Tag Archives: satire

Knotty Problems

My father-in-law asked me to repair some woodpecker damage on his house, which then led Nancy to expect me to repair the woodpecker damage I was trying to ignore on our own house. Ok, but not from a ladder.

I have a mixed tolerance for heights. I have comfortably rappelled from 100’ cliffs, a cherry-picker bucket, and a catwalk above the old Charlotte Coliseum (the first one). I have (not quite so comfortably) assembled, worked from, and disassembled multi-story scaffolding for the masonry outfit that employed me three summers in my late teens. None of the above held anything like the panic I feel on a 24’ extension ladder. On one recent task, my essential tremor, no doubt exacerbated by my nervousness, so shook my hand that I could not get the drill/driver bit anywhere near the target screw head. Nancy had to climb the ladder to do the job for me. Add in the number of friends and acquaintances injured by falls from ladders (one just days ago), plus the particular site difficulties below these woodpecker holes, and watch me head for the rental store. Scaffolding is cheap.

Both jobs are done now, and the scaffolding returned. I am relieved. This particular scaffolding experience was not without its nervous moments, and I am wondering if my tolerance for heights is declining with age. Am I ready to hire out future jobs? A more robust ladder (mine is a bottom of the line 200 pound rating) would not dance quite so wildly as I climbed, and might give a greater measure of confidence. But is this the point where I begin to think about the role of discretion in valor? Am I done with heights?

We had loaded the scaffolding into the truck for the return to the rental store, and I was tying everything in, when Nancy said, “You need to teach me that knot.”

The trucker’s hitch. It is a rare month when I do not find more than one use for the trucker’s hitch.

Many years ago, I bought a canoe from River Sports in Knoxville. They would not let me off the lot until I had demonstrated that I could tie the canoe safely onto my car. And “safely” meant multiple trucker’s hitches, tightly cinched down. That was, I believe, one of the more useful half-hours of my life.

I realize that knot-tying has gone out of fashion, as hardware substitutes for rope and knot. But hardware does not deliver the satisfaction of a well-tied tautline hitch or a bowline. Or a trucker’s hitch. If you know them, you are in select company.

Ah, the bowline! In my early twenties, I was privileged to be an Assistant Scoutmaster in a very active and rigorous troop. My own scouting days had been spent in a less-than-rigorous troop, and these kids taught me a lot. Including the bowline.

The bowline is a troublesome knot. It begins with a loop, and then you enter the loop, either from the back or the front, depending on which way you flipped the loop. To this day, I usually require more than one try to get it right. There is a mnemonic, “the squirrel comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back down into the hole,” that frankly never helped me one bit.

But, if you need to tie a bowline around your chest, as my climbing/rappelling young Scout charges often did, that’s a quick and simple, one-handed task. In the knot-tying relays, our troop always won. While the other troops were standing still, trying to figure out which way the squirrel was to come out of the hole, our boys were tying the bowline on the run, and our second leg of the relay was underway before the competition got the squirrel back into the hole.

I never learned splicing, and probably won’t. But my latest rope purchase came with some knot-tying instructions, including some I am not familiar with. Those instructions are here somewhere in my piling system. When they re-surface, I intend to learn some more knots.

Here’s one for the “If we can put a man on the moon …” category.

I am waiting for delivery of a replacement debit card. It has been in the mail for five business days. The bank will not get worried until two weeks have elapsed.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a cheap shot at the postal service or government efficiency. Those guys work against great odds, including Congress and you and me. However, during this same interval, the same postal service both returned a disk to Netflix and delivered my next one. Two way service in three business days.

And it is not just the postal service. The bank took more than a week to get that card out the door and into the mail. My last electronic funds transfer took three days. Them’s mighty slow electrons, my friend.

Reminds me of when I worked for a well-known high-tech firm that did, among other things, large complex computer systems. Payday was one week after the end of the pay period. In order to get the payroll out in time, they required timecards two days BEFORE  the end of the time period. If your projected two days turned up surprises, you then filed an amended timecard on the first day of the next time period.

