Sunday, July 29, 2007

Numb Burrs

Numbers are tricky, as Pythagoreans warned two millennia ago, discovering nasty snags like irrational numbers—π, the square root of two and other values represented in the physical world but occupying the infinite world in their mathematical incarnations. Add the shifting, imprecise nature of language in sound and written form to this, and indeed the mind will feel numb-er.

Consider all the people looking to find “the One.” Why? So they can be a couple. And what do those two want in their pairing? For their partners to see them as special and unique. No wonder that Three Dog Night sang “One is the loneliest number,” but “Two can be as bad as one—it’s the loneliest number since the number one.”

In her film “Home of the Brave,” performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson complains that “a couple of numbers have been bothering [her] lately—zero and one.” She describes a zero as “a nobody, a has-been, a clod,” while “Everybody wants to be number one!” The trouble, she notes, “is that these two numbers are just too close. Leaves no room in there for everybody else.”

Indeed. Spaces between numbers require fractions. Who wants to be fragmented? We can try to circumvent this with decimals, but first, circumventing gets us back to circles and that messy π, and second, no one wants to be decimated either.

Some number spaces allow these finer distinctions, however. Eight can be modified, for example, as fascin-eight, liber-eight, substanti-eight, moder-eight, negoti-eight and so forth, giving us back important lost words like fascin, liber, substanti, moder, and negoti (I especially like that last one).

The first seven numbers are sacred—The Seven Wonders of the World, The Seven Seas, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Magnificent Seven and more. The fulcrum of these first numbers, number four, gives a hint about the leap in meaning to come with meta-four, but only when doubled, at eight, does the richer meaning evolve.

That richer meaning stops at ten, since from there on numbers are already doubled in terms of digits, but it continues with number nine—qui-nine and assin-nine, for example. Qui, interestingly, isn’t an English word, but it IS part of an English idiom, “on the qui vive,” meaning alert, vigilant, lively attentive—but it also contains two French words. So ironically, to “Be on the qui vive for terrorists” REQUIRES help from the French--a political complication likely to be a burr under Conservative hardliners’ saddles (“I’ve got spurs that jingo jangle”).

Other words offer hints to their occult meanings as well—assassin, for example, as in "to assas" is a SIN (assas-sin). [Interestingly, Assas is a village in--you guessed it—southern FRANCE.] However, add a number, assassin-eight, and the sin is buried behind the number. Perhaps numbers do offer some safety?

Unless you’re the One being eighty-sixed.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Last Lie I Told

I know this strains credulity, but it’s true—I told my last lie in 8th grade.

Not that I was (or am, for that matter) any saint. My parents maintained that the lie was a separate, punishable action from the original offense, a rule I ran afoul of multiple times (especially since age seven—not sure why that age in particular).

Mr. Lane, my 8th grade Social Studies teacher, was one of three junior high school teachers who showed us that learning was important, that the subjects were relevant, interesting, even fascinating once we started to understand them. This trio also taught us to think for ourselves, frequently giving us structured tasks or group activities, getting out of our way, letting us make our mistakes, but then coming back and addressing our shortcomings. They pushed us, worked us, gave us lower grades then we were used to earning, redirected us, sent us back to thinking and working—and we loved it. They were my favorite teachers.

So when I didn’t hand in my Social Studies report (I don’t remember how many pages were required), it wasn’t any judgment against the class or the teacher—I just was a kid who got busy doing some other kid things and didn’t get to the assigned report in time. I sat cringing as the class passed in their work, knowing I was in serious trouble. Fortunately, Mr. Lane didn’t notice I hadn’t turned in a report, so I was reprieved for the moment, but I knew it would eventually catch up with me.

And that day arrived. While the rest of the class worked on an in-class assignment, Mr. Lane came over to talk with me. My stomach churned—I knew I was in deep trouble.

“I didn’t see your report,” he started. I hung my head. “Did you turn one in?” Nervous, I nodded. “OK—I’ll look through everything here and at home and see if I can find it.” I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but at least I’d bought another reprieve.

I worried all through class each day—my brief reprieve had become a week. It couldn’t last.

Finally, almost as a relief, the Day of Reckoning arrived. Mr. Lane called me over to his desk at the end of class. Here it comes. As my classmates filed out the door, I shuffled slowly to my doom.

“I’ve looked everywhere for your paper,” began Mr. Lane. I looked at the floor. “I tore apart everything, every pile, and it’s just not there.” My shoulders slumped. Fear grew by the second, anticipating my fate. “So,” Mr. Lane continued, “I’m just going to have to assume it was an “A” paper.”

My heart jumped into my throat. I looked at him, stunned. “OK,” I answered, lamely, and followed my classmates to our next class.

I should have felt relieved, elated, joyful. I didn’t. I felt two inches tall. I didn’t even feel some cliché emotion, like “I let my favorite teacher down,” for example. Instead, I knew I’d just had an interaction with a man who was a far better person than I, and I’d failed miserably. I didn’t like it. I still don’t, years later. Mistakes are one thing, but this was another. It was the last lie I told.

Today, I know at least some of my college students wouldn’t hesitate to lie about their work, judging from the number of blatant plagiarism cases I’ve busted. In my own way, I’ve offered them a small if unpalatable way out: “May I talk to you for a minute before class, outside? Do you realize that the deadline for dropping a course is this Friday? Are you aware that students aren’t allowed to drop courses to escape plagiarism charges? Now, if someone plagiarized one of these papers I’m about to hand back, my comments about that would constitute a plagiarism charge, subject to the formal policies laid out in detail in the College Handbook. However, if such a student dropped before I was able to return the paper and make the charge, I’m not sure I could do much about it.”

