Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Brief Guide To World Domination

In my on-going search for inspiration and revelation I stumbled upon a blog written by 30 year old Chris Guillebeau -- The Art of Non-Conformity. Chris is a pretty amazing young man, whose world travel and social-entrepreneurial adventures you can learn about by reading his blog. Earlier this week, Chris posted his personal manifesto: A Brief Guide To World Domination.
Chris essentially believes that you can achieve your personal destiny while at the same time making the world a better place -- and that you can do these things without having to conform to other people's expectations of how your should get there. "Remember one thing", he writes, "You don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to". All you have to do is answer and act on two "simple" questions: 1) What do you want out of life? and 2) What do you have to offer the world that no one else has? Question one is about what your personal goals and passions are, and question two is about what you have to give back that will make the world a better place. I over simplify, so you'll have to download and read the report yourself to get the big picture. twenty-nine pages and worth the read.

At my age you might think it's too late to start thinking about world domination -- but I prefer to think otherwise. In both vocation and avocation I'm just now coming to understand my opportunities for self-realization and cultural impact. Can I clearly answer Chris's two questions? Not yet, but I'm working on it and getting closer. Find you passion(s). Identify your talents. Use your abilities for the greater good. Read Chris's report.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Gardener's Tale - Part I

We have a fairly large backyard, by suburban north Florida standards at least -- about 180 feet deep. Over our almost 20 years here we have used traditional neighborhood landscaping -- St. Augustine grass lawns (northerners often refer to this heat-tolerant, broad leaf, course southern grass as being similar to their northern crab grass), border and foundation hedges, an orange tree or two, a few Florida long-leaf pines, a magnolia tree, water oak, a colorful assortment of crepe myrtles, and a few flower beds around the edges. I put down a brick walk between the back porch and a concrete tile patio behind the orange tree a few years back, added confederate jasmine as a spreading ground cover base for our "wooded" corner under the magnolia, and put in our first butterfly garden in the center of the yard (in the hole left by the removal of an old pine) last Memorial Day weekend.

The thing about traditional suburban Florida landscaping, particularly St. Augustine grass lawns, is that 1) they are always thirsty and require a great deal of water to keep green and healthy, and 2) they are nitrogen hungry -- requiring regular fertilization (not to mention chemical weeding and destructive insect control). In order to have the neatly manicured, bright green Florida lawn (that mimics the traditional green lawns of the north, from which most of us have fled) we Floridians basically have to wreak environmental havoc upon the local bio-systems. Our nitrogen rich run-off and grass clippings wash into the neighborhood drainage systems, into the ground water, and ultimately into the St. Johns river, creating algae blooms that suck out the oxygen -- killing the native flora and fauna. We are desperately damaging the central fixture of the northeast Florida geography - our river. Because of central Florida's water-lust, Orlando and several of it's neighbors have developed plan to drain up to 400,000 gallons of water per day from the St. Johns. Mrs. Muse and I (both being members and volunteers from the St. Johns Riverkeeper) decided that, in our own small way, we needed to do something. Remember hearing the phrase "think global, act local"? That's what we've decided to do. So we've spent about half of this year's vacation time by beginning to remove the St. Augustine lawn in the backyard and replacing it, a few feet at a time, with native ground cover and other local plants with low water and nitrogen appetites.

We had started earlier this spring by carving out a second 10 x 10 foot butterfly garden, using plants sent by Mrs. Muse's mom in memory of my mother, who passed away in January. I had also removed an additional 60 square feet of St. Augustine and replace it with confederate jasmine in the farthest back point of the yard. Then, a few days before we left on our trip north, I sprayed an herbicide on an irregular quadrilateral section, roughly 15 feet deep and 40 feet long -- close to 600 square feet.

When we returned last weekend, the grass was dead as planned. Pronging and raking it out required only a few hours of manual labor as St. Augustine grass is a shallow-rooted surface crawler. The recalcitrant remains that were left could be removed by hand, concurrent with re-planting.

The fun part was yesterday's trip up to Trad's Garden Center (highly recommended!) to wander the acres of plants and make our selections. We knew for the most part what we were looking for before we went -- confederate jasmine, variegated confederate jasmine, ornamental peanut (they didn't have any) -- then added a few items for interest on the recommendation of Trad's staff -- yellow creeper (a ground cover with small yellow flowers), creeping fig (a fence climber), yellow bulbine (a bunching flowering perennial), and tri-colored confederate jasmine.

Today's job is to get this stuff in the ground. I don't have a plot plan on paper for this, but I have one in my head...
I will post a photo or two of the completed planting -- then continue with periodic updates on our adventure in Florida xeriscaping. The plan, at least for now, is to take out half of the grass in the back yard, leaving a couple of small islands of St. Augustine between the back porch and the gardens. Stay tuned.....

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Connemara is the name of a county in the west of Ireland. It is also the name of the land upon which Carl Sandburg's home for the final 25 or so remarkably productive years of his life, resides. During our speed-of-light tour of the Florida to Ohio corridor and back last week we spent three days in greater Hendersonville North Carolina with my partner in musical crime and his lovely wife. Al and Cindy took us on a roller coaster ride down the mountain to Flat Rock, assuming correctly that Connemara would be an inspirational place to visit.

