Monday, September 07, 2009

Free Associatin'

I first linked my personal computer to the internet about 13 years ago. It was still somewhat primitive in those days, but one of the first things I realized was that the HTML system promised to finally set my spirit free.

I have always had a somewhat unpredictable curiosity. All sorts of things have been known to spark my interest in learning more about, well, all sorts of things.

HTML has been perfect for that, really. But now that I think of it, maybe its proclivity for free association is too much of a good thing. I can start out looking up one thing, then I can get diverted by so many side thoughts that I find myself having to retrace my steps to remind myself what I was looking for in the first place.

When I was growing up, I remember hearing my teachers say things in school that led my mind in directions that my teachers probably never intended. We had a set of encyclopedia at home, and sometimes I made a note to myself to look up something later that day.

But sometimes I forgot.

Other times, when I was in an elevator or sitting in a booth eating my lunch or standing in line at the grocery store, I overheard other people's conversations in which they mentioned something that sparked an interest, but I had nothing to write with.

I tried to make mental notes, but that didn't always prove reliable.

HTML made it possible for me to satisfy most of these on–the–spot cravings for information immediately. There have been times when such inspirations were so obscure that I could spend hours searching the internet and never answer my questions. But, most of the time, I have been able to satisfy my need to know in a few minutes — and then, I could return to whatever the original task at hand happened to be with a clear conscience.

In my case, it isn't a perfect system. Not yet. I don't have a laptop computer. I've been out of work for about a year, so buying one really isn't in my plans until I have a job again.

But that is definitely something I intend to do. Actually, it's been on my "to–do" list for quite awhile. I remember once, within the last couple of years, when I was at a movie and I saw a woman on the screen. I couldn't place her, but I knew I had seen her in something before. For a couple of seconds, I had a nearly irresistible urge to sit down in front of my home computer and visit AllMovie or The Internet Movie Database to see her filmography.

I don't go to movie theaters often, but I don't recall seeing people carrying laptops in my most recent visits to theaters. Maybe theaters have banned laptops. I don't know. Since I don't own one, this hasn't been an issue for me.

If there is such a ban, that may change in the future.

(I know, some people will point out that Blackberries can serve the same function. But I'm out of work, remember? I need to conserve my money for things like rent and food.)

Another place that may be changed by the presence of laptops is church. The pastor of my church is, by his own admission, "the most plugged–in guy I know." He has a presence on Facebook, where he posts audio files of his sermons. In addition to being a theologian, he is a musician who performs in a band and, apparently, has the equipment he needs to make videos of himself playing songs he has written and post them on YouTube.

And he has a laptop. He's very pleased with it, and I'm sure he would recommend a laptop to anyone who asked.

But I haven't seen anyone attending services with a laptop.

Yesterday was one of those times when I wished I could have had a laptop with me in church. Or at least something like a Blackberry, where I could answer my questions when they occur to me.

Yesterday was "Bluegrass Mass Sunday" at my Methodist church. A handful of people played guitar, banjo, dulcimer, washboard and bass and led the congregation in renditions of hymns that were written by a woman named Fanny Crosby, a 19th century American who was blind most of her life and wrote thousands of hymns.

I grew up in the Methodist church. Crosby was a Methodist all her life. I now know that she was quite well known during her lifetime — and not just because of her hymns; apparently, she also had quite a reputation for public speaking — but I don't recall ever hearing her name before yesterday.

Anyway, when I heard her name, I instinctively wanted to find out more about her. Having access to a laptop would have come in handy, but it had to wait until I got home.

When I got home, I found out that she was born in 1820, that she died in 1915 and that she had literally written thousands of hymns in her life.

And I found out something about music publishers of the 19th century. Apparently, quite a few of them did not like to publish a large number of hymns that were written by the same person. So Crosby used dozens of pen names to get around that.

I've learned that several of the hymns we sang in church yesterday — "Blessed Assurance," "Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home" and "To God Be the Glory" — were among her best known.

And I learned Crosby, who knew how to play the piano and the guitar, played "Safe in the Arms of Jesus" (another of her compositions) at the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885.

That reminded me of something from my childhood, when I was about 7 or 8 years old and my brother would have been about 4 or 5.

My family was living in New York City for the summer. My father was a college professor and he was taking continuing education classes. He managed to sublet an apartment in New York that was the home of one of his former students, and that is where our family lived for some three or four weeks.

I don't remember much about that apartment, except that it was several floors up and it had no air conditioning so we used oscillating fans to keep the air circulating. I can't say the air in that place ever got really cool, except maybe in the early morning hours. For a little while.

During the day, when it would get steamy, my mother took my brother and me on excursions around the city. Many of the places we went had air conditioning, which had a lot going for it. But one of our regular destinations had no air conditioning. It was a few blocks from our apartment — Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park.

Grant's Tomb was a granite and marble edifice, and it was always cool in there. Sometimes we would prepare a bag of sandwiches, pick up some drinks at a store, have a picnic lunch in Riverside Park and then go into Grant's Tomb to cool off in the afternoon.

In the years since that summer, I have often heard the Groucho Marx joke: "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

When I was a child, I was certain, as most people are, that the answer was Ulysses S. Grant. But that really isn't correct, for a couple of reasons:
  1. President Grant is not the only person who is interred there. His wife Julia also is there.

  2. Technically, no one is "buried" in Grant's Tomb. The Grants are entombed there.
By the way, Fanny Crosby was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1975.