Thursday, September 30, 2010

So Who's Stupid?

The question from dispatch was did I want to do a run going from Moorhead to Fargo?

Well, maybe. Do I love driving? You bet. But I know that at the end of the day there'll be another 550+ miles on my car, I'll be buying a second tank of gas, and I won't be able to do any other work. Technically, this run is a short, going maybe 8 miles. I've gotten stung before by taking an out-of-town short and just getting paid for the part where I'm carrying freight, not the very long deadhead before picking it up. So the real question is, since I'm starting from a western suburb of Minneapolis, how much does it pay?

I'm actually shocked by the answer: "We're not allowed to discuss prices with you."

What the hell?

First, I'm an IC, independent contractor. I get to accept or turn down runs. It comes up almost daily, when they try to send me to a stop with a lot of walking. (Slow learning curve, plus they're not out there eyeballing these places.)

Second, we've nearly always actually seen the price of the run at the same time we've gotten it. But with the switch to the tiny screens on the Nextel displays instead of the mounted-on-a-post laptops in our vehicles, that's just one of the pieces of info they've chopped out. Still, we can always ask what one pays, and we do see the info on our pay sheet. These days that means a job number, total price, our share. Period. No detail on where to/from, any extra charges, etc. like we used to get. It's annoying. But to be actually restricted from having the information?

And they wonder why driver morale is so low and paranoia is so high!

Dispatch relents slightly and informs me that it pays "amazingly well". I take that to mean it actually pays me to do the deadhead, and he's not meaning it pays amazingly well for an 8-mile short. But they know what they say about making assumptions.

It's a glorious day for a drive. Full sun the whole way up, expected high temperature of 70, fall color well under way, most of the summer construction, at least on I-94, over for the season. While I usually do 65 on long drives, I've just replaced the front tires, the shimmy is gone, and the car hits a sweet spot at 73. I do note a tendency to let that rise to 80 on occasion, but it's quickly corrected and Highway Patrol presence is nonexistent. After one rest stop including an injection of coffee, it's straight through all the way. Apparently, I've hit a sweet spot as well. When I run out of quickly-found MPR stations, I switch to CDs, so it's Max Bruk, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak to concentrate my attention, and rolling scenery to catch the eye.

The soybeans are ready for harvest, and there are plenty of large machines in the fields, their front rollers like old-fashioned push mowers sweeping the stems into a big scoop that presumably cuts them and sends everything upward into the wagon, sorting beans from chaff on the way. The drying corn stands waiting, green on the bottom third, the tops the careless gold of new straw in the sunshine. Few birds are in evidence, though a couple flocks of ducks or geese V past. The only deer or raccoons are hamburger or shoulder lumps, and any local dogs or cats are too smart to approach the roadway. One eastbound roadside rest stop is closed near Fergus Falls, due to the flooding of the lake that surrounds it. Now it covers it, making sanitary conditions difficult even if one braved trying to figure out where the road ran and the curbs were placed. Rows of orange cones remove that temptation. As I approach my destination I am again impressed by how completely flat the old bottom of Lake Agassiz still is.

Hunting for an address in either Moorhead or Fargo is simple. Nearly everything is in straight lines and numbered, streets one way, avenues the other, heading out from a central spot. To have the address right is to be able to drive to your destination. The pick is an agency in a government building, fortunately with an information desk, spacious restrooms, and elevators. My destination is on the 4th floor, and my contact is... uh, she'll be right back in a few minutes. They're not sure what she's sending out, so we'll wait. Lucky for me, there are comfy chairs as well. They suspect it is a small brochure with a post-it note on it requesting that 50 copies get made, but after all this drive, let's make completely sure.

Now usually when one has to drive enormous distances, it's easy to understand the reason somebody would spend enormous amounts of money to get something somewhere fast. A typical run to Fargo for a car from the cities approaches or exceeds the $300 mark. UPS or Fed Ex are way cheaper, so it's likely to be urgent legal documents that can't wait for Priority mail or need chain-of-custody preserved, or medical equipment or some such. But a brochure going out for copies? And not a huge order but only 50? Hello? Are you insane? Is there absolutely nobody in either of your cities who can do courier work that you can get to do this? No cabbie? Slip $20 to a friend?

While I'm waiting, of course, I don't say any of this to them. Not even when my contact comes back and confirms that it's the brochure that's going out. I just slip the usual polite mask on and get the job done. I do get one clue, however, at the drop. When I reach my contact person there, she looks up and informs me, "You're not Larry." I agree with her. I am not Larry. But it lets me know that at least they have a "usual person" to do this kind of thing. I wonder why he's not available, and whether they'll call us again to return the 50 copies if Larry's still not back on the job in - what- an hour? Are they that stupid?

