Saturday, December 2, 2017

Customers' Custom Service

Oh hail the notion of service - any kind, anywhere. Motives to provide satisfaction may vary but consider the alternative: no connection with the human being buying your goods, especially in the retail arena.
Retail is suffering mightily in the face of express digital services, the story goes. At the same time, people are again drawn to buying books - clinging to ownership of physical goods for their very ephemeral value. Maybe the seesaw is becoming balanced: more appreciation of such items to make a person feel more grounded, less ephemeral than the slippery act of tapping some keys. And don't forget the value of face-to-face (not with the intolerably impersonal Facebook) - people talking to one another, using our instinctual senses that come out of a different part of the brain. The positive sense of 'making contact' using eye, ear, nose and 'gut.'
The very real value of engaging a very real human. Avatars may have their place - seemingly best for shut-ins.
It's difficult bargaining down a giant such as Comcast using algorithms the company had designed, compared to diligently, patiently discussing that last outrageously high bill..Far better to impress with a stern tone of voice, the voice of reason emphatically expressed so that one's determination can be more instantly understood. Just try it and see the price drop. (Something a friend of mind did recently over two days taking on a Best Buy clerk and then the Customer Service Agent or whatever they are called at Comcast.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

City Girl's Gardener's Guide

Yes, it exists - a fine commercial-free booklet from Baer's 'Agricultural Almanac & Gardener's Guide,' just what the compensatory would-be outdoors woman needs: all the information required to live a second life indoors as a successful outdoors person. The latest 2018 edition is out in its 193rd year, from its original home in Lancaster, Pa. The tips and blips are more than worth the $6 price. Fine reading, too. Who doesn't want to know the best dates for killing briars (not bears, not a misprint), poison ivy, weeds and pests. How surprising to learn the dates to come of such practical wisdom. Little bits of history and handsome black and white illustrations, who wouldn't love to be distracted by the basics of how to grown Zinnias in space. (Ask Astronaut Mark Kelly, who flew high and wide in 2015.) January Lore includes a weather summary by region. Cold in the East, normal (whatever that is these days) west of the Continental Divide.
A perfect Christmas gift for anyone devoted to distraction in the midst of political pollution. Johnbaer.com

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Hither and Yon

Within less than a half mile of my house, not far from the U.S. Capitol, some memorable scenes  unfold that speak in different ways  to the variety that is the spice of city living. Not always uplifting but always energizing.

A: A disheveled  mentally disturbed woman 'of a certain age' (is a man ever that same age, I wonder) walks out suddenly to a popular street corner near Pennsylvania Avenue SE and begins shedding her clothes. All of them. It is a warm day for sure but one that hardly calls for going naked in the streets. She chooses - of all places - a spot opposite young Marines who are guarding their base, home of the Marine Corps commandant. Two witnesses reported this to me - and how quickly one of them dialed 911 to alert police, or an ambulance. Doubtless, she was quickly hustled into a private space and either taken away for confinement (i.e. an examination) or simply told to dress. These same witnesses now see her frequently roaming the streets - it is autumn now - mostly covered. Freedom from constraining garments must have felt wonderful while it lasted.

B: An Eastern Market vendor  regularly hauls a load of every imaginable sort of goods for sale in his tent along 7th Street SE, closed off to traffic on weekends. On this particular day, he brought used furniture that caught the eye of a strolling shopper (i.e. tourist) who inquired about prices. Savvy vendor saw the chance to bargain - if only to be able to sell off heavy items he would then not have to pack up and take back to storage. His customer, eyes brightening, loved the deal and asked if vendor had more of the same to bring him the next week and possibly deliver the goods to an address on Chain Bridge Road, just the other side of the Potomac River, in Virginia. That section is known for extremely lavish and expensive homes. Lo and behold, a large amount of cash was paid; a personal card produced - exciting the vendor who recognized the place. What he didn't at first realize that the man was likely a Saudi Arabian prince, if not the ambassador himself, whose wife and friends were seen, well covered, farther  up 7th Street.  On delivery day, vendor passed through two gates manned by guards with guns who then escorted him up to the front of the mansion.
Vendor now awaits - perhaps - an invitation to tea.

