Friday, January 30, 2015

Service with a grimace

Which is worse – being disconnected from an electronic phone tree or a poke in the eye with a sharp stick?

Yes, yes, of course.  I’d much rather be cut off from a phone tree – I think.

But a cost-benefit analysis is in order.    

Let’s see, I can receive a painful injury – or I can hang up, redial, listen carefully again to the menu since it has changed recently, select an option, select another option, wait, be thanked for waiting, be told how important my call is, wait and be reminded that I can leave these harried robots alone and solve my own problems online – which I could not, by the way, explaining why I’m calling this flippin’ ‘customer service’ number in the first place!

This time through the cycle, I get to speak with Megan, a lovely live person who is sorry for my inconvenience.  We agree that she will transfer me to her supervisor since the two previous calls I made this week – two prior expeditions through the computerized minefields of listening, waiting, button-pushing and reassuring – yielded no relief despite Andrew’s and Lily’s and now Megan’s best efforts. 

Yes!  Thank you so much, Megan!  Put your supervisor on the line!

And that’s when the line went dead. 

I didn’t kill my handset at that point, though a surge of adrenalin made the suggestion:  Just throw it!  Smash it!  Go ahead!  Stomp it to smithereens!  Sure, you’ll be mad at yourself later, but it will feel SO good right now!

But I didn’t do those things a lesser person might do.  I swallowed my chill pill.  I took a couple of deep breaths, then – redial, push, push, listen, wait – ah!  Here we are!  Now Serena offers the option of letting a supervisor call ME back! 

I’m liking that option.  Yes!  I’ll be right here, next to the handset which, I must admit, looks about as nervous as an inanimate object can look. 

But sure enough, within a very few minutes, the phone rings!  Hallelujah!  I grab the handset and gush with the anticipation of medieval prisoner about to be released from the rack:  “Hello!” only to hear an ‘urgent’ recorded message about solar energy, or chimney sweeping, or OMG, I think I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick!!

Of course in the big picture these problems don’t warrant the agitation they arouse.  I mean it’s not as though I’m being held like Malcolm McDowell in ‘Clockwork Orange,’ my eyes peeled open with tiny clamps, forced to watch people play poker on TV.  No one’s making me listen to Mitch McConnell review the Republican agenda.  I’m not being compelled to play bunko.

But still.  It’s a pain in the patoot.

Two hours gone and Serena’s supervisor hasn’t called.  She must still be engaged with another customer who, like me, is multi-tasking:  Waiting for Godot while whittling a twig down to a needle point.

I know.  I’ll go to the gym.  I’ll work out while I wait on hold.  I’ll sweat out my exasperation.  What a mature, healthy, responsible thing to do.

But there’s a man on the rowing machine next to mine who hasn’t seen his grandchildren since Christmas.  They live in Turlock with their mother.  Little Jimmy is six and smart as a whip.  John Jr. likes to make Lego triceratops and is sure to be a pilot one day.

Kill me.  Just kill me now.

I know.  I am become a crank.  He’s a WWII vet and lovely man and I agree that his former daughter-in-law should let those boys spend more time with their dad.  So what if they miss a few days of school?  Schools these days are loosey-goosey!  Back in his day lessons taught something useful – not all this ‘independent thinking’ baloney.

I think I’ll try the stair master.  It can’t be any more painful.

But here in my ear is Angie, Serena’s supervisor!  She wants another chance to solve my problem.  She will do everything in her power to make things right. 

“What exactly is in your power?”  I ask, emboldened by my ordeal.  Why, she’s going to forward an urgent notification to her supervisor.  Of course.

And please do send me your complimentary sharp stick.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A dog in the house

Ha ha ha ha ha!  It’s so na├»ve! 

You can’t prepare for a puppy!  Everyone knows that!

And yet, we at the Plath household are engaged in a zombie-like ritual whereby we go through a set of steps designed to accomplish some kind of magic – we seek an impossible readiness for the destruction of life as we know it.

It’s a sun-god ceremony.  A rain dance.  A ceremonial procedure in which we prime ourselves for sacrifice.  We are making everything new and nice and perfect so that it can be dribbled on, chewed up and thrashed past utility by a guileless little heathen who will live with us for the next decade or more.

It all began with the passing of Beau, our happy black Lab of thing-fetching fame.  After 13 years of repetitive behavior, we humans were as locked into his routine as he was. 

We continue to flinch at feeding times.  We carefully lock the gate.  We park in front of Pet Food Express when we mean to go to Raley’s.  We wipe phantom nose prints from clean sliding doors.