Or perhaps am I the one who's stupid, driving all the way for an unknown amount with very minimal assurances from dispatch that it's worth my while? Yes, it's been a great day, but I do need to pay the bills too. And the way the system works now, I won't know the answer to the question for three weeks, when I get a list of numbers on a paper accompanying a pay check.

* * * * *

"Hi, Steve, how's the unpacking going? ... Great, glad to hear the kids are helping. ... Fishing later? Cool! ... Say, I saw something cool today. ... Yeah, gas at $2.529 a gallon! ...Yeah, I know, I filled up this morning at home at $2.699! So of course I refilled the tank, every drop I could squeeze in. ... Where? Fargo. ... Well, maybe. I mean, it's a great drive, but it's kinda funny how it worked out, and I won't even know what it paid for weeks. You believe they can't tell me what it pays? ..."


Unexpected things happen. Mostly, I think, they're unexpected because they're so rare, not because they're so difficult to achieve or because they never happen. Just seldom to you. Or not when you think.

Take last Friday. I was making a pharmacy delivery. The drop is a place I'd been to before. The timing, early evening, is typical of when this company sends its stuff out, so the residents will be home.

Ring. Ring. Knock-knock-knock. Knock-knock-knock. Ring. This has taken about three minutes. We're patient on these because often the recipient is sick or disabled and has problems getting to the door quickly. Suddenly the woman throws the door open and starts right in on me, telling me I shouldn't be pounding on her door so late at night (nearly 7 PM). While I can't bring the stuff sooner than it's called in nor faster than traffic will allow, and am just as happy to be done for the night at an earlier hour, I apologize to her.

Then she asks if the delivery is from pharmacy X, and almost before I can say yes, she rants, "I know what that is. It's the patches. Well, you can tell them that I'm not taking them."

Oh. Kay.

I inquire politely if she'll sign the form with the word "refused" and her name so the company will know I tried to deliver them so I can get paid. She grudgingly complies, shuts the door in my face, and I return to the car to contact dispatch. Somebody is still there, and he contacts the pharmacy, which closes in 5 minutes. He relays that they will try to talk to their customer, and I'm to stand by. Fine by me, as long as he marks the run so I get loadtime.

Dispatch idly wondered what the stuff that got refused was. I knew it was patches, but not for what. Feeling a bit put out, I guessed aloud that whatever it was, it was psychoactive, and she was off her meds. We both got a bit of a pick-me-up from that.

Well, fine for a while anyway. It is a Friday and I'd like to get home after a long week. This drop is in Forest Lake, pretty close to home for me, relatively speaking. But the wait drags on. I'm thinking good luck to the pharmacy folks, with her attitude. Love to be the fly on the wall listening to that conversation.

Eventually they decide they want the stuff back. Tonight. By now it's 7:30 and I'm ready to go home for the week. Besides, the sender is closed. Oh, no problem, just take to to ______ Hospital pharmacy. Wonderful! I don't do hospitals. Too much walking.

Well, there's a driver out in Luck, Wisconsin (10 miles past communication range). They'll contact him and have him meet me at home and get the stuff off me. Well, when they can get through. And when he can find my place - must be a new driver. Eventually, it all worked.

* * * * * *

I got the most unexpected call the Tuesday night. It was American Airlines out in Los Angeles, and my first reaction was to wonder once again why it is the people with the thickest accents who get the phone jobs? Though her name was mangled, I recognized that they were calling for my granddaughter's grandmother, aka me. (French names aren't all that difficult. If it ends in -eau, just say ooo. Not oh. Not yow or yaw.) Anyway, I knew what it was going to be about (read here and here). Either they found the suitcase or there were questions about the claim. After all, if they were going to pay, they could just send a check, right?

Well, they found the suitcase. This was the one gone missing July 6, and found Sept. 28. Where did we want it delivered to? It's amazing how long a call like that can take, even without questions like where was it? and how stupid/lazy do you have to be to take this long to find it? But I didn't ask those questions. I just settled for success. The suitcase was returned to its owner Thursday night, with a small detour via my place, and a road trip until I finished work.

* * * * * *

Sometimes what's unexpected is the punch line. It's what makes you laugh. My favorite recently heard joke is the following. I forget who told me, but I've been spreading it around, embellishing it a bit from how I heard it.

