I had some dreams ... they were klowns in my koffee.

(With apologies to Carly Simon)

This is my journey through job transition from a toxic environment to a better life. Join me for a few thoughts and a few laughs along the way.
What are "klowns in my koffee"? They are the factors large and small that make you less than you are. A "klown" can be a grossly incompetent boss,
a short-sighted policy or a moronic coworker. They won't kill you, at least not immediately, but they abrade the soul
as you scrape past them to get through the day. Sometimes it's best to dump them out of the cup.


Day 95 - Once Burned ...

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
The power belt of pain (see distressing picture on yesterday's post) kept me out of the sun or basically from moving in any fashion that required flexing. Instead, I cleaned up more finances. I could choke when I think of all the money we previously threw away by not questioning our suppliers in more detail. See the next section for a process for easy cost savings that one can make by a simple phone call or two.

Daily Grind
One simple secret to reducing spending is to ask to pay less. It can be done without coming off as some kind of a nut. For charges for periodic services that are commodities, a phone call or two can result in 20-40% savings in about 15 minutes time. The first call is the more pleasant one. You can always call back and turn up the heat the second time.

++ Think through your agenda and what you want from the communication before you start. Write it on a piece of paper and have it in front of you.

++ Try to be current on your bill when you call unless your intention is to work out a payment plan. Negotiation comes from strength.

++ Some research beforehand is invaluable. Know about any introductory rates, specials, and what your neighbor is paying for any service that you think may have variable rates. Check on the competition's pricing. Ten minutes of checking websites may give you everything you need.

++ Just because you know something like perhaps an introductory rate or what you'd like to pay doesn't mean that you should share that immediately. They don't have to know what you know.

++ Most service reps say his or her name at the beginning of the conversation. Call them by their names in a pleasant tone -- not sounding like your tenth grade English teacher who said each student's name tinged with sarcasm -- and keep the focus on "you" and "me," not some faceless company who can crush the little consumer.

++ Experience in flea market negotiating is very helpful. The flow of the call is: 1) Engage in a focused but pleasant introductory conversation to set the tone and communicate the value of the product. 2) Ask them to suggest an improvement in price or coverage or both. 3) An important skill that I learned from my sales friends at Porkus is to SHUT UP until it's useful to your agenda to say something.

Here's an example of a conversation that I had with our garbage hauler. My objective was to see if I could reduce my cost by at least 25% and also adopt a greener service option. It went something like this:

Me: [Using smiling voice] Good morning. I have a question about my account. I'm Burning Khrome and my account number is xxxxxxxx.
Garbage Company: Let me look up your account. [Chit-chat about nice weather] Here it is. [Reads back service level, pick-up frequency, pricing, and account status] How can I help?
Me: I'm thinking about adding your organics service but I'm also interested in reducing my overall bill. What can you do for me? [Depending on the tone of the person to whom you are speaking, other good ways of phrasing this are -- What can you do to help me out? {best for sob stories and if the person seems sympathetic], What options can you suggest? {if the contact is less engaged but seems knowledgeable}, I'm looking to make changes to improve my budget and am evaluating some different options {if you think that the supplier has a different pricing protocol for situations where the customer is going to a competitor}.
Garbage Company: You can add the organics to your current service and it will cost $X more per month. But we are trying to encourage people to use this service. [Me staying quiet and letting her process her thoughts][Pause] People often find that they don't need as big a regular container when they are using the organics container. Reducing the frequency of your pickups from weekly to every other week would also cut the cost by $x. [Pause] Do you want to see if we can reduce later or put in the changes now and then see if you need to add back a larger container or more pick-ups?
Me: Let's make the changes now and I'll call back if we need to upsize anything.
Garbage Company: All done. Your new containers will be delivered Monday. Please leave your old container by the curb for pick-up. Thank you for your business.
Me: I appreciate your help. Have a nice weekend.

Result = 30% savings and a lower ecological footprint.

I've used this approach or a variation with cable TV, telephone/internet, daycare, the newspaper, and home and auto insurances. The phone and newspaper are a special subset because neither seems to be invested in consumer satisfaction nor understand the sand upon which their current service offerings are built. With these guys, you need to demand what you want in no uncertain terms and be ready to replace or eliminate their services. I cut our infrequently used landline long distance in favor of T's cell phone, haven't missed it, and will save $150 or more this year.

It's your money -- keep it where you want it.


Day 94 - Baby Got BacK

Daily Kup (What I Did On my Reality Vacation)
I was planning on starting a series of posts tonight showing how we got our grocery bills for five people -- including personal, pet, paper goods and other grocery store items -- down to about $400 per month or .89 per meal per person. Over ten percent of this is still T's gallons of pop and M&Ms, so the results would be even better if the sugar express could be derailed.

That will have to wait until tomorrow. I spent about half the day on the roof inspecting, cleaning out gutters, lightly sweeping to get rid of pernicious tree seeds and little sticks, and scraping off moss and lichens. I also cut off as much of the overhanging trees as I could safely reach. So far, so good.

I was careful to wear long pants and a hat and cover my arms and face with sunscreen. Still, I knew that I got a little more exposure than I should have since I felt all woozy and light-headed after I climbed down. Later, my family pointed out to me that my shirt gaps a bit when I stretch. Apparently, it gapped a lot when I crawled on my hand and knees across each tier of shingles to remove moss.

While I've never considered getting a tattoo on my lower back, if this is what it would feel like, it is definitely off the bucket list. T says it looks like the giant lips in the Dairy Queen ad and had to take this picture to prove it.


Day 93 - Expectation Krusher

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
The great garage reclamation continues. We hung the shop lights that had been in a box for ten years. We discovered that whomever had done the electrical work was not familiar with grounding. Or using more than one screw to hold a fixture into the ceiling.

Retreating to rethink the wiring problem, we installed the bike racks and then insulated the water heater for good measure.


Pearls Before Swine


Day 92 - Kazakhstan Part 5

Every Sunday, this blog will describe our life-changing trip to Kazakhstan in 2005 to adopt our two youngest children. While some of our friends and family have seen a few of the pictures, we've never put it all together in an organized format. One of the reasons is that I hesitate to subject others to a 21st century version of the endless slideshow of vacation photos harking to some relative's visit and a lost evening of my childhood. Still, the story must be told before details are lost since this is my children's unique birthright. When we get to the end of the story, I'll edit the posts together into an extended and separate blog page and then have it printed by one of the blog-to-book(let) services for my kids. For people with less interest, these posts will be easy to identify and avoid. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

We got up very early in the morning on October 31, 2005, after having slept an hour or two. We each had two large suitcases stuffed with our clothes, some food items, and forty or fifty gifts for the caregivers and any officials that we might encounter. The gifts are an interesting feature of foreign adoptions and selection was something that we sweated over for weeks. We also packed dozens of little socks and other items for the childrens' home. (I slip sometimes and say 'orphanage' but the more accepted terminology is 'childrens' home' -- dyetski dom in Russian. Many of the children that are surrendered to the state throughout the world are not orphans by the definition that they have no living biological parents but are relinquished because their families of origin are not able to care for them sufficiently for some reason.)

