More on language and cultural difference

Last week I shared a sentence that I’d read in an email at work from one of our Chinese team members.  The sentence was : “Sorry about my misunderstand cause this idea so delay.”   A group of us in the US were discussing the idea referred to in the previous sentence.  One of our US architects had been attempting to explain a new approach to calculating whether changes had been made to some objects in a database to the Chinese DBA.  Our goal was to improve performance of the system – if the calculations can be done faster, the user doesn’t have to wait so long staring at a web page with a little gadget that says, “Processing…” that they want to shoot themselves.  In our lunchtime discussion, the US architect explained how difficult it was to get his point across to the Chinese DBA. He said, “Until it make sense to his head, three days he argued on this!”

This stuff just fascinates me.  We’re all trying to use English to communicate, which is clearly harder on some than others, but we’re so far apart sometimes.  I can’t imagine being in the shoes of some of our Chinese team members that know little to no English.  My personal counterpart speaks English well, for the most part, so we have few challenges directly related to language.  The challenges I experience are more around my learning about the cultural norms that matter to them in communication.  A new person that joined our team in the US, though, was describing a recent technical conference call he had with the US Architect and some of the China team.  The goal of the call was for the Chinese team to do a code walk-through with our US Architect and our new DBA.  On the call, the US Architect was the one that was largely explaining what the code did, which really confused the new DBA.  He stopped at one point, and asked the US Architect – “Shouldn’t the guy in China be telling us what the code does?  Why are you doing it?  I thought we needed this call because you didn’t know the code that well.”  What was happening was our US Architect was speaking to the Chinese team – one of them could understand spoken English fairly well, and he was translating for the rest of the group, then responding back to our Architect, who probably had to do some translation of his own before he could regurgitate it for the new US DBA.

I don’t necessarily have a point in recounting all this – but the subject itself is getting interesting enough that I almost feel like starting a separate blog that just talks about these issues.  I really like the juxtaposition of practical challenges and humor that comes with this stuff!

The China team is coming online right now, as this is their Monday morning.  I had sent a bunch of emails on Friday, and I’m starting to get responses to them now.  My counterpart over there just replied to an email I sent him telling him that something we wanted them to do today was cancelled.  He replied, “Roger.”  I wonder where he picked up that term.

Dish washing rules from a gay man in a Mexican restaurant

In the summer of 1994, I got a job at a Mexican restaurant in the mall in Sheboygan.  It was interesting, in that every employee had to learn each of the three primary jobs – cook, bartender, and waiting tables.  That way, when someone called in sick, there was a larger pool of qualified people to convince to come in on their day off.  The first day I went in to work, I was a mess because the night before was the last night I’d see my girlfriend for the rest of the summer – she was going to Europe for a couple of months.  It wasn’t something I could talk about, because I was still petrified of people knowing I was gay back then.  I wasn’t out to many people – just my closest friends, my sister, and my uncle. Then, when I walked in for that first day of training, I recognized one of the guys that worked there from the local gay bar.  I could tell he recognized me, too, but we acted as though we had never met.  We didn’t speak a word of where we’d seen each other before, not even between the two of us when no one else was around.  That moment solidified for me the feeling of leading a double life in a way I’d never experienced before.

It was one thing not to be out to everyone around me, but generally that just meant I didn’t talk about certain things, or I stayed vague about the nature of a relationship.  It was another thing to look someone in the eye that under any other circumstances I’d have said, “Hey, how are you?” and gone on to have a normal friendly conversation with, and instead pretend I had no idea he existed before that moment.  In the end, I didn’t dwell on it for long, but the first few days were awkward.  I didn’t know the guy well – don’t even remember his name, even after working with him.  He was someone we saw at the bar, but didn’t talk to, for some reason.

He ended up training me on exactly how to wash the dishes when I worked in the kitchen.  There was a real science to it.  Three huge compartments in a metal sink came into play.  The first was filled with water so hot it almost burned your hands, but not quite.  It left them a screaming red, and I had to pull my hands out after every couple of dishes to tolerate the heat.  The second was filled with warm water that had some rinsing agent in it.  After scrubbing in the scalding water, I’d dunk the dishes in the chemically treated rinsing water, then dunk them into the third sink, which was full of plain old cold water.  It was the final rinse station.  As this guy trained me, he stressed just how important it was to dunk in the cold sink.  He explained with the utmost seriousness that the cold water broke down any last soap bubbles left on the dishes faster than warmer water would.  I thought that was crazy, but did as I was told.  I mean, come on, I was washing dishes either way – who really cared what steps I had to take?  Well, my secret gay acquaintance really cared.  He went on and on about it.  His relentless lecturing about cold water breaking down soap bubbles seemed so weird to me – why would anyone talk about it soooo much?

