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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

STUCK INSIDE BOB DYLAN WITH WRITER'S BLOCK AGAIN



The cinder block women are cooking their meals
As their auto-sales boyfriends are crooking up deals
For Hector and Gomez and a midget who squeals
At the turnpike of de-evolution.
Soon Mary Magdeline is baking a pie
Stuffed full of pigeons, each one asking Why?
While waiting for the TV repairman to die
It's not my kind of new revolution.

Mama's still in Memphis
She's trying to be free
Daddy's chasing someone
It just might be me
While visions of Johanna
Are all I can see.

The revolutionary in his power-blue cape
With a boa constrictor caressing his nape
Yells at the fat man, "Get thee in shape!
There's a world to be won or be lost here."
The fat man turns on his bar stool and grins
He taps on the waitress who's licking his chins,
Fetch me some tonics and mix them with gins
and bring that mate a pint of Fosters!"

Mama's still in Memphis
She's trying to be free
Daddy's chasing someone
It might just be me
While visions of Johanna
Are all I can see.

The character witness is leading the judge
Through the ink blot museum to rule on a grudge
In the halls of the mightiest makers of fudge
Where the one-eyed man is a Cyclops.
The one-eyed man stammers and answers the phone
Begging the media to leave him alone
While Anderson Cooper yearns to be cloned
By a woman who wears only high-tops.

Mama's still in Memphis
She's trying to be free
Daddy's chasing someone
It might just be me
While visions of Johanna
Are all I can see.

Alicia Keys and Mickey Mouse are dancing a waltz
While their store-bought fan base is counting their faults
And none of their treasures remain in the vaults
Yet the locksmith forgot to bring his license.
I wish that I knew what the words I write mean
I wish I could distinguish the colors between
the furrows on the forehead of the late James Dean
and get back to repairing all my tents.

Mama's still in Memphis
She's trying to be free
daddy's chasing someone
I think it is me
While visions of Johanna
Are all I can see.

Monday, July 29, 2013

HOLY MOLY!

   

   Today Circes turned me into a pig. I was fresh out of moly and I guess the bitch just got the better of me.
    According to Greek mythology, Circes murdered her husband, the Prince of Colchis. This woman was so downright badass bad that her own father, Helios, banished her to the island Aeaea, probably for taking drugs. Years later, along comes Odysseus and his crew. She turned most of the men into swine. Odysseus had been given a heads-up by Hermes, so he managed to remain a human, a fact that impressed the evil wench. She suggested they copulate. Odysseus remembered that Hermes had mentioned that Circes had a nasty habit of castrating her lovers, so Ody (as she called him) made her swear she would not. Three children later, Ody was back at Ithica, so Circes gave one of them a poisoned spear with which to off his father. 
    Today I fell victim to the wiles and curses of Circes. It happened in the form of dealing with a ruthless (where is Ruth, anyway?) company that calls itself Boost Mobile. That company is the metaphorical Circes in this narration.
   The roomie had been having problems with dropped calls on her Boost mobile phone for the last week or so. Confident that the company would fix the problem, I went ahead and paid for another month's service. Fifty bucks. One week and seven phone calls to technical support later, the phone service was worse than ever. Still, because my experience with Boost had always been favorable, I remained convinced they would do the right thing. Instead, they turned me into a pig. 
   We reset the phone ten times. We reprogrammed it. We took it back to the store where we'd bought it to have them play with it there. We begged. We cajoled. We yelled. We reasoned. No one could get the phone to work. I called the manufacturer, Kyocera, because the phone was still under warrantee. They told me we would have to ship the phone to them, at our expense, and wait two or more weeks for them to send a replacement, meaning the roomie would be without a phone for that period of time. A loaner phone was out of the question.
   By this point, I was starting to smell swine feces, so I called Page Plus to get the phone switched over to their service. They performed half that service. They managed to get the Boost phone service cancelled, but could not activate the phone to correspond with their service, leaving us with a dead phone. I called Boost back. They said the account had been closed, the fifty dollars was nonrefundable, and there was no way of reactivating the phone. I went down the street to a Page Plus store with an old phone and paid them $48 to activate it. 
   What this means is that Boost Mobile kept the fifty dollars for which they provided absolutely no service whatsoever. They did offer to charge another fifty dollars to activate a new phone, which takes a lot of nerve. 
   Some people break into your house and steal your jewelry. Businesses do it with the flick of a switch. 
   I became a bit heated. I screamed. I yelled. I pounded the air. I swore to heaven and hell. I acted like a swine. And I did it, all because someone else had trusted my judgment that the Boost product and service would be good when what it was was terrible.
    Incidentally, Boost Mobile does not have a corporate headquarters phone number. No one at their Irvine, California headquarters knows who is in charge of the company. They don't have a name for the owner or a phone number. It is no where on the internet. The published numbers have all been disconnected.
   It turns out the company is owned by Sprint Communications, out of Overland Park, Kansas. Ironically, it is Sprint that is responsible for the dropped calls because they have been methodically removing their towers here in Arizona as a means of saving money. Anyone here with a 3G or 4G phone is going to experience some very nasty phone problems. (My Blackberry is 2G and remains immune, somehow.)
   Because I paid the fifty with a credit card, I called the Visa folks and told them my tale of woe. The woman there told me the dispute may take up to ninety days to resolve. And, no, she would not issue a temporary credit. 
    I may be a pig today but I do not intend to remain one. My order of Moly is coming in tomorrow (Moly is an herb that can be used to transform a pig back into human form, among other properties. Whenever you heard Billy Batson shout "Holy Moly!" whenever there was trouble, that was the reference. To become Captain Marvel, he had to scream "Shazam!") and when it gets here, I'm going to speak with the Sprint consumer relations vice-president. I will speak nicely. I will be assertive, yet kind. And I will in all likelihood take it up the wazoo once again. 
   But at least you now know better than to make my mistake. Avoid Boost and Sprint like guys who wear green on Thursdays. And tell 'em Phil Mershon sent you.

HOW THE PMS SISTERS DESTROYED THE WORLD

    The lesson we learn from the following true story is just how hard it can be to fake stupidity. I have tried and tried over the years. Invariably, doing so has bitten me southward. On the other hand, feigning intelligence can be a problem as well, at least as far as humility is concerned. Hubris, they say, is a classic flaw. Indeed.
  The company known as American Express fired me nine years from the day they exercised the twisted judgment that led them to hire me in the first place. That has been quite some time ago now and what I remember most of all is that I walked out of that building for the last time with a lightness in my step that had not existed in many years. Interestingly enough, it had not even been my idea to go to work for the travel-related services company.
   I was working for something horrible called Winona Research, a market research company that prided itself on the grisly aspects of its supervisors. One of the least bear-like of these people took what I'm sure he considered pity on me and pulled me aside one afternoon. His name was Ken and he said, "Phil, I wrote you a letter of recommendation. I want you to apply at American Express. You need to get out of here. This place is crazy. Go work for these people instead, okay?"
   Never before had anyone been so courteous in asking me to leave their employment, so I hastened to thank Ken for the advice and the letter and forthwith found myself sitting across from a pretty human resources recruiting person in an office located at Twenty-Fourth Street and Lincoln Drive in Phoenix, Arizona.

