Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chickening Out on Future Deals

Ultimately, of course, it's my own fault.  I bit the bait.  As the old adage reminds me, "If it sounds too good to be true it probably is."  But we needed new sheets, so when the "Deal Chicken" offer landed in my "inbox" trumpeting 1200 Thread Count sheets at 79% off the retail cost I couldn't resist.  "Deal Chicken", for the uninitiated, is the Groupon-like daily "deal" promoted by the newspaper.  That, too, should have prompted dissuasion since months ago I lost respect for that publication and cancelled my subscription.  Still, and despite all the internal cautionary voices, on December 5th I pressed "purchase" and allowed myself the indulgence of anticipating that promised luxurious night's sleep.

By December 20, when I still had neither seen nor heard from the order, I spelunked  down through my emails, found the order confirmation, excavated a Customer Service phone number and called to solicit an update.  The kindly voice on the recording confessed that the seller was experiencing higher than usual call volume and encouraged me to call again later.  Click.  I did.  How many times I have long since lost count.  Ultimately I emailed my query and received in return a FedEx tracking number whose detail indicated that the shipper had, indeed, been notified on December 12 of an impending package.  There had, however,  been no activity since.  The seller's website had proudly assured that all orders placed prior to December 12 would be delivered before Christmas, so trusting the integrity of this vendor that I knew nothing about, I resolved again toward patience.

Until, that is, December 26 when I resumed my telephony.  A subsequent email query had garnered me the same tracking number that reported no additional movement, and I was determined to hear a more detailed explanation.  No longer was it really about the sheets; it was now the principle of thing that irked me.  Numerous calls later, and just as I was about to hang up, a human actually answered the phone.  She offered me a tracking number.  I allowed as to how I already had that, and that it only reported the vendor's negligence.

"I beg your pardon?" she asked.

"The tracking number merely reports what you intended to do, not what actually happened.  And what has actually happened is exactly nothing."  I recounted the notches on the calendar and their promised Christmas delivery.

"Well," she ventured, "I am aware that FedEx has had some delivery delays."

"That's rather disingenuously opportunistic, don't you think?  If I had placed this order on December 23rd I might accept your dodge. In fact, however, I placed the order a week prior to your web-announced delivery deadline, well before the shipping company's unfortunate Christmas woes.  Don't throw FedEx under the bus.  This is your fault, not theirs."

The customer service agent was disinclined to continue the conversation, but I hung up only after being assured that the package had, in fact been shipped.

A week later I can report two things.  First, I'm still waiting for delivery although I can see, using the tracking number, that the package has in truth been sent.  Second, something has changed in me.  In the ensuing weeks the aggravation has transformed into something closer to fascination.  I've almost lost interest in the sheets.  Instead I am simply curious how -- if ever -- this process will be completed.  The company's "free shipping" offer apparently took advantage of FedEx's ant-back delivery method.  The package's progress is almost glacial.  Since leaving New Jersey it has traveled about 30 miles each day.  I have squash bugs in my garden that make more progress than that.  I may not live long enough to take delivery.

One thing I have learned through this is not to trust "the Chicken."  Yes, I know their offers plainly absolve themselves of any responsibility; that fulfillment of the offers is solely the obligation of the seller.  I simply expected a more careful vetting of the merchants they represent.  It's in their interest, after all.  I'll not likely remember for long the name of "Luxor Linens" or whatever the name of the company who has allegedly sold me sheets.  But I will remember "Deal Chicken" with something considerably south of satisfaction.

Perhaps the larger lesson for me, however, is one I already knew, but had largely applied to different kinds of purchases.  "Shake the hand of the farmer who feeds you," I have taken to heart for sometime now -- buying eggs from the guy who lifts them from the coop each day; buying meat from the guys who have opened the gates and pulled the calves and backed up the trailer; buying vegetables (when I need to buy them) from the CSA whose care and farming practices I try to emulate.  There is, this silly shopping experience has reminded me, good reason to practice the same kind of relational localism when it comes to other goods as well.  I may not be able to shake the hand of the person who weaves the sheet, but I can darn sure shake the hand of the merchant who will be behind the counter when I have a question, a compliment, or a concern.

