I Ain’t Standing Up for Nothing

“Every day when I wake up, I see folks trading in their crowns for all these ‘paper or plastic?’ lives – an opiate for the masses’ hounds.”

If common sense keeps getting scarcer and scarcer, we are going to have to find a new name for it. It continues to boggle my mind how often simple reason seems to elude the average person. This is true for the self-entitled teenagers I encounter on a daily basis, on through the business world and up to the height of stupidity, otherwise known as the U.S. government. That is too broad a range to cover, though, so I am going to focus on the one we can all relate to: customer service.

Now, I understand that it takes all kinds to make a world, and not everyone is going to be a genius. Some people can sleep through class and get an A, while others struggle furiously just to come out with a C. But it’s called “common sense” because it’s supposed to be even across the board. You don’t have to be book-smart and you certainly don’t need a doctorate to be successful. My grandfather quit school after 5th grade to go work on the farm, and he’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He had common sense. My brother can do complicated math problems in his head in seconds, where most people would require a couple sheets of notebook paper and probably a calculator. His “smart-ness” can be tested and measured, but his common sense remains at the forefront, so he’s a great problem-solver with a head for business.

Unfortunately, I think the world has come to value resumes over people, and policies over principles. The result is a lot of painfully dumb people in prestigious positions because their degrees said they should be capable of doing the job, whether they could put it into practice or not.

My friend Brandon has been putting in job applications lately. He has a heavy background in construction, but was recently asked how he could expect to do construction work if he didn’t speak “Mexican.” I am serious. That happened. So, not finding work in his field, he hit the streets to apply in other areas, like food service and retail. On his retail application, he was asked questions like, “Do you enjoy talking to angry customers?” and had to choose a number from 1 (I hate it) to 5 (I love it). After honestly answering the barrage of questions and submitting his application, he learned that anyone who answered 2, 3, or 4 for any of those questions had their applications immediately thrown out. I took a second to let that soak in (and to make sure I heard him correctly), and then said, “So, they want to hire… liars?” Common sense would have said to throw out all the ones and the fives for being, at worst, liars, or at best, completely inept at any job that would require interacting with other people. But, instead of using common sense, this company had a handy policy manual.

Never underestimate the power of a stupid policy in the hands of a stupid person.

My favorite example is still the Hickory Farms manager who would not let me fill up my own cup as part of my combo meal because if I didn’t use one of their cups, it would cut into their profits. If you missed that one the first time, it is worth a read: HERE.

Or, there’s the time my Daddy went to Subway and ordered a 6-inch sub on whole wheat bread – easy, right? But he received a foot-long sub, and when he pointed out the error, was told, “But you said WHOLE wheat.”

This has all been on my mind since I attempted to run a simple errand yesterday at lunch. I try to avoid stores as often as I can (probably for this very reason), but I make an exception for craft stores, which are my kryptonite. Still, I try not to indulge too often, because when I get near scrapbooking supplies, I start throwing money around like a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. I had to go yesterday, though, because I received two identical Cricut cartridges as a gift and I wanted to exchange the duplicate for one I didn’t already have. I didn’t want to return it for money or for a store credit or anything like that. Just a simple exchange – I’ll give you this one, you give me that one. I went first to Michael’s, where I’ve spent thousands of dollars in the past, and they turned me away for my lack of receipt. (Maybe I stumbled over the word “gift” or “even exchange.”) I didn’t fight the fight, because there’s another crafting giant just across the street.

So, onward to A.C. Moore. When I arrived, there was only one person at the register (another arrived a few minutes later), so I stood back and waited until all the paying customers had been helped (including the ones who arrived in line well after me) and then I explained my situation. Namely, that I had received a duplicate cartridge as a gift, it was unopened, they carried the same one (I could see it from where I stood), and I simply wanted to exchange the cartridge in my hand for another of equal value. It couldn’t really get much simpler than that.

The lady asked if I had the receipt. “No, it was a gift. But I don’t want to do a return. I just want to exchange it for another cartridge of equal value.” She explained that she needed to call her manager. I often think this is just a tactic to create an imaginary person who will back up the original story. I heard her tell the “manager” that there was a lady who wanted to RETURN a Cricut cartridge without the receipt. (Which is not what I said – TWICE! – but whatever.) She hung up the phone and said that she could give me a store credit for $29.99, but that was all. Bear in mind, right next to us was a wall display with the very same cartridge priced at $89.99. Again, I reiterated that I did not want to return the cartridge – I wanted to exchange it for one of equal value.

