Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bites

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  There is a "customer service" crisis in America right now.

I think it stems in large part from a fundamental misconception about the meaning of the words "customer" and "service."

"Customer" means I'm the one paying for an item that helps to keep a few people employed.  "Service" means you should probably do your best to help me and be nice to me, otherwise I may take my money and go elsewhere.  That latter thought should make you a little bit worried and sad, if you're running a business.

I really don't get the rudeness-thing.  It's at the point where I don't like to call customer service and I don't like to email them, but mistakes seem to be the norm and as a result, I kind of just don't even like to buy things anymore.

This is great for me, of course, but maybe not so great for the economy at large.  Although yes, I know, I'm only one very small cog in a mighty machine.  But still.

Latest case in point: I placed an online order, and I know I put in a shipping address that is different from my billing address.

As God is my witness, I know that.  I distinctly remember unchecking the "same as billing address" box, taking the extra 3 minutes to fill out a separate shipping address (why can't first and last name just be on the same line, as in:  last name, comma, first name?) and then running my wee index finger along the screen to double check that yes, I had filled it out correctly.  To save myself all kinds of trouble.

A day later I found out that my credit card didn't go through, so I had to call them about that.  So I did, they put it through, and the problem seemed to be solved.  My delivery could begin winging its way my way.

This morning, I discovered that they shipped my order to my billing address.  I called Customer Service, without a whole lot of hope, I'll admit.  My main--nay, only-- hope was, maybe they could contact the shipper and give them the address I had requested in the first place.

The woman who answered the phone--and she was a native speaker of English, so no leeway on that front--refused to believe me, when I explained what it appeared had happened.

She said, "Oh, no, that's not possible.  We don't EVER change shipping addresses."

I explained that I thought maybe it had just been changed when the credit card number was reentered, you know, a mistake, maybe, to which she said, "Oh, no, that's not possible.  We don't EVER change shipping addresses."

I'll spare you some of the gory details here and simply tell you that she said the above two sentences no fewer than 5 times in the course of our 5-minute "conversation." 

I really don't get this "service" "strategy."  If you attempt to engage me in a conversation, I tend to try go with the flow of said conversation.  So, for example, if you say you entered a shipping address different from the one that the merchandise is now being shipped to, I would probably say, "Okay, just a minute--let me check on that for you."

And then, if I have bad news to tell you, I would say, "I'm sorry, but from what I'm seeing here, it looks like the shipping address we have for this order is the same as your billing address...and the package has already shipped, so I'm afraid there's nothing I can do..."

I would try to trail off pleasantly, hoping that 1) you won't begin screaming at me in senseless rage, and 2) you will maybe suggest some way we can wrap this up on a friendly footing, perhaps by offering additional information so I can get a better sense of what happened here to create this customer service... rift.

If you told me that you called my company 2 days previously because they had to make adjustments to your order in order for it to go through the Customer Service system and be sent on its merry way, I might say, "Hmmm... let me see here," and stall for time while I weigh any and all means I might have at my disposal to help and/or pacify you.  

If I had none, I would say, "Unfortunately" (or "I'm sorry," since they're basically synonymous) and then I would explain why I couldn't change the shipping address at this time.  Again, my goal would be to keep you as a customer since I work for Customer SERVICE, and I would enlist a pleasant and professional demeanor and a seriousness of purpose as my best --nay, my only-- assets in this endeavor.

Did I mention that the 5 statements of  "That's not possible, we NEVER change shipping addresses" alternated with approximately 5 claims of, "Well, you must have input the wrong address.  That's the only way that this could have happened.  I'm sorry, but you are the one who input your billing address and that's why it's being shipped there."

Yeah.  Okay.

I don't think I'm a difficult person to get along with.  My neighbors have spontaneously commented on more than one occasion that I'm "one of the most easy-going people they know."   They have often remarked that they can't imagine what it would take to get me angry, because I'm inclined to see the humor and try to laugh most things off.

Up to a point, that is.

So, for example, when this Customer Service representative told me "That's not possible," I was going to point out to her that in fact, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle suggests that many chains of causality that might otherwise seem unlikely are in fact possible.   That's a picture of Heisenberg to the right over there and quite frankly, I'd rather he had been my Customer Service rep. this morning.  (He certainly looks far more cheerful than the woman I spoke to, despite the whole uncertainty-thing.)

I didn't mention Heisenberg, though, because before I could, the Customer Service Representative I was speaking with launched into an oddly aggressive series of questions: WHY was I going to be out of town for the weekend?  WHY didn't I have a mailbox at my billing address (I do, actually, just not one big enough to hold packages), WHY didn't I just call the post office and tell them to hold the package until I came back, and HOW LONG did I intend to be away?

...

