January 31, 2006

To a Marxist Dying Old

The first two stanzas of a parody of A. E. Housman's
"To an Athlete Dying Young," written by Dr. Sanity and copied on YARGB (YARGB link is to entire blog -- permalink broken):

That time in the sixties you made your point
And celebrated with a joint;
Protesters stood cheering by,
And everyone of them was high.

To-day, you dwell within that past,
Desperate that your theories last,
But sadly, they have been debunked,
And Marx himself has been depunked.

Go to either blog to admire and smile at the rest of this fine piece of verse.

January 30, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006)

Sometimes we're touched by the passing of someone we hadn't thought about in years, someone who created a small work that remains fresh in memory as a symbol of what we were back then. Wendy Wasserstein was best known for her Pulitzer-prizewinning play THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, but what I remember of hers is a previous work, UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS (1977), which I saw when it was broadcast as a 1979 PBS special starring a very young and unknown Meryl Streep (in a role played onstage by an also unknown Glenn Close) and the wonderful Swoosie Kurtz (whom I saw most recently as John Locke's mother on the TV series LOST, though she's done many finer things in live theater and elsewhere). Streep in her twenties with a long mane of blonde hair was immediastely recognizable as a phenomenon. The play is about a group of Mount Holyoke coeds (that antiquated word applies) who are anticipating graduation and entry into adult life. The characters' refrain, "We're gonna be great when we're 45," still echoes today for this lover of uncommon women, with added poignancy.

Here's the NYT obituary by Charles Isherwood.

First Proofs of Book

I got the electronic proofs of my book this morning from iUniverse, and they did a very nice job on the interior of the book. It's going to be 190 pages, which, surprisingly, is longer than the manuscript, and it's a fairly large paperback format too, 6" X 9". The cover price will be $13.95. The title of the book is ONLY WHAT IS, which comes from my May 24, 2005 post, "The Believer in Mottos": “I am only interested in what is."

I'm less satisfied with the cover, but I'll have the chance to try to browbeat them into making suitable changes. I want an extremely simple cover design, and, probably not trusting that I really wanted that, they went beyond my specifications and added designy touches. Ugh.

The book contains 90 posts, the large majority of them fiction, with some autobiographical and travel essays and haiku, and with a post-sized author's preface added. Comments are not included, though of course they'll still be available on the original posts. I'll post the table of contents when the time comes close to offer the book for sale, which should be in about a month. It will be available on Amazon and B&N as well as from the publisher, and I'll put permanent links to all three on my sidebar.

I'll also post other materials that traditionally help readers decide to buy a book: the jacket copy, the blurbs, and my personal favorite, the author photo.

Exciting and nerve-wracking! I've been through this proces several times before, and so far it's easier with this self-publishing service than with "real" publishers.

January 29, 2006

The Dream Hoarder

From youth to age he kept his dream journal, recorded faithfully each morning as he grasped the trailing bedsheet of each dream, staying a minute more in the blessed land before being exiled into daylight. Notebook after notebook filled the years: a life’s work in night words, an autobiography in symbols; and he prided himself on being the best remembrerer, keeping not only the gross plots of the dreams but all the half-glimpsed décor and extra characters, the calendar on the wall overlooking the seduction, the burnt-out candle turning into a suitcase. All the landmark dreams were there, the signposts of his life – the dream about stealing his motorcycle back from Death, the dream about the ship with his fate written on its hull – and the little dreams too, the dream of sleet in Hawaii, the dream of the CD that skipped. After writing each morning’s dreams, he would sit on the edge of the bed interpreting: planning how the dreams should guide his day.

When he was old and in his last illness he called for his trunk full of dream journals and started reading from the earliest one. And his heart sank. At first he read slowly, disbelieving, but testing every hope; and then he skimmed quickly, impatient, desperate for some tiny glimmer of worth to leap to his eye. They were so boring it sent a shock down his spine.

He rang the buzzer for the nurse. “Could you turn on the TV for me, please?”

I dreamed this last night, and I wonder what it means.

Labels: ,

January 27, 2006

Beauty Is What Matters

The radio is playing one of his divertimenti for strings -- they didn't give the K. number, but it sounds like a really early work, rhythmically straightforward, not much dazzling embellishment or many lightning leaps from idea to idea -- it must have beeen written about the time when Haydn said to papa Leopold Mozart, "I swear to you before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name."

All over the world we are celebrating his 250th birthday, in a global audience that sits with one shared multicolored dreamy-eyed smile, as in the audience shots in Bergman's film of THE MAGIC FLUTE.

Some people carp and say that he wasn't enough of an innovator. He didn't break apart old forms and install new ones as Beethoven or Debussy did; he didn't even resuscitate old styles and refashion them, consolidate them, raise them to unprecedented grandeur, as Bach did. He was content to take what he found and do it better than anyone else. He simply wrote down, as fast as he could, what he heard in his head: what the inexhaustible source poured out. He was content to be God's songbird.

Mozart shows up the fallacy of avant-gardism, and that in itself seems like a new thing in this day and age. Thousands of graduate students sit in seminars solemnly nodding, "Yes, Professor, we will question authority. Yes, Professor, we will transgress." Mozart laughs at them. Some art shocks and breaks rules, but those qualities are not what make it art. An artist who does nothing more than invent his generation's device is insuring that his work will end up irrelevant. He might as well have built a horse-drawn plow. It might have its place in history, but who today would want to use it?

Students in art school nowadays are taught that art is not about creating beautiful objects. They are being taught wrong. Listen to Alicia de Larrocha playing the Piano Concerto No. 27. That's all the argument I need.

Labels: ,

Blogrolling Time

I'm putting three blogs on my blogroll today and I'd like to tell you about them.

One is an old blogfriend, Roborant, hosted by Rob, one of my frequent commenters. Rob is an aerospace engineer, software designer, and Austinite who's been embarked on a long-term project of self-education, with impressive results. His blog features long, thoughtful reviews of books he's read in science, philosophy, history, and other subjects, from Hobbes and Locke to the latest speculations on the evolutionary sources of morality. He also writes personal reminiscences and some fiction. Rob took the blog down for a few months while he redesigned it visually and in content. It's still somewhat under construction; the current layout has you click on a linked annotated title rather than reading posts on the main page. The blog now seems more varied in its focus, with narrative and personal speculation as important as book reviews. Whatever the subject, no one who's read Rob's comments on my posts will be suprised to learn that his reflections on the way the world works are always worth pondering.

SF Mom of One is a close friend of our family -- she's my wife's best friend -- who has just started a blog. True to its name, the blog is about raising a young daughter in San Francisco, and SF Mom does it (both the raising and the writing) with brains and humor. Anyone who's raising a child in America will be able to identify with most of her experiences -- serving on the PTA Executive Board, looking for a church for the family -- but here they're fascinatingly skewed by the fact that SF Mom is, indeed, in the Bay Area and therefore must feel guilty every time she does something completely normal but politically incorrect: letting her drink a soda on a plane, letting her watch TV, killing a spider. The fact that the potential churches are Swedenborgian and Unitarian is also a telling touch. These glimpses of northern California culture bring a breath of diversity to my plain old Texas lifestyle.

Deb St-Claire is in turn a friend of SF Mom's. Deb lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York and her blog, Family Dinner, is about cooking -- cooking for her family and friends, which Deb obviously does well but with the self-criticism of a serious practitioner. She's been influenced by M. F. K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin, and other cooking writers, and her posts are nicely turned and full of tangy morsels.

Three new and new/old blogfriends -- bon appetit!

January 26, 2006

And Not Only That. But...

…for some reason I decided that last week would be a great time to have those darn skin tags taken off my face and body. Actually I made the appointment a couple of months ago, and up to the very morning of my big explosion (see previous post) I was anticipating an unstressed week when I’d enjoy skipping a couple of hours of work for a jaunt to the dermatologist’s. They’re just humdrum-looking skin tags, nothing grotesque, one near each eye, upsetting my vanity because they made me look older; and a handful on the neck and armpits that might as well be zapped off at the same time. Also I had a small blotch of tan on my cheekbone that I thought might be precancerous.

By the time the appointment came around, it had become one of the many forms of penance I was hoping to subject myself to, as well as a needed distraction; and as upset as my wife was at me, she took a collegial interest in the vicissitudes of my skin. Perhaps we both needed the entertainment. (We were avidly watching DVDs of the TV show LOST that week. I was thinking how great it would be to be shipwrecked on an island.)