Now, let me pause my tale for a moment and paint you a picture. There I stand, in a retail store whose niche is crafting. I am holding a $90 cartridge, which fits a $300 cutting machine. So, I’m not just dropping by because I needed a little project to stave off boredom on a rainy day. I am obviously a serious crafter with several hundred dollars – if not thousands – invested in this hobby that is their very reason for existing. So, in common sense terms, I am exactly the kind of customer they want to keep around and keep happy.

Now, back to the salesperson, who is trying to explain to me why the cartridge in my hand was not worth the same amount as the identical cartridges hanging on the nearby wall…

“You see,” she says, “you can go online and buy those cartridges – or anything in this store, really – for MUCH cheaper than you can buy it here.”

The implication in her mind was that I could have bought my cartridge for $5 online, and I was trying to trade it in for a $90 cartridge in the store. Which, even if I had, when I gave them the cartridge to re-sell, its value would become the $90 that they were selling it for, regardless of whether I paid $5 or $5000 for it.

The implication in MY mind, which I voiced to her, was, “So, basically, you’re saying that I should do all my craft shopping online?” She was too far gone on the crazy train to object, and could only shrug and nod half-heartedly, while the other salesperson looked like a deer caught in the headlights. She saw where the conversation had gone terribly wrong, but did not interject.

I turned and left the store, shaking my head in sheer disbelief. I wonder if we had recorded that whole conversation and played it back to her an hour later, would she have realized her lapse in judgment? And is she really the one to blame for being dense, or is it because “company policy” has been hammered into her brain until she no longer felt able to think for herself?

I immediately sent a tweet to share my crazy story, and this morning I was greeted by an @ reply from A.C. Moore’s official Twitter. I am happy to say that they solved the problem with common sense and level-headedness, and when I returned to my local store over lunch today, I was in and out with no problem at all. Plus, the two friends accompanying me (so we could have lunch afterwards) shopped while I was exchanging my cartridge and both turned up at the checkout with a handful of items. Thanks to a tiny bit of customer service and common sense, A.C. Moore kept one customer and gained two more.

That would make a happy ending for this blog, but I’m afraid I have yet another tale of woe to report from lunch! We proceeded to one of our favorite spots, Ledo’s Pizza, to grab a quick bite and get back to work. Their pizza is delicious and they have the best house salad dressing I’ve ever tasted. All three of us are frequent customers.

We took our seats and waited a while for the waitress to come over. No big deal. When she did come over, her rundown of the “specials” left us all scratching our heads, and when we asked for clarification about the salad special, she was so flustered that her response made no sense at all. Again, no big deal. We went on with our order, Kelli getting a salad, and Jessica and I sharing a pizza and splitting a side salad. I ordered for both of us, saying, “We are going to share a medium pizza. We’d like pepperoni on the WHOLE pizza and mushrooms on HALF.” While I was talking, I even made the hand motions to show the whole pizza vs. the half pizza and made eye contact, which is my usual practice. I made sure to be very clear and specific, because the first time we ordered by saying a “pepperoni pizza with mushrooms on half,” we’d gotten a pizza that was half pepperoni and half mushroom. That time, I didn’t even mention anything about it, because I felt like I hadn’t been clear enough, and I usually go with the flow at restaurants as much as possible.

The food arrived, and Kelli’s salad still had onions on it, when she had ordered it without, and Jessica and I received a pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms covering the whole thing. So, basically, half of the pizza was still right, but the other half was wrong. The waitress took the pizza away and said another one would be out soon, and I hate to think even now about how that pizza was chucked in the trash can while we sat waiting for our food. Kelli was finished eating by the time our second pizza arrived – this time, with pepperoni on half, and mushrooms on half – again, half right, half wrong. The waitress reached to take that pizza away as well and I stopped her. Not wanting to wait for another pizza to cook, I suggested that she just bring me some pepperoni which I could add to my half. I sloooooowly nibbled through two pieces of mushrooms-only pizza, waiting for the arrival of the accompanying pepperoni. When she brought it, the pepperoni was burnt, which explained why it took so long. So, I sat eating mushroom pizza with burnt pepperoni and practically begging for drink refills. Also of note, I had to tell her what I was drinking every time she came to the table. Never mind that she had put a lemon wedge on top of my cup to differentiate my Diet Pepsi from Jessica’s regular drink. (Kelli had water.)

