Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bring On The Rain

In bed the other night, late, I listened to the rain. There was pattering on tin somewhere, not my roof, maybe someone's shed or the printing office across the parking lot. The sound was beautiful. Harry The Dog lay sighing nearby. We were content.

Then, for no particular reason, I thought about going out to the yard and sprawling face-up and spread-eagle on the grass. I wanted to feel the rain on my face and look up at the marbled sky. There were smells out there I wanted to experience: half-open peonies, maybe the whiff of scallions and tomato plants I'd stuck in the ground a few days before. I wanted to feel the wet earth through my cotton nightgown. Then I thought about what a neighbor might think if one happened to be making a middle-of-the-night trip to an upstairs bathroom and looked down over my fence to see me there. Would they decide I was crazy, or would they come running, thinking I'd keeled over while outside in my bed clothes on an inexplicable midnight stroll in the storm?

I've been thinking about my bucket list, what I might do if I got bad news about my health. What haven't I done, I've pondered just lately, that I would want to do if I had only a year to live? Some people say they'd travel. I wouldn't, because I already have and with great pleasure; but that desire is behind me. Some people might be daring and skydive. Considering a walk through an airplane door takes every bit of my courage in the first place, a late-life decision to jump out that door seems unlikely. I've heard some say they'd "take it all with them," maxing credit cards to buy diamonds or fast cars. Heaven knows I don't need more stuff. My reverie has netted curious results: no grand end-of-days' adventure comes to mind. Is that possible? Can it be my life has been so full? Or is it that when we get the mysterious summons to move on to the next place we realize how big the small things really are?

In the end, my bucket list answers were surprisingly ordinary. I'd spend more time with people I love. I'd play more golf and keep writing, two joyful skills I like to think I'm pretty good at and that, when accomplished proficiently, make me happy. I'd find some baby animals whose innocent eyes and newborn tumblings would make me laugh. I'd fight less with my sister and snuggle more with my dog, and maybe even track down a horse whose neck I'd hug and who I'd ride really fast bareback, feeling wind in my hair. And I'd bury my face in newly-mown grass as often as I could. There's something about that lush smell that takes me back to a simple childhood when musings about death are decades away and when a whole and fabulous life is out there in front, whispering come on girl, come get me. Let's see what you've got.

So the other night, in my dark and peaceful town, my bucket list sparse and humble, I decided I didn't care what the neighbors thought. I slipped out the back door and flopped onto the grass, letting scents of flowers and loamy soil swirl around me. Just as I'd imagined, the sky's portrait of clouds eased by overhead, flinging rain like splatters of jewels and carrying me away without benefit of steel wings. By the time my nightgown was soaked through I was crying, knowing that not Paris nor parachutes nor meaningless manufactured tidbits could ever compare with this.

For now, God willing, I can tuck my bucket list into a dusty drawer where it will stay until my invitation to the next leg of the journey arrives. Meanwhile I'll watch the sky, and never again bemoan the rain. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Facebook Frenzy: Schmoozing or Snoozing?

When I first created my Facebook account in 2009 it was mildly exciting. I searched around to find old acquaintances to see what they were up to, built my friends' list, looked at photos, uploaded some of my own pictures, and in general enjoyed an experience that felt a little bit like getting re-connected and a whole lot like virtual stalking. Just before nodding off to sleep each night, I got into the habit of taking a last look on my Blackberry to see what people were up to. I myself don't post many FB updates, but I liked (at least for awhile) reading what others had to say.

Now, two years later, I'm starting to wonder when all this Facebook chatter is going to wind down. I'm wondering this because it appears people are running out of things to say. Hottest topics seem to be health (for some reason there are Facebookers who think their 572 friends are actually interested in the fact that they've just had an in-grown toenail removed); love (love is great, love is sad, love is hard, love is joy, all of which we're told on a daily basis); the weather (it's raining! it's snowing! it stopped raining! it stopped snowing!) death notices of famous people (a great guy, only 67! RIP to a wonderful singer!); sports (and how that particular updater feels about the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Giants, or Phillies and how anybody who likes an opposing team is a fool or a traitor); and handy tips with accompanying handy links (how to wring a chicken's neck, can wild rabbit, make your own paper, catch mice in a hairnet, turn paperclips into a bracelet, hunt moose, and pretty much anything else you can think of that you probably wouldn't have thought of if someone hadn't posted it on Facebook).

Without question, Facebook is a phenomenon. But good grief, do I really need to know that friend number 127 is heading out to the store to buy milk, or that friend number 42 is going to bed now? I honestly don't care that friend number 202's car has a flat tire or that friend number 7 mowed his lawn this afternoon. These updates have become mind-numbingly dull. It's as though an entire species of small-talkers has risen from the muck in order to share drivel with everybody else. Not to mention perhaps the most important aspect of the Facebook frenzy: have we lost all sense of privacy? I can't speak for others, but I'd just as soon not announce to the general population of the internet that I've discovered a wart on my ear or that I'm going on vacation for two weeks. I might as well take a snapshot of the wart and silk screen the picture on tee-shirts or include my address and combination to the safe to make burglarizing my house as easy as possible. 

