Staff meeting

Today is the second day of a two-day staff meeting. Yesterday’s topics interested me more than most staff meetings, and today looks to be even better, so I am feeling fortunate to have good colleagues and a good leader. Still, my instinctual dread of staff meetings is hard to suppress, and I have been rerunning some odd staff meeting moments in my mind.

In my first full-time job, I was part of a group that had just formed, and thus I was present for the boss’s first staff meeting as a boss. She was clearly determined to make a strong impression. Standing before us in a grim tomb of a conference room, Marina began (name changed out of discretion): “From the moment I wake up, I evaluate everything I deal with by asking ‘How does this effect Marina?’ If it doesn’t effect Marina, I ignore it.”

She turned to one of the people seated in the front of the room, Chuck, and asked him, “What question do I expect you to ask yourself all day long?” Chuck paused, and ventured, “How does this effect Chuck?” “No!” Marina bellowed. “No, no, no! The question you and everyone else in this room, ask yourselves, Chuck, is ‘How does this effect Marina?’ Once you answer that, then you’ll all know what to do.”

At first, I thought Chuck had botched his answer because he wasn’t clever enough to see the obvious response, but as I got to know him better I concluded he’d phrased his answer as a gentle protest against the raging egomania on display in that airless room that day almost 22 years ago. That job was a huge challenge for me and a perfect example of the aphorism “Experience is what you get when you do not get what you want.” My immediate supervisor was a feckless demonstration of the Peter principle, his boss was Marina, and her boss was scheming and horrible. In retrospect, I marvel it took me two years to quit.

Fingers crossed that no one asks me today what one question I should ask myself all day long, but if they do, I will know the right answer.

Back to script!

Back to script!

After graduating from college, I spent almost a year living back at home with my generous and patient parents. Despite their kindness, it was not a good time. I could find no work of interest, my friends were far away, and I was pretty unmoored. My best friend was also spinning his wheels, and my girlfriend was unsuccessfully doing her best to drive me away. As the new year dawned, I did manage to find some work in a call center for Beneficial Bank. It was in the evenings, so it did not conflict with an internship I had at a local advertising agency (full of fun, creative people). I would drive down to the office near the train station and take the elevator up to the call floor, punch in, don my headset, and immerse myself in calls from upset, irate, desperate, incoherent people. It was quite a ride.

Our manager was a man whose name I entirely forget. A frenzied man with a Pakistani flag on his cubicle wall, he would pace the floor for much of the evening. When he was not stalking about, he would sit in his cube and listen in on our calls. If he heard us deviate from the bloodless, inhuman script even the tiniest bit, we would hear in our headset his hissing admonition, “Back to script! Back to script!” I can still hear his chiding words clearly.

130305124038-tax-time-refund-loans-620xaBeneficial and a few other banks had dreamed up a very clever product, and it is one that still exists (give or take). People would go into an H&R Block office somewhere in the country to have their taxes prepared. The person there would tell them they had a refund coming, and they would be thrilled for this free money, not understanding that this refund had always been theirs and that they had simply been extending an interest free loan to Uncle Sam. The preparer would tell them they could wait weeks for their refund (this is ages before electronic filing), or if they wanted, they could get their refund that very day, minus a small fee.

Thousands upon thousands of these people, most living paycheck to paycheck, would happily accept this offer, sign the contract without reading it, and be handed their money. In their minds, the transaction was complete. In fact, it had only just begun. What they signed was a loan agreement, and when one computed the fees on the loan, the interest rates amounted to highway robbery. Yet that is not the kicker.

When things worked as the people expected, they would leave with the loan and when the IRS eventually issued the refund, it would be directed to the bank to pay off the loan, and then the transaction would be complete. Among the people who called in to my bleak call center, this never happened,

The contract they had signed at their tax preparer’s office had stipulated, in teeny tiny print buried under drifts of legalese, that they authorized Beneficial to share with its partners their name, address, employment, and refund information. In turn, their partners represented a large pool of banks across the country. The agreement further stipulated that if any of the partners held an outstanding loan against the person, that the refund would be applied towards that loan, and that the person would then need to repay Beneficial for the tax refund, as the anticipated repayment via the IRS funds had now been diverted.