C: At a recent open house sponsored by my local Firehouse (Truck No. something, I forget), coaches stood outside the open door hailing passersby to learn 'Hands-Only CPR For Witnessed Sudden Collapse." First on the (English and Spanish) printed list of instructions was a warning to 'check the scene' - ie. be careful you, the observer, are not part of some personal feud that might involve bodily harm to yourself. Only then, check the person. Ask/shout 'Are you okay?' after a shoulder tap. Next, if no response, call 9-1-1. (This supposes your own emotional and mental state equips you to do so...) Ask others to help call. The Chest Compression lesson most surprising of all: Remove all clothes from the person, including underclothes Yes, a bra or whatever conceals the center of the chest above the heart. No more offering mouth-to-mouth. Keep arms straight, intertwine fingers and push down hard and fast - at least two inches. At least 100 times a minute. Keep going until the professionals arrive. If the patient shows signs of life and starts breathing, turn him/her over on his side away from you.
 Good luck is you are inebriated yourself when you come across this stricken soul.
Oh, and try to have some disposable gloves handy for the procedure.
Modern living is so very complicated.
IF READER HAS GOT THIS FAR, BEWARE A DELIBERATE SWITCH IN SUBJECT MATTER FOLLOWS.

Famed architect Rem Koolhaaas - a true urbanista (male division),in his perch called Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is as cool as they come. His latest definition posted of the countryside is 'anything that is not the city.' Trendy guy, yes? Seems he has caught up with the populist movement, for better and worse, how small-town America (try defining that one) made such  a difference in the last American election.

Consider another definition: The city is a place where public libraries post Behavior Rules - 10 pages in booklet form - as the DC public library did this past August.  DCPL feels the need to say that no bare feet or bare chests are allowed on the premises. Large bags in excess of 9/14/22 inches are not permitted. And prohibits 'odorous' patrons who annoy others from six feet or more away.

And then, and then: perhaps we are too often eager to draw lessons from the mix of people and backgrounds that get thrown together in a city. Today (apologies to participants), I had the son of New York cops over for Irish coffee with the emigrant wife of an entrepreneurial El Salvador  husband, sitting together and - in a way - comparing notes. Notes on how to make your way and sustain your goals in a chaotic indeterminate political scene. Patricia, smart and self-effacing, across from Sean,  talented garden expert. What decisions for each of them justify staying on in America? How else would either of them ever have met, since she is in Virginia and he makes a base in Maryland for clients in DC. Her husband's business has been suffering, she says (dump trucks); his choices narrowing by virtue of a deadline for health insurance application. How to move, what to do? Each with barriers in a way.She never would return home to El Salvator where gangs extract   protection money; he thinks moving to Ireland an option. The insecurity is frightening for both. Sean worries about health insurance in the future; Patricia, for the welfare of her grown children.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Leaving And Arriving