I don’t know what impact this has on students long term. I don’t even know if it’s the right thing to do. I wonder if Mr. Lane simply knew I was lying.

Our culture currently seems not to even blink at dishonesty. People have so long stolen copied music that they don’t even consider the ramifications. One folk artist even did a song about it (these lyrics are to the best of my memory):

So I copied it
Gave it to all my friends
A lot them gave it to their friends too
Cause I love ya man
I’m your biggest fan…

…and so forth, with the speaker in the song ironically wondering why the band isn’t more successful, even wondering if maybe they just don’t try hard enough.

One of my colleagues, a self-styled (and continually unpublished) novelist maintains, “I wouldn’t mind if someone made copies of my novel, so why should I worry about copying music?” I think the law and at least many of the musicians might view the case differently.

My younger brother, Mr. Values, downloads copied DVDs. “Hey, they’re on the Internet,” he says. “I don’t know if they’re stolen or not!” I mentioned we could say the same about TVs sold from the back of a truck in a parking lot. Uncharacteristically, he had no retort.

Seemingly, if you can get away with it, it’s moral.

And how do you argue against that, when the Bush administration claims lying as executive privilege? The ridiculous spin on Iraq, the mind-numbing audacity of Alberto Gonzalez—these are just the obvious points with bipartisan agreement, let alone the host of other nonsense.

As a society, we’re like alcoholics—we arguably COULD stop, COULD get help—but we want to lie.

And the lack of truth shall continue to render us less and less free.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Jazz Fest

The annual Syracuse Jazz Fest is a bittersweet time for me. I love that I can escape for three days of free jazz performed by major acts, but I also listen missing desparately, if without regret, the full-time music career I left behind to pursue first business and then writing and teaching.

My dad and I used to make it our signature annual father/son event, as among our very different interests, we do share a love of jazz—Dad more the light commercial styles of Kenny G and Chuck Mangione, me adding to those a host of more in depth and experimental musicians, but still, a true shared passion. My love of music even comes from my not-at-all musically talented dad, as I grew up listening constantly to his ever growing record collection, a collection inspired jointly by his love of music and the constant annoyance of the tinnitus that drove him to keep music playing. A few years ago, however, when my dad remarried after my mom’s death, his new partner gradually pried him in the direction of her own interests and family. I’m at least glad he’s happy.

The “Jazz” fest has also increasingly drifted at times to more of a rock fest—also fine, but lowering my interest a notch or two (so much so that I didn’t bother braving the hour long trip, parking, or crowds for the acts advertised). Still, it’s free, and when at all feasible, I attend.

A few years back, the Jazz Fest moved from downtown—hot, crowded, sun-beaten asphalt, poor sightlines, questionable parking—to Onondaga Community College just outside the city, with lots of space, grass, breezes (it’s on a hilltop), plenty of parking, much better facilities (i.e., restrooms). I prefer it, but many people complained, preferring the city environment, particularly the proximity to clubs. In response, a separate festival arose, Jazz in the City, bringing in some excellent artists. For me, however, hot humid weather, crowds on blacktop, and performances that start as late as 10 p.m. when I’ve still got a long drive home more often than not weighs against attending. (I’ve often wondered why restaurant/bar/club owners haven’t realized a lot of music lovers would joyfully attend far more events if those performances started at 7 or 8 p.m., a much better match for most people’s schedules and lifestyles.)

The hilltop view at Jazz Fest has it’s problems. For whatever reason, for example, a number of people feel this is an optimal time for cigars. Cigarette smoke travels badly enough, but one cigar can take out dozens of people while the smoker blithely practices his rights. Reminds me of Steve Martin’s joke: “Mind if I smoke?” “Not at all—mind if I fart?”

The sound is terrible, run by people used to producing rock acts, and not well, creating a solid mass of sound with nothing distinguishable (Jazz in the City, run by professional musicians, hires more astute sound men). I run across a colleague, attending with a friend who remembers me from high school, her their significant others, and another friend with his young daughter, a child who fusses, up too late already after a long day. The friend, a sound man, gets into a discussion with me about the festival’s sound. He thinks it’s fine, but points out it will improve with the final act of the night, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as they bring their own engineer to run sound. I think that rather makes my point, but keep it to myself.

Our discussion morphs into the music and the audience. A Frank Zappa tribute big band takes the stage—lots of enthusiasm, lots of notes, lots of skill, but they just aren’t selling it well. I question the value, especially as a jazz musician, of performing essentially as a juke box. My “expert” friend notes that musicians need to realize that people come to concerts to “shake their ass.” I drop the subject. His daughter falls asleep on my foot. We cover her with her cloak.

Bela Fleck takes the stage, and EVERYTHING is different. The music is interesting, engaging—think Earl Scruggs meets Mahavishnu Orchestra, but with ever-evolving organic musical surprises. The sound is EXCELLENT—every instrument, every note crystal clear. No problem selling these pieces either. Top performers at the top of their form.

A young guy sits nearby, yelling on his cell phone during the show. “The fence! We’re over by the fence!” This goes on for 15 minutes. Other than that, though, I’m happy—I’m hearing what I came to hear. After the show, as fireworks start, he cries out, “My wedding ring! I lost my wedding ring!” We help look. “It’s silver!” he says. Someone finds it. I wonder just how the ring “got loose.” No wife is likely to buy that story. I don’t buy it either.