Please note this was in the dark ages of the early nineties, so that the internet was not then what it is now. Beneficial’s customers were largely poor people who moved around a lot, and many of them had left behind a trail of debt that could not be easily traced back to them in their new location. What this pool of banks had dreamed up was a way of using the H&R offices around the country to serve as hunters’ blinds, and their quarry had been enticed to volunteer their information, in effect waving their hands and yelling “Over here!” to the various banks.

Everyone who called in to our office had spent their refund money within days of receiving it. None of them could repay it, and few of them understood why they were being asked by Beneficial to repay something they had not comprehended was a loan. The other people on the phones with me and I would discuss the ethics of this business on our brief, scrupulously timed breaks, and we all felt dirty being part of something that was clearly legal, but also clearly not being properly explained to the banks’ customers. I gather these loans don’t really fit the term “predatory loan” but they came mighty close, and it was an eye-opening experience being part of the bank procedures that were scooping up these people and shaking them down. I realize the money being collected was legitimately owed, but the process still resembled thievery and clearly depended on ignorance and misinformation.

These days, when I find work feeling repetitive, dull, and dreary, short on meaning and long on inanity, I think back to that nameless man, hissing in my ear thirty years ago. “Back to script!” And all of a sudden, my spreadsheets seem more palatable.

The cat poop fairy

Adulthood involves a number of things I never thought I would have to think about. I am not talking here about the big heavies of life – injustice, disease, mortality, and the like. I have a very fortunate life, and those big issues are thankfully not what I am confronting today. Rather, I am talking about the odd things I find myself doing from time to time, tasks imposed upon me by the responsibilities of parenthood or homeownership. Last night, I found myself doing one of these quirky tasks, and while I was completing it, I promised myself I would write it up so that you, dear reader, could compare notes with me.

(Here is where I would normally insert a relevant, humorous image to illustrate this story, but I decided against that, as I could think of no topical pictures that I actually wished to include with this post.)

One of our cats has diabetes. We treat him with daily insulin shots. Although his disease seems to be under control, he still drinks a lot and pees a lot. A lot. While we spent years cleaning out the litter box in our house twice a week, now we find we must clean it four or five times a week to keep the box tidy enough that the cats will use it and also to prevent the job from becoming too unpleasant for the cat box cleaner. As a result, we are generating a lot of kitty litter waste, and it is heavy. We were away for a week earlier this summer, during which time we had some diligent cat sitters, and when we came back and placed the garbage can on the curb, the garbage men chose not to take it, presumably because it felt like we were trying to throw out an anvil.

Now that I think about it, our garbage men are very good at not taking the trash. Inclement weather, plowing duties, a staggering number of recognized holidays, and a very thorough adherence to perfect Public Works rules compliance all contribute to an astonishing number of trash days in a year in which no trash is actually collected. With this in mind, when the next week’s trash day rolled around, I redistributed the trash bags among two trash cans, feeling certain this would be adequate for the garbage men.

Spoiler alert: it was not adequate.

Again, the trash truck drove by our uncollected garbage. While we are not having an especially hot summer, let me obliquely note that both two week old used cat litter and one week old kitchen waste in August are very potent, and well stocked with maggots. Today was the next trash day, and I have spent more time than I care to admit over the last few days pondering my strategy to entice the garbage men to take our garbage. Another week’s garbage means we were now up to three cans of garbage, so I did not have another container to distribute all this stuff. Instead, I pursued an alternative approach.

After midnight last night, I slipped out to the curb with gloves and a flashlight, and started rummaging through our dank, malodorous, and writhing trash cans. I fished out the various Target bags that contained the old kitty litter, and then I began to skulk around my neighborhood, looking for mostly empty trash cans into which I could deposit a bag of cat litter. I encountered one other person, out with their dog, and I cannot fathom what they imagined I was up to. Let me be the first to tell you it is very hard to look nonchalant while strolling around at midnight with a half-dozen bags of cat poop. Fifteen minutes later, I had finished my appointed rounds, and returned home to move around the remaining trash bags among our three cans. I went inside, washed up thoroughly, and went to bed, fingers crossed that this effort would do the trick, because I did not have a promising Plan B.