I left a little pause there in the blog post, to reflect the fact that this barrage of questions forced me to pause and collect myself lest I explode in a responding current of senseless, expletive-riddled anger.  Something I'd really rather not do, given the choice. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I have a Ph.D. in literature, but once a blue-collar working girl, always a blue-collar working girl.

Hence my immediate (and admittedly unfortunate) reaction to such kinds of verbal onslaughts is something along the lines of "Stick it up your ass, honey."

It's not very literate, I know, which is why I now pause in such moments, to try to gather my more educated sense of self.  I seek to marshal better verbal resources than phrases involving orifices and objects.  (I mentally remind myself to, "Be Buddhist about it.")

Because this is not the first time that this has happened to me.  On more than one occasion, a Customer Service rep. has demanded to know (in what I personally would characterize as a very "how-dare-you?" tone of voice) why I was where I was, doing what I was doing.

I wanted to point out that, in fact, I was engaged in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I also wanted to ask, "Well, but why are you where you are, doing what you're doing?  Why are any of us here, really, doing any of the things we're currently doing?"

Instead, in all of these instances, I patiently explained "the situation." I must say, though, that I'm slowly learning that being patient and polite in the face of such questions is somewhat pointless because 1) the person doing the demanding isn't ever satisfied with the answers, and 2) it makes no difference, they're simply going to say, "That's not possible: we don't EVER [fill in the blank]."

I ended up hanging up on this particular Customer Service Representative this morning.  Seriously.  I generally don't hang up on people, but in the past year, I've hung up on a Customer Service rep. three times.

And we haven't even hit the Holiday Season yet.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid. 

After I hung up, I tried an email.  At this point, I wasn't even asking for help anymore, I was simply filling an emotional need to say, "Hey, look, you know, this was kinda rude, treating a loyal customer this way.   I placed an order, a mistake was made, I called to ask for help to see if it could get fixed, and I got told to just deal with it."  (Which is true, the Customer Service rep. actually said, "Well, you're just gonna have to handle it yourself and figure something out, because there's nothing we can do."  Just like that, too.)

I received an automated email response in return in which they told me they looked, the shipping and billing addresses were the same, it had been shipped, so "apologies for any disappointment."

That's what they said. "Apologies for any disappointment."  I didn't like that.  That was my tipping point in all of this.

I kind of felt like, you know, I don't deserve to be treated rudely or spoken to like a petulant child, when I am (was), in fact, a paying customer.   And my purchase had been a substantial one.  And I had dealt with this company since the early 1990s.

So I wrote back to say that "disappointment" wasn't the issue, that customer service had been rude, and that I would simply return the delivery when it arrived and no longer do business with them.

They sent yet another automated response in which they "thanked" me for my "input" and said that they would "address" the issue "in the future," because "all feedback, whether positive or negative" is very important to them.

They actually signed it, "Your friend at Company X, Jill."  So they've emptied the word "friend" of all meaning as well, to add to the vacant terms "customer" and "service."

So I wrote one last email (no one can ever say I'm not persistent) in which I said, "You clearly don't care about keeping a customer who has spent a great deal of money on your merchandise over the past 20 years.  No need to send another automated reply that says nothing."

And that was the end of it.

Quite frankly, I don't know about how any of you out there would feel after such an altercation, but I now no longer want what I ordered.  I can't imagine keeping it or feeling good about it, because I would always think about the fact that I paid a lot of money for it and I was treated rudely in return.

My dad used to say, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."  Lately, "customer service" bites.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Advantageous

I can't believe how fast the weeks slip by. 

I've been reading Shawn Achor's book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (2010).  Achor is one of the leading practitioners of the movement that has come to be known as "positive psychology," and his particular specialization is (as the subtitle of his book suggests) its application in work-settings.

Many scoff at the field of "positive psychology," in large part because of its very name.  It conjures up images of people who are way, way, way too happy and cheery (and who we all secretly suspect of overindulging in various pharmaceuticals on the sly), people who think that all we need to do is "accentuate the positive" and there will be no such thing as depression.

People who seem to seek to deprive us--and the world at large-- of our trademark snark.

This isn't that.  (Thank god.)

The field of positive psychology began when psychologists began to realize that the preponderance of psychological studies deal with illness, with helping people who are depressed or otherwise struggling with mental or behaviorial issues.

Positive psychologists argue that this has skewed the discipline of psychology as a whole.  Because the fact is, people are, at various times in their lives, happy and successful.  They aren't always sad and depressed and struggling.

And some people appear to be happy and successful for long periods of time.  Others show a remarkable amount of strength, resilience and optimism, even in the face of serious adversities, such as life-threatening injuries, illness, grief, and unemployment.  They may not be "happy," per se, but they are doing a damn good job of coping with some serious life-shit (to put it bluntly), and it would be a disservice to simply categorize (or treat) them as if they are (because they implicitly "should be") "depressed."

