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Friday, December 12, 2014

One Life, Multiple Agendas

Lately, when we've finished watching a movie, and it's lights-out, go-to-sleep time, I turn mentally to my fictional characters. I've got a couple chapters under my belt and am well into a third of what I initially envisioned as a three-part 
novella that quickly began to sprawl towards being a novel. So I put my mind where I left off writing as I go to sleep, and I wake up with the characters still (or again) in my head, doing what I need to capture in words before the ideas slip away.

So up I get in the dark to make coffee and sit down to begin writing, either on laptop or, other times, as this morning, on yellow legal pad. A few pages later I'm distracted by thoughts of a bookstore event only one day away. Where is my recipe for peanut butter brownies, and what do I need to get at the store tonight for the tomorrow's event? Come to think of it, what do we need here at home that need to pick up at the store after I close the bookstore at 5 o'clock? 

All at once I remember a question e-mailed to me that needs an answer today. It's a number question involving percentages. Soon the top page of my yellow legal pad (because my draft fiction never begins on the top page, where someone might see it) is covered with lists and formulae. 

David gets up about then and brings his cup of coffee to the table across from me to update me on the latest world news, gleaned during his partially sleepless night. I tell him about my writing and listing projects. Sarah dances about the room with unbelievably fetching cuteness, tossing her pretty head toward her kong, in hopes we will load it with peanut butter. How can we resist her? We can't.

I got about three pages written this morning. Not bad, considering.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Others Seem to Lack Focus, Too

The recent Supreme Court decision that said A__z_n did not need to compensate workers for time spent in security check lines at the end of their shifts sounded strange to me. The employer's argument was (1) that the wait is rarely as long as 30 minutes, usually only a couple of minutes, and (2) if workers had to be compensated,  it would cost this employer and others across the country millions of dollars. Huh? Wait a minute! Which is it?

If compensating workers for time spent in line would be that costly, the workers must be spending a lot of time in those lines. Or, if the wait is really so short, how could compensation be such a costly burden to the employer?
Wouldn't you think that counting time spent in security check lines as work time would motivate the employer to keep the wait short, even when, as was the case in the original lawsuit, the employer outsourced the security check to another company?

The application of “portal to portal” in this case sounds fishy, too. The employees obviously have not yet left their workplace, because it is precisely the purpose of the security check to sniff out attempted thefts before workers leave. And if they were not still at work, how could the employer demand that they submit to a security check? 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Almost-Invisible Continuing Disappearance of Jobs

This morning I paid my November retail sales tax to the State of Michigan. Here are some of the offices and workers who help me with that transaction:

1)  My local branch bank: I don’t bank online because (a) I enjoy face-to-face interactions and (b) every online site is “secure” only until someone figures out how to hack into it. It’s fine. Since our once-local bank was bought out by a larger national system, many annoying features have crept into my banking life, but I still like my local tellers, and I want them to keep their jobs.
2)  Friends of the Library: Small part but important. I make a copy of every form and check I send to the DOT.
3)  Post office: This is my third face-to-face interaction. Some people hate going to the post office, but I’ve always loved it. And in 21 years of bookselling, not a single book I’ve shipped USPS has ever gone astray. Every civilized country has a national postal service. I don’t want my country to give up being civilized.
4)  State workers in Detroit and Lansing: These people live and work miles from me, but they’re doing their jobs, just like the people here in my little village.
5)  Check printers: Again, people I don’t know and never see but whose work I appreciate.

Recently those of us who do retail business in Michigan received a form letter from the state, telling us that beginning in 2015 all sales tax payments must be made online, electronically. Presumably, what that means is that I will go to an online account, tell a program how much I owe, and the MDOT will reach an electronic arm into my bank account and take its money directly. I will no longer be trusted to send my monthly check in a timely manner. There will be no printed check. The post office will not be involved, nor will anyone at my local branch bank.

I will be losing an important measure of control over my finances, and how many people will be losing their jobs? Why? Because state government and the federal postal system are “bloated”?

What some people call “bloat,” I call jobs.

What some people call progress, I call intrusion into my business and negation of my autonomy.