So off I went. The dermatologist was a trim, brisk, compact man in his sixties, with neatly parted white hair, and the diplomas on his wall told me that he’d done his residency at the Mayo Clinic and, before that, in the army, had earned a citation from a general for service during some community emergency. This was a doctor I had confidence in before even seeing. I began telling him of my concerns, and before I’d finished saying my first paragraph he’d diagnosed my blotch as a mixed lesion of seborrheic and actinic keratoses (keratosises?), the latter possibly cancerous in the long run and thus eminently eligible for immediate destruction.

On the little exam room desk, sitting quietly, was a thermos-like metal canister with a long spray tube. This, I soon learned, was the doctor’s best friend, constant companion, and trusted assistant: a canister of liquid nitrogen at 160 degrees below zero. “We’ll just freeze ‘em off,” he said, as he must do twenty times a day, and almost before I could say, “Yes,” the canister was lifted toward my face. I closed my eyes, although he hadn’t been so rash as to instruct me to, and instantly felt the first blast. Something too cold to feel cold was hitting my cheek in a steady spray; after a few seconds, the non-sensation became a burning. I like to use such occasions as opportunities to test the efficacy of meditation. I watched my breath, in and out, in and out. It all became rather pleasant.

“Most people are jumping up and down,” the doctor said. I suppose he was a little disappointed not to have a moving target to play with.

He blasted a couple more lesions, then was about to proceed to the one in the corner of my eye. “Er, excuse me, sir, but given the fact that it’s right near my eye, are you going to take any special -- ?”

“I’ll just put my finger here to block your eye,” he said quickly, and as I was saying, “Oh,” the blast hit the corner of my eye. The guy was great. Because my eyes were shut, I didn’t see how far away he was shooting from, but his aim was perfect. And I guess his finger is accustomed to being in the blocking position and getting hit with peripheral sprays of friendly ice. He could probably have hit that lesion in his sleep. I was glad, though, that I wasn’t one of the first patients he had ever treated, years and years before. I imagined him as a young doctor practicing his marksmanship in the off-hours. Did he practice on a bullseye? A teddy bear? A fellow resident? I imagine what he talks about to his wife at dinner: “Today I zapped a writer, a bus dispatcher, and a city cop.” And his dreams: Zap, zap, take that, monsters! Saving the world and winning the girl with a little canister of liquid nitrogen.

It was all over in about the time you’ve read this, and he told me that the frozen areas would swell the next day, followed by weeping and crusting, and then would fall off after a week or so. (It’s been a week and they look almost ready to fall.) “Enough of a workout for today?” the nurse asked me cheerfully on my way out, and I laughed and said yes. I felt fine, but as I drove home it did occur to me that I felt like I’d received serious burns in several spots on my face, neck, and trunk. I lay on the couch for a while and drank some water.

Any minute now I’ll start looking five years younger, rather than scabby and swollen as I do.

What was my score for vanity?


January 25, 2006

Psst, I Got the Stuff

I’ve just been diagnosed as bipolar and I’m feeling really great about it!

This is serious, folks, and this is a nonfiction post. A couple of times on this blog I’ve alluded glancingly to the fact that I’ve been in treatment for depression over the years. In fact my life could be divided into two eras: the time when I was depressed and the time when I was treated for depression. The treatment, dating from my mid-thirties, has been successful – I’m a lot happier now than I was in my youth – but often I’ve felt that other problematic dimensions of my personality had been left untouched: dimensions of anxiety and anger, specifically.

I’m a kind, patient, peaceful person most of the time but all my life I’ve been prone to irritability over small slights and frustrations, and periodically I’ve been known to explode in anger at the drop of a hat, about almost nothing. (There’s a history of this in my father’s family.) It’s caused too much misery to me and to the people I love, who’ve received most of my anger. It was a big factor in the breakup of my first marriage. (I’m not going to link to that here; a link seems too flippant.) Over the years this trait has diminished in frequency, but on the occasions when it has resurfaced it has been as ugly as ever.

When I first got treated for depression my psychiatrist thought I might be bipolar too, but a brief trial of lithium proved unpleasant. Since then, self-help efforts augmented by antidepressants have got me through pretty well. But paradoxically, as I’ve felt happier about my life, I’ve been more susceptible to elation. It’s fun to feel elated, but the “up” periods are when it’s most likely for me to burst into anger. At the top of a mood curve, I sometimes explode. This is a bipolar symptom, and the conjunction between elation and anger is something my loved ones probably haven’t been aware of. My moods are most dangerous not when I’m down but when I’m up.

To make a long story short, I exploded in anger at my wife a week ago at a time when she and I had been feeling especially loving, especially optimistic about our relationship. I was shouting and cursing abusively and a millimeter away from violence, a line that thank God I have never crossed. The damage has not yet been fully repaired, but it was soon obvious to me that I needed finally to get help.

Yesterday I talked to my family doctor for a while and he agreed that I should get an evaluation from a psychiatrist. Health insurance companies nowadays are not especially eager to certify psychiatric consultations – you’re more likely to be sent to a talk therapist first – but my doctor advised me to state my case strongly, and the insurance company gave me a list of the four – count ‘em – psychiatrists in Austin who belong to their network and who are accepting new patients. I called one, and the receptionist wanted to give me an appointment in March, but I pleaded marital crisis and she very nicely found an opening that very day, if I could get there in thirty minutes. Which I could.

The psychiatrist was a nice young man out of Southern Methodist University, with no visible personality quirks, who interviewed me by repeating, with elaboration, the questions from the intake form I had filled out in his waiting room. He feels, and I agree, that I fit into the new, fluid category-in-progress of unspecified bipolar disorders which are treated with mood stabilizers, not with lithium. It’s a middle range, less severe than manic-depressive psychosis, but nevertheless troubling in people’s lives. I don’t go on spending sprees, I don’t talk through the night about grandiose plans and charter planes to other continents, but my moods are always cycling, nonstop – so rapidly, in fact, that the major reason for uncertainty about whether I fit the diagnostic category is that I don’t know if I’ve ever had an elation that lasted more than the requisite four days. As I wrote in my journal a few years ago and repeated in an earlier post, I am always happy and always sad.

The phases of mood are as palpable to me as the difference between sugar and salt, or between water and air. They are physiologically distinct states; I know them by touch; I practically greet them – sometimes with gladness, sometimes with trepidation – when they cross my threshold.

So the shrink gave me this stuff, and it’s supposed to take about a month to start showing effects. I’m wondering how it will affect my writing – I’ve sometimes thought that riding the mood curve was the real secret of creativity, and I’ve also thought that in order to write something really worthwhile I had to be either rejoicing or in despair. But I prefer to think that those romantic opinions were the syndrome justifying itself. I hope that by advancing in maturity I’ll find things to write about I haven’t found before. And if not – well, six books isn’t a bad total, and other things are more important. I pray that a third era in my life is beginning.

I’ve been wondering whether I should tell you all this, but when I first decided to become a writer, self-disclosure was part of the bargain. Now you know everything about me.


January 24, 2006

Agent 95 Secedes!

After school, Agent 95 told us, “I’ve decided to secede my desk from the other three desks at my table. We’ve been learning about how the South seceded and I want to try it out.”

“How can you secede your desk?” his mother asked. “You can’t move it away from the rest of the table, can you?”

“Well, did the South move when it seceded?”

A good point, I thought. His mother asked, “What’s the matter, don’t you like the other kids at your table?”

“Two of them I like and the other one’s okay. I just want to secede, that’s all.”

Probably as true a reason as the ones in the history books.


January 22, 2006

Which Deadly Sin Are You?

Well, I just took three different online tests to see which deadly sins I was most susceptible to, and two of them -- at SelectSmart and Quiz Farm -- gave almost exactly opposite results, while the third, Quizilla, was too stupid to finish.

My SelectSmart results, in descending order:

In addition, the SelectSmart test has an eighth category, "angelic," which was actually the highest score both for me and for my wife. But the people who know me best know that it isn't true -- and I'm not saying this as false modesty or to get reassurance from you, please forbear from that kind of comment. It's true of my wife, though.

My Quiz Farm results were:


That seems a lot truer to me, except that I would switch Sloth and Envy. I got a high mark for Sloth because, as a creative type, I lie around thinking a lot. But it's productive lying-around so I think I deserve partial credit.

