Month: May 2014

Black Thumb

Today, we took possession of four flowering vines from one of my fiancee’s fellow teachers. It seems like a good idea. Four big pots with crawling vines that will eventually obscure our balcony and give us a little privacy, and if they attract a few more bugs, then so be it. It’s not as if we need a ton of extra privacy, though, since our apartment is on the second-to-top floor of our building, and we’re on the top of a hill. And we’re not sexing it up in the living room–the dog would never allow it. But it does at least provide a little something else to look at for us, other than the gaping hole in the ground where another condominium complex is going up (and, like the ones around it, will likely remain empty for a long time).

The main problem with this, though, is the fact that we both have certified black thumbs. She has a long, storied history of killing plants. Seriously, she’s like Bizarro Johnny Appleseed; instead of leaving a trail of apple trees, the road behind her is littered with brown, desiccated vegetable matter. Even I am not much better. I managed to kill both a cactus and a fern, and their tortured spirits haunt me to this day.

Right now, the biggest worry is the water overflowing from great pools in the new pots out on the balcony. We’re guessing that they’ll be fine once the rain stops and the equatorial sun blasts the water away. They’ve survived this long, so they must be used to it, right? Suuuuuure.

When we were out, today, we momentarily considered getting a bonsai tree the size of a coffee mug. It would look great on our table, and all we have to do is water it daily, fertilize it monthly, and trim and rebind it occasionally. It’s not like we forget to feed the dog. And it’s not as if we’d wantonly neglect or abuse it. There’s just something about us, maybe our magnetic fields or stage presence, that just saps flora of their will to live.

And anyway, our pets have always fared much better than our plants. All of my pets have lived to ripe old ages, while one plant barely made the car ride home. A bonsai would likely shrivel up and turn black the instant I touched it. And the people at the bonsai stall seemed so nice and genuine, as if these tiny fragile trees were their entire lives. With the bonsai’s inevitable death, I’d feel like I’d have let those people down–like I’d carved out a piece of their soul and put a cigarette out on it while staring them in the eyes. If I were them, I’d never let someone like me buy a bonsai.

So we’ll start small. We’ll get see about the vines on the balcony. If those die, we’ll get a vase and some artificial flowers, and if we don’t kill those, maybe, just maybe, we’ll work our way back up to a bonsai.

Sketch Day

3sha

Today’s blog is a terrible sketch of my fiancee that I did in about an hour. I don’t draw human forms a lot, obviously. Also I’ve been having trouble with the stylus I got for the iPad. Most of the times I touch it to the screen, it doesn’t register, so I get weird half lines or dots and have to start the motion over again. It’s hard to get used to the touch screen version of drawing, where the pen/brush is either on or off. To get soft lines, I have to lighten the color or take the opacity down. Making a stroke that goes from hard to soft either needs to be programmed into a custom brush, or I need to go back after the stroke and take an eraser with very little opacity and scrub the hell out of the line until I get the desired result. Thus a drawing as simple as this takes an hour to do. I suppose an actual tablet for an actual computer would serve better.

Of course, that’s not an excuse for the horrendous quality. I’m just terrible with faces. If hers were an abstract concept, I totally would have knocked this drawing out of the park.

Phone Monkey: Bad Brains

PhoneMonkeyPNGHave you ever been on the phone with customer service and found yourself irritated that after every bit of information you give them, you hear a lengthy clickity-click of typing? The information you’re giving them isn’t that hard to remember for the ten seconds they’re going to need it, right?

Not necessarily. It is entirely possible that the brain of the person on the other end of the phone may be as pockmarked and scarred as the surface of Mars, if not physically, then at least mentally. Neuroscientists like Rick Hanson and Robert Sapolsky claim that constant exposure to complaining and negativity is not just psychologically detrimental, but is actually harmful to the brain on a chemical level. But really, this is just science confirming what everyone already knows.

