Occasional Dispatches


    Here's something that I'd love to claim as my own, but can't.  An email from my good friend Doug Tichenor ended with this:
“Things aren't like they used to be, but then, they never were.”


Oct. 2001:
Real Music
     The tour crew and local stage hands have worked most of the day setting up for an evening
show: Patty Loveless and her tour band.  But otherwise the twenty-five-hundred-seat theater is
empty when the eight performers arrive on stage at three-thirty for sound-check.  There’s no audience
to impress and the band is dressed in shorts, jeans, tee-shirts, sandals, and sneakers.  Patty herself
wears jeans and a green brush jacket.  When they play, it’s all easy-going and carefree, but you can’t
help noticing this band is tight, as are their 3- and 4-part harmonies.  They’re playing mostly from
her latest release, Mountain Soul, more traditional bluegrass and mountain tunes that harken back
to eastern Kentucky where she was raised (truly a coal miner’s daughter).
     The road crew drum-tech, Dave, is focusing the stage lighting.  In blue overalls, a ball-cap,
and glasses, he traverses the floor, speaking into a radio to Liz, a local hand located way up on
the theater’s catwalks.  You can’t hear what he’s saying over the music but he flings one arm high
and the other wide and pointing, and a swath of orange light shifts back and to the left to bathe
the drum riser.  He nods vigorously then crosses to stage right, the orange clicks off and the stage
turns magenta.
     Patty and two other women, who play fiddle and sing backup, form the band’s front line.
Centered behind them, the drummer and his kit sit sixteen inches off the floor on a riser.  Two
other risers, one on either side, support the keyboard and steel guitar players.  And sandwiched
between these risers, two more musicians play guitar and bass.
     In the midst of “Soul of Constant Sorrow” one of the girls in front launches into a
haunting fiddle solo.  She leans into her work, knees bent and eyes closed, Patty and the rest of
the band watching and playing behind her. After a little, she turns and giggles, lifting her bow
from the strings, and the music trails off into the odd chord and drum-beat and “Yeah, well,
you—“ brraaang— “No, really, I—“ plink— ploonk.  They clown around some and begin another
song.  This being sound-check, they don’t need to play each piece through.
     The band’s stage manager and guitar tech, Jay, has been working since before noon to set
up the show, wearing shorts, tee-shirt, and sneakers.  But now his bare legs and sneakers
appear beneath a long, black cape, fashioned from a left-over scrap of drape and knotted below
his chin.  Someone has labeled him “J” with white tape on his back.  The band pays no attention
as he strides across the stage.  Buffoonery is part of the backstage scene.
     Twin fiddles kick off, banjo and base take up, and the band lights into a rousing kick-up-
your-heels tune.  Patty sings, “Gather round ladies, gather round/ Hear the news that’s comin’
down/ The ships are in and the sails are down/ The boys are back in town.”  The guitar player
slides in close to her left, sharing the mic, and the fiddle girls to her right, and they sing harmonies
on the chorus: “Well the boys are back in town/ Your true love can be found/”—the music quits
abruptly, and Patty alone hits the next line a cappella—“Gather round the old playground/ The
boys are back in town.”  In the next verse the blond girl plinks through a pretty mandolin solo.
“Gonna raise some hell, ‘cause don’t you know/ The boys are back in town.”  The two girls turn
face to face, playing dueling fiddles, then link right arms and skip in a tight circle when the music
breaks off into laughter. Patty grins and turns to speak to the slide guitar player behind her.
     This afternoon she’s just a great girl singer—she might as well be on the playground
herself.  But tonight you’ll notice she’s a tallish blonde, with styled hair falling to her shoulders on
the sides and a little longer in back.  The jeans and brush jacket will give way to stylish attire:
sparkly sequins on snug lamé slacks, her sandals replaced by heels, and the brush jacket by a fancy
ruffled blouse.  The rest of the band will change to shiny boots with heels, and the girls will wear
tight white pants and pretty blouses, one with bare shoulders.  This afternoon their music turns to
play; but no clowning tonight.  Patrons in high-dollar seats will expect more.  Tonight, blinded in
the lights and introduced by the lieutenant governor, they’ll stand straight and dignified, professionals.