The argument positive psychologists make is that, in order to better understand how and why human beings flourish, instead of simply studying the negative side of human psychology, we need to study its positive attributes and examples, in order to better understand what underlies these attitudes and behaviors.

So this is Achor's background and his task: to examine and inform us about how and why some people achieve success and happiness at work, and why that success and happiness (Achor and other positive psychologists actually prefer the term "flourishing" rather than "happiness," since it is weighted with fewer preconceived notions) often translates into other aspects of an individual's life.

Achor's The Happiness Advantage in particular identifies seven key principles that consistently underlie the behaviors and attitudes of successful workers, even during times of large-scale layoffs and economic crisis (Achor situates the context of his book in the global economic collapse of 2008).

Although Achor gives each of these principles a catchy label to make it more memorable, I'm going to eschew the labels and just get to the gist.

1) People who flourish have a brain that is "primed" to experience happiness.  In effect, they take advantage of neuroplasticity, the way in which the brain's neural pathways and synapses can be modified by changes in behavior, environment, and/or thinking.

As Achor points out, this can be accomplished in any number of ways: through meditation, by engaging in random acts of kindness, by consciously creating a more positive environment or surroundings, by exercising, by finding something to look forward to, by engaging in activities that we know will tap into our individual, character strengths and even--surprise, surprise--by spending money.

The caveat with spending money, however, is that it shouldn't be spent on stuff.  Instead, research has shown that money (when available) can bring happiness when it is spent on doing things, not on "having" things.  Studies have shown that "prosocial spending"--that is, spending money in ways that enable you to do things and/or connect with others--produces stronger and more positive emotions than the purchase of material objects, which produces only a temporary "high."

2) People who flourish have a mindset that selects and filters for positive experiences, even in the face of adversity.  As Achor argues, we can't change reality, and sometimes reality kinda sucks (don't I know it).

At the same time, however, we can choose how we react to these (occasionally sucky) realities by "adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances" (63).

As a friend of mine once told me during a particularly challenging period of my life, "Keep your eye on the prize.  Look towards the horizon."

3) People who flourish avoid focusing on--and thus creating--patterns of stress and negativity in their lives.  Achor uses an interesting example to explain this one.  As anyone who has played video games for several hours knows, they can have an odd effect: you think you begin to "see" the patterns of the game in the world around you or you find yourself thinking about your surroundings in the context of the game you've just been playing (for a bit too long, perhaps).

This is because this is what the human brain does: it scans the world for what it has practiced seeing and processing.  So, if you've played the game of negativity for a bit too long, chances are, those are the patterns that you will see in the world around you, patterns of stress and negativity.

4)  People who flourish opt for mental pathways that lead them up and out of suffering, defeat or crisis.  Psychologists have begun to study the concept of "Post-Traumatic Growth"--instead of simply focusing on PTSD, they look at examples of human resilience (and eventual flourishing) in the wake of traumatic events.  Achor notes that
People's ability to find the path up rests largely on how they conceive of the cards they have been dealt, so the strategies that most often lead to Adversarial Growth include positive reinterpretation of the situation or event, optimism, acceptance, and coping mechanisms that include focusing on the problem head-on (rather than trying to avoid or deny it) (110).
5)  People who flourish focus on mastering small, manageable tasks and goals, particularly when they are at risk for being overwhelmed by life's challenges and/or making irrational, ill-timed, or ill-conceived decisions about how to respond to them.  They have, Achor argues, "an internal locus of control"--a "belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes" (130)-- that helps to ground them.

By contrast, people who have have an "external locus" tend to see the events of their lives as dictated by outside forces over which they have little or no control.  (In short, they play the blame-game on a regular basis.)

6) People who flourish cultivate good habits and actively work to eliminate the bad.  As I mentioned in an earlier post ("Life-By-Numbers"), cravings tend to last no longer than 15 minutes, so if we can find a way to wait out a craving, we can eventually adopt better behaviors.

Similarly, Achor argues that new patterns of behavior can be instilled in as little as 20 seconds (in some cases) if we rely, not on willpower (which doesn't work), but on putting good habits on "the path of least resistance."  If you make it easy to do the things you want to do ("lower the barrier to change" [161]) and simultaneously make it just a bit harder to do the things you don't want to do, you can change your patterns of behavior for the better.

7) People who flourish have a strong network of social support that they can draw on in times of stress.  In short, they have a posse: people that they know they can count on when the going gets tough, because these are relationships that they have actively promoted and cherished when the going wasn't so tough.

