An Afternoon at the Post Office

The other day I made a trip to the post office, on behalf of the Scorekeeper. We needed the usual three or four rolls of forever stamps, and Jo Anne wanted Christmas stamps, maybe sixty of those. I seldom buy stamps for my own use, having discovered the ease of paying most of my bills through my bank, but I’m a regular at the post office nearest the Scorekeeper.

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It’s the first week in December, so I wasn’t surprised the post office was busy. As usual, there were only two clerks working; the other three stations were piled high with packages and such. At one of the open stations a woman with a large plastic bin filled with small packages (maybe a hundred of them!) was handing them to a clerk in groups of five or six, each handful requiring discussion. Ahead of me in line were a woman and a young girl. The woman had a shopping bag full of presents, which she apparently intended to package with post office supplies before she mailed them out of the country. That requires paperwork, so she and her daughter moved aside to fill out customs declarations, and I got my turn at the counter.

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Scorekeeper check in hand, I asked for three rolls of forever flags, not always available at this particular post office, which has been known to run completely out of stamps. Then I asked for three sheets of Christmas stamps, and the clerk showed me a card with birds and one with last year’s Madonna. “Don’t you have Santa or Christmas Carols?” I asked, having checked on this year’s stamps on line. I was prepared to take birds if that was all they had.

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“Yes,” the clerk said, “but if you want those you have to pay with a credit card.”

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What the hell? Which wasn’t exactly what I said, but close. “Why?” I demanded. I’ve been buying stamps with Scorekeeper checks there for years, frequently from this particular clerk.

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He shrugged. No idea. Orders from the management.

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By then there were even more people in line, so I wrote out the check for flag stamps, while the clerk scurried off and came back with a bag of Christmas stamps and a hand held credit card reader. I pulled out my own credit card and paid for three cards of stamps (one set of Santas and two of Christmas Carols). But I still wanted an explanation of this particular inconvenience, and the clerk said I could talk to a manager at the lobby window.

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So I stuffed the stamps and receipts into my purse and headed for the lobby—and my cell phone rang. It was the veterinarian who has been treating my ailing cat, and I spent five minutes in the post office lobby discussing cat poop on my cell phone. Amazingly, that was the high point of my visit.

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Once we’d settled on the cat’s further treatment (a week’s worth of pills—that should be fun), I went to the lobby door and cornered a manager, who listened to my story and announced that the clerk was completely wrong, and the manager would speak to him. As I left, the manager was indeed speaking to the clerk. End of story, or so I thought.

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But as I drove away, the proverbial penny dropped, and I realized I had written a $160 check for three $50 rolls of stamps. I pulled the receipt out of my purse and saw that he had charged me for one card of the damn bird stamps.

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Back to the post office, where I boldly cut across the line (still long, and the woman with all the little packages in the plastic bin was still there) and had a brief argument with the clerk. After insisting once that he had given me the bird stamps, he must have seen the murderous look in my eye; he checked around the stack of stamps near his register and handed me my birds.

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It took me forty minute to buy those stamps. I think I’m going to look into the stamps-by-mail service on the USPS web site.

 

Money Tree

I am by no means known for my green thumb. I do remember to water my houseplants once a week (well, most weeks) and most of them appear to be happy. My outdoor plants are largely dependent on rainfall (my rain gauge picked up 66 inches last year), although I do water them now and then during dry spells. I live southeast of Houston, not too far from Galveston Bay, and last night we had our first freeze in several years. I won’t know for a while which plants survived, and I won’t worry about it until spring.

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But a sad case came into my life a couple of weeks ago, and I have resolved to nurse it back to health. A day or two before Christmas, a friend left a money tree plant for me on my desk at the Scorekeeper. This is probably what it looked like at the time, but I wasn’t there to see it.

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money-tree-plant

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Jo Anne didn’t give it much thought, and she had no reason to go into my office, so when I came in to work on Tuesday morning after Christmas, I found the plant pushed off the desk onto the windowsill, with most of its leaves chewed off, the victim of Sam, one of the office cats. Jo Anne thought the poor thing was a goner. It definitely wasn’t safe from Sam on my desk, and it wasn’t going to get enough light anywhere in my office, so I brought it home. This is how it looked on New Year’s Eve, with just a hint of new growth.

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I’ve left it in my kitchen (yes, it’s sitting on the stove, giving you a hint as to my cooking habits—the microwave is on the other side of the room), following the instructions for a bright, well lighted area without too much direct sunlight, and it seems to be on the road to recovery. This is how it looks today, two weeks after its encounter with the plant-eating cat, still hanging on to the largest surviving leaf. All the other leaves are new, with more to come.