   The name of the woman who interviewed me at the Western Region Operations Center was not Henrietta, although I shall refer to her by that sobriquet. Henrietta made every effort to lead me to feel quite welcome in the world of the personal, gold, company and corporate American Express Cards. She inquired as to my educational background and I did what was my custom in those days, which was to downplay any achievements I had made in that area and so I told the truth when I answered, "I have completed high school," without adding that I had also completed the process of earning both Bachelor's and Master's Degrees from an accredited university. The job for which I was being considered was menial in the extreme and I was confident that had my actual credentials been known, I would have been challenged as "over-qualified," one of the most insolent and moronic negations in the history of enterprise. Henrietta beamed at my response and informed me I would begin working at this wonderful corporation the coming Monday. I would be employed as a full-time Relay Operator in the Credit Authorizations Department. I do not recollect the exact rate of pay, other than that it was a little less than I had been earning at Winona. I do recall that the classification was D-18. The higher the number, I was assured, the more prestigious the position, or at least such was the case in those long gone days of American Express. Eighteen was considered a relatively low number.
   I emerged from a training class of five days duration with the ability to utilize an Automated Call Distribution telephone pad, a Cathode Ray Tube computer, and a twenty-dollar head set. My duties were simple and clear. I would press a button at the bottom of my ACD phone pad. A voice would come on the line through my head set. The voice would belong to a merchant who was accepting an American Express Card. I would announce myself and state my readiness by declaring, "American Express, Mr. Mershon. Merchant number?"
   The caller would then recite a ten-digit number which corresponded to his or her particular place of business. So the number would come, in the spirit of 7994100014, an actual Merchant Number which actually belonged to an FTD florist at the time. I would type this on the ten-key pad on the keyboard attached to the CRT. The idea was that I would do this very quickly and with zero mistakes. Then I would inquire, with a lilt at the end of the expression, "Card number and amount?" The merchant would share with me the fifteen-digit card number corresponding to the American Express Card being presented, followed soon by a dollar amount. I would key these characters and strike the key marked ENTER. One of two things would then happen. I would either be rewarded with an immediate two-character approval code (and if so I would relay that code to the merchant) or I would receive a message to transfer the merchant to a Credit Authorizer. The Credit Authorizers were D-20s and all the Relayers feared them more than the mask of the red death. The Credit Authorizers spoke in loud and mocking tones. They never bothered to push their chairs back in. They knew all sorts of things about card number configurations, fraud activity and delinquent accounts. We feared them and we respected them, although I think it safe to admit that none of us especially liked them.
The job could have been a billboard for Monotony, that is how tedious and banal the work was. And yet it was all I could do to refrain from returning to Winona Research one final time just to kiss the feet of that supervisor named Ken who had so graciously saved me from the stupidity of my own lack of ambition. I looked forward to eight-to-ten hour stretches of repeating the same mindless questions over and over, to occasionally being held in disrepute by service establishment personnel who thought it cute that I had so many initial "m" sounds with which to contend, and to testing myself at how little attention I could pay to my duties without committing an error. The entire transaction was supposed to take no more than twenty-one seconds. I reached an average of seventeen seconds per call without error, a rate of speed and accuracy which regrettably brought me to the attention of a dear man named Bill Norris, a man who will figure in some degree and detail in this story, so it is only fair that we spend a few moments getting to know him.
   Bill Norris was a burly man, although not grisly in the way of Winona Research supervisors. No, his burliness was more a matter of wearing fuzzy shirts and possessing a frame or stature that declared him to be a man who knew comfort in bracing the snow and winds of elk hunting in the northern mountains of Arizona. At the time I fell under Bill's gaze, he had been with the company for ten years or so and that time had worn on him the way mixed experiences will both elevate and depress a man, things that appear good on one day jumping up in our faces and vomiting just as events that initially torture us with worry sometimes reveal themselves to be unmitigated blessings. One could tell from his speech that Bill was not only worldly but educated, just as one could tell that the fact that he was not being challenged in his work was going to get him in trouble with women if he didn't do something to distract himself soon enough.
   So there was Bill with too much free work time on his hands and there was I with no thought to the future in the spring of my youth. He called me over one day to sit beside his desk while reviewing my "stats," or the ACD report that would indicate whether I was worth hanging onto as an employee.
"Your numbers are pretty good," Bill told me, understating the matter somewhat, as was his way. "I've monitored your calls. You do a nice job of handling people. You don't get mad. You don't disconnect calls. Nice job."
   I thanked him. He continued to nod just a bit and he continued to grin. He seemed to be expecting me to know what he was thinking. When I failed to hazard a guess, he said, "I'm the supervisor of the Lost and Stolen Card section here. You want to work for me? It's a raise to a D-19 pay grade."
This was to be the beginning of an unfortunate trend of American Express promoting me. You could also say it was the start of me being stupid by accepting the promotions. Either way, it led to my eventual ruination, yet at the time I was young and full of myself, all too certain that I would succeed on the merits rather than as a consequence of educational status or inside political pull. The truth is that my fledgling ego needed a little boost at that exact moment as I had already begun to observe that the sexual imperatives of young adulthood were better met by men and women who held positions somewhat higher than those of the average Relay Operator. All this crap flashed through my noggin in an instant and I doubt Bill Norris perceived the delay. I accepted his offer and moved into the world of the lost, stolen, and non-received charge card. 

   The employees in this sector of the Credit Authorizations department knew things about the internal workings of the company that a Relayer would never know and perhaps it was that awareness that led the bulk of them to experience themselves as a cut above other people. Or their self-aggrandizing natures may have been due to a desire to present themselves with the arrogance of a Credit Authorizer. Whatever the cause, it was obvious to me that I had entered the often unfriendly sanctum of L/S/NR, where one job requirement was that the employee actually attempt to think. I had not been expecting that.
   Supervisor Norris assigned a woman whose name I have regrettably forgotten but whom I shall call Beth to be my on-the-job trainer. The reason I regret having forgotten her name is that I would experience tremendous comfort in knowing her whereabouts today, especially if those whereabouts were located in the bottom of a stinking ship ported off the coast of a nation with which America is currently at war, a ship at this very instant being boarded by pirates, vicious sea scavengers without manners or time for politeness, but rather with the goal of being most unpleasant in the forefront of their psyches.
   Beth suffered some type of physiological malady that caused her feet to point away from one another when she walked. I saw too that some disjointedness in her hip bones was making the act of walking rather awkward for her. My reaction to Beth in the beginning was that--having overcome some personal hardships herself--she would of course exercise patience and warmth with those poor unfortunates she had been called upon to train. In the words of Puck the Dancing Fairy, "What fools these mortals be!" On the contrary, Beth proved herself to be unequal to the task of training a spring-loaded door to open or close, much less to assist human beings in the process of learning their job duties. She skirted over the most important details and labored intensively on matters of no actual consequence, the result being that after one week I knew less about my new job than I had known before coming to work for the company. Bill Norris witnessed my inadequacies right away and asked what seemed to be the problem. "The problem," I replied, "is that I do not know how to do any of this."
   He placed me with a different trainer and within a couple hours things were going most smoothly. I learned how to differentiate between a green personal card and the plethora of other card products offered by the company. I learned how to look up a cardmember's card number by their name or address. I learned how to invalidate cards that had been stolen or had been lost or had never made their way into the possession of the customers. I also learned to recognize the sound of panic in a stranger's voice and to make the distinction between that sound and the voice of someone who had the same problem to report but who did not seem to much care about it one way or the other. One person would call in, saying, "My American Express card is missing! Someone has surely stolen the precious little thing! Is there no God in Heaven to smite the sinful beings who would seek to deprive me of the validation I have earned as a consumer upon this fragile planet?" Another would offer simply, "Yeah, dude, my card's gone. Can I get another one or what?"
   As with the Relay job in my recent past, I took to this Lost-Stolen duty quite well and before long found that I likewise did not need to utilize much in the way of mental energy on any of it. Mostly it was just a matter of sounding concerned and mustering some awareness that the person calling was usually only worried over his or her personal responsibility to pay for unauthorized charges. At the time in which our story takes place, the maximum amount of liability was fifty dollars and I am told that even that was usually waived in the interest of customer relations, a condition that suggests something about the profits the company must have been raking in so as to warrant such a cavalier attitude. 

