The Ghost of Summer Past

…they came unto a land
In which it seeméd always afternoon.

—Tennyson, The Lotos-eaters

honeymoon-cottageOn Sunday, we attended a surprise anniversary party for our friends Craig and Ethel. They own and operate a summer resort known as The Cape on a lake not far from here.

We hadn’t visited the place for a long time. During the 80’s, however, we spent a week or two of nearly every summer at The Cape. In 1983, the year Elizabeth was three, we stayed in the Honeymoon Cottage. That’s where I took this picture on Sunday, and the sight and sound and smell of the place carried me back to that long ago summer.

The Honeymoon Cottage dates from a time when it was possible to build right on the water. The cottage is triangular and its narrow point actually extends over the water. The doorway shown in the picture opens to a small porch. Sitting on the porch is like being in a boat.

In the picture, the late afternoon sun streams through the windows, and that’s how I remember both the lake and the Honeymoon Cottage. No radio, no television, no telephone, no newspaper. We spent our days on the beach, or reading in the shade, walking in the woods or paddling a canoe along the shore.  There were long conversations, afternoon naps, and intimate evening meals with family and friends. At night we fell asleep to the sound of the lake lapping against the dock. In the morning, we lingered on the deck with cups of coffee.

When it was time to go home, we were never ready to leave.

OK, Maybe Now It’s Time to Change Carriers

Just when I think it’s safe to stop hating cellphone carriers, a story like this one comes along.

Seems a guy in Ohio had a sort of breakdown, perhaps including attempted suicide, and took off after swallowing a whole lot of pills. Responding to an emergency call, the local sheriff figured he could use the GPS feature of the guy’s cellphone to locate him.

But no. Verizon’s customer service rep said no dice because the guy was behind in his cellphone payments! The sheriff had to agree to pay $20 of the back balance to get Verizon to cooperate! By this time, the guy was almost dead. Fortunately for him, he was located in time by other searchers.

Now, in fairness to all concerned, there is probably more than this to the story. But here’s the statement from Verizon Wireless:

Verizon Wireless apologizes for our mistake. This particular issue has now been resolved. We will work to ensure our exemplary service to our nations first responders is on track, and we remind law enforcement to use our 24-7 hotline for public safety needs.

I’ve written enough press releases in my life to offer this rough translation of the above:

We did absolutely nothing wrong, but if a meaninglessly generalized apology will keep us from getting sued, then we’re willing to say we’re sorry.


“This particular issue” means cases involving guys in Carroll County, Ohio who have the exact plan this guy had and who need rescuing because they are nut cases.


“We will work to ensure” means that the next time we’re caught in a sh*t storm like this one, we really don’t want to hear about it from anyone. We’re on this, OK?


We say we offer “exemplary service” whether you think so or not. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. This episode gives us the chance to make that claim, and we aren’t about to pass it up.


Here’s the take-home: if the cop had called the right department, this whole thing wouldn’t have happened. Why isn’t the cop’s ass on fire here instead of ours?

Part of the problem is that there really aren’t enough standards in the cellphone industry. Every cellphone is its own universe. Imagine having to learn to drive all over again every time you bought a new car! In addition, every carrier offers a smorgasbord of plans carefully designed so as to be impossible to compare with plans offered by other carriers. The plans also bundle features you want with those you don’t want.

Our Verizon Wireless plan, for example, gives me 250 text messages per month (I use maybe 6). We have to pay for the 250 in order to get the family plan that will include my mother-in-law, who lives with us.

But maybe I’ve talked myself out of changing carriers here. I used to be an AT&T customer. I got over that when we were caught in a power blackout in NYC a few summers ago. The AT&T cell network went down. Verizon Wireless customers kept talking.

Anyway, here’s my suggestion for their next advertising campaign: “Verizon Wireless. Probably less inadequate than the competition.”

A Tech Writer’s Inadvertent Memoirs

Years and years ago, I taught technical writing at the University of Tulsa. I wore out my students by telling them again and again that they should aim for voiceless writing. What I meant was writing that didn’t hint at the person behind the writing.  “Imagine yourself as the reader,” I would say. “When you’re trying to follow the instructions to put a gas grill together, you want the manual to be about the gas grill, not the person who wrote the manual.”

It’s sound advice for aspiring tech writers, easy to give but sometimes more difficult to follow. Voiceless, for example, is not the same thing as nonhuman! Consider this gem selected more or less at random from the instructions for IRS Form 1040:

If your economic stimulus payment was directly deposited to a tax-favored account and you withdraw the payment by the due date of your return (including extensions), the amount withdrawn will not be taxed and no additional tax or penalty will apply. For a Coverdell education savings account, the withdrawal can be made by the later of the above date or June 1, 2009. See the instructions for lines 15a and 15b, 21, and 59.

