Why is it So Hard?

I have begun to notice with greater frequency a few things that are more than simply annoying. I might go as far to call these nuisances. One in particular happened the other day, and it keeps happening to many people (by the way, Google is broken because of the walk-outs, so the search results I found yesterday are not appearing – more on that another day).

photography of one us dollar banknotes
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

A couple days ago, and several times in the past, when I paid for lunch, I didn’t receive my change. Granted, it was only $.47, but I believe this is happening everywhere, and it happens to me often enough to make me notice. I blame it on laziness. I mean, how hard is it to count back change? Yes, I realize cash is so 20th century. But I pay in cash most of the time after numerous data breaches and having to replace my debit card about six times over the years. Cash is better for many reasons. First, it’s pretty much unhackable (it’s a word). Carrying small amounts of cash also makes me mindful of how much I’m spending. When I’m out of money, I stop spending. Finally, paying cash involves a personal interaction with another human being. I pay cash at gas stations, starting conversations with the clerks. Most people pay at the pump, but I prefer the transaction.

When I pay cash, sometimes I don’t get the correct change. I paid $10.53 for lunch at a place near my office. I handed the cashier $11. He handed me a receipt. Like I said, I keep seeing this; not consistently, but often enough, and I notice these things. Yeah, I’m that guy. Most of the time I do receive change, even when it’s less than a dollar. I think since more people pay electronically with debit/credit cards or with Google or Apple Pay, there are fewer cash transactions. People are out of practice, and I don’t think anyone explained to them how to count back change.

Self checkout kiosks return proper change. Robots, gotta love ’em. Now what am I supposed to do?

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Customer Care

When I was younger I and I first heard someone say, “the customer is always right,” I was sure that wasn’t true. How could someone always be right? Didn’t people sometimes make mistakes? Later I realized what this phrase meant. And now I know that was never true to begin with.
Customer

The relationship between the merchant and the customer is based on the transaction. Someone has something to sell, and someone may or may not want to purchase it. In the US, most people buy the things they need or want without haggling over price, and taxes are not included. Other countries have different customs, but it’s basically the same all around the world. In my neighborhood there are gas (petrol) stations across the street from one another. When one station lowers its price, the one across the street does the same. It’s a weird little ballet, but it keeps the gears of commerce from rusting over. (By the way, ever wonder why is petrol sold by the tenth of a penny?)

Anyone who has worked in retail can tell you horror stories about customers from hell. There’s always one. How can the customer be right and be so wrong? Well, customers are human beings, and people have good days and bad days. Sometimes the customer is wrong. Also, often the company is also wrong.

Complaints about Youtube demonetizing content may reveal how imperfect some companies can be. In my own personal experience, I can no longer access my own Flickr photo stream. It’s probably for best anyway, since most of my older work is shit. But I have not been able to log in. Maybe I should just shift my work over to Instagram.

It appears that there are flaws throughout our economic system. Capitalism isn’t perfect, but neither are any of the other systems. In ancient times, before the invention of currency, people traded, bartered. But we don’t make things anymore. I don’t produce anything people generally want. I can bake bread, but I don’t usually, because I can get it cheap. I don’t make soap for the same reason. But if the economy collapsed, money would be meaningless, like in Venezuela. People there are stockpiling things like sugar to use as currency. Certain trades would be valuable, like welding or carpentry. Some skills that are valuable today might become obsolete (taxi!)

But today, and for the foreseeable future, people in many countries are going to buy things using some form of currency, cash, plastic, Google Pay. I’ll go shopping tomorrow, and I won’t haggle over the price of anything. That’s just not done here. I probably won’t even pay attention to where my tomatoes are coming from, or whether the coffee I buy is fair trade. And since I stopped caring, companies probably stopped caring, too. But there are some that care about the customer and about the producer and the environment. Fair trade chocolate is expensive and doesn’t taste better. In truth, the growers probably don’t see any benefits. The customer is probably wrong, and most likely ignorant. But we’re happy as long as we get what we want for the lowest price.

Envelope or envelope?

Texture: Envelope - Green
Flickr Photo by: Jeric Santiago

I sometimes listen to a show called A Way With Words, which I usually catch on Sunday afternoon. Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett host the hour-long program, covering topics like regional sayings, idiomatic expressions, word origins, and so on. They invite listeners to call in with their stories or questions about language. I’ve never gotten a response, but I wonder about word pronunciation.

