Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Part One: Rated Poorly

Here's some "fun with expectations" to be enjoyed in three parts.

Stuff that turned out worse than was expected:
  • "A Christmas Carol" performed by Trinity Reperatory Company in Providence, RI: Every year, my family buys tickets to see this annually produced show, and Trinity Rep. reliably creates a new perspective or interpretation to keep the many-times/many-ways seen show interesting. However, "interesting" this year bordered on the bizarre. My first indication that this would be the case was a commercial I saw on a local TV channel about the show by the director. The director, "so honored to be able to do Trinity's play," in as few words a possible, convinced me that he apparently thought he had come up with THE new, modern, artsy way to do the show. Therefore, I wasn't so much "shocked" as I was disappointed to have been correct. The guy had a thing for puppets--perhaps wishing to shed some much needed employment upon his rarely spotlighted puppeteering friends--but he didn't quite carry through his ideas. There was one of Scrooge himself, which disappeared about mid-way through the play without ceremony and consequently, with a loss as to audience interpretation of the puppet's meaning. The most "striking" was the Ghost of Christmas Future, which rose out from a curtain on the stage in the form of a Phantom of the Opera mask-like face, accompanied by one "pointing" and one "non-pointing" hand. In other news, the set was "minimalist" to a severe degree--cups and tables in scenes weren't even "real", but were instead cardboard cut outs (unconvincing when they had to be "used" by the cast as if they retained that third dimension they were missing). The background sets, wheeled in and out by stage hands (and this was the first production I actually "saw" the stage people "working" on the stage--other times they were strategically well hidden) could have been sketched by, and were perhaps on loan from, a local third grade class attempting a similar production. Even the cast was minimalist--a chorus of girls between about 8 and 12 years old made up for the lack of "company" in song or in bustling, "busy" street scenes.

The Bottom Line: The reason why this production is being judged rather harshly is because first, Trinity has done amazing versions of this story that have wowed and truly affected its audience. If they couldn't do so, families like my own wouldn't make the yearly pilgrimage to see A Christmas Carol. Since it is such a popular play, enough so that they have to have two casts to perform it, you would think they would take that in hand and mind when they choose an "interpretive style" or perhaps even a director in the future.

  • "The Crimson Petal and the White"--a novel by Michael Faber: When this book came out, I was working at Borders, and Mr. Faber was celebrated as "a twenty-first century Charles Dickens." However, simply setting a novel in the 19th-Century Victorian London, including some less-than-reputable characters and throwing in a slum or two to remind the reader of the "hard times" experienced by the masses does not qualify comparison to a literary paragon. The book is over eight hundred pages long but it does not at any point inspire the reader to the "unable to put the book down" level. In fact, the characters are so poorly developed and two-dimensional that the reader rather doesn't care what happens to them "next" as chapter after chapter passes by. In order to "make" his characters interesting, he gives them some peculiar mannerism--one of the main characters is a "fop" with an "innocent, sickly" wife, and another, a captivating whore. Faber is so preoccupied with preserving his mystique and setting the scene (or one can only suppose those are his motives) that he includes long interactions between characters that even he in the omnipresent "author's voice admits are irrelevant to the story the reader ultimately skips through to get back to some significant action. At first, the reader may be fooled into thinking these scenes and interactions are somehow symbolic; however, after perusing through many of them, it becomes abundantly clear that the reader will never be left in a position where he or she will have to backtrack in the novel to pick up that one piece of information or one detail missed in these scenes. Because of his minutea, one actually comes to expect the sex and the murder, etc., which destroys the surprise at these elements so well woven by far more skilled authors.

The Bottom Line: I think invoking Dickens as a comparison to any unproven author is rather strong. I should have taken the hint when I found the book at a local used book store in hardcover form for about five dollars. Then again, I was told once that any book that is five dollars or less is worth getting. I think this is the only case to which that statement does not apply.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The "Christmas Spirit"

A friend of mine gave me a copy of a book called The Four Agreements for Christmas this year--it was very kind of him to think of me, let alone share with me something that is very much a part of his own philosophy of life. The basic premise of these four agreements is not only to raise personal awareness, but to raise awareness for those around you and what that means. At this time of year, I have to say that I was most struck with the "second agreement," which discusses the reasons why people do certain things.

Simply stated, the author (Don Miguel Ruiz) says:

Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world. (page 48)

I think most people can agree that this is an important point. However, I find that agreement may come easily while practice does not.

Say you're sitting in a park on a bench on a nice day by yourself. You're watching the world around you, and you focus in on one or two people in particular that you see either walking by or talking to someone or playing a game, perhaps. For one minute, do you ever wonder what kind of a life that person has had--what brings them from black and white to color or from the two to the three dimensional?

Yes, it's true, we all get wrapped up in our own little worlds at times--especially if something goes wrong or if we are nervous about something potentially going wrong. However, in those moments especially, it is essential to step outside and see the "big picture" to regain perspective.

Case in point--the "Christmas rush."

I hate it, and I'll be the first to admit it. I have to wait in line everywhere. What I want has to be completely out of stock when I get there. The guy in front of me is taking absolutely forever to pay with that credit card. I am in a line of ten cars to park in the garage, and in a line of triple that to get out. No matter where I am walking, there are people I have to walk around to keep my own pace up. I am constantly thinking of the next task I have to accomplish and how I can get that done as painlessly as possible.

And that is completely wrong. Absolutely none of that applies one fleeting thought to anyone else other than myself. I forgot to consider the fact that everyone else who is a part of that "Christmas rush" is on his or her own mission and is subsequently in his or her own world. Since this is the case, the so called "Christmas spirit" may be an extension of the second agreement--not just that we have to buy the "perfect gift" for Uncle Joe and Sister Janet, but that we have to remember that everyone around us is doing the same thing. Instead of tapping the toe of our boot on the linoleum while a thirty extra seconds are taken by the guy at the head of the line to complete his purchase or whizzing by the "slower drivers" who are just "in our way," we should take a deep breath, realize what is going on in the minds of the people around us. Why worry--for countless Christmases past, we were all able to get everything done we wanted to. And, since the point of the season is to think about someone other than ourselves, perhaps the challenge isn't to donate money to the "faceless needy," which most of us do without thinking about why that is important, but it is to see beyond our own little worlds when the tasks on our list seem to close us into our own minds.

So, what ARE they talking about?

The honest answer to this question is B. I was standing on the half deck at the time, slightly behind and above the subjects, so I have no idea what they were really talking about. I can assume, from prior experience, that A is the most likely choice, given those are the three most popular questions to pose to interpreters of all kinds. The fourth most common question has to do with a piece of equiptment called the capstan. The reason that inquiries about the capstan are so memorable has to do with the "guesses" visitors come up with to explain it.

The capstan, to clear up any confusion, is a large, black, round piece of wood that is right behind the main mast extending from the main deck down through the orlap deck, the deck below. It has metal fittings around it and two square holes bored through the diameter of it on opposite sides. Yes, it does look odd. If we're interpreting on the main deck, we answer "what is that? (point at capstan)" most often. However, we have also had some folks "interpret" what it is for us. These interpretations include anything from "it steers the ship" (at least that somewhat makes sense) to it grinds corn (yes, that was certainly feasible on a moving ship), it is a furnace (a one-time-only-use furnace apparently given it is made of wood) and finally, that it "holds the telescope" somehow.

I very much enjoyed comments made by Captain Picard--always an honor, sir, when you come by, and the Mr. Anonymous who posted this time, whether or not he/she may be the same one who visited before.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What is the most likely dialogue between these people?
A) One of these questions are being answered: "How many passengers were there?", "How long was the journey?", or "What did you eat on board?"
B) How would I know? I was taking this picture on the half deck clearly from above them.
C) Costumed guy: "No, I think the one in the yellow tank top has the nicest ass."
D) Visitor: "Is that your dingy over there?" Costumed guy: "No, my pinnace is much bigger than that."

What is Beth doing in this picture?

The answer is: A.

On a rather stormy and miserable day at the Mayflower II, as you can imagine, there isn't much to do. We are allowed to leave the site, given we have no heating and are almost entirely exposed to the weather out there, only if there are no visitors on board. Of course, the result of this plan is that we'll get a couple or a family of four that come on in so well timed a fashion that we'll all have to stay on the ship while they tour the whole thing, and, just as one of these groups finishes, ah, yes, another comes on board. Therefore, you end up spending most of the day dressed head to toe in rain gear (for those not in costume) or in varying degrees of wet wool (for those in costume).

In this picture, Beth, after one of those smaller sets proceeded down to the below-deck area, tied the bits and pieces of a malkin--a mop--together and hung the line off the side, attaching a piece of ship's biscut to the end of it. Unfortunately, this resulted in the biscut getting caught on something close to the waterline, and the line breaking apart, leaving the ship's biscut hanging off of the ship until we finally figured out where it was and could bring it back up. The biscut, hard-tack-like as it is, having been rained on and left exposed for days, was entirely intact, proving by experiementation that even seventeenth century methods of preserving foods are effective.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What is Beth doing in this picture?
A) Fishing off the side of the Mayflower with line from a malkin (mop) attached to a piece of ship's biscut (unseen).
B) Escaping, later to be heard yelling "YO-HO, YO-HO, A pirate's life for me!" from the shallop (boat tied off of the side).
C) Taking the depth of Plymouth Harbor to impress the hot harbormaster motoring by.
D) Rescuing our manager after a run-in with an unsatisfied guest.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Fade to Black

Today was the last time I will have to get up at 6 in the morning and drive myself the hour and a half out from here in southern Rhode Island to Plymouth, Massachusetts in order to complete an eight hour work day as an employee of Plimoth Plantation.

That is not just a statement--that is a resolution.

The "season" just ended--running from March to the last Sunday after Thanksgiving. This year, there was a lot going on that put the Plantation in the public's eye in ways we hadn't experienced in a long time. Nathaniel Philbric, for better or worse, published his book, Mayflower, to a very willing and enthusiastic audience. Our participation in "Desperate Crossing," using even members of our own staff as characters in the film, ensured that visiting the Plantation was a suitable "follow-up" to seeing the documentary on the History Channel. In short, "recognition," whether the Plantation directly participated in producing it or not, had finally started to filter in the direction of our museum.

