Meeting Robert B. Parker

The following is an essay I wrote in college. It used to be hosted at Bullets and Beer, a Spenser Fan site (and still is, for the nonce, here, but the site looks to have been defunct for a while now. For my own convenience, and because it’s my essay, dammit, I’m putting it here.


The Community Library, all that Jefferson County, Missouri, offered its few literate residents in the mid nineteen eighties, cowered on the bottom floor of a strip mall on High Ridge Boulevard. High Ridge Boulevard, the main street of High Ridge, Missouri, carried little enough traffic as it was, and not much of that traffic found its way into the small, one-room library down the hall from the license bureau and across the hall from a going-nowhere travel agency.

Me, I was trying to be a hard bitten city kid in the middle of extra-urban Missouri. Not rural enough for farms, not developed enough to qualify as suburbs, Jefferson County offered everything a growing kid without a car would not want.

I have been a fan of Robert B. Parker since my freshman year of high school. Crime fiction captivated me early, so by the time I finished middle school, I had run through all of the small Jefferson County, Missouri, Community Library’s copies of Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Gregory MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, and John D. MacDonald. I stood before the dimly-lit Mystery shelf, amid the musty, if not misty, donations, planning on another bout of Russian roulette with the unknown authors. I remembered that at the end of every episode of Spenser: For Hire, which I could only watch during summer vacation since it came on at 9 p.m., the credits revealed that the show was based on the novels by Robert B. Parker. The TV show was tolerable, so I thumbed the shelf below the Sara Paretsky, not quite to the T. Jefferson Parker. Bingo. Several books, certainly enough to check out for the week while I was in High Ridge. I would in later investigations discover one of the volunteers at the library was almost as big of a fan as I was to become. All of the Spenser novels to that date stood proudly on the bottom shelf.

I read all of them quickly; during the school lunch hour, between classes, and, as often as possible, during classes. I watched the best-seller lists in hopes that there would be a new listing by Robert B. Parker, and when there was, it was only a matter of time before the tasteful library volunteer would donate it to the library.

Spenser became my hero, my blueprint for what a man should be. My own father was four hundred miles away, so I adopted a literary surrogate. Spenser quotes poetry and can do one-armed push-ups. He is cool under fire and makes smart remarks. In short, he is a hero that lots of teenagers could look up to if they bothered to read. I did, and he was mine.

I did not draw the line at Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I sought out copies of his other three books, Three Weeks in Spring, Wilderness, and Love and Glory. Through them I could determine some sort of story line for Mr. Parker’s life, and I liked what I read into the books. He obviously felt similarly toward his wife as Spenser did to Susan Silverman, and I found the real-world crossover of what I would call “real” love to be inspiring in this world of divorces and broken homes. I felt bound to this writer, a fellow crime fiction novelist, who projected himself into his character and thought himself a writer and a lover. I can only hope to be as successful someday as he is.

I also felt a surge of respect for Mr. Parker when I read an essay of his in a collection called Colloquium on Crime, in which he says that he doesn’t care what the critics say about his books; as long as the books sell, he is happy. That’s the sort of attitude I like, and the kind I might like to have when I start becoming a famous writer.

The day of the signing was sunny and cloudless in Milwaukee. I woke early, showered, shaved, and primped myself–for meeting Robert B. Parker, but also in case I had to rush directly from the book-signing to work. I took an early bus downtown and sat in the sunshine, looking through the copy of Paper Doll that I had bought when it was first available.

I got to the bookstore a few minutes early and found a line of about twenty people waiting for their chance. I caught a glimpse of him as I took my place at the end of the line. Ahead of me were others with Paper Doll in hand, many of which, I suspected, were bought at the counter display moments ago. The woman in front of me was about five six, gray hair, spectacles, and she carried her copy of the book in a paper bag. Ahead of her was a businessman probably on his lunch break. Who were these people, and why did they want his autograph? He was not their hero, at best he was just a writer they liked.

My only other experience seeing authors in bookstores was a lonely guy in the Waldenbooks in Northridge. Nobody knew who he was, and nobody dropped by to buy his book nor ask his autograph. It was rather like the book signing party attended by Rachel Wallace in the Spenser novel Looking for Rachel Wallace. There was a line here, and these people certainly didn’t feel the special kinship I do for Robert B. Parker. I wonder if many of them knew which poem of Keats that Spenser refers to in Early Autumn, or who said “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” that is referred to in Double Deuce. I wonder how many of them are fans of Raymond Chandler. I hope not too many, for I suspected it would trivialize the hero worship I feel for the man.

The line moved pretty quickly, and even though it seemed like a quick forever, we were moving forward. Ahead of me, a bookstore employee commented that Mr. Parker was not allowing her to open the books to expedite the signing–Mr. Parker was doing it himself so he could talk a bit to his fans. I felt admiration swell within me.

As I had tried to get to sleep the night before, all the things I wanted to say to him ran through my mind. I knew my moment would be brief, and I wanted to say something that would strike him, impress him, or otherwise make my face something more than a forgotten blur in one of the bookstores he would visit that day. I was going to tell him that I was a senior up the road at Marquette and hyperbolize that I chose the college simply because Marty Rabb, from the book Mortal Stakes, was an alum. I wanted to tell him that in the course of playing softball, a sport he plays as well, I broke my nose and tried to calculate how many breaks behind Spenser I was. I wanted to promise an inscribed copy of my first published novel to repay him; I wanted to welcome him to Milwaukee and term it “Boston West”. All of these things I wanted to say in my minute, but of course I didn’t want to sound like a babbling idiot or some sort of shut-in who only lives life through the Spenser novels (I live life through all sorts of other novels, too).

“Freda. F-R-E-D-A” was the gray haired woman ahead of me, and she was done rather quickly. Some man in a business suit had chosen this opportunity to interview Mr. Parker at length, and he was standing to the side, talking. I stepped up to the table, fearing an anxiety attack, a dry mouth, a sudden death, none of which actually came.

He is a stocky man, of the hard build that he has put into his fictional alter-ego. He looked the same as the pictures on the books and like the interview I saw on Today, except animated in a way that television and still photographs will never capture. “A name?” he asked.

“Brian. B-R-I-A-N,” I said clearly, and surprisingly audibly. As he wrote the inscription, I picked which of the previous night’s gems I was to offer. “I’ve got to tell you, each time I re-read your novels, I always manage to catch and place another literary allusion. It’s good to see my college education being put to a positive use.”

His eyes did seem to twinkle a bit when he looked up to give my book back. “It’s a good thing,” he said, or words to that effect, and I thanked him and walked out into the blinding Milwaukee sunshine. I hoped that I at least gave him some spot of cheer, some glimmer of humor. It hardly compares with the joy his novels have given me, but it was some token.

I played it cool and waited until I got to my bus stop to see what he had written. “Brian, all best wishes, RBP” in his characteristic scrawl. I closed the book, but before my bus came I had looked at it three more times and during the ride home I began to read the book again. It still says that, and I look every once in a while to check, and I show the inscription to everyone who comes too close to me. I told everyone I saw that day that I met Robert B. Parker, and most of them asked me who he was. It did not offend me in the least; rather, it proved to me that I was among the elite, or at least the literate, or maybe just the few people left in the world who have real heroes and are proud of it.

Old 880

For a decade, from 1938 to 1948, the United States Secret Service conducted one of its most intensive searches for a counterfeiter. The elusive fraudster’s funny money appeared throughout New York City and across the United States but was concentrated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a small area centered on Broadway and 96th Street. Although the counterfeiter passed off thousands of bills in a relatively small area over a long time frame, the authorities could not catch the unknown subject. To make matters more embarrassing for the feds, the secretive mastermind who kept them at bay—the man they called Old 880 after his case file number—was counterfeiting one dollar bills. Poorly. Continue reading “Old 880”

A Picture Holds 1000 Memories

(Another old essay, but not as old as some in the pile.)

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I came across an old Polaroid in a box of photos and had to pause. I was scanning the pictures so that I could store the obviously comprehensible images in a format that only a machine can interpret. That’s just what one does with photographs in the twenty-first century, but it does give the more sepia-minded amongst us an opportunity to go through our old boxes of snapshots. Although each box holds hundreds of memories, a similar nature—here’s my brother and I here, here’s the front of the house there—makes the photos blur together. After all, my brother and I went everywhere together as kids, and I saw the house the same way thousands of times I drove up to it when we lived there. Once in a while, though, a single picture can trigger a cascade of unrelated memories. Continue reading “A Picture Holds 1000 Memories”

Confounding Keyboards

Here’s an essay so old that the return address on the manuscript was Honormoor, the Noggle estate in Casinoport. I guess I never got around to making the images it refers to.