If, after reading all of this, it sounds like happiness is a lot of work, well, yes, in a way, maybe it is.

But I think that, if you consider an activity or time when things worked well for you, it is probably the case that at least one of the principles was operating somewhere in that mix.

No one would deny that there are numerous advantages to happiness; the drawbacks of unhappiness, by contrast, are legion.

So why not invest, at least in a small way, in making an effort to opt for happiness?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Unimaginable

I've been wanting to blog about Ebola for the past week, but it's taken me some time to collect my thoughts and figure out what I want to say about it.

Earlier in the week, I spotted a tweet that essentially wondered why over 4000 people can die of Ebola in Africa and no one notices.  But when less than a handful of people are diagnosed with Ebola in the US, it's a national crisis--this was the gist of the wonder.

I responded: "We can't imagine a global pandemic when we hear 'Ebola in Africa.'  But when we hear, 'Ebola in Dallas,' we suddenly can."

I want to reflect on why that is.  I've been thinking all week about what a disease--or an epidemic, or a pandemic--requires of us imaginatively.

I've been thinking all week about how imagination can shape political action (or apathy) and influence our success in coping (or our failure to cope) with a virulent strain of hemorraghic fever like Ebola.

In his novel, The Plague, French writer Albert Camus comments on how difficult it is for us to understand massive destruction on a global scale.  We simply can't imagine the numbers, because it's outside of our frame of reference.  We don't know 4000 people, so we can't imagine death on such a scale. 

Of course, in this age of Facebook "friends" and Twitter "followers," we can imagine a sense of connection with numbers of this kind, but I think that we often don't.  Imagine if you went to bed tonight, knowing that Ebola was "out there" and by this time next week, over half--if not all-- of your Facebook friends were gone.

That's Ebola.  Right there.  The entity pictured in the image to the right does that.

In The Plague, Camus argues that, to make wide-scale destruction imaginatively possible for people who are currently living quiet, comfortable lives, you have to contextualize it in a way that they can imagine.

Camus suggests that people imagine a movie theater in their hometown--one that they go to themselves regularly--and then imagine it filled with people at a Friday night showing. 

Then, he says, imagine all of those people are killed, suddenly, inexplicably.  The theater reopens the next day, fills for a Saturday afternoon showing, and again, everyone in the theater is killed.  Imagine this happening on Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night.  And on into the week.  Imagine it simultaneously happening at other theaters.  Suddenly.  Randomly.  Restaurants.  Malls.  Unpredictably, and seemingly unstoppably, the numbers begin to add up. 

To imagine this happening day after day, for no apparent reason and with no discernible end in sight, can help us imagine the devastation of a plague as something that might affect us.   Camus argues that, in this instance, because we can imagine the place (a theater we often go to with people we know and love), we can imagine the people who might be found there on any one of these disastrous occasions.

We can imagine loved ones who might be inadvertently caught in the trap, and friends who might be suffering as a result.  The numbers "mean" something to us.

As Antjie Krog argues in Country of My Skull, it forces us to confront an unimaginably painful reality, one that we hesitate to even articulate:
"How is it possible that the person I loved so much lit no spark of humanity in you?" 
If we can't force ourselves to imagine this in this way, Camus argues, the numbers will always remain somewhat meaningless.  We can't see the people in the numbers, and so our imaginations fail us.

We know it's bad, but we don't know how bad and because we can't see what that means, we will fail to act accordingly.

I first found out specifics about Ebola--and Marburg viruses in general--when I read Richard Preston's The Hot Zone (1994) several years ago.

Preston looks at the origin of the virus itself and its sporadic impact on various African communities during the 1970s and early 1980's.  Because yes, as the tweet that I initially responded to clearly pointed out, Ebola has been cropping up sporadically in Africa for several decades now.  And Marburg--an equally virulent but somewhat less lethal strain of the same virus (Marburg is often identified as a "cousin" of Ebola)--has been previously diagnosed in Europe and it too traveled to the US on an airplane.

Preston's descriptions of what the Ebola virus does to the human body are horrific and seemingly unimaginable.  Ebola begins with a headache that appears a week or so after exposure to the virus, and then quickly escalates to nausea and vomiting.  Describing the first known case of Ebola, Preston writes,
    ...on the third day after his headache started, he became nauseated, spiked a fever, and began to vomit.  His vomiting grew intense and turned into dry heaves.  At the same time, he became strangely passive.  His face lost all appearance of life and set itself into an expressionless mask, with the eyeballs fixed, paralytic, and staring.  They eyelids were slightly droopy, which gave him a peculiar appearance, as if his eyes were popping out of his head and half-closed at the same time (11-12).
The eyes become bright red and the skin becomes yellowish and speckled with red.  Over time, the skin will begin to appear to be a massive reddish-purple bruise as the spots and speckles merge and expand.

