Friday, July 17, 2009

7. Ars Gratia

I am a security guard at the ------------ Museum of Art. I stand at the doorway separating the 18th century French room from the 19th century French room--near the front of the museum. I have a stool, which I sometimes sit on, especially toward the end of the evening. It is not a hard job, and I don’t really have much to do. There has never been a break-in during my entire time there, and what little training I had has gone largely unused. I carry the nightstick and wear the uniform, though, just like I have for the past twenty years. I greet patrons when they enter, if there are only one or two of them in the room, which is often the case during the week. They say hi and nod, particularly the college students. They seem happy to see an elderly black woman in this building. They remind me a little bit of my grandchildren, and it is possible that I remind them of their grandmothers. I am a bit of an authority figure, although it would be hard to take me too seriously, stuffed as I am into this black and white uniform, like a maid, wearing masculine clothes and with a patiently chirping walkie-talkie on my belt. I am not sure why that would make me seem less than threatening, but in my case it does. I tell them stories about the paintings. In twenty years I have read the signs in my room over and over, and the signs in other rooms almost as many times in my hours off. I know all their information by heart, and a lot more besides. I’ve read, and I’ve talked to the curators and docents that work here. The chairwoman of the board is a nice lady, not at all stuck up. She always says hi to me when she sees me, and a few times we’ve had long discussions about the museum, and the pieces in my rooms. It was from her that I learned that Bouguereau used to paint labels for jams and preserves, when he was a poor student. I’ve picked up a lot from her. And I’ve picked up more from going home at night and reading, on the Internet and in books from the library, about the art in the museum. I suppose I could almost lead a tour. When a student does ask, I tell them what I know, and they take notes, writing it down for a report they’ll compose later. In twenty years you don’t just learn about the paintings--you learn about the whole museum. I know the history of this building, every addition and renovation; again, from talking to the people who work here. The resident historian, Mr. Farnsworth, isn’t as approachable as the chairwoman, but I’ve heard him talk a time or two about the things that have happened here, from the stop on the Presidential tours, to the fire, to the time the museum was used as a public shelter after the hurricane, and the security people were scrambling to make certain nothing was stolen or damaged. When the workmen have come in, to repaint the walls or replace the light bulbs in the high ceiling of my room, if I am there, they always say hi. When the walls have to be moved around for a new exhibit (never in my room, but the workmen pass through on their way to the traveling collections area), I see the work that goes into it, the rewiring of lights and air ducts and motion sensors. I know all the janitors by name, and practically have the rotation of their shifts memorized, just like for the signs on the walls describing the paintings. I got this job for one reason. After my children were gone and my husband died, I spent a lot of time going around--to concerts at the music hall, to charity fund-raisers, to meetings of senior citizens and such. I liked the music I heard at the classical concerts, but never fit in with the other people going there, me in my black dress and they in their evening clothes; my dress was black because it was plain, their clothes were black because they were fancy. I didn’t know what they talked about at the intermission, and my hearing is not what it used to be. The charity fund-raisers were not much better. They had nothing to do with me. I went instead to the parks, taking long walks. On one of those walks I saw the art museum and decided on a whim to go inside. Right there near the entrance, in one of the first rooms, I saw it. It was by Watteau, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was a picture of a man, standing in a forest clearing, looking up at the clouds. He was wearing exotic, beautiful clothes, but he seemed completely unaware and unconcerned with that--his attention was fixed on the sky. It was beautiful. I knew then that I wanted to be near this painting. I got the job as a guard. I have kept it for twenty years. I know everything about this museum, about its locks and alarms. I know when who goes where and when the building will be empty. I know the painting, too, every fleck of paint and every stoke of colour. And tonight, I am going to steal it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