Hanson notes in the article linked above that we are evolutionarily predisposed toward negativity. It’s what makes fight-or-flight responses work correctly, and is what has allowed us to survive as a species for so long. But, like old washing machines, our brains simply can’t handle large loads of dirty laundry. Constructive criticism is one thing, but long hours of listening to complaints and then voicing them to responsible parties overtaxes our brains. According to these neuroscientists, the damage done doesn’t just make us over jumpy, depressed, and overly negative–it affects our memory and attention span. If you take this kind of thing and crank it up to 11, putting the body in physical danger, you get the kind of damage that results in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a complaint department, not exposed to explosions, war or sexual abuse, we mostly field tiny issues that require minor fixes, but we also deal with shockingly cruel and lewd language and behavior. This is why you will hear us typing, seemingly for ages, as you talk to us. We’re writing everything down, not just so we remember everything, but so we can get it right the first time avoid further negativity.

That leads me toward the fix-it stage. One of the small blessings of customer service is that all of that unpleasantness is channeled into a constructive process. It’s not (always) customers complaining just to complain. But that only helps so much. Self-help writer Trevor Blake’s book Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life not only identifies the damage caused by constant complaining, but proposes ways to mitigate the damage and alleviate the symptoms of it. Obviously, one of the suggestions, asking the complainer to fix the problem, is dicey. The majority of problems we deal with could be resolved between the customer and the offending restaurant without our intervention–and more efficiently,too–but many people choose to take the path of most resistance. Telling them to deal with the problem on their own is generally cause for more and more intense negativity, so we just handle it to make it go away.

One of the other fixes for constant negativity is to raise your shields. As I mentioned in a previous post, most of us already do this. And it works, but not without a cost, because what ends up happening is we look at the customer as a problem to be solved so we can move on to the next one. As full of anger and all-caps as you are, you have ceased to become a person with actual feelings. It also makes us feel a bit numbed and robotic, and our personal and romantic lives can suffer as a result. Many of us (and every phone monkey at my place of work) have other, highly creative interests outside of work, which help combat this. In my group of phone monkeys, there are a few writers, a DIY enthusiast, musicians, festival organizers, and photographers. During the slow periods, we work on our blogs, edit photos, tune mandolins and ukuleles, listen to podcasts and watch movies, among other things, because it engages other parts of our brains and takes energy away from the onslaught of negativity.

But every once in a while, we still might forget your name and call you Mom. Just roll with it.

X-Men: The Easy Way (Spoilers)

For those of you who have not had a Gold Class movie-going experience, I suggest you stay away. It will ruin all other movie theaters for you forever. But as far as I can tell, these cinemas don’t exist in the US–or at least not in significant numbers–so, for now, the average American is safe.

What is Gold Class? About four or five rows of eight fully reclinable La-Z-Boys in a theater with a standard size movie screen and servers that will deliver a menu’s worth of food, including beer, to your table. And this is for just around the same price ($18-20) of a 3D movie in the States. It’s also important to note that in normal theaters in this part of the world, talking on cell phones, chatting, clipping nails, and all the kinds of annoying behavior that get you kicked out of a theater in the US are fairly normal. So, really, it’s a necessity.

Isn’t this all a little too good to be true? Well … yes and no. It is because movies here are censored. I could probably get deep and dark about the hypocrisy and social dysfunction marked by the censorship of language and romance (yeah, even just a kiss), but not of brutality and violence, but I won’t because it’d just be pissing into the wind. There is something off-putting, though, about going to a luxury theater and experiencing weird jump cuts where characters mildly cursed (X-Men: Days of Future Past is still PG-13) or kissed. On the other hand, you’re drinking a beer in an electrically reclining La-Z-Boy and watching a movie on the big screen. Maybe it’s akin to being paid to look the other way, and show a lazy hypocrisy of my own, but I’ll take that bribe.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

From reading past posts, you may have gathered that my honeymoon period with comic book and superhero movies is pretty much over. There’s something that feels dishonest about the whole enterprise. The movies are very pretty, but they’re not particularly challenging, emotionally or intellectually. They’re cash cows, though, so they’ll keep rolling out.

