Thursday, January 19, 2012

Has Customer Service Become an Oxymoron?

     Today I found myself in the post office waiting to send some books off to reviewers when one of the clerks behind the desk picked up the phone and started shouting, yes shouting, into the phone for a supervisor, This gentleman did not do this once, but three separate times. After his third attempt at trying to track down someone in charge, the man in line next to me turned and mumbled, “Some customer service, huh?” 
     Now this is the post office and most Americans joke about the less than stellar service offered by many government affiliated organizations. But it got me thinking. Has the common courtesy of giving a customer service gone the way of the dodo bird? More and more people are complaining about customer service. Most of the time it isn’t even human customer service but a highly irritating automated system that sends you through a long litany of questions and keys to hit, and even then you still don’t get the help you need. We all know how eager companies are to get our business, especially in these tough economic times, but why does the service disappear after the act of sale. And how many of us have suffered through more bouts of abysmal service, or no service at all, than have had a caring interaction with someone who has actually helped solve our problem.
     After hurricane Katrina many of us in the New Orleans area experienced a rare opportunity of unified outstanding customer service. Not from our insurance companies, don’t even get me started on that, but from electric companies, mortgage companies, water companies, and just about anyone that billed on a monthly basis for their services. I have never experienced such kindness and concern from so many customer service representatives as I did after that storm. But why does it take a natural disaster for us to get the courtesy we deserve? Shouldn’t good customer service be just as important to any company as providing a good product? Or do they just not care about their service or their customers. Is the apathy of the business world toward its customers a reflection of society’s apathy toward its citizens?
     Perhaps we should all stop ranting about the poor quality of everyone else’s customer service and start looking at our own. How we treat other people is just as important as how companies treat us. And the companies that we buy from cannot change unless we change. Kindness starts from the inside out. One caring act will lead to another, and maybe one day, customer service will be a term that makes us smile, instead of cringe. And by the way, after all that shouting, the supervisor never did show up in that post office. I think next time I’ll use FedEx. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Editing Hell and Vodka

     Recently I have been in editing hell for my next novel, Broken Wings. And after several sleepless nights, more trips to the online grammar boards than I care to remember, and a bottle of vodka, my manuscript is ready to be sent to the publisher to make its way out into the world. I only have one question. WHO IS THE IDIOT THAT CREATED ALL OF THESE STUPID RULES FOR WORDS?
     I mean come on, does it matter if your character goes out the door or out of the door, that you put a space before and after an ellipse, and that you place a hyphen in air-conditioning, but not air conditioner. What ever happened to creative freedom because it sure in hell is not alive and well in the literary world. You can write a story about a rabid squirrel that takes out half of Cincinnati, but God forbid you have him chew the head off of someone instead of off someone. No one taught me any of these rules in high school. Let’s face it, do any of us even remember what we learned in high school, inside of the classroom that is. And when you find a rule, there are about thirty different opinions from grammar experts on whether or not you are even to follow that rule. But the time I get off the Internet, and not off of the Internet, my head is swimming, hence the bottle of vodka.

     Do all of these rules really matter to the reader? If a story is good, really good, can a few slips of the keyboard be overlooked? Not according to many reviewers. Editing mistakes are for some reviewers the bane of their existence. But is there really a perfect manuscript out there? Maybe in another dimension, but definitely not in this one. I found references to Chaucer not correctly placing commas in his stories. If we have to go that far back into literature and attack someone we all grew up reading in high school, even if we don’t remember it, what does that say about the chance any author today has of getting the rules right. And what manual are you supposed to follow to get the rules right. I was taught the Chicago Manual of Style was the be all and end all for fiction writing, but not everyone agrees on that. There is no definitive reference guide used today and many editors vary in the references they do use. So who is right? Who is the ultimate judge of what is correct?
     I guess like most things in this business it is up to the reader to decide. And in the end I think the reader will choose a story that moves them. I never believed before this point in my life that a choice of career could lead to a psychological disorder, but after picking up the pen I find myself now suffering from an acute case of anal-retentive syndrome. And yes, you do spell it with a hyphen. That way you know you are anal-retentive. Because if you weren’t you wouldn’t care about the damned hyphen anyway.            

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Today's Guest Rant is by author Victoria Watson

I don’t know about you but I always thought that if someone was good enough to pay you to do a job, you’d better at least try to do your best.

