The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

A Simple Plan.

Source: WPLN’s Curious Nashville

In the summer of 1984, when we were between eighth and ninth grade, my friend John came up with a simple plan. John was, and still is, a smart guy—he’s a lawyer in Atlanta now, and using his powers for good, but his scheme forty years ago was a little more shady. He told me his parents were buying him a season pass to Opryland and that our friend Jeff’s parents were buying him one too and I’d better get one or I’d be left out while they were off riding the Tin Lizzies and the Screamin’ Delta Demon.

Opryland was Nashville’s country music-themed amusement park, Disneyworld as reimagined by the producers of Hee Haw. The Tin Lizzies were Model T’s that could be driven around a track, the Screamin’ Delta Demon, a later addition, put riders in in scaly green cars that slid down a tube, there was an antique carousel, boats that meandered around the Cumberland River on a track, and a few roller coasters. It was a fun place and my family would go at least once every summer—usually only once because the admission price was pretty expensive and also there was an additional charge for parking because of course the owners wanted to bilk the tourists and the locals alike. If we didn’t go by the middle of June I’d start getting anxious. Opryland was only open eight months of the year and I worried we’d miss it. My favorite ride was the Tennessee Waltz, a swing ride. I’ve never liked roller coasters—I thought about going on the Wabash Cannonball which had a full loop but always chickened out—but the Tennessee Waltz which lifted all of us riders several feet in the air in bucket seats and spun us around over spiked fencing was exhilarating to me. I always made sure to ride it at least once during the day and once after dark when it lit up with red and white lights. There was also a train that went all around the park, and the Skyride, boxes suspended from cables that carried riders high up and from one section to another. There a long stretch of game booths with giant stuffed animals as prizes. All of it was pretty standard amusement park stuff but to a young child it was magical; I remember being surprised by music literally in the air, thanks to speakers placed behind bushes along walkways, and people dressed up as musical instruments walking through the park. It was even more amazing they didn’t pass out in the heat. Even as I got older it was still fun to go and ride the rides. It was a shock when it was abruptly closed in 1997. The park was still profitable but the owners didn’t think it was profitable enough so they tore it down and put up a mall, which was definitely a downgrade even if parking was now free.

John didn’t tell me about his scheme. By letting me believe he and Jeff had already been promised season passes he was evoking an honest performance from me. There was a small risk that Jeff and I might compare notes but John was clever enough to talk to me while Jeff was away visiting his grandparents. If the plan had worked by the time Jeff got back John and I would have season passes and Jeff’s parents would, well, they probably wouldn’t have bought him a season pass since he’d just gotten an Atari console for Christmas, but maybe he could have joined us a few times. What John didn’t count on was that it was a large enough financial commitment that our parents would talk to each other. He also might have stretched it a bit too far when he said both his sisters were also getting season passes. There was also the question of who’d be driving us. John and Jeff both lived within easy walking distance of my house; Opryland was about a half hour drive. Food was also not included in season passes and it wasn’t as though we could slip through the gates with sack lunches. Like all simple plans John’s idea, under scrutiny, became entirely too complicated.

Although we live in different cities now and haven’t seen each other in a really long time John and I have stayed in touch, and he recently told me he might bring his family to Nashville some time this summer. I hope we can get together, maybe have a meal or two, even find something to do as a group. Something simple.

Survey Says…

Because I worked for three lousy months at a call center I know what it’s like for customer service people. I know how it feels to be on the other end of the phone when some angry, frustrated person calls. Maybe I’d be nice to customer service people anyway but experience makes me especially nice to them because while I have no idea what their day so far has been like I assume it hasn’t been good. So I had to call a customer service person the other day and it was even more of a relief that she was friendly and understanding, apologizing for the problem even though it wasn’t her fault. She also took down all my contact information in case we got cut off. That also turned out to be helpful because the issue was too complicated to resolve over a phone call so she promised to email me a follow-up when she had more information. During this conversation I could hear a baby babbling in the background and I thought it was great she got to work from home, which can be a real stress relief, and I was grateful that the dog three feet away from my desk didn’t jump up and bark like he usually does whenever I have to make a phone call. Instead he stayed curled up, sound asleep and farting, which I was really glad the customer service person didn’t hear.