   I did well in the Lost/Stolen/Non-received sector of American Express's Credit Authorization department and in less than three months someone decided that it would be a good thing for my employee development to start doing what we called "The Pick-Up Report." This activity was neither as tawdry nor imbecilic as it sounds and I was quite happy by this time to find myself off the phones and involved in something of a more clerical nature.
   Credit Authorizers spent a good bit of their day ordering salespeople at the service establishments to "pick-up" our card products, meaning they were told to cut the plastic cards in half right in front of the customer and mail the cards back to us in exchange for a twenty-five dollar reward. Ninety percent of the time the authorizers had the cards returned because the rectangular plastic had already been invalidated as missing in some way or as cancelled by the Collections department for delinquency. But once in a while the Authorizers themselves initiated the picking up as a result of their independent evaluation of the circumstance. A person who, for instance, was thirty days past due and owed the company ten thousand dollars who was silly enough to admit that he had no job or expectation of ever paying us back could pretty much be guaranteed that he would walk out of the store minus one Amex card. Life being what it was, the need existed for a bureaucratic paper trail of all this and so the Authorizer had to complete a lengthy form every time a card was ordered returned to the maker. What I did was to collect the forms from the snarling, mocking, insolent and supercilious Authorizers (which was all of them) and go over to a computer and input the information from those forms and then file the paperwork some place else.
   Because this was a second shift responsibility, I had to go from working from eight until four-thirty to working from three until eleven-thirty. That would not bear mentioning except for the fact that this put me into constant contact with a supervisor in the Authorizer side of the universe who went by the name of Athena. I ended up having a great deal of respect for Athena later in life. However, at the time I found her to be something of an arrogant bitch and I had not spent six years in college just to accept the ravings of such a person. So the first time she butted into my work by telling me to "Get on the fucking phones," I responded in a manner that I was later told no one had ever dared use against this particular individual. 
    My reply was, "What exactly the fuck phone do you want me to get on?"
  I am sure that she would have fired me on the spot were it not for two things. First, she did not quite know who I was since she was not, strictly speaking, my supervisor. For all she knew, I might have been the son or nephew of some muckity-muck and firing me could have spelled disaster for her flourishing career. Second, I am certain that she was at a loss as to what the proper response was simply because until then no one had, as I have indicated, ever dared to confront her in such an ignoble manner. Athena had always been feared by even those closest to her, in no small part because she was a raving Greek-Italian whose whispery, indoor voice could dwarf the engines of planes landing at the local airport. She was also dark and swarthy and possessed a nearly intoxicating attractiveness of which I was not unmindful. All the same, I had no intention of allowing anyone--beautiful or otherwise--to bully me into doing anything and so my remark came tripping out like a fat lady falling down a flight of stairs. It was out of my mouth, just lying there, and there was nothing I could do about it.
   Near the end of my first shift--Yes! Didn't I mention this altercation transpired on my first day in the new position?--Athena called me over to her desk and told me she hoped that she and I would get along better in the future, to which I responded that that was entirely up to her as I had no inclination to be yelled at by her or anyone else, at least in this lifetime. Probably because she was such a hothead herself, she possessed a certain empathy for such a cocksure little fool as myself and resisted the impulse to tie my feet together and throw me into the river on her way home. Athena and I never shared sexual relations, but I am certain this was only because she found my very existence repugnant beyond all manner of fact or fiction, just as she secretly intimidated me as no one ever has before or since.
   Well, I survived working with the lovely and hostile Athena and in a few months there opened up a position for a Credit Authorizer position, said position offering a bit more income, as well as the glory associated with working alongside flaming loudmouthed psychos and moral degenerates with authority complexes. It was all too much to resist, so I completed the appropriate paperwork and in a few days I met with a wonderful supervisor named Jerlene Truss. She told me all about the position, all about the chances for conflict, the long hours, the yelling, the myriad computer systems, the heavy responsibility, the constant scrutiny. I listened and showed that I was listening by nodding. When she completed her by-rote explanation, she smile and asked me if I felt I was ready for the job. I took her hand in mine and said, "Absolutely not."
   For years after this, Jerlene and I laughed about her assertion that I was the only person who had ever given her an honest answer to that question.
All the same, I accepted the job. I was on my way up, up into the colon of the company.
   The brand new Credit Authorizer training class of which I represented fifty percent began with four weeks of "in-class" training, led by a purple-and-red-haired African American woman named Laura. That class consisted of four weeks of stories about what a bunch of bad asses the Authorizers were, stories which for the most part turned out to be true. Following this came four weeks of "on-the-job" training, facilitated by a fellow Authorizer named Rikki. These days Rikki would be described as a hottie. Do you know what we called her back then? A hottie. My classmate's name was April. She too was quite attractive and the sad fact is that given the focus of my attentions in those days of screaming and strangled hormonalism, the fact that I learned anything of value whatsoever is itself a miracle of modern humanity. Some people were nice enough to have said at the time that just possibly Rikki hadn't been that good of a trainer. I'm the last person to hazard a guess. I do recall that I knew next to nothing about the job after a total of eight weeks of paid training and it crossed my tunnel-visioned mind that I might have been simply too stupid for the job.
   Lord, did I ever make mistakes! I denied charges for people who should have been approved and I approved charges for people who should have been denied. Then one day I sat staring at one of the many computer screens that Authorizers used to make their evaluations and the truth of the matter hit me: Shit the bed, Fred! This is simple stuff! And that is exactly correct. Everyone had been trying to make this job out to be some mind blower of a series of mini-judgments when in point of fact all that was required was a little addition here and a little subtraction there, project yourself into the shopper's actual situation and think! I hadn't been required to think in a very long while. As a matter of fact, I had denied myself the occasion to think for more than a while and once I returned my mind to the ON position, everything began to make a sort of cosmological sense. If you are an American Express cardmember yourself, it may interest you to know that until quite recently individual and actual human beings were utilizing rather primitive forms of artificial intelligence to make decisions about what you could and could not purchase. As a for instance. . .
    A string of ten charges at a nightclub occurs, each in the exact amount of five hundred dollars. What does that suggest? Well, maybe someone at the nightclub is just running the card over and over through their scanner without knowing what to do. Okay. Or maybe the customer is buying lots and lots of drinks for the bar. Okay. Or maybe you ask the bartender to call in and she does. You ask her what the name of the nightclub is and she responds, "Louie's Big-Chested Baberoonies." Aha! Now you have enough information to know what is going on. The customer, a guy named Mike, is using his card to buy VIP time and champagne in a strip club. That means he is probably both intoxicated and horny and consequently perhaps not operating in the most responsible state of mind of his life. Perhaps we should talk to Mike and make sure he knows that he is presently in debt for five thousand dollars, all of which must be repaid within thirty days and how is he going to do that as a luggage handler at the airport?
   But suppose that is not the name of the nightclub. Suppose the name of the nightclub is Baxter's. Hey, that's a coincidence. The customer's last name is Baxter. Oh, I see. It turns out that Mr. Mike Baxter is running a series of $500 charges from his own bar on his own American Express card as a way of creating a quick infusion of cash into his business, something he would not need to do if he could actually afford to pay it back and besides doing that is called factoring and factoring is expressly forbidden by American Express policy so I would in this case speak with Mike Baxter and give him the news that while he may have gotten away with this in the past, that has nothing to do with the present and to have a very nice evening. Another situation that came up on a routine basis was the presentation of a card that had been reported and invalidated as lost or stolen. The overwhelming majority of the time a card thus reported is actually presented by the real life cardmember and this happens either in error or because he or she later on found the card and assumed that by finding it somehow the maker automatically knew this and un-invalidated the plastic commerce. The Authorizer would ask the salesperson to put the customer on the telephone and the Authorizer would then interrogate the customer to determine if he or she was the true cardmember or someone else. again, in the majority of cases, if the presenter was someone other than who it was supposed to be, it was a friend or family member who had absconded with the property. But once in a while--certainly at least once a day in the life of a Credit Authorizer--an actual criminal enterprise was happening and the Authorizer would detect this and have to stabilize the situation so that no harm came to the clerk or anyone else. You see, someone who would use a stolen credit card might be capable of committing other crimes as well, so we had to use caution. And some frauds, as we called them, did not want to leave the store. It was in cases such as those that we had to use our imagination a bit. One of my favorite things to say to the fraud was, "Hi. Do you see that woman to your right in the blue dress? She's an undercover police officer and if you stick around she will arrest you." Of course, I had invented the blue dressed person on the assumption that every store has one and even if this particular store did not have one, not seeing the blue dressed woman is actually even more useful than seeing her because as a criminal you cannot take chances with an invisible cop. The only recourse is to flee. Problem solved.   One thing you never wanted to do was to arrest the true cardmember. A pop singer named Harry Nilsson--a guy I had always liked--presented his Stolen American Express card in a Rodeo Drive men's store one afternoon. I recognized the name right off and asked the salesperson if he recognized the person using the card. He replied that he did not. I told him to let me speak with the presenter. Harry Nilsson came to the phone and said, "Oh, it's me. I just wanted to see what would happen." Then he began singing the Fred Neil tune, "Everybody's Talkin'." It was the real Nilsson. Once I apologized for the inconvenience, he asked what would have happened if he'd given his card to a friend to use instead of using it himself. I told him that it was possible we might have contacted the local police and had that person arrested. Harry seemed genuinely intrigued by that prospect and I asked him (nicely) a couple times to please not do that. He agreed and we said goodbye. Naturally, he turned right around the next day and gave his card to Ringo Starr who turned right around and used it in the same store. I simply approved the charge rather than face the ridicule of having a former Beatle arrested for a non-marijuana-oriented offense. 
   One thing and another and I found that I was getting pretty good at this whole Authorizer nonsense. As with most jobs, this position was tracked and monitored and it turned out I was resolving ten thousand transactions each month when the very best other Authorizers were only resolving three thousand. Once management learned of this, every one of my transactions was scrutinized and I am happy to say that not one error was found. I realize this declaration may sound boastful. My point, however, is not that I was such a hot commodity but that the bad ass Authorizers before me had been a bit too meticulous with details that honestly did not need tending while at the same time spending an inordinate amount of their time retelling stories about things that had just happened rather than moving on to the next transaction. What I am about to say next actually is boastful: I was not there for the socializing; I was there to kill time in a moderately useful way. 
    Pretty soon I was not content to operate only one work station. At any given time there were literally dozens of vacant work spaces, so when we got ourselves "in queue" (meaning there were transactions pending--that is, people standing in stores waiting to see if their American Express Card charges would or would not be approve), I would avail myself of strong legs and lung power and activate many, many computer screens, often handling seven or eight transactions simultaneously. Now, if you suspect that most of my co-workers thought this behavior made me appear to be a pain in the ass, you are correct. I was overreaching. I was killing the job. I was making other people look bad by comparison. However, I was having a great time, pushing myself to see just how much I could possibly handle without going certifiably bug fuck.
Four months later I was promoted to a higher level of Authorizer and soon after that I was again promoted to the position of Senior. That was when the real fun began and that was also the beginning of the end, but all that will need to wait until tomorrow's episode of American Expressland, a saga which I sincerely hope you are all enjoying because it cannot go on forever, rest assured.
    Five of us received simultaneous promotions to the position of Senior Authorizer, a ranking with most of the obligations of supervision without much in the way of the glory. The five of us were Jeff Smith, Karen Noeding, Nancy Richardson, Karen Clarke and Phil Mershon. These are our actual names and seeing as everything I am about to mention is rooted in fact, I am not terribly concerned that anyone will get his or her feelings hurt, especially considering that at least one of us is dead.
   I will say from the outset that learning we had been promoted was an arduous process in and of itself, one that lasted approximately two months. I do not recall what was the reason for the delay. I do know that the supervisor, Bill Norris (whom you may recall from the first chapter--he was the guy who lifted me up from Relay and sat me down in the land of Lost and Stolen Cards) knew who had been given the nod and had been sworn to secrecy, a vow which he did not break, despite substantial pressure from all of us. Then one day, for no one knew what reason, the moratorium on secrecy was shredded and each of us was brought into the office of one Bob Huigens to receive the glorious news. I feel safe in saying each of us looked forward to the new responsibilities, whatever they might turn out to be. As for myself, I hardly knew who I had become. One day, just two years earlier, I had been a scruffy little malcontent slacker with no greater interest in life than lying about reading poetry and occasionally enjoying the pleasures of the brunette three apartments down. All of a sudden I had experienced this substantial transformation through which I was now in a position to actually contribute to the decision-making processes of the Credit Authorization department at American Express, to help implement streamlining processes in the card division of Travel Related Services, and to tell other people what to do. It was that latter item where so many people found themselves in a world of trouble and in this area I was certainly no exception. Oh, it was one thing to map out flow charts that showed how much time was wasted in one task or another. It was one thing again to work with other leadership folks to dislodge impediments to excellent customer service. It was quite a different barrel of bass, squadron of squid, or kettle of fish to run around yelling at former associates who were now subordinates with the expectation that those dear folks would do as requested. I don't think anyone can effectively train another person for that responsibility. I know for a fact that no one trained me for it and my lack of preparedness in this area was clear for all to see. 
   Please remember that this was a department where screaming bloody murder was the norm and the gentle voice of reason had been strangled and incinerated long before I had even arrived on the scene. When a series of transactions were awaiting the attention of a well-intentioned Credit Authorizer, the standard method of communicating this fact was for the supervisor in charge to rise from the Control Desk located in the center of the fray, throw back the chair, lift one eyebrow while lowering the other, knock over the nearest coffee cup and--in the voice of an inebriated cockatoo-- screech, "Ay, ye bastards! We've got thirty in queue! I needs every swinging dick on the phones! I needs every screen up! Chop-chop! Suey-suey! Gimme a clear out! Use my number! Hu-yaw!" Do not feel inferior if you do not comprehend the meaning of this series of commands. I do not know now what they meant. I did not know then. No one ever did know. They were just words, verbal spasms designed to convey that the department was metaphorically in flames once again and that everyone within earshot needed to pretend to give a damn.
   The thing was: No one ever told the Seniors that this was all play-acting. We took it seriously. We knocked little old people out of our way as we lunged at vacant computers, keying the command 66 which made available the next pending transaction which in turn we evaluated in two or three seconds, often without so much as looking at the necessary information because clearly what mattered was the bellows of the supervisor be quenched and that doing a decent job was secondary, if not tertiary, if even important at all.      Oh, the mistakes we made! Well, at least the mistakes I made. We fast became a clique, a not-entirely self-loving clique, but a clique all the same. What I mean is that any one of us could openly object to the behavior of a colleague. However, let some underling hazard a foul remark within the hearing of a mighty Senior and the remainder of that employee's time on the face of this earth would be filled with the tortures of the damned.
   What worked against us even more than our cliquishness and our tendency to scream was that we identified upwardly rather than horizontally or even downward. Our psychological affiliation was with the supervisors and managers rather than with the Authorizers and Relayers from whence we had once been in proud membership. We thought we were big shots and nobody had the decency to tell us what an arrogant bunch of chumps we had become, probably because we also made the lives of those above us considerably easier than they would have been otherwise. We handled all the stupid questions, as well as the more enlightened ones. We took the complaint calls. We made the nasty transactions go away. We counseled employees. We made coffee. We were on our feet for ten to twelve hours a day, quite literally running from one far end of the building to another, yelling at one person while calming the fevered brow of another while making flirty eye contact with some new person who was checking us out while finding new headsets for old employees and old headsets for new employees. My word, it was a thankless position, one that I occupied for five arduous years and one which, in spite of all the stupid mistakes and painful reassessments of my own behavior, was one I came to very much like and even came use for my development into a more or less reasonable humanoid.
    Once it got through to me that at least half of my yelling was a complete waste of time and often counter-productive, I stopped all of the loudness and simply focused on trying to train others to think hard rather than work hard. You see, if a person thinks hard about a repetitive process, pretty soon he or she will no longer have to think hard about it and can evolve onto some more challenging experience. But if one doesn't think hard and instead sweats out the problem without ever quite linking the patterns together, the job will continue to be a drag until the day that employee lunges forward and falls gasping onto the floor, waiting for the paramedics to suggest the cause of death.
One of my big successes (and one of humanity's biggest successes, for that matter, because we really are all connected and no one makes it on his own--we are all responsible for one another's successes and failures and if you don't like that point of view, find another solar system, buddy) was Lisa Ann.    Yep, when I first met her, all I could think about was the way the back pockets of her blue jeans wiggled up and down as she walked away. But in no time at all I recognized that there was something very dear and special percolating inside that sweet head of hers and I wanted to get to know her, be her friend, spend serious time being silly. 