Imagine my relief this morning when my wife let me know that the garbage men had come by and had actually collected the garbage. Various half-formed visions of illicit dumpster dumping and awkward mugshots evaporated and I could go back to the glorious comfort of not thinking about my trash cans and their contents, which is my favorite state of affairs when it comes to trash cans. Now I will just worry about what the next unexpected curveball life will throw at me, and hope it is as simple as a surfeit of cat poop.

That’s no moon…

I have mentioned my talented, wonderful pal Jason here a couple times before, but only in passing, I regret to say. In an effort to breathe some life into my dormant stories series, I thought I would try to think of a few stories that remind me of various friends. It has been my standing policy with my writing here not to cover topics and episodes that people might find embarrassing, so this of course limits some of my options, but I figure I can proceed with this one, as the moron in the following story is me.

• • • • • • •

The first Christmas after college, I ducked out of an invitation to attend a local Christmas party so I could drive up to Philadelphia and see my friend Jason, meet his roommate(s?), and admire his apartment. As I was still living at home at this point, I am certain that no matter how modest his abode was, it filled me with admiration and envy. After this, we went out, lifted a pint or two, discussed the grievous shortcomings of long-distance relationships, felt deep nostalgia for college which was but seven months behind us, and had a grand time. As the evening came to a close, we said good night, and I headed home.

The goal was to take the Vine Street Expressway to I-95 south, and back to home. Sounds simple, right? I merged onto Vine, and thought I was in good shape, but an accident had just taken place and the one policeman on the scene had placed flares across the I-95 south exit, and before I knew it I was fired across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway into New Jersey. I figured I would execute some kind of u-turn at the toll plaza, but the toll collector made it very clear u-turns were forbidden, and he gestured towards a half-dozen New Jersey state trooper radio cars idling in the cold, clearly waiting for the chance to write me up if I were to venture such a thing. So eastwards into New Jersey I went. These days my geography of this area is good enough, I’d be fine, and even if it weren’t, I would simply fire up my phone and follow its directions back home. But back in the deep, dark ages of the nineties, there was no clever phone in my pocket to save me from my ignorance. And thus I was dumped onto the Admiral Wilson Boulevard (named for Adm. Henry B. Wilson, by the way) and all the delights Camden has to offer around midnight in the depths of winter when you’re lost, have no phone, and left the house with about $12 in your pocket.

My basic plan was to find an exit where I could clearly see a place to turn around and re-enter the roadway westbound to cross the Delaware back to Philadelphia and I-95. Given that I didn’t know I could follow 676 down to the Walt Whitman Bridge, that was not such a bad idea. Still, I passed a whole series of exits that gave no indication of where they led, and so I plunged deeper into terra incognita. After several more exits and a few more uncomfortable minutes of driving as slowly as I thought safe, I came around a curve and saw a warehouse ahead of me, with featureless cinder-block construction and a floodlit parking lot beside it. It looked just like a carpet store in New Castle, and I thought it also looked like an ideal place to stop and look at a map, with adequate sight-lines around me that I felt safe enough doing so. So I pulled into the parking lot, shifted into park, and rummaged in the glove compartment for the AAA New Jersey map. Sure enough, I had one, and as I unfolded it, I could see a female security guard approaching me in a brown uniform. I lowered my window (actually rolled it down on this old car), and greeted the woman in a friendly way, explaining that I was lost, and that I just needed a moment to consult my map and orient myself. In the back of my mind, I was wondering why a warehouse like this needed a guard. The woman smiled warmly in return, and kept approaching, making me fear she would tell me to leave immediately. She leaned over bringing her face close to mine, and as she did so, I could not help but notice her blouse was unbuttoned very low. She told me how sorry she was I was lost, and suggested I come inside to warm up and get everything straightened out. She called me Sugar and Honeypie, rested her hand on mind, and her words all came out in a purr.

Now I know about young and dumb. I knew then that I was young and dumb. But I was neither young enough or dumb enough not to find her suggestion completely nuts. I stammered out a “no thanks, I’m really all set,” shifted the car into gear, and got back on the highway with true alacrity. She looked startled at my rapid departure, and waved a friendly goodbye. As I continued east into the night, still lost and thoroughly rattled, I looked in the rear-view mirror to see her still standing there. As I got farther away, I could see the base of a sign coming into view, and as the distance crew, the sign itself became visible, advertising “Live Nude Girls” in very large letters.