Three little old ladies are sitting in chairs at the nursing home, chatting. A very dapper older gentleman passes them when one of the ladies pipes up, "I bet we know how to tell how old you are."

This stops the gentleman in his tracks. The reason he's so well dressed is that he believes he looks much younger than his actual age, and the sartorial splendor merely increases that perceived difference. "Really? And just how do you propose to do that?"

The little old lady who first spoke tells him, "If you take off all your clothes, then turn around slowly three times, we can tell how old you are."

He doesn't believe for a minute that they can do as they say. Intrigued, he decides to put them to the test. He removes his clothing, carefully folding each piece, then turns around the required three times. After putting his clothes back on neatly, he asks, "Well? Just how old do you think I am?"

Almost in unison, the three ladies answer, "84."

"Wow! That's absolutely amazing! Tell me, just what was it that gave it away?"

The first little old lady snorts, "That's easy! Yesterday we went to your birthday party!"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Displaced Drama

It's a weird feeling. Somebody asks what's going on in my life and I'm just bursting to respond with all this news, and I suddenly realize it's a very quiet time in my life. All the news, all the drama I'm feeling, is somebody else's.

There's plenty of drama. Steve's moving - today, in fact. My niece and her husband and baby are dealing with the Truman flooding, and I still haven't gotten communication through and back again. Another niece and hubby are vacationing with my brother and catching lots of fish, which was hubby's dream for this trip. My daughter and her husband will be vacationing in Nova Scotia. Daddy got his state ID renewed, registered to vote, and received his absentee ballot. One friend is recovering from surgery but something's still not right, somebody's remission ended, somebody else I know is dealing with head trauma (again, I'm missing an update), somebody else just came out. Somebody just admitted to me an affair with a married partner, and somebody else bragged about activities both unethical and illegal (third hand info).

I'm plodding along, working, reading more books, paying bills on time, writing in bits and pieces, pulling a few major weeds from the garden. My campaign is proceeding, though very low key (I'm told I'll be in a parade Saturday with other women candidates.) I don't want nor need all these other people's drama for myself. I would hate all that drama for myself. (Well, Nova Scotia sounds cool.)

And yet, somehow, I'm just bursting with it.

Weird, huh?

Friday, September 24, 2010

3-Minute Story #2

The following is not a submission to the contest. For one thing, it breaks the rule about publication anywhere else. Then there's the only-one-submission bit. But the theme stuck with me, and this also popped out.

Night School

"Some people swore the house was haunted." Mr. Miller pointed at the words on the board. "Write this down, verbatim. It's your first sentence for your story. Not only is this going to be your final for this course, it's an actual contest. Any stories getting a "B" or better will be submitted." Pointing again, he continued, "This is the website with all the rules. Read them this weekend, and follow them exactly. Failure to do so affects your grade. And don't forget the writing rules we've been learning."

He looked around at his class. Some he actually had hopes for, beyond getting their high school diplomas. Others, well, he told himself every year they just needed more teaching. Sometimes they surprised you.

"Bring your first draft in Monday night. Then we'll go through each one, making them better stories. Don't worry if you go over 600 words on your first try. We can deal with that next week. By Friday night, the best ones will be submitted, just before contest deadline. Class dismissed."

Monday's class produced the expected results. Most had starting ideas, and could develop into reasonable stories with tough editing. But when Joey finished reading his aloud, it was hopeless. Not that he hadn't tried.

"What did you do, sleep with a thesaurus under your pillow?"

The class, having been impressed by the story’s sheer vocabulary, was startled. Someone laughed, quickly silenced.

"I give you points for trying to be creative. But what you have is word salad. There's no plot, no theme, and obviously no interest in the subject matter. 'Boy meets ghosts, ooooh, scary-in-87-adjectives' does not a story make. You don't even believe in ghosts, do you? This is straight from 20 episodes of bad TV. There's absolutely nothing of you here. Remember the first rule of writing: write what you know. If all that you know is cooking, make this into a cooking story. Now start over, and bring it tomorrow. Give it a plot this time!"

Joey thought it over. Mr. Miller was right about his not believing in ghosts. He'd seen too many dead people, and not once did one ever come back. But cooking? What kind of crap was that? Write what you know? There were few things Joey knew well. "How do I turn that into a story?" he wondered. Hmmm....

Some people swore the house was haunted. "Huh! Some idiots will believe anything," Jesse thought as he surveyed the trashed interior. He'd let himself in past the same broken lock that numerous vandals, junkies, and couples too poor or too cheap for a hotel had used. Perfect, just perfect, he observed in satisfaction. He had a juicy, ripe mark lined up, ready for the plucking, and this was just the location for his scam....

