Monday, August 31, 2009

Customer Service

I would like to say right off that I have been called abstruse and obtuse, verbose and vague, erudite and recondite, eccentric and elliptical, prolix and elliptical, meandering and tangential, indirect and evasive, and just plain weird. I cannot in all honesty say these things, because I can recall only perhaps 75% of them being said by someone other than myself. Do I tergiversate my thumb at thee? I do tergiversate. However, my wordy ways netted me my first (and so far only) comment to this blog, as well as a handsome check for a large sum of reality, in the form of that comment's meaningful criticism of my prose.

The comment said nothing about my words, style, 'presentation', or strangled syntax. ("Is that sentence still breathing? Crush its modal verb!") It was a straightforward message from a certain Liam, who works at in some undefined capacity. Liam's import was clear and direct: He had read about my woes with the aforementioned site (don't forget these are my words you're reading now; you can read his words in the comments section of the blog post I'm going to reference three sentences further down the page), and wanted to help me resolve those problems. He even posted his email address into the comment so I could contact him directly. However, my only 'problem' with that was that I had no problems; in fact, my original post was supposed to have been about my joy at finding my earlier issues resolved whilst I was sleeping. So I learned – and I'm sure Liam wouldn't have told me to my face, even if he had noticed how difficult my prose made his life – but I learned nonetheless that my writing was not clear, did not convey its message in the lucid prose it has always been my dream to write. Ah, me! You can read the original post, "Man never Is, but always To be blest", here. (I do not count the interjections, and the independent clauses joined by a semicolon count as only one sentence.)I fear that clarity may always remain an Impossible Dream for me, but I don't see myself moving towards greater perspicuity any time soon…

So what is my point? Well, as an illustration of how cocked up my 'style' is, let me start by saying that I bought a cell phone this weekend. (And not by saying that I have 'style' the way that we all have a 'diet' – that is, you're stuck with whatever you've got.) I was uncertain whether I would purchase the phone in the AT&T store, or whether I would return to the Interwebs where I had done my research before going to the hard copy. What sold me on the phone, the service plan, and the various accoutrements, was the engaging salesman Chris who helped my daughter and me.
Chris answered every question, no matter how silly, and his command of his products was excellent, and he even admitted to ignorance when he had to look something up or just didn't know the answer. (I know some may think this is the definition of ignorance, but I believe many salespeople use a different, 'better', secret definition, for most either say anything for the sale, or project the ignorance onto the customer – "You mean you've never used a KVMP?" they'll say with an arched eyebrow. "It's so much better than the old KVMs…" looking disdainfully to the heavens.) But perhaps the most elevated part of our discourse came when I told him, after he'd offered to show me how I could save even more with AT&T's U-verse bundle, that I wasn't going to buy it but that he should feel free to give me his spiel; he didn't change his tone, didn't rush through his presentation of information, and actually seemed to relish his job all the more. Now, I worked retail for 12 years; I would have shown myself the door. But now I actually find myself investigating a switch to U-verse (high marks from Consumer Reports), all because I was treated like a human being. I'll go further: because I was treated to a human being.

So much of our daily lives is spent as cogs in various 21st-century machinae ex deo, and perhaps the worst is the consumer machine. We are told – somewhat justly – that our strongest power comes as Consumers, that we can shake the seemingly careless industry titans by deigning to boycott Whole Foods because we don't like the political opinions of one of their executives, by refusing to buy products for any number of other worthy motives; however, the actual practice of being a Consumer entails a deadening monotony of enervating interactions with people 'just trying to do their job' while we 'just try to do our shopping'. When consumerism metastasized into the doctor's office, and we became 'smart shoppers' of medical care, perhaps some less harried among us noticed the change on the other end of the stethoscope; no more does the doctor have time to really listen and communicate with her patients, because she has to 'budget her time', and some wonder whither went the house call, the bedside manner, and the simple calm conviction of medical practitioners that helped as many as any drugs or procedures ever did.
I'm thinking about all this because the next day, my wife had to make some complicated travel arrangements. Of course, like many in the past decade, we have not made a reservation through a human being in quite some time. But out of necessity – and of course after researching options on the Interwebs – she called Delta Airlines directly, and talked with Kay.

Kay turned out to be like Liam, like Chris: very helpful, attentive, knowledgeable, and – most important – very human. She spent quite a while getting all our arrangements together, and even bent over backwards to merge my multiple SkyMiles accounts, all the while talking with my wife as if she, too, were an actual person. My wife talked about the experience for some time afterwards, and I recounted my pleasurable jaunt to the phone store, and I realized that I needed to send kudos out to Liam for his efforts to make things right – as well as to correct any misapprehension on the part of my reader. I'm sure my prolix prose has somehow managed to miss my point again – I'm certain I had one when I started – but I hope that somewhere something good is coming for Liam, Chris, and Kay. They truly deserve it.