I never understand people who enter into occupations in which they have to deal with the public who then make no effort whatsoever to give the customer – i.e. the person who effectively pays their wages – a good experience.

I don’t just mean people who work in restaurants and shops but also people like receptionists, librarians and doctors (among many others). If you don’t want to serve the public, don’t work in customer service!

I am sick of going to a shop, a bank or a hospital where people obviously hate their jobs and, by proxy, hate you. I understand that people feel they are under-paid and over-worked, particularly with so many companies cutting back due to the recession but let’s look at the flip side: would these people prefer to be laid off? At least they have jobs!

When I was sixteen, I took on a weekend job in a shop. The boss I had there was firm but fair. She told us what she expected of us and we gave, in my opinion, great customer service. Some days we’d be rushed off our feet but I believe everyone who came to the shop, went away with a positive opinion of our company.

We were told to answer the telephone as quickly as possible, we were also to approach as many customers as possible just to let them know we were there if they needed any help. If there was a queue at the till, we had to stop what we were doing and serve the customers. Likewise, if we didn’t have the stock the customer wanted, we were expected to ring other branches, check the warehouse and do as much as we could to leave the customer satisfied.

However, what the great training I went through did was make me aware of how utterly terrible other people can be. My motto is “treat others how you wish to be treated” and therefore, whenever I deal with people, I try to empathise with them and put myself in their shoes. Why don’t other people?

I was in a shop today where every member of staff I encountered seemed bored or actively angry. I was coughed over (by a member of staff), ignored, had a changing room shut in front of me when I quite obviously wanted to use it, was shouted at and ended up queuing (and almost fainted) in a ten-minute queue while a girl filled shelves nearby.

What upsets me about our National Health Service is the service (or lack thereof) that I come up against whenever I have to use them. I was taken to A&E a year ago with terrible pain which turned out to be kidney stones. I sat in that waiting room for ten hours before being seen. I understand there may have been people who had worse issues than me but what I didn’t appreciate was the fact that nurses kept walking through the waiting room and refusing to make eye contact with anyone. When my mum lodged a complaint at 3am in the morning, a staff nurse sat with us and complained to us about the governmental cuts being imposed on the National Health Service and how much pressure it left them under. She told us that the walk through the waiting room was jokingly referred to as “The walk of shame”. This angered me: if it took an emergency call handler took a long time to answer the phone and then complained to the caller about cuts being imposed by the government, they’d be disciplined!

I’ve dealt with several medical receptionists and secretaries in the past few months and, bar one very helpful lady, I have encountered nothing but ignorance and rudeness.

We’re all suffering due to this recession; we’re all doing the work of several people and feeling the strain but this isn’t an excuse for antipathy. If you do the best you can, there’s no more than you can do but if you don’t put the full effort in simply because you can’t be bothered, you shouldn’t be in the job.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Is conversation becoming extinct?

     I was in Wal Mart the other day when I saw a young boy furiously texting away with his thumbs. I remember thinking at the time that wasn’t exactly what God had in mind when he created such an opposable digit. A few moments later, I noticed another boy walked up to this young man, also texting on his cell phone and asked, “You get my text?” The young man nodded without looking up from his phone and said, “Yeah, I’m texting you back.”

     Now someone please explain to me the purpose of that conversation. And why in the hell couldn’t these two boys just speak face-to-face to each other. Has the art of conversation been reduced to the incomprehensible shorthand one finds in a text? Are we so afraid to look another person in the eye that we have to hide behind technology in order to find our voice? The greatest leaders the world has ever known were masters of public speaking, but I’m sure if they had been given cell phones as a teenager they would never have left the safety of their living rooms. I have neighbors who live within fifty feet of each other’s front door and choose to Skype each other rather than stick their heads out of their windows and have a non-technologically based interaction. And when they do “talk” to each other, the conversation doesn’t follow the long observed norms of the weather, the family, or the dog’s recent confrontation with an enraged squirrel. No, they want to compare the newest apps for their smart phones, or debate the necessity of living in a tent for two weeks outside the local Apple store in order to be able to claim the title of “first phone sold.”