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According to my on line research, the braided trunks of the money tree symbolize locking in good fortune for someone keeping the plant in her home or office. This particular money tree has certainly seen the ups and downs of fortune. I’m hoping we’ll thrive together.

Routing the Cat

I went a few rounds with my work computer this morning, and in the end came up with a remarkably low tech solution (and without the help of the fellow with the thick foreign accent who called out of the blue claiming to be from the “Windows support service”—I didn’t stay on the line long enough to find out how he thought he was going to fix a problem that we didn’t have).

The problem we did have seemed to involve QuickBooks, the bookkeeping software we use for almost all our clients. I’d been having occasional problems with QB locking up or otherwise misbehaving lately, but I just blamed it on the ever-increasing size and complexity of the software. This morning I had entered several long, complicated deposits when the software began locking up on me and then, after I closed the program and/or rebooted the computer, coming up with one excuse after another to keep me out of the client file. QB couldn’t find the file, or I didn’t have permission to use the file, or there wasn’t enough space to record the transaction. Or there was just plain no connection to the office WiFi network and the client files stored on another computer.

After numerous rounds of frustration (and after losing the long, complicated deposit twice), I realized that all the trouble might be related to the network connection. So I went into Jo Anne’s office to see if she was having problems. She was working on the cloud-based version of QB. She hates the cloud-based version, but it was working.

Kiko playing paperweight

Kiko playing paperweight

When I looked around the office to the network connections a few feet from Jo Anne’s computer, I saw Kiko the bad-tempered calico, one of our three Scorekeeper office cats, sitting on the wireless router. She loves the tangle of cords and cables under that table, and Jo Anne and I don’t understand the mess well enough to move the router and the print server to a less feline-accessible location (assuming, of course, that such a place exists). Kiko has been suspected of disconnecting my computer from the print server by sitting on that, so I shooed her off the router, set it upright, and went back to my desk, perhaps thirty feet away. The bars on my network icon had jumped from two to four.

I tried moving the router to the top of a nearby storage carton, but Kiko sat there staring at it, clearly plotting to drag it back down as soon as I turned my back. “Put a box over it,” Jo Anne suggested.

That required laying the router back down on its side on the floor—it may be a “wireless” router, but it’s connected to the rest of the tangle by at least two cables—and covering it with a smallish cardboard carton.

I had no more connection trouble for the rest of the day.

We have no idea what draws Kiko to the router and the print server—warmth? vibrations? secret electronic messages from feline aliens headed this way in spaceships resembling empty grocery bags?—but when I left work this evening, she was sitting on the box over the router. I have a feeling my low tech solution may not be permanent.

Changing Habits

Today is the first day of the rest  of my life.  All of us can (and probably should) say that every day, but this week marks real change for me.  Some months ago, Jo Anne and I started planning for change at the Scorekeeper.  In May Jo Anne gave notice to our largest client that we would be parting ways at the end of September, the close of their fiscal year.  Jo Anne and I both want more time for writing, reading, and sleeping.  The third Scorekeeper, David, has passed all four parts of the CPA exam (on the first try!) and needs to work for a year for a CPA or the IRS in order to be certified himself.  So it was time for change.

This week we spent wrapping up reports for the big client, packing up boxes of their records and a computer that belongs to them, and today is the first day on our new schedule of three 7-hour days (usually Tuesday through Thursday) a week.  Two less days I have to make the 60-mile round trip commute into Houston.  And, since we’ve decided to open at 10 AM instead of 9, no more days of getting up at 6:15 to fight the 8 AM traffic.

Flowers 100313Jo Anne has been referring to this as “semi-retirement,” but I’d rather think of it as a new phase, with more time for all the things that have been hard to pack into weekends.  I have my usual to-do lists on virtual post-it notes on my computer screen, things to do now that I’ll have a couple of weekdays free:  a couple of doctor check ups for me, the vet for Nutmeg, get the roof inspected.  The Houston area is expecting its first noticeable cold front this weekend, just in time to push Tropical Storm Karen away from us (sorry, Gulf Coast neighbors to the east), and we’ve had some decent rain lately (if the rain gauge didn’t show it, I could tell by the toad stools popping up in my lawn), so maybe I can get back to that extensive clean-up-the-overgrown-back-yard project.  The front yard needs mowing, if I’m careful to avoid the hurricane lilies.