This column was supposed to be a piece about a city girl in country mode. Some high minded reactions about leaving an environment populated by some 500,000 souls and finding yourself in a village of  500 people where  roads are too narrow for  traffic. What happens mentally and emotionally with such a change.
Well, self-deception mostly.
What some call vacation, others call escape away from and into other scenes. I chose Greece again for eight glorious September days in retreat from the usual  urban noise. The sun setting in the west over the Aegean from the terrace of the  Lagou Raxi Country Hotel on the Pelion Peninsula becomes  a revelation, an almost unnatural occurrence because of its too rare unobstructed views at home. Awe and wonder. Such  peace. I walk fifteen minutes into Lafkos village and sit in the central square beneath towering cypress trees - nature  overshadowing my minuscule self, putting my selfish wants in proportion. An elderly couple I meet along the way hand me an apple plucked fresh from their front yard orchard. And smile when I  thank them in fractured Greek. They reply as though I can understand their words. Except for delivery vehicles, the narrow streets are closed to traffic so the baker conveniently stacks the wood needed for his oven in giant piles outside. I pass Maria's taverna and see her seated in a cell phone trance beside a folded rack of aprons. These are souvenir gifts from patrons coming from foreign lands.
 I walk 45 minutes down hill on an ancient stone path hundreds of years old and stop briefly to admire the view and drink from a spring blurting pure water from a rocky surface. I've come to Milina village to swim in the salty blue sea and walk  a shoreline lined with small shops and cafes. Signs advertise fishing trips and evening entertainment though clients must be limited this time of year. The tiny tourist office is closed. September is already 'off season.' I banter with the only  tourists I see, a couple seated next to my table where I order a raki. They are  Roumanians  pausing on their  drive south, wide-eyed toddler in tow. Their English is perfect.
So, too, is my swim off a pebbly beach shaded by some wispy pine trees next to a cement wall.
And so should be the  Greek salad I choose for a late lunch at another seaside cafe farther down the road. My waiter, the owner,  is curious, courteous, and direct - Greeks at their best, by right the equal of any man.
"I can tell you were once a beautiful woman," he volunteers, putting before me my plate of juicy well-oiled tomatoes and peppers alongside a loaf of fresh bread. I'm  taken aback,  unsure whether to feel flattered or insulted. What else can I do but thank him?
He walks away before I can reply.
City mouse, country mouse, still the same old face.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cruising the Anacostia One Fine August Evening

Any Washington DC person might recognize some contradictions here. How 'fine evenings' in August are all relative and even seldom experienced amid the downpours of late. But it was Eclipse Day so perhaps the gods were being merciful sending a breeze and later a delicious fan-shaped pink and blue sunset. Then, too,  who dares suggest a 'cruise' on one of the country's most reviled and, until recently, most polluted rivers - cursed as it is, too, by its reputation as a demographic dividing line. The Native Americans named the river but had nothing to do with that unfortunate sequence. Modern economic forces did. Anacostia is renowned as the 'poor side of town,' its residents perpetually struggling to be accorded their fair share of the city's wealth and services.  Until recently, the word itself was more beautiful than the river that borders the District of Columbia on the west. Now, according to biologist guide Trey Shepard, a reappraisal is taking place, in slow motion, along the waterway.  Climb aboard a free boat tour hosted most of the year by  nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeepers to see  changes and learn about nature's adaptability in the face of humankind's destructibility (largely the form of toxins). One of the most surprising facts: it's possible, except after heavy storms, to swim in the river  again without danger and, second, the DC 'tax' on plastic bags in retail stores that underwrites the tours is working. More funds are being collected at the same time that fewer plastic bags are being discarded.   Trey is a reliable walking/talking wealth of information about urban water issues and their effect on everyday life in burgeoning DC. He drowns his passengers with  information but doesn't forget to point out the wild rice growing on one patch and.  eagles flying overhead. That helps - somewhat - the miserable fact that, in the past, one an a half billion gallons of untreated water flowed into the Anacostia each year. The brown color is natural on this tidal vista that stretches for seven miles through DC territory but becoming more and more clean. (Odd but interesting fact: DC's 69 square miles contains two parks larger than New York's Central Park.)  Check out www.anacostiariverkeeper.org.
at left: sculpture of a heron named either Harry or Henry composed of discarded plastic materials found in the Anacostia River

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A 'Stink' in Washington - Bloom Time 8/17