That said, I actually liked X-Men: DOFP, even if I do have a list of critiques. I always like seeing the Sirs, but felt like Stewart and McKellen, and by extension their characters, were in the movie more as props and canon verification than as anything else. As he was in X-Men: First Class, Michael Fassbender is great as a young Magneto–troubled and apocalyptically sad, but still molded in steel. Likewise, James McAvoy, playing a scared and neurotic Professor X was fun to watch.

The biggest success, though, was Jennifer Lawrence ‘s Raven/Mystique character actually being a character with stuff to do and, well, character, instead of set decoration, as she seemed to be in the last installment. It was nice to see that character as something more than just a duplicitous back-stab machine (as demonstrated in the first three movies in the franchise) with no real motivation other than stock bad-guy programming.

Visually, the film is very nicely done. The fight scenes are well choreographed and the color themes in each timeline are put together well. I really liked the look and feel of the sentinels versus the cartoon version–having them smaller and more agile made the sense of physical danger to the characters more real than if they’d gone with the Iron Giant style. A personal favorite moment was the Fun With Portals scene.

Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Kick Ass) was really fun addition. Watching him run around and cause his opponents worlds of trouble was both hilarious and visually interesting. But his presence and subsequent disappearance begged some serious questions, like “why isn’t he on the mission to stop Mystique from shooting Peter Dinklage in the face?” He could have had both those people, and Magneto too, bound to chairs for a cozy little chat before either could bat an eyelash. He could have won this movie blindfolded. It seems as if he kept to the sidelines only out of reverence for plot convenience.

Speaking of which, while I like Fassbender as Magneto, his character in this movie swung a little to far toward Evil Laugh or For the Evulz. We get that he’s a messed up dude because of what happened to him as a kid, but in this movie, he is given a way to fix the entire world without having to spill a drop of blood, and he still goes all murder happy. There’s no real explanation for why he goes nutty, other than valar morghulis, which makes it look like he became a villain again because the movie needed a supervillain. Having Wolverine–or any of the high-powered mutants, for that matter–kick the tar out of an unarmed, unarmored Peter Dinklage (Edit: apparently I got lazy and assumed that Game of Thrones actor = British; Dinklage is from New Jersey, and I’m an asshole; thanks for setting me straight, Art) would be a little tasteless.

The above is my biggest gripe about the movie on a technical level. But there is another inescapable problem, which is the lack of danger. Because these movies and comics are franchised into the next millennium, we know that none of the main characters are in any real danger. As the sentinels are tearing the walls down around Professor X and company, we already know that there’s another film in the series on its way, and that everyone is obviously safe for the next go-round. And Marvel would never let their most iconic figures die–not without the promise of resurrecting/ret-conning/cloning them.

Superhero movies habitually make the mistake of pointing the primary danger toward their heroes rather than toward something that’s actually vulnerable and can be written out of the universe. For all its faults, Thor: The Dark World pointed the primary threat at Earth. The Avengers did the same thing, with New York as the focal point. Obviously, you can’t erase Earth or even New York from the Marvel Universe, but at least they’re vulnerable. Iron Man’s fame, not his armor, keeps him alive. The day that he, Thor, the Hulk, or Captain America become, to quote Falling Down, “not economically viable,” is the day they’ll die for real.

And then if their deaths draw enough attention, the mystical power of money will revive them.

Site Change and Basic Slacking Off

I spent a lot of time after I posted yesterday fiddling around with the style and layout of the blog. I’m still not ready to pay for a theme or go the full-customization route, but I found one that looks and handles better than the last one I had, at least for what I’ve been posting.

The last theme seemed too cartoony–the font was a bit on the large side, so there was a lot of scrolling, even for a small post–and there was no real good place to put a sidebar with archives and whatnot. I’d originally been opposed to this theme because the standard font doesn’t handle the em dash well, which is still super bothersome to me, but maybe I’ll change that further on down the road. I think the more intuitive left-to-right style makes up for that irritation, though.

I’m always open to suggestions.