However, as much as things may seem to be looking up in this case, so very much remains the same. The "all-hands-end-of-the-year" meeting today informed us of very few specifics when it comes to the Plantation's finances and our part in them. The staff is at an all-time low, featuring as few as 9 or 10 "pilgrims" on the Village site on some days of the week, and at the Mayflower, we are holding at the minimum of 5 staff members on most days. There are people who have not received raises in over five years. In my time alone, the "face" of the interpretive staff has changed from fairly diverse in age and gender to mostly out-of-college kids and retired people, heavy on the female side of the line.

I have been given the "things aren't going to change" lecture several times from longer-term staff there. I am certainly not tossing the dice on arguing that point with anyone. However, regardless what the museum does or whether it has done it for a day or twenty years, it doesn't make the situation right. The upper level management shouldn't be able to say that they "haven't been down in the Village all year." When the budget goes bad, they shouldn't slash three interpretive positions when the sacrifice of but one of the all-too-top-heavy administrative level would more than satisfy the deficit. If larger projects or programs come up, they shouldn't be relegated to the already-too-busy staff to do all the work and only to receive none of the credit. And if someone dedicated does things a little differently for whatever reason, and that difference benefits the organization, that person shouldn't be put in an uncomfortable situation and made to feel like an outsider for "not following the unspoken rules."

My issue, however, is more personal. I am not going to trick myself into thinking that my Plantation-pay, which may not outdo the wages earned by a local gas station attendant, is a liveable income. I am also not going to trick myself into thinking that the job is somehow more than it is. For seven and a half of my eight hours a day, I am answering the same questions over and over again, and trying to be as enthusiastic about those answers the eighth and ninth times as I was on the first. In this kind of position, you live for those moments when a visitor starts to put two and two together and ask you things that are a little more in depth and require some problem solving skill or when a visitor actually, gasp, has some background information to go on. However, you can go days without that materializing, and no matter how much you read or what you have a background in, the visitors' lack of interest puts a damper on your ability to share anything other than the basic facts. That's when you become a recording on continuous playback rather than a living, breathing person "from that time."

So, to Plimoth Plantation, I thank you for being my first "real" job out of college. I thank you for allowing me to return right after I finished my Master's degree so that I would have something to do with my time that included human interaction. I thank you for helping me acquire some real in depth knowledge and interest in this time and place. I thank you for giving me access to some fantastic people, a good number of whom I would like to keep in touch with, and subsequently, some very valuable life experience.

However, it is time for me to go, so I take my leave of you in gratitude for the advantages you have imparted on me in the hopes that perhaps someday, your "things will never change" reputation, at least on the part of your treatment of your dedicated staff, will be proven wrong.

Friday, November 17, 2006

And the winner is...

Congrats, Mr. Anonymous, you win. In this so-well-put 17th century scene of touching love and affection in the midst of hardship, there is a stainless steel gangway in the background extending from the "nonexistent" pier to the half deck.

Thanks to you all for playing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I want someone to tell me what's wrong with this picture:

Desperate Crossing II

You'll win my undying respect.

Visual "Desperation"

Last year, right before I left the Plantation to go to England, acting-mania hit the staff, and hit it hard, with the introduction of the Lone Wolf documentary company into the late-season insanity. In order to "make ends meet" (and certainly not to make some extra money with which to pay the staff something approaching a "living" wage), the Plantation got itself involved in a few "side" projects that would allow us some more extensive exposure as a museum. The first of these projects was Colonial House, a PBS series following in the extremely successful footsteps of Frontier House and 1900 House (English Victorian theme) whereby a group of volunteers are whisked away from modern life and into the "times" and "environments" associated with the show's theme. Colonial House, obviously, had a New England, 17th century colony setting. Our staff built their houses, made and gave them their "props," and supplied them with appropriate food stores. In fact, the spring/summer of 2003 was so wet that our wardrobe department was called upon to throw together appropriate coats for the participants. The show aired to moderate success. Instead of being the bastion of representative history that the previous series had been, it instead acquired the reputation of being "Survivor" in the 17th century given the structured conflicts that emerged between the carefully selected "liberally minded" and "conservatively minded" volunteers. After the show appeared on TV, we hosted a number of functions associated with it, inviting cast members to visit for "meet and greets" with the visitors and devoting an entire exhibit to their show. The result was lukewarm at best, but the staff was less than pleased because it pillaged our resources for the sake of the project. We had half as many objects in the Village with which to work, including tools, and the ones that were returned to us weren't in good condition at best and severely damaged at worst. Our artisans, who should have been actively on site repairing the Village, were all called up regularly to assist Colonial House's colonists instead. In the end, those of us most disadvantaged by the whole project were the last ones to be acknowledged for working through it.

The latest Plantation side project, due to air this Sunday, is the new History Channel Documentary, "Desperate Crossing". It's a combination of drama and historical commentary centered on how the "Pilgrims" went from living in England to living in Holland to travelling to America and stops around the time of the first "Thanksgiving." It is certainly up to History Channel standards, although I'll only question the inclusion of some of the varying "experts" on the panel (it seemed as if some of the professors consulted were simply asked because they taught American history at some point in their lives and not because they are 17th century experts). You'll notice some overacting, certainly, but thankfully that sticks out rather than establishes a rule followed by the sum total of the actors, including the interpreters from our staff who got a chance to participate. Among their number are the characters of Captain Miles Standish, Elizabeth Winslow, Stephen Hopkins, Master Christopher Jones, The Billington Family, Elizabeth Hopkins, William White and his wife, a few of the sailors, and a number of the Native Americans, including "Squanto." They all did very well and seemed to have enjoyed the experience very much. Of course, in some cases, the epidemic we call "starstruck" is still raging, which doesn't come as a surprise. Overall, it is worth a view, although I will warn the masses that it is about three TV hours long and will air in its entirety rather than being broken up into "episodes" to air several days running.

At least this production did not ultimately pillage Plantation resources in the way Colonial House did, and the film makers asked our staff to talk about the history they were intending to present, too.

One and a half weeks left...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Quiet Evening of TV and...

When I went over to England for the first time over a year ago, my parents and I stayed in a Mariott on the opposite side of York from the University. I remember turning on the TV the night after arrival before literally passing out due to the inevitable jet lag resulting from such a long trip. One channel covered the selection of a new leader for the "oppostion" party, the Tories, by vote; the later result being David Cameron. On another, I saw for the first time bits and pieces of a recently completed series, Elizabeth, about the latter stage of the Tudor queen's life starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. At first, I compartmentalized it as "wow, these English folks really ARE obsessed with her reign." However, a few months later, I got to see the whole series for the first time from beginning to end when it re-aired. Apart from being well-acted and well-written, and, God forbid, well-researched, at least a portion of the focus struck me.

The first part centers on Elizabeth's relationship with Robert Dudley, and although there isn't much discussion on the matter between characters in such a way as to actively explain it, the acting between Mirren and Irons adds a third dimension that truly allows the viewer a new insight into that relationship in such a way as I have never seen in any other drama. The definition of this partnership ironically is colored by Elizabeth's decision to pursue a marriage with the Duke of Anjou. For perhaps the first time in her reign, she seriously considered the idea of marriage, and therefore, by extension, for the first time, Robert Dudley had to consider the idea of being without her primary affections and attentions. What she could not, because of circumstance, have with Robert Dudley, she realized she could have with the Duke and perhaps it was the first time she actually considered having it rather than continuing on without it entirely, or with it in a different form that wasn't entirely fulfilling for her with Dudley. If the English people had not objected to her marriage to the Duke, I wonder what decision she would have ultimately made for herself.

Gave me some food for thought, although I will leave my personal take on that subject to myself.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Off-Site Interactions, or How NOT to Address a "Pilgrim" Who Is NOT on the Clock

Half of my first day at Plimoth Plantation was spent in the company of the "Billington" family, which was comprised of Goodwife Billington, played by Cindy Brewster, and Goodman Billington, played by Rick Currier. Cindy moved away within months of my arrival, and I only wished I could have gotten to know her better. Rick, on the other hand, left only months before I did. He always had a lot of practical wisdom--I remember his one liners very well about how to cope with the job. For example, New England summers can be awfully hot and humid, and once one finally dons the burlap-lined pilgrim suit, it only then comes to light that those clothes will also be worn when it is ninety degrees out as well as at a comfortable fifty. The first thing he ever said to me was "Don't psyche yourself out," and to this day, whenever I am sitting out in the blazing sun covered in five layers of wool while visitors mill around in bathing suit tops, I can hear that line run through my mind.

He also suggested that "getting dressed twice" in the morning was rather impractical. Most of the interpreters come to work, change into costume and then change again before heading home at the end of the day. I was among them for a long time when I thought about what Rick said and considered the practicality of coming to work already in costume, eliminating the need to show up fifteen minutes early just to put it on, then walk all the way on site. It became even more useful for me to make this choice when I started elongating my drive in the morning. When I was living in downtown Plymouth, literally a walk from work, time wasn't much of a problem. However, since I am driving in from home and competing with who-knows-how-many idiot motorists who think tailgating you will make you drive faster no matter how many cars are lined up in front of you, dressing before work seems to be the best option.

This, of course, leads to other inconveniences. When you walk around in the costume, you end up falling into the same category in the minds of onlookers as homeless or handicapped people. The inevitable "what do you do now?" question runs through their heads as you pass by, and you can almost see the text of the inquiry as it makes its way from one ear to the other.

Some look away and "pretend" there is nothing odd about you.

Some smile, then move on in a quickened pace so not to wreck their moment of politeness for the day.

Then, there are the parents with small children who see you pass by, give that overemphasized "gasp" to get the attention of whatever tot they are leading by the hand, and then, bend down to their level, pointing in my direction with a peer-acted, "fascinated" tone of voice, saying "Look at the pilgrim" the same way they said "Look at Mickey Mouse" the last time they visited Disney World.

Some people stop you to ask you to take a picture with their friend or their kid. This is a very normal occurence while we are on-site, but after work or if we are on break, it just serves as a reminder that to the vacationing public, you are still working no matter what the break schedule is on the wall. My reply has always been to say that the Plantation does not allow us to pose for pictures off-site and when we are not fully in costume (and pieces do come off at break time), which is a complete lie, but in a way, it is more polite than to acquiese to their demands and then stand there, on-edge and obviously annoyed while someone snaps the picture.

Some start up a conversation with you. Now, this is a very nice gesture and it is always great to meet new people, especially those who have done or do similar work. However, when the day is over, most of us just want to get into our cars and leave because all we do is talk all day. Some of the conversation starters know this and talk to us for a few minutes before letting us get on our way and they on theirs. However, others expect a run down of all of the "behind the scenes" footage you can give them once they catch you after five o'clock, especially if you had spoken to them in character at some point at the museum before it closed that day.

