Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On Toilet Paper and Time Management

I realized recently that whenever I use up a toilet paper roll I tend not to put the new one on the dispenser right away but to instead leave it on the floor next to the wall.  Whether or not I install the roll immediately correlates with how busy I am, and if I’m stressed or have a lot of things going on or am maybe just focused on a writing project the new roll can easily sit on the floor for several days.  I don’t forget about the roll, though, and whenever I’m in the bathroom I’ll see it and think about how I really should put it on the dispenser, but then I’ll move on to something more pressing instead.  The location of my toilet paper, then, indicates how much control I have over my affairs, since an ideal day would always find the toilet paper dispenser filled and ready to use.

A big part of me thinks this is idiotic.  It’s just toilet paper, and I really shouldn’t give two fucks where it goes as long as I have some to wipe my ass with.  I could save a lot of time by not reloading the dispenser at all, just as I could also save a lot of time by not folding my laundry or scrubbing the grease off my stove.  I still do these things, though, because I like having a clean stove and picking out my clothes from a bureau, but what if I could let go of such trivialities and let these chores slide?  If I did, I’d have more time to write and pursue interesting projects and meet people and seek out opportunitiesin short, I'd get more important things done.  The only trick would be to balance enough of the cleaning so I wouldn’t become the crazy old lady with the unopened mail and crusted lasagna pans overflowing on to the kitchen floor, and maybe we carry out our chores in part because we’re secretly afraid of letting things slide too far towards such a disaster—which reads like a stupid fear when you write it out like that.

Someone told me once that our brains naturally prioritize different problems in terms of their immediacy, giving preference to issues that affect our survival, well-being, and ability to reproduce, and if we don’t actively choose how to order our lives, our brains will by default shift into the food-water-shelter-sex gear.  I’m not sure that creating art has a place in that survival mode; it’s probably somewhere down the list between clipping your toenails and watching the sun rise.  It won’t have a place unless we give it one, which means that sometimes the toilet paper is just going to have to wait on the floor.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Hype for the Charleston Anvil


Fellow Bennington alum Randall Nichols and I have a history of supporting each other’s creative endeavors, which comes naturally since everything Randall touches turns out approachable, fun, and hard-hitting.  The Charleston Anvil is an indie art/literary/comic/everything else zine he’s started up with some fellow West Virginians, with the first issue released earlier this month in both print (!) and digital copies.  About half comics and half prose (plus photos and illustrations), there’s plenty of variety in style and substance, and the above adjectives I used to describe Randall’s work (approachable, fun, hard-hitting) apply equally to the entire issue. 

I’ve also got a story in there—a piece I had on the backburner called “One Nation, Indivisible” about a telemarketing call gone awry, which also marks the first time that work by both Randall and yours truly have appeared in the same place.  The print copy is cheap and the digital copy is pay-what-you-want (even if that price is nothing), so it won’t cost you anything to check it out.

Hype aside, it’s refreshing to see a start-up lit mag maintaining a print edition, since the costs involved with third-party printers and glossy covers tend to complicate the process more than most literary start-ups are willing to handle.  Comics and graphic novels especially tend to read more easily on the printed page, where readers are spared the scrolling and resolution issues that tend not to be a problem with words alone.  This also marks the first time my fiction has appeared in an actual print magazine, making it feel more valuable that someone’s taken the time and money to prepare a hard copy in the digital age.

It’s also refreshing to see a magazine with illustrations, since so many literary-only magazines tend to ignore visuals under the mistaken belief that poetry and prose are somehow purer when they’re not surrounded by a bunch of distracting pictures.  In reality, though, illustrations in magazines were a staple of the Saturday Evening Post-era and before, where, with so much different content vying for the reader’s attention (as opposed to a novel, where readers go in expecting a single experience), pictures help the reader differentiate between individual pieces.  Randall’s sci-fi story “The Norse Star” is one of the illustrated ones, and it includes a 2/3-page title pic that captures the opening image of the hero staring at the story’s impossible heroine and a few others spaced throughout the columns that enhance the story’s reveal.