I have plenty of writing projects:  this weekend I want to polish the first chapter of my work-in-progress to send to the West Houston RWA Emily contest.  I have an edited manuscript waiting in Scrivener to be compiled into a Word file and sent to an agent.  My critique group is back on track, with a new member.  I have Ideas waiting in line.

As for reading, the supply is endless.  I have a list here on my desk of new books I want to pick up, several by my Golden Heart friends, and Diane Kelly’s latest Tara Holloway mystery.  Not to mention the book shelves in my bedroom and all those blogs and articles waiting in my email box.

Last night when I went to bed at my usual midnight I turned off my alarm clock.  This morning I slept until almost 8 AM (no thanks to Nutmeg, who climbed on and off my chest, purring and washing my face and generally suggesting it might be time to get up).  I’ve already received five work-related emails this morning, but I’m thirty miles from the Scorekeeper and my work computer; the work will keep until Tuesday.

I haven’t decided yet what to do with this first day.  Go shopping, maybe with that book list, and have lunch out?  Work in the yard, starting with collecting all those mushrooms?  Read a book?  Catch up with a couple of TV shows I missed last week?  Two extra days a week, and the possibilities seem endless.

Circling the Digital Drain

Sometime early this morning, my computer updated and rebooted itself, normally pretty much a non-event.  This time, however, my personal organizer program suffered some sort of glitch and reopened with an empty file.  My data file had not only failed to load, it had vanished.

My digital calendar is not particularly crowded.  A couple of recurring monthly meetings, a few birthdays, holidays, a few future appointments.  But the same program (an inexpensive but very useful piece of software called C-Organizer Professional) also holds my address book and all my passwords.  The thought of redoing all that was not attractive.

Fortunately C-Organizer also nudges its user to back up fairly often.  When I hit back up on the menu, however, a small box opened and asked me for the name of the back up file.  Huh?  I’m supposed to know that?  Mind you, it’s 7 AM, and dark out.  I haven’t been up all that long, and I have to go to work.  Not the best conditions for computer experiments, but I am constitutionally incapable of letting something like that go.

organizer

Doesn’t it look like it’s asking for a file name?  I hunted around my hard drive and my back up drive (yes, I do have an automatic back up program running, along with scattered flash drives), and I found the organizer back up files, but trying to enter a file name didn’t work.  After ten minutes or so I gave up and, just for the hell of it, hit the “OK” button.  And up popped the whole list of back up files.  I clicked on the one from two weeks ago, it loaded with no problems, and I had all my information back, undamaged.

Somewhere I do have printouts of both the address book and the password list, and I’m going to make sure they’re up-to-date.  I’ve been working on computers for nearly thirty years now, and I still need paper copies of the important files: manuscripts, tax files, receipts.  I edit on paper.  At the Scorekeeper we do most of our work on computers–then we print the results and store the reports in our tightly-packed filing cabinets.  What was all that talk years ago about the paperless office?

It isn’t just computer files that seem perishable.  My Kindle is a technological marvel, containing well over a hundred books, but e-reading is just not the same as holding a book in my hands.  I know books can be lost, burned, torn, destroyed in a dozen ways, but they remain permanent, self powered, in a way computer files (or those floppy disks in my attic) are not.

I returned from a weekend trip not long ago to discover that my DVR had ceased to record.  The hard drive hasn’t crashed–the box still supports the TV, and the stored programs still play.  This may be a message from the universe, telling me that I should be writing and reading rather than watching recorded programs.  One of these days I’ll have Comcast replace it.  And when I do, I’ll lose the old movies I’ve recorded on it, because they are only computer files.  Even old VCR tapes are more permanent.

When I trade that DVR for one that works, where will I find another copy of Johnny Guitar, possibly the strangest Western ever made?

Weekend With Writers

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting my blog lately.  We’ve been very busy at the Scorekeeper, and I’ve been judging Golden Heart entries and keeping up with Gwen Hernandez’ excellent Scrivener class.  I don’t seem to have much time or energy left over.

I didn’t catch up on much this weekend–my grocery shopping and laundry remain undone, I’m behind on email and the rest of my Internet activity–because Jo Anne and I drove to Shreveport on Friday to attend the NOLA Stars RWA chapter’s Written in the Stars Conference.  We went because Jo Anne’s manuscript was a finalist in their annual Suzannah contest, and because we have friends in the Shreveport chapter.  RWA is a close-knit world.

