Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Faber-Castell and Riverside Paper Corporation

In this time of mass-marketed, mass-produced services and products, I wonder if the last bastion of customer service are the relatively small, long-established companies with a rich tradition of loyal customers.

I say this because I have used the "contact us" form on several Web sites to no avail. My questions must go either to a black hole of lost/ignored/misdirected questions, or they aren't of enough interest for anyone to answer. In my limited experience, the only large company that quickly and consistently responds to my messages is Amazon.com, where a real person usually responds within 24–36 hours with a personalized answer.

Many other organizations seem to satisfy themselves with a cold, standardized, and obviously automated message [***DO NOT REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE***]. It is as though a few minutes of back-end programming is enough to pass for customer service. In terms of customer experience, it is a little short of, "The estimated wait time for a live body who will read to you from a script that you have memorized better than he has is 27 minutes. Please hold. We appreciate your business, honest."

Recently, though, I have had a couple of very good experiences, and I would like to acknowledge them.

The first was with the U.S. branch of Faber-Castell, the Germany-based producer of pencils and other writing implements. The company was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Faber-Castell 9000 pencil with a special anniversary tin of a dozen 9000s. I ordered two directly from the company (not from a retailer). They were not packaged as well as they could have been, and the tins were slightly dented and nicked on arrival.

After thinking about it for a few days, I decided to e-mail Faber-Castell through their U.S. Web site. I think I said that I liked the tins and pencils, but that the packaging had allowed the tins to be damaged slightly, which defeated the purpose of buying them as a collector's item. I did not expect a response, but I received one—a sincere apology from a senior customer relations specialist and an offer to replace the tins. Within a week, new tins, better packaged, and filled with another two dozen Faber-Castell 9000s (not necessary!), arrived.

That is customer service, and it made me an instant fan of Faber-Castell.

Several years ago I bought lined black notebook paper for use with gel pens. A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that I would like more, but I couldn't find it at the store where I had purchased it originally, nor could I find it, or anything like it, online. This is not surprising; I have noticed a number of schools are cracking down on anything that is not plain white notebook paper or blue or black ballpoint ink. (Some even expressly forbid the use of gel or rollerball pens of any color.)

Then I visited the Web site of the manufacturer, Riverside Paper Corporation. I didn't see the paper on there, either, so I sent an e-mail via the "contact us" form asking if it were still being produced.

To my surprise, I received an answer from the director of sales, marketing, and logistics support. The paper is no longer being manufactured, but the company had a supply on hand that they could sell to me for a nominal cost plus shipping. I was thrilled, but I wrote back that I am just an individual, not a retailer, so I could take only a portion of the total quantity, if that was acceptable. It was, and now I am the happy owner of a lifetime supply (and more) of lightweight black notebook paper. (I hope 2,000 sheets is enough!)

You may never need anything made by Faber-Castell or the Riverside Paper Corporation, and it is quite unlikely that, even if you did, you would need to contact them. I did, and I think they deserve praise for understanding that, no matter how big or small an organization is, it could not exist without its customers.

Friday, May 26, 2006

An eagle's eye view of morning

This morning I was watching the bald eagle nest at Eagle Eye Cam just before and during sunrise, their local time. The snowy grey of the night view slowly resolved itself into blurred outlines, most noticeably the white head of the parent eagle tucked under its wing as it slept.

As the light grew stronger, the parent eagle woke up, raised its head, and looked around, accounting for both chicks and perhaps checking out the weather. Next, it relieved itself, then stretched a wing out and began preening itself. That finished, it relaxed, sitting in a comfortable position for quite a while as the chicks slumbered on.

At some point of this routine, perhaps during the wing stretch, I began to feel like a voyeur. Everything about the eagle's actions, from the waking up to the reluctance to get going and leave the nest, resembled a human going through her morning ablutions, then spending a few moments to steel herself to get ready and to go to work. All my eagle friend needed was a cup of coffee to complete the picture.