So, the total was four giant suitcases plus two carry-on bags each the size of a muscular dog. One carry-on held a laptop and a variety of books and snacks while the other had the reams of documents that we were required to bring to complete the adoption process. This bag was the precious one and I joked that I should be handcuffed to it like a government courier in a movie. Over the last couple of years, I've heard that cash machines have become much more available in Kazakhstan but at that time the instruction was to bring thousands of dollars in new US currency. We had the money split between us and secured in money belts under our clothing. This sounds strange since most of us are so used to using cards for many transactions, but the rest of the world routinely carries big wads of their local currency. Still, I felt like someone from a spy novel with money taped to my abdomen and inside my bra.

My older daughter had just gotten her driver's license and took us to the airport as one of her first major excursions. The airport was as it always is and I was in a major lather worrying about getting checked in and through security in enough time. I recall that it took forever but have forgotten the details. But we made the plane to Chicago and then to Frankfurt.

International flights were terrific because European airlines had not learned to regard the passengers as an inconvenience as their American counterparts seem to. While the United flight attendant's glare seemed to imply that I was single-handedly responsible for the financial crisis in the travel industry for wanting the whole can of pop, Lufthansa had actual meals and wine and I didn't have to fight someone for one of the twenty pillows available for 300 people. Refreshing.

Terry's statement on flying is that he is terrified of it and this is not hyperbole. As soon as we boarded, he took the flight magazine from the pocket of the seat in front, rolled it into a cylinder and clenched and turned it in his hands for hours until the print was obscured by friction and sweat. I napped off and on while I'm not sure that he ever fell asleep.

It's a long way across the Atlantic and nothing to look at out the window. Approaching land was a relief since there is always that wee little voice reminding you that, in case of a crash, there are no islands in the North Atlantic. As the flight grew longer and longer, we got tired of sitting in the little chairs with our shoulders sucked in.

At last we landed in Germany where we had a plane change and a layover of a couple of hours before boarding the next plane to Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan.

With the change in carrier, we were required to collect all our luggage and check in all over again. Our bags finally appeared on the carousel. With purses and cameras, we had seven or eight different things with handles or straps dragging along behind us. It was nice to be able to get off the plane and move around.

We looked around. Most of the signs were in German or Japanese. I had some idiotic idea that we would get off the plane, show our next set of tickets to someone at a desk at the gate and they would tell us in English where to walk to sit at another gate to wait for the plane. Nope. I thought, "How big could the airport be?" The answer: Really, really big. With multiple levels and terminals and those little trains.

We wheeled our city of luggage toward a sign that seemed to say something about international flights. We went through a window where they spoke German to us and we spoke English to them. They must have been satisfied because someone stamped our passports and waved us through. "Why didn't I learn German?," I thought desperately to myself. This was foreshadowing for a couple of days later when I noticed that I'd also forgotten to learn Russian.

We were in a giant terminal with people running in every direction like ants in a Discovery channel special. There were several lines of a hundred people or more waiting to go through turnstiles, all loudly conversing in multiple languages. We had two hours before the next plane's departure and each of the lines had waiting times of over an hour. Which was the right line? There wasn't time to make a mistake. I was exhausted and this would have been a good time to cry if I were a crying person. All I could do was walk up and down the length of the terminal looking for a sign or someone to give us directions as the giant clock in the ceiling showed that it was later and later.


Day 91 - Kat Poop

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
Last night's torrent left the garage with 4 inches of standing water, soaking everything that had been stored there. It gets better. We had made the discovery a month or so ago that Attila the Son had found a shortcut for his chore of cleaning the cat boxes -- instead of taking the plastic bag of box contents to the trash bin, sometime during the winter he had started going to the door and flinging the bag into the depths of the garage. We thought that we had most of this cleaned up. Imagine a dark garage, temperatures in the 80's, wading in standing dirty water, and a hidden accumulation of cat poop. My own private Ganges.

So, we dragged everything out on the lawn and Mr. T moved the water out with a push broom and then dried the concrete with (clean) kitty litter. About a quarter of the items stored in the garage were damaged beyond saving, so they went in the trailer to go to the dump. The rest, we started to organize carefully. Gray clouds gathered and we started to organize less carefully. Raindrops fell and we triaged the most valuable or water-soluble items and hung them on any available hook or nail. When the thunder and lightening started, we took anything left on the lawn and dragged it to the garage floor -- which is where this whole thing started. It's raining now. We might be doing this again tomorrow.

This weekend is the town's summer festival. We took a few minutes out from garage cleaning for the kids to run in the "Tot Trot."

Every year during the Summer Festival, we go down to the lawn behind the City Hall and dance to whatever band is appearing and then settle down on the big blanket to swat mosquitoes and watch fireworks. The rain put an end to that plan. At least I can park in the garage now!


Day 91 - Hometown Klown-Tribune

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
Attila the Son, age eight, had a fever today and slept fitfully until noon. I knew he felt better when he began to demand video games as his sanctioned right. He was disappointed to find out that he was healthy enough for chores. We worked in the rose garden until it started to rain. The tornado sirens came later.

We didn't have tornado warnings when I grew up in the East. We had air raid drills and fire drills. Fire drills were better because we could go outside. For air raid drills, they made us line up in the hallway with our arms crossed over our eyes. The next row of kids then lined up with their crossed arms resting on the backs of the first row. There were good odds that the guy leaning on your back would try to grope you. I remember being yelled at by the teacher for elbowing one little lech. If I had understood at the time what the drills were for since it was never explained, I would have wished vaporization on them both.

Fast forward to 2010. Two panicky kids, two disturbed cats and I spent a little time in the tiny hallway outside the bathroom in the cellar as the designated shelter as the sirens blared on the hill.

Daily Grind
In this period of relative peace, I have not recently commented on the absurdity of the corporate klowns that surround us. Time to wade in.

I have a love-hate relationship with the local newspaper. As a coupon clipper, I feel virtuous by harvesting the bounty from each Sunday edition. The nagging guilt that drives much of my life also impels me to review the job classifieds even though I know that they contain a vanishingly small percentage of job postings.

On the other hand and as a consumer, I'm irritated by the inaccurate billing, the driver who takes a shortcut by doing a smuggler's turn in my driveway and over my lawn, and the blatant shilling for tips in "Holiday" handmade enclosures from the driver each Christmas. What most boils my barnacles is the snotty, in-your-face attitude that you get from the "Service" department whenever you call. "Oh, Strib, proud buggy whip maker. Why don't you dinosaurs wake up and smell the asteroid?"

Back on the plus side, I like John Ewoldt's Dollars and Sense column. Last Sunday, he took on the issue of subscription auto renewals. http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/yourmoney/96726614.html?elr=KArks:DCiU1PciUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aUU

The longer I have control of my own time, the more I observe myself taking on the characteristics of some of the retired people that I meet. I think of my former father-in-law, a man in his mid-90s who is an army of one against anything that he considers to be a bad idea -- vulgarity, Democrats, religious freedom for religions that he doesn't like. [Hey, we all have people in our families that we love in spite of some characteristics.] He writes a lot of letters. He sent a protest letter about the car commercial that obliquely implied that the little girl was conceived in the back seat of the Chrysler Concorde, a marketing campaign designed to add youth to a car that seems like it should be following the casket. The commercial was removed from the air. I learned a lot about writing complaint letters at his irascible knee.

So, back to John Ewoldt. I wrote him the following letter and wondered what kind of answer I'd get.
Dear Mr. Ewoldt,

I enjoy your column and read it every Sunday. Your column last Sunday on auto renewals struck a chord with me. It's a practice I loathe and I opt out whenever possible. The only supplier with whom I currently have business dealings who does this the Star-Tribune. This becomes even a little more annoying when there is a missing paper or a delivery problem and Customer Service promises a credit. But that invoice envelope shows up as usual with no change in either the subscription end date or the dollar amount, making one wonder how a credit manifests itself. Customer Service has no clue when called for a follow-up and sometimes I've gone through this cycle three times before giving up. Perhaps that's the strategy.

