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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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I Hit the Paywall. It Hit Back.

I’m not one to complain, but–

Okay, I couldn’t even type that with a straight face. Let me put it this way: Complaining isn’t a hobby of mine. I simply find it impossible in some (read: many) situations to suggest complicity through silence, to let jerks get away with shit, etc.

A fresh if admittedly minor example is my recent attempt (and partial failure) to get a refund for the New York Times digital subscription I cancelled over a month ago. In late March, I signed up for the 99-cent trial to see if I might find full digital access interesting and/or useful. By April 24, I had not logged in to read the NYT, not even once. I figured the allowance of 20 articles per month without subscription would be sufficient, so with two days left before the next pay period would begin at $35 per month, I used the NYT’s online form to cancel.

But on April 26, my credit card was charged. A customer service rep said she could cancel the subscription and refund the money, no problem. On May 3, noticing the refund hadn’t posted to my credit card, I called and was told the refund could take 7-10 business days to go through. On May 11, still no refund. The customer service rep said whoever had claimed to cancel my subscription earlier in the month must not have done it properly, and it was too late in the billing cycle to grant a refund. I asked to speak with a supervisor, who called me back an hour later to tell me she’d taken care of it. Continue reading

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Open Letter to Target’s CEO, Gregg Steinhafel

Dear Mr. Steinhafel,

I am contacting you regarding Target’s recent contribution of $150,000 to MN Forward, a PAC that supports anti-gay gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Your public responses to this situation have emphasized that Target “supports causes and candidates based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business interests,” which, you’ve claimed, does not take away from the corporation’s commitment to LGBT people, including its employees, as demonstrated by various efforts enumerated in your 27 July message to Target team members.

However, in this situation, the contribution you’ve made to support your business interests could easily make things worse for your employees in Minnesota if Emmer is elected. Emmer has a well known record of supporting legislation that prevents LGBT people from gaining equal rights. You must realize that what you’ve characterized as an apolitical action is actually quite political and threatens to undermine the quality of life experienced by LGBT employees of Target outside their inclusive workplaces in Minnesota.

Furthermore, your fixation on “business interests” as the reason for the contribution comes across as shallow and dismissive. Speaking only for myself, I understand that a corporation’s actions are designed to increase profits. I wouldn’t expect a CEO to prioritize LGBT rights over increasing the value of a corporation’s stock. I’m impressed when a company finds ways to make positive social change profitable, as Target seems to have done. But your recent words and deeds confirm the most calloused suspicions that Target’s reputation as an inclusive place to shop and work has been nothing more than a business move.

As a result of all of this, Target risks losing customers (including my partner and me), i.e., business, i.e., money, and since money is what motivates, Target’s sizable contribution to MN Forward suggests the corporation has a lot to gain from Emmer becoming governor of Minnesota. If not, and there’s some less important reason for the contribution, the smartest business move at this point would be to take back the money.

I don’t want to boycott Target. Trust me; there aren’t many shopping options in my area, so this will be more difficult for me than for your corporation. But if you’re going to support candidates who believe it’s fine to discriminate against me, then it’s in my best interest not to support your corporation, which, I have no problem admitting, is very personal.

But I’m willing to forgive. I’m human, as is Target, according to the Supreme Court. So just take back the donation and exercise your newly granted right to free speech by apologizing.

James Black

Less Than Stellar

Advertisers love me because I know what’s true: commercials are the reason TV exists. I only pretend to understand the term “commercial interruption.” As so-called programming transitions into a commercial, I harumph along with my fellow TV watchers, but I don’t share their frustration. I feel relieved to finally get down to business.

Any commercial may grab my attention. I appreciate high-quality persuasion. A fine balance of pathos, logos, and ethos rocks my world in advertising just as it does in other forms. But I admit that I am drawn to a certain characteristic: less-than-stellar production values. When it’s clear that a company has set a limit on how far it will go to get me to buy a product, well, I probably won’t buy it, but I admire that kind of honesty.

Currently, I’m a little fascinated by the Snuggies Designer Series commercial. I find no false advertising in it. The advertiser unashamedly shows you how you can look wearing a backward bathrobe made of zebra- or leopard-print fleece. The disembodied voice says it “looks as good as it feels,” and I’m going to trust she’s telling me the truth.

If only I had some of the problems that Snuggie allegedly addresses, I might buy one, but I have no problem staying warm while lounging on my sofa, petting my dog, or any of the other issues mentioned. The free gift (a press-and-open booklight) does not sweeten the deal. Somehow I am able to appreciate yet resist the offer.

It’s amazing how much this kind of commercial has not changed over the years. Within a minute or two, you are presented with images of people (actors) happy because of the product, and you learn that you can get the product and more (a free gift and/or double the offer) if you call immediately. I can’t remember ever calling, but I enjoy the game.

For a brief time many years ago, I wanted to become a star of less-than-stellar commercials, perhaps because I loved the irony of such a goal. I was signed up with a talent agent, who sent me out on go-sees for print, TV, and industrial jobs. I quickly learned most talent, including me, didn’t have the look to do fashion modeling. But there was decent money to be made playing common people. I rose to the challenge to be common and landed a commercial for a product called the Stretch-Out Strap. The strap was designed with loops that help the customer do various stretching exercises.

The director guided me and a young woman through various scenarios in which the product made our workouts easier. I remember smiling a lot, but I had to be prompted. I understood that the product was useful (and I’m impressed to see that it’s still being sold), but I did not have a gift for communicating unfiltered glee about poking my foot through a loop. Continue reading

Who Put the “Blah” in Blogging? Oh, I Did.