After I’d worked there a couple weeks, I finally felt comfortable enough with another employee to ask about the water thing, and found out that the secret gay guy felt so strongly about it because he thought he discovered this little known scientific fact on his own.  His endless praise of cold water for rinsing was actually his pride in his attention to detail being verbalized – his intellectual ability to look at a common situation that would seem as though it had no room for improvement, and find some way to make it better.  I was never convinced that it made any difference, but I had to give the guy credit for finding some warped sense of meaning in such a crummy job.

As I was finishing this post, I thought I better check to see if cold water does in fact rinse dishes better than hot water – I went to Google and began to type, “does cold water…” and auto-complete suggested that I might be searching for the answer to this question instead – “does cold water boil faster than hot water?”  Seriously?  That’s the most commonly searched for question about cold water?  I give up.

Breaking my own rules

I have a set of rules for myself when it comes to this blog.  I didn’t start out with all of them, but I spend a lot of time with the Tag Surfer feature on WordPress, and on StumbleUpon, looking for other writers whose posts I like.  I share these often in my semi-regular “great reading” posts.  However, the number of posts I skip right over or even sometimes get annoyed with is quite high.  I think about what I don’t like about the many posts I skip over, and those things sort of evolve into a list of things I don’t want to do here.  Now, for the irony.  One of the things I don’t like is writers who think they know it all and are openly critical of other people’s writing.  Yet what I’m about to do is share the list of things that drive me absolutely nuts in other blogs.  I’m breaking my own rules.

It’s not that I think I’m some expert on blogging or on what people want to read about.  I am just an average person who reads a lot of stuff online.  There are, however, lots of other average people who read stuff online, so perhaps by sharing my pet peeves, some other writers might avoid some pitfalls that would tend to turn some average people off from following their writing.  So, here goes.

I hate posts that start with something along the lines of:

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long…

If you don’t want to, or for some reason, can’t post often, you don’t really need to apologize for that.  It’s your life.  Write when you want.  When I began writing here, I had a goal of writing every day.  I haven’t met that goal, but I didn’t publicize it as some big promise to the world, either.  That way, when life interferes, I just have to get over my own frustration – I don’t really need to apologize to everyone else.

A lot has happened since the last time I wrote…

If you’ve been away from blogging for a long time, I think we can all assume a lot has happened to you.  Skip this wordy, uninteresting intro and just get to the good stuff!

I’ve been meaning to post for a long time, but…

I think if you’ve been meaning to post, you probably just should have.  If something kept you from it, I would think you’d be interested in diving right in to whatever stuff we readers have missed.  The stuff that gets in the way of your writing is generally not as interesting as your writing itself.  Those obstacles may be great fodder for posts – but presented this way, it feels a little like the dog ate your homework.

Hmm, I can’t think of what to write about…

Well, think about it some more then.  Or do this kind of writing in a notebook somewhere until you do hit on something you feel like writing about, then sharing.  Or, start your post this way until you get into a groove and then edit that part out later.  If you start by telling me you don’t know what to write about, I expect the rest of the post to have zero substance, so, on I go to the next blog.

– Here’s my to-do list for the weekend…

This kills me.  You may have something really interesting going on this weekend, but why not jump into a story about it, or a description of why it matters to you, so it might be relevant to people reading.  I’m generally not interested when you use your blog as a place to jot down notes.

Bottom line – get to the point and don’t apologize.  These are the kinds of things you can think to yourself as you ponder what you should write about – but to start your blog entries with things like this makes me go right past them.  I’m sure if I reviewed all my previous posts, I’d find other cases where I’m breaking my own rules, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Copycat communication

I grew up in Wisconsin, where accents are thick and colloquialisms abound.  Where else do you drink from a bubbler?  For years, I went “down by” places, not “to” places.  Grilling was “frying out,” and I didn’t even hear it when people ended their sentences with, ” and so?”  It’s not quite as severe as Fargo, but it’s not far off, either.  I called a boat something more like “bow-ut” and shoes “shoo-uhs.”  Native Wisconsinites speak these words a bit faster than you probably just read them, but there is a slight hint of an extra syllable thrown in there, and it happens all the time.  I’m not sure exactly how I shed my accent, but I did, some years ago.  Most people can’t detect it, unless I’m really, really tired, or have had a lot too much to drink, and even then I only slip now and then.

