Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sons of Benjamin

There is a term used in Biblical scholarship -- “hard sayings” – which refers to passages, or even phrases, which can prove vexing. Metaphors, idioms, disagreements in translation, not to mention the hot-button political notions of slavery, women, men lying with men, and other such abominations. Think of them as the “yes, but…” passages.

I usually refer to them, when they are raised, as “well, here we go.”

Harder than “women keep silent in the churches,” though, or even “the poor will always be with us” (loosely translated from the Aramaic “fiddle-dee-dee”), are the passages that read like the author had just given up on the reader. You know those irritating Family Circus strips when “Billy” fills in for “Daddy” and the drawing is a lopsided illustration of a common metaphor? Or how I would fill the middle sections of my high school papers with pages of gibberish?

What’s “hard” about these sayings is that they are uncovered by one’s scientist/agnostic friends (the ones who speak Elfish and have avatars, but make fun of you, you medieval sap) as proof of just how silly religious thought is. “Gag and Magog?!” They say, “Who wrote this, the cast of Zoom?”

Real passage I had to recite recently, while reading the Book of Genesis at Recording for the Blind:

These are the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob and his descendants) who went to Egypt:….
The sons of Benjamin:…
Muppim, Huppim and Ard

Oh, my aching theology.

Gen. 46, to see all the names in one mouthful.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dear Susie

an open letter about letter writing...

My dear Susie has paid the nicest public compliment by mentioning my letter writing on her page. Many of my correspondents (most of whom admit they co-respond less than they'd like to) comment that this is a lost art. Those who have become accustomed to receiving my letters say that they don't even think of it until another friend or acquaintance says something like, "you know someone who writes letters?" Today around the office, a co-worker asked me how it was going and I said, "nothing to write home about" (this being a common phrase in my family, like "close enough for government work"). Co-worker says, smarmily, "and do you write home often?" Yes, I do.

This is not an essay commenting on my personal obssessions about letter writing -- a useful channel I have found for my hypergraphia. That post is here.

No, this is a compendium of tips and tricks for people who say they wish they wrote more letters, but can't seem to make it happen. My general observation is... you are trying too hard.
We have all watched too much Ken Burns. Stop trying to write foxhole letters from Antietam and just say what's on your mind.

I grew up writing letters in a letter writing family. As we say, Army children learn to say good-bye to their friends. But also to keep in touch with them. The secret is to make it easy.

Get a basket. Or a box, or a drawer, or any defined place where you will keep your correspondence supplies. Keep it near somewhere you already are on a regular basis -- probably your TV watching place, but could also be your morning coffee, your reading chair, your bedside.

Supplies do not have to be fancy. If fancy/fun stationery inspires you, do it. But it is completely not required. CVS has some very nice notepads, with or without lines. Ditto pens and stamps. Your readers prefer pens over pencils, and dark inks over light; but otherwise, a Bic will do, and the $39 dollar roll of stamps is just as good as the shells from the barrier reef.

You must have stamps in the house. This is the number one obstacle to most frustrated correspondents. Spend the $40 and buy the stamps. Buy them on line at Besides the irony of buying your stamps through the mail, you can enjoy shopping for commemoratives there as well as the giant flag roll if that is your preference. Consider pre-stamped envelopes.

Same rule for envelopes. In the house, in your letter "kit."

Start small. The first mistake people make is to use full size paper and feel obligated to fill it.
The endless scroll of the screen does not limit us in email (and I've seen some of the long emails you write) but 11 inches of blank paper turns us to puddles. I recommend a standard 5x7 notecard, or even better, postcards. The postage is cheaper and they too, come pre-printed. Karen taught me to put a stamp on a photo, write on the back and mail. I did this for years before kicking it up a notch to cards.

What did you do today? That's a letter.
What are you doing this weekend? another letter.
Can you believe what the president did today?
I thought of you today because...
Movie I I read...crazy work story...crazy roommate story...what the baby did cute

See, the thing is, we're all blogging like gangbusters about these very things, and there is no reason you can't write it down and personalize it, 1:1 with a friend, or with a family with whom you once shared some history, and hope to share some future.

