Reader's Exchange

September 2012 - Posts

The kindness (and efficiency) of strangers

From the "that was awkward" memory file:   I'm applying for a driver license in another state.   Peering into the hood of the vision screening device, I focus on the foggy surface and announce, "OK, you can turn it on now."  Brief pause.  "It is on." 

I could have told them there was no point in testing me without glasses.  Thanks to polycarbonate, my nose no longer features dents from supporting powerful lenses.   Frame selection is the problem now.  After I select likely styles, I still can't tell how they'd really work for me with my face that close to the mirror. 

Fighting my Independent Customer tendencies (I don't even like to be greeted at the door) I eventually devised a workaround.  This works surprising well:  I recruit a store employee to alert me what not to buy--because no one will tell a customer directly that something looks terrible even when it does.  I'll quickly try on four or five frames in succession, asking the staffer to elect--reality-show style--which one should be eliminated first, etc. until one remains. 

This year my drafted stylist was particularly helpful, even suggesting an alternate color.  The store manager who fitted my new selection listened happily to my lavish compliments about the employee before gently inquiring if I'd gone online to complete the customer feedback survey. 

And I hadn't.  Most store receipts we get now offer those opportunities--just one more mode of information overload.

Here's what made this instance special.  The manager related how their company forwards complimentary comments to the individual who was named.  The positive report arrives in the form of a little certificate which, she explained, is displayed on the wall with the collection of customer praise, and "we enjoy them so much!"

Who wouldn't follow up after that?  The survey required less than a minute. Especially with City of Round Rock employees marking Customer Service Week next week, I should have remembered:  service interactions are as personal to the employee as to the patron.Vintage tortoise frame

Most customer transactions are rewarding, some just memorable than others.  Recently, a library patron I'd assisted to find product rankings observed that library people were "just wonderful--and so nice, too."  She speculated whether we had all gone to charm school?  

No, but apparently she did.

Can't take it with you: your reputation

I saw one of those annoying commercials again last night.  It's not political ads I find exasperating; it's the appeals for us to charge vast sums on our credit cards to finance theme park vacation packages so we can "make memories" for our families.

Surely this approach aims directly for parents of the very young?  The onset of adolescence in one's offspring usually dispels any hope of shaping another's future perceptions, not to mention current ones.   And it's not just our relatives who have free rein to forget, embroider, or recall facts differently than we'd prefer.  Libraries can supply stacks of evidence that anyone may re-examine or imagine at will. 

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is a case in point.  He seems to be popping up everywhere these days.  For example, "Kit" Marlowe enlivens Deborah Harkness' Shadow of Night (sequel to her bestselling A Discovery of Witches).  Generally viewed as the best-known Elizabethan dramatist and possible author of works attributed to Shakespeare, in Shadow Marlowe is portrayed as a daemon.  University professor Harkness, well versed in lore of the age, had her reasons for casting Marlowe as a devious, mercurial, but obviously gifted creature.

Other historical realities are employed in the All Souls trilogy: the elusive Ashmole 782 manuscript sought by Diana is a known-but missing-actual document; the School of Night group existed; and "Shadow of Night" denotes a George Chapman poem dedicated to Matthew Roydon.Antique memory book

About Matthew:  Harkness depicts him as Matthew de Clermont/Clairmont/Roydon, a 1500-year-old vampire (also courtier, scholar, builder, architect, spy, poet, since attenuated lifespan presents ample time for skills acquisition).  Roydon really was an Elizabethan poet in Marlowe's circle.  Charles Nicholls' The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe is among resources that Matthew's fans could consult for more details.

Readers curious about Kit Marlowe's exploits would also appreciate The Reckoning, along with the library's literature databases and some Marlowe nonfiction on our shelves.   But fiction fans particularly benefit from Marlowe's trendiness; they can choose from Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford; Leslie Silbert's The Intelligencer; Louise Welsh's Tamburlaine Must Die and--new from M.J. Trow--Dark Entry and Silent Court.  Trow envisions the multi-talented Marlowe as crime investigator, a pursuit complementing his known scholarship and reputed espionage.

Philip Henderson observes that we now find Marlowe relatively well documented because "his name appears fairly frequently in academic, secret service, and police records".  Unlike the understated Marlowe portrayed by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love, the real Kit made enemies left and right and engaged in barroom brawls and street fights.  A fellow playwright once called him "an epicure, an atheist, and a Machiavellian."

Of course, now the "M" word merits reconsideration.  Michael Ennis' new The Malice of Fortune depicts Niccolo Machiavelli collaborating with Leonard da Vinci to track down a serial killer.  Ennis invites us to view the author of The Prince not as deceitful but rather as "a loyal, charismatic friend" and "an incurable romantic".

But the traditional reference is so much more fun.

Bedtime stories got your goat?

Raise your hand if a youngster of your acquaintance ever fixated on an unlikable bedtime story, demanding this resented volume to be read nightly for weeks on end.

Now, raise your hand and say "Hmmmm" if you ‘ve ever pondered pithy questions inspired by a story for three-year-olds.   I'm doing that right now.  If only co-worker David had asked my views on the latest Edith Wharton-inspired fiction release.  But no, he had to bring up The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

David's son currently favors this classic.  Amid one of his many renderings (David even does celebrity voices) doubts regarding the moral of the story arose--as in, is there a moral?