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I first worked a keyboard twenty some years ago, a Smith Corona portable typewriter. Qwerty confounded me with its elegant design created to keep mechanical type arms from clogging at the little crosshairs on the paper. I quickly moved onto the computers of the day, such as they were, with the same Qwerty layout, a keypad, and a couple of function keys on the Commodore 128 to keep me company. But sometime circa 1990, I got my first IBM clone—that’s what they called them in those days, when International Business Machines made actual machines of one sort and another—and its 104 key keyboard. Probably not a soft click, since the keyboards of the pre-Clinton era produced a mighty clack-clack-clack that served the old alarm-clock-for-a-puppy role of soothing typewriter users who were skittish with the new technology and the plethora of keys that lacked the end of the line ding or the buzz of an electronic carriage returning.

Because I got started with the keyboards early, I skipped through the whole high school typing experience and forsook the home-row based touch typing in favor of my own organically-developed claw-and-peck which allowed me to accelerate to 30-40 words a minute with only the occasional glance at the keyboard to orient myself. After taking a position in the computer industry, I began using the upper range of the 104 character keyboards, including the esoteric function keys as well as the Print Screen, Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up, and Page down keys as well as the number pad. Over the intervening years, I have become accustomed to the standard keyboard layout present on every keyboard that came standard with each Packard Bell I purchased new or, later, at garage sales for five dollars. I can easily jump to the end of the line in my word processor or to the end of the my e-mail inbox. I can easily take a screen shot to illustrate what I see or what the user should see. Aside from the whole glance every once in a whole to ensure that I’m typing my password correctly, I can manipulate the standard keyboard like a professional.

But within the last couple years, manufacturers have begun to conspire against me, possibly the only regular user of the extended key set. They’ve begun to move those keys into new configurations as some sort of practical joke shared by their engineers or usability experts.

I first noticed the shift at a previous employer. When I started, the company provided me with a fresh Dell computer, direct from the factory. That keyboard was almost standard. On a standard keyboard, the extended keys are laid out like this:

However, Dell added a handy set of keys designed to handle those pesky power-related functions of your PC: Power Off, Reset, Sleep. You know, functions previously reserved for the front of your computer case but lately (or at least since 1998) relegated to buttons on your operating system desktop. To make things exciting for its users and to accommodate these functions within the size of a regular keyboard, Dell put these keys into the position at the top of the keyboard, where the Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break keys go and simply pushed those keys down a row:

I couldn’t use the keyboard, as I often toggled the scroll lock setting when I meant to go to the top of the screen, so I brought in a stained, clicking keyboard from my personal collection. Fortunately, I avoided any catastrophic errors, unlike a couple of coworkers nearby who meant to do something and ended up resetting the machine in the middle of some standard, but given their salaries, costly operation. Thanks, Dell!

Of course, it’s not just desktop Windows machines that befuddle my fingertips, but also laptop keyboards. For reasons unknown to usability, laptop and notebook computer designers have intuited that notebooks and their keyboards must not exceed in size an eight by eleven sheet of actual notebook paper, no matter how many keys it needs to hold. Not only do they make the keys smaller, but they replace the CTRL, the ALT, or the Windows key with Fn keys whose esoteric multi-finger gymnastics don’t transfer to real computer use. I pride myself on the ability to use hotkeys to navigate through applications without the mouse, but I’m rendered dependent on the mouse by the understudy keys laptops. Of course, laptops don’t actually have a mouse, so I depend upon whatever unreasonable facsimile the laptop provides. Unfortunately, my Mesozoic IBM Thinkpad doesn’t offer a touchpad; instead, it has a small joystick to move the mouse pointer. A joystick located between the G, H, and B keys that helpfully prevents me from pressing those keys half of the time. Thanks, IBM!

The consternation of glyph constellation extends to Macintoshes, or Macintosha, or Macintoshi, or however you pluralize those cute iMac and eMac boxes with their USB keyboards. Their stock USB keyboards sport concave shapes where the normal keyboard feel convex. Instead of the ALT key, we have the open-Apple key. The keyboard comes with an extra four unfathomable function keys, and the corner of the keyboard most prone to walking cats or tumbling stacks of papers offers a sensitive eject key for the CD/DVD drive. As if the mere alien nature of the keyboard didn’t make me feel enough like a stranger in a strange land, Mac OS X conspires to make my normal shortcut keystrokes into ineffective fat-fingering. The standard CTRL+C keystroke, welded to my psyche through a decade’s use, doesn’t work on the Macintosh as Steve Jobs, in a fit of pique no doubt, decreed that the Control key do nothing and that the open-Apple key, placed conveniently where the Alt key belongs, should handle all common intra-window shortcuts. So not only do I not know where the keys are, but I do not know what they do. Thanks, Steve Jobs!

I know the frantic change within the computer world brings us abundant technological wonders which I’ll probably understand for another decade or two, but I wish that the computer makers could at least not rearrange the keys more frequently than a bored housewife. Would Beethoven have created his master works if the piano keyboards in Vienna all alternated or altered the shape and locations of the keys yielding a particular note? Of course not; he would have spent all of his time adjusting to the medium instead of directing the medium to his wishes. So if I never become centuries’ worth of famous in any keyboarding art, I’ve already assigned the blame.

Suburban Incursion

The worst part about moving to the suburbs is that I don’t understand the social mores of the place, the traditions, norms, and unwritten laws of behavior that guide one’s relationship with one’s neighbors. I grew up in the rain-streaked city streets and later down dusty rural dirt roads, where your relationship with your neighbor was often simpler. In the city, if you messed with your neighbor or your neighbor’s, erm, stuff, the neighbor might well shoot you dead with his nine millimeter. In the country, if you messed with your neighbor or his livestock, the neighbor might well shoot you dead with his 12 gauge. This simplicity led to a certain respect for your neighbor as well as a certain distance from those you didn’t know.

Here in the suburbs, though, the rules of behavior differ, and that confuses me. For example, many of my neighbors don’t own nine millimeters or 12 gauges and think it’s odd that someone might. Territorial rights aren’t always marked by barbed wire; instead, we have things such as mutually understood (it’s assumed) borders noted by lines in plats in the county office or by the seasonal plantings. Fortunately, though, in most of my suburban domiciles, I’ve had something of a boundary marker, such as a privacy fence that trickles into chain link. Actually, I’ve had a number of privacy fence boundaries, including those erected after I’ve moved in, so the boundary line isn’t an issue.

However, incursions across those boundaries pose an ethical dilemma. Such as the beating conundrum I confronted recently when I stepped into my slightly overgrown (gone to seed) backyard and found a Wiffle® ball amid the lush suburban saw grass. What in Suburbia was I supposed to do about it?

The neighbors on one side, hidden behind a tall wooden fence, have children. The ball could belong to them. But I don’t know about the rear abutting yards; they, too, could hold children in those hours or seasons in which I am not in the back yard cutting the grass. The ball could as easily belong to families beyond those tree-high pike pylons separating the yards.

In the city, a Wiffle® ball never gets hit anywhere but common areas or the street; if it goes into a yard, the big dog or crazy person there eats it. In the country, no one can hit the ball far enough to go into someone else’s yard. This white plastic sphere at my feet was an unknown artifact for which the lessons of my youth provided no proper recourse.

I have a son for whom I could claim the ball under the particular possession/law equation that no lawyer ever wasted a retainer teaching. But that would be theft, pure and simple.

I could march up onto the front porch of the neighbor’s house with the ball in hand and ask if it belonged to the children there, but in my old neighborhoods, the frontal approach could be confrontational. City-dwellers might fear the polite home invader or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the country, someone on your porch could be the IRS or the jackbooted thugs from the ATF (now the BATFE). In either case, one wrong dingdong, and they greet you with a hail of lead (now, due to safety regulations, this is sometimes steel).

Besides, I’m unclear if the door knocking behavior is covered under the suburban code of conduct, or if this unelicited contact would mark one as a pariah amongst the decklocked crowd. Perhaps word would spread of the forward and slightly creepy fellow up the block who confronted neighbors with only the provocation of a Wiffle® ball, and our family would purposefully not get invited to block parties sponsored by the local real estate agent.

