Speaking of Henry Miller

(And I believe we were.) From his autobiography:

“My notebooks began in the very early days in Paris. I think, in those days, I always carried one with me. I was like a reporter at large. I made notes so conscientiously you’d think I was being paid by a big, important newspaper. I made notes of everything… Now, very often, I make no use of my notes, but I enjoy making them. They fire me.”

A Report from Missoula in September

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Monday was my deadline for a freelance project that had me working like a madman throughout the weekend. I’d thought I was over the hump on this project when I’d completed most of the text. “All” that was left was document layout, a thought that did not strike as much fear in my heart as it should have, especially when the software specified by the client was Microsoft Word. I have no particular respect for Microsoft products, of course, but I had not a clue just how badly things were about to go for me. The main problem was the fact that this document needed to include about 90 informational graphics, sized precisely and positioned neatly on the page. Anyone who has ever wrestled with image or table placement in Word knows where this is going. I’ve complained about Word here before, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say that, at around 3 p.m. last Friday, I was almost done making last-minute changes to these graphics and actually thought that layout would only take another hour or two longer. I worked on it until almost midnight, went to bed, got up early Saturday, and worked for the next 17 hours before I was done. Then another 13 hours of rereading, another 8 or so hours of correcting the mistakes discovered by that rereading, and, finally, delivery of the finished document late on Monday.

So goes the freelance life: work through three weekends in a row, madly scrambling to make a deadline. Then, suddenly, it’s like you’re a student after finals, free to get more than four hours of sleep in a night, free to actually make plans for a Saturday afternoon with your wife. I would say free to structure your days however you want, but of course that’s really up to the boss, my conscience, who wants me to have everything complete on my freelance portfolio and professional web site by this coming Friday, so that I can commence a campaign of bothering several dozen prospective clients with the news of how great I am and how great it is that they will no longer have to struggle along without me. Plus another project is already commencing… We’ll see how it feels when the work gets really lean and the wolves are at the door, but for now I can say that I can’t imagine a better way to live. I’m starting to see how I can fit a decent amount of my own writing into each day (this hasn’t become an established pattern yet, but it’s starting), and it feels simply wonderful to be able to head out for the afternoon to, say, a seminar at the Montana Festival of the Book, which blew into town on Thursday, or, say, the thrice-weekly history lecture (history of Montana) I snuck into for the first time this week and which I hope to make a regular thing. (The boss allows this use of time because he feels that, the more I know about this state and its history/challenges/undercurrents/riptides, the better able I’ll be to find freelance work in the area.)

For similar reasons, last week we also started a daily subscription to the Missoulian, the local newspaper. In addition to the important local news that might actually help me get work (e.g., the state of the schools, public-health issues, the city’s master plans for development, etc.), this also helps me keep abreast of truly interesting items, such as the fact that the first grizzly bear in some 30 years was recently spotted in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, which happens to be our ecosystem as well. Not to worry, though: (1) said “ecosystem” extends all the way into Idaho, which is where the bear was spotted, and (2) the person who spotted it shot it, too. He’d been hunting black bear, which is legal to do, and, when a bear-shaped animal wandered into his scope, he just pulled the trigger. Species identification was made post-mortem, so to speak. The fish and wildlife officer quoted in the article said the hunter “seemed to be really sorry.”

Another interesting news item concerns the continuing mystery surrounding the disappearance of a middle-aged woman while hiking near the Bear Creek Overlook, west of Victor. She was there with a male companion, who says he turned his back on her for less than a minute to take in the view from the overlook. When he turned back around, she was nowhere to be seen and has not been seen since. Police are keen to talk to two young men seen driving an older SUV in the area, though they emphasize that they have no suspects or leads. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Taking the paper also means getting to read the comics every morning. It’s a small paper with a small comics page, but the selection is decent. No Get Fuzzy, but at least the page offers Pearls Before Swine. Since we’re in a red state, though, the page also carries Mallard Fillmore, the dull-witted wannabe-political-cartoon. The subtext of the “humour” in pretty much every strip seems to be something like “there are liberals in the world and they are stupid.” This past week’s strips included one that managed to both express disapproval of the youth fashion of baggy, sagging pants and suggest that Iranian spies are at work within our borders, stealing our secrets. (Of course, Iranian spies are at work within our borders, just as are British spies, Israeli spies, Russian spies – but for MF to pick Iranian spies for the particular, non-Middle-East-related joke being made shows a little too much fondness for White House-brand Kool Aid for my taste.) And then there was one about how, on September 11th, we said “everything would be different,” but then recently the New York Times printed news of a plot to “blow up planes at JFK airport” on “page 37” (possibly because the “plot” had been hatched by mental defectives without the capability to actually do anything they were planning to do) so, when you vote this fall, make sure you vote for someone who knows “what changed.” (These aren’t exact quotes, but I’ve thrown out the paper and the online archives for last week aren’t available yet.) In other words, yet another expression of the tired view that holds that there are two kinds of people in America, (1) those who understand that the country faces considerable threats from some very nasty people, and (2) Democrats. Thanks, Mallard, nice living in civil society with you.