Then, there are particularly odd moments. On my way out the other day from work, while walking to the car, I called home to inform everyone that I was going to attend a rehearsal instead of drive back right away. About half way to the car, a vehicle passing on the other side of the road actually came to a dead stop over a crosswalk, the passenger-side window came down, and traffic in downtown Plymouth was momentarily brought to a hault because a woman felt the need to yell "Hey! Pilgrims didn't have cell phones" and then laugh at this soundbite of witty hilarity.

On another occasion, I stopped by a local convenience store to pick up a few things before starting the drive home, and as I was standing in line having my items checked out, I felt someone behind me pressing onto the upper pleats of my petticoat. I turned around hastily to find a woman standing there, actually poking away at my skirt, and given my sudden attention to her, having to say "There is NO WAY those can be your hips." I was rather baffled--costume or no, the action was more than a little rude. I replied "Well, yes, you're right, but normally people don't poke me to find that out." She recoiled back, implying that perhaps I had actually been the rude one there when if I had suddenly thought to do that to her, I probably would have been court martialed for physical harrassment.

The best off-site-yet-costumed interaction I ever had involved a police officer who pulled me over for speeding on Route 6 coming off of Cape Cod. I was late for work on a Sunday with literally no other drivers on the road, and I was certainly pushing the envelope a little bit. Before I could pass Exit 5, I saw a cop sitting over a hill, well positioned enough that by the time I saw him, it was too late for me. He pulled out after I passed, and I stopped in the breakdown lane. He came up behind me, stopped his car, got out, and approached my driver's side window. In the minute or so that passed, I thought about what he might say upon finding a pilgrim in the car that was inevitably going to get fined. When he came to the window, he asked for my lisence, told me how fast I had been driving, processed the information, presented me with the ticket, and then, got right back into his car and moved on. I may have earned myself a three hundred dollar speeding fine, but he didn't say a single word about where I worked or what I was wearing.

If only everyone would treat us just like everyone else...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Plantation-oriented Oddities

Plimoth Plantation, my current place of employment, is a "living history" museum. There aren't many in the US, but in the UK, there are several. It revolves around the idea that we, the "docents" take on the roles of people from the 17th century, live in similar conditions, work there, and through demonstration and explanation, teach people about the time period.

The basic premise of my job is to "educate." Now, granted, that concept rather conflicts with the classification of my place of employment as a general tourist attraction. Every so often, there are some amusing moments.

A few years ago, one of the supervisors, Michael, told a group of us a story on our collective break after returning to the "lounge" space from the Village. He said he had been carrying water by yoke and buckets from the "spring" we have set up just outside the south gate of the Village (this comprises of what looks like a coopered half-barrel, complete with iron rings, with a hosepipe attached to it underneath to ensure it always remains full and yet the visitors do not see the artificial source of the water). It was summer, and a group of people approached him. He spoke to them for a few minutes, describing what he was doing to two boys who had come with their grandmother for the afternoon. Then, as a "let the kids get involved" gesture, he offered to allow the boys to help him carry the water in his full buckets back to his house. The grandmother's attention had been momentarily directed elsewhere, and when she turned back to the boys and saw Michael demonstrating how to carry the yoke and buckets by placing the contraption on the sholders of one of them, the grandmother cried in alarm:
"YOU shouldn't be WORKING! YOU'RE on VACATION."

So much for hands-on learning.

Sometimes, there are interesting interactions between co-workers. We all get "paired" up on the Village site in order to portray the 17th century families that would have lived in Plymouth in 1627 (not all of them). One year, my friends Bertie and Mike were playing the husband and wife of the Cooke family. They had invited me over for lunch because the artisans in the Village had recently decided to take down the house I had been "living" in as Elizabeth Howland in order to build a new one (that to this day, is still a house frame--the frame having been erected very soon after the destruction of my former abode, and this was at least two years ago). I was sitting at their table in rather the back of the house when a group of children came in. Mike had always been good interacting with them, so he started telling the story of "how he met his wife" in Holland (which was entirely made up by him given we have no idea how the Cookes actually met).
He said as follows:
"You know when I first saw my wife?" (hands on hips, slight pause), "I was in Holland and I saw her sit down to take her noonmeats (lunch). She pulled out a thick slice of bread (pause, hand extended flat out to simulate the bread surface), and then, she covered the top of it with butter (back and forth motion with other hand to apply the aforesaid butter). And then (added inflection on this "then"), she took out a thick piece of cheese, almost as thick as the bread, and put it on top of the bread and butter (one hand covers the other). And then (more inflection on this "then"), she takes a great jug of milk and starts to drink it."
He pauses a minute to let the children take in the story before going on.
"And you know, I told her if she continued to eat cheese and butter and drink milk as she did, she would have the brain of a cow!"
He closed this narrative very well insothat the whole audience understood the reason for the build up. Snickers answered his tale.
Now, Bertie, who had been quietly cutting up herbs to put in the boiling pot over the hearth, sort of "deflated" in her posture like a balloon after the children heard his story. She took a deep breath, and in a very dejected tone in her Dutch-accented English, said,
"Now, husband, I know you are smarter than me and stronger than me, I being only a woman, but you have always been so kind and so patient with me. I try so hard to be a good English woman as your wife even though I am Dutch."
Mike's facial expression entirely changed. He must have told that story to a hundred people over the course of the entire season to that point without eliciting this response from Bertie, so he was baffled. He stuttered, trying to make up for the insult he hadn't realize he had given. Bertie did not change her tone or her reaction. It became so uncomfortable that I truly thought he had insulted her, and I was ready to leave the house so this "marital" problem could be resolved. Eventually, Bertie went on break, leaving a very concerned Mike behind.
Later on, at the end of the day, Mike was climbing the stairs to the changing areas after work at the same time that Bertie was coming down to leave for the day. As they passed each other, Mike was all ready with an apology. But before he could say a word, Bertie put her hand on his arm and said only,
"Got you."

Sometimes visitor nonsense goes too far. Now it is no secret that the "Pilgrims" had religion to arm them in a number of ways. I won't go into the whole "they didn't come here for religious freedom" argument, because that is a moot point. However, as in any other case or category, visitors have a touch time separating "reality" from our 17th century environment. We, as Plimoth Plantation employees, do not prescribe to the same religious sensibilities as these people did. We only have to understand what they believed and then accurately portray it--our own personal feelings do not figure into the equation. Some visitors seem to think that they do. Either that, or they believe in spreading God's word so adamently that they will come to a museum and regardless of the religious persuasion of the employees, attempt to convert us all anyway.
The worse case of this occured in my first year. There were a few people my age on site, one of whom was portraying Elizabeth Howland, which would be the role I would subsequently take. One day, I went down to her house for a visit. Very soon after my arrival, a school group came through with papers loaded with questions. While I was attempting to answer them, two other visitors slipped by me and into the back of the room where they struck up a conversation with Beth. They were quoting scripture and talking to her nonstop, but I didn't notice nor did I interfere. After the students left, I could turn my attention to their conversation.
I don't know if they were in "conversion" mode, but they were certainly putting forth a "test of faith" by asking her when and where she read the Bible and why, etc. Not "how and where does your church meet" or "what happens on Sunday," but personal questions about her faith--and I don't think it mattered to them whether she spoke in character or whether she was speaking as herself. This started to go on too long and it was more than obvious to me that they were getting into matters of faith for their own purposes and not to be educated about the 17th century.
So, then I decided to "step in."
One of them asked her whether she had a Bible in the house. Now, we do not have scripture in everyone's house all the time because we have no way of proving that each house had a Bible or even whether or not most of them could even read. She stuttered an explanation--her "husband" had taken it with him in the morning when he went out to work and would not be returning until late. Then, he pulled out a small, orange-bound book from his pocket, and opened it up in order to read part of it to her.
Yeah, I had enough of this.
I asked him, "So, master, what is it that you have there to read?"
His reply, "It is the Proverbs and the Psalms. I always keep them with me."
In response, I said, "Well, master, if you were a truly godly man, you would take the whole Bible with you rather than use your flawed reason to determine for yourself what the best parts of it are."
Needless to say, this ended the "converstion effort."

The best line ever goes to Matt. Many people really think that the 17th century was some kind of underdeveloped stone age. They come through the Village amazed we have tools and iron fittings. On one occasion, a visitor started arguing with Matt (who was in character) about the historical correct-ness of having nails in the Village. He was ignorantly insistent that we certainly did NOT have nails in the 17th century. Matt tried to brush him off, but he wouldn't take a hint. Finally, Matt had enough and said,
"Well, they DID nail Christ to the cross."
Conversation over.

How many weeks until the season is over?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Dissatisfaction is the Mother of Invention

I have no idea who it was that said the original quote, substituting "necessity" in the place of "dissatisfaction." I suppose that necessity does translate to dissatisfaction with one's state in one way or another, but I think that the whole premise can be broadened to include just simply not being content as opposed to only involving the things we find we cannot live without, even though we cannot have them, and therefore, we must find another means to supply what is necessary.

Perhaps it is because dissatisfaction doesn't always translate to action on one's own behalf that the replacement of that word in the original quote doesn't really apply. I know many people who are dissatisfied in one way or another, be it in employment or in one's personal life, for example, who have no drive or intention to change that. To be honest, I have always had a difficult time completely understanding that. I have met people who are either unable to identify the cause of their dissatisfaction or able to do so and yet, unable to change it. However, "able" presents a funny concept. In theory, we are all able to do whatever we need to in order to make our lives better. I have seen few instances where someone was truly unable, because of causes outside of his or her own control, to change his or her life, especially if he or she knew something needed to change in the first place.

Habit is, I believe, the number one impediment. It's been this way or I've been this way for this long--why go through the struggle? At least I can give people who see it this way credit for acknowledging that change in one's life is a difficult thing to accomplish and will ultimately affect multiple parts of who they are. However, habit is powerful--at least we know what to expect with habit. We can wake up in the morning, go through our days, and then go to bed without a great deal of reflection and most importantly, without struggling. Change is a struggle--it's an uphill battle with no guarantee of success. If you take the risk to change, you may indeed end up worse off than you were before, which will subsequently require more change and more struggle. No wonder so many people are afraid of it.

