Monday, October 27, 2014

Punctuation -- telling tales out of school



Lately, several friends have taken up punctuation-shaming via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Most specifically, they're comma-shaming -- pointing an unforgiving finger at the wanton orgy some of us share with the comma. I'd characterize their tone as experiment-averse and downright scolding -- preaching a single path to righteousness by resurrecting the middle school horrors of subjunctive and subordinate clauses.

Because really, when it comes to punctuation, who hasn't done the naughty, and done it more times than they'd perhaps care to admit. And sometimes naughty proves to be ever so nice, in the moment. So I wanted to weigh in, share some personal experiences.

Starting in high school, the comma and I indulged in an on-again, off-again promiscuous relationship. And still do, if it's late at night and we're a shot or two to the better or worse. We're not proud of this, nor about waking up the next morning to face the damage -- remembering what it was we said and didn't mean, meant and never said, boundaries crossed and laws broken. We part, embarrassed, refusing to look each other in the eye.

"Thanks for an interesting evening," says comma. "I'll see ya."

"Not if I see you first," sez I. "But don't lose my number."

You'd think my steady might be upset. But you'd think wrong. Let me tell you about the em dash, my em dash, the ever-forgiving em dash. I'm a fan -- no, the groupie -- of the em dash. The dashing em dash with his sly smile, white t-shirt, ripped jeans. A pack of Marlboros rolled up his sleeve.

The em dash knows a thing or two about straying from the straight and narrow, and always takes me back, once he gets home after sleeping with my girlfriends.

Charismatic, enigmatic, often sweet -- that's my bad boy. He can make sense out of nonsense, and charm most anyone except the semicolon. The semicolon looks down his patrician nose at the em dash, but the semicolon looks down on everyone; just another reason why he can't seem to get a date on Saturday night. Even with the promise of high class champagne, no one feels comfortable popping that cork.

When em dash and I again cozy up together, and I feel in a confessional mood, em dash just rolls a spliff and grins. "You're over thinking this," he says. "You want to strut your stuff with the comma now and again, I don't mind sharing. Be wild and go crazy.

"I trust you, you'll always come back."

What more can I say, but -- he knows me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Outsourcing: Glory Days

There was a time when I sold out, left the comfy world of communications foot soldier -- a job for which I was woefully underpaid, but loved and petted -- to make big bucks as a manager. (Both big bucks and manager being relative terms.)

My newspaper wanted to enter the brave new world of outsourcing. And of course, when outsourcing, the first group thrown to the wolves would be you, me, we the customer, ie, customer service. And, for whatever reason, the powers under the powers under the powers-that-be, decided I'd be the one to parachute into places like Dogspit, Texas; Deadfish, Wisconsin; Brokentoe, Nebraska; Deadcat, Kansas; with an extremely small but experienced team to lead the charge.

This resulted in a nice title, and the pleasure of meeting, and bringing together a rag-tag army of farm boys and girls -- grade school dropouts mostly, with the IT crowd who hated them, and the local management team that dreamed, if all went well, of one day snagging a job in Witchita or Omaha. Oddly, I thought at the time and think so to this day, the farm kids may have been educationally and dentally challenged to the extreme, but they were on the vanguard of tats, purple hair, piercings, computers, and knew their way around a bottle of Prozac.

"Do what you have to do, but make it seamless," my betters said, and then washed their hands of the entire operation. Well, put that among my many accomplishments -- we showed no seams. Just giant gaping holes that a convoy of tractors could ride through without ever seeing, much less touching, either end of the fabric.

Our LA customers knew the moment, the very moment, we made the customer service switcheroo; the moment their call was answered by a boy or girl who had effectively never left the farm or talked to anyone more cosmopolitan than a clerk at the mercantile.

"I'd like to know my balance."

"Give me a sec. Why, no need to worry ma'am, you don't owe nuthin."

The customers hated the new customer service, the new customer service hated the customers, local managers hated the company management, and the company management hated me. Well, actually, now I'm being modest. Everyone hated me.

"I don't want to talk to Wisconsin," the subscriber base would scream, and flood the publisher's office plus national and international bureaus with outrage.

(Little did they realize, soon speaking to someone in Deadfish would seem like a long lost dream. They'd beg to speak to Wisconsin. Or anyone within the continental United States. But we showed them; yes, a scant few years later, we sent all their complaints to Manila.)