When I started this blog, I promised my correspondents this did not replace the letter rotation, and it has not. In the morning, before I have spoken a word, or encountered another human being, I write a letter. Yes, I have some INTJ ways of choosing that recipient, but the letter is to them. Tomorrow it will be to someone else, and as a result, will not be the same letter.
Sometimes I choose the card carefully so suit that recipient; sometimes I let randomization do it for me.

Of course, I enjoy when people write me back. More and more of them do so with email now, and I do not think less of them. They also have microwaves and iPods. But I'll keep writing, even if you don't. Until you move away and don't give me a new address. (you know who you are)

I have learned from many of my parent-recipients that their children enjoy looking at the cards. This was unexpected. I like the idea that it is a novelty to a new generation, but also a fascination. (I am also thankful they can't read; I am not always polite.)

Let's agree to encourage it in them: thank you notes, letters to grandmas, helping out with the holiday cards. Let them narrate if they can't yet write. Five lines if enough to start.

But here's what I'll close with: don't do it if you don't want to, don't enjoy it, or think it's a waste of effort. Stay with electronic methods, or phone calls, or whatever else you do like. Let's not make letter writing a chore, or a medicine we have to take. Keep it fun.

Sincerely yours.....

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Left Nav Links

Note to the Readership.
Book, Film, and Blog recommendations will be restored.

There was a minor crisis in the template where all my customizations were wiped out in the left-nav. In fact, the site was wiped out entirely, so if you visited at some point in the past 3 hours and found only a brown blank page... that was not an artistic statement.

All will be restored soon, but I have houseguests coming, and 3 bathrooms to clean.

But I want to recommend Thoroughly Modern Millie -- not the show of the same name, but the blog of 81 year old Millie Garfield, callin' 'em like she sees 'em after viewing life since 1925. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dangerous AWT

or... what happens when customer service people wait too long.

Inside the Verizon bill was an ad telling me I could now (now!) get unlimited calling for 34.95, which seemed like a bargain, since I typically pay about $60 per month no, and barely even use it.

Dialing in Massachusetts used to be very complicated, when going to any area code other than one's own was a long distance call, even if it was 5 miles away. You had to buy into a multi-tiered calling plan based on dialing zones, which no one could understand, so when "unlimited" calling finally became the norm, I just picked one and kept it.

And it is true I don't pay for long distance calls. But I don't make many of them either, and I have a $60 bill. So this little ad got my attention. But 5 minutes on hold gives someone a lot to think about.

First it made me think that a 5 minute Average Wait Time in my call center will get a Hush Puppy in everyone's butt, if the Boss's sweaty head doesn't explode before he makes it down the whole floor.

I had time to read the entire brochure, while listening to the vaguely contemporary christian hold music -- and I would like to look into that more, as in "what's up with that?" Unfortunately, I didn't have time to hear a whole line of anything to support my hypothesis before the Voice of the Company broke in to apologize.

"When I look up.... [we apologize for the wait. Please continue holding and someone will be with you shortly]... the promise of a new...[we apologize for the wait. Please continue holding and someone will be with you shortly] honor you...[we apologize for the wait. Please continue holding and someone will be with you shortly]... glory...[we apologize for the wait. Please continue holding and someone will be with you shortly]"

Promise-honor-glory? This is not mentioned in the site FAQs.
But it is called The Freedom Value Plan.

I started to realize, as I read the brochure, that the real cost of my plan is 41.95. The rest is tax and fees: the "federal subscriber" line charge, the bring-the-internet-to-Appalachia fee, the help disabled people call an ambulance fee , the fund the Spanish-American War fee.... At the rate of $1.50 a month, you'd think I'd be able to visit Cuba.

$7. I'm on hold for five minutes for $7?

"You and I can't walk on water... [we apologize for the wait. Please continue holding and someone will be with you shortly]....


