Tonight's Shanty Sing

My friend Matt and his wife Deb took videos of me (well, at my request) singing the two songs I sang at tonight's Shanty Sing.

This is me opening up the sing (after the first song that the organizer leads off with). Or about half of my song, anyway:

This is me singing a similar sort of song to open the second half of the evening. I normally wouldn't sing two similar songs like this, but the second one was a request of the organizer and besides I really love this song:

It's a very odd thing to see this from the outside -- it looks and feels nothing like it does from the inside -- but I'm very happy Matt and Deb got this down for me.

More Great Kids from the MorrisWorld

I went to New York City last weekend to attend the Half-Moon Sword Ale, as a guest. I do not dance on a sword dance team, but I thought it would be fun to spend a quick weekend in New York City and follow the teams around and join them for the post-Ale singing at a pub in Brooklyn and see some friends. All of these things were, in fact, great fun, and there were many more people I knew than I expected to see, and I got to help out some as a volunteer at the Saturday night Feast and contra dance and all in all it was a fine time. I spent some time at the Brooklyn Museum, where I'd never been, because that's where the final performances were -- that was a great thing to do as well. A good chunk of the people I met at Morris Intensive at Pinewoods in 2009 were there, so that was another rich delight. Plus I missed a big blizzard in Minnesota, although I had to deal with some of its aftereffects on my return.

As the Ale is fading into the past, one of the things that stays on my mind is how great it was to see the interest in this dancing (and the community that surrounds it) on the part of high school aged kids. There were three teenage rapper sword teams -- two from Massachusetts and one from New York City. The kids had verve and energy and joy, and they seemed to delight in hanging out with each other. What a great thing to have in your life at that age, I say. They're also great contra-dancers, pretty much all of them. This world will outlast me, that's for sure.

After the Ale I got a Facebook friend request from a high school junior on one of the teams. This is not somebody I talked with at all, although of course I knew who he was by the end of the weekend. I was part of a sweep of post-Ale friending he was doing, from what I could gather, but this was a flattering thing nonetheless. I went and checked out his Facebook page, and he seems like a very earnest, good kid. But the great thing to me, the thing that just makes me smile with delight and hope, is his engagement in larger political issues, including ones of concern to me. Off his Facebook page I found a link to a local newspaper that published the testimony on bullying he gave recently before the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Commission on Anti-Bullying, as a representative of the Mass. Student Advisory Council. I found a copy of a "transgender policy" he had worked on to present to his local school committee -- a very thoughtful teasing out of rights and protections. Good work. Good stuff. Brave stuff. I sit back in awe.

This was all easy to see from just a quick scan of his Wall.

This just fills me with hope. For the future, and for Morris dance.
Mouth Open Wide

Piecing the Lyrics Together

Some chorus songs that strike my fancy come into my purview fully formed and ready for me to learn and make mine. Sometimes, however, I find I need to make some sort of change before I can feel right and comfortable with the song. In fact, it was epiphanic for me when I realized that songs -- particularly traditional songs, or songs that have worked their way through various processes -- are not sacrosanct objects, untouchable and immutable.

Last night at the 3rd Monday Pub Sing at Merlin's I sang a song for the first time that is probably a keeper that required more research and compilation than usual. I thought I'd write down the whole process of how I came to sing the song as I do and why. I'll say in advance that I think this was a success because somebody I don't know came up to me afterward to ask me about the song, and she had totally gotten the subtext I was going for, and was intrigued by the song itself (which is the goal, or at least part of it -- the main goal is for people to enjoy singing it with me).

The song I sang was a version of "My Coffin Shall Be Black", which I have discovered is quoted in Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" -- one person who set it to music noted that Joyce may have written the lyrics himself, but since it was collected by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1893 that seems unlikely to me. The song came to my notice on a CD called "Dusty Diamonds" by Martin and Shan Graebe. They attribute the melody they use (which is very simple and repetitive but quite lovely, particularly in their arrangement) to one that Ralph Vaughan Williams collected. This is what I'm recollecting as the lyrics they sing (I may have this slightly wrong in my memory -- I'll check it later and correct it perhaps):

My coffin shall be black
Four little angels at my back
Two to watch and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away

Ding-donged the parson's bell
Farewell to my mother
I shall be buried in the old churchyard
Along with my own mother

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
Jesus Christ will rise again
When I am quite forgotten

The liner notes say that Baring-Gould collected it in 1893 from a boy who learned it from his aunt.