     But night hasn’t darkened anything yet.  Five clear notes on an acoustic guitar lead to a
brisk a cappella harmony, the last tune for sound check.  Twin fiddles, banjo, slide guitar—the
works—and Patty’s off into “Shady Grove, pretty little miss/ Shady Grove, my darlin’/ Shady
Grove, pretty little miss/ Goin’ back to Harlan.”  Dave, finished with focusing, does a chicken
walk across the stage.  “But every time he calls my name/ It nearly drives me crazy/ Shady Grove,
pretty little miss/ Shady Grove, my darlin’.”  Patty beams as she sings, with a hand across her
heart, eyes closed and face uplifted.


Spring 2001:

    Yesterday's mail brought a thick packet—by priority mail, so I know the entire mailing cost a
bundle—from National Shareholders Relations, which would like me to proxy-vote my 91 shares
of AT&T stock at the corporation's upcoming annual meeting.  Concerning my faith in everyone
involved in this matter, I would probably trust more anyone who was booked into the county jail
last night.
    Four years ago, on the recommendation of Malcolm Berko whose weekly investment column
in the newspaper business section has picked many a winner over the years, I sunk $2000 into
AT&T, which Berko said was a good long-term bet and undervalued at the time.  Within a year or two
its share price climbed from $32, when I bought it, to $66.  I was quite pleased to double my money.
(At $64 I wanted my broker to sell half and buy something else to diversify, which he talked me
out of—but that's another story.)  Then, AT&T famously did something disastrous having to do with
cable TV, and I've watched my money evaporate as the stock atrophied.  Last year's $44 looked
bad enough, but for months now it has languished around $18-20.  Rallys to $21 look exciting
these days.  I wonder, therefore, at the wisdom of AT&T paying double or more the postage
to court the confidence of us shareholders.  Who is desperate to do what?
    But the situation is more galling yet.
    In most years I take such packets of gaudy public relations poof and obfuscating legalese directly
to the trash. But yesterday I plopped the expensive bundle of text onto my desk, right on top of
the little mess of AT&T long-distance bills and the notice from the collection agency (English on
one side, Spanish on the other—"El deseo de nuestro cliente es resolver este problema") to whom
AT&T has referred my delinquent balance of $25.97.
    This little imbroglio began in December when AT&T sent me a long-distance bill for $25.59 for
one 3-minute call, allegedly placed at 5:15 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving, to Vanuatu.  Before I
called to explain that we'd transferred our long-distance service to Sprint some months earlier and
this was obviously a mistake, I looked up Vanuatu in the dictionary.  Vanuatu is the tiny series of
dots in the ocean just northeast of Australia, formerly known as New Hebrides.
    The AT&T rep who answered my call in December (and thus probably earns—what, $6-8 an
hour?) surprised me by knowing exactly what and where Vanuatu is.  She surprised me further by
explaining that having cancelled long-distance service with AT&T would not prevent this bill.
"Sir, do you have internet?" she asked.  Although I craftily steered away from admitting that, yes,
I do "have internet," she went on to explain that certain "adult content" sites operate out of
Vanuatu and they route all their calls through AT&T, regardless of a consumer's normal long-
distance provider.  Still, I assured her that no one in my household would patronize such
sites and that I would not be paying this bill.
    She, in return, assured me that AT&T's billing apparatus is very reliable and that someone in my
household did "physically place that call" on the day in question, and that she had no authorization
to remove the charge in any case.
    "Fine," I said, "What is your name, and who is your supervisor?—get that person on the line."
The supervisor helped me no more than a parrot sitting behind the first rep. might have.  And after
about 15 minutes of explanations and reiterations from both sides, my temperature finally began to
rise and my patience to subside.  "Look," I told the supervisor, "I don't care if you're authorized to
handle this or not" (although, it occurred to me that if she was not, why was AT&T authorizing
her to waste my time?)—"you tell whoever IS authorized, that no one in my house is responsible
for this charge, I will not pay this bill, and furthermore, if this incident affects my credit rating I
will be very upset."  I could have sworn that in the moment before I slammed down my receiver
she said, "I'll take care of it."  So I assumed the matter had been laid to rest.