I could drop the ball over a fence surreptitiously. Of course, that would assume that the ball belonged in the yard where I know children live. If it did not, I could perhaps be charged with littering or perhaps trafficking in stolen goods depending upon the demeanor of the local five-oh. Or perhaps they would see me as conducting a sortie upon their pristine green backyard with some sort of secret Wifflepon.

Torn, I knew I could not keep the ball, I could not break the code of silence maintained by community, and I could not throw the ball over the fence into an unseen backyard. So I did what any self-respecting adult male born of country and city would do if he were me.

Carefully in the early morning hours, in that period between darkness and dawn, I looked up and down the street from beside my front porch. Assured I was unobserved by early dog walkers or the fabled milkman, I crouched low and crossed the broad, blackened expanse of my asphalt driveway and deposited the ball at the very edge of the neighbor’s front lawn where its presence would tempt the children from that yard to reclaim it or claim it, where the father would pick it up or kick it into my driveway or the street when it came time to mow the lawn, and where I could have plausible deniability about how the ball got there.

Then I scurried back into my house and bolted the strange and frightening world of suburbia out.

An Old Essay from the Hard Drive: The Daddy Watch

Here’s another old essay from the hard drives.

The Daddy Watch

A while ago, I dropped my old Timex, and the fall was apparently no mere lickin’. The watch stopped, so I guess this was the Bitin’ After Which There’s No Rightin’. I’d taken the watch off and stuffed it in my pocket before a rigorous game of office foosball. After delivering a vigorous thrashing to the ball if not our opponents, I reached into my pocket for the watch. It leapt from my grasp onto the floor and into the sweet thereafter. I was in the market for a new timepiece.

I’ve worn watches off and on since high school. I’d done some time before that with the obligatory Mickey Mouse watch whose hands worked almost long enough for me to learn how to tell time. Sometime the middle 1980s, when digital watches broke the barrier from technical marvel to status symbol for middle schoolers, I got my first watch as a gift. I wore a series of digital time pieces until college, where I got a real name brand watch for Christmas as a gift from my then-current sweetheart.

I remember that the watch had real hands on it; at some point in my midpoint generation, the anachronism of hands instead of LCD digits implied some status as a grown-up. This particular model offered an elapsed-time ring that fit around the edge of the watch. You could twist the ring so that the zero lined up with the big hand. Whenever you finished your activity, you could look to see where the big hand was to see how many minutes had elapsed. Unless, of course, the minutes exceeded a full hour, at which point the digital-dependents who didn’t know what the little hand was for would be lost. The elapsed time ring lasted only a few months, until a devastating encounter with a potato bin’s edge taught me to wear the watch on the inside of my wrist. I wore that watch longer than I remained with that particular soulmate. I can’t even remember the circumstances where that watch failed, nor can I remember what it looked like when I laced that band up onto my wrist. But those salad days of collegiate vigor end like inexpensive timepieces.

After college, I continued to wear the worn timepiece from those college days until a new novia wanted to help upgrade my wardrobe or lifestyle. She bought me a newer version of the same brand watch, also with hands. She was the daughter of an executive, I was a ne’er-do-well with an English degree and a retail job. Her parents didn’t care for me, but she liked me enough to get me watch for Christmas. The watch sported a Velcro-and-fabric band which I swapped out with a decent plastic band and buckle. The watch outlived the relationship (to the young lady’s parents’ relief) and a number of nothing jobs that transmogrified into an accidentally successful career.

Ten years after that relationship ended and a dozen years after the watch was new, it hit the floor at my workplace, a hip young marketing agency where I bore a pseudo-executive title of one of the unhip departments. I married a woman who will never buy me a watch, I’ve vowed, given the demise of the relationships in which I’ve received a watch. Also, I’ve become a father, starting a family with the aforementioned wife who cannot buy me a timepiece. I was in a different era within my life.

So although I fancied myself another watch along the lines of the preceding few, with dark bands and backgrounds, when I found myself at the counter at Target, I passed over the direct replacement for my old watch-—I could have replaced the fabric sport band with the band from my defunct watch—-and I passed over the other watches of similar styles. Of course, I wanted hands on the face so I could, in decades hence, use the knowledge on trivia nights. But I glanced over the watches on their display mounts and I lit upon a silver steel model with expansion bands.

I have never owned a watch with an expansion band before; I expected that the bands wouldn’t fit as securely or as comfortably. But my father wore expansion bands, with the steel spring-loaded links stretching over the thumb to allow him to snap it onto his wrist before going out to a day’s worth of construction and remodeling. On occasion, I would find the watch and play with it, stretching the expansion band to turn the watch inside out or rolling it over and over like a tank’s tread. I once found an extra band and imagined a metallic snake creeping along the sofa or the end table. Standing before the jewelry case, my previous preferences dissolved into a warm-and-fuzzy reminisce.

Needless to say, I bought the steel expansion band watch. Its shiny exterior proclaims that it is the watch of a man, not a boy. Unlike its Macy’s counterparts from Bvlgari or Hvngari or whatever former Soviet blocs provide the Citizens for sale beneath the red star, I won’t be afraid to wear this watch every day in case I bang it into a sawhorse or drop it after a foosball game. It’s shiny enough to proclaim some maturity and status. And maybe my own son will look on the band with his imagination and find something to remember.

What You Need To Be A Struggling Writer

(circa 1993-1994–how precious! – ed.)

Whenever I meet someone, one of the questions that always comes up is “What are you going to college for?”, usually right after I say “Yes, I go to Marquette University”. I usually respond with “Eleven grand a year,” but I am really going to college to get my Writing Intensive Bachelor Degree. I would have been a Writing Intensive Bachelor without the help of Marquette University, but I would not have had so much fun doing it. After I explain to these newly met people that I am a writer, the proceed to give me what they think is encouraging advice.

The advice is always the same, “Hang in there. Don’t give up. Have something to fall back on”. Thank you very much, but that advice is generic for any occupation. When people get specific about it, they always tell me that it takes a long time to break into the writing business. Well, no, I’d like to point out (but I am too polite to) that Tom Clancy and John Grisham “broke” into the biz. The rest of us, or at least I, have to worm our way in. I, on the other hand, am a practicing struggling writer, and I decided that if everyone else is giving advice, I might as well jump on the bandwagon.

To help out with all you struggling writers out there, I have compiled a list of things you’ll need. Strunk and White, ages of English classes, and last month’s Writers’ Digest can give you all the technical details. You’ll need more than words to make it as a struggling writer in today’s competitive market, and here’s what you’ll need.

  1. The Idea You’ll Succeed.
    When I started, I wanted to put down “Talent,” since that is pretty important to make it as a writer, but it’s not actually necessary when you start your jaunt as struggling writer. You can pretty much start with “The Idea You Have Talent” because your writing will get better as you write, so if you think you have talent, you will write more, and it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then I thought of some cheap fantasy fiction and pulp detective stories. Some of the stuff I have read has been so bad that I don’t think the writer could have thought they had talent. All they could be running on was self-confidence and the dollar signs they must have been seeing, so to succeed as a writer you just need the idea that it can be done, and not much else, but if you do have talent, so much the better.

  2. Something Written.
    When I told a professor my freshman year of college that I was going to be a writer, he asked me if I had written anything. At that point I had written innumerable bad poems, a few bad short stories, and most of a bad-but-hopefully-salvageable novel. I almost laughed, but you never laugh at a full Jesuit or a full Doctor, so I merely said “Yes, sir”. Since he asked the question, I can only assume he had run across people who were going to be writers who hadn’t written anything, but that’s what they were–people who were going to be writers. You’re not qualified to be an official Struggling Writer unless you’ve written something–and don’t give me that old “Writer’s Block” excuse. That’s like saying you’re on the disabled list without ever having picking up a baseball. So if you haven’t written anything, you might as well not read on.

  3. A Lot of Stamps.
    I mean a lot of stamps. What they say is true, you should receive quite a few of rejections before you get published anywhere. If you don’t, well, I don’t want to talk to you any more. I must have gotten your share of rejections, too. And at four stamps on the envelope to the magazine, four for the SASE (for short stories and articles mailed flat), that works out to $2.32 per submission. It’s more than a lottery ticket, and this should illustrate that you do need the idea you’ll succeed (if you want to get lucky, go to Vegas) and a lot of stamps.

