What There Is To Do About E-mail


In a sense there’s nothing to do about e-mail. We have almost completely overcome the use of e-mail to communicate with people. E-mail is this decentralized, open service. It lets you use anything you like to send or to receive messages you can display and organize in any way you like and keep, or delete, at your leisure. We couldn’t keep using a scheme like that. We have to communicate by direct messages channeled through a social-media tech corporation. This lets them sell us quarrels and procedurally generated t-shirts.

But there are still purposes to what e-mail remains. Understanding them will let us understand this doomed system. What their purpose is depends on the context of the e-mail. For example, the first purpose of work e-mails is showing that you are working on whatever you were supposed to be working on. And how you can’t do that unless other people to work on whatever it is they are supposed to work on. The second purpose of work e-mail is to compile lists of take-out orders complicated enough that they can never be ordered or fully paid for. Past that work e-mail lets us know what silly Internet pastime is annoying the IT department. They want very much to tamp it down now.

The first kind of work-based e-mails is easiest to answer. In response to any e-mail of this type, assert good progress. And that you’ve been enjoying some breakthroughs. Still, though, you have to admit that completion is running behind deadline. But allow that it would be easier if not for the efforts of some other person. It’s better off leaving vague “who”, in case the boss tries to work out who. If you work for a large enough corporation, you can leave hints that point to a person who does not, and perhaps never has, existed.

The second kind you can answer by making sure that there is always an extra tub of sweet and sour sauce left over once the lunch is delivered. This lets everyone enjoy the unsettling feeling they have the wrong order. The exception to this is when everyone is ordering Chinese food for lunch. In this case there should be one missing tub.

The third kind of work e-mail is obsolete because it turns out people have phones. The IT department is still very cross about things, but they always will be. It makes them happy. Promise them you’ll never ever use your work computer to play Farmville. If you want them to smile, add that you’re swearing off Friendster, YikYak, and what the heck, Apple eWorld.

Another once-popular form of e-mail was the mailing list. These were created to let people who all liked one thing share talk about something entirely else. The working process here was to have one person notice a fact, real or imagined. When they determine the rest of the list has not sufficiently acknowledged it, they send it on to the list. The response here is then to contradict the fact as being either irrelevant or untrue. This has one correct response, which in the busy days of a mailing list would be sent by five people. That response is that no, the fact has been amply discussed in earlier discussions on the list. And furthermore this could be proven by consulting the archives, as soon as someone finds them.

The alternate use for a mailing list was to have people announce personal moments. These could include a marriage, a graduation, the discovery that one has a child, the announcement one is leaving the mailing list forever except that this time they mean it, or that someone else has been born. There are two stages to answering these. In the first stage send congratulations. in the second, send a cascade of the same twelve puns these threads always use. But you’re forgiven if you slack off. No one person has to respond to any particular messages. This is why every mailing list died out around 2014.

Commercial e-mails are sent by corporations. They believe that your staying in a hotel means now you need someone to suggest reserving a hotel room to you. You need this at least four times a day, so far, based on how little you do hotel-room-reservation-ing. It has to be some kind of insecurity. They realize that, like, a corporation isn’t even a thing. It’s the imaginary friend of someone with capital. Shake your head at the folly of humanity but do not encourage them any.

There are a number of other purposes for e-mail. This number is four.

In Which I Question Santa’s Staffing Decisions


Recently I got to visit Story Book Land, a small nursery-rhyme-forest and amusement park in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. Also there’s a place called Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. Yes, it has that name for the reason you’d expect: it’s a township. Story Book Land is a grand place, lots of displays of fairy tales. So this Santa Claus’s Workshop scene caught my eye:

Reindeer at Santa's Workshop in Story Book Land. One holds a pencil and makes notes. The other is at the adding machine. Both are dressed in office-casual pajamas.
A lot of Story Book Land’s displays have moving parts and buttons along the walls that kids can press. The buttons here make the deer up front move the pencil back and forth, and I think the reindeer in back pats at the adding machine. (I just grew uncertain as I wrote this.) If you need to keep a kid amused, put lots of buttons in walls they can push. The Roadside America model railroad in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, learned this years and was why as kids we insisted on going to it like forty times a month.