I never liked the idea of habit. There have been too many instances where habit did not translate into happiness--instead, it led to more dissatisfaction. I do not think that any truly great person, either people who have directly influenced our lives or people who historically have made a difference in this world, accepted dissatisfaction out of hand. Instead, they did something with it. Some of them ended up miserable, yes, but we still remember them anyway. Their ability to deal with dissatisfaction in their own lives and not settle for less is what makes us list their names and describe what they did for us in personal profiles.

Maybe it has to do with how we see life--either as a bunch of "typical" milestones from childhood to school to marriage to kids to retirement, etc., or as one long process that may or may not include those things--but the point being that life, to be fulfilling, does not have to include them. Instead, life could include moments you realized some inner truth instead of marriage or a moment of great accomplishment instead of having children. Although the "typical" can be and is rewarding to a lot of people, it is a guideline, not a set of rules. If that guideline will lead to dissatisfaction born out of habit, perhaps your potential for greatness is what is ultimately at stake.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Self-Styled Converse and Life Progress

I like to talk to myself in the car. I have a long drive to work now, so I do need to amuse myself given there are only so many ways for me to get to Plymouth from here in southern RI. I, like most people, tend to listen to music. I'll play the radio, as far as morning talk shows allow for any songs to fit between their meaningless commentary, and both my CD player and my iPod are armed for times when cruising through the channels only lands you back on the first one you started from even though your high-tech radio can pick up at least one channel for every stop on the dial. However, there are times when I just turn it off and start talking.

I think I picked up this tendency from my father. Every now and again, I catch him in the middle of a conversation on his own, and this has been the case for a number of years running. He'll be bringing up only half-audible points and using hand gestures. I always wondered what he was talking about. For me, I do the same but only when I am absolutely assured of being alone.

I have no idea if my father and I are really doing the same thing, or if we have different purposes for the same method of behavior. When I do it, it is usually to organize my thoughts. I have found that I tend to have a lot to say to people sometimes, and I like to think it through before I say it. Therefore, I have discovered that I am actually carrying on about five or six discussions with people who will never know they are the subject of such long explanations or statements given fairly often, I may not choose to pursue the discourse with them in the end.

Ok, now for some more interesting stuff:

Yes, I did finish my dissertation.
Word Count: 21,000
Footnotes: 310

I flew out of Manchester Airport for the last time on Saturday, September 22 at 11 am.

I have been re-employed at Plimoth Plantation for the time being and am now part-time participating in a music group there called The Puritones.

I did buy the new Indigo Girls CD, Despite Our Differences. I think it's pretty good, but I do not like it as much as their last, non-compellation work, All That We Let In. There are a few solid, well, written songs there in the tradition of their longer-standing and more well-known music, but nothing that completely jumps out at you. I am slightly disappointed by that because I have been anticipating this one for some time.

I have lost five pounds on what I can only call the "Plantation Diet," which consists of what I can afford on my current salary.

I finally hit up Yankee Candle and ransacked their store for fall-esque scents.

How much I am appreciating minutae...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Last night, I was sitting in at home in the living room on the couch, watching a rerun of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" on BBC America. It was about 11pm. My company was comprised of between 3 and 5 cats, the variance in number due to an uneasy "cat peace" momentarily reigning between opposing feline factions. After games of "Superheroes" and "Party Quirks," I suddenly had this feeling that I wanted to pack everything up and go to Washington DC--just like that. I could only liken the sensation to moments during my graduate school research and writing when I was suddenly compelled to throw necessities into a carry-on and hop the next train to who-knows-where in England. However, there was one striking difference. Previously, I needed a few days' respite from the monotony of a research-oriented lifestyle. This time, I wasn't looking for a momentary reminder that there was a "rest of the world" out there. Instead, I wanted to go somewhere I really wanted to set myself down for a longer haul. I wanted to find a job, an apartment--generally, a life.

Several years ago, I graduated from college and there was this looming emptiness before me. Some call it "possibility" whereas at the time, I saw it as a huge black void of time without the structure that education previously, and comfortably, imposed. I have thought a lot about that experience, and more specifically, how very naieve I was. I was convinced that I would find myself suitable employment as a BA with no professional job experience. Well, I can't fault myself for that completely--the year I graduated was the first year the economy registered recession in the form of net job loss, and after years of the booming 1990's market, no one, much less the college careers center, was prepared for hoards of qualified applicants pressing for a handful of entry-level positions. I'll never forget my first real push for a job I truly wanted--and the utter failure all of my efforts ultimately gained. An onslaught of rejection letters from jobs I applied to followed over the summer. The result was my consideration of unpaid work that would earn me the experience that could possibly make the difference for me if I had it.

The one significant difference between then and now, even though I am sitting on the tail end of an academic experience in the same fashion I was in 2002, is my view of where the next step ultimately was meant to lead. Even if I had earned gainful employment right out of college, I would not have viewed that as part of a permanent state. I was aware of a desire to feel around a little, take a position maybe but without the obligation of long term commitment, pick and choose between living spaces, etc. However, the sensations differ now. Although I am realistic and I do know that any acquisition of a job may or may not be something that will last a while should have some relationship with what I may be ultimately aiming at doing, even if that concept only falls in the category of "type of work" rather than in the form of a specific job. I am more drawn to identifying a place I would like to be for a longer span of time than one year (which has been the average tenancy of any of my previous places of residence) and to activities that require a more considerable commitment on my part. This may just be due to the passage of time, but I think it more has to do with what my experience in England ultimately symbolized to me. I took off and conquered what was for me the greatest challenge--moving in and successfully living a long distance away from what it is that I know and have known. The result is my feeling more comfortable in my own skin--not completely comfortable, mind you, but there is a detectable improvement--and now, the next challenge falls into a new category.

I don't think I ever thought finding a life would ever be the challenge in the scheme of things that it has ultimately become. However, I do know that it comes at the right point--my taking it on at this time at least ensures that there won't be any "what ifs," and had I done it sooner, I can guarantee that would not be the case.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Continuing Progress...

Progress Thus Far: 8 hours, 66 pages, 275 footnotes.

Why so many hours?: There is a fine line between perfectionism and insanity.

Accomplished Today: A trip to the Library in town, upon arrival discovering I was without my library card. I have the detergent to wash my clothes, but no coinage with which to do so, and I have officially given up my beloved futon chair.

Current Viewing: Since my TV went with the chair today, I officially watched my last round of English daytime viewing. I will certianly miss the antics of "Bargain Hunt," the candor of the BBC afternoon news, gameshows such as "Countdown" and "Deal or No Deal," and the rounds of entertaining, late-night documentaries. However, my handy, plane-ride ready portable DVD player has been busy with three of Michael Moore's documentaries, "What Lies Beneath" just for the hell of it, and disc two in the Jackass series.

What Next?: Perfectionism tomorrow, and a possible hand-in either tomorrow afternoon or Wednesday morning.

Advice from my Calendar: Make a space in your life for the glorious things you deserve.

I'll save this page and transpose it onto the 20th or the 21st because the prescription is a little premature.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Dissertation progress: 12 Hours, Part III, Page 48, Footnote 195.

Viewing: Seasons 1 and 2 of "Felicity" (which is quite enough, I'll tell you--nostalgia is one thing, a waste of time is entirely another) and "The Big One" by Michael Moore.

Listening: Medieval Music, hoping that will get me in the mood.

Agenda for Tomorrow: Get one last source the dissertation "can't go without," send my second to last package home, get coffee, move out half of my stuff, finish my last two parts of this dissertation and bibliography, keep my sanity.

My Horoscope: Today is not a great day for major moves. Try to avoid finalizing any commitments.

Sorry, I'm going to avoid that advice, for the sake of my personal sanity.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Next Question

When I was living in Bridgewater, I used to get the usual barrage of catalogues in the mail that I never sent away for nor purchased a thing from. My recycle bin, which I carried to the curb once every two weeks, was always littered with them. Every once in a while, one would catch my eye and I would flip through it. One of them was a book catalogue. I was never one for being "told" by a publication bent upon selling sub-standard writing to the masses what I should be reading. However, one ad did catch my eye. A woman had published the first in a three part series retelling the Pride and Prejudice story from the perspective of Mr. Darcy. I was intrigued, so I purchased it. When it arrived in the mail, I was eager to indulge myself in one of my favorite stories yet again, but I stopped short of that. The other two books in the series would not be published for another year, maybe longer given what "writing" does to your time management skills. Instead I put it away, and kept my eyes peeled for the next two books. Gradually, they did come out, and I did acquire copies of them right away. I haven't gotten the chance to read them yet because the last one came out when I started my MA here in England, but I have all three now and I will be able to read them.

Just recently, I fired off an e-mail to a former college professor of mine. He didn't teach my discipline--he was in the Religious Studies department, and at a Catholic College, he was the person to consult on eastern religions like Hinduism and Islam. I have always really liked him--I think I had a natural affinity for him because both he and I started our separate "tenures" at Holy Cross at the same time. When I finished the letter, I couldn't help but to mention just how long it had been since that beginning. That got me thinking about what that was like back then--who I was, who I am now, of course that figured in. I also thought about how it felt when I was a freshman in college for the first time, travelling a ways from home to attend a school without any students I knew. I thought about the classes I took, the environment I was in. I remember the people I met--some of whom I still know and speak to today. I remember the late nights before due dates or upcoming tests and watching the sun mercilessly rise in the morning out of one of the wall-sized window panels in the study rooms on the first floor of the dorm. I remember my room--what side I was on, how I set it up, and then, the mammoth effort my roommate and I made about mid-way through the year to rearrange it just for the sake of change. I remember the beginning of the long, complicated relationship I had throughout college that to this day I still wonder whether it should or should not have happened. I knew that feeling was somehow unique then, and that I would never have it again--and at least thus far, I was right. However, I am not sure what that feeling was or why I felt it.

When I started going to Holy Cross, the TV show "Felicity" debuted, too. I never became an avid viewer, and that is probably because I have never been one to sit in front of the set on a certain day at a certain time. Regardless, somehow I knew that because of that corellation of time, there would be something about it that drew me to it, and even more so because it was about a girl who was doing the same thing I was at the same time. Like the Pride and Prejudice novels, though, my immediate instinct was not to watch it than to become a regular viewer. Instead, I didn't want to be left hanging from episode to episode, so I waited on purpose, knowing one day I would pick up the series and watch it, but only after it had run its course and I could see it all at once rather than once a week.