I genuinely like your column and don't want to throw in a negative twist but an excellent topic for a future column would be how to get a better value from your employer. This exercise of calling to cancel in order to get a better per issue price every time my subscription expires rather than paying the jacked up invoice price is getting a little old. Ditto on finding discount codes on-line and using them on your website. It simply ought to be easier.

Thank you for your consideration.

Early the next morning, I had a response. It wasn't substantive but I appreciate the guy's honesty:
...thanks for reading the Star Tribune despite the difficulties the renewal dept. You’re right that I should write about it, but I doubt that’s going to happen. As a consumer, you have every right to ask. Wish I could be of more help on that.

John Ewoldt
Dollars & Sense columnist
Star Tribune
425 Portland Av. South
Minneapolis, MN 55488
John's Dealspotter blog is a winner and a bridge to removing the "paper" from the paper once and for all. Take that, renewal service agent!


Day 90 - Random Konniptions

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
Looked for jobs. No further midget stripping opportunities. Also attended a picnic at a local park to commemorate the end of the Little League season. Great food and fun. A little bit of unintended humor in watching the adult kickball league on the adjoining diamond. What possesses a grown man to have the nickname "Old Balls" stitched on the back of his team jersey?

Short Latte
College Daughter wants to know just how short I would have to be in order to qualify for any further Tiny Dancer opportunities. The term "midget" is pejorative and a hangover from the carnival days of exploitation, something that the people placing the ad may not have taken into consideration when planning this surprise party. Makes you wonder about the circumstances. Twins Peaks fans perhaps? The Little People of America have a limit of 4'10", though one can be waived in for being slightly taller under special circumstances. Check that one off the list.

Ever wonder what it says on those word-filled screens that flash by quickly at the end of Chuck Lorre sitcoms like Two and A Half Men and Big Bang Theory? The industry term for them is 'vanity cards' and Mr. Lorre has assembled them all on one website: http://www.chucklorre.com/. Many are hilarious, some are sad, and some make you wonder how he kept his job.


Day 89 - Kaput

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
This was a day that wasn't. I had a headache and upset stomach -- it was almost like working at Porkus again.

I found an interesting Craigslist job opening: A female midget stripper. Finally, a job I'm too tall for. Check out Digital Satori's latest post for more on stripping. http://digitalsatori.net/blog/

Fresh Ground
Yesterday, I answered the doorbell to find a canvasser for MPIRG. I'm not that fond of people showing up at my door and wanting money, but I'm also sympathetic to anyone with a blue state mindset whose mothership lands them in my neighborhood at the corner of Rush and Limbaugh. MPIRG is currently working on some campaign financing reform issues in which I have an interest so we had an informative and lively discussion. Beyond the politics which are not the subject of this blog, my visitor mentioned that he had recently returned from New York where his band filmed a video. He looked like a guy in a band -- black T-shirt, tattoo "sleeves," a few piercings, and a crafted look that bridged shaggy and intense. Casual questioning revealed that the band's name is New Medicine and they have just gotten a contract with Atlantic. So we are not talking Guitar Hero.

I researched them on You Tube and elsewhere and think they have a reasonable chance of going far. Terry likened the sound to Papa Roach and I think the musicianship is solid.

The style and subject matter are more Gen Y.

Which is my way of saying that you probably don't want to play their music at work and, if you would prefer to avoid a double dip of profanities, then don't play it at all. This is one of their songs that might appeal to a wider group. I met the bass player, Matthew Brady. [Insert Civil War joke here]

If you like the sound, try the cuts "Like A Rose" and "The Takeover" (but not at work unless you work for rappers).

Who is the guy with the most time in the world? The guy who finds every You Tube music video and adds the comment, "Needs more cowbell."


Day 88 - In My Kups

Daily Kup (What I Did On My Reality Vacation)
I went to a motivating presentation on job search networking by St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Amy Lindgren. I've heard her speak before; she's practical, knowledgeable and very funny. Today's presentation was a free one sponsored by the Hennepin County Library, though she does paid career counseling through her company, Prototype Career Service (good people and advice, dull and clunky website).

Since it got above 90 degrees in the house, something dramatic needed to be done. When the going gets tough, the tough go to the beach.

Morning Brew
Kim clued me in to the excellent blog of another Porkus alum, Mully410 Critical Blog. Way back when, my one-time cube neighbor gave me a booklet with the US Constitution, the Amendments and the Declaration of Independence to enhance our periodic conversations about the Second Amendment. Mully, I still have the booklet in my living room bookcase.
The log is devoted to critical thinking. I wish back then I had access to his February 6, 2009 post about how to argue with him -- I might have been able to wrestle one of those gun control arguments to a draw instead of being trounced all the time. (Corsair, you may may chortle with glee at some of Mully's posts.) The nature photography is breathtaking. Check out his Yellowstone pictures. And on this topic, Mully's photography will be on display this weekend as part of a unique and worthy fundraising event to benefit an innovative program for the children of inner city Minneapolis:

Please join me at the Minneapolis Hilton Garden Inn this weekend to raise
money to help inner-city kids learn photography. I'll be showing 8 of my fine
art photography prints along with about 30 other artists and hundreds of their
works. 20% of the sales go to help this wonderful program our club is doing with Urban Ventures. http://lnkd.in/rp8XF9

I walked past a coffee shop that had outdoor tables with umbrellas. Two very pretty young women were sitting at one table. They were dressed for summer with shorts, tank tops, and fashionable sunglasses. They seemed to be engaged in an animated discussion, though one or the other of them would periodically intently scan the parking lot. I thought to myself what a glorious day they must be having to be young and beautiful and sitting outside on a breathtaking summer day apparently waiting for a friend to drive up. As I passed them, I was surprised to hear a snippet of their conversation. "I spy with my little eye ..."


Day 87 - WelKome Summer

Happy Summer Solstice!


I've been doing book reviews for Lunch.com, an abstract online community with the mission to improve the world through better communication and identication of our simularities. One of the multitude of communities under the Lunch banner is Cafe Libri, a large group of book lovers. I hadn't written a lot of book reviews since a ninth grade book report so I decided to give it a shot.

Review of "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" by David Shields

Review of "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" by Steve Martin

Review of "The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner



Day 86 - Father's Day

My father died in November, 2005. He was a quiet man in a family of hearty laughers and frosty, veiled silences, a slight man in a family of heavyweights, a perfectionist in an imperfect world. He kept his car very clean. He had a place for everything. He rode a motorcycle but he sold it. I barely knew him at all.

My father was the third son of a machinist and a former school teacher. My grandparents got married during their lunchbreaks from work one day when she was 20 and he was 18. Then they went back to work. In the course of time, my grandmother became pregnant and was dismissed from teaching when someone noticed.

They worked hard and raised Jack, Bob, Bill, Noreen, Gary and bonus baby Greg. The family’s hopes were pinned on Jack, who was handsome and talented and who appeared in a sepia-toned photograph staring at me from the dining room wall as he sat on a rock with a cigarette in his hand. He looked like young Joe Kennedy.

