Somehow there is no Christmas without the Christmas parties. In other parts of the world, I suppose they are holiday parties, but here in the South, we still call it Christmas. That's not because we mean any disrespect to those other cultures we keep hearing about, we just assume that we don't know any of those types of people.

Our office party is held on the last day of work before the extended leave of absence called Christmas vacation. That morning, we all show up at the office and goof off for three hours. Being in our twenties or thirties or forties does not prevent us from acting like children on the last day of school. But we are adults, so no one is there to make sure we do any work. We are our own supervisors, and today we do a lousy job.

The party is at a country club far away from the office. We are told to leave by noon to make it there by 12:30; we leave at 11:55, being sure to shut down all computers and monitors and various truck parts. Once at our destination, we make use of our own seat-claiming strategies. Our party of twenty-five or so must be divied up into tables of four, five, or six, and you don't want to get stuck at a lame table. There are some who go ahead and mark a seat by throwing a jacket across the back. Some try to assess the other jackets and make sure they place their own jackets next to a friend, then hope the best for the rest of the table. Some try to wait and see how things settle out, but these are the people who end up sitting with the boss' wife and maybe that smelly guy who can really only talk about how much he hates his relatives visiting.

And it's not a bad party, no matter where you end up sitting, but the truth is, we'd all rather not be there. It's Christmas, or it will be, as soon as we stop being at any place that could be considered a work function. As soon as they pass out the bonuses, we look inside and count the one bill, then look around like dogs waiting to go outside to play in the snow during their first winter.

And I have been released. I'm going to be playing in the snow until after the the new year. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all those goodbye things.


all wrapped up.

While it's been established that I am excellent at picking out presents, I am hopeless at wrapping them. Honestly, I just don't get gift-wrapping. I like the idea of increased anticipation - look, a present for me, and yet I cannot immediately tell what it is by looking at it! That's a great idea! But that's really the only purpose of gift-wrap, to cover something up temporarily. It does not have to look pretty or enticing, because it's just paper. The enticement is that there is an unknown present waiting inside.

Who cares about the paper? I know there are people who carefully open presents by only cutting at the tape sites so as not to damage the paper. I suspect that those people do not understand about gifts. Maybe they're all thinking back to when they were eight years old and their mothers bought a refrigerator, which came inside a giant cardboard box. In that case, the wrapping is the best part, and I'll even extend that case to include items wrapped in bubble wrap. But for the most part, the paper is only the parsley on the plate next to the filet mignon and garlic mashed potatoes. I grew up in a family of tearers - messy and impatient people who want to get inside to the good stuff, recklessly destroying everything that might be in the way.

At some point, I did want to learn to wrap presents properly, because I was giving away presents that looked like they had been wrapped by blind three-year-olds, and all my friends had their mothers do it. So I asked my older sister to teach me, which she patiently did as I took careful notes of her steps. From that point, I knew the approximate steps in wrapping presents, but really only if they were box-shaped. Even then, things still turned out looking like they had been wrapped by myopic three-year-olds. The difference between my wrapping and that done by all those tidy Stepford moms was all in the details. My tape pieces were too long and too frequent, and my edges were crooked. My corners were not crisp, and my gift labels were made from scrap pieces of wrapping paper. That last one was something I picked up from my mother, and I've never seen it done anywhere else. I think that some mothers just set out trying to keep their children from ever becoming socially acceptable.

At some point, I gave on wrapping paper and started using bags instead. These are much easier in that all you do is stuff some tissue paper on top, and you are done. I recycled bags that were given to me and hoped no one noticed that the tissue paper was getting pretty wrinkly. I just hoped that added effect.

By now, I've pretty much given up altogether. I'll still use bags for non-boxy items or gifts with multiple parts. But for the most part, I do the best I can with my myopic three-year-old wrapping skills and am done with it. I use discount paper with no bows or ribbons, and I make labels using scraps from the paper. I take my cue from my dad, who once wrapped cash by putting it in an old peanut can and wrapping it like bubble gum by going around the cylinder with paper and then twisting the ends. In some ways, that's even more effective in wrapping paper's real purpose: I certainly had no idea what I might find inside that crinkly mess, and I was a little afraid to find out.

Life is much too short to spend a lot of time wrapping or opening presents. It's all just another metaphor. Beauty is skin-deep. Don't judge a book by its cover. And finally, stop judging the wrapping job and open the present, already.


red tape and red ink.

I hoped that when I finally started working out in the computer science industry, to avoid two things: customer service and paperwork. For the most part, I've escaped dealing with customers. I do have to talk to the customer every once in a while, but after a couple of years serving dinner to a lot of entitled people, it's not so bad. Now I don't have to worry about snobs so much as people who don't know much about their own jobs and know even less about mine.

But the paperwork, ah, the paperwork, is something that I have not avoided. Documentation seems almost the very essence of professional computer science. And I totally agree that it needs to be done in a lot of cases. We write documents to make sure that both the customer and ourselves understand what the software needs to do. We write documents to thoroughly plan out how we're going to make the software do what it needs to do. We write documents that plan out how we're going to test to make sure the software does what it needs to do. All of those things are good ideas, because in the end, you wind up with a better product because you took the time to think about it before you actually created it.

I just hate doing it.

I just finished up writing a software requirements specification (SRS). This document is the one where we say what we're going to do, the customer agrees, and everyone's happy. It's necessary so that there is no misunderstanding on what the customer wants and so that if they change their minds later, we can ask for more money. It's a tedious task to write one of these, mostly because it gets me thinking about the project, but I'm not allowed to really work on it yet, because the customer hasn't even signed off on the requirements. Writing a software design document is even worse for this, because you have to write down all the technical details of what you're going to do, but you still can't actually do it. Writing a design document made me finally fully understand the phrase "chomping at the bit."

It's not just me. I don't think there is anyone here who likes doing all this paperwork, all this nitpicky detailing about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it without actually being able to do anything. We are eager dogs dancing at the front door while our owner finds the leash and puts on his coat. We're dorks, we'll admit it: we just want to write code.

When a document is finished, it has to be reviewed. This means that several other people who are involved with the project, whether it be on the testing or financial or customer side, have to read it and make suggestions or ask questions to improve the document. Again, I think this is a valid exercise, because you get other viewpoints, and I honestly don't mind reviewing someone else's document. But I dread having my own document reviewed. It's so...demoralizing. It's like turning in a term paper and rather than just returning it with comments, your teacher gets five other teachers and they all pick at it line by line. By the end of it, you just feel kinda worthless.

I can't tell how much of my experience of the review process is because I'm new. I've only written two documents, and each time you go to one of these reviews, you get more of a feel for the things to look out for. My coworkers have always been encouraging and so while I still feel like a completely schmuck, I feel like that's probably okay at this point. It's definitely a learning process, and I try hard to remember that as I endure another verbal red-inking.

Eh, it's better than waiting tables.


thank your local postal worker.

I like to send out Christmas cards, and it's something I privately consider to be very Sandra-ish, because it certainly wasn't something I picked up from my parents, who only minimally noticed that December had arrived. True, lots of girls my age passed out Christmas cards in high school, but I like to think that mine were special. They weren't really, but I still like to think that.

I confess that I fell out of the habit of holiday cards during college. It might have been because I noticed that those boxes of cards were overpriced, or it might have been because I noticed that I didn't have that many friends anyway.

But fate put in a hand and I'm sending out cards this year. Last year, I sent them out, too, because a bourbon company send me a box of free promotional cards that were so awesome I wanted to send them to strangers just to use them all. That was also fate, cleverly disguised as the Maker's Mark Advertising Department. This time, fate was played by my desire for index cards, which led me to K-Mart during Christmas season. There was a small selection of boxed cards near the index cards, and I was sucked in. Darn them and their cleverly-arranged displays of holiday cheer.

I take my cards seriously. I make a list, check it way more times than that slacker Santa, and try to write a few lines in each card that makes it a little more personal than just a token greeting and my signature. Even if a couple of the cards have the same "personal" sentiment, it's not as if the recipients are going to compare notes.

But here is the real difference between my cards and anyone else's. On the back of the envelope, I write one more little holiday greeting, this one to all the hands that take my card from my own to those for which it is intended. I write "Happy Holidays to all the Postal Workers!" It really is a ridiculous thing to do, but I did it one year, probably to impress my mother, who is in that thankless line of work, and even though I decide every single year that it's kinda silly, I can't stop doing it. It would seem like a betrayal somehow.

I don't even know if any of the mail carriers see my message. They're busy right now and can hardly be bothered to read the back of every Christmas card they pass along. But maybe a couple of them see it, grin a little at my goofiness, and then pass it along. Maybe I'm not deluding myself when I think that I might be doing some good.

Who cares? My mother likes it.


i know what i like.

This is a picture of a giant egg next to a giant metal outline of a chicken made of a bicycle chain. It is art. If you look through the middle of the chicken, you will see the GM building in Detroit, a building that I like very much because it's made of cylinders and is so constructed that it can reflect upon itself, making it a very self-aware piece of architecture. While the sculpture was put there by someone else and the building was put there by a completely different someone else, it was my idea to combine them. So in my own small way, I have created art.

