Sam Gimbel

Tech, Beer, and Strange Thoughts.

Alarm Clocks

For all readers, but especially for my family, please god know that this is fiction. Fiction based in fact, but fiction nonetheless.

Don’t worry about the rain, we’ll get through this.

Her words echo through the streets as I leave the dry haven of the coffee shop. It’s early May in Brooklyn and it seems no one told the weather man. My grandfather used to say that during every unseasonable meteorological event: no one told the weather man. I guess the joke is that TV weather people don’t know much about the subject. They’re almost always right these days, though. This particular cold snap started over a week ago and hasn’t let up, putting a damper on the joys of early spring that New Yorkers rely on to justify living in a place with such unbearable winters.

That must be why the barista was so adamant that we’ll get through this. The unrelenting rain can make you crazy if you’re not careful. And it is unrelenting, this rain. Unyielding, and cold. A true northeastern deluge. And of course it will have every anti screaming about how global cooling is real.

Fuck those idiots. In the past I was worried about the lack of science education that led to such nonsense conclusions. Then I was convinced the illuminati were to blame, disguised as business elite. Now I know it’s a weakness, a fear of discovering that an entire worldview is incorrect. And in that fear, a tacit acknowledgment of truth.

That fear hits close to home. My grandfather watches The News every night. He’s 84 and morbidly obsessed with the yarns spun by Fox & Friends. I don’t think he sleeps much these days. The News is an institution to him, a bastion of information and along with the Times, the Post, and the local paper, it’s the only access he has to the outside world.

It must be difficult to watch your world change. Sure, there are changes in clothes and language, friends moving away and moving on. All that is in flux when you’re young, too. Here’s more what I mean: when I was 8, I surpassed my father’s skill with computers. He’d purchased a brand new, dual-floppy i286 from Leading Edge. Its claim to fame (beyond setting him back over two grand and upsetting my mother) was that it had memory. RAM. The maximum at the time was famously 640k, and my father had purchased the full amount. I surpassed his skill and he stood by, watching the younger generation thrive in new and different ways.

He came home that day satisfied and a little concerned about my mother’s reaction to his purchase. Unboxing the machine, he was careful to talk about how it was an investment in our future, and how it opened up new opportunities for us as a family. That he’d purchased the best possible machine was a fact he kept to himself. A little hidden indulgence to fill the void left by a childhood of never having enough. The quiet excess was his alone for six years until I turned 8.

My older sister had never been enthusiastic about the computer, but I’d been silently watching my father type up invoices and play Wheel of Fortune for almost two years at that point. When he wasn’t looking I’d sneak into the computer room and open a new document. I believe the software was by Corel. Yes, it was called Word Perfect. I always loved that name. I’d open a document and start typing, one letter at a time. Once I hit the wrong key and a list of commands showed up in a strip below my text. Save. Close. Copy. Verbs that changed my world. It clicked instantly in my head. This machine did what you told it as long as it understood what you wanted to do. And two years later, when my dad’s newer Windows 3.1 machine broke down, I was able to fix it by investigating the file structure and running simple diagnostics from the command line. It had a single corrupt file, so I copied all the important data to a series of 30 3.5” floppies and reinstalled the operating system. I’d surpassed my father. His investment had already paid off.

My father’s transcendent moment was with HAM radios. We don’t know what his father’s moment was because he was a violent drunk, and we don’t talk about him. He certainly didn’t invent domestic violence, but maybe that was his only claim to fame. Asshole.

But when I think about my grandfather (on my mother’s side), growing up in the steel yards of Baltimore, the 11th child of 12, chafing against the struggle of being young, of being poor, of being Jewish, of being from Poland, I think he must have had that moment too. I know he was accepted into Johns Hopkins Medical School, then turned down when a Jewish boy showed up to the final interview. So he must have had a highly technical understanding of the world, or significant empathy, or at least a brain. I know he once lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house replica in Baltimore, so I know he had the clarity of mind to think about style, reputation, or aesthetics.

But I don’t know what his moment was, the moment when his parents realized the future was his to create and that they ought to give him space to do so. My father took 10 years away from computers because I was in the house and able--no, willing--to do whatever needed doing on that front. My great grandparents must have done the same for my grandfather. I wonder what.

It must have something to do with the spread of information, with the creation of villages that span nations. He must have developed trust in the written word at an early age, a trust that translated to television news when that became popular. He must stay up nights, wondering how the world can be so horrifically backwards, never questioning whether the story being reported is accurate. Variability is not something he takes to naturally: not in his career, his relationships, his opinions. So I’d be surprised if he didn’t look up to television news anchors the same way toddlers look up to the indifference of a neglectful parent.

