Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kindle My Heart

"Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a . . . a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and . . . and . . . and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a . . . it, uh, it has no-no texture, no . . . no context. It's . . . it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then . . . then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible . . . it should be, um, smelly."

Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

"Is this it? This time I die?"
"Could be? What sort of answer is that?" said Vimes.
Thud!, by Terry Pratchett

I haven't been posting too frequently the past few weeks. I have a splendid excuse: for my birthday last month, my parents got me a Kindle.

Oooh. Aaaah. Jolie.
I am enamoured of my Kindle. I have become a Kindle addict. The Kindle fits in my purse, between my wallet and my day planner, and can be popped out at an instant's notice. I have not experienced forty-five seconds together of boredom since I opened this thing. Any spare second that I have . . . waiting behind one person buying one thing in a grocery store line, sitting at a red light that I know is going to keep me there for a whole thirty-five seconds, flossing my labor-intensive brace-covered teeth, even waiting on the phone while a customer looks for his/her/its credit card, I have the Kindle. I have a book.

Because Kindle Pages can be turned with one finger, you only need to hold it in one hand. This is useful when you're trying to do something else with your other hand, like cook dinner or disarm a ticking bomb. It also means that on cold winter nights (or days . . . it's been a cold week), the only parts of you that have to be outside the covers are your eyeballs, your nose, and one finger.

Kindle makes books magically appear. Sunday afternoon, I had just finished reading Snuff, and I thought to myself, "Man, I really wish I could read another Sam Vimes novel. I love those Watch books. I know there are more. I shall have to go to the library at some point in the near future and see what they have in." And then the Kindle popped up a little window that proffered Night Watch, Feet of Clay, Guards! Guards!, Thud!, and Men at Arms to have for my very own at five dollars a pop.* All I had to do was twizzle my finger. It didn't even feel like spending money; the Kindle knows my credit card number, and helpfully handles all the sordid details. I pushed a button and got another book to keep me quiet about all the problems of the universe for another six hours.

What really tickles me about this is that it's Good For Me. Throughout all of my young life, I have learned an important distinction: things that flicker are Bad For You, and things that hold steady are Good For You. Television: Bad. Video games: Bad. Putzing around on the internet: Bad. Flickery screens rot your brain and make you antisocial and keep you from getting healthful exercise.

The joy of a Kindle is that it does not have a flickery screen. It has a steady, non-glowy display-thing. It's a glorified Etch-A-Sketch. Etch-a-Sketch is good, wholesome fun. Pages with words on them are edifying and uplifting. Reading makes you smart. Literature is good for your brainz. The Kindle is therefore a paragon of virtue, and I can feel smug, rather than guilty, when I whip it out of my purse.

Now, if you're reading this post soon after reading my earlier post on the King's English, you may be thinking, "Oh, Blogger, poor, poor Blogger . . . you have succumbed to the temptations of technology. You have abandoned the printed page. You are a traitor to your ilk." I would like a chance to argue in my own defense.

First off, I would like to show you two of the most precious treasures that I own.

The red volume is Jane Eyre. This particular copy was printed in 1946. It's got the price written on the flyleaf in pencil, a mark of where it passed through the hands of a used bookseller. I don't know where it came from. I think I plucked it off a family bookshelf when I was about ten years old, and in that ravenous phase where I had to be reading something, ANYTHING, or I would start beating my head against the wall. I devoured the thing.
I had no context for the story. There are no explanatory notes, no analytical essays, attached to the book. It just begins at the beginning and finishes at the end, whether you understand the world you've been dragged into or not. I didn't understand a great chunk of what was going on, but I knew I was addicted. To this day, this particular volume is what Jane Eyre looks like and feels like and smells like to me. I've owned other editions, shiny paperbacks with historical commentaries and helpful footnotes, but as far as I'm concerned they are just reprints of this crumbling volume with the disorienting line-drawn illustrations and the binding that leaves crumbles of powdered maroon binding on your hands and clothes as you read it.

Since I just turned in my application to do a Master's degree in Victorian literature, I think it's safe to say that this book changed my life.

The Three Musketeers I got as a Christmas gift when I was around the same age. It was one of four; the other three were Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, and Dracula. As you can see, somebody splurged. They spent a whole two dollars, plus tax, on feeding my voracious brain.