Now, eight years after I was a freshman in college, I am watching the series. It brings a lot of little things back that I had completely forgotten, even though I never watched the series while it aired so there was never the creation of association in the formal sense--I wasn't watching a certain episode at a certain time when X happened, for example. In a lot of ways, it is juvenile, but I had no expectations beyond that. There is no particular reason why now is the time as opposed to a year ago or a year from now, either. It just somehow struck me one day in the recent past to use the time I have now in that way. I don't think any epiphanies are going to come from it. Instead, because I am about to move on from my most recent "change of life and place", it seemed only fitting to revisit the first real example of that in my life.

I remember wondering where I would be four years after college ended. Now I know the answer, and maybe it's time for me to come up with another question. Maybe this time it shouldn't be about time. Time matters, but not as much as I originally thought then. Maybe I shouldn't come up with a question at all. Or maybe it's just nice to have things like that to fall back on because they become our own personal time capsules--reminding us of where we were then and then forcing us to acknowledge not just where we are now, but where that may be going in the face of how much our expectations have changed.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Simple Pleasures

Whenever I think about going back to the US, I find myself focusing on the little things in every day life rather than huge themes or expectations. Here are some of the things I am looking forward to upon touchdown on the runway in the United States in two weeks:

Hair: First, I will be able to cut my hair again. Upon observing the masses and their choices of style and dye-job here in the UK, I promised myself never to trust any British barber wielding a pair of silver shears. Now, for all my British friends out there--no worries, your horrific hair creations will indeed hit the US in another two years, however, in the ensuing time, I can confidently step into a shop and say "Long layers and highlights" without coming out with half of my hair blonde and the other half sierra brown, pink streaks in odd places, and a mullet. I can also curl my hair again, which is a waste of time here given the humidity kills it within twenty minutes of my exiting a climate-controlled environment.

Dunkin' Donuts: The only reason this gets its own category is because I had a dream that somehow I was in the US, and my first instinct was to peel through the nearest drive through for an iced coffee.

Hours: In order to eliminate the possibility of jet lag, I keep very odd hours here in the UK. I get up in the late morning/early afternoon and go to bed really late at night. Essentially, if I transfer those hours minus five for the east coast of the US, they become "normal" again. Morning will once again become a tangible reality rather than an "in theory" occurance while I am still sleeping.

A House: To be honest, this would have been more useful to me here than back in the US because of the theory of the "separation of spaces." I have spent my graduate school career in one room with a bathroom, and in this room, I rested, ate, relaxed, and studied. What I realized was that there were too many associations to be had with only one space. And, of course, the predominant ones were: abject fear that I will not finish this dissertation followed by obsessive worry. Doesn't exactly make for a stress-free, TV watching night if I can see "Chapter 3" staring at me from my laptop out of the corner of my eye. It was harder for me coming from a larger, separated environment and going into this than it may have been for others more used to "college accomodation." Yes, when you're old, you do indeed need more room.

I also am not going to complain about moving off of a hallway in the college equivalent of Chinatown with groups of people who may create some amazing Chinese food, but to do so, leave raw chicken on the counter for three days marinading and wash raw meat in the sink next to my clean dishes (which, as you can imagine, quickly changes them back to "unclean" with the added "unsanitary" element to boot).

Work: I go back to work when I return home. I'll be busier, yes, and I'll probably look back on these idyllic days of working at my own pace in my home environment wistfully within a week. However, I'll go to work for eight hours, come home, and then have nothing left to worry about for the day. Your dissertation can always use more work. No matter what you do, in a five-day-a-week job, you don't go past 5pm. That is peace of mind.

The Fall: I missed most of New England's fall last year, and it wasn't until I moved here that I realized just how unique the season is there. I had lived in New England all my life to that point, and naturally, I thought at least some of the foliage change would also be present here, but trees don't lose too many leaves here because it doesn't get as cold as it does at home. I am also finding apples lacking. My ideal day off from my job will be watching my favorite fall movies baking a pie.

Driving: Although good for the health, I must say that I can do without the long, unpredictable wait for the local bus and the long walk around town for errands. The busses exist, which certainly one-ups the US, but they come at odd intervals and you could be sitting at a stop for anywhere between 5 to 25 minutes before one comes by. I am also limited by what I can carry when I do buy things. For larger items or larger quantities, I have to call Tesco to deliver, however, there are certain things that the superstore won't deliver. For example, I have a pile of boxes that have to be sent home to the US. My problem is that without a car, I have to pick one up and carry it to the post office, which is half a mile away, and therefore, I can only send one at a time. How much I will enjoy no longer being limited by my lack of upper body strength.

Law and Order: There is nothing like sitting down after a long day of work with a glass of white wine and a Law and Order marathon on TNT. NOTHING.

Not, of course, to forget, that in coming here, I left some very important and special people behind, and I will be very happy to be able to see them again.

Ok, time for my long walk for my Starbucks coffee. Let's hope the exodus is worth it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Safety Say What?

Some recent moments:

It's about 1am in England, and finally, it isn't raining or immediately threatening to do so, so I decide to tackle the ever present and ever increasing pile of laundry in the basket on the far end of my room. The laundry fascilities are actually quite a distance away across a few parking lots, so I hoist the basket over my shoulder and begin the Exodus-like march to the one-story, brick building with the Halifax College coat of arms on the front. As soon as I get there and unload the heavy basket with a huff to the floor, I notice the prices on the washing machines and driers have changed--and of course, this isn't a reduction in price, either. I no longer have enough change on me to wash my clothes, so I have to walk all the way back to my room and count out more from my store of "useable" British coins (which does not include 5, 2 or 1 pence pieces). On my way back out the door, I see a middle-aged guy that I do not recognize on his way around the corner of the path, and apparently, about to enter my portion of the building. I give him an odd, contemplative look, and I let the door shut behind me on purpose. This meets with a gruff "thanks for holding the door" from him as he is forced to bring out his key card and open the door himself.

Another occasion--it's morning. Since I had been up late the previous night putting together a chapter for my dissertation in order to hand it in to my supervisor, it is about 1o am, and I'm still sleeping. Then, an unexpected knock comes on my door. I manage a "hello?" from my lying on the bed. The unknown individual either was not daunted or did not hear me, and proceeded to try and open the door with one of the universal room keys the college loans out to personnel. This prompted an immediate and far more adament response from me, which came in the form of, "WHO is it?!" I finally receive a response, but it isn't an offer of any form of personal identification. Instead, I hear an equally adament reply from a man, "Open the door." Excuse me? I was annoyed to no end. My reply was "WHO are you? I'm not just opening this door." I couldn't believe I had to spell that out to anyone with a functioning brain. Finally, the man insisted that he was simply coming through the hallway to limescale the bathrooms. I get up and open the door myself--no way is he going to barge in on his own time. I look at him, myself covered in a blanket. He seems to have this sudden revelation about why I wasn't thrilled by his address. I open the door and tell him that I will wait in the kitchen until he is done, and then return to my room.

So, what do these random snapshots have in common? It's a simple question of personal safety.

Years ago, I took a course in 18th Century Literature with a woman professor who also taught courses in Feminist Literary Theory. In class one day, she told us about a scenario she put forth to the other class, which had both guy and girl pupils in it. She asked if anyone had ever felt intimidated in any environment they had been in for no apparent reason--like they may have been in the dark, for example, but clearly without anyone around. The guys responded by proposing situations where they had been intimidated, but there was always a reason--the immediate presence of someone nearby who was unknown to them, for example. The girls were different--they described experiences where there were no immediate threats, but they still felt intimidated by what may be lurking behind a corner, for example. The point is that the latter experience is very much a part of a woman's consciousness, and it is something that men do not seem to be able to comprehend--there has to be a reason for them, while for women, a "bad feeling" is enough.

At Holy Cross, since the college was not in a city well-known for its personal safety rating, there were "call boxes" everywhere on campus. You could find one simply by looking for the poles with the blue lights on them. As soon as you picked up the phone, you didn't even have to touch a button--you were immediately transfered to Public Safety on the line. Public safety also did regular rounds through the campus by car and on foot, the officer on duty required to go around the school entirely once an hour. There were similar call boxes on every door to every building on campus. If you wanted to enter the campus through the front gate, you had to stop at a booth and explain your business to an officer there. Of course this system wasn't perfect and there were mishaps on campus like there are on any other in any situation. However, safety was present in an immediate sense.

I cannot give as high a rating to the University of York in this category--in fact, the score isn't even close. Here, there is a "porter's lodge" at every "college" in the university, but they aren't staffed 24 hours a day save one or two. There is no clear extension to call the closest lodge to you posted anywhere, and if you do wish to call them, you have to, not only look up the number online, but you may also have to "dial out" of the college network phone system to reach them given the U of York has so obviously sold out to the Dog N Bone phone service. If I said the term "call box" to the security officers on campus, it would be more than simply a dissent between English and American forms of the spoken language that would produce a questioning look. Given this country is against any forms of "anti-social" behavior, even if it comes in the form of something that may assist me in protecting myself, I cannot carry mace on me, and the solution that has been suggested to me is some kind of loud beacon I can buy, and if I am in trouble, I can set it off (Ok, people, DUMB idea--first, that requires someone come and find the beacon, and as you know from listening to endless car alarms go off with no one in sight reacting to them, that doesn't exactly bring about the correct response. In addition, unless I am deaf, the loud sound meant to distract and incapacitate my attacker would do the same to me, limiting my ability to get away--brilliant plan). So, I am already "on my own" technically before we start.

Although public safety leaves much to be desired here (and the porters are very nice people who do their jobs well, so it isn't their fault the system they work for is deficeint), the biggest problem is the creation of situations that may end up compromising. How do I know that the guy on the other side of the door is really a University employee, or just some random guy who managed to get a hold of a U of York polo shirt and a room key if no one has notified me otherwise? That isn't the first time that scenario has occured, either. Any one of them could have taken advantage of a vulnerable situation. I am usually caught-off guard, and even if I insist otherwise, their keys let them in my room regardless of my protests. It would take one situation one time with one less-than-admirable person for someone to possibly be hurt or compromised.

I have lived on my own fairly often throughout my life, and I have prided myself on identifying and avoiding compromising situations for myself. However, what makes me nervous is the idea that I am being placed in potentially compromising situations that I have no control over. It has actually made me more nervous than before--every morning at about the same time, I almost anticipate that knock on my door that save on three or four occasions, has never come. Regardless, I have to be honest and say that it upsets me that I have spent such a long time doing everything I can to ensure my own safety that it angers me that it hasn't been acknowledged that this could change that in a wrong place, wrong time scenario. All it is going to take is one time, and then this University will be forced to reassess the situation, and God forbid, spend some money to fix it. I just don't want to be that one person who makes the sacrifice to enlighten an establishment that prides itself on enlighening others.

