Friday, May 25, 2007


What is the state of your e-mail inbox?

At this very moment, I have 123 messages in my inbox. I can probably delete about a dozen after I read them tonight, if I am inclined.

My e-mail messages are a mix. Blockbuster, JetBlue and a few other vendors want to tell me how best to use their services and products. I subscribe to a few weekly or daily messages, and I am forever sending myself and every other poor soul I know a link to a news article I think they will want to read.

Do I delete any without reading? Absolutely. I also have politely asked people who spam me with love or luck or urban legends to refrain from doing so. (A few people have voluntarily stopped after I responded to all with a disagreement to their spam, and my sister nearly stopped talking to me because apparently a friend of a friend knew someone about whom the urban legend was absolutely true. The rule: if you don’t want my opinion, don’t send me yours.)

The idea of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” has prompted some people to turn off their e-mail ("E-Mail Reply to All: ‘Leave Me Alone,’" The Washington Post, 5/25/07). Granted, I’m not Moby who gets thousands of e-mails a day. (Hopefully the spam filter at work will be tightened so I won’t return from vacation to 600 messages in my inbox in a single week. My personal best was 921 thanks to a 2-day-long electronic disagreement between the servers at work and the Times.)

I can’t turn off work e-mail, but I can manage it. I work on a machine that requires me to refresh the screen to update my e-mail message list, so I refresh only a couple of times an hour and read only the pertinent ones immediately (and yes, some of my work ones are pertinent). I also delete without reading the ones of no interest to me, such as “Ford Tundra for Sale.”

At home, I don’t necessarily read my e-mail every day and I have no problem deleting messages unread, especially ones with a subject that begins with “FW:FW:FW:FW:.” I talk with my friends and family constantly, so if there was something particularly important, I will hear about it soon enough.

I’m not a Luddite. I love the Internet: how else can I find out what AP and the BBC think is important news or know instantly who is the father of Dannylynn Smith Stern? But I do know that a tool is only as good as its user, and I want to be a good user. After all, if I don’t, I never will have time to read all the books I plan to include in my book blog with Carole.

So before giving it all up, start making electronic communication work for you. Set aside the BlackBerry, unplug the laptop and decide for yourself what’s important. Those messages will be there when you get back — and if you’re lucky, any outstanding issues will have resolved themselves.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Have you ever been so boggled by what's happening that you don't know where to start, so instead you just make unintelligible noises until the stuttering trails off in a garbled heap of sound?

Yeah, me, too.

Let's start with the fact that thousands of federal government workers nationwide are defrauding the government by selling transit vouchers given to them as benefits of their employment ("OMB Moves to Curb Resale of Federal Transit Benefits," The Washington Post, 5/17/07).

These are people who, presumably, understand their benefits. As a government worker myself, I have to assume my federal counterparts are reasonably intelligent. And yet people claimed subsidies for service they didn't use — people who drove to work accepted benefits for mass transit they did not use or billed the government for an amount more than their transportation cost them. Some employees continued to receive transit benefits for years after ending their employment with the federal government — then turned around and sold them on eBay.

In short, they stole. They chose to take subsidies that did not belong to them. They chose to not return that which they did not use, earn, deserve. They chose to steal.

In response, OMB is going to re-write policy to try to reduce fraud, with the understanding that it “never will be eliminated.”

There are two responsible parties: the employer and the employee. It is the responsibility of the employee to accept only that which they use or to which they are reasonably entitled. It is the responsibility of the employer to make sure benefits are not extended to those who do not qualify.

Some of the examples are mind-boggling. Someone receives benefits for five years after leaving the government and, instead of returning that which does not belong to her, she sells it. On eBay. Even if she sells it for a portion of its value, it’s pure profit for her. Another employee drives to work yet accepts a mass transit compensation — and the employee receives a parking space at the building to where she is supposed to take mass transit.

I know wires get crossed. I know when there are thousands of employees, it’s hard for employers to keep everything straight. Heck, I can barely keep myself straight half the time. That is why individual character still counts for so much.