The next day I stopped by a booth for a chicken parm and some salt potatoes on the way for a spot of grass to sit. “Where did you get that sandwich?” asked a young woman in jeans and a T-shirt stretched out on the grass next to me. I explained. “Watch my purse?” she asked, and went in quest of her own sandwich. Interesting, isn’t it? We trust complete strangers to guard our stuff. She returned with her sandwich, introduced herself as Jo, and we chatted about how my girl, catherine, was temporarily stuck in Canada over immigration details.

“How did you meet?” she asked, and I gave an abridged version of our encounters on a discussion board that gradually led to emails and phone calls and finally her coming here to live with me. Jo was interested, turns out, because her own ex-boyfriend, dumped after long abuse of alcohol among other problems, left her wondering how she’d meet someone else. Cloudy skies turned to sprinkles to pouring rain, and cotton clad Jo retreated to her car for good, while I retrieve my umbrella and a blanket from mine.

The music was a repeat of the previous day—lots of notes played by skillful musicians who couldn’t sell what they were playing, further hindered by the pathetic wall-of-sound mix. And then—the final act, Dave Brubeck. “Come on up, fill these seats,” the promoter offered, indicating the rows and rows of empty chairs they always save for sponsors. “Dave Brubeck doesn’t play to empty seats.”

The wait in the cold was worth it. The sound was spectacular, and the playing was beyond masterful. Lots of notes, yes, but this time they were understated, just color, not flash. Musicians in control. Musicians whose craft is second nature. I sat in the cold, damp blanket wrapped around my wet clothes, enthralled. Worth the wait.

I had a feeling I should have stayed home the third day. I was tired, and the line up wasn’t really rock. Still, the headliner was Aretha Franklin, so I braved the trip once more.

This crowd was completely different from people the previous two days. Constant talking, people continually crowded in front of others, not a moments’ peace, just constant annoyance. Two young women, Cat and Cody, settled next to my spot, while they pretended not to notice the guy on the other side of them staring to the point of drooling. Thinking of Jo’s questions, I asked the girls their thoughts. “I’m looking around here,” I said, “and I see lots of women without rings sitting without men. Certainly any reasonable, nice, patient guy with a few guts should be able to meet women!” Cat agreed, and we shared theories, and well as my story about catherine, her stories about her boyfriend, Aaron.

Another tribute band, this time to Jaco Pastorius. Lots of talented bass players taking turns at Jaco’s role, but clearly they and the band we’re used to each other. Still, I love that music, and the bassists included Will Lee (from David Letterman’s band), so that was fun, even if most of the time I could mainly hear people describing their “expertise” about music, making jokes about the bombings in London (!), complaining about the French (?), and other enlightening discourse during the show.

Finally, Aretha Franklin. But we may as well have been in a bar. Everyone talking. People standing so that seeing the stage was difficult. And the songs—back to the juke box, along with long complaints from Aretha about the cold in particular. Come to think of it, that’s been a pattern with divas at the Jazz Fest—Nancy Wilson was the worst. Sang beautifully, bitched just as much. But I can say I’ve seen Aretha Franklin live. And seen is probably a better description than heard.

You can never tell, though. One year, back down in the city, Diana Krall had 50,000 people virtually silent, mesmerized. I particularly remember a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” that had me in tears. Now that show was worth some blacktop and poor parking.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lies Your Writing Teacher Told You

When teaching young children, understandably teachers might well choose to simplify concepts. That’s fine. However, simplifications are also distortions, even to the point of error, and if those children never grow past those temporary, instructionally helpful constructs, what’s left is misinformation. Such is often the case in college students and adult writers, still using techniques that are, well, wrong—in sentences, in paragraphs, and in compositions overall.

The most glaring of these is the universal comma rule: put a comma where you want a pause. Um, no. Commas aren’t moods—they show structure. Moving commas around carelessly changes the sentence structure.

Consider this sentence: Swords flashing, our heroes dashed into action. A tale of epic adventure—very different from: Swords, flashing our heroes, dashed into action—a tale of erotic surrealism.

How about these two: People, who frequently attend these auctions, spend a lot of money, vs. People who frequently attend these auctions spend a lot of money. Both sentences are correct, but their meaning differs significantly, particularly if you’ve an economic interest in those auctions. The first sentence promises that all comers at these well-attended events will be dumping cash, while the second restricts the big spenders to only the few folks who frequent the auction circuit.

Even more astounding is the oft repeated assertion that grammar isn’t important, that students will just learn eventually by doing. This is as ridiculous as “Prof.” Harold Hill in “The Music Man” promoting his “think” system for learning music. Further, what are employers going to do with those cover letters and resumes full of grammatical errors? And bosses? Clients? Fair or not, such grammar-challenged people will be judged as less intelligent and less competent. It IS 7th grade English, after all.

Now to “de-mythify” the paragraph: “a paragraph is a group of 5-8 sentences.” What, like a street gang hangin’ on the corner? Just time for a line break? What happened to a unit of developed thought? How about a topic sentence—and development leading to a meaningful conclusion. You know—content!

But two commonly promoted points completely baffle me. The first purports to connect paragraphs by abruptly changing the subject in the last sentence of a paragraph to the topic of the next paragraph—then reiterating the point in the first sentence of that next paragraph. Good grief. This is duct tape, not coherence, combining rambling off topic with redundancy. What happened to a logical progression of ideas? Yet student after student maintains someone taught this “technique.”