"I'm sorry, say your name again for me?"


[pause-pause] "Ok,thanks. I actually think I answered my own question. I had some time to read through this brochure while I waited." (because I know this call is recorded) "It occurs to me," I say, "occurs" being one of those words that sounds marvelously FM when I say it over the phone, and will show MarbioManko's monitors how absolutely crappy his voice and diction are, "that this 34.95 represents the plan cost, but the taxes and fees will stay the same, won't they?" I am hoping I can trap him into admitting that they will, in fact, cost me more.

He says, "the sales tax might be less."

"Of course," I say, as if he has helped me to this realization, "I see that now. So the real difference for me would be seven dollars?"

I leave that question out there. I learned in my own telesales training... the person who breaks the silence loses. Marbio may know this trick as well, but since he hasn't learned diction and modulation, and his company hasn't learned how to reduce AWT, I figure not.

Finally he says, "Yes." So sadly. So career-endingly sadly.

"Yes," I say, "Thanks for clarifying that for me."

"May I ask you howyouaccesstheinternetathome -- is it dialup, braband, or digidull caboo?"

BRAband? Yes, I access the Internet through my bra.

"No, thank you. Good night." and peace be with you.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Phone Calls Overheard in Harvard Square

"Meet me there and I can show you the Ghandi book."

"...Seamus Heany..."

"Yeh, so, right... there's that aspect of it."

(insert foreign language that already sounds more intelligent than anything you are saying.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Fiction Files

I do recall what this story was – a high-concept portrait of a diner in the Deep South so ingrained in its own confederate bitterness that the owner wouldn’t accept five dollar bills because they had Lincoln’s face on them. Some time back, I gave the idea away to a poet friend, thinking a poem could make more of the idea than the story could. I don’t remember when that was, and I don’t remember writing this. As usual, finishing the thing proved…elusive.

Arnie wheeled the wide front of the LTD up a makeshift ramp, scaled too high to fit the parking lot. Misjudging the rut already worn into it, he scraped his axle, then gunned the engine to avoid getting plowed in. Four pickups were parked backward in front of the high square windows of the diner. A flop-eared dog stood up in the back of one and gave Arnie an expressionless stare. Arnie gave the big car a wide berth, and elected to skip several spots between him and the pickups. Instead he chose the corner, facing the road. It was fall in Mississippi, but the relieving break in the humidity was offset by the thick smell of pulp paper in the air.

Arnie hitched up the waist of his pants, shook down his wrinkled-up cuffs, and headed toward the door with a purposeful, but not overly hurried, gait. A hand-painted wheelchair symbol nailed to a two-by-four stood in the one empty spot by the door. The sky-blue paint was a little too bright, and had dripped from being put up wet. Another useless gravel ramp led to the curb.

From the highway, the diner called Parson’s had looked like a grimy brick box – an old honky-tonk perhaps, or a converted rest stop. Arnie was almost disappointed when he stepped inside and found it bright and airy, tables instead of booths, no open kitchen, and no counter, where he had expected those pickup drivers to be. They had a door sticker, sponsored by Winstons, that listed the operating hours. Beneath it, a sign in magic marker, its ink faded to a rusty red by the sun: “Please pay Jackson. No Credit Cards.”

The door opened silently and Arnie let it shut against his back. Catching the waitress’ glance, he raised his eyebrows. She hollered, “Anywhere you like,” and kept on walking. When she returned, with a coffee pot in each hand, she asked, “Know what you’d like?” The drawl seemed not to suit her, as if she had been poorly dubbed. She had a high head of black hair and a round moonish face. Her large high breasts were counter-balanced by her leg-o-mutton arms, which now bulged a little from holding the coffees.

“Regular,” said Arnie, and watched her pour. She had a Mediterranean look, which in other parts of the country would readily identify her as Italian, but her family name Montivero had long ago been relaxed to Monniver. Avoiding the dart of her sleeveless white blouse, so close to his eye, Arnie glanced up at her face. Along the way, he noticed her plastic name tag read “waitress” in small letters. “That’s pretty funny,” he said, flicking his eye down toward it.