I don't know art, but I know what I like: cylinders, reflective surfaces, and giant metal chickens.


i got a bone in my leg!

My dad likes to say that he has a bone in his leg. It's not that he spontaneously goes into anatomy lectures about the tibia or the femur. Usually, he'll say it when he's getting up after a long period of sitting down, like some sort of exclamation his body makes as it creaks into action, "Oh, I got a bone in my leg!" I think it's funny and ridiculous, and I've taken to saying it, just because I want to be like my dad in that I want to be the kind of person who says funny and ridiculous things. Every time I use it, I can hear my nephew earnestly protesting, "But everyone has a bone in their leg!"

My dad injured his leg at a friendly, yet aggressive Thanksgiving basketball game. My mother took him to the doctor, which proved to me that Daddy was in some pain. My father is one of those old-fashioned, stoic types who doesn't trust doctors and avoids them if at all possible. But he went, and the doctor told him that he had chipped a bone.

My mother was telling me this story, and I immediately laughed and said, "He's got a bone in his leg!" Then I felt bad, because my dear, old father was suffering, and I was making jokes.

"That's exactly what he said," my mother responded. "The doctor looked at him like he was crazy."

The treatment plan for a bone in the leg is pain killers and a soft brace. My parents had to go to Kansas this week to see my mother's family while my father was in this hobbling condition. I realized that my father was going to meet dozens of people who would ask him what happened, and I just knew that he would say, "I got a bone in my leg!" as the complete explanation, probably not even bothering to elaborate further despite all the confused looks he would receive. I can just imagine my mother's continued frustration at having to explain exactly what that phrase means in Daddy-speak.

I think my daddy is nuts.


names upon names upon names.

You can't see my face very well (which is totally the point, because reflected in a muddled surface is really my best look), but I look very pensive and deep as I ponder the weight of names upon names upon names.

And that's all I have to say about that.


medium well.

You liked your steak medium-well, a minor thing that I always secretly considered a major flaw. I remember that time, at my graduation dinner, where we both ordered the filet - my parents were paying - and you ordered it like you always do. The chef joked that you had to leave for asking for a filet mignon cooked that way, and I, honestly, was a little embarrassed. You were always "medium-well, pass the A-1," while I was content to eat my red meat solo, the steak's juices better than any sort of thing you can buy in a bottle. When meat is burnt, it all tastes the same to me. You always acted like I was gross, I was nasty for putting such a bloody-looking thing in my mouth, and I didn't argue back much (unusual for me), because I didn't want to let on how unsophisticated I thought your preferences were.

Do you remember our seven-year anniversary, the one where we actually dressed up and had a nice dinner for a change? I ordered some sort of chicken thing, and you had steak. Medium-well, please. They brought your steak and it looked like a fine piece of delicious meat, to me, anyway. You cut it in half and saw the red juices seeping out, natural marination that made the whole table smell like a fresh kill in a nature documentary. Unacceptable, and I looked pained as you prepared to flag down the waitress to send your steak back for another round with the grill.

But first, you cut off a bite out of the reddest, juiciest part and held it out to me, because you knew. The way steak is divine to me is gross to you, and the way you prefer it seems like only a waste of a good piece of meat in my eyes. You fought back a scowl of disgust and held our your fork, its passenger dripping. I received it gratefully.

It was delicious.

I am with someone now who agrees with me on the matter of meat preparation, and I cannot tell you how relieved I was that first dinner when he ordered his lamb chops medium-rare. It's a little, little thing, one that I am ashamed has taken on such importance on my mind. That's why I'm still here, writing out these words that paint me so poorly so that it will be out in the open that I am a medium-rare snob and that once I loved a man who preferred medium-well. You were so picky about your stupid steak, about your cheese-only cheeseburgers, about everything you ate and it drove me crazy, but only after. It was just one of those things that grew out of proportion in my mind once I didn't have you around to remind me why I put up with it.

And now it's all fading, our years together. I can't even remember if you liked the stalks or the trees of your broccoli anymore, even though I must have watched you cut and separate your green vegetables a million times. But the bitterness is fading, too, all that anger I had about the stupid stuff like your steak is slowly melting away. Now I can just look back on it all and think not about the times I was embarrassed to order dinner with you, but the time that you held out that one piece of medium-rare steak to me, and how delicious it was.


the hundred dollah lady.

"That's a hundred fitty dollahs, deah."

I raise an eyebrow and look at the cashier. For $150, it better be a great cup of coffee. But then I look at the cash register display and see that it says $1.50, which, while still a little much for a small cup of joe, is more in my price range. Ha ha, it's a joke, I get it. I hand her two singles and hear, "Out of two hundred dollahs, here's fitty dollahs back. You have a good day now."

I thank her and walk over to the sugar and cream station behind her. I hear her ring up the person behind me, telling him "That's five hundred, sixty-foh dollahs, deah." I begin to wonder if she does this all the time.

We've moved to the new building, and we've got a cafeteria on the bottom floor where we can buy coffee and snack and lunch. I'm talking to a guy who used to work here before with another company, and he says, "I'm glad to see that the gay sandwich guy and the hundred dollar lady are still here."

"The hundred dollar lady? She does that all the time?"

"Oh yeah. It's her thing."

"It never gets old?"

"Not to her."

The whole scenario reminds me of a Monty Python sketch, where a clerk in a mattress shop multiplies everything by ten and a different clerk multiples everything by three, so customers are constantly having to do division, all the while keeping up with which clerk uses which multiplier. But that was just silly sketch comedy - what is this woman doing? Is there some British woman in a cafeteria somewhere who inspired the mattress sketch by pretending to charge one hundred pounds for a scone?

I suppose it's an amusing enough joke the first time, but this woman has been here for a while. What's more, the people she checks out are mostly the same day in and day out. So the joke is rarely new to anyone. Does she just live for the times when someone does a double-take, or has it become so ingrained that she actually thinks in those terms?

It's silly, I think, and then I think again, what's wrong with that? This woman works as a cashier in the cafeteria of an office building. Her job is not very exciting, and yet she's always in a pleasant, chatty mood. So if a little silliness helps her get through the day, then that's just fine with me. You know, we could all use a little more silliness in our lives, which is exactly why I've taken to doing the twist in the elevator. Just kidding.



original parts.

"A girlfriend of mine had a bunch of plastic surgery, but nah, not me. I'm all original parts."

"Yeah," I reply, not particularly interested in the conversation, but participating minimally because I want to have good working relationships with my coworkers.

"Well, no, I take that back. I've had some crowns on my teeth. But other than that, all mine."

I snap my head to attention, and my tongue automatically goes to the left side of my mouth to feel the smooth porcelain amongst the enamel. I just had a crown put in, and though I had dreaded it for all the traditional reasons of dreading major dental work, it never occurred to me that it would be a rite of passage. It hurt to get it done and it was expensive, but that part was over. Now I have to face the fact that I am already having to replace body parts.

Man, I'm getting old.

Aging becomes a different process the more you do it. In the not-too-distant past, getting older was good, because it meant you could do more stuff, have more freedom and privileges. Now I'm not growing any closer to adulthood, I'm growing closer to the infinite.

I feel like my car. My car is only five years old and was made by reputable Japanese people who want young American girls to get to their destinations safely. But I've run her hard during the past five years and 105,000 miles, and I've been noticing signs of her age. You know, some more bumps in the ride, a little more noise, a few more vibrations. I've had to replace a couple things: a headlight, a taillight, a belt. But then a couple weeks ago, I had to replace a catalytic converter. The first shop wanted to charge me $1400, approximately a third of the value of the car. And I had to decide how much this car was worth to me, whether it would be better to get it fixed and wait until the next thing went wrong or just sell her off and upgrade. I feel rotten for even considering this betrayal, when it was me who put her in this condition, and she has never let me down.

In the end, I managed to find a shop that did the work for $300, which was still less than a tooth-shaped piece of porcelain in my mouth cost me. And though a crown for me is more like a headlight than a catalytic converter or even a belt, it makes me feel world-weary and used up. The crown is just the first step on a path that leads to dentures (new pistons), titanium hips (differential replacement), and pacemakers (aftermarket distributor).

Before you protest, once again, let me affirm that I know I am whining about nothing. It's a struggle to be an artist when there's nothing wrong with your life. It's just a tiny crown, and if I'd been more devoted to my dental care when I was little, I wouldn't even be having this premature life crisis (or I would, but it would have to be about my one grey hair again). I am still young, and I can still do anything. I may not be 100% original parts anymore, but I'm still running, and I've got a lot of miles left in me yet.



Totally unrelated question: since you are a former waitress, I thought you could answer this for me. Should a tip be calculated from the pre-tax amount, or the full billed amount? I've always done it from the full amount, but my dad says it should be from the pre-tax amount.
-Doug, Sandra's brother-in-law

People ask me tipping questions quite a bit. It gets old, usually because I tell them to tip more than what they want to hear. Then again, even if I hate being asked, you can bet I'm looking over your shoulder to see how well you do it. It surprises me to see how many people still don't know how to tip. I had a girlfriend tip $2 no matter what the total bill. It made me want to cry. I tried to teach her the easy math of taking 10% and then halfing it again to add to the original 10%, but she waved me off, "I just put down two dollars." Maybe I should've warned her not to frequent the same places, otherwise she'd start getting her drinks spat in.

I'm sorry, but you have to tip the waiter. Servers make about $2 an hour, so they really do just live on tips. That is unfortunate that the industry is set up so that customers have to support wait staff. I agree totally. Write to your congressman, but in the mean time, you still have to tip.

My rule is about 20%. Pick your own rule, depending on how you feel about it all, but please don't make your rule less than 15%. Then, depending on the service, the food, and the restaurant, go up or down. I've given as much as 50% (on a very low-total check, sure) and my lowest was about 5% (wretched service). Note that nicer places call for higher percentages. You might use a 15% base at a Waffle House and a 20% base at someplace fancy.

I'm sorry that there isn't really a definite rule. There are, but I don't like them. I think they were made by people who never waited tables. For instance, there is the old double-the-tax rule. I think it might be from a former generation, but it doesn't seem to apply anymore. North Carolina sales tax is 7%, so that rule yields a 14% tip every time. Not enough. You might say that 14% is close enough to 15%, which remains an acceptable rule in many cases, but I say no. I always err on the side of the server. These people are relying on strangers for their living and you can afford to eat out - give up the few cents.

And that brings me back to my brother-in-law's question. I'd never heard of such a thing as tipping pre-tax. Again, my answer here goes back to whether 14% was close enough to 15%. How you do it is only going to make the difference of a few cents, and chances are good that the server makes less than you do. So be a nice guy and calculate your tip post-tax. Which brings up another, very important issue: if you have a coupon, always always tip on the amount before the coupon. The server did the same amount of work regardless of your coupon and should be tipped accordingly.

All that being said, I still think that crappy service deserves a crappy tip. There are things that a server cannot control: food quality, atmosphere of the restaurant, crying babies next to your table, (sometimes) food preparation time. But the server can keep your drink filled, be pleasant, make every effort to make you feel better about the things he/she can't control. If your server left you hanging with an empty water glass for ten minutes and was surly, then by all means, leave a poor tip. Yes, I am sympathetic to servers, because I used to be there. But when I was there, I actually tried to treat my customers well, and I've no sympathy for those who do not.

So there's your answer. Happy tipping.


just what i wanted.

Giving gifts is an art form. Some people are just really terrible at it, and unfortunately, some of those people give me presents. But that's okay. Presents are presents (and some can be exchanged for store credit)!

Since this is my blog and I don't have to be objective, I want to say that I'm good at giving presents. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I don't really buy presents for people unless I know them really well. But part of it is the fact that I'm able to pick up unusual things because I don't spend a lot of time in traditional retail stores. You know what? You might even get a used gift from me, but I guarantee that if I've bought you a pre-owned present, it's going to be awesome.

That being said, I received a perfectly marvelous present for my birthday a couple weeks back. Josh called me the week after my birthday to tell me that he had bought my present. I was confused, because my birthday was over. He also was too excited to keep it a secret from me. That is some sort of excitement. I am frequently so excited about a present that I can only barely keep it a secret, but I've never spilled the beans outright. Josh is apparently a big bean-spiller, a new fact which might come in handy someday.

"Okay, so what is it?" I asked.

"A vintage gumball machine," he answered proudly.


"Yeah. I found it and it looked like something that you would really want but would say was too expensive to buy for yourself." I thought back and realize that on more than one occasion, I'd seen a vintage gumball machine at a thrift store or yard sale and wanted it oh, so badly. But always, it was too expensive for me to justify dropping the dough on what was a limited-use toy. The boy knows me pretty well. Adding to my amusement was him telling me how he negotiated the price down $20. I could practically feel his own pride at his find, because he's just not the kind of guy who goes around telling people how much their gifts cost.

"Well, is it the stand-up kind? Does it have a base and everything?"

"It's exactly like what you would picture."

I didn't see it until the following weekend, but man, he was right. As lovely as any gumball machine I've ever seen, this was something I was going to be proud to have in my living room. Josh helped me carefully pack it into my car for the long drive home, all the while giving me safe driving tips so as not to damage the machine. It was so funny and cute to see his gift-givers' pride, a feeling I've experienced more than once. Sometimes you find gifts so serendipitously that you start thinking some supernatural force is involved in your shopping.

So this week's picture is of my newest addition, a thing that I've always wanted but never bothered to buy for myself, fully stocked. And while I would love Josh even if he repeatedly bought me rotten presents, I am relieved that I have only marvelous gifts to look forward to.


finishing next-to-last.

Ned is a nice guy.

No, I mean that Ned is really a nice guy. You could take the most eloquent writer in the world, with the absolute best vocabulary, introduce him to Ned, and the writer would say, "Now there's a nice guy." Other people at my company worry about getting more clients or improving efficiency, but not Ned. He's worried about employee morale. Ned is average height, of average looks, and is slender. I imagine that he eats nutritious foods and goes jogging five days a week. He attends church regularly and gives to charity. He has investments in safe, slow-yield companies. Ned is a nice guy.

I like Ned, because I cannot help but do so. I do not talk to him much, because, well, nice people tend to seem bland to me. The people that I am drawn towards are nice people, but if you were to describe them in one word, "nice" would not come up in the top ten. Niceness is just not their defining characteristic. So my thought on Ned tend to be "what a nice guy," and then dismissal and my concentration goes on to someone more interesting.

We have an annual company picnic at a local park, which everyone dreads. Families are invited, so that everyone's families may also dread the event. The picnic isn't bad, and people seem to have a good time, but I think it's just the idea of attending a work function on a Saturday. Last year was my first picnic, and so my first time meeting Ned's wife. Petite and slim, exotic and foreign, with waist-length black hair and olive skin, one look at the gorgeous Mrs. Ned and the beautiful little Nedlets tells me one thing:

There's something more to Ned.


someone's uptight mother.

Picture this: a giant, university lecture room with seating for 100, less than half filled. I'm sitting in the next-to-last row, head bent down over an impossible physics exam (as if there were any other kind of physics exam). My friend is sitting next to me, looking equally confused and frustrated. The professor, seated at a stool at the front of the room, gets up and walks out of the classroom. In an instant, my friend springs into action, grabbing her physics textbook out of her bag and flipping expertly to the correct section. I stare. She glances through it quickly, then offers the book to me. I attempt to shake the shock out of my expression and look cool and confident as I refuse the offer with a slight shake of my head. I go back to my test, my eyes still wide in amazement. I want to say in the scandalized whisper of the ten-year-old that is somewhere deep inside me, "But that's cheating!"

I don't like cheaters.

I cheated once, taking a test in my fifth grade AG class. We'd been doing this long study on whales (which must have been a favorite topic of the teacher, because I see no other reason for us studying it in such depth), and we were having our final exam on the topic. The class was in a small room with two tables where the students sat. During a test, we would stand slightly-opened books up between us to discourage us from glancing at our neighbor's papers. I had my Trapper Keeper standing up between me and the girl next to me, the same Trapper Keeper that contained all my notes for the class. So I used my notes.

The really stupid part was that this particular test had a brain dump section for extra credit. Basically, you just listed everything you could think of about whales that hadn't already been tested and you'd get bonus points. That was where I used my notes. I ended up with 156 score on this test, and that is on the traditional 100-point scale, mind you. Another girl in the class ended up with 175, but I think she just studied.

Cheating seemed really pointless after that to me. Trust me, there have been some times when cheating would actually have been beneficial to my test scores rather than just overkill, but I never did it again. There have been times when I've been handed back a dismal result, but my thought was only that that's what I got for not studying harder.

I never let people cheat off of me, either. That sort of thing was rampant, particularly in high school. Kids wouldn't do the homework, and then in the morning before class, they'd borrow a buddy's paper to get the answers. My friends, even some of my closer friends who only found themselves in that situation once in a rare while, didn't even bother to ask me for my paper. They knew they could get the same answers elsewhere.

I take that back: I let my best friend Amy copy a worksheet for French class in college. I don't remember why she didn't have hers, but it was a pretty good reason. Plus, these worksheets were kind of silly, basically fill in the blanks of sentences taken almost word for word out of the accompanying textbook. I knew perfectly well that she could do the worksheet, she just hadn't, for whatever reason. I don't feel bad about that one.

I was always very protective of my answers, too. I was expert at covering up my paper from any roaming eyes. Once, I sat right next to a kid who was a well-known habitual cheater. We were taking a quiz, and I knew, knew that he was attempting to look at my answers. Fine, then, we can play that game. I wrote down the wrong answers. Then after he was finished, he turned in his paper, and I erased my paper and wrote in the correct ones. I will never forget the priceless confusion on his face when we got our quizzes back as he looked at the rotten grade on his paper and the perfect score on mine. He took to sneaking glimpses at his notes after that.

There are unfair, ridiculous tests out there. Fine, that's the way it goes. Take comfort in the fact that the exam was unfair and get over it. But more often than not, cheating is just desperate act of the unprepared. I should know: I've been unprepared before. In that case, I see it as your own fault. Unfortunately, cheaters do prosper. Half of the students in my senior high school class saw borrowing answers as a fact of life, and, folks, these were the honors students. These were smart kids were just too lazy to actually put in the time and study, and so I have no sympathy for them if their system fails them. They got away with it, got scholarships to college and probably have good jobs now where they still probably don't have to do any independent thinking.

But enough. I'm done ranting. I feel like someone's uptight mother. Someday I probably will be.


mr. gauge man.

Part of being in charge of a project is dealing with people who are involved in the same project, but who work outside my office. I'm writing software for a new prototype vehicle and I've had to talk to a different person for pretty much every part of the truck. There's the tire guy, the suspension guy, the brakes guy, etc. I guess when all these guys write in their blogs, they complain about the software girl.

Today, I talked to the gauge guy. The creators of this vehicle thought it might be beneficial for the driver to know how fast the vehicle is moving at any point, so they decided a speedometer might be appropriate. There are also five other gauges. The gauge guy sent me a set of these gauges so that I could test my software on them.

They didn't work.

I raised the flag, after much double and triple checking. We sent the gauges back and received new ones that had been newly programmed to work the way they should. I plugged them in yesterday to do some more testing. All of them responded nicely to the messages I was sending them, except for the voltage gauge.

It didn't work.

I raised another flag, which raised a flurry of emails asking questions about what I had tried and how the gauge should work in the first place. I limited my responses to plain english, because I've found that I've had to deal with a lot of non-technical people, and if I started going into too much detail, they would just get confused. This morning, I received my first ever communication from the gauge guy, who copied and pasted a chart from our own document about how I should be constructing the message to send to the voltmeter, asking "Does this help?" He might as well have sent an email that said only, "Are you sure you're not a moron?"

I was a bit insulted at the email. After all, all it said was the message that I was supposed to be sending to the gauge and how it was constructed. Thanks, I know. Throughout the course of this project, I have felt more than a little doubt that I am experienced enough to be running this project. I am young and green behind the ears and were our company not experiencing a staff shortage, I would not even be in this position. I would not be surprised if any error in the communication between the gauges and my application were on my side. I know, I know: I am a newbie.

But he doesn't know that.

Needless to say, it was very difficult to not reply sarcastically. What I did reply was a friendly and humble email, sending him the details of my message in base-16 numbers, asking him to check it and make double-sure for me. I decided if he wanted to get technical, then I could do that.

What I wanted to say was this:

Dear Mr. Gauge Man,

I just wanted to thank you for your very helpful email on the matter of the voltmeter. Please, praytell, where did you get this information? If only we had such charts detailing every message that truck components communicate, our program might not just sit there like a stalemate game of solitaire. We do have pretty graphics, though.

I feel so foolish to find out that I had been going along communicating with the voltmeter incorrectly all along. I had tried a number of things: I had sent it extensive text documents, I had tried tapping the value on its case, I even tried standing quite near to it and shouting "26 volts, please!" in case it was hard of hearing.

Now I feel ready to procede upon the appropriate course of action. Thank goodness for your email! I can only imagine that there are others like me who wish to communicate with their voltmeters, yet do not know the way. Perhaps you should look into a career in consulting.

Miss Software Girl

Mr. Gauge Man did reply to the message I actually did send him. He said that there was an error in the gauge programming, that it was programmed to look for a different message. If only he'd read his little chart, we could have avoided all this trouble.


strange in general.

It's past midnight and I'm in a strange city, strange in general and strange to me. By following bad advice and making a bad decision, I've ended up in Detroit two hours later than I was supposed to and separated from my colleague. I don't know what else to do but take a cab to the hotel and hope for the best.

I get a cab outside baggage claim, feeling self-conscious and out of my element. I am wary of the cab drivers, as if I have "SUCKER" written on my forehead. But if I am a sucker, then I am, and the bottom line is that I need to get to my hotel.

I tower over my portly, dark-skinned driver as he loads my bags into the trunk. I get into the backseat and settle in for what the driver tells me will be a twenty-five minute wait. I'm tired and ill-tempered, frustrated at myself for having gotten myself into this mess of a situation. I decide to talk to the driver, just because he's foreign and possibly interesting, just because he's a distraction.

I'm not good at small talk with strangers, or at least I feel like I'm probably not, because I think that I ask questions that are not really small. I ask about history or family or job satisfaction, because those things are interesting to me. I like to know where people are from, how they got where they are, if they like it now that they've arrived. My cab driver was from Bangladesh, and he'd been in Detroit about ten years. He had family living in New York, but none around here. He asks a little about my life and seems to think it's novel: a girl my age with a career, living alone. I don't know much about Bangladesh, but I know that it's not known for its women's lib.

"Do you like driving a cab?" I ask.

A pause. "No, not really. But the economic situation is very bad here. One of the worst unemployment rates in the nation."

"Really? Why is it so bad?"

"Because the automobile companies are sending their jobs overseas."

I want to laugh at the bitter irony. Undoubtedly this guy's family came to the States for that elusive American dream, to find work and better pay. And now he was stuck working third shift driving a cab because all the jobs were being sent to his homeland. This is why I ask questions like these, because the daily struggles of people who are regular but still completely unlike me are what interests me.

As we pulled off the interstate to my hotel's exit, my little Bangladeshi cab driver invites me to lunch the next day. I tell him that I will likely have to work through lunch, which is a complete fabrication. But I am charmed and quietly flattered at this man who has tried to quite literally pick me up. I wonder if he harbors a special place in his heart for southern women who are much too tall for him or if I've just charmed him by taking an interest in his life. Maybe he figures I want to be rescued from my lonely existence by someone who will support and impregnate me.

We arrive, and he gives me his business card in case I need a ride back to the airport in two days time. It says that his name is Al, and I ask if that's short for something long and hard for Americans to pronounce. He says yes, but doesn't tell me what.

I get safely into the hotel, and Al drives away. I'm exhausted but relieved to at last be at my destination, even if my destination isn't somewhere I particularly want to be. At least I'm not stuck driving a cab.


a tall drink of water.

Another Washington picture tonight, just because I have a slew of them.

I discovered that I like monuments. They're like the epitome of a grand gesture. Rather than buy your wife a dozen roses to show that you love her, why not erect a fifty foot high structure? I understand that they are basically meant to be impressive, and in me, they've reached their goal. Look at me, I'm impressed. It's kind of art for art's sake, or for history's sake or for remembrance's sake, because really, monuments serve no other purpose. You might could argue that they bring in tourist dollars (and I bet that they do), but really, they're pointless.

I seem to like the Washington Monument, because I sure do have a lot of pictures of it. Granted, that may be because it seems to be in the background of a lot of shots of other things. But it's so tall and stately and simple and utterly pointless. The Vietnam Memorial has all these names that bear down on you with all the deaths they represent and Lincoln is all noble and stately with his ideals engraved around him, but the Washington Monument is just kinda there, saying, "Look how TALL I am!" Maybe I can relate to it. I'm not particularly deep or noble, but I got some height going on. That counts for something, right?


slutty slut.

It's not Halloween, but it might as well be. It's the Saturday before, and the college kids of Wilmington are using tonight to celebrate by coming out in costumes of various levels of cleverness. I look around and realize that most of the girls my age are using the evening as an excuse to wear shamefully little. Apparently, Halloween is an opportunity to take a regular costume and make it slutty. When you can't think of anything clever, showing your breasts will have to do. Josh and I are calling out the costumes to each other as we see them.

"Look, slutty cowgirl."

"There's a slutty stock car driver."

"Slutty Rainbow Brite, eleven o'clock."

"Is that who that is? I thought it was Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dream Slut."

"Slutty nurse in the corner, talking to Maverick."

"Check out the slutty flight attendant."

"What about the girl next to her? Who is she supposed to be?"

"I don't know. Something slutty."

"There's a slutty Dorothy. I think I'll be slutty Toto next year."

A girl walks in wearing what appears to be her underwear. We both stop and gawk: mostly likely, her intention.

"Slutty...slut?" Josh suggests.

By that time, we've run out of actual costumes and are just suggesting possible costumes that a girl could make promiscuous. We try to outdo each other by coming up with costumes that are as anti-slut as possible.

"Slutty Beethoven."

"Slutty grim reaper."

"Slutty Joan of Arc."

"Slutty rabbi."

"Slutty George Washington."

"Slutty smurfs."

"Slutty Fidel Castro."

"Slutty Darth Vader."

"Slutty Santa."

We run through a slew of possibilities before we get tired of the game, having exhausted the possibilities. We've turned our attention elsewhere, when in walks a girl in tiny green shorts, a plastic shell on her back, and a purple eye mask painted on her face. We turn to each other and, in our excitement, much too loudly proclaim "Slutty ninja turtle!".

We never even thought of that.


who greased the vine?

I'm blogging on my laptop in my living room with the front door wide open. I'm not an open door kind of girl, really. In the dorms, one of my roommates had a sticker on her desk that proudly proclaimed "OPEN DOOR POLICY" as if it had been stolen from some high school counselor's office. If ever the door to our room were left open, I would be sure to close it. An open door meant that people could just walk right in, without even knocking. And what's more, they would feel encouraged to do so. I shudder to think of it.

But now my front door stands open, though I have a closed screen door separating me from the outside that will make any visitors feel obligated to knock. I desperately, desperately want visitors. I want little tiny ones in funny clothes who will knock at my door, and for no good reason at all, demand candy. And I will give it to them, from a big bag full of assorted fruity candies made by the Wonka company, a bag which I opened last night and took only four five pieces. Now I've taken another, a mini pack of Runts, and I'm eating them in reverse order of how much I like each flavor: first all the lime ones, then blueberry, cherry, orange, strawberry, and finally banana, which is the best ever.

I've never catered to trick-or-treaters before. Growing up, I lived out in the country on top of a hill. Mama always bought a bag of candy, usually chocolate, in case anyone ever showed up. No one ever did, so every year we all ate a bag of chocolate candy. When I lived in Boone, I again wasn't really in an area where children might come by, though I was in an area where college kids might come by for jello shots. Last year, I wasn't home on the big night. But here I am now, sitting excitedly on the couch, barely resisting the urge to run out into the apartment complex and attack any small children with free candy. I am actually nervous, like I'm going to get Halloween stage fright on my doorstep and not know what to do should a pint-sized pirate come along. Am I supposed to engage in conversation or just hand out the goods? What if I bought the wrong kind of candy? What if I run out of candy?

I went trick-or-treating exactly once, and I think I was eight. I don't think that my parents were anti-Halloween necessarily, just that they didn't want to deal with the hassle. But I begged and pleaded that year, until finally my mother agreed to take me out to the houses of various neighbors and church friends. I don't think we stopped at that many houses, but I do remember sitting on the floor at my friend Estelle's house with my haul spread out on the floor. It seems that I was not that impressed with the event, because I never went again. Either that, or part of the deal I had with my mother was that it was a one-time thing. It also seems like Estelle had a lot more or better candy than I had, and it seems like she made a point to mention that fact, too. I never liked her all that much anyway.

Now it's sixteen years later, and I've finished all the banana Runts and moved on to a piece of strawberry Laffy Taffy, which I guiltily eat only on the right side of my mouth so as to not disturb the recent dental work I've had done. The good thing about Laffy Taffy is that the packaging has jokes on it, which are usually very stupid.

Q: What were Tarzan's last words?
A: "Who greased the vine?"

The bad thing about Laffy Taffy is that it is quickly gone, and now I've got my eye on a small box of grape Nerds. I hear a car motor, then a door slam, and finally, small feet. Yes, there it is! A knock at my door: a miniature Batman and a, uh, girl in sweatpants. Maybe she's dressed as her mother or something. And you know, I wasn't really sure if tradition had held after all these years of being out of the game, but they really do still say it, "Trick or treat!" And better yet, afterwards, they say something else, "Thank you."

You're welcome, Batman.


uncles to the left.

I feel like I'm losing uncles left and right these days. Although I have no idea about my late Uncle Freeman's political feelings, I know that I've lost Uncle Cecil to the left.

I barely knew Cecil, mostly on account of the fact that he lived far away in Kansas, plus I was mostly just another little girl that called herself a relative to him because of the fertility of his older sister Louise. Cecil never had any children of his own, though I think he had been married once. I can imagine that he'd be a difficult man to live with.

Cecil was a hoarder. Something would go on sale at the local Dillon's and he'd stock up like the Cold War was still on, which it was at that point. But then he'd just have too much, and he would end up giving it away so he could make room for more stockpiles of supplies. His house was a glorified storage area, with paths going from room to room through all the piles of canned goods and whatnot. I don't remember my mother ever buying shaving cream, because we had a huge supply of Barbasol in the basement, courtesy of Uncle Cecil. It never seemed weird to me to be shaving my legs with men's shaving foam, until I noticed that my friend's legs did not smell like clean-shaven men. Cecil also apparently stocked up on soap once, probably more than once. I don't remember actually using any of those dozens of individually-wrapped soaps for bathing, but I do remember using them to make different kinds of furniture pieces for my Barbie dolls to sit or lie upon. My Barbies had the cleanest and freshest-smelling loveseats in the land.

I think the highlight of our visits to Kansas for Cecil was talking to my dad. Maybe he would have called them discussions or political debates, but they were just bantering. My dad was a staunch Republican and Cecil was a straight-ticket Democrat, so they'd bicker back and forth, making no real points but mostly generalizations and one-liners that they might have borrowed from some pundit. I remember one night of listening to them go at it while the rest of us played cards, half-listening and snickering every time Uncle Cecil talked about President "Boosh." We still don't know who President Boosh is.

My dad and Cecil had a great time, though, and each of them all but ignored the fact that the rest of us were around. Oh, it was harmless fun, but it made my grandmother very nervous. To her, they were having a heated argument, and she hated for people she loved to argue. She would ask, beg, even plead with them to stop, and they would for a little while. But then one of them would make some sly comment to the other and they'd be back at it. We tried to explain to my grandmother that it was all in good fun, but she never could accept that.

Cecil's mind went out before his body did. He had to be put in a home, and his days were filled with finding conspiracies against him. The last time I was in Kansas, we had plans to meet Uncle Cecil for breakfast, but he cancelled on us, because he thought that we'd already met. We were confused and sad, my dad was disappointed, but we left it alone. His living expenses at the home came out of my grandmother's pocket, because though Cecil had the money, he thought the home was stealing from him.

I guess I'm not really going to miss Uncle Cecil. I didn't know him very well, and I'd always thought he was a little crazy. If I were feeling generous, I might describe him as being a "character." But then again, he is my great uncle, and maybe I'm a little crazy, too. Maybe after my death some smart-aleck niece will write about her crazy Aunt Sandra, thinking she has some idea of who I was based only a few token stories told to her about my dotage. It's a shame to have your life judged based on who you are when you die, to have young folks look at you and not know that you used to be completely different, or at least completely the same, but better-looking. Basically, getting old sucks. But as my mother says, it's better than the alternative.

So here's to Uncle Cecil. Here's to getting old and being a little crazy, but at least leaving behind a few good stories.



If only Beth hadn't gotten fired, I never would have had to be her friend.

Beth is annoying and has low self-esteem. I can't tell which symptom caused the other, but in either case, I don't enjoy her company. She sits next to me in psychology class. She is a phlebotomist, which makes her sound like she should be really cool and interesting, but, alas, she is not. She tells very long stories in a meandering and half-stuttering style, and once you get to the end of the story, you find it wasn't even worth it.

We talk about our feelings a lot in that class. One day, Beth made some mention of how she'd had a really terrible day. I sit right next to the girl, I'm not without feeling, so I sighed inwardly, prepared myself, and asked her what happened. She told me she had gotten fired. I've been fired before, and it's one of the worst feelings in the world, or at least one of the worst that I've ever felt. Again, I am a nice girl, or at least I try very hard to be friendly to my fellow man, even if I do only cancel out my good deeds by blogging about how I really feel later. So I played the sympathetic friend while Beth told me about her career trauma.

Man, that was a long story.

Because of this, I became Beth's friend. No longer just a nearby classmate, we were supposed to fall into natural conversation at the beginning of each class, and I was expected to ask about her life. Which would be fine, except for the fact that she answers.

What I also discovered is that Beth is the type of girl who likes to peek at the papers of others. She doesn't exactly cheat, because she doesn't look at my answers when we're turning something in. She looks when we're just filling something out to discuss later. She apparently does not have enough confidence in herself to trust her own answers or to come up with something interesting to say on her own. Upon discovering this, my first impulse was to start being very protective of my paper. But then I just felt sad for her, because she knew she wasn't interesting.

One class, we took a break from talking about our feelings to take a quiz to determine if we were Type A or Type B personalities. Frankly, I was surprised that I only scored 9 out of possible 25 on the Type A scale. Any quiz that doesn't mark me as clear Type A is obviously faulty. One of the questions that added to my Type A score was the following:

Do you often feel impatient and restless with people who speak slowly or are slow to get to the point?

I checked a big fat "yes" on that one. Later that very class, Beth told a story to the entire class that made me want to cut her off, finish her sentences, prompt her with the words she seemed to be struggling to find. I may have developed a noticeable eye twitch. For some reason, it was even worse listening to her talk to the whole class, as if I thought they all blamed me for the fact that the girl next to me was talking at such length. The question from the quiz kept echoing in my mind, keeping me silent, reminding me that the fact that I was so restless was really my own issue.

Look, I do feel bad for feeling so irritated by Beth's very presence. I told you how nice I was to her, how I patiently and sympathetically listen to her problems week after week. I know that she is a nice enough person just trying to get by without the gift of gab. I need to not hurt her already-damaged self-image. I am trying, and it's a struggle, which means it's probably good for me in the long run, personal growth, blah blah blah. As long as she doesn't read this blog, she has no idea that she drives me nuts. And if she does read this, well, I was just talking about some other phlebotomist.


not a problem.

"You have an eavesdropping problem." I hear this comment, rather than overhear it, because it was directed at me. We're sitting at a table of strangers and I've been very engaged in the conversation between the bachelor and his mother who sit across from us. I realize that Josh hasn't been listening to those people at all, and the only reason he knows that I have is because of the loaded smirks that I give him from time to time.

An eavesdropping problem? Me? No, I do not have an eavesdropping problem. I eavesdrop a lot, but I've never considered it a problem. I suppose there are people who might, but I would know about it, because I would hear them talking about it. I don't squat at keyholes, nor do I carry around a glass for holding against thin walls. I eavesdrop when there is no barrier but air between my ear and the oblivious mouth. I almost consider it my right to overhear people if they are careless enough to talk in my presence. Don't want other people to hear you? Don't talk so loud. Friends constantly accuse me of speaking too loudly, loud enough that other people will hear. I shrug them off. I think I've got my volume under control, thank you very much, I spent years of school making sarcastic comments that teachers never detected. So I think my voice levels are fine, and even if they're not, well, who cares? Who is going to hear me but some other girl who is easily amused and knows that strangers are funny. Go ahead, listen to me! I am funny!

Am I violating privacy, even when the privacy is not being used? I don't think so. If people are having sex in the middle of the street, would it be wrong to look? I like to think that I'm subtle enough to listen without letting on that I'm doing so, so what is the harm? And even if they do find me out, maybe they'll speak a little more softly next time if they're so worried about their private conversations.

So, in conclusion, I do not have an eavesdropping problem. Yes, I'm a frequent eavesdropper, but it's not a problem, not for me, anyway. Maybe you think it's a problem for you that I do it, but just wait until I tell you what this dude was saying to his mom. You'll be glad I heard.


just a bill.

Everything seems so significant in D.C. You feel history actually bearing down upon you. Even if you're not looking at something particularly significant in itself, you get the feeling that behind some closed door very nearby, someone is making a decision that will affect you. I don't know how the residents stand it, unless they're making important decisions all the time, too.

It's very difficult to be cynical there, and I've had a lot of practice at being a cynic in general. My first afternoon in town, I walked downtown to just take pictures and see what I could see. I approached the capitol building, thinking to myself "So that's where the corrupt congressmen pass all the laws and all the money changes hands, where this so-called center of democracy...man, that's an impressive building. I'm so proud to be an American." Later I gave up on being cynical entirely and just started singing Schoolhouse Rock. "I'm just a bill, yes, I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill."

Maybe I'm just a sucker for imposing architecture. I'd walked from the Washington Monument through the World War II memorial, along the reflecting pool, and up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I stood atop the steps and looked out at the serene reflection of the obelisk and said to myself in awe, "Hey, this is where they filmed that scene in Forrest Gump!"

Even when you're nowhere near all the monuments and federal buildings, you're still constantly reminded of history surrounding you. There's a building code that the buildings can only be so tall in D.C., so that way you can see the monuments from far away. So even when you're just walking around some other part of town looking to find some good Lebanese food, you can still see the Washington monument standing up over everything.

You can't escape it, even when you think you have. I went on a short self-guided walking tour (okay, fine, I was lost) one morning and passed by an everyday, run-of-the-mill Hilton Hotel. Fine. The next night, I was driving by the same hotel with a friend and resident, and he pointed it out to me, "That's where Reagon got shot." Not so run-of-the-mill anymore, eh?

And amid all the tourists and school groups are just regular people who live there, residents whose jogging route included a lap around the reflecting pool. Do those people even notice the triumphs in architecture surrounding them? Do they still look up in awe or are they thinking only about their stock portfolio or the report they have to write for work? I don't want to live in Washington, and maybe that's why. I like the pure childish awe, the fact that I am still impressed by big buildings and important people and tributes to history. It seems like there are fewer and fewer opportunities to just look at something and say "Wow."




It's been a Washington themed week so far, so I thought I would continue with one of the many pictures I took last week.

I don't like feeling like a tourist. I lived in a tourist town too long to imagine that they are appreciated as a group, no matter how much their money is. So I always feel uncomfortable as one, which is a shame. Someday, I will learn how to just strap on my fanny pack, put my camera on a strap around my neck, and embrace my inner tourist. Because with that attitude, you can really enjoy yourself.

My parents are great tourists, because they're so oblivious. They are oblivious to the natives snickering, they are oblivious to their daughter blushing and covering her face in embarrassment. Someday, I will learn to be oblivious, and I will laugh at my daughter as she pretends that she got that nose on her face from some other, much more socially-acceptable mother.

The thing about D.C. is that it seems like everyone is a tourist. Maybe that's why I felt so self-conscious about being recognized as one. But they were everywhere, and they were so unhip that they were getting on my nerves. Don't worry, I'm already very disappointed in myself for being so caught up in appearing like a tourist. I don't seem to care how I come across in my own town, so why should another one be any different?

But anyway, the tourists.

Washington is like a giant photo-shoot. Everyone is always posing in front of something: making these awkward poses so as to get both them and the something famous behind them, forcing smiles as the amateur photographer or complete stranger struggles to work the camera. What was really funny were the people posing in front of the war memorials, making faces for the camera in front of grand tributes to the deaths of thousands. "Yes, here we are in front of the Vietnam War Memorial. Look at all those names! And see Jim is making rabbit ears. My, my!"

Since all these people were posing anyway, I started taking their pictures. It was like a mini-study of tourism. What kind of faces do people make in front of important monuments? Do they try to look somber at the war memorials? Do they make goofy peace signs at the giant statue of Lincoln?

So this week's photo is of a woman in front of the White House. I have no idea who she is, just that she was posing for a picture being taken by someone else, and I just happened to take her picture, too. She didn't seem to mind, but she didn't seem to know, either. She was definitely a tourist, so she was probably oblivious.

And now she is famous. So here's to being oblivious.


free crap.

For some reason, when I went to the army convention last week, Josh worried about the men. Not that I've ever shown the slightest inclination for men in peak physical condition with steady government jobs, quite the contrary; skinny musicians are really more my bag. I tried to explain to him that I wasn't interested in the men that I would meet there, and once I got there I tried to tell him how many of them were shorter than I am. So many of them, in fact, that I began to worry about national security.

In any case, I think I finally convinced him that I didn't care anything about the men (or even the manly women). The best thing about an army conference with 20,000 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors is the free crap.

And, oh man, what a lot of crap it was. Every booth was giving away something, be it a token pen or keychain or something more creative but still moderately useful like a plastic coin bank or a combination compact, hairbrush, and sewing kit. Each of the three days of the conference, I returned back to the hotel with a new bag stuffed full of my day's haul. I was there to work, but I would take a break from our own booth (from which I obtained a lanyard, sunglasses, a calender, and tiny toy Humvees with chrome wheels), and wander among the various vendors' booths, just filling my bag (which I also obtained from some booth or other).

It had to be obvious that I was just there for the crap, as I wasn't even remotely interested in purchasing water filtration systems, guided missiles, or insurance. But then I remembered all the lanyards I had passed out to people who were really in no position to purchase an armoured military vehicle. Yes, people will exploit the giving away of free crap, but that's part of the rule. At least you get free advertising. Most of the people at the booths understood all this, probably because they were sneaking over to the other booths for free stuff, too.

But I wasn't even getting the really good stuff. On the last day of the conference, they shut the thing down at 5 PM, just like the other days. But then they open it up again that night, from 6 to 8, for some kind of free crap clamor. That's when the vendors bring out the stuff they'd been hoarding the whole time. Then generals and other higher-ups come in with their wives, all dolled up, because the scrambling for free crap is apparently a black tie event. These people bring empty suitcases with them to use to take away their prizes. Everyone crowds around the bigger companies, like Boeing or Raytheon or General Dynamics, because they have the best stuff. Then someone blows a whistle or sounds an alarm and it's every man for himself. Shirts, chairs, bookbags, I don't even know what else.

Half a dozen people individually told me about the event like it was the stuff of legends, and I kinda wanted to go. But I asked each one of those people if the stuff you came away with was worth the hassle of having an old woman in heels climb over you to get the next-to-last free Army logo coffee mug. And they all said no, it really wasn't, because free crap is still just free crap. I didn't want to have to deal with all those crazed people, and I didn't want to see our nation's leaders acting like desparate parents looking for Elmo dolls on Christmas Eve.

Besides, I definitely had more than enough crap, some of it crappier than others. I never did snag one of the stress-relief foam hand grenades that I saw floating around in the hands of other convention-goers, but that's okay. I got countless pens and keychains, a leather business card holder, a coffee mug, my picture taken with the Travelocity gnome, a luggage tag, a tiny carpenter's kit, three decks of cards, a screwdriver, a t-shirt, and so on and so on. But no free army men. I might could have gotten one of those if I'd tried, but I didn't want one anyway.


the stars.

In the army, stars are apparently very important. I don't mean in that way that stars were important in kindergarten - this isn't about teachers holding a star in front of you like a carrot on a fishing line to get you to behave. No, a star in the army is more like being kinged in chess. Suddenly, whole new directions are opened up to you. It would be like in kindergarten, when the teacher gave you a star, you became a teacher. It's probably best that the system doesn't work that way in elementary school.

I saw lots of stars this past week. I was an exhibitor (not an exhibitionist) at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting and conference. There were lots of people there, everyone from Senator's aides to high school ROTC kids to guys who work at Boeing. And then there were the people with stars, the generals, the big men who walked around with an assistant or six and basically just impressed everybody. I wasn't impressed, but that was because I didn't know any better. I take that back, I was impressed, but not with the men themselves, just the way everyone else deferred to them.