Whether you are raising eagle chicks or parenting adolescents, work and life can be hard to face first thing in the morning. Stretch and kick back a bit first.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Niagara Falls, unimpeded and glorious

The other day I realized that I grew up only 32 miles from Niagara Falls. To my child self, it always seemed like a pretty long trip. I would guess that, when I was a child, we visited Niagara Falls perhaps a half-dozen times. We also went to Old Fort Niagara once or twice when I was about 14 or 15, and my dad I may have gone to the fort once after my mother's death.

The last time I saw Niagara Falls was in October 1987, when I went home to help my dad pack for his move to Pennsylvania. The weather was chilly and overcast, and it is one of those bittersweet moments that mark a major transition in life. I had to acknowledge both that my father had grown old and that I could no longer be a child, as much as I wished to be in some ways. I could not go home again because I had no home left to which to go. The town had changed, the landscaped had changed, my family had changed, and I had changed.

I could remember how my visits to Niagara Falls had made me feel, like I was going on an adventure to a different and alien place that was outside the realm of my everyday life. The very young, sheltered girl that I was, it was an inspiring, joyous feeling of excitement that I will never experience again.

The first people who saw Niagara Falls—how did they feel? Those who first saw the Grand Canyon? The ancient redwoods? The Painted Desert? The Everglades? Most Indian peoples seem to have felt a sacred connection to their surroundings, whether or not they were spectacular, recognizing in their environment the place where life begins, is sustained, and ends.

Imagine seeing Niagara Falls as it must have looked before the Europeans arrived—surrounded by forests, with the river pure and unimpeded by hydroelectric projects. Imagine it without the expressways and roads, the traffic, the hotels and restaurants, the houses and apartments, the formal gardens, the attractions, the souvenir shop, the pathways with railings, the stairs, the parking lots, the glare of windshields on a sunny day. Just imagine it as it must have been. Perhaps you were following the river, seeing rapids appearing here and there, hearing a thunderous noise in the distance, walking more quickly as the noise grows louder, and perhaps suddenly coming upon the falls, a scene unlike any other on earth and unlike any you have seen before in your wanderings.

Imagine that you could see Niagara Falls as it was and then today, as it is.

Which Niagara Falls is exciting and powerful, yesterday's or today's?

I would like to remember the Niagara Falls I have never seen—unimpeded and glorious.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Review: Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Not recommended.

In his 1960 introduction to Tropic of Cancer, Karl Shapiro said, "I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is," ". . . as a spiritual example he stands among the great men of our age," and ". . . he [Orwell] predicts that Miller will set the pace and attitude for the novelist of the future. This has not happened yet, but I agree that it must." Shapiro does not support any of these points in his essay, and nothing about Tropic of Cancer supports them, either.

Tropic of Cancer consists of 318 pages recounting Miller's experience as an American expatriate in Paris and expounding his personal philosophy, often in ways that are rambling and painfully nonsensical. Miller's stories about his friends are tedious, pointless, and catty; like Miller, they seem to have been talentless hacks whose belief in their own artistic abilities makes them artists and writers, as though believing is being. Miller writes, "A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am"—which is the type of arrogant pretentiousness he mocks in virtually all of his acquaintances.

When they are not creating, or talking about philosophy or creating, Miller and his circle seem to spend nearly every moment picking up women (and disease). They rarely use a neutral term such as "woman" when there are so many obscene, demeaning words with which to objectify the gender. The women that Miller and friends find are invariably portrayed as stupid, drunken, irrational, loose, sly, deceptive, and good primarily for one function, which Miller turns into a squalid, cold, joyless act. In spite of all the vice and the "living," no one seems to be having fun, and some characters, notably Fillmore, find themselves nearly trapped into the bourgeoisie life.