One time I had to do a 12-hour turnaround from Deadfish to Dogspit. We were suffering a massive PR fallout from a literacy campaign, our publisher's pet project, an idea he'd "borrowed" from another paper. The campaign solicited donations and featured photos of Keane-eyed kids, with captions that read, "HELP ME READ." with the P and D backwards. Most of the kids in the photos were brown and black. The blow back was so intense, we opened up an overflow call center in Dogspit. I had to script responses and train the crew. Unfortunately, half the crew couldn't read, so we spent afternoons trying to memorize all possible scenarios, responses.

Naturally, when the calls came in, everyone scuttled the script and decided to improvise, speak from the heart. I monitored one call. Our front line guy said, "Oh no, we're not saying only black children are illiterate. We have pictures of white people, too. Everyone should read, Purple people, orange people, green people..."

I ripped off the head phones and thought how much life sucks and wondered what sort of rotgut the bars serve in Dogspit, and how early.

Friday, October 17, 2014

It's my party, and I'll lie if I want to



Are you getting spam calls? Here's my remedy.

If your caller ID says Out of Area, Directory Assistance, Abe's Construction, or something unrecognizable, pick up the phone and say: "Sheriff's Department." 90 percent of the time, they'll hang up and never call again. But if they do call back, or ask if they're speaking to Kari Buggy or whatever, then continue with, "This is the Sheriff's Department, South Pasadena Branch, please stay on the line."

Honest to god, I'm down from 10 calls a day to one every other week.

Try it; it's fun.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Measure of Success



Some skills you can master at any stage in life, and some you can't.

Those you can't, athletic pursuits mainly, blame it on physiology -- muscle development and muscle memory, a development and memory that must be locked-in prior to eight years of age (and that's being kind, I would set the bar closer to three or four), when you're still the Pillsbury dough-boy or girl, all squishy and malleable. Before your muscle, mind, and fear have assumed a lifelong prejudice to go one way and not another. Before balance becomes an immutable concept, and while the virtues of gravity are still open for debate.

Oh yes, you can start, take up, any and all -- skiing, dancing, skating, soccer -- at whatever age, but if past the early learning curve, you'll never be more than competent. In fact, competency becomes the aspiration. But if you're pursuing a lifelong dream, if you're a dream stalker, one who chased a dream because the dream never chased you, competency is a brave and noble pursuit. Heroic poems have never praised the merely competent, and j'accuse poetry for that lapse.

Which leads me to horses, and Ben Johnson, and of course, me, eventually.

In both Hollywood and on the rodeo circuit, Ben Johnson was considered the best rider in the world.

A cowboy from Oklahoma, Johnson fell into Hollywood by accident -- first as a wrangler, then stunt double. Other riders, the best of the best -- from the legendary Harry Carey Jr to Gary Cooper, said, and without jealousy just awe, that Ben Johnson was better than the best. Even John Ford loved him, and John Ford hated everyone. John Ford talked Johnson into taking some supporting roles in his films. "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" might be the most famous.

Ben Johnson never wanted to be a movie star, and he wasn't, but Ben Johnson did want to win a national rodeo championship. So he quit the movies, hit the rodeo circuit, and damned if he didn't get a National. After a year or so, he returned to films, saying, "It's necessity. All I have now is the silver buckle, $40, and an angry wife." (She didn't stay angry long; they were married for 50 years.)

So let's take a break. Here's a video, watch the action between 3 minutes/40 seconds to 6 minutes, and see what the guy could do, and do at a dead fucking run. (I won't apologize for the music, I didn't score it.)


Though Johnson did win a Best Supporting Oscar, he didn't think highly of his own acting abilities. "Everyone in Hollywood is a better actor than I am," he said, "but no one else is Ben Johnson."

I always wanted to be a great rider. It's the hardest thing I ever set my mind to, and I didn't come close. My horse bucked, spun, and reared all her life; she broke my hand, my leg; she gave me two concussions, and countless trips to the e-ward.

Even after 20 years together, I wasn't a great rider, or good, or even competent. After awhile, I accepted the fact that an excellent trail ride meant I stayed in the saddle.

Sometimes it's good to try with all your heart and soul to do something you'll never do well. Humbling, of course. But being the best at something shouldn't be one's only goal or only source of pleasure, nor should measuring yourself against the best and falling short always be a source of pain.

If you're smart, eventually you see success as a movable target. Elastic. Something that expands and retracts according to what you want to do, what you have the talent and ability to do, and then, finally, what you most desire to do. Sometimes success is simply the grit to try. Getting thrown and getting up, getting thrown, then getting up again.