For instance, I hear some people pronounce envelope like ahn-ve-lope, while others pronounce is with a short ‘e’ sound at the beginning (ˈen-və-ˌlōp). It’s the same with enclave. I never hear anyone pronounce entourage with a short ‘e’. I wonder why we don’t pronounce courage the same way. Either, neither, be-lie-ver?

I asked once whether Caribbean should be pronounced with stress on the ‘i’ or on the ‘e’. (kə-ˈri-bē-ən vs. ker-ə-ˈbē-ən). The person simply answered, “it depends on whether or not you’ve been there.” (Not helpful, even if it was just a sarcastic jab.)

I’m pretty annoyed with malapropisms. That’s when a person uses one word in place of another similar word, or maybe not so similar. For example, well, here. People say things like “for all intensive purposes” and “he told me pacifically.” I’ve heard someone use the word “jubilee” when talking about jambalaya. One surprising one to me was that apparently “another think coming” is correct. I’ve heard people say (evidently incorrectly), “she has another thing coming”. I believe most people were unaware of this.

English is hard for many reasons, but mostly because it has been adulterated over the centuries. Modern English does not resemble its ancient roots any more than Icelandic resembles Japanese. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Every language has its problems. French is described as having a few rules and the rest is idioms. I’m reminded of a Star Trek TNG (The Next Generation) episode, Darmok. Here, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien adversary whose language is incomprehensible to anyone in Star Fleet. Picard and the other captain finally do work out their communication obstacles, but at great cost. It’s one of my favorite episodes, and I recommend watching it. I believe Netflix is still streaming the show.

It’s time for bed now. I tend to dream in English, but sometimes also in Spanish. Perhaps that’s why I find all this so interesting. Language is entirely too complex a subject for me to tackle in this publication. I’m looking forward to hearing back from “A Way with Words” soon. By then I’ll probably have 100 more questions.

 

What You Find in the Garbage

A little over 25 years ago, I saw a movie called The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer. Perhaps you’ve seen this film. In it, Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a radio talk host whose bravado and hubris come to a head when he makes an off-hand remark, as these personalities are wont to do, but his tirade inspires someone to go on a mass shooting rampage, killing many. One of those killed is the wife of Parry, played by Robin Williams.

To me, by way of the many times I have watched it – studying it, actually – the themes in Fisher King revolve around the simplicity of baser aspects of human nature, but intertwined with the unsightly, the lovely, the agonizing, and the superb qualities of the human condition. “The Fisher King” explores our callousness and compassion, our lack of mercy, and our need for redemption. It reminds us that we make alliances among most unlikely of people. Parry (Williams) is rendered destitute after the death of his wife, and leads a small army of the disenfranchised through the uncelebrated streets of Manhattan. Lucas (Bridges) also hits bottom, and finds a savior in Parry, who in turn needs saving from Lucas. Their symbiotic relationship makes each one stronger, allowing them to forgive themselves and each other.

Robin Williams at one time mentioned this was one of his best roles to perform. It’s difficult to nail that down, because he had so many great performances (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society). But he seemed to express some real admiration for this project during a brief and somewhat disappointing interview with one Jimmy Carter (the other one). Carter asks Williams about his role and about the themes in the film, or at least a single dimension of the film, not getting too deep (it was only seven minutes in length). It is cringe-worthy, especially when Carter insists on doing a “video greeting card”.

“The Fisher King” was directed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus alum Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s other features include Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few. The style of Fisher King is typical of Gilliam’s other films, where we see a grittier, less sanitized world, making it look almost alien and unsuitable for human existence. Color is an important

Parry to the Recue
Parry (Williams) saves Jack (Bridges) from an attack.

part of the scenes. Red symbolizes the heart, complete with passion, agony, and love – romantic and otherwise; the Red Night, the cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter, the Chinese restaurant. The light in the Grand Central Waltz scene is both eery and magical. Figures glide in small circles, while Lydia (Plummer) sails amid the dancers, followed unbeknownst by Parry.

Dim Sum
Parry, Anne, Jack, and Lydia

The film is full of strange moments and a bit of insanity, mostly on the part of Parry, who is being pursued by his own demons, manifest in the form of the menacing Red Knight. At times, Parry seems to be in control, especially when Jack is with him. Other times, the knight chases Parry mercilessly. Eventually, Parry must face the demons from his past and attempt to make his way back from his own personal hell. Is he allowed to move on after the tragic death of his wife. Can he forgive Jack for his incendiary comments that may have led to the tragedy? Can Jack forgive himself? Redemption plays a big part in the relationship between the two men, and their relationships with Anne and Lydia, respectively. How do we count ourselves worthy for any love or kindness that comes our way? The answer to that question might be that we deserve nothing. We should never consider ourselves entitled to anything. Meanwhile, any gifts offered to us should be received with gratitude. We should not be above asking for help. And we should not debase ourselves with self-loathing, instead allowing others to come into our lives.