  4. A Stiff Upper Lip.
    And, as you receive a lot of rejections, it might hurt. You might wonder as you stare at your ceiling as the shadows of the tree outside your window dances in the wind because you can’t sleep why you bother going on when all you get are a few compliments from your friends who are probably lying anyway and form letters that were probably written by the same insensitive clod with Rejection Forms Incorporated from every magazine you ever submit to and you might be tempted to give it all up and get into a respectable and lucrative racket like flipping burgers at the local McDonalds, or maybe that’s just me. Keep a stiff upper lip, though. It just takes a while, and once you’re in somewhere, it’ll get easier. Or so they tell me. Keep trying, and if you want a bit of my personal technique, try a dash of arrogance. Remember that that poor overpaid pencil-pushing mousy looking illiterate moron of an editor wouldn’t know a good piece if it was shot through his or her window with a flaming arrow. It’s an immature response beacuse deep down I’d like to project the failure onto the poor editor rather than the quality of my writing. If you can rationalize it, use it. It works for me.

  5. A Paying Job.
    By no means confuse this with a REAL job. I realize that being able to support yourself without writing takes much of the authenticity out of the poverty-stricken living-on-the-streets romantic image of the struggling writer, but if you can almost pay the bills, it’s easier on the stomach lining. Besides, the real world experience you gain will give you ideas for stories and characters, essays and articles, and you will have the expertise to carry it off. The things I have learned as a produce clerk will be invaluable when I start my great novel featuring tomatoes and overripe watermelons as main characters.

  6. A Sense of Humor.
    A sense of humor is helpful in any profession, and it is completely necessary for a writer. Not only will you be able to laugh heartily at lawsuits (“I plagiarized WHAT? I slandered WHOM?”), but you will also look at old things in new ways and give you endless material. Plus, Reader’s Digest pays $300 for short anecdotes, and you don’t have to write them well, and if you’re shifty enough, you don’t even have to live them–just don’t tell them I told you so. A sense of humor keeps me going–I have a collection of my rejection slips that I have kept, and I take pride in showing them off to friends. No, wait, that isn’t a sense of humor, that’s masochism. Maybe I should have added “A Sense of Masochism”.

Well, there you have the official Brian J. Noggle method to becoming a struggling writer. To become a good writer or a published writer is something else entirely, and I’d give you advice on either of the above subjects if I had experience with them. Heck, if you find a good list or magic potion that will give you either of those two powers, give me a copy or mix me up a batch.

Waiting For the Mail

Sometime in my younger days, when I was living with relatives in St. Charles, Missouri, I got it in my head that receiving mail was a grown up thing, and that it was prestigious to get something in the mailbox with my name on it. Particularly if it said “Mr. Brian Noggle” on it. My Uncle Jim got stuff all the time like that, and I hoped he was impressed when I did. Hey, I was twelve years old, and it was seemed like a good idea at the time.

I managed to mail away for some anti-abortion arm bands that Jerry Falwell was sending out, and once you’re on Jerry’s list, you can plan on being Jerry’s list for a long time. I also found a religious magazine, the Plain Truth, that mailed out free booklets on request, so I got a good helping of those sorts of things. For a while, I was reading quite a bit of religious material. Strange, when you look at my general lackadaisical religious attitude these days, that I was quite a conservative little guy, almost, at one time.

Well, through my various machinations and an abortive flirtation with subsidy publishers (I was going to send in my first volume of poetry by December 1984, I seem to recall–I was still twelve years old, but ambitious), I managed to get myself onto a number of mailing lists. Hopefully my uncle was impressed, but then I moved out of his house and my love of receiving mail followed me to Murphy, Missouri. I was still getting stuff from The Moral Majority, but eventually they realized I was broke and/or disinterested so their trickle ceased altogether. Somewhere along this time, I sent my first short story, “Cricket: A Dog’s Life” to McCall’s magazine, or maybe it was “A Walk in the Park” to Hitchcock’s, but the transition began.

Soon the only things coming in the mail were the usual money-bearing cards from relatives for holidays, but when I started to send my works into magazines, there started a new flow of –well, rejection slips for the most part, but with each article in the mail, there is always the hopes of publication, and those self-addressed stamped envelopes could be the bearer of wonderful news. The beauty of this, I suppose, is that the possibility of money from heaven (or at least the Postal Service) all year round, but then it is based on my ability and not the duty of relatives–and so far, the return has been so nil that I often question my ability. But, with each new piece and each new mailing, there is new hope, so I continue on.

There is a half hour to go until today’s delivery. What could it bring? Well, it is the end of the month, so at least there won’t be any bills–which, as a full adult, I have come to recognize as a majority of modern mailings. I even look forward to bills, probably for some deep philosophical reason that they affirm my objective existence or something. I could, in theory, get an acceptance letter from a magazine–I currently have several submissions on the wing, er, on the postman’s back. More likely than not I shall receive at least four rejection slips, which would be fine, too. I only have a rejection slip from one of the five magazines, and the other four would be wonderful additions to my rejection slip collection.

I could, in theory, get a letter from one of my friends or my brother in Hawaii, but I just visited Missouri in June of 1993, and so no one would be writing me this soon. The possibility exists, though, and anticipation is tickling my stomach.

I could also get some little catalogue of something strange and wonderful- -such as the Firebird Arts and Music Catalog that I get every season even though I have not actually purchased anything from them in five years or one of the computer catalogues that have discovered me. Probably, though, if I get anything, it will be a notification of the urgency of a sweepstakes entry or the application for an American Express card–if there is one constant through life, it is junk mail. It has lost its relevance in my life, but it keeps on coming.

But, I must say, it makes me feel like a grown up, and an objectively existent one at that.

Morale Spy

Covertly Uncovering a Company’s Employee Morale During the Job Interview

When you go on a job interview, common advice reminds, you interview the company as much it interviews you. Remember, just as you might exaggerate that you have ten years’ experience developing .NET on Linux, the company might embellish its resemblance to a happy television family. Whether the company represents the Cosbys or the Bundys, participants in your four-hour interrogation will concur that the company represents the Panglossian best possible workplace. Managers want to fluff the company’s stock price. The proletariat wants more proletariat to share its burden. If the company demands twelve hour days or offers daily browbeatings, no one will tell an outsider. You would only learn true company morale after you started unless you conducted a little reconnaissance during your interview.

To gauge employees’ true attitudes toward a company and its working environment, you can reconnoiter two locations in the building: the kitchen and the bathroom. In most cases, no professional employee bears the task of cleaning these locations during working hour. Contrast these areas with conference rooms, such as the one wherein the company will grill you, which the company keeps fastidiously clean and presentable for interviewees, roving executives, and venture capitalists. The regular grunts in the trenches don’t spend that much time lounging in conference rooms. On the other hand, many non-executive employees use the kitchenette and the bathroom, and you can glimpse their corporate pride and morale in these utilitarian locations.

During your interview, ask for a tour wherein you can see the kitchen, or at least the coffeemaker alcove. If the company doesn’t offer a coffeemaker for employees, politely but quickly end the interview and flee. When the interviewer breezes you through the kitchen, pay attention to the counter around the coffeepot and the sink. Dirty dishes on the counter can indicate bad news. Coffee stains might indicate that the poor souls working for the company are too overworked to wipe up after themselves. The company has too few resources for what it does, and you better not have personal plans on Saturdays. Untended spills might also indicate that the employees here delegate cleaning to, or worse yet assume it will be done by, underlings or the new guy.

A clean kitchen indicates that the other employees handle their spills and mistakes. Or they want to make a good first impression on the employees who might wander in after them. Such ambition and drive is good. Or maybe they’re just decent, clean people. Regardless, a clean countertop bodes well.

You can apply the same observation to a bathroom used exclusively or predominately by employees. If the company has its own campus or building, look for a bathroom behind the receptionist’s desk to provide the best intelligence. Ideally, you could review such a facility before your official interview begins, but don’t be afraid to ask the HR person to whom you hand your official application about the nearest bathroom before he or she hands you off to the real interviewer.

While you’re straightening your tie or fixing your makeup, check for paper towels on the floor. They can indicate that employees have creases a little too tight in their pants to bend over and pick up what they drop. You can also examine the counters for excessive water/soap residue. If the employees don’t wipe up after themselves, who will? Look for graffiti on the stall walls, urine on the toilet seats or, worse, vice versa. If the employees show less concern for their workplace than for a tavern, they’ll probably show you the same tenderness they show a beer-scented conversationalist in that same tavern.

Regardless of the company line during the interview, nothing describes the other employees’ care and attention to detail, as well as their overall job satisfaction and pride, as how they treat those corporate spaces for which they have no direct responsibility but in which they can, and often will, make individual messes. Your surreptitious health inspections represent a quick and dirty way to find out how quick and dirty the company operates. The snap judgments you make are no less valid than the snap judgments that the company will make about you based upon the color of your slacks and the length of your hair.