Where will we be with Facebook in five years? Will people still be telling us their turkey is fresh out of the oven, or will the pendulum swing back the other way? I don't know about the rest of you out there in this brave new world, but I'm looking forward to future Facebook pals keeping their bad round of golf not to mention their recently developed hemorrhoids to themselves.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Post

Today I introduce my first guest post, by Rose Tenney. Rose and I were both lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who changed our lives...in fact, we had the same teacher. Last week Betty Fagan was inducted to the Sherburne-Earlville High School Wall of Fame. Below is Rose's tribute to Mrs. Fagan, one of the thousands of teachers who make a difference in the lives of their students every day. If you haven't done so lately, drop a note to a teacher who changed your life. To guide students to personal and professional success is a noble calling, and for this, we owe all teachers our deepest gratitude.

Thank You Mrs. Fagan
By Rose Tenney

I had many excellent teachers during my years at Sherburne-Earlville High School. But I think the teacher with the greatest impact on my life was Mrs. Elizabeth Fagan, who began the school year by saying “I am your teacher. I am not your friend.  Now that we have that clear, we may begin.”

Students at S-E knew that Mrs. Fagan would not put up with any nonsense at her end of the hallway. Students were to come to class well prepared, and woe to the boys who took a chance and tried to sneak a cigarette in the bathroom across the hall. Mrs. Fagan handled every infraction in a matter-of-fact and effective way. Students also knew that Mrs. Fagan was the teacher who taught English and prepared them well for the future.

Two classes I remember taking as a senior with Mrs. Fagan were “Wit and Humor” and “The Novel.” Those of us who elected to take those senior English classes met Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Sheridan’s play “The Rivals,” and the fun continued from there. Our English reading to that point had been filled with social statements, hidden meanings and alligators – oops, allegories – but the books we read with Mrs. Fagan were just plain fun, including works by authors like Mark Twain and James Thurber. Her novel class prepared me for future classes in college when I studied authors of southern literature: Faulkner, Hemingway and Eudora Welty.  The “Wit and Humor” class was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in any academic setting

I also learned plenty of useful phrases from Mrs. Fagan. “A lot is a hunk of land. Don’t assume, you’ll make an ass out of you and me. Avoid comma overkill.”  To this day, my chief pet peeve of grammatical errata has to be when someone says something is different THAN something else. It’s different FROM, I want to shout at the offender! But the best learning experience in my senior year came in December, when Mrs. Fagan checked with my classmates to learn about each student’s future plans. When she asked where I intended to go to college, I must have had a stricken look on my face because I hadn’t made a single plan nor filled out any applications. Sure, I had looked at some colleges, but I didn’t think I wanted to go away from home. Besides, some of those applications were long and complicated with application fees that would begin to add up at $25 or $30 per school.

That wasn’t the right answer to her question. She invited me to have a seat in her classroom and make a list of all the qualities I’d like in a college, including geographical location, the composition of the student body, and possible majors. She then set off to the guidance office. After a few minutes, my list indicated I’d probably head to New England, attend a co-ed school, and study foreign languages or maybe veterinary medicine. I wanted to go a few hours away, I thought. Reviewing the literature I’d received since taking the SATs, the two colleges I thought I’d like were Middlebury College in Vermont or Williams College in Massachusetts.

Mrs. Fagan reappeared with college catalogs and other information. She looked at my list, then turned to me and asked if I would consider applying to Notre Dame. I didn’t really know where that was – Ohio, maybe? – and said, “Isn’t that a boy’s college?” Well, I was set straight. Notre Dame had gone co-ed four years before and was in Indiana. I thought it sounded appealing, but I’d only heard of it because of its football program. I sent for an application, and because the brochure was beautiful with a simple application stapled in the center (not to mention the fee, which was only $15), I filled it out and sent it in. I was told to apply to two other schools because getting into Notre Dame was probably a long shot.

In a couple of weeks, I received a postcard from Notre Dame saying my application was incomplete and they needed my high school transcript as soon as possible. I brought the card to school to show Mrs. Fagan; I had taken the transcript form to the guidance office but somehow it didn’t get mailed. Mrs. Fagan marched to the guidance office and for all I know may have personally copied my transcript and mailed it for me herself. Later on I learned that she had friends in high places at Notre Dame, so she probably put in a good word for me as well.