All those passive verbs invite me to imagine faceless drones swarming in a glass and steel hive. For all I know, of course, tax form instructions may really be machine generated. The IRS as The Borg.

At the other extreme, the writer becomes fully visible on the page. I sometimes like it when it’s done deliberately. In a professional journal I edited for several years, the author of a particularly complex article added a footnote about three quarters of the way through that said something like “If you’re still with me here, please let me know and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee!”

The problem I tried to warn my students about, however, was more subtle.  Last Christmas, for example, I was given a new alarm clock that has features the manufacturer is pretty excited about. The writer of the owner’s manual pretty obviously was charged with emphasizing these features, particularly the fact that the clock sets itself. Here’s what the manual says:

We all know how annoying it is to wake up in the morning and see the dreaded flashing “12:00” display on our clocks or clock radios. This means that your power was interrupted some time during the night while you were sleeping and your clock doesn’t know what time it is anymore. Unfortunately, it probably also means that you are late for work, or for school, again.

What do we know about the writer here? I think the story is mostly told in that final again.  The writer is someone who has no chance of waking up on time without an alarm, perhaps as a result of staying up too late. It’s also someone who has tried the “my alarm didn’t go off” excuse a few too many times. When I consider this in combination with the sloppy and abrupt pronoun switch from we to you after the first sentence, I get a pretty clear picture of the writer:  habitually running late, lacking focus, desperately striving to please but unwilling or unable to give the work the final edit it needs.

This is someone I would probably find exhausting to have around, and that’s a thought I shouldn’t be having at all as I read the manual. After all, I’m just trying to figure how to use my new clock! I don’t want to hear about roommate troubles, sleep issues, the saga of a psycho ex, and so on.

And that’s why all those years ago at TU, I used to sound like a broken record: “Get the information on the page, kids. Keep yourself off the page.”

Feeling Old at Any Age

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.


Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.


And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

—A.E. Housman

I wish I had had this little poem handy when I turned 25. That was the only time in my life that I really felt old. The phrase “quarter century” echoed in my mind and kept me more or less depressed for weeks.

Worse, I felt self-conscious about feeling bad. When I thought about it, I knew that twenty-five is not old, damn it, by any definition. Yet I felt ancient, and I felt stupid about feeling ancient. It was a losing proposition from every angle.

In 12 short lines, Housman seems to capture a similar phenomenon without self-consciousness as the “I” in the poem realizes he has “only” 50 of the biblical three score and ten left to live. There I was at 25, with “only” 45 left!

If the three score and ten is accurate, as of next month I’ll have only seven left; yet I feel younger than I did at 25.

Clouding the Issue with Facts

As of today, I’m making a real effort to revive this blog.

I know, I know. I’ve said the same thing a dozen times before, but maybe this time is different. Here’s the deal:

  • My caregiver responsibilities are mostly met, and Marge has gone back to work.
  • The longest damn winter I remember is finally over.
  • I’ve filed for Social Security and am now officially retired.

Among the things I’ve been doing is spending more time with the news. As I expected, however, this is a mixed blessing. For one thing, there is the vicious, nonstop logorrhea of the Cheneys. Today, for example, reports daughter Liz Cheney making the brainless claim that theThe Ever-Smiling Dick Cheney Obama administration is “siding with the terrorists” by releasing some details about “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush years. She says it doesn’t tell “the whole story.”

While it may be true that we still don’t have the whole story, the material being released will tell a whole lot more of the story than the Bushies ever did. Liz, like her Dad, seems to be much, much more concerned about appearances than about reality. So, now that some of the story is coming out, Cheney fille starts complaining about incomplete disclosure.

Not, you understand, that she would like complete disclosure either. Like her father, she doesn’t want any disclosure at all! None. Zero. The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.

By virtue of what I’ve written here, of course, I open myself to the Bush/Cheney Right’s usual hectoring condescension. In their view I somehow hate America and, worse, am “naive.” The implication is that it’s asking too much to expect POTUS (and VPOTUS) actually to live up to those cherished American ideals we hear so much about.

I beg to differ. Even Dick Nixon didn’t try to justify torturing people!

On the other hand, maybe I have been naive. So I’m done trying to be open-minded about the Cheneys. Cheney père says he prefers Rush Limbaugh (a talk radio gasbag with a drug conviction) to Colin Powell (a decorated military hero with a decades-long record of public service) as a Republican leader.

And there you have it. You are known, Mr. Cheney, by the company you keep.