Who is winning here? I know I'm not.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Opening My Big Fat Mouth

There’s a thing my family members said for years – father, mother, sisters, and me – when telling about a situation that bothered us in some way but in which we kept our mouths shut: “I could have said something!” A continuation of the sentence was sometimes spoken, always implied: “But I didn’t!” I don’t know if both our parents came into the marriage with this phrase or if one of them got it from the other, but they both used it all the time, and we, their daughters, learned to use it, too. It was usually said with a little sniff of superiority and a lifting of the chin, saying louder than words that, in not saying anything, we had taken the moral and spiritual high ground. I think the real truth is that we were too shy, too afraid to speak out, but we wanted to hide the fear in something that made us look better -- to ourselves, if to no one else.

So now, if some of my adult friends today think I’m too much of a crank, this is my explanation: I spent too many years of my life not saying anything, letting ignorant or insulting or offensive or mistaken or hurtful remarks go unchallenged. For too long, I unnecessarily gave ground. I said nothing when I should have said something. 

True, there are times when saying anything is pointless and times when saying something once and then shutting up is about all that’s worth doing. But there are also times, and there are issues, when not saying anything or shutting up too soon is the worst cop-out possible. Listening is always important, but so, often, is speaking out. And I do not want the inscription on my metaphorical tombstone (probably the only kind I’ll ever have) to read: “She could have said something – but she didn’t.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Arrival of Autumn, 2014

Back road, Leelanau, October

One day in August the eye catches a few leaves turned prematurely red on an otherwise green tree, and that red-bearing twig is an intimation, but it is still August, after all, until August slides seamlessly into September, but even then every day is still full of warmth and sun or, if rain comes along, the thunderstorms come like summer rain, passing quickly, with returning blue sky and warm light and every petal and leaf and edge in sharp, bright focus and lake waters still inviting swimmers free of school, and it seems that this year, at last, impossible wishes will be granted, and summer will never end. The solstice slips by, unremarked. And then one day it comes.

People sniff the air like dogs. Some shiver and reach for sweaters, while others breathe deeply and smile. The air is damp and carries a rich, earthy aroma of mold and decay. All around, warm life appears wrapped in a thin, transparent, crackling sheet of interstellar cold, the heat and the cold held in tension, equally powerful, the outcome of their struggle still in doubt, while underfoot the soil is breathing so slowly it almost seems to be holding its breath, and by the edge of the woods, where yesterday there was only grass and Queen Anne’s-lace and milkweed, today there is a silent ring of small brown mushrooms, and further down the hill a cluster of puffballs, and out in the meadow the deep rose and pale lavender and deep purple of asters have opened to the late-arriving dawn.

“Indian summer,” say the tourists, happy for the fall color, but there’s been no hard frost yet. This is simply fall. Summer is over at last.

Maybe there will be Indian summer after the frost this year, and maybe there won’t. For now, apples, pumpkins and squash jostle late sweet corn, tomatoes and zucchini at the busy farmstands, and while the time for elderberries and blueberries is past, ripe blackberries can yet be plucked from unruly canes. (It’s too soon to gather wild grapes, which need a frost to make them sweet.) Hay has been cut and baled. Here and there sowings of winter rye green the fields.

Hawks sightings are rarer now, although for weeks the hawks were everywhere, along the highways and high above the fields. The memory of monarch butterflies, single individuals and rare, sparse clouds, is prolonged by shared photographs and stories, as Canada geese, the last of the season’s migrants to depart, gather on the ground to debate flight schedules.

Wild turkeys are gathering, also, in larger and larger groups, but they, like the chickadees, will stay throughout the winter. They are not fair-weather residents. The deer will stay, too, as will coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and all species of mouse. 

Ah, the mice! Whenever there is a sudden change in the weather, mice can be expected to invade the house. Days and nights suddenly become cold, the first fall nights of furnace heat, triggering a rush of immigrants, but months later on a winter thaw will bring them in again. As long as the weather is settled, they seem to stay put. It’s different with the coyotes, abroad on every calm night and still day, signaling to each other with yips and howls, coming nearer the house or at least seeming too, their voices perhaps only sounding closer as the air grows colder.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Way Mom and Pop End Arguments

Squabble, squabble, squabble.... Statements, retorts, denials, counter-accusations.... At last --

Pop: You always have to have the last word.

