That’s How Far Back I Go!

Last week, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, putting me in the oldest bracket in terms of traditional college students on campus. It was a fantastic birthday as usual. The main celebration happened a day early because I thought I would have to go to my night class on my real birthday. (I thought about skipping, but realized that since it only meets once a week and I had come so close to graduating, I would be a responsible student.) So the day before my birthday, my parents, brother, grandma and I sat down to steak, baked potatoes, a yummy salad kit with a southwest dressing, broccoli and chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, topped with ice cream! (Did you know I love chocolate?) My grandma, keeping with tradition bought me clothes. My parents gave me another gardenia, my favorite fragrant flower. (I got a gardenia for my 20th birthday, but unbeknownst to me, my silly dad thought it wasn’t getting enough sun and put it outside in the hot sun which killed it. I guess he didn’t know that gardenias are fragile plants meant to be indoors. But I forgive him now). Along with the gardenia, I also got an official plastic pitcher with a long neck designed for watering plants. My sighted parents are able to water house plants with huge glass pitchers, or even just a drinking glass and not spill a drop. I have always found it difficult to get pitchers and glasses down in to the dirt by the root of the plant without spilling, so when I watered plants, I found it easier to re-fill one of those plastic, disposable water bottles which I can hold with one hand while figuring out where to pour it in to the pot with the other. I still spilled occasionally with these bottles because the necks of these bottles are short, so water would start coming out before I had fully aimed it in to the pot, but since the mouth of a water bottle is smaller, I felt like I didn’t spill as much. This water pitcher though is a genius invention, as the long neck allows me to get it lined up before water starts to pour, eliminating spills altogether. The only problem now is just remembering to water it since plants cannot follow me around and practically trip me when they want food or water like Gilbert and my cat Snickers do. With my last gardenia, I was good about watering it when it was in bloom, but when I could no longer smell it, I would forget about it and am ashamed to admit that my parents ended up pouring water in to it a lot when they saw it looking dry. But being that I am on the cusp of college graduation and a life where keeping a plant watered will be the least of my responsibilities, this is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf (get it!), and so far I have diligently watered my plant before bed every day except one day when Mom told me not to because it looked like it had too much water in it.

     My mom also ordered me a braille book on how to crochet, as well as some hooks and yarn. I have been thinking I would like to learn a craft to expand my life beyond reading and rambling on blogs like this. I have always been fascinated by the fact that the beautiful, intricate afghans and scarves I have gotten as gifts over the years were once just balls of yarn, so when I saw the braille book my mom ordered on the web site of Horizons for the Blind, it occurred to me that this natural fascination I already had for crochet would keep me motivated through the challenges that come with learning a new craft, making it a perfect option. Also, since my grandma on Mom’s side and one of my aunts is in to crochet, they could help me, making it the perfect female bonding opportunity. So far, my efforts to learn have been discouraging. I don’t know if it is because my hands just aren’t used to the new motor skills required for crochet yet or if I am just a dunce, but the written steps the author gives don’t make sense when I try to follow them. My mom wasn’t able to find a print version of the exact book I am using, but she has tried to show me hand-over-hand how her book illustrates it. But this doesn’t make any sense either. On several occasions, just when I think I have succeeded in making a slip loop, the foundation required for any crochet piece and then progressed to making chains, the slip loop falls off the hook in the process of making the first chain loop. I am not giving up. If my teachers, especially in middle school and high school had let me give up on difficult things like math, I would not have the foundation to be the ambitious, soon-to-be graduate that I am today, so I know that if I can continue this tradition of never giving up, even on hobbies like crochet, I will be capable of making beautiful afghans, scarves or even sweaters to give as Christmas gifts one day. So I have been trying to spend a few minutes each day practicing, but since it is a hobby not a requirement like Math was, I allow myself to walk away from it before I work myself in to tears of frustration. Once I graduate and have all the time in the world, at least until I get a job that is, I may consider looking in to face-to-face lessons with a crochet instructor to see if that helps.

     To my amazement however, we actually could have celebrated on my real birthday because I got an e-mail that afternoon from the teacher of my night class who said due to personal scheduling conflicts, she needed to cancel class! So instead of going to my night class, my parents and I had a second party with a Papa Murphy’s pizza and more chocolate cake. My mom even saved one more gift, an iTunes gift card for my real birthday. This professor for my night class is the kind of professor who believes that for the tuition we pay, she wants to give us our money’s worth and at the beginning of the semester, she basically said she would only cancel if the college shut down for a snow day. She also apologized profusely to students who planned their semester around the old schedule which now had to be modified. But I couldn’t resist telling her before the start of class this week “you don’t know it, but you gave me an awesome birthday present last week!” to which she laughed and responded “well, I’m glad it worked out for somebody.”