Friday night found us at our second BBQ since arriving in Missoula. Like the first, this one also included a bear. We were at A.’s boss’s house, far out from the city in an undeveloped area of hills and forests and sparsely scattered houses. A. and I and a couple of others were in the basement admiring the professor’s temperature-and-humidity-controlled “wine vault” when the word came: “there’s a bear outside and it’s coming around the back.” We all rushed out onto the back patio for a look (I made sure to keep plenty of people between me and the bear). According to the professor, it was a yearling, just old enough to be on its own but not yet old enough to know better than to approach human settlements like this. It stood only a little taller than my parents’ German Shepherd. The humans and the bear watched each other for a minute or two before the visitor headed off into the woods and we headed back into the kitchen for more wine.

Hold Your Horses

Sorry for the dearth of posting, but I’m wrapping up a freelance project that’s due Monday.

Pretty much since I got here, it’s been…

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Rough life, eh?

(I did find time to scrawl the below post, however.)

How the Adjustment is Going

I step onto the balcony – the “deck” – before dawn, a cup of coffee in my hand. It is not unusual to smell smoke on the air here, but the campfire-like whiff I first detected through the open living-room window seems closer, more urgent, than usual. Could a forest fire be raging its way up the hill? (It would be more of a subdivision fire, I suppose.) I stand on the balcony sniffing at the wind and scanning the darkness for flames, but, after the first few seconds, I can no longer recapture the scent, and the darkness is broken only by porch lights on the hill side below and tiny headlights blinking through the trees all the way down on Route 93. The rising sun is just hitting the clouds above me, and they glow faintly, marshmallow-like in color and texture, more the idea of clouds than the real thing. From a neighbor’s yard comes the staccato build, climax and repeat of a sprinkler.

There is a Safeway here, just as there was one in Baltimore. (I hear they have them all over.) But this Missoula one has achieved the upscale, country-store aesthetic that the one in Baltimore only gestures at: the faux hardwood floors and sleek service counters are the same, but the Missoula Safeway is smaller, the aisles are narrower, and the shelves of wine next to the display of summer sausage and gourmet cold-cuts just make me want to spend money. They’re ready to take my money, too: there is a Starbuck’s kiosk with cafe seating; there are extensive prepared-foods displays (including “China Express,” offering chow mein, pot stickers and egg rolls); and of course there is all that beer and wine. But we are on a budget and must answer to our spreadsheet, so none of that for us.

Well, maybe just a little.

At a rough estimate, I’d say that the Missoula Safeway is about a third the size of the Baltimore Safeway. Maybe half. Let’s say half. This will be useful for comparison’s sake, for the sake of what the comparison can tell us about the differences between Baltimore and Missoula. For instance, in a store half the size of the one in Baltimore, we find approximately the same amount of produce but less than a third of an aisle of chips, pretzels, popcorn, etc. (with the aisles being shorter here, anyway). The meat department looks about the same size here as in Baltimore, if you take away the big floor bins that the Baltimore store has. The soda display stretches about the length of an aisle, not the whole length, the last tenth of the aisle given over to those pretend-it’s-not-soda “juices” and “sport drinks” and that sort of thing. Definitely a smaller overall proportion than in Baltimore. For what it’s worth.

Noted in passing: “Frosty Paws Dog Ice Cream Treat,” $4.19, in a special cooler in the pet-supplies aisle. Also, the floral department is called “Poetry in Bloom.” (I can’t remember if the one in Baltimore has a name.)

Most of the checkstand clerks and baggers and self-stockers here in Missoula are either in or were just in high school, maybe college, which just feels right, somehow. It also feels as if they actually mean it when they ask if you are finding everything you need. To my recollection, only people wearing ties ever ask you that in the Baltimore Safeway, but here the squeaky-voiced teenager in the apron balancing an arm load of canned tomatoes does it, too. He understands that it’s for the team, and who doesn’t want to help out the team? (The checkstand clerks also ask, for that matter, only in the past tense: “did you find everything okay?” What will they do if you say “no”? Send someone to look for it?)