Miller expresses contempt for the machine, the industrial age, and money—although he schemes to keep 2,800 francs from Fillmore's mistress and revels in having so much in his pocket. Often hungry, Miller obsesses about food and relies on his friends to support him. When he describes his Indian friend Kepi as ". . . a scrounger, a sort of human tick who fastens himself to the hide of even the poorest compatriot," he could be talking about himself as he bitterly complains about those of his friends who are stingy with money, accommodations, food, and wine.

Miller's logic about the working world is facile; he writes, "If you want bread, you've got to get in harness, get in lockstep." On the surface, this is true, but it never seems to occur to him that, if you want bread, someone must cultivate, raise, and harvest the wheat and produce the other components; someone must transform these components into bread; and someone must deliver it to the shops and cafes. In other words, if most people weren't in "lock step," Miller could choose to starve or set himself to produce bread, joining the world in harness. He makes his choice clear, then whines about it. He may despise those who support him, whether they are friends or workers, but that is perhaps because he, a misanthrope who finds fault with everyone but himself, needs the very people he denigrates (including "the grocer, the baker, the shoemaker, the butcher, etc.—all imbecilic-looking clodhoppers"), a reliance which he resents. He hates the machine and the machine mind, but offers no alternatives.

Seemingly incapable of sincere feeling, Miller finds human emotion amusing. When a friend says, "A boy can break your heart . . . He's so damned beautiful! And so cruel!" Miller writes, "We had to laugh at this. It sounded preposterous. But Collins was in earnest." When an acquaintance to whom he owes money dies, he writes, "At any rate, he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after my arrival, a circumstance which left me twenty-three francs to the good."

Shapiro claims that Miller is a poet, but his attempts at poetic and philosophic ramblings often make little if any sense. Speaking of buildings and statues, Miller says, " . . . they must be saturated with my anguish," the kind of bad metaphor in which he frequently indulges. He describes artists such as himself as the "inhuman ones." "I am inhuman! I say it with a mad, hallucinated grin, and I will keep on saying it though it rain crocodiles. Behind my words are all those grinning, leering, skulking skulls, some dead and grinning a long time, some grinning as if they had lockjaw, some grinning with the grimace of a grin, the foretaste and aftermath of what is always going on." Whenever these attempts at poetic philosophy appeared, rambling on for pages, I found myself yearning for a return to his insipid stories about prostitutes, disease, friends, and hunger.

Tropic of Cancer is perhaps the worst book I have ever read (and I did promise myself that I would read Tropic of Capricorn). Shapiro says, "There are not many of these emancipated beings left in our world [emancipated from what? —DLS], these clowns and clairvoyants, celebrants of the soul and of the flesh and of the still-remaining promise of America." If Miller, with his whining, his criticism, his holier-than-everyone attitude, his "art," his two-dimensional view of people, and his obsession with excrement, is the "greatest" of these souls, may I never meet the least.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I am man

I dislike mass advertising, and I especially loathe the use of music that once had some political or social meaning, or tried to, to market commodities like candy bars and cars, or services like insurance. Even I have to admit, however, that the Burger King Texas Double Whopper TV commercial is attention getting, clever, and timely.

The long version starts with a young man and his date in a pricey restaurant as a server places before them a salad consisting of a couple of leaves and garnishes. The man stands up and marches out, singing, "I am man" to the tune of Helen Reddy's feminist standard, "I Am Woman" ("I am woman/Hear me roar/In numbers too big to ignore/And I know too much to go back and pretend/'cause I've heard it all before/And I've been down there on the floor/
No one's ever gonna keep me down again"). As he walks along asserting his manliness and need for real food, he is joined by men of all ages, races, and occupations, who add their voices to his. The mob pushes an SUV off an overpass onto a truck that a sweaty, red-faced, bald strong man is pulling—with a Texas Double Whopper as his "carrot." The effect of the music, the men, and their enthusiasm for food is both funny and exhilarating.

The irony is, of course, that the song that declared female power and wisdom in the 1970s has been twisted to assert male emancipation from female ideas of diet inspired by the male desire for slender females. And to sell burgers so high in fat and carbohydrates that they are bound to contribute to a heart attack or two.