Besides “Norse Star,” there’s an opening essay championing self-expression (“We Need You to Be Yourself”), an eight-page comic retelling of Hamlet with giant robots (“Hambot”), a short piece by fellow Benningtonian John Wiswell (“Making Her”), an illustrated essay on the subtle relationships in Jonny Quest (“Sadness File: 037”), and a final comic about a deal with a cowboy hat-wearing devil gone awry (“Walk for the Cure”).  Take it from me—it’s solid stuff, so here’s the link one more time.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

An Open Letter to the Organizers of the TEDxLincoln Event

Dear Mr. Bretz and Ms. Vanneman,

I’m writing in regards to the TEDxLincoln event you hosted last week at UNL’s Kimball Hall.  It was my first time attending a TED event in Lincoln or anywhere else, though I’ve been a fan of TED talks for several years and have found them both a stimulating source of ideas and a medium perfectly suited for conveying these ideas in the internet age.  It was thus that I was quite excited for last Thursday’s event.

I enjoyed your selection of speakers very much, particularly Justin Lepard’s talk on eliminating boundaries in creativity and Rob McEntarffer’s discussion of education’s focus on superficial rewards.  I also applaud your decision to conclude with Abeny Kucha’s “Only Hope” talk recounting her struggles as a refugee, which ended the day on a moving, heartfelt, and brutally honest note.

However—and this is the reason I’m writing to you today—I sincerely felt that the power and value of these ideas was cheapened and debased by your framing of this event, in particular through the tone set by your emcee Susan Stibal.  Each time she came onstage I felt patronized by her artificial cheerfulness and insincere manner of uplifting the crowd, a manner of excessive smiles, lame jokes, and constant attempts to instill vapid positivity rather than mature thought.  Simply put, Ms. Stibal’s manner served not to enhance the ideas we were hearing onstage, but to distract us from them, giving her interludes the stilted air of small talk shared with a dental hygienist before an exam.  So committed did Ms. Stibald seem to her mission of condescension that she cut short the well-deserved standing ovation to Ms. Kucha’s talk by retaking the stage far too soon, and her childish humor reached its peak earlier in the program when she clutched her hip onstage in mock pain as an exaggerated (and arguably nonsensical) play off of the word “hiatus.”

My other main complaint involves the way you handled sponsors and advertising.  As a former marketing representative for a nonprofit, I know how important sponsorship is for events like TEDxLincoln, and also know that having company names prominently displayed serves as a powerful motivator when encouraging sponsors to donate.  However, the overt manner in which you drove the audience’s attention to these sponsors ranks among the most shameless I’ve ever seen.  Not only did the sponsorship slide serve as a focal centerpiece multiple times during the event (rather than having these logos placed more tastefully in the background), but Ms. Stibald actually encouraged us to tweet these sponsors our thanks using the TED hashtag, thus treating the audience more like word-of-mouth-advertisers than free-thinking individuals.

The ineffective nature of this ploy can be confirmed by a glance at the #TEDxLincoln Twitter feed, where none of the sponsors are actually thanked in this way.  When audiences feel that they’re being coerced into sharing their thoughts on social media, they’re less likely to share those thoughts at all; such statements feel most genuine when they emerge organically, creating an atmosphere of open, unadulterated discussion. The numerous points at which participants were encouraged to tweet, use hashtags, mention specific sponsors, and download the Whova app (e-mails for which overcrowded my inbox in the days preceding the event) only served as a turn-off—the reasons for their frequency were too obvious.  At least when the magician Chase Hasty tricked the crowd into pulling up his Instagram as part of a card trick, he did so by clearly (and humorously) drawing attention to the cheap nature of the tactic.  Such honesty goes a long way toward building trust.

TED is a forum for thoughtful, provoking ideas worthy of our consideration—so act like it!  When an organization resorts to cheap jokes, exaggerated cheer, overemphasis on decorum, and overt advertising, it forces audiences to take the presenters less seriously—as if the talks existed in an idealistic fantasy world, while back in the real world sustained by the emcees, mature adults adhere to the same middle-class standards of polite behavior that TED is supposed to be challenging.  This is not how you change the world—this is how you isolate ideas into small chunks without allowing viewers to follow-up, take action, or ruminate on what they’ve heard.

This is of course not to say that a TED event should be completely solemn or joke-free; rather, it’s possible to adopt a more mature approach that’s still personable and even funny.  Instead of ensuring that audience members all have a super-dooper fun time, perhaps next year’s emcees could follow each speaker with a thoughtful comment, some off-the-cuff discussion, or some way of relating the talks to the greater world.  Humor in these situations can be an effective and warming part of a presentation (look at the popularity of David Sedaris, for example), as long as the emcee’s approach assumes a certain level of intelligence from the audience.  No one likes to be talked down to, after all.