     Do we really need all of this technology and is it taking away from the fundamentals of being human? Teenagers are closer to the phones than their parents. Grown human beings spend more time locked away in their bedrooms surfing the net than interacting with their families. Everyday we are inundated with emails, texts, tweets, Google alerts, instant messages, cell phone calls, and video conferencing. How much more can our brains take before we turn into the technology we have placed above our family pet? I don’t think a man walking with an antenna out of his ear that connects to WiFi and has a hard drive capable of downloading Cleveland is what Darwin had in mind for us.

     When will we learn to put our humanity first and technology second, because we are not the emotionally bereft computers we so solemnly worship. Our emotions, our words, our interactions with others are what makes us unique as a species, and if we continue down this road we will be no more emotionally advanced than the rocks on the side of that road. So take that cell phone out of your ear, disconnect from the Internet, and grab your loved ones. Pretend you are a family unit, and do something that families have done together for decades before the invasion of all our technology. Go watch television.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Green-Eyed Monsters Need Not Apply

     I hate to admit it, but I have had bouts of jealousy. Hell, I am having one right now as I eye my neighbor’s perfectly manicured garden and want to rip out his brilliant assortment of rose bushes. But then in mid thought, as I have a picture in my mind of those rose bushes in my garden, I wonder why I am feeling this way. I don’t even like gardens and, having been born with the black thumb of death, anything I do bury in the dirt resembles more of a zombie plant rather than something remotely green and healthy. So why do I envy someone their success with roses? Then again, why do we envy anyone his or her success? Is it because it is in our nature to want to steal away the success of others and make it our own?
     The American Indians call raccoons the thieves of the animal world because they habitually seek to take anything they can find and claim it as their property. Now we are not raccoons, at least not all of us, but is their something deep inside of us at a genetic level that drives us to covet our neighbors belongings. Is it part of an undiscovered survival mechanism that psychologists have yet to identify with some abbreviation like ADHD? Perhaps envious as *&$# syndrome, or EASS. One more disorder that takes a lot of therapy, and a healthy dose of prescription medication, to discreetly control. And what about those Christian values we have all been raised on. I’ve seen people sitting in church turn pee green with envy when they spy a beautiful couple with their perfect angelic looking children, expensively tailored clothes, and glittering jewelry, walking to their private pew. We assume they must happy, right? They are better looking, richer, and have more than any of us. But is that necessarily true.
     Reality television must have taught us that even the Kardashians can have a bad hair day. So why since Cain first took a swing at Abel, have we been coveting our neighbor’s happiness? Have we not learned anything since we first had to cover our nakedness in the Garden of Eden? Granted, some individuals have mastered the ability to forgive and forget. Perhaps it’s their belief in a karmic retribution, rather than a Christian ideal, that motivates their exemplary attitude. I have witnessed the power of this universal truth. What you send out into the universe will eventually come back to bite you in the ass.
     As I stare at Mr. Green Thumb’s roses, I vow to try and temper my envy, and instead appreciate the fact that someone has achieved something that has made the world a better place to live. What you do for yourself, you do for all of us, because we are all connected. In a way, Mr. Green Thumb’s success is mine too. I should celebrate his efforts, and not negate them. But damn, I think as I stare at his bright crimson blooms, those roses would look much better in my garden.    


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The comma: Are you kidding me?

I would love to get my hands on the sadistic grammarphile who first developed the comma. A piece of punctuation that resembles a sperm with scoliosis, the comma has more rules than the TSA, and is about as infuriating as going through one of their airport screenings. Why is the comma such a mystery? I have seen editors come to blows about how to use the infernal thing in a sentence. And if the comma is to suggest a pause, then why do we even put such markers in our reading. Who wants to pause? We are all in such a rush these days, so let’s just hit the gas, get through the damn sentence, and on to the next one. We don’t have commas on our roads, no matter how many people try to turn stop signs into pause signs, then why do we have them in literature. I mean they’re just words, right? Open to the subjective interpretation of the reader, and bound to garner praise as well as ridicule. Shouldn’t the placement of the comma be up to the discretion of the writer? I put a comma here, because I damn well feel like it. If congress can waste the country’s time and money debating on the whether or not redwood trees in California should be given legal citizenship, then why can’t writer’s be free to write without all of those commas getting in the way. Why is so much of what a writer does governed by rules? Then again, why is so much of life overseen by rules? Everywhere we turn these days there are more and more rules being touted by institutions, governments, businesses, and mothers. And who writes these rules? Who is the person that gets to say when you are old enough to drive, to marry, to have sex, to go to war, to drink, and to do just about anything that involves the use of your brain. Not all rules are meant to arbitrarily blanket a society filled with such a diverse array of peoples and cultures. We have built a world so constricted by the regulations of others, that we have forgotten how to please the individual inside of us. And to ignore who we are will invariably lead to the destruction of what we are. Society must learn to embrace the individual before it creates more rules that will eventually stifle every unique voice. I guess in many ways people are a lot like commas. Every now and then we should pause and appreciate all of the individuals that have enriched our lives up until that moment, before we move on to the next. A shame life doesn’t imitate literature sometimes. Imagine all of the wonderful characters we could have taken the time to cherish if only a comma had been there to remind us. Now don’t even get me started on the semi colon.        