It may cost a little more in one form of currency, but will be far cheaper in another.  My blood pressure, emotional tone and marriage are already assessing that "79%-off" as quite likely the most expensive discount I have ever received.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Speckled Plume of Blessing

A pheasant flew across the road this morning as I made my way toward town.  The stubbled corn field perhaps looked more promising than the mowed hay field it was leaving. Or perhaps it was simply bored with its view and was ready to move on.  I have little experience with pheasants -- turkey, quail and doves were the game birds common to my growing up -- but I instinctively recognized it…
...the speckled feathers
...the plumed tail
...the bottom-heavy flight that seemed little more than an airborne “scoot.”

And in a moment it was gone, lost in the camouflage of the bordering culvert, and me further along the gravel road.  

Blessings are commonly like that -- surprising, glancing, easily missed for our constant motion, and theirs; but recognized somehow, even in their unfamiliarity.

I rather believe that advent -- this subtler time of watching, waiting, hoping, even aching that precedes the celebration of noteworthy fulfillment -- is intended to be a training season; a time spent practicing the discipline of paying closer attention; of willed awareness and studious openness for that being of beauty and wonder that, at any random moment, might wing its way across the roadway…
...of my heart
...of my loves
...of my insight
...of my soul.

It’s not that December is more fertile than other seasons, as though blessings are more plentiful this time of year.  Quite the opposite might well be true.  There is snow on the ground, after all, and virtually anything still protruding from it is stripped and brittle and dormant -- if not altogether dead.  People shuffle cautiously along, mummified in goose down and scarves and gloves and hoods, concentrating on safe footing and expedient return to someplace warm, reluctant to pause and chat. 

The season’s austerity, however, just might benefit us by affording a clearer, more unencumbered view.  And it is worth the practice, because there is almost no telling what we might manage to see fluttering and flitting across our path…

...if we are looking.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Winter Walk, and the Warmth Inside

It’s more complicated now, and requires a bit more preparation.  With the drop in temperatures and the dusting of snow there are gloves to find -- at least the missing partner to the one that remains in the pocket; there is the scarf to wrap, the coat to zip, the boots to lace.  And there is the separation anxiety from the warm flames dancing in the fireplace as the brisk air hits your face through the open door.  Still, it is worth taking walks outside.  There is a crunch to the footsteps.  Breath is as visual as it is pulmonary.  On sunny days the air has a purity unique to the season, and the few surviving leaves flutter proudly, encouragingly, on the otherwise naked branch.  Even a winter landscape has its artful, instructive and centering voice; quieter, perhaps, without the birdsongs and branches muffled in hoarfrost, but nourishing nonetheless -- perhaps even medicinal.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote “We need the tonic of wildness."  Presumably that need extends through the winter.  A recent article in the Huffington Post put a sharper point on it:  "We can never have enough of nature” ("What The 1960s Got Right About Health, Happiness And Well-Being," by Carolyn Gregoire, 11/22/2013).

Holy in its own way, that walk in the woods or the field or the sidewalk through the neighborhood may be medicinal not only for body and mind, but for the soul as well.

In the Preface to his recently released collection of Sabbath poems, Wendell Berry notes that, “the idea of the sabbath gains in meaning as it is brought out-of-doors and into a place where nature’s principles of self-sustaining wholeness and health are still evident.  In such a place -- as never, for me, under a roof -- the natural and the supernatural, the heavenly and the earthly, the soul and the body, the wondrous and the ordinary, all appear to occur together in the one fabric of creation.  All stand both upon the earth and upon the fundamental miracle that where once was nothing now we have these creatures in this place on this day.  In such a place one might expectably come to rest, with trust renewed in the creation’s power to exist and to continue.”

Last year Lori and I bought snowshoes to better navigate the trails through the prairie behind the garden.  For sabbath walks in winter.  Because the soul has a hunger irrespective of the season.