And the vomiting will become far, far worse.  Unimaginably worse.

In the advanced stages of Ebola, the body begins bleeding from every orifice, because the blood's clotting factors no longer function.   Ebola attacks the connective tissue in the human body, which explains why the victim's face begins to take on an odd appearance.  The brain and internal organs bleed and slowly liquify.  The lining of the intestine or the surface of the tongue may actually be expelled from the body during a bout of defecation or vomiting.

I think Preston's description encapsulates the paradox of imagination that surrounds Ebola.  These symptoms are so horrifying that we can't even imagine suffering of this magnitude.  We can't imagine that this--this--could possibly happen to the (reasonably) hale and hearty American bodies we see all around us. 

And yet, we can, in a way.  We can demonize the disease and respond with fear, and that fear can be fueled by descriptions like the one that Preston offers--even though that was not necessarily his purpose in writing it.

Fear is both an understandable and appropriate reaction to Ebola.  The disease is contagious and it is officially categorized as "extremely lethal"--it is more lethal yellow fever, which has a mortality rate of approximately 5-10%.  It is more lethal than smallpox, which has a mortality rate of approximately 30%.

Ebola has a mortality rate of approximately 50% or higher, depending upon the strain.

But in a way, this is also a vulnerability in Ebola.  As Preston points out, Ebola viruses are efficiently lethal when it comes to humans--they often kill their human host quickly and horrifically--but this means that, in order to survive, the Ebola virus must constantly be infecting a new host.

Unlike HIV or tuberculosis, which infect a host and then linger over time, doing slow but sustained (and initially, invisible) damage, Ebola consumes quickly and then jumps, from person to person or across species.

In its ability to jump species, Ebola is not uncommon.  The flu can do it.  And HIV.  And rabies.  What Ebola does seems unimaginable, but in fact it is not.  It's unfortunately somewhat common among virulent viruses.  It's what makes them virulent.

So I think that, as we imagine Ebola and what it means for the world at large, we need to shift the focus of our thoughts and our imaginings.

We focus on symptoms that come straight out of a horror film, instead of imagining the causes that brought us to this point.

Scientists speculate that Ebola may haunt us today because, in the 1960's, it became profitable to capture, sell and ship monkeys from Africa around the world--often to pharmaceutical labs where they were the subjects of animal testing.  A monkey--like a human--can be infected with Ebola and remain symptomless (at least initially).  You wouldn't know they had the virus simply by looking at them.

So in a sense, Western economic demands may (indirectly) be what brought the virus out into the open and  put it on a plane.  Monkeys of a variety of species, in close contact with their human hunters, captured and enclosed in cages with others who may or may not have been infected.

Blood, feces, saliva, sweat, semen, vomit.  A virus-jumping paradise.

It seems to me that, if you inadvertently helped create the problem, you need to deliberately help devise a solution.  Particularly if you earned a profit from something that has now become a massive problem for thousands of impoverished people in multiple countries. 

The solution to "Ebola in Dallas," whether we like it or not, is "better health care in Africa."  If American corporations can imagine cornering capitalist markets and turning a tidy profit from Africa's resources, we can--and should-- imagine better healthcare systems in Africa as well. 

I think this is what we need to begin to focus on in our imaginings of Ebola.  Not hordes of dead Americans bleeding from every orifice, but scores of clean, efficient hospitals in Africa.  

You can't ban travel to or from countries infected with Ebola.  And even if you could, it would make little or no difference.  Imagine this: on any given flight on any given day, you are potentially exposed to all kinds of airborne pathogens that could do all kinds of nasty things that you and your body wouldn't like one bit.  It doesn't have to be Ebola.  Ebola is just what is happening right now.

This was the reality before the Ebola outbreak.  It will continue to be the reality after the Ebola outbreak.  If we can imagine testing people for fevers at airports, why can't we imagine sending some of the latest medical equipment and supplies to Africa on a regular basis, to help stop the disease before it gains a significant foothold like the one it currently has in West Africa? 

Put Ebola in the same category as rabies and HIV and the flu, and suddenly you can imagine this disease--and our response to it--a bit differently, I think.   

We don't have cures for rabies or HIV or the flu.  But we do have treatment plans that minimize the risk and alleviate the effects of these contagious diseases.  These diseases lit the spark of humanity in us, and as a result, people stand a better chance of surviving them today.

We can--and have--imagined all kinds of ways to help prevent other viruses from spreading quickly and exponentially.  We imagined scenes in which they could no longer do untold damage to the human population at large, and we worked collectively to try to make them real.  We eradicated smallpox.

I think we can do the same for Ebola.  Imagine that.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Week

I've been looking forward to this week for a long time.