I had not seen that sign as I approached, and it turns out I had parked right beneath it. The warehouse I had taken for a carpet store was a strip club, and the security guard’s incongruous proposition turned out to be not incongruous at all. Once it dawned on me, I have to say I burst out in peals of nervous laughter, and only after they subsided did I get back to the business of turning around, which I did soon after. On my way west, I drove right by the place a second time, and this time it was so clearly marked that I could not believe how I had missed it the first time.

I crossed the Delaware, merged on to I-95 (it looked so welcome), and was home about twenty-five minutes later. When I arrived at home, my parents were in bed, but awake and wondering what had kept me out so late, so of course I had to tell them the whole stupid story, and they laughed even more nervously than I had at my stupidity. I also had a good time calling my friend Jason the next day and telling him all about my adventure. I think we all agreed that it was better to be lucky than smart.

• • • • • • •

I have since looked on Google Maps to see if I could identify the establishment, and I have not been able to do so with any certainty. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported about a place called Showgirls being shutdown in 1998 following allegations of prostitution (!), and maybe that was it. Or maybe it was closed when New Jersey was cleaning things up for the Republican National Convention in 2000. I don’t know.

So there you have another story to add to this list, and I promise to see what else I can come up with as the summer proceeds.

[Update: I wrote this knowing nothing about this week’s Daily Post challenge, but dear Britt pointed it out to me, and so here is my link to connect this to that.]

Fifty Words

Inspired by Mewhinney (and her artistic progeny), and triggered by this week’s Daily Post Challenge, submitted below is my modest lunch break effort at the curiously challenging task of writing a fifty-word story.

From Wikimedia

Treefrogs chirping above me, I skulk down the hill in the moonlight. My companion hisses in its cage, a possum extracted from my basement. Crouched on the riverbank, I release it. A moment’s hesitation, a final malevolent glare, and then the dignified scurry. The rustle recedes, followed by welcome solitude.

The old screensaver prank

[This is the tenth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

In tenth grade, I took an art course called Visual Arts 2. The class had only six or at most eight students in it. For the most part, the students were all pretty talented, and our teacher – Ms. Poole – offered us a great deal of latitude about how we chose to tackle the various challenges she posed for us. While I was no sculptor or painter, I could draw a bit, and I also served as the class DJ. The studio was down in the basement of the school, and Ms. Poole had a turntable hooked up to speakers, and I would bring in records we would listen to while we worked. Usually Ms. Poole would circulate around the room, checking in on us and offering suggestions and encouragement. At other times, she would retreat to her office and putter on her cutting edge Apple Macintosh Plus. It was a brand new machine, and the school did not have too many of them, but she was dating the math teacher who also served as the computer guy, and thus on her desk sat this Mac.

As it was new, and computers were new, I mean no criticism of Ms. Poole to say she knew very little about how to use the Mac at the time, and since the computer guy was also her boyfriend at the time (they later married), she had extra reason to run for help quickly when she was stumped by something the machine did or didn’t to. While Macs were new to all of us, the kids in her class had been using various Apple II and TRS-80 machines for long enough that we snickered at how quickly Ms. Poole would run for help.

macplusMacs back then, with their 9″ black & white CRT screens, usually ran some sort of screensaver to prevent “burn in.” Screensavers these days are elaborate, Technicolor programs built into the OS and run more for aesthetic purposes, but back when a Mac shipped with one megabyte of RAM, screensavers were purely functional add-ons. My school used a control panel that waited until a certain idle time had passed, and then turned the screen to black. No flying toasters, no animated clocks, just black. If one opened the settings panel for the program, one saw nothing but a text field where the desired idle time could be typed in, and an okay button. The delay was measured in seconds, and the default was three minutes, so the field started out with a 180 in it. At some point, I realized that there was no minimum, and that the program would accept a delay of zero. Thus when one typed, for example, ok, the machine would be dark, then as you typed o, the screen would light up, an o would appear, and then the screen would go dark. Then the k would prompt the screen again, the k would appear, and dark again. If you moved the mouse continuously, you could get the screen to stay on, too.