Which sins are you?

January 18, 2006

I'm a Cohen!

One of the Kohanim, the priests of ancient Israel, the sons of Aaron.

As I reported a few weeks ago, I had my DNA tested by Family Tree DNA, and I just got the results by email. I'm a bearer of Haplotype J, the series of mutations that distinguish the Kohanim and that apparently evolved about 3,000 years ago. So are my sons and my brothers.

Approximately 3% of Jews carry the Kohanim marker. Family Tree DNA gave me the names and email addresses of a couple of dozen people in their database who match my profile most closely. (One was at the University of Wisconsin, oddly enough, where I hung around for a dozen years.) It also provided a breakdown of the countries of origin of a larger number of people who had matches with me at varying degrees of distance. Not surprisingly, the vast majority were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Russia, and Romania -- the homelands of my immediate ancestors -- with a few from Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Germany, Czechoslovakia, etc. There were a handful of matches from Syria, a couple of which were Arabs. And there were one or two from Sicily and one Sephardi from -- get this, Tamar -- the Isle of Rhodes.

So what happens now? Uh, well, I guess I get to go around giving people the Vulcan salute. And I get to strut around feeling superior... Wait, I already did that. So I guess nothing has really changed.


January 17, 2006


My blogging's probably going to be spotty this week -- "sporadic at best," as a professor once said of my classroom contributions. I'm wading through a mound of freelance work and trying to get my book in shape for submission to a self-publishing service as well. I probably won't be able to steal time to read and comment on your blogs, either, and for that I'm doubly sorry.

I'll get back in gear as soon as I can.

January 16, 2006

Fly Ash is Back

It's a good day in the blogosphere when DANCING ON FLY ASH is back in operation. This two-man microfiction site, run by Matt Bell and Josh Maday of Saginaw, Michigan, began more than a year ago as a venue for the hosts' daily microfictions of 100 words or less. After a hiatus of a couple of months, Josh has posted two stories in the past few days, and his fans, of whom I'm one, are hoping for many more, as well as for a restart by Matt.

Reading microfiction is a perfect breakfast or lunch diversion, and you can even sneak one in during boring meetings or conference calls. Then try to explain to your coworkers what you're laughing about. It may get you fired but it will expand your perceptions -- and which is more important in the long run?

Welcome back, guys!

January 15, 2006

How to Get a Real Person

Here at RLC we our best to serve you better every day. That's why we found the IVR Cheat Sheet™ by Paul English. It tells you how to get a real live organism on the phone when you're calling your favorite legal person-equivalents. Looking for someone to talk to at Student Loan Corp or Charles Schwab? Try The IVR Cheat Sheet™ by Paul English:

Accredited Home Lenders 877-683-4466 Press 0
Advanta (business cards) 800-705-7255 1, 0
America First 800-999-3961 0 or say "member services"
American Education Services 800-233-0557 Select language, then press 2, then 00# ar each prompt
American Express 800-528-4800 0 repeatedly
American Funds 800-421-0180 Press 0.
Ameritrade 800-669-3900 3, 3, 0. (Former Datek Clients: 800-823-2835)
AT&T Universal Card 800-423-4343 Do not say anything or push any buttons! It takes awhile, but eventually a human comes on-line!
Bank of America 800 900 9000 At ANY Bank of America number, press *0 to get human.
Bank One 877-226-5663 00
Bayview Loan Services 800-457-5105 Press 0.
Capital One 800-903-3637 For all Capital One #s, press 0 at each prompt or just don't do anything until finally offered option of representative
Charles Schwab 800-435-9050 3, 0
Chase 800-242-7324 At most Chase numbers, press 0 at each prompt; eventually get rep.
Chase Auto Loans 800-346-9670 Press 1, 2, *0
Chase Credit Cards 800-625-5161 Direct to human. (This line is for online issues only.)
Chrysler Financial 800-700-0738 Select language, then press 00
Citi Cards 866-696-5673 Press 0 to get a human is offered at many Citibank numbers.
Citibank 800-756-7047 Otherwise, press 0 at each prompt; eventually get rep.
Citizens Bank 800-922-9999 Press 0,0,0
Columbia Mutual Funds 800-345-6611 Say "representative."
Commerce Bank 800-937-2000 Press 0.
Countrywide Loans 800-669-5864 Press 0 repeatedly
Decision One Mortgage 888-264-3663 Don't press any keys when prompted; they transfer you
Diner's Club 800-729-5309 Press 2.
DirectMerchants Bank 800-379-7999 Press 0 at each prompt; eventually get rep.
Discover 800-347-2683 ****
Dodge and Cox 800-621-3979 Press 0.
e*Trade 800-786-2575 #### (4 pound signs)
Edward Jones 314-515-2000 Worldwide corporate HQ in St. Louis, MO still answers 314-515-2000 with switchboard operators, who announce their name as well
Emigrant direct 800-836-1997 Human answers.
Exxon Mobil Card 800-344-4355 000 ignoring message
Fidelity 800-544-6666 ignore prompt for social security number, just enter ###
Fidelity NetBenefits 800-581-5800 1,#################
Fifth Third Bank 800-972-3030 0,0
First National Bank of Omaha 888-530-3626 Press 0 at each prompt.
Ford Interest Advantage 800-462-2614 Choose option 4, then option 0 to speak to rep.
GE Finance CareCredit 866-893-7864 1, 6, 5, 0, 0
GM MasterCard 800-947-1000 Press "0" at each prompt.
Green Dot Online 866-443-6227 Wait through prompts 3 times, then long wait for rep.
Harris Direct 800-825-5723 Press 0.
Honda Financial Services 800-445-1358 Press 0 at each prompt regardless of the message.
HSBC 800-477-6000 1, 3, 0
ING 800-464-3473 Direct to human.
Key Bank 800-539-2968 Remain on line; press nothing
M&T Bank 800-724-2440 Press 0 at each prompt.
Marshall Fields Credit Card 800-280-4356 After greeting, choose option #9, then press 0.
MasterCard 800-MC-ASSIST 000 on each menu
MBNA 800-421-2110 00 when menu starts
Mellon Investor 800-649-3593 Wait through initial recording finishes, select nothing--wait--you will be connected to a live customer service rep
MetLife Bank 866-226-5638 Press # after each menu.
Moneygram 800-926-9400 Press 0 when menu starts.
NAVY FCU 800-914-9494 Press 2, then press * 3 times.
NOVA Information Systems 800 377-3962 Press 0
PayPal 402-935-7733 Say "agent." See also.
Paypal Buyer Credit 866-571-3012 Be silent and at the end of the options press 6.
PNC Bank 888-762-2265 Press * till it says "transfering to customer support;" takes about 3 *s.
Privacy Guard 800-734-0199 Say "agent" or "no" or any word at each prompt.
Prudential Annuity Service Center 888-778-2888 Press *, *. At SSN prompt, press *, *. At end of message will reach rep.
RBS Credit Card Services 800-747-8155 Press 0 at each prompt; eventually get rep.
Smith Barney Benefitaccess 888-822-6067 Press 0.
Sovereign Bank 877-768-2265 Do not say anything or push any buttons. Eventually a human comes on the line.
State Farm Bank 877-734-2265 Press 0
SunTrust 800-786-8787 Press # after each menu.
T. Rowe Price 800-922-9945 Say 'Representative' at every opportunity
T. Rowe Price 800-225-5132 Press 0 at each prompt.
TD Waterhouse 800-934-4448 Press # after opening prompt, then do it again after prompt to be transferred to rep.
The Student Loan Corp. (Citibank) 800-967-2400 Choose option 5.
The Student Loan People 888-250-6401 Press 0 repeatedly.
TIAA-CREF 800-842-2252 Press 00 at each prompt.
TransUnion 800-916-8800 No cheat necessary; 2nd prompt offers human contact
US Bank 800-872-2657 0000
USAA 800-531-2265 Say "representative" at every opportunity.
Visa 800-847-2911 000 (ignore prompts saying that it's an invalid entry)
Wachovia 800-922-4684 0, 0
Wal Mart Credit Card 866-888-3868 0
Washington Mutual 800-756-8000 At any time after the announcement(s) press 0,0.
Washington Mutual 800-788-7000 Press 0 at each prompt regardless of the message.
Wells Fargo 800-869-3557 0,0,0 or when asked for account number say "I don't know"
Western Union 800-325-6000 * then ##
us government phone steps to find a human
Dept of Education Loans 800-848-0979 Say and do nothing at the prompt and you will be transfered to someone.
EDD 800-300-5616 When you hear "welcome", press 1, then press 4 and 0 at the next two prompts.
Federal Trade Commission 877-382-4357 At each prompt, press 4, 5, 0.
FEMA 800-621-FEMA Select language (1 for English), Don't choose any option, just hold for human; or press 00
INS/Citizenship 800-375-5283 Select language, then press 2, 6, 2, 4 at the prompts, press 0.
Medicare 800-MEDICARE RE; info for part "D" Medicare Prescription Drug Plans- When recording begins say "Agent" 5+ times.
Medicare 800-633-4227 Say "agent" or press 0.
Social Security 800-772-1213 Press 00.
US Dept. of Transportation 800-832-5660 Press 000.
USPS 800-275-8777 Press 3 at each prompt. Press 2 at the next recording.
Veterans Affairs 800-827-1000 Press 1,0.
us insurance phone steps to find a human
Aetna 800-537-9384 2, then say "operator" (check this)
Aetna 800-680-3566 * then 0 anytime
AIG 877-638-4244 Direct to human.
Blue Cross FEP 800-451-7602 Wait for prompt, then press 0, 3 to reach a CS rep.
Cigna 800-849-9000 ##
Delta Dental 888-335-8227 00000, wait through message, select language, 4, 0.
GEICO 800-841-3000 Wait for prompt then 6, 1, 5; Or dail 800-555-2752
Medco 800-251-7690 0000, enter member id or say "i don't have a member id."
Medicare 800-633-4227 After the opening prompt say "agent".
Principal Life 800-247-4695 1 for english, 2, then 0 several times.
Prudential Financial 800-778-2255 Say "Customer Service Representative" several times after intro.
United Health Care 866-844-4864 000000,0,0
USAA 800-531-6095 000 then #; or # initially to dial the extension of a specific representative
us pharmacy phone steps to find a human
aarp pharmacy services 800-289-8849 when the puter voice is done hit 000 ignoring all untill you get a haman voice hit 0000
Caremark 800-262-7890 0
CVS local store Press 6 to connect to store manager.
drugstore.com 800-378-4786 2, 5
Eckerd 800-325-3737 0 for pharmacy, 8* for manager
Express Scripts - TriCare 866-363-8667 0, listen announcement, 0,0.
MEDCO 800-987-5269 Say "representative" after each message (3x).
Medco Health 1-800-770-2810 hit 0000 whenever a puter comes on
Rite Aid local store Press 3 to speak to the pharmacy
Walgreens local store 0 for a pharmacy employee
Walgreens Mail Order 800-635-3070 0,00
us products phone steps to find a human
Bose 800-444-2673 Direct to human.
Entertainment Weekly Mag 866-228-1183 Say "Agent" then "yes" when asked "Do you want to speak to a C.S. rep."
GE Appliance 800-626-2005 000
GE Consumer Products 800-720-2094 Select type the of product from menu and you'll get a human.
Kodak 800-235-6325 *7 or *28
Kodak Gallery (Ofoto) 800-360-9098 Say "customer service representative" repeatedly.
Konica Minolta 800-285-6422 0
Panasonic 800-211-7262 0,0,0
Playstation 800-345-7669 0
Sonos 800-680-2345 1 sales; 2 support
Sony 800-222-7669 When prompted, say "Agent."
Sports Illustrated 800-284-8800 0,0,0,0 (ignore "invalid entry" messages)
Time Magazine 866-731-5401 0,0,0,0 (ignore "invalid entry" messages)
XM Radio 800-967-2346 0
us retail phone steps to find a human
Advance Auto Parts 800-314-4243 Press 0 when the automated message begins.
Amazon Visa 888-247-4080 Press 0 twice. Ignore invalid account message.
Amazon.com 800-201-7575 Wait though the first menu for an agent. See also.
Apple Stores local store press 5 as soon as you hear the automated menu
Banana Republic 888-277-8953 0
Barnes & Noble local store Press 1 or 0 during greeting.
Barnes & Noble.com 800-843-2665 Direct to human.
Best Buy 888-237-8289 Listen to intro, then press 1,2,0,0
Best Buy Card 800-365-0292 00* then press 8
Blair 800-458-2000 Direct to human.
Buy.com 949-389-2000 Dail 0 and direct to rep
Cabela's 800-237-4444 Direct to human.
Circuit City Visa 888-363-8001 Press 0 a lot.
CompUSA local 0
eBay 800-322-9266 0,0 See also.
Gap Credit Card 800-887-1198 000
Home Depot local store Direct to human.
Home Depot 800-793-3768 # 2-3 times
Home Shopping Net 800-284-3100 0
Ikea 800-434-4532 Press 0 many times quickly!
JC Penney 800-222-6161 Press 0 twice, ignoring error message.
K-Mart local store 0
Kohl's Credit 800 564-5740 After providing account info, press 0 three times
LL Bean 800-441-5713 Direct to human
Lowe's 800-445-6937 Press 0 as the recording kicks in to get to the Operator
NetFlix 888-638-3549 0
Old Navy 800-653-6289 0
Overstock.com 800-843-2446 At the main menu, 0 three to four times to bypass the menu
Petco local store 3
QVC 800-367-9444 0
Radio Shack 800-843-7422 0,0
RadioShack local store Direct to human.
Rent-A-Center 800-422-8186 1
Safeway local store As soon as voice prompt starts type 1200 to get human
Sears 800-4-MY-HOME Be silent to be put in queue for human.
Sears Delivery 800-732-7747 *122
Sears Repairs 800-469-4663 Repeat "Help" everytime the IVR tries to give options.
Sharper Image 800-344-9919 Direct to human.
Staples 800-333-3330 Just wait through intro and you will be connected to a representative.
Staples local store 0
Stop & Shop local number 0
Target local store 0 during greeting.
The Company Store 800-285-3696 0
Tiger Direct 888-999-7300 0
Toys "R" Us local store 0
Wal-Mart 800-925-6278 1 for directory
us shipping phone steps to find a human
DHL 800-225-5345 Press 1, press 5, press 0, enter your phone number.
FedEx 888-463-3339 At message say "Rep"; or press 0
Union Pacific 800-877-5123 Press # sign during main menu options.
UPS 800-742-5877 0,0
us technology phone steps to find a human
Adobe Systems 800-833-6687 1 for Adobe, 2 for MacroMedia, 3 for both.
Apple 800-275-2273 6AM - 6PM Pac Time. 000; if virtual rep answers, say "operator"
Apple Tech Support 800-275-2273 0,,0,,0 Wait for IVR response before pressing 0 each time.
Compaq 800-652-6672 When asked what product say "I don't know", then "person", ignore message and human will answer (may gave to hold)
Dell 888-560-8324 00, 0, 0, 0
Dell 800-999-3355 Press "0" repeatedly.
Directv 800-494-4388 Silence, and you will be routed to a human/
Earthlink 888-327-8454 Press 1 to find a dial-in number; 2 for billing; 3 for sales; 4 for support
Epson 800-922-8911 yes
Fujitsu PC Support 800-385-4878 0, 0
Gateway 800-846-2301 Press nothing and wait through message.
Geek Squad 800-433-5778 0,0,0,0,0,0
Godaddy 480-505-8877 4, #, select 1 for new customer 2 existing customer, #again
Hewlett-Packard 800-474-6836 Say "agent".
HP 888-560-8324 00
IBM 800-IBM-4YOU You go into a hold queue immediately
kodak 800-235-6325 Press # after intro message.
Microsoft 800-936-5700 Always 0. This is true for just about any MS number.
QuickBooks 888-729-1996 1 purchase; 2 billing; 3 registration; 4 tech support or 0 to human
Symantec 800-441-7234 00
Zone Labs, Inc. 877-966-5221 Press 2 for direct to human 24/7
us telco phone steps to find a human
Alltel Cellular 800-255-8351 Press # four times.
AOL 800-827-6364 Press 0 repeatedly, ignoring all messages.
AT&T 800-222-0300 Press # four times, then press 1 if for current phone, 2 to enter other number, else 3.
AT&T Wireless 800-888-7600 During prompts, press * then # twice.
BellSouth 877-678-2355 Press *0.
Cellular One 888-910-9191 Press 4.
Charter Communications 888-438-2478 Press 0 eight times.
Cingular 800-211-2445 Direct to human.
Comcast 800-266-2278 Press 000 or be silent and wait.
Cox Communications 877-247-2474 Press 4.
Free 411 800-373-3411 a free alternative to paying $1 or more for 411 calls
MCI/Costco Calling Card 800-938-4949 Press 2 four times.
Metro PCS 888-863-8768 Press #43.
Motorola 800-331-6456 Press 0 twice.
Nextel 800-639-6111 Press 0 five times.
Packet8 (VoIP) 888-898-8733 Ignore message, press 3, then 5 to get to CS rep
Qwest 800-244-1111 Say "Agent" 5 times.
RCN 800-746-4726 Press 5, then 3, then 1.
SBC 800-585-7928 Again, an (intelligent, this time) IVR wants YOUR phone number first.
SBC DSL Support 877-722-3755 Say "no" and enter your phone # (or "yes" if calling from same number on account), then press 0 repeatedly.
Simple Freedom 800-335-6401 Press 1, then 3, then 2.
Sprint 800-658-7564 Direct to human.
Sprint Broadband Direct 888-996-0001 Press 0 twice.
Sprint PCS 866-273-2163 Direct to human.
SunCom 800-786-7378 Press 0 four to five times during or after opening message.
T-Mobile 877-606-4801 Direct to human.
TracFone 800-867-7183 Press 1 for English, wait for next menu to start, then press 5, then 4.
U.S. Cellular 888-944-9400 Press 0.
Verizon 411 Directory Assistance 411 Press 0.
Verizon DSL 800-567-6789 Say "Agent" repeatedly.
Verizon Phone Repair 800-275-2355 Direct to human.
Verizon Wireless 800-922-0204 Press #00 or enter phone # then 0 then 4.
Virgin Mobile 888-322-1122 Press 2, then say: "English", "More Options", "Ask a Question", "Live Advisor", "Something Else", "I don't have one", then enter phone # or say "I don't have one."
Vonage Customer Care 888-250-1799 Direct to human.
us travel phone steps to find a human
American Airlines 800-433-7300 00, then say "agent"
Amtrak 800-872-7245 0 or say "agent"
Amtrak 877-444-4773 Direct to human.
Delta 800-221-1212 Say "agent" 3-4 times - every time it asks for a response from you.
E-Z Pass 888-288-6865 0,0,0,0 (ignoring "invalid response" messages)
Jet Blue 800-538-2583 0
Kayak.com 203-899-3120 0
Lufthansa 800-399-5838 Direct to human.
Mariott Rewards 800-321-7396 Enter rewards number and press 0 (or just press 0 if you don't have the #).
National Car Rental 800-227-7368 Direct to human.
Northwest 800-225-2525 *, 0,0 after initial greeting
Orbitz 888-656-4546 #,#,#,#,#
Southwest 800-435-9792 Direct to human. (may hold if busy time)
Travelocity 888-872-8356 #,#,#,#,#,#,#,#,#,# (ignoring "I'm sorry I did not understand" messages)
United 800-864-8331 Do nothing, wait for human.
United 800-864-8331 When you hear "let's get started" say "Agent" ... then "Domestic" or "International" as appropriate.
US Airways 800-428-4322 4, wait, 1
Walt Disney World 407-824-4521 Direct line to Magic Kingdom Guest Relations
us tv/satellite phone steps to find a human
Charter communications 866-499-8080 Select language, 0,0,0,0,0,0 (and then hold :(
comcast 800-945-2288 Ignore message and after 25 seconds, a human will answer.
Direct TV 800-347-3288 0 repeatedly
Sirius 888 539-7474 0
TiVo 877-367-8486 Say "Live Agent"
XM Radio 800-998-7900 Direct to human.
259 companies as of Sat, 14-Jan-2006 04:51 CST