“I think it is,” she said, and lowered the pots to her hips, as if there might be holsters there to hold them.

“Do you have pancakes?” asked Arnie, who had not yet been offered a menu.

“Three in a stack,” she said, and Arnie ordered them.

He added, “What’s your name really?” and she quickly replied, “Debbie,” though it wasn’t. “Is that with a y or an i?” Arnie lifted his steaming cup.

“Writin’ a book?”

There was a loud squeak of vinyl, and Arnie spotted the pickup drivers. They were at a table off to his left, and had shifted as one to check out this uninvited guest who was talking too long to not-Debbie Monniver. “Just the pancakes, then,” said Arnie. “Bacon. Orange juice.” She nodded, took her pots to the drivers and silently gave them refills.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Levavi Oculus

I lift up my eyes to the hills— where does my help come from?
~~ Psalm 121

The Readership has been asking for the Reunion stories, and the Writer apologizes for creating an inflated sense of demand. Perhaps you have moved on by now, and I have missed the market opportunity, which certainly wouldn't be the first time .

I was afraid the expectation had become that these posts are to be funny, and "bloggy," and that's my own fault. Certainly most of what is in my head is not funny, and not fit for company, and the effort it takes to sort that warp and woof is usually more than this mill girl can take at the end of a day.

The Germans will have a word for the wistful rush of nostalgia and heartbreak that comes from returning to the place where your adult self was born. Old Girls call it Reunion.

Perhaps these observations will not resonate with anyone who did not live this experience. But perhaps they remind you of such a time in your life and the girl you used to be. I invite you to go find that girl wherever you left her and have a cocktail.

When I was young, and lived at the base of this mountain, I thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. Later, after I had left it, and had to settle for spiritually lifting my eyes to it, I often wondered if I had only magnified it in my memory. I hadn't seen much of the world at that time -- I had only barely left Virginia, and Virginians see little point in doing so -- I certainly had not seen yet Franconia Notch, Ranier, or the Tetons , which would one day cause me to fall down in wonder. What was to be expected from a 3000 ft high old woman like Tinker?

Here I testify that rounding the curve on Rt. 11, where one passes Kroger on the right, and the double hump of that old mountain suddenly appears against the sky, I would have run into its arms -- slow-motion, through a field of wildflowers, to a chorus of violins.

I met my younger self on the front porch and we regarded each other -- she of the Frye boots and Ray-Bans, slouched in a rocker idly smoking. Me in my favorite pin-stripe suit, standing over her against the railing with the quad behind me. Both of us with our legs stretched out in front of us, crossed at the ankles. I am afraid I have disappointed that girl, though she had no expectations of me whatsoever, except that I might have a suit like that one day and know how to move in it. I wear it for her, though she pretends it doesn't interest her.

She never thought past the end of a term, this girl who believed Dukakis could be president and that typing skills could be a fallback position. I want to scold her over it, tell her to take her sunglasses off when I'm talking to her and pay attention. Tell her that it's rough out there and the market will fail, and she won't make any money for about 15 more years, and don't wait so long to start a retirement fund.

But she is serene. A cardinal calls out in the silence between us, then she says I should not set up my stores on earth. "This isn't how it is, you know," I say. She answers, "I know. This is a whole lot better. Is that so wrong?"

Women's college alumnae will not apologize for our goofy little traditions. One of ours is a parade of classes around the front quad. Hats are worn; slogans are chanted. It is a spiral that begins with the earliest classes filing past the later classes, who fall into step behind those before and pass those who came after.

It is corny as all hell. But as we process, we anticipate our future selves. We are charmed by the new graduates -- 2 years out, 5 years out -- who network and boast and show their baby pictures. The Class of 86 are exhausted and jaded, and we long for the retirement of the class of 56. We stand in awe of the lone member of 36.