On a Sunday afternoon, we park on the university campus and walk across the Clark Fork River on one of the foot bridges to Wow, a “wingery” and micro-brew pub plying the student trade. Across the river, we watch two cops approach two sunbathing women in a pincers-style “contact and cover” formation. They all talk briefly. The women remain sitting on their blanket. The cops leave, having determined whether or not the women have a thing for uniforms.

As we stroll back across the foot bridge, we are treated to the gentle singing of the hobos from their camp on the river bank.


Labor Day, and A. and I have driven to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, an hour and a half along a winding two-lane blacktop through fir forests, just over the Idaho border into Pacific Time. We are sitting in a soaking pool, leaning back, looking at the tops of the tall cedars waving gently against the sky, listening to the serenade of the angry red squirrels, the water in the main creek burbling loudly away on its thousand-year rock-smoothing mission, and I’m thinking, one day I’ll get used to this?

I must say that doesn’t feel likely.

Notes on the New Religions

1. The Cult of Customer Service

When I talk about “how nice the people here are,” what am I really saying?

How not nice the people are somewhere else, I suppose.

Maybe also how different people’s lives are somewhere else.

I notice how nice the people here are when I bring my broken cell phone in to the Verizon store to find out if it’s still under warranty, and the happy-looking blonde woman behind the counter seems as enthusiastic about helping me with this problem as she would about the prospect of a commission sale. I notice how nice the people here are when I have to call the Vann’s Outlet store because I (mistakenly) think there is something wrong with our new washing machine, and the grandmotherly voice on the other end of the line not only spends time troubleshooting the problem with me but, when we are done, positively beseeches me to call back if her suggestions don’t help.

I notice how nice the people here are, among other times, when someone with whom I am doing business appears genuinely glad to be doing business with me. What I am noticing is the thing popularly known as good customer service, and I am noticing it because I had gotten used to not encountering it when I lived in Baltimore.

These days good customer service is more commonly talked about in its absence, like the woman traveling with her husband and two children who arrived at her gate a little late recently at the Denver International Airport, only to learn that United did not intend to let her board. (At least there was still a gate agent she could yell at.) At the end of her tirade (which got her onto the plane, by the way), she concluded with something that, it was clear, she felt United and its representatives would not want to hear: “Worst customer service ever!”

I hear this sort of thing all over. The man behind me in line talking on his cell phone, critiquing the customer service he is getting as though he were a management consultant paid for his opinion. My friend, frustrated at a disagreement with an auto dealership’s service department over the warranty protection for his brakes: “Where I come from, the customer is always right. I mean, that’s just basic customer service.”

When did this idea of “customer service” take such a strong hold over us all? When did we start to believe that we deserved only the best treatment, by default, at all times? (Increasingly, we also have a taste for rich foods, like asiago cheese and Haagen Dazs ice cream, although this may only be a coincidence.) I’m not saying we don’t deserve the best treatment (though there is a certain amount of self-worship in believing so), but, either way, I’m pretty sure we never used to talk about it as much.

Perhaps we make a mistake by assuming that everyone wants our business, that businesses exist to serve us. (Perhaps this is a tale we tell ourselves to survive in a world that does not seem to care whether we do or not.) On average, businesses do exist to serve us, of course, if they want to – on average – make money. But there are a lot of us, so it’s not necessarily true that they exist to serve me or you, specifically. And what’s cheaper: providing everyone the level of customer service worth writing home about, or treating most people like the cattle they turn out to be and making it up to the handful who complain? If you were running a business, particularly a national business with tens of thousands of employees, your stockholders would want you to answer this question – really answer it – before deciding how to proceed.

When people talk about “good customer service,” especially when the point they are making is that there isn’t any anymore, they may also be talking about the way things used to be. The way things used to be, a man got up a little earlier than his neighbors, walked or drove to his shop, unlocked the door and turned the lights on, and waited for his neighbors to come buy things. When this man felt a twinge in his tooth or wanted to plan a vacation, he left his shop early and sought out his neighbors at their shops and businesses. And while he did so, he left his shop in the hands of another neighbor’s son or daughter. And when he closed his shop at the end of the day, as he was holding the door open for his helper to leave before locking up and counting the receipts, he said to his helper, “say hello to your parents for me.”

I think people are thinking of this man when they say that there isn’t good customer service anymore, which means that what they are really saying is that they are unhappy with the way the world is turning out. They are happy to buy the Haagen Dazs and the asiago cheese, they just want the person selling it to them to feel more like the old familiar cheddar.