    And then I began to wonder.  I got into my seventeen-year-old son David's computer and
pulled up the history files in his internet browser for Friday, November 24th, and guess what he
was momentarily logged onto that afternoon?  Slutpost.com.
    Had the internet's porn explosion come about when I was seventeen, I might have considered it
evidence of a benevolent god; so I could hardly begrudge David this transgression, apart from the
cost.  I scanned the files that revealed his other internet activities and found that, apart from that
one Vanuatu moment, they had to do with sports, paintball, video games, and Napster.
    When David got home I asked him about Slutpost.com.  Where I expected him to act sheepish, he
was all consternation instead.  It turns out that on November 24th he received email from a friend,
which he says the friend also received unbidden, suggesting that he "check out this great joke I
found."  (Maybe it really suggested he check out some hot babes, but again, I was seventeen
once—I understand.)  When he clicked on the link, a quick and baffling series of electronic events
resulted in an audible dialing of the phone.  "Dad," my son told me, "as soon as that happened I
looked for some way to exit out of it, and I couldn't do it."  I know my son well enough to know
that this was the truth.  I told him that I wasn't about to police him on porn, but that he must
understand that it conveys lousy and preposterous fantasies about females who crave wanton sex
constantly, and that it's often attended by hidden charges.
    I thought the matter was settled, until sometime in January when another bill arrived.  I disposed of
it.  In February another arrived, and one day while I was out my wife took a nasty call from
AT&T, and she told me to do something about this affair.  But I would sooner set fire to $25.59
than pay AT&T to sanction this scam.
    So I got into my trusty online search engine, Google.com, and searched the internet on the two
words"AT&T Vanuatu."  What I found was a multitude of instances like mine—most of them
far more expensive—and a consistent pattern of response from AT&T: unsympathetic and
dissembling replies to complaints about these bills, and insistence on payment.
    From newspaper accounts, personal websites, and online bulletin boards (and my own
experience), I’ve pieced together how this “business practice” works.  Typically a person is
enticed to a porn site by an ad or email message that offers “free” porn or claims “NO CREDIT
CARD,” which appeals especially to kids (who have none) and equates in their minds with “free.”
Somewhere, buried in a blaze of alluring ad copy or images, may be some tiny print
informing users that they will make a long-distance call, although it’s clear this disclaimer might as
well be invisible.  People who click on a link to these sites unknowingly download a mini-
program to their computer which, in brief seconds, closes their internet connection and dials long-
distance to a 900-number service in Vanuatu or some other far-flung place like Moldavia,
Madagascar, or Chad where these scams operate.  The rates vary between two to eight dollars a
    Who falls victim?  Parents, like myself, are often surprised by expensive bills resulting from their
kids naivete; bills around $270 are common.  In at least one case, a family whose phone line was
configured to prohibit long-distance calls of any sort was billed ($40) because the computer
bypasses normal modes of transmission.  Police in Des Moines, Iowa, who were investigating
child pornography, owe $181 to AT&T.  And pity the poor guy who was away from home one
week and his “somewhat mentally handicapped” brother used his computer, running up a
$5,587.30 phone bill.
    How does AT&T respond?  The company’s position is that people who incur a phone bill are
obligated to pay it, pure and simple.  Those who call to question a bill or complain are typically
led on a lengthy run-around, a process seemingly geared to wear them out.  Many people,
believing their phone service to be at risk, resign themselves to paying.  Some callers are told by a
representative that the charge will be dismissed, only to find it reinstated later with a comment
like: “Your concern has been given proper consideration, and at this time, no adjustment is
warranted on your account.”  In some cases, after protracted dispute of a bill, the company offers
to cut the amount by half.  (Half of $5,587.30 is only $2,793.65 for a month’s phone bill—that
would be helpful!)   But they expect payment in every case.  When the Des Moines Register
sought a comment on the police department’s billing situation, AT&T did not return the call.