The weather was beautiful, cool and sunny, and the roads were clear.  The only problem we had with the trip to Shreveport came when we got off Interstate 20 on the west side of the city to discover that Google maps is behind on updating street names.  The left turn on our driving instructions simply didn’t exist.  We had to call the hotel to ask for directions.  “What can you see?” the desk clerk asked.  “Wendy’s on the right and an Exxon station on the left,” I replied.  “Turn left at the Exxon station and keep driving until you see our sign,” she said, and that worked just fine.

The conference opened Friday evening with a panel of editors and one agent, a Q&A session on industry trends, the editors’ individual interests, and some funny (and valuable) advice on what doesn’t work for them.  Electronic publishing, whether through an established New York publisher, a smaller/newer press, or done independently on line continues to be a topic of major interest to both writers and editors.  After the panel, the members of the North Louisiana chapter really outdid themselves with a buffet supper, featuring local recipes from their own kitchens.  The crawfish pasta was to die for.

Saturday was a mix of workshops, editor/agent appointments, and visiting with fellow writers.  I missed some workshops I would have loved to see because of appointments, but I did enjoy Sarah Hamer’s presentation, “Intimacy: Not Just Sex,” Liliana Hart on “The Indie Revolution,” and the full-time hard work that has gone into her publishing success, Liz Talley on “New Twists on Old Plots,” and Christa Allan on social media (more on that topic another evening).

One of the best aspects of an intimate writers’ conference like this one is the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.  The conference attracted writers, most but not all of them women, from Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, as well as Louisiana.  I was delighted to find fellow Firebird Pamela Kopfler there–she and a friend drove up from New Orleans via a computer generated route she described as “the theme from Deliverance played Zydeco style.”   A charming expatriate Englishwoman named Mavis, who decided it was time to write a novel when she turned 80, wasn’t the only lady there who reminded me that it’s never too late to try something new.

I also met the wonderfully witty Barbara Vey, an out-spoken and often hilarious lover of books in general and romance in particular, who blogs on the Publisher’s Weekly site.  I had a ball visiting with her, and I’ll be following her blog, Beyond Her Book.

It was about 40 degrees in when we left Shreveport at 11 AM this morning, and about 70 when we rolled into Houston this afternoon.  This is Texas: if you don’t like the weather, wait an hour or drive fifty miles.  It was a lovely day and a fun road trip (especially the stop at the Catfish King restaurant in Livingston), but now I have Friday’s Scrivener lesson to do so I don’t fall behind, and one more contest entry to judge.  I stopped for milk and produce (and one more box of Girl Scout cookies–those little sales women are hard to resist) on the way home, but there’s no telling when the laundry will get done.

 

Thursday Thoughts

I’m so pleased to report that Laurie Kahn’s Love Between the Covers project met its $50,000 goal this morning.  But you still have four days to become a backer, and pledges of any amount are welcome.  Under the Kickstarter system, someone raising money sets a minimum goal and an end date, in this case $50,000 and midnight on Monday (August 27).  If the minimum goal isn’t met by the closing date, no one’s credit card is charged, and no money changes hands.  If the goal is met, fundraising continues until the end date.  So it’s not too late to join in.

Maybe love has something to do with an odd phenomenon I’ve noticed the last couple of weeks at work, but I have yet to invent a story to explain it.  Every afternoon lately, around four o’clock, a car has parked in front of the Scorekeeper or next door, in one of the few parking places available on the street.  Same car, same Latino couple in it, she’s driving, he’s in the passenger seat.  They sit there, motor running, for fifteen or twenty minutes.  Then they get out of the car, trade places, and drive away.  On several occasions they’ve arrived while I was on my daily trip to the post office, forcing me to park two or three houses down the street, only to disappear by the time I get back to my desk.  What the heck are they up to?

I’m still on the fence about Twitter.  I’m not sure I want to know that much about other people’s daily lives, but on the other hand I’ve followed links to some interesting, and occasionally hilarious, web sites.  Try this wacky list of bedroom tips inspired by a certain notorious trilogy:  Ten Shades of Stupid.  Or this excellent analysis of changes in the publishing industry:  Publishing Is Broken.  So far I’ve pretty much kept up with the flow, since I’m at my computer much of the day, but when I look at profiles of folks who are following hundreds, or even thousands, of Twitter acounts, I have to wonder when they have time to do anything else.

Seen this afternoon on Highway 59 in downtown Houston, on the back of a pick up truck filled with furniture and boxes, a bumper sticker reading TEXAS : the balls of America.  Look at a map.  Then think about . . . Florida.

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