[As a side point here, I have long known a song from the singing of Joe Hickerson that includes the lyrics "Two, two, to my head; Two, two, to my feet; two, two, to carry me Lord, when I die." I think I now know where that "two two" comes from.]

This song was compelling and lovely, but I had some problems with it, at least if I were going to sing it. For one thing, it seems to be a bedside prayer for somebody who is very poor at arithmetic. Or maybe there are 10 angels, but that's a stretch. Also why is he saying farewell to his mother if he's going to be buried beside her? But the most dissonant note is "Jesus Christ will rise again" which seems tonally and thematically quite off from the rest of the words.

So it was off to Google to see what I could make of this, which is where I found the countless references to James Joyce. But I also found a bunch of references that made me think this was some sort of takeoff/parody of an old poem about a little orphan girl (which is mostly found referenced as a street rhyme, but everything about it points to its origins as a Victorian poem):

I am a little orphan girl,
My mother she is dead;
My father is a drunkard,
And won't buy me my bread.
I leant upon the window-sill
To hear the organ play
And think of my dear mother
Who's dead and far away.

Ding dong my castle bell,
Farewell to my mother,
Bury me in the old churchyard
Beside my eldest brother.
My coffin shall be white,
Six little angels by my side,
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.

Ah, already we have some things that work for me: two angels + two angels + two angels = six angels (somebody has used a calculator this time). And the first two sing (rather than watch). Now, "two to watch" sings and flows better than "two to sing", but I like the image of the singing, praying, and transporting pairs of angels. We also have the "castle bell" which is a new problem -- why is there a castle here? Other versions use "parting bell" -- an archaic reference at the time that would easily be changed to a more familiar image. (Martin Graebe may even be singing "parting bell" on my recording, although I hear it as "parson's bell".)

Also here we have a dead brother (in addition to a dead mother, but I'm ignoring that) -- and that, to me, was the key to understanding the song: This may be a morbid little ditty, but it makes emotional (rather than self-pitying) sense for a boy who has lost his brother to be contemplating his own death. There is also the twist of anger: Your coffin in the original may be pristine white, by *my* coffin will be black. This is no sweet little Victorian lad.

But what to do with the line "Jesus Christ shall rise again", which still rings an odd tone for me in this lyrical context. That verse seems to have it's origins elsewhere, in this poem which I found described as a "book rhyme":

When I'm dead and in my grave,
And all my bones are rotten
This little book shall tell my name
When I am quite forgotten.
Jeannie Rodger is my name;
Dundee is my nation;
Heaven is my dwelling-place
And holy habitation.

Yes, this makes sense to me, in the story that's forming in my head: With these words the speaker, legitimately concerned with the impermanence of life, is trying to make a mark. He wants you to know his name -- or at least it's a "he" in my song so I need to change the name. So I moved things around and this is what I sing:

My coffin shall be black
Six little angels at my back
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away

Ding-donged my passing bell
Farewell to my mother
I shall be buried in the old churchyard
Along with my own brother

Johnny Rogers is my name
Dundee is my nation
Heaven shall be my resting-place
And holy habitation

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
You'll hear this song and know my name
When I am quite forgotten.

In verse two the singer announces -- proclaims -- his name and home. Then he sneaks up on you in verse three by saying "Now you'll know my name, long after I've gone." It is still a song of pathos, but it has a ring of sincerity to it. It is not a joke, despite the gruesome nature of the lyrics. Plus it's still a pretty tune.

It will take me a few singings to get this right. At this point it almost comes across as a joke when I begin "My coffin shall be black!" (although the person who spoke to me afterward said, "Oh no, it's not a joke song.") All that I'm writing here is totally subtext -- the story I think the song is telling -- that I don't think anybody would explicitly get. But if I have that sincerely in me when I'm singing the song, something of it comes through.

