Monday, November 30, 2009

customer service — fails and wins

On our way to Dayton last week, we stopped at Tamarack outside Beckley for lunch. Tamarack is an arts center with food service by The Greenbrier, a resort outside White Sulphur Springs. It's an oasis in the land of bad travel food and cookie cutter service areas. It can also get very busy on big holiday travel days. That Wednesday was no exception.

The layout in the food service at Tamarack is poorly set up for large crowds. One entrance funnels to grill and deli lines set close to each other, and you cannot order from both lines at once. This means you need to have two people waiting in both lines if you want items from each or be willing to order on one line and then wait in another. On busy days when there are also many travelers not accustomed to the system, things can become a bit — um — delayed.

When we stopped on Wednesday, things were busy, and a man was guiding people to which line they should join. I asked him what I should do if I wanted to order in both lines but had a child with me. He took one look at us and asked whether she wanted a pizza. She did. He said he would put the order in for us so we could get in the grill line (the longer of the two). When I'd placed my order, the woman behind the counter told me we needed to wait for the pizza. Instead, our kind concierge overheard and said we could sit down; he'd bring the pizza to us.

It was a small, important gesture that made a long trip easier. Kudos to him and the rest of the staff for that moment.


On the flip side is our local Indian takeout/delivery joint. We've ordered from there in the past and generally had good luck. Tonight was a fail in both food and service.

Among the dishes we ordered was Vegetable Korma. On the menu, it is described as fresh vegetables in a cashew and onion sauce. L asked if they could add chickpeas to it, and they obliged. What arrived was a gloppy, creamy dish of cubed carrots, peas, and corn. The sauce wasn't bad, but it was clear that we'd gotten frozen mixed vegetables.

L was reluctant to call, but I decided it was worth it. The man remembered the order and informed me we'd gotten exactly what we'd ordered. I suggested that the vegetables should be fresh if the menu said they were fresh. He countered that they only used fresh vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes, that they used frozen mixed vegetables for the korma. Then came the most stunning moment: he made it our fault for not asking what was in the korma. If we had asked what was in it, he would have told us and we could have ordered something else. I stammered that fresh vegetables should mean fresh vegetables and that we weren't happy with the dish. To no avail. I was informed that they had given us the chickpeas like we asked and that we should have asked what else was in the dish. This was just the way they made the korma — apparently in a topsy-turvy world where frozen really means fresh.

I won't name names here in deference to a recent note on food blogs by Brandon Fox, but suffice it to say that our local Indian takeout joint near VCU — on Main Street — will not be getting business from us again any time soon.

Friday, November 27, 2009

a brief note on consumerism

I would like to have called today buy-nothing day for us, if only to counter-balance the stupidity of people who will wait all night to get in a fight over an electronic hamster. Instead, we made our way to IKEA so grandma could get Buttercup part of her Christmas haul — a desk and bookcase to facilitate the changeover to a "big girl's room" — and one of the recently-built, urban-center malls in the Dayton area for some clothes. In the end, our little shopping trip pumped somewhere in the range of $700 back into the economy.

Such a sum isn't exactly what some people might dump out on the day, and it was a bare scratch on the whole gift question. Still, it seems notable to acknowledge that we were pulled by the desire to shop on the same day that so many other people went out to pound the pavement for questionable deals. It seems a validation of the cultural norm that is shopping — we do it so well in this country.

What struck me as I was walking around today, though, is the degree to which we are marketed common experiences. I've thought about this and written about it before, but it particularly struck me today when I realized that there were few, if any, locally-owned businesses in any of the places we went. Every shopping experience was standardized to the point that location simply didn't matter. And to an extent, individuality didn't matter — and was perhaps discouraged.

This is really an outgrowth of my past thoughts on place and identity. After all, if there is nothing to connect you to the place you are, what forms your identity? Can a series of brands and manufactured experiences really pass for identity? And if this is what we're raising our children with, what sort of identities will they possess when they come into their own? Will they see the value in unique experiences or will they be like the students I've taught and worked with who only ate at chain restaurants because anything else was "weird"?


(Photo is not from today's excursion.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is what it comes down to...

I had a moment yesterday when I looked at Buttercup and realized she'd made another developmental leap. She was no longer the post-pre-K-early-elementary kid. Nope. She was a kid coming into her own right. She was finding ways to help on her own, ways to relate to people on her own. The shy kid was still there, but in her place was an increasingly interesting individual.

The other day, we were on our way from Richmond back to Dayton, and it proved to be one of the best trips we've taken yet. The difference between seven and six is radical. At seven, the kid is reading to me from the backseat. We are having full-on conversations. It's like she has suddenly become aware of the world.