I also can see how employees might see the voucher as “theirs.” They are entitled to certain benefits, they think, and they will receive them at all cost. If employees are granted a half-hour once a week to work in a mentor program, do employees who take the half-hour but not work in the mentor program steal from their employers? Absolutely.

We are responsible for our own actions. Accidents are accidents — “Oh, the employee voucher is good only when I’m an employee? Silly me!” In fact, I’d be less angry if employees continued to use the benefits after they left. These are people who are not using them before or after employment. They are selling them. They are not entitled to them if they do not use them. Theft is theft.

To combat this abuse, the government is re-writing policy: enacting the equivalent of the "HOT COFFEE" warning on a McDonald's coffee cup.

We should know better. Even if our employer misses a beat, forgets, doesn’t pay attention — even if we can get away with it, we should not. We know the coffee is hot. We know selling an employee transit card on eBay is wrong, even if we are not expressly forbidden to do it in established policy. We know better, and we should act accordingly. We each should be our best — because if we are not, who will be?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

$21 a Week, Part Deux

In case you were wondering (and of course you were!), my trip to the grocery this evening was $47 and included mostly staples such as pasta (79¢ a pound) and mayonnaise (which for me is a staple).

However, I paid close attention to my "luxury" items: small bags of baby carrots to toss in my lunch box, oat bran bread (on sale) and frozen fake chicken patties.

Technically, I didn't need to go grocery shopping. Unlike those living on the edge (or in the clutches) of poverty, I still had food in the house. In fact, I could most likely not go to the grocery for a month and still have food to eat. Granted, it wouldn't be my first choice of food, and my mom would blanch if she knew I was eating a container of chocolate fudge frosting for dinner (or freeze-dried soup to which you add water and stir), but it would be edible. I am grateful for my bounty and do not take it for granted.

Now, let's see how many other lawmakers will put their money where their mouth is and try to live on a "living minimum wage" (if you believe that, read Nickel and Dimed).

I'm sure there are a few Republicans who will say that everyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps — after all, Clarence Thomas lived in rural poverty and grew up to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice. And that may be the case.

But all it takes is a streak of bad mazel: to get sick enough to not be able to work and find yourself without a paycheck or a place to live, to have petrol/housing/food/daycare prices escalate faster than the cost of living increases at your job (and no one outside the upper echelons of the Smithsonian has managed that in this region), to be accused of a crime you didn't commit but after 36 hours of interrogation you sign anything the police give you if only they'll give you a glass of water and let you sleep, to have to sneak out of your house with a sleeping child and a shivering dog because the man asleep on the recliner threatened to kill you if you left.

At some point you find your bootstraps and get to walking. But until then, wouldn't it be nice if the assistance you received actually fed you properly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Life on $21 a Week

A handful of Congressional representatives are trying to live on food stamps. (See “Lawmakers Find $21 a Week Doesn't Buy a Lot of Groceries” in The Washington Post, 5/16/2007).

Okay, not really, but these lawmakers are trying to consume only the food they can buy if they purchased their groceries using food stamps. For a month, they are challenged to spend $21 a week, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance.

What can be purchased at the grocery for $21 here in Fairfax? Well, to see how I stack up, I checked a receipt from a recent trip to the grocery, and that’s what I spent on vegetables alone in one trip: a bag of cauliflower florets, a bag of fresh green beans, a bag of sugar snap peas and a bag of mixed vegetables. Granted, I took the lazy woman’s approach to vegetables — pre-packaged and pre-washed — but on the same receipt was for apples for $1.89 a pound. (Again, the nagging economist reminds me that a 5-pound bag of apples would have cost less per pound, but if I couldn’t afford that bag, it doesn’t matter how cheap it was by weight.)

The challenged lawmakers lament that the first thing that goes from the grocery list is the fresh fruit and vegetables. Organic? Ha! And don’t even think about sugar-free juices and jams. Whole grain or whole wheat bread is $3 a loaf, bagels the same.