6. Do Unto Others

Good evening, my name is Sarah, and I’ll be your server for the evening. Here’s a menu of our drinks and appetizers to start you off; our soup of the day is Crème de la Mushroom. If you’d like some suggestions on your wine for the evening my boyfriend Allan will be around in a moment with some recommendations. He’s not really my boyfriend. Hi, my name is Sarah, can I refill your glass? Allen passed me in the kitchen and told me you might be running low. No, he didn’t. Good afternoon, my name is Sarah, and I’m here to make your own marriage look like crap. Not really, but that’s what I think I’m doing, sometimes. My job is to pretend that Allen is my boyfriend, and to let you know that fact whenever it looks like you might be about to make a scene over your breadsticks, and it’s my job to look like I’m head over heels while I do it. My manager had this idea, see. Well, let me backup. I work in a “family-style” restaurant that’s part of a national franchise. Foreign food with American flavor; the kind of place that aspires to have separate forks for meat and salad, but knows you can never remember which is which, so you’ll open your rolled-up napkin to find two forks of the exact same size. But they stay away from being too rigid about the franchise bit, trying to keep from feeling too much like a chain. We’re thinly spread enough that a lot of people don’t realize we’re a chain at all. Anyway, corporate lets the individual managers have a fair bit of wiggle-room in how they set up and operate, floorplan, décor, menu, etc, it all gets some slight tweaks from restaurant from restaurant. So the manager of the place I work at had this bright idea. Wouldn’t it be great if, whenever you sensed some conjugal tension developing at a table, you could send out some glowing reminder of how great it all really could be, how it used to be when you first started dating back in college? Then so reminded, you would amend your ways and embrace a kinder, friendlier stance, all aglow in remembrance of simpler times, like you’d just walked out of a Frank Capra marathon at the theatre. Yeah, he thought so. You can’t spring this on waitstaff all of a sudden, though, it’d probably count as some kind of harassment (“Local Manager Urges Sex Play Among Employees!”), I don’t know, so he phased it in slowly, hiring people with the understanding that this was what they’d be doing, and not asking the waitstaff already there to change anything. Eventually enough people left that he had a fair-sized couple’s army hired up. I was a theatre studies minor in college, so I guess it fit me okay. Allen’s a not exactly my type, but we keep it together. Everybody, when they were hired, has to go through some interpersonal communication courses at the community college, which the manager actually pays for up front; if we stay a year, he keeps the bill; otherwise, we pay him back. The idea is that we’ll be able to recognize the signs of an impending argument and be able to prevent it. It doesn’t take a lot to work in a reference to your significant other, not with enough practice. Allen’ll engage them in some small talk; yeah, he just came up from California, his girlfriend and him are going to get engaged as soon as they get enough saved up from working here. That’s a little heavy, but Allen likes it because it has the bonus effect of leaving larger tips. He says. Allen refills your icewater and thinks it’s, whew, quite a scorcher out today, huh? Doesn’t even wanna think about what it’s like for his girlfriend, over by the grille; yeah, your shrimp kabobs’ll be right out. I’m going to get you a new fork, and, just to ensure you have even faster service, sic my boyfriend Allen on getting you a new basket of endless steak fries at the same time. Oh, you like my hair? Yeah, I got it cut for my boyfriend, he’s serving over there at the next table. (You don’t think I don’t get random compliments from patrons? Hells yes; we women need to stick together, and if you think your husband’s ignoring you, first thing you’re going to do is random-nicety the pants off everyone you meet.) So what’s the point of all this? Cueing. Letting people know how it could be. Monkey see, monkey do. And the point, for my boss, isn’t really getting those two people happy--it’s keeping the atmosphere of the entire restaurant peaceable, preventing a blowup that could ruin someone else’s enjoyment of a platter-sized onion blossom. You get paired up randomly--no picking your partner. That’s the irony of it: if we were friends we couldn’t always be nice. If we were really dating we might really have fights, bad days, shifts where we can’t smile at each other. But we’re not, so we don’t. To be honest, Allen’s actually kind of a douche. But like I said, we keep it together. There are six other couples on staff, and we’ll have maybe three or four out on any one shift, in addition to the “single” waitstaff. Usually you get assigned right at the outset--the concierge identifies problem parties (she’s been through training too) and specifies to the kitchen to send out the first half of a couple. It tends to be families with young kids, but we have college-freshmen-home-for-Christmas-break meals, newly-engaged-and-you-didn’t-tell-us meals, old-fart-and-longsuffering-biddie meals. Separate codes for each one of ‘em, plus a few more. If a family looks okay and doesn’t get assigned a couple, then starts freaking out over whether Mary is too fat to order the shrimp entrée, we have to Go Polygamous (or polyamorous, I suppose), our own pet term for sending out a couple player who isn’t actually paired with the waitstaff already out there. It’s tricky, though--if Kelly claims to be Ryan’s girlfriend, she better hope she hasn’t already claimed to be David’s anywhere within hearing range. Our manager’s a forward-thinker. For those rarer but still possible parent-child spats, like the one I already mentioned with the freshman home for the first time, or a kid telling off her mom to shut the hell up about her being a stripper (it’s happened), for those--the boss is contemplating father-son and mother-daughter waitstaff pairings. Maybe gay and lesbian couples for those most awkward of spats (the more unusual the fight, the more our innocent bystanders’ potential embarrassment). They wouldn’t have to be full time--they could do double duty as hetero couples, only turning into other combinations when the situation demanded it. And why stop there. I’ve only been here nine months, but I’ve seen arguments or the starts of arguments between fledgling entrepreneurial partners, religious leaders (you should’ve seen that one time the Lutheran pastors’ convention descended on us), foster- and birth-parents, you name it. And my boss is pretty popular at the BBB; I’m pretty sure the idea will spread to the other businesses around here before long. Waiting rooms, church pews, concert halls, high school auditoriums for your kid’s first play, golf courses, poolsides, soccer games--anyplace you’re sitting around with other strangers, you could be surrounded by other strangers who know how to always act polite to each other, always turn the other cheek, always do what they know they ought to do. Then their shift will end and they’ll go to be surrounded by other actors, also doing their turn at making nice. I don’t know. It could happen.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