On February 12, a Saturday, the mail included a thick envelope with an Indiana postmark welcoming me as an incoming member of the Notre Dame Class of 1981. That weekend my family went to my Aunt Mary’s retirement party and we all celebrated my good news.  Unfortunately in all the excitement, I neglected to write an assignment for English, which was due on Monday. When I came to school and realized I didn’t have the paper ready, I told Mrs. Fagan I was too excited to write it and showed her my acceptance letter. She gave me a break, but insisted I turn in the paper on Tuesday. It was there the next morning!

At Notre Dame, because of the skills I learned from Mrs. Fagan, I tested out of basic freshman English and qualified for the elite freshman seminar class, where we studied literature such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Chance and Necessity by Loren Eiseley, two of the many works examining various theories of the origins of the human race. Meanwhile, my friends in the general freshman English classes were diagramming sentences and correcting grammatical errors in weekly two-page essays to improve their writing skills, and reading some of the novels I had read in high school. Thanks to Mrs. Fagan, I not only attended Notre Dame, but already had a jump on my college career.

Mrs. Fagan gave me the direction she saw I needed. She did the same for many other Sherburne-Earlville students, whether helping us get through high school, preparing final drafts of doctoral theses to receive degrees from prestigious schools across the United States, or, as in my case, steering us toward colleges that opened doors beyond the wonderful world of literature. While I always knew Mrs. Fagan was my respected teacher, it turns out – in spite of what she told us that first day of class – that she was, in fact, also my friend. For this she has my thanks, from the bottom of my heart. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

If Tomorrow Never Comes

There is plenty of chit-chat lately about The Rapture, which some say is imminent. In fact, they’re saying it’s going to happen on Saturday. According to these sky watchers, the “saved” will rise into the air on May 21 while the remaining wretched will suffer for five months until October 21, the official end of the world. This dire forecast comes to us from an elderly fellow named Harold Camping, an engineer-turned-Christian radio broadcaster who, through complicated mathematical calculations, has determined Jesus is heading our way tomorrow. In the preface of his book, Camping warns: “Every unsaved person will experience the full wrath of God.”

I’m little put out by this prediction. I was all set for the world to end next year, on December 21, 2012, per the prophecies and unfinished calendars of Nostradamus, the Maya, the Hopi Indians, and, of course, Hollywood. Recently, in fact, I got so caught up in The History Channel’s Armageddon Week, which quoted all of these end-of-time “sources,” that by the fifth day of hearing the clock is ticking I was despondent and thinking of upping my cigarette intake because, you know, the world was ending anyway, right?

Since the turn of the millennium – and indeed, long before – end of the world talk has been rampant. Nostradamus, a French apothecary and reputed seer, was busy with his quatrains back in the early 1500s, penning convoluted insights that in the last couple of centuries, and certainly in recent years, have been pointed to as accurate predictions of future events…always in hindsight of course. From what I can find online (a dubious authority at best) Nostradamus has supposedly predicted that a comet or other space object is going to come close to or hit Earth in 2012, causing earthquakes, sinking continents, shifts in the planet’s rotation, misbehavior by the sun and, as you might imagine, all sorts of other collateral trouble. Nostradamus was, by the way, a pharmacist turned occultist and astrologer. No put-down there, just informational detail.

The cosmic alarm clock of the Maya, we’re told, also appears to be set at 2012, the year they stopped keeping track of time. The Maya are generally considered to be an advanced people whose way-back-when civilization up and disappeared. Their long count calendar ends on 12-21-12. Nobody knows why. Some say the Maya ended their calendar on that date because there’s going to be an apocalypse. Others suggest the date marks the beginning of human enlightenment. For my part, I’m opting for door number 2.

Then we have the Hopi, an Arizona-based Native American tribe whose name is said to mean variations of peaceful ones or those who live in the correct way. The Hopi have supposedly predicted the coming of the white man, nuclear weapons, and world wars. These folks also believe that something big is going down in 2012, coinciding with the Maya and, if you buy into his quatrains, Nostradamus. Could be a golden age, could be major human distress. Another 50/50 chance.

And now we have the octogenarian engineer cum radio fellow Harold Camping yapping about rapture and convincing followers to board buses, one of which was pictured on the Internet with the message: “End of Days: Have You Heard The Awesome News?” From what I can find out about Mr. Camping, he is not giving us an either/or situation like the Maya and Hopi, nor is his prophecy vague, like that of our friend the French apothecary. To put a fine point on it, Camping has said that God intends to destroy the entire world. Forever.

As I said, end of the world predictions are not new. What is new is the Internet, and this particular tool’s ability to spread information fast and far. In conducting online research for this supposed event (either taking place tomorrow, in October, or in December of next year), I spent no less than three hours clicking around the web to discover hundreds of predictions since 30 AD relating to the world’s end, and dozens of websites by astrologers, alleged scientists, raving lunatics, and one blogger disputing Camping with this, and I quote: “89years old Harold Camping a christian radio broadcaster says the rapture will took place this coming May 21, 2011, and the end of the world will occur on October 21, 2011. Harold Camping was known for his failed predictions. And now he was telling people to leave their churches for he believed that churches was taken over by Satan.”