Looking around my kitchen, I see all of the things I would not have on this restricted budget: whole grain bread, bagels, free range organic eggs ($3.79 a dozen), organic yogurt without kosher gelatin and high fructose corn syrup ($1 for a 6 ounce container — on sale).

Lately I’ve tried to reduce the amount of high fructose corn syrup I consume, and I’m startled at how prevalent it is. I also am startled to see how cheap it is. It is screwy logic: the less expensive the food, it appears, the greater the number of additives. You would think it would be more expensive to cram more in a jar, but the reality is this: peanuts, oil and salt cost more than the same thing full of emulsifiers, sweeteners (sugar, corn syrup or the dreaded high fructose corn syrup) and other additives. The cheaper the food, often, the cheaper the food. With the lip service the federal government gives to the fight against “epidemics” of obesity and the related illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, etc.), one would think the government would want its dependents to have better food. Alas, this is a government of surplus cheese, not surplus apples.

We all have lived with limited funding, whether as students, young workers on a “starter” paycheck, parents with a growing family, retirees. We all have re-assessed our spending for various reasons and “adjusted our belts.” However, even when I economize, there still are carrots in the veggie bin, Progresso soup in the cupboard and, in the fridge, cranberry juice (sugar free, 100 percent juice). I don’t go hungry, that’s for certain, and I don’t find myself having to choose quantity over quality. However, if I had to feed someone else on my $21, I wonder how different my choices might be.

I am going to the grocery store tomorrow. I will pay a lot closer attention to what goes into my cart, and I’ll see how far $21 goes in my house. How do you think you'd do?

P.S. In the article referenced above, Rep. Jim McGovern stated he wasn’t including his children in the challenge because he’s “lucky when they eat anything.” Ill chosen words, indeed. I know what he meant, but I doubt children who don’t have enough to eat would choose to skip a meal because they didn’t like what was on the menu. I appreciate what he's doing, but his words are as important as his actions, and caution and forethought are important in a campaign like this.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Winners and Heaven on Earth

Congratulations to Lenny Lianne, Diane Cabe and Melanie Smith, the poetry readers who identified Henry VIII as the Tudor who wrote "Greensleeves." All three will receive a book of poems. Keep an eye on your respective mailboxes for your prizes!

Now, National Poetry Month may have ended in the cruellest month, but I will continue to share poetry with you here on Hedgehog Lover. I also will continue contributing to this blog, so feel free to stop by to see what has been posted between poetry e-mails. I might even post my own poems, or yours — you never know!

Scroll down to read "Heaven on Earth," a fun poem by Kristin Berkey-Abbott, courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac.

And remember, when you encounter a poem that affects you, share it with me —and I’ll in turn share it with others. Good poetry cannot — and should not — be contained!

Heaven on Earth

I saw Jesus at the bowling alley,
slinging nothing but gutter balls.
He said, "You've gotta love a hobby
that allows ugly shoes."
He lit a cigarette and bought me a beer.
So I invited him to dinner.

I knew the Lord couldn't see my house
in its current condition, so I gave it an out
of season spring cleaning. What to serve
for dinner? Fish—the logical
choice, but after 2000 years, he must grow weary
of everyone's favorite seafood dishes.
I thought of my Granny's ham with Coca Cola
glaze, but you can't serve that to a Jewish
boy. Likewise pizza—all my favorite
toppings involve pork.

In the end, I made us an all-dessert buffet.
We played Scrabble and Uno and Yahtzee
and listened to Bill Monroe.
Jesus has a healthy appetite for sweets,
I'm happy to report. He told strange
stories which I've puzzled over for days now.

We've got an appointment for golf on Wednesday.
Ordinarily I don't play, and certainly not in this humidity.
But the Lord says he knows a grand miniature
golf course with fiberglass mermaids and working windmills
and the best homemade ice cream you ever tasted.
Sounds like Heaven to me.