5. Look Away

Don’t you ever wish someone had told you to look away during that part in Indiana Jones where he falls into the circus car full of snakes? Or that part in Star Trek where the Klingons dig into a tasty feast of maggots? What about in The Tin Drum, when all those eels dart out of the horse’s eye sockets? But you kept watching, and now you have that image stuck in your head forever, thank you very much. I don’t like bugs. Hate ‘em. There’s lots of movies I like otherwise, but there’ll be that one scene, that one quick shot with something that absolutely makes my stomach churn, and for weeks after keeps me looking under the sheets before I get in bed and examining all my food before I take a bite. I know better than to watch The Fly, or Swarm, or Tremors. But there’s no reason I shouldn’t enjoy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids when there’s only that one scene with the giant cockroaches. I really like The City of Lost Children, except for those parts with the flea. They’re quick; if I close my eyes, I’m fine; the trick is knowing when to close your eyes. So I started keeping lists; I’d watch movies and carefully take down the minute and second when the bugs appeared; then I’d take note when they’d passed from the screen for the last time. I did this for a lot of movies, all of my movies, hundreds of them; whenever I’d watch one again I’d have my list at my side, ready for the bugs. I wondered if anyone else did this. I wondered if anyone else would like to have a look at my lists. They were pretty long, covering all of mine, and my friends, and a lot of the video rental store’s movies. So I put it online. First I got a blog, then registered a domain name and got up a full-fledged website. I found out other people kept lists, too, for whatever it was that freaked them out--spiders, drowning scenes, clowns, weird food, blood, snakes. They emailed me their lists. I put them up. I gave them editor access for as they added new movies to their lists. I made the site a wiki, where anyone could add their own lists, their own categories of creepy stuff. I called it (I’d originally called my blog but there was already a website registered in that name, a repository of horror stories of customer maltreatment, where people told the “you-won’t-believe” stories about rude waiters and incompetent clerks.) It took off. People are scared of all sorts of stuff. One guy put up a list of all the movies with unexpected shots of clouds of steam; another has a list of movies where women characters wear red nail polish. Check it out; you can browse by movie title, genre, or specific creepy thing. You’ll see a list of start and end times, ratings of just how horrifying each shot is, from Mildly Creepy (an icon of a guy peeking through his fingers) to OhMyGoshHideMe (an icon of someone behind a welder’s mask with earmuffs and their hands across their face). Stuff gets reported pretty quick; I’ve got guys running bootlegs who put up warnings before stuff even hits theatres. We’re working on getting review copies, as soon as we convince the bigwigs we’ve got a big enough base to make it worth their while. So that’s what I do now, keeping up with the website. A couple of psychologists emailed me once, something about analyzing people’s fears and self-efficacy, but they never called back. Some film students came through once and started vandalizing, deleting every title in the registry, but we blocked them pretty quick and I had everything on backups anyway. Go check it out. You’ll never get taken by surprise again.

