ghosts were always just a more comfortable scare because I knew the chances that I’d encounter ghosts, killer houses and vampires in real life were slim to none. But a human killer stalking babysitters, like in When a Stranger Calls? That was straight up terrifying. The more normal the setting, the more uncomfortable the scares became.

Which begs the question: Do Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees fall under the category of supernatural or human killers? Wait, you mean that wasn’t the first question that popped into your head? You clearly don’t know me at all. But Michael Meyers in Halloween is, for all practical purposes, just a guy. But as Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis tells us repeatedly, he is also the physical embodiment of EEEEEEVIIIIIL. And by the end of the film, we believe it a hundred percent. Jason Voorhees’ entire existence is pretty much never explained beyond, well-I-guess-he-never-really-drowned-and-is-somehow-alive-and-keeps-coming-back-so….? But again, I saw both Halloween and Friday the 13th for the first time at age 12, edited-for-television complete with commercial breaks, and therefore wasn’t entirely immersed in them. I watched them in the warmth and safety of my own home, possibly on a black-and-white portable TV in my room, so those are go-to feel-good films.

Does this make me weird? Probably. But who wants to be normal? Besides, it’s not like these are the only films that make me feel better on a dark and dreary day. Like anyone, there are a slew of other films that took me out of my world and that I love to revisit: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the OG Star Wars and (again, horror!) Poltergeist all do the job nicely. Just like Die Hard at Christmas, right? 

But for someone who loves Halloween more than Christmas, nothing warms my heart more than the comfortable fear I get from watching John Carpenter’s Halloween, and knowing that Jamie Lee Curtis will get away….for now.