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Facebook: The new cocaine?

I find myself compulsively checking Facebook several times throughout the day. Well, that isn’t right, maybe several dozen times throughout the day. But the one question I have is why? Why do those of use who continually send friend request and check the “likes” and “comments” on our pages feel compelled to do so. And please explain to me the reason why we have to share the intimacies of our lunches, bowel movements, pets, private parts, children’s homework, or crazy Aunt Nora’s hip replacement with complete strangers. Has Facebook become the replacement for that popular social drug of the eighties, cocaine? Are we getting high on “liking” pages that we never plan to visit again, or wishing people we don’t know happy birthday because we want to make sure they will reciprocate when our special day rolls around. What about the medical implications of Facebook? Are we developing some latent form of ADD by watching what rolls on that infernal ticker at the right hand side of the page. Are we becoming a society of self-imposed, solitary, cyber space sycophants by begging total strangers to be our friends? And how man friends does one need on Facebook anyway? Even Facebook cuts you off at five thousand. But what in the hell are you going to do with five thousand friends? Invade Rhode Island? And why would you want to be friends with that weird guy who is always posting naked pictures of himself with his cats? Don’t we have enough to do with emails, Tweeting, Googling, Skyping, texting, surfing the web, checking apps on our smart phones, and in general sparing ourselves the agony of having a face-to-face conversation with another human being, without adding the addictive nature of Facebook to the mix. And what raving idiot decided to add games to this technological revolution. What possible satisfaction can come from waiting for your dinners to cook in CafĂ© World, while you off a rival in Mafia Wars, and then have to check your crops in FarmVille? How many people on Facebook have even seen a barn, let alone know how to build one, and why are you continually asking me to send you equipment I don’t have. Facebook has for many people replaced the necessity of having relationships. If your computer had an orifice, trust me, some moron would figure out how to take cyber satisfaction to a whole new level. And Facebook would probably want you to join a safe sex group page to make sure you don’t spread any viruses. Where will this all end, and how much further can Facebook intrude into our lives? So go ahead and ponder the possibilities and fear for our future sanity. In the meantime, I’m going to check on my cupcakes in Baking World. I’ve got to get them out of the oven before they burn.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Stupids

Yesterday I was in Wal Mart, my home away from home, when a rather round woman in the very long line ahead of me turned and said, “This is so stupid.” As I searched her cart overflowing with potato chips, steaks, high fructose corn syrup drinks, ice cream, candy bars, and a plethora of Diet Cokes, I wondered if she really understood the concept of stupidity, or at the very least the dangers of a high fat diet. I walked out of that store, my cart overflowing with animal food and squeaky dog toys, and wondered if anyone truly comprehends stupidity. Because we are inundated day in and day out with so many examples of stupidity, has it in fact become the norm to be dumb? And is the rise of reality television, where stupidity is almost a mandatory requirement, helping to aid this celebration of stupidity? I have heard of school-aged children who are afraid to get very high grades because their classmates will ostracize them. Or individuals who choose to under perform so as not to garner the hostility of less than ambitious coworkers. Then there are the almost daily mindless acts of our own United States Congress. Stupidity seems to be everywhere. And if stupidity is so common, when do stupid people know they are being stupid? For this is certainly not a question of intelligence, because we can test for that, but how do we test for the root cause of stupidity, which I believe is a lack of common sense. Can we teach this in schools, offer scholarships for it, or even get federal grants to develop a new program to encourage it in our young? It has always been said that the monumental achievements in any society rests on the shoulders of a select few. But do we praise those achievements that the whole of society has benefited from? In his early days, Steve Jobs’ out of the box ideas were considered by many higher ups in the technology sector to be stupid. All it took was a little time, a lot of money, and a man who believed in his vision to show the world that sometimes the most wonderful things can come out of someone’s “stupid” ideas. Perhaps one man’s stupidity is another man’s attempt to be heard above the din. Bravery has often been mislabeled as stupidity by many in the past. So perhaps I should redefine my own prejudices when it comes to jumping on the bandwagon and defining something or someone as stupid. But just when I am about to give the world another try, I see a reality TV contestant eating worms so they won’t be voted off some God forsaken island, and I think, now this is really stupid.      