Why, you ask?  Because tomorrow and Tuesday are my Fall break and Saturday is my birthday.  So it's kind of like my "Birthday Week," really.  A definite wish come true.

The main issue I've been wrestling with for the past 48 hours is whether to make my cake now, or wait until later in the week.  I'm leaning towards "later in the week," because the fact that I have a few days off this week means that there is a very real risk that those days could easily be spent consuming cake.

To such an extent that it might be essentially gone by the time the actual birthday rolls around.  And I'm not sure I possess the willpower required to not go and make myself another one, if that happens.  (I think it's bad mojo to not have cake on your actual birthday.  It sets a very bad precedent for the upcoming year, imho.)

So I've opted to wait on the baking.  That said, I made apple-cranberry muffins.  I've already eaten 3 of them.  (This is what I'm talking about.) 

Today was actually a very nice way to start off the week because, truth be told, yesterday was a bit of a bust.  It rained all day and, for whatever reason, I could not get myself moving.  I blame the (children's) benedryl that I had to take in the wee hours of the morning: I was sleepy all day.

Yes, that's right: I take children's dosages of OTC medicines and they put me out of commission for an entire day.  I'm just not cut out for hard-core drug use--I know that about myself, thank you very much. 

I did do a whole bunch of reading, though.  (In between dozing and taking selfies of my kitty cats who, I must say, look much cuter dozing than I do.)  On the advice of a friend, I'm reading Antjie Krog's The Country of My Skull (1999) about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  (I'll blog about it when I finish.)

I must confess, I am woefully ignorant about South Africa.  I mean, yes, I know about apartheid (I came of age in the '80's, after all, and Bono made sure we all knew what was going on there) and I know about Nelson Mandela, of course, but in other respects, I can't deny it, I'm woefully ignorant.

For example, did you know that South Africa doesn't have an official capital city?  In fact, it has 3: Cape Town (seat of Parliament), Pretoria (seat of the President and Cabinet), and Bloemfontein (seat of the Court of Appeals).   And the Constitutional Court convenes in Johannesburg.  Plus, South Africa completely surrounds the land-locked country of Lesotho.

I didn't know these things--although I should have, obviously--but now I do.  So that's something accomplished yesterday.

I also worked on knitting a sock while I was reading.  This is pretty much what I accomplished (bad picture alert):


It's the top portion of a sock, in Stroll Fingering, "Cupcake."  It actually does look kind of like a chocolate cupcake, believe it or not, in terms of coloring--browns and pinks.

I've developed this new habit of working on two different socks for two different pairs of socks simultaneously, alternating between them from day to day.  For some reason, I think it makes the sock-knitting go faster.  I know that doesn't make a whole lot of sense and really isn't very logical at all, but that's how it feels. (I suspect it falls in the category of a "variety is the spice of life" kind of thing.)  So here's the other sock that's currently underway in my world:

 
I honestly don't remember the name of the color for this one.  As you can see, both of them are at exactly the same point in the knitting process: the only thing left to knit on each is the foot.  And then, I will start the process all over again, to make the second sock for each pair.  I alternate between them, as the mood suits me.

And yes, this is a slight shift from all the work on sweaters that I did last weekend.  But fear not, I will return to those as well.  Right now, the only thing I need to try to do is not buy myself more yarn for my birthday.  That would be foolish, but it is always a very real possibility in my world.

I have also discovered a time-saving secret that I will share with the world at large: whenever possible, you should run errands on Sunday mornings, between 8-9 a.m.

Yes, I know there's that whole "sleeping in on Sunday" thing that most people do, but in my own personal case, my kitty cats have decided that that just isn't good for me, because it means I risk missing precious minutes of their early-morning adorableness.  And they just won't have it, I tell you.

So I'm up in the morning, always, and this morning, I headed on out and managed to go to Lowe's, the grocery story and Petco, all within the space of an hour.  And I got everything I needed for the week.

I even got this little box of eco-friendly fire-starters, since I'm getting myself supplied with firewood for the season.  I have no idea if the little jiggers actually work, but what I can tell you is, they smell.  Not badly (luckily), but boy, they sure do pack a wallop.  Close them into a small space (like your car) for about 5 minutes and woo-wheee.

I put them in the basement, on a shelf immediately opposite the cats' litter boxes.  I figure the two entities can duke it out for smell-supremacy.

Meanwhile, although I have a serious birthday-break this week, my time is still somewhat spoken for.  I enjoyed a mini-harvest earlier this week (look to the right), but the mini-ness of the harvest means that I will inevitably need to do a whole bunch of end-of-season gardening sometime soon.  To say nothing of the leaves that have yet to fall.   