All that irony makes me hungry.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dream: The drowning trailer

For unknown reasons, we decided to move. The trailer we were pulling was white with yellow trim, just like the one I grew up in, but the inside was unfamiliar. We pulled it along on what seemed like a dangerous journey through various types of countrysides. I did not know where we were going or why.

Dad's driving seemed erratic in some way, and when we were near water we would drive over and even on the underside of cliffs, but without incident. I was remarking mentally how miraculous it was that he could do that without the vehicle and the trailer falling in when we found ourselves off the road and floating in water, a narrow, dark channel in an industrial area or town.

I didn't know how I could get across the cold, dark, dirty water, but somehow did. I was desperate to rescue some things, mostly photos in a couple of different places and my clarinet. I saved a box or something, but what I really wanted was to get the metal suitcase of photos. When I come back out from setting the box down, the trailer had sunk in the water, but was rising again like a body. I pushed everyone to save it on my behalf. My brother then managed to pull it onto a concrete pad, but it came back too far and hit something like a tank. I waited for an explosion that didn't come but I was torn between trying to save my photos and the fear of being caught in a fireball. Then a truck next door tried to back across the alley and down but also hit a gas pump or tank before I could scream in warning. I waited for the explosion but, again, nothing happened. There was the silence of anticipation.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Portrait

I found this portrait on my computer the other day. An online acquaintance drew it in 1998 based on a scan of a portrait photo taken of my brother and me in the late 1980s or 1990s at a Sears store in San Antonio, Texas. The original photo is from a different era in my life, and the artist has never met me face to face. It's a wonderful work, and for many years I displayed it on my Web site. I removed it primarily because I thought it might appear that I am claiming I look like that now. I do not.

From the perspective of 2006, I don't recognized the woman in the portrait. It is not simply that she is younger, fresher, more innocent, less jaded than I am. It is not that she looks a little shyer, a little more hesitant, a little less confident. It is all that, but it is also more, more than I can probably see or sense. What strikes me most, beyond her reserve, is how happy she seems; her smile is calm, warm, open, and genuine.

I do not think I have ever felt that way as an adult. At the time, I worked at a job that was tedious, meaningless, and draining in an environment that was difficult and without intellect, heart, or spirit. I tried repeatedly to escape, but each failed attempt reminded me that no one elsewhere wanted me and that my chances were small and stagnant. No one could see my potential, nor could I persuade anyone of it. My apartment was small, poorly maintained, and neglected, and was neither a refuge or a home except in the most basic sense. I was not in love and had long ago given up on the idea that I ever would be, or could be.I was existing, not living, and was miserable in that existence.

I do not see any of that in the portrait. I see someone who was, or who has become, a stranger to the person I am today. I could wish I still had her youth and freshness and especially of the openness and optimism that still lurk in her eyes, underneath the guardedness.

But they are gone, and I do not think that they will ever return.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day, 2006

My mother died 23 years ago on Mother's Day, which was May 8 in 1983. Last night a friend asked me if I miss her, and it occurred to me that she has been gone for half of my life and for virtually all of my independent adult years.

When I was very young, my parents had friends who, once in a while, would stop by for an hour or two of coffee and conversation at our kitchen table. Some were distant relatives who came from a town or two south of us; some were former neighbors from the trailer park who had moved into houses. Some later passed away while my parents were still alive, including two who were killed in a car accident; others have passed on since one or the other of their deaths; a few are still alive. That period of time, while only a brief part of my early life, made an impression—my mother's interest in every car that came around our corner, the fuss when it proved to be a familiar one as it was parked in front of or next to the trailer, the coffee brewing and the cookies coming out, and the cacophony of friendly conversation.