The funny part about these developmental moments is that you can't prepare for them. No matter how many books you read or other parents you talk to, it is simply impossible to prepare for the moment that your kid makes the leap. Why? Because you suddenly have to adjust everything. If it's the kid deciding she no longer likes something she happily ate before, it's better to ask why she doesn't like it than to insist she should eat something she doesn't like. If she suddenly has distinct opinions about what she wants to do, it's better to find out why she no longer wants to do things she did before. And in all cases, it's best to adjust accordingly.

The brilliant part is that the kid can articulate her reasons at this age. If something tastes bitter, she can say so. If something tastes good, that can be part of it too. The trick as a parent is to find that space to adjust accordingly. It's not always easy, but like the koan about the reed in the wind, it's better to bend than to be rigid and break.

Count this as holiday lesson #743, and remember that your kid is actually a pretty decent little individual.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The World of Tomorrow!

I absolutely love these old videos from the heyday of the American Century. The world seemed like our oyster and technology was going to solve every problem and make our lives as squeaky clean as we dreamed they should be. Burnished white and seamless with dreams of magic technology making it all real... until the sixties came along and broke it all.

What's best is that they're always narrated with that same sonorous, comforting voice-over... just like our lives were supposed to be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday Fun — a dose of surrealism

Brilliant video by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck. Just brilliant. Especially the pancake head.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Truth is so difficult.

And there are so many clueless people in this country. This stands right up there with the truck I drove behind today. It sported a bumper sticker that said "Where is the birth certificate?"


(via Wonkette; and for the record, the answer to the bumper sticker is: "In a computer database in Hawaii, along with every other birth certificate in that state." *sigh*)


Via Ze Frank, a bit of design geekness for a Wednesday...

Monday, November 09, 2009


So according to Gawker this is the latest pop export from Britain. But does anybody really need to turn Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into a mawkish piece of treacle backed by strings? It's as if Michael Bolton was allowed to cover Otis Redding... Oh wait...


Friday, November 06, 2009

Back to normal, whatever that means.

Buttercup's mom has been down on the Eastern Shore on a research gig since early September. She came back this week, and it's been interesting to see how the dynamic will play. Buttercup has missed her, no question, and it will be nice to reclaim some weekend time without having to beg favors or figure out how to pay a sitter.

There's probably more to say about what it's like to have to balance it all again. There's more to say about Buttercup and her dynamic in all of it. But I have to confess that I've hit one of those moments when the thoughts and words just aren't meshing very well. It seems like there should be something profound to say about it — something that relates to parenting and children and divorce and balance — and yet there isn't a clear thread of thought.

It's a rare muddle. Perhaps we should call this an aborted post? Maybe I should ask this guy...

Return of Friday Fun: The Overheard at Work Edition

I actually overheard someone in my office say "It's not every day you get called a witch doctor!" This came immediately to mind. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

On Place and Identity

How's that for a pompous-sounding title? Or at least derivative of the very good essays written about the same? Either way, it's been on my mind a bit lately, and today my friend Brian jogged the idea a bit with a post about the Yankees' World Series win last night. In particular, Brian notes that I am a Midwesterner who lived in New York for several years before heading to grad school in northwest Arkansas.

This is true, and also brings up a question I've been asked for years: Where are you from? It's not the easiest question to answer, and the confusion is why I've never been comfortable calling myself from any place.

I was born in upstate New York — Ithaca, to be exact. I have a few recollections of this place that can't be ascribed to photos, but that's about it. We lived there for almost three years until moving to Iowa City, Iowa. My more-formed memories start there, but Iowa only lasted a couple of years. We left there and moved to Dekalb, Illinois, where I started Kindergarten at the too-early age of four. A year later, though, my mother accepted a job at the University of Dayton. We were an academic family, and the search for a tenure-track job was on, and my mother landed it. In our first year in Dayton, we lived in the tree-lined suburb of Oakwood, and a year later my father wrapped up work in Dekalb, and we came back together in a split-level house in Kettering. My father had also grown up in Kettering so there was a bit of family history. But only a bit. By this time, I was seven-going-on-eight and had already developed a gypsy-ish sense of place and home. Seven years later, my parents were divorced and I transferred schools back to Oakwood. It was the first (and perhaps only) move of my life that RE-connected me with anything.

On graduation from high school, I had two options — go to UD or take a ride up to Albion College. My grades in high school had been middling-to-poor, and I lost out on most of the schools I wanted to attend. There was no way I could stay in Dayton. I'd never really developed a deep attachment to the place, and had many, many memories I preferred to leave behind. Albion it was — for two years. I'd pre-determined that my time there would be short. I had fun and cleaned up my academic act a bit, but I also resisted any kind of anchoring. Instead, I spent my second year focusing on where else I could go. The list was long, but came down to the Boston area. My mother's roots are in the area; our summer house was a few hours up the road in Maine; and my best friend was in school there. It made a lot of sense, and when I landed at Brandeis in 1990, I felt like I'd come closer to "home." I knew that city well and loved it, but three years later, many of my friends had made the exodus to New York and my dream job at the time had turned into an unceremonious canning. I decided to follow my college friends to New York.