Pictured: The dog. Not pictured: The farting.

She did send me the follow-up message, the whole issue was resolved, and then I got a survey that asked, “How did our customer service person do?” I don’t know if these surveys really make any difference or if the results even get back to the person. When I worked in customer service there were a few repeat customers—it was a small company—who told me they always appreciated my professionalism and courtesy, and all I ever got was a lousy coffee mug with the corporate logo. And even Kevin, who sat in the corner station with his phone turned off playing solitaire got one of those. But just in case I always fill out the surveys, especially when the person I talked to did a really good job. That’s what I said, too: “Great, five stars, and not too shabby!” Or something like that.

That’s when things took a strange turn. I got a follow-up to the survey that said, “We’re always happy to hear that our customer service people do a good job. How would you like to reward the person who helped you? (a) Treat them to a nice dinner (b) Give them a night out at the movies (c) Send them on vacation”.

At first this seemed like a great idea—a concrete way to reward someone for a job well done. But now I was faced with a choice. I hadn’t gotten to know the person I spoke to well enough to know what she might like. A nice dinner, maybe, but does she like to go out? Would she have to get a babysitter? If she ordered delivery would the cost mean she’d be stuck with a burger and fries? A night out at the movies came with similar concerns. Even if she’d rather watch a movie at home it didn’t seem like much of a thank-you. Could she get that and dinner delivered? I finally opted for the vacation, but I still had concerns. Did she have enough time off to take this vacation, whatever it might be? Would she be able to take the baby with her? Was it even her baby?

I spent more time sweating over this than the problem I called about in the first place. I wish they’d sent me a survey asking what I thought of their survey so I could say, “It sucks. Whose idea was this? It was Kevin, wasn’t it?”

Blood Donor.

There was a red smear on my arm where I’d slapped a mosquito. It’s not even really summer yet and already I can’t sit out on the patio at dusk without being poked by at least a dozen tiny needles. It’s like a visit to the emergency room, but the bill doesn’t come in the mail—it shows up as a bunch of tiny, itchy red bumps. Some years mosquitoes completely ignore me, and supposedly what you eat can keep them away. As a kid I was told swallowing a spoonful of vinegar kept mosquitoes and other parasites away, and from what I’ve read eating a lot of onions, garlic, and beans will deter both mosquitoes and everyone else. As I looked at that red stain on my arm and the crushed mosquito body, such a dangerous, even deadly thing and yet so tiny and fragile, I started to feel something for the mosquitoes. I wouldn’t call it sympathy but I felt a kind of understanding of them. I’m not ignoring the fact that mosquitoes are responsible for at least a million deaths a year—even if it is indirect. The diseases they carry, especially malaria, cause so much suffering. Still the mosquitoes didn’t ask to be carriers. They just want to pop in, fill up on a few milligrams of a protein drink—which just happens to be blood—and go on. And eliminating the mosquitoes isn’t a great solution because there are so many other insects, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles that feed on mosquitoes that they’re an important, if extremely annoying, link in a lot of food chains. Malaria, on the other hand, we could do without. Malaria is the guy who shows up at a party and says, “You know, homelessness could be eliminated if people would settle for renting instead of getting into debt with a mortgage” and no one knows who invited him.

Also there have been a lot of times when I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes without even realizing it. They have the decency to inject an anesthetic when they plunge their snouts into our skin, and mostly it works. Sometimes it doesn’t and I’ll feel a little sting. Again it’s like going to the doctor’s office. Some nurses can slide a needle right in and I won’t feel a thing and some jab me and leave me feeling it for at least an hour afterward, and once a nurse said “You’re going to feel a little prick” and I said “You could at least take me out to dinner and a movie first” and somebody else had to come in and draw my blood, but that’s another story.

There is something amazing about the tiny, fragile mosquito. Just a few drops of our red corpuscles can produce hundreds, even thousands. And think about them this way: they’re shapeshifters, transforming from aquatic wrigglers to denizens of the air. They emerge at dusk, find an unsuspecting victim, and drink its blood.

The last thing that went through that mosquito’s mind was the flat of my hand. But I wonder if the next to last thing that went through its mind was, “Sure, when vampires do it you think they’re all sexy and cool, but when we do it we’re a nuisance.”