The second is a legitimate technique run amok, the “funnel” technique—start with a general statement, narrow it, narrow it further, and so forth, then lead back to some general observation. Yeah, granted, the specific details should come after the initial claims, but instead, students write almost bizarrely vague sentences, eventually find a hint of a point, then back off into vague obscurity, thus taking a paragraph to make a point that could have been made in one poor sentence:

--There are many great writers, some living, some in history. Many of these writers have come from America. Several of these writers became famous in the twentieth century. While many women were among this group, many men were also recognized as good writers. One of these men was Ernest Hemingway. He wrote a lot. Some of this writing was journalism, others were not. Those that were not including novels and short stories. His short stories are excellent. One of these excellent short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this short story, Hemingway shows many of the elements that made him a famous writer in America in the twentieth century. Symbolism is one of the elements that he used, and he does an excellent job of using it. Symbolism can be defined as something that represents something else. Hemingway uses a lot of symbols in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”

That paragraph may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

Worse, students then apply this technique to the entire essay. Sometimes, even in the middle of page two, I still can’t find a thesis—or even tell what poem or story or play the paper addresses, let alone what points it might make. “But that’s what you’re supposed to do!” students protest, ready to defend such work vigorously. “It draws the reader in!” Draws the reader in? Who would still be reading? Could you imagine, for example, picking up Sports Illustrated and reading:

--There are many sports in the world today. Some of these sports are played individually, while other sports are team sports. Different countries tend to prefer some sports over other sports. Soccer is one sport popular in many countries. Americans like football. Other Americans like baseball, while some like basketball. Many people like more than one sport. Soccer is called football in other countries. Some Americans like soccer, though.

Are you “drawn in?” Would you keep reading in case it gets better?

And the poor readers who struggle through such essays all the way to the conclusion meet yet another silly but commonly practiced point—the “conclusion”:

--In conclusion, here I write a meaningless paragraph that does nothing except repeat the thesis you’ve already read and repeated the vague points I’ve already stated, thus making no final point whatsoever, concluding absolutely nothing, indicating the entire essay has no purpose beyond reaching a word count or minimum number of pages.

And again, students insist they’ve been taught to do this. So much time is spent swimming upstream against all this misinformation from the past, with little time left for emphasis, economy, style, effective argument and much more. After all, why should students bother with all that? They’ve earned top grades for years babbling along as such, believing they are therefore “creative.”

Unfortunately, I have heard a number of teachers maintain that writing is an art, and therefore it can’t really be taught. Some people just have a gift, and some people just aren’t good writers.

Any writing teacher who believes that has no business teaching writing. Let writers do it.

After all, why? If it’s all just a scam, lots of scams pay far better than teaching writing.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

An Education at the Bar

In my early twenties, the economy was in full stagflation, and finding a job—even after graduating cum laude, ink wet on my diploma—was simply not easy.

I walked into a mall restaurant, no experience, wearing a jacket and tie, bearing a resume, to seek a job as a waiter. The hostess brought me to Mike, one of the managers (and a very nice guy). “We don’t need any more waiters,” he told me, “but let me introduce you to the bar manager.” Yikes. I knew nothing about bartending.

Mark, the bar manager, was also a great guy, and invited me to sit down for a chat. I was up front about my lack of bartending experience. “Oh, that’s fine,” he explained. “We can teach you to mix drinks. People who present themselves professionally is another matter.” So I became a bartender—and got quite an education.

I quickly learned that most people ordered the same basic drinks, so moving up to serving customers directly happened almost immediately. Mark was cool—when someone ordered a drink, he just calmly rested his hands on the appropriate bottles, pretending his attention was elsewhere, tipping me off. I once asked about the cost of drinks—wouldn’t we earn more if the drinks weren’t so expensive? “That’s intentional,” Mark explained. “The cost keeps the kids away, and that’s how our clientele likes it.”

I learned a few other things too, like the day Mark cornered me and asked, “Those two girls—did you proof them?”

I looked at the two attractive young women I’d just served, aghast and confused. “No, I replied—they’re clearly over 18” (then the drinking age).

“Yeah,” he replied, “but don’t you want to know where they live?” Oh. Got it.

I’d been working since I was fourteen with my farm papers, but this was my first full-time job, and thankfully, all in all it was a good opportunity—in particular because I was treated so well. Yes, I contributed to this, taking my dad’s advice (for once) and showing up 15 minutes early, ready to work, and staying 15 minutes late, still working. But really much of the credit goes to the wisdom of the owners. I earned above minimum wage, even as an inexperienced worker in a slow economy. Every three months, I got a small raise.

Once, the owners had some sort of special celebration in the bar, and asked for the lead crystal wine goblets we kept on a very high shelf, a restaurant warming gift to the owners. I climbed to retrieve them—and dropped two of them, watching them shatter. I was dismayed, stunned, shocked, immobile. The principal owner did not look happy. But he said not a word about it, then or ever. Accidents happen.

Another night, the same owner and several friends were drinking far into the night. We had always been instructed to strictly follow the law, and two a.m. was legal closing time. They wanted another round. I had to tactfully (and nervously) inform the owner and his buddies that I was sorry, but we had passed last call, and they would have to drink up. I got no argument. I also got a big tip.

Conventional wisdom—and likely true—is that bartenders cheat their establishment out of untold dollars worth of liquor. Not here. And not only that—we worked as a team. The night guy working past 2 a.m. busted his butt making sure the morning guy was well stocked, including cut fruit, fresh towels, everything sparkling clean—and every one of us did this. We were proud of our bar. When we took breaks or changed shifts, we quietly filled each other in on the customers, so that when they wanted another round, they didn’t need to repeat their orders. This led to some fun incidents, too. One of our bartenders, a flashy guy named Tony, took over my shift just before two elderly ladies reordered. Tony walked over, gave each empty glass a casual sniff, nodded, and mixed new drinks, to their utter amazement—and my utter amusement (we pooled tips, so this was all to the good).