It took me about five tries to make it through The Three Musketeers. Dumas is not a concise storyteller. This book still enchants me. Adventure, romance, high-speed chases, midnight escapades, mysterious secrets, swoon-worthy heroes. Swash, swash, buckle, buckle. This fifty-cent paperback is soft with the oils of my hands. The corners are all rounded away. It's got marks throughout the text marking phases that I went through . . . my 'I need to censor out profanity in my books' phase (this is why Athos says damn a lot) and the 'Every piece of paper is a suitable notebook' phase and the 'I must underline pithy phrases' phase. And yet, through all these phases, the bookmark still stuck into this volume is the same ragged corner that I tore off some other random thing the first time I dove into the ultimate adventure story. Boy howdy, did I get my parents' fifty cents worth out of that volume. When I first turned on my shiny, beautiful Kindle, the first thing I did was download Jane Eyre. I hardly had a choice. Any library that I own, physical or digital, must contain Jane Eyre. It's a rule. Then, when I had a bit more time to let the WiFi swallow the longer text, I crammed The Three Musketeers into my little gray machine.

This does not mean that I can finally recycle those paper copies that have been hanging around my life for the last fifteen years. No Way. I want to be buried with those books. Somehow, it strikes me as silly to be buried with a Kindle. A Kindle is useful, but it is not precious. The contents of a Kindle are backed up on some giant hard drive somewhere, and can be replaced when the machine itself is destroyed in a six-car pileup (caused by some idiot reading behind the wheel). These books are unique to me. If they are destroyed, they can never come again. I can get a new edition . . . but that's like making new friends when you move to a new city. New friends are all well and good, but they don't slot neatly into the holes in your heart that your old friends have left. Those remain forever. That's what love is.

I love books.

*And that's Amazon cutting its own throat, that is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


“You’d better tell me what you know, toad,” said Tiffany. “Miss Tick isn’t here. I am.”

“Another world is colliding with this one,” said the toad. “There. Happy now? That’s what Miss Tick thinks. But it’s happening faster than she expected. All the monsters are coming back.”


“There’s no one to stop them.”

There was silence for a moment.

“There’s me,” said Tiffany. 

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

It has, in many ways, been a frustrating couple of weeks. Problems keep springing upon me from dark corners: problems that I didn't cause and am powerless to fix.

The oil pressure light in my car keeps flickering whenever the engine idles. The car isn't leaking a drop (I checked) and I got the oil changed and did some basic repairs only a few weeks ago (and that was a story in itself) and there is, in actual fact, plenty of new, fresh oil in the engine (or wherever oil technically goes). But that little light keeps blinking with enough energy to cause an epileptic seizure, and as all drivers will know, a flickering oil light will haunt your nightmares.

My garage door opener has decided to stop working. It got a fresh battery only a couple of months ago, but every time I need to get in or out of the garage, it has taken more clicks of that little button to get it to move. I first resorted to clicking, then I unclipped the opener from my sun visor and held it up to the windshield, then I unrolled the window and stuck my arm out to click, then I got out of the car and walked up to the door and clicked like there was no tomorrow. Each of these escalating measures has worked for a few times, then faded away. The door may be building up an immunity. We've reached the point where I have to turn off my car, get out, open the other door with the keypad (the other garage door is the only one rigged for keypad-opening), walk across the garage to the button by the kitchen door, close the one door, open the other, get back in my car, turn it on, drive it in, turn it off, get out of the car and close the garage. Ah, technology.

And though we are now in mid-December, it simply refuses to snow. Nothing but gray grass and gray sky as far as the eye can see.

But the most frustrating has been at work. My job, for those of you who don't know, involves getting stuff shipped from the US to the UK. As long as I've been doing this job, box after box has just disappeared en route. Over months of investigation, I unraveled the problem: somewhere along the line, our boxes are getting shipping labels slapped on them with the wrong postal code. It's hard to deliver a box if the address says Sheffield but the postal code says Leeds.

So while the UK customers have patiently and cheerfully waited, sometimes for months, to get their stuff (bless these good people. They are truly the inventors of the Stiff Upper Lip), my team and I have sent and re-sent one box after another, and watched each one via online tracker as they sail from California to Florida, Florida to London, London to Massachusetts, Massachusetts to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Alberta, Alberta to Sheffield, Sheffield to London, London back to Massachusetts, and then stop dead.

Needless to say, it's a little frustrating.

We told management that something was wrong.

"Submit an issue form about it," they said.

An issue form is the automated form we're supposed to use for any problems we can't handle ourselves. Issue forms produce one of four results: 1. no response at all; 2. an obvious response that you have already tried because you're not an idiot; 3. an outdated response that used to work but does not anymore; 4. a response so ludicrously stupid that we print them out and hang them on the wall. Gems have included "You can't track this package through FedEx because it was shipped via SmartPost" (SmartPost is a FedEx service, and it's what nearly all our US orders use); "Did you try re-syncing the account?" (The original problem contained the words 'I have re-synced the account and it didn't help'); "What do you want me to do about it?" (Nothing, I guess . . . that's why I told you about it, so you wouldn't do anything); and, my favorite of all, "You need to submit an issue form for this problem." (Whaa? This is an issue form! This thing you're writing on right now is an issue form! Is there some special magical issue form I'm supposed to be using instead?)