To close: your event motto is Re:Think, and I highly suggest you apply it to the way you present these talks.  Because, frankly, it sucks.


Ian Rogers

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How to Write an Academic Literary Bio

[Writer Name] is the author of [Novel/Short Story Collection/Chapbook Title] ([Name of Small Press]).  [His/Her] work has appeared or is forthcoming in [Insert list of other journals where the writer’s work has appeared, in order of most to least prominent].  The recipient of [Insert list of awards and fellowships received, in order of most to least prominent], [he/she] teaches in the [program name] at [name of university]. 

Literary bios are a common sight in creative writing journals where writers get published primarily as a way of getting or keeping a job as a tenured professor.  “Bio” here is different from “biography” in that a biography is usually the story of someone’s life, whereas a bio is primarily a tool for highlighting important things the person has done.  The goal of a literary bio isn’t to tell an interesting story (“He moved to the Yukon at the age of six and learned to clean and gut fish with only a butter knife”) or to reveal unique information (“She’s ambidextrous and teaches fine woodworking courses on weekends”), but instead to portray the writer as an established, competent, and esteemed individual whose writing should be viewed as important.

Literary bios usually consist of four parts:

  1. The Lead. This should be a larger work that the writer has published.  (If no larger work is available, the Works List can serve as the Lead.)  Including the press name is a plus, since a higher-status press carries more weight than a lesser-known one, and mentioning the press name is good publicity. 
  2. The Works List.  This is a list of places the writer has been published, starting with the most well-known.  (The Holy Grail for writers is to begin this list with The New Yorker.)  The names of the stories or poems aren’t important, since the focus is really on the status of the journals that have selected the writer’s work.  (This is especially evident when mentioning places where the writer’s work is forthcoming, since such unreleased work cannot by definition be appreciated by anyone—it is only necessary to mention the new outlet as soon as possible.)
  3. The Awards List.  Fellowships, prizes (especially the Pushcart Prize!), shortlists, residencies, and the occasional artist grant all denote the writer’s work as worthy of such commendation, further establishing the writer as an important person.  Announcing the writer as the “recipient” of an award also sounds more prestigious than saying that the writer merely “received” it!
  4. The Current Position.  Most bios mention the writer’s university and job title at the end almost as an afterthought, thus implying that the writer’s (usually academic) day job is less important than the writing itself, when in reality the writer’s procuring such a position is a large (even primary) motivator behind publishing in creative writing journals at all.  It is especially necessary here to mention the job title of “professor” or “assistant professor,” since saying that the writer “teaches in the creative writing program at X University” is often code for “works as an adjunct.”

In short, the secret to an effective bio lies in its predictability: bios are a tool for conveying information, measuring a writer’s achievements, and establishing a reputation, and thus serve the same purpose as the ingredients list on a box of fruit pies.

Monday, August 24, 2015

I Tried to Write Something and It Was a Failure

Three weeks ago I got one of the best ideas I’d had in a long time—it was funny, spoke about a meaningful subject, and would permeate with energy when read in front of a group.  I planned out the idea for a full two weeks, jotting down jokes and clever turns of phrase as they came to me, and confident in exactly how the final product would sound.  (This is the fun part of writing, where everything feels easy and perfect in the idea stage.)  When my schedule finally settled down I set aside a morning where I would type out an actual draft to make real, and this is when things changed.

Sometimes when I start writing I’m filled with energy and know exactly how I want those first few sentences to sound, though other times I stagger in my opening and find the rhythm as I go.  This was one of those times when the beginning felt weak but I knew I could iron out the tone and pacing over the course of writing, and so I continued through a sloppy opening.  It was a dull, stiflingly humid morning, and in my kitchen where I write my air conditioner hadn’t yet driven in enough cool air from the living room to make a difference. I’d also become aware of a sharp, weighty headache that caused me to lose focus every few minutes, though I knew that if I could just get past those opening paragraphs and start adding the jokes I’d already written that everything would be fine.  I thought again about how good the piece would sound when finished, hearing sections in my head (fragments of sentences, mostly, or certain dramatic climaxes) that rekindled my confidence and drove me to continue.

My headache, though, was getting worse, and when I added in the jokes from my notebook they felt out of place, like I was trying to beat life into an otherwise stagnant piece of writing.  I thought about things I needed to do that day and how late I’d slept, and tried to remember the glorious rhythm of the piece as I’d rehearsed it in my head, trying hard to summon the energy, the humor, and the bitingly sarcastic voice I knew would make it a success. 