Another time, Tony playfully tossed a few tip coins over his shoulder into our tip can. Only by dumb luck, they went in. Tony played it cool, I pretended nothing was out of the ordinary, and the customers all stared with their jaws hanging wide.

I had my own luck once. One gentleman ordered vodka martini after vodka martini after vodka martini, until finally I really had to cut him off—not something that happened often in this establishment. I was as polite and tactfully as I knew to be, but he nicely thanked me for my concern and insisted. Now what? I took a chance—vodka is tasteless anyway, and he was already smashed, so I grabbed a rocks glass, stuffed it with ice, then filled it with water and plopped an olive in it. I figured he’d be too drunk to notice—but I certainly couldn’t charge him for it. I quickly moved to other customers, deliberately missing his eye, while he waited to pay, before finally going back to his seat, no doubt figuring he’d settle up later.

Several minutes later, the glass half empty, he walked back to the bar. “Excuse me,” he asked. “This is just water, isn’t it?” Nervously, I admitted it. “I like your style,” he said, shook my hand, gave me a large tip, and left the bar. Whew. It could have gone differently.

Aside from learning lots of interesting drink lore and lots of ways to mix multiple drinks quickly and well when business was brisk, I also learned some fun bar tricks—and invented a few. One of my favorite standards was the disappearing drink—you mix a drink directly in front of the customer, shake it up, and when you pour the drink into the glass from the shaker, it’s gone. Not a drop. [Like most tricks of its kind, the secret is mind-numbingly simple, but people love to overanalyze.]

We had some house specialty drinks, and I learned what naturally goes with what well enough to invent new drinks. My favorite, stunning even the talented bar manager, contained both citrus and cream—something that shouldn’t be possible, since the citrus would curdle the cream. Yet there it was. [One hint—like many fancy drinks, the order in which ingredients are mixed is crucial. In this case, it meant getting that citrus into a solution.]

I also learned a great deal about women—my Catholic upbringing and college education had left me rather sheltered. One night, for example, I was quite taken aback when, in response to watching a dancer rapidly move his hips from front to back on the bar television, the cocktail waitresses wondered if he could do that in bed. And talk about naïve—one of the cocktail waitresses, a heavily made-up, snotty Asian girl drove a very expensive car and always seemed on remarkably friendly terms with many of the wealthy older gentlemen customers. Took me months to put two and two together.

I learned a few other things too—liar’s poker, for example. This became a bit of a fad during slow periods at the bar, and I was bitten by the bug. On my break once, though, I ran into Mike (remember the nice manager?), and asked, “Hey, Mike—do you play liar’s poker?”

“Not when I’m working at the bar where gambling is illegal and could get me fired,” he answered, not unkindly. Oh. Point taken. So much for liar’s poker.

That was Mike--responsible, but always able to see things from the other side. One incredibly busy New Year's Eve, one of our kitchen prep/dishwasher people, another great guy, got stuck working by himself, then asked to stay for four hours overtime. As good hearted and cheerful as he was, at the end of a frantic twelve hours, the poor guy was exhausted. I just happended to be in the kitchen when Mike came in with two bottles of champaign and a bonus check for $100. "I know you're beat, and you've every right to go home," Mike said, "but I'm asking if you'll please stay." He stayed (and got the next few days off).

I also learned to appreciate sports on TV, something that had never really appealed to me before. In particular, I remember the Winter Olympics, when the U.S. hockey team battled to defeat the quite frankly better U.S.S.R. team. None of the ridiculous fights that have marred professional hockey, but sports as they should be. Sheer determination—will against will, skill against skill.

And perhaps a job as it should be. Certainly it was an education.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Testicle Free Zone

On a lake an hour from my home, a 32-year old law student, his 25-year old brother and another guy went boating. The law student had downed 12 beers before taking the wheel (and has a previous boating while intoxicated record). He slammed into another boat, containing a vacationing police office from Pennsylvania and his girlfriend, knocking everyone into the water.

The law student swung around to pick up his two passengers, left the others in the water, and drove four miles back to his dock. There, he debated for a while what to do before finally calling 911. The officer was dead on the scene. His girlfriend was flown to a nearby hospital, where she shortly died.

The younger brother, protecting his older brother, originally claimed responsibility, until the Sheriff finally got the truth.

The Sheriff called the incident "cowardly."

I think that's a fantastic understatement, that his "man" has no right to wear testicles, and that they should be cut off with a razor, one thin slice at a time, as slowly as possible.

Then he should be hurt.

What the hell is wrong with people?

Fantastically poor judgment isn't limited to intoxicated males, unfortunately. A few weeks ago, a young mother, with three young children safely strapped in the back seat, was pulled over by a trooper. As soon as he opened his door, she took off--she was driving with a suspended license. In the ensuing chase, she lost control. A tree split the car in half, instantly killing her children, sending her to the hospital's intensive unit.



Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Happened to Customer Service?

Power outages due to thunderstorms and tornados in the U.S. and Canada for the past few days included phone service, so I tried calling my girl, catherine, at her sister’s Tim Horton’s store, figuring she’d probably be there helping out. I was right.

“May I speak to catherine, please,” I asked. “I’m sorry,” answered the voice at the other end of the line: “catherine has just gone on her break.”

Now, seems to me that the start of a break would be the perfect time to take a personal phone call. However, that’s not the world of employees today. Why would you waste your break on personal issues, instead of waiting until you were back on the clock?

I’m reminded of a few years ago when I stopped at an Ames department store just as it was opening to pick up a few quick items on my way to work. Seems a few people had called in sick. Consequently, for fifteen minutes, before any cashier waited on any customer, the staff hashed out what would be the adjusted break schedule for the day. First things first.