   One evening Lisa Ann and I were sitting in my apartment, drinking the first of three bottles of cheap white wine. At some point we got to talking about what a dummy a certain supervisor at work was (I won't say her real name, so we will call her Katherine), and how it might be fun to annoy her. I stood up and announced, "Let's explore the distinctions between annoyance, irritation, and making someone totally insane!"
   Lisa Ann stood up and said, "Yes! Let's do!"
I picked up the telephone, this being in the days before caller ID and that type of buzz kill, and rang up Katherine the Supervisor, a woman who at that very moment was sitting at the Control Desk in the Authorizations department at American Express in the Western Region Operations Center, which was where Lisa Ann and I worked. Katherine answered the phone and I said, "I need to speak with Bubbles."
   "Bubbles?" she said, all sorts of background noise and confusion dying down as if she had said "E.F. Hutton." 
   "Is that someone here in this department?"
   "Most certainly," I replied. "I need to speak with her right away."
   Katherine said she would try to find her for me. She sat the phone receiver down and I could hear her marching up and down the many aisles of cubicles, asking in that strangled cat voice of hers, "Is your name Bubbles? Does anyone know Bubbles? Who the hell is Bubbles?"
   At long last she returned to the Control Desk, retrieved the telephone handset and--with heavy breath--said, "Sir, I'm sorry. I cannot find anyone here named Bubbles?"
    "Is this American Express?"
   "Yes, yes it is American Express."
   "Oh, well, my mistake then," I said and hung up.
    Lisa Ann and I roared with laughter. At last I said, "That was annoying."
   We finished that first bottle of wine and found ourselves deeply into the second when I stood back up and redialed Katherine's telephone number. She answered in her same atonal manner and I said, in a completely different voice and with a vastly strange accent, "May I please speak to the Bubbles, please?"
   If I had been the Dean of Students calling to ell her hat her son had just flunked out of the Community College Remedial Program for Mental Defectives, Katherine could not have sounded more unhappy to hear from me. "Sir," she said. "I do not have anyone here by that name. Are you trying to call American Express?"
   I said, "I am returning a call to this Bubbles, yes, she is American Express, yes. he note says it is urgent, that she must talk to me and only me. I will speak to her please."
   "May I have your American Express card number?"
   "Is this Bubbles?"
   "No, sir--"
   "The note says I can only talk to Bubbles."
   "IS THERE ANYONE HERE NAMED BUBBLES?!?!?!?!?"
   No one volunteered.
   "That," I told Lisa Ann, once we had stopped pissing ourselves with laughter, "is irritation."
   About an hour later, finding ourselves deep into he third and final bottle of the evening, Lisa Ann lifted he receiver and made a call of her own. She told me, "And this will be the psychic meltdown."
Katherine answered the phone and Lisa Ann said, "Hello. This is Bubbles. Have there been any calls for me?"
    Before all the body fluids in the world could simultaneously spray out my nose, Katherine said, all huffy, "Yes! Yes there have! There have been quite a few! Listen, Bubbles, do you work here?"
   Then the killer, the response that as much as anything can take the credit for this Katherine person ending up in a ward for the criminally insane, the response came and it came like his: "Work?" High, tittering, aloof sound. "I don't work."
   She hung up.
   Lisa Ann and I laughed and laughed and laughed and crawled into he wine bottles and rolled around on the floor and played a fun game of bumper chairs and spilled out onto the patio and kicked out feet into the air and laughed some more and bounced like Super Balls and never ever did quite get over the joy that this series of calls injected into our lives.
   Jeff Smith and Karen Noeding were good sports. Jeff was held in high esteem by the managers--Bob, John and John--because he was funny in a harmless way, because he could get along with the subordinates, and because he shared the management's family and political values, none of which could have been said for me. Still, I liked Jeff because he and I had in common a love of the absurd (as when a young woman named Pam Koladish asked Jeff a question with a sense of urgency in her voice and when Jeff failed to respond immediately, she followed up with a command to "Think!", a story which became one of our favorites), one which has over the years lost its appeal to Jeff, although I still favor it highly.
    I owe Karen Noeding many words of thanks. She and I were often sort of kissy-face and never intimate, despite what everybody thought. She did make me go with her on several weekend getaways, however, and I saw more of California and Arizona with Karen than I ever would have seen otherwise. Her humor in those days was sweet and silly. Karen was someone with whom you could relax and be yourself. It's odd to me how jealous she and I became whenever one or the other paid attention to someone else. For a long time it was a one-way street, with me on the receiving end of countless lectures about how the other women weren't good enough for me and all that rot. Then one day she told me that she'd met someone named Jim and our friendship just sort of shriveled and dissolved. She had put up with my profligacy for years and the first time she entered a serious relationship, I pouted and stewed for weeks. By the time I'd gotten accustomed to the idea, it was too late.
   Nancy Richardson was the most intelligent of the Seniors. And although she and I never passed a harsh word between ourselves, my impression was that Nancy did not take much pleasure from her position. If pressed to suggest why, I'd say that her intelligence worked against her because she could see the futility in repeating the same tired behavior over again and again. I can't speak for the others, but I lacked that degree of vision. 
    Karen Clarke was far and away the most popular of the original five Seniors. She once gave me a pickup truck because I didn't have my own transportation. That Silverado showed its age like the four-wheeled Maggie May that it resembled. Those bald tires bounced the vehicle along nicely, though, especially one cold night when I was driving home from the Grand Canyon. Every time we rolled over a new section of highway--in other words, every second--the headlights would either black out or blink into the high beams, the short which caused the malfunction being only one of several minor glitches with which I had to contend. But that thing with the truck perfectly represented Karen Clarke. Her chest held a compassionate heart and her means of expression often fell a bit short. None of that changes the fact that she possessed an enormous personal charm that allowed her to look beyond the character flaws of the rest of us, flaws which were, at least in my own case, considerable.
    The part of the Senior job I liked best was training new hires. Modesty aside, that is an area with which I have a strong affinity, mostly because I understand the frustrations involved in not knowing what is going on. I developed a type of Socratic method to the instruction, leading the fresh-faced employees through a series of questions designed to help them comprehend the process rather than to memorize a bunch of codes. I became sufficiently proficient at this training that I was lent out to the corporate training department, an extended gig that to this day remains one of my favorite blocks of time. 
    Happiness is fleeting. The PMS sisters saw to that. Their malignant entrance into our dysfunctional yet benign little world pointed to the final days of my time with American Express the way the Grim Reaper's bony finger points to the web-covered grave.
     The PMS sisters were Peggy, Moody, and Sharon, three middle management maladjusted maggot brains who swooped into one director and two manager positions in Credit Authorizations with the expressed intent of recreating the department in their own dark and sinister images. I will confess that the managers Bob, John and John held no market monopoly on perfection. Where they stood out as leaders was in their integrity. I do not mean that they failed to play politics. They played that game often and well. But they did not plot and they did not scheme. If Bob or John or John were hungry, they would go get something to eat. If Peggy or Moody or Sharon were hungry, they would create an employee survey to ascertain whether fish, chicken or steak was the most socially acceptable food of the day and then hatch a devious mission to alter the employee preferences to a vegan diet.
   As psychotic as all three were, the one who did me in was Moody. And it is my monstrous and ugly encounter with Moody to which we will turn tomorrow when we close out our adventures in American Expressland.