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A taste of my first book "To My Senses"

 Chapter 1

The magnolias and the debutantes blossomed onto the New Orleans' social season with great fanfare, even though the flowers were much more appealing than many of the young ladies. Luckily, I was not among this spring's unfortunate few and would not have to spend hours feasting on wilted cucumber sandwiches and flat champagne while wearing a long, white taffeta gown as elevator music numbed my brain. I had already suffered my own humiliation three seasons ago when I was primped, powdered, and paraded across the lawns of many of the city’s finest homes.
The entire experience resembled a horse auction as observers tried to imagine what type of wives these young women would make for the lawyers, bankers, and doctors of tomorrow. Of course they had to have the proper physique to interest any potential suitors: small enough to remain feminine, but large enough to breed half a dozen healthy little future social climbers. Their teeth had to be white, buffed, and polished as a sign of good breeding and their parents’ ability to afford premium dental care. They had to be able to walk without slouching, speak without saying anything of importance, and act as if the only reason for living was to carry on the traditions of polite society. This was the essence of being a debutante in the minds of all of the best of New Orleans' oldest families.
For this particular garden party, I was to act as cheerleader for my cousin, Colleen. She was the latest member of our family to suffer the piercing gazes and snake-like charm of "the old guard"-what we younger folks affectionately called the long-standing members of the ruling social sect in our city. They were a rather elderly group of bored women who held firm to the belief that one or two ancestors who had died for the cause in the Civil War put them on only a slightly higher pedestal than anyone else who just had a whole lot of money. My cousin Colleen, however, was parading among the elite of our city not because she was interested in pedigree but because she was very interested in finding a husband with money and connections.
The main job of these functions, of course, was to arrange matchmaking services to the children of suitable families. The old guard would provide important introductions to a boy’s family that they felt best suited a lady’s individual class and breeding and also matched her father’s income. It was considered a detriment to her social standing to question the judgment of these esteemed and rather stuffy individuals. It was like a type of protective inbreeding program. Unfortunately, that resulted in a great deal of idiocy among their offspring. If my particular generation was any example of what faulty genetic material could produce, then Colleen could have been their poster child.
Colleen had been given all of my Aunt Hattie's looks and none of her social graces. She was short and plump with a large mouth, small chin, dark hair, and sad brown eyes. Like my aunt, she had an annoying habit of sucking large gasps of air in through her teeth when she laughed. This habit prompted my father to always refer to the two women as the Hoover girls.
I had spent the entire afternoon at Colleen's designated white linen table watching as my aunt downed mass quantities of tea sandwiches and champagne. The more champagne my aunt drank the louder her laugh became, drawing the occasional curious stare from neighboring tables. I kept waiting for the appropriate moment to make a speedy departure, but Hattie kept waving and calling to friends from her botany club or other various civic groups to come over and join us; and I would once again have to delay my retreat. Colleen, who was constantly fidgeting, looked completely miserable as the barrage of well wishers breezed past our table.
"Do you think I look stupid in this thing?" Colleen asked, pulling at her white, off-the-shoulder dress.
"You look great." I brushed her heavy black bangs away from her eyes. "You're the prettiest girl here."
"Ha! You're the prettiest girl here, Nicci! Look at how the guys always watch you." Colleen looked around at the crowd mingling about us. "You've always been the pretty one, but thanks for the...well, thanks." She turned to me and patted my hand just as Hattie came waddling up to our table.
“Colleen, come on, girl, sit up straight." Hattie fussed over Colleen’s hopelessly rumpled gown. "Mrs. Jacobs has someone she wants you to meet."
Colleen looked at me, terror stricken at being summoned to a command performance with the captain of the old guard, Eileen Jacobs. I stood up and helped her straighten out her dress.
"Don’t worry," I whispered in her ear. "You don’t have to marry him. Just smile and make some small talk and you’ll never have to see him again."
"Yeah, right, you don’t know Mom," was all she could get out before Hattie dragged her away, still fussing.
Colleen was right, of course. All Hattie had in mind for the poor girl was a good marriage to a sociably suitable husband, and about six children. But then, Colleen did not want much more than that for herself. She would have been happy with any man, whether or not he was sociably suitable. With only her mother’s absentminded intellect and plump figure going for her, Colleen was doomed from conception.
I sat and watched across the lawn as Hattie primped Colleen’s dress and danced about nervously, waving her arms, when Colleen shook hands with her prospective suitor. I laughed to myself, remembering how different my aunt had been from my mother.
