En vacances

June 27, 2006
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Today I leave the plants on my balcony in my neighbor’s care as I head off for ten days in England and France. I’ll be back on July 8. In the meantime, Marie McC of Alexandria Daily Photo will be minding my other blog and posting for me.

A bientôt!

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Prague: Astronomical clock

June 25, 2006
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This beautiful astronomical clock in Prague’s Staré Mesto—Old Town—dates from 1410. The faces and markings tell the time, the day, the season, the equinox, the phase of the moon, and various Christian holidays. Tourists gather to wait for the clock to strike the hour, whereupon the 12 apostles glide out and a skeleton, depicting Death, dances with figures depicting various evils.

Legend has it that when the clock was remodeled at the end of the 15th century, the artisan clockmaker, Master Hanus, was blinded by the municipal council so that he couldn’t repeat his work in any other city. In retribution, he threw himself into the inner workings of the clock and died, and the clock remained off time for a century.

When I heard this, I was reminded of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow, which was built on the order of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. The story goes that the architect was blinded, upon Ivan’s orders, to prevent him from building anything comparable.


Charge it (if you can)

June 18, 2006
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Today, a Pentagon City department store department store accepted my credit card and then two stores refused it. Last week, something similar happened. A supermarket refused my credit card and the next place I shopped accepted it. I dismissed last week’s experience as a network glitch. Today, however, suggested that there really was a problem. I leave for Europe in just over a week, and a credit card that is apparently accepted or refused on a whim would be very inconvenient. When I got home, I dialed the customer service number on the back of my card.

First I had to key in the card number, then my password, and then part of my social security number. An automated voice rattled off a list of charges, one of them back in April, and asked me to press 1 if I verified them and 2 if I didn’t. I wasn’t expecting this. I hung up, got out my statements, and dialed back, going through the whole rigmarole again. I decided to press 2 in the hope of getting a human being. I did, and this surrealistic conversation ensued:

Me: My card is being randomly refused.
Visa Person (after verifying my card number, date of birth, and the same part of my SSN that I’d already keyed in): Your card is blocked, and someone has been attempting to make charges with it.
Me: Yes, me. I’ve been attempting to make charges. Why is it blocked?
VP: Because we haven’t heard from you.
Me: I don’t understand. Why would you expect to hear from me?
VP: Because we called you.
Me: I didn’t receive any call from you. What number did you call?
VP: Your home number. It says here we called six times on (lists calls).
Me: I’ve received no calls.
VP: We didn’t leave a message.
Me: That’s ridiculous! You call six times leaving no message. How could you possibly expect I would call back? I am not psychic. Why didn’t you leave a message?
VP: Maybe you didn’t have your answering machine on.
Me: I have voicemail, not an answering machine. It’s always on.
VP: Well our calling system’s automated, and if no one picks up on the second or third ring, it hangs up.
Me: That’s one significant flaw in your system, and another is that the system doesn’t give an alert after a couple of failures and trigger a call from a human being who waits more than two rings. But you still haven’t explained why you were calling me.
VP: Because we put a block on your card. We called to have you verify the charges.
Me (more irritable by the minute): We are going round in circles! I know you blocked my card. You already told me that. Why did you block it?
VP: Ummmmm … It appears you changed your address and phone number.
Me: That was 12 months ago. Why would that make you block my card?
VP: … (silence)
Me: Are you there?
VP: Yes. And I’ve taken the block off now.
Me: You have still not explained to my satisfaction why you blocked it in the first place. I’d like to speak to a supervisor.
VP: Yes, ma’am, I can connect you. There will be a five-minute wait. Is that OK?
Me: I don’t really have any choice, do I?

It seems that a vendor who has had my information on file for several years for recurring payments called a regular charge in, and there was suddenly a discrepancy between the vendor’s information and that of my Visa card’s issuing bank, so a block was put on the card. I still don’t understand it, and it doesn’t explain why the block allowed me to make some charges and not others. It clearly means a call to the vendor tomorrow to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I just hope it won’t be another Alice in Wonderland conversation.


What are the odds?

June 17, 2006
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Last Saturday, I went to the Washington, D.C. Gay Pride Parade, and I took a lot of photographs. I posted one on my Washington, D.C. Daily Photo blog and the whole album on Flickr. A couple of days later, I received an e-mail from the subject of one of my photographs. Imagine the odds of finding your picture among the hundreds or maybe even thousands that must have been posted after the parade.

Here’s to Zoya Destroyya of the DC Rollergirls, who (with the help of a friend who found the photo) surely beat the odds!


Inexplicable

June 12, 2006
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“It just ain’t possible to explain some things. It’s interesting to wonder on them and do some speculation, but the main thing is you have to accept it—take it for what it is, and get on with your growing.”
Jim Dodge, Fup

Yesterday, a screw, followed by one lens, fell out of my reading glasses. Fortunately I have a second pair—not because I was efficiently planning ahead, but because of a strange episode that happened about 18 months ago.