And that's how I've come up with my version of this song. I may ultimately change "sing" to "watch", since my brain seems to want to do that. And I've got to work on a slightly less bombastic approach to the singing (I begin by capturing the air with a big "MY" at the highest note in the song). But I think this has potential. Time will tell.

These Kids Today

Through the local Morris Dance community, I do know some cool kids. Teenagers mostly. This means I get to sit at the pub after Morris practice with them sometimes (french fries are on me) and question them like a DA about their lives, and they in turn get to question me about mine. What makes them cool kids, in my estimation, is that they are legitimately interested in other people. It is a myth of the psychologists that teenagers are incapable of seeing things through the perspective of others. It's just that they don't do this all the time (and when they don't, they don't in a dramatic fashion). But neither do adults, so that hardly distinguishes them, as a class.

These kids, on occasion, are also capable of saying things to me that I find touching and sweet. After the Shanty Sing last night I was chatting with Temple and Deb and I remembered that last summer their high-school-age daughter found out a little more about what I do for a living. As the nature of my day to day work became clear to her she said something like, "That must be a boring thing for you." I don't think she said "boring", actually, She might have said "limiting". The real point here is not that she said "That must be a boring thing" (as in "I would find that boring") but "That must be a boring thing for you." The implication was that I would be happier doing something more social. Or improvisational. Or energetic. She had been paying attention to who I was, and trying to match that up with what I do. And what can I say? She was dead right.

The local Morris teenagers now dance with the Border Team during Border season, which comes in the fall. Towards the end of this past year we held a brief team meeting about whether we wanted to consider, as a team, attending the "Molly Folly" next July - a weekend of Molly dancing that's going to be held in New Jersey. Molly dancing is a form of ritual British dancing (thus a form of "Morris" as the term is used) which, in the US, is characterized (in part) by the music being provided by an unaccompanied singer (rather than by instruments). There are very few Molly dance sides in the US, really, but probably the foremost is Handsome Molly of Princeton NJ, which is hosting the event.

Our Border team dances a few Mollies, and while I have backup I am currently pretty much the main Molly singer. Even for the dances that others generally sing, I need to know every Molly song so that in a pinch I can provide the music.

When we brought up the issue of going to the Molly Folly, we pointed out that we are not really a Molly Team, as are the other teams in attendance. We are a Border side that does a few Mollies. As a key factor here in our planning, we pointed out that the Molly dances we do are dances that the other teams do as well. At which point one of the teenagers in question said, "But we have Steven!"

Way cool, I say.

Loosing Ends

Facebook continues to throw me into the occasional memory tailspin. I'm starting to think that the emotions of your past (particularly your youthful past) do not fade away from lack of use (like, say, remembering the quadratic formula). Instead they just get buried under newer emotions that have actual relevance to your current life. But you can still expose them, the way you might expose the dentin of a tooth if a filling falls out. This can be painful, although this particular story is not a painful one. The reason I'm telling it is that the strength of the memories this evokes surprises me a little.

In my case my most powerful emotional memories all seem to center on growing up as a gayboy, and the position that put you in forty years ago. I realize this can start to seem repetitive after a while, since what is there to say after "I felt alone and monstrous and an alien on my own planet"? Well, plenty, really, but how do you make that interesting to anybody who is not being paid to be your therapist? It's a risk.

In this case the core of the story is no story at all. There was a guy in my high school a year ahead of me, a public figure (he was involved in student government and he sang) to whom I responded in that way you don't really have much control over -- the whole crushboy thing. I still respond like this to people sometimes, and just as strongly (if much less frequently), but the difference is that when I was 15 just having this response to another man had all manner of intense and complicated overlay. It was a response inside of yourself much too powerful to deny or dismiss, and (at least in my case) it was the sort of thing that made me confront the awful things that went along with that (culturally, internally). So the whole response is not just about "Hey, here's a guy I find incredibly attractive" but also "Oh my gosh I'm a homo" as well as "and this is something nobody can EVER know". (Some people -- many people I'm afraid -- have far more self-destructive responses than that, and I suppose even I had my moments of that sort.)