As Ricky Ricardo would say: ay ay ay.

With the glut of this comic and often preposterous information, here’s my plan: Between right now and December of next year, I am going to work, plant a garden, improve my golf game, clean my house, tend to my dog, write, plan for the holidays, socialize, assume my next birthday is still in the works, and continue to save money for my old age. I’m going to assume that Nostradamus, the Maya, the Hopi, Harold Camping, and the rest of the apocalyptic kooks are wrong. I am not going to hoard cans of spinach and jugs of water. I am not going to cower under the bed and wait for the sky to rain fire. I think all of this is nonsense and that people riding a bus that asks if we’ve heard the awesome news are not only misguided but should be horsewhipped for using the word “awesome” in such a manner (ref blog post of March 11, “Dude, It’s An Awesome World!”).

Then again...you never know. So just in case, assuming the prophets of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Kwansa, Shinto, Taoism, Sikism, Druidism, and other legions of God won't mind if I have a muffin top when I stand before them, I'll wait until December 22, 2012 to start my next diet. If I'm going down, I'd just as soon go with a cupcake in my hand.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Lot is a Piece of Land

I've mentioned our butchered spoken language before on this blog, and will probably mention it again. I suppose the decline of grammar bothers me because long ago I was taught words are important. Words have power.

Not a day goes by that I don't hear someone speaking incorrectly (and please understand, I'm not saying I'm perfect because I'm not). But there are some basics in our language that are now so pervasively misused that I'm afraid my head is going to blow off. I went to buy tomato plants the other day. The nice young girl waiting on me, maybe in her twenties, pointed them out. "These ones are the Big Boys," she said. "And these ones are cherry tomatoes." I was so rattled by "these ones" for all I know I bought palm trees. A few weeks ago on American Idol J-Lo said "Me and Randy agree," and followed up with the glowing statement, "That song has never been sang like that before!" There is no respite, not even in music. The wildly popular Lady Gaga has a new song out with the line "There's something, baby, about you and I." Poetic license notwithstanding, Miss Gaga, the line should be "There's something, baby, about you and me." Maybe it doesn't sound right when you sing it that way, but now I'm so distracted by the grammatical inaccuracy that I have to shut the radio off when the song comes on. Finally, there's my own personal pet peeve: good and well. You LOOK good, you DO well. You don't do good, and you only look well if you've recently gotten over an illness. All this makes me want to stick my aforementioned explosive skull into a hole in the ground because I'm afraid I'm going to become known as that mean woman in the yellow house who corrects everybody's English.

I've had some great teachers: a few in college, some in work life, and a couple in high school, although one of those high school teachers really stands out. Her name is Betty Fagan, who I still see on occasion and who to this day I cannot call Betty. She was, is, and always will be Mrs. Fagan to me.

Mrs. Fagan's pet peeve was usage of the words a lot. "A lot," Mrs. Fagan would tell quaking students, eyes blazing, "is a piece of land." Translation: use it any other way in my class (i.e., "I like this book a lot!") and pay the price. She was a fearless instructor and terrifyingly verbal. She had an acute sense of right and wrong, right being no nonsense, no attitude, no back talk, and hard work toward a goal, because school was a job and by god there will be no slackers here. I think I'm accurate in saying every student understood that giving Mrs. Fagan lip was a mistake of gargantuan proportions. You did not want Mrs. Fagan to lock her eyes onto your face in anger, nor did you want her striding toward you down the hall if you were engaged in monkey business. In high school in the 1970s, parents rarely came roaring into the principal's office to protect their children. Our generation of parents, like Mrs. Fagan, also understood right and wrong. When kids were in that building, teachers were boss, no exceptions. Get in a fight, get suspended. Get in too many fights, get expelled. Fail a class, go to summer school. Fail a grade, repeat the grade. We were not tender millennium reeds, crumbling under criticism. We were young adults, and our instructors were there to teach us English, math, science, history, and the skills to then take that knowledge into a world where we would become actual adults, a world that, by comparison, made school look like one long party.

Mrs. Fagan, for all her hard bark, was a superb teacher. Indeed, she taught us what she was charged to teach, about the English language and about writing. But there was so much more. She taught us when to listen, when to speak, and how to speak. She made us read difficult books. She made us write essays that were more difficult still. She challenged us, and when we thought we'd done our best, she squeezed out a bit more, making us realize there was always room to reach harder, to climb higher, to be better. She criticized us when we made mistakes, and praised us when we excelled. She taught us how to win, and maybe more importantly, she taught us how to lose...and rebound to win again.