There was a time when I used to imagine living near enough to my parents to see them once or twice a week. I would visit them, and they would visit me. We would sit around our respective kitchen tables or watch TV in the living room. We would drink coffee. I would have to make it just the way my dad liked it, or he would complain grumpily, even refuse to come back. We would have to watch his TV programs. If "nothing good" were on, my mother might want to watch a Buffalo Sabres hockey game. She would not admit it, but she liked the drama of the fights.

It did not happen. My mother died a month before I graduated from college, and I did not return to western New York. I did visit my father twice a year when he moved to Pennsylvania in 1987, but he lived independently for only a short time before moving himself to an assisted living facility there. It was not the same as in my daydream.

I never sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee with both my parents as an adult, as an equal, so that would have the opportunity to learn about, know, and appreciate each other.

That is what I miss.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Dream: Patterns on cave walls

I was in a cave or an underground room with someone, at least at first. He or she pointed out the patterns and shadows on the walls, which began to move mysteriously. They never appeared to be distinct or concrete, but they portrayed a people that surrounded itself in green—green walls, green clothing, etc. As the story unfolded, the reason was revealed; when I asked questions, this people told me that they consumed raw human flesh and blood, and the purpose of the green was to offset the brightness and visual shock of the blood and gore's red.

Then I was alone in a subterranean passage or room, possibly but not definitely connected to the cave. It seemed to be manmade. There were people with large noses wandering around, as though between meetings. They seemed to be unusual in some way, and were mute. Then I began to think they must be the human-eating species of the cave patterns, and they terrified me with their alien, yet humanoid appearance and the possibility they did eat human flesh. I saw that everything around them was green.

A thought came to me that one of them wished to kill me for vengeance, cause unknown, but i did not know which one. To me, they looked similar to one another, and I felt my own nose, realizing it was unusually large. I wondered if I were related to this people.

Suddenly, based on an unconscious premonition, I spun around just in time to catch in icicle spear thrown and aimed at my heart through my back. The assailant stood frozen before me, but I still felt danger all around. The real threat was still out there, armed with icicle spears that bore death. I say, "It's not me!"

I sensed that the killer or killers, and the others, were not interested in eating me. Yet the image of the cave walls, plus that of one of the creatures with blood dripping from its hands and mouth in silhouette, came again and filled me with speechless horror. I know now that each of them is looking to kill a particular person. I say again, "It's not me!"

Monday, May 8, 2006

Reflections on offshore outsourcing

Some time ago I heard a man—whether businessman, public official, or politician, or all of these, I do not know—on television talking about offshore outsourcing and why it is good for the United States and her citizens. He contended that outsourcing frees Americans to do other, "better, more important" things.

I could not believe my ears. And I could not imagine that anyone viewing this would believe it, either.

The offshore outsourced jobs I'm most familiar with are technical support and customer service. Ten years ago, when I called or e-mailed my ISP for help with a problem, I would get a person located at the corporate office who would ask me good questions and resolve the problem or escalate it if warranted. Most of them seemed to be young, not necessarily educated, but knowledgeable about operating systems, Internet clients, and connectivity issues. Unless it was a system issue on the ISP's end, most problems could be resolved in under five to ten minutes or in one or two e-mails. I would get a different person each time, and something of his or her personality would come through in the conversation whether it took place on the phone or by e-mail.

Now when I contact support, which I try to avoid doing, I receive scripted responses that do not take into account anything that I have actually said about the problem. For example, in OS 9 and lower for Macintosh, a standard problem-solving step is to rebuild the desktop file. I would contact support, now located halfway or more across the world, and find myself talking to "Kilroy." (Outsourced employees are told to use American names so as to make the less cosmopolitan among us feel comfortable; I wondered if this particular young man had been reading comic books and if he knew that "Kilroy" isn't really a typical American name.) I would tell "Kilroy" the problem and carefully go over the steps I had already taken to to resolve it—reboot, reboot with extensions off, rebuild the desktop file, etc. There would be a pause as he consulted his script. Invariably, "Kilroy" would say, "We are going to try to rebuild the desktop." I could protest all that I liked that I had done so already without result, but "Kilroy" was not allowed to deviate from the script, which meant that I couldn't, either. So I would go through the motions of rebuilding the desktop again.