Thank you, Kay, Chris, and Liam – thank you for being humans in situations where it is easier to do otherwise. Thanks as well for your clear, patient answers to all of our questions. I hope I can learn to be more like you when I grow up.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Woman On The Verge

She did not look at me -- she looked at no one, she apologized to the man sitting between us in the back row of our flight to San Diego. She knew she seemed rude, but she couldn't look at people when talking to them.

She was deeply troubled. There are times in a human's life when the hour-glass becomes porous, and the sand within slips through the walls, threatening to shatter the personality forevermore. Her voice was fluid and almost controlled, choked and wild, veering from sobs to near-shouts to return to an all too patient neutrality as she tried with each new sentence to grasp some of the thoughts slipping through her mind. She was reading a book by Fran Leibowitz, she told my neighbor in response to his query, but it wasn't right, because the words on the page weren't hers, should have been hers, and it was wrong, wrong.

The word hysteria, of course, was created by men to apply to women, though the flood of panic, doubt, fear, pain, wild emotion and heartsick lamentation is not a stream that overflows solely from the female psyche. Besides diminishing the force behind the tempest that creates such inundation, beyond attempting to channel the visceral flight which threatens to overwhelm the rational redoubts of society confronted with such incontinence, this word hysteria also hides the secret agony of its own process, by converting the ebb and flow into a manageable duality for the witness of the embarassing spectacle. One "becomes" hysterical, and therefore no longer worthy of further rational attention, but worthy only of a disdainful patronization. (We'll skip over the gender bias of this word for now, shall we? Where was I? Oh, yes...) But this catastrophic word hysteria conceals the slow or fast path of turbulence and restraint between one's "normal" state and the point at which the sufferer may be treated as a problematic child. A new word is needed -- I shall make up a French word, tharnement (do not forget "th" is pronounced "t") -- to describe the intermediate state. It is an appalling condition, as the actor feels the lowering clouds of ominous portent sweep over the psychic horizon, and fights with might and main to control the looming disaster, to set up mental sandbags against the inevitable flood. Nance O'Neil speaks of such a storm, saying that for some women living their lives "in the small places into which they have been driven, there is a storm that broods but never bursts." Ah, but once the tempest begins in earnest, and one toils to exhaustion to prevent the collapse of the levees and bulwarks of personality, and the strictest efforts are required just to "keep on keepin' on," as the argot would have it; after hours, days, weeks ... years? ... of struggle against the inexorable current of disaster, the tired oh-so-tired soul gingerly continues its woeful battle against the seemingly inevitable. And the wonder is not that we become overwrought and lose ourselves from time to time; the wonder is that we are not continually surrounded by panicked people always, ourselves playing that role in our turn. Thus the human spirit continues to double its losing bet against uncaring fate by refusing to give up hope, Pandora's gift, even when hope is lost. Such was the woman sitting on the aisle.

She apparently had gotten her bachelor's degree, for she wanted, hoped, oh she wished she could get into graduate school. There she would study how children and others learn. People learn differently, she explained further to my fellow traveler in the middle seat. She found that her teachers and courses presented themselves in far too linear a manner. And she couldn't learn that way, she did not learn in a linear fashion. She verged between crying and near shouts. One could easily see her jumping up and screaming "Let me off the plane! Let me off now!" if the wrong word or thought pushed her so. Perhaps that is why my fellow prisoner in the middle seat had quickly changed the subject from Fran Leibowitz's book, asking about the other volume she had with her. It proved to be a college text about learning techniques, prompting some of the above observations. Some other observations: She did not like being in boxes, being on a plane was yet another in a series of hateful boxes. She had endured every known form of intervention, therapy, reverse psychology, behavioral modification, etc. etc. over the past six weeks. She took medication, but because she lacked insurance she had had to join a drug study to receive any, and the source was foreign, and the pills contained a chemical which was known to be dangerous; this man had given her something which was poison, he'd given her poison, she had taken poison and was that right? Her voice rose to a near-shout as my companion and I agreed this was not right.

The man in the middle was a nice guy. He was returning from a vacation in Idaho with his three children, who occupied the other back-row seats across the aisle. They had driven three hours to Boise, flown from Boise to Oakland, and were now finishing the last leg before getting home. He had willingly given up his aisle seat to the young woman's aunt, who had come to the back seeking a seat "close to the bathroom" for her niece. After he had moved to the middle seat and the niece had taken the aisle with her books and bag, the aunt went forward some seven or eight rows to claim a middle seat for herself. He conversed with the young woman in good spirit, not looking at her and not expecting her to look at him. He was out of his element, as he tried changing the subject only to see each new topic dissolve and reveal its dangerous core. He was a very nice man.