So that’s it for now. Blog-bligation fulfilled. Tonight, I’m going to see the new X-Men movie in one of those famous movie theaters with the pillows and blankets and stuff. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a movie review, or maybe I’ll just talk about the comfy seats.

Anything’s possible.

Phone Monkey: The Horse You Rode In On

“Well, I’ll just take my business elsewhere!”

We’re supposed to be afraid of that line because we’re losing business and sending it to our competitors, right? I assure you: we’re quaking in our bunny slippers. Our testicles crawl up into our bodies and our ovaries shrivel up like raisins at the very mention of the possibility of losing such a reasonable, flexible and understanding customer.

We get this line a lot, as does pretty much anyone who has ever had to work directly with the public. And maybe it would work in a meat-space business in an industry not as heavily flooded with demand. In our line of business, our primary customers are college students, many from countries where this type of service doesn’t exist. Taking their business elsewhere, where they’re from, might be significant, but as someone who’s around for four years, summers excluded, and then gone forever, they are replaceable. This even applies to the domestic students. After their four years, many of them are going to move away to areas where we don’t have service, or will simply stop ordering in so much when they join the Real World. And every year, we get a new crop of customers. If that seems jaded and cynical, you’re definitely on to something. I try desperately not to let that happen, but it’s a creeping eventuality in customer service work.

Why do we get this line, anyway? Can’t people just take their business elsewhere without faking a fuss? Why do they need to tell us?

The short answer is they don’t need to. Like a girlfriend or boyfriend listing all the things you did wrong (in their eyes) before dumping you, it’s catharsis pure and simple. They need the emotional release, and want to hear the fear of loss and grief of failure in our voice as we try to salvage an unsalvageable situation. But most times, the customer is one who’s been a problem since day one, and all we needed was an excuse to say goodbye. If we said that we were sorry to see them go, we’d be lying. We say it anyway.

Who could be such a pain in the ass that you’d let them go so easily? Isn’t that mentality antithetical to the ideas of customer support and customer service?

Last things first. No. We are support and service professionals. Our job, like a bra, is to support. It’s the customer’s responsibility to make sure that they ask for a 28B when they have a 28B problem, not to ask for a 28B and then blame us and storm out when their 42DDDs don’t fit into it. You might be surprised how often that happens. But we’re professionals, so we mostly just go in the back and get a bigger size, and then everyone’s happy.

The customers that end up being a bigger pain in the ass than they’re worth are the ones who demand more than we can or will give them. We offer credit toward future purchases, as many online retailers do. Today, for example, after much bad noise, I was able to get a refund for a customer, who had claimed on the phone that a refund was all he was after. Great. That sounded reasonable, and if I had to take an earful from someone at the restaurant to do it, well, that’s my job. Not so long afterward, the customer emailed in, saying that the refund was “not enough.” Obviously, he was angling for credit.

Let’s pause for a moment and pretend we’re back in that lingerie store. Mmmmm … frilly things. A customer walks in and says, “Oh dear! It seems that when I got home, I realized I’m a 34C, not a 34B, can I return these for a refund?” Sure. Definitely. Why not? Here’s your money back. Have a great day! “Oh, sweetie,” they say, “you misunderstand. It is your fault for giving me the wrong size. So why don’t you either give me my bra for free or reach into that cash drawer and offer me something good?”

To this, the obvious response is, “Hey, why don’t you go jump off a bridge?”

While phone monkeys are generally punching bags, we’re also gatekeepers. Beggars, thieves, and trolls will be turned away. Take your business elsewhere. Please.

And, of course, have a great day!

Open Letters

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve begun to loathe the open letter, as practiced on the Internet, so I began searching around for open letters. Here are some of the ones I found.

A working mom’s open letter to Gwyneth (New York Post).

An open letter to the teachers of my daughter (Times of India)

Dear Harvard: You Win (The Harvard Crimson)

The public feud between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow (The New York Times: Part 1, Part 2)

An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself (LA Weekly)

And for crying out loud, McSweeny’s has an entire page of “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.”