Back to my exciting Friday night programming, and Chapter 2 of this ridiculous dissertation...

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Details as Part of Present Living

I don't have a very exciting life of late. I've been working on my dissertation to complete my MA, so most of my Friday and Saturday--not to mention, say all of the rest of the days of the week--nights have been spent here in my room reading, writing, and editting. I talked to my brother on the phone yesterday, and regardless of the fact that he tripped over his own shoes in his apartment and wacked his ribs on his coffee table on his way to the floor, he still told me that I don't have a life. For me, it was more of a "stating the obvious" moment than my being subjected to a round of insults from a younger sibling.

So, let's discuss some more interesting things.

Last night, I watched a UK "IQ Test" on TV called "Test the Nation." I recall similar, although less technical or useful, shows in the US. It was actually kind of interesting. They broadcasted all 70 questions and a variety of people participated. People at home could access (and can still access) the test online or with their TV systems to play. In the studio, there was a group of English "celebrities" also playing along. In addition, the studio had amassed groups of people who all fell in a number of prescribed categories. For example, there were vegitarians and butchers, state school students and public school students, footballer's wives (who the hell cares about them?) and estate agents. The highest score was attributed to an older woman among the vegetarians. At one point in the show, the host spoke to her. Apparently, the most interesting event that happened to her of late was her having purchased a plant, cared for it painstakingly, only to discover no less than six months later that it was made out of synthetic materials. I have officially lost faith in the superior intelligence of the British nation.

I was dismayed to discover that "The Friday Night Project"--another entertaining show--has left off the airwaves until January. It seemed ad hoc, but that may have been the technique of the presentation of the show. The hosts were good at responding quickly to their guests and providing a good dose of ridiculousness in addition to that in the form of games and sketches. They also chose more laid back, eager to participate guests, which created a different dynamic each show but also contributed to its entertainment value.

"The Friday Night Project" was replaced by the I'm-trying-too-hard version of the same thing in the form of the Charlotte Church show. Yes, a talented young lady for certain--in the singing department, and that only. In the comedic realm, she comes off as very affected and she appears to be a little diva who thinks that she is automatically able to successfully participate in all forms of entertainment. Unfortunately, she is a poor substitute for her predecessors. From her big entrance with the poorly written and sadly dull "This is my theme tune", you just knew that nothing was going to save it. Too bad my boring Friday nights are now officially shot. Time to start renting again.

In the music world, I have recently been trying to amass the better parts of new British artists that I will be missing out on in the US. Ray Lamontagne is on the top of the list--his music is soulful but without pushing that element too far. James Morrison is also good, although the songs that have been "released" are truly the best of the best--the rest of the CD, although very much together as a unit, just doesn't have the same power over the listener. Orson is good fun, but not much more. Korin Baley Rae (and I apologize if that spelling is poor) is rather happy-go-lucky with a simple message and not much feeling behind it. Any suggestions from the masses are more than welcome.

Fortunately, the Indigo Girls will be coming out with a new CD right in time for my return home at the end of September called "Despite Our Differences." Their most recent release came in form of a compellation CD called "Rarities" that featured recordings of some previously released and some unreleased music, and overall, it was a great listen, but something was missing that only comes from a recording that is produced to be a whole. All of the songs on "Rarities" were recorded in different places at different times, so as the songs were good on their own, they did not have the unity that a CD like "All That We Let In" had. I am looking forward to experiencing that again with their newest recording.

Yes, simple things in life, granted. However, these simple things are significant because they are the little details of life as I know it right now. In a very short time, I will be leaving off this life, and the things we tend to forget first are details like that--the shows we watched, the food we ate, the music we heard--what it was like taking a shower in the bathroom in our room or using the furniture and belongings we had. In this case, for me, I can't take much of this life with me. I have to sell or distribute most of my belongings I have here with people who will be staying. If I wish to come back here and see the city again, I will have to book a long, expensive plane ride and stay in a hotel room. The people who know me here will probably remember me for a little while, and the people I see only in passing will forget quickly if they haven't already. It's all part of life, and as this will happen soon, it has happened before and will happen again in the unforseen future.

I'm looking forward to the change again, but that is a difference. In the past, change wasn't so welcome. For example, when I was at Holy Cross and a student, I remember counting down the days between my arrival and becoming comfortable and when the whole experience would abruptly end when we graduated four years later. My anticipation of change in this case has no bearing on how I have perceived my experience here. It is more that I can pick up and be ready for adjustment without lurking fear in the back of my head.

So from what is a present, and about to become a past, self to a future, and about to become a present, self, you know how it will all turn out in the end. You'll read this one day and say "oh, yeah....I remember that..." and it will probably lead to recollection of other details that I didn't bother to write down. Some will certainly be lost as soon as I walk out of the door here for the last time, but I'd like to hope, and perhaps ensure to some degree, that none of those are the important ones.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Thank You to the Poor Role Models

I remember I couldn't stand the woman, but that manifested itself in the mind of an eight year old as abject fear rather than hatred. In fact, after being instilled with the concept of respect for adults since I could remember, I didn't think I had a right to pass judgement upon her like that--to not like her.

Mrs. Haynesworth--I'll never forget her. Because of a cruel twist of fate I would be placed under her supervision as one of her elementary school students twice. The first time was in first grade. I didn't have her as my full-time teacher. At the time, we shifted classes for math and we were organized in classes based on ability. The worst day of the week was Friday, and ironically enough, it was "game day." The class was divided into two teams--the X's and the O's. We would line up on either side of her cleared desk while she sat in the middle. She had a game cylindar in which she placed a pair of die. She'd shake them, then roll, and she would tell the student on either side of her to add or subtract the two numbers that appeared on the face of each dice, and the first student to write the correct sum on the board first would win a point for his or her team. Sounds simple. And yes, it was. However, she was absolutely notorious for berating students if they got the answer wrong or were sluggish to respond. Once, that happened to me. I had been absent during for the lesson that taught us the fact that subtracting a number from itself equals zero (yes, elementary concept, but then again, we were between 7 and 8 at the time). She rolled the die and two sixes came up. The other student rushed to the board to write the answer, and I, not knowing what to do, didn't make a move to respond. She demanded why I didn't know the answer, and before I could explain my having not been present to learn the concept, she hissed the result of the equation and a quick explanation. Then, she stopped and folded her arms over her chest. "Well?!" was the statement. I slowly made my way to the board and drew an '0' on it and then took my place at the end of the line. I remember how long that felt--it felt like ten or fifteen minutes when in reality, I think it didn't last more than two. I received sympathetic looks from my classmates, but that didn't alleviate the utter humiliation.

Luckily, she was subjected to the onset of pregnancy about mid-way through the year and had to disperse on maternity leave. We had a long term substitute in her place in the form of a Miss Boisclair, who was certainly an improvement on the attitude although she insisted upon donning long, parrot-shaped earrings a little too often as part of her set of wardrobe accessories.

Years went on, and I approached 5th grade. A vacancy among the teachers there opened up, and the aforementioned Mrs. Haynesworth took the place given the child she had to leave for was by then, between four and five. I had a one in three shot of getting her, and lo and behold, it happened. Instead of only an hour or so a day, I would have to deal with her in charge of the classroom five days a week all day save an hour when, in that case, there was a reversal of previous fortune and I would be transferred to another group for math in the same fashion as before. At least this time, I had the safety of an ally in the form of my best friend, Lindsay. This time, we saw how she operated in the classroom all day. She certainly had a "favored few" that enjoyed her sugary-sweet smiles and words of encouragement. However, neither Lindsay nor myself were among them--in fact, we were generally ignored. It wasn't until we completed a few projects to the glowing praise of the other two fifth grade teachers that she grudgingly acknowledged our contribution to the class. Given we had allies amongst the other instructors throughout the school by that point, it wasn't as easy for her to dislike us anymore or pull the same kind of thing she did when another "Game Day" came around.

The truth of the matter is that she was a very poor teacher--one among a few that I recall. She was in her early forties and probably not particularly happy. She was a socialite from an upper class, local society that taught people to favor some and snub others based on ludicris standards. This is what I know now, but it is surprising to me to think that way about an "adult" even to this day. I had a right then not to like her and to pass judgement upon her actions if I were treated unfairly, and looking back, I certainly have a right now. But it is always odd to reconsider those people that you "respected" in the past who truly didn't live up to that respect, but yet, as a child or given your position at the time, you had to give it to them. As you get older or your situation changes, it forces to to give some real color to people from your past. If I could go back to that time as I am now, I could have been one of her colleagues, and she wouldn't have out-done me age-wise by too great a margin. If I had seen her act the way she did to her students, I wouldn't have had a great deal of respect for her, and I probably would have thought that she was in the wrong line of work. But those are thoughts that do creep into our heads when we are in a position where that respect must nontheless be given. Many times, we are afraid of those thoughts because they break down all the golden rules of conduct that we were taught.

The good thing about this is the idea that no matter who you have respected in your past, either because you truly throught that person deserved it or simply because that person figured as a superior in your life at one time, you can learn something from them. Unfortunately, it may not be how to become a better person in a direct sense. Instead, if you look back, a person like that can teach you how NOT to be. We all have role models that did something--or maybe a number of somethings--that demonstrated to us how to be better people and what that means. The best lesson that can be learned here is what it means to be worthy of that respect. I am sure that to this day, if she is still around, Mrs. Haynesworth hasn't thought once about whether or not she was worth the respect that we, her young pupils had to give her. It was probably enough to her that we gave her the respect in the first place. To her more thoughtful students, of which I am sure I am not the only one, we can look back and reconsider what she may have done or said that made her unworthy and how we as people can avoid making those mistakes in our own lives.

I want to say thank you Mrs. Haynesworth and others for showing me a true example of what I would never want to become. It's even more valuable in some ways than the good examples in my life. At least you gave me a picture of what I would be if I chose your example to emulate over theirs.