Then again I’ve never heard of a vampire bringing malaria to a party.

Old School.

Source: FOBO (Fromoldbooks.org)

Grammar mnemonics and rules I found written down in a notebook from 7th grade that I had completely forgotten:

I before E except after C and when it sounds like “a” as in “neighbor” and “weigh”.

And also when it sounds like “i” as in “heist” and “Fahrenheit”.

And also for some reason when it sounds like “e” as in “protein”, which is weird.

 

Never end a sentence with a preposition unless the sentence ends with “a preposition.

 

Confusing “who” and “whom” is really the worst

So never ever ask “Whom’s on first?”

 

Be more or less specific and decisive if that’s okay with you.

 

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

“Gray” is spelled with an “a”

Except in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and also the UK.

 

“Color” and “flavor” are spelled without “u”

Except outside the United States, pretty much anywhere you’d want to go to.

 

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea, but it seems like ideas should get a category of their own.

 

“Sesquipidalian” should be replaced with something that sounds less like a deep sea animal.

 

Splitting infinitives is to usually be avoided.

 

A “dessert” has twice as much sugar as a “desert” if your dessert is sugar-free because deserts don’t have any sugar at all.

 

A “principle” is a rule or belief, a “principal” is a school leader who pretends to be your pal to maintain the status quo, and Victoria Principal wasn’t the one who shot J.R., was she?

 

Most sentences are subject-verb-object and “subject”, “verb”, and “object” are three nouns that really need a category of their own.

 

The “b” in “subtle” is pretty much what it says it is.

 

Now you know how to tow two toes.

 

Double negatives should never not be used.

 

Similes are like metaphors but different.

 

The only rule that has no exceptions is the rule that there’s an exception to every rule.

 

No one remembers who Mnemosyne is.

Source: Imgur

Spam, Spam, Spam.

Internet spam, not to be confused with the pork product, has been something I’ve dealt with almost as long as I’ve had an email account, and I think everyone else has had the same problem. I don’t remember when exactly I first got the first forwarded message warning me that the post office was going to start charging people two cents for every email sent—how they’d do this or how it would be applied outside the United States was never clear—but it was forwarded and re-forwarded to me so many times I think of it as an early example of spam. The same is true of warnings about the “Good Times” virus—supposedly a virus that would be sent via email and if you clicked the subject line it would erase your hard drive, melt your computer, send an endless stream of “Yo momma’s so fat” joke to your boss, clean out your refrigerator, and dress your pets in provocative outfits. So many warnings got sent to me and others about it that finally someone I know said, “The warning itself is the virus!” And people kept on spreading it.

Lately I’ve noticed some interesting spam sent to my blog. It’s actually nice, even flattering. Here’s an example:

I’m truly enjoying the design and layout here. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often.

Here’s another one:

Usually I do not read  blogs however I would like to say that this writing very compelled me to take a look at and do it Your writing style has been amazed me Thank you very nice article

And this one:

I would claim that a true assistance is involved in writing excellent posts. This my first time visiting your website, and I’m amazed at how much research you did to produce such  fantastic articles.

Those are slightly rewritten—I’m not copying the original spam verbatim in case whatever’s generating them is looking for the text or replies. Anyway they seem really nice, even flattering, in spite of the fact that seeing at least half a dozen copies of the same message on as many different, sometimes much older, posts, was a giveaway that these weren’t real. I’m not even sure they were written by real people; they may have been generated by a program that generates somewhat human-sounding text and posts it to any blog it can find. It doesn’t help that several of these messages also included linked ads to treatments for hair loss, erectile dysfunction, acne, depression, the flu, overeating, ingrown toenails, and spontaneous decapitation, which isn’t flattering because I don’t suffer from at least three of those problems.

It’s really sad to me that we’ve created this wonderful thing, the internet, and also managed to undermine everything good about it by flooding it with garbage. I would say that in spite of that I believe people are better than that, but it would really be more accurate to say that I know there are people who are better than that—who are still trying to contribute good things. Also I get spam that, for some reason, possibly because it’s pulled from digitized texts, is in Latin, like this:

 In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

I’m weirdly flattered by that—it’s as though it’s telling me that, even though I was a miserable failure all through three years of high school Latin and two more years of it in college, someone out there thinks I can actually translate Ovid.