    It’s appalling that AT&T sanctions, sponsors—call it what you like—aids and abets this deceptive
trade.  The company’s poor management has cost me a bundle on my investment, and now they
want to gouge me as a consumer, as well.  The hell with them.  As part owner of the company, I
hereby authorize anyone stuck with such a bill to let AT&T just suck on it.

    I listen to NPR radio exclusively, and it’s frustrating that since we live about forty miles from the FM transmitter at Norman, Oklahoma’s KGOU—nearly the end of its effective broadcasting range—it requires outlandish efforts to coax its beleaguered signal into our house.  Outside, in the driveway, it comes in tantalizingly clear on my pickup’s radio.  Yet our stereo, sitting beneath the window in our home’s northeast corner which points directly toward Norman, delivers about one-third KGOU, one-third static, and another third that varies consistently between: a country music station (George Strait, as we speak), ‘60s nostalgia hits, or Mexican top forty (with ads like Especial!  Especial! Muy muchos coches a los precios bajos en Oklahoma City!).
    But don’t think I haven’t experimented with elaborate antenna setups.  A local electronics guru suggested hooking up to our TV antenna, via a signal splitter.   Done.  And no go.  An engineer at KGOU gave me some ideas, which resulted in a wire snaking through the dining-room and kitchen to the back door where its bare copper end and a screw teamed up with the aluminum storm door to make an antenna of it.  Pretty fair success on that deal, until I came home one day and found the wire wadded up in the trash and my wife’s narrow-eyed look clarifying how soon I could resurrect that rig.
    The most workable innovation I’ve come up with is a wire antenna diagonally up across the window, resulting in (in all but the most cooperative weather) static-filled  All Things Considered backed by south-of-the-border trumpets, accordion, and Yah-ha-ha-ha chorus.
    In playing with every conceivable antenna configuration, I’ve found that standing by the stereo and holding the wire I get a clear signal.  And—talk about insult added to injury—by letting go of the wire and standing directly over the stereo with arms extended, I seem to function very well as a free-standing antenna, but only in that one position.  It’s not a pose in which I can read or do anything much at all beyond bringing in a signal.  I’ve been known to stand this way throughout B. B. King’s “The Night Life Ain’t No Good Life, But It’s My Life.”  But under most other circumstances—I have a life, however unproductive it might appear.
    I’ve even wondered about positioning something similar to myself next to the stereo.  Assuming that the human body is primarily water (what, eighty-six percent or some such?) and a little flesh, maybe a I could replicate myself with a perhaps a baked ham in a tall tank of water.  But I’m guessing that, domestically speaking, I’d have better luck with the storm door.
    If anyone can advise me further, I’d appreciate the help.

12/31/00  (If you're not connected with an English dept., skip this one.)
     Too many literary theoreticians are like alchemists in reverse.  Unsatisfied with gold as it is, they feel the need of a science to analyze it.  Literature on its own has too much emotional quality, mystery, allure that they wish to explain away, reduce to a more base essence, reduce to simpler elements: some lead here, a bit of zinc there.  A little Freud here, a bit of post-colonial claptrap there.
    Literature, in this view, could be compared to religion.  What science has done to the church (or seemed to, anyway), explaining its mysteries and relegating it to irrelevance, it would seem also to have done to literature.  The theorists, like their historical counterparts the alchemists, appear to be involved in a worthwhile and respectable endeavor.  But it will prove preposterous.
    Better to assay gold, I say.

    Yesterday we got an AT&T bill with only one charge on it, $25.59 for a three minute call to Vanuatu.  Now, we switched to Sprint and canceled long-distance with AT&T two months ago, so I called them up.  Although first I checked the dictionary to find out where the hell is Vanuatu, an island group a.k.a. New Hebrides—had to look that up as well—in the south Pacific, northeast of Australia.