Clearly I’m not in a position to tell Santa how he should run his business, and I shouldn’t disparage anybody’s qualifications before I know what they’re good at and what they like doing. It just seems a little cruel to give a lot of writing duties to a species that hasn’t got fingers. And I’m not too sure it’s considerate to put a reindeer on adding machine duty either, given, again, the whole hoof issue. Maybe Santa knows something I don’t. I just expect there’s all kinds of dropped … things, and probably shouting, involved.

Also I wish I had the courage to go to work wearing outfits like these reindeer do. And I work from home.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose four points in trading, and then fell right back again. Then it dropped four points, and rose the four points to right where it started. Analysts credit this movement to the purchase of a new swingset. Surely someone has purchased a swingset, somewhere, at some time, right? Sure.

256

Working Out The World


My love and I were reminiscing things we did in elementary school for reasons we couldn’t figure. I don’t mean stuff like declaring someone who was busy with not playing kickball “The Kissing Bandit”. I mean stuff that doesn’t make sense, like the time my class got taken to the Garden State Arts Center and was taught how to clap with our hands curled. I guess we did other stuff there too, but the cupped hands was the lesson that stuck.

But the thing we shared was the class exercise thing about telling everyone else what our parents did for a living. I realize now I don’t know what the project was supposed to prove. That we could ask our parents what they did for a living, I guess. Maybe be able to tell our peers that our parents are shift supervisors. As skills I suppose that’s up there with cursive and being able to name vice-presidents who resigned, since you can test it. I don’t know how the teacher’s supposed to know if the kid was right, though.

But adult jobs are baffling concepts for a kid, anyway. What do adults need supervision for? They’re adults. Kids need supervision, because if you tell a kid, “stand right here, by the school bus stop, for five minutes and don’t wander away”, there’s an excellent chance before you even get to the second comma they’ve wandered off and got a beehive stuck in a nostril. All a kid knows is that their parents go months without unintentionally ingesting beehives, or they would know if they asked their parents.

For that matter, what’s a job to a kid? It’s just a place adults go to become tired and unhappy somehow. There are maybe five adult jobs a kid understands. There’s being an astronaut, there’s fighting stuff (fires, supervillains, crime, wrestlers [other]), there’s being a nurse, there’s being a teacher, and there’s driving a snowplow. Everything else is a bit shaky. For example, when I was a kid all I quite grasped about my father’s job was that he worked in a chemical factory in the parts that normally didn’t explode. He had to go in for eight or sometimes sixteen-hours shifts and I understood that most of the time things didn’t explode. But that leaves a gap in the imagination about just how he filled his working days. Come in, check that things hadn’t exploded, sure, and then it’s four hours, 56 minutes until lunch.

A kid might understand what someone in a service job does, because they could see a person bringing them food or taking clothes to clean or so. It’s why someone would be hired that’s the mystery, because getting that service means giving someone else money. Money’s hard stuff to come by, what with birthday cards arriving only for a one- or two-week stretch of the year, and maybe a bonus at Christmas if they’re lucky. The tooth fairy can help cover a little capital shortage, but that’s too erratic stuff for a real economy.

But non-service jobs are harder to understand. What is an office job anymore except fiddling with a computer? And a computer job is a matter of pressing buttons so that electrons will go into different places than they otherwise might have. A bad day at that sort of job is one where the electrons have come back for later review. On a good day the electrons all go somewhere you don’t have to think about them again. But the electrons aren’t getting anything out of this. They’re not happy, or sad, or anything at all based on where they’re sent. And they’re not the one getting paid for it anyway. They’d be fine if we just left them alone. All we do by getting involved in their fates is make ourselves unhappy but paid, and we get tired along the way.

The jobs might be leaving us alone soon anyway. Capitalism interprets a salary as a constant drain of capital, and does its level best to eliminate that. For service jobs this means doing less service, making the customers unhappy and making the remaining staff tired and unhappy. For office jobs this means never getting electrons to where they’re supposed to be, because otherwise you’d be an obvious mark for layoffs.