I must admit that I have never (knowingly) read Sandburg -- but can assure you that I will in the immediate future. He was a poet, a biographer (Abraham Lincoln), a Pulitzer Prize winner (twice!), a collector of folk songs and a balladeer. Clearly a kindred spirit. He craved solitude for the sake of his creativity, and favored the simple life. Clearly a kindred spirit. He was a social progressive far ahead of his time and a lover of nature. Clearly a kindred spirit. He was obviously an insatiable reader -- having to have the floors reinforced in the house before he could move his 20,000 books into the old Civil War era house. Those books include a copy of my friend and near-neighbor Stetson Kennedy's "Palmetto Country" -- a collection of Florida stories published in 1942. Clearly a kindred spirit.

He was a night owl (that kindred ting again) -- typically preferring to work late into the night, heading to bed at 4:00 a.m. as his wife and daughters were rising to tend their flock of award winning goats (the ancestors of these goats still entertain visitors to the estate). Perhaps the best known of Sandburgs "popular" quotes was his referring to television as "the idiot box". Interestingly there is a Zenith television in virtually every room of the house -- sent to Carl by the President of Zenith.

Most inspirational to me was learning that a huge proportion of Sanburg's literary productivity occurred after he reached the age of 60. Contemporary American cultural norms would tell us that after 30 (or so -- certainly 50) our creativity, originality, and ability to positively impact the cultural and artistic temper of our time is gone. Learning of Sandburg's life -- his literary and social impact -- provided me with the hope that there is meaningful creative opportunity waiting down the road -- that retirement from one career in a few years holds the prospect of starting yet another. One more thing to look forward to as I continue down that road toward becoming an "old goat"...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Road Trip!

So to heck with poor customer service for a while -- it's vacation time, and that means putting life's little annoyances behind you for a week or two. We have put a bit over 1,000 miles on the car so far -- only about $105 for gas (the cheapest gas by far was in South Carolina at 30 cents per gallon cheaper than anywhere else). After a quick one night stop-over in Beckley West Virginia, we made it up to central Ohio for our niece's high school graduation party (off to Ohio State University next year -- GO BUCKS!). Yesterday we landed at Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie for a day with family. The photo here was shot from the ferry as we eased in toward the slip on South Bass after the crossing from Catawba Island on Sandusky Bay.

It has been at least 30 years since our last visit to South Bass and the changes are quite evident. From a reasonably quiet Island retreat the Put-In-Bay community has turned into a fairly typical re-developed seasonal tourist trap. There are still quite a few quaint residential areas and parks, but the emphasis is clearly on separating tourists from their cash. I understand the economic advantages, particularly in a State where the traditional industries -- steel and automobiles -- have gone down the crapper, but it is still sad (to me) to see the natural environment depleted for that purpose. That said, there are yet a number of less developed area islands for those who would prefer a more natural, environmentally intact setting.

More trip-logging and photos to come --- and eventually the report on the customer service disasters of the previous week. See you around the bend!

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Opposite of Customer Service

This was just one of those weeks that makes a generally sane, calm, rational person want to SCREAM at the top of his respiratory fortitude. As opposed to the exceptional customer service mentioned in earlier posts on this page about companies like Pzizz and Adobe, I have had a series of absolutely awful experiences with some very large, very well-known, purportedly customer-oriented corporations. These have, in one case so far, driven me to sever a 20+ year relationship and threaten to do so (the jury remains out) on a second. Story #1:

An unnamed telecommunications provider (the nations largest) sends a third-party "customer service" rep around to the customers of the regional telecommunications provider that it recently consumed. "Sir, you get the same service in a different wrapper at a better price." great, right? Wrong. The first month saw a $20 increase in my bill. So okay, it's only one month and the dude did say my bill would go down by an average of $15 per month and maybe the Mrs. used the land-line for long distance instead of her cell...we'll give it another month. Another month brought us a $25 increase over the now fully digested predecessor company's typical bill. Maybe I was a rube. Maybe not. Either way I was lied to -- for me the unforgivable sin. Sent an e-mail to XX&X's customer service desk informing them that I considered myself ripped-off and was dumping them. Period. Return email: "Please, no, Mr. Muse, we'll give you your old plan back." Admittedly, a reasonable offer, but no... the VOIP vendor will be here to install on Monday. Segue to Story #2.

Go online to check out the local VOIP providers deals. Pretty good actually -- more than a 50% savings over XX&X's rip-off deal. Completed all of the online forms with all of the details about the package I want, installation options, keep the old phone number, address, etc. etc., etc. "Click here to complete order". Click. "Placing you into chat with a rep to confirm you order." Okay. Then this:
"Hi Mr. Muse, my name is Bill Smith, how can help you today?"
"I just placed a digital voice order. You're supposed to confirm that."
"You did? I don't see that. What is your account number, phone number, address, nearest cross street, last four digits of your SSN, and your secret password?"
"What?! I just spent 30 minutes filling out the answers to all of those questions on your online order form"
"You did? I don't see that. Is this your address?"
"That's a newly built apartment building, right?"
"No, Bill, it's the single family house I've lived in, and that your company has been billing me for cable at for the last 20 years".
"Really? What's your pre call number?"
"What's a pre call number?
"The number that our tech calls you on before he comes to your house to install your VOIP."
"Oh. That would be the same number I have already given you 3 times before"
"Okay. Sorry. We can schedule a tech next Monday"
"I thought you didn't have my order that I just filled out."
"It's okay, I have it now."

Seriously, I'm just not witty enough to make this stuff up. I now imagine this chat session as a Saturday Night Live sketch. A really funny one. I actually emailed the chat record to myself so I'd have it for posterity. "So how's the weather in Bangalore today, Bill?"... hopefully the tech doesn't have to drive that far to get here on Monday... Segue to Story #3? Nah -- it'll leave me a good (poor) customer service story for my next post. "Did you hear the one about the giant financial institution...?"