Friday, November 30, 2007

Four-legged babies

My mom likes to remind me that the word "children" is in reference to small humans, not the four pets that roam around my house. She could say it until she was blue in the face and it wouldn't change the fact that Rob and I are among the growing number of people who are choosing four-legged babies instead of miniature-me's.

Don't get me wrong - I love human children. My nephews and nieces are truly the apples of my eye; as far as I'm concerned, they are the most brilliant, attractive, talented people to grace this planet. But in my home, the furry babies reign supreme.

The downside to this arrangement (or at least, the downest of the downsides) is that pets, of course, are going to predecease their owners the vast majority of the time. Rob avoids thinking about it; I like to pretend that knowing that will somehow make it easier when the time comes. Ultimately, neither approach is really going to help.

Two friends are currently facing this with their pet-children. As a society, we want them to suck it up, keep it in perspective, shed a tear or two only then march forward.

But how?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My customer service top 5

If I could have had a Great Customer Servers sidebar attached to my column today, it would have included (in no particular order):
  1. Dr. Margaret Szott and her entire staff. Margaret is my dentist. I recently referred a friend to her (quite an easy recommendation to make) and she hand-wrote me a very personal, warm thank you note. Not that I was surprised - her office is marked by over-the-top warm interactions - her staff inevitably remembers who people are, our interests and if and how we're related to other patients. They actually make it a pleasure to go to the dentist.
  2. Gene at Arthur's Fine Shoes. The owners of the store, Stan and Judy, are lovely, too, but I've grown quite a bond with Gene. He took great care of me the first time we met, even though I went into their swank store in my grungy food service get-up (back when I was working at Great Harvest Bread Co.). A year and a half later (truly), I went back in a second time to replace the Danskos that had saved my feet and Gene not only remembered me, but also the kind of shoe he has sold me AND the style of sock! Now, the time or two a year I allow myself to go in there (even I have a hard time resisting their shoes), we talk about our families and share a hug - I'm often tempted to go in when I'm just having a bad day...
  3. Gary at the Costco gas station. I've had conversations with random people about Gary before - he's just the kind of person who really stands out for people. I call him my Five-Minute Philosopher because I can have a better conversation with him in the five minutes it takes to pump my gas than with the majority of people given hours. An intellectual and a kind-hearted man.
  4. The crew at Amalfi Harbour. The first time I walked into Amalfi Harbour (only earlier this year though I've wondered about it for as long as I can remember), I wasn't sure what it's dismal exterior was hiding. But by the end of the appetizer, I was not only sold on the food, but felt like family to the wait staff.
  5. Sean at Muse. An inclusive snob (in a good way), who provided the best fine dining service we've experienced. But I've already written about him.
There are plenty of other worthwhile mentions, I'm sure. Who doesn't love the "Hello!" at Pita Delite? Or Masoud's way of working the dining room at Zaytoon? Or the earnestness of the sales staff at the Great Outdoor Provision Company?

I'm a sucker for a great customer service experience...

Everyone should wait on customers at some time in their life

Young Israeli men and women serve in the military after high school. Whatever you think of the geopolitics of Israel, the fact is that they are frequently in a state of war, making compulsory military service consistent with the needs of that country.

Americans are frequently in a state of shopping. We shop because we had a bad day or because Timmy’s birthday is coming up or because we simply must get in on the formal shorts trend before it passes. As you may have noticed, we are currently in a shopping frenzy to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or the miraculous longevity of the Maccabees’ oil, or because we care about someone who celebrates one or both.

At this point, we could have a series of conversations about whether we should be so involved with shopping, or the ethics of choosing to whom we give money through our purchases, or even the long-term environmental impact of what we buy. Or, we could acknowledge that ours is, in fact, a capitalistic society, with a free market economy, and therefore shopping can, will and arguably should, on some level, happen. That accepted, would it not be in keeping with the needs of our kind of country for our young men and women to be drafted into compulsory customer service after high school?

I served my time: first at an alternative medical practice, then on and off for years in food service. During my service, I learned that I wouldn’t find that kind of work interesting for long, and should therefore truly apply myself in college. But I also learned about the customer/server relationship: exactly how much discourteous behavior I would accept from a customer before peeling off my service smile and the kind of service I needed to provide in order to feel good about my job and allow the customer to have a pleasant experience.

Additionally, I now have a very clear picture of what kind of consumer I want to be: I tip big (when deserved), I don’t enter businesses within 15 minutes of closing time and I treat customer servers like human beings rather than automatons created to fulfill my every whim.