And the fire will be waiting for us when we return

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Little Tomato that Could


Early in the summer my Mother-in-law planted a tomato -- two, if the complete truth be told.  But while one of them thrived in its new location, the future of the other one was none so bright.  The story of that first one is common enough -- seeded in some unknown greenhouse, sold in a local store, planted and eventually harvested.

This is the story of that other one.

It started out in that same common way, purchased alongside the other one and planted in the same backyard.  To be sure, they were planted in a garden bed exposed to the usual threats -- it's always a gamble to offer up desirables to the Fates.  But for some reason this one proved to be especially appealing to the critters of the great outdoors.  Not long after planting it my Mother-in-law discovered it uprooted and dutifully tamped it back into the soil.  Some time later, while working in another part of the garden, she noticed something dark out of the corner of her eye laying on the grass in that tomatoey part of the yard, but things are always laying on a yard, after all, and the weeds at hand or the song of a nearby bird or thoughts of the afternoon errands claimed her mind and she paid no further attention.

Days went by.  Eventually her horticultural ministrations took her to that region of the garden where she discovered that that "dark" object from days before was, indeed, that same seemingly cursed tomato plant once again uprooted and cast aside by a foraging rabbit or a tugging deer.  By now, as I mentioned, several days had passed and surely it had shriveled beyond resuscitation.  With nothing, however, to lose but a little extra effort, she laid the waylaid plant in a wheel-barrow where some water had collected and left it to soak awhile in hopes of some supernatural rehydration.  Later, she troweled a fresh space in the soil and replanted the little sprout with only the thinnest margin of optimism.

But it grew -- well, in fact -- and now this little tomato-bush-that-could is replete with rewarding fruit.  A true survivor.  She thought it nothing short of miraculous.

She mentioned the story to someone at the local weekly paper but he betrayed little interest in the story.  I can understand his reticence.  After all, a news outlet needs to be poised and ready should any breaking news...well, break out.  You wouldn't want your word processor clogged up with a tomato story.  That "breaking news" for a weekly paper is almost an oxymoron is beside the point.  They clearly had more pressing concerns -- a litter bug, perhaps; or too much pressure in the water fountain at the little league park that nearly squirted someone's eye out.  "All our reporters are busy."

I wasn't there but I can almost hear the editor thinking, "we are in the NEWS business -- civic education -- not inspiration!"

The rest of us, however, might value the humble, quiet reminder that it's tragically easy to give up too soon on the possibilities of life.  And when that happens, everybody misses out.

But for those who persist -- those who loyally replant the uprooted and those who keep on out of the sheer determination to grow -- there is, more often than you might think, something flavorful and sweet at the end.

I'm just saying...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sometimes a Little Less Closeness is in Order

Our puppy is a shadow.  Not quite 7-months old she distinguishes herself from the 2 ½-year old “puppy” who also lives at our house by preferring our company.  Tir, the red and white older of the two Welsh Corgis, is as happy napping alone downstairs as wherever we two-legged ones might happen to be.  Nia, the tri-color younger of the two, picks herself up and relocates herself according to our movements.  Move into another room and it isn’t long before we hear Her Puppyness padding along behind us.  

Her attentiveness, however, is not without its limits.  She chooses to be near enough, but with some distance preserved.  She doesn’t, in other words, like to be held.  Invade her “personal space” and this deep, gutteral growl begins to arise from some place within her deeper than seems possible from one so small.  On the sofa she wants her back to be touching your thigh, but don’t even think of lifting her into your lap.

I rather appreciate her boundaries and proclivities -- and view them to be a healthy example.  We don’t have good models for closeness, after all, what with some families and friends and communities becoming so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable or so aloof as to have pathetically little connection at all.  Nia, I think, is onto a better way.  She reminds me of the well-worn wisdom of the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, in his reflection titled “On Marriage”:
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
Be connected, in other words, but not too much so.  That might be good counsel to congregations as well as couples.  Faith communities have much to do with one another.  We have, in this world and in this community, considerable common cause.  We need each other’s company, support, encouragement, nurture, and gifts.  It’s important that we keep up with each other -- sharing our respective joys and concerns; keeping current with each other’s “news.”  But as Nia would remind us, it’s possible to get too close.  It’s important to maintain the healthier balance -- on the sofa, in the kitchen, and among the pews.