   Incidentally, just to whet your appetite for this depraved individual, here is what she has recently posted online about herself in one of those networking sites where she hopes to impress total strangers into giving her a better job: "Highly accomplished, management and project administration professional with experience utilizing techniques that resulted in effective strategic implementation of deliverables critical to meeting corporate objectives. Skilled in performance management, instructional design and training. Frequently operating as a change agent for various corporate restructuring efforts. Extensive experience in budgeting and cost control as well as financial analysis and administration. Capable of establishing and maintaining a positive and supportive work environment during periods of pressure and high expectations as business landscapes change. Developed state of the art customer service programs and call delivery systems. Excellent knowledge of legal issues and potential business ramifications exercising common business judgment."
   I find it hilarious in the extreme that this networking site discloses hundreds of words about her time with many companies.

   So many names of so many people flutter up the dust in my memory, dust that settles back onto the razor-thin cobwebs stretched out over the abandoned interior of the building, those cobwebs yawning out a metallic blue coldness to the unlit rows of vacated desks. No one walks along those rows. No voice calls out any of those names. No computers hum and no telephones ring. Both hums and rings died of hypothermia. Everyone who mutated through the transition from a smokey set of catacombs to a healthy stainless and sterile chamber with ergonomic seats and glare-resistant screens--each one of those people was herded or lured away, some to other duties within the company, some to the greasy steel poles of hard labor, some to their own private enterprises, and some to drift, wandering, searching for a blanket and sheets.
   Even before I was fired, talk circulated through the air ducts that the Western Region operations Center lived on borrowed time. I have a clear and stark recollection of telling the new Seniors that our company prided itself on a history of never once laying off a worker. Even if the company did feel the inclination, I laughed, they'd close down the center in Greensboro because all those employees were such shameless exhibitionists about their own incompetency that they practically begged to be shut down. But not us, no, not WROC.    We were the most competent and indeed exceptional collection of people in the whole interconnected whizbang smokestack jive cat operation. What I also meant but did not add was that the company would never let me go. They would always retain the young recipient of two Great Performers awards, of more than one hundred Ideas That Make a Difference pins and certificates, of dozens of complimentary letters and phone calls. Even with the invasion and dictatorship of the crypto-fascist PMS sisters, even with all the original five Seniors either driven out or demoted, even with a claque of new Seniors who were little more than goosestepping automatons, even with the walls of the department painted mauve, there was no way our center would be abandoned, just as there was no way I would ever lose my job. Oh, but one may smile and smile and be a villain.
   The PMS sisters bombarded the DNA of the Credit Authorizations department of American Express with polynucleotides until genetic alterations pulled themselves up from tide-pools and devoured their own children. Perception was the new reality. I sat in Sharon the Director's office, being interviewed for the Senior position I already held, pontificating about how people--employees--existed in a real world and that they had an absolute right not to have their own perceptions tampered with. What I had been trying to get across was that my own so-called leadership style presupposed that the employees were able to make decisions based on correct information and that to deceive them for the sake of our own convenience would certainly come back and bite us in the ass. It should come as no surprise that I was demoted for this heresy.
I laughed on the inside as I made these remarks during the interview because I realized that without the unending schemes and manipulations of the PMS sisters, I might never have learned the actual value of employees with whom I appeared to have very little in common. I stood opposed to Sharon's edict that the "noisy anarchy" of the Seniors had to stop. I railed against Moody's implementation of a strict dress code for us as part of our "leadership development." I openly ridiculed the fact that Peggy would smile and smile at the Authorizers as she walked among them, just as she spoke of them derisively and as Full Time Equivalents in our private meetings. And for the record, mauve is a stupid color that did not even exist fifty years ago.
   However, the greatest loss to me was when Moody--who had likewise been demoted from manager to supervisor--seized control of our department training operations, something I had been handling with success for several years. "Give me the boy from the age of six and I will give you the man." So said the Jesuits. Moody's dictum was "Give me the new hire for two months and I will give you the brainwashed Authorizer." I see that by writing about the changes in this way I may sound petty. In my own defense I will mention that a Human Resources mandatory survey of every employee in our department (the results of which I still possess) showed an alarming distrust of the current regime. As far as my personal feelings about being replaced as the trainer, my worry was not entirely self-serving. After more than eight years service to the department, I had come to internalize my own interpretation of the value system. Knowing well how it felt to begin the job of Authorizer without the necessary skills, I did not wish to behold a new crop of employees who would be emotionally wrecked as a result of ill-preparedness. The reader is free to believe that explanation or not. However, anyone who has been thrown to the hounds as he or she started a new job will respect the sincerity of my concern.     Fortunately for the unborn Authorizers, a temporary hiring freeze settled down upon us, giving me an opportunity to drive Moody out of our department, our center, and our company. Because I am not certain of the statute of limitations for the particular pranks in which I engaged, I am not going to publicly admit to anything other than the fact that I was found out and summarily terminated on the day of the ninth anniversary of my hire date. Certain tragedies in life mark us forever. When a family member dies, some special happiness inside us may die as well. When a tornado sweeps through a community and crushes the life out of everything that connected that community to itself, something inside the people of that community sags beneath the crush as well. And when we get fired while in a state of righteous indignation, we may become righteous fools, never quite getting over the emotional devastation. In the years that followed this holy exodus, my entire family passed away, one by one. I blew through one job and another, never staying in any one place very long, never getting too connected to any co-workers. I learned a lot of things and I forgot a great many others. I have witnessed unspeakable cruelty that would fracture any heart, just as I have witnessed immeasurable kindness that knitted some of those hearts back together.
   Sharon was promoted to Center Head. Peggy was fired. Moody was forced to resign.
   Nancy and Jeff are still with the company. Karen Noeding runs a successful training company. Karen Clarke died of liver failure.
    Whatever happened to Lisa Ann? Two marriages and a couple wonderful children later, she is my roommate. She too has known loss, just as she has known growth. Both of us are still busy being born so as to avoid being busy dying. Neither of us talks much about American Express. Yet sometimes as I near the initial dissolve into night dreams, I close my eyes and see that abandoned building crawling with silence, emptiness occupying every widening crack in the walls, oxidized water pipes yearning for moisture, and a Post-It note I hid behind a framed picture in the stairwell, a note bearing the words, "I was here!"