When Jack was eighteen, he told my grandmother that he felt odd. Then he put his head on her lap and he died there in the living room. I know this because my grandmother once opened the huge family Bible that she kept on the shelf and showed me the newspaper clipping. Somehow, the result of Jack’s death was that my father was sent to live with my grandmother’s feisty great-aunt and her husband, a railroad retiree who lived for hunting and fishing.

When I visited the aunt’s house as a little girl, I saw pictures of my father as a grim young man holding a fishing pole or standing near a deer hanging from a meat hook. He once told me that these were the happiest days of his life.

My father was drafted, served stateside and came home as soon as he could. He married my mother, a tempestuous redhead, in a quickly organized Thanksgiving ceremony because my mother was engaged to another boy who was returning from the service and my mother didn’t know how to break the engagement. This was a unique solution to the problem. I was born ten months later.

My parents had a house but then moved to one of the houses on my mother’s mother’s farm. The house burned down and they lived in an apartment in the big farmhouse with my grandmother. Eventually, they bought a trailer and parked it where the burned house had been. My father worked for Pittsburgh Paint Glass and my mother was a civil engineering technician for New York State. My father had a canoe; my mother went to night school so that she could take the civil engineer test. My father had a maroon bathrobe and once he let me lie next to him on the white naugahyde couch while we watched Gunsmoke. I spent most of my time with my grandmother.

One day when I was seven, my mother came for me, took me to her bedroom and gave me a tissue. The only time I’d seen my mother cry was two years before when she came home from work early and said that someone shot the President. We prayed that the President would be fine and for his wife with the pink suit. The next day, the President was still dead, which surprised me since we had prayed, and I learned that God could not be trusted. That day in her bedroom, my mother looked sad but she didn’t cry. She said that my father had left and he wasn’t coming back. She expected me to cry so I tried, but I was secretly relieved because I was afraid that something had happened to our cat or the new President.

My mother flew to Mexico and, when she came back, things were pretty much the same for me except that my father would pick me up on Wednesday nights while my mother bowled and take me to his hotel room to watch television for two hours. Sometimes he would take me to his parents’ house. My mother remarried and became pregnant. I was very excited. My father had not told his parents that he was divorced. He managed to camouflage my mother’s absence for a year. I was not clued into the subterfuge and shared the good news with my grandmother that I was going to have a little brother or sister. The next time I saw my father, he had moved out of the hotel and back into the room in his parents’ house that he had before Jack died.

I sang, painfully and haltingly, in school musicals and my father called me ‘Kate Smith;’ he explained that it was not because I could sing well but because I was chubby. We went for a ride on his motorcycle and I melted the heel of my sneaker on the muffler; he dug and muttered at the smudged chrome. He took me fishing and I talked too much.

Still, he picked me up every week until I was old enough to think of ways to avoid it and he faithfully paid his child support of five dollars. My mother seemed to regret encumbering my father with the fast marriage, quick pregnancy and finally the rapid divorce, so she requested the judge to grant the lowest amount of child support permissible under the law.

When I married the first time, he walked me down the aisle. When I married for the second time, his wife sent a card. When I married for the third time, he said, "I’ll catch you next time."

My father and I never had a falling out because we were never exactly in.

When my own daughter was born, I made a concerted effort to connect with my father on at least the superficial level of Christmas cards and periodic calls. He had married a wonderful woman and she made sure that cards and presents and phone calls were exchanged, providing the costuming for my father to wear the mantle of a dad.

And so we reached a measure of acceptance. I forgave my father for not being more than he seemed capable of being. I guess he forgave me for – I don’t know what – existing or maybe for being the witless symbol of something beyond my control or perhaps, as my mother told me, for not being someone he could relate to at all.

My father had a massive heart attack and stroke when we were in Kazakhstan. He told his wife that he felt odd and then fell down, just as his older brother had done sixty years before. He was on life support in the ICU while it was determined that the cognitive centers of his brain had been destroyed by the lack of oxygen. I could not leave Kazakhstan early without surrendering my visa and risking losing the children. My dear sister, product of that second marriage, interrupted her own life to represent me and join with my father’s family when they disconnected the respirator. I can never repay my debt to her.

They held a memorial ceremony a week later in northern New York. We were on our way back from Europe flying the Greenland route that slingshots you over the top of the world and then down the coast of Canada, entering American airspace over New England. At the exact time of the service, we were above New York and looking down through the clouds. I’d like to think that my father’s spirit passed us as we flew, looked in and maybe, finally, approved.


Day 85 - Orange Kounty

Today's weird trip into the world was to meet Paul Teutul Jr -- Paulie, the older son and motorcycle designer from American Chopper, the show that surfaced on TLC at the beginning of the reality TV craze documenting the daily goings-on at custom cycle shop Orange Country Choppers. Since his loud and televised public fallout with Paul Sr, Paulie has forged a design partnership with outdoor equipment manufacturer Coleman. He is touring the country with a Coleman product display trailer and hawking his Paul Jr Coleman Roadtrip® Grill.
Armed with Noah's Orange County picture book and little tool box for autographing plus our cool sunglasses so that we would look like proto-Paulie's in a picture, we struck out for the exotic venue of Dick's Sporting Goods in Richfield.

To get to Dick's, one drives around the Best Buy corporate headquarters, a city-sized, winged building complete with daycare center, drycleaner, commercial coffee shop and, for all I know, an alchemist. Every time I drive past the building, I scream, "Let me work for you!" Porkus built twenty thousand PC's for Best Buy's flop private-labeled VPR Matrix brand in about 2002 and I interviewed with them at that time. I flubbed the coolness factor and didn't make the jump. Now that my coolness has expanded but grown more inwardly, I can't decide whether that makes me more or less a viable candidate for another shot. The yelling at the building helps, though.

Arriving at Dick's and piling out of the yellow bus like a thousand clowns, we saw the Coleman trailer and knew that we are at the right place. Then we saw the sign that said "Appearance Canceled" and let out a collective sigh. The attentive Dick's employee quickly explained that there was a death that necessitated the cancellation. Paulie is building a shop across the street from his father's company to compete with Orange Country Choppers and -- surprise, surprise -- from which to launch a new TV show. A contractor was killed two days ago during construction. Out of respect, Paulie decided that this wasn't the right time for a personal appearance. They did send the trailer, free T-shirts and a sign-up sheet to have an autographed picture mailed, so we actually had an interesting time without the necessity of lining up in front of a card table for a 30 second brush with reality TV fame.


Day 84 - Kustomer Service

Another day of gardening. If my freckles all join together, I could have something approaching a tan. This would be a first for me. Like the Woody Allen quote, "...When I go to the beach, I don't tan, I stroke."

Gardening, and weeding in particular, is almost zen-like in the way that it promotes reflection. So, after a day spent in contemplative thought and applying sunscreen, I was thoroughly at peace, albeit greasy. This lasted until I took the kids to Michael's for their "Decorate a T-shirt for Father's Day" promotion. Turns out that T-shirts for smaller people are $2.50 and those for larger people are $5.99. I was told that this was not questionable because "that's what they do at Wal-Mart." I'm not sure when Wal-Mart became the benchmark for either customer service or ethical marketing. The Gospel according to Sam must have been one of those that was in a scroll way at the bottom of the jar. Then they only had black, brown and red paint to decorate a black T-shirt. Black on black is the new black.