Friday, August 25, 2006

How to Have a Great Time with Newspapers and Crayons

Years ago, my parents insisted upon going to Block Island for two weeks every summer. This eleven-square-mile island off the coast of Rhode Island is a favorite day trip for Southern New Englanders because of its beaches, its rural roads, and its generally pastoral landscape. However, as you can probably assume, this does translate to absolute boredom for the average teenager with only a few precious weeks of freedom we call "summer vacation" on his or her hands. My first trip over was when I was fifteen, and I made absolutely sure I brought with me all of the books that high school teachers heartlessly impose upon their students for the holiday. The one advantage was that Block Island, especially after the last ferry left, taking the rest of the day trippers with it, was a quiet and safe place, so my parents didn't have a problem allowing myself and my siblings free reign to walk or bike around the island as we liked.

Passing the time was made easier by the visitation of friends from the "mainland." Lindsay joined me for at least a day or two every year, and every year, we came up with a different way to pass the time.

The first year, we were staying in a house on the far side of the island--meaning in a place away from the harbors and therefore, most of the temporary crowds. One night during her visit, we were sitting in the living room on the upper floor with a television that got two channels if we held the antennae at odd angles--and one of them, of course, was public access and had gone off the air promptly at 8pm. What we did have was the reminents of the several-times-read-over newspaper acquired that morning from one of two markets and a set of art supplies that my mother purchased for my little sister and some of her buddies, all of whom were fast asleep in a bedroom down the hall. Given the limitations put upon our options, we started "amending" the newspapers. Our inspiration was a baseball cap Lindsay always wore--the "cool and in" logo at the time was "No Fear", and she, with a little help from a seam ripper, had transformed it into "No Ear." We applied this strategy to the sections of the paper we still had in tact, changing headlines, ads, pictures, and parts of stories to create entirely new versions. Lindsay made the business section more interesting with its lists of stock prices while I created a "Where's Jack Reed?" storyline that extended throughout the local pages (Jack Reed, at the time, being our Congressional Representative).

This, of course, could only be done when all of the adults had enough of the papers. During the day, we had to find other amusements. One of the things it seemed that a lot of the other, similarly trapped kids on the island did was sell lemonade. We saw the occasional stand on the road, and we figured that it couldn't hurt to try the same thing. The only problem was our location--we were a long way from the majority of the tourists, but if we gave it a shot, it couldn't hurt. At one of the local markets, we purchased the necessary lemonade mix and Lindsay thought it may be worth it to try to add a trail mix in. It made our purchase more expensive, which was something my mother noticed right away.

We set ourselves up at the end of the driveway to the house. My brother also joined in, walking a little ways up the road for anticipatory advertisement as our human billboard. Instead of languishing, in fact, the business thrived. Our being outside of the usual realm of business competition put our stop into the "only refreshment for miles" category, and the more hard-core island bikers took that into account when they spotted our table. Within about an hour, my brother was proudly able to present my mother with full reimbursement for our supplies. We even had a bunch of lost New Yorkers stop and buy nearly everything we had on the table, giving us a personal check in return.

Two years later, we were put in a similar environment, but this time at least, in a better house. We were closer to town than before, and therefore, our competition was up. After a day of selling, Lindsay and I were sitting in the living room, again looking over the newspaper. This time, we alighted upon the personals section. As you would expect, we skimmed through column after column of "Looking for Mr. Right", "Daydreamer", and "Could Be For You" titles over run of the mill personal descriptions. Who doesn't like walks on the beach, or nice dinners, or a good conversationalist? Not surprisingly, they mostly all said the same thing, save one. The title was "Ugly, Ugly, Ugly" and was written by a guy who described himself as lazy, boring, unambitious, and "looking for a model type lady." We found this so amusing that we started to come up with personals ad titles ourselves, including "No More Nuns" and "Squirrel Eater." It was very similar to the time we found Lindsay's mother's thank you cards for Christmas gifts. You could have found all of the items she was expressing gratitude for in the local Job Lot--and I'll be willing to bet that 90% of it came from there. Lindsay and I made a list of the gifts and then composed our own, more frank thank you notes for our own personal amusement. We actually transcribed one of them inside a card in reference to a potholder we referred to as "the third prettiest" of the combined lot of already owned potholders and Christmas gifts of the same variety.

It is clear to me that people don't sit down and use their creative abilities much anymore. I mean, what's the point? We have game systems that give us three dimensional worlds to explore, TV shows with near-to-real special effects, and the Internet showing us how many other people had the same idea we did....before we did. If you go to a bookstore, the "best selling authors" save a few, are on the "Da Vinci Code" Level--great thriller stories with one and two syllable words--the description entirely sacrificed for the action and pace of the story. Gone are the days anyone will sit through a two-page paragraph painting the image of the English countryside in your head a la Henry James in "Portrait of a Lady." On the subject of painters--where there was once a time when there were "great masters," the death knell of those days sounded simultaneously with the end of Picasso's life. Music? Heh, try younger and younger looking make-up caked and provocatively dressed children shaking booty for three minutes to a techno beat that could have been entirely produced by a synthesizer. Do I doubt that there are artists out there in all these fields, and more? Absolutely not. What I do doubt is society's ability to appreciate them as they deserve to be appreciated for a long-term contribution made with driven effort.

So go ahead people. Pick up a paint brush, pick up a pencil, put your hands in position on an instrument and see what comes of it. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy those aspects of the media that we like--the exciting TV shows and movies, the fast paced music, or computer generated versions of art. What it does mean is that however enjoyable those things are, we need more in our lives or else we run the risk of becoming as two dimentional as some of those media. And, there hasn't been one memorable person, either in our own lives or in society as a whole, who ever fell into a two-dimensional category. Maybe this is the key to transforming that lack of potential into being memorable.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Star Trek and the Lighter Side

I thought I would lighten the mood, and perhaps toss a friendlier pitch to the English folks out there by expounding upon something I am sure the English and the Americans can agree upon.

Star Trek: The Next Generation--an American show, but employing the incredible and undoubted talent of Patrick Stewart--aired between 1987 and 1994 (at least in the US it did; I don't know if those dates correspond in the UK) and was extraordinarily successful--so much so that the creators made the mistake of saturating the then-eager market with some sub-standard shows under the same brand name, including Deep Space Nine (introduced sometime around 1992), Voyager (aired 1994) and then Enterprise (who knows when it aired--did anyone actually watch it?). I know, I know, there are probably some folks out there who really like those other series and think they trump The Next Generation, and in some ways, I am sure they did, but they would have never been conceived without the success of The Next Generation to drive the market.

I'm not going to try and tell you why it was such a great show, but you'll find few out there who truly disliked it even if they favored other Star Trek series. The most interesting thing about it to me is regardless of how far forward we have gone in terms of media technology, I am very surprised at how it doesn't look all that dated. That may be just me, and maybe I'm farther behind than I thought. However, the shows are still enjoyable today; no matter how many times you may have seen a particular episode previously, it comes on TV (as some lately have on Saturdays here in the UK) and you think "yeah, I remember this one" and you still sit back and watch it (minus the hefty dose of commercials you get in America).

I remember a few years ago, I was sitting and watching an older episode on my father's office TV while doing some work on the computer. My brother came in on his way out to see some friends. The show had something to do with there being two Captain Picards (Patrick Stewart's character) due to a time shift and the episode very gradually and using perfect timing slowly revealed to us why that was---and it wasn't until the very end that all of it came together. Between commmercials, my brother came in and out to watch, and at the time, although we recognized the episode, we had no idea what was going to happen. He literally put off his friends, acknowledged that he would be late, and stayed around to see the outcome of the show.

Hats off to you, Next Generation, for making fifty minutes in front of the TV into a combination of an interesting story and not a waste of time. If only more shows that come out every year with the flash of amazing battle scenes in space or the melodrama of teenaged sex, relationships and life had the same longevity and were worth a look.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Why The British Should Complain More Regularly: The Case for Service

The British are famous for a lot of things--Waterloo, rolling fields, tea, the Queen, informative news programming, great cheese. . .a very impressive list of checked boxes in the "accomplishment" category. However, there is one thing that the British are a little lagging on.

That is: Service.

The Brits can poke fun at us Americans for dozens of things, and rightfully so. Yes, our currency is meaningless in comparison to yours--I pull out an American dollar bill and have to realize that it is worth the equivalent of a fifty pence piece. Our country is run by a man ignorant enough to think he's God's representative on earth and resembles an ape. There are lots of fat people in the US. We're, apparently, loud and boorish in comparison (however, we do have activites other than drunkenness to occupy our Friday and Saturday nights). However, in the US, if I need service, I get it with a smile no matter what I do or say to attempt another response from the server. It's very similar to poking around one of those Buckingham Palace guards that aren't supposed to move or speak. No matter what I do or say to an American service employee, I am still going to get fantastic, efficient service with a smile.

Not so here in the UK. Service here is horrible, save in chain stores that are American brands, such as Starbucks or Gap. You line up for absolutely everything. You may be in a line with seven people in front of you and the front-most person in line is having a debate with the counter clerk, but that clerk will not, under any circumstances barring fire or a hold up, call for back up to move the line faster for the customers. If you want to pay for something in the US, that's no problem--you can do anything as long as the money gets into the hands you're aiming for. When I tried to pay my credit card bill over the phone with my debit card--very standard practice in the US--I get a song and dance, a lot of excuses, and really, no explanation why that can't happen from the operator, but apparently, I have to send in payment in the form of check by post. I go to the library on campus--the signs say it closes at 5:15pm. Promptly at 4:55, I am ordered to leave the photocopy room so one of the employees can do the very physically taxing and time consuming task of turning off the machines, then gruffly told by one of the other employees that "We're closed" as I exit the room, regardless of the fact that every clock in immediate view says a range of times between 5:03 and 5:07. One Sunday, I went through hell and high water on the only-sometimes-efficient bus system in the city to get to Tesco. Upon arrival at 3:45pm, I was turned from the door by an employee explaining they were closing at 4pm--well, yes, I knew that, hence why I arrived fifteen minutes before closing. However, I still couldn't go in for the one item I needed, so I said to the guy, "And the reasons your country lost the American Revolution still persist today," while marching off.

In the US, service is key--it's the key to keeping your business going in the face of countless others. In any shopping center, there will be at least three stores all selling the item or type of items you're looking to buy, and the prices are all within about 10 USD of each other. As a result, what gets you to come back is how useful you found the staff, how willing they were to help you and how available they were, and just generally, how they treated you. If you were treated poorly, found no one to help you and waited in a long line at the counter, you may just leave behind what you were thinking of purchasing and then going into the store across the street. Although there are very many downsides to Capitalism, this is one of its best features. It forces a store to find a way to spend the least amount of money it can to operate while serving the customer as well as possible, and if that standard seems deficient, well, you never have to go back there again.