Friday, June 26, 2009

4. 1337ism

It was the only thing my entomology degree was any good for. Knowing what distinguishes a member of the family Hymenoptera Symphyta from Hymenoptera Apocrita is a pretty much useless skill anywhere but the lab, but try saying it outloud in a string of other Latin terms. Blows the morons’ minds. Medical terms work well, too, although my money ran out before I finished my premed. Who cares? I had had enough, and I make good money now. To be fair, I could probably have gotten by with just a lit degree and a few microbiology textbooks. I didn’t know what I’d end up doing. You’ve heard of technical advisors? Watch to the end of the credits on some movie--there’ll be an advisor, making sure the military characters are all wearing their rank right-side-up, that the furniture in the period piece is the right style, that the animals are all from the same geo-climatic space, that the physics isn’t too ridiculous when they shrink the submarine and shoot it inside the patient. “Thanks to blah blah blah of the University of Blah at Blah Air Force Base at the Institute for Blah.” Well, I’m a geek advisor. That’s right, I do the geeks in movies and TV shows. Which basically boils down to embellishing some dialogue, because that’s all they really want. A few interjections, some name-dropping or a few wild rattlings-off of ludicrous jargon. See, geek speak falls into two categories: stuff you get and stuff you don’t. Basically, we throw in a few allusions nearly everyone who passed their GED can get, and then pile on a lot of crap that no one outside of that particular subfield will ever get. And by we, I mean me, and by no one, I mean no one except me. The point of the dumbed-down geek speak is to make you feel special--Ha ha, you’re in on the joke! Aren’t you smart for getting that! Apparently you remember something from high school!--and the second category is to keep you from thinking you’re too smart, making sure you feel like these guys on the screen really are geniuses, distant and apart from you. I find Pygmalion + X works well, as in, “Let’s add a little Cyrano to this Pygmalion” or “So what’s up with your Pygmalion turning all Svengali?” or “Don’t look now, but your Pygmalion has begun to woo the fretful portentine.” Nearly everyone gets Pygmalion, nearly no one gets whatever you end up tempering it with. Easy. Entomology, as I alluded to earlier, is a goldmine. Bugs can be worked into almost any situation, and nothing says “smart” like canned Latin. References to poetry are good for some stuff, but the problem there is that the really good lines usually don’t use particularly impressive words, and the morons are completely nonplussed. What I usually end up doing is using poetry in higher-end Type 1 geek-speak; it’s the stuff you’re supposed to get, in shows aimed at the less stupid demographics. Haha, aren’t you smart! You picked up on this line from Dryden. But do you get this reference to Robert Oppenheimer? No, no you didn’t--not if I’m doing my job right.

3. gO-beTWeeñ(ing)