Of course, I now also have a very clear picture of what kind of service I want: I want to be treated like a human being, not like an automaton created to inconvenience customer servers. I want the barest of greetings, or at least acknowledgment, when face to face with a server. And I’d like to believe that the servers I encounter have some sort of pride in doing their job well, or at least don’t show outward signs of being in excruciating workplace pain.

So, you see, the draft I propose is not one of ensuring that my favorite stores are well-staffed, but of giving Americans the opportunity to think more about how we interact in our most widely used gathering spots: stores. I would be pleased as punch if our youth chose to instead spend time in the Peace Corps or working at community service organizations across the Triad – anything that reminds us that even our me-first society would function more smoothly, and be a greater pleasure to be a part of, if we made a little more effort to consider one another.

‘Tis the season to truly indulge in the great American pastime, shopping. ‘Tis also the season of caring, giving and love. Perhaps this year, we can work harder to marry the two.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Shattering airpot

I was just washing my coffee carafe after a truly lovely Thanksgiving meal, when I had a vivid memory of the tinkling sound an airpot makes when its glass liner shatters - also truly lovely. Memory is a funny beast.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

(Un)Comfortably Numb

Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone home?

When we were first dating, Rob was apparently pulled aside by a friend of mine who warned him to never play Pink Floyd in front of me. I would have told him eventually.

I don't remember the song that was playing on the radio the night I totaled my car, though the person in the passenger seat cringed at the opening chords for many months. I never remember the actual words spoken in the most heated of moments (the average marital argument, for example, comes no where close to reaching that temperature) but remember only the gist and feel of the words. Auditory details just seem beyond my memory's interest.

I also can't remember which Pink Floyd song was the one that turned my stomach to a band whose tee-shirt I likely would have worn otherwise - just that Pink Floyd was playing while my then-boyfriend rocked himself on the floor of our bedroom, his knees pulled to his chest. I left to sit on the sofa, next to the woman whose apartment it was, and listened as he tore apart our room. Of all that was destroyed, the most notable was a photo I had taken of him in which he was torn into two jagged pieces. It wasn't a particularly traumatic evening, particularly in comparison to other moments with him, but it's always remained vivid to me.

Years later, as the assistant leader of a Girl Scout troop, I found myself lost in a corn maze with the teen-aged staff playing Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish. I gladly followed one of the teens down the quitter's path to the exit. No hives, no sobbing - just discomfort and a willingness to end its source -the worst of my reactions to Pink Floyd, but why bother with even that, I thought.

But as each year that passes, being song-averse increasingly strikes me as a waste of time, an unnecessary thing for Rob to have to be vigilant of (as he slowly reaches for the radio and presses the first available button, often before I've identified the song)... as plain old stupid.

So, last week, Comfortably Numb came on the radio, Rob did his usual hubby-to-the-rescue swoop-and-tune, and I insisted we turn back. We sang along (I don't think a lifetime would be long enough to forget those lyrics) and, in a turn of Alanis Morissette's version of ironic, I've had the song stuck in my head since. It's arguably a better situation that the song I used to get stuck in my head: the theme song for Three's Company, but I'd still rather not. My usual remedy, singing the theme song for Inspector Gadget (two theme songs for shows I watched as a kid... I wonder what that says about me...), has failed miserably, though I've had some temporary success by singing Claypool's Up on the Roof ( I'm up on the roof again/Watchin' the sparklers dance and play/Up on the roof again/Please don't take my ladder away)...

As a last ditch effort to exorcise the Pink demon from my head, I've decided to write about it. Writing, for me, if often a brain-dumping exercise - I roll a topic around in my head until I can write about it and then I don't have to think about it anymore. I often even draw a blank when people ask what I've been writing about lately... I don't know; I already wrote about it.

Thanks for being a part of my experiment; hopefully I won't have to write about this again...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Poor Willie Gordon

Isabel Allende's husband, that is, the man whose being was filleted for the general amusement of those of us who gathered at War Memorial Auditorium last night. It worked; I was terribly amused, and my mom may have shed a laughter-induced tear or two as well.

Allende was in town as part of the Guilford College Bryan Series, the same program that brought us Toni Morrison at the end of last season. While Morrison used her platform to expound what seemed to be an anti-war message hedged in an analysis of Beowulf, Allende instead spoke of her life and her writing process, focusing particularly on the perforated line between privacy and story telling that most writers, and their families, face.

Rob has certainly taken more than his fair share of ribbing from friends after the publication of columns like this and this, and I happen to know that at least one family member is (wrongly) expecting some sort of public lambasting, whether covertly or overtly done. Indeed, there have been times that my mother, who proofs every column I submit, has asked if I really want to share that particular story with the 200,000+ reader of the News & Record: therapy, domestic abuse, personal vulnerabilities.