The city had always held a deep pull for me. I loved the rhythms. I loved the sounds. I loved the idea that no one in my immediate family had made it theirs. Hell, I even loved the dirt. I couch-surfed for several months while bouncing between the cities, and finally decided to take the plunge. It wasn't without danger, and I spent months trying to find a niche. I did part of that as a writer — though my lack of discipline got in the way. I did part of that as a pool player. I worked as a temp. I sold CDs to buy beer and ramen when work wasn't available. I got depressed. I got elated. It was amazing and awful at once. What I didn't do was give up on the place. In the end, New York was the crucible where I began to understand myself a little better. It was the lens through which I understood my world and my worldview. It was the place I began to learn how to keep and maintain friendships — a lesson I still work on to this day. I met cool people and worked cool places. I pitched some of the preppy trappings leftover from Dayton in favor of black t-shirts and jeans. I discovered that I loved design and disdained the music I'd studied for years. By the time I left for grad school seven years later, New York was the place that had come to define how I saw myself.

When I got to grad school in Arkansas, I was a New Yorker, but as Brian rightly points out, I was also a midwesterner. But the idea of myself as an Ohioan still didn't feel right. See, for all those years we lived in the midwest, we never stayed there. We traveled up to Maine and New York in the summers, and up to the Adirondacks in the winters. Home and the place you're from are created by community, but my community was always on the move. Friends bond over shared experiences in summers and vacations, and all my experiences were on the road with family and transient meetings with those other couple kids at the motel or staying up the road from our summer house. The degree to which this came true occurred to me as I was pressed to write about places and people I knew while in the MFA program at Arkansas. I had few places outside of Maine and New York that drew my heart. A few years later during my first marital breakdown, the kid and I landed back at my mother's house in Dayton. (It was there, in fact, that this blog started in 2004.)

The return to Dayton was a mixed experience. It was hard living back in my mother and stepfather's house, though I had no connection to growing up in that particular house. By the same token, it was easy to take Buttercup around the city to places that I remembered from my youth. As my job search ground on, I even flirted with the idea of landing there. The problem was everything felt like a fly in amber. I'd been a gypsy too long to return to the place and call it home. I'd already accepted that I probably wouldn't live in New York again for years if ever, but Brooklyn still felt more like home in my heart, more like a place I could always find myself. In Dayton, I just found that fly in amber. I knew (and know) many people who did stay, and for them it makes sense. It is where they were born and raised and where they wanted to bear and raise their kids. I was still looking for that place.

Moving to Richmond seemed like a fair step to finding that place, and it still does. We've made a good community of friends here. Buttercup has something that I never did — an elementary school that she may see all the way through and a group of friends she may build on for the rest of her life. The first place that truly happened to me was Boston, and New York was an outgrowth of that. If we stay in Richmond, years from now she will likely be able to answer the question of where she's from easily — born in Arkansas, raised in Richmond — while I will still be fumbling my answers. I guess that's why it was comforting when a friend-of-a-friend asked me where I was from and clarified her question by saying "In the South, what we mean when we ask where you're from is where you were born." And in that case, I have no choice but to take New York. Upstate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


You may wonder why I've been so silent lately (and really for a while now). I've been wondering that too. I pondered whether it was because I was directing too much attention at Twitter and other online pursuits, not to mention a minor entrepreneurial concept a friend and I are developing. I've considered my parenting and workload as possibilities for eclipsing my blog time. I've considered the possibility that I should change the focus of the blog to jolt myself back into writing.

Really it's none of these. Or at least not a specific ONE reason.

As I said months ago, I wanted to stop using the blog as a navel-gazing forum. I felt it risked being too personal — which could both create problems for myself and other people and would turn it into nothing more than a public journal. A year ago, I decided to stop using it as a political forum because other people were doing it better and because it made me unhappy to consider how screwed our process is. I even burned out on Friday Fun music videos. I had a grand idea to FOCUS the blog — to give it an editorial bent — and make it stop being about ME.

The truth is though that the idea of focusing the content never really took root. There are areas and topics I'd love to explore more, but I don't have the time to make the blog even a part-time investigative endeavor. Nope. I have the time to use it as a fun little outlet for whatever catches my eye. Frankly, the truth is that Impolitic Eye always was about whatever caught my attention — whether personal and navel-gazing or public and political or badvertising and quirky. That said, I'm bringing Impolitic Eye back to its roots. I'm going to have fun digging into things again and accept that this particular forum can and should be just as quixotic and wide-ranging as my own interests.