Friday, August 31, 2007

No, I don't want to join your damn club

I don't want a pair of socks with that. I don't want to open a charge account. I don't want to save 10% today. I don't want a muffin or a scone to go with my coffee. I don't want a Borders Club card or a Barnes & Noble frequent reader's card. I don't want to spend $10 more so I can get a free travel alarm clock. I don't want 8 free issues of Entertainment Weekly. I don't want to join your mailing list and I don't want to give you my phone number. I don't want to sign up for your newsletter or email specials. I don't want to upgrade to a large popcorn for only 50 cents. Well, ok, yes I would like the large popcorn.

I'm not an angry man, but I do get impatient, especially when accomplishing something means I have to take my two little ones out in public. Recently I took them with me to a store in the mall so I could buy some pants. The sales clerk was cordial and helpful, and gave the appropriate amount of attention to my kids before moving on to find me some pants. She even made sure the large dressing room was available. Here was someone who was clearly on my side through this process. Until I tried to buy the clothes...

Kate is starting to fuss because we've spent too much time there and Clara is testing just how loud she can shout before I stop what I'm doing to address the problem (which is, of course, exactly what she wants.) The sales clerk is slowly and gently folding my pants as if they were cashmere - they were less than $25 each; they don't need much attention. Kate is starting to cry, either from the wait or the fact that Clara is biting her finger now. Great. I talk to Clara and sort out this whole biting thing for the moment and come back to find that the clerk is now wrapping my cheap pants in protective paper, using a sticker to keep them wrapped. She doesn't look up so she can't see my looks of disbelief, but surely she can hear what's going on with my little ones. She slowly puts everything in a bag.

"How would you like to pay for this?"
I slide over my credit card.
"Would you like to open..."
I know where this is headed so I say "No" to cut her off.
"...a charge account with us?"
I'm shaking my head no.
"You can save 10% on your entire purchase," she says in a sing song voice.
"No, thanks."

The girls are on the verge of completely losing it and I've given up caring about the scene they are making.

"Would you like your receipt with you or in the bag?"
"In the bag, please."

Before handing me my bag of purchased goods, the clerk unfolds a brochure in front of me. "Would you like to sign up for our Loyalty Program? It will only take a few minutes.."

What went through my head: "Are you #@$ kidding me? Can you not see what I'm dealing with? No, no, you're right - let me sign up for your loyalty program. Why don't you take these two normally sweet children for a little walk up and down the mall while I fill this out. No? Where's the loyalty to your customers? Can't a customer just buy what he wants to buy without being bled for anything more or hassled with special cards or programs? No, I don't want to join your damn club."

What I actually said, through clenched teeth: "No. Are we done?"

I was reminded of a time I bought a pair of socks from a department store and was asked by the friendly and chipper sales clerk if I wanted to save 10% today by opening a credit card. I responded with some smart aleck remark about how the 50 cents I'd save would sure make that worthwhile. Her bright smile disappeared and her heavy lidded eyes showed just how much asking inane questions over and over every day had gotten to her. She was reading a script - she had to ask me the question and take every stupid comment from customers like me. She was a defeated woman, and she's the reason I'm not a smart aleck with clerks anymore.

A pessimist would say that most of the interaction you have in a day is already scripted, from going to the store to small-talk with colleagues. Conversations and reactions are mostly predictable. But everyone has, and values, that friend who could say anything at any time. We miss you Stacy Vollert.

Ever try to get a telemarketer off his script? I'm pretty sure there's a reply on their computer screens for everything you can offer.
Telemarketer: Hello, Mr. Bittle. I'm calling on behalf of AT&T to offer...
Me: I'm on the no-call list
Telemarketer: I understand, sir. As a current AT&T customer, you are eligible for an upgrade...
Me: I'm really not interested.
Telemarketer: I understand why you might be skeptical but you can double your service with only a small monthly increase...
Me: Vanilla monkey bellybutton
Telemarketer: ... I'm sorry, sir. I couldn't understand what you just said. As I was saying about the upgrade...
Me: I'll tell you what, I'll buy the upgrade if you can say the alphabet backwards in 30 seconds.
Telemarketer: (laughs) It really is to your benefit to upgrade. If I can elaborate on...
Me: You're wasting time - 25 seconds.
Telemarketer: Uh, ZYX... WV
Me: 20 seconds
Telemarketer: UTSRQ...PONM, uh, LKJ
Me: hurry
Telemarketer: IH
Me: 5 seconds
Telemarketer: GF, uh, E
Me: Time! Oh, man you were so close. That must be frustrating.