I must have still been reasonably mellow since I neither screamed, swore nor threw anything. I've been very successful with that assortment of tactics in the past, but it's depressing to think that one must go full drama queen with sirens and all lights flashing to make it more palatable for someone to do his or her job than not. I spoke to the manager - -the term "manager" appears to be a synonym for "mammal" in this case. She was not helpful so we made an ugly T-shirt and I wrote to Michaels' corporate office demanding my money back.

Some writers have as their legacy an anthology of poems or short stories. My genre seems to be complaint letters. I have dozens of them in my files and some of them are amusing in a mildly psychotic kind of way. I envision them pinned to bulletin boards in numerous customer service offices with little obscene drawings and exclamations added by the staff there.

As the ultimate "gotcha" I was thinking about gathering them for potential publication, but I have been one-upped by Ted L. Nancy, who published his fanciful correspondence under the title Letters from a Nut. Mr. Nancy -- rumored actually to be Jerry Seinfeld and a consortium of his friends -- sends odd complaint and request letters to major organizations and awaits the response. He poses as one of a set of Siamese twins offering his services as an employee to Kinko's to improve their efficiency. He informs a Los Vegas casino that he is planning to visit them dressed in the way that he is most comfortable for gambling -- in a giant shrimp costume. He tells a hotel that he lost a tooth while staying there and implores them to look for it; the hotel responds with letter detailing the exhaustive extent of their search. Excellent book for a chuckle.


What a troubling world when two little girls can be arrested for having "jazz hands"!


Day 83 - Quite Kontrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?

We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest. --Voltaire

Voltaire was onto something, though he possibly may not have had the assistance of an eight-year-old boy who alternated repeating the two phrases at twenty second intervals: 1) I don't want to do this and 2) When is this going to be DONE?

My son is not mindful of the story of The Little Red Hen and fully expects to benefit from the garden labor of others. We are intent on crushing that sense of entitlement.

On the subject of crushing, Princess Potatohead was initially rejecting of her garden chores with foot-stomping, five-year-old fury. Then she discovered cutworms and my hatred of them. If you haven't seen a cutworm, it is a dull, brown caterpillar that matures into a dull, shabby moth. In the interim, it crawls along the surface of the garden and shears off one stalk per night, burying itself next to the severed neck to sleep it off until the next day's vegetable decapitation. {Photo courtesy of Clemson University Extension}

Despite my green cred and desire to live in harmony with all living things, I bash the things whenever I find them. Princess Potatohead, observing the carnage or, more exactly, squishage, immediately volunteered for this task. I was initially pleased to have her contributing to the garden project but the process has taken a turn into late night movie territory. I summon her when weeding reveals a worm and she runs full throttle with the intensity of an IT department at a buffet. She scoops the hapless invertebrate into a trowel and marches with solemnity to a Stonehenge five inches high. She has been heard intoning evilly with a low-pitched growl, "Come here ... it's TIME." She dispatches the worm quickly with a rock and then jumps up and down on the rock. An innocent little face stares up and says, "Mommy, the best part of gardening is the killing." I guess I should get a job soon to save up for the therapy.

Other than the creepy implications of "Dead Worm Walking," the garden is starting to yield that most delightful variety of bounty -- nearly free food, if you don't count Voltaire's work. We are enjoying peas, onions and herbs now. Not all together. In time, there will be three kinds of tomatoes, eggplant, two kinds of peppers, cucumbers, squash, horseradish, brussels sprouts, green and red cabbage, carrots, chard, green beans, yellow beans, nasturtiums, sunflower seeds, kohlrabi, tomatillos, currents, apples, and enough zucchini to leave on neighbors doorsteps at midnight.

Garden Guides is a comprehensive site that I discovered recently and added to my favorites. Lots of good resources for beginning and veteran gardeners.

If you find a mysterious bag on your doorstep, it's only zucchini.


Day 82 - The War of Art

This evening's class was taught by an writer associated with The Loft Literary Center, the local writer's brain trust. The topic was "how to get published." I recognize the alchemy needed in that brave new world but felt let down when the secret room held this recipe: 1) Read a lot of your selected genre to understand what is publishable, 2) Now that you know what is considered publishable, write like that, and 3) Send it to publishers whose other published writing is similar to what you wrote.

This is eminently practical and profoundly uninspiring. I came across an Oscar Wilde quote today that was the antithesis: "The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork." I can't imagine Oscar Wilde following the three-step formula. Or Norman Mailer, for that matter.

In unrelated developments, carrying bags of raccoon feces down a ladder from the roof and pitchers of boiling water up the ladder has all the makings of a Japanese game show. This was followed by hanging over the rooftop and lopping off overhanging limbs ... the tree's, not mine, though it was close. Finally, I dredged an overflowing gutter that was blooming with tree seedlings and a congealed substance that my husband described as smelling like a baby's diaper. I can't seem to get the aroma off my hands; I want to find an old dog and roll in it.


Day 81 - Looking for Work (In All The Wrong Places)

I'm sticking my toes back in the pool of job search again. Today, I netted a couple of opportunities to be published and otherwise contribute as a member of society, though in a way that is more adding to my resume than remunerative. Well, gaining experience is valuable I guess.

I sat down yesterday to figure out what I accomplished in the last 80 days and came up with a list of completed projects that fill five pages singly spaced. I'm not sure whether I'm more dismayed that there was so much around here that needed doing or that I can't get paid for what has truly been an enormous effort.

If I can manage to perform an anti-rain dance tomorrow, it will be time to climb up on the roof and start repairs. The headline will read, "Local Woman Hangs from Gutter for Hours Before Rescue."

Of all the job search sites, the most diverse and ironically most satisfying is Craigslist. Perhaps it's that element of risk exposed by the knowledge that some small percentage of advertisers are at best scammers and at worst psychotic killers. Maybe that's true of Monster as well, but that may not be where the brand identity boys were headed when they designed the purple script M. ('Dial M for Murder'?)

There's something about the cheery way that CareerBuilder and Monster pop up and call you by name that sets my teeth on edge. Monster's color scheme is purple and olive green while CareerBuilder is bright orange and blue. Didn't anyone sit the website designers down and suggest that some calming but fresh colors would be better for the stressed potential audience? The jarring contrasts remind me of another past-life experience. Back at Porkus, I managed a sister warranty service company. Let's call it "Hexelus." The colors on the Hexelus site are rust orange and deep purple, correctly suggesting that something Halloween-y is about to happen. For years, I agitated to change to something less garish with no avail. But major job search sites should not have the same obstacles in understanding their audience, some of whom are probably one jarring event from singing to themselves while living under a bridge with a shopping cart.

Craigslist has no such problems. There are no fancy colors to speak of on the job search page, just an endless list of links in blue. And the range of oddball jobs is worth noting. I was intrigued with a job opportunity to participate in a study that pays $320 to test people with social anxiety disorder who also drink regularly. I don't drink regularly but I could learn to if given $320 and surrounded by a bunch of socially inept people. You won't see a job like that on Monster.

Today, CareerBuilder greeted me by name and suggested a job as a Restoration Consultant. I was thinking that this might be one of the guys who chase a shoplifter in the parking lot to 'restore' whatever was stolen, but it turns out to be an insurance coordinator who assesses storm damage and coordinates repair. The job pays quite well -- up to $125K -- and implies that you go on site and perhaps climb up on the roof. Which was what I was planning on doing tomorrow. For free.