I’m not sure how I got the job--I guess it had something to do with how detail-oriented I am. And unlike a lot of guys obsessed with details, I’m also a pretty good people person. Although my editor would probably argue that poets are not real people. After I graduated from college I started work at a publishing house on the outskirts of the town I grew up in. They took in anything, technical manuals, novels, self-help, local history, erotica, poetry, and anything avant-garde. About three-quarters of their work was volume printing, but there was a fairly active chapbook division and some print-on-demand. My boss, Harold, had no literary aspirations, nor did he possess the drive to lend a hand up to starving artists. But he was desperate to make ends meet, and would take anything he thought he could turn a profit on. Chapbooks with runs measured in the dozens actually pay pretty well if you charge the authors enough up front, and Harold knew these types would pay anything to see their names and their babies in print. Unfortunately, Harold could not stand these types. That’s where I came in. Disagreements always erupted into full fledged confrontations, complete with two-colour covers ripped in half and thrown down on desks, spiral-bound spines crunched like choux and plastic chips falling to the floor, and gallery proofs thrown through windows. Harold would fix misspellings, consolidate typography, and obsessively tighten up line breaks to save paper. He would standardize fonts and justify margins, attributing anomalies either to poor control of a manual typewriter or to an artistic whim that he might just as well ignore. The poets then, the bold explorers of white space and type, would grow ever more experimental, producing concrete poetry, prose that forgot its place in the world of literary categories, and intersections of paragraph and illustration. Sometimes I think Harold would catch legitimate mistakes and the authors would stubbornly cling to them when confronted, just to spite the Philistine, insisting that they had meant to write it that way, that it was essential to the meaning. If the sound must be an echo to the sense, the sense in Harold’s office was usually one of chaos and bruised egos on both sides. Shortly after I came to work for Harold, he had one of his shouting matches with an archetypical poet-type, long hair and velvet jacket, aquiline nose and slender, bony hands. After the poet stormed out, I followed him to his bike and talked him down. He pulled out his notebook and showed me what I wanted. I took it, promising to fulfill its every jot and tittle. A week later we mailed him the gallery proofs, and two weeks later he showed up at the publishing house specifically asking for me. He was delighted. The work was excellent. He would work with us from now on. And I knew, and Harold knew, that he would be writing a lot more. Initially irritated that Typo-Ass (Harold’s term) refused to speak with him, Harold soon came around and acquiesced to the poet’s insistence on working solely through me--and now, twelve volumes (and only a slightly greater number of sales in indie bookstores) later, Harold is satisfied. It was only a matter of weeks before I had become his official go-between. I take the notebooks, the loose-leaf of typewritten sheets, the print-outs from library computers, and go over them with the authors, at their houses, at coffee houses, at meditation centers, at farmer’s markets. I make copies and mark them up carefully, indicating what is to be done in the typesetting at each point. Then I go to Harold. I almost wonder if it doesn’t matter anymore what’s on the page--whether or not I really keep every idiosyncrasy intact, the authors feel safe in the knowledge that someone is paying attention. Harold doesn’t care how crazy and time-consuming the type-setting might be--he doesn’t have to deal with the Type-Asses. I’m kind of a detail person. But I think people are pretty interesting, too.