    Calling AT&T got me several menus and sub-menus—“for information regarding service or billing to existing accounts belonging to a third cousin’s ex-wife in Bombay, press 7."  I finally got a live (mostly) human being on the line and explained that I don't know how we got charged for this, but I would not be paying this bill and I do not expect any damage to my credit rating either.
    I was surprised to hear that the woman I talked with knew where Vanuatu is—for someone making $8 an hour answering phones, she seemed remarkably well-informed.  But it turns out she’s probably handled lots of calls like mine.  "Sir, do you have internet?" she asked.  Then she mentioned an "adult"-content web-site operation, something like a 900-number deal, in Vanuatu.
    Well, I didn’t let on that we do “have internet,” because, one, we wouldn’t connect to any such site—especially for a fee—and, two, even if we had—“we canceled our long distance service with AT&T, so there’s no way we could have incurred this charge.”
    “Sir, these sites route all calls through AT&T, so you are billed even if you don’t normally have long-distance service with AT&T.”
    “Look,” I said, patiently, “There are four people in this house” (my wife, myself, our twenty-one-year-old daughter and seventeen-year-old son), “none of whom would have made this call, I can assure you.  So I don’t intend to pay this bill.”
    “Sir, our billing procedures and equipment are very reliable, and regardless of what you believe, someone physically placed that call from your residence, and you are obligated to pay for it.”  But I'm looking at "11/24/00, 5:15 p.m."—the day after Thanksgiving—and thinking, No Way.  Not under any circumstances.
    I explained, repeatedly, to the woman and eventually her supervisor—both of whom said they had “no authority to remove the charge from your account”—that no one here made this call, and I would not be paying this bill, “and furthermore I do not expect to find my credit record marred because of this.  I’ve paid all my bills for thirty years now, and I do not expect to find a black mark on my credit record on account of this.”
    I realized I’d spent more than a quarter hour on this business, and both parties were beginning to repeat ourselves—although Miss Supervisor said that I could contact my local service department and have them schedule a technician to check my line for “irregularities” that might have led to this charge.  To which I informed her that “I have a life, and I’ve already devoted more of it than seems necessary to this matter, and I won’t be paying—.”  I believe the best approach to these situations is not anger but firm, unwavering declaration.  Although the scarcity of a spirit of logic or compromise at AT&T was beginning to put an edge on my feelings.
    In fact, it occurred to me that, as a shareholder who’s seen his $5,000 worth of AT&T dwindle to well under $2,000, it’s extra aggravating to think that this corporation is trying to gouge me—and losing my money in the process.
    “Well, Sir, if you do not pay this bill your credit record will be affected—” the supervisor told me, which began to get under my skin, so I cut to the chase.
    “Look, for the last time, we did not make the call and I will not pay the bill.  And right now I have no grievance with AT&T, but if my credit is adversely affected, I will be very unhappy with AT&T—”
    At which point she managed to squeeze in, once again, “Sir, I have no authority to—”
    “Then you explain this to whoever you need to”—grammatical fussiness helps nothing in a charged atmosphere—“but I do not expect to hear any more about this.”
 And in the moment before I clicked the button to end this travail, I was amazed to hear:
    “I’ll take care of it, Sir.”
    And then I got to thinking.  So I checked my computer, the "history" files in Netscape.  No activity on 11/24 around 5:15 p.m. (whew!).  But I dug into the innards of my seventeen-year-old’s computer, and guess what he was connected to at that particular moment in time?
    So I talked to him about it.  I could see from old temporary files that his activity on slutpost.com has been limited to a few rare occasions (and I'm like So What? on that, as long as you understand that real girls don't tell any-and-every available dog,   "Hey I wanna suck you off and have you cum all over me—I'm so hot and horny all the time”).  But I explained to him about how a "free trial" probably leads directly to a scheme to wheedle your credit card number, or in this case a phone number, out of you and charge you anyway.  And he said (and I believe him) that Slutpost.com came recommended in an email from his friend, that his friend hadn't sent, with a link that said something like, "Hey, check out this great site I found."  When he clicked on the link (what seventeen-year-old wouldn’t?), it quickly dialed a number, and he couldn't find an X box or any other way to exit out of it until it had done its work and connected him.  (And he knew nothing about Vanuatu.)