Where Hattie was scatterbrained, my mother had been witty. Hattie had always been overly excitable and demanded attention like a puppy. My mother, on the other hand, had been calm; people gravitated to her like a beautiful work of art. She had been someone people had admired, someone people had always wanted to get to know. Mother had been tall with deep auburn hair, creamy white skin and warm gray eyes. She lacked all the classical features of her Italian heritage, but she had been the pride of the Bascelli family. Her musical laugh lit up a room, and men-well, men found her to be the most fascinating creature they had ever seen. My father had worshiped her until the day she died.
"God, it was awful," Colleen said grabbing my shoulder and shaking me like a tree branch. "He was very snooty and had huge buck teeth." The inbreeding, no doubt, I thought. "Never again." She eased into the chair next to mine and grabbed for her glass of champagne, downing the contents with one gulp.
"I'm sure it wasn’t that bad," I laughed.
"Easy for you to say. Who got introduced to Parker Roy at her first lawn party?" She rolled her eyes. "Parker Roy, only the best looking and richest guy in the town." Colleen reached across the table for her mother’s half empty glass of champagne. "You always get the great guys, you just never go out with any of them."
"Colleen, you know Parker and I are just friends. Anyway, I consider myself selective, that’s all. Looks and money are not important criteria for me." I stared off into the crowd trying to avoid a confrontation.
"There you go again. You know, I think you have turned down half the male population of the city." She paused and looked around the table. "I would love to know, Nicci, can you ever just look at a man for the sake of looking?"
"So are we talking now about the rating of buns or the general appeal of the guy’s body?"
"You are hopeless." Colleen got up from her chair. "I’m going in search of more booze. Care to join me?"
"No thanks."
"You know, Nicci, you can't keep hiding up in your room with your books all your life. You have no friends and you never go out. Christ, you’re missing out on everything." Colleen stumbled closer to me.
"Colleen, I don't think you need any more champagne."
"You know what else? Well, never mind." And with that Colleen turned and walked away, trying to look poised as her high heels stuck in the grass under her feet.
"At least I can wake up the next morning and remember the night before," I said aloud to myself.
I knew once Colleen got started with the booze she would not quit until someone pried her hands off the bottle. Then again, this was New Orleans where one’s first encounter with alcohol usually occurred before puberty.
I watched Colleen stumble her way to the bar at the far end of the lawn. I was pondering how I was going to get her back to my car, when I noticed the new face in the crowd.
What immediately struck me about the man was that he did not seem to belong there. He was poised, tall, and slender with expensive looking, well tailored clothes. From a distance, I watched, dazzled by the stranger’s ability to glide about, smiling, laughing, and working his way through the party. He seemed at ease among the people, traveling like a graceful actor across a stage. The head of every woman followed him as he moved. He appeared indifferent to their gazes, but I could sense he was acutely aware of the attention he was attracting. It was as if every movement, every nuance of his performance was perfectly timed and executed. The way he recklessly carried his champagne glass but never spilled a drop. How he took the occasional sip, which lingered momentarily on his lips. The way he ran his hands through his thick brown hair then raised his eyes and stared off into the throng. But what probably attracted the most attention from the crowd was on whose arm he strolled. It was Samantha Fallon.
Samantha, Sammy to her friends, was a woman who used any means at her disposal to perpetuate her many lucrative enterprises. She owned oil leases, real estate, vast amounts of stocks, and dabbled in scrap metal. My father considered Sammy a formidable competitor to my own family’s scrap metal business, Beauvoir Scrap.
Sammy had married into her fortune and status, and unlike my mother, she lacked the ability to enchant people with her beauty and charm. Any beauty Sammy possessed had long since faded, so she had become another of the plastic surgery addicts among the old guard. If it had not been sucked, lifted, or stretched on her body, it was silicone. She had the face and figure of a centerfold model, but the eyes of a well-worn and cruel old woman.
It was rumored Sammy had started out as a stripper in the French Quarter and that was supposedly how she met her late husband, an affluent and powerful Louisiana attorney named Gerald Fallon. Mr. Fallon was a notorious gambler, drinker, womanizer, and bully. Their union lasted twenty years, with Sammy spending most of that time in Europe. She would often be overheard saying there were only two things Gerald had given her: money and her son, Edward.
Edward, or Eddie as he preferred, was also among the guests at our social affair. I had seen his bright red mop of hair hiding among the magnolias throughout the afternoon. Most people generally tended to steer clear of Eddie since he always had insufferable body odor and a perpetually swollen red nose. Like his father, Eddie had an affinity for drinking, gambling, and fighting. Women, however, scared Eddie, and his fighting rampages usually correlated with Sammy’s interest in a new man.
So I eagerly watched for Eddie in the crowd, wondering if he was aware of his mother’s newest flirtation. And I became alarmed to see Sammy continually kissing and touching her escort, teasingly trying to invoke a response. The gentleman, however, was more discreet with his affections. He simply held her hand but did not return her flirtatious mannerisms. I couldn’t help but think that Sammy was not getting her money's worth with this one.