The Gift Schtick

Around gift-giving holidays and birthdays, a certain stress accumulates like northern plains snow, centered upon what others will think of our individual capacity to proffer the pretense of caring for people to whom we do not speak for the majority of the year. Did we send our high school guidance counselor a Christmas card this year? She surely sent one to us last year, proving she’s not yet dead. Did we get Janey’s son Bobby something suitably expensive for his birthday, more than we would spend on a real nephew, but not so much to indenture Janey for our birthday?

Internally, we process the possibilities like Christmas calculus and crunch the metrics of what we know about the gift recipient. We dredge memories for shared moments, hobbies, or insights into that person’s soul and spirit. We surf the intrapersonalnet, seeking the faintest rumors of needed household goods. When all else fails, we know that gift certificates offer the remote-controlled reminder of our relationship, but recognize that a gift certificate really emphasizes the obligation and not the emotion of gift giving. Gift certificates say, “We know we should get you something, but we don’t know you well enough to know what you want.”

Fortunately, amid the crush and bustle of the Christmas shopping season or the interspersion of gift-giving into our regular lives, we can honestly rely upon the honored tradition of the Gift Shtick to provide a default value for the drop-down lists of gift-giving.

The Gift Shtick represents a certain convenient gifting theme for a person that makes gift giving easy and gift reception safe. A person’s Gift Shtick offers a single collectible motif, a single hobby, decorative fetish, or offhand comment, that friends, family, and acquaintances can seize upon with infrequent fervor to provide semiannual gifts. A good Gift Shtick offers almost infinite variation, providing the potential for almost thoughtless thoughtfulness.

The Gift Shtick can be sports memorabilia. For my wife, my relatives and I have found safe haven in buying St. Louis Blues apparel or paraphernalia. Although her interest in hockey is beginning to wane, and although she can almost dress in Blues jerseys and sweatshirts every day of the week, she can look forward to more of the same. For anyone in the state of Wisconsin, Green Bay Packers dinner china makes a handsome and thoughtful gift.

My friend Brian likes Elvis Presley, a Gift Shtick you can easily satisfy. You can walk into any mall in America and find something Elvish. Whether I find a wall hanging, poster, or CD of Elvis’s first conversations recorded when he was three, I can give him something that says, “Dude, I didn’t think you had this important piece of trivial tangential material in your collection.”

I have an aunt who has a goose motif in her kitchen. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been in her kitchen to know whether she has adequate goose salt and pepper shaker sets to serve a dozen diners, all eating from goose china. My mother, bless her, provides twin bird shticks: she decorates her living room with bald eagles and her kitchen with owls. The eagle shtick has been so successful in the past years that I am going to buy her a new wall for Christmas just so she can display them all.

I let my family and friends down because I don’t provide an easy Gift Shtick for them to employ. Each gift holiday, they must ask me what I want, and I am often at a loss. I rattle off a list of accoutrements that I don’t need or a whim that I can conjure instantly. Instead, I need to create a theme for my home office décor or take up a particular hobby that comes with a lot of optional paraphernalia. That way, when it comes to paper-tearing time, I can be assured a surprise, albeit a safe surprise well within a set of established parameters and limits.

It’s better to give than receive, everyone says, but it’s certainly not easier. Anyone who’s spent the last minute buying gifts from the end caps at Target knows the flutter of fear, of panic, and of an imminent gift certificate purchase. Whereas the Gift Shtick might not help the giver avoid a reluctant “Thenk yew” when the recipient opens the umpteenth throw blanket depicting a Bengal tiger, giving according to established or imagined predilections and peer pressure will allow you to escape the holidays with your sanity, and maybe even your inheritance, intact.

The Sweepstakes Bodhisattva Speaks

I won’t start off by telling you that I’ve never won anything; no, I’ve had my small share of victories in various minor games of chance. In my youth, I won a couple of “Guess How Many x Are In The Jar” things for a number of trinkets and toylets. In my adulthood, I’ve won enough free tickets in state lotteries to merely lament wasting $999s of dollars instead of thousands of dollars. I even win a gift every year in the company’s gift swap. But I’ve never made the big score: the television, the car, the big decorative check.

I’ve completed sweepstakes forms. I’ve listened to the advice of innumerable bottle caps and have tried again. Five years later, I still visit iWon.com for my daily chances to win. I continue spending a latte’s worth of my salary every week on my futile bid for state-sponsored number-running millions. My current strategy relies upon repetition of normal behavior: I go to the same Web site, I go to the same courtesy counter every week and buy the same set of numbers (the random ones), or I fill out the enclosed form and mail it off. So I’ve decided to alter my methodology.

With a flash of neo-Buddhist insight, I realized that my sweepstakes and contest entries have all sought to win prizes that I actually want for my own personal gratification. Money, new home theaters, and new cars would enrich my personal life. I would use their fruits in my daily pursuit of physical and materialist ease and pleasure. As such, of course Fortune does not favor me with these presents. Instead, I need to seek those prizes which I could neither use nor enjoy; only then could I grow spiritually through the gifts of random chance.

For example, I don’t travel much; I’m a little edgy leaving the warmth and comfort of the Midwest. For me, a good vacation is a long weekend in Springfield, Missouri, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin—familiar cities where I have relatives and where I know the coffee shops in which to read. So when Clausthaler offered me the chance to win a trip to a golf resort, I filled out my vitals and spent a stamp to send off the entry. A trip thousands of miles to play a sport I’ve only tried once, badly, in my youth. Certainly, the Fates can frown on me with this grand prize.

To keep with the reluctant traveler motif, I’ve recently entered a sweepstakes for an African Safari, which includes hunting on the savannah. I’ve not been hunting since my youth, when I spent several scattered days in cold marshes at dawn to bond with my father. I’ve never actually hunted by carrying a gun. I don’t have a passport, my immunizations are not up to date, and I’m not eager to leave the country for the continent that inspired Heart of Darkness and Anaconda. The prize would actually inconvenience me. No doubt Nike—the goddess and not the company—is signing the appropriate forms on Olympus even now.

Aside from those big, and travelsome, prizes, I’ve started looking closer to home for smaller scores. When local restaurants offer fishbowls in which customers can drop their business cards for the chance at a free meal, I only drop my business card in if it comes with strings attached, such as an hour’s consultation with a financial consultant whose first lesson is There is no such thing as a free lunch. Certainly, I have a shot at that grand prize.

I’ll continue entering sweepstakes, including the Publishers’ Clearinghouse and Readers’ Digest contests. By not purchasing, I’m not hurting my chances to win, but I’m really hoping that by not wanting, I’ll bolster my chances. Ergo, when given the choice between the sports car and the minivan, I’m licking the minivan stamp every time. Someday in the future, should you find me tooling around in a Dodge Caravan, know that I am not only a winner, but I am learning a lesson in self-deprecation.

Savor the Experience: Tips on Making Simple Household Projects Last All Day

Like many men, I try to demonstrate power tool prowess from time to time. The “to” interval represents something like a quarter, so each “time” follows the preceding “time” by about three months. I’ve derived many of the following tips the hard way; that is, I have learned much of what I know from the thin prose and disconnected photographs in tool pornography magazines such as Handy and The Family Handyman. I haven’t actually completed many useful household projects, since I get my satisfaction from flipping through the magazines and dreaming. I am the son and grandson of remodeling contractors whose talents have apparently skipped a generation, but I have, up to four times annually, applied myself and my vast knowledge to improving my household. Ergo, I proffer advice appropriately to help you, too, turn a simple household project into an all-day affair.

Perhaps you’ve decided to put up surround-sound speakers for your home entertainment system. You just need to add a stereo outlet behind your entertainment center and run stereo wire through the walls to outlets for the rear speakers behind your sofa. It sounds fairly simple. Cut a couple holes in the paneling, run some wire between them. You could do it in an hour, right? Follow these tips, and your simple project will change into a life-transforming, all-day event.

  1. Always take shortcuts which don’t, in fact, save time.
    Some people, such as those who excelled in shop class in middle school, might tell you to begin your work by measuring, diagramming, or at least thinking ahead about what you’re going to do to your den before you start. Balderdash! Planning wastes valuable time that you could better spend admiring your handy work and accepting the accolades of your family and friends. You’ve probably procrastinated this particular chore long enough for it to work its way into an Andy Rooney parable. Haste prevents wasted time, and once more make a breach, dear friends, once more.

    Besides, you only need a couple of holes and some speaker wire.