I don’t remember when exactly I lost faith in what I was writing; I think for a long while I believed that a few rounds of revision could smooth out the rough prose, the inconsistent voice, and the overly long paragraphs, but then this hope fizzled out and left me wondering whether to abandon the draft and return to bed (it was still very humid in that kitchen) or to finish and commit to paper the ending I’d planned.  Those last two paragraphs were the hardest—hard because I didn’t believe in the piece anymore, and was writing for the sake of finishing something I’d started, and I knew that no idea, no matter how clever, could save the piece now.

When I typed out the last sentence I felt sick from fatigue and defeat; the piece would need a complete overhaul that required I start it again from scratch, which I did not at that point (and still don’t) know how to do.  It bothered me that the piece was a failure, and I didn’t write anything after that for a long time. 

I find myself wondering what lesson can be learned from this experience, what I can take from it that will make me a better writer, and what I can explain in this final paragraph that will uplift and educate you as readers, but I don’t think there’s any lesson to be learned here, and any attempt to churn one from this story will come across as childish and trite.  No—failing to write that piece was just something that happened, like breaking a shoelace or finding mold in your sour cream, and now it’s done with and should be forgotten—not in that repressed memory kind of way where later on you cringe upon recalling this thing that bothered you, but in that way where you can’t quite remember what you ate for breakfast the previous day but could probably recall it if someone asked you and you concentrated for a short while.  It was just a thing that happened.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Response to Chick-fil-A Employees Saying "My Pleasure" Instead of "You're Welcome"

I recently visited a Chick-fil-A for the first time, having first heard of it (like many New Englanders) through its anti-same-sex marriage controversy.  I was curious to compare Chick-fil-A’s food to that of its Nebraska-staple, chicken-serving cousin, Raising Cane’s, after one of my students wrote an essay about the differences, and it seemed disingenuous that I could know so much about Chick-fil-A without ever having actually eaten there.

Everything about Chick-fil-A seemed fine—it was clean, featured a large children’s playplace, and I observed no signs of homophobic activity.  The high-school girl behind the counter also struck me as not only polite, but genuinely interested in making conversation that wasn’t rehearsed or perfunctory—another plus, as I’ve always detested space-filler conversations with waitresses and salespeople that have no merit of their own.  Then the guy in front of me thanked the server for taking his order, and she immediately replied, “My pleasure.”

Now, the phrase “My pleasure” shouldn’t have seemed out of the ordinary—in fact, it should have struck me as more authentic than a robotically repeated “You’re welcome.” When I heard it, though, I remembered a line from my student’s paper that went something like this:

“I like how Chick-fil-A employees always say “My pleasure,” which shows how much more polite their workers are.”

The student was writing from his experiences in Nebraska, while I was then in Nashua, New Hampshire talking to a different girl behind a different counter who was using the exact same phrase.  I wondered whether the girl would say the same thing to me, and when it became my turn to order I made a few jokes (probably about waffle fries) until she handed me my ticket.

“Thanks a lot,” I said.
“My pleasure,” the girl replied.

The phrase, once noticed and observed as something she’d said to the previous customer, now appeared repetitive, part of a routine in which I was now a participant.  The routine was further enforced when a different server arrived to bring us our food:

“Thanks for bringing it out,” I told her.
“My pleasure,” the girl said.

The phrase now sounded almost eerie, since for two servers to have independently adopted the same phrase was too perfect, too neat, and too in keeping with the spotlessly clean tables and pristine white backgrounds on the backlit menu.  I felt as if I’d stumbled upon a terrible secret—that every Chick-fil-A employee in every Chick-fil-A restaurant in every region of the US had been instructed to use the exact same gracious phrase just as every Chick-fil-A restaurant was to offer the same menu choices and the same soft drinks and to stock the same sealed packets of sauce that I was now fiddling with at the table.  Having the same menu choices and décor didn’t bother me, but requiring one’s employees to talk in the same way seemed to cross a line, seemed to lump the very-human workers we deal with into the same category as mass-produced food and cushion-backed chairs that could be chosen by higher-ups in a corporate office.  It was an attempt to control the way workers interacted with customers, to achieve the effect of politeness through standardized phrasing. 