Apparently, that company is not alone. My all-time favorite Dilbert cartoon has him complaining about just that phenomenon, having to turn in his timecard before the end of the period. When the harassed secretary asks him how long he is going to continue bothering her, he replies, “According to my timecard, ten more minutes.”

Further Encounters …

Somehow, the following story seems a continuation of this earlier post.

Greetings from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority arrived in our mailbox the other day. The addressee shares my last name, but the first name was not a match. Still, I opened it.

It appears that someone pulling a trailer with Tennessee plates recently ran a toll booth on the NJ Turnpike. An automated camera snapped a photo of the back of the trailer and its license plate, then the communication between the great states of New Jersey and Tennessee associated our address and this not-quite-right name with the offending vehicle. Not-Quite-Right-Name owes the Turnpike Authority the unpaid $6 toll plus a $50 fine. I do not own—nor have ever owned—that trailer or one remotely resembling it. I have not been in New Jersey in years.

The form letter lists three ways to protest: phone, website, or mail (by completing a section on the back of the form and returning it). Since I had a question about what the form asked, I tried the phone option first. After getting lost in phone menu hell, where no option fit my situation, I hung up and tried the web. But the website claimed the “violation number” I’d entered did not match anything in its system. I rechecked that I had faithfully copied the number from the form letter and was rejected again. So I went back to the phone.

This time, I found the place in the phone menu from which entering “0” connected me to another human being. This representative of the Turnpike Authority checked my number, and stated that, as this was a first violation, she could waive the $50 fine if I promptly paid the $6 toll. I declined, explaining that no one of that name lives at this address and that no one at this address owns or has ever owned the vehicle in question. She remarked that I should have marked the envelope “return to sender” instead of opening it.

From this unhelpful start, we finally got to my question. The form has a place for me to indicate that I do not own the vehicle in question. But it also asks that I provide a copy of the vehicle’s registration. Huh? She was less puzzled than I as to how I would access the registration of a vehicle I do not own.

I have returned the form, sans registration copy, disavowing both the vehicle and the name. I suspect I have not heard the last of this.

If we start having unexplained lane closures on the Solway Bridge, I’ll be thinking New Jersey.

So Proud

My home state of Tennessee is on the verge of naming the Bible as the State Book. That is great! Didn’t Jesus advocate a wall around Samaria, to keep the infidels out? Didn’t he tell the Syrophoenician woman to go back to Syrophoenicia and take her brood with her? Didn’t he chide the disciples for not being armed, leaving all the fighting to Peter at the Battle of Gethsemane? From the cross, didn’t he order his disciples to rough up the hecklers? Centuries before Jesus, didn’t the Bible tell the believers to send “the aliens in your midst” back out of your midst; to deny healthcare to the poor and the widows and the orphans; to discriminate against the outsider?

Now that our finest politicians are adopting these sound policies, it is time they acknowledged their debt to Biblical teachings. My state, Tennessee, is in the vanguard. I am so proud!

Encounters with Progress

Part 1. Modern Banking

My credit union has opened a new facility for the retail activity at its main location. In place of a long string of, mostly empty, teller stations, we now have just a few places for face-to-face banking, and some “interactive teller machines” (ITM), on which a real but remote teller is present by video link. I have used these a few times now, instead of waiting in the queue for a traditional teller, and the experience has been OK. Recently, I tried the new drive-through. Not OK.

When I drive up, I am faced, not with the familiar pneumatic tube, but an ITM. “TOUCH HERE” says the screen. I touch, a friendly face appears and asks for my account number, and a key pad pops onto the screen. I am thrown. For two-and-a-half decades, I have known my number. I use it frequently when banking online. However, for that same two and a half decades, when I physically “go to the bank,” my debit card has been the key to my account. I have it in my hand, am ready to insert it into the slot. Asked for my account number out of the familiar context, I go blank.

