Saturday, November 1, 2014

National Not Writing a Novel Month

So, every November for the last decade or so, I've started writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I've managed most years to finish the required 50,000 words (which is quite a bit shy of an actual novel, but constitutes a respectable start), but I have yet to take the next step and actually finish writing, editing, and attempting to publish any of those poor, forgotten stories. (One of these languishes despite my darling husband's frequent requests to know what happens next.)

That said, I've decided this year to take a pass on NaNoWriMo and instead focus on a few things that might have a more positive impact on my life.

First, because November is the month in which we Americans celebrate our feast of Thanksgiving, I'm going to repeat my practice of naming (most likely on Facebook) something for which I am grateful each day this month. These may be simple things or grand ones. I may repeat myself a time or two, though I'll try to find a unique thing for which to be mindfully grateful every day.

Second, I'm going to get rid of something every day this month, either by donation if the item is in good repair and can be of use to someone else or by elimination if the item is broken, ruined, or otherwise valueless. The item might actually be a collection of items, e.g. a box of clothes or household goods that can go to the local charity shop or a stack of paper scraps I feel certain I'll get around to using in my collage some day. In fact, most days I expect to exceed my goal on this effort, but I won't get too far ahead of myself.

I'm making this month a time for letting go of what I no longer need to make more room for those things (and people and practices) in life that bring me great joy.

Feel free to follow my progress through what I'm calling "NaNoWriNoMo" or to play along if you like.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The legacy of heroes

"The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example." -- Benjamin Disraeli

This morning, Memorial Day, I realized to my own embarrassment that I do not know where the war memorial is in my current home town. In fact, I'm not even certain one exists. I did a quick search online and couldn't really find evidence of one, but I suspect one stands in the old, decrepit cemetery on the outskirts of the local college campus where lie the bones of the town's founders and other luminaries. Chance are good that I'll take a walk later in search for it.

Dunlevy War Memorial (photo by Susan Sparks)
Such was not the case in my childhood. My little town's war memorial occupied a place of prominence and pride that I could see clearly from the porch of my mother's house. A shrine made of brick and stone, it bore the names of Dunlevy's war dead, names shared by their fathers and sons and nephews and cousins who still lived in the town. The memorial stood at the end of a long street in the "bottoms," that part of town between the railroad tracks and the river, flanked by the local barge-building enterprise on one side and the boat club and Giuseppe Garibaldi Hall on the other.

When I was young, the local military honor guard from the VFW travelled around the valley from town to town, holding services at each small memorial, paying honor to the war dead among their families and descendants. The detail always arrived in Dunlevy for services at 11 a.m., rain or shine, but I somehow remember only the days of blazing sun and brilliant blue sky. We woke up early, offered help (or more often hindrance) to the women who prepared a mid-day meal to be served to the veterans in the Garibaldi Hall after the service, shoring them up for services in other towns through the afternoon. 

I remember the sound of wind snapping the always-new-for-the-occasion American flag that hung above the memorial. I remember sizable crowds of people gathered, heads bowed in reverence, while the chaplain spoke words about honor, valor, sacrifice. I remember how I held my breath and felt my heart jump in my chest as the honor guard fired their guns -- once, twice, three times.  I remember the metallic jingle of spent shell casings falling to the pavement between rounds and how my friends would reach for them, careful not to burn their fingers. I remember, too, the sound of "Taps," played sadly, somberly, often by a local Boy Scout, my friend Paul who that day became something more than just a boy with a bugle. 

I remember the uniforms and the stories the veterans would tell as they ate lunches of ham salad sandwiches, potato salad, coffee and beer. I remember feeling connected to the past, feeling anxious about the future, wondering how many more names would find their way onto that small memorial.

It may seem weird that I grow nostalgic on Memorial Day more than on any other holiday, but my memories of that day loom large. They remind me of how much sacrifice has gone into protecting and preserving our freedom. They remind me to be grateful.

To those who gave their lives, and to the families they left behind, thank you. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Up the (Amazon) River without a Paddle (or a stabby thing)

So, my trusty old Kindle gave up the ghost and went to the land of screen-freeze with lines and partial page image and everything. Yes, I tried the little restart button trick, and it didn't work. (So don't bother trying to mansplain that to me, okay?)

I got a lot of great reads out of that Kindle, and I'm so delighted with every aspect of Kindle's design, that I just went ahead and ordered a new one, this time a Paperwhite. The device arrived today in perfect working order, and I happily plugged it in to charge and set it up with my existing account. During the set-up process, I very clearly selected English (US) as my language of choice and assumed that would let Amazon and the kindle know that I would only need a User Manual (more on this in a bit) in one language: English.

So, imagine my surprise when I logged into and discovered that I have two full pages of alternate language editions of the Kindle User Manual as well as few alternate language editions of the Free Dictionary. Here's a screen cap of just the first page of my Manage Your Kindle (MYK) interface.