The problem with this model is that it takes initiative away from the workers and places it in the hands of a corporate office.  The workers don’t get to choose how to be polite with customers; they’re told exactly what to say, so the politeness is imposed on them.  Not only does this constitute a loss of worker freedom, it strips workers of both the independence and responsibility that comes from making one’s own choices, a sobering thought, considering most fast-food employees are still learning essential job skills that they’ll hope to bring to other positions.

In addition, regardless of how genuinely friendly servers might seem, the “My pleasure”s uttered by Chick-fil-A employees constitute an act performed for the customer, thus stripping the phrase of what authenticity it may have held had the server chosen to say it of her own volition.  When this façade becomes apparent, it can’t be unseen, and the “My pleasure”s don’t seem as polite anymore.  Though some may argue that all fast-food politeness is an act, I argue that at least other chains let their employees choose how to be polite, rather than enforcing specific scripts for how to do so, thus allowing for (slightly) more authentic interactions.

As unfortunate as it is, I’ve grown accustomed to how much of America has become a standardized succession of chain stores, logos, and brand names that fill out the landscape from Maine to California.  This uniformity crosses a line, though, when it’s imposed on the casual utterances spoken by workers in these places, opening up new possibilities for corporate models where everything that everyone says is the same, leaving no room for servers to voice their own thoughts at all.  In a world where fast-food serving robots haven’t yet been invented, how close can corporations come to total control by training servers that function like the machines that haven’t yet made total control possible?

When fast-food robots do become the norm, though, I don’t know if people will despise them, or if they’ll accept the change as another facet of reality and move on, maybe even finding relief in an interaction that’s as forgettable as the digital instructions on an ATM screen.  Maybe that's the world we're really moving toward.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Thoughts About Trains and Buses

Why is the American train station symbol so complicated?  The airport symbol is a picture of a plane, the bus station symbol is a picture of a bus, but the train station symbol is a picture of a building and platform with a train on rails headed toward the viewer head-on while a person stands on the platform to board.  Also, who looks at a train head-on like that?

Getting on a train is a lot easier than getting on a plane.  When you take a plane, you have to find the right terminal, check in online or using that complicated boarding pass dispensing machine, check your oversized bags for twenty-five dollars, then wait in a security line where you empty your pockets and remove your belt and shoes and pull your laptop out of its case and put everything into those plastic bins while you try to keep your pants from falling down.  With the train, though, you just kind of go to the station and get on, and it’s really easy.

The routines of flying also get to me.  Like, the flight attendants have to explain the same safety procedures each time you fly, repeating the same motions over and over until they lose all meaning.  Or you have to watch those videos where you hear about exit rows and oxygen masks and flotation devices, which you’ve also heard about a million times, and the whole thing is so well orchestrated that no one pays attention.  The trains are different because you can tell the people on the intercoms are just kind of making everything up as they go, since the head of Amtrak hasn’t given them a script to follow.

Why do flight attendants give out free drinks on planes?  I always take one, even though I never really want a drink that badly.  Train conductors are too busy for that shit.

Flight attendants always appear extremely well-groomed and the women always wear a lot of make-up, like they’re trying to make flying more sexual.  The train workers wear uniforms too, but you can tell that the dress codes aren’t as strict since their jackets are often too loose and their shirts are untucked, since they’re really just there to work and you’re just there to get where you’re going.

I also rode a Greyhound bus where the driver took smoke breaks outside with the passengers.  He gave a long, anecdotal explanation of the bus rules, telling us not to gab on about who was sleeping with who or who said what on Facebook because it was distracting to other passengers, and warned us that if we were caught with drugs he’d pull over to the side of the highway and wait ninety minutes for the police.  This was more entertaining that listening to a bunch of FAA legalese.

Another bus driver began our trip by saying that if we were having a problem with anyone on the bus, he would come back and take care of it personally.  No pilot in the history of flying has ever said anything that badass.

A piece like this could have probably earned me the AmtrakResidency.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Guy Who Loved Video Games

A student in one of my first-year writing classes wrote an essay on the debate between PC and console gaming, and a damned good essay it was.  It wasn’t a typical essay, though: he cited the advantages and disadvantages of each argument before explaining how ridiculous it was to argue these differences at all, and ended with a page full of happy gaming memories playing Call of Duty on couches with friends and trying to beat the original Super Mario Bros. on his grandmother’s old tube TV.  It’s not about asserting one platform’s superiority, these anecdotes implied, but about the fun you have playing the game.

“So, I didn’t really get which side you were on,” a girl in our peer conference admitted.  “Do you prefer PCs, or consoles?”