Making sure not to check back with us, our waitress dropped three checks on the table and quickly disappeared. I picked it up, hoping (rather than believing) that she had given us any sort of special consideration. She hadn’t. I probably would have just let it go, but after the ordeal the day before, and the unbelievably shabby way we had been treated, I had to speak up. Even so, I was careful to be polite, hoping that a little diplomacy would go a long way to making sure that we left happy and she didn’t go cry in the back of the store for the rest of her shift. She seemed shocked that we didn’t want to pay full price, and her offer of amends was to not charge us for one of the toppings on one-half of the pizza. So, basically, two wrong pizzas, inedible pepperoni, time wasted, and her solution was to deduct 75 cents from the check – or, actually, to deduct 75 cents between our two checks. I remained calm, and reminded her that our pizza had come out wrong twice, and then added that my pepperoni had come out burnt even then. This prompted her to make the oh-so-generous gesture to not charge for EITHER of the toppings on the pizza. (Wow. A whole dollar.) She was genuinely too clueless to realize how insulting that was to us, or how unacceptable that would be, so we had no recourse but to accept her measly offer, pay the checks, and leave. I did not even have it in me to slight her on the tip – possibly because I felt so sorry for her since she didn’t have a brain. I’ve yet to check back with Ledo’s to see if perhaps a manager could do something to right the situation, but it was the second time in as many days that I felt slighted and unappreciated in two establishments to which I’ve been very loyal.

Maybe it’s just me, but in a time when all I hear about is the economic downturn, I’d think that businesses would be doing everything possible to retain their loyal customers. Maybe they’ve all forgotten how that’s done? Or maybe they just don’t care?

Certainly, common sense is no longer coming standard issue.

I Couldn’t Breathe Without Your Music In My Lungs

I marvel at those lists that boast the best songs or albums… of the year, of the decade, or of all time. I am equally fascinated every time someone posts a more personal list of their 10 favorite songs or their most influential albums. Just thinking about crafting a list of that sort is daunting enough to scare me away from it. I feel like my opinions on that change with every day, every mood, and every new album released. The only question I can answer with some certainty is “Who is your favorite artist?” and even then, it’s a three-way tie between Derek Webb, Ryan Adams, and Levi Weaver.

There are songs that I will always love for various reasons. I’d never scroll past a radio station playing “She’d Give Anything” (Boy Howdy) because it brings a surge of memories, and quite frankly, I still relate to it. But I also couldn’t really name one other song that group ever did – and I probably wouldn’t want to! On the other end of the musical spectrum, there are songs like “Paris is Burning” by St. Vincent, which – while I have no emotional attachment to it whatsoever – awes me every time I hear it. That song is a work of art – a masterpiece, actually. But it doesn’t hold a piece of my heart like that cheesy country song from 1994.

Then, there are songs that are my favorites for a day, a week, or a month, and then I move on. I get stuck on songs like “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (The National) or “I and Love and You” (The Avett Brothers) and listen to them on repeat until they are branded on my soul. But catch me one Friday afternoon in the summer on the open road with the windows down, and I just might be rocking out to Fall Out Boy. When I’m 90 and in the nursing home, I’m going to remember The National, but “Dance Dance”? Probably not.

I face this internal conflict about music. On the one hand, I savor music that is well-crafted, with atypical chord progressions and lyrics that slay me. On the other, I can and will rock out like a 12-year-old when I hear the New Kids on the Block, and I pity the fool standing between me and the dance floor if the DJ plays “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It’s like I have Multiple Musical Personality Disorder. And I make no apologies for it.

Thankfully, I have a lot of friends who are the same way, and we float recommendations back and forth to great effect. Word of mouth is the new way to discover music, since radio is on life-support and desperately waiting for someone to put it out of its misery. I’ve also discovered quite a few artists thanks to music supervisor Lindsay Wolfington and music-loving show creator Mark Schwahn over at One Tree Hill, who are responsible for introducing me to the likes of Trespassers William, Lucero, Wakey!Wakey! and others, as well as causing me to give a little more play to music legends like The Cure or Led Zeppelin.

So, despite my ever-changing, ever-growing musical catalogue, I decided to attempt to satiate the masses (heh.) by discussing some artists, albums, or songs that have either had a profound impact on me, or that represent an era in my life.