Armed with this knowledge, an idea dawned on me and I headed to art and waited for the right moment. One day while Ms. Poole was getting more coffee, I changed her screensaver delay to zero and returned to my seat. Ms. Poole returned, checked on us, and sat down at her desk. All of us chewed on our lips and stared at the floor as murmurs of confusion gave way to annoyed grumbling from around the corner as Ms. Poole confronted her screen’s desire to be solidly black. After a minute at most, she announced she was off to get the computer guy, and hustled down the hall. This was my cue to change the delay back to 180, which I did quickly before resuming my work. Sure enough, a few minutes later we heard Ms. Poole and the computer fellow coming down the hall, and she marched him into her office, pointed at the wayward Mac, gestured grandly, and said “Watch!” She tapped the space bar, the screen flicked on, and then of course it stayed on. The computer guy looked at the Mac, looked at the art teacher, looked at the Mac, and finally offered a cautious, “It’s working now.” Ms. Poole looked flustered and made some comment about machines always working when the repairmen are around, and apologized for dragging him down on a fool’s errand. The whole time, all of the students in the other room were struggling to stifle any fugitive guffaws.

In the coming months, I think I managed to pull this little stunt a half-dozen times, always being careful to have the timing seem random enough so the connection between the Mac and the VA2 class was not clear. Each time, our undeserving art teacher would scowl at her computer, vow not to seek help, give up, and summon the computer guy. And every time, once he arrived, the Mac was fine. I know this is a dumb waste of time to inflict on someone, but at fifteen it seemed mighty funny, and I guess I have some fifteen year old in me still, as I still laugh thinking about the look on her face when the machine would behave for her boyfriend having refused to behave for her. No lessons or morals to today’s story, just the petty pleasure of a proper prank from the dark ages of personal computing.

Storytelling songwriters

Freshman year in college, my wonderful parents generously equipped me with a terrific Macintosh SE/30, which I used daily for five years. It was very speedy, which gave it a long life, but when it was new, it had an unexpected drawback – it played games too fast. I had a copy of Tetris, which I played a lot, and the machine’s speed meant the Tetris played in my room was faster than any Tetris on campus. Not by a lot, but by enough that when I played on other machines, I felt like I was experiencing what would now be called “bullet time,” which made rotating and placing the pieces quite easy and, conversely, when other players would challenge me on my home turf, my Mac would always leave them gasping, as they were not accustomed to its frantic pace. For that little slice of time, in that small venue, I was the best Tetris player around, and it was a fun feeling, albeit not a marketable skill.

Another skill I am fond of is the speed with which I can recognize music. I cannot play music, or compose it, but I sure can place a tune from the smallest sliver of it. (Coincidentally, this too is another unmarketable skill – lucky me!) Still, it is fun to have at least a hint of a musical talent, as I have always loved music, and music has always meant a great deal to me. When I stumbled across the current WordPress Writing Challenge (a thing I didn’t know existed until recently), my first thought was to dismiss it, as I found the suggestion of writing about three images a little contrived for my tastes. I returned to the idea later when I realized that the three images might not have to be pictures per se but instead any trio of evocative images. Rather than rummage through family pictures, or assign meanings to other peoples’ pictures, I thought I would assemble three images conjured by other writers, in this case lyricists. I love music and its ability to lodge deep in one’s consciousness. I love how songs trigger associations unbidden when they come on. And I love the craft of how some writers pack so much thought, meaning, and significance into the modest package of a song. I do not aspire to write songs, but I do admire those who do it with a deft touch. I have written about music elsewhere on this blog (here and here), so let me try to pick some new things, although I am sticking with musicians who I have had the chance to see in person.

• • • • • • •

DavidWilcox-e1355750872305I just included David Wilcox in my last post, so I debated about including him here. I decided I could not not include him. I know of very few writers who so consistently craft an interesting story into their music. My first thought was Farthest Shore, about what is ephemeral and what is permanent – a lovely song, but not quite the sort of imagery I am trying to corral for this collection. So I turn instead to Eye of the Hurricane, which you can watch and hear him perform here. In various interviews, Wilcox has explained this song is about addiction, but like so much good art, it is malleable enough to take on a range of complexions, reflecting you back at you. Wilcox’s best hook in the song comes in these words:

Hope is gone and she confessed,
“When you lay your dream to rest,
you can get what’s second best
but it’s hard to get enough.”

