Dr. Jan Meyer: There are all kinds of ways to get things done

When computers were new to the business environment, the change was not always a welcome one to individuals. It was a huge adjustment, because for one reason people just did not trust “it” to do what they were doing. One company was getting frustrated with the pace at which employees accepted this innovation, and decided that surely something could be done to speed it up. Because it was a behavioral problem — a human factor — not a technical one, it became my job to find ways to try to move it along.

One helpful thing was to find out how individuals perceived the computer. Like many dilemmas, there is only a range of three options, and in this case, those three were that, one, they saw the computer as God-like. Mysterious, it seemed to be able to do all kinds of unexplained stuff. The second was that people personified it, giving it a name (remember Hal?) with human characteristics. The third was that it was just another tool to help me do my job.

In those very early years, the big airline for which I worked offered me the opportunity to become a programmer, a chance which I of course did not turn down. One of the first things I learned was that the computer was just a dumb genius: it could only do what it was told. The second was the rule of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. That was helpful knowledge if, in the middle of the night, I got called in because a program of mine had “ab-ended,” meaning came to an abnormal end and stopped the other data trying to get through my program. GIGO meant that the first place to look was for inaccurate data being inputted; I did not have to look for an error in how I wrote the program because before going “live,” it had “run parallel” with the old —human — system to ensure that the end results were the same. GIGO was a big time-saver but the whole job required me to see that computer as a dumb genius.

Now, early on in this latest “experience” in aging, I thought it would be very helpful to have a cane. One time many years ago for some reason a friend in Thailand had given me one, and I kept it. That was easy to do because it is a fold-up one, and takes up little space when in its reclining position. I found it in an unpacked box and started using it. Almost immediately I started losing it, laying it down somewhere and forgetting where. It is a beautiful shiny deep brown; sometimes that color in the hardware store is called “aged bronze.” It is sort of the color of a cocker spaniel.

I decided the color and the convenience gave it a certain sort of dignity, and he deserved to have a name. (Note that I had now personified it, like with those employees and computers so long ago!) Also, I reasoned, if he had a name and I misplaced him, I could just call him and he would come, like a well-trained puppy. So, he became Cameron the Cane.

He has been wonderful and a huge help. Back when purple clothing and red hats became so popular, I read the whole poem “When I am Old I Shall Wear Purple” by Jenny Joseph. In it, Joseph talked about the outrageous things she was going to do when she was old, including when she had a cane.

Over the years, in my head I had already started adding to her list, including “goosing” other people who might be in my way. That poem, and my thinking about it over time, came back to me, and I started to train Cameron. He soon learned to pull things closer and push things away. If my neck pillow is out of reach, I can stick him through its loop and bring it back. I can turn out-of-reach switches off and on, and lift things up so I can reach without bending over. I can stick him through one leg of my pants and thus pull them on. We’re working on pulling socks on and off.

The physical therapist recommended before I left the hospital that we get a “grabber” at home. That didn’t get done for awhile, but Cameron found ways to compensate. If I dropped something lightweight, which it seems I do very often, I am not to bend to pick it up. So, I put a couple of pieces of masking tape over his bottom end, sticky side down, and voila! I can pick up stray pieces of Kleenex and paper, and all sorts of other things which drop to the floor from which I can’t retrieve them. He can push elevator buttons without having to get close up. There seems to be no end to the things he can accomplish, well, within reason. Of course he can’t pick up heavy items, yet, but as I get stronger I am sure he will too.

In the meantime, he is loyal and steadfast and supports me whenever I need him. I felt almost like I was cheating this morning when, on my first time outside the house in a long time, we went to the big box store where I could do a little needed walking, and pick up a few items. I had noted there was a sale there on grabbers, so even though Cameron is doing that job too now, that may not happen in the future. Then, like saving the cane all these years, it will be good to have the grabber on hand. I didn’t want Cameron to feel rejected, however, so this one became his helper, a sort of on-the-job-training situation. This one doesn’t have a name, at least not yet, and likely won’t, at least this time around. And it won’t ever be able to do all that Cameron can.

I haven’t tried all the things on my list of what can be done with the cane, such as “goosing.” I figured I’m not fast enough on my feet yet to do that because unless the goosee had a good sense of humor, I’d need a fast getaway. And yes, I’ve personified this inanimate object. But if that helps deal with a difficult situation, that’s not a bad thing.