The title of my last post explains why it’s been five months since I’ve written here. I had enjoyed blogging but hit a wall and hit it hard. I thought too much about audience and shut down. Basic Peter Elbow stuff.

It didn’t help that I know some terrific bloggers who balance head and heart in their writing while posting enough content to readers interested. Most important, they care what readers think, but they’re really doing it for themselves, which is a generous gift to one’s readers.

Not posting felt good for about a month. Then I wanted to but got busy with my day job, so I didn’t have time to focus on blog posts that mattered-but-not-that-much. So I didn’t post, but the not-doing didn’t feel good so much as it felt relieving, as it does when I avoid the pressure of other challenges that I really don’t want to avoid. Writing, even a silly ole blog, meant too much. What could I write about writing, tutoring, teaching, learning, politics, being gay, and other topics important to me, that hadn’t been said before and more effectively?

I’m not fishing for compliments. I know that I’ve written some things that others have enjoyed for whatever reason. The point is that I tripped myself up. I fell to the ground, and it was just too easy to lie there.

It’s like party conversation. You’d find me near a corner or along a wall talking to one or two people, getting really into the discussion and probably saying geniunely interesting things I didn’t realize I’d be talking about. I love that. I’d also love to be the person who feels comfortable making the announcement about the honored guest. Sure, I could do that kind of thing, but would forget what I meant to say and, instead, say genuinely disjointed things I never meant to be talking about. Continue reading

What the Story Needs

I saw the film Doubt and liked it. Some critics have complained that the filmmaker attempts to get away with something by not revealing the truth about whether or not wrongdoing occurred. They apparently miss the point and, more important, don’t understand what story is being told.

The characters know what they know, but there is no one to confirm for the viewer what “really” happened. The story is “about” the tension among the characters’ various versions of the story and the lack of a definitive answer. Everything learned about the characters and the situation is revealed through talk and action that takes place in the present. Whether the lack of omniscience in a religious setting is poignant or heavy-handed, it is, likely, intentional.

Viewers who believe it’s the writer’s job to play god probably won’t like this film. (Since I don’t, I did.) As a writer, I get peeved out when readers expect me to completely satisfy their curiosity. Writing effectively isn’t always about closure. It’s impossible to fill in every detail that every reader wants; it’s challenging enough to provide sufficient information. Continue reading

Alternate Version: Late-Night Revision Orgy

My blog stats are down today, so I’m wondering if I should spice things up a bit.

For a few moments, I considered altering my previous post for today. I thought of changing the title to “Late-Night Revision Orgy,” which still fits the post, but includes keywords that are much more interesting.

Had I been feeling especially desperate, I could have done an extended blogger’s cut in which the ideas that appear late at night do unspeakable things. Unspeakable? Exciting. But would they be unwriteable? Keep clicking and find out!

Continue reading

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius

On a recent visit to Kansas City to see my parents, they take me with them to the Apple Store. We’ve become rather devout Mac users and go to the house of worship every so often. The store is small but busy. No one loiters for long, unless you count me, camping out at a MacBook to reply to a few emails (that day’s daily writing).

Take away the clutter of bustling customers, and you’d be left in a room with a simple design. There are many tables, each large enough to fit about six computer workstations. At the end farthest from the door, there’s a counter that serves as the store’s Genius Bar, where customers ask questions and technicians–yes, the Geniuses–attempt to answer them.

The Genius Bar is home base, but Geniuses are scattered throughout the store, easy to spot in bright-colored t-shirts. As I click through my email and type a few replies, I realize something unusual is going on in this public, commercial setting. The Geniuses attend to the customers, neither bowing to them nor revealing thinly veiled resentment for being asked for assistance. They seem interested in the customers’ concerns, and the customers make reasonable requests.

Hardcore selling is not happening here, but the parties in question are negotiating. The power differential is decidedly less lopsided than in the tech support horror stories I’ve heard. None of the Geniuses rolls her or his eyes condescendingly as a demoralized customer asks earnestly how to open a laptop. Rather, each Genius-customer pair I observe seems to be having a civilized conversation. I don’t hover so close or so long to see any of these conversations through to the end, but they all move along to reasonable solutions. No one throws confetti. But no one storms off in a huff, either.

Learning takes place, and not just for the customers. I assume that’s part of the plan. Customers and geniuses bring expertise to their interactions. Although it should be no surprise that the Geniuses know what they’re doing, the customers know their stuff, too. One session that I do watch involves a customer trying to add photos to a book she’s laying out with her Mac. She needs advanced-level help. The Genius asks many questions, inviting the customer to establish her expectations and, beyond that, to guide the session as much as she wants.

I understand why I’m drawn in by this activity while experiencing déjà vu. I run academic support services at a university. My staff and I are no Geniuses, but we try to do what they do. We attempt to meet students “where they are” and to help them learn what they need to learn so they can do what they need to do. Our best work happens when students open up about what they expect and know. In those situations, I learn a lot about how I learn and how I write. If things are going well, my daily work allows me to reflect, learn, and grow.

That doesn’t always happen, of course, and I’m guessing the same is true for the Geniuses. I may have just caught them on a good day. There’s a strange mix of education and customer service in this kind of work, so consistency is difficult. But I doubt Apple would devote resources to this if it didn’t work pretty well.

And how comforting it would be for anyone trying to learn anything to have access to a bona fide Genius. I love the term Genius to describe an educator. At once, it conveys a sense of humor and a grain of truth. But beware. In the search for answers, questions often raise more questions. Which can be helpful. Frustrating. And just brilliant.

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