We miss the grizzled old boy!

And just when the heartache ebbs, something new will touch off another round of nostalgia:  I Googled our address for no particular reason and clicked on “street view” only to find that the internet mappers had passed along our alley with their cameras mounted high enough to look over our fence. 

It was totally unsettling and creepy and sure to be the topic of a future column – but I couldn’t dwell on that because there, in the frame of our yard, was Beau, on his side next to the house, his grey muzzle lifted to the sky, his mouth forming an ‘O,’ no doubt howling to his people, his tribe, the ancient wolves of suburbia. 

I’d give him credit for barking at those possible intruders, but let’s just be honest.  In his declining days, he chased all manner of imaginary villains in his sleep and left the real life ones to their own devices.  But, oh!  How sweet to see him!    

And so with broken hearts we knew the only balm in this Gilead would be the same as the comfort of a new mother when the baby is placed in her arms.  Contractions?  Agony?  No!  We will forget the grief, the chewing, the pee and the hair, hair, hair. 

Only a puppy can save us.  Only a puppy’s big belly and sweet face can restore our souls.  A puppy! 

And the march has begun.  Like Wrangler on the Today Show, our puppy will grow up to be a working dog with manners and skills to match the specific demands of the field.  So since before Thanksgiving, we’ve been on waiting lists for litters .

But even so I didn’t quite appreciate Mr. Plath’s level of anticipation until I asked him the other day if he had given any thought to what he might name the little terrorist who will soon disrupt our lives and ultimately join him in the duck blinds.

Oh yes.  He had devoted himself to compiling a list of contenders.  Quietly, when I thought he was reading the paper or marveling at Francis Underwood in our House of Cards marathon, he had assembled a roster of names for his new buddy, coming soon to a place in his heart.

Our new little guy will be Duke or Dewey or Buster or Louie – or Blue.

Here are his dishes and place mat.  Here’s his little doggy bed and a plush toy with a beating heart for his first nights in a new home.  Here are his chew toys and look!  A little squeaky duck thing! 

But let’s be real.  It doesn’t much matter what we have put in place to corral him or where we picture him sleeping.  He’ll make this place his own in short order.  We will adjust our thinking, our plans, our barriers, our strategies and systems – to him.  His creativity will out match ours.  He will win.

In fact, he has already won.  We just can’t wait to meet him.

And that’s true for just about everyone in the Plath household, except, of course, the cats.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Bienvenidos and good for you!

 For many years I worked in schools with high percentages of English Language Learners – ELL’s, as we called them.  Most, but not all, spoke Spanish at home as their L1, or first language.

So I took pains to brush up on the Spanish I’d begun learning in first grade at Louisa May Alcott Elementary School back in Tulsa.

Part of a pull-out program whereby a handful of us were extracted from the larger group of squirming seven-year-olds, taken to what seemed like a storage closet and drilled on Spanish vocabulary, I learned naranja, for example.  Orange.  Also, an orange.

Funding must have run out on that program.  I learned my numbers up to one hundred, primary colors and household items.  La mantequilla, por favor.  And that was the end of that. 

No more Spanish instruction until high school.  A big gap in second language learning for me – aside from a feeble foray into French in seventh grade.  Le mur.  That’s about all I retained.  Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.  Je suis Charlie.    

I learned plenty of Spanish in high school – even conjugated my way up to President of the Spanish Club and thereby claimed by default the title, ‘Queen of the Geeks.’ 

Why schools persist in delaying second language training until the upper grades is baffling.  Both common sense and long-standing research say language acquisition peaks in early childhood. 

We need to frontload that stuff.  Imagine the strides toward peacemaking in a world of bi-lingual folks…

Once, I was showing off at a school where I was principal.  My attendance was expected at community meetings with the parents of our second language learners.  I’ve never been fluent in small talk, but as people were gathering I determined to make them comfortable.  So I moved next to a man and his wife who’d brought their student and her younger siblings to the meeting.  “Hola!” said I.

“Hola!” he responded.

From there, I strung together about as many Spanish sentences in a row as I had ever managed, the general gist of which was that we were proud of our Spanish-speaking students and so glad to host their families at our school.

He smiled at me and replied in English:  “I don’t speak Spanish, but it sounds like you’re doing very well in your studies.”

So.  That’s how it works on the world peace front.  That gentleman surely felt more kindly toward me, right?  All one must do is make an effort to break down the barriers of fear and misunderstanding.  It’s hard to stay mad when you’re bemused. 