Customer service is so poor today that it doesn't seem unusual when cashiers don't even speak to the customers, talking to other employees instead. People accept ungainly rules and procedures customers must fulfill before the business takes money. Long lines are a given.

Better service is often the personality of an individual employee, rather than a company trait. If every employee promptly provided goods and efficiently processed payment, that still wouldn't constitute good service; that's just what the customer is paying for!

One common business response is "We're just doing what everyone else does." Frame that service policy in Lucite and hang it in the lobby: "In our business, we're just doing what everyone else does." Inspiring.

Unless your business has 100% market share, at least some customers prefer the competition's product. What would make them prefer your product? Lower price is one way, but it doesn't build customer loyalty. If the competition can beat your price, your customers will be gone. Quality service, however, does build customer loyalty, and many customers will stay even when the competition beats your price.

Any business with economic profits will attract competition. Without significant barriers to entry, your product can readily be copied or even improved. But if a business is ahead of the competition in service, that's difficult to imitate quickly.

Yet even businesses with very happy customers sometimes ruin this with careless policies. For example, when I bought my new Toyota, I was thrilled with the dealership. I was there because my old Toyota threw a rod that morning at 199,974 miles, so I needed a new car quickly. They pulled it off, all in the same day! I test drove cars, they shuffled cars around with other dealers, they got all the paperwork completed with motor vehicles, and I was ready to go to financing—not a problem at all, since my credit rating is about as high as it’s possible to get.

Except for one thing. They insisted on selling me Scotch Guarding for the seat fabric and undercoating for the chassis, adding it to the monthly payment. I declined. Mr. Nice Finance Guy turned Gestapo. “Well can I ask why not?” he demanded in a rather nasty tone. “Well first, that’s one hell of a price for Scotch Guarding. Why wouldn’t I just buy a can and spray it on? Anyway, I have an active dog who rides in the car everyday on the way to our run. A little spilled coffee is the least of my troubles.”

“Well aren’t you worried about the car rusting through?” Clearly these guys are trained in high powered sales pressure. “It’s not necessary with today’s cars,” I responded. “How do you know that?” he demanded.

“Look,” I said, tired of this game. “I just drove a car 199,974 in New York State weather. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the situation.” He finally dropped it.

I was only as calm as I was because I’ve seen it before. This is my third Toyota, and while the first purchase was fine, at the second purchase the finance guy was so persistent and so nasty that I was walking out the door. By chance, I ran into the body shop manager, a great guy I knew from previous interactions at the shop, who immediately stopped, saying, “You don’t look happy” and resolved the situation.

I shared this latest incident with the sales rep. “I was a happy customer up until this point,” I noted. “Why would they want to ruin that?” She could only nod. “I know,” she said. “We’ve had people walk from financing before.” Can those few extra bucks possibly be worth losing all those customers? I shared the experience with the Sales Manager. "Well, by law, if we offer a service to one customer, we have to offer it to all." Talk about missing the point.

A local consultant tells the story of a gentleman who had recently purchased a lusury car from a local dealership, and when a windshield wiper insert wore out after very little use, went back to nicely ask that it be replaced. “He was told in no uncertain terms that wiper inserts were not covered under his warranty and sent away,” explains the consultant. “Where do you think he’s going to buy his next car? Not there! Not only would I have given him the part for the few measly bucks it would cost—I’d have installed it for him and apologized!”

I buy Toyotas for the mileage, the reliability, and the fact that the service department is near my home (I live out in the country). I can tell you, though, that if another company up and coming moved nearby—Hyundai, for example—I’d certainly give them a serious look.

Apple takes this to extremes. They make and sell excellent computers. After that, unless you want to PURCHASE the right to service (at rather high costs), you’re just on your own. They don’t even pretend. They don’t do service. PC vendors aren’t much better. If I were to start a computer business, that’s where I’d start.

Excellent service is a rarity. Any business that delivers it will stand above the competition where it counts--with the customer.


Monday, July 9, 2007

Eight Days a Week

For the past year, I’ve had the luxury of working four days a week. Well, much more accurately, just going into work four days a week—I work at home the other three days (and all the evenings). But still, it’s nice. Working five days in a row is OK, but two days off just isn’t enough to recuperate. Three day weekends work well, since the first day is devoted to much needed rest, the second on head clearing, and only the third on productive activity, before feeling refreshed and ready to go back to the office.

That’s why we should change to an eight day week.

Think about it, then contact your legislators. I propose an additional day, Labor Day, between Sunday and Monday each week, to institutionalize the five day work week, three day weekend, and each month with exactly four weeks—32 days, all the same. This would also simplify the calendar in several ways—each day would always be the same day of the month, for example--no more "What date? What day of the week is that?". Originally I thought the week (and month) should start on Monday, clearly separating the work week from the weekend, rather than splitting the weekend along calendar rows as we do now, but then I realized every month would have a Friday the Thirteenth. Let’s leave the week starting on Sunday, then—a bow to conservatives who won’t like having a Labor Day every week.

The months will need adjustments, since twelve months of 32 days each would give each year nineteen extra days (twenty on leap years)—but the weeks and months have supposedly been designed to follow the moon, and they don’t do that well at all anyway, so let’s combine June and July, creating a new month—Junly (pronounced June-LIE). This will ensure that children are still in school sufficient time to learn the curriculum (the same number of months), or at least as well as they do now—and cut the time they have to forget material over summer break, as well as save single working parents money on day care. Families wouild also have more regular weekend time together, and children more time to complete weekend homework.