A few years back, my alma mater established a Wall of Fame, where graduates of this small town school and noted people of this little village are recognized for their success and good work. On Thursday, May 19, Mrs. Fagan, who retired many years ago, is being inducted to the Wall of Fame. Half (or more) of those already on the Wall were Mrs. Fagan's students, a fact that surprises no one. Her dedication to her students may not have been fully realized by those of us being educated on her watch, but I don't think one of us now regrets a moment in her class. She was not just an English teacher. She was a life teacher and a wonderful person who helped thousands of young adults from this tiny place in central New York set sail into a brighter future. She helped us understand we could make something of ourselves. Thanks to her, many of us did.

When I listen to "Me and Randy" and "These ones are Big Boys," I cringe, not just for myself, but for those who are speaking, who weren't lucky enough to have Mrs. Fagan standing in front of the blackboard, eyes sparkling, warning them that a lot is a piece of land and teaching them what she taught me: to speak correctly because words are important, words have power. I have not written a single word in 40 years when Betty Fagan's voice hasn't been in the back of my mind, pushing me, guiding me, challenging me. Thank you, Betty, for caring so much about the children of strangers, and congratulations. It's high time somebody said out loud job well done.

(And Mrs. Fagan, if you're reading this and I've goofed up on grammar...forgive me.)



Friday, May 13, 2011

American Idol or Shooting Star?

We’re down to the top three on American Idol. Unlike other years, I don’t have a solid favorite. Some nights I like Haley, other nights I like Lauren. Scotty is a classic Hank Williams country singer and he’s good, but not really my cup of tea. Then there’s James Durbin. For weeks I’ve been hoping James would be voted off…sorry to all you James fans out there, but to my ears the kid can’t carry a tune. He’s entertaining and cute and has a poignant Tourettes/Asperger’s story, but he’s had a cocky kind of attitude that’s been bugging me, like his winning is in the bag because “he puts it all out there every week” and somehow feels he deserves it. If memory serves, he’s never been in the bottom three. On May 12, for some surprising reason, James was sent home, crying as he went. I’m glad he’s gone. He wasn’t the most talented of the group in spite of Internet ravings about his so-called “perfect pitch.”

I like American Idol because it’s a talent show, a place where the best singers should – and used to – rise to the top. I watch Idol in spite of an unsettling musical chairs aspect to programs like this. Musical chairs was highly stressful for me. I can still remember rounding that end chair with great trepidation, always afraid the music would stop just before I was able to plop my butt down. I can’t begin to imagine the stress these kids are under when on Thursday nights Ryan Seacrest says turn down the lights and here we go. In tune or not, contestants have gone through a grueling nothing-to-fame journey, and to emerge from grocery store check-out boy to singing in front of millions of people (like Scotty) has to be exhilarating and terrifying. They’ve worked hard and good for them. As long as they can stay a steady course.

I’ve been watching this show since season two. There seemed to be more humility in the earlier seasons, not to mention no-nonsense critiques. This season has been particularly painful in that the judges don’t seem to give decent and honest criticism and are in some sort of broken record mode. “That was a beautiful thing, man,” says Steven Tyler week after week. “Amazing,” says J-Lo. And Randy. Randy, Randy, Randy. “Dog, yo, dude, you’re in it to win it!!” Part of me now only watches to see if he can come up with something new to say.

I miss Simon. In fact, while I was hopeful when I heard Lopez and Tyler were joining the crew, their lack of substance even makes me miss Paula Abdul, who seemed slightly dim-witted at best and high as a kite in her darkest moments. To make matters worse in season 10, we’re subjected to a psychedelic Coca-Cola backdrop and promotion for Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler videos while poor Randy squirms in Simon’s chair, muttering dude and yo and causing people to furrow their brows and wonder, “Who IS this guy?” for another year.

This is all silly, I realize. Or is it? Maybe what’s bothering me isn’t the judges’ pointless prattle or the big Coca Cola ad. Maybe what’s bothering me is an attitude shift in the contestants, like James Durbin, and to a certain extent country-singing Scotty and recently-bounced Casey. All season I’ve been picking up on an arrogance that seeps through the television speakers like a bad smell. Pia Toscano was stunned when she was eliminated, as were other girls early in the season. Stunned. As if to say, How dare they? I deserve this! How could America say no to ME?  