It’s no big deal. The card slot is there and I access my account the old way. But that start sets the tone for the entire transaction. I am here to deposit some checks. I need to endorse them. I am in Nancy’s car. Not a pen in sight.

Pneumatic tubes may be old technology. But they contain pens. ITMs do not. The friendly face on the screen asks me to look around to find the “ambassador,” who can provide me with a pen. It seems that new technology requires some poor soul to stand out in the weather and deliver pens to those who, like me, have arrived in a pen-less car. But it’s a cold, wet day, and the poor ambassador has apparently retreated inside to get warm. In compensation, (s)he has left behind piles of pens. Out of reach.

The design of this new drive-through facility features massive waist-high blocks of concrete that form canyons leading up to the ITMs. Are these masses an architectural statement? A security measure to keep me from hurtling my car sideways into the adjoining lane? Behind me, on one of the blocks, is a pile of blue credit union pens. Trapped in the canyon, I can’t open my door. Fortunately, I am the only car in my lane, so I back up to the pile, launch myself half out of the car window, and—barely—reach a pen. Then I move forward again, grin sheepishly at the friendly face on the screen, and look around for a surface on which to write.

Pneumatic tubes may be old technology, but they have a flat side on which to write. If it were a warm day, perhaps the ambassador would be nearby and would have a clipboard for me. If I were in my truck, I would have a tissue box with flat surfaces. But my wife’s wagon has no convenient space for a tissue box. She uses soft-sided containers. There is no flat, hard surface in that car.

I shrug my shoulders at the friendly face on the screen, and back down the canyon again. This time, I have to back all the way out, so I can open my door, exit, and use the rough concrete surface of a canyon block as a writing surface. I scrawl “for deposit only” on each check, get back into the car, and move forward to the ITM. The friendly face is gone. Maybe it was her break time. The screen invites me to “TOUCH HERE.” I decline. I drive out of the canyon, park, walk inside. The line for face-to-face encounters is ten deep. I take a deep breath, walk up to the indoors ITM, and “TOUCH HERE.” I am relieved to get an entirely different friendly face. Acting as if nothing has gone wrong with my day, I deposit my checks.

Part 2. But Wait! There’s More!

That is just the beginning of a technologically “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” I am trying to buy tickets online for the play, “A Lesson Before Dying.” The website does not tell me which dates are sold out. Instead, it presents the entire slate of dates. I pick one, travel several steps down that road, learn there are no tickets left, back up, and repeat. I finally find empty seats. But I am not allowed to simply pay and exit. I must first “register.” Email address, password, credit card data, billing address, mailing address (I am not asking anything to be mailed, and there is no “same as billing address” option). Finally I complete the last blank. My finger is descending on the SEND button—and the session times out. Time is counted, it seems, not from the last activity, but from the first.

Now I am in limbo. (The one just outside the gates of hell.) I am not registered—I timed out. I cannot register—”That email address is in use!” Nancy comes to my rescue. Knowing she is in a race, she registers herself, beats the clock, and we finally have our tickets.

Later that day we go to the post office. We need a stamp for a birthday card. It is after hours. I let Nancy out near the door, then find a parking spot. And wait. And wait. Thinking she may have been mugged, I go inside. Reading the look on her face, I understand she has had her own adventures with progress. Stamp machines, it seems, are old technology. The new technology is kiosks that make the mailing of a simple birthday card as complex as mailing a package of Christmas gifts. A fun feature is the partial labels printed by the kiosks. City, state, and ZIP are pre-printed, but street address must be filled in by hand. When the label is pressed onto the letter/card/package, the ink smears. The work table is littered with other customers’ smeared labels.

I don’t think it’s just us. My grocery store, the new one that sells seemingly everything but tires and toilet seats, cannot keep its own brand of yogurt in stock. Cannot keep peanuts in the make-your-own-peanut-butter machine.