Monday, August 27, 2007

You finished Harry Potter.... now what? what? If you're like me, a kind of depression came over you once you flipped the last page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It's been eleven years since the first book caught our imagination, and kids who started reading the Harry Potter books then are in or graduated from college now (some of us are a bit older.) So when it comes to filling the gap left by the Harry Potter books, we're not looking for more young adult fiction; we're looking for something more challenging but with the same feeling of wonder we got from the Harry Potter books. Below is a list of books that have several things in common with the Harry Potter books and are, in my opinion, great reads.

Key: contains Magic - set in England - a Coming of age story - Adventure - first of a Series - has a Dark adversary

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke (MEA)
In what can be described as Harry Potter for grownups, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is closer to Dickens than Rowling, but the themes of two rivals searching for newer and greater types of magic will resound with Harry Potter fans. Warning: It's a bit long and is more of a character study than an adventure, but a worthwhile read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon (MCA)
Chabon's prize winning book is filled with the friendship and camaraderie of the Harry Potter books, and, in my opinion, surpasses them in imagination and scope. As Kavalier and Clay's comic book creations begin to mirror the growing complexities of their lives and the world, the reader begins to see the depth of Chabon's creation.

Wicked - Gregory Maguire (MCAD)
A young girl, alone because of her appearance and abilities, seeks to tear down the facade of beauty and perfection in OZ to reveal the true ugliness and corruption underneath. The political posturing of those in power will remind readers of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Elphaba's crusade to save the animals of Oz mirrors Hermione's efforts to help the lesser creatures of her world.

A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin (MCASD)
Arguably the most complete fantasy world created since Tolkien's Middle Earth (The Lord of the Rings isn't on this list because telling someone to read it is like telling someone to breathe.) Martin's willingness to kill off favorite characters leaves the reader completely in the dark as to what will happen next. Filled with heroes young and old, magic, and dragons, Martin's books have amassed a rabid fan base.

The Quincunx - Charles Palliser (ECAD)
If you like to view the world as a puzzle with clues that are not readily apparent, The Quincunx may be for you. It's another Dickensian story of a young man who faces great danger from mysterious sources for reasons he must puzzle together, revealing much about himself and his family history.

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde (MEASD)
Jasper Fforde has created with his Thursday Next adventures a silly but witty series of engaging novels. Mix Douglas Adams (read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - and breathe) with the Bronte sisters, throw in a dash of every English writer in history, puree, and serve with lots of cheese. It's a quick read - give it a try.

Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson (ECAS)
Many will argue that Snow Crash should be everyone's first Neal Stephenson book - and I agree, it's one of my favorite books. But his Baroque Cycle, starting with Quicksilver, might appeal to Harry Potter fans. It doesn't contain magic, but the scientific advances in England during Isaac Newton's time appear magical to the masses. And is that the same Philosopher's Stone Newton seeks? The unlikely hero of the book, Jack Shaftoe, begins here an adventure that will take him around the world to come face to face with royalty, pirates, and the greatest scientific minds of the time. It is the perfect blend of science and adventure.

A Prayer for Own Meany - John Irving (ECA)
I added this book to the list because it left me with the same feeling as the Harry Potter books. It is the story of a young misfit who believes wholeheartedly in his destiny despite universal skepticism. OK so it's set in New England, not England - close enough. This is one of the few books that both my wife and I would put as one of our top ten books. Pick this up and go along for the ride.