But why, you might ask, does this man hate the open letter? With a few possible exceptions, which I will talk about in a moment, the answer to this question is sleaze. Now understand: I am not saying that Harvard’s rape victim is sleazy; nor do I necessarily think that Gwyneth is all that sleazy (because I really have zero opinions about her either way). The sleaze (and I promise to stop using that word) is the gross spectacle. While, in the Internet Age, we are all becoming accustomed to losing our privacy as more and more of our private lives becomes digitized, the open letter exposes for public consumption something that could and should have remained private.

It’s not always a Bad Thing, though, as the “Dear Harvard” letter shows, for it, like some others out there, are the contemporary equivalent of Langston Hughes’ “Open Letter to the South” or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, essentially an open letter nailed to a church door (though, not so much with the Hughes poem). While the side-effect of their publication may be a thorough public shaming, what sets these kinds of letters apart from their monstrous counterparts is that the intent is reform.

What separates these brilliant, rare, reformative open letters is the other intent, to play to a crowd–particularly an unruly Internet mob. From the letters that aren’t the reformative type, if you took away the public aspect, they would more often than not operate just as well as a closed, private letter. But the intent is to draw attention to the writer. The subject of the letter is typically not as important as the raising or lowering of social status, which is why the McSweeny’s letters, meant to be comic, are the other exception.

There is a whole genre of open letters that, while addressing a personal gripe, aren’t particularly serious. They operate on the same level as any other open letter, but with a few changes: a public shaming roux and a heaping tablespoon of self-aggrandizement, but with a pinch of self-deprecation, and a sprinkling of bons mots. Tongue-in-cheek rants, like the very lovely “An Open Letter to Bearded Hipsters” (and the subsequent apology, which fits well with another article I’ve written, speaking of self-aggrandizing), take those weirdly pornographic public displays of meanness and strip them of their import. Perhaps it’s why taking a legitimately reformative open letter seriously is increasingly difficult. I mean, why would I take the Gwyneth letter seriously when I seriously want and expect it to be a little something like this:

Right?

Of course, that brings up the last kind of open letter, which like the jackalope is extremely rare, and, oddly, often musical–or at least often enough to worth noting. What do I mean by often?

Often enough for me to embed two YouTube videos in this post:

Until tomorrow, you crazy kids.

Free Speeches

This week yet another load of college-educated Americans poured forth from their institutions and into Real Life, for which many of them are woefully unprepared. The universities sped them on their way with the long-standing rite of the commencement speech, typically thirty minutes of boredom and platitudes, but not without controversy. So at least it wasn’t a complete loss.

The award for Kerfuffle of the Week certainly goes to Haverford College, a small Pennsylvania liberal-arts college, for disinviting former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau as its commencement speaker. The full text of the letter written to Birgeneau can be found here, courtesy of the Haverford student newspaper The Clerk. For those who didn’t read it, students and faculty of the college criticized the former chancellor for his role in the forceful dispersion of an Occupy protest in Berkeley back in 2011, and cited his message the the UC Berkeley community about the protests as antithetical to the philosophy of their institution. They then set for a list of demands for Birgeneau to meet, or else be disinvited from speaking. Among these demands were an acknowledgement of an active role in the crackdown on the Occupy protest and a statement enumerating and explaining “what you learned.” In a hilariously terse letter, Birgeneau declined to issue what the Washington Post‘s editorial board called a “Soviet-style forced confession.”

So, to replace Birgeneau, Haverford invited former Princeton president William Bowen to make a speech, and boy did they get one. After Michael Rushmore, speaking as a member of the graduating class, said that given Birgeneau’s refusal to meet their demads, “this is a minor victory in solidarity with the students at Berkeley and I’ll take that,” Bowen had some words of his own to add. Again, I’m linking you to the full text of the speech because I’m a nice dude. Essentially, Bowen said that this incident was a shameful failure on both sides, and that the best possible outcome now was, in an interesting reversal, everyone walking away having learned something. The “minor victory,” he said, was a huge defeat of the values of open-mindedness and mutual respect that the faculty and students espoused.