The IVR Cheat Sheet™ is Copyright 2006 by Paul English.

Thanks to Mr. English for this valuable public service. Everybody go to his site for more details and links! Thanks also to my cousin Lois, who emailed it to me. And thanks to the people of this country who take the time and make the effort to find and promulgate information to help others in every conceivable area of life. The sovereign individual is the most endangered species on Earth today, and people like these are keeping it from extinction.

January 13, 2006

The Corporation Doesn't Want Sixty Seconds to Be a Minute

A friend of mine -- well, actually he's my son Chris -- is going through a week of training for a job as a waiter at a midrange corporate-owned restaurant. Every task at the restaurant is broken down into a timed sequence, and as a trainee, Chris will be tested on his knowledge of all the required sequences, as well as on the menu items and their descriptions.

The time limit for greeting a customer at the door is sixty seconds. When his trainer, as a review, asked him to provide this information, Chris said the time was a minute.

"That's not the correct answer," the trainer said. "The correct answer is sixty seconds."

"Sixty seconds is a minute," Chris said.

The trainer repeated that the answer "a minute" was wrong.

"I maintain that a minute is sixty seconds," Chris said.

At no time did the trainer admit that a minute was sixty seconds.

"Corporate doesn't want a minute to be sixty seconds," she told him. "Corporate decided that service would do it faster if they saw it in terms of seconds not minutes. Therefore, sixty seconds is not a minute."


January 12, 2006

On "A Million Litle Pieces"

"When a book makes a sensation it is just as well to wait a year before you read it. It is astonishing how many books then you need not read at all." -- Somerset Maugham

Bird Flu Evolving

From this morning's WaPo, by Daniel Williams and Alan Sipress:

ISTANBUL, Jan. 11 -- Preliminary tests show that the strain of bird flu virus that has stricken at least 15 people in Turkey has evolved in a way that could make it somewhat more hazardous to human beings, although it still lacks the capacity to be passed easily from person to person, international health officials said Wednesday.

The analysis, based on the sequencing of one of the virus's genes, suggests that at least some of the H5N1 bird flu virus here carries a change in one of its proteins, according to Michael L. Perdue of the World Health Organization. That protein is what lets the virus attach to cells and penetrate them.

"It's a little concerning because the virus is still trying new things in its evolution," said Perdue, who is overseeing the agency's response to the Turkish outbreak from WHO headquarters in Geneva....

Experts from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that the virus could become permanently entrenched in Turkey, thereby increasing its risk to people and the chance it could evolve further. "The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1 could become endemic in Turkey," the organization said in a statement.

Two deaths have been attributed to bird flu in Turkey. The fatalities were the first outside China and Southeast Asia, areas where a total of 78 people have died in the past two years. More than 100 people have been hospitalized in Turkey with flu symptoms. The patients are under observation as they await test results to reveal whether they suffer from bird flu.

The virus has spread across 30 of Turkey's 81 provinces, from the far east to the Mediterranean coast, and has sparked a frantic effort to stem the disease by killing infected poultry. Even in cosmopolitan Istanbul, bird catchers for the Agriculture Ministry are rounding up fowl raised in the outskirts of the city, gassing them to death and burying them in mass graves....

"There is no transmission from human to human so far with a mutation of the virus," said Marc Danzon, WHO's regional director for Europe. "We are not there at the moment, but it is the responsibility for the WHO to look at this. . . . There is no reason to panic."...

Turkish health workers have killed more than 300,000 domestic birds in roundups across the country since late December. In one district of Istanbul, municipal sanitation officials went door to door in a rural hillside suburb asking residents if they raised chickens and ducks. They chased strays up and down the slippery, muddy hills and ravines, and when they caught one, they stuffed it into a plastic bag. Signs around the neighborhood read, "This District Has Chicken Plague."

Workers dressed in protective gear threw the bags into green containers that looked like large garbage cans. A sanitation worker attached a blue tube from a tank of carbon dioxide to the airtight container, opened the valve and killed the birds. "We prefer to say we are putting them to sleep," said Hikmet Karacay, an Agriculture Ministry official.

Residents, most of whom raised chickens as a sideline to collect the eggs, cooperated. "The real problem is the children," said Gilsen Kaya, who has two daughters. "They like the chickens. They are like pets. That's why it's better to do it at night, when they don't witness the whole thing."

It always amuses me when people say there's no evidence that species evolve. It happens all the time, within a brief time span, at the microbial level.

January 11, 2006

Polish Your Mirror Neurons

They're the hot item in neuroscience today, and they could help explain how we learn, why we feel empathy, why we are thrilled by sports events or novels or movies -- or turned on by porn -- and why some of us are born autistic. Mirror neurons are brain cells that activate our feeling sensations when we observe other people doing things. They fire in response to intentional actions.