Mom: [Silence]

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Does Spandex Inhibit Common Sense and Good Manners?

This is a serious question.

One person riding a bicycle is a joy to see. Two on bikes can be twice as nice. But what happens to their manners when four or more bicyclists in Spandex ride together, and why does it happen? 

Instead of remaining on the highway’s paved shoulder, they spread out side by side across traffic lanes. Very dangerous! 

Then in town they’ll flop their bikes down on top of flower-filled  boxes and pots on the sidewalk while they visit the bar next door, or they’ll lean their bikes across the front of several benches at Barb’s Bakery and sit on the benches on the other side of the door, so that four people manage to monopolize seating for ten, showing no embarrassment whatsoever for their behavior. Very rude!

I really am asking the question: what’s up with this selfish, antisocial behavior? I would like to think of tourists on bicycles as socially evolved, conscientious folk, but the evidence points in a very different direction. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mom and Pop Have Secret Lives

Listening to a radio feature about the terrible private lives of CIA operatives --

Mom: You see? Things could be worse. What if you were in the CIA?

Pop: How do you know I'm not? How do you know I'm not a hired assassin?

Mom: Right, and how do you know I'm not a wildly successful author? Maybe I've published dozens of novels under a pen name and have millions in royalties stashed away in a Swiss bank account.

Both snort derisively at the delusions of the other.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Made-Up Vegetable Mix

Leeks sauteed slowly in olive oil, with white grape juice gradually added. Near the end, cut steamed green beans and a spoonful or two of dried tomato pesto mixed in.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Math Dream That Was Not a Nightmare

Why would my dream life be invaded by a geometry problem? The setup was a line segment, and the question that invaded my dream life was, how many lines could intersect that line segment? At first I imagined the intersecting lines to be all perpendicular and parallel, and my dream thinking was that the number of possible intersecting lines could not be infinite because (1) the original line was only a line segment, and so not itself infinite; and (2) while lines have no breadth or thickness, it seemed to me (but this could be only commonsense thinking, which doesn’t always translate to mathematics) that there would have to be space between the lines or they would simply fill in -- ??? But they would not turn the group of lines into a solid, because there would still be no thickness, or depth.... Does plane geometry care at all if a surface is blank or filled in, or (and if I had to bet, I’d put my money on this second disjunct) does it only care about lines and points?

Ah, but points have no length, breadth, or thickness! A point is not an object but a location. So even the line segment could have, it seems, an infinite number of intersecting, parallel, perpendicular lines. Do you buy it?

Next (still in my dream) I started wondering about intersecting oblique lines. (What would be the smallest conceivable angle? Would there be such a thing?) Would this generate a larger infinity of intersecting lines? Can infinity come in different sizes, bigger and smaller, or is infinity just always that -- infinity?

Finally, dragging myself out of the dream and into wakeful consciousness, I searched around for a way to ask the question that my geometry dream had posed, and here's what I came up with: What is the maximum number of lines that can intersect any given line segment?

Here’s a question and answer I found online that has bearing on my dream, but before following the link you might enjoy thinking about the question yourself. I mean, there's no exam involved here, not even a pop quiz.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Income Gap? How About the Interest Gap?

Has anyone given any attention to the huge gap between interest charged and interest paid? An 11% interest rate on credit card debt is now considered low. At the same time, savings accounts that had a yield of only half a percent a couple of years ago have now fallen to 2/10s of a percent. Is it any wonder Americans are saving so little?

Why don't Americans save more? The inflation rate for 2013 was 1.5%. One hundred dollars in savings in 2013, at .02%, earned 2 cents in interest, but by the end of the year the buying power of that $100 had declined by $1.50.

Someone needs to leak this information to the politicians and pundits.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Two Political Proposals

(1) The amount of the bailout to the banks should be deducted from money the government has borrowed, thus reducing the principal, cutting down interest owed, and substantially reducing the federal debt. If (a) Tom has borrowed from Harry, and (b) Harry goes subsequently broke, and (c) Tom bails him out, how can Tom still owe the full amount of the loan? 

(2) In addition to an increase in the minimum raise, how about a maximum cap on compensation --not just salaries of CEOs but also their bonuses, stock options, etc. Taking into account experience, expertise and accomplishments, merit could still be recognized.