I continued with my efforts to improve my Spanish, attending an immersion school a few years later at the International University in Cuernavaca, Hidalgo, Mexico.  It was there that I held my own in a Spanish discussion about manners with my host family, right up until I declared with emotional emphasis that discourteous people made me into a rabbit.

See, the Spanish words for ‘rabbit’ and ‘anger’ are pretty similar.  They both end in ‘jo’ anyway.  So.  We had a perplexed moment there at the table while they tried to piece together the transformation undertaken by a person slighted in a social situation. 

They were with me right up until then.  I know it.  I could see it in their faces.  That’s the kind of thing that will bridge cultures.

But even if you’re not looking to clobber World Peace gong, there are other fine reasons to learn a second language:  For example, research out of Sweden shows that language centers in the brain actually grow as a result of successful language learning.  The better you learn, the more those vital areas of the brain grow.  Big brain = good.

And here’s another biggie:  Learning a second language can stave off dementia! 

According to Canadian scientists, bilingualism delays Alzheimer’s disease in susceptible people by as much as five years.  Studies across the board continue to support this result.

To put it in context, the study’s author says the beneficial effect of learning a second language on dementia  is much greater than any other benefit achieved, even with the latest drug therapies.

There you have it!  Big brained, drug-free living for world peace.  Salud!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Nightcap anyone?

After an extended period of wakefulness, I have succumbed to the Dark Triad.

And what are you going to do about it?  Scatter!  Be gone! 

You early birds.  You sound sleepers.  You refreshed ones all in your places with bright shiny faces.  Boo!

And here’s the deal:  I am not accountable for any unscrupulous or crabby behavior.  You couldn’t prove it anyway.  I’m smarter than that.  I have left no clues.  Take it to court if you want.  I’ll be there with my attorney and my Twinkie.

But Carolyn, what have you done?  You seem delightful – mostly.  You have such a charming way about you, generally speaking.  So far as we know, you’re a good person…?

Don’t worry.  It’s not like that.  And if it were, what am I going to do?  Confess?!  Please. 

Admit it Dear Reader.  Even you have thrashed your way through the wee hours, wrapped in your Wamsuttas, damp and desperate. 

Tell me you never entertained a treacherous thought after you missed your bedtime, woke up angry and found your dog there smiling at you.  All that incessant canine cheerfulness!  Right.  Right!  I love you too!  Now go outside by yourself for once and pee!

We each have an alter ego.  No one knows how shadowy it might be or what will bring it to the forefront.

For me it began innocently enough, happily even:  I retired and didn’t have to get up early any more. 

There.  That’s it.  That’s all there is to it, really:  I no longer had to wander upstairs in a foggy haze at 9:30PM, fall like a redwood onto the Tempurpedic, only to leap up again at five the next morning preparing for work in a frenzied stupor. 

Staying up late seemed the most harmless thing.  Like a sleepover party.  Like the Stay Puft marshmallow man – it could never, ever destroy me.  But that’s where the downfall began.  Don’t let this happen to you:

I stayed up later and later.  I watched Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. 

A dash of political cynicism; a pinch of buffoonery.  That’s all.  How could that possibly turn against me? 

But the laughter brightened me and I extended my nights into Jimmy Fallon and Indie flicks.  I felt so urbane.

Next thing I knew it was 2AM and I realized I’ve never seen Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in “The Painted Veil.”  Sounds intriguing.  And it was. 

Now, I’ll just turn on my side and slip off to …wait!  What’s this on my phone?  An internet connection…

Did I mention I’ve had a spate of sleeplessness?
No need to be concerned, I thought.  It’s a passing thing, owing to the You-Just-Can’t-Have-Everything-Going-Well-All-at-the-Same-Time syndrome.

And I put the shift in my sweet nature down to the Sleep-Deprived-People-Tend-to-Be-Cranky-and-Make-a-Lot-of-Errors-in-Decorum disorder.

But now I know:  My name is Carolyn and I’m an insomniac – a person most likely to become a manipulative, self-admiring psychopath.

That’s right.  Research published in the journal “Personality and Individual Differences” shows that people who have a tendency to stay up late are more likely to exhibit anti-social personality traits.

I’ve been initiated into the Dark Triad – the Machiavellian, the narcissist and yes, the psychopath.

I didn’t know!  Please believe me!  I didn’t know!! 

A psychopath: Characterized by reduced empathy, antisocial behavior and disinhibition. 

A narcissist: egomaniac.