I wonder how far that goes. While my generation’s moments of clarity led to the digital replacement of many objects, other generations still see the allure of an alarm clock by Braun, a rolodex on a metal ring, or a landline phone. But the tech-savvy masses have abandoned such items, relegating the production of analog devices to outfits specializing in nostalgia or cheap plastic disposables. For my grandfather, the skeumorphism of a digital calendar with stitched leather edges is not bad design, it’s the only design. For him, cable news is all that’s left of the powerful local news stations of the past. And for him, being able to see his $3 alarm clock on his bedside table is worth the fact that it drifts a full 3 minutes a day.

Getting older is not what I expected it to be. I’m about to turn 30 and after weeks of reflection I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m more vital, more in love with life, more appreciative and more energetic than I was at 25 or 21. Some of the novelty has dropped out of the equation (you can arrive at a new destination for the first time exactly once), but that’s left me wondering about the spikes and valleys of the boom-bust travel-work lifestyle. It seems we’ve made a decision as a generation to travel first and work later. Contrast that with my grandfather, who gave life to a chain of gourmet groceries in Baltimore, worked in real estate after that, and never lacked energy to travel in his later years. He got the travel in. He saw a world with new eyes in much the same way I did when I landed in Lima, or in Israel, or in Bogotá.

Rather than a tightening of routines and a need to take Life More Seriously, getting older seems to be about recognizing that the meat of an experience is enjoyable if you let it happen. How else would my grandfather have found the patience and perseverance to make it to Beijing at age 70? How else can I justify the number of hours I put in building the company I started last June? But this isn’t a story about me. It’s a story about that $3 alarm clock.

I guess as my grandfather got older, he saw fewer things evolve into better versions of the familiar objects he grew up with. He witnessed the slow death march of calculators and handwritten notes as they were consolidated into digital equivalents. He attempted first to accept these changes, to accept the increased frequency of novelty in his own life as he left his early adulthood and became a father, then a grandfather, then a great-grandfather. Some things had to stay the same for his human soul to stay resilient to the changes around him. So he developed a yearning for simplicity, which for him assumed physicality, familiarity, and decidedly luddite daily routines. And now he sits, napping in his favorite chair in the heat of the Phoenix sun (despite having air conditioning, a prime need of my grandfather is to not waste it on his own comfort), watching Fox News.

He’s scared all the time. In recent years his heart has failed him several times. It’s a testament to his constitution that after triple bypass surgery he is able to find the energy to be upset with the state of the world as broadcast through the thinly veiled hype engine of cable news. Maybe he’s holding on for good news. Maybe that will finally do him in, to know that this heaviness he feels the need to inherit from the suits on screen is manufactured. It’s an exoskeleton, hard minerals left behind after the soft tissues of truthier broadcasts have melted away.

My heart goes out to him the more his heart threatens to fail. No one who has known him would describe him as perfect or even generous. Intelligent, sure. Funny. Driven. Devoted, even. But not generous, and his news habit is a selfish one. He desires peace, even deserves it after so many years lived and so many tragedies past. But a man who cannot give up the daily promise of 6PM alienation is unlikely to change. A man who cannot give up an alarm clock from another age is unlikely to seek peace for its own sake. Grasping at clocks and for the even keel of perfect diction and ticker tapes, my grandfather is stuck inside himself.

The sun still rises, and try as you may there are no sounds of ocean waves in the Arizona desert but I assure you they’ve not stopped. The tragic breeze travels through the needles of statuesque Saguaros and past my grandfather’s window as his hands clench the arms of his favorite wicker chair. A sigh escapes his lips and settles into the space between his expectant need and the blaring of the television. An unnoticed bird calls from outside and the surface of the granite-lined pool shivers in anticipation. My grandfather slowly relaxes his grip and remembers the past. He remembers the cars and the clocks and the charisma of black-and-white personalities on TV, warmed and distorted by antenna broadcasts. Back in Brooklyn I watch the final drop of rain slither down the street as I round the corner to my apartment. I lower my umbrella and look upwards, surprised at the sudden end to the deluge. The grey of the sky continues to roil and flow solemnly, but a patch begins to turn white, then blue, and a single ray of sunshine leaks through. Ten soggy days, over.

Don’t worry about the rain, we’ll get through this.