Now when I need help I will go to a Usenet group or a mailing list first, which is most likely what many companies hope you will do. It means less effort and more money for them. Besides, communicators claim that the Internet, through vehicles such as blogs, has put power into the hands of the public, so that the public pulls the message from companies rather than companies pushing it, as in traditional top-down communications. The public can, therefore, apparently, provide itself with support.

So what happened to all those support people at headquarters, who were written up in company newsletters and whose accomplishments were touted online and in print communications to customers? I suppose that many, if not most, were fired or laid off. Maybe some went or returned to college, earned degrees, and moved on to "better" things, as the commentator wanted viewers to believe. Perhaps some discovered that any job for which they might be qualified was a candidate for outsourcing. Many would have, in time, moved on to better things on their own, as people do throughout their careers. But the next generation would not have the same opportunity for a good entry-level job that paid well and taught workplace and interpersonal skills. This move was not better for the individuals or for the vast, diverse group we call Americans; it was more efficient and cheaper for the companies, which no longer have to pay living wages or, worse, benefits like health care. It certainly was not better for customers.

In reality, it is not undesirable jobs that Americans don't want to do that have been outsourced. there is a perception, real or not, that Americans see themselves as above cleaning toilets, but Americans have been and are willing to fill technical support and customer service positions—for a living wage.

Outsourcing goes beyond support and service. I realized this in the past month or so when I received three or four calls, clearly from offshore, from salespersons representing my bank and credit card provider, trying to convince me that I need identity theft protection. Did the television pundit mean to tell us that Americans can do better than to go into sales and telemarketing? Some people have sales in their blood. Even I was a telemarketer for the summer after college, before I found a permanent position. As an introvert, I didn't like it, but I was very grateful for the opportunity—and, of course, the money. Now even telemarketing has been sent offshore. As an aside, telemarketing is as scripted as support. No matter what I said, the reader plunged ahead with his or her script until I hung up. I cannot imagine that this is an effective way to sell anything (unless the fear of identity theft is that prevalent and strong). It makes me want to re-evaluate my bank. After all, why should I wish to conduct business with an organization that treats neither employees nor customers with respect?*

That is why I find the idea that outsourcing "frees" Americans for "better, more important things" disingenuous and dishonest. The truth is that many jobs except direct-service ones do not have to be done on site and could be outsourced, e.g, technology, accounting, records and data processing, sales, marketing, programming, design, etc. Even copywriting and editing could be outsourced—and often is, to freelancers. Do Americans have "better, more important things" to do than to work at meaningful jobs and to receive pay for it?

Of course, the jobs of direct care providers such as physicians, nurses, dentists, optometrists, aides, assistants, and so forth cannot at this time be outsourced.

Nor can the jobs of the people who ask you if you want fries with that as they hand you your burger.

Until someone figures out how to completely automate the drive-through.

I feel "free" to do "better, more important things" already.

*To be fair, telemarketing has always been like this. Fifteen or twenty years ago, a call woke me up when I was suffering from a stomach virus. I answered; then, when I realized it was a sales call and also that getting up had produced another bout of nausea, I told the caller a half dozen times that I was sick and nauseated and that I needed to go. He continued on each time as though he had not heard me, never acknowledging what I had said or that I had even spoken. Finally I overcame my natural reluctance to be rude and hung up on him, mid-sentence. I have not hesitated to be rude since to persistent telemarketers who do not treat me like a person.

Friday, May 5, 2006

The lake, my lover

The lake is with me every night like a lover. After daybreak I must leave him, but I know that I will return to him and that he will be waiting.