  2. Don’t worry about having the right tools; use whatever you have at hand.
    Civilization developed from Neanderthals who bound rocks to sticks as tools. Millennia later, we have screwdrivers and hammers. Either has innumerable uses, and combined they represent all possible combinations of tools. If you’re going to add a sunroom to your home, you only need a hammer, a screwdriver, and maybe a pocket knife. You waste money when you buy custom tools that you’ll only use once. You’ll then store them forever, or at least until a visitor to your estate sale tries to convince your disinterested heirs that your heirlooms aren’t worth two dollars each.

    You can drill through the paneling in your den like a manic mosquito with a ½ inch with 3/8 inch reduced shank proboscis until you’ve got big enough bits to pass the wire through. You can fish in the hole with a bent coat hanger or a string to pull the cable. You’re set. Drill! Drill!

    Except your drill holes don’t give you much room; you can’t fit a finger in to feel for a coat hanger or a string. Since you will cover the speaker outlet with a faceplate, you could cut a bigger hole. You need a special saw to cut into the wall. What do they call that again? Oh, yeah, a drywall saw.

  3. Make many trips to the hardware store.
    Sometimes, I hate to admit, the trifecta of fom toolery listed above won’t serve your needs. If you’ve followed tip number 1, you’ll discover this when you have removed a number of panels and have disconnected power to the entire house (just in case). You’ll need an Allen wrench, one of the more exotic drivers, or a special tool for cutting wallboard or sheet metal—oddly enough, no tool cuts both well, not even that Swiss machinist knife you just sharpened.

    You’ll need to trek to your local hardware store or home improvement supercenter. Personally, I find nothing compares to the self-assured manliness I enjoy in the hardware store when I know exactly what I need to perform a specific task. The experience puts me in touch with my ancestors and bonds me as an equal to burly men who even today have to work for a living by doing useful things.

    Remember, both the cavernous superstore and the local, struggling family hardware store offer a particular time-wasting strength. The cavernous superstore makes the search for a particular grommet exceedingly difficult as you forage through acres of eight-foot high shelving for a couple dollars’ worth of plastic and metal. Even if you ask for help, the second-year high-school sophomore will need a manager, who has already committed to help another customer unlucky enough to find a teenage wonder-aboutkund.

    If the family hardware store remains open for business when faced with the competition of the national super lumberyard-and-hot-dog-stand, it has only a sixty percent chance of stocking your grommet. Fortunately, though, a drywall saw is a fairly common grommet, so the family hardware store probably has one. Just one, though, so hurry before another reader gets there to buy it.

    Whichever you choose, you face at least a half hour in your car and in the checkout line. When you get home, after you have carefully unwrapped the product from its box or blister wrap and have studiously ignored and lost the instructions, you will discover its power source requires charging or inconveniently-sized batteries.

  4. Innovate, adapt, or just try something different.
    A true handyman is handy, and can adapt and jerry rig to obtain the desired result. Some might say that this displays a great degree of synthetic thought, where one applies experience and inductive reasoning together, but anyone who uses terms like “synthetic thought” and “inductive reasoning” probably hires a professional for his or her home upgrades.

    In our project, we might discover that our new drywall saw doesn’t pierce wood paneling. You’re supposed to punch it against drywall and saw, but the tip bends on paneling. Still, you’ve got the drill; you can easily drill a large hole in each corner of the square you want to cut and connect the dots with the saw. However, trying this leads to a time-consuming process which yields a jagged, unpredictable cut. A jigsaw would speed the process, but that would require another trip to the hardware store and further expenditure.

    On the other hand, you still have the hammer and screwdriver in reserve. Perhaps you don’t need the jigsaw. You can adapt your technique to the tools at hand. You can use the screwdriver to pry the paneling from the wall and run the wire that way. Like Hannibal Smith and MacGyver rolled into one, you love it when an innovation comes together.

  5. Throw at least one, preferably more, tantrum that sets you back.
    It’s not uncommon to feel a little twinge of frustration after hours of futility in performing a simple task that you know a professional could accomplish in twenty minutes while intoxicated. Carefully devised shortcuts have failed. Innovations prove as troublesome as replaced, obsolete methodologies. Also, it doesn’t help that you’ve opened a gash in your finger that bleeds enough to make you want to save the blood in a can in case the hospital needs to put it back.

    You’ve bent screwdrivers because you didn’t have a crowbar handy. You’ve gone back to the hardware store to purchase your brand new crowbar. When you pry with your new, label-yet-affixed crowbar, the wood panel doesn’t appreciate your deft, gentle, and soothing touch and splits. We, and by “we” I mean “at least I did, and I hope I am not alone,” might feel a little rage. Not murderous, but a pure rage worthy of expression.

    Curse and tug with a final, gamma ray burst of strength. Revel in your own destructive capability as the paneling not only splits, but pulls free from the wall, tearing out the light switch faceplate, the light switch, and the telephone jack. The picture you didn’t remove (to save time, of course), crashes to the floor and sprays glass nuggets onto the carpet and into the chair in which you’d expected to nap. The thrill of proving your point instantaneously transforms into remorse; the speed of the transition creates a thunderclap, or perhaps that’s just further cursing. Also, don’t touch that sparking wire.

  6. Do what the professionals do.
    At this point in my projects, when my cursing reaches other rooms and sweat obscures the tunnel of my vision, my wife appears to ask if there’s anything she can do, or perhaps to see what she can save. As she’s seen me in this state before, she knows what to ask. “What would a professional do?”

    “Quit and get a retail job,” you might want to respond, as I often do, but the question has its merit. Take a step back from your current situation, reflect upon what you’re trying to do, and assess it coldly in the terms of dollars and sense. Imagine you were a kid fresh out of high school, a pierced-and-tattooed fellow with no military or college prospects who got a job and has to get up at six in the morning no matter how late the concert ended last night. Now imagine how his foreman would look at the situation.

    A professional would only do as much work as needed to achieve the result required. To place surround sound speakers, the professional would understand that opening the walls would run the cost of the project up intolerably. He would simply staple the wires along the baseboard or crown molding and in the room’s corners to the speakers. Incidentally, a professional already owns the staple gun and would not have to make another trip to the Ace Hardware.

    A professional moves confidently, partly because he’s done this at least once before. He won’t move with the heightened timidity from which we suffer, the gingerliness that leads to the sudden explosion of frustration. No, the professional is one cool customer. His calmness stems from the certainty that if he errs, he can fix the error, or at least cover it up cheaply. He can patch the unnecessary holes and somehow disguise the splintered break in the paneling, no problem. Smug bastard.

With that final insight, and with thirty minutes of draping wire like Christmas garland, you have successfully, relatively, completed a project for which you no longer feel any pride. Night has fallen, and clean-up operations remain, which include rearranging the room to mask any extra holes in the walls.

You have learned a valuable lesson from the experience, though. If you’re like me, you’ll remember how inadept you are at this sort of thing for at least two months. Fortunately, this schedule will minimize the damage you can do to your home and the number of times you must call contractors for catastrophic repairs. It certainly helps me.

Wallets: A Personal Evolution

Every boy must choose to either embrace the traditions of his father or to throw them off; this dilemma represents the passage to manhood throughout the adolescence that extends into the thirties of American males today. Hence, it’s not uncommon for a man in his thirties, like me, to reflect upon the lessons passed on from the paterfamilias and to determine whether to continue abiding by the wisdom of the predecessors or to strike out in a new direction in search of one’s fortune and moral balance. Thus it was in my thirty-second year that I decided that I would no longer carry a trifold wallet, as my sire had before me; nay, I would embrace the bifold wallet.

My father worked as a carpenter and hunted small game on the city streets of Milwaukee to feed his family for years, and then he stacked food on a pallet in a warehouse to feed his new family. Throughout, carried a worn leather trifold wallet. I don’t remember what sort of wallet my grandfather carried, but I’d bet trifold. The trifold is shaped for the back pocket, for comfortable carrying by men who bend and lift and nail things for a living.

I got my first trifold in high school, a cheap fabric and Velcro piece of swag or garage sale splendor so that I could carry my student ID and the dollar or so I scrounged from my mother for lunch. It nestled the money tightly and comfortably with the extra security of the Velcro strip, its announcement of money spending rarely heard, for I skipped the cafeteria to gather those dollar bills where I could. I carried the wallet until a Christmas gift certificate let me purchase a real leather trifold wallet.