So we submitted issue forms, saying our packages were misdirected. No answer.

I inquired of management again.

The response: "Did you submit an issue form?"

"Yes, a few," said I.

"We'll look into it," said they.

Several days later:

"What did you find out?" said I.

"Oh, that. DHL sometimes gets out of sync, and get one label on the top of the box and a different one on the side. Just keep sending replacements."

I sighed.

I tried to talk to DHL agents to see if they could intercept specific boxes and get the incorrect label scribbled out or something. I got an automated system every time. When I finally spoke to someone, he couldn't get anything to show up with the tracking numbers I had. I sighed again, thanked him, and sent a replacement box.

So a steady stream of boxes poured into this black hole of missing mail. After a while, we stopped submitting issue forms and just sent the boxes anyway. Re-sent boxes got lost. Their replacements got lost. One poor woman ordered maternity clothes back in September; she's due any minute, and not a stitch of clothing has she received.

Finally a customer sent me a photograph showing clearly the WRONG POSTCODE printed on the box, bold as brass. Out-of-sync labels, my foot.

I took it to management.

"Did you submit an issue form?" said they.

"Several," said I.

"Well, we fix problems based on how many issue forms get submitted. Problems with the most forms about them get fixed first. I'm sorry, but it's going to be a while."

We started submitting the forms again. With vigor. I got out my records of re-sent orders and submitted issue forms by the dozen, chronicling the back-log of problems. And while waiting for a response, we kept re-sending boxes.

Then, a breakthrough. A customer, who actually works for DHL, called us. Through his useful information, we were able to track one of our packages. Yodel, the company that handles home delivery, received the box with the wrong postcode on it. DHL, whom we thought for months was the cause of all this mess, received the box with the wrong post code on it.

It was like that moment in the horror movie where the heroine realizes that the phone call is coming from inside the house.

Something in our system is causing this. Something that we are responsible for and can fix.

I went back to management.

"I'm only one person," said management, shrugging.

I knifed him to death and hid him in a closet.

Artist's Rendition.

No, scratch that last part. That's not what I did.

What I did was go back to my desk and eat a Reese's peanut butter cup and have a think.

I had by now brought this problem to five different layers of management. If I went any higher to solve the problem, I'd be talking to Bishop Burton. Above him, I'd be talking to President Monson. 'Up' was obviously the wrong way to go to get these things fixed.

However, we lowly agents are forbidden to go sideways. We've been carefully instructed NOT to call the nice sister in Germany who can take care of returns, no problem. Under no circumstances are we to shoot an e-mail to the efficient sister who handles credit card disputes. Under pain of death, we must not contact the warehouse team that will happily fix orders that are going to the wrong address. And don't even think about looking up the person who can print magazine subscriber listsshe'd love to get that to you right away, but that's not the point. There are proper channels.

Proper channels so clogged with beurocratic cholesterol that we're about one sneeze away from a corporate heart attack.

So I stayed after work today. I looked up the contact information for the head of the warehouse, and I wrote him an e-mail. In the e-mail, I explained the problem we'd been seeing. I laid out the research that we'd done, and clarified the conclusions we'd drawn. I asked him most politely to look at the boxes going out his warehouse door to see if they had the right addresses, and begged most humbly that if the addresses were wrong, would he please, please find out why? Maybe even prevent them from happening anymore?

Then I clicked send.

I have overstepped the bounds of my job. I'm a little afraid of what I'll find when I go to work tonight. Maybe I'll get an e-mail saying "Oh, thanks! I checked on that, and looks like it was a simple mix-up that I've got fixed now. Merry Christmas!" Perhaps I will get promoted to Chief Problem-Solver and get a pay raise made of all the money we're no longer using to re-send things to England. Perhaps I will get a cake. Maybe I'll even get a name plaque to put on my cubicle.

But then again, maybe I'll get called into Claudio's office to get the lecture, "This really wasn't something you should have been doing. It is not your job to solve problems." (I've had a manager say this to me, by the way. Word for word. I was so angry I started crying, since the knife-and-closet plan was unavailable due to lack of either closet or knife.) "You were very unprofessional. You need to behave yourself from now on or we're going to have to let you go."

Of course, I know in my heart that the most likely outcome is that I'll get a 'Thanks, we'll look into that' e-mail and never hear about it again. But just for today, before the future takes form . . . just for today, I've taken a risk to accomplish something meaningful for the sake of other people who need help. Just for today, I am a hero.

And when I left work, it was snowing.

*And the oil light didn't come on and the garage door opened and they were playing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' on the radio.

*Gratitude to Scott Adams for Alice and the Fist of Death. If it weren't for you, sir, Management would be the highest-fatality job category in America.