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott from Whistling Past the Graveyard.
© Pudding House Publications, 2004

Monday, May 7, 2007

Today in History: Perón and Borges

As I tally the entries of the last contest, enjoy this poetry interlude....

Today is the birthday of Eva Perón.

The poet Jorge Luis Borges experienced the politics of the Peróns firsthand. In 1946, having opposed the military dictatorship of Juan Perón in his speeches and non-literary writings, Borges is removed from his post as librarian and offered a job as a chicken inspector.

Enjoy a poem by Borges (and read another short biography of the author):

To a Cat

Mirrors are not more wrapt in silences
nor the arriving dawn more secretive ;
you, in the moonlight, are that panther figure
which we can only spy at from a distance.
By the mysterious functioning of some
divine decree, we seek you out in vain ;
remoter than the Ganges or the sunset,
yours is the solitude, yours is the secret.
Your back allows the tentative caress
my hand extends. And you have condescended,
since that forever, now oblivion,
to take love from a flattering human hand.
you live in other time, lord of your realm -
a world as closed and separate as dream.

by Jorge Luis Borges

Saturday, May 5, 2007

To Ped or Not to Ped

I have of late discovered the luxury of the manicure-pedicure combination. I also have found a good salon nearby — a deadly combination.

Until a few years ago, I thought pedicures were the ultimate pampering, nothing I myself would try. I mean, I could cut my own toenails. So what if they look like they were hacked with a dull butter knife and could shred even steel-toe boots? No one really looked at toes, anyway, right? They were necessities I could maintain.

The same for manicures. Thankfully, my fingernails didn’t suffer the same benign neglect as my toenails, but that was because I saw my toes as one of my least attractive assets and my hands as one of my most. My fingernails always have grown quickly, usually stay long and can be attractive. However, I could cut and shape my own fingernails, and polishing was a cakewalk. I did not need salon assistance.

I had my first manicure in 1986. It was very nice. Okay, it was bliss. Nothing smudged and I was able to sit still for about an hour. I really liked it. It was as good as donating platelets, which required two hours of relaxation, only without massively huge needles.

Despite this favorable review, it took me the better part of a decade to return to the manicurist’s chair. I was young, poor and in graduate school. I stopped perming my hair for the same reason (and was not in the least affected by the disastrous poodle perm of 1983 or the expensive non-perm of 1992). And I could cut my own toenails, remember? Just don’t get to close, and keep small children and domesticated animals away from my feet.

My first pedicure was on New Year’s Eve 2003, and it was very nice. I could see how people could get hooked. I wouldn’t fall prey to that, despite the fact I could afford it in my adult years. But I didn’t make it a habit. (See the “I can do it myself” reference above.) Not to mention my mom’s story of the toenail debacle that practically gave her gangrene, or something painful (but ultimately not limb-threatening). It was a pedicure horror story, and that’s all I needed.

Then I lost a toenail. It wasn’t my first, but I managed its re-growth poorly. My feet hurt every minute.

So I turned to a professional, someone who would cut through the pain. Me, when it hurt, I stopped. Fat lot of good that did me. So I decided (in my haze of pain) to give it a shot and I went to the salon my neighbor Kathy recommended.

The young woman wielding the nail scissors there was merciless. It didn’t hurt her, so she didn’t stop until the job was done. She apologized, but I bravely waved her off. “I’m glad, really,” I tried to say with grace and good humor. I suppose I could have gone to a podiatrist, but I never think of these things at a good time — not to mention I’d have felt a bit silly, like going to a doctor to remove a sliver. (See the “I can do it myself” reference above.) Not to mention the added bonus of nail polish at the salon.

Now I tell myself my pedicures are maintenance, that if I don’t go, I’ll be in the same painful boat. (Rationalization: another interesting habit, usually not without its own polish.) And heck, while I’m there, why not let the professional shape my fingernails as well?

I suppose it is an indulgence. I suppose I can do it myself. However, I can afford it — and if I need rationalization, I remind myself that I am saving hundreds of dollars a month by skipping Starbucks and carrying a bag lunch to work. (We won’t talk about the book purchases — but I have begun shopping for those at thrift stores for less than a buck each, so again, thrift pays off in pedicures.)