Now I gotta' say right here -- so you know how odd it is that I even have a story to tell -- that this guy was not somebody I had much contact with at all. We had a couple of mutual friends, but he was a different year. I only exchanged words with him once or twice, and he was smiley and pleasant. In reality, away from the whole mooning-over phenomenon, he was just a guy in my school who (although I wouldn't have used these words at the time) I thought was really hot. Or cute. Or something. Plus I was and remain a complete sucker for people who can sing. But here, see for yourself and try to see this through the stylistic overlays of what was attractive in 1972 (but really, that's a handsome face no matter the surrounding):

What you don't see here is what a husky fireplug he was, and how he looked a bit older than his years. (Do you hear the hotness points ringing up for me?)

I can't say that I never thought about this person at all for the next 37 years, but only in the occasional yearbook lookthrough and the memory of how attractive to me I remembered this guy as being. Then yesterday I was looking at the Facebook friends list of a high school friend and saw this guy's name -- well, just his last name as he no longer goes by the same first name (which was, no lie, "Butch"). Just seeing the name brought back -- unbidden and of a sudden -- all of those crushboy feelings, as alive and intense as in 1973. And this was the profile pic (about which, to many of you, I can simply ask "Need I say more?"):

He's the older guy, the one who is my age, and why yes, he's grown up into quite the Daddy Bear. Actually the Daddy Muscle Bear. He hangs out at times at the piano bar I go to when I'm in NYC. He's back in the hometown area in NJ. Here's a sweet picture (most of his pictures show him in more standard daddymusclebear garb: sunglasses, cigars, muscle shirts, serious expression -- but this one speaks more to what I responded to long ago):

As I say, I didn't really know this guy as anything other than, oh, an image to ponder back then, but I couldn't resist friend-requesting him (along with a note saying that I was a year behind him in high school and mentioning our mutual friends). I seriously doubt he knows who I am, but he accepted the friend request.

There are two things this makes me think about.

One, it's kind of funny how intense and immediate and in the present the memory of my response to him four decades ago was, just from seeing his name. That speaks, I think, to what an intense time those years are. This is far, far from the only time I have had that sort of emotional memory from that time come flooding back to me as if I were not remembering it but re-experiencing it.

But second, I'm thinking about why my impulse was to friend-request this guy (and then wait nervously to see whether he'd accept the request). Why would I care? I certainly have no shared memories with this man, and it's not as if I imagine that I could suggest we go out to Marie's Crisis next time I'm in New York City. From what I can see on Facebook he seems like a lovely, optimistic man with a full life and many interests (he still performs sometimes), but I don't know him and never really did. What connection was I trying to make? Yes, we went to the same high school and are both gay, but is that enough? Experience long ago taught me that the answer to that question is "no". (Although I recently heard -- through Facebook -- from a woman I knew all through school who didn't identify as a lesbian until later and I was delighted to make that connection and feel that bond, but that was somebody I actually knew and come to think of it I would have been happy to make that connection regardless.)

I think what's going on here is that the emotion this unburied is one that I would describe as longing. As wistful, frustrated longing -- for something that at the time of its genesis I was thoroughly completely unarguably convinced would never be assuaged. So this memory, this guy I didn't know, is a sort of manifestation of that. But then I saw the current pictures and everything about them is completely and obviously reflective of the meaning that being gay holds for me now. For me there is still wistfulness, and there are still crushes, and there is a general longing that I think characterizes life, but oh what a difference. This is now a source of pleasure to me, of hope, of companionship. I think just pulling those feelings of back then and forcing them into the present is a good thing.

All of this from a name and a picture...

The USENIX-LISA Conference Report

Since apparently it is not possible to read something on Facebook without a Facebook account, no matter how I tag it, I am putting the conference report I wrote for my department here. It's long in part because my company paid my whole way this year (which is unusual) and I want them to be sure they got their money's worth.

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Explaining Contra in Terms of Morris

Last night at Border practice I had occasion (not for the first time) to learn that there are passionate Morris dancers of my acquaintance who do not enjoy contra dancing. With that in mind, I want to try to describe how a good contra set, such as I experienced many times last weekend at dance camp, can be like a good Morris side (such as I experience every time I dance with Ramsey's Braggarts ha ha).