From NYT:

"When you see me perform an action - such as picking up a baseball - you automatically simulate the action in your own brain," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons. "Circuits in your brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, inhibit you from moving while you simulate," he said. "But you understand my action because you have in your brain a template for that action based on your own movements.

"When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal. Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next."

He continued: "And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling."

Mirror neurons seem to analyzed scenes and to read minds. If you see someone reach toward a bookshelf and his hand is out of sight, you have little doubt that he is going to pick up a book because your mirror neurons tell you so.

In a study published in March 2005 in Public Library of Science, Dr. Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. "Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture," said Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the U.C.L.A. who studies human development.

A dissenting scientist at this interdisciplinary virtual workshop doubts whether the brain actually simulates the observed action; nevertheless, he admits, "the existence of such neurons does indeed suggest that the representation of executed and observed actions may share neural resources..."

Is vicarious experience the root of human culture? Are we the voyeur species?

January 10, 2006

Only in New York

Photos of a toll booth accident (via email):

Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment #4

Seen on an old Honda Civic driving downtown this morning, probably to work, perhaps to a government office serving me and my friends and neighbors:

• "Discourage Inbreeding -- Ban Country Music" (decorated with mutant smiley faces)

• "I Do Bad Things" (decorated with skulls and crossbones)

• "I See Dumb People"

• decals for bygone punk groups: Sex Pistols, Adam and the Ants, etc.

And in the lower right corner, the theorem that the above steps prove:

• "Say No to Hate"

January 09, 2006

A Certain Blog

There’s a certain well-known blog that my browser no longer lets me go to. I don’t have trouble visiting any other blog sites, only that one. The problem started a few weeks ago, when the blog stopped keeping me updated: I’d have to refresh in order to see what had been posted on a given morning. Then a couple of days ago my screen started freezing when I visited that blog. I reached new posts but the site froze in the midst of transmitting peripheral information – graphics or ads. This morning, when I tried to go to the blog, it showed up only as a narrow vertical strip in the middle of the site I’d gone to previously. A restart did not help. At the latest try, I was able to reach only the left side of that blog’s page, which scrolled properly while the entire right side was frozen.

I’ve come to depend on that blog for its wit and insight, for online companionship and support. Even when that blog and my blog disagree or bicker, there’s always been frank communication between us. If there were a sudden break between our blogs, I’d find it upsetting.

Aha, changing browsers – from Firefox to Safari -- solves the problem. But how strange, needing to isolate that blog on a browser all its own when all my other favorites, all my other online experiences, go on elsewhere.

I guess that’s what happens with an ex-wife’s blog.

January 08, 2006

The Question for 2006

Every New Year's Day since 1998, the Edge, a website run by literary agent John Brockman in order to promulgate the idea of a "third culture" -- "those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are" -- chooses a challenging, heuristically rich question to ask scientists, and gathers their responses.

A year ago I blogged about their 2005 question, ""What do you believe although you cannot prove it?" That question, which received 117 replies totaling 60,000 words, got a lot of media attention and has now been published as a book with an introduction by novelist Ian McEwen.

This year's question, suggested by Steven Pinker, is, "What is your dangerous idea?"

Edge elaborates: "The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

119 replies, 75,000 words.

It seems to be getting less media attention than last year, and perhaps that's because some of these ideas are -- well, dangerous. Craig Venter, for instance, foresees a potential for social conflict in an increasing number of discoveries of genetic bases for human differences in ability. "The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal." David Lykken foresees laws requiring parental licensing. (Combine Venter's and Lykken's ideas and what do you get?) Roger Schank wants to abolish schools. Arnold Trehub's entire contribution is this:

"The entire conceptual edifice of modern science is a product of biology. Even the most basic and profound ideas of science — think relativity, quantum theory, the theory of evolution — are generated and necessarily limited by the particular capacities of our human biology. This implies that the content and scope of scientific knowledge is not open-ended."

The entire edifice shaken in three sentences! And to me, those sentences, or at least the first two, seem not so much dangerous as undeniably true. (It will be open-ended, I think, because science can lead us to whatever will come after science.)

Here's the full list of contributors:

Martin Rees J. Craig Venter Leo Chalupa V.S. Ramachandran David Buss Paul Bloom Philip Campbell Jesse Bering Paul Ewald Bart Kosko Matt Ridley David Pizzaro Randolph Nesse Gregory Benford Marco Iacaboni Barry C. Smith Philip W. Anderson Timothy Taylor Oliver Morton Samuel Barondes David Bodanis Nicholas Humphrey Eric Fischl Stanislas Dehaene Joel Garreau Helen Fisher Paul Davies April Gornik Jamshed Bharucha Jordan Pollack Juan Enriquez Stephen Kosslyn Jerry Coyne Ernst Poeppel Geoffrey Miller Robert Shapiro Kai Krause Carlo Rovelli Richard Dawkins Seth Lloyd Carolyn Porco Michael Nesmith Lawrence Krauss Daniel C. Dennett Daniel Gilbert Andy Clark Sherry Turkle Steven Strogatz Terrence Sejnowski Lynn Margulis Thomas Metzinger Diane Halpern Gary Marcus Jaron Lanier W. Daniel Hillis Neil Gershenfeld Paul Steinhardt Sam Harris Scott Atran Marcelo Gleiser Douglas Rushkoff Judith Rich Harris Alun Anderson Todd Feinberg Stewart Brand Jared Diamond Leonard Susskind Gerald Holton Charles Seife Karl Sabbagh Rupert Sheldrake Tor N¿rretranders John Horgan Eric R. Kandel Daniel Goleman Brian Greene David Gelernter Mahzarin Banaji Rodney Brooks Lee Smolin Alison Gopnik Kevin Kelly Denis Dutton Simon Baron-Cohen Freeman Dyson Gregory Cochran George B. Dyson Keith Devlin Frank Tipler Scott Sampson Jeremy Bernstein Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Irene Pepperberg Brian Goodwin Rudy Rucker Steven Pinker Richard E. Nisbett Robert Provine Donald Hoffman Marc D. Hauser Ray Kurzweil Haim Harari David G. Myers Clay Shirky Michael Shermer Arnold Trehub Roger Schank Susan Blackmore David Lykken Clifford Pickover John Allen Paulos James O'Donnell Philip Zimbardo Richard Foreman John Gottman Piet Hut Dan Sperber Martin E.P. Seligman Howard Gardner

Go over there and get some intellectual stimulation! The site also provides links to media coverage and to other Edge articles.

Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment #3

Seen on the back on a shiny clean Honda Element:

“’Television news is to news what bumper stickers are to philosophy’ – Richard Nixon”

Ah, the old Trickster was nobody’s fool, he knew how the world works. He can sometimes seem like a sage compared to those who have followed him.

On the same bumper was a fish insignia with the word “SCUBA” inside it, the fish wearing a scuba tank.

January 06, 2006

Discussion Question

What percentage of the time, when people write "LOL," are they actually laughing out loud?

Which Science Fiction Character Are You?

To find out, follow this link at Ambivablog.

"Mr. Cohen, Do You Mind If I Ask You a Weird Question?"

It's been a good family-oriented week. John flew in on Monday and Chris drove in on Tuesday evening; our available sleeping space is booked to capacity and there are people waking up and staying up at hours we usually aren't. They've been to Austin many times, so there's no need for sightseeing; mostly we've been hanging around chatting or reading or working, and when the little ones, Agents 95 and 97, aren't in school they're usually clinging to their older brothers' legs and asking them to play games. We do a fair amount of sitting in cafes, two or three computers to a table: I'm doing my usual freelance assignments, John is writing a Note (a student-written article, about 50 pages) for law review, and Chris is researching Austin apartments online. True to form, Chris found a job as a waiter at a nice restaurant the day after arriving, and yesterday he began searching for living quarters.

Last night we celebrated his job at a new restaurant we'd been curious about, a nouveau Asian vegetarian place, and it was beautifully decorated but so high-tech that it couldn't meet customer requests. Painful negotiations with the waitress were required before we could get anything that wasn't strictly on the menu: there was a veggie quesadilla on the menu but we couldn't order a plain cheese quesadilla; there was a fancy pizza on the menu but we couldn't order a plain cheese pizza; some entrees came with salads but we couldn't order a salad a la carte. "The thing is, we'd have to make up a price for it, and we can only price things that are in our computer." The owner or manager entered and exited the restaurant now and then, smugly looking over his domain without ever greeting a customer. Thank you, but we won't be back.