Eleven months of 32 days each leaves thirteen days. I propose these be devoted to holidays—one national day off for Election Day, encouraging people to vote, and the other twelve for a national holiday at the end of the year (these “twelve days of Christmas” should mollify wealthy conservatives upset that Election Day will make it easier for the working poor to vote). And once every four years, the New Year will start with Leap Day!

Some critics will complain that this calendar sacrifices 40 business days over the course of a year, hurting the economy, but this is not the case. First, it will cut costs at financial institutions and for the Postal Service. Second, rested workers will be ready to return to work each week refreshed, with better attitudes, and hence be more productive. Additionally, those workers will have parties and barbeques far more often, go out to concerts and restaurants more, shop more, and so forth, all adding to gross domestic production, increasing tax revenue, and creating jobs. And finally, many, many people already work on weekends, whether required or at home, and this won’t change with a three day weekend. (The Beatles were prescient on this one: “Love you ev’ry day, girl, always on my mind.”) The manufacturing sector and similar industries will have much more flexibility in organizing dovetailed schedules for continuous operations.

Just imagine the commercial possibilities! Instead of a twelfth month, each calendar will have only a twelve day holiday season—leaving lots of extra space for holiday advertising. Department stores could have a Labor Day sale every week!

Perhaps best of all—you’ll only spend 1/8th of your life on Monday, instead of 1/7th!

"Eight days a week...I loaloalove you...."

It's almost enough to show I care...!

A new day for America and the world.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Quick Buck

Money is remarkably easy to come by—IF that’s all you want. Trouble is, most people only THINK they want money, when really they value their choice of endeavors and/or their egos far more (as well as a strong tendency to focus on short term planning at the expense—sometimes nearly complete expense—of their long term interests).

I once took a position as Executive Director of a community center. The income had little to do with it, as this was a part time position paying far less than I already earned. I just wanted to get more involved in my community, and I had lots of ideas for pulling together all the talented artists and musicians living in the area who, like me, consistently plied our trades out of town. The Board loved my ideas, and they were particularly interested in using my talents to bring in much needed funding. In particular, they were looking forward to the prospect of winning grants and more donors.

Those funding sources take time, however, and I quickly realized that if we were going to accomplish anything, we needed cash. Now.

I had once managed a nearby New Age book store, and I remembered all the psychics, astrologers, palm readers and such constantly searching for clients. Customers were always asking about where they could get readings—we had bulletin boards filled with reader’s cards/brochures/flyers for this purpose. Roughly once a year, some large promoter would fly through town, rent a hotel ballroom and put on a large psychic fair, giving people a chance to see several readers in one space. Everyone complained about these promoters—but everyone went.

So I put together a brochure/information/application form, and mailed it to all those card addresses. I asked for $50 in booth fees (far less than they usually paid) for a weekend fair. We completely filled the center. I wrote a series of columns for the local paper on who was coming, designed a flyer, and sent press releases to all the papers in an hour’s radius. (The Board warned me that the press always ignored the center, but when I looked through their log, I could see why—their releases were dreadful. I’ve written hundreds of press releases—and every one ran, often exactly as I wrote it). Additionally, we decided to charge $2 admission (again, a fraction of what people usually pay).

We cleared $3,000 that weekend—about four times the amount of their most successful fund raisers before. But if you think the Board members were happy, guess again. “We’re a non-profit—we can’t make too much money, or we’ll be in trouble.” I unsuccessfully pointed out that some non-profits are worth billions of dollars (they just have to spend it again). “How does this make us look?” another asked. Actually, this was the real problem—they felt my success made them look like a bunch of hicks. They decided to redefine my position to a strictly advisory role. I resigned. The staff—one secretary—walked out behind me. The center went back to line dancing.

A restaurant/bar owner in a neighboring town complained to me about her lagging business one day. I again decided to put people’s needs together to create a market, only this time I’d be working for myself. She loved the idea of a psychic fair, and I went to work. Space was more limited, so the booth fees were more--$150, but then many psychics had taken home several hundred dollars at the last fair. Still, some of them baulked, so I hunted down new people to take their place—a tea leaf reader, for example, an aura photographer, and even Penny Parish, a psychic featured on one of the hour long news magazines (I forget which—one of the 20/20 copycats) for her work with the FBI. I had the space for free in exchange for my promotional services. We agreed to a modest admission charge ($3, I think), just to discourage people from entering just to cause trouble.

I pulled out all my promotion experience for this one. I did radio interviews, and set up guest readers for the DJs—always careful to stress that this was purely for entertainment purposes. We mentioned the restaurant and its location a lot. The papers published the features I wrote on Penny Parish. I gave the owner a heads up to be sure she had enough staff on hand to handle much larger crowds than usual, as this was her chance to gain new customers. She agreed to suspend smoking for the weekend.

Not all went well. The owner ignored my advice about staffing; people waited up to an hour for their food, so the overall impression was harmed (and she lost a lot of business as people went elsewhere in town to grab a meal). Some people from a local church decided we were a threat to the morality of the town. I was tipped off by a nice gentleman among the bunch, and offered them space too to keep the peace, but the more militant members rejected the idea. I gave the State People down the street a heads up, just in case. In the end, we just had a lot of annoying people praying right and left—but they paid to come in, so what the hell. I cleared around $2,000.