 Get a whiff of this: the Corpse Flower  (yes, that's the name) exploding in all its glory for the first time in several years at Washington's U.S. Botanic Garden (an arm of Congress, dedicated to the natural as opposed to the political life). Unusual, too: Three Corpse flowers taking their own sweet slow time before these plants, native to Sumatra, unfold green and violet winglike outer covering (a spathe) to show the world just who is boss.
Note: The botanical specimen is really hundreds of little flowers making up what the professionals call its 'inflorescence.' Along with the explosion of color comes an intimidating scent that is compared to rotting meat.
Ah, go ahead, give it a try. It's free. So is the joke that, well, something 'smells' in the capital city.  Be it ever thus.
 One difficulty is the plant's ornery nature: it makes up its own mind when to perform and it does so without much of a warning.
Reputably as many as 20,000 people came by the building in a single day one year to gaze  at(and whiff)  the eruption.
Explanation: The huge size of the bloom (think man size and even higher) needs years - decades even - to store up enough energy to show its stuff.
Think lily with a giant ego, in human terms. The smell  is what attracts pollinators, such as carrion beetles and flies.
This humid greenhouse  can trace its origins back to an idea by George Washington - though an actual building didn't exist until 1850 when it  gained stature as the first such structure to be made of aluminum instead of steel. Where history is concerned, humble yourself before the cycads  - much smaller plants at the base of the corpse and much older. These particular ones date back to 1842, so said outgoing director Ari Novy - who has spent five years overseeing the 7000 species of plants found in this public place. (Including this much smaller  one, the scintillating green Cabbage on a Stick,, a rare species from Hawaii, marvelous to behold among the many towering wonders within the glass framed conservatory - all free for the looking.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Starting Over

Who hasn't thought - or even acted on - the notion that beginning life again in a new place would be beneficial. Usually the 'benefits' are not fully thought out. Just as well. It is enough to imagine how external influences and challenges will overcome an initial resistance to change. Surely, the thought goes, a change of geography can lead to a change of mind and habit. Having such impulses -whether or not turned into action - surely applies to every thinking person on the planet with the wherewithal to dream.
Thus it was, as stories are apt to begin, that a man we'll call Adam made a giant leap from big city to small city (or town, if you like). A man born in Maine whose academic career began in New England and flourished in Kings College in old England upped to start over with his wife and dog in Montana. As much as anything, he admits the lure was the power of myth - images in his imagination of a serene new lifestyle in a magnificent mountain setting. The very name Montana held him as neither of the Dakotas could.
He/they would buy a house - the first one they ever had purchased.
He would have to relearn how to drive. A car would be his lifeline since few people in his new home city ever walk outside, and daily and weekly chores were an immense burden on his time.
He would have to have a  job - tenure track, as it happens, having voluntarily given up tenure track at a large well-established university in one of the prime capitals of the world.
And he would have to relate to people in a new way, he realized. The people who were his colleagues and neighbors who might not immediately understand his effusive personality and talkativeness.
It clearly was an experiment. With his degrees - religion and art - he might press his case as an interdepartment  scholar in any number of other places. How he came to jump at a blind ad in a professional publication is part of his story; the rest has to be about his adjustment.
He would learn that the so-called relaxed laid-back western folk who appear outwardly so open welcoming have some built-in restrictions on relationships. The 'How're ya?' greeting is not expected to get a full response. And "Hope to see you around sometime,' or 'We must get together,' which - in many parts of the world - really aren't intended as goodwill invitations. People like Adam come West to get away more than to be found: to have privacy at their disposal at all hours. Someone who talks so fast might be suspected of having a 'line to sell,' rather than having a sincere interest in reaching out to another person.
This isn't to imply that the local scene is bereft of wit and wisdom of a worldly kind. Good humor doesn't stop at state boundaries. The subdivisions - plots of land with garages that often seem larger than the houses -  keep moving westward, an ever- changing combination of wood, stone, and stucco laced with green. A moving stream of  portajohns named 'urapeean' (yes, that spelling)  accompanying them. And everywhere for some reason basketball stands, as though every family to plays ball. Of some kind anyway.