Fair enough, some ghost in the machine screwed up, and I got not one, but two (sometimes three) copies of the Kindle User Manual added to my library in Italian, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Japanese, and US English (thank heavens!). I also got copies of all the Free Dictionaries associated with those languages.

I mentioned already that I selected US English as my language of choice when I set up the device, right?

Anyway, as a person who frequently borrows library books on my Kindle, I need to use the Manage Your Kindle section to select which device I want my books delivered to and to return books when I'm done reading them. I like the Manage Your Kindle interface because it's pretty simple, doesn't try to overcomplicate things, and allows me to do things like delete content I no longer wish to have in my library (like a collection of absolutely awful fantasy novels I picked up on the recommendation of someone I no longer consider a friend).

So, savvy Kindle owner and Amazonian loyalist (from the customer side, at least) that I am, I attempted to delete the unwanted manuals and dictionaries using the MYK's handy Action menu, a dropdown that allows me to send content to a device, open content in the Cloud Reader, download content, and delete content. Except, apparently, 20 or so alternate language editions of the user manual. When I attempt to delete them, I am chided --in red no less-- "Deletion of this item category is not supported in MYK."

It's important to note at this point that all these copies of the same damned user manual and their attendant dictionaries are not actually on my new device. They're just in my Library, taking up the first two screens of a content management tool that I use pretty frequently. Now, I can bypass them after the page loads in its default view by simply selecting my "books" from a dropdown or by breadcrumbing through the screens to get to a place where content that I actually have and want on my Kindle resides. But that's bullshit. It's a really lousy customer experience and speaks volumes about Amazon's shoddy approach to UI/UX design for user tools on the website.

So, frustrated by (a) the presence of unwanted content and (b) my inability to remove it from my library, I contacted customer service using their "chat" tool.

That went well.

The little screen cap here represents the first ten or fifteen minutes of my interaction with the level 1 CS rep. After not being understood or even listened to for about ten minutes, I asked to be escalated. The next level was unable to help me, but he did provide me with an answer that basically just mimicked the website's admonition that "Deletion of this item category is not supported in MYK."

I was less than satisfied with this exchange, told the CS rep so, and signed out of chat before using any of the colorful and expressive epithets and oaths I felt very much like swearing at that point.

I did what anyone who makes websites for a living would do: I turned to customer service email to vent my spleen. The text of that email follows:

Troubleshoot my Kindle > LA's Kindle Paperwhite

I just purchased a new Kindle Paperwhite. Much to my chagrin, this purchase has loaded about 20 editions of the Kindle User Guide in a variety of languages into my library (not to my device), and they are occupying the first two pages of my Manage Your Kindle interface. When I attempt to delete them, I am told, "Deletion of this item category is not supported from MYK.

I like to use MYK, especially for delivering library books. I like it because it's a pretty easy-to-use, well designed interface. Sadly, it is now an enormous irritation because I can't even see actual content I might want on my Kindle unless I sort by content type for books or simply breadcrumb my way through the third page of listings.

Why, please tell me, are all these alternative language editions of the user manual in my library? Please, please tell me there's a way I can get rid of them or suppress them from showing up at the top of my MYK list.

I just had the absolute worst customer service encounter I've ever had in Amazon Chat, and I'm hoping this one will work out a little better.

If the answer is simply, "Sorry, you're stuck with twenty versions of a User Manual you don't even really need in English because the device is so brilliantly and intuitively designed," I guess I'll just have to learn to live with that.

But I'm holding out hope that you can do better.


About a half-hour later, I got an email response from the same CS rep who let me down in chat, reiterating that "Deletion of this item category is not supported in MYK." He assured me he would pass my feedback along to the developers. My favorite sentence from this email reads "If you need any further assistance please let us know so that we can assist you accordingly. " 

Well... I'll think about it, but it seems bloody unlikely that you'll be able to give me any assistance until somebody fixes this flaw in your website, and I don't expect that'll happen any time soon. Thanks, Customer Service. Have a nice life.

So, having vented all this, I do feel a little better, but I am reminded that a curmudgeonly colleague of mine pointed out to me when he learned of my old Kindle's demise that paper books never fail. He's right. And brick-and-mortar stores don't send customers home with a stack of 20 or more user manuals in languages they neither speak nor read and tell them they won't be able to simply drop them in the recycling bin. Or, better still, burn them in a great, conflagration of vengeful gratification.

I'll return, in conclusion, to the rather complimentary observation I made in my CS email. The irony of all the User Manual overload is that the Kindle is such a well-designed device that the manual --even in my native language-- is somewhat superfluous. The Kindle is delightful, and I will continue to read on it happily despite my being so disgruntled by the absolutely horrible experience I've had on the website.

Now I'm going to go read for a bit to calm my nerves.