When you start a Morris dance with a foot up, you are about to dance a dance you have danced many times before. And yet each time there is a sense of anticipation. You, and the other five dancers, and the musician, are about to come together in an arrangement of music and movement that feels immediate and alive and fresh. With every movement you are aware of the other dancers, moving in tandem or counterpoint. The music is live, so it is subtly different every time and you respond accordingly. Who knows what the dance will bring this time?

What it always brings, when the dancing is good, is partner interplay. You move with the other dancers, in human contact. And you move your bodies both together and with your own style to the driving catchy tune. With my team, you are also pushing yourself to extremes of exhaustion. When the dance ends you have had an inspiring time, and you are happy.

In many key ways it is the same sort of feeling when a contra dance is good. You move up and down the contra line into sets, and you have the interplay with each other and with the music and with your own body that you have in a good Morris set. Then you progress to the next couple and have the same dance with them. All along, ideally, there is coordinated movement and eye contact and a driving catchy tune and individual styling in the context of the larger cohesion. You don't know what the dance will bring, what each new set will bring. But maybe it will be good this time, and your swings and your allemandes and your pull-bys will be smooth and flowing things, and maybe they will provide human connection through movement and music.

It isn't always good, of course, but once you've found that you search and search to find it again. The fun for me last weekend was how often I found it.

This comparison only goes so far. With a Morris team you develop a strong sense of being on that team, both in and out of the dance. You are preparing dances for public performance, which adds a significant overlay. Although both dances are "called", for a Morris dance you pretty much have to know what's coming (and how to style it) to do the dance at all.

But at the core -- when it's good -- there can be a harmonic convergence of society, movement, music, physicality, and in-the-moment fun.

With our Morris teams we work hard on a weekly basis to achieve these things, to achieve that "good" I keep repeating. We get to know the smallest quirks of our teammates. We go out for beer together, and we sing songs together -- singing harmony chorus songs can provide the same sort of bonding as dance. Contra, in general, does not provide these things. But it absolutely can provide a sense of fine and fun dancing to vibrant live music in a set of dancers. In many sets of many dancers, all in one dance.

And at the end of the dance, you can sometimes feel very happy indeed.

Glorious Contra Dance. Glorious.

At the LCFD dance camp last weekend in western Massachusetts I had more fun dancing contra than it might be possible to convey to people who have never experienced that particular level of contradance joy. I had more fun dancing contra than I've had since my first year of contradancing (and really the only year I did much contra dance at all, in 1980 or so). I remember that on Thursday afternoons of that year I would practically shake with excitement because it was contra dance night. But until this weekend I remembered being that excited only in a sort of intellectual story-telling way; last weekend reminded me what it felt like internally, as I experienced those feelings anew.

Come to think of it, I enjoyed the dancing even more this past weekend than in that virgin year, because in that first year I was something of an outsider to the community in which I was learning to dance (it was the dawning conviction that I would always be an outsider in that community that caused me to lose my passion, in fact). But last weekend I was not an outsider, for any number of reasons. I am concluding that a big part of the dance passion I am talking about here is about being part of a dance community (comparisons to Morris dancing are encouraged).

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I want to write about here is why it was so much fun for me. If contradance in the Twin Cities were this much fun for me, I would be there every week (as opposed to once every year or two, if that).

Bottom line is that the level of dancing was first-rate, throughout the hall. At least as important, the band played with drive and swing -- for me dancing is first and foremost a way of listening to music with my body, and if I don't like the music I cannot dance at all (which is why two-stepping is a mixed bag for me, as I love two-stepping when the music is western swing, but for the accent-free four-square electric-drum pablum of modern country music there is no connection between my body and the sound and besides the music is not live so it lacks the give-and-take with the musicians that makes dancing come alive). All up and down the contra line, each swing was a graceful interaction (like Morris dancing at its best). Each set was goofy and fun and free. Each new neighbor, each new set, was a whole new flavor of fun. At the end of a dance, it felt as if I'd just ended a fine dinner party with the other dancers in the line. You could see and sense that feeling of satiation and happiness.