Let me begin by saying that I grew up on country music. And when I say “grew up on,” the truth is that I’m not sure I even knew that any other kind of music existed. When people talked about “the King,” I figured that must surely be George Strait. I don’t regret that upbringing by any means. Even though country music crashed into Shania Twain mountain long ago, some of it still holds a special place in my heart. For example, Clint Black was my first crush (not counting He-Man) in his tight jeans (why, Clint?), his blazer, his black cowboy hat, and that grin. I still think he is adorable to this day. My favorite artist growing up, though, was The Judds. They provided the soundtrack to my childhood, and I still love listening to them. I have every album they ever made, but back when all I had was two Judds’ cassettes (Love Can Build a Bridge and River of Time), my Mom had the Greatest Hits on vinyl. Anytime I was left home alone as a child, I’d slip down to the record-player and crank this album up while I sang along and danced around the living room. When I was 10, Naomi got sick and The Judds came down to just Wynonna. Her solo album was the first CD I ever owned, given to me on my birthday along with a “boom box” that still resides somewhere in the dark depths of my closet. And since not many pre-teens can afford to expand their record collections too much, this album is about all I listened to for years. I loved every beat of it. I still think Wynonna is one tough broad with an amazing voice. And lest I should ever be without a boots-clad, guitar-playing country boy to swoon over, I have Joe Nichols for that.

Then, about 15 years ago, my musical landscape changed forever. I related the story on my old blog of how I came to own the self-titled Caedmon’s Call cassette tape, which was my introduction to what would become my favorite band of all time. This album made me fall head over heels in love with music, and I have never looked back. That album followed into 40 Acres, which houses one of the contenders for my favorite song (“Somewhere North”) as well as the song responsible for my internet alter-ego, “Shifting Sand.” After the release of “Long Line of Leavers” in 2000, Caedmon’s Call lost a few of their key members – Aaron Tate and Derek Webb – to other projects. Unfortunately, Derek and Aaron were their chief songwriters, and without their well-crafted lyrics to drive the music, the band lost quite a bit of its luster in my eyes.

Three years later, I got the magic back when Derek Webb re-emerged with his first solo offering, “She Must and Shall Go Free.” To me, it packed a punch akin to Luther’s 95 Theses, and Derek has not stopped convicting and infuriating the Christian community since. No matter what anyone says about Derek Webb, though, he stands by his convictions and backs them up with the way he lives his life. So, even if I don’t always agree with him, I can always respect him. Luckily, we tend to agree. I had the great privilege of meeting Derek Webb several years back, and since then, I’ve scarcely missed a show within a reasonable driving distance, and I find that I enjoy hearing what he has to say as much as listening to his songs.

Of course, I listened to more in my teen and college years than just Derek Webb and Caedmon’s Call (though that certainly captured the majority of my attention). Alanis Morissette got me through the angst with “Jagged Little Pill,” which was certainly a departure from my usual musical style, but a great album is a great album and THAT was a great album. To carry on with my country background, I left the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” in my CD player for probably a year, and even if I live to be 200 years old, I’ll probably still know that album from beginning to end. And like any good teenager of the 90s, I had to participate in the great debate: ‘NSYNC or BSB? I sided with the Backstreet Boys and collected EVERYTHING – carefully-clipped magazine articles, posters covering 90% of my bedroom walls, CDs shaped like their heads (which you probably didn’t know existed, did you?), and VHS tapes of concerts that I watched over and over again with my cousin, Tracey. She loved Brian and I loved AJ. I kind of still have an AJ poster on the wall in my office at home, but I swear, I’ve been thinking about taking it down. For some weightier subject matter, I had Jennifer Knapp’s Kansas, which remains a favorite album of mine to this day.

Over the course of college, I stopped hearing any new music that I liked, because the radio certainly wasn’t playing it, and I didn’t really know where to get it. I also had some trying times in college, where I listened to Alison Krauss non-stop in my car as if the engine wouldn’t run otherwise. At a certain point, I wasn’t listening to music much at all, because there was nothing to compel me or excite me or awaken that part of me anymore.

Then one day, something happened that changed my life as much if not more than that Caedmon’s Call cassette had ten years earlier….

I created a MySpace profile. I know what you’re thinking. MySpace is basically a joke now (although I am thinking of returning there post-haste if they can promise no Farmville or Mafia Wars), but there was a time when MySpace was the hub of the internet and, for all its faults, it created the opportunity for independent artists to network and connect with fans that would never hear their songs played on the radio or stumble into one of their shows. The down side was that anyone who thought they had talent could put their music out there to the masses, and it became tedious trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Before the random friend requests became overwhelming, though, and MySpace was still quite new to me, I got a request to become “friends” with an England-based musician by the name of Levi Weaver. I clicked over to his page out of curiosity and immediately connected to the music that I heard. The lyrics were brilliant – with depth and authenticity – and the sound drew me in completely. Beyond that, I gave the profile a once-over and the bio impressed me enough that I decided to message Mr. Weaver and let him know that he had a new fan in me.