     But all of this birthday recounting isn’t even what I had planned to be the main point of my entry. For that, let’s go back to my statement toward the beginning of this entry that my 22nd birthday put me in the oldest bracket of traditional college students. This reminded me of a conversation with a classmate the day after my birthday that really got me thinking. I had arrived to my Communication Conflict class early and was waiting for class to start when one of my friends who saw that I had my birthday the day before on Facebook wished me a happy birthday.

     “Yesterday was your birthday?” a girl whom I enjoy chatting with but is not on Facebook chimed in. “Well happy birthday! And how old are you?”

     “Twenty-two!” I said with that strange sense of excitement and disbelief that comes with saying your new age for the first time, almost akin to saying the new year for the first time January 1.

     “Wow! You’re old!” she said playfully. That started a fun conversation in which we both talked about how we feel so old when we see little children, to which the professor added, “wait until you have children of your own. Then you’ll really feel old!” Usually my brain would have moved on from such a casual conversation, but instead I have found myself thinking back to it all week. Of course I know I’m not really old. In fact, I am still in that wonderful phase of life when getting older brings new opportunities, not new ailments and according to political pundits, I will be classified as a young voter until I am 35. And then, speaking of people who really are old, conversations with my grandma and even my parents about how much things have changed over the course of their lives came to mind.

     Sometimes when I complain about how difficult it is to find information on the internet for college research projects, Mom will regale me with stories of how many hours she spent in the musty, dusty “stacks” of the college library pouring over actual books, and then having to write her papers on a typewriter. My parents both remember taking road trips in which they didn’t bother with seat belts. In fact, it was even acceptable for babies to ride unrestrained on the giant window ledges of cars back then.

     “You want to know how far back I go?” Grandma said once, “I remember watching silent films outdoors on a projector that hung from a tree! That’s how far back I go!”

     Remembering these conversations, it occurred to me that even in my relatively short lifetime, there has been a staggering amount of change that was so gradual I took it for granted when it was happening which makes me feel old in a strange way. So to celebrate my 22nd birthday, a milestone that really hammered home the realization that I am sort of a senior citizen now, at least on my college campus, I thought you readers, which I hope will one day include my children and grandchildren, might enjoy a reflection on how far back I go.

     I remember a time when our family did not own a computer. Our very first computer was delivered on Christmas eve 1995 when I was in kindergarten. Being as young as I was, I don’t think I understood what computers were all about, but I will never forget just the buzz of excitement that filled the house as my older siblings played with it every waking moment. But when I look back and remember my siblings doing hand-written reports in middle school and then fast-forward to my middle school experience, by which time every assignment rubric said “your paper must be typed”, I realize that our first computer was more revolutionary of an event than I ever could have imagined.

     Keeping with computers, I also remember when there was no such thing as high-speed broadband. The internet was accessed through a dial-up connection. To accommodate this, I remember when for several years, our house had two phone lines, one for talking on the phone and one for the internet. Otherwise, no one could reach us on the phone if someone was using the internet.

     I remember being with my parents one Saturday afternoon when I was eight years old as they bought their first cell phone. It was nothing like the cell phones nowadays. In fact, that reminds me of a hilarious prank that my dad tried to pull on my sister before heading off to college, just four years after the purchase of that first phone.

     Approaching my sister all somber and serious, he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but while we would like you to have a cell phone for college, money is tight right now and we just cannot afford to buy you a new one. So Mom and I hope you don’t mind using an old one.” With that, he handed her the very first cell phone, which my parents had saved. She almost burst in to tears at this, until she looked at my dad who couldn’t keep a straight face, and they all burst out laughing.

I wasn’t there for this prank but when my parents told me about it, I remember asking, “what’s so bad about the old phone?” When Mom pulled it out for me to feel, I instantly understood why it would have been a source of embarrassment at college for my sister. It was bulky and gigantic! I am sure I held that phone at the time when it was new, but phones were updated and replaced so quickly I took for granted how small they had evolved. My sister did get a modern phone, but what was considered a modern phone then would be ancient by today’s standards. It was a sleek flip phone, but it could only make phone calls. Those iPhones which we all take for granted now that can surf the internet, take pictures and shoot videos hadn’t yet been invented!

     Anyway, as soon as we got in the car to drive home from that store with our first cell phone, my mom phoned home and with giddy excitement in her voice proclaimed to my older brother that she was calling from the car. Given how frequently I stand on the sidewalk after class and flip open my phone to arrange where Mom should pick me up after class, it baffles me to realize that even in my lifetime, this wasn’t always possible.

     I remember when in June of my fourth grade year, my parents purchased cable television. I think cable channels had been around for awhile even then, but my parents were frugal and didn’t think we needed it. But when my brother, a teenager at the time begged and pleaded for months, arguing that “we are the only ones I know who don’t have cable,” my dad made a deal with him that if he earned all A’s that semester, we could get cable. Even I, a person who wasn’t as fond of television as my other sibling was enthralled with the diversity of shows available now. I grew especially fond of Animal Planet and spent many beautiful afternoons watching Emergency Vets and A Pet Story.