Joey smiled as he wrote, smiled at the class reaction, and smiled as he clicked "submit". And nothing was ever the same again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I've gotten used to seeing them at busy corners in the Twin Cities. Often they are scruffy looking, a tattered backpack or duffel on the ground next to them. Always they hold a handmade cardboard sign. Typical messages are "Homeless Vet, Please Help" or "Will Work for Food". About half have "God Bless" on them. Some have gotten adept at appealing to traffic from one direction on a corner, then as soon as the light changes, hitting the other side of the same corner to nail that traffic. I've mostly learned to avoid eye-contact and guilt.

The one appeal that worked was from a homeless Mom at X-mas time. I donated a ten-spot and hoped she was for real, before deciding the donation was really more about me and not her. I could feel good about my actions, and she could settle her own conscience about whether she was going to spend it on kids or her personal demons.

Today a new sign caught my fancy. The fellow was reasonably well-groomed, squatting on his heels curbside in Minneapolis. I have no idea whether it worked for him or not, though I was uninspired to give. It read, "Need Fuel for Lear Jet."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lazy Weekend

Well, sorta, anyway. I did in fact spend most of it in the recliner, feet up, recovering from the week. I also, in fact, enjoyed several naps in said chair. And I did not take a shower, comb my hair, or tend to any of a number of things that are none of your business.

It's probably a very good thing my dad's nose deserted him years ago. At least he never complained as I fed him, poured coffee, refilled his nebulizer, maneuvered his rolling chair next to the TV so he could enjoy every second of the Vikings pretending they were an actual football team.

I managed to finish off every single book I'd brought home from the library, and the latest - to me - purchased Lucas Davenport novel, without staying up past my bedtime. If, that is, that word has any meaning on weekends including plentiful naps in the recliner. This resulted in my going on-line and finding out that the phone directions I was given for entering my new password in the local library database so I could reserve a new supply of books were completely bogus. It was after library hours, so I had to wait for today. Today when I called the directions were much simpler, though I was told they were "complicated".

Wait, huh?

Last week the gal said to enter my last name, capitalizing the first letter, and adding my first initial, also capitalized. I tried about 18 different permutations of that, well willing to believe I'd missed something insignificant but vital. (It's a talent.) None worked.

Today I was told to enter my last name, capitalizing the first letter. Just that. No first initial, lower or upper case, first or last position, or anything else I'd tried. Just that last name.

That's complicated? Hey, if you can't explain that over the phone.....

I spent some more time online checking out the rules for that latest 3 Minute Story contest sponsored by NPR. They give you a first and last sentence and a 600-word limit. I liked the topic and decided to give it a try.

Do you know how much of a bother it is to have to count words for all 7 drafts of a 600-word story? But technically, most of that counting happened today, after the story was written and revised a few times. My next-to-last draft came to 604 words. Oops. Carve out 6. I'm actually pretty pleased with it, and just finished sending it in. I'd post it here, but their rules say I can't.

Maybe if they hate it, I can post it. If they love it, I'll post a link. The results get posted on their site in late November. Maybe I can remember to look for it after that long.

Next weekend won't be so lazy. There's an auction, and this one is outdoors, non-computerized, old-fashioned paper trail. Daddy says I can borrow his scooter so I can be as mobile as I need to be, since I won't be tethered to a computer. I just have to hope there's space between the concrete fountains, gnomes, gargoyles, dragons and what-nots to maneuver.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Paying It Forward

It's only taken me about twenty-two years to do it, but I've finally managed to pay something forward. I don't mean ever, just this one specific thing.

When I was forty, I needed surgery. My best friend offered to come to the hospital if I wanted, and stay in my room until I woke from the anesthetic so I wouldn't wake alone. She explained that for a previous surgery, someone had stayed with her to keep her from waking alone and how much it had meant. Frankly, being single and independent (as she herself was at the time), it hadn't even occurred to me before. Upon reflection, I wanted. And I was very touched. And she did.

Today I was able to take a friend to the hospital for surgery, stay with her as much as the hospital allowed, and bring her home again. It meant taking a day off work, driving into Minneapolis, sitting in those uniquely un-wonderful waiting room chairs, putting up with the dodos who wanted FOX on the TV (loud), being the one the doctor came and talked to after the surgery to make sure somebody coherent knew the results and the instructions, and navigating home again in a thunderstorm.