I am, however, easily influenced by the speech of others.  I went to visit a friend in Oklahoma when I was around 12 or 13.  I stayed for a week and came home with a drawl.  I pick up terms other people use, most of the time oblivious to it until it’s too late and I sound like I’m copying them all the time.  What has surprised me lately, though, is how I’m being influenced by the people I work with.  And not in the way I might have suspected, adopting such words my boss uses, like “cycles” and “prosecute” which I’ve written about already.

First, let me say very clearly, I am not being critical or judgmental of the way anyone I work with speaks or doesn’t speak.  It simply is what it is, and it rubs off on me.  I work with more foreign people than native English speakers, especially if you count the hundred employees we have in China.  What’s crazy is that broken English is rubbing off on me.  It’s really hard to comprehend that I would just toss out all the grammar and vocabulary I’ve built in years of speaking and reading and writing, but I’m finding myself slipping into broken English in both speech and email.  It’s kind of nuts!

I catch myself writing things like, “Can you have team work on this today night?” or “Please have a look on this.”  So far, I’m catching and correcting these crazy sentences that are only crazy because English is my first language.  One guy whose English is fine still uses odd phrases now and then.  Instead of saying something happened a long time ago, he says “Remember long back when we talked about that?”  I have used the words “long back” in a conversation with him.  It could be worse.  An email I was copied on tonight had this sentence in it:  “Sorry about my misunderstand cause this idea so delay.”

In all seriousness, though, it is a real challenge to communicate effectively in my organization.  It’s not a challenge I am upset about – it’s a challenge I sincerely think is a good one for me.  I’ve studied diversity and the issues faced in global business – the communication challenges that not only have to do with language barriers, but significant cultural difference, and I am absolutely getting the biggest dose of both of those issues that I’ve ever gotten.  I’m determined to succeed in communicating with everyone, though, and I’m sincerely interested in understanding the cultural differences we all face.  Maybe that’s why I’m so easily influenced by the speech and writing – maybe I’m subconsciously trying to meet them on the terms I hear from them.  Whatever the cause, I will keep you posted on how my language continues to evolve, or devolve, as the case may be.

Man, I’ve got to get better at remembering birthdays!

I’ve written before about how I sometimes forget the right words to use – especially when I’m tired.  Well, I also am horrible about remembering some birthdays.  Today, I stepped out of the office for a few minutes in the afternoon to call my grandma and say “Happy birthday,” even though I knew I was a day late.  Weekdays are hard for me when it comes to calling home – they are all in Central time, I’m in Pacific time. If I have anything to do after work, they’re in bed by the time I get home, and that’s how yesterday was.  So, I ducked out today instead, knowing it wouldn’t be a huge surprise that I was calling a day late – most of my family expects me to be late with these things, or forget them altogether, which is odd, since I’m early or on time and completely organized for every other thing in my life.

I called and my grandpa answered.  “Hi,” I said.

Grandpa replied in his voice that has gotten soft and far away, “Oh, hi.”

“Are you busy?” I asked, more out of habit than because I actually thought he’d be busy.  He answered, perhaps one decibel above a whisper, which made it even harder for me to comprehend his answer.

“Actually, right now I am.”  Even he sounded surprised that he was busy.

I paused, then recovered and asked, “Is Grandma around?”  Again, an almost rhetorical question.  My grandparents don’t do much these days.  They’re approaching 80 and my grandpa in particular is quite frail.  Then I heard him say to whoever was with him, “My granddaughter…  from California…”  And there was a collective, “Ohhhh!!!” from the background, like I am some sort of celebrity or something.  I think it’s just that I live in California.  Long distance still matters to people that never understood the cell phone.  Grandpa hollered as best he could for Grandma who was upstairs, and said I was on the phone.

She picked up, and I pulled my cell phone away from my ear as she yelled into the receiver, “OK.  I got it!”