Just today I saw a 1970s interview Dick Cavett had with Katharine Hepburn. He asked her about fame, and did she hope people would remember her in years to come. She waved a hand dismissively and said she never cared a bit about recognition and anyone with half a brain realizes fame is behind you, just over your shoulder. “It’s all about what you do next,” she said in an ominous and shaky voice. Not that what I think matters a bit to Haley, Scotty, Lauren, and the rest of them, but I hope they understand what they’re all crying about in the end. I hope they think about people like John Belushi, River Phoenix, Janice Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Heath Ledger, and hundreds more who lost their way and checked out early once they got to the top. The most terrifying part of the competition, whether they win or not, is still ahead, because surely record contracts are lurking for more than the next American Idol. Ms. Hepburn didn’t say so, but that wave of a hand said it all. Fame is a prickly prize, and one that gets pricklier if you don’t have your head on straight.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Climbing The Clocktower

I am an AOL person. Many people I know are gmail or hotmail people. A few are yahoo, and others are some variation of other internet services, all of whom have told me time and again that AOL is bad news. For some reason (I've always wondered) there are plenty of AOL bashers. But I am, and have been since the beginning of my email life, a member of AOL. Up until this week, I liked AOL.

Recently a friend mentioned that we don't have to pay a monthly fee for AOL anymore, that like hotmail, for example, we can get the service for free. Great! I got busy and canceled my payment plan. No more $24.95 per month for me! As of February 2011, I was saving money, or so I thought.

In checking my American Express bill this month I noticed that AOL was not only still charging me $24.95 a month, but they'd added some mysterious charge for $9.99. So now, since February, I've been paying $34.94 per month. Part of this is my fault as I wasn't paying much attention to the bills for the past few months. No problem, I thought. I'll just call them up! Take these charges right off the bill! Here's the conversation I had, after, of course, spending 15 minutes trying to get through to a human being:

Me: "Hi. I canceled my payment plan for AOL in February and am still getting charged."
AOL: "Let me check. Yes, I see you canceled your payment plan in February."
Me: "Well fabulous. Unfortunately, not only are you charging me $24.95 per month when you shouldn't be, but now you're also charging me $9.99 per month. So you now owe me $104.82."
AOL: "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't see that we're charging you."
Me: "I'm looking at my American Express bill, and you are in fact charging me."
AOL: "I don't see that."
Me: "I don't care that you don't see that. AOL is charging me."
AOL: "Please hold. I need to speak to a supervisor."

Two minutes of music.

AOL: "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but my supervisor doesn't see that we're charging you either."
Me: "Do you think I'm making this up?"
AOL: "No."
Me: "Then why do you keep saying that you aren't charging me? I got your telephone number, which is next to the charge, from the American Express bill. Clearly, AOL is charging me."
AOL: "We have no record of charging you."
Me: "Well I have a record of your charging me. And I've paid AOL $104.82 since February, which is after I canceled my payment plan." 
AOL: "Yes, I see that you canceled your payment plan on February 9."
Me: "And you're still charging me."
AOL: "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I have no record of AOL charging you."

Face gets red. Phone gripped tightly. Teeth grinding.

Me: "But you ARE."
AOL: "Is it possible that someone in your family created a new account that you don't know about? Your husband maybe? That happens sometimes."
Me: "Nooo. I don't have a husband."
AOL: "A child?"
Me: "Sadly, no children."
AOL: "An employee?"
Me: "Are you reading from a script or something? I have no husband, no child, no employee who opened another account. It's only me. You are billing me for something you shouldn't be."
AOL: "I'm sorry ma'am, but we have no record of charging you."
Me: "You're messing with me, right? You keep saying we have no record of charging you, like I'm going to hang up and go away, is that it?"
AOL: "No, ma'am."
Me: "Then why do you keep saying you have no record of charging me when I'm LOOKING at the American Express bill where you've charged me?"
AOL: "What is your mother's middle name?"

Eyes blink.

Me: "Why do you need to know that at this point?"
AOL: "I have to confirm your identity, for security."
Me: "Who else other than I would be asking you to remove these charges from my bill? John Barrister Tipton?"
AOL: "I need your mother's middle name, ma'am, for security."

I tell her my mother's middle name.

AOL: "What is your credit card number?"
Me: "How do I know that I'm actually talking to AOL?"
AOL: "Ha ha. You are."

I tell her the credit card number.

AOL: "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I have no record of charging you."

Okay. Now I'm starting to lose it.

Me: "Clearly you can't help me. So what do I do about this?"
AOL: "You need to write to our billing operations department. Here's the mailing address. You need to include the American Express bill."
Me: "Can I email it to you?"
AOL: "No. You can only send it by regular mail as we need the American Express bill."
Me: "I can attach the bill to the email. It's an online bill."
AOL: "You can't email it."
Me: "But my email account is with AOL. You're an EMAIL company. Why can't I email it?"
AOL: "Sorry, we don't accept emails."
Me: "You don't accept emails. AOL doesn't accept emails. That's what you're telling me?"
AOL: "Yes, ma'am. AOL doesn't accept emails."

I try to process this. America Online, an email service, doesn't accept emails.

Me: "I don't even believe this."
AOL: "I'm sorry ma'am. Thank you for using AOL."

Click.

