Monday, February 28, 2011

UPS Redux

I thought the UPS fiasco was over. I was wrong. I knew the moment that I heard Jezebel bark. It wasn’t her hey-move-away-from-the-Kellers’-yard bark. No. She barked her human-flesh-is-delicious-and-you-look-tasty bark. Which, of course, meant that a UPS truck had pulled into the driveway.  Jez hates UPS, but she tolerates FedEx.

I ran to the door and opened it just in time to see the slide-and-run delivery method favored by the dog-afraid UPS drivers. I shouted, “NO! That package is not ours.”

The delivery guy came back. I showed him the package and explained that while the address was ours, we were not “Tomas Camp”. I told him of my struggle to get both UPS and Sprint to deal with the problem.

UPS guy: “I’m really sorry. I’ll take care of it.”
 (Note bene: this was not our normal UPS guy.)

Me, totally shocked: “Thanks! I really appreciate it. After all, it’s not your fault.”

UPS guy, taking out his computer and making notations about the package: “No problem.”

Me: Wow.

If I were in charge of UPS, this guy would be Responsible Employee of the Month. And he’d be on the fast track to management.  I’d also have another list: the To Be Fired List. And our local UPS store employee would be on it. You see, I saw the package when the driver tried to deliver it the second time. When Cal returned the package to the UPS Store, he wrote “Not At This Address” on the package and circled it. The UPS Store employee scribbled out Cal’s notation with a black Sharpie and then put the package back in the system. Yeah. Can you believe it? I’m so glad that I don’t have to run a business. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Getting Zinged

Have you ever tried to do the right thing and gotten zinged for it? 

Wednesday, a package showed up at our door.  This is not an unusual occurrence. However, this package wasn’t our package. It had our address, but it was addressed to someone else.  You’d think this would be easy to fix. But you’d be wrong.

First Cal called UPS, and the phone rang and rang. They never answered. I explained that you have to let the phone ring at least fifteen times. He gave me the project of returning the package, which I accepted. Foolish me.

I called UPS. The phone rang and rang and rang. At least, thirty or forty times. I’m tenacious. I did housework while the phone rang. Finally, they disconnected me without even answering.  Cute. So I called The UPS Store. They told me that they couldn’t pick it up and that I’d have to bring it to the regional center.  Um, there’s no way I’m driving down there. She told me that the other option was to pay $10 and refuse the package, then the UPS man would pick it up.  Hello? I’m not paying to return a package that doesn’t belong to me. Besides I wasn’t even here when the stupid thing arrived or I would have refused it then (which is what I should have done apparently).  I told the cranky UPS operator “good-bye” and I called another UPS operator. (When I was in high school, I worked in customer service for a satellite company—the operator you get determines the service you get.)

The new operator told me that it was my problem and she couldn’t do anything about the package. I suggested that I could throw it in the trash. Guess what? She looked up the package.  It came from Sprint and was a cell phone. Then she told me that I had to call Sprint. I asked for their phone number. She told me that she wasn’t authorized to release the number. As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty feisty.

I googled Sprint’s number and called. Apparently, I called the wrong Sprint number. Then I got a bad connection. On my third Sprint call, I explained the whole situation to the customer service rep. Then she asked for my customer identification number. I patiently explained again that I wasn’t a Sprint customer, but that one of their phones got mis-delivered to my house. She said that she understood. I believed her until she asked me for the phone id number. I explained that it was probably on the phone, not on the outside of the box. DUH. (I didn’t say that, I only thought it.) Then, she told me to use the return label on the outside of the box. Of course, there wasn’t a return label on the box. (I did, however, find a ripped half label for some box that’s supposed to be delivered to Oklahoma—I’m sure that box is now in UPS Hades somewhere. But that’s someone else’s story.)

The agent told me to bring it to a Sprint store, which is nowhere near my house.  I asked her to authorize UPS to pick up the package. (According to my children I was whining at this point. They were very excited, they’d never heard me whine before.) The agent sighed and said that she’d try to work it out. I hope so. She promised to call back in thirty minutes after she arranged it. I’m still waiting for the call.

Meanwhile, Tomas Camp, whoever and wherever you are, your cell phone is sitting in a box at our house because neither UPS nor Sprint want to come get it. 

Addendum to the saga: We got tired of waiting for the Sprint phone call that never came. So Cal dropped it off at the local UPS store--they were not happy.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where Dreams Are Born

I'm experiencing a case of blogger's block today. And instead of burdening you with paragraphs of drivel, I decided to post a photo.  I love to see pictures of other writers' desks, writing spaces, etc.  Here's mine.

The desk is perfect for me. Two locking glass cabinets where I store everything from old manuscripts to my favorite dictionary and thesaurus to the Chicago Manual of Style. It has a leather-lined drop desktop that my computer sits on and has lots of cubby holes for everything from keepsakes to the Waterman fountain pen that I hope to sign my first contract with. (The pen was a gift when I won a writing award.)

There's the chair too. It's comfortable and I can raise and lower the height. The problem is that it's in desperate need of a re-upholstering. A project for the summer when I'm querying and I need to keep my hands and mind busy.

I hope you enjoyed seeing where my dreams are born.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Robotics is over. This past Saturday, Matt and Jacob and their team went to the State FTC (First Technix Challenge) Championships. In FTC, the teams build robots to perform specific challenges with a time period.  (For those of you who know something about it, they use an NXT brain, Robot C programming language, a Samantha unit for communication, and then, of course, the body made from Tetrix, and any other allowed components.)

This was the team’s first year in FTC (though they’d been involved in robot building for a younger age group before). When we arrived at the competition, the other teams came to scope out our robot—trying to figure out if we were serious competition. People weren’t too impressed with our team’s robot—no flashing lights, no expensive parts, no cool systems. I saw the polite, condescending looks. But as Han Solo says, “Hey, she’s got it where it counts.” Our robot Hannibal (named after the general, not the serial killer) had it where it counted.

One of the benefits to being a poor team that’s actually run by the kids (instead of the parents, which we saw a lot of) is that they’re forced to be creative. KISS (keep it simple, stupid) becomes the mantra of choice. They’re forced to design a robot where each part performs at least two functions, instead of four parts that perform one. Guess which design work better when you’re in a timed competition?  Yep, Hannibal.

Our kids scoped out the other robots, especially the cool ones with all the expensive parts and flashing lights. Jacob asked the team how they ran the synchronized lights. They told him that they ran it through their main computer program. Jacob said, “Oh.” He thought, “That will make your robot so slow to respond.” 

Fast forward to the actual competition.  After twenty-four rounds of competition, our homely robot was in first place. Robotics is not a beauty pageant. Where form follows function and not vice versa, success tends to follow. Then the team learned that success frequently breeds envy. One of the judges took us aside and explained that there was a lot of jealousy and another team was trying to get our team disqualified. The judge assured us that our team and robot had done nothing wrong, but that the “sour grapes” were spreading. (We were a first year team, and people felt we hadn’t paid our dues.)

After the twenty-four rounds, the top four teams had a play off.  In our first round, we lost the ability to communicate with our Samantha unit. (We found out later that the building we were using had cellphone blockers, which hadn’t been turned off, and caused us to lose communication.) So we ended up not being able to score any points. At the end of the round, the other teams cheered loudly when we lost. But our team handled themselves well and the judges said how impressed they were by the team’s embodiment of “gracious professionalism.”  And, no, they did not allow us to re-run the play off. So, we didn’t take first place, and I don’t know yet whether we won any awards. At midnight, we left the competition before the awards were given out (which was supposed to be done four hours earlier), we had a two and one half drive home and I’m not great on the roads in the wee hours of the morning.

We may be back next year, but our sponsor, who was very pleased, wants to get enough corporate backing to move the team to the highest level.  In the meantime, life is getting back to normal. But watch out—“Hannibal ad portas.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Didn’t the Weeds Die?

Spring has peeked around the corner in Chattanooga. It was in the mid 70s today. Which means that I was running the air conditioner in the car. Normally, I’d just open my windows, but I was going to a meeting and my hair does not hold up to the windblown look. Instead of looking pleasantly tousled, my hair sticks out at odd angles and I look like a refugee from a disaster movie.

But my hair woes are not the subject of this post. And neither are the daffodils whose lovely flower buds are starting to swell. And neither is my hellebore, which has clearly forgotten to bloom. I plan to gnash my teeth about that soon enough. No, the subject of this post is why my weeds aren’t dead.

When we lived in New England, come late October I’d begin to grin at the weeds. I’d taunt them. “Grow, you vile mutant plants, because winter is around the corner and your evil roots and prickly stems are going to freeze solid. Bwahaha.” Since we had a nasty winter in Chattanooga this year, I was rubbing my hands in anticipation of a weedless lawn and flower beds. I was disappointed. My grass isn’t green, but Luke’s going to have to mow on Saturday because the weeds are growing like...well, weeds.  

I know a ton of weed seeds blow in from our neighbor’s yard. She doesn’t have grass, she has a weed patch. I’d love to hex her yard, but I don’t believe in hexes so that doesn’t work. But regardless of the contributions of her weed turf, I have weeds that have overwintered. They were tiny shoots of weediness in the fall that I felt certain would die, die, die. Instead, they spread their loathsomeness and grew virile.

I refuse to take this weed offensive lying down. Every time I venture outside, I pull handfuls of weeds (the family wonders why it takes me so long to get the mail), though the piles of dead weeds everywhere will soon answer their questions.

But here’s my question. Why did the weeds overwinter? I’m sure there’s an explanation, a good scientific one.  But I’m leaning towards a more diabolical answer—world domination by genetically-engineered vetch, dandelions, and nut grass. What do you think?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Waiting is Good

Hurray! (Imagine me throwing confetti and doing the happy dance.) I finished the edit of my literary fiction novel. But I didn’t throw confetti or even eat a chocolate bar. Instead, I brooded.  And I decided that something was wrong with the ending.  I really liked the ending that last time I read it.  Seven years ago.

After a period of self-flagellation, I decided that the ending might be tolerable. In fact, I was probably suffering from I’ve-worked-on-this-so-long-and-so-hard-that-I-have-no-perspective-on-my-work-and-I’m-in-danger-of-ruining-something-good.  I have suffered this malady before. The last bad case I had, my beta reader emailed me and said something along the lines of “Why on earth did you cut the heart and soul out of the story, you lunatic?  Please tell me you have an original copy.”  Actually, she said it much more nicely than that. After throwing neatly filed papers all over my writing nook, I eventually found a copy of the original so I could put the heart and soul back into my story... Now that I think about it, the story that I exorcised the heart and soul out of was the first three chapters of this book.  Hmm. That doesn’t bode well, does it?

In a twist of irony, my kind beta emailed last night and told me that she’s planning to delete a few hunks of her novel.  My advice?  WAIT!

N.B. For those of you who aren’t familiar with “betas,” they’re people who read the completed novel and give kind words of encouragement and criticism.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Can't Buy Me Love

I’m not usually big on holidays—mostly because of commercialization. Don’t get me wrong, I make turkey for Thanksgiving, ham for Christmas, lamb on Easter, and on Oct. 3, I make hutspot. Hutspot is a carrot and potato mash and celebrates Dutch political and religious freedom. (And, yes, the mash tastes much better than it sounds.)

But these holidays are real and celebrate something of historical weight. Valentine’s Day, not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I believe love is real. I just don’t think a Hallmark card, a box of chocolates, or an expensive dinner has a lot to do with real love.

Real love was the other morning when Cal told me, “I’ll make breakfast. You sleep in. You were up all night at ER with your mom and dad” (which explains why there was no blog post on Friday). It was years ago when Cal volunteered to take an extra Matt session. When Matt’s autism was severe, he only slept 3 hours out of 24—the rest of the time he screamed. So to take an extra Matt session meant another hour plus of rocking a screaming child who would not be comforted. That beat any Hallmark card hands down.

It’s the two of us replacing a bathroom sink, painting the sliding, figuring out how to put in insulation—it’s the hundred projects we’ve done together where we laugh, mutter imprecations against direction writers who clearly don’t know English, and where I step in the paint tray (it happens with every painting project we’ve ever done).

Yes, I’ll say “Happy Valentine’s Day” to Cal and tell him that I love him. And he’ll do the same. Then tomorrow, we’ll go to the store and buy conversation hearts at half price—which is my favorite part of Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Face Blindness, Part Two

Since my last post on face blindness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I identify people.  Especially because many people have asked me. It’s not an easy question to answer because they’re asking me to compare my experience with something that I’ve never experienced before.

The truth is that until I was tested if someone had asked me if I was face blind, I would have said “no.” How do you know you’re missing something if you’ve never experienced it? In fact, I was in my thirties before I realized there was something odd about me and faces. One of my writing crit partners was talking to me about describing faces in my writing (something that I frequently forget to do). She knew that I’m a visual writer—i.e., I “see” the scene in my head and then I write it down. She asked me to “see” my characters and describe their faces. So I visualized my characters (yes, I can actually see them in my mind). Then when I tried to describe their faces, I realized they didn’t have faces, just fuzziness where a face should be.  I don’t know what was more shocking to me, the fact that they didn’t have faces, or that fact that I’d never noticed before.

The last few weeks I began to wonder how I recognize people. I obviously wasn’t identifying them by their faces. When I was at WalMart, for a second, I thought I recognized my friend Sharmon. But it wasn’t her.  In fact, this woman looked nothing like my friend. Sharmon has dark hair; this woman was blond. Sharmon is fair; this woman was tanning salon dark. (Thankfully, this woman was scrutinizing lettuce so she didn’t notice me staring.)  What I “recognized” was that these two women shared the same haircut and hair texture. They were about the same height and had the same build. Those must be some of the categories I unconsciously use to distinguish people, in the same way that other people use faces.

Another example is a friend of ours from church. I’ve seen this man at least once or twice a week for over four years. Yet, when he posted on his Facebook page that he’d had eye surgery and didn’t need to wear glasses anymore, I was surprised. I didn’t know he wore glasses—even though he’s worn them every day that I’ve seen him. That same Sunday his wife mentioned how different he looked now that he’d shaved his beard too. I said something along the lines of “Oh, right,” but I had no idea that he’d had a beard.

If I close my eyes and try to picture Calvin’s face in my head, I can’t. If I try to picture a photo of him that hangs on our wall, I can drum up a vague representation of what he looks like. But it fades quickly.

In the end, I wonder how many people I’ve treated like complete strangers who weren’t. And then there’s the time I was waiting for a flight and the actress Lily Tomlin was sitting a few rows away.  I kept starring at her, wondering why there was something familiar about her—or at least something familiar about the red Converse high tops that she wore. During those hours, I garnered evil looks from her body guard, but that’s another story.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Real Math People

If you’ve grown up as the one non-math person in a math family, you probably know this. If not, this may be interesting to you.  Real math people don’t do numbers. Seriously.  In our family, I am the token non-math person, which means that I have to keep score when we play games. Kind of pathetic really, given that I reverse numbers.  Is it any wonder that I usually win games?

But this is what many serious math people are like. (I know since I have several non-math friends who grew up in math families.) The other day, Ariel was at the library finishing a matrix when Luke and Duncan arrived (they’d just finished Spanish class). Ariel said, “Quick, I’m almost done with this matrix. Tell me what’s 12 – 6?”  Duncan whose siblings are not total math geeks said, “uh, six.”

Luke, who has experience, said, “Seven.”

Ariel said, “It’s not seven because seven is odd. When you subtract an even number from an even number you get an even number.  I can write a proof for that. So, seven can’t be right.”

Duncan said, “How can you know the proof and not know that 12 – 6 = 6?”

Welcome to our world, Duncan.

It’s not usual while Ariel is doing homework to hear her call out, “What’s 8 x 4?”

I yell back, “32.”  Then I grumble about that state of her math facts ability.

This semester Ariel is so impressed with her Advanced Linear Algebra and Matrix Theory professor because he “can actually divide two digit numbers in his head.”  A lot of math profs can’t.  I refrain from saying, “I can divide in my head too” because I know it wouldn’t be nearly so impressive—I’m not a math person so apparently it’s not an accomplishment.

So those of you who can’t remember math facts...apparently you’re just real math people.  Aren’t you glad that you know?

Friday, February 4, 2011

If It’s Friday, It’s Clean-the-Bathroom Day

Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong century.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love my laptop and I have no Luddite tendencies. (Well, only a few, and they only rear their ugly heads when I’m on hold with tech support.)

But I have a lot of Old World habits. My mother immigrated to the US with her parents, and they brought their old ways with them. I learned them. (Sociologists say that mothers enculturate their children. Sorry, Dad.)  Of course, some of these habits mystify my husband.  For example, I believe chocolate is near to a sacrament. It should be served on a fancy plate. Each square must be savored over a period of fifteen minutes, at least. He gobbles his chocolate and then wants mine—because, he thinks, I must not like it if it takes me that long to eat it. No, dear one, I like to let the chocolate melt on my tongue and take me to chocolate heaven. And, if you touch my chocolate, you may find yourself missing a few fingers.

But chocolate reverence isn’t the only Old World experience that impacts my family.  It’s Old World structure.  My grandmother has told me that when she was young everyone in her small town in South Holland did certain chores on certain days. For example, Monday morning was Scrub the Steps day.  So every housewife scrubbed the steps on Monday. (They scrubbed them on Thursday too—you’d better clean those steps before they get dirty). Now, granted, I don’t scrub my outside steps. At least, I wait until they get moss on them.

But every day of my week has assigned chores:

1. Monday is post-weekend tidying and house projects. Conveniently, most of our plumbing problems have occurred on Mondays.  For example, last Monday that bathroom pipe blew out. In my mind, time had already had been set-aside for the repair.  Not in Cal’s mind, however. He was planning to do taxes. But they got shoved aside in favor of a functioning bathroom.

2. Tuesday is writing day. (Not really a house chore, but since the kids have music lessons, classes, etc., I write while they learn. I have to redeem the time in some way.)

3. Wednesday is baking day. Matthew can’t digest gluten so I make him gluten-free bread—which is a bit like baking with different kinds of dust. The various “flours” like brown rice, tapioca, potato starch, and teff are all so fine that after baking, a layer of edible dust covers the kitchen surfaces. Since the kitchen is filthy already, it makes sense to bake everything on one day.

4. Thursday is ironing day, which isn’t so bad because I stream a Netflix movie. So it’s actually fun to iron 9 dress shirts and 9 dress pants and whatever else we’ve worn the previous 7 days.

5. Friday is clean-the-bathroom-and-master-bedroom-and-wash-bedding day. There's nothing like going to bed on Friday night in a pristine room with the scent of furniture polish and Pinesol clinging to the air. (Yeah, that mystifies Cal too.)

6. Saturday is clean-everything-else day and cook for Sunday. It’s also our WalMart date. The two of us go to WalMart and shop.  I realize that doesn’t sound like a “date,” but it’s all a matter of perspective—time with your husband without any interruptions is a date. Okay, WalMart has it’s own interruptions, especially at the beginning of the month when it gets swamped by the crazies.  But that’s another post.

Notice there’s no laundry day. That’s because with six adults and near adults, every day is laundry day.

So, am I the only one who lives by a chore schedule?  Fess up. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I’ve been doing something naughty. As a writer. I’ve been sending out queries for my mystery without having written a synopsis. If you’re not a writer, you’d think writing a novel was enough. It’s not. (To my non-writing friends, this will explain why writers talk to themselves. It’s not that we’re practicing our character’s dialogue—actually, I do that—but the real reason is that the querying process has left us a bit unhinged.)

After the novel, you must write two other things: query letter and a synopsis

A query is a letter, ideally 250 words, that

1. Introduces you to an agent.

2. Tells the agent about your book.

3. Gives them a glimpse of the tone and voice of your book.

4. Reveals key information so that the agent thinks that your book is one thousand times better than the other 300 books they’ve been queried about this week.  (Yeah, agents get about 300 queries a week.)

5. Finishes with your qualifications for writing the novel, which isn’t “I own a word processor.”

All that in 250 words, which is about one half a page.

Besides the query, you write a synopsis. A synopsis:

1. Must not usually be longer than one page, single spaced. (Some agents will let you have two or more pages, but then you have to have multiple synopses. I’d rather eat cockroaches than write two synopses.)

2. Must be written in third person, present tense (regardless of what the novel is written in). Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s so agents can tell who has done their research, “Aha, you wrote this in first person, so I’m deleting it. Neener.”

3. Must cover all major plot points, but not in an outline or “then this happened” format.  It must be presented in an organic/fluid way.

4. Must characterize all major characters, but only by weaving it into the action/plot of the story.

5. Must clarify each character’s motives.

6. Must actually be fun/gripping to read.

I’ve heard an ugly rumor that while queries are necessary, synopses are required as weeders. In other words, if you can write a good synopsis, maybe you can write a decent book.  There’s probably some truth to that. 

But that’s where I’ve been bad. I’ve sent out queries without the synopsis done. I know that I need to do it. But it’s so much more fun to pretend that I don’t. I got very lucky when a partial was requested without a request for a synopsis. Whew! But my luck can’t hold for much longer.  And a lot of agents require a synopsis with a query. (I’ve avoided submitting to those.)  But it’s time.

I think the only way that I’m going to get this done is if I bribe myself.  I’m considering a bar of Lindt dark chocolate with sea salt. Does anyone out there have any suggestions how I should reward myself when I finish the dreaded synopsis?