   There you have it: the story of how the PMS Sisters destroyed the world. And yet, even though I endured the tortures of the damned for many years after being dismissed from what was, after all, a very stupid job, I came out of it alright. In fact, I suppose I owe a smidgen of thanks to those three vile cretins. Certainly, I am far smarter than I ever would have been had I not been forced to wander the aimless streets of oblivion. Certainly, I am far happier knowing that they must live through their owe thwarted desires and moronic goals. And certainly, I am luckier than they will ever dream in that I have the best set of friends in the universe. They, meanwhile, have nothing but themselves.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

THE IDIOT PRODUCER THEORY

    

   Last month, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas told a group of budding film students that the blockbuster may become the only type of movie the studios will be willing to finance. They further suggested that movie prices might rise to as much as $150 and that good (by which they meant better than Ishtar) movies will likely only be seen at home on Netflix or HBO. 
   How ironic, I thought, that the two men in the movie industry most responsible for the blockbuster would have the coy temerity to even passingly bemoan the demise of watching smart movies in the theatre. I've already bitch slapped Lucas elsewhere for betraying the talent he undoubtedly has. But give or take a couple of risky historical movies, Spielberg hasn't made a movie worth the cost of spit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And that, my friends, is a far larger betrayal. Look, this is the man who made Duel, Sugarland Express, and Jaws, the latter being one of the finest buddy movies of all time, not to mention a phenomenal horror film, as well as the unfortunate precursor to the trend in Hollywood toward financing big budget/big return motion pictures. And yes, Lincoln and Schindler's List were great, so please don't bother telling me I left those two off the argument. You can even have the first Indiana Jones movie, yet my judgment still holds up. 
   To be fair, Spielberg and Lucas did not accomplish shutting out the smaller films by themselves. Francis Coppola started things with The Godfather and William Friedkin came on his heels with The Exorcist. Both of these movies share with Jaws the fact of having been massively successful commercial and artistic triumphs (even though I maintain that The Exorcist was a nasty and inappropriate reaction to the women's liberation movement), as well as being movies which were far superior to the books upon which they were based. Where the three movies part ways is in that Jaws was created with the specific intent of being a blockbuster movie, whereas the Coppola and Friedkin films were made first as movies and second as movies the directors and producers hoped would also be commercially remarkable. Face it, no one wanted these films to flop. But just as George Lucas created American Graffiti primarily as a means of testing his theory that feel good movies were still viable in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, when it turned out that his stylistic decisions were the most interesting part of the movie, he decided to give us a series of movies that were made up of nothing except stylistic decisions. I am, of course, referring to Star Wars, a movie which made the blockbuster success of Jaws seem tame, just as Jaws had made The Exorcist seems tame, just as The Exorcist had made The Godfather. It is no mere coincidence that all three movies transformed into franchises, with Coppola's involvement in his masterpiece clearly being the reason that people loved his first sequel while no one I've ever met has claimed the follow-ups to the other two were anything but horrid. As to Lucas, his legacy, if that's what you want to call it, continues unabated, every few years seeing the release of another sequel or prequel when what might be more appropriate would be NyQuil. 
    Another thing to consider about Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola (but not so much with Friedkin) is that these three men were (perhaps unwittingly, though I doubt it) advocates of the auteur theory of film-making, a theory which may be simplified by saying that the director is the person who makes the movie, in the sense that he is essentially responsible for everything, including the writing, the cinematography, etc, even though actual writers and actual camera operators and actual set designers and actual actors actually believe they play important functions in the process. For good or bad, this theory, which originated with the French New Wave, came to dominate the artistic successes of Hollywood and many other locales in the 1970s, as witnessed by the films of Kurasawa, Woody Allen, Kubrick, Altman, as well as far lesser talents. Even before the practice became a theory for the folks at Cahiers to write about, film-makers such as Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock and Welles had been auteurs since at least the 1940s. 
   Because this practice was able to produce some very good films, because of the simultaneous proliferation of computer technology, and because of the financial disaster of a certain film directed by Michael Cimino, by the early 1980s movies slowly shifted from being the visions of the directors to being the brainchildren of the producers. Over time, this resulted in squeezing out films that were presumed to have little promise of financial return. Because producers, by the very nature of their calling, typically have as much artistic sense as your average fossilized gila monster (as well as matching personalities), they often haven't the slightest idea as to what will work with audiences. Darn it, they say, there are simply too many independent variables. First, there's lack of studio promotion, although the producers have been pretty effective at getting their studios to lay out the cash to promote even the worst swill. Second, there's the competition of other lousy movies being released at the same time. Third, the money boys over-invest in production costs, taking a simple story of a boy from Krypton who travels to earth and becomes the greatest super hero of all time and trying to make it resemble the second coming of Christ. Fourth, the movies often fall prey to bad critical reviews. And fifth, the one that no one in the industry much likes to discuss, a lot of the time the movies are so appallingly bad that one would rather inhale swamp water floating above a nuclear waste sight than to expose oneself to such vile cinematic offerings. 
    What these producers lack in artistic vision, they make up for in chicken-shittedness. Why not take a known entity, such as the Marvel comics group, and just franchise the whole bloody mess? So we have the successful Spiderman franchise, the successful Iron Man franchise, the X-Men spinoffs, the tepid Hulk experience, and the total flops of The Fantastic Four and Thor
   If you think I may be exaggerating the idiot producer theory of contemporary studio films, consider that of the ten biggest Hollywood flops of all time, based on net loss and adjusted for inflation, seven of those films were released since the year 2000. Of the other three, two came out in the 1990s and the other (Heaven's Gate), was released in 1980. Of the remaining twenty-six movies on this list (compiled by AMC and available here), only one predates 1982, while the majority have been launched like rancid turds since the year 2000. 
   Again, these producers and the studios may have no artistic sense whatsoever and may be as shameless as a hooker outside a Marine barrack on New Year's Eve, but they sure do hate to take chances. So we get a slew of puked up recycled garbage, especially in the summer when whatever disposal income mom and dad care to bestow on the kids stands a chance of being spent at the local multi-plex. 
   One consequence of all this is the political influence that independent backers exert over so-called independent film-makers. Another is the switch from movie night out to movie night in, the latter being pushed along, first by the advent of affordable cable television by the late 1970s (including HBO), second by affordable VCRs in the mid 1980s, third by affordable DVD players by 2003, and fourth by the popularity of Netflix. 
   It is the latter that I find most interesting. 
   Unlike anything else that we as entertainment-gobblers have ever experienced, Netflix allows the user to subscribe to a seemingly endless supply of movies, most of which are viewed online. The cost to the consumer is the same whether one movie is watched or one hundred, and so a person can sit at his desk or on his sofa watching Cutthroat Island, give up (as did I) after five minutes and begin watching another movie. Convenient? Of course it is. Do I use it? You betcha. Is it in any way horrible? My God, yes. 
    It is horrible because it proves those rascals Spielberg and Lucas correct. Venturing out to the movies may well be on the way out, or at least reserved as a bourgeois experience rather than as a virtually automatic act on a Friday or Saturday night. Putting aside the loyalty I may feel to the lost tradition, what we also lose is the nature of the shared experience. Despite all the emphasis on visuals which make motion pictures different from any other art form, the real thrill of watching a movie in a theatre is often the impact that occurs from being in a darkened room surrounded by strangers who will bring their own set of unknown reactions and responses to the picture. Many, if not most, motion pictures have taken this shared experience into account while the movies were being planned. Anyone who has seen Jaws in a theatre will remember that when the head falls through the bottom of the boat and takes Richard Dreyfess by surprise, the reaction of all the other people in the theatre added to the intensity of your own reaction, just in the same way that being in the midst of other people laughing at Groucho Marx on the big screen has the effect of freeing us up to laugh out loud ourselves, whereas if we watched Duck Soup, for instance, at home on the computer, we might smile or even chuckle, but our solo response would be tame compared to actually "being there." 
   Combine all of this with the fact that on this Friday night, Lisa Ann and I could not quite bring ourselves to spend $9.50 apiece to go down the street to watch a movie because there was nothing playing about which either of us cared one whit. The only movies I would have been interested in watching were playing in Scottsdale at the Harkins Camelview 5. One movie there, a documentary about Hannah Arendt, looked promising, but the theatre is thirty miles away and there was simply no way Lisa Ann was going to travel that far for a movie she had little chance of liking. We ended up watching some of the fourth season of "Boston Legal." 
   After we put the show to bed, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to watch these shows in a big yet cozy movie theatre with like-minded folks strange to us sitting in difficult chairs, all of us laughing and crying and shouting at the screen. 
   If those days really are gone, as I refuse to believe, then I'm going to have no choice but to shut down all the home entertainment luxuries in sheer protest. I'm happy to indulge cable and Netflix for their easy access. But I'm never going to consider them the first line. We're all far too agoraphobic as it is without our cinematic experiences reinforcing our fear of the marketplace.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