And Haverford wasn’t the only college to do this. Condoleezza Rice, backed out of a planned speech at Rutgers because of complaints about her role in the Iraq War. Christine Lagarde backed out of Smith College’s ceremony due to a petition (just the incomplete petition) to have her disinvited. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech and honorary degree was actually cancelled by Brandeis University because of her rather extreme views on Islam.

Obviously, four high-profile instances don’t account for all commencement speeches, but they do highlight a continuing trend of ghettoization, which extends far beyond the scope of the commencement address. While perhaps less segregated by race, we have chosen to divide ourselves into ever smaller groups, adopting a tribal mentality along the way. We have our world view, and the things that don’t fall into line with it we tend to push away. As William Bowen said, no one wins.

For college students, leaving the safety and stability of a structured life and setting out into the wider world for the first time, it is better that their speaker be someone whose views differ from their own, because beyond the walls of that ivory tower is an entire planet of conflict. Isolating oneself from philosophical or political challenge demonstrates a kind of laziness unbefitting a college graduate.

For more on working one’s ass off toward a goal, I’m embedding Charlie Day’s Merrimack College commencement address, partly because I wish I’d heard it about ten years ago. It probably would have prevented me from settling for “good enough” in the moments that really mattered.

Long Hot Sausage (Bow Chicka Wow Wow)

I was able to get most of the eighteen inches in me, but it was a tight fit.

I had to clean the creamy sauce off my face.

The length wasn’t the problem; it was the girth.

It took forever to come, but it was totally worth it.

Size isn’t everything, but it sure draws a crowd.

We double teamed this joint.

This was some hot, salty meat.

photo

Photo credit: Overexposed.
I had my mouth full.

This is the “Farmer’s Bratwurst” at Brussels Beer Bar in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.

(And probably the dumbest post I’ve ever made.)

100 Bullets

100bullets100Today, I finally finished a comic book series I’d been reading of and on for the past five years, starting the same year the final issue came out. Because of the start-and-stop nature of my relationship with this series, there was a lot of backtracking and rereading, which in the end saved me a lot of confusion, because there are a lot of twists and turns in these 100 issues.

I’ve said before that I don’t particularly dig the whole superhero thing, mostly because I’ve never been into high fantasy (the Tolkien-style elf-dwarf-wizard kind of deal), and superheroes resemble all that a bit too much. The other big reason is that they are series without endings. Stories and characters can drag on and on until they’re stale, at which point the only thing keeping them alive is the marketing. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but there’s something far more fulfilling about full, bounded stories–closed systems that live, expand, contract, and die without the bothersome necromancy of the Crossover or Reboot.

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets is an entropic masterpiece. The question, what would you do if you were given a gun, 100 bullets, and carte blanche?, quickly gives way to who’s giving all that away? It’s a solid premise, but that wouldn’t mean squat without the high quality writing and art that Azzarello and Risso produce consistently throughout the series. It’s gloriously uncensored and has a kind of grit and realism that make Chinatown look like a Peanuts strip, and while some characters in it may be vulgar, the storytelling never is.

But that grit doesn’t come without a price. The characters in the story grow in number and depth until it becomes clear that this is a version of the 47 Ronin story. At that point, about halfway through the series, 100 Bullets takes the line between realism and nihilism and plays double-dutch with it. It resembles the George R.R. Martin style of writing, in which no character is safe, no matter how good or bad, so don’t get too attached. The difference is that, at the end there is a slight glimmer of hope. In many ways, 100 Bullets operates with the kind of gleeful angst seen in Hellblazer (on which Azzarello also worked) and Preacher–a kind of attitude that both flirts with cynicism and kicks it squarely in the scrotum.

While I like a lot of the various comic series I have read, there are very few that I genuinely regret finishing. Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to finish 100 Bullets. I didn’t want to see these characters or this story go away, and now that they’re gone, I’m left poking the faintly glowing embers of a dying universe and remembering the good times we had.