Last night, Allende said something to the effect of (and I wish I had written her exact words) our vulnerabilities lying not in that which we share, but the secrets we keep, and I couldn't agree more. The few topics that I have yet to broach with you, darling reader, are those which are too intimate, those about which I am unwilling to accept reader insight, commentary or criticism: kids, my belief system and my future all fall into that category, topics that I avoid in conversation as well.

Unlike Allende, the story matters less to me than the people that might be affected. My pensively waiting family member doesn't read my blog, so I don't risk giving anything away by saying that I have no interest in exposing the secret of those I love nor those who I don't love but would find too much gratification in being captured on the page. Still, I feel my own secrets pressing upon me like a warning: that which we don't share can do nothing but haunt us; there is no thunder stealing like honesty.

Lego robots wire kids for science

Back in February, I wrote a column about my fifth grade teacher, Mark Moore, a man who continues to be among the most influential educators to cross my scholastic path. His influence comes largely from his ability to bring the fun of critical thinking and practical application into any topic. In the column, I posed the concern that this separation of fun and learning is harming students’ future career prospects by turning them off to advanced learning.

It seems that at least one person was concerned about this long before No Child Left Behind made it a common topic of conversation. Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the Segway, began a program for exactly that reason in 1989: FIRST, an acronym for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology". Initially aimed at high school students, the program has evolved to include divisions for kids as young as six, including the FIRST LEGO League (FLL), a division for nine to 14-year-olds.

I recently visited an FLL team at their Natural Science Center practice room. There, eight home-schooled kids tinkered with LEGO figures around a table. Banish from your mind, though, images of LEGO cars with bobble-headed drivers or even massive LEGO recreations of the Statue of Liberty; no, these kids have fashioned their LEGOs into two identical, kid-designed robots. Programmed via nearby computers, the robots traveled the practice table while attempting to complete tasks assigned by the international FIRST organization. This year, the theme of the tasks has a green tint: Power Puzzle, energy resources, meeting global demands.

Among the tasks was placing a LEGO solar panel onto the roof of a LEGO house. But without the assistance of a remote control, the kids must program the robot to move at precisely the right speed, in precisely the right direction, stopping in the right spot, dropping the panel just so AND returning to home base, all within a matter of seconds.

Marie Hopper is the coach of this team and the founder of the first Greensboro FLL teams back in 2001. As the kids tinkered and reprogrammed toward successfully placing their solar panel, she told me that she got involved not only in the hopes of engaging her son in science, but also because she appreciates the values FIRST emphasizes, particularly what the league calls Gracious Professionalism. As stated on the FIRST Web site, “Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process.”

On December 1, the team will compete in the FLL state championship in which they will be scored equally on their robot’s performance on tasks including placing the solar panel; design and programming; teamwork; and a research project. The project takes laboratory concepts and gives them real-world application. This year, the kids are tasked with performing energy audits on local buildings from which they can suggest solutions for greater energy efficiency. So far, teams have audited the Children’s Museum, Belk’s, a highway patrol station and more.

Hopper said that in her six years of coaching FLL, she has seen kids reorient their future plans to include science and engineering, and she has seen kids who have little success in traditional school environments find scholastic accomplishment and inspiration. As Japan graduates more than twice as many engineers than the U.S., with less than half the population, it seems that though these kids think they’re building robots, what they are truly laying is the foundation for keeping America competitive in the global marketplace.


Want to see FLL in action? The North Carolina FLL State Championship is right around the corner!

When: December 1, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm

Where: Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center

Cost: Admission is free, though there may be a charge for parking

Monday, November 12, 2007

A child's birthday

I have yet (and hope to never) reach the point where I dread my birthday. I enjoy the extra pampering - the dish of her special eggplant parm that my mom makes for me every year and Rob's ever-innovative ways of spoiling me. But though I am oddly excited about reaching my 30th birthday next year, that excitement pales in comparison to celebrating my nephew's eight birthday this weekend.

My sister's oldest son, a child I read to in the womb and spent countless hours with during his first couple of years, when my greatest obligation was completing my college degree and all non-studying hours could be spent watching his face change from the tiny wrinkled face of infancy to the round, baby version of the face he has now, a face that has recently become long and narrow, like his body. It's a mature face that makes me think twice about slinging him around and blowing raspberries on his neck like I did when he was younger; I still do those things, but I wait for the day that he lets me know he has become too old...

In the meantime, we'll play hide-and-seek as we did before his party yesterday. I will continue to be amazed when he says things that bypass age-appropriateness by a long shot, and relieved when he says things that are distinctly eight-years-old in mentality. And I will try a little harder to not see his future when I look in his face: the endless possibilities for what his life could become and he along with it. I believe he will be successful wherever his path may lead, but we have decades to hash that out and only this one precious year to enjoy him at eight.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Daily Lit

I don't think I've ever read anything by Charles Dickens. I'm not sure how I made it through public high school and an English-intensive college degree without reading any Dickens but there it is. I admit it.

