Among professional writers, I think the best job would be working in the press office at the State Department and the worst job would be as an editorial writer. At the State Department, every time there was some international catastrophe, it’d be your job to come up with the modifier that expressed the unparalleled level of concern all Americans felt in this time of tragedy.
“Hey, Bob,” your boss would instant-message you, “how concerned are we about Finland being invaded by space monsters?”
“Pretty darn concerned, I’d imagine,” you’d respond, stalling while you reached for your thesaurus. “I’d say we’re either ‘profoundly concerned’, ‘gravely concerned’, ‘momentously concerned’, or ‘really, really super-concerned’.”
“Good job, Jim,” the boss would reply. “We can always count on your sympathy.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the poor editorial writer, whose job it is to be outraged by mass murders, supportive of the local blood drive, and troubled by the rise in teen pregnancies. Only blatantly obvious and widely agreed-upon opinions are allowed. It’s only if you want to end your career in a hail of indignant letters to the editor that you could endorse an armed revolution against the government or a boycott of Girl Scout cookies.
* * *
I went to the mall this weekend, not because I needed anything but because it’s required by federal statute. I avoided the so-called Black Friday (which I thought is what they used to call Good Friday and actually seems like a better name, since it wasn’t good that Jesus was crucified but rather it was black, which I think in the current reference indicates retailers’ profits) like the plague, which was also black but not as popular. Anyway, my wife and I went on a rainy Saturday afternoon, mostly just to see the crowds and punish ourselves for eating too much turkey.
What I like best about a crowded mall is a game I made up that I call “mall-walking”. It’s not the slow-paced circuits made by energetic seniors, but rather an attempt to dart as fast as possible through crowds of zombified shoppers, imagining I’m avoiding tacklers while returning a kickoff for a touchdown. It’s best to walk quickly rather than run, unless you want to really be tackled by security guards. You start on the clockwise side, so you have a few “blockers” going in your direction but most everyone else is coming toward you. Extra hazards include kiosk merchants trying to rub you with cologne samples, restaurant workers trying to hand you teriyaki chicken, slow-moving family blobs who spread out six-wide, and fast-moving professional shoppers erupting unpredictably from storefronts. If you make it to the goal line (a pod of easy chairs containing heavy-eyed husbands who, before the mall was redesigned last summer, had to seek out the bedding section of Sears to recline their slumping figures) without being touched, you win.
I still think this would make a great video game, where you could use famous malls or other high-traffic areas – Times Square, the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo, penitentiaries serving the U.S. Congress – as different game fields. Electronic Arts, are you out there?
* * *
One of the most embarrassing situations I’ve ever encountered happened recently in my office. Coworkers were circulating a card to send to someone’s father who was about to have a serious operation. I was vaguely aware that someone in that family was in the midst of a health crisis, and had wrongly assumed that a death was involved.
When the card got to me, it was left at my desk with the inside open, so I could add my thoughts and/or prayers but I couldn’t see the message printed on the cover. Too quickly, I scrawled my message: “Thinking of you in your time of loss.” It was only when I closed the card to pass it on to the next person that I realized it wasn’t a sympathy card, it was a get-well card.
My callous lack of sincerity was captured in permanent ink. It didn’t matter that my sympathy was in one sense technically suitable – there probably was going to be loss involved in the anticipated amputation of his arm. But it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the kind of loss I was referencing and, even if it was, it was a pretty insensitive way to express my wishes.
Switching into recovery mode, I considered my options for fixing the hideous error. I obviously couldn’t run out and buy a replacement card, because of all the original messages already affixed. I considered white-out, but the glossy smear would only draw more attention and some curious individual would inevitably scratch it off to see what was underneath.
The only other choice was to work with the existing ink-strokes and modify them to change the message. After about 20 minutes of work, I got it to read “Thinking it’s your time to floss.” I had no idea what this was supposed to mean. My hope, however, was that my coworkers would think it was a friendly inside reference that only the patient would get, and that the patient wouldn’t know who I was anyway.
* * *
I called my insurance company this morning to investigate an apparent error in billing that cost me about $250. I was almost positive I was right, but even the smallest doubt seems magnified when you’re dealing with a sophisticated multinational computer system. I actually got through the automated voicemail system relatively unscathed and in touch with a real live person, who turned out to be quite helpful. After the usual small delays (“our computer seems to be a little slow today,” he says as he looks at my premium history in a grid that dictates how nice to be) he located my account and the source of the problem. “Yes, I think our records may be in error,” he says. “Will it be okay if we make the correction in your next billing period?” Yes, of course, that’s great, I say.
Then comes the little trick they’ve apparently taught every help desk in the world in the last year: “Before I let you go, can I interest you in our new 3.5% APR certificate of deposit?” While you’re still in the throes of relief over your billing being corrected, there’s a piece of your willpower against solicitation that has become slightly weaker, and they’re damn sure going to take advantage. I very much want to return the favor of helping this individual like he’s just helped me, and $5,000 does seem like a small price to pay. But in the end, I recover enough to politely decline.