To be honest, this level of dancing surprised me, because all of my previous experience with gender-free (or gay/lesbian) contra dancing was that the community and joy and passion were great (certainly greater for me than regular "straight" contra), but the actual dancing was not as strong as the dancing at the best contras. But not here, no sir and no ma'am. There were decades of experience here. And come to think of it, this was a group who had made a huge effort to go away for the weekend just to dance -- as self-selecting of a group as you can come by (again, connections to Morris dance and the Morris Ales are encouraged). Also there's a lot of consistency of attendees from camp to camp, so this group has collectively developed this amazing level of skill.

So ok, the dancing was great. And that was enough in some ways to explain my joy. But that wasn't all, not by a long shot. When I went to NEFFA last year I came back full of amazement and praise for the level of contra-dancing I saw, and I wrote about it at the time (in similar terms to this -- that if contradance were like this in the Twin Cities I would dance more regularly). I saw contra-dance taken to a completely new level than it had been when I left Boston 25 years ago. I loved watching it, and the bands were great. And yet at NEFFA -- last year or this year -- I never danced a dance. Well, perhaps one. That's a pretty dramatic statement, I think.

You see, at NEFFA what you have are members of various dance communities throughout New England gathering for one massive contraorgyfest. So people have their own communities, as a base, and lots of people they are anxious to dance with. That makes a big difference. Others come as a couple, which makes for a different experience as well, even for couples who dance with others most of the time. I posit that people who come to contradances as part of a couple -- particularly in communities that are not their own -- have a very different experience than people who come by themselves. They have a partner for the first and last dance, a way in to the line, a way of easing in to the group.

It is certainly possible to find dance partners at NEFFA if you are a stranger, and contradance etiquette is such that one does not refuse to dance unless one is sitting out or has already promised a dance. But if you show up at NEFFA alone -- and not a member of any represented dance community -- you have to work pretty darned hard and pretty darned quick to get a partner for a dance. At the LCFD camp, you had to work extremely hard NOT to be part of a dance. I like to sit out and watch a lot, but I got pulled in and pulled in for dance after dance, almost always by people I had not yet met. My favorite moment along these lines was when a young man named Aaron (a first-rate dancer whom I'd met a few years ago at a Morris Ale) came to ask me to dance and I said, "But they're about to switch to English Country Dance" (meaning that I don't really enjoy English dance, although that's another issue and in fact I did enjoy it this weekend at times). He responded with enthusiasm, "Oh good -- I *love* English!" and pulled me with great force into a set that was forming.

And then there's the final overlay, with a significance that caught me by surprise. That this was, at the core, a gay/lesbian/queer community mattered more than I thought it would. Back when I first learned to contra, I felt an outsider to a large extent because it seemed such an overwhelmingly straight community, which was not what I wanted or needed at the time. But I didn't think that was the same issue for me at this point, three decades later. And yet it was a great and wonderful thing to be among these people -- not just because there could be nice little flirtations when your partner or corner was the same gender, but because it didn't matter one way or another to anybody who was dancing what role. It has started to seem to me that this is generally true at many contra dances these days, but it's different when the community is actually defined by the fact that this does not matter. That surrounds me with a sense of warmth and belonging.

How to make a Macy's customer distressed and uncomfortable.

Apparently Macy's now contracts out its credit management to one company, and it contracts out its check approval management to another, and both companies seem to have it as their goal to be sure Macy's not only doesn't sell any merchandise but upsets its customers as well so that they will be uncomfortable returning to the store. I had the most bizarre experience on Saturday morning, and I'm still trying to figure out just what to make of it.

On Saturday morning, armed with some sale coupons, I went to Macy's and found some nice oxford shirts for a great price. Hooray. The store had just opened, so the two sales associates were free to talk with me and goof around and make the whole shopping thing a pleasant one. But then it came time to pay.

I asked if I could pay with a regular Visa card, but they started to say there might be an issue getting one of my discounts so I said that's fine, I have a Macy's card as well which I haven't used for a while -- I stopped using more than one credit card a while ago, and I prefer to use my debit card at that.