There were four of us in the classroom, the student who’d written the essay, his two groupmates, and me, the teacher running the show.  The other girl in the group admitted to knowing nothing about video games and also being confused about what the writer’s opinion was, having completely missed the significance of the happy gaming memories.  This placed me in an awkward position as the authority figure: if I felt the original ending forged a moment of great significance, but others had missed its meaning entirely, could the ending be considered effective?

I slouched in my plastic chairdesk and looked at the ending again: it was poignant, well-written, and evocative, while never quite spelling out in an obvious manner what the writer wanted to say—he was more subtle than that.  Still, two out of three readers had weighed in with their confusion. 

“As a writer,” I began when it came my moment to speak, “you have to consider your audience.  Every reader reads differently, and every reader will pick up different aspects of a piece depending on their experiences.  If something you’re trying to say isn’t coming across to two-thirds of the group [and here I let hang the unspoken implication that this was a very large percentage] then you might want to think about stating your point more clearly.”

And that was all—we then moved on to an essay about Christian stereotypes.

All day I thought about what I’d said, how I’d encouraged this young writer who’d written a damned good essay to compromise his vision because two classmates who’d never played a video game and had probably skimmed the essay the night before didn’t understand it.  The ending was valuable for its subtlety—it had made readers realize for themselves how ridiculous the PC-console debate was—and here I was, an authority figure who held the power to grant this student a letter grade telling him to bow to the whims of a few readers he wasn’t even reaching out to.  I hadn’t said this directly, but I’d pressured him to follow the mainstream—to do what everyone else wanted.

So I wrote the student an e-mail.  It was a medium-length e-mail, sent late at night, with a sincerity I hadn’t shown in the classroom fourteen hours before.  It said that he’d received some opinions from his readers, but that only he, the writer, could decide how valuable these opinions were.  Did he want to write an essay that spelled things out in simple terms, or did he want his readers to think for themselves?  It was a choice he had to make.

I felt a lot better after writing that, and the student did too—he replied saying he was glad to hear I’d liked his original ending, and that now that he had my approval he planned on keeping it.  It was a victory for artists and independent thinkers everywhere.

I wonder now, though, what kind of path I’d set him on, and whether he was prepared to face the challenges of arguing for what you know is right despite the put-downs of the majority.  I think about this path and how difficult it is, how many nagging voices come at us from groupmates and authority figures, how often these people tell us what we’re doing isn’t working or is just plain wrong.  I think about how sticking to an unpopular vision is one of the most difficult choices in the world to make, but it’s where great art comes from, because the ideas that get remembered are always the ones that break free from the mainstream.

Fuck if it isn’t a difficult struggle, though.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ode to the Candy Machine at the University of Nebraska Press Building

For Chrissy Osmulski (1981-2015)

In the lobby of the office where I work there used to be a small candy machine perched on a pole by the elevators, the kind where if you put in a quarter and turned a crank, a mass of candies would drop down a chute, clatter through a hinged doorway, and fall neatly into your hand.  This machine, though, was different: while most candy machines have only three or four slots in a neat line, this one was a cube with slots on all sides, two on each horizontal face, with a total of eight candies to choose from.  It had M&Ms, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, Mike and Ikes, Hot Tamales, trail mix, novelty gummy candies, and even some brown nuts of a kind I’d never seen in a vending machine.

The candy machine was the one iconic feature of the building lobby, where I spend no more than a few seconds waiting for the elevator each time I go into work.  It’s a long, rectangular lobby with entrances on either side, both of which are covered by square, flat awnings.  Oversized American flags and a potted plant attempt to instill a friendly atmosphere in the corridor, and perpendicular to the entrances large glass doors open into large offices, though both of these offices have moved and printed notices remind visitors to come to their new locations.

I noticed the candy machine on my first day because it was the one object in the lobby that actually stood out, and I swiveled around it to see the types of candy on its four faces, two of which were tilted inconveniently close to the wall.  It occurred to me that if I had a quarter (which I usually don’t—I rarely carry change anymore unless I’m doing laundry or happen to have purchased something with cash that day) I could turn the crank and get a handful of Reese’s Pieces to eat on my way home, a reward for making it through the workday.  I could also have tried the brown nuts I’d never seen in a vending machine before, or bought some Skittles to eat one at a time (since Skittles are best savored individually, rather than in a mixed handful).  I wondered how much candy one got for a quarter—had the manufacturers considered inflation by working an adjustable valve into each slot’s measuring mechanism, or did twenty-five cents buy the same number of M&Ms today as it did in 1980?  If it did, then buying candy from the machine might be a better deal than buying it in single-serving bags from the gas station, a bargain the building owners may or may not have foreseen.