One more example. When the new credit union branch was built, the banks of deposit boxes were moved locked and intact. My box is and always has been in the cheap seats, the nosebleed section, the very top row. Even the tallest employees have to use the step stool. The first time I entered the new vault after the move, the bank of lockboxes looked familiar, but the ceiling seemed oppressively low and the lighting, well, absent. I could barely read the numbers on the top row. After the paperwork and the step stool positioning, the attendant unlocked my box and tugged on the inner container. Bang! It hit the light fixture. She tried again. Bang! “I can’t believe that!” she laughed. Finally, by forcing down hard, she was able to scrape it under the fixture.

I think I need to chill for a while. Sing along with Fred Eaglesmith. Treat myself to a snack. But wait! I’m out of yogurt. And peanut butter.

There Must Be A Reason

I am an economist by training, and somewhat by temperament. I understand the concepts of self interest and incentives. I understand the profit motive. I understand why Rachel keeps calling me. You do know Rachel, don’t you?

“Hi, this is Rachel at Cardholder Services. There is not problem with your card, but … “ [click] I have never heard the rest of her spiel, but she keeps trying.

We’d thought to get rid of our landline, because Rachel was practically our only caller on it. Then she began calling our cell phones, from local numbers. Do Not Call lists to the contrary, no phone is safe from Rachel. She even recently called our landline FROM ITS OWN NUMBER. At least, that’s what showed up on Caller ID.

Someone invests time and money and creative energy to get me to answer when Rachel calls. Why? Because someone else out there is buying into whatever she is selling! They keep trying because there is profit in it. Because it works. Why send out tons of junk mail? Because it works.

So I am sure there is an economic rationale for the phenomenon I call Annoy the Customer Marketing. There is probably a whole academic literature on the topic: PhDs in marketing awarded on clever theoretical models explaining why my grocery store moved the Hawaiian Bread 15 yards away from the bakery section into the middle of the meat department; Masters theses prompting a leading big box store to split its inventory of desk calendars into thirds and locate them at random around the store; graduate courses teaching the profit potential in noise pollution: Add un-mutable TVs to the gas pumps; replace towels with deafness-inducing hand blasters in public restrooms; crank up the volume of in-store music to headache levels. Watch your profits soar!

It’s unseemly to be so curmudgeonly here at Christmas time. Merry Christmas, Rachel. Season’s Greetings. Happy Holidays. I wish you well.

A Hamster’s Christmas

Recently found in a remote corner of my hard drive:

Humans think they are so smart and we hamsters are simple-minded.  Humbug!  I sleep all day, play and eat and poop and pee all night.  They clean my cage and feed me and supply fresh water.  Tell me, who’s the smart one?  

And my family is still wondering where I spent last Christmas!  To them, it’s a great mystery.  It’s no big deal, really.  I was bored, the Big S needed help, so I took a vacation … a working vacation … to the North Pole.

I was jogging on my treadmill and had just taken a break to gnaw enamel off the cage bars when this elf popped up on the other side of the bars.  Yep, a real elf — green suit, pointy hat, the whole bit — singing his own tacky, made-up words to the familiar tune.

“Snowball, with your teeth so tough, won’t you help us out of the rough?”

Turns out that big operation at the North Pole had almost ground to a halt for lack of cutters.  For ribbons and wrapping paper and such.  And the Big S had heard of me and my fine cutters.  I guess my sleek white coat didn’t hurt either.  I’m a natural for all that snow.

Anyway, Elvis (that’s what he said his name was, cross my heart) was practically begging me on bended knee to come on up the North Pole and help them out.  

“Please, Snowball!  We need you, Snowball!  You’re our last hope, Snowball!”

Honestly!  He was laying it on thick.

I can’t say much about my time away — trade secrets, they claim. But we got the job done. And those elves do know how to party after a hard day’s work! I was so worn out, getting back to my treadmill was a relief. 

Silly humans! They’ll never figure it out. 

Some may doubt parts of this story.  This much is certain.  On December 20, 2003, Jay’s hamster cage was found open and empty.  On December 26, Snowball was back in her cage.  No trace of her missing week was ever found in the house — no nest, no chewings, no pee, no poop, no evidence of stolen food.