Monday, October 25, 2010


I don't know why I like Halloween so much, but I do. I understand, from talking with one of my new neighbors, we're not likely to get any trick-or-treaters on this street. How disappointing. I love All Hallow's Eve. Here on Riverbend Drive, a little witch is tied to the door knocker; two small ceramic jack-o-lanterns flicker on the dining room table (thanks to battery-powered tea-lights);and an electric jack-o-lantern leers from the kitchen window into the night's darkness. Three fresh pumpkins await the knife--probably Saturday morning.

We'll buy a bag of chocolate bars--"just in case." I find our obsession with hygienic treats a huge contrast to the attitudes and ignorance of my childhood. My mother always had imaginative ideas for original Halloween treats (I wonder how she ever thought of them without the help of Parents Magazine or Martha Stewart) for the dozens of trick-or-treaters who lived in our neighborhood. Because I was somewhat sickly as a grade schooler, Mother frequently pressed me into service as time ran short Halloween afternoon. Despite whatever cold, cough, or fever kept me home from school, I'd help wrap homemade treats--popcorn balls, molasses cookies, orange homemade sugar cookies--in decorative waxed-paper bags and tied them with ribbon.

One of the cutest treats we ever gave out were black gumdrop spiders --with legs made from black fuzzy pipe cleaners snipped to leg length--and small licorice gumdrop heads toothpicked onto the bodies. I handled each and every spider multiple times. When they were done, we wrapped them in Halloween-themed paper napkins and tied them with a black bow. I wonder how many costumed goblins who came to our door caught whatever virus I had . . .

Although I cringe with guilt thinking about those "germdrops," I was saddened when I learned last year that my granddaughters' school allows no homemade treats ever. Nowadays, even birthdays are celebrated with "store-bought" foods, not the lovingly made treats (typically cupcakes) enjoyed by my children in grade school. Obviously, there won't be any black gumdrop spiders brought to the classroom by an eager parent.

This year, Hubby and I hope to need the contents of a bag of mini-chocolate bars (we'll probably talk ourselves into two bags, just in case), but if no one rings our doorbell on trick-or-treat night, we'll undoubtedly gobble it all ourselves. Oh, darn . . . we'll try not to begrudge the little goblins their opting-out of our neighborhood.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blogged down

I was talking to a fellow writer about feeling guilty over getting behind and/or ignoring my blog. I told her I felt bogged down. Lightbulb! "Blogged down," I corrected myself. She laughed and nodded her head in agreement. Because she also writes a blog, Healthcare Annotator (a technical and well-researched one, I might add), my friend could readily understand feeling "blogged down." It in no way implies that keeping up a blog is not enjoyable. It's immensely satisfying on many levels. But my lack of writerly discipline is transparent (the overworked adjective that every politician insists is necessary in government). Everyone knows when I'm slacking off, so I wish my inability to write regularly were not quite so transparent.

Now that we are settling into our new home, I'm hopeful that I will get back to my hour-a-day writing habit. I used to churn out three or four personal essays a month with that schedule. Whether it's writer's block, laziness, or just being blogged down . . . I've been unable to get much done lately. There are several stories buzzing around in my brain, but not quite ready for paper. Or the ether.

In the meantime, I will continue to update BeatsTalkingToMyself on a sporadic timeline.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The science of halfalogues

I just learned a new word: halfalogue. Even without a definition, I knew what it meant. What a perfect word to describe hearing only half a phone conversation (or any conversation between two people where one voice is undecipherable).

It seems that scientists have discovered an important truth about halfalogues. They are more distracting than hearing a full dialogue. This conclusion was drawn after many people were tested doing computer tasks while conversations ran (at varying volumes) in the background. Subjects kept their concentration better when full conversations were playing than when half-conversations were playing.

I laughed aloud as I read the findings of this study in today's Wall Street Journal. All my life I've known how distracting just a one-sided conversation is, from my kindergarten years while my mother chatted on the telephone with her friends (I would question her as soon as she hung up--"What's wrong with Susie?"), and even the phone calls to the grocer to place the semi-weekly order ("Did he have liver? Do I have to eat it?"). How often I sat in the kitchen straining to hear (or listened from the top of the stairs after being sent to bed) the conversations of my parents and their friends socializing. I could never hear the whole thing, just pieces and snippets--enough to make my imagination go into overtime.

I have learned not to interrupt him when Hubby is on the phone. Even if he says something I think is erroneous, I wait until he's finished, because--as he is quick to point out--I don't know the context because I can't hear the other side of the conversation. It's easy to get the other side from him, however, not like hearing total strangers' halfalogues. I love listening to those!

It's the cell phone calls that really suck me in--whether they are happening outside my car in a ferryboat line, in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the next table at a restaurant or a theatre lobby. I find myself imagining what's being said on the other end, and even--several times I have written a short story based on what I had creatively filled in as I listened. Here are two halfalogues that inspired me within the last few years:

"No, Grandfather, I haven't had a drop since that night." . . . "No, I'm not sh-ttin' you . . . even though Johnny might have told you different" . . . "I miss you, Grandfather. When are you getting out?" . . .

"Don't write these down--2, 17, 9." . . . "Yup, like a padlock: right, left, right." . . . "The stuff is right there in a bag." . . . "When you're done, call the other number. Hang-up, then call again and I'll answer."

You get the picture. Part of it is the writer in me, part of it is the nosy person in me, part of it is my innate curiosity. But now I know I'm not an anomaly, but simply reacting normally to the distraction of the halfalogue.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


After we decided to move four miles from the house we’d lived in for twenty-three years, Hubby and I discovered we had to get a new phone number because our new address was in a different area code. Reluctantly, we signed up with the new phone company and selected new phone number. We were given a choice of three numbers to pick from—and agreed one would be easy to remember. Within days of our move we began to get an excessive amount of “wrong number” calls from friendly, female-sounding robots. The calls were always for the same person.

Robot, identifying company: “May I speak to Donald E____?” (always his full name).

Hubby or I: “No”

Robot: “May I leave a message with you for Donald E_____?”

Hubby or I: “No.

Robot: “Thank you . . . I will try again another day.”

In less than a month, my husband and I had taken about twenty such calls.

Hubby and I began to draw conclusions about Donald. He was old (Medicare Part C provider called), in need of health services (hospital-clinic appointment desk called ), and unable to get around on his own (Medicab was a third caller). We speculated: perhaps he had gone to live with his daughter, or needed the services of a rehab center, or maybe he had taken up residence in oblivion where no phones are needed—ever.

I called our phone service provider, BomBast, to find out about the previous owner of “our” telephone number. When I couldn’t get through on the phone (you can’t reach the phone company by phone?), I reluctantly took its suggestion and went to the Internet BomBast Service Desk Chat Room. I have spent two decades avoiding chat rooms—they make me think of dark, unsavory and smoke-filled bars. But I gritted my teeth and connected myself for the next available online service representative. It was 10:15 a.m.

As I waited, I was instructed to type my own name, the account holder’s name (in our case, Hubby), the last four digits of his social security number, our current street address and telephone number, and my e-mail address. Next, I was advised to read through the Frequently Asked Questions in case my problem was already covered by someone else (fat chance). Finally, when prompted for my concern, I typed six sentences, thankful that there was enough space to explain what I wanted. When I pushed enter, I was informed I had exceeded the allowable limit of words. I calmed myself and typed two questions:

1.) How long was our phone number out of service before it was reassigned to us?

2.) Do you know, by any chance, if the previous assignee of this number is dead?

I waited. Then these words appeared, “Service Representative is typing,” followed by this actual (but slightly abridged) typewritten dialogue:

IRENE: Hello, Sara. Thank you for contacting BomBast Live Chat Support. My name is Irene. Please give me one moment to review your information. . . (PAUSE) . . . My pleasure to have you on this chat, Sara! I always remain committed and focused to provide you quality customer service at my fullest effort. Before anything else, I want to extend apologies for any trouble, inconvenience, and frustration that has brought along your way. I still honestly hope you’re fine . . .(PAUSE) . . .How are you doing today?

SARA: I’m fine.

IRENE: That’s good to know. I believe you want to know if your phone number is active. Am I right?

SARA: NO! I KNOW it’s active! We’ve used it every day for a month. But I am getting many automated calls for someone else. That’s why I’m calling.

IRENE: Oh, I see. I will be more than happy to check on that. No worries. As your BomBast service representative, I want you to know that issue resolution and your satisfaction are my top priorities for today. (Yeah, right!) Together, we can work this out Sara. (No, you work it out.)

IRENE: Before we begin, I would like to verify your account. May I know your account number, name on the account, and the last four digits of the account holder’s Social Security Number please? (Fuming, I retype requested information.) Thank you for that information. I have your account now. The account holder is Hubby, right?

SARA: Yes.

IRENE: As I can see it here, the phone number listed on your account is . . .
( She types our old, out-of-service telephone number.)

SARA: NO! That is our OLD number! My phone number is . . . (I type in my current number for the third time.) Our phone service is through BomBast! Don’t you have our NEW number in your files? You guys—BomBast—assigned it to us and hooked it up!

IRENE: I think . . . (PAUSE) . . . I need to update it here on my end . . .(PAUSE) . . . I can see it here. Yes, the phone number you want is already on your account. Is there anything else that I can assist you with for now?

SARA: I am inquiring about the number we are using NOW! (Steam is emitting from my nostrils.) How long was it out of service BEFORE it was assigned to us? It’s new for us. Why it was vacated? Did that person die?

IRENE: Yes. The prior person died. I think it’s about . . . months.

SARA: “About months?” How many? Four? Six?

IRENE: Yes. It does not appear the exact month here. Is there anything else I can assist with? (I am speechless for a moment, then finally answer) . . .

SARA: No thanks.

IRENE: Thank you for choosing BomBast as your service provider and making it a part of your life. (Bombast shouldn’t be a part of my life, the telephone should be.) BomBast appreciates your business and values you as a customer. Our goal is to provide you with excellent quality service. Have a great night and take care! (Night? at 11 a.m.?)

I’m waiting for Donald’s next phone call. I’m sorry he’s dead, but I’m going to take uncharacteristic pleasure in breaking the news of his demise to a series of companies represented by robots.