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Home, but not home

October 13, 2009—I didn't need a sign to know when I entered New Jersey. No, it wasn't the refineries and chemical plants that most people envision when they think of the state—I wasn't that far north. It was a combination of miles of suburban housing developments, heavy late-afternoon traffic, and familiar stores, I think, that tipped me off. Somehow I just knew.

New Jersey traffic

It was a strange feeling, coming back to New Jersey. It felt like coming home—after all, I'd spent most of my first 55 years here—and yet it didn't, because after five years in the southwest, I'm more at home in a New Mexico state park than in a New Jersey suburb. Back east the towns feel more crowded, the traffic more intimidating. I've spent too much time in the wide-open West to feel comfortable with New Jersey drivers, especially at rush hour.

Hoboken Computer Works ad

I was headed for the home of my friends Gary & Linda, whom I've known since way back in the mid-seventies when we were introduced by Bob Radcliffe, the owner of the Hoboken Computer Works. Back then, Bob's place was one of only two computer stores in New Jersey. (For more on my experiences with the very first personal computers, see "Microcomputers: the early days.") Gary and I met in the store in the fall of 1976. "You both have Poly-88s, and you both live in Princeton—you ought to know each other," said Bob. And he was right. Almost forty years later, we're still friends.

I pulled into Gary's driveway a little after 6:00 p.m., after a long and tiring seven-hour drive from upstate New York. They had prepared a delicious pasta dinner, topped with Gary's homemade sauce and complemented by Linda's feta salad.

Gary & Linda
Andy, Xena, and Cassie

After dinner, we relaxed in the den. Their Tonkinese cats Xena and Cassiopeia immediately climbed up on me and staked out comfortable roosting spots. Xena and Cassie are the boldest cats I've ever met—so unlike my Alix, who never wants to sit on my lap, let alone my chest!

Gary is a retired electrical engineer—we both worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab for many years—and nowadays he spends much of his time in his basement workshop, building scientific devices for the fun of it.

He started with telescope mirror grinding. Gary's always been more interested in the process than the results (for example, I think he's spent more time tinkering with his motorcycles than riding them), and his mirror-making venture was typical: he built a wonderfully clever grinding machine, and invented a five-way optical tester that checks the mirror's "figure," but once he got it all working and completed his 9" mirror, he set it aside, not bothering to build a telescope to house it. Truth is, his neighborhood is heavily wooded, so the field of view is extremely restricted; and the light pollution in central New Jersey is appalling. To make good use of a telescope, he'd have to drive three hours or so to a rural area such as northwestern New Jersey. Still, it seems a pity. He didn't even silver the mirror.

After finishing the mirror, Gary built a super-sensitive seismometer. With it he was able to observe earthquakes halfway around the globe (as well as trucks driving on the highways), and he set up a dedicated computer system to monitor and record all the data and then pass it on to his main computer at regular intervals. (Later, he bought an Apple iPad; using VLC software, he controls his Windows and Linux machines remotely from the iPad.)

Gary's 5-way tester

Gary's latest project is ultra-low-power radio transmission, an esoteric experimental branch of amateur radio. Quoting a recent email,

I'm still transmitting on WSPRnet, but now at 200 microwatts, with a maximum distance, to date, of 886 miles; that's 4.4 million miles per watt! I just calculated the power a housefly uses to fly up one meter in 1 second: 120 microwatts.

Eight-hundred-mile radio communication using the power of a housefly—WOW! I think of myself as a pretty decent all-around technician, but what Gary's doing is way beyond anything I could dream of.

At the same time, I feel a little sad that he's working in such isolation. Oh, Gary reads scores of blogs and websites, and keeps up on the latest developments in the fields he's interested in. He's come up with some really novel improvements, too. Yet he never posts about his work, never has a two-way conversation with others working in the same areas. "Too much trouble," he says. So he tinkers away on his amazing devices down in his basement, coming up with ingenious ideas that nobody will ever hear about.

As with many couples I know, Linda is the more outgoing of the two. Having retired as VP of a marketing research firm, she's now deeply involved in the activities of Martin House, a charity organization in the Trenton area. She's on their board, teaches literacy classes, helps with grant proposals and fundraising... she's always on the go.

Gary and I spent the next couple of days relaxing, catching up on things and doing a little shopping, while Linda worked at Martin House. We drove out to Hightstown to have a look at my U-Haul storage room. The good news is that the contents don't appear to be badly mildewed, as I had feared they'd be. The bad news is that there's a lot more than I remembered. It's going to be a HUGE job sorting all this out, and I know I can't take more than a small fraction of it back to New Mexico with me. To make a start, I brought back a couple of boxes of clippings to Gary & Linda's house and sorted through them, throwing away most of the contents.

The next day, Gary arranged for my old friends and mentors Lila and Myron Norris and Charlie and Rosalie Staloff to come over for dinner. Charlie and Myron were supervisors of mine at PPPL; then Lila recruited me to ETS and mentored me there. I hadn't seen any of them in five or six years, so it was great to be reunited with the people who had helped me so much in two phases of my career.