2. Taste for Perfection

My parents made me get braces when I was five. It was hardly an age recommended by the American Orthodontic Association, but our Beverly Hills orthodontist was hardly going to say “no” to a second solarium, was he? And my parents had big plans. I had already been in two beauty pageants and managed to collect second and third in my division. My hair was dyed and permed, and the trainer had my abs looking, I guess, however the ideal five-year-old’s abs are supposed to look. After the braces came off, I didn’t wear my retainer, and I had to get braces put back on when I was fourteen. I hated it. But by then I was an old pro. While all my friends were complaining about how sore their mouths were and how they couldn’t eat what they wanted to, I felt smug because I already knew how much it hurt. At fifteen came the nosejob. I had already been tanning for six years at that point, in the bed my parents had had installed in our home after they realized it wasn’t worth it to keep arguing with the lady behind the desk at the salon. My twelfth birthday marked my last cheeseburger for a long time--my friends and I snuck out of school to celebrate at McDonald’s. The french fries formed a pleasantly warm mash in my mouth and I vowed that the next day I would tell my trainer to go fuck herself and her dietary supplements. That was the hard part. I didn’t mind the semi- and then bi-weekly manis and pedis--almost got a kick out of them when I thought about my friends complaining that their parents couldn’t afford it. I was cool with the delayed periods, too. Constant illness? Okay by me. It’s just that the dieting all the time sucked. But my real pride and joy was my teeth. Perfectly straight. Perfectly, bleachedly white. My lips were untouched--the collagen was all mine, only the color enhanced. At seventeen, my ears were straightened and pulled back the slightest millimeter, at a cost of months of surgery and recovery, and, it goes without saying, thousands of dollars. My parents stopped short of breast implants but only, I am convinced, because the Baywatch look had fallen out of favor by that time. It takes a lot of upkeep, all that. Except the teeth. After the final set of braces came off, after my mouth stopped growing and my jaw settled into perfect maturity, the teeth were mine to keep forever. And you know what? People will pay for teeth like that. Do you ever wonder about the bites taken out of advertised food? Look at the next Dreamsicle you see in the pages of a magazine. The iconic semi-circle removed from one rounded corner, piercing through the different-colored layers. Look at a stack of Oreos in the coupons flyer. One Oreo to the side has already been bitten into, a light smattering of crumbs around it on the table. Look at a package of Reese’s. The teeth marks are visible, and they have to be perfect. Evenly spaced, no gaps, no overlaps, no untoward rotation. But there’s more to it than that. The teeth have to be the right size. Too big, and it looks wrong, as if someone ate only hesitantly, with their front teeth, nibbling at food they weren’t too sure about. Too small, and it looks like a child has been into the food--cute in some cases, but not what most advertisers want. And the teeth have to be proportional to each other--too-large incisors conjure up images of buck-toothed morons; oversized canines add an almost feral quality to the tableau. That was the phrase the producer used once on a shot, to describe why he fired the last biter: “an almost feral quality to the tableau.” I’d put too much time into my teeth; I would never be feral. You’d think people wouldn’t notice these things, but they do, subconsciously. They can’t tell you why, but they prefer the foods that have been partially consumed by those of us with perfect mouths. Technique has a lot to do with it. I’m not kidding. How you use your lips is important. Some foods need to be bitten cleanly, like ice cream sandwiches. The ice cream between the wafers should be as flush with the edges as possible. Otherwise it looks sloppy, as if you were mouthing the product, or sucking on it. A clean bite, keeping the lips back as you bring your teeth together and draw back, removing the bite, is essential. It shows how good the ice cream is. It’s crisp and refreshing. But for other things, you draw it out. Think caramel-filled chocolates. That little tuft of gooey goodness really sells it. And no machine can replicate the touch that creates a fine crest in the middle of a half-eaten strawberry. Speaking of fruit, it’s important to keep the bite straight--nothing looks worse than wavering rake marks in a crisp apple, as if it had been gnawed, or tunneled through by termites. Well, one thing might look worse: lip prints on the afore-mentioned Reese’s. A moist lip would leave a trace like a greasy hand on a pastry-case window, and in harsh studio lighting--forget it, sister. Keep those lips up and out of the way until you need them to massage some malleable piece of balaclava. Let the flakes bend and come together under the influence of your mouth, and keep them slightly crimped as you withdraw. When they bring you a can of ReddiWhip, bring the airy cream in, almost inhaling it, and give the viewer that sense of ecstasy, of eating because you cannot help yourself, it is so good. Whatever you do, you must always be conveying the idea that the food provokes insurmountable desire, and yet that you, the eater, relish it, and eat it without loss of dignity. I no longer have my tan. My fingernails look like hell, and my hair is a mess. Those well-trained abs have flabbed out and lost whatever idealness they once displayed. And upon graduating high school, I really did tell my trainer to go fuck herself. But I still have my perfect teeth, and all the ice cream bars I can eat.