I wore that wallet and its two replacements throughout college and through the first ten years of my working life, when I acted as a retail clerk, as a shipping receiving clerk, and as a printer to pay for student loans and to keep a cheap car mostly running. I even carried them as my career arc accelerated into the information technology field, I got married, and we mortgaged a house.

The trifold signifies a certain protectiveness about the contents, particularly the money within it. The two flaps envelop the contents to guard and protect the funds from the callous outside world and the temptations it offered. Funds were scarce when I was growing up. One’s wallet needed a certain difficulty of access, also, to dissuade one from whipping out gas money or worse, a credit card, to spend frivolously. The trifold represented not only a style of wallet, but a way of life.

However, my life has changed since those hardscrabble days since my life became less hard and more Scrabble; I lucked into a position in the IT industry and became, according to all expectations of my youth, rich. Not only can I pay the student loans, the mortgage, and car maintenance, but I can do it without credit cards. I can get a twenty dollar bill whenever I want, and I can spend it.

The relative affluence combined with a new wardrobe imperative. Instead of worrying about comfort while lifting and toting, I had to worry about the fit of slacks, which meant to avoid an unsightly bulge in trousers. I began carrying my wallet in my front pocket in the world of business casual, and the trifold folded thickly around the security keys, collection of dollar bills, credit cards, insurance cards, and other assorted memorabilia that would somehow not include a picture of my beautiful wife. I wanted something slimmer and thought of the bifold wallet.

Of course, I initially rebelled at the thought, since we have always carried trifold wallets, but the thought returned until I considered it seriously. I liked the idea of a slimmer profile in the wallet, the easier fit into the front pocket of slacks and even jeans. So I found myself looking for just the right wallet in the department store, and in a moment of trepidation and emancipation rebelled against my upbringing and bought the bifold wallet.

The bifold wallet indicates higher class; it’s the top hat of men’s accessories. Barring the cape, monocle, and walking stick, it adds the élan and aplomb that people who stay or dine at the Ritz afford. Instead of guarding money, the bifold flips open easily, like a Star Trek communicator, so its bearer can effectively commune with the natives and so its bearer can access the lubricant of commerce and acquisition easily. I now bear the power and irresponsibility of relative upper middle class, outer-suburb but not over the-river affluence. When my beautiful wife lets me get that extra twenty dollar bill.

The Milwukee Witch’s House

Early in the morning, the mists rising from Lake Michigan creep over its shorelines and extend their tendrils into the nearby yards and neighborhoods, giving a feeling as esoteric and eldritch as any New England setting from an H.P. Lovecraft story. If one takes a curving road along the lake shore in Fox Point, Wisconsin, one’s headlights trickle over the foliage until the most pagan of sites emerges from the gloom. Concrete totems lurk behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. As many generations of Milwaukee-area residents know, this seemingly calm, semi-secluded area is the Witch’s House. A guide, if present, will insist with as much vehemence as a raised whisper can allow that everyone roll up the windows and lock the car doors and will exhort the driver not to stop.

Some whisper that a woman lived in the home with her husband and young son. One day, the husband and son took the family boat out onto the Great Lake and capsized just offshore. Her family drowned within sight of the woman, and she was powerless to help them. The woman thought that the spirits of the water would come to take her to join her husband and son, so she began to make warding statues to keep the water spirits at bay. Another story claimed that she killed her husband and child herself and hid them among the statues.

The real story of the Milwaukee Witch’s House is more benign. Artist Mary Nohl, born in 1914 and a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, inherited the family land and cottage in the 1960s. She began to create an art environment, crafting sculptures in such media as concrete, tree branches, sand, and other items that washed ashore on her property. Given her influences and preferred subject matter of whimsical and mythic figures and the fact that she remained single fueled the spooky rumors that drove young spectre seekers to her neighborhood late at night. By all accounts, Ms. Nohl did not mind the underground attention she received, as she didn’t prosecute trespassers and once remarked, as a group of young people viewed her work from outside the fence, that they had good taste.

Although Mary Nohl died in 2001, the house remains an art environment to this day. Mary Nohl donated the land and millions of dollars to the Kohler Foundation, and the foundation would like to open the house as a museum so visitors can enjoy the works of Mary Nohl without the mystery and foreboding. However, other residents of the Fox Point neighborhood are taking steps to prevent the land from becoming a museum, undoubtedly tired of decades of nocturnal visitors of the teenaged sort.

For at least a short time, restless wayfarers can drive by the site at the witching hour with unwitting companions and continue to embellish the tale of the Witch’s House and to view the works in the traditional method, with all of with the mystery and foreboding young imaginations can ferment.

Other reading:
Kohler Foundation description of the Mary Nohl Site:
http://www.kohlerfoundation.org/new_NohlSite.html

Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation, 10 Most Endangered Properties list including Nohl House
http://www.wthp.org/10_most.htm

Wisconsin National Register of Historic Places Entry for Mary Nohl Art Environment:
http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/hp/register/viewSummary.asp?refnum=05001109

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl column “Pilgrimage to ‘witch’s house’ was a rite of passage”:
http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=11655

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel news item “Artist’s legacy lingers: Some residents fight preservation of woman’s quirky lakefront home”:
http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=304368


Sound like a piece you would find on Damn Interesting? Well, yeah, it was one of my sample pieces. It was not accepted, and it wasn’t doing anything on my hard drive, so there you go.

Reaching the Outer Limits of Property Rights

Drudge linked to a story (registration required) in the New York Times about how radio broadcasters are exploring a new system, called Radio Data System, wherein the radio stations can push text advertising onto your car dashboards (or other radios, I would guess). Some critics assail the possibility of drivers becoming distracted from their driving, but I’m not so worried about that. I realize most drivers aren’t paying attention to their driving anyway, and that the text advertisements might only distract drivers from their phone conversations, newspapers, breakfast, or make-up application.

Instead, I am worried more about property rights slowly but continually eroding, almost invisibly. Because, citizens, when it comes to who holds broadcast or reception rights to your personal property, the answer always seems to be not you.

It used to be that if you bought something and it became your property, you had rights to use it and dispose of it as you saw fit. No one else had rights to use it without your permission, else it would be stolen (or borrowed by your irresponsible sibling, but that’s something else). The Constitution even addresses a particular instance of government appropriation, quartering, in the Bill of Rights. You owned something, you could use it as you saw fit, and unless you were doing something illegal, no one could stop you.

Technology changes things. With radio, you bought a device that allowed you to receive information broadcast by another person or a corporation. So you had a personal device through which you could opt to listen to a broadcast, and you could choose among available broadcasts that you wanted to receive. The act of owning a radio and receiving a broadcast require an explicit owner action. Granted, the user had no control over the content, but the user had the control over the reception thereof. The radio broadcaster could not force the user to listen.

The telephone represents a two-way communications device that most people possess as personal property. The telephone allows you to either receive a transmission (a phone call), or it allows you to create a transmission (pick up and dial out). In either case, the owner must explicitly use the device to broadcast. The owner retains the right of transmission through his personal property.

The right of transmission, as I have so eloquently labeled it, should be a fundamental corollary of basic property rights. That once I own a device, I and I alone determine how to use it and when to use it. As technology outpaces understanding and forethought, we’re in great danger that this right is being ceded de facto to corporations whose products send and receive data without explicit owner consent–often without owner knowledge.

I see this end-run around the right of transmission in any number of instances, including existing and projected technologies. RFID tags that continue broadcasting their signal after purchase, not for the benefit of the owner but instead for the benefit of the manufacturer, retailler, or their bestest, closet “business partners.” Silver boxes beneath your car seat that record what you’re doing so that the manufacturer can point its finger at you, not the automobile, if an accident occurs. Of course, the worst offender is computer software.

New Internet-connected software often, without explicit user consent–phones home to rewrite “patch” itself or to “improve the customer experience”–by transmitting information about you and your computer to, once again, the manufacturer and its closest friends. The user’s experience improves in that he or she only sees the targetted marketing and reminders to upgrade that the manufacturer thinks the user wants to see, which is probably better than all possible marketing the manufacturer could send you. The software in some cases will contact its home without seeking consent to fix manufacturing defects–“consent” is granted through a single click at some time in the past or a nebulous and unreadable license agreement. Because of its current Wizard-of-Oz nature, the software industry gets away with this because its magic takes place behind the curtain, its functionality apparently wizardry when it works.