I know my father eventually moved to a job as an ISO 9000 consultant. In that role he ordered companies to put together a list of every word they had ever used for everything they had ever done. Then they put that into a cross-referenced volume of every document every word had ever appeared in. By the time that was done, the company might qualify for a certificate. Or my father had to explain what they had to do again, using different words and Happy Meal toys to get the point across. As a kid, I’d have been better off if he just told me he taught companies how to clap. Sometimes he probably did.

Ian Shoales: Temp Work


Ian Shoales, as I said in introducing this week, was the creation of Merle Kessler, and he’s a great character: sneering and cranky without, at least for me, losing his likability, even if I probably wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him. Kessler developed Shoales’s persona with a biography full of the frustrated ambitions that sound right for someone aiming to be a creative success and carrying on even though the lottery of fame doesn’t pay out much. Shoales’s life is marked with failed relationships and annoyed bosses and indignities petty and grand. I don’t know whether Kessler, or anyone he knew, ever was sued for libel by his high school principal, but it’s the kind of thing I find easy to imagine happening to someone like him, and to see it mentioned as an aside in an essay on, oh, say, Elvis Presley has an electrifying effect that I didn’t realize I wasn’t getting from Dave Barry or old Bob Newhart records (much as I cherished them).

Here, from 1984, is one of these partly biographically-informed essays by Ian Shoales. I can believe that what he describes in the first paragraph really happened, if not to Kessler then to someone. While it’s all quite funny, to me anyway, it’s also all fairly good advice if you’re hoping to make it as an artist. If I ever give it a try I’ll take this advice.


Temp Work

Along the way to my present success I’ve had to work for a living, usually at “temp work”, as it’s called in professional circles. I have moved furniture, filed, typed, answered phones, and I probably have the world’s record for getting fired. This is because I’d show up at work unshaven, wearing sunglasses, and not wearing socks. I figured, “I’m not an executive, who’s gonna care?” Well, after my third temp job in a week, I finally took Mom’s long-distance advice, and got a beige seersucker three-piece for five bucks at Goodwill. It fit me like a glove, and I wore it to my next temp job. But when the permanent employees saw me approach the water cooler, they all scattered. Nobody would come near me. Finally a little bald guy worked up the courage to ask me who I was. He had me pegged as some corporate honcho checking up on worker efficiency, I guess, because when I told him I was a temp worker, a look of relief passed over his face. Then he replaced that look with one of utter disregard. By noon, all employee fear of me had vanished. So the next day my suit vanished to be replaced by blue jeans, and the next day my job vanished to be replaced by poverty.

But if you’re an artist of any kind, it means you’re going to have to get the kind of job you get till you get to do what you want to do. So let me give you some advice about the temp-worker scene.

  • Never drink beer at your desk. Supervisors don’t like it.
  • Permanent employees probably won’t appreciate your Joe Cocker impression.
  • If you’re moving furniture, don’t move a desk if somebody’s sitting at it.
  • Never call corporate executives by their first name, or ask them if they want to play a couple of holes on Saturday.
  • Don’t try to find Pac Man on the personal computer unless you’re invited by your supervisor.
  • Never ask the supervisor for a date.
  • If you’re answering the company phone, say, “Hello,” not, “Yeah, what do ya want?”
  • I know temp work can get dull, but never rearrange the filing system without permission.
  • Don’t rewrite business letters in blank verse.
  • If you’re supposed to show up at work on Tuesday don’t come in on Wednesday.

I know this is basic stuff, but don’t draw faces with white-out on the desk; don’t make jewelry out of the paper clips; don’t compose melodies on the Touch-Tone phone; don’t ask to borrow the Selectric overnight — remember always, you’re just a ghost in the working world.

Somebody will eventually publish the 1,500-page rock-and-roll novel gathering dust in your sock drawer. Your ship will come in, and then you’ll have temps of your own. And they better not call you by your first name.

         — Not rich, 1/15/84.