Lila had given me good advice over the years about putting away money for retirement, but I'm ashamed to say that I mostly ignored it. Instead, I tended to spend money almost as fast as it came in, buying new computers, cameras, and whatnot. (Now, of course, I wish I had been more thrifty!) It was only in the final three or four years of my working life, when I realized that retirement was actually possible if I cut down my expenses by becoming a full-time RVer, that I got serious about salting away money.

Gary had given me a tongue-in-cheek buildup as if I were a celebrity on a lecture tour, so I introduced my "presentation" by saying "This is the story of how I should have taken Lila's advice, but didn't... and how I managed to retire anyway." Then I told them about my traveling lifestyle and explained how economical it is (for more on that, see "The Cost of Freedom") and showed them a little of this website. After dinner, I gave them all a short tour of Skylark, and finally we enjoyed a banana cream pie that I'd made.

banana pie ingredients

This is a recipe I learned from my friend Kate, and it's quite different from my normal "make it from scratch" cooking style. It's so quick, convenient and tasty, though, that I've made it a standard part of my repertoire. Here's how it goes:

Slice up one large banana. Take an Oreo piecrust and line it with the slices. Dump in one 14-oz. package of chilled Brill 'Nana Crème Filling, or one package of Jell-O instant banana pudding, prepared. Top with Cool Whip or equivalent.

The Brill 'Nana filling is basically instant banana pudding in a bag. It's very convenient, because it keeps forever without refrigeration, so I always keep a couple of bags (and a couple of Oreo crusts) on hand in the kitchen cupboard. But I've only seen it in IGA supermarkets, so you may have to fall back on the Jell-O instant pudding, which takes only a few minutes to prepare.

What makes this dessert wonderful is the contrast between the creamy banana flavor and the slightly bitter chocolate flavor of the Oreo crust. (Only an Oreo crust will work—I tried it once with a Keebler chocolate graham crust, but it was overly sweet and insipid.)

If you have the Brill 'Nana filling, you can make this banana cream pie in five minutes—literally! It's a great way to impress your friends: after dinner you casually announce that you're going to make a chocolate banana cream pie, stroll into the kitchen, and walk out five minutes later with this gloriously creamy, fluffy confection.

The pie was a hit with our little gathering, anyway. All in all it was a very pleasant evening, and I was grateful that Gary & Linda had arranged it.

Of course Gary & Linda weren't the only friends I wanted to see while I was in New Jersey. Another couple who are close friends of mine are Paul & Carolyn SooHoo. I met Paul when he was working at ETS, but he later left to return to his first love: teaching math. (Carolyn teaches science.) "Twice the work for half the pay," as Paul says... but he loves it, in spite of the cluelessness of some of his students.

Paul and I had a big day planned. First, we had breakfast, featuring waffles from Paul's commercial grade flip-over waffle iron. Waffles are a specialty of Paul's. Although I carry a stovetop waffle iron in Skylark, I don't use it very often, so this was a real treat.

Paul SooHoo

Then we drove to a nearby theater to see a double bill: "Toy Story 1" and "Toy Story 2" in 3-D. I'm a lifelong animation buff and 3-D fanatic, so this was great fun. The 3-D was excellent: not in-your-face like in the 50s, just a nice enhancement to a pair of already superb movies.

Back at Paul's house, we chatted and I watched some of Paul's digital slideshows. He's a much better photographer than I am, and not just because he has better equipment. Paul has a real eye for good photos.

When Carolyn got home, Paul made stir-fried chicken and vegetables for us. We talked about teaching, kids, and science... and of course we swapped tips on iPod Touch apps. We played the iPod Skee Ball game that I'd bought for 99¢ the previous day, knowing Paul & Carolyn would get a kick out of it. (They're the only couple I know who have an actual Skee Ball machine in their basement.)

Paul & Carolyn are great fun to talk with because they both have sharp, inquisitive minds, and I'm always learning interesting things from them. I finally left for home around 9:45—far later than I'd expected, but I'd had such a good time talking with them that I wanted to stay even longer. But it was a "school night" for them, so...

The next day, I made an effort to get together with my friends and former coworkers at ETS. Last time I visited the state, we'd met at a local restaurant for lunch. But that was four years ago, and things have changed. I did manage to speak with one of my friends on the phone, but she told me everybody was too busy to meet for lunch. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I thought I caught an undercurrent of "We're still living our crappy lives and grinding away at our crappy jobs while you're having a ball, you lucky S.O.B." I can't really blame her, but it was a bit sad to feel as if I no longer belonged to the old gang of artists, programmers and interface designers that I'd spent so many years with.

After a week in Gary's driveway, it was time to move to the Jersey shore, where my friends the Zinses live, and tackle the storage room in earnest. But that's a story for another page...

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