But today, I read the first installment of A Tale of Two Cities via Daily Lit, a service that really kicks sliced bread's ass on the "best things" scale. The whole idea is that many (most?) of us spend so much time at our computers and yet seem to find so little to time to read offline. So, Daily Lit has serialized a pretty impressive selection of books - mostly free though some do involve a nominal fee to finish after a free trial - and emails a short section of your chosen book per whatever schedule you set.

The first section of Tale took me about five minutes to read and included a link at the bottom that will send me the next section immediately, should I want it. Otherwise, I'll receive future sections at 6:30 every weekday morning.

Now, if they could only join forces with Good Reads somehow...

(Thanks, Tam, for the heads-up on this one!)

Winter Walk for AIDS

It's almost that time of year again when conscientious citizens flood the downtown streets to show support for those living with HIV/AIDS, and raise money for the services that support them and are working toward a cure: Winter Walk for AIDS.

This is the 16th year of the walk that organizers hoped would be obsolete long ago. I attended my first walk on a rainy day in 1996, when it was largely a procession populated by the gay community. As the demographics of those most affected by the disease has changed, so too have the demographics of the walk. Increasingly, the walk is made of African-American college students, with amazing showings by A&T and UNCG.

You don't have to be personally touched by the disease to participate; you just need to acknowledge that this is a preventable disease for which the message of prevention must be as widely disseminated as possible; that this is a disease for which we must find a cure for the good of all humanity; and that those living with this disease are every bit as deserving of our support and care as those living with cancer, MS or any other potentially terminal illness.

Sunday, December 2, starting at 2:00 PM - come and walk. In the midst of a terrible disease, Winter Walk is an amazing morning of hope.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Election day musings

I love voting - I'm just a dork like that. I vividly remember registering to vote at Fun 4th 11 years ago, much in the way that I remember other landmark moments, like the mornings my sister's children were born, the day they announced Kurt Cobain's death (I still don't buy suicide) and the evening my hubby proposed (4 years Friday!). It stands to reason, then, that I get all atwitter when it's time to use my voting rights. I always want the poll volunteers to check my registration card or put me through some sort of rigorous identification process but the usual confirming my address from a piece of paper I can easily read as they do will do every time.

I'm particularly excited about this election due to the mayoral piece. Honestly, though I'm clearly a fan of Billy Jones, I'm not yet sure that I will write him in (sorry Billy). It's my Gemini nature (or something like that) - a big piece of me wants to vote for my favorite person, making the write-in a foregone conclusion. But another part of me, the pragmatist, is concerned that Billy is our local Nader, stealing votes from the viable candidate I like the most. With what will likely be a very low voter turn-out, will I feel that I've used my vote wisely if I write Billy in only to have Kern win?

I have similar concerns about the presidential primaries. Mike Gravel is my favorite, and I like Kucinich pretty well, but will I vote for one of them and risk taking votes away from those who could seriously challenge Clinton? I have a little more time to feel that one out...

Whoever you like, get to the polls today. Or quit your bitching. Your choice.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Necrophilia for readers

Well, folks, it looks like it's almost time for another spectacular round of Burn This Book! This week, Teacher Magazine (via my mom - thanks, mom!) has brought forth our new candidate: Child of God. I haven't read this filthy piece of Pulitzer winning smut but according to the article, the 1994 novel explores human degradation via a protagonist who is falsely accused of a crime then becomes a murderous necrophiliac. A young teacher, Kaleb Tierce, though apparently beloved by his students, has been placed on administrative leave and is facing possible criminal charges for assigning the book to his 9th grade class.

So the students are wearing armbands with Tierce's initials to show solidarity and the majority of the parents are asking that he be reinstated and yet the school board decided to keep him on leave because some small group of parents is displeased with a book.

Granted, when I tried to imagine my youngest bro, currently in 9th grade, or my oldest niece, just behind him in 8th grade, reading the book, I wasn't thrilled with the idea because that does have the potential for seriously disturbing imagery. But filing a police report because a piece of acclaimed literature was assigned? Fascism, anyone?

When the overly-aggressive parent didn't get the results she wanted from the school administration, she did have one option other than the cops: talking to her kid about the content. Heaven forbid parents speak to their teens about graphic images that involve sex and violence. I can't imagine her kid is getting similar images in less reputable places... like tv, movies or the bikini panties now sold at Limited Too (right next to the sweat pants that say "Cutie" on the tush, perhaps?).