I'm rather pleased, though, because for the first time in, well, ever, actually, I managed to grow some spinach.  (That's what's in the plastic container.)

I also have another cord of firewood to stack this week.  I will have grading to do.  And a whole bunch of work for a committee I'm serving on.  And all kinds of professorial odds and ends.

But that said, I'm gearing up for a few more bike rides this week since pretty soon, it will be too chilly to go on them with any regularity (at least, too chilly for me).  I took one today, actually--it was odd to see the park and the beach empty.  Seems like only yesterday, it was August.

But yes, it's autumn.  Here's to a wonderful week.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Life-By-Numbers

I read a quick little article the other day that offers advice for obtaining happiness and a better quality of life overall.  You simply need to remember a few key numbers. 

2: Implement a "2-Minute Rule."  If you see something that needs doing and you know it will only take about 2 minutes to do it, just do it.

I can testify to the effectiveness of this rule.  I rarely have a lot of email in my inbox, my office has minimal junk-mail clutter, and my bills are paid when they arrive, not at the end of the month.  The minute I see an email that asks me a quick question, I answer it--even though, on occasion, I don't feel like it or the question might need me to (quickly) look something up.  Same with snail mail: I get it, I sort it, I toss it out.  I don't take it back to my office to "sort through later," because that's how things pile up.  Bills don't usually take that long to check and pay, so they (often) fall under a 2-Minute Rule (but not always).

5: Implement a "5-Minute Rule."  If you don't want to work on something and feel yourself poised to procrastinate indefinitely, commit to working on it for 5 minutes.

Again, this rule works for me.  I often say, "Okay, well, just start it and see what you're going to have to do later."  Or, "Make an outline and a plan, just so you have a sense of direction."  If you can commit to 5 minutes of diligent work, that 5 minutes will often turn into a longer stretch of time (often, but not always).  Sometimes, you'll realize that it's actually a task that can fall under the 2-Minute Rule.

11: If you don't have time to really exercise, just exercise for 11 minutes.  That's the minimum amount of exercise-time per day you can incorporate into your life and still see significant health benefits.

15: Cravings typically last no longer than 15 minutes.  If you crave a food you've told yourself you need to eat less of, give it 15 minutes before indulging.  Or, if it's a habit you're trying to break, commit to doing something else for 15 minutes and see what happens.  You may be able to ignore or wait out the impulse.

20: When stymied, take a 20-minute break.  If you do and then return to what you were struggling with, you may find that the answer is suddenly crystal clear.  Your brain has had time to chemically respond to the stress of the original struggle, so the problem looks intellectually "different" now.

43: This is the maximum number of minutes of daily exercise needed to reap significant health benefits.  So, if you start with 11 (the minimum), you can increase it little by little, knowing that 43 minutes is the target. 

The original July 24, 2014 blog post by Meg Selig in Psychology Today, on which my own post is based, is available here, if you're interested in further reading.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Brief Wondrous Life"

My first attempt at reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) about a year ago was not at all a wonderful experience, but it was, in fact, quite brief.

I just couldn't get into the novel, largely because of the narrator (recently, this has been a problem I seem to have quite often, although after sitting in on a colleague's class on Disgrace, I'm feeling better about that particular novel).

Diaz's narrator is hyper-masculine and, well, pretty foul-mouthed.  So be forewarned: you may not like what you hear from him.

What made my reading of the novel a success this time around was the fact that I--oddly enough--had read Diaz's other work, in particular his short story collections, Drown and This is How You Lose Her.   I say "oddly enough," because... it's the same narrator.

Yunior is the narrator of Oscar Wao, and he is also the narrator of Drown.  If the narrator of This is How You Lose Her isn't Yunior (and I honestly can't remember for certain if it is or not), it might as well be: it's the same kind of voice.

The difference, for me, was that Drown offered shorter narratives--so I could face the prospect of spending less time looking at the world from a perspective I didn't really like, at the end of the day--and the stories in the collection look at Yunior's childhood and teenage years.

I found that, once I had spent small snippets of time in the narrator's mind and I had some insight into why he spoke and acted the way that he did, I could manage Oscar Wao far more easily.

I think it was also a question of timing: like Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz is from--and writes about--the Dominican Republic, and like In the Time of the Butterflies, Oscar Wao tells a story that is, at least in part, set in the DR under the dictatorship of Trujillo.  So personally, I found it really interesting to look at how Diaz's novel incorporates the issues of history and memory (largely through the use of footnotes that are, at times, only semi-serious), in contrast to Alvarez's treatment of a similar topic and time period. Diaz in fact references Alvarez's novel in Oscar Wao.)

