Thursday, August 30, 2007

Neruda and Rowling Pay Homage to Socks

I think one of humanity's biggest flaws is that we underestimate the value of comfort. Professor Dumbledore had it right he imagined what he would see in the Mirror of Erised:
"I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks." Harry stared. "One can never have enough socks," said Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a pair. People will insist on giving me books."
I could go on to discuss how many times Ms. Rowling's socks made me cry, but I will resist. (Instead, e-mail me and we will chat.)

So, without further ado, let's see what Pablo Neruda writes about socks.

Ode to My Socks

Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet
into them
as though into
with threads of
and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish made
of wool,
two long sharks
sea-blue, shot
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this way
They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

I resisted
the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere
as schoolboys
as learned men
sacred texts,
I resisted
the mad impulse
to put them
into a golden
and each day give them
and pieces of pink melon.
Like exploreres
in the jungle who hand
over the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
the magnificent
and then my shoes.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter.

by Pablo Neruda
translated by Robert Bly

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Watching What I Say

I want to be brilliant and pithy and clever, but I am at a loss.

I want to comment on young Miss Lauren Upton's answer during the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant. I do. However, I find myself covering my face when I hear her speak, and it's impossible to type in that position.

We all have our bad days. (Mine was Monday.) Some days we are the windshield, some days we are the bug. However, I'm horrified about two things:

1. For a pageant contestant, this kind of question is what she does.
2. Despite throwing South Africa and "the Iraq" in her answer about why one-fifth of Americans cannot find our own country on a map, she still came in third.

I bet, at times, my attempts to do my job come out sounding like "the Iraq." My job involves answering a barrage of questions with non sequiturs and weird setups, most of which have literally nothing to do with my job or my responsibilities. However, after this long, I should be able to think on my feet, right? Those who win the Stump Chris Contest deserve their one-year supply of Rice-a-Roni (the San Franciso treat) and are enshrined in a booklet I read from time to time to humble and amuse myself.

May I always listen to the questions and may my audience never record my faux pas.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cleaning Up Poetry

How do today's poets view domesticity? Find the answer in Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework by Pamela Gemin.

Check out the NPR interview (which is what drew me to this book) and read a couple of the poems on the NPR Web site, including one of my favorites that asks the eternal question, "What's the use?"

Here's one of the poems from the book that was featured by The Writer's Almanac:

When Our Women Go Crazy

When our women go crazy, they're scared there won't be
enough meat in the house. They keep asking
but how will we eat? Who will cook? Will there be enough?
Mother to daughter, it's always the same
questions. The sisters and aunts recognize symptoms:
she thinks there's no food, same as Mommy
before they sent her away to that place,
and she thinks if she goes, the men will eat
whatever they find right out of the saucepans.
When our women are sane, they can tomatoes
and simmer big pots of soup for the freezer.
They are satisfied arranging spice tins
on cupboard shelves lined with clean paper.
They save all the leftovers under tight lids
and only throw them away when they're rotten.
Their refrigerators are always immaculate and full,
which is also the case when our women are crazy.

by Julia Kasdorf

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund

There is no amount of money that can bring someone back from the dead. There is no amount of money that can take away the pain of that loss.

Families of those killed or injured this past spring at Virginia Tech are as aware of that as others who have suffered that kind of loss.

And yet some of them are saying, “Show me the money.”

On August 15, Tech representatives announced the school's intent to distribute the entire amount of the privately donated $7.1 million Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund to the families of those who were killed and to the survivors. Even uninjured students who were in Norris Hall classrooms where the shootings occurred may choose to receive free tuition for their remaining years at Tech or receive a one-time payment of cash.

Many intended recipients have stated they think they are entitled to more than the fund will provide.

Thomas J. Fadoul Jr., a Vienna, Va., lawyer who claims to represent the families of nearly two dozen students killed at Tech, is quoted in a July 18 Washington Post article saying relatives of those slain at Tech “…are entitled to ‘at least what the 9/11 people got’” (Va. Tech Relatives Seeking Payment; Attorney Says State Should Create a Fund, July 18, 2007).