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss(MCASD)

This is a late addition (I just finished it,) and I can't say enough about the story and the writing. Many would say it's a clone of Harry Potter - an orphan at a school of magic studying to defeat a dark adversary - but The Name of the Wind has a completely different feel. It reminds me of Thomas Hardy with its impoverished protagonist navigating a minefield of morally ambiguous choices where any wrong move could lead to his downfall. Ever the pragmatist, the protagonist, a magical bard or troubadour as accomplished in his music as his magic, expects and accepts the worst as just another part of his troubled life. Rothfuss introduces the magic, or sympathy, early in the book and uses it more as a science than anything mystical, following clear scientific laws that the reader can understand and appreciate. Outstanding.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Fun with the Etters

Here's something I put together from our visit with the Etters:

Friday, August 17, 2007

Keep driving, lady

We live within walking distance of downtown Webster Groves, a perfect place to get coffee or groceries or a smoothie or a haircut (even sushi!) We even pass the fire station where firemen wave to the girls and occasionally let them ring the bells on the fire truck - it's a bit like Mayberry. On mornings like this morning, when the humidity hasn't yet covered St. Louis like a double thick wool blanket, I like to take the girls down to St. Louis Bread Company for their favorite pumpkins muffies - muffins without the stump. The ladies behind the counter know Clara and Kate by now and usually find something cool to give them, like giant purple straws or little cookie treats. Needless to say, any suggestion from me that we walk downtown is met with a race to the back door.

This morning I put Kate in her umbrella stroller and Clara hopped on her tricycle for the walk downtown. The sidewalks downtown are decorated with benches and plenty of trees, and often I get looks from people who see a little girl riding her tricycle down such a street as the height of Americana. I'm used to plenty of smiles. This morning was a little different.

Occasionally along the sidewalks a curb cut will lead to a parking lot set behind the storefronts. As we approached one such curb cut I saw a man was waiting to turn left across traffic into it. Clara was riding her tricycle just ahead of me and I considered having her stop and wait with me, but made the decision that the best thing was for her to continue through it. There were plenty of cars coming in the opposite direction that blocked the man from turning left. Plus, I looked at the man and made eye contact, the unspoken "I see you and you see me and my daughter" message. So we continued down the sidewalk and lived happily ever after. Good story, eh?

A minute later, a woman of advanced years stopped her car in the middle of the road to tell me what she thought of my parenting: "You have got to teach that girl to stop for every driveway! There was a man back there who was going to turn into that driveway. He could have hit her!" She continued to admonish me but by the point I was just looking at the line of cars gathering behind her. I might have even defended myself if the woman stopped talking long enough. Instead I just shook my head slowly in the way that Megan hates - as if I'm completely dismissing everything this woman has to say. There were some honks and I gave the woman a law-enforcement "move-along" wave and simply said, "Keep driving, lady. Keep driving." She drove off, having said what she wanted to say.

Now I've been around enough grandparents who see mortal danger in every little thing a kid goes near, so I understand where this woman was coming from. But I'm not the type of parent who has his children fear anything and everything around them until they are too skittish to do anything.

I'm wondering what it was about me that made this woman think, here's a parent who clearly needs help and advice. I'm a clean-cut, fairly well dressed guy. I didn't have a bong hanging out my back pocket and my extensive tattoos were covered up. She couldn't have known that I'm the editor of Let Your Kids Ride Tricycles on Dangerous Streets quarterly. So what was it about me that made this lady think I had no clue about keeping my kids safe? What about me screamed, "this parent needs your help and advice desperately!" hmmmmmmm... I wonder...

I'm guessing it's my boy parts that preclude me from being a good and responsible parent.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Some Pictures

We returned this week from a trip to California where we celebrated both our tenth wedding anniversary and my mom's 60th birthday. Mom got some alone time with Clara and Kate while Megan and I took a cruise to Alaska. Rather than write about it, I've unloaded my camera's memory card below. You can click on each picture to get a better view.

In Glacier Bay, Alaska

Outside the Taku Lodge, near Juneau (Taku glacier in distance)

Black Bear strolling Taku Lodge

In Sitka (our cruise ship in distance)

At Uncle Chris's ball game

Trying to be patient with Justin and Andrew Etter


Two peas in a pod

With Megan's grandmother in San Jose

Clara is a California girl!

Pure joy

Costume contest at Mom's birthday (the theme was "ancient")

Clara after she stole my cake

Clara getting flying lessons on the way home

Clara earned her wings