So here's the deal. After this excruciatingly frustrating conversation, I need to take time out of my day to write a letter to AOL, print it out, print out my American Express bill, put all this in an envelope, stick a stamp on it, trek off to the post office, and mail the envelope off to the America Online billing operations department. I have little  hope that I'll get a response, and no hope whatsoever that I'll get a check for $104.82, so in the meantime I need to call American Express and tell them not to accept future charges from AOL. All of this, because some keyboard presser at AOL made a mistake.

The next time somebody asks you what's wrong with our country, don't show them housing statistics, don't rail on the President, show them this. This is what's wrong. No longer can we make a phone call and say, "You've made a mistake" and have the person on the other end of the line say "You're right. We're sorry. We'll fix it. Right now. Have a nice day."

There is a stack of papers on my desk I call "The Action Pile." Buried there are all the problems I have to solve every day, from banks and insurance companies and telephone companies and internet providers. I have this pile because somebody, somewhere, isn't doing their job anymore. They're texting, or are chattering on Facebook, telling their four thousand "friends" that they're off to the store, or to wish them a happy Groundhog's Day. Nobody cares about customer service anymore. 

I pose this question to everyone reading this post: who is running the show out there, and what do we do to get our country back?  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Single White Female...And Evidently Not Much More

I admit it. I'm old fashioned. Back in my prowling-for-men days, I used basic methods: school, work, bars, parties, friends of friends. This system, at least for me, worked just fine. I saw a guy, I liked a guy, I dated a guy. Problem solved.

Lately, however, it seems you can't turn on any form of media without being bombarded with online dating services promising eternal love. For kicks, I googled a few today. Here are some of the top finds, and their tag lines:

Match.com (It's free to look!)
Chemistry.com (Find chemistry now!)
Zoosk.com (Discover your match!)
Singlesnet.com (Online dating made easy!)
LoveAndSeek.com (Start a meaningful relationship today!)
Date.com (Don't let love pass you by!)
PerfectMatch.com (Discover the PerfectMatch difference!)

And the one with maybe the funniest name:

Plentyoffish.com (Sign up now and find your soul mate!)

A well-known online dating service, eHarmony.com (Love is there, we can help you find it!), has been around for quite awhile. In fact some years back I decided to check it out. I sat myself down at the computer and filled out their rather comprehensive application form that included questions about age, education, marital status, desire for children, appearance, religion, hobbies, and social behavior. This was not a short process. I carefully considered and answered questions honestly on page after page after page. There were at least five sections that I can remember asking me to describe myself by checking off words like stylish, attractive, athletic, overweight, plain, healthy, sexy, generous, under-achiever, sensitive, content, spontaneous, witty, loyal, compassionate, intelligent, frugal, stable, spiritual, and so on. They wanted to know if I often left a messy room, am I satisfied with my appearance, do I feel unable to deal with things, do I get stressed out, do I make others feel good. There were 22 possible religious denominations from which to choose and a dozen or so ethnic options. They wanted to know what I do for a living, how much money I make, how tall I am, and how important all of these features are relative to a partner, who I imagined sitting out there in the void at his computer, waiting to hear from me. After what had to be several hundred mouse clicks I checked the status and saw my application was only 36% complete. IRS forms are less complicated.

But I persevered. After three ignored phone calls, a developing eye twitch, and an hour and a half of my life I'd never get back, I proudly pressed the submit button, put hands on hips, tapped toe, and waited. The cursor spun. The blinking screen message said "processing." Finally, the answer to "Love is there, we can help you find it!" appeared.

WE'RE SORRY. THERE IS NO ONE IN OUR DATABASE WHO IS A MATCH FOR YOU.

Pardon??

I've told many people this tragic and frankly preposterous tale and most don't believe me. The problem with my application? I told the truth. I didn't say I was a 6-foot tall model with cascading blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes. I didn't say I was a size zero with a double-D bra. I didn't say I was 29 and a brain surgeon, a job I could blend perfectly with my life as a devoted wife and mother, and I most certainly did not say that I would like to have many more children who I could guarantee would not interfere with spreading rose petals on the bed and meeting my man at the door with a martini. What I did say was that I was an intelligent middle-aged women with a couple of bucks in the bank and a good sense of humor who could look okay when she worked at it but who would never wear a bikini again. Oh yeah...and I said I like pets.

Yes. I am old fashioned, and am thereby questioning this new system for finding love.

Memo to me: If I ever get back on the prowling circuit, and if and when I ever fill out another application for an online dating service, I'll lie. Then I'll walk out the door and head for the local pub, which has no database and where I just might find a guy who thinks a witty, non-thong-wearing pet-lover is enough to at least start a conversation.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Rock in Our Shoe is Gone

I spent all of May 2 watching television news, trying to get my head around the idea that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I'll never forget where I was when I heard, just as I'll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001, when American life changed forever.