Not so in the UK. The way things are structured, you are FORCED to come back because that is probably the ONLY store for miles that is selling what you need or want. For example, the only sizeable drug store in York is Boots. It doesn't matter if they treat me like crap or as if I am descended from their royal family--I still have to go back there if I need painkillers or shampoo. Therefore, they treat you how ever they fancy. If the clerk at the counter wants to have a ten minute discussion with one of her regular customers, she can and she will because you may not wait in the line now, you may walk out in exhasperation, but you'll be back because you have to be.

My most recent poor service experience involves the bank--Barclay's Bank, to be specific. There are a lot of banks in York, so I cannot complain for want of suitable alternatives. It's more the principle of the thing that makes the difference.

Last month, I had to pay for my last housing installment at the University of York. This was a considerable sum--over 1000 GBP, and I had the money wired into my account from home to cover it. I was going to go back to the US for a short time, so I paid early by personal check at the office on campus, then went home.

While I was at home, I received a very brief e-mail from the bursar's office at the University. Apparently, my check had been refused for the funds, and the explanation had come back to them as "suspected fraud." The bank, of course, had not notified me at all--I was left in another time zone with only this piece of information to go on. I waited until a suitable time, then called the bank. The first issue was figuring out which number applied to my situation the best. I tried three of them, and each time, I had a teller give me a new number to try. By my third or fourth phone call, I finally got someone who had the information to help me and who was with the right department. I explained my situation--just the information I had via the e-mail. I asked why I had not been informed about it, with the reply that it wasn't bank "policy" to inform customers if their accounts were under inspection for fraud. Eventually, he transferred me over to a manager or some such supervisor named Paul. Paul at least had more answers. He had three of my most recently written checks in front of him as I spoke to him--all written between the beginning of June and mid-July. He told me that they expected all three of them of fraud because of how they looked. Why, then, did they allow two of them to clear without complaint and only stopped this one? He had no answers, only that they were "trying to protect and serve me as best as they could." Since there weren't going to be any explanations forthcoming in that capacity, I moved on to what could be done to clear the latest payment. He kept telling me what they looked like, as if that made them suddenly become invalid and fraudulent in the face of all I was saying to him to the contrary. Finally, he "relented" and agreed to redraft the refused check, and in addition, to stop this from happening again, he issued me a new checkbook.

Problem solved, right? Absolutely not.

I returned to York about a week later. As I deplaned in Manchester Airport, I noticed there was a message on my UK cell phone. While standing in the nearly endless immigration line at the equivalent, for me, of about 4am, I listened to it. It was from the bank. A woman who didn't audibly identify herself well said that she was from Barclay's Bank and wanted to talk about something having to do with the account, leaving me a number to call which I swiftly wrote down. The line, with at least seventy-five people ahead of me in it, had not moved up more than a foot or so in the meantime, so I was in no danger of being called to the podium in the near future. Instead, I called the number she left me--I even double checked the number several times on the message. The number, according to the operator's recorded voice, did not exist.

A few hours after returning to my room at the University, I called again, this time, the number that had finally been resolved upon when I first called the bank after I found out about the fraud charge. At first, although the teller could bring up my account on the screen, no one had any idea why I had been called, and I was put on hold for about ten minutes. Finally, someone apparently found something out because I was picked back up and then assured that I would speak again to the same Paul as before. When I finally got on the phone with him, he told me that they tried to redraft the check and could not, no explanation given. I asked him how he expected me to pay the department with an invalidated check book on my hands. Paul assured me that if I did write a check by this same means, he would clear it. Given the number of concrete answers I had received from Paul to that point to rather weighty matters, I decided not to risk it and paid the bill with my debit card instead.

Things got even more interesting when I went to the bank. Since the buses on my line only allow for payment in correct change, I regularly go to the bank to get one pound coins. That day, I used the end of my remaining English coinage to get to town, then went to the bank as usual to replenish my supply. As soon as I got to a teller and had my card swiped, there was a problem. A lot of numbers and letters on the teller's screen alerted her to a hold put on my account, stating that no transactions could occur on it. She checked with a manager, I explained what happened, and the transaction passed. I thought that I had seen the end of it.

I was very, very wrong.

The next day, I thought to do the same thing in order to ensure I had enough to do laundry. Right before I went into the bank, to make the transaction more simple, I took 100 GBP out of the cash machine on the side of the bank building. Then, I went inside, stood in the line, presented my card to the available teller. The same problem came up on my account again. This time, when a new manager looked at it, she wouldn't allow the transaction to follow no matter what I said, and proceeded to take me to the next available personal accountant. The manager stood there while two women looked at my account. I sat in a chair and listened to them talk in such a way to ensure that I said or asked as little as possible. No, there was nothing wrong with the account--it looked just fine--the whole issue was explained having to do with the check book. So, why was it affecting my card if it was check book oriented? It had to do with the whole account, so a block had been put on all transactions. So, why could I take money out of the machine? No real answer to that one. How come I was not notified when the check was suspected to be fraudulent? Because I may be committing fraud on my own account. With my own funds? What is the statistic of that happening? Sometimes it happens--it isn't bank policy to notify you. So, if you suspected fraud, why did your bank allow two checks that were believed to be fraudulent to pass through only stopping the third? My reply to this one was a quick change of subject that someone with a lower IQ would probably have still noticed. The "speaker" of the two female accountants was rather tiring of my questions, probably because she didn't have suitable answers to them, and thought that I would be satisfied if I were allowed my transaction to pass and sent on my way.

Well, the conflict of interests here was more than clear. I wanted to know the whys they didn't have answers to because I wanted the problem to be solved so I could go to a teller in peace. They thought that as long as I got what I came in for that day, that my temporary quick-fix satisfaction would be enough to carry me through the situation.

At home, I called the bank again. I spoke to another teller, who explained to me that the computer revealed a claim on the account that my personal banking information had been removed from my room. I asked the teller when this claim had been made and she said the date was the 20th of July--the same date I had called up the bank the first time right after receiving the e-mail from the bursar's office. I insisted that I had never said anything about that at all--and now, I was starting to get, very simply, a bit pissed off. First, the bank charges my account with fraud that wasn't the case, even suspected my account of it two checks before stopping the one that they did without doing anything about it and still insisting they were trying to "serve me as best as they could." Now, "Paul" had made the mistake of restricting my card transactions as well with a completely different problem that yet again, did not exist. The teller I was speaking to on the phone said to me that "my complaint was noted, but there was nothing he could immediately do about the problem." Surprise, surprise.

About twenty minutes later, the phone rang. It was another associate at the bank to which my complaint had been passed. She told me the same thing the teller had less than half an hour before, then explained it would be cleared up by Monday. I was even called on Monday morning by the same woman who said to me that "everything had been cleared up" and asked me whether or not I wanted that in writing. My reply? "Hell yes, send that right away."

To test this new assertion, I proceeded again to the bank. This time, I got a teller who recognized me and knew the circumstances. She put through my transaction only to find the same problem come up on her computer again. Since she knew me, I could get my money, but she suggested that I see one of the accountants on my way out and mention it, along with my recent phone call. I went to the podium, amply supplied with a large, blue sign that said "I'd Be Happy To Help" by the door. A young man was standing there. As soon as I got up to him, I handed him the card, saying to him "Your day and my day isn't going to get much better unless this gets cleared up." He told me, "My computer isn't working well, so I may not be able to see what is going on. My reply to him was "Well, then, you'll be finding another way to solve this problem." He swiped my card on the computer--nothing was showing as wrong. I took him to the teller myself, and she showed him what it said when she tried to put a transaction through on it. Basically, he had no idea what was going on. He stuttered that perhaps it took a day or two for the computer system to completely register any changes made to the account. I left, with the full intention of coming back the next day.

And, the next day came around, and I took my now daily stroll to the bank. I got to the same teller again. Not surprisingly, the same problem occured, and she told me to go to see the accountants. So, I did.

Finally, I got someone I had been through this song and dance with before at the "I'd Be Happy To Help" stand. It was one of the two women I had spoken to earlier, but this one wasn't the one who insisted upon talking to me then and refusing to answer my questions satisfactorally. I handed her the card, explained the situation, and she remembered me. Instead of asking me questions about why the problem continued, or what she could do about it, or showing me any sign of her being "Happy To Help," she insisted that all had been explained to me before and tried to hand me back my card to close the conversation.

That was it. I HAD it.

I looked at her straight in the eyes and said to her: "Look, I don't know how many times I have to come in and be a pain in the ass, here, for this to be resolved."
I stood still in front of her podium, making it clear through eye contact and body language that I was NOT going to be put off and I was NOT going to continue to deal with this.

She sighed, almost huff-like, and went behind the counter to find out exactly what the computer was saying. She returned with my card and a piece of paper with some writing on it. She explained that she would be just a minute, she had to call the bank branch in London. I heard her go behind the counters through a side entrance and say something in an exhasperated tone to whoever was there to listen to her. I know it had to have been something none-too-complimentary about myself, but I didn't care. She was actually doing something about the problem. Eventually, she came out again and gave a few pieces of paper over to another accountant who was sitting in front of a computer and brought up my information. The other accountant, another, more pleasant woman, picked up the phone to make a call, then, beckoned for me to join her while the previous, less "Happy To Help" accountant pointed me in her direction and resumed her place behind the ironically labeled podium.

The other woman spoke to someone at the London branch and explained the whole thing. Suddenly, within a few words, the problem was solved. She told me that if I had any more problems, to come to her directly on Monday and she would sort them out in person with me.

So, what's the moral of the story here? First, the irony of the line "We're trying to serve you as best as we can." NO ONE save the last woman and the very understanding, but limited in action tellers, served me as "best as they can." The accountant who was with me twice--she is the one I have the biggest beef with, but not only because she was so dissatisfied to help me. It was because she was there, steps and steps ago in this process, and she obviously knew how to take care of the problem. She didn't, for the sake of convenience for only herself, do anything for me until I stood there and literally made a scene. Only then was she forced to take action, but I don't think she realized that never would have happened had she done that in the first place.

Well, my British friends, on so many fronts, you one-up your American counterparts, but I'll tell you, this circus never would have happened in the US. Perhaps if the British learned how to complain, which never seems to happen, then something may be done.

At least if you make a scene, you'll have a good story to tell about it.