“Did I miss your birthday by a day?” I asked?  Grandma laughed a pretty big laugh and said, “Honey, it was a week ago!”

“What? You mean it was the 18th?!”

More laughing.  “No, it’s the 17th.”

“Dammit, I never get it right, do I?” I said, laughing back.

She said, “You know, I sent you the list.”  A few years ago, she hand-wrote all the important dates I should ever need to remember on a piece of paper and mailed it to me.  The  list has birthdays and anniversaries on it – for my aunt and uncles, my cousins, of course my grandparents – and my grandma even included my sister, my mother, and my sister’s kids on the list – birthdays I don’t generally have trouble remembering.  I know exactly where the list is.  It’s within arm’s reach of my desk, yet I never get it out in time.

“I know, I know,” I said.  “Well, did you do anything?”

“Your uncle came on Saturday and we went out for Chinese – you know we finally have a new Chinese restaurant in town.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yes.  He had to travel the next day, so he came early.  Then on Sunday I fixed dinner for your sister and mother and everyone.”

“Shouldn’t they be fixing dinner for you?” I joked.

“Well, yes, now that you mention it.  I think we should do it that way from now on.  Grandpa cooked a turkey outside, and we had mashed potatoes and vegetables.  It’s too much work.  I just can’t do it anymore.”

I understood, but the thought of Grandpa’s turkey grilled on the Weber and Grandma’s mashed potatoes and gravy started my mouth watering and reminded me of how someone has to watch over the mashed potatoes around my uncle and I, or we’ll empty the bowl and no one else will get any.  Our conversation ended just a few seconds later.  It’s impossible to get my grandparents to talk on the phone for more than about three and a half minutes.  They think long distance is too expensive, even though I’m the one calling, and I try over and over to tell them it doesn’t cost me any more to call them than it does to call someone on my own street.  I think they don’t believe me.  Still, it was a nice break in my hectic work day.

The thing is I don’t forget all birthdays – just some of them, which somehow makes it all seem worse.  I never forget my grandpa’s birthday – perhaps because it is near my mom’s – but I have a feeling I have never remembered my grandma’s birthday on time.  Lucky for me, she doesn’t seem to hold it against me.

This is almost as bad as a recent experience I had with a friend’s birthday.  I tend to associate birthdays together when I can, because it helps me come a little closer to remembering them, and I have a friend whose birthday I had associated with one of my sister’s kids.  In September, my niece’s birthday was coming up (which I remembered to call for, but I still haven’t sent her birthday present to her).  This triggered my associated memory of my friend’s birthday.  I had an odd nagging feeling in my mind that I might not be right about the exact date in relation to my niece’s birthday, and even though I hated to admit it (this friend never forgets my birthday), I broke down and sent an apologetic email saying, “I know your birthday is soon, but I can’t be positive it is today – so I apologize for that, but I wanted to say Happy Birthday even if I have the date wrong.  I hope you’re doing well.  We should get together soon.”

Later that day, I got an email back.

“Hi!  You are very thoughtful; your birthday is super easy because [it is the day after a holiday], but my day is a lot harder to remember.  My birthday is actually in April, but your email has put me in a totally celebratory birthday frame of mind, which I was not at all in, for my actual birthday. I think I am going to go to Cost Plus World Market this weekend and buy myself presents, and I am going to buy a whole box of Whole Foods vegan donuts (instead of a cake, because donuts really are even better than cake).”

Christ, it’s my nephew’s birthday that my friend’s birthday is next to, not my niece’s!  I explained.

“You know, after I hit send, I thought – wait, maybe it’s in April.  The issue is, I’ve associated your birthday with my nephew’s before, because his is in April – and yesterday was my niece’s birthday, and somehow the association got switched in my mind between the two of them – man, I’m not even 40 and already my mind is completely going!  I’m glad that you are now in a celebratory mood, though – that makes my huge mistake somewhat more tolerable.”

I guess worse things could come of forgetting someone’s birthday.

My sixth grade teacher and The Jackson Four

In sixth grade I had a teacher that I think may have been senile – or, on her way, anyway.  I have no idea how old she really was, but to an eleven-year old, she looked ancient.  I remember brown hair, so maybe she wasn’t so old as I thought, but she always seemed to be missing something – focus, or sharpness, alertness.  She was off in outer space all the time.  She wore glasses with really large frames, had a short haircut that was obviously permed – no way curls would look so tight and fuzzy on the top of someone’s head, yet the hair at the nape of the neck so straight.  She had a hunch in her shoulders which may be part of the reason I remember her as old – she was a tall woman, though, so maybe she just carried herself that way to look less imposing.