What was "wrong" with this woman? you may ask. Was it drugs? A psychotic break? A broken heart? Broken spirit? Anorexia? Bulimia? Schizophrenia? Manic depression? A suicide attempt? It does not matter. Perhaps all of the above, perhaps none. Perhaps she was possessed, not by a demon, but by some powerful force she could not resist except by freezing in place to avoid slipping finally fataly into the abyss. I am sure that a name had been given to "it". The aunt was taking her back home from whatever emotional disaster had befallen, the family had been given the dire verdict, the doctors had tried to explain to this poor woman just what wrathful malady had captured her. Why not call it a demon? The aunt was content to sit a half-dozen rows ahead of the afflicted, grateful no doubt for even this ninety minutes of separation, of relief, of distance from the wearying vortex of anguish that her niece had become. After the hours -- perhaps days -- of helping her young niece disconnect from whatever life she had in the Bay Area to return to the sanctuary of her family, who can gainsay her hour-and-a-half of respite. The woman on the aisle never spoke the dread name that had been told her, and she knew no respite.

Of course she could not speak of these things. To do so, especially with chance strangers, would be equivalent to jumping into the rushing water to rescue a stuffed animal: a pointless way to be torn away by the flood. One can worry about the world ending, but the shock comes after it ends, and then the world ends again, and again, and yet again. A single glance at that point can be sufficient to topple the pillars and mountains anew, to unleash once more the devastating wrecking wave that washes away what was left after the world ended, and then triggers another wave to destroy what the last left behind. And yet some bite their lip, and pray that this is the last wave, or that it will soon be over, and resign themselves to the world ending, and yet do not give in, do not partake in the destruction themselves, but hang on, breathe, perhaps this will be the last wave, even if I go under, I will fight back to the surface, though lost and lonely and drowning and soaking wet and friendless and forgotten and so very tired.

Once upon a time, I rode on a cross-country flight -- as is my habit, I had the window seat as I did flying to San Diego. Five hours that long ago flight lasted, and I leaned against the window, sobbing quietly against the window the entire flight. The older Black man sitting next to me -- perhaps he was the same age I am now, perhaps a decade older -- he wore a hat, and ignored me the entire flight as I cried against the plastic shield between me and the night. I suspect that if he had asked me what was wrong, or had spoken to me or even looked at me, I would have broken down completely.

I had no desire to help the woman on the aisle. What help could I give? Whatever tragic calamity had befallen could not be lessened by kind words and smiles. The road ahead seemed dark because the road was dark; new terrors lay ahead, and any path out of the dense and vicious wood which encircled her would be long and torturous, with dead ends and unsuspected traps, and no certainty of escape. I finally spoke up when she returned to her theme of her perceived rudeness; she knew that she must really be annoying, was certain that she annoyed most people. "I've found," I said, "that the only people who really annoy me have been either roommates or relatives." A dangerous gambit, and not a particularly truthful one when I recall my years in retail. I don't remember exactly what was said next -- nor would I want to recount the last hour of the flight, when writing this has already occupied a much longer time. I cynically tried to give hope, humorously admitted that things got fucked up sometimes, the usual blather. I told the story of crying on the cross-country non-stop. Told the story my grandfather had told me of a man who couldn't cry (literally) who'd received a tear-duct transplant or some such, and couldn't help but cry afterwards, while laughing with joy. We talked of fears of airplanes, my brother's old nemesis. We talked of many things, enough to fill the remaining flight time and keep her voice within a standard deviation or two of "normal".

Do not get me wrong. Do not mistake me. I am, in general -- on planes, at least -- a misanthrope. I do not want to converse. I fear more than anything being trapped on a plane making small talk with someone I disdain, or who I suspect disdains me. My interest was as much to diffuse the danger of her breakdown crossing some social barrier as it was to help. I knew I could not help. There was no help. She did not annoy me; she was wrong there. The desire to help may have been there, but it was accompanied by an immediate understanding of my inadequacy for the task, and a shameful prevision of failure. No, the only questions were: What to say? How to say it? As usual, there was nothing to say; the only question left was how to say it.