Then, one day, the machine disappeared.  When I came into work and found it not in its usual spot, I looked first to the other end of the lobby to check whether a thorough janitor or furniture mover had placed it there temporarily, but it wasn’t at the other end of the lobby either.  Nor was it there the next time I came, or the time after that, and even though the American flags and potted plant were always in their same places, the candy machine wasn’t.

I often remember how the candy machine’s compartments were always full, and though I’d initially considered this an illusion maintained by slanted surfaces inside the case, it occurred to me that fewer people passing through the lobby meant fewer candy purchases, and fewer of those people carrying change meant fewer purchases still.  I wonder how much money the building owners made from the machine, or whether some rental agreement had actually caused them to lose money by keeping it there.  I also wonder whether I could have halted them from removing it if I myself had started carrying change and actually used the machine.  I wonder what those brown nuts tasted like and what they’re called; I can’t describe them exactly, but would know them if I saw them again.  But most of all, I wonder about the men who’d come while I was away and pulled the machine down the outside ramp on to a truck, and whether they’d taken that truck to a warehouse somewhere with all the other candy machines no one wanted.  If I’d happened to be walking in the day they were bringing the machine out, I could have done nothing more than watch them from the back stairs. 

I miss the machine now that it’s gone, since there’s nothing else in the lobby to look at, and without it I find my thoughts at the beginning and end of the day much emptier than they used to be, with fewer things left about which to wonder.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Five Reasons to Score Euchre with the 5's

A euchre score of three points. The flipped card is a 5, and each uncovered diamond is worth one point.

My dad’s originally from Michigan, so I grew up playing euchre (pronounced you-kur) the same as they do in the Midwest.  It's a fast-paced game played with two sets of partners, and only half the deck (9’s to Aces).  Since a team needs ten points to win a game, we grew up scoring with the extra 5’s, two for each team.  As shown in the pictures, players keep score by uncovering one symbol for every point up to five, then flipping the top 5 and scoring the remaining points up to ten.  It’s easy to score and easy to read.

A score of nine points (5 + 4).

Then I met some people from Chicago who grew up scoring with 6’s and 4’s, provoking an ongoing debate about which method works better.  I’ve tried both ways and will choose 5’s every time—here are some reasons why:
Which team's winning?  (You had to think about it, didn't you?)

#1. The 5's Are Easier to Read

The world uses a number system based on 10.  Half of 10 is 5, and it’s easier to think in terms of 5 than in terms of, say, 3 or 9, since we intrinsically read 5 as half of 10.  The uncovered top 5 clearly indicates that the game is more than half won, and makes it easier to add the bottom points to the top.  Using a 6 and a 4 slows the math down—it’s just that much infinitesimally easier to add 3 + 5 than to add 3 + 4, and such hurdles can slow you down when you're trying to count your opponent’s trump.

Who's ahead now?  (Had to think about that one too, didn't you?)

#2. No Confusion About Who's On Top

Like a good relationship, with 5’s it doesn’t matter which one’s on top: flip one over and you’re ready to go.  The 6’s and 4’s, however, beg the question of whether to score the 6 or the 4 first, and if both teams choose differently (see above), there’ll be a confusing imbalance if the 4-scoring team flips the top card first and the 6-scoring team has more points.

#3. Flipping Unnecessary Cards

This is really my biggest beef with 4's and 6's.  If you start with the 6 on the bottom and the 4 flipped over, you have to score the first six points, then flip the 4 over and put it on the bottom before placing the six on top to make seven (see above).  If you think you can avoid this extra step by starting with the 4, you're in for a rude surprise: you still have to place a card in back.

With 5’s, though, there’s one step.  Score the first 5, flip the top card, then score the second 5 (see above).  Easy.

#4. Finding the 5’s is Faster

But Ian, my Illinois readers might protest, when you’re sorting the cards for euchre, surely scooping the 6’s and 4’s out of the deck is faster, because you can find them more quickly, right?  Not so!   

Since there are only four 5’s in the deck, all the 5’s get used, and sorting a 52-card deck becomes a simple matter of dealing out the 9’s 10’s, Jacks, Queens, Kings, and Aces for regular play, and the four 5’s for scoring.  It’s a set, clean system with no extra cards.