I am sickened and so very disappointed.

These grieving people and their representatives appear to be using the tragedy of the terrorist attacks to set the bar for compensation.

In fact, Fadoul says his clients believe the generosity of the people of the nation, even the world, to contribute money toward those in need after the tragedy, is not enough for them. They want more, and someone will pay.

Who will pay? More innocents — possibly even the people suffering the loss.

If Tech has to shoulder the burden for any kind of financial payout, future Tech students could see their tuition increase not because the commonwealth has not supported their schools, but because the families and survivors want cash to assuage their wounds.

If the Virginia legislators set up a separate fund with state monies, all residents of the commonwealth will be required to contribute. Virginia residents whose families were affected by the shooting could themselves pay into a fund from which they receive monies.

The point is, money is not free. When “someone pays,” we all pay: increased insurance costs, higher tuition, tax dollars routed from one fund to another, increased tax obligations levied on all Virginians.

We are a litigious society. A few years ago, I was acquainted with a European woman in the U.S. on a work visa. She sued her boss for sexual harassment. She didn’t say a word to him or his supervisor to address the issue at hand, but went straight to court because, she said, that is how she saw things were done around here.

What a damning observation.

During my daily run, I have heard George Mason University testing its emergency announcement system. I can imagine universities around the world are doing the same, particularly before students return to campus for the fall semester. The April shooting has highlighted possible needs to increase security measures, identified shortcomings in the current student emergency notification system and helped both administrators and students figure out how to make such measures work.

Those who want Tech to “pay” should be able to see how everyone is paying — and making changes to try to prevent this kind of horror from happening again. There are no guarantees in life, but we must always attempt to do our best to protect ourselves and our charges against the evil and insanity of the world around us. If any additional money is collected or taxes and fees levied, let it be for this.

I am not among the 32 families who lost their children or spouses or the 27 families whose members suffered injuries. I am so very sorry for their losses. I cannot imagine their grief, their sadness. I wasn't in the classroom with bullets flying around me. I cannot imagine the fear, the loss of innocence and feelings of safety.

But demanding more money is not going to assuage the grief and fear. Press the issue of campus safety, work toward a solution on the issue — but don’t demand more money because someone else got more.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrr Out!

Well, there's good news on the America Online front. Oh, not from AOL, but from Wells Fargo Bank.

Having given up on the fax, Mom waited a few extra days to see if the letter would be delivered. When it wasn't, she decided to go for the jugular: the credit card. In a matter of minutes, it was put to rest.

The Wells Fargo customer service representative was patient and a good listener. She asked Mom when the first call was made to AOL, when subsequent calls were made and, most importantly, what AOL did.

I imagine credit card companies get these kinds of calls all the time from cranky customers — and I imagine many of the calls are received with little support and enthusiasm. Being in customer service, I have heard some great stories myself. If this woman has been on the job longer than a week, she's heard some doozies: sad stories of people who don't want to pay and will make up any story to get out of it. She also knows when a story rings true, as Mom's did.

This attentive rep was indignant on Mom's behalf. "The first customer service rep wouldn't take the death certificate? Oh, that's unacceptable," she exclaimed. "And when was that call?"

"May," Mom said, "and I spent an hour and a half trying to figure out the passwords."

"Well, that's when the payments stop," she explained. "We will credit your account for those months, and we will write them a letter telling them that. And the next payment — well, you won't have another payment."

My call from Mom came literally minutes after she decided to call the card company. "Chrissy, it's done. Can you believe it?"

That is customer service, and that is how I expect my mom to be treated.

Take that, AOL!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

"Customer Service" -- NOT in AOL's Vocabulary

When the Internet boom started back in the 1990s, America Online was there with easy-to-use tools, round-the-clock service, community building and more. It felt like everyone was on AOL.

And maybe they were. I know I was, as was my dad. I decamped before the new millennium for a local company. Dad, however, stayed, as did Mom.