SHADOW OF THE SCYTHE

   Very much to my detriment, I have not changed much since my early years. I continue to laugh at politicians, particularly in the most serious of times. I still place whoopie cushions upon the chairs of bigots. And on and on I love listening to Carla Bley play her compositions on piano. But I have written of all those things elsewhere in these electronic pages. Probably I have already written about what I'm going to write about tonight, so in advance I beg your forgiveness and ask you to indulge me in this painful exercise. 
    Tonight I write of Death.
    Growing accustomed to the passing of friends, family, and even dear strangers remains the thing about which I have changed the least. If it would prevent the death of anyone I've ever known, I would happily accept the trade-off punishment of being banished to an icy planet void of women, where masturbation is prevented by means of the guillotine. Simply put, I resent the hell out of Death. And Death has followed me everywhere I've ever been, marking my days, snickering at my well-laid plans, openly laughing at my worries, ticking off my successes, failures and inactivity in his little black book, just waiting for the day I absentmindedly stumble down a manhole into a pit of boiling sewer drainage and my tortured corpse flies up on the top of a geyser of refuse. Death just doesn't give a damn how we go, as long as we go. And we do not get to come back (with all due respect to my friends who favor reincarnation, the math just doesn't add up, as George Carlin once famously observed). So we are stuck, stuck in this often unpleasant existence, reading our books, driving our cars, eating our food, suffering our fools, and essentially just waiting for the day we die.
   I hate it. I hate everything about it. I always have. 
   Just like you, I have lost far too many people to Death. I wish I could say that I'm not going to take it any more. That way lies madness. Still, perhaps all hope is not lost.
    To the extent that the Universe has any particular interest in that lowest of life forms, humanity, I suspect our universe would approve if we were to do our best to be immortal. Procreation is one of those methods available to us and one that we often use. The lives of our offspring allow a part of us to live on after Death comes calling. Perhaps our spouses--those who suffer the agony of living on without us--provide a way for us to go on after the big D. Certainly it is likely that we have invested our significant others with some components of ourselves, allowing that influence to linger and possibly even flourish for decades. As a writer, I always hope that the things I write--well, most of them, but probably not the garbage I wrote before I knew what I was doing--will survive and thrive after we shuffle off this mortal coil. Our work, our art, our ideas: these things have a fine chance of outliving ourselves, at least until Orwell's dystopia fully takes hold. 
   All of those things are to some extent planned. What would be terrific is if the things we do which are unplanned and not calculated, the good things we do, could live on in the hearts of all the others we've encountered. For instance, some pathetic-looking vagabond approaches us at the gas pump and tells us a cock and bull story about how his invisible automobile ran out of gas and he needs twenty bucks to get back to St. Louis and my goodness ain't it hot here in the summer? There's no guarantee on anything we do, but we stand a better chance of making a meaningful contribution to the life of another person by doing something good rather than something we know perfectly well to be bad. Sure, the temptation, the primal survival impulse is to have a good laugh at the derelict's expense and tell him to drive the gas pump up his ass. That type of remark has as much potential for living on after us as does doing something charitable. Just as we have no way of knowing whether our largesse might be just what another person needs to turn his life around, so are we de facto ignorant of whether our cruelty might be the final dose of hate necessary to push some poor creature across the line into madness and violent behavior. So we get to pick. We get to decide which thing we will do. And we have a chance, in the process, of sewing some immortality of our own. 
   I know first hand whereof I speak. Just like you, I've had an occasionally difficult life and, just like you, a lot of it was my own fault. But there is one thing that happened, one apparently minor incident, which will go with me to my grave, a brief event filled with such despicable insensitivity that I have not been able to shake it in ten years and I cannot imagine the memory ever leaving me. Ten years ago this Christmas Day I was walking around a local deserted shopping mall with my few possessions in a backpack strapped across my aching shoulders, only a few days from collapsing from starvation and, in short, not in a very good way. I was walking around the outside of that mall because, in my condition, I was convinced that staying in motion--however futile--was better than just leaning against a wall waiting to drop dead. There was also a slim chance I might find a stray cigarette butt which would help in staving off the pangs of extreme hunger. Anyway, all self-pity aside, it was late in the afternoon, a chilly one, as I recall, and the last thing in the world I wanted was for anyone to come to the conclusion that I was on bad times. So, despite the agonizing strain to do so, I walked erect and pretended my heavy pack was feather light, just as I pretended that I had some very good reason for walking around that mall. My tenuous grasp on sanity required that I maintain this illusion. So along comes some scumbag on a bicycle and he points at me, shouting, "Homeless guy! There's a homeless guy! Whoo-hoo!" 
   That senseless act of one-upmanship will ignite the blackness of my dreams for the rest of my life, and if there's anything after that, it'll follow me there as well. I realize that as far as that idiot was concerned, the world was not quite bad enough and heartless enough, and he figured it was his responsibility to add a dollop more misery to the mix. He succeeded. 
    (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that a man who did not know me, a man who had nothing to gain by doing so, accepted my proposal that he give me twenty dollars so that I could put gasoline in a taxi that I would lease and pay for after the fact, thereby getting myself back on my feet. He handed me two tens and that indeed worked out just as I had hoped it would. I convinced the owner of a small taxi company to let me drive a cab and pay him for it at the end of the day. "You got money for gas?" he asked. I said I had twenty dollars. He told me to put ten of it in the tank and to keep the other ten for change. I made one hundred dollars that day, thirty-five of which I had to pay back to the cab company. I spent that first night sleeping in a cheap hotel, one hell of a lot more comfortable a place than the park bench I'd been enjoying. That twenty dollar gift saved my life. I would have certainly died had that young man not yielded to the impulse to fold those two ten dollar bills into my hand.)
    I have broken a lot of promises I made to myself over the years. However, I have never treated someone doing less well than myself in such a manner. And despite all my attempts at immortality through the essays and stories I write, the not so secret truth is that what I most hope lives on beyond me is whatever kindnesses I may have shown to others, good things that may have, in some seemingly small way, changed things for people in a positive way. 
    The reason this is so incredibly important is because many of the dead and dying have had tremendously wonderful impacts on my life. I may still be a curmudgeon deep down, I'll admit, but there are within me the influences of people whose shoes I am unfit to shine. And so, as you and I dwell on that idea, please permit me to suggest that we reflect on the positive influences of those we may lose--always far too soon--just as others will reflect on the goodness we have taught them. Please do not misunderstand. There is nothing romantic or even noble about dying. It is a tragedy the magnitude of which only those who quietly observe the shadow of the scythe can know. But one of the elements of a tragedy is the purification of our emotions. That can only occur when we have suffered along with the fallen person's struggles and rejoiced in his or her successes. That shared emotional pact between us and the departed is perhaps the key influence our friends and family (and strangers) can bestow on us as they leave us to our grief.  
    