For dessert we went to a middle-of-the-road American restaurant known for its desserts. A Christmas-bulbed, trellised arbor led to a vestibule where postcards and little boxes of restaurant goodies were for sale. A chalkboard sign pointed with an arrow and the words, "Republican Women." (As we left later, we noticed that someone had crossed out the word "Republican," leaving only the arrow and "Women.") The desserts were yummy and big, and our waiter was a typically gregarious, voluble, good-looking American kid with the currently fashionable unshaven look. At meal's end, when he handed me my credit card slip for signing, he said, "Thank you, Mr. Cohen. Mr. Cohen, do you mind if I ask you a weird question? Are you Jewish?'

Smiling, I allowed as how I was.

"The reason I'm asking," he said, "is because back in Arkansas we had friends named Cohen and they were the only Jewish people we knew."

"It's a common Jewish name," I said smiling more broadly.

"Oh? I didn't know that. Well, thank you, sir, now I know that."

Thank you, waiter. I consulted with Chris about what would be a nice big tip -- Chris, being our resident waiter, is the expert on big tips -- and we left. And I thought about how often in history, in how many places, our waiter's question would have been asked with a very different tone and intent, and once again, as I have done countless times, I thanked God for this country.

Labels: ,

January 05, 2006

Only One Topic Around Here This Morning

What was that helicopter doing flying over downtown Austin after midnight last night? Why was a car going by with its horn bugling "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You?" It's just that the University of Texas won the nation's college football championship at the Rose Bowl, beating a great USC team by a thrilling come-from-behind 41-38. (Here's the local paper with a gallery of 143 photos from the game -- registration required. For the legalists among you, there's even a photo of Sandra Day O'Connor, who tossed the coin for the kickoff.)

Not the most perfectly played game ever, nor the most perfectly officiated -- plenty of agonizing fumbles bouncing loose, and several crucial plays put under review, or ones that should have been reviewed left unreviewed -- but all the more exciting for it. And one of the great individual performances in American sports history by Vince Young, the UT quarterback who, with his unprecedented gifts, is also their star running back. Playing against a Heisman-Trophy-winning quarterback and a Heisman-winning running back -- i.e., they were voted the best college players in the nation the past two years -- he outclassed both at their own specialties. And his exuberant personality makes his teammates want to play their best for him. The big question now is whether he'll return to UT next year to add to his glory on this level, or sign with the pros. It will be great if he returns, but if I were he I'd take the money while he's still healthy. Big and strong though he is, his style of play doesn't seem likely to be conducive to a long professional career. The defenses will be bigger, faster, and shrewder in the pros, so every year of making multimillions will count.

Here in Austin this morning, people greet their coworkers with, "We won!"; a kindergarten pupil stammers to a classmate, "I saw the, the, the football game." No homework was given yesterday at our kids' elementary school, so that they could watch the game (we put them to bed at halftime); the pricipal came to work this morning wwearing a burnt orange Rose Bowl 2006 sweatshirt. The university's still on winter break, so there weren't as many honking horns last night as we'd anticipated, but enough students had returned to Austin just for the game's sake so that the police closed down The Drag -- the strip of Guadalupe Street bordering the campus -- as a precaution. Television news showed us crowds milling downtown on Congress Avenue, all dressed in burnt orange, and people in sports bars biting their nails, gasping, standing and cheering.

How good to have a whole community united in one burst of joy!


January 04, 2006

The Misled Society

True Ancestor on the journalistic debacle at the mine:

Our saddened psyches got the better of us: we wanted good news so badly, we took bad news and changed it to fit our needs.

This suggests a host of larger problems, but the main one, I think, is this: it takes time to sort out the simplest of challenges, and we don't have, or aren't given, that time anymore. This isn't just a problem with the news media -- after all, it is the families of the miners that were soonest and most tragically misinformed, not by the media but by mine officials. We all want information, and we'll take it before it even qualifies as such.

Read more here.

The Missing Voice

On page 1165 of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (1971), one of the guide words at the top of the page is "inner voice". But there is no entry in the dictionary for "inner voice".

A simple error? Was an entry planned and then deleted, the guide word inadvertently retained? Or is it a message, a distress signal from some despairing, lonely dictionary editor, a pounding on the wall of his cell for anyone at all who might hear?

What were his days like, scribbling definitions in a cramped, crabbed hand on blue–lined index cards and declining his colleagues’ lunch invitations? Through what narrow twilit streets of Springfield, Mass., did he make his way toward the basement apartment where he cooked frozen dinners and read the American Journal of Psychoanalysis? Sipping sherry through the evening and jotting interesting usages on torn scraps of brown paper bags?

I hear you, fictitious lonely despairing lexicographer of 1971!


January 03, 2006

Time and Luggage

And so begins another chunk of time. 2005 seemed to be divided into discrete chunks more than most years are: there was a chunk when my mother was ill, then a chunk when we went a Costa Rica, then a chunk dominated by my mother's death and funeral, then I went to Spain, then a chunk of intensive tai chi practice, then a holiday week when my family was away. Now a new cycle begins: today is the first day of the kids' school semester, and my two grown sons are visiting us for a period. Agent 81, whose cover was long ago blown as John, is here in Austin for a week's vacation before going back to law school, and Agent 83, Chris, is moving to Austin, having just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chris is in Wichita this morning and will drive south today through all of Oklahoma and most of Texas, his car loaded with DVDs and a TV set and clothes. John flew in yesterday evening and his luggage was predictably lost. It's a big bright yellow suitcase, designed to be easily spottable on a baggage conveyor belt, and as four of us stood waiting in the baggage claim area like gape-mouthed chicks waiting to be fed, it became clear that no bright yellow suitcase was coming down the chute. The Northwest Airlines luggage office was closed, with a sign on it directing us to the ticket counter. At the ticket counter there was a sign saying that the ticket agent was greeting arriving flights and would be back shortly. However, the next Northwest flight was not scheduled to arrive for three hours, and there were no departing Northwest flights on the board for the evening. The small group of people in line at the ticket counter said that no one had been there for at least half an hour. It was about six o'clock; it wasn't hard to guess what the ticket agent was doing. A young man in the line was talking by phone to the airline, telling them he had been waiting for his luggage for three days. Later calls to that phone number went unanswered except by voice mail.

We realized, on checking John's itinerary, that his luggage was probably delayed because his layover time betwen flights had been extremely short, only 35 minutes. It occurred to me that when an airline gives you that short a layover time, it probably expects, without telling you, that your luggaage will not make it to your connecting flight. In fact John told us that he would have gotten to the Minneapolis-Austin flight too late for boarding if the takeoff had not been delayed.

UPDATE: The yellow suitcase has been delivered! It turns out that John got a phone call from Northwest at 12:30 a.m., a time that would have annoyed most people but not him, and an apologetic phone representative told him that two ticket agents who were supposed to have been working yesterday were out: one had called in sick (sick on New Year's, what a coincidence!) and ther other had gotten into a car accident on the way to work. The airline offered to deliver the baag between 4 and 7 a.m. without ringing our doorbell, but john chose a 9 a.m. delivery with ringing.

Labels: ,

January 02, 2006

The Lawn Guy's New Year

He used to come around every other Tuesday, and I was glad to give him the work because our lawn needing mowing, a task I’m lazy about because I’m allergic to grass pollen. Each time he came, he had a new sob story to tell me– a relative was sick in the hospital, or his edger had broken and he needed money to fix it – and I wanted to tell him not to bother, I’d give him the work without the sob story. Sometimes he told me that the Lord was taking care of him. At some point I seized an opportunity to mention, as a sort of experiment, that I was Jewish, and he told me that was okay, he’d been treated well by several Jewish people; and he stopped telling me about how the Lord was taking care of him.

His manner made me distinctly uncomfortable: it was the first time I’d ever been treated that way, as if I were a landowner of the southern gentry and he was a stereotypical servant, with his thick accent and exaggerated, eager-to-please intonations, all but rolling his eyes as he assured me what a good job he was going to do for me. I wondered if that was the way he talked when he was with his own people. It seemed hardly believable. Maybe he was weak-minded, though, a throwback: there had to be a reason why an able-bodied man in his forties made his living walking from neighborhood to neighborhood asking for lawn-mowing work.