I’d gone out to lunch with a friend. I put my glasses on to read the menu, and after lunch, we went into the small toyshop near the restaurant, where I put them on again to see things from up close. Then I went home and started gathering stuff together for an afternoon meeting, eventually needing my glasses.

They weren’t in the case. They weren’t in any of my pockets. They weren’t in or under my car or anywhere between my car and my front door or in the flower bed by the door. I looked all over the house, even in rooms I hadn’t been into and places like the microwave (you never know). I called the restaurant and was told no glasses had been handed in. I called the toyshop where there was also no trace of my glasses. So I grabbed my computer glasses, which do in a pinch for reading, and headed out. On the way home, I called in at the restaurant anyway and rummaged through the child’s seaside bucket of abandoned reading glasses, and then called in at the toyshop. Nothing. So the next day, I ordered a new pair of glasses.

Ten days later, I got home in the afternoon to find a phone message that my glasses were ready. Without even taking off my coat, I went back out to the car.

And there, at the side of the step up to my front door, carefully placed where they couldn’t be stepped on, was my original pair of glasses.

I’m not sure if they were there when I walked in a few minutes earlier because I was fiddling with my keys and not looking around me. But they certainly weren’t there when I left in the morning—you couldn’t miss seeing them.

How they got there remains a mystery. The explanations offered by friends aren’t plausible. One suggestion is that a neighbor found them and put them there. (But always supposing a neighbor recognized them as mine, he/she would have knocked on my door and wouldn’t have waited 10 days.) Another suggestion: I dropped them, they bounced under the small fir tree beside my front door, and when the landscape people in my townhouse development mulched around the trees, they found them. (Well maybe, except that I’d already looked there and anyway, the mulching had been done five days earlier. )

It still spooks me.


What price the Grand Scheme?

June 11, 2006
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Rubble from collapsed buildings in the streets of Yogyakarta in Indonesia, following the earthquake. (Photo: Oxfam America)

“There are no accidents or coincidences,” says someone who posted a comment recently to a blog I read.

“Everything happens for a reason,” says one of my neighbors about all manner of things from the trivial to the momentous.

A few weeks ago, I was a passenger in a friend’s car. We were ready to drive away after lunch in a restaurant. She looked in her rear mirror and all was clear, so she reversed out of her space in a row of parked cars. A man in the row of parked cars behind her also looked and saw all was clear so he, too, reversed out of his row. They met in the middle.

If no-coincidences-everything-for-a-reason conventional wisdom is to be believed, it was no simple accident, no unlucky coincidence that my friend and the other driver both backed out at exactly the same moment.

In a former life, I put a lot of effort into trying to teach causal reasoning to English 101 students, and I agree that behind every event or situation or occurrence of something is a reason or a series of identifiable reasons. But that isn’t what the proponents of conventional wisdom mean. They speak on the level of the Grand Design.

So carrying their philosophy to its logical end, my friend and the other driver must have been playing assigned roles in a cosmic drama. And in the Great Scheme of Things, there is a metaphysical reason for earthquakes and tsunamis, for planes to crash, for children to be abused, for people to starve, for someone who happens to be on the wrong street at the wrong time to get mugged, for one person to escape a burning building and another not, for someone who doesn’t deserve the job to get it over someone who does, and for my cell phone not to be working when I’m stuck in traffic and late for an appointment (and there I am, naïvely thinking it’s simply because I forgot to charge it.)

I miss the point of the no-concidences-all-for-a-reason view of life. If my car collides with a truck and is totaled, am I supposed to feel better if I believe that it wasn’t because of some unassociated collection of circumstances that put the truck and me in in the same place, or because one of us was going too fast, or because the road was icy—but that it was preordained?

I don’t buy it. I think life is pretty random.


When the bough breaks, the cradle WON’T fall

June 9, 2006
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Who spared Cock Robin?
“I,” said the sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow,
I spared Cock Robin.”

A couple of months ago, a colleague at work passed on to me the news that a few elementary schools in Oxfordshire are cleaning up nursery rhymes and fairy tales. “Your countrymen—oops, countrypersons—are at it again,” he said. Baa Baa Black Sheep is apparently now Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep, and the seven dwarves have been sanitized from the title of Snow White. Whether from the story itself wasn’t made clear.

According to the manager (which must be the new, improved name for headmaster) of two area schools, “No one should feel pointed out because of their race, gender, or anything else.”

Nor should children be exposed to unhappy endings, we gather: in the revised version, all the king’s men do put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Note to Oxfordshire schools: in the interests of equality, please ensure that the King admits women to the Grand Old Duke of York’s 10,000 persons.

In this brave new kinderworld, I suppose there’ll be no more baking blackbirds in pies, and Tom Tom the Piper’s son’s pig will become a beloved family pet instead of Sunday lunch. Red Riding Hood’s wolf will serve a prison sentence for assault and attempted corruption of a minor, during which time he’ll become a born-again Christian and upon release, spend the rest of his life helping the poor. It does my heart good.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the idea of making everyone feel accepted. Finally Polly and Sukey can come out of the closet, stop arguing about the kettle, and set up a nice little cottage industry knitting mufflers out of Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’s wool.