To review:  the youngest/smallest goat (with announced goal of attaining the hillside, eating, and growing fat) saves himself by convincing the hungry troll--emphasis on this creature's unattractiveness--that his older, larger brother would be a more satisfying meal.  And so forth.  By the end, two goats have saved their hides by figuratively throwing their brothers under the bridge; the ugly troll perishes spectacularly.

Can't you just imagine some of the conversations (can you say "revisionist history"?) in store for the three brothers as they're grazing on that slope?   But I digress.

In The Moral Compass, William J. Bennett charitably observes that "This familiar Norse tale is about an age-old job for big brothers--looking out for little brothers."   As I see it, the older brothers' protection occurred solely by default.  Not that I was any more successful when David first posed the question.  I ventured, "Good will ultimately triumph after challenges have been faced."

Oh, I know.  The concept of "good" doesn't hold up for a minute if you take the troll's POV.  Already facing discrimination for his unfortunate looks, he delays gratification by giving the smaller goats a pass (so is the moral "Good things DON'T come to those who wait"?).  In his own special way, the troll would have saved the goats from self-induced obesity.  He wasn't underhanded, either; he clearly outlined his agenda.Greed is Good

The goats at least deserve credit for validating the dangers of eating red meat and asking rhetorical questions.  One hopes that the moral isn't "Selfishness is OK but ugly isn't" or even "Loyalty can be inconvenient."  Perhaps David should render the troll with a Michael Douglas-in-Wall Street voice to underscore the warning against greed-and eating one's fellow creatures.

Every version of the story I viewed narrated the sound of goat hooves on wooden bridge thusly: "Trip, trap, trip."  Based on the number of internet references to this story, not to mention oft-used elements like the sequence of three, exacting a toll for proceeding, brains over brawn, etc. "Trope, trope, trope" could also work.

For divergent (and delightful) further takes on Goats vs. Troll, I recommend visiting that well-regarded source of the finest in literature.  I refer to the Children's section of Round Rock Public Library, where you can enjoy, among other kinder, gentler renditions, gems like The Three Armadillies Tuff, The Three Silly Girls Grubb, and The Three Billygoats Gruff and Mean Calypso Joe.

Party clothed

When this year's political conventions began, I considered information gathering my priority.  But it's hard to claim any responsible-citizen cred when these events are so entertaining.  The eclectic (but never random) mix of soaring rhetoric, artful film, celebrities, statistics, vision, and dramatic personal histories demanded not only my attention but occasionally a box of tissues.

Of course, women's issues were highlighted significantly, contrasting with an earlier time when Secretary of State Clinton (referenced Wednesday night) provoked comment by her views, actions, and whether or not she'd worn a headband the previous day.  This week, an online news scan would yield screenloads of opinion about the sartorial choices of convention speakers Ann Romney and Michelle Obama.  Intense scrutiny of their designers and color palettes must be a compliment, evidence that they delivered enough thought-provoking content that their ensembles were just more convenient to assess confidently.

I can't discern much controversy there, myself.  Both women chose lovely, American-style looks.  Many of us female viewers would consider wearing those dresses ourselves, reported price tags (Romney, $1900-$2000, Obama, $450-$500) notwithstanding.

But Ann and Michelle invested wisely.  Take a few hundred or a few thousand dollars and divide that cost by millions of television watchers/critics; the per-capita cost would be as slim as the heels on their much-discussed pumps.  Besides, as Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly observed, "I must dress in costly materials.  The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity." Dolley coin

The public's fascination with high-ranking political spouses has often been justified.  Some of America's top-ranking spouses have fused fashion and viewpoint to inspire their own followings.


Ms. Lincoln wasn't the only White House fashionista with decided views (she deemed General Grant a "butcher" and the guard who left his post at Ford's Theatre "a murderer"). Nancy Reagan, who reflected that "acting was good training for the political life that lay ahead of us" raised eyebrows when, as wife of California's governor, she declared the gubernatorial mansion a firetrap and decamped with her family to alternate accommodations.

The contention that "A woman is like a teabag--only in hot water do you realize how strong she is" is sometimes attributed to Ms. Reagan but usually to Eleanor Roosevelt, who more than balanced her lackluster style portfolio with a remarkably productive life and a plethora of quotable thoughts.  Jacqueline Kennedy, exhibiting clarity in priorities as well as costume, suggested that "When Harvard men say they have graduated from Radcliffe, then we've made it" and further judged "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."

Dolley Madison, celebrated for fashion-forwardness and a vibrant personality, directed her considerable networking skills to enhance the administrations of both Thomas Jefferson and her husband James.  Dolley was so highly regarded as to be awarded an honorary seat in Congress.  Samuel F.B. Morse invited her to the first public demonstration of his telegraph.  Following the famous message "What hath God wrought", the second telegraphed correspondence was a greeting from Dolley to a friend.

The term "First Lady" wasn't used in Dolley's day (when designations like "Lady Washington" were still being auditioned).  President Zachary Taylor is believed to have coined the phrase in tribute to Dolley at her funeral.  At some point, the term caught on.  Not that it's ever achieved universal approval; Jacqueline Kennedy commented that "It sounds like a saddle horse."