     I think I was in fifth grade when I first heard about a DVD Player, and it seemed like from that instant forward, VHS tapes were obsolete. In fact, I remember when my elementary school would film special events like the class play in first and second grade, my graduation from DARE and the school band, orchestra and choir concerts. If we wanted a copy of the video, we were asked to bring a blank VHS tape to school and the video would be copied on to it for us. But at least for the time being, I cannot watch those videos because our VCR doesn’t work and since the VCR is considered ancient now, my parents aren’t sure how to fix it. My parents have talked about looking in to services that convert VHS videos to DVDs but we just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

     Also related to VHS tapes, I remember a time when there was no such thing as DVR. So if one family member wasn’t going to be home and wanted to record a show, someone had to put a VHS tape in the VCR at the proper time for the show. If no one was home to man the VCR or the person forgot about this duty, you were out of luck. And there was no such features as pause or start over, so there were no bathroom breaks until the commercials and absolutely no talking was allowed during shows. The funny thing is that since our family didn’t get DVR until I was in high school, even today, I am not used to it and still find myself biting people’s heads off for talking during a show, so Mom has to remind me, “you know, we can pause the show nowadays.” Oh yeah, we can!

     The advent of the DVD transformed the classroom experience too. Because a VCR took up so much space, individual classrooms did not have one of their own, so when a teacher wanted to watch a video in class, they had to coordinate this in advance with the media room in the library and then pick up the phone and call down when they were ready for the video to be cued up. By middle school, each classroom had its own DVD player and now in college, DVDs are placed in a slot on the classroom computer and I think shown on the same projection screen as the powerpoint presentations. That reminds me, I never heard of powerpoint until middle school and remember a time when teachers taught with chalkboards and fragile overhead transparencies that I think had to be written out by hand using a special marker.

     I remember a time when files had to be saved on giant square floppy disks to be transferred to another computer. Now everyone uses thumb drives so tiny you could easily swallow it or suck it up with the vacuum cleaner if you aren’t careful. Or, if you have Apple products, you don’t even need thumb drives at all, as files can be backed up on the iCloud and synchronized automatically with other computers.

     Facebook has become such an ingrained part of life for my generation, I was shocked to learn a few months ago when the movie Social Network was released, that Facebook only came on the scene in 2005. I remember a time when my sibling lamented losing touch with friends over summer, a time when talking with friends or arranging a party meant long hours on the phone. Seemingly in an instant, Facebook almost replaced the phone and allowed my siblings and I to stay in touch with friends and family spread all over the country.

     I remember a time when one medicine I need to take for a medical condition had to be measured in a tube and another person had to blow it up my nose! If I had a cold, or even if my parents stuck the tube too far in my nose causing a tickle, I would sneeze it out. My parents couldn’t re-do it because it is one of those medicines where going without it isn’t life-threatening, merely inconvenient. But an overdose would be extremely dangerous and there was no way to know how much was ingested before the sneeze. So much of these early childhood years were spent consuming remarkable volumes of water and camping out near the bathroom until it was safe to try again with the next dose. What a glorious day it was at my appointment in October of my freshman year of high school when the doctor said this medicine was available in pill form which is so much more consistent and reliable!

     In terms of advancements in technology for the blind, I remember a time when braille could only be produced on paper. Since braille has to be embossed on thicker paper and since braille takes up twice the space as print text, I remember hauling around giant 4-inch binders, bursting at the seams with my braille assignments. In elementary school, all of this extra stuff required me to use a larger desk in the back of the room, and by fourth grade, I had to haul my homework home in an adapted suitcase on wheels because regular backpacks just couldn’t accommodate everything I needed, at least not without risking back injuries.

     I first experienced the joys of a computer with a refreshable braille display in seventh grade when I was given a Braille Lite. But while this computer was lighter and made a lot less noise than the old fashioned metal Perkins Brailler, it didn’t have much memory, so I still depended a lot on hard copy braille. Also, if you wanted to make changes, you had to go to a special insert mode which was very prone to having glitches, at least on my computer. What a joy it was when my freshman year of high school, I got my first BrailleNote which had enough memory for everything, had cursor edit buttons above the braille display that allowed editing to be done with the efficiency of a sighted person and an e-mail interface so teachers could e-mail files to me and I could e-mail homework to them! By high school, math, with its graphs and figures, was the only subject that still required the Perkins Brailler and hard copy materials. This reduced the volume of stuff I had to handle so much that I could sit in a regular desk for every class but math and carry my homework home in a normal backpack! The BrailleNote has made a difference at home too. The house is no longer overrun with giant braille books for my summer vacation pleasure reading because I can download books on to my BrailleNote instantly from Bookshare.

     So grandchildren, that’s how far back I go! And given how fast things have changed just in my short lifetime, I cannot even imagine how much more will have changed by the time I am a grandmother. Readers, especially those born around 1990, feel free to comment if you think of any innovations I forgot about.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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