Here's the first problem I ran into: My card didn't go through. So the sales associate had to call for "approval". The person on the other end of the phone passed him off to another person, or actually just tried to but instead hung up on him. So then the sales associate called back and got the same "I'll have to pass you off" line and had to say (for the first of two times that morning) "Don't hang up on me!". Eventually the credit company gave him incorrect information about what to enter and hung up. So he had to call back and this time they told him that they couldn't approve the transaction because my last purchase was nearly two years ago so the account had been closed.

The Macy's card seems to be a Visa card as well (it has the Visa logo on it), and my guess here is that with the recent credit crunch credit companies have been canceling inactive accounts. But an inactive general purpose credit card, to my mind, should not be the same thing as an inactive department store account. I guess to keep a Macy's card you have to buy things at Macy's on a monthly basis. The sales associate said I'd have to open a new account -- but then I'd get an extra 15% discount. Ah, but when he tried to open this account he learned that he could only do that if my account had been inactive for three years. But since it had only been two I had to open a new account but didn't get the new account discount. Because that's the definition of customer service: Close your account and make you open a new one but don't consider the new account an actual new account. (It's not as if I closed the account myself with the intention of getting a new account discount -- they took it on themselves to close the account for me without letting me know, although they sure still fill my mailbox with coupons and flyers.)

Never mind, I said -- I had no intention of committing myself to buying things at Macy's on a monthly basis just to keep the card -- can I pay with a check? Sure, he said. But he had to call for approval -- and didn't know that you call a different number for check approval. Neither did the guy at the credit company, who said, "Gee, I've never had to approve a check before." After a long runaround they figured out the second number to call.

So the sales associate entered all the information on my check and called the second number for approval. After a bit of delay and runaround, they denied my check and hung up immediately without explanation. This is the point that I started to get upset. There is a huge absurd amount of money in my checking account just now -- I have recently exercised some stock options and that money is sitting there. I went into a panic, about the missing money. I said, "Did my bank deny this, or did Macy's? Because if it's my bank I'm out of here now to go there. This is serious." He said he didn't know why the check was denied, did I want him to call back? I sure as hell do, I said.

So he called back and I don't know what they told him but that's when he had to say -- with actual desperation and pleading -- "Don't hang up on me again!" He had to *argue* with the check approval company, who said it is not their policy to say why a check is not approved. But he managed to convince them to tell him anyway. What they said was that the info he entered did not match my profile. It seems -- unbeknownst to me -- that my driver's license number changed when I last renewed my license, so the number on the check did not match it.

Fair enough, but all they have to do is say so and we'd get the number direct from my license. I mean, I was right there with my license and several other forms of ID. If the sales associate had mistyped a digit there would have been the same problem But nope, it's the policy of the check approval place just to see if the license number on the check matches the records at the motor vehicle department or something and then to hang up immediately and not give you a reason. That's their POLICY! (Well, I think that their actual policy is to encourage their phone representatives to spend as little time on the phone as possible and that they don't really have a written policy to rudely hang up on people who are standing around trying to pay for some merchandise, but that's the inevitable effect.)

So we started over with the correct license number and this time it was fine, but I was still pretty upset about the (quite public, I should note) disapproval of my check. I have a lifetime of perfect credit. I pride myself on this. To have a check denied without explanation -- with an actual REFUSAL to give an explanation -- was probably a lot more upsetting than is strictly logical, but it was upsetting nonetheless. And to fear that something has happened to all of the money in my checking account -- which I think was a rational fear in the circumstances -- that took me a very long time to calm down about internally. I didn't have a public tantrum or anything, but this was extremely distressing to me.

As I say, the sales associate was as fine and friendly as his impossible situation allowed. And the shirts are nice and were a great price. But I know that simply walking into Macy's will be upsetting to me for quite a while. That's how these things work.

Doesn't Macy's know this?

Me on YouTube

This morning a local Morris dancer opened a gelato store at the Mall of America, and lots of the local Morris dancers went out to dance. It was a blast.

Just at the moment of opening I led us all in an improvised song about the store, and the last bits got caught on video.