She was a fan of Carly Simon – she used to hum or sing You’re so Vain under her breath all the time.  Then she would laugh at how clever she thought the song was, and try to explain it to us in detail.  None of us knew the song, and although we could understand the concept of the term “vain,” it wasn’t really a vocabulary term that we heard used in real life.  We just thought she was crazy, but to this day, I cannot hear that song without thinking of my sixth grade teacher.  I can’t for the life of me remember her name, but I can hear her voice…  “You’re so vain.  You probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain.  I bet you think this song is about you… don’t you… don’t you…”

She read to us after lunch every day, and though that reading time was meant to be fairly short – maybe 15 or 20 minutes, she often got so engrossed in the book that she’d kill an hour or even more.  No one ever stopped her.  The only book I remember her reading was The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, and that may be because I had read it already and begged her to read it to the class.  If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ll think it was a cheesy story, but the book is actually quite good – especially for kids in late grade school.

Our crazy teacher didn’t make us sit with our desks in straight rows facing the front of the room.  We got to split off into groups of four and arrange our desks in little pods in random places throughout the classroom.  I’m not sure it was the best idea to let us all sit in groups like this – we did spend tons more time whispering to each other and ignoring what the teacher was saying.  In fact, many of my memories of that year don’t even feature her.  It’s as though she wasn’t even in the room.

Of course, we got to choose a name for our group and hang a sign from the ceiling above our little cluster of desks.  Not surprisingly, most of our group names were tied to whatever music we were into at the time.  I remember a Motley Crew group, and my group was The Jackson Four.  Thriller had been out almost two years, but we were still fanatical about that album.  I only wish MJ had made a dozen more albums like Off the Wall and Thriller.

In sixth grade, I was a bored student.  There wasn’t anything about school that challenged me.  I talked to my teacher about it once, but she had few ideas about how to challenge me, and my small rural school didn’t have the funds for any kind of advanced kids.  In the end, she told me I could work ahead of the class in math if I wanted to – at my own pace.  That seemed cool.  I finished the entire year’s worth of assignments in about a month.  The rest of the year, when other kids were doing math, I got to read.  So, while in some ways, I didn’t get challenged in terms of the difficulty of the work I was doing, I did get hours and hours of additional reading time in, which I’m grateful for.

I remember that we had salamanders as pets in the classroom.  We kept two or three of them in a glass aquarium and fed them crickets, kept their water fresh in a shallow dish, and cleaned the cage regularly.  Until they disappeared.  Seems someone left the lid off of the cage and they found their way out – or maybe someone took them out to let them walk around and they got lost – either way, we were stuck with an empty cage for the rest of the year.  At the very end of the year, we all chipped in to help clean up the classroom – organizing bookshelves, taking down our super cool signs hanging from the ceiling, sweeping up in hard to reach corners.  That’s when we found the salamanders – very dead, very dried up.  They had found their way behind a bookshelf and that was that.



More great reading

There was no way I could pick a single post from this blog, though I will share the link that got me to read it.  Seriously, though – do not stop there!  It is full of hilarious posts about “The Problem with Young People Today.”  The writing itself is very funny, but I couldn’t help but laugh even more at the people that feel the need to argue their case with this admirable man.

Wrapping things in bacon is always a good thing.

After reading this post, I am really glad I don’t qualify as a clutz to this degree.  But, if you do, you may be grateful for the advice shared by this poor clumsy person.

This story of a moment of writer’s crisis from a woman whose life looks so different than anyone I know is a great read.  I’m hooked.

And, finally, this piece simply left me speechless.

Jobs from my youth – Younkers, 1992 & 1993

I recently wrote about one job I had in 1993, waiting tables at a restaurant/night club.  I had many other jobs that year, though.  I started the year working at Younkers, a department store in downtown Sheboygan.  Socially, it was a pretty fun job.  My best friend and roommate at the time worked there with me, and we made a handful of new friends there, too.  I have never been a very fashionable person, but J was.  He had that gay man’s touch when it came to clothes and hair.  He could make rags seem trendy, and I became fully reliant on him to maintain a “look” after we became roommates, though I had never had a “look” before.  When I had to start my shift earlier than his, or work when he had a day off, I woke him up in the morning so he could do my hair.  He was such a good sport about it.