In the end, I guess, it’s my choice: to ped or not to ped. I choose to ped, and my feet thank me. So do my shoes and socks and the poor unfortunates who would otherwise have to suffer the view of my feet in warm weather. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Even if I can do it myself.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Last Call! And Rosie King.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the last call for entries in the final Poetry Month contest. Everyone who enters by 9 am Monday, May 7, receives a prize. Read the entry below for May 2, then e-mail me the answer.

In the meantime, enjoy a poem by Rosie King, courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac.

Old South School

The sidewalk my feet once knew in every weather
still heads straight
to the corner of Martin's drugstore,
still turns north on Elm, where
the white-belted boys on safety patrol
held their arms out for us, past the red and white pole
at Mickey's, king of crewcuts,
and stops at the little flight of steps,
plinth of chipped concrete by the kindergarten door—
locked. It's summer, and all the windows
now stuccoed muddy brown,
so even when the kids are at their desks,
they can't see out.

I want my yellow slicker,
my locker by the art room stairs
where once in a morning of thunder,
from the stairwell's high window
dark clouds blew away
and just in time
for walking home
the sun poured down.

A crow now,
flapping and cawing high above the west steps,
and there, on top of the entrance columns, stone claws
clinging to the eaves—tiny gargoyles grinning.

by Rosie King, from Sweetwater, Saltwater: Poems by Rosie King. © Hummingbird Press

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Giovanni, Tudor

Okay, how many of you read yesterday's trivia question?

I see one hand. Two. The rest of you, however, must have been too moved by Queen Elizabeth's talent to continue reading to the trivia question. In red.

Go ahead, scroll down and re-read the post, then scroll back up. I'll wait.

Okay, thanks for coming back. You can go ahead and answer now: just e-mail your message to me. There's a prize in it for you!

NOW, go ahead and read a poem (and artwork) submitted by Eric Tuten:

Pictures of Marriage


It is the way Arnolfini holds his wife’s hand
that helps me. His under hers.
It’s not the fancy bed nor them facing us.
I am in love with their simply being together,
even so formally. Human even so.
The dance-like way they hold still. As if she
Had just lifted the skirt so their feet might
Begin to step in the nice music of that time.

[detail from the above image]


The potato-eaters move according to an absence
of music. They sit so close around the table,
it’s as if the hands could be exchanged.
The man’s for the woman’s, the boy’s for the mother’s.
Any of them for the tree outside.
The gnarled one with limbs cut back so often
it seems to have wanted to hold more than it can.
The same way, somehow, that Van Gogh does not turn
from what is turned from. Not even
from those in the dim light who fold into each other,
into what they dig up to eat. Into that music

by Linda Gregg, from her book Alma (New York: Random House, 1985)

On your e-mail I have included Eric's presentation and comments on the poem. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Elizabethan poetry, English Bible

Today is the anniversary of the first edition of the King James Bible.

Think about it, people: a definitive translation of the Bible (which shows a strange obsession with witches and the occult, really) to a generation in religious evolution and hungry for knowledge. There's an interesting book published about this very thing: God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. Check it out from your local library (mine is Fairfax County Public Library) and tell me what you think!

And because James I wouldn't have gotten to the throne and had the influence and opportunity to create an authorized and readily available English language Bible for the people had the Tudors not done what they did, I offer a poem by England's first Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), who helped spur on many of the best minds of England during her reign:

Written in her French Psalter

No crooked leg, no bleared eye,
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward suspicious mind.

by Queen Elizabeth I

Visit Poetry Archive for more of her poetry.

Let's stay on the Tudor topic for our final trivia question: Who is the regent who is reputed to have written "Greensleeves" for his mistress -- later his second wife, mother to the aforementioned Elizabeth and a casualty of the Tower? All those who send in a correct answer will receive a prize. (Bonus points for those who don't have to look it up!)