A Machiavellian: One who manipulates and exploits others without regard to morality.

Where does it go from here?  Oh, where will it end?!

Dr. Peter K. Jonason, the study’s author explains:

“Those who scored highly on the Dark Triad traits are, like many other predators such as lions and scorpions, creatures of the night.”

OMG.  I can’t believe it!  I’m a predator??!!

Jonason explains, “For people pursuing a fast life strategy like that embodied by the Dark Triad traits, it’s better to occupy and exploit a lowlight environment where others are sleeping and have diminished cognitive functioning.”

Oh no.  Just last night I watched “Interview with the Vampire”!  Or about a third of it.  Even for us Dark Siders, it’s pretty hard to take.

Protect yourselves Dear Readers!  I may not be able to stop myself – there’s a Breaking Bad marathon tonight.  But it’s not too late for you!

Unless of course, you’d like to stay up and join me.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

My kind of marathon

I think I might be in trouble.

I said I’d run a marathon this year and the prognosis is not good.  Already.  January 2, 2015 and I’m unsure of the outcome. 

No.  Actually I am sure.  I will not run a marathon this year.  Or next year.  Ever.  I will never run a marathon.

Whew.  That feels better.  Next December I’d like to look myself in the face and say something besides, “What the heck were you thinking with that ridiculous idea?!!”

Oh all right.  I didn’t even say I’d run a marathon.  That would have been stupid. 

I’m optimistic.  I’m game.  I am many things – including old with gravely knees.  And I am well aware that there’s no way I will run a marathon in this incarnation. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I can still do things.  For example, I might walk with a hurried expression.  Urgently.  Step aside!  I’m walkin’ here!

Maybe I’ll even lift my arms and do that exaggerated marching thing like a speed walking drum major.  Yeah.  That’s it.  I’ll cast dignity aside and churn my way through the New Year.

But, remember Ellen DeGeneres talking about her grandma beginning a new fitness regime at age 65?  “She started walking five miles a day.  Now she’s 72 and we don’t know where the hell she is!”

That could be me!  So, no long distance escapades on the horizon.

Unless of course we think in terms of the Twilight Zone.  I could run that marathon.  Thank you Hulu.  Season 1, Episode 1!  Here we go!

Oh yeah, I love this one!  “Where Is Everybody?”  Remember?  The guy who “finds himself in a town devoid of people and with no memory of who he is.”

It’s so creepy:  The diner with the jukebox playing.  Hot coffee on the stove and pies cooling on the counter, but no waitress.  No fry cook! 

A gas station without an attendant.  A mannequin in a delivery van.  A phone ringing but nobody on the line.

Even an empty police station with a lit cigarette burning in the ashtray.  At last, a clue.  Rod Serling has been here.

Curiously, none of these aberrations stop the man from talking right out loud.  He prattles on and on.  He just wants to know who he is and why he’s wearing that jumpsuit.    

This is awesome!  You can power through every episode in order, or you can pick and choose. 

Good.  I’m skipping the one with the misanthrope who buys a player piano that makes everyone tell the truth.  Spoiler alert:  They all hate him. 

And the one where Burgess Meredith is a bookworm and the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust only to break his glasses and be unable to read.   Sorry!

I want to find the one where William Shatner sees a yeti dancing on the wing of an airplane at 20,000 feet.  Or the one where he and his new wife have car trouble in a small town and he starts to live by the fortunes dispensed from a one-cent slot machine. 

“Will we leave town soon?” asks our future Captain Kirk.  “Only time will tell!” replies the fiendish contraption!  Oh my god!

I love that goofy spiraling cone in the opening sequence.  And the blinking eye!  I love the funky sets and the cheesy technology – Season 1 Episode 3 has the protagonists preparing for a direct nuclear attack by telling them to take their radios with them to the center of the house. 

I love looking for that picture of the Scotty dog that hangs on the wall in multiple episodes.  They must have been working on the cheap!

Serling’s recurring themes – space travel, time travel, regret, annihilation and death.  Love turned upside down.  Purgatory.  Hell.  Rod had it going on!  Misguided notions of heaven and beauty.  Greed.  No wonder this show was so successful. 

Remember the one where Old Man Simpson turned down admission to heaven because St. Peter said his hound dog Rip couldn’t come in?  Makes an Okie appreciate the Pope!

I could go on indefinitely, which is good considering Season 1 has 36 episodes!  And five seasons altogether make a marathon!

I know!  I’ll find the one where Robert Redford plays Mr. Death!  I mean really – what a way to go.