It’s not easy to put big, deep thoughts into cheerful little ditties, and any writer would be hard pressed to distill so much wisdom and loss into one brief thought as that.

• • • • • • •

shindellMoving on, I turn next to Richard Shindell. Similar to Wilcox in age and style, he has a darker, more brooding sensibility, and can paint a very bleak portrait of the world when he chooses to do so. I learned about Shindell from the 1998 record Cry, Cry, Cry, released by a band of the same name made up of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. If all you did was buy that album for its cover of James Keelaghan‘s Cold Missouri Waters, then you would find that money well spent. For today’s collection, I am sticking with singers performing their own compositions, and my first thought was A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress, which is a powerful song full of dangerous ambiguity and resolve and resignation. Yet for today’s assemblage, I am going to lean instead on Shindell’s Wisteria, which you can watch here. If you would like cleaner audio, you can listen to it here, via Last.fm’s Spotify embedding. This song relies on negative space, as a lot of key things are left unsaid. Pining for the past in the absence of another is a common trope, but the contraction at the end of the opening word Let’s suggest he is melancholy for a shared past, which then makes the listener ask a series of pointed questions about what trajectory he and his partner find themselves on. By imbueing the spaces of the house with so much meaning that is unknown and unfelt by the current occupants, he reminds us of how we ourselves are unknowingly surrounded by the past. In this song the payload is carried in chorus, and runs as follows:

The vine of my memory
Is blooming around those eaves
But it’s true it’s a chore to tame wisteria.

I am certain when Shindell mentions taming the wisteria, he is talking about maintaining appearances beyond yardwork, and all the heartache that implies. While it is a sterile thing to talk about the efficiency of writing, I think Shindell manages to condense a tremendous amount of emotional energy into this song in very few words, like a painter suggesting forests with the lightest smidge of his brush.

• • • • • • •

Susan WernerMy original plan for the third writer was turn to Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home. I remembered that I had already written about this song back in 2007, and I have not seen her perform, so alas Patty does not get the nod. (But go listen to that song anyway – you will be glad you did.) I next considered Paul Simon, as he is a master craftsman. I touched once on his song Hearts and Bones here, and I had his song Darling Lorraine in mind, but so many people have discussed his songwriting talents that seemed like a copout, so I turn instead to a singer who has never known his fame, but will always stand out in my mind as one of the purest talents I have ever seen – Susan Werner. I cannot even count how many times I have seen Susan play, and I once even had a cup of coffee with her, trying the whole time not to appear too giddy. While I don’t know what her career goals have been, I suspect she would have enjoyed more popular acclaim than she has found, and it is a shame to me she has not. Her voice is ethereal, she has a lovely sense of humor and stage presence, she is very attractive, and a wonderful musician. Why she is not more widely known is a mystery to me, but the advantage is that she still plays small enough venues to connect with the room in  a way larger spaces do not permit. Thinking about her music, even though many of her songs have an irreverent side to them, I have chosen a tougher one called Barbed Wire Boys (which you can watch here). It’s an homage to the Midwestern farmers among whom she grew up. I had admired it when I listened to it on her album, but it was in a dingy room in King of Prussia where I heard her sing it in person, and the song took on a whole new dimension. It touches on topics that could easily be schmaltzy or trite, and handles them with care and gentleness, conveying respect and affection for the old-fashioned way in which these men lived their lives. It is a wonderful song, with a snippet here for flavor:

Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands,
They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.
And they never complained, no they never made noise,
And they never left home, these barbed wire boys.

• • • • • • •

As an aside, a whole post on music and I have not mentioned either Cat Stevens or the Cowboy Junkies – that may be a record for me. There is no larger point to this collection – simply my fondness for these three musicians and my admiration for their craft. So much awful music spills out into the world over the radio and Youtube and Pandora these days, and clearly a lot of it sells well. What a pleasure then to know there are writers like Wilcox, Shindell, and Werner who can take lessons and episodes from the world around them, rinse them of the unessentials, and clarify them down to the truth underneath. Sometimes when I am confronting writer’s block, it is the long, long gulf between my words and this sort of purity that slows me down, but that sure doesn’t stop me from enjoying it when I find it.