Are you tired of endless, sloppy clutter during your euchre game?

With 6’s and 4’s though, there are eight possible scoring cards in the deck (four 6’s and four 4’s), so players doing the sorting have to remember how many 6’s and 4’s they’ve separated or they’ll end up with extras to throw back in.  There’s more cards to sort, and more cards to worry about.

Try scoring with the 5s instead!

#5. The Beauty of a Color Match

Two black 5’s for one team, two red 5’s for the other.  Each team has its own color, with no confusion on the board.  You can do that with 6’s and 4’s, of course, but you have to find the exact cards you need from a pile of extras.  Doing it this way also creates an odd imbalance, say, if one team has two hearts and the other has a club and a spade.  You can still have color symmetry, but it takes more work to do it—which is precisely how I feel about the whole 4’s and 6’s system.  It gets the job done fine, but it takes more work and effort that could otherwise be spent playing the game.

Allow me to copy the same photo I just used as proof of how clean this looks.

Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job.  Use the 5’s next time.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hiebner Teaches Ian About the Midwest: A Play in One Act

IAN and HIEBNER sit working at computers in adjacent cubicles.  On IAN’s screen are pictures of farms and farming equipment.  He considers one photo with confusion and, after some thought, pokes his head over the cubicle wall.

IAN: Hey Hiebner, what do you call those long things with the wheels that farmers have in their fields.  I think they’re for spraying or something.

HIEBNER (nonchalantly): Those are pivots, or you can call them circle pivots.  They’re for watering, and what’s really cool is when you see pictures of fields with circle pivots taken from the sky and the whole field is just these huge circles of green.

IAN: Okay, thanks.

IAN returns to his computer and types something.  Several beats later, he pokes his head over the cubicle wall again.

IAN: Hey Hiebner, what do you call it when the machines are gathering up hay from a field, and they bundle it up in this big roll—like a really big one?

HIEBNER: A bale?

IAN: I thought bales were for rectangles of hay.

HIEBNER: Either one.  You can call it a circle bale if you want.

IAN: Okay, thanks.

IAN returns to his computer, types something, and this time immediately pokes his head over the cubicle wall again.

IAN: Hey, what do you call…

REPEAT performance until audience gets up and leaves.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why I Don't Like Direct Deposit

I get paid by direct deposit now (on the last day of the month, unless that day is a weekend or holiday, in which case the money goes in on the business day immediately preceding), though I miss the days when I first began working and got paid weekly by check.  This was at Market Basket, where every Thursday after one or two o’clock the paychecks would come in on a truck, and you had to go to the courtesy booth and tell the woman (it was always a woman) behind the glass your employee number, after which she would rifle through the stack of paychecks and slip yours through the slot between the glass and the counter.  If you went right at one o’clock this usually took longer because there were still many checks to rifle through, but if you went on the weekend the woman was usually able to find yours without much time at all.

I didn’t think about this then, but having a physical paycheck and stub (in my case the kind where you tore off three of the edges and the stub came open, still folded on its fourth edge with the paycheck loose inside) provided a physical reminder of the work you’d done, and that you were being rewarded for it with money, the reason you went to work in the first place.  Sure, the paycheck was only cheap paper with numbers and a printed signature, but the act of tearing it open, signing it, and depositing it at the bank linked the act of working with the reward of having money.

Now, though, the money goes directly into my checking account without my seeing how, and though I can check the same numbers on my computer or a deposit receipt, there’s no talk of money when I’m at work, or anything that associates money with work at all.  When I’m at work now and people talk about money, they speak of the rewards of their labors as being disassociated with the act of work itself, as if the money was being deposited into their accounts on its own, as if work and money were completely separate.  Though we all know that the money we receive comes because we performed work that month, there’s very little within the working experience to remind us that this is true.

When we forget that money comes because of work and that work leads to earning money, we start doing the work without understanding why, and spending the money without remembering where it came from.  Work becomes an aspect of life rather than a chore done to earn a reward, something we do without thinking, that we’ve always done and continue to do, while the money flows in and out like the water from a tap that we know not to waste but leave turned on anyway. 

Such disassociations are dangerous because they make it more difficult to leave a job we don’t like, or are ready to move on from.  The more passively we view earning money, the harder it is for us to risk disrupting the flow.  I try not to forget that, even if I don’t have a tear-away pay stub anymore.