Feeling Sluggish.

April showers have brought out the slugs. Like a lot of common animals I have a history with slugs and it’s not all happy. When I was a kid my mother showed me how to kill slugs by pouring salt on them and I went up and down the sidewalk at night with a big container of the “when it rains it pours”, pouring it all over every slug I could find. The next morning I’d find shriveled leathery bodies like three-dimensional commas, an interrupted life sentence.

Why did I hate the slugs so much? I can’t explain it because I loved snails. I collected snails, built little terrariums for them in empty jars, and spent hours watching them. Slugs were just escargot liberated from the extra cargo of a shell. If anything they deserved more respect for daring to go bare, but I think it was the lack of a shell that bothered me. Snails are builders, architects. They make a refuge and carry it with them, and I could pick up a snail without getting slimed, although I also let them crawl up and down my arm. Slugs, I thought, lived up to their name: sluggish. Lazy. Fat. Stupid. Slugs are unstamped coins. Big, slow moving boats. Hit somebody hard enough and you say you slugged them. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary was an insulting term for people long before it was applied to the gastropod.

That’s imposing a lot on slugs, none of it true. Well, I don’t know about slug intelligence, but their bodies are all muscle, as some friends who decided to fry them up in garlic butter since it was cheaper than going to a French restaurant discovered, and slugs can move pretty quickly, although I guess they have enough natural defenses that most of the time they don’t need to. Most animals either know or, like my friends, discover that slugs aren’t that appetizing.

I’m sure I’d also feel differently if we lived on the west coast where banana slugs are found and are even a school mascot because they’re amazing. I’d probably feel the same way about them that I did about snails. And I’ve always found sea slugs fascinating, from when I first read about them in my Jacques Cousteau books to when, on a trip to Florida, I found some hanging onto a piece of driftwood. They had amber bodies and azure gills. I carried them to the house where we stayed in Florida in a bucket with some sand and rocks and seaweed and watched them for hours. They crawled all over their temporary plastic home, occasionally swimming by curling and uncurling until they floated up to the surface then drifted back down. The next day I took them back to the beach and released them to the sea, not wanting them to die in captivity.

They lived in salt, the same stuff I used to destroy their terrestrial cousins. I don’t know if that’s what changed my mind about the sidewalk slugs but after that I let them pass.

Spring Storms.

March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb but the one this year apparently didn’t get the memo and came in with summer temperatures and went out with ups and downs. Then the April showers started with a midday thunderstorm that was so bad I left work in the middle of the day. My office is safer than my house in a storm—it’s eleven stories of heavy concrete, not counting the basement that’s below street level, so while it would be a lousy place to be in a flood it’s pretty solid protection from tornadoes. Still if anything really bad happened I wanted to be at home to be able to deal with it. I walked from the office building in heavy rain—“downpour” really is the best word for it, and not just because a solid sheet of water was sliding off the awning over the door—to the parking garage where I’d been smart enough to park on one of the covered levels instead of the roof as I usually do. Then I drove home through rain that was so heavy at one point I had to pull over into a parking lot because the wiper blades just weren’t cutting it. When I got pulled into the driveway at home the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.

Spring storms are weird.

Of course it’s the kind of weirdness that, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Winter’s cold slows everything down; it’s nature’s resting period. And then spring comes in, the temperatures go up, and it’s like the Earth stretches and, like a lot of us, struggles to get out of bed and needs a shower, a hot beverage, and a little time on the toilet to get going. It’s no wonder most thunderstorms hit in the spring, or at least it seems that way. I’ve never actually kept any kind of record but, again, it’s a kind of weirdness that makes sense. And after I’d gotten home, taken the dogs out, and had lunch the rain started again, followed by a rush of cold, because nature isn’t just waking up; it’s got a hangover.

The worst of it had passed by nightfall but I went out in the dark and looked up at the sky where dark pulpy clouds hung so low I thought I could reach up and touch them. A plane went over, lights turning the mist bright green and red and white, the people inside it cocooned from the dark, soggy ground below. Then I went in to get ready to bed, the spring wakeup having left me so tired.