What she could tell us if she only thought we would listen.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Real Customer Service Story

Let's say you have just parked your rental car. It's nothing fancy, just a Chevy Malibu, with an emergency brake on the floor. On the floor? How quaint. Let's just put the gear shift back on the steering column, shall we, and I'll buzz for the car-hop.

As you crush it to the floor, you notice there is no lever to pull it back up.

Let's just say that happened.

And after you look for the manual in the glove compartment, and try every button in obvious reach of the driver's seat (popping the hood, the trunk, and the gas door in the process), and after you call the rental desk ... The rental agent says, "There should be a release lever right above it." The only answer to that, even in the South is, "Yes, there really should be, shouldn't there?"

You, Dear Reader, might have other resources to draw from. You might call your partner in life -- the person you don't mind feeling completely ignorant in front of and can say anything.

The well-heeled spinster knows she must be willing to look ignorant in front of anyone. This is why the salesmen at Berglund Chevrolet will get a nice thank-you note, and Alamo rental will not.

Right foot on the main brake; step on the parking brake again.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Youth and Management

"...we may have to start planning careers that move downward instead of upward through time...Perhaps [one] should reach his peak of responsibility very early in his career and then expect to be moved downward or outward into simpler, more relaxing, kinds of jobs."
Harold J Leavitt, quoted in Alvin Toffler's Futureshock, 1970

The greatest supervisory responsibility I had was for a class of 52 college freshmen in my care 3 days a week for an hour -- during which time I was to teach them the basic reading comprehension and writing skills they would need to thrive in the Texas state university system. It was my first professional job. I was 22 years old and paid $600/month.

Four years later came managerial responsibility for about 20 paid staff and as many volunteers (some of whom overlapped), a $100,000 budget, capital improvement goals, campus committee requirements and jump-and-run responsibility whenever the President needed more folding chairs. And I had never been happier.
As I stand in staff meetings today (no one runs for chairs anymore is what I'm saying) and watch the young managers pound their laptops and posture for the Boss's attention, I think of this quote often. I don't know how young they are, but I know for sure our executive's top tier is younger than I am, and that one of them is in fact 28. The people I suspect (and know for certain) have been working longer than I have all have lower ranking or consulting positions, with the exception of the Boss himself.

In a knowledge-based economy, experience is the commodity. It has to be built the hard way, while young, when one has everything to gain and very little to lose; when the idea of reading trade magazines on the treadmill and a fat business book on vacation sound like excellent career-edge-building opportunities; and you haven't yet discovered that the Company will not keep you warm at night. Once today's knowledge worker does realize that (or makes her millions), there is an gentle dial-down to a consultative role. Mentor the next generation who are quite sure they are presenting ideas that have never been tried.

In higher ed, there was no model for this. The faculty had their adjunct/visiting/emeritis system, where a person ran a cycle of TA, team/junior faculty, professorial ranking and chairmanships, then as one aged, scaled back down to part-time work, research, then finally just being trotted out occasionally at awards banquets like Johnny Pesky. In administration, one worked one's way to a deanship, provost, perhaps a Presidency -- none of which had tenure, but all of which you hoped you could retire from if the stress didn't kill you.

In 1970, when Alvin Toffler predicted this shift in management skill would flip, he used the training of engineers as an example, only marginally anticipating that technology and information would be the driving force of the US economy in "the future." Industry and agriculture were economies rooted in history, which one excelled in over decades of practice. In the future, he pointed out, the most recently educated and trained will be the most desirable, because knowledge will become obsolete. The young must lead because their skills are current, and the mature must advise them based on their experience, because their training is no longer applicable.

Toffler also wrote,
Thus we find the emergence of a new kind of organization man -- a man who,despite his many affiliations, remains basically uncommitted to any rganization. He is willing to employ his skills and creative energies to solve problems with equipment provided by the organization, and within teporary groups established by it. But he does so only so long as the problems interest him. He is committed to his own career, his own fulfillment.
[gender bias forgiven; ladies didn't have their own credit cards yet]

Monday, June 5, 2006

Something to Tide You Over

Life happens. Until I can get a block of stuff posted... here's what my frontal lobe is working on.