What I take from Fisher King mostly is that we are our own worst enemies. We beat ourselves up for offenses others would forgive. We deny ourselves joy and fulfillment. And we reject people who want to be with us, both out of longing and out of compassion and charity. At one point in the film, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) finally tells Jack how much she loves him. You can see the pain in her expression, probably because she knows he does not love her the same way. Parry is motivated by is erstwhile unrequited love of Lydia, and as soon as he confesses his long-time obsession, here comes the Red Knight. Tragedy and heartache seem to follow immediately after finally letting down their guard, exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, but baring your soul is often the most painful thing you will do. Broken ankle: sure, that hurt. Oral dry socket: hellish. Revealing your inner self, this is the riskiest move you can make.

I find myself quoting Fisher King all the time with my wife. We’ve seen it so many times, we can and do recite dialog from memory. But more significantly, we find ourselves comparing the movie’s themes to our own situations or something we have seen or heard. It is for us one of the best films we’ve ever seen. Not everyone agrees, but even though Roger Ebert in 1991 gave Fisher King a negative review, he later reconsidered the merits of the film, shortly after Williams’ death in 2014. Robin Williams was in rare form for this movie, and he is sorely missed. His on-screen lunacy brought energy to what otherwise might have been a dull movie, Jeter’s Gypsy rendition notwithstanding.

If you have never seen “The Fisher King”, give yourself permission for the indulgence. The soundtrack is a nostalgic romp, and there’s this sense of the 80’s coming to a close, complete with land line phones and video rental stores. You will probably find yourself at least humming “How About You?” and shouting “yo, Lydia!” as a result.

As the four main characters are walking to dinner, Parry picks up something from a trash heap, and Jack attempts to correct Parry’s apparent habit. A moment later, Parry presents a delicately rendered tiny chair out of a champaign bottle cage, explaining to Lydia that you would be surprised what you find in the garbage. In other words, maybe something people thought was worthless is perhaps a treasure.

The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
crescent_moon

But I’m a Cheerleader

Okay, this is kind of bothering me. I got this great idea to write one letter per week to Donald Trump (I’m still getting used to calling him President). It seemed like a good idea at the time. But like Natasha Lyonne’s character in the movie, I’m not quite sure what the rest of society expects from me. I live in a country that is so deeply divided (race relations, political camps, gender issues, and so on), it is quite impossible to stay away from controversial topics. When I visit family – and that happens less frequently these days – we are forced to offer small talk and other useless bullshit so no one gets offended. Invariably, someone does, and merry Christmas!

I wrestled with this for some time. Do I say something? Or do I just show pictures of kittens playing? So I finally decided that I would get involved. But I would attempt to stay neutral and keep it very civil, almost formal. Afterall, I am talking to the President of the United States, the office, if not the man. It’s an important distinction, because the office demands respect. If we do not respect that, our republic may start to crumble. Oh, look, it already has (here are supposed to be some relevant links to various news stories about police brutality or fake news or wage inequality or – oh my GOD, there is just so much that is wrong!)

Therefore, I have started it. I published two letters so far. And I know there are people with strong opinions on both sides, those who fervently support Trump, and those who are incredulous that he is the President. I just could not stand by and not say anything, especially now. But this is truly important. To those who think I’m being too polite: we’ll see how this goes. To those who believe I am a left-wing, candy-ass, libtard crybaby (those are from my family): I am being respectful but honest.

Politics is a dirty, messy business that leaves a bad taste in your mouth if you’ve done it right. God help you if you ever serve in public office. Politics tends to bring out the worst in some people, and yet in brings out the best in others. It may be unfortunate that I’ve turned this once mundane blog into now a gripe-fest. I hope I don’t come across as bitter and cynical, but I am getting older. Thankfully, I have never gotten into politics. I just don’t have the temperament for it. But that doesn’t seem to stop people.

I suppose no one knows what they’re supposed to be until the right time. Well, the time seems to be right, now. If you feel strongly about something, you can do the same. Why am I publishing these letters? Maybe I just wanted to let others know that they can be part of democracy, such as it is. Everyone was supposed to have a voice and take part. Everyone should. I think our world would be better off if everyone did just a small thing. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing. But when you find it,  you might be surprised by how much it has changed your life, and the world.

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com