Day 80 - Kasey at the Bat

The Astros looked brilliant as they took the field that day;
Undefeated Little Leaguers with but one more game to play,
They'd vanquished each opposing team; Thought tonight they'd do the same,
But the Pirates were strong contenders and knew how to play the game.

Innings came and innings went, and barely moved the score,
The pitching machine threw erratically, tired to the core;
And in the darkening dugouts the adversaries sat;
Each waiting for their chance to get up to the bat.

Two runs were scored by one team, then two by the other,
Each child cheered on by dads and sibs and uncles and their mother,
Until inning number four (the normal stopping point),
When the score stayed two to two and tension rocked the joint.

Pacing on the field with a worried look, Coach Todd
Thundered hints to players like the voice of God.
"Now pay attention out there." "Move back in the box a bit,"
With parents praying silently that their kid would get a hit.

In the bottom of the fifth, not ready to be done,
The Pirates -- oh, the Pirates -- scored another run!
Now three to two, our only hope and we would bet on that,
Our kids would have just one more chance at coming up to bat.

Misty raindrops started falling on the bleachers and the crowd;
Our kids stepped up and, one by one, did their best to make us proud.
In the end, children remember more than a game not won
But a fantastic springtime season of mud and rain and fun.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
These players are all winners when all the words are said,
We took our little champions home and put them straight to bed.
(Based on Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Taken From the San Francisco Examiner - June 3, 1888)


Day 79 - Kazakhstan Part 4

Every Sunday, this blog will describe our life-changing trip to Kazakhstan in 2005 to adopt our two youngest children. While some of our friends and family have seen a few of the pictures, we've never put it all together in an organized format. One of the reasons is that I hesitate to subject others to a 21st century version of the endless slideshow of vacation photos harking to some relative's visit and a lost evening of my childhood. Still, the story must be told before details are lost since this is my children's unique birthright. When we get to the end of the story, I'll edit the posts together into an extended and separate blog page and then have it printed by one of the blog-to-book(let) services for my kids. For people with less interest, these posts will be easy to identify and avoid. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

We had hoped that the timing would be right for my then fifteen-year-old daughter to accompany us to Kazakhstan, a trip that would be undeniably educational and, at the very least, potential material for college entrance essays. She received her passport and was enthusiastic about the prospect. As summer inched toward fall, however, it seemed less and less likely that the trip could be completed in time to avoid disrupting school. As I shared custody with my ex-husband, he generously agreed to take over full custody for the period of time that we would be out of the country. This relieved one source of anxiety, though I was secretly concerned that this living arrangement would prove too comfortable for her and that she might not want to come home to new siblings, our chaotic household and more restrictions than she would have at her father's house.

One day in mid-October, I received a phone message at work from Bianca, our contact at Tree of Life, asking me to call her as soon as possible. I dialed with hesitation, knowing that the adoption listservs were full of rumors about the possibility of further restrictions being imposed by the government of Kazakhstan. Bianca had good news -- our letter of invitation had arrived so we needed to prepare to leave quickly. The other boot fell when she announced that we needed to have FBI clearances completed right away.

The next few days were like living in a blender. We applied for the clearances. Like all government processes, you get what you get. In theory, you spin the wheel and check the mailbox every day, hoping for the response that you want. To the credit of all levels of government with whom we worked in this entire lengthy adoption procedure, there are actual caring people whom you can find and they will help you if you are tenacious enough to cut through the first level of administrivia. Since my impression of the FBI comes largely from popular media, it was a weird cultural dissonance to find out that you can just call them. I talked with a very nice agent and begged her to expedite the application. The adoption agency was pushing me to finalize a departure date and get plane tickets and yet were equally clear that going to Kazakhstan without the required documents would be useless. As the Kazak government shuts down for an extended period over the winter holidays, we were also being painted into a corner on that end of the scheduling, knowing that we would have to be finalized and fly back out before mid-December or face an extra month overseas.

The adoption agency pushed for a departure date and suggested that we proceed without the clearance and, assuming that it was granted, have the final approval documents couriered from the US to Kazakhstan when they were granted. To say that this seemed like a risky idea is an understatement and I resisted. After a week or so, my FBI agent seemed optimistic and we asked our travel consultant to find us tickets. Fingers crossed.

Adoption travel is a specialty and there are a few agencies in the country for whom this is a main focus. The challenge is to find reasonable pricing for round trip tickets where the departure date is fixed but the return date cannot be predicted. The booking also has to reflect that more people are coming back than went in the first place. The airlines will claim that they have special adoption rates but I never found anything that was less expensive than having a travel agent book the appropriate regular flights.

Legendary among international adoption travelers is Golden Rule Travel. The agency specializes in adoption and missionary travel and was founded as a outgrowth of the owner's personal religious commitment. Our agent sincerely and genuinely regarded this activity as his ministry. While rescuing the godless savages through our Christian largess is a concept that I hope died with Rudyard Kipling, our time crunch made me realize quickly that I didn't have to buy into the philosophy behind Golden Rule to appreciate how good they are at what they do.

There are three standard ways to fly to Kazakhstan via Europe -- through Frankfort (United/Lufthansa), Amsterdam (Northwest[now Delta]/KLM) or London (British Airways).

We stepped off the cliff and booked tickets for October 31 from Minneapolis to Chicago to Frankfort to Almaty, Kazakhstan. As the departure date approached and the FBI clearance didn't appear, I nervously called my personal Agent Scully and asked for an ETA. She happily announced that they had mailed the final documents the previous day. And so, one day before take-off, we had our FBI clearances.


Day 78 - Summer Kick-Off

Despite today's downpour, we had the kind of 50's sitcom family-centered day that would give Norman Rockwell a run for his money if he weren't always busy smoking his pipe.

My in-laws are visiting as part of a family celebration of my husband's and mother-in-law's birthdays. Having houseguests for me is that definitive deadline that causes me to put at least a part of the house in order.

First stop after breakfast this morning was the dress rehearsal for my daughter's dance recital tomorrow. The dance instructor's brand identity is that she taught the children of the rich and famous in Los Angeles for 15 years. "If the kids of Clint Eastwood, Rod Stewart and Jeff Bridges can tap, then why not my kids?" She has a Blanche-Dubois-on-acid personality that makes a control freak like me look like the Dalai Lama. She apparently had a bad experience with swimming earlier in life since she repeatedly admonished the parents in the audience not to allow their children to go swimming before the recital to avoid being overtired. I had not considered the option of getting up early on a Sunday morning to go swimming but, now that it is forbidden, it has the appeal of the taboo and I want to do it. I was blissfully unaware of the rule about swimming before dancing and wanted to ask if there was a certain time limit as in waiting an hour after eating but I was concerned that she would charge me like a velociraptor if I interrupted again.

After three repetitions of "My Raggedy Doll has a happy face ..." we were able to escape the practice and head for the baseball game, in the process transforming a child dressed as Raggedy Ann into a child dressed as a little outfielder with a lot of rouge and raccoon eyes from mascara and tears.

We arrived at my daughter's game for the last five minutes, limiting her participation to standing next to the dugout and shaking hands with the opposing team.

Our son's game was next. He played very well, including hitting two doubles. This is only hearsay because these magnificent plays happen only when I'm in the bathroom or otherwise engaged. But the grandparents took some terrific pictures so we have the evidence this time. About halfway through the game, it ceased raining steadily, allowing us to come out from under the SpongeBob Squarepants umbrella.