It was never far from my mind that this was a debt I owed, and I was happy to pay. Since I couldn't pay it back, I had a chance to pay it forward. And I was honored.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Checks Unlimited Rip-Off

Hard as it may be to believe, considering how much I spout off here, I do try not to swear at those frustrating folks on the phone. I'll let the voice level rise, put that edge in it, get sarcastic, but I do try not to swear.

Today was an exception. Well deserved, I believe.

I got this coupon in the mail from Checks Unlimited a while ago. It's been kicking around in my lunch cooler for weeks, waiting for me to call them and cash in on the offer, good thru July 15, 2011. Now, I used to like them. I've been ordering checks from them for a lot of years. I like their check style called "Earth Echoes", printed on recycled paper, showing whales, wolves, polar bears, and eagles, all in soft colors that let me read what's on the check after I've finished writing. Too many designs these days are in strong colors that hide whatever is written. Not too useful on a financial document.

Today was the day. I'm down to two checks left, one of which will be written tomorrow, and one at month end, both for bills that don't have internet bill pay. Yet. The offer was for one box at $8.50. Keep that in mind. One box, $8.50. Free printing, free shipping and handling, free address labels. And one box will keep me, at the rate I write checks these days, until long after I may get around to changing my name. So, one box, $8.50.

The call started nicely enough. He got the name, address, phone number, routing number, account number, starting check number, style. Sounds promising, right? Then he told me if I ordered 4 boxes, I'd get free address labels.

No, I can only use one box, and I explained why. Besides, every charity in the world sends me address labels and I'm drowning in them, even using them for X-mas cards and mailing out my dad's bills. Besides, the coupon says I already get free address labels. But, hey, let's just not send them since I don't need them until I change my name.

OK, he can not send the address labels, and just order two boxes for me.

"No, I don't want two boxes, only one."

"But you have to order two."

"No I don't, the coupon has a box showing the price of an order for a single box. That's what I want."

"Wait, you have a coupon?" This he asks after I've referred to it at least three times. Then he gets the numbers from the bottom of it, and again tells me I have to get two boxes. We "discuss" the issue a few minutes, and I finally give in. Bad move. Encouraged, he goes back to the "if I order 4 boxes I get free address labels" routine. No, I don't want four, can't use four, would have to burn them, and still don't want the address labels.

With four boxes I can order a stamp or some other doo-dad free, so which do I want?


"Your order will be there in two to three weeks. How about ordering the UPS tracking for just an extra few dollars?"

(Is he serious? I've never ever ever been charged for that, just gotten it free with an order of whatever.) "Nope, don't want it. " (And what's this two to three weeks crap?)

"With four boxes you can order ______ (list of other accessory items) at just $______ apiece, and which would you like today?"

(Really really slow learning curve here, buddy.) "None! Let's pretend you asked me all this stuff and I said, 'No.' Let's just get on with it."

"OK, then your order today comes to $34....."

"WHOA! How on earth did we get that high?"

"Well, two boxes of checks at $17.something. plus the EZ Shield protection for $17.something..."

"Wait, I never ordered that."

"But you have to have that on your checks."

"No! This is so DAMN far from the $8.50 that is on your coupon, you can just forget the order!"

And I hung up on him.

Then I called my credit union, spent about a minute ordering a box of checks from them with absolutely no hassles, not quite as cheaply as the "offer" from Checks Unlimited coupon, and expect to see them in about ten days.

At the start of the fiasco, there was a recorded voice informing me that call might be recorded. I hope it was. I hope they learned something. If they didn't, here it is: as far as I'm concerned, get greedy, get gone!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Counter-Demonstration Idea

I am again enraged by something in the news. Some "church" in Florida insists on holding a demonstration on 9/11 by burning Korans in their front yard. Even though it's been widely publicised that it will spark unrest in the Muslim world and result in endangering our troops. Even though it's the perfect recruitment tool for Al Qaida and other terrorist groups: we're doing their work for them. The pastor has been informed and insists on going ahead. His own agenda is more important, may he rot in....

Well, you get it.

Here's an idea: How about if folks gather around in a multi-layer circle, blocking out those with cameras and cell phones, and when the idiocy starts, all as one turn their backs on these nuts and refuse to witness? More, every one could wear a shirt printed on the back with "Shame on you!' or "All people of the same book", or similar sentiments. Let the world know that those few idiots are scorned by the rest of us, rather than represent us. Anyone who does manage to sneak a camera in would have to capture the rest of the story, right?