We all have our 9/11 stories. Mine unfolded on Long Island. I was driving to the office, listening to Howard Stern talk about the first plane that hit the north tower. There was speculation, at least for a few minutes, that it was a small craft piloted, perhaps, by someone who'd had a mid-air heart attack. I switched the channel and listened in real time as another radio DJ watched and screamed when United Flight 175 slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. In an instant the world changed course. We were at war.

When I got to my office fifteen minutes later two of my employees were standing outside. I asked if they'd heard. As would grim reapers, they simultaneously lifted arms to point. I turned and saw the trade centers in flames across the bay. 

Like everyone else in this country, and indeed around the world, I spent September 11 stunned. Rumors were rampant, that the terrorists had other planes (true), that a 747 was crossing the Atlantic toward New York City laden with a nuclear weapon (thankfully, false). The day unraveled and telephone lines were jammed, although I got a call out to a friend whose husband, while I was on the telephone, shouted in the background, "They've hit the Pentagon!" Fighter jets flew overhead, which I could see out my office window. The first tower fell and I was stricken. This was incomprehensible. Then the second tower fell and all that remained of those beautiful shining buildings was rubble and death. There are dozens of people I know who lost children, husbands, siblings, parents, friends, those who were sitting at their desks or in conference rooms going about their morning. In the weeks to come my neighborhood was rife with funerals. It was the most terrifying day of my life.

Two things happened in those 24 hours, however, that have haunted me for nine years. The first was in a bar around 5:00 p.m. on 9/11. Co-workers and I were having much-needed drinks at a local place. The television was tuned to the news and there was a man sitting alone at the bar, crying and swearing. He was inconsolable and seemed, at least to us, unbalanced. Finally we asked the waitress what was going on. She explained that he was a fireman who had retired the week before. Every man in his fire station company was dead, crushed beneath the collapsing towers. "I should have been there," he muttered over and over, not talking to us, not talking to anyone. I think of him often, and can still hear his tortured weeping. 

The second haunted moment was on September 12 when I walked out my front door. There was an odor in the air, something inexplicable. It was the smell of burning flesh wafting from lower Manhattan.

I am happy that Osama Bin Laden is dead. For almost a decade I have wished for this even though it feels wrong somehow, in my secret heart, to long for the demise of another human being. Even so, even though I'm glad he's gone, I am troubled at gatherings of Americans who rejoice in death because these displays seem too much like others burning flags and chanting happily when ill befalls us. I myself have not chanted with glee today, but happy I am. Because of you, Mr. Bin Laden, I now grip a pen every time I fly, fully prepared to jam it into the eye of a terrorist who rises in the seat next to me with plans to take down the airplane. Because of you, I now consider the possibility of a bridge disappearing beneath me, or that a bomb might explode in a hotel where I am upstairs brushing my teeth. I was raised to believe it is wrong to wish harm to others. Nevertheless, I am happy that Navy Seals, as Tony Soprano might say, popped a cap in your ass. You had this one coming, my secret heart notwithstanding. 

There are those who feel that America, the Great And Evil Empire, was also asking for it, "it" being the global pillaging of oil, the killing of innocents, and the skulking of scary and dark-hooded CIA agents that ultimately resulted in our getting a comeuppance on 9/11. I am not one of those people. With all due humility, I have traveled the world and without exception have figuratively, if not literally, kissed the floor of John F. Kennedy Airport every time I've come home. Yes, America has its problems. Our foreign and political policies are not always as noble as we might like them to be. The alternative, however, is more scary and dark than any CIA agent could conjure. Bin Laden and his cohorts were and are not terrorizing the world because our drones have killed innocents. They are not terrorizing the world because of oil. Their mission, in my humble opinion, is to change our way of life, to strip our freedom and put a veil over my head, to cut off the hands of a man who steals bread. They are not tenants of Islam. They are tenants of fear and power and death. For this, Osama Bin Laden deserved to die badly in a Pakistani bedroom. And I am glad, although he might not have done the same for me, that we gave him a decent burial. To have flung his corpse from a helicopter into the ocean would have shown the world that we, like our enemies, also are barbarians.

Today my friend Gloria said she hadn't realized until now that Bin Laden's lurking somewhere in the Mideast had been a rock in her shoe, and closure for 9/11 a nagging dream. She hoped, as did I, that he was hungry and cold in a dripping cave. He was not. Instead, he was comfortable in a million-dollar compound, his wives and thugs around him, turning his face to the sun behind 18-foot walls and razor wire. In the end, the good guys won, for surely on Sunday American soldiers and President Barack Obama and his team were the good guys. The path is not opening now to green valleys and blue skies, but at least the rock in our shoe is gone and the journey is a little easier.

For me, with the smell of roasting flesh still and always in my mind, justice has been served. I hope my fireman in the Long Island bar, wherever he is, can at last sleep easy tonight.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum