Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The "Pulley System" and Writer's Envy

I've been reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie along with other members of the Third Day Book Club, and I've had a case of writer's envy. Here's somebody a quarter century younger than I am, and she's writing better than I ever will. Worse than that, she's writing in a genre that I would most love to write well in: historical fiction.

The feeling reminded me of a Sydney J. Harris column in which he talks about the "pulley system" of evaluating people:

"On the pulley system, when we go up, someone else goes down, and we go down when somene else goes up. We have no inner stability, because our emotional position keeps shifting in relation to the outside world.

"If I meet a man who writes better than I do, this does not diminish my talents. I still have exactly what I had before, no more and no less. His own gifts do not devalue mine, nor do mine devalue somebody else's."

In our capitalistic world, it's hard not to evaluate ourselves and others accoring to the pulley system. But Harris is right. And I need to be reminded of that when I feel envious.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lincoln, Springfield, and Bloomington, or Geographical Illiteracy in Action

RecentlyI had a group of four come in off the 5 p.m. Trailways bus from Indianapolis, booked to Lincoln, Illinois on the 7:29 p.m. train. A woman from the party asked if there was an earlier train. I told her yes, but that the fare would be higher. They opted to wait for the later train. About half an hour later, she came back, saying she had told the reservation agent she wanted to go to Lincoln, Nebraska. It was one of the busiest times of the day, but it was Friday and there were two of us working the ticket counter. I called the Passenger Services desk in Chicago and talked to a supervisor, who agreed to put the group up in a hotel at Amtrak's expense. I gave them a Conductor Carry notice, which allowed them to ride the 6:11 p.m. train to Chicago. After the train left, I rebooked their reservation from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska for the next day, and back from there to Indianapolis, and then priced it for the remaining value of their tickets.

Amtrak got them to the right Lincoln, but it would have been a lot easier if the reservation agent in Riverside, California had booked them to LNK instead of LCN. And it amazes me that the agent didn't wonder how a train could get from Normal, IL to Lincoln, NE in 30 minutes.

It's a given that millions of Americans are geographically illiterate. You have to work in the transportation business to find out just how ignorant some of us are--including some of us in the travel industry. When I worked for CIT Tours, the travel office of the Italian State Railways, a travel agent asked for oceanfront rooms in Paris and Rome. Regularly, people wanted to take a train from Italy to France. Asked what cities in Italy and France they wanted to travel from and to, such people were clueless.

Of course, the vast majority of Amtrak reservation agents know the difference between LCN and LNK, or LSV (Las Vegas, NM), LVS (Downtown Las Vegas, NV), and LAS (Las Vegas, NV Airport). But with Internet bookings, there are a lot more errors. While the station I work at is in Normal, IL (subject of endless jokes), it's actually called Bloomington-Normal (BNL). So about twice a year, someone shows up looking for Indiana University at Bloomington.

And just down the track from Bloomington and Lincoln is Springfield. It's no accident that the Simpsons live in Springfield. There's one in nearly every state. Perhaps because of the Simpsons, the Springfield, IL station rarely gets people looking for Massachusetts. On the other hand, I've fixed several reservations booked from Pontiac MI (PNT) instead of Pontiac, IL (PON).

I'm hoping to transfer out of BNL soon, to South Bend, IN. It's the only South Bend in the system. And the Amtrak city code is unforgettable: SOB.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Boiled Leaves, or Confessions of an American Misfit

I didn’t realize how far outside mainstream America I was until last February. And I’m not talking about politics. Approximately half the voting public was for Kerry in 2004--maybe more than half if there had been a clean count with no voter suppression in places like Ohio and Florida. I’m a little more left of center than the average Democrat, but not really out of the mainstream. No, I’m talking about that bitter brown liquid most Americans can’t live without.

I was working the early shift that February day. My supervisor, who had not yet met me, came up from St. Louis to check out the station and its relatively new employee. He brought two huge cups of coffee--one for him and one for me. I was a bit nervous at having the boss there for the first time, and I knew that drinking coffee would make me sick. I declined politely. (Even if I had been able to drink it, it would have gotten cold--it was a Friday morning, and the first train--No. 300, the State House to Chicago, was busy.) I got everyone ticketed, and we went out to meet the train. The lounge car attendant had two cups of coffee for us.

There was a slow time between the two trains when I did the station sales report from the previous day. Then it was time for No. 303, the Ann Rutledge, to St. Louis and Kansas City. And the lounge car attendant gave us--you guessed it--two more cups of coffee. I didn’t normally work the early shift on Friday, so the attendants weren’t expecting the only non-coffee drinker in the district to be on duty. (Since then, one very nice attendant has brought me tea.)

I made a pretty good impression on my boss that day, in spite of turning down the coffee. But ever since then I’ve been aware of just how weird I am for not drinking the stuff. I drink a lot of tea--most of it iced, but some hot. And now Patry Francis, the writer and waitress whose blog, simply wait, is home to some of the most elegant prose on the web, has declared the tea drinker to be the bane of the waitress’s life. That blow was softened a little by the fact that many of simply wait’s regular readers, along with Patry herself, drink what Douglas Adams called “boiled leaves.”

While I drink a lot of tea, my favorite morning beverage is chocolate. For health and financial reasons I usually drink artificially-sweetened powdered cocoa, but if I could, I’d drink real hot chocolate. I still dream about the chocolate I had at the Bernini-Bristol Hotel in Rome, where the waiter brought a pitcher of thick, unsweetened chocolate and another of hot milk, which you mixed and sweetened to taste.

If I lived in Britain, or Sri Lanka, or China, where tea is the beverage of choice, I wouldn’t be such a misfit. But I live in America, where most people assume that all adults drink coffee. Maybe the American addiction to coffee dates back to the Boston Tea Party and the tea boycott. Or perhaps it was the Civil War, when Union troops received coffee as part of their rations. (The cigarettes in military rations certainly got a lot of Americans hooked on tobacco.)

I suppose we non-coffee drinkers could get together in support groups, declare ourselves an official minority, and demand the right to order tea without getting rolled eyes or dirty looks. We could picket outside Starbuck’s and spread stories about the dangers of coffee. Tea and chocolate drinkers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your (stomach) pains! But we won’t. We’re pretty mild-mannered. After all, we’re not jittery from too much coffee. We don’t want to ban coffee, or even make it unfashionable. But it would be nice if people who provide beverages--waitresses, well-meaning bosses, lounge car attendants, hotel managers, etc., realized that not all of us drink coffee.