I was helping out at the Humvee booth, answering any software questions that came up about the prototype vehicle I worked on. Since pretty much no one had any questions for me other than ones you might ask a secretary, I had a lot of time to observe. And I was constantly amazed at the way people just swarmed like bees around a queen every time a dude with any stars came near. My dad calls this knowing which side your bread is buttered on, and I guess he's right. We did want to impress the generals with our new vehicle so that the army might end up buying a bunch of them. I understand that the world works this way. I'm just not used to seeing perfectly ordinary-looking men get royal treatment.

After one would leave, the guys working our booth would stand around and compare notes. They talked about generals like they were celebrities, referring to them by their last names and trying to gauge how impressed they had been. By the end of the three-day conference, I was starting to learn their names, and I'd long ago learned where to look for the stars on their uniforms. I suppose my bread is buttered on that side, too.

During the last day of the conference, maybe half an hour before it all closed down, while we were counting down the minutes and complaining good-naturedly about our sore backs and feet, a guy in a wheelchair came by. He was a soldier, a private first class who had gotten his leg blown up in Iraq. He told us how he'd been in one of our Humvees, for which he was thankful, when the explosion hit and fractured all but one of the bones in his right leg. He told us all this matter-of-factly, and talked about all the rehab he would have to go through before he would be able to get back to Iraq.

He could not have been even twenty years old.

This soldier, this kid, he did not have any stars. And yet he was the one who would be driving around this vehicle we were trying to sell, he was the one whose life would depend on it. The stars would be safely back at some remote headquarters while boys like this one fought and either lived or didn't. After he left, we all just looked at each other sort of dumbly. I didn't want to be there anymore, I didn't care which side my bread was buttered on. I just wanted to get out of there, and I can only hope that the guys with the stars know what they're doing.


not interesting.

I am only posting to let you know that I am not posting. I am on yet another business trip, this time in Washington, D.C. I am so tired that I cannot even think of an interesting way to say all that.

My feet ache.


what i know is...

I am a big fan of Wikipedia.

For those who do not yet know the wiki, allow me to explain. A wiki is any sort of open database of information, where anyone can log on, write out what they know, then leave it for others to read and add to. What a marvelous idea. That way, if you want to know something, you can just search for that entry and read the information as written by people who were interested in the topic enough to research it themselves and then write up for everyone else. In all likelihood, you can find all or most of the information on a wiki at some other internet source, but here it is, all nicely compiled for you.

Of course, the danger here is that anyone could just make something up and post it for everyone to see as the gospel truth (or as close as we get in regarding historical matters). But then other readers can flag the article to say, "Hey, somethings not right here. There's no way that JFK cut the ribbon at the first Starbucks!" And then eventually someone will fix it.

I like the collective knowledge idea. No one knows everything, but together, we can know a lot. I've been using this idea in my life for years: I know lots of people who know a lot in specific fields. When I have a car question, I ask my old roommate, Nick. When I have a science question, I ask my dad. When I have a question about obscure family anecdotes, I ask my brothers. Any insurance or financial questions are answered by my mother. Literature questions go to Josh, and so do questions about music, Catholicism, history, word origins, philosophy, his ex-girlfriends, training pets, cartoons...I think I'm dating a wiki.

Anyway, here is a way for me to find out something even if I don't know someone who is an expert or if that person is currently unavailable when the information is needed.

Though a wiki can refer to any sort of such database, Wikipedia is the main one. It's basically an all-encompassing knowledge base. In my internet broswer, I have a search bar that goes directly to Wikipedia. Whenever I want to look something up, I just type it in there, and information becomes mine.

The fascinating thing about Wikipedia is that you can sit and be basically reading the encyclopedia for hours. Each article is peppered with links to other articles about related (and sometimes completely unrelated, but somehow referenced) subjects. You start with any old subject, read that, and then click some link that you found in the article, read that, click another link, and so on and so on. One day, I looked up the Nuremberg Trials because of a book I was reading, and I pretty much read the entire biography of every major Nazi. The day after the Miss Teen USA pageant, I learned the entire history of all major American pageants (one of them was started by a swimsuit company). I don't retain everything I read - I honestly don't really learn very well just by reading. But I retain enough of it, I'm kept entertained, and I feel good about the fact that I was making intellectual pursuits with my time.

I think my favorite part of Wikipedia is seeing how everything is related. At the end of each article is a bunch of links to related articles, many of them larger categories which the topic relates to. So maybe I looked up Steve Irwin the day after he died, then clicked on the Accidental Deaths category, which led me to Judy Garland (barbituate overdose, real name Frances Ethel Gumm), then clicked on the article about The Wizard of Oz (1939), which led me to the American Musicals category. From there, I hit Into the Woods, which led me to Steven Sondheim (who was born to nonpracticing Jewish parents), which led to Assassins, where I ended up with Leon Czolgosz, who killed McKinley. I went on to the category of 1901 deaths, where I finally learned about Srpouhi Dussap, the first female Armenian novelist. All that from Steve Irwin.

There are lots of wikis. A couple of my favorites include Muppet wiki and TMBG wiki. Particularly fascinating is how the different Muppets are made. It's fascinating to me, anyway.

I'm sort of amused at myself at how much I enjoy reading Wikipedia. I realize that I am essentially sitting in some library somewhere with a volume of the World Book Encyclopedia sitting on my lap. It's really, really dorky. But that's okay. I'm learning so much!


Jesus the cable guy.

Wow, I mean, just wow.

You know, I thought about spending this entry ranting about how poorly the South is portrayed in the media. I could go on and on about all the stereotypes, the horrible and inaccurate southern accents, the wide misconceptions that we here down South are all inbred, racist, or ignorant, or some combination of the three. I could even point out that the comedian who coined this catchphrase (one which I hate) is from Nebraska. I don't even think he's very funny.

But you'd still have that picture, the one I took of the back window of a van parked right outside my office, and my arguments would be useless. The South truly is a little ridiculous, maybe a lot. And sometimes the result is great, but sometimes, it's just...not.

Oh well, if anyone can git-r-done, I suppose it's Jesus.


naked face.

"Well, we've heard a couple of opinions about make-up brands, how about the rest of you? Are you Clairol or Clinique girls?"

"I HATE MAKE-UP. I have never worn it, I will never wear it!"

"Well, ok-"

"I don't understand it at all! All these women feel the need to just slather it on their faces everyday! It's so stupid!"

"Okay, and-"

"I mean, there's no way I would ever put that stuff on my face. I will never wear it."

"Right, well-"

"What's wrong with these women, anyway? Don't they have enough confidence in themselves? I will never, ever wear make-up!"

Everyone is quiet to see if she is done. She seems to be, and I sigh in relief. This girl, well, she's annoying. She has lots to say, lots of strong opinions, and if she expressed herself in an interesting manner, that would be fine. During her whole tirade, I wondered what she was trying to prove and who she was trying to prove it to. Mostly, I waited for her to shut up.

You know what? I agree with her. I don't wear make-up either: never have, probably never will. I don't even know how to put it on. But I did not shout out that information into the classroom. I sat quietly. Wearing make-up or not is a personal choice, I've made it, and I don't need to scream to the world about it to justify it, which is what I felt like this girl was doing. She'd finally figured out that she didn't belong with the pretty and normal girls and so she'd decided to overcompensate by trying to act like that's a good thing.

And it is a good thing. But when you have to assert yourself like that, it indicates that you believe intellectually that you are better off, but deep down, you still wish you were normal and pretty. And it's not that I never wish I were normal and pretty, but that gets old. So rather than advertise my lack of make-up expertise, I just sit here with my naked face: here I am! Take me or leave me.

Another woman piped up a few minutes later, after one girl talked at length about how women who overuse make-up are just insecure. "It's not insecurity. We're not trying to change who we are or anything dramatic. It's just for if you want to highlight some features or if, you know, have a blemish or something." I wanted to retort, "So you're too insecure to go out in public with a blemish?" But I didn't, because I didn't care that much, and I wasn't going to change any minds. So I sat quietly, blemished, naked face and all.


everyone is smart.

I feel sometimes that my business professor, a young woman seeking her doctorate while teaching night classes at a community college, would be better at teaching kindergarten. She is enthusiastic in everything, wants us all to be involved in class lectures and encourages us to disagree with her whenever we want. She frequently puts us into small groups to discuss things like our favorite style of resume. She brings Whitman Samplers to class and passes them around. Her glass is not only half-full, she probably would be willing to pour some from her glass into all of our glasses, particularly if we needed something to wash down our chocolates. She is constantly fascinated by anything anyone has to say. If another human being finds something worth saying, she'll find it worth listening to.

One evening, a classmate was discribing how a friend of hers acquired some great job. "But," the girl added, "my friend, she is really smart-"

"Everyone is smart!" the teacher interrupted.

A look of confusion likely came over my face the moment I heard those words. No, I'm sorry, ma'am, that is false. I'm hopeful enough to believe that everyone has value, everyone can make a difference, and everyone has their own talents. But not everyone is smart, at least not by any definition of the word I've heard. Of course, I could hardly raise my hand and contradict her on this matter without seeming like an absolute bitch. I could probably even prove to her that her theory was bogus by simply pointing at some person in the class at that very moment. I don't have any specific person picked out, but there was bound to be at least one. I've taken too many college classes to think that idiots don't make it into higher education.