I also found Diaz's use of sci-fi narratives and comic book heroes a really interesting way of thinking through the relationship between cultural myths and personal identity.  Diaz rethinks and rewrites the motif of the immigrant's journey in interesting ways: the story of Oscar, his sister Lola, and their mother Beli doesn't simply rehash the idea of coming to America and making a better life for oneself.

Instead, Diaz's novel questions what it means to leave--and what it means to return, after having left.  Instead of a straightforward, linear narrative of departure, Diaz inverts the chronology of his story, starting with Oscar, Lola and Beli in the US, then working backward to tell the story of Beli and Beli's family, then moving forward again to the present day--only to have the novel culminate in a scene of return.

Oscar Wao isn't a satisfying story, in a lot of ways.  If you like a novel that offers answers and provides closure, I don't think this novel will do it for you.  But if you like a novel that is about the complexities of process, then Diaz's novel will certainly offer plenty of food for thought.

Having concluded the novel, I find myself thinking a lot about the question of sympathy: what does it mean to sympathize with a narrator or a character?  What traits align our sympathies with a particular figure, and why?  If a novel chooses to upend those sympathies--to select figures with whom we are probably going to struggle to sympathize--does it change us as a readers?

My short answer to that question is, yes, I think it does.  In ways that I am only beginning to comprehend and articulate.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Yarn Like Crack

I have a confession.  I bought more yarn.

Yes, I know I said that I was going to use up my stash and I swear that's what I'm doing (too).

But I went on Twitter last Sunday, and yarn was there and it was on sale and the last thing I remember is saying something like "cotton alpaca blend" and getting out my credit card. 

And then I suddenly had enough yarn for two more sweaters and another pair of socks.

I know, I know.  The yarn-buying blackouts aren't a good sign.  But you have to imagine for a minute what it would be like if a drug overlord went on Twitter and tweeted "30% off all black tar heroin.  Enter code GET2HIGH at checkout."

I don't know what it is about knitters and yarn, but I do know that I'm not alone, because someone can go on Twitter and Facebook and post pictures of unopened yarn and a whole bunch of us will be like, "oh my goddddd... LOOK at that."  You can hear the dopamine rush streaming through our voices.  

It's even jokingly referred to as "yarn porn" and "eye candy."  Except that we're not joking.

Another confession: a friend once sent me a photo of a guy sprawled out on a bed and said, "I'm going to get a 'throw' like this for MY bed."

I stared at that photo for a good 15 minutes.  I thought, "I don't get it... it's just a plan white afghan... I can't really see the stitch detail, of course, because that guy is lying on it, but it doesn't look like much... Maybe the yarn is cashmere or something?"  

I actually tried to zoom in around the guy to see the blanket a bit better, but to no avail.  I became a bit annoyed that someone would tease me with a photo of an afghan like that.

Two days later, it dawned on me.  It was a joke.  The GUY was the "throw."  Ohhhhhh...   Luckily I didn't send her my reaction, so she never knew.  (Until now, of course.)

In my defense, the guy was one of the Chippendale-type-looking guys, and I really don't find them attractive.  (I like people who look, you know, normal.)  That said, I can't hide the fact that, given the choice between a semi-naked male model and yarn, I checked out the... yarn.

This weekend has been a banner knitting weekend for a very odd reason.  In keeping with my decision to use up my stash (which is now a bit larger, what with the recent purchase), I told myself that I couldn't start any new projects until I finished a couple of projects that had been waiting in the wings here for... well, let's say "months" and leave it at that.

In one case, all I had left to do was the sleeves.  But I got aggravated because shortly after I started one of the sleeves, I made a mistake, way back when, so I had to rip it out.  As I did, I think the bad-mojo came over me, because I suddenly decided that this particular sweater wouldn't even look good on me, and I... gave up.

The thing is, once you've knit the front and the back, joined the shoulders and put on a neckline, you can't really "give up" on a sweater.  You need to finish it, come what may.  Well, I couldn't face the thought of finishing a sweater only to conclude that it "sucks" in some way, so I tossed it in the closet.

This week, I took the sweater out and told myself, "This is silly.  Finish the thing.  Before you start anything new.  It must be done."  So I did it.

And irony of ironies... I LOVE THIS SWEATER.  I can't believe that poor thing sat in a closet and just WAITED for me for, well, let's say "months."  I can kind of see why I thought I wouldn't like it, because the style is very different from what I usually make, but that has now become the reason why I love it.

In the end, I think my initial fear that it would "suck" stemmed from the fact that, around the same time, I made another sweater, one that I thought would be "cool," and that one, in fact, sucked.  (I know I'm using that word a lot, but when a sweater goes south on you, that's really the only polite word that comes to mind.)

With yarn, as with life, context is everything, and recent experience shapes perception.  When that experience is good, well, then, yarn is like crack.