So we all chatted amiably together, ignoring or teasing the disaster whose presence laid its shadow across our hearts with varying degrees of darkness. We did not fight the shadow directly, but stepped aside or playfully shone our weak lights against it or pretended it was but a cloud. And so in an inverse of the oceanic metaphor, on the surface light breezes blew across the gentle whitecaps, while underneath in the depths roiling vortices snaked through the water, wild currents hidden from the open air. To myself I thought of all the friends I have known who have passed through a tunnel of darkness like this poor girl. Many made it through, years have passed and their bleak adventure is now only a cautionary tale. But some did not. And nothing is more certain than that when it seems that all hope is lost, one can be sure that it may become more hopeless still. From such a far-flung castaway trajectory beyond the farthest orbits of the social system, the journey back to the center is perilous and uncertain. They do not all return.

When we landed at San Diego, the man in the middle asked her name. She told him in an only slightly edgy voice. He told her his, and I spoke mine to both of them. She then shook our hands, looking us in the eye as she did so. I saw her for the first time; she was beautiful. After being assured that we two would watch over her books and bag, she got up from the aisle seat to use the restroom -- her first occasion to do so. My companion in the middle seat turned to me and thanked me profusely for jumping into the conversation. He shook his head, perhaps shaking off as well the emotional residue that clung to us both. He got his kids together after I told him I'd maintain the watch on her books and bag. Whatever plague had struck this woman, its ravages were not at an end. In San Diego the aunt would pass her charge into the parents' control, and a new chapter would begin. I, on the other hand, would walk away from the plane with something like relief, and would hug my family the tighter.

I do not know what any of this means.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Autobiography

Many have asked me to say some few words about my history over the past decade or two, and so I have decided to accede to their request with a short autobiography. I did fear, I must admit, that some -- erm -- slightly sordid events might lower my esteem in their eyes. On the other hand, I did not wish to espouse a fiction, no matter how trifling, in an autobiographical essay, nor did I wish to conceal those moments in my past which have shaped me -- for the better, I hope -- into the person who types before you today. A compromise struck me, therefore, and I have made some use of camouflage in the tract below; for certain distressful memories or shocking terms I have used other words -- but will send the list of these terms and their true values to any who ask for them. Thus both honor and decency may be said to have had their day. And so, on to the clamored-for biography:

After departing high school I found myself working in an advanced physics program with Professor Hansch, spending hours in his laser lab when not otherwise engaged studying physics. I can't help but believe that my demonstration of a cheap comb-and-paper kazoo may have had some small part in his eventual Nobel Prize for his development of the optical frequency comb technique, but of course I care not for credit. Eventually I tumbled into Materials Physics, where I helped develop some of the first carbon aerogels, though exposure has left dry patches on my hands, making it difficult to type. Our team used these aerogels, naturally, in developing some of the most powerful supercapacitors of the time; I grew bored.

Desiring to both demonstrate my skills and expand my opportunities, I applied and was accepted to the London School of Economics, receiving my MPA in Economics in 1992. Many of my friends and colleagues expressed surprise at my decision to make such a drastic change in career, and they were even more surprised two years later when, finishing a stint on the President's Board of Economic Advisers, I left a lucrative position with Crimson Capital, where I had been overseeing logistical restructuring in the former Soviet Republics. Heeding Leonard Cohen's example, I sold all my properties -- save for a few parcels of mostly sentimental value in the Sierra Madre and the Canaries -- and placed all my cash into simple interest-bearing accounts. Not the wisest choice for an economist, perhaps, but the price of not worrying is worth many losses in the market. I gave away my remaining possessions except for a copy of "Travels with Charley" and set off into the great wide unknown. It would be three years before I was to return to the United States.

I could expend many words detailing the adventures and misadventures of the next thirty months, but to what end? I did not seek to find myself -- indeed, I was already there, the one constant during that entire journey. Suffice it to say that my loves, my fights, the work, the hunts, whaling, the times in prison, the wins and losses -- these would have only passing interest to the readers of my words, though those who know me know that I will never forget Teresa in Talcahuano. I returned to the United States -- penniless, perhaps, but wealthy beyond my dreams in experience.

Eschewing a return to the workaday world just yet, I spent the next few years learning to play the guimbri (or hejhouj, as it is sometimes called) from an illegal immigrant from Mauritania who was a master at Gnawa music. I was also studying four languages to add to the Russian, Mandarin, and Hindi (and of course German and the Romance tongues) in which I already had fluency. I must draw a veil over the half-decade following for the time, as those secrets may not be revealed until at least a half-century has passed.

After performing rescue and relief operations in the Hafun on the Somali coast, I realized it was time to put my influence to better use, and thus I made my way to Strasbourg and founded the Peace Fund for the International Cooperation Between Nations and NGOs, which vocation occupies me to this day.