Monday, July 15, 2013

There and Back




I'll not miss the window unit and its constant assault on the swelter.  Volubly, with a cyclic growl, it has attempted a desperate, Quixotic alchemy of golden coolness wrought out of leaden humid heat.  But then it is July in Key West.  We didn't anticipate mountain air.  We got the tropics we reasonably expected.  

And any number of extra showers.

We walked the streets when taxis weren't justified.  We dealt with myriad wedding details -- hair and face, flower and song, taste and vows and tables and chairs -- and we ate.  Seafood, mostly.  And Key Lime pie.  I willfully lost count of how many pieces but Lori kept scrupulous tally.  We watched for sunsets off the coast, but rain and its anticipatory clouding kept them largely veiled.  Perhaps October, when we return, will find them liberated and free for the taking.  

For now, encompassed by the treasure of special time alone with each other and with the wedding couple, we are headed home to a dry garden, a return to work, two busy puppies we have missed more than we like to admit, and "normal" life that most days already feels like something of a vacation.  Blessed, and then doubly blessed.

Which is to comprehend all over again that going is good; returning is even better.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Modest Post-Bombing Proposal

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama went on television to assert that, “We still do not know who did this or why.  And people shouldn't jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.  But make no mistake, we will get to the bottom of this.  And we will find out who did this; we’ll find out why they did this.  Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice.”

Fine.  That is as it should and must be.  But while my emotional curiosity aches for answers to the questions the President voiced -- “who” and “why” -- my real concern is with a different question:  “what then?”  That answer, after all, is the one that will very likely be consequential. 

Justice demands that we answer the “who”, and hold him or her or them accountable.  But frankly the “why” offers precious little purchase.  The perpetrator’s particular complaints and condemnations will be spoken with their own nuance and inflection, but their essence isn't all that inscrutable -- and ultimately isn't all that relevant.  The act is heinous.  Does it really matter why it was committed?  Will any explanation assuage even one scintilla of the grief, the horror, the shock, the anger?  Someone was murderously mad about some personal or cultural grievance and unilaterally took violent action to right the perceived wrong, or flag the assessed outrage.  The technologies and the settings evolve and change but the rationales do not.  So answer the “who” but let go of the “why.  It's answer won't finally help or salve or matter.

But what happens next -- with us; among us?  That's what worries me. Our track record with that question isn't good.  Especially since 9/11, and again after every major tragedy since, we have propagated the delusion that we can prevent such acts from occurring.  We have installed X-ray machines and metal detectors at every entrance, imposed invasive searches, signed into law more and more restrictive legislation and broadened governmental surveillance authority, all under the belief that we can finally and conclusively “seal the can”, thereby eliminating any possible malevolent intrusion.  

The only problem is that we can't. We can only suffocate ourselves by the effort, and through the gasping only make ourselves more vulnerable by the delusion. To be clear, this isn’t an ode to fatalism, nor is it a concession to those who argue for more weaponry in the hands of ever more people.  No, they may be the most delusional of all.

Instead, this is a modest invitation -- plea, really -- to pause, back up and ponder the dynamics and relationships that give shape to our reality.  We cannot survive in bunkers.  And who would want to?  I am already sick enough of the war zones our airports have become that I look for alternate means of travel.  As long as there are people we will find ways to hurt each other, and to retaliate against them.  

The only sane answer to the question of “what next” is not to find more strident means of “protection”, but to seek and practice more effective, life encouraging methods of living together.  

Is that a fool-proof strategy that will prevent anyone else from getting hurt?  Of course not.  There simply is no such strategy.  The advantage of this course is that it is one in which, instead of merely hiding with our teeth clenched and our guns cocked while frisking each other every so often, we have some hope of actually living.