1. Inbox(1)

I’ve had several odd jobs, but one of my favourites was a couple years ago I was the writer for the subject lines in fictional emails. A manufacturer needed to promote its new cellphone, new PDA, new BlackBerry--they’d call me. I’d write the subject lines they’d use in the screenshots for ads. It was tricky. There was a fine line you’d walk, varying with the target demographic. A device aimed at busy professionals needed different subject lines than one pitched at college students, but both needed a mix of up-to-the-minute urgency driven by fun and that driven by profit. “meeting for lunch?” was always a good one, ambiguously suggesting both a bit of power-noshing among rising executives and casual hang-outs with trendy twenty-somethings. You could nudge it one way or another, trying to increase its appeal. Did some girl just-moved out on her own aspire to a Carrie-Bradshaw style existence, sipping cosmos and laughing with her girls? Swap the cosmos for a martini and the D&G shoes for an Armani suit, can we see the corporate lawyer slipping our phone in his pocket? Does that same phone seem equally well at ease in the pseudo-vintage shoulder bag of a turtleneck-clad indie kid, and can he pull it out without selling out when he’s at the coffee shop? Can he hold a venti in one hand, and in the other--no, the same hand, grasp our mobile messenger between his fingers like the new technocrati cigarette? A few tweaks to “meeting for lunch?”, and the answer to all of these is “yes.” “meeting for lunch?” was great. Sometimes we had to go after moms. “PTA meeting” worked well, and, surprisingly, even the almost too-clichéd “snacks after soccer game?”--or at any rate, the guys who hired me seemed to think it was a good idea. Early on we learned to avoid romance; never if you can help it use a subject line like, “thinking of you…” or “missed you today” or “Happy Anniversary!” These things smacked too much of spam; there were only a step away from notices of three new crushes or links to hot Asian teens. But we--I and the other subject-line writers--oh, yes, there’s a whole industry--did learn a few things from the spammers. One was to try to pique curiosity--or rather, to suggest that their curiosity would be piqued, well and frequently, if they bought our gizmo. Hence a lot of question marks, a lot of tentativeness, a lot of requests for confirmation of time or place or presentation topic. Orthography mattered too. Of course there were a lot more abbreviations in ads for teens--but not too many, not enough to make them feel as if they were being parodied, or like we were sucking up to them. The formula I finally settled on was to use only one or two abbreviations that were outright inventions of the 12-18 crowd (basic, businesslike abbreviations like FIY and ASAP didn’t count toward my quota). The key was to make those one or two really count, using bleeding edge terms that had barely made it to the internet forums, let alone the text messages sent by middle-schoolers. No lols. Not even an LMAO, and especially no rofls. L8r was off limits from about 2001 on. Same for almost any alpha-numeric combination. Instead, I would use IIRC, YMMV, things like that, things that established an easy sense of confidentiality between me and the shopper. Quirkiness counted--double ampersands and atypical spellings, even spellings that had never made it into the youth culture--spellings that I made up. Such things spoke of inside jokes and idiosyncratic friendships, the amorphous social structures of The Connected in the new century. It was hard keeping ahead of the game. Some acronyms had more staying power than others, and some were dealt quick deaths--that one carrier pretty much ruined BFF indefinitely for the rest of us. Even time stamps mattered. You had to use times that looked spontaneous, times that emphasized the fact that they could be sent at any moment. Odd numbers worked well. Primes were better. 37 after. 1:29. 3:57. Some times were more euphonious than others, to the ear and the eye. Who wants to get mail at 11:12? Not me. Or at any rate, I don’t think anyone else would. And the times had to go with the topics. “dinner tonight” wouldn’t be sent at 5:37--in time to make last-minute arrangements for a normal dinner. “dinner tonight” would arrive in your inbox at 7:32, because the event itself would have to be a full hour later--a time suggesting sophistication, a certain European quality, late nights and soft whispers and wine, a view of the bay and French cuff links. “hit the park?” was 7:32 on a Saturday, something you would see first thing upon waking up--because you would look at our device first thing, it would be as normal as reaching for your glasses--at a time full of possibility, when you were rested but ready to seize the day with urgency and gusto. “meeting tomorrow” could go all the way to 11 at night, or even past 12, but it was best not to press it and risk confusing our potential customers about A.M. and P.M. The important thing was to reinforce the idea that an important memo could come in after you had already shut down your computer. No road warrior feels like booting up the laptop once more before dropping off to sleep, but what about a check-in with your Blackberry? Of course you could. Probably nothing there, but worth it, for the five seconds it takes to check, right? I always wanted to be a writer.