To my surprise, I received a fast response from Levi, despite the fact that it was well past midnight in England at the time. I’m not sure I can trace the progression from there, but suffice it to say we have become friends over the years, and music or not, I feel blessed to know him. Luckily for all of us, he has continued to produce one amazing song after the other with no signs of slowing down. So, I am grateful to be along for the ride, and because I pity the people who have not been introduced to his music, I try to spread the word at any opportunity.

(To wit, you can actually go HERE and subscribe to the new album AND get your hands on the rest of his catalog for one very small lump sum. Support independent artists, people!)

Discovering Levi’s music was enough to reawaken my slumbering zeal for the arts, but it didn’t stop there, because Levi proceeded to turn me on to the third member of my musical trifecta – Ryan Adams.

While I have specific (heart-warming!) stories to relate about Derek Webb and Levi Weaver, I have no such anecdote for Ryan Adams. I’ve never met him, and can boast only having been within about 20 or 30 feet of him at concerts. All I know is that once I got a small taste of his music, I could not stop listening until I had heard it all. And hearing it “all” is no small feat when you’re talking about a musical genius the likes of Ryan Adams, who gained renown for cranking out music faster than his fans could listen to it. Since I arrived at the party about a decade late (when you count his earlier Whiskeytown recordings), I had a lot of catching up to do. I started with a few selected songs that spanned the years, and then rushed out to get his latest release at the time, “Easy Tiger.” I loved it and it sent me into a frenzy collecting the other albums – albums that even surpassed what I had already heard. “Heartbreaker” (possibly his most acclaimed album), “Cold Roses,” and “Love Is Hell,” to name a few, are filled with amazing melodies, lyrics, and emotions. Much of his music was never officially released through a label, and came through Adams himself as he released the music online directly to fans – and the songs are by no means second rate! My favorite studio album, though, is “Gold.” The title may imply that it is some kind of “best of” collection, but it’s not – it’s an original album that houses several of my favorite Ryan Adams’ songs, like “The Rescue Blues” and “New York, New York.” While a lot of his music tends toward the melancholy, the content of “Gold” seems a bit lighter when compared to some of his other fare. It also contains the widely-covered song, “When the Stars Go Blue,” which shines best through the voice of its author. (And I can only hope that Ryan Adams got a LOT of money from Tim McGraw’s cover version, because that has got to be the most tragic thing to happen to a song in my lifetime.)

As my friend and office-mate, Kelli, will tell you, there are some days that I just do not function on anything other than Ryan Adams. Luckily, she also has a great appreciation for his music, so she doesn’t mind, and I dare say she’s had a few of those “Ryan Adams Days” herself. Sadly, Ryan Adams is on an indefinite “break” from making music (though he has been producing books of prose with about as much regularly as he did his music), but I am banking on the notion that a consummate musician like him will not be able to help but make more music as time wears on. If not, I take comfort in knowing that I have a tremendous catalog of his music that I can and will listen to until the end of time.

This blog has run a bit lengthy, even by my verbose standards, so while I could probably go on forever discussing this topic, I will leave you off by rounding out my top five favorite artists for you. Coming in at number four is Josh Ritter, who honestly took a while to grow on me. That recommendation came through Levi, as well, and though I was immediately taken by some of Ritter’s lyrics, I wasn’t sold on the sound, and I was ready to throw in the towel. Levi challenged me to press on, and I did – thank goodness I did! Ritter’s voice grew on me, and his lyrics have kept me coming back for more. (Lyrics always get me.) Critics say that Josh Ritter gets better with each album, which I do not doubt and am eagerly looking forward to his next release in May after a LONG wait, but while I think both “The Animal Years” and “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” are epic albums, I stand by my favorite Josh Ritter album, “Hello Starling.” My favorite tunes on that album are “Kathleen” and “Snow is Gone.” Check it out.

My number 5 choice came through Levi in a way, though in this case he is the one that needs to see the light and embrace this artist. Through the marvel of the internet, and the mutual connection to Levi, I have gotten to know Mel, who is always ready to share her musical discoveries (and she has a keen ear for them). So, she is the one who introduced me to Patty Griffin, and oh, what a gift that has been. It is hard to single out one Patty Griffin album, because they are all filled with her rich, soulful style and there are plenty of songs to treasure. For the sake of this exercise, I am going to mention “Impossible Dream” because it contains my favorite Patty Griffin song (which also happens to be the one that most easily slays me), “Useless Desires.”

What are some of your favorite artists or songs or styles? I am interested to know. And if you want to talk even more about music, you know where to find me and I am always up to the task! If you’re just hearing about any of the acts I mentioned above, then you have some rewarding work ahead of you checking them all out!