I still can’t do anything with my hair – every time I get my haircut, I walk out looking how I want to look, and every time, I go home and take a shower because I hate having itchy hair around my collar, and I am hopelessly unable to recreate whatever my hairstylist has done with just a few waves of her fingers through my short hair a half an hour earlier.  The accompanying picture gives you an idea of what J used to do – remember that it was the early 90s, and we liked to think of ourselves as “alternative.”  Not goth, not punk, nothing so specific – just alternative and definitely NOT mainstream.  That was the thing to avoid.  I am fairly confident there is little chance anyone would recognize this photo as me.  As I said, the only time I had a “look” was when I had someone to put it together for me.

Younkers had an old-fashioned lunch counter.  When I worked there,  I could order a chicken sandwich pretty cheaply with my discount.  I ordered a chicken sandwich with cheese every time I ate there – with mashed potatoes and gravy, of course.  Even today, I have this puzzling tendency to eat the exact same thing day after day for lunch, but when dinner time rolls around, I’m rarely content with the options available to me in the kitchen.  My current lunch streak consists of a turkey sandwich with a slice of swiss cheese on potato bread.  I bring potato chips so I can put them inside the sandwich just before I eat it.  I get an unusual amount of satisfaction from the crunch of potato chips inside the sandwich.  I also bring a pear or a nectarine or some other kind of fruit.  I bet you are picking up on the potato trend in my life.  I blame it on my great-grandfather, who is rumored to have reached America as a stowaway on a ship carrying potatoes, which were all he had to eat on the way from Romania.

It was actually sort of an odd family affair to work at Younkers.  My mom worked there part-time behind the jewelry counter for a while.  My great-uncle also worked there.  He was an interior decorator and spent some of his time selling expensive furniture to the handful of wealthy families in the area.  He is also the only other gay person in my family that I know of, and the first time I ran into him at the local gay bar in Sheboygan, he was so thrilled he bought my friends and me drinks all night long.  Even my great-grandmother worked at the store years earlier, before it was called Younkers.  She sold fancy hats and china.

Younkers used to be called Prange’s back then.  It was a well-loved local store because it was part of a regional chain that began in Sheboygan in the late 1800’s.  The local store remained intact for just over 100 years before it was bought by Younkers.  I remember going to Prange’s as a kid to visit Bruce the Spruce – a talking Christmas tree alternative to visiting Santa Claus at the mall.  I was probably as scared of Bruce the Spruce as I would have been frightened by a strange Santa Claus, but as I re-imagine the past, I think Bruce was more welcoming.

There were plenty of negatives about working in retail, though, such as aching feet at the end of a day, utter boredom from wandering around the department and refolding every piece of clothing a customer picked up then tossed like a wet towel onto a table, and constantly reordering all the hanging clothes by size.  I did leave the industry with fairly particular ways of folding clothes, though.  My partner often marvels at my ability to quickly fold a shirt with the arms tucked in back and the front perfectly displayed, all without the use of a table or other surface.  Such important things I learned in the jobs of my younger years.

Cat’s Cradle

Since I’ve been ruminating on the time in my life when I was still not burdened with much responsibility and mostly got away with wandering from one job to the next, or one state to the next, or one book to the next, I thought I’d pull out a few of my Vonnegut books, because I worshiped them back then.  I was like a religious fanatic that lived and breathed whatever nonsense was contained in the tome of truth for that religion.  In that sense, reading Cat’s Cradle (over and over, as you can see in the accompanying pictures of my a couple Vonnegut books off my shelf) gave me my first vin-dit towards Vonnegut worship.  These books were a sort of life blood for me, validating my strongly held beliefs that the world was full of a bunch of idiot-robots without souls that were so preoccupied with their own existence that the rest of the world could just fall away and they wouldn’t really notice.  Let me say, I no longer view the whole of society that way, but I still sometimes miss the days when I did.  A chapter from Cat’s Cradle:

Bicycles for Afghanistan

   There was a small saloon in the rear of the plane and I repaired there for a drink.  It was there that I met another fellow American, H. Lowe Crosby, of Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel.
They were heavy people, in their fifties.  They spoke twanglingly.  Crosby told me that he owned a bicycle factory in Chicago, that he had had nothing but ingratitude from his employees.  He was going to move his business to grateful San Lorenzo.
“You know San Lorenzo well?” I asked.
“This’ll be the first time I’ve ever seen it, but everything I’ve heard about it, I like,” said H. Lowe Crosby.  “They’ve got discipline.  They’ve got something you can count on from one year to the next.  They don’t have the government encouraging everybody to be some kind of original pissant nobody ever heard of before.”
“Christ, back in Chicago, we don’t make bicycles anymore.  The eggheads sit around trying to figure out new ways for everybody to be happy.  Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if somebody does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan.”
“And you think things will be better in San Lorenzo?”
“I know damn well they will be.  The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!”
Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was.  I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name.  She was from Indiana, too.
“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?”
I admitted I was.
“I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed.  “Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.”
“I’m not,” I said.  “I never knew anybody who was.”
“Hoosiers do all right.  Lowe and I have been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.”
“That’s reassuring.”
“You know that manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?”
“He’s a Hoosier.  And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo…”
“Attache,” said her husband.
“He’s a Hoosier,” said Hazel.  “And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia…”
“A Hoosier?” I asked.
“Not only him but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too.  And that man in Chile…”
“A Hoosier, too?”
“You can’t go anywhere a Hoosier hasn’t made his mark,” she said.
“The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.”
“And James Whitcomb Riley.”
“Are you from Indiana, too?” I asked her husband.
“Nope. I’m a Prarie Stater.  ‘Land of Lincoln,’ as they say.”
“As far as that goes,” said Hazel triumphantly, “Lincoln was a Hoosier, too.  He grew up in Spencer County.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers,” said Hazel, “but they’ve sure got something.  If somebody was to make a list, they’d be amazed.”
“That’s true,” I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm.  “We Hoosiers got to stick together.”
“You call me ‘Mom.'”
“Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, ‘You call me Mom.'”
“Uh huh.”
“Let me hear you say it,” she urged.
She smiled and let go of my arm.  Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle.  My calling Hazel “Mom” had shut it of, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along.
Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon.  Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows – and any nation, anytime, anywhere.
As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:

If you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

Revisiting the 80s: Video Games

I grew up LOVING video games.  I still love them.  It’s my uncle’s fault.  One of the best birthday presents I ever got was $20 worth of video game tokens and an afternoon at the arcade with him.  My favorite arcade sized game is Galaga, and luckily, it was the favorite of enough people that you can occasionally still find it in an arcade.

I was reminded of my 80s video game craze tonight when I was doing some random web surfing.  I came across this site,, which I believe could entertain me for hours.  It is not the most aesthetically pleasing site, but who cares when the content is this good?  Paging through old commercials for video games reminded me of Intellivision.  Unbelievable to look at that game console now and imagine the hours of entertainment it provided.  Do you remember the little plastic overlays that slid over the button pad on the controller?  They always ended up with permanent indentations from pushing so hard on the buttons with my thumbs.  I vaguely remember being scolded about that, but I would’ve been so zoned in on the game, it probably barely registered.

I loved Pitfall, but who knew Jack Black was in one of their early 80’s commercials?  As I watched this commercial, I could feel myself leaning heavily to the right, as my body willed Harry to make it across the pond full of alligators, my muscles tense like rubber bands until I dropped him safely on the other side.

And what about Burger Time?  I could play that game for hours.  Listening now, I’m not sure how I could handle the music for so long, but check this out – even if you only listen for a few seconds, I promise, it will take you back.

I eventually got a Nintendo when I was in high school, and mastered games like Super Mario Bros., and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out (which you can still play as a retro game on Wii, but now it’s just called Punch-Out since the game’s namesake bit off someone’s ear).  I spent way too many school nights up into the early morning hours hooked on this one.  I can’t imagine how many hours it took me to get through the whole game and beat Mike Tyson.

As I said, I still love video games, and I now play the kind that take months to get through (especially since I’m no longer in high school with hours and hours to spare), but there’s something to be said for the magic and simplicity of games from the 80s.  Despite the now simplistic graphics capabilities, the concept of home video games was still so new, you felt like maybe Star Trek would become a reality someday.  What were your favorites?  Were you an Intellivision nut, an Atari kid or did  you have a Sega or ColecoVision?