Now Dad is no longer with us, may he rest in peace — but his AOL account is. And that, my friends, is the trouble.

Mom, whose user name is on the account, decided this past May to cancel the AOL account. Dial-up was painfully slow, she planned to purchase a new computer and she wanted a fresh start. So she called AOL customer service, who asked for Dad's mother's middle name for customer identification. Mom knew it, but not how to spell it, and despite the assistance the customer service rep gave her to help her guess that (and another password) correctly, she was not able to give a satisfactory answer. After 90 minutes, she was in tears.

"All I want to do is cancel my late husband's account!" she exclaimed. "Can't I send you his death certificate?" The rep was sorry, but without the password, Mom was unable to conduct business on the account.

When I heard about that transaction, I was incensed. My next trip to Los Angeles began with a call to AOL. I bypassed the whole "mother's middle name" crap and went straight for the rep. When I explained the situation and Mom's first encounter, the second rep was very apologetic and promised to fax a form to Mom within 48 hours and would cancel the account within 48 hours after receiving the completed form. I hung up, thinking, "Wow, and all that without Nana's middle name. Waaaait, that was too easy. Let's see what happens Monday."

So, 48 hours later, when the form had failed to arrive, I called back and spoke to yet a third rep. It appears the 48 hours was only "work" hours, and despite AOL's 24-hour customer service, business faxing was not conducted on weekends. So Rep #3 promised to fax the form "or mail the form to the billing address on the account in three to five days."

Mail? That was news to me. I wasn't taking any chances. "Or? Why not and?" I asked through gritted teeth.

"Oh, you want both," he sighed.

"Well, considering the unreliability of AOL's fax service, um, yeah, I absolutely want it by mail," I responded, trying with little success to mask my frustration. "So, you will fax and mail it to my mother? The fax will be within 48 hours and the mailed form will be within five days?"

Rep #3 confirmed that schedule.

"And within 48 hours after that, the account will be closed?" I clarified.

"Yes, within 30 days," he added. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Wow, more new information. "Wait, 30 days?" I asked.

"Yes, once we receive the form, the account will be cancelled within 30 days," he explained. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

I couldn't stand another moment of this lousy conversation where nothing akin to "customer service" was being offered to my family, so I responded curtly, "No, thank you. Simply doing what you have said you would in the time frame you have noted will be sufficient. Thank you." I should have asked if that was 30 business days (which translates to six weeks, not counting holidays).

Well, that was five working days ago (or seven "AOL 24-hour telephone or e-mail customer service" days). Not only has the fax not arrived (and yes, we tested the fax machine to make sure it was working properly), the letter also has not arrived. Twice I attempted to cancel the account online, but with Dad gone, so went the super secret password required for online transactions (which is different than the super secret password for telephone service).

When Monday dawns, Mom or I will be on the phone with the credit card company, explaining how we do not wish to continue to pay AOL for a service we have been unable to cancel.

I am very angry at the first rep who took advantage of a grieving widow and refused to tell her how to cancel the account.

I am very angry at the second rep who didn't explain clearly what a "day" is for a 24-hour company and did not get the form faxed.

I am further angry with the third rep who again didn't manage to get the form sent on time.

I know AOL is a multi-billion-dollar mega-corporation with oodles of "customer service" reps who handle hundreds of calls a day. That is the reason I left them in 1996 and turned instead to a company up the road from me, where a tech who lived in my neighborhood stopped by my house on a snowy day to help me install the software needed to start my Internet service. "Service" means something else entirely to a company such as AOL or J.C. Penney, the latter of which didn't bother to post my payment in time and couldn't manage to clear the mistaken late fee that grew for months (until my last call was turned over to "collections" — which, strangely enough, could make a late fee disappear, as well as cancel the account, all in a single call received after normal business hours in my time zone).