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

ACRAL LICK GRANULOMA

   While I never anticipated that I'd be writing an article about acral lick granuloma, my hope is that before the evening ends, I will have figured some way to tie this canine malady in with some human dysfunction, thereby putting a lovely bow on what might otherwise be dismissed as a veterinarian dilemma. 
   Acral lick granuloma persists as one of those maddening illnesses that dog doctors hate to see trotting in through their doors. Simply put, the dog in question gets a sore or a bite on his paw. Because the sensation is curious to him, he licks it. After a while, he becomes obsessed with the act of licking himself, probably because doing so produces endorphins in the brain that translate into a mild pleasure, thereby reinforcing the compulsive behavior. Before long, what was once a tiny spot that was probably not noticed by the dog's owner becomes a huge, ugly and alarming patch of raw skin without hair. There's often a few tiny red spots where the blood is near the surface. If you put the granuloma under a microscope, you will see patches of bacteria, broken hair follicles, scarred oil glands, and inflamed capillaries. And still the dog continues to lick away at it. 
   So we take the dog to the vet, only to find out that almost everything we do will be a waste of time. The doctor can surgically sew up the self-inflicted wound, but the dog will undoubtedly return to licking the spot all over again. The doctor can wrap the wound with gauze, but the dog will just find another spot to self-mutilate, usually another paw. We can put one of those silly looking lampshades around the dog's neck, but as soon as we remove it, the dog will go back to his nasty habit. 
   Our dog, Cody, has been licking the spot on his rear right paw for at least a year. There is nothing he loves better, except maybe stretching himself out and then automatically turning to the right and smelling his own butt about thirty times a day. It turns out that certain breeds, including German Shepherds--Cody is half Shepherd, half Greyhound--are very prone to this type of behavior in their later years. What, then, is a responsible and concerned dog owner to do?
   What we have found is a three-pronged approach. First, because he suffers from a form of compulsion, we began putting a low-dose Prozac in his dinner. Second, while he eats the meal, we spray his wound with Bactine to ease the pain or itch. And third, we also spray something called Hot Spot on the granuloma. Hot Spot gives the wound a bad taste that discourages the dog from licking it. Truth to tell, we have also been working on keeping the stress level at home to a minimum. After about two weeks of doing this, the outer layer of skin is returning and some of his hair is coming back. Our optimism remains guarded, however, because as it happens, the next time Cody starts to get stressed or bored, the odds are excellent that he'll go right back to that same spot.
   As I mentioned, Cody is half German Shepherd. That is one of the breeds that commonly develops this frustrating behavior pattern. Other breeds that practice this neurosis include Dobermans, Retrievers, Labradors, Setters, and Weimariners. 
   Okay, now to see if we can connect this with humanoids. . .
   When I was around five or six, I used to exhibit an OCD-like behavior. If I were walking along the sidewalk and happened to brush up against something with one arm, I felt an overwhelming need to balance things out by brushing against something with the other arm. While that odd and inconvenient behavior went away by the time I was seven, I began to exhibit another curious trait that gave me a strange sense of well being. I started to play with my upper lip. In fact, I used to have a mustache before I realized that my face and mustaches simply were not made for one another. In any case, I used to play with the right side of that mustache all the time. People would slap my hand away and in a minute or so I'd be right back at it. I still enjoy a good pull on the lip and consider it unpleasant that other people find this compulsion terribly annoying. My dear roommate insists that the right side of my upper lip is getting larger than the rest of my lip, but I suspect she is saying that as a deterrent. I try playing with the left side, but it just isn't anywhere near as satisfying as the right.
   Why oh why do we develop OCD behavior? According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common reason for obsessive-compulsive disorder is insufficient serotonin, that tricky little neurotransmitter we keep hearing about. Some doctors in the United Kingdom have written that another source of the problem may be abnormalities in the orbital cortex, or in the Basal Ganglia and Thalmus. If these theories are correct, then attempting to reason or persuade the sufferer out of his or her behavior is a waste of time and probably quite insulting. You can slap my hand away from my lip all you want, but when I'm stuck trying to come up with a pressing thought, I know what works for me. 
    As with most bio-chemical explanations for psychiatric symptoms, it may be fair to wonder which comes first, a series of environmental acts that somehow alter the functioning of the brain, or the brain chemistry itself. For example, let's suppose that a person who has suffered the death of his family, the loss of his friends, the existence of his possessions, his employment, home, etc., becomes medically depressed as a result. Let us further suppose that he stays that way for a significant period of time. My question is this: is it possible that the depression he experiences itself transforms or affects his brain chemistry? After all, the very fact of depression must have some consequences on the chemistry of the patient, right? All I am suggesting is that as a society we have a tendency to treat these behavioral issues with pharmaceuticals when I wonder if altering the unhealthy environment might be a more honest option. That's why, with Cody the dog, we're trying to reduce his stress by reducing our own. As his granuloma appears to be healing, we'll hope that we can hang onto our own version of sanity and keep the confusion to a minimum. 
   But I'm still going to play with my lip.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

LAUGH? I THOUGHT I'D DIE.

   

   I am often asked, at least twice every fifty years, what it is that I consider to be the funniest album of all time. For me that's easy. While contenders such as the Firesign Theater's Don't Crush That Dwarf and Richard Pryor's Bicentennial Nigger occasionally come close, the all-time most consistently hilarious recorded album I've ever heard is Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. 
    Please do not misinterpret that statement to mean that I am laughing at the album. I am, from the second to the final cut, very much laughing with the Hibbing native. The recording shouts and moans its carnival images like a smart wino on speed, rattling off observations which, in some cases, exist only to further the rhythm and rhyme but which all the same dance along like a human calliope. That the music is simultaneously rocking and vicious only adds to the art of the comedy the singer snarls. 
   The opening track shoots out like a rifle blast in an acoustically perfect museum and declares that everything to follow will be light and merry with occasional rye observations. Nothing could out-grim "Like a Rolling Stone" and nothing ever has. 
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall," you thought they were all kidding you.
 The singer may have been kidding on the other numbers, but from that first shot through the fade out, he was deadly serious. 
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal. Awwww. . . 
   "Tombstone Blues," which quickly follows, belies the ideal transition from the most bitter diatribe imaginable to some of the wildest humor ever dreamed. Every line, each word, all the syllables, are geared toward ambiguity between the horrific and the absurd. The delivery adds to the confusion as well. 
The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone causes Galileo's math book to get thrown at Delilah sitting worthlessly alone, but the tears on her cheeks are from laughter.
   Aside from the brilliantly poetic raunch of the first seven words, we have anachronisms slamming into one another like a roomful of Super Balls. Galileo, amazingly, owns a book on mathematics. More concerned with matters of human physiology, he hurls it toward a Biblical character in whose millennium-old existence he had no faith, and who just happens to be alive at the same time. Yet this sinister creature from the Old Testament, perfectly described as "worthless," is crying tears of ridicule. People often talked, way back around the time of this album, about whether Dylan's lines were profound or merely well-played ridiculousness. I never felt the two concepts were mutually exclusive. The point is not that these images are incongruous and therefore wrong. The point is that they are incongruous and therefore correct. Whether it's Ma Rainey and Beethoven preparing for a conjugal visit or God making a pun about the sun being chicken (rather than yellow), the song takes people unknown and well-known, shakes mockery in their faces like a crazed maraca player, and scatters logic on the ground like Sartre on acid (probably given to him by Simone de Beauvoir). The entire song leads to its thunderous finale wherein Dylan sums up the entire experience, and even summarizes his raison d'etre, with a verse Stephen King saw fit to have the title character of his first novel scribble in the margins of her high school notebook.
I wish I could write you a melody so plain that would hold you dear lady from going insane, that would ease you and cool you and cease the pain of your useless and pointless knowledge.
   In "Like a Buick 6," Bob tells of his ideal living graveyard woman who walks like Bo Diddley and keeps a loaded shotgun to ward off the bad guys who may want to do the singer in. The graveyard images begun in "Tombstone Blues" explodes like a field of sleeping zombies here, with references to steam shovels, dump trucks (to unload his head), angels (from the junkyard), and imminent death. Still, this is funny, again, in part because of the rollicking music and in part because of the singer's stance. He isn't worried about anything because he knows this strange woman will take care of him even after he dies. 
   Despite being the target of intense speculation, "Ballad of a Thin Man" actually overrides its hostility with references to images and sounds that crack me up all these years later. The Mister Jones refrained in the song is reportedly a composite of a thousand journalists who tried so hard to understand Dylan and the burgeoning exclusive counterculture to which he gave voice but were hapless and helpless all the while. Well, that may be deliberately provocative, but that's just the foundation from the humor. What humor? Perhaps the funniest sight is the cyclops midget who keeps hollering "Now!" and who keeps answering the inquiries with non sequitors which culminate in "You're a cow! Give me some milk or else go home!"
   By far the funniest tune on the album is the title cut. With references to the Old Testament, Delta blues, a marketing rep, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and the third world war, the song ultimately screams that the absurdity of everyday life, including history, is a cosmic joke played on the stretch of road winding from Chicago to New Orleans. With rhino whistles punctuating each verse, the song smashes country music into a blaring rock crescendo that stays with the listener through eternity.
   I could go on, particularly about "Desolation Row," but I think you get the idea. You won't find the album on YouTube because Sony is meticulous in deleting all of Dylan's recordings. But this, the most clever and witty and laugh-inducing album of all time won't set you back more than ten bucks anywhere. That's the price of a movie you'll forget a lot sooner than you will this stunning album from 1965.