Like a lover, he is moody, often unfathomable. In the morning he may be calm, mirroring the world exactly as he sees it—bright and cloudless. Or he may feel imaginative, clearly reflecting the shapes the illuminated clouds playfully form and re-form. Sometimes the low-lying clouds try to influence his emotions by casting themselves between him and the sun, which can make him kick up a few choppy waves of impotent protest and frustration. If the clouds leave him alone long enough, he may settle down.

At other times, the clouds and the lake will continue to spar, each forgetting that their conflict started as a game. The clouds gather in mutual support until they block the sun and blacken the sky. The wind, like an annoying younger brother who cannot help but provoke the combatants, joins in the battle, teasing the lake, at first ruffling him, then turning him wild with fury, unsettled and grey. Then the lightning and the thunder and the rains come, and it becomes all-out war. It can last for minutes or for hours.

When it is over the air clears, and the wind exhausts itself, but the lake is slower to stop seething than his foes. After a time, though, his complexion will change from white-capped steel grey to breathtaking blue, and I will know that we are once again all that is in each other's hearts.

I am away for most of these outbursts, which are frightening and beautiful at the same time. I do not understand these tantrums, but they are as much part of my lover as peace and calm and loveliness.

His moods can change in what seems like moments. He may arise cheerful with the sun, but turn gloomy and chill so quickly that I do not notice the transition. At other times, the change is so slow and gradual that its escapes even my observation until it is complete.

I love all of the lake's moods because I feel and understand all of them—the inexplicably happy ones, the playful ones, the torn and confused ones, even the angry ones—but the quietly sad ones most of all.

It is on moonlit nights that I love the lake best. The moon glows across his surface, making a strip of his nakedness glow incandescently and leaving the rest in the mystery of semidarkness. It is then that I feel the coolness of his touch, the influence of his soul over mine.

The moon is a silent witness to our coupling, slow, deep, intense, with a hint of danger. It is exhilarating for me. For him—I cannot be sure, for despite his passion he holds himself and his power in reserve.

Even now I know that the lake and I will someday part. I do not know what will separate us beyond some kind of change in circumstance. I dread the thought and therefore do not think about it very often. Always I am aware of it, in the same way that I am aware that I must die. I do not know when or how, but I understand why. The lake changes, I change, all of life changes. Life is change. Then, finally, there is the end to change that death brings.

The lake is immortal; I am not. But we love where we can and how we may. Is not that the way of all lovers?

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

"To sleep, perchance to dream"

Every day meaningless words in meaningless combinations are ripped from me by the will of another. I worry that there will be—that there are—no words left for me. No thoughts, no emotions, no imagination, and no way to express myself or, worse, nothing to express. I see now how difficult it is to mix the real workaday world with a creative or thoughtful life. How difficult it is to shed or bury or repress all the baggage of daily life, the anxieties, the worries, the pressures, the stresses, the resentments, and to be free to think, to feel, to create. The inner life is both denied and suffocated by the exigencies of reality, by the weight of humanity and its constructs, but mostly by its will and desires that are so different from mine.

My days are a veil that tries to obscure the beauty that lies hidden in this inner world, but at times the sleep of early morning pulls the veil aside to let me see some, just a little, of what is possible. Endless forest and valleys, houses in both town and country, indoor waterways, mythological creatures evil and good, magical waterfalls, oceans that embrace but do not drown, trains unrestricted by tracks, roads that lead to the unimaginable, and my own newfound ability to see forever and to soar forever—and just when I am highest, when I see most clearly, when I have found an inner world that is rich with the unexplained and the inexplicable, the veil falls back into place even as I fight it, and it is another day of anxiety, worry, pressures, stresses, and resentments. Just as I am about to understand, understanding fails. "To sleep, perchance to dream" . . .