But it turned out he didn’t do a very good job: one time he mowed down some plants we’d wanted to keep, and another time, when the sob story was especially heartrending, he hastily raked up all our leaves but left a pile of them unbagged in a corner of the yard, ready to blow away, after taking double the usual price with a promise to work for free the next time. And then didn’t return to fulfill the promise.

After a few months he came back again – neither of us mentioning that he owed me a free mowing job – and I told him we didn’t have any work for him. I told him the same thing the next few times he came. I began to dread the doorbell ringing on Tuesdays, and sometimes I pretended no one was home and didn’t answer. After a while, he no longer came by. Every so often I glimpsed him walking past our house without looking at it as he dragged his mower to other customers.

Sometimes I mowed the lawn myself with our push mower. Then we got a regular guy who was efficient and smart, who’d made a steady business out of lawn care.

Then, the other day, it was Saturday December 31st, our old friend rang the bell, rake in hand. We happened to have an entire autumn’s brown leaves lying on our ground, so I figured, why not, I’ll let him rake them. We smiled greetings and I asked him how he was doing, and slumping onto my porch bench, he said, “Oh, not too good, it was a hard Christmas this year, my daughter died two weeks ago.”

She was thirty-two years old, he told me. And he began saying that it’s hard, you know, when someone close to you passes away, and I murmured some kind of understanding comment. I hoped he was lying to me – I hoped it was just a sob story – but I had a feeling he wasn’t. He was just someone whose life often took the form of such a story and who had learned how to get some incidental compensations from it. In addition to his daughter’s death, he was a couple of hundred dollars behind on rent and utilities – he showed me a bill. And he started complaining about how his landlord kept preaching to him. He didn’t want people preaching to him, telling him about something he couldn’t see. This attitude, he told me, sometimes got him into trouble with the Christians around him.

We really did have a lot of leaves to rake: front lawn, driveway, and back lawn. We didn’t have enough lawn trimmings bags to hold all the leaves, so I got into the car and drove to the supermarket to buy some, but the supermarket didn’t have any so I drove to Home Depot.

On the edge of the Home Depot parking lot, where the cars turn in from the road, the usual bunches of Mexican men were standing around, waiting to see if any Home Depot customers had work for them. They’re there every day of the year and they were there on the Saturday of New Year’s Eve too, about twenty of them talking in small clusters, lighting cigarettes, though it was getting to be too late in the morning for there to be much chance of work.

By the time I got back home with a stack of lawn trimming bags, all the leaves in front and back and driveway were neatly piled, and the guy was sprinkling the lawn with our hose, assuring us he was making it look nice in case we had company for New Year’s – even, as he pointed out, filling the bird bath so birds would stop by. He bagged the leaves quickly and adequately, though he overfilled some bags, and I figured I’d give him $25, which was, I calculated, about $5 more than the job deserved. But he asked me if I could lend him $40, and he would return it by working free for me the next time I wanted.

“Sorry, I can’t,” I said, smiling.

That was okay, he said. “This is a blessing,” he said, lifting the $25 in midair in front of him. My $25 would keep him going so that he could earn the remainder at other places. I wished him a better year to come, and he walked down the street, rake in hand.

I wonder whether I’ll answer the doorbell the next time he rings.


January 01, 2006

New Year's Eve: Afternoon through Midnight

It’s been beautiful here in Austin for at least a week straight: brilliant blue skies, temperature in the 70s. On the Hike and Bike Trail, which follows the Colorado River on both sides for several miles, bikes are weaving around us; a sweaty dad is jogging while pushing a twin stroller up a hill; our kids are dashing hither and yon discovering forts and shooting at us with sticks from behind trees. On East First Street, which is also called Cesar Chavez, a crew of roadies is setting up a concert for the evening, the city’s first annual First Night event. On the blocked-off bridged across the river, a line of kids and adults are sitting in the middle lane drawing pictures with sidewalk chalk: the ribbon of one-foot-square picture boxes grows longer and may eventually cross the whole bridge. Our sons, Agents 95 and 97, refuse at first to participate, claiming that they dislike sidewalk chalk, but on being told that it’s not chalk, it’s pastel, 95 gives in. 97, looking critically over his brother’s should, still demurs.

As usual, the kids have become thirsty within minutes. We go into city hall and point out the water fountain in the lobby.

Agent 95: “I want something to drink that’s more explicit than water.”

He also thought of a new euphemism for the present participle of the f-word, to go along with “flipping’” and “bleepin’”: “matin’,” as in, “Eat your matin’ peas.” Which, as Agent 97 pointed out, implies that your peas are doing it on the plate.

Tomorrow’s slang today: read it here on the RLC blog!

After the water, we get pizza and soda from the line of booths that’s been set up on the sidewalk, then stand gawking upwards at the side wall of the 12-storey Radisson Hotel, where people are ascending on a pair of rope ladders while, nearby, other people are rappelling down. It’s apparently some sort of civic activity: they’re harnessed for safety, and on the roof a cluster of people looks down encouragingly. A long, lean, gray-haired man in a business suit rappels down skillfully. Then descends a man who stalls a bit starting out and turns upside down, then rights himself and goes the rest of the way in one long quick drop. Of the two women going up the rope ladder, one progresses smoothly while the other, straining with a lot of leg motion, is hardly climbing at all. Finally when she’s about halfway up she lets go, pushing outward from the wall, arches her back and stretches her arms like a trapeze artist, and turns upside down gloriously as she’s pulled upward.

It looks like fun – for someone else. We walk behind the Four Seasons, where guests are lounging at the outdoor swimming pool. That’s more my idea of fun. As we walk back to the car, the kids, fueled by Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola (a rare occasion when they’re allowed caffeinated drinks – I hasten to add for critics of my parenting – a decision made for tactical reasons and because it was only 2 pm), are talking rapid-fire about how they’re going to become rich by patenting inventions when they grow up, and how they resolve (their words – “resolve” and “patenting”) that what they’re going to patent is ways to repair the ozone layer and replenish the atmosphere, thus to achieve immense wealth and save humankind in one heroic stroke.

“Will you buy me dinner sometimes?” I ask.

Agent 95 looks at me appraisingly. “It depends.”

Which reminds me, they declared recently that they’ve experienced enough slavery in their lifetime: it’s time I became their slave. This morning Agent 95 asked me for a glass of milk; when I pointed out that he could get it perfectly well for himself and was as close to the fridge as I was, he promptly smacked me atop the head and said, “Bad Dad! No biscuit!”

Could this have anything to do with the fact that we bought them the three-volume Complete Calvin and Hobbes for Christmas? They’ve been reading it religiously ever since.

A high-creativity day for Agent 95: in addition to contributions to the lexicon of his mother tongue, he thought of two ideas for science fiction series and began working on a magazine he conceived.

New Year’s Eve? Anticlimactic. We had leftovers for dinner (coq au vin and spaghetti and meatballs, both cooked by me), rented the delightful movie Charade, played Scrabble, ate chocolate, and drank champagne (Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs Brut: fresh, pale, citrusy, strongly effervescent, with a long, complex finish). A fraction of a glass for Agent 95; Agent 97, who’s feeling feverish, drinks water, then lies on the floor with a pillow and a blanket and falls asleep next to a stuffed leopard. At this very moment – simulblogging! – we grownups are bravely trying to get through the bottle of champagne, while Agent 95 is asking us if we’re buzzed, and reading Ask magazine for ages 7-10. We briefly recalled the events of the year – mostly good for our family, except for the death of my mother – and for the world, troubled and inconclusive, auguring things yet unknown.

2006! It just keeps going, doesn’t it? I remember when 2000 seemed impossibly far in the future. Not just as a child, but as a young man, I read science fiction novels of nuclear war set in the 1980s or 1990s. I remember when 1984 finally came around, the totalitarian prophecy put to rest. I remember a novel of a future election entitled “1968.” I remember reading about how the 100th anniversary of the Civil War had arrived, in a year whose numerals were the same read upside down and right side up. I remember Hawaii and Alaska becoming states, and the Giants and Dodgers leaving New York City, and the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, sailing under the Arctic in photos in Life magazine. How long will I be able to remember?

My wife asked Agent 95, for some reason, what part of the world he would most like to see, and he said the Australian outback. G’night!

Labels: , ,