Songs played by "classic hits" stations disproportionately to their place in the rock canon
1 - Sister Golden Hair
2 - Rhiannon
3 - Small Town
4 - Little Pink Houses
5 - I Can Feel it Comin' in the Air [heard twice today already]
6 - Rocket Man
7 - Take it to the Limit
8 - Tiny Dancer
9 - Takin it to the Streets
10 - Wonderful Tonight [seriously, playing right now as I type this]

Songs we could stand a little more of on these same stations, but which never get any play
1 - Fire Down Below
2 - Raspberry Beret
3 - Captain Fantastic
4 - Everyday People
5 - Magical Mystery Tour
6 - Senses Working Overtime
7 - Life During wartime
8 - Love is the Seventh Wave
9 - China Grove
10 - (your call)

Saturday, June 3, 2006

On a Stack O' Bibles

The dump in this little town is not so much a dump as a transfer station, and by frugal Yankee standards not much of a station at that. In some towns, the books are stacked and sorted, clothing and toys are displayed in freestanding buildings and the food container bins are covered to minimze infesttaion. Here by the dam, the recycling center is clean and attended, but limited in its pickin's of free stuff. You can take one bucket of sand, and as much as you want from the book and magazine bin.

Some visits yield more than others. I watch out for interesting finds for friends, old textbooks, the occasional first edition. I once scored a 15 vol. set of Dickens. I began rescuing the Bibles because it made me sad to see them there. I didn't really have a plan; I just couldn't walk away and leave them to the pulper. (Let me add at this point that I would also rescue a Koran if I came across one. Let me also add that you wouldn't likely find a Koran in a dump.)

So the situation now is that I have about a dozen Bibles of all ages, translations, and sizes in a box in my garage. I still have no plan.

A chaplain friend, involved in prison ministry, advises that it is more difficult to donate books to prisons than you might think. You see, I could have soaked the pages with some illicit substance, designed to either intoxicate or poison the inmates and staff. I am reluctant to give them to a shelter (unless it is run by the Salvation Army, who declare their motives right there in their name) because it is hard enough to get into a shelter without having to literally sell a little piece of your soul to do so. I also want to be sure that the recipient is going to use them, and not send them back to the trash.

I thought about taking them to hotels and leaving them in the drawers, which made me wonder how the Gideons manage to get away with that behavior, and why hasn't anyone written a book about that? (one site calculates over 100 Bibles placed every minute, but my experience is, that just like NASCAR fans, an actual Gideon is never found in one's personal circle.)

If you don't click that Gideon link, you will miss the sentence, "The manager of the Central Hotel ...asked traveling salesmen share a room in a crowded hotel, which was hosting a lumbermen’s convention."

Say what you want about Christians (and none of you ever hold back, either way -- I should really get you all together), they have embraced the Internet in all stripes, and it only took a few clicks to find, The Bible Foundation. (searching will also turn up a lot of Bigfoot stories, which is such a delicious juxtaposition it ought to be its own post.) The Bible Foundation will gladly take your stack o' Bibles. They do not guarantee they are NOT soaking them in peyote, but I will have to trust they are not. I have asked them for some info. I'll let you kow how that turns out.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Let's Play the Pyramid

today's category: Crazy Things the Focus Group Said

Skittles should come in ice cream flavors

I'm so lazy I need my PB&J to be pre-made and frozen

We have no interest in standardizing car doors

What if everything was dispensed as a strip? No, a wipe! or a strip. Ok, a strip.

Oo, yeh, make it really expensive. But it only brews one cup at a time

Well, in my house, it's just the kids and all the toilet paper they use. What can you do about that?

I wish the TV Guide were bigger

I wish my cookies were smaller

We will buy anything served by a woman with big boobs. Or just boobs.

Put chicken nuggets on corn, on potatoes, and cover the whole thing in gravy and cheese. We would totally eat that.