Monday, May 1, 2006

"Clothes make the man"

I often think and write about changing times. Today, change is rapid and seems to be accelerating. My dad grew up on a family farm with mules for horsepower; in the year of his birth (1913), there were probably still more horses than cars. By the year in which he died (2001), the American family farm was nearly extinct, having been carved up into lots for suburban housing or absorbed into factory farms, where animals are treated like products, not living beings. Even certain breeds of draft horse are endangered or threatened (see the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). Within my dad's 88 years, the U.S. was paved over with interstates, malls, shopping centers, and parking lots; men landed on the moon; and radio filled the home entertainment void, then TV, then the Internet, online gaming, and video games. And that's only the barest glimpse of how much has changed.

It makes me wonder what I will see happen in the next 20–40 years of my life—what new technologies, devices, conveniences, treatments, and cures will arise, as well as the ensuing problems that such changes invariably create.

One change that has occurred in my lifetime is a small social one, but it's worth mentioning as it is so prevalent. It's our switch to casual dress in almost any setting.

I thought of this a few days ago when I saw a couple of families entering one of the churches downtown. Adults and children alike wore jeans and tee shirts. They could have been entering McDonald's, a tavern, or a sports stadium, judging by their dress.

This is quite different from when I was a child, when men and even boys wore suits and ties, and women and girls wore dress or skirts—no slacks or even pantsuits. Jesus may have dressed casually, but you were expected to approach and enter the house of God with respect, and respect meant dressing up. Even when girls stopped wearing dresses to school, they still wore them to church.

The American attitude toward dress has, of course, changed. In the late 1980s, my then Big 8 consulting firm implemented casual Fridays. At first, if I remember correctly, it was in the summers only, then it was extended to every Friday year-round, then to every day. The only exception was if you had meetings with clients or vendors, or similar activities. All but a few sticks in the mud were ecstatic, and even the partners began wearing business casual clothing on the rare days on which they didn't have meetings.

As for me, I loved it. I had always hated wearing dresses (to school, church, or work), and trying to pull pantyhose up over sweaty, sticky, fat legs in 90ºF, high-humidity weather became an epic challenge and a heroic effort (with many pairs damaged as a result).

My new company also switched to business casual every day, with similar exceptions, at some point after I started. At this point, I don't even have a dress wardrobe left, even when I need it.

Now, when you walk around downtown Chicago during a weekday, it is the man or woman wearing a conservative business suit who stands out as the exception, the oddity. Except for occasional ethnic attire or trendy costume, the rest of us march in a uniform of casual, virtually indistinguishable, shirts, tops, and bottoms.

Casual attire has evolved in conjunction with the team-oriented workplace, in which work is done, in theory, in collaboration and by consensus, in which "leaders" guide and mentor rather than simply order and decide. Yet, for some reason, a person wearing a suit seems to command unspoken respect, at least more so than someone sporting a golf shirt and slacks. If a vendor comes in and sees three men in business suits and three in casual dress, the odds are good that they will address the bulk of their proposal to the "suits," whom they will assume are the decision makers.

I suspect that those who wear suits are also treated differently outside the workplace. I can picture security guards, cab drivers, maître d's, servers, even traffic control officers, showing greater deference to the elite in suits than to the masses in business casual.

I've read that business dress is coming back, but I haven't seen it. I don't often see anyone voluntarily dressing up for work; the joke has always been that someone who shows up at work in a suit or dress must have a job interview.

As much as I prefer casual dress and the symbolic (not actual) egalitarianism that it implies, I admit that I miss the professionalism and a certain distance that seemed to go along with a more formal attire. Perhaps it is even the sense that clothing separates the different aspects of our lives—that casual wear is for one's personal life and that dress is for work, that the two are separate spheres. Now, with people working 80-hour weeks, working at home, working on the road, working while on vacation, using cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys and PDAs, and ubiquitous wireless connections, these separate spheres of home and office, personal and work, are merging—or have merged—into an amorphous blob.

Off to work we go, or to church, to dine, to visit family or friends, to a date, to a baseball game, to home—it's all the same to us, judging from the way we dress. If "clothes make the man," what kind of men (and women) are we? What is left that is special enough to dress for, to care about?