    To anyone else who is billed $25.59 for a call to Vanuatu, and puzzled by it, I say, let AT&T deal with it; stick them with the loss.  AT&T management has frittered away most of my investment—I hereby authorize consumers not to worry about me—I’ve given up on that bunch.

    Maybe you saw the TV news story out of Oklahoma City, a couple days before Christmas, about the older woman who lost her home to an explosion.  Her family had all chipped in to buy Momma a new gas stove, and her son tried to install it without turning off the gas supply to the house.  Which might have been okay, until he tried to find a resulting gas leak with a Bic lighter.
    The news clip showed this Einstein, a fifty-ish guy for whom the name Bubba could only be a step up in the world, saying, “I thought I lost Momma” (Ah thot ah loss Momma), “but then I seen her layin’ under some sheetrock.”  But the best part followed.  His final thought (if you can call it that) was to look blankly toward the camera and, “It all just—it just buh-lew up!”
    Some Oklahomans maintain that the state can’t attract new industry without a “right to work” law, but that’s not where the problem lies.  Imagine a company rep, an advance man, coming here to check things out.  Imagine him in a room at the Ramada Inn, watching TV and seeing that guy with his “It just buh-lew up!”  After which someone calls from the home office and asks, “Well Don, what do you think about the available work-force?”  How could he answer anything other than:
    “Arkansas and Mississippi are beginning to look real good.”

    Here's another gloss on the sad state of TV journalism.  When our town of Chickasha hit the news (even nationally, I'm told), friends emailed us, asking, Are you guys okay?  The answer:
    There was flooding Monday morning simply because the rain fell too fast.  The normal avenues of run-off, ditches and creeks, were overwhelmed, and the water backed up in low-lying areas (as it has any number of times before).  The brown water covering large areas of ground and lapping at the doors of commercial establishments was an impressive sight.  (As were the cars out in it with only their windows and roofs showing, evidence of people who know no better than to drive right into standing water, and keep going.)  By late Monday afternoon, however, the creeks had receded, back within their banks.  But a flood of SKY-5 and 4-WARN-STORM-TEAM (bloody etc.) broadcasting trucks and antennae and supporting vehicles made up for the water that had disappeared.  And keep in mind, please, that the entire flooded area, compared to the town of Chickasha in general, corresponds to an area no greater than that inside the little south oval compared to the OU campus plus Campus Corner and a few surrounding blocks. (maybe 1/12, 1/16?)
    Coincidentally, the 24" pipe-line that delivers our municipal water-supply from parts west (miles west) had apparently broken somewhere, which was (and is) the real story.  (Flooding, like shit, happens.)
    But count on the sensation-mongers to milk this thing.  On Thursday morning—two and a half days past the 8-10-hour flood that if you'd panned your camera you'd find the high ground at either end of it—some TV newscast began their coverage of the Chickasha drama with a shot panning Monday morning's brown water.  Implying, of course, an ongoing flood.  Whereas, if you were to find people in Chickasha without a TV or a newspaper and ask them about recent events, they'd be hard-pressed to explain more than . . . heavy rain.
    What distinguishes our species from others, besides an opposable thumb and the ability to breed out of season, is our cerebral cortex with which we solve problems rather than just react to them.  So the city of Chickasha has set out some pumps and is piping water (albeit a funky fluid) from the Washita River to the water treatment plant to keep us hydrated until crews can locate the break and repair it.  In spite of the dire-disaster talk and the TV images of Red Cross personnel fully suited up in white plastic (looking vaguely like an asbestos-removal team) to distribute drinking water from a truck, we've not for one moment been without a ready flow at the kitchen faucet.
    Reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon some time ago.  A news-anchor holding an umbrella and a microphone looks into the camera and says, "At this point, it's still not classified as a hurricane—it's still being called a rain drop."

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