Thanks, And Thanks!

We got into a discussion the other day about proper etiquette when it comes to the ubiquitous “thanks” email in the workplace.  Put aside the fact that some people hate it, and accept that the “thanks” email needs to be sent as a matter of common courtesy — and also, by the way, to confirm that the prior email has been received and read.

rapkprhNo, the question is: should the email be “Thanks.” or “Thanks!”?  How important is it to put that ending exclamation point on your expression of personal gratitude?

Exclamation points are, of course, used to add emphasis, and can express excitement, surprise, astonishment, or other strong sentiments.  Interestingly, exclamation points were apparently originally called the “note of admiration” — and admiration seems pretty close to gratitude.  Also, the “Thanks.” email comes across as just a little bit flat, doesn’t it?  If you’ve asked someone a question or made a request and they’ve provided you with the information or response you want, the least you can do is put a little emphasis on your expression of appreciation.  If you then ask a follow-up question and get a follow-up response, you can always go with the “Thanks again.” email on the second go-round.

I do think, however, that we need to guard against overuse of the exclamation point in workplace communications.  For example, one exclamation point is perfectly sufficient, and multiple exclamation points should be reserved only for the most extraordinary circumstances.  And let’s remember that the exclamation point should be used rarely, and it is the good old period that should be liberally employed.  Too many exclamation points make the writer seem breathless and overly excitable.

But none of that should prevent the use of the exclamation point on that initial “Thanks!” email.  As in, to all of the readers of this blog:  Thanks!

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“The First Chicken That Tastes Like Chicken”

The other day I was on my morning walk when a commercial truck rumbled past.  It was a truck for the Gerber Poultry Company, advertising its “Amish Farms” brand chicken with the slogan:  “The first chicken that tastes like chicken.”

Intriguing slogan, isn’t it?  It’s a bold claim, as many commercial taglines are, but it’s far more subtle and nuanced than “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” or “M-m-m good!” or “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”

After all, at a certain level, everything — from frog legs to rabbit to squab to alligator — tastes like “chicken.”  At least, that’s what people will tell you.  If it’s the flesh of a creature that has mild, soft white meat that isn’t particularly gamey in flavor, the inevitable culinary reference point is “chicken.”  So, obviously, you’d expect any brand of chicken to taste like . . . chicken.

chicken-surprisedBut the Gerber Amish Farms slogan goes deeper than that.  By claiming to be the first chicken that tastes like chicken, it’s really saying that those of us who haven’t had Gerber poultry don’t really know what chicken tastes like.  Fans of The Matrix will remember the scene at the mess table on the Nebuchadnezzar where Mouse raises the profound question of whether anyone really knows what chicken actually tastes like.  After all, the computers that designed the Matrix presumably would have no idea what chicken truly tasted like — they would simply create a taste, plug it into the Matrix program, and all of the humans linked into the Matrix would accept it as “chicken,” just as they accepted everything else in the simulation as true reality.

So the Gerber Farms slogan presents a jarring concept.  Knowing what “chicken” tastes like is a foundational building block for modern Americans.  If you don’t know what chicken tastes like, what do you know, really?  It would be like learning that the sky actually isn’t blue, or that space aliens live among us, or that Donald Trump is secretly one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.  Suddenly, your perception of reality is shifted forever, and there’s no going back.

So I’m not quite sure I want to try that Amish Farms poultry and learn what chicken actually tastes like.  It might be like Morpheus offering the red pill . . . or the blue pill.

Cranial Reflections

Earlier this week they moved a towering red crane onto a construction site on my walk to work, and as I strolled past one morning I saw the crane reflected in the glass windows of a neighboring building.  It looked like a piece of modern art, with color gradations from the background sky, the cubist boxes, and the red colors threading upward and across from bottom to top.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the human brain searches for pattern wherever and whatever it perceives sight or sound?  It may cause us to see creepy faces on wallpaper or presidential profiles on potato chips, but it’s also useful– and would cause most people to recognize this distorted image as a reflection of a crane.

Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

In Our Own Personal Silos

The Brown Bear sent me this interesting article from The Economist.  The article is, on its surface, a rumination about Ohio Governor John Kasich and his new book, Two Paths:  America Divided or United, but the interesting stuff in the article wasn’t so much about the book as it was about our country.  It’s one of those articles that leave you nodding a bit, as you find that the conclusions drawn square with your own experience.

The gist of the underlying sociological message in the article is this:  Americans have become more and more confined and channeled in their interaction (or, more accurately, lack of interaction) with other Americans.  It isn’t just that Americans spend more time in individualized pursuits, such as watching TV, tapping away on their smart phones, working out, or surfing the internet — it’s that their entire lives are being designed, shaped, and structured to limit their exposure to people with different backgrounds, interests, and views.  In short, more and more people are living in their own personal silos.

silosOne element of this phenomenon is that Americans now are much less likely to participate in joint activities — be it bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, churches, or community groups — than used to be the case.  Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in the classic Democracy in America published way back in the 1830s, that Americans were unusually prone to forming associations and joining groups.  That remained true for decades; Grandpa Neal, for example, bowled in the Masonic League in Akron for more than 60 years and was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and a host of other civic and fraternal groups.  How many people do you know these days who are willing to spend their weekday evenings and weekends away from their homes and participating in such activities?  I don’t know many — and I include myself in that group.

But the change is even deeper than that.  The Economist article linked above notes that Americans now tend to live in distinct enclaves with people who share their political views and conditions.  One indicator of this is voting patterns in elections.  In the 1976 presidential election, some 27% of