Age is a matter of perspective

Perhaps we get more introspective as we get older, or we just become more attune to the fact that we have a shorter amount of time ahead of us than behind us. In either case, I find myself wanting to impart nuggets of wisdom on to the younger generation. But getting them to listen is quite another problem. When we are young, we think the older adults are weird and they do not understand us, but as I have become a part of that older generation, I find that I do understand the younger people very well. We remember how it was to be young, and even though we rocked out to punk and classic 80’s tunes, we have not forgotten what it feels like to be young. As you age you have your memories to guide you through life, but when you are young you only have your hormones. Would I give up my wisdom for a youthful glow? No way. I think part of growing older is finally being comfortable with who you are and not so much afraid of what other’s may think of you. And such confidence lends itself to expression. And hence as we mature, we seek to put to paper our thoughts and concerns. But in the end I think it is our experiences that make us writers, don’t they? We write about what we know and where we come from. Thinking back to my youth I can remember struggling to find things to write about, but as I have grown up, I don’t need to struggle anymore. Age has afforded me the luxury of reflection, and such musings have made my writing, not better, but maybe more poignant. After all a writer is merely someone who captures a thought or describes a meadow in such a way as to give the reader pause, and a new perspective. So today I find myself thankful for my age, 47. I have lived a life and had the gift of being able to impart my experiences along the way to paper. And so if you paint, sew, build, plant, or mold out of clay, always strive to express yourself. Allow your wisdom to come through in what you do, and hope that sooner or later, a younger ear, or eye, will be distracted enough from their life to appreciate all that you have accomplished.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Saints are in the playoffs so this seemed appropriate