After the game, a few quick errands and then well-deserved naps. The evening rolled into making pizzas, blowing out candles on the chocolate mousse birthday cake, and then attempts on our new Rock Band game that set back musical culture by decades. A band is only as weak as its weakest drummer. We'll definitely need some practice before taking the tour on the road and opening for the Stones. I had a flashback to the year spent as the worst bass drummer in the history of Watertown High School. Fortunately, I snapped back in time to close our session with a faux guitar solo in Gimme Shelter. It's a just a shot away ...

All in all, a very nice day


Day 77 - Certifiable Kwality Engineer

An email with the title "Exam Result" materialized in my Junk mailbox amid the opportunities to cash in on medical transcriptionist training and Russian women who want to meet me. I paused to enjoy that "on the precipice" feeling that Schrödinger's cat knew so well. It was false suspense since I'd been clued in that a letter is received if you fail but an email link appears if you pass. Of course, they could have changed protocols to send "Dear Pathetic Loser" emails as part of some instant-grat-for-masochists program.

And so ... good news. I was sweating this one. (As a woman of a certain age, the phrase takes on a rueful reality. Power surges, my butt.)

I'll enjoy updating my resume and various postings. I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't some schadenfreude in play. I was in Goodwill on Wednesday and the cashier asked me if I wanted the Senior Discount. Wednesdays are senior 25% discount days at Goodwill but I somehow envisioned more of a chasm between me in my jeans, college sweatshirt and Tevas bounding up and down the aisles and a group using walkers migrating slowly toward the Eddy Arnold vinyls. (If you are drawing a blank on either 'Eddy Arnold' or 'vinyl,' I guess there's not as great a difference as I had hoped.) The cashier said, "Have a nice day" and I thought that I had been up until a few moments before.

So one part of passing that test means that I must have done better than about half the people in the room, most of whom were younger, and who, from the looks of their reference materials, had shelled out at least 500 bucks to attend a training course.

I think next time I'll take the 25% discount.

Happy Birthday, Terry!


Day 75 - Klaim to Fame

Watertown, New York, was described by my friend, Douglas Shambo II, as a "good place for an artist to be from." The implication was that it was a reasonable place to start out under the assumption that elsewhere was the necessary destination.

The late balladeer, Harry Chapin, of "Cat's in the Cradle" fame, was less kind. I have a recording where Harry introduces his song "Better Place to Be" by saying that the song captures a story he heard in Watertown where "I spent a week there one afternoon."

Despite Harry's harsh pronouncement, Watertown managed to produce Frank W. Woolworth who founded the retail chain and Richard Grieco who looks cool and dated Yasmine Bleeth. I didn't know either of them. Ditto the Bouchard brothers who founded the band Blue Öyster Cult, though I had heard of them when I lived there.

Even though I just missed knowing these pop culture icons -- and fortunately barely avoided meeting a Watertown resident serial killer known as the Genesee River Killer -- I knew and went to high school with two students who emerged from the Watertown cocoon to become celebrated performers.

One was Viggo Mortensen, the versatile actor and modern Renaissance man who appeared in Lord of the Rings, Hidalgo, GI Jane, The Road and many other movies. I'll dig out Viggo's high school yearbook photo and post it one of these days. When my daughter was in junior high, she took the yearbook for show-and-tell to display Viggo looking somber with the rest of the tennis team.

As well known to aficionados of sacred music as Viggo is to movie goers is Douglas Shambo II. Douglas was a year ahead of me in school and was "the guy" in the vocal and instrumental performances as well as the musicals that are high school staples. I was the hanger-on with heart and no talent while Douglas seemed to excel in any musical avenue. He took courses at the local community college with the aim of hitting the ground running for a career in medicine. He grew a beard to appear in a local semi-professional theater production of Fiddler on the Roof and retained it through the rest of high school, drawing more than a few second glances as the only high school boy with a full beard and the appearance of being about 35 years old. My ever helpful eight-year-old brother cornered Doug by the refreshment table after services in our Episcopal Church to shout over sandwich cookies and watered-down juice, "My sister likes you" and my sixteen-year-old self flushed in a way that I can still feel today; I always sat behind a pillar after that.

I lost track of Douglas after high school, only knowing that he had chosen to attend a college in Connecticut to focus on music. Years later, one of the first things that I did with my new computer and internet connection was to search for a few high school friends. Ironically, I found that Douglas had been living here in St. Paul for several years. I had somehow missed his appearance on A Prairie Home Companion or reviews of his performances with local opera and early music groups.

A year or so later, I read a music review in the paper and noticed that Douglas was one of the performers. I attended the performance and was delighted to find that he recognized me. My sixteen-year-old pillar-hiding self was gratified that I must not have been completely part of the wallpaper and my grown up self had a drink with an old friend and got up to speed on the last score of years. In the true spirit of sixth degrees of separation, we each knew people who knew each other and it was only coincidence that we hadn't run into each other at some concert during those post-Watertown years. It was a delightful summing up and I'm glad that we have remained 'Christmas card friends' for the last several years.

Douglas was the musical director of St. Clement's Episcopal Church in St. Paul for a number of years and now is devoted fully to composition. He lives with is wife and pets in St. Paul. His Sacred Music blog is on my blog list. When I emailed him to ask if he minded if I did a post on his career and achievements, he replied that readers should be made aware that his topic is sacred music and his posts are reflective of his deeply felt spiritual viewpoint. So noted.

Among his many achievements, Douglas performed on an AIDS Quilt Songbook compilation album called Heartbeats that can be downloaded from iTunes. I have the CD and all the selections are profoundly moving. Even Viggo hasn't achieved that yet.


Day 74 - Komputer Follies

Missing two days of posting feels like forgetting one's child in the median strip of six lane highway. I've been plagued by connection problems, viruses, and issues with Blogger. Numbers one and three are now history but virus scanning and elimination continues.

I was delighted a couple of days ago to hear from Kim Barron, the queen of creativity. Those of you who know Kim know that she is the MacGyver of household projects. She has a new blog http://baronesscolor.blogspot.com/ where she shares her secrets of Shibori. Her blog includes the link to her Etsy site, a terrific source for high-quality homemade goods.

Blogs are busting out all over. A lapsed blogger now again in the fold has reactivated his blog, Digital Satori http://digitalsatori.net/blog/. Fellow Porkus refugees will recognize an old friend, savvy and erudite observer, and perhaps proof that there are indeed old souls in the karmic sense.

My eight-year-old and fresh second grade graduate has started a blog to record his activities this summer. It is a work in process and was unfortunately scuttled after the first post due to our technical difficulties. Grandma and Grandpa, look for developments over the next few days on Noah Way http://noah-way.blogspot.com/. My five-year-old daughter -- eternally competitive and demanding her fair share when confronted with all the unequal servings that the world has to offer -- wants her own blog now. Her chosen title: Princess Potatohead. I have resisted thus far.

Finally, the second most famous person with whom I attended high school has a blog documenting his compelling musical interest and exceptional career. It's a story with a few twists and ironies for which we must say, like the next episode of Batman, please tune in tomorrow.


Day 71 - It's Geek To Me

I spent five hours this morning in a classroom at St. Thomas desperately filling in circles with my No.2 pencil. The pass rate on the Certified Quality Engineer test is somewhere between 42 and 55% depending on the test years reported. The American Society for Quality does not officially release that statistic but it becomes known. I suspect the point of leakage is a man with polyester Sansabelt slacks and a short-sleeved Oxford shirt on a business trip sitting in a bar and trying to think of anything -- anything at all -- that he knows that could impress that woman over there. ("Hey, baby, what I know about analysis of variance could fill a book. Want to sit yourself on down and talk about acceptance sampling?" "Sadly, sir, I'm in a reduced sampling mode at Level III normal and your accept number is zero.")