Key to the Autobiography of Me:

"-bearing accounts" = "monk"
"advanced" = "28-day"
"aerogels" = "chemicals"
"an" = "a"
"before I was" = "before I was deemed fit"
"Between" = "Attorney's"
"Capital" = "Lippz"
"carbon" = "toxic"
"care not" = "was out of the state"
"Charley" = "the Influence"
"comb technique" = "after the abortion"
"comb-and-paper" = "White Trash"
"constant" = "fucking"
"Cooperation" = "District"
"copy" = "charge"
"demonstrate" = "knocked up"
"demonstration" = "knocking up"
"Desiring to" = "Having"
"detailing the adventures and misadventures of" = "about"
"develop" = "get rid of"
"developing" = "getting rid of"
"draw a veil" = "have fucked"
"dreams" = "means"
"during" = "place"
"Economic Advisers" = "my latest porno"
"economist" = "guy like me"
"engaged" = "and get a job"
"entire" = "sucked worse than"
"Eschewing" = "Not ready"
"except" = "a cop popped me"
"expand" = "violated"
"expend" = "say"
"find myself" = "end up"
"first" = "worst"
"fluency" = "conned"
"following" = "belonging"
"for credit" = "by then"
"forget" = "screw with"
"found myself" = "ended up"
"founded" = "entered"
"four" = "more"
"gave away" = "stole back"
"Gnawa" = "playing a mark like"
"guimbri" = "Short Con"
"has passed" = "were broken"
"hejhouj" = "the Grift"
"helf-century" = "half my ribs"
"his development" = "she developed a form"
"his eventual Nobel Prize" = "her heart,"
"his laser lab" = "order to avoid prison"
"hours" = "my mother's cash"
"I did" = "My Mama"
"illegal" = "former"
"immigrant" = "cellmate"
"in Economics" = "for Best All-Girl Sex Scene in porn"
"in experience" = "by larceny"
"in Talcahuano" = "without a good reason"
"in which" = "that"
"influence" = "knowledge"
"interest" = "head"
"International" = "U.S."
"journey" = "home"
"kazoo" = "bar tramp"
"languages" = "suckers"
"London School of Economics" = "porn industry"
"losses" = "losers"
"lucrative" = "luscious"
"made my way to" = "decided to turn"
"many" = "some"
"market" = "groin"
"Materials" = "Waste and Water"
"Mauritania" = "Lompoc"
"may have had" = "broke"
"must remain so" = "worked me over"
"my friends and colleagues" = "the people I knew"
"my loves, my fights, the work, the hunts, whaling, the times in prison, the" = "it's for"
"my MPA" = "an AVN award"
"Nations" = "office"
"naturally" = "which is sickening"
"NGOs" = "the FBI"
"Not" = "She told me"
"occupies" = "haunts"
"opportunities" = "parole"
"otherwise" = "to get out of the house"
"overseeing logistical restructuring in the former Soviet Republics" = "-- well, use your own imagination"
"passing" = "messed with my"
"Peace Fund" = "witness protection program"
"performing" = "receiving"
"Physics" = "Treatment"
"powerful" = "incriminating"
"President's Board" = "set"
"Professor Hansch" = "court order"
"readers" = "point where everyone's sick"
"receiving" = "working on films including American Buttman in London, which won"
"relief" = "three"
"remaining possessions" = "cash and motorcycle"
"rescue" = "two"
"Romance" = "Japanese"
"save for a few parcels of mostly sentimental value in the Sierra Madre and the Canaries" = "the cops had been looking into my parole issues"
"secrets" = "bastards"
"seek to" = "where I would"
"set" = "sent"
"simple" = "the hands of the"
"skills" = "girlfriend"
"sold all my properties" = "joined a Zen monastery"
"Somali coast" = "bad side of Tijuana"
"Strasbourg" = "states' evidence"
"studying" = "after"
"Suffice it to" = "Let's just"
"supercapacitors" = "bodies"
"team" = "boss"
"Teresa" = "anyone"
"the Hafun" = "a backroom surgery"
"the half-decade" = "someone"
"the optical frequency" = "dementia"
"the price of" = "when"
"time" = "local gangs"
"to what end" = "why bother"
"tongues" = "tourists"
"Travels" = "Driving"
"tumbled into" = "got a job at"
"United States" = "outside world"
"unknown" = "penal system"
"was already" = "had already"
"wealthy" = "ready to live"
"which vocation" = "a decision that"
"wide" = "California"
"wins" = "assholes"
"with" = "under"
"words" = "crap"
"working" = "living"
"worth" = "worthless, I kicked"
"would be" = "was"
"would have" = "places have"