Maybe it's the Little Mary Sunshine in me (that AOL is slowly strangling with this horrible treatment), but when someone calls my place of business, it's personal. I confirm a fax is sent, I put the letter in the mailbox, I follow up with a telephone call. Everyone else in my organization does the same. If there's a whiff of a customer's request falling through the cracks, we find out who and why — and trust me, it does not happen again. In Fairfax, customer service still means something.

What a shame that with AOL, it does not.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Charles Simic, New Poet Laureate

In celebration of our new U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic, here's a poem for you:


Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

Now, go read some of his other poems, and consider attending the 2007 National Book Festival to see him read and discuss his work!

"Watermelon" is from Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk by Charles Simic. Published by George Braziller. Copyright © 1974.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hair by Any Other Name Would Not Smell as Sweet

The next time I say, “It’s just hair,” you have my permission to laugh aloud at me.

This week, I had a bad haircut. Not just a bad haircut, the more I think about it. It was the worst haircut I’ve had in years. (Alicia might disagree because she hasn’t been too thrilled with my hair stylists for a while.)

I’ve had bad haircuts: bangs an inch long (cut on the eve of the worst flu I’d had in a decade and a week after starting a new job), uneven layers (both on the same side and on opposite sides of my face), a short haircut that frightened the cat (Mao sniffed my head for days trying to figure out where all that hair went). Each time I swore I’d invest in my head.

The next time, I would instead just swear. I am a little embarrassed to admit it: I might not have returned to the exact scene of the crime, but I often wound up right around the corner.

That’s the entire reason I grew my hair so long for such a long time: I feared a haircut. Any haircut. A trim put me in a panic. It also is unabashedly the reason I no longer wear bangs (see bad bang reference above). When in the stylist’s chair, I sit petrified and thin-lipped, pleading with the licensed professional to not cut more than an inch. I look stern and unapproachable, not even reaching the level of comfort to try a little small talk with the poor scissor wielder.

You would think with that kind of fear, I would pull a John Edwards and lay out a hefty sum for an excellent cut. You’d think. However, until two days ago, I was a firm believer in Hair Cuttery. I told myself experienced stylists cut hair in those shops. Could an $11 haircut be a quality cut, like they showed in their ads? Was there truth in advertising? Could I discover a gem in a cheap salon? Could I risk it?

I decided to take the risk.

At my local Hair Cuttery, I found a couple of stylists who gave good cut. When they left, I found others who wold do a serviceable cut. I even found one who talked to me before the shampoo, and I thought I found A Keeper.

Then a few months ago, the layering went awry: chunky, fell forward at an odd angle, a little heavier than it should be. I thought I just needed to dry it a little differently.

The next cut seemed to emphasize the weird layering, but I thought it was me. I went back later that evening to have the stylist re-cut it, and it helped — or at least that’s what I told myself.

Just a few days ago, I did it again. The length was too short and the layering was too chunky. I went back an hour later, as the stylist suggested (well, she suggested I return if needed the next day or even later in the week). This time, however, it helped even less than before and I exited the shop with a bad shag bordering on a mullet.

It was exactly what I had feared: Another Haircut Gone Awry. However, my friends proved their loyalty: nary a whisper against the terror on my head. Kathy said it was cute (even after I announced my pending trip to fix it). Shelby complimented how it accentuated my face. Even as I admitted my folly, Rachael simply nodded, saying only that I would enjoy my trip to her favorite spa (and never once uttering the words "damage control").

The stylist who was assigned said damage control managed to pull off a miracle. Oh, it's not over by a long shot: I will need another cut or two to rid my (now much shorter) locks of the damage. However, I am grateful that I no longer cringe when passing a mirror (too afraid to see what my mop looks like after minutes of inattention). Even Alicia likes it, and she's a tough cookie. (David, too — he may love me no matter the state of my hair, but he recognizes a horrific hair cut when he sees one.)

It may be “only hair,” but it’s my hair, and it’s how I see myself. I don’t have to be Rapunzel, but I have to like what I see — and thanks to Than at Comfort and Joy, I have a chance of liking my reflection tomorrow morning after my run.

And that’s saying something.