If you were a quality engineer, that would be a really funny line. Trust me on that. You'd snort until the mechanical pencil fell off your ear.

I don't know whether I passed or not. I'm probably near the cut-off. I calculated with a confidence level of 95% that my score was between 78 and 85 percent correct. That's the type of thing they make you do on this test.

The official line is that the scores are so low because people don't prepare well enough and come in cocky. So if most test takers were stupid or hung over, I probably squeaked through. The other people in the room looked fairly intelligent and prepared. Except for that one guy. The guy who looked like his mother dressed him in his polyester pants and his big old belt. He was wearing cop shoes. You know the ones that are black, weigh 15 pounds each, and are large enough for a cat to nestle inside if they weren't scared by the white socks. If you find out the test stats, don't tell him. I think we've found our leak.


Day 70 - Skool's Out for Summer!

The last day of school is always exciting for every kid or kid at heart.

It's a bittersweet reflection that Alice Cooper himself, rather than being the threat to civilization and the morals of youth announced in a shrill voice in the 1970's, is an establishment guy who plays golf with Pat Boone. Even more ironically, if you look at the video closely, he now appears to look without make-up pretty much like he does with it on.

Yes, glorious summertime! I'm looking forward to taking the CQE test on Saturday and being done with this portion of our program. This particular Quality certification has a pass rate of about 42% so there's a possibility that this is merely Act 1.


Day 69 - Quality Kulture Klub

As far as I can tell, my interview went adequately. There were no overt gaffes. The ISO job that had been dangled seductively in front of me was off the table, having been accepted the previous day by the applicant that the agency sent. My contact told me that the lucky/unlucky chap is being given a two week period in which to demonstrate that he can make tangible inroads into the company culture. This brings to mind the old joke about the hair stylist who replied when requested to make a major and decidedly optimistic overhaul on a client, "It's a comb -- not a magic wand!"

Even the ephemeral and teflon CEO of Porkus, someone for whom I have a level of respect and grudging affection somewhat mystifying even to me under the circumstances, stood up in front of all the employees and announced his personal commitment to establishing a quality system, signed a pledge, and asked each employee in turn to do the same. Admittedly, I created the pledge and shoved it in front of him but that's how these things are often done.

So, if Mr. Two Week is ground in the mill of rejection and overt management hostility, I get a chance to interview. Not sure how I feel about that.

Either way, I was accepted by the placement firm as – well, it's not a "client" since hiring companies are the client. "Fodder"? "Grist"? A manila folder with my name on it in a file cabinet? Since there are people who don't make the cut, I feel pretty good about it. The recruiter liked my resume so I won't have to rewrite it, except for perhaps some rebalancing for a specific opportunity. And the receptionist loved my suit. Win-win.

I'll be spending the foreseeable future studying for Saturday's Certified Quality Engineer exam. I have about 200 pages of statistics left to learn. When I took the auditor exam, I read most of it all night before the exam so this is ... better.

Here's something that seems questionable: This coupon advertises "An OFF Repellent for Every Occasion." That seems a bit presumptive on their part.

It doesn't say "activity" -- something that would seem more logical since they make a waterproof one for swimming and a hand-to-hand combat version for 'deep woods.' But "occasion"? Occasions are circumstances where sending a card is appropriate.

Is there an OFF for a funeral? A christening? Grandma makes parole? Deck the halls with boughs of DEET?

Or, even more troubling, "just thinking of you"?


Day 68 - Suit Yourself

Preparing for my interview tomorrow. It's an interview with a placement firm so it's not exactly likely to immediately result in a dream job. The baseline goal is to avoid the interview going like this classic example:

I have a blue skirted suit. When I wear it, I look like a mailbox.

I've never enjoyed interviewing, no matter which side of the desk I was on. I slipped into Porkus without an interview, something that I was everlastingly grateful for when I learned that the standard Porkus manager interview with multiple HR people and the CEO would last about four hours. Candidates would stagger out, dehydrated and delusional. (It's entirely possible that they were delusional on the way in but they were buoyant enough to cover.)

Porkus had an interesting interview trick that I had not seen before. Candidates would be brought in for two or three interviews. As a "final test," they were asked to prepare a presentation on an area of their expertise that was identified as a new company opportunity. The candidate would strut his or her stuff, PowerPointing all the way, and we were invited in to listen attentively and take notes. This counted as employee training at an affordable (i.e. free) price. The hiring manager would always ask to keep a copy of the presentation and the candidate was not in a position to refuse. Sometimes these people would be hired and sometimes not.

My last boss was one of those who ran the gauntlet and emerged with a job. He gave a presentation on "Voice of the Customer." This is a methodology that can be used in Lean and Six Sigma and also Quality Function Deployment. As the name implies, the central point is figuring out what the customer requires and expects and then trying to deliver that. Conceptually, it's not astrophysics. This was particularly evident when the training was delivered by my former boss, who said that he developed it; he put his name on the first page but neglected to remove the name of the real author on the rest of the presentation.

Perhaps tomorrow's interview will go like this:


Day 67 - Krossroads

I had a phone interview today that resulted in an appointment for an in-person interview on Thursday. It's with a placement agency with a contract job to implement ISO 9001 in a local company -- right up my alley. ...If the guy they are sending tomorrow doesn't get the job first. Never hurts to check it out and the opportunity does pique my interest.

On the other hand, I was looking forward to completing more home projects. It seems like there is a trade-off between having the time and available labor to make lifestyle improvements and having the resources to make them a reality. Perhaps the secret might be earning an income but not working 60 or 70 hours per week. Hmmm. Food for thought.

The Certified Quality Engineer exam is on Saturday morning and I'm on page 211 of the handbook out of about 500 pages. A deadline can be a real attention-riveter.

To get myself into the mood for engineering employment, I'm sharing one of my favorite engineer-geek jokes.

The Doctor, Chemist and Engineer in a Bit of A Bad Spot

Once upon a time there lived three men: a doctor, a chemist, and an
engineer. For some reason all three offended the king and were sentenced to die
on the same day.
The day of the execution arrived, and the doctor was led up
to the guillotine.
As he strapped the doctor to the guillotine, the
executioner asked, "Head up or head down?"
"Head up," said the doctor.
"Blindfold or no blindfold?"
"No blindfold."
So the executioner
raised the axe, and z-z-z-z-ing! Down came the blade--and stopped barely an inch
above the doctor's neck. Well, the law stated that if an execution didn't
succeed the first time, the prisoner had to be released, so the doctor was set
Then the chemist was led up to the guillotine.
"Head up or head
down?" said the executioner.
"Head up."
"Blindfold or no blindfold?"
"No blindfold."
So the executioner raised his axe, and z-z-z-z-ing! Down
came the blade--and stopped an inch above the chemist's neck. Well, the law
stated that if the execution didn't succeed the first time the prisoner had to
be released, so the chemist was set free.
Finally the engineer was led up to
the guillotine.
"Head up or head down?"
"Head up."
"Blindfold or no
"No blindfold."
So the executioner raised his axe, but
before he could cut the rope, the engineer yelled out:
"WAIT! I see what the
problem is!"