I could see the market was rapidly declining (and other people noticed what I was doing and figured they could do it too—since spawning a host of very small and very frequent “fairs”), but I gave it one more try in a small city about an hour away. I had to rent a hotel banquet room for this, found one reasonably priced (after a bit of a search), and adjusted booth fees accordingly. Again, this discouraged some psychics—even though some of them had brought home $1200 from the previous fair. Still, we put together a nice if smallish fair. The main problem this time was psychics fighting with each other, accusing one very successful woman of “hooking” customers, while an astrologer argued with me at length because he wanted a hand-written sign added to the lobby to direct people to the fair. Seems their hundreds weren’t enough anymore. I cleared $1,500—and decided enough was enough. Let them go back to complaining they can’t find customers.

This is just one example of creating money—just find people with needs (or perceived needs), find a way to put these people together in some compatible way that rewards them as well, and collect a fee for your services. But short term windfalls like this wouldn’t add up to much of a living. For that, I’d much rather do what I did—build a long term career doing work I love for a healthy if not stellar salary. Not to mention health care and retirement benefits.


Friday, July 6, 2007

Wolf, Pig, Pup, and Woodchuck

The local paper couldn’t help but catch my eye with a large color photo splashed across the front page—it seemed exactly my dog, a white husky mix, chewing on a cell phone.

But this was an Artic Wolf at the zoo. A toddler had thrown Mom’s cell phone into the wolf exhibit. Zoo officials retrieved the remnants of the phone. “I was just worried the wolf would be hurt by the small parts,” reported Mom. The headline? “Call of the Wild.”

Not everyone is so concerned, even when owning the animals in question. On my way to the trails to walk my dog, I frequently have to stop for a pet pig in the road, the woman who owns it leisurely strolling out to retrieve it after a bit. Matter of time before one of the cars that speed along this road in the summer hit it—not to mention someone else’s geese just a quarter of a mile later, again, always in the road. People on another street made a nice sign for their ducks, “Please excuse us,” but again, people speeding along are going to take them out eventually. I remember a young employee at the local store who confided one day that she had unwittingly run down a neighbor’s chickens. “Why don’t you just slow down?” I asked. She just looked at me.

Animals in the road are hardly a surprise here. Deer, beaver, quail, turkeys, rabbits and more are a daily occurrence. A few weeks ago, I even saw four coyote pups. Cutest thing—they paused at the side of the road, the lead pup with one paw raised; as I slowed, it reconsidered and turned into the field, followed by its siblings. A few days ago, I could see road kill ahead as I approached the same spot, although it turned out to be a raccoon (raccoons don’t flee—they just stand there contemplating what’s happening).

I’m not naïve—deer and rabbits invade my garden and orchard, for example. Raccoons sometimes carry rabies, although that hardly means every raccoon is rapid. Coyotes rarely get rabies, the vet tells me (my dog strayed into coyote territory as a pup and got chased home), but people do have reason to otherwise view them with concern, as they can be bold and invade suburban neighborhoods. I live in the country, so coyotes are to be expected. I lost an outdoor cat once—it was always waiting in the driveway when I got home. But one day it wasn’t. Could be coyotes. She did roam—I once saw her and picked her up on my way home, two miles from the house. Could also have been a car. Could also have been the cruel teens in the next town caught nailing cats to crucifixes for kicks, or dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. Maybe she was found and kept.

On my way home today, a pickup truck quite deliberately swerved into the other lane in a smooth curve for no reason other than to kill the woodchuck sitting there.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Fruitful, if Fanciful Origin of Poetry

Once upon a time, Edgar Allen Poe pondered, weak and weary from staying up late past a midnight dreary, thinking how quaint and curious that many a volume was now forgotten lore. While he nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at his noggin’s door. “’Tis an apple!” Poe then muttered, “Falling on my head before. Only this—but damn it’s sore!”

He was right—the apple had left a gash, and Poe’s head was bleeding. However, this was just the nogginly nudge he needed to move past writing more forgotten lore to his new way of writing. It would become known for it’s inventor, the poe-m, and the art of crafting it for the source of it’s inspiration, the poet-tree. And just as Poe’s head was now red, just as an apple is red, so would the new art form become fruitful and be read.

And fruit would remain a theme as the art grew more complex. Blake wrote a pear of poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” He was also concerned about the health of the trees, recording in “A Poison Tree” his efforts to “[water] it in fears, night and morning with my tears…and it grew both day and night, till it bore an apple bright.”

Other poets were concerned with the trees, noting the weather. Percy Bysshe Cherry, I think it was, wrote an “Ode to the West Wind”: “Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!” [Given that his wife was occupied writing about monsters and society, we can appreciate his concern.] Williams Carlos Williams was also concerned, noting in “Spring and All” “small trees with dead, brown leaves,“ relieved by “the profound change” when “rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken.”

Williams was really more concerned with possession, preservation and consumption of fruit, though, as he shows in “This is Just to Say”:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Not everyone protects their fruit so carefully. I once had to post this on my department’s break room fridge (titled “This is Just Dismay”):

I have discarded
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were evidently
for eternity

Forgive me
they were decomposing
so soft
and so old

But even less high-brow forms of poetry, such as song lyrics, are concerned with enjoying tree fruits, like this excerpt from The Eagles (or Linda Ronstadt):

Why don’t you come to our senses?

and in a later verse:

Now it seems to me, some fine things
Have been laid upon your table

Nor is the avocado the only tropical fruit featured in poetry. After all, when we really like something, it has “appeal.” Consider Gary Soto’s “Oranges,” where he notes that the first time he walked with a girl, he had two oranges in his jacket. And Frank O’Hara appreciates the inspiration he gets from oranges, even just their color, in “Why I Am Not a Painter”:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Not all poets write about fruit trees, of course, but they still retain their attachment to trees, as Frost shows us in “Birches”:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.