Like all fundamentalists, they miss the way they think the world used to be.

2. In the Temple of the Free Market

Some people believe we live in a world controlled by big, impersonal forces. Some people call these forces the market. What the market will do can sometimes be predicted but more often must be reacted to, these people find, their market occupying a similar place in their minds as a pantheon of gods in the minds of the ancient Romans or Greeks. The god known as the market can be appealed to and even mollified with ritual sacrifice, and it stands always ready to pass judgement on our mortal strivings.

We must never think we are bigger than the market.

But the market is just a metaphor, as were those ancient gods. Passively leaving the course of human affairs up to the former makes as much sense as leaving it up to the latter. A very few people in any time can see behind the curtain; some of them inevitably join the relevant priesthoods, having decided that the best position to be in is one that allows them to tell the rest of us what the gods want.

In all ages, what the gods happen to want is usually the steady delivery of fatted calfs to their temples.

That these temples are where the priests happen to live and work (and eat) is of course merely a coincidence.

Another thing the priests tell us now is that we must wait for the market to fix things, that, if the market doesn’t “correct” something, that thing is not in need of correcting. All this really means is that we are supposed to wait until most people decide they do or don’t like something. The things they do like – the products, the processes, the businesses responsible – will become successful while the rest fail, the priests assure us.

But either the market does not work as advertised or it has some uncomfortable lessons to teach us about ourselves. (In the way of such things, it may be a little of both: just because the market is a metaphor doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.) Either the market does not work as advertised, or we enjoy, for example, dressing our ten-year-old daughters in tight, revealing, provocative clothing. Either the market does not work as advertised, or we enjoy sitting stalled in airplanes on runways for hours after the “departure time” printed on our tickets. Either the marketplace does not work as advertised, or we find “reality” television to be the ultimate refinement of that medium.

The priests tell me I am being impatient. That “the hand of the marketplace” moves slowly. In a few years, if it is really true that we do not wish to, for example, dress our prepubescent daughters like harem members (and here the priests’ eyes narrow with suspicion, for – after all – the market so far bears out that we do), then eventually the businesses offering children-sized miniskirts the width of ace bandages and tiny sparkling t-shirts carrying printed messages such as “Future Porn Star” will see their sales drop, and, chastened, they will vigorously seek to learn what we do want so that they can start selling that to us.

So sit back and wait, the priests tell us. Everything that needs to be corrected will be corrected, and to rush things would throw the market off its rhythm.

We must not think we are bigger than the market.

And so we live as if life and human interactions are nothing more than the birth and death of stars on the far side of the galaxy, and we nothing more than astronomers watching through a telescope, with no investment in any particular outcome other than whatever outcome occurs.

One recent outcome: a store called The Limited, Too will gladly sell your ten-year-old a padded “push-up” bra designed for girls with nothing to actually push up. Over this they can wear a t-shirt, available in the same store, that reads “I left my brain in my locker” and is bedecked with sparkles. But don’t worry. The market should have this all corrected within at least a decade or so.

3. It’s Later Than You Think

In the late 20th and early 21st century, the citizens of the richest country on earth gradually came to the realization that, for all of their fabled wealth and power, they had no more say in how they would be treated in the airport security line than a cow on her way to slaughter. Panderers circled their children, dazzling them with bright colors and sparkles and the heady suggestion that they deserved to “be their own people” even before they needed deodorant (with this metaphor available only as a result of the earlier victories of those who follow the creed first create a need, then fill it).

The clerk at the Seven Eleven counter refused to smile as he made change.

As it became clearer that there was less and less they could do to affect the experiences they were having, that they were expected to pay their money and then take whatever ride someone else felt like giving them, the people of turn-of-the-century America began to talk more and more about good customer service. Some people understood good customer service as something that businesses were virtually obligated to provide, something that businesses were constantly striving toward. These people were amazingly quick to spot problems with the customer service they encountered; they were amazingly articulate about what was wrong and how to fix it. If they had been paid consultants of the businesses in question, they would have quickly fixed the problems.

First, of course, it would have to have been established that the businesses cared, that poor customer service actually drove people away, that the businesses paid a price. Such was the logic of the market, and it’s a logic that made a certain cold sense: make them pay for what you don’t want them to do, and they will tend not to do it. But the people who cared how they were treated found that there weren’t enough of them to make a difference – that most cows will just keep walking, doing their best not to think about the man with the bolt-gun up ahead.

People were reduced to praying to the market to fix everything, to remind the businesses that they were human beings, and that a little kindness would go a long way.

But the market turned out not to be listening, never having asked to be put in charge.