But I digress from my thesis with the expenditure from my information-systems-industry-venom sacs. Unlike automobile manufacturers who issue recalls that require a user’s specific action to take the auto into the dealership for repair or upgrade, some software manufacturers insist they’ll fix it automatically. A person who purchases a house would recognize his or her rights have been violated if he or she came home from work to find the house has had its deck removed and has been painted eggshell blue by the previous owners–however, some software companies reserve the right to refactor and rewrite–that is, replace–private property of its customers. The more they condition customers to accept this as normal, the less customers will recognize the nature of their property rights.

I admit that the article linked above only provided a jumping-off point for thought regarding this matter. I have trouble imagining people will rush out to buy radios that provide an extra benefit for broadcasters and nothing for the consumer. However, these companies do see it as their right to push marketing and to take other liberties with your personal property, and we as consumers and as citizens must stop clicking Yes, signing unread or undisputed contracts, and accepting quietly this usurping of our property rights.

Lessons from a Grocery Store

I didn’t learn everything that I learned while I was at college in college. I went to Marquette University and got a B.A. in English and philosophy before I looked in the classified ads to see how many listings there were for ‘Philosopher Wanted.’

Fortunately I worked at a grocery store to put myself through college, an unremarkable feat alone. It did teach me several things that the university professors or the views outside the classroom windows did. I value what I learned in the hallowed halls of Marquette, but that’s not all there is to life. What I learned in Dave Straz 501 and Marquette Hall 301 is theory, and without wedding it to the practical it is worthless. Likewise what I learned in the back rooms of stores in Milwaukee and Missouri would seem a bit too specific to be of use anywhere else. Fortunately the two have gelled into a set of lessons to pass on:

  1. Always have something to fall back on.
    The lights in the break room never seemed to all work at once, and it was dark one September evening at Gold’s Shop Rite. I had just started my freshman year at Marquette, and I was a three month veteran of the grocery industry. The new assistant manager, a portly man named Dean, convinced Mike Fredericks, store manager, to hold a meeting for the baggers. The summer short-timers had shaken out, and seated around the crumby table in front of me a small core of baggers that would last a while. Tim, a recent refuge from some other town, new to everyone in the city and somehow lonelier than all of us; Shawn, a flame-haired future high school dropout whose hobbies were heavy metal-music and piercing himself; Robert, a recently born-again Christian with energy that seemed barely contained in his small frame; Cortney, the largest of us, a high school athlete; Earl, a thin, bespectacled black young man that would follow his family into the Marine Corps as I had not; and me, a recent homecomer from Missouri with pretentions of “Poetry.”
    “Take pride in your work. You guys do a good job, and we want you to know what you do is important.” Hard to convince seven guys at minimum wage that they were in a noble undertaking.

    “It will always be something to fall back on.” Over the years, I have seen many retirees come back to the grocery industry to supplement whatever pensions and “old people” incomes they receive. I myself have returned to produce clerkdom to pull myself out of debt.

    College never afforded us that luxury. With the intensity of the new curriculums, less time is spent on the liberal arts and more is spent focussing our graduates into one field, into one narrow path through life where deviation means confusion. Much of what passes for my personal “limbo” experiences and possibly for the rest of my generation is the feeling that if we don’t get a good job in one narrow bandwidth of life we have failed.

    Like an Existentialist Jesuit told my class, “Most of life is plan B.” It helps to have a plan B, and if not specifically the grocery industry, then something to fall back on.

  2. Touch the product.
    When I first became a produce clerk, Chris stood next to me, both of us clad in our green aprons. Mine was a symbol of pride; his was a uniform. We were “culling the rack,” checking each display of fruits and vegetables for bad merchandise. “Touch them all; touch them, feel them, become them,” he said with mock Bodhisatva wisdom and baring his teeth in the peculiar Michels smile. “Only then can you cull the rack effectively.”

    Each morning I ran my fingers over all the waxy apple skins, among the tartly scented grapefruit, and over (and occasionally into) the dull tomatoes. When rotating the produce, I picked each peach and plum up individually and put them into place, insuring less damage than what a later produce manager would call the “dump and run.” When the deliveries of new product came in, I would wheel the skids-pallets-into the cooler and hand unload them, moving first the old product out of the way and then restacking them all by hand. It gave me a sense of knowing what the product was, what it looked like, and even a sense of accomplishment when it was done.

    Too often I remember other, less manual jobs where I would deal with items and people I had never seen. It was far removed from me; I think sometimes other people feel the same way.

    “Why so many?” A purchaser asked me at a later job. She gestured a lithe arm at the four oversized skids of foamboards. Our loading dock held six skids of product comfortably, with room to move carts and ourselves. I had left the other seven skids, one a double-size with four by eight foot sheets of foamboard on it, out on the concrete loading dock.

    “That’s what you ordered.” I flipped pages on the purchase order and showed her the number of sheets she ordered. “Fourteen hundred. Four bins of three hundred and fifty.”

    I’m sure it looked a lot simpler on the computer screen when she typed it in. Fourteen hundred is four keystrokes and a return. Fourteen hundred foamboards is one hundred and twenty eight cubic feet. Something she remembered for three months, until it was time to order it again. Something I and the others who sell it and move it every day take for granted.

    I am not above it. The first produce order I wrote, several years ago, was a bit large. The produce manager took a week’s vacation, and I wrote the order for a Saturday load and was in the process of moving it around when I checked the order book. It was only ones and twos in the book, with an occasional four or ten, but when it was totaled, it was a two hundred piece load. Almost twice the necessary amount for an average summer weekend. Almost too much for a green green grocer to handle. But I managed, and I remembered that little ticks in the book add up to lots of cases in the cooler, lots of cases of perishables in the cooler.

  3. Remember the people.
    William, third grade, liked to help me fill the rack whenever his mother shopped at the store. He told me in his many visits of his preference for comic books with Wolverine in them and his performance on recent math tests.

    Val, a highly educated woman with a gravelly voice always shortened my name to “Bri,” her current husband’s name. She was a discriminating produce buyer and knew the seasons better than I do.

    “Swivel-hips.” Someone in the store designated the red-haired lady that because she did not pivot at the waist. She always asked for help buying good grapes for her mother and lived her life on the sixty-seven bus line. I often saw her waiting for it going one way or the other.

    There are more faces than names, the customers in the various stores I have worked in. Every one of them have different preferences and different experiences.

    “Cut these down and put them on the floor. They’ll buy them.” One of the in absentia owners pointed at scraps of paper to be bundled and priced. I didn’t care to ask who “they” were or why “they” would want to by assortments of mismatched color papers. I doubted if he knew.

    Too often this happens in the retail industry. Someone remembers they have a target audience, and the abstraction takes over for individuals. It happens in other circumstances, too, when we stereotype individuals by their occupations or positions in life. A certain amount is inevitable, given the small amount of attention and time we can give to any one person, place, or idea these days, but it helps to keep the individual in mind. Not for some strange esoteric “we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters” forced-fraternity, but because we might miss out on some interesting and personal contact. Something too often missing in the flurry of modern existence.

    Besides, if you don’t know who “they” are, you might not know that they don’t need multi-colored trinkets.

  4. Don’t waste timing covering your arse.
    There’s a lot to be done and very little time to do it in life. It’s not so bad when you’re in a store and you know when your shift is over. You can pace yourself to get everything you want to do and need to do done. Life doesn’t afford us that luxury. We need to make the most of time. Covering yourself and hiding or obfuscating your mistakes wastes precious time.

    “Who threw all those greens out?” Number Two asked. My second produce manager blinked his expansive blue eyes at me from his low height.

    “That’s a silly question. I did.” There were two of us working in the department.

    “Why?”

    “They were rotting in the cooler.” The smell had been driving me crazy for days. He proceeded to tell me how his gross profit margin would be affected and all the other good reasons I should not have thrown them out.

    He did give me every opportunity to avoid it, though. I could have answered that I didn’t know, I could have made lengthier explanations and excuses. Either way I would have wasted time trying to avoid the consequences of my action. I leave the excuses and the innuendo dances to the people in the front office.

    I don’t claim some sort of produce omniscience, either. I make mistakes, too. Like wetting leaf lettuces and cabbages from a water bottle where a ten percent bleach solution has replaced pure water. When I found out what happened, I pulled all the cabbage and leaf lettuce and threw them out. I rinsed the rack and filled it with fresh product. Time spent on making excuses, pleading innocence or ignorance, or bemoaning error could be better spent on fixing them or just going on. Some of us have to work for a living and live for a lifetime.

So there you have them. It’s not enough to write a snooty book prompted by the editor of Harper’s, but I got something from my years in the retail industry. Now, for only $10,000 per instance, I can come to your company and explain them.