If I had contradicted her, she probably, given her manner, would have assumed that I did so because I felt that I, Sandra, am not smart. That would have turned out even worse for me.

"Um, excuse me? Everyone is not smart."

"Of course they are, don't be ridiculous! Are you smart?"

"Of course. But everyone is not."

So yeah, that would have effectively made me out as a jerk, though it probably would have provided me with a natural alliance with all the other jerks in the class, not all of which would be necessarily smart, but at least they think they are. But no, I sat there silently, and the other jerks did, too. I shook my head and just let the comment roll on by without argument, thinking to myself that no, everyone is not smart, and frankly, lady, I've got my doubts about you.


peoples is peoples.

"So. Of the men at work, who do you think is cheating on his wife?"

I'm at lunch with Jean, the receptionist. She's been having a rough week and declared earlier that she was in full man-hating mode. I'm not much of a man-hater. I've been pissed off at at some man or another many, many times, but I've never really been able to transfer that anger into hating the gender as a whole. Me, I'm still very much in favor of men. Like ice cream and flannel sheets and the sun, men were a good idea. There are good men out there and awful women. Like a Greek man once told Kermit the Frog, "Peoples is peoples."

But Jean's husband is in the doghouse for something, I don't ask what, because I don't want to pry and also because I know I'm not always very good at sympathy. I don't know Jean all that well, and truth be told, I'm afraid that I'll agree with her husband. And so even if I can't be a good man-hater for Jean, I am a girl, and a good girly talk would probably do her good. A strong margarita wouldn't hurt, either. But now she's asked me about the fidelity of the men we work with, and I'm just not sure what to say. I know these men have wives, and I know they have children, but I don't really think of them as sexual beings. It makes them easier to work with.

"Uhh...I don't really know. I'm probably naive, but I tend to assume that everyone is just being a good person unless I hear differently."

"Oh, of course, I do, too. But I answer the phones all day, and I know who is getting calls from other women."

"Well, some of the guys, I dunno, they give me the impression that they had a hard enough time getting someone to marry them in the first place." It's not that the men I work with are repulsive, but, well, they're dorks. They're smart and like computers a lot and are shy. Those things don't add up to having a lot of chicks knocking at their doors.

"Yeah, that's true of some of them. But not all. Some of them have women calling them all the time and not their wives."

"Maybe their mothers?" I'm hopeful. I was happy thinking that the men were all faithful, even the one or two whose morals I would question otherwise. Sure, they all complain about their wives from time to time, but mostly in a trivial way. You know, the have to call the little woman and ask if it's okay to go out for a beer after work kind of way.

"Yeah, right."

"These women call them at work? Why don't the guys tell them to use the backdoor number?" We have a backdoor number that will patch you through to an automated system. If you know the person's extension, you can call him/her directly rather than speak to Jean.

"Because men are stupid."

"I guess." Or maybe men just don't realize that the receptionist would ever take note of these things because they themselves wouldn't. Or maybe they don't feel like they have anything to hide from Jean. Despite my better nature, I start to half-envy Jean's position of power and her ability to get these tiny glimpses into our coworkers' personal lives.

"Do you think Jake runs around on his wife?"

I don't know how to answer these questions. There was really no one who I thought cheated on his spouse before this conversation, and I'm more than a little distraught to have my mental image of everyone's home lives turned upside down. I really don't think Jake cheats on his wife. But what do I know? Maybe he gets lots of phone calls.

"I don't really think so."

"Yeah, I don't either." Relief washes over me. I like Jake a lot, and I think he's overall a good person. Jean continues, "You know who gets a lot of calls? Ben."

"What?" I am shocked. I don't know Ben's wife or much about his home life, but I do know that he's very sweet and helpful, always cheerful even when I know he's tired and frustrated.

"Yup. Same woman, who is not his wife, calls him three, four times a day."

"But he's so nice!" Nice doesn't mean good, I know that. I still feel disillusioned.

"His wife is a little psycho. Bizarre. She suspects him, too."

"How do you know?"

"She calls and asks me if other women have been calling him. She asks where he is if he's not answering his phone."

"What do you say?"

"I tell him he gets business calls, which is true. And if I know he's out somewhere work-related, I tell her. If I don't know where he is, I just say that I don't know."

"Yeah." That makes sense. I'd do the same if I were her. I suddenly don't envy her position anymore.

"So my top three cheaters would be...well, there's Don, of course, but that's a given."

"Yeah, probably." No one much likes Don. He's not a nice person and I don't work with him all that much, so I have no trouble questioning his fidelity. "I imagine his wife is doing the same." For some reason, I feel the need to point out that women aren't always so innocent, too.

"Yeah, well, probably. But there's Ben, Matt, and Tom. That's my top three."

"Matt?" Crap, I like Matt a lot, too.

"If he's not cheating now, he has in the past. Oh, and Richard."

"Richard? I'm not sure about that."

"His wife is a, well, she wears the pants."

"Some men like that." I'm starting to doubt Jean now. Phone calls are one thing (and even that can be a little sketchy as evidence), but suspecting a man of infidelity just because she doesn't care for his wife? Given the right husband, I might someday be accused of wearing the pants. And I know she's hardly rooting for the males right now.

"Well, I guess. But definitely Tom."

"He doesn't seem to like his wife all that much," I sigh, because I think she is probably right. Everyone complains about his spouse, but Tom means his complaints just a little too much. Tom's always been a good guy to me, but even I can't really defend him here.

"He doesn't."

"I don't like to think of those guys this way."

"Men are stupid. I've been trying to watch them and notice their behavior so that I can recognize it if I ever see it in my husband."

"Yeah," I say without enthusiasm. Man-hating seems to be a draining activity.

The rest of the lunch conversation continues without incident, more gossip, but my mood is affected for the rest of the day. I feel conflicted by my impressions of these men, who are all very pleasant and have fun personalities, but may just be lousy cheaters in the end. In fact, I begin to worry why it is they're all so nice to me, though none of them have ever done or said anything inappropriate in that regard. I want reassurance, I want to talk this all over with someone else who knows these people, but it's not like I can tell any of them that Jean is monitoring their phone calls.

I can't be a man-hater, because I know that there are good men out there - I've met them. There are scummy women out there, too, but not even Jean has given up on being friends with females altogether, though no one probably sees how badly women can behave more than other women. No one gender has cornered the market on adultery. And maybe there are some dirty philanderers that walk the halls with me, but it's none of my concern. I can't let a woman who is mad at one man ruin my perspective on all the others. They're just people. Peoples is peoples.


well, are you?

This billboard is on the side of some highway that runs between Raleigh and the beach. I know, because I was on my way from Raleigh to the beach when I saw it.

Are you numb yet?

I assume that this graffiti was done to make a statement, asking all who might be on their way from Raleigh to the beach if they've become so overloaded with stimuli that they no longer feel anything anymore. At least, that was how I interpreted it. Maybe that's just the one I picked because I feel that way sometimes.

Numbness is disconcerting. It's like we know something is there or should be there, but we can't sense it. We only sense its absence. Like going to the dentist and leaving confused, because you certainly had a lower lip when you went in, but it doesn't seem to be there anymore. Now imagine that with your whole body, no, your mind.

I dunno, it seems like there could have been a lot of other, better statements to throw up on a billboard. Maybe even something practical - "Have you brushed your teeth today?" I would not be a very good graffiti artist, because I can never think of something important enough to say in a succinct manner. That's why I blog, instead. All this stuff would not fit on a billboard in such a way that it would be legible from the road. I do like the instant recognition I got from this one, though: If you've felt it, you got it. And if you've not felt it, you likely will someday, and then you'll get it and wish you hadn't.

I am not numb yet. I am sometimes, and I even wish that I were more often, like when something upsets me or hurts me so frequently that I wish I could just build up scar tissue on my feelings. But then I've gotten to the point of being numb like that, and it just seems like nothing's worth it anymore.

Or maybe, someone was just on their way from Raleigh to the beach, and it's a long time to be sitting on your bottom; pretty soon you get the needles and pins in that bottom. Maybe they were just asking about that.


the importance of body language.

Valerie has a pretty face ruined by a sour expression. She sits cross-armed and scowling across from me in my psychology class while the instructor teaches us the importance of body language. On the first day, she introduced herself by saying, "My name is Valerie, I'm from Macon, Georgia, and I hate North Carolina."

Hi, Valerie.

Granted, I find that being somewhere that I do not want to be puts me in a bad mood, too. But I think that if my situation required me to be somewhere that I didn't want to be all the time, I'd make some adjustments. Either I'd find my way back to Georgia or I'd just learn to deal.

I don't know why Valerie has to be in North Carolina, why she came here in the first place, nor why she can't leave. I don't know why she hates it here so much, if it actually has anything to do with the Old North State itself or it's just because it's not Georgia. Mostly I don't understand why she can't just grin and bear it, learn to like it here just for the sake of her sanity. Surely it's easier to like the Tarheel State than it is to be miserable all the time.

I am insulted on behalf of my entire state. This is my home, and I like it here. I want to sit down with Valerie and convince her that North Carolina is better than silly old Georgia anyway. Then I look at her perpetual scowl, and I think that I'd rather her go on back to Georgia, too.