The rhythm of the resurrecting city of New Orleans is reflected everyday in the unified heartbeat of its determined residents. And no matter the devastation, New Orleanians will continually fight to hold on to their beloved little bastion eight feet below sea level. Like the memory of a first kiss, the warmth of New Orleans pervades your soul and forever becomes a part of you. To travel among the wide oaks and antebellum homes of the Garden District makes for beautiful postcard pictures, but it does not give you a true indication of what it means to be a New Orleanian. You have to immerse yourself in the old world atmosphere and varied traditions of the people of this town in order to understand them, and, hopefully, become one of them.
You need to dine in the myriad of exceptional restaurants and take part in a heated discussion about where to find the best bowl of gumbo. Spend a Monday morning drinking coffee and chicory in an old uptown kitchen while learning how to cook the perfect pot of red beans and rice. Experience the wrong way to eat a muffaletta sandwich, the right way to shuck an oyster, and the only way to eat a beignet. And you will always have to remember that if your food isn’t boiled, blackened or fried, it just ain’t cooked.
You will want to traverse the different sections of the old city divided not by points on a compass, but by proximity to the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain. Because no one in the Crescent City could ever tell you where to find the south end of town, but they could recite by heart the neighborhoods along the bend in the river. From the Bywaters to the Irish Chanel, from Lakeview to the infamous Ninth Ward, so many smaller sections alive with their own unique histories make up this city. Each part of New Orleans has a rich heritage based on the struggles of its French, Spanish, Irish, African, or Italian founders.
Then head over to Canal Street, where the local term “neutral ground” was created in the early 1800’s. In those days, the wide thoroughfare was first used as a common market area between the feuding French and Spanish occupants of the city. Take a streetcar ride down legendary St. Charles Avenue to see the world renowned Audubon Zoo. Along the way, soak up the different styles of Victorian, Greek Revival, and Colonial architecture represented by some of the city’s finest homes. Let the soothing rocking motion of the streetcar ease your cares, as the sweet scent of magnolias streams in from the open window beside you. At the end of your streetcar ride, walk the broken cobblestones of the French Quarter, and take in the alluring sights of the tightly packed Creole cottages. Listen for the seductive sounds of Jazz music resonating around you, the smell of great food hovering in the air about you, and let your imagination linger on the romantic wrought iron balconies above you. Make your way to Jackson Square and take in the tall spires of St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the continental Untied States. Walk through the adjoining Cabildo Museum, where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803. Stroll on over to the Moonwalk, by the edge of the Mississippi River, and enjoy the calliope music coming from the Delta Queen Riverboat. After you have learned to bargain like a pro with the vendors at the French Market, then saunter down the shady sidewalks of Esplanade Avenue. The street made famous by Tennessee Williams and his tale of hidden desire. Finally, let yourself wander the narrow alleys of St. Louis Cemetery Number One, where you can visit the above ground tombs of famous former residents Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen, and Paul Morphy, the chess phenomenon.
But there is another, more important, criteria for being an ingrained member of this eclectic southern city. You have to learn to appreciate life. Not the day-to-day hurried existence that shortens the lives of stockbrokers and businessmen, but the easy lust for the fulfillment of the senses. For everything about New Orleans is tailored to the forgotten art of self-gratification. In these days of such soulless existence, it is a heartwarming relief to find a place unashamed of its abundant way of life. No one in New Orleans regrets the way they live, they only regret when they have to leave it.
So the next time you think about my hometown, don’t linger on the unforgettable disasters of our past. Instead, revel in what makes our city unique, shamelessly flamboyant, and stoically unapologetic for its transgressions. New Orleanians have moved on from Katrina. Despite the numerous media attempts to bury the residents under clouds of negative press and dim outlooks, the people remain resilient. Because they know that when Mardi Gras is over, crawfish season is right around the corner. We may have paid a heavy price for our time in paradise, but we know that somewhere up in the heavens, someone is answering our prayers. After all, the Saints did finally win the Super Bowl.

My father had an independent production company in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Being raised in the motion picture business, I learned how to run sound, do basic cinematography, film editing, and to be an all-around gopher on the set. Sometimes, I even did some in front of the camera work as a bit player and background extra. Because of his work in movies, many creative people in the French Quarter gravitated toward my father’s Creole cottage on Dumaine Street. I grew up associating with Jazz musicians, actors, writers, and talented artists. But probably the person who influenced me most during that time was my father’s good friend, Tennessee Williams. He was a kind and patient man who would sit with me for hours discussing the intricacies of his writing. From him, I learned about character development and the value of good dialogue. He taught me how to build personalities into characters that would resonate with readers. He showed me the importance of searching for the right words to best reflect the idiosyncrisies of each and every character. Funny, how you can forget so much from so many, but I remember every bit of advice Tennessee Williams taught me.
Looking back, I can see the synchronicity of circumstance having set my course in this creative direction from a very early age. If I had not been born in the city of New Orleans to a motion picture making father, or raised amid the bohemian people of that uniquely eccentric society, I might not have evolved into the writer I am today. However, I did not always embrace my creative side, and for years pursued a career based in medicine and practical knowledge. But like pressurized lava simmering beneath the surface of some volcano, the innate creativity I was born with eventually came erupting to the surface. I finally let go of my apprehensions about turning away from my medical training and started to embrace my stifled urges. It was then I re-discovered my writing.
I came to realize that happiness is not found in living some monetary-based lifestyle, but in following a path that yields to the yearnings of your heart. We are all born to do something fortuitous on this planet; we just have to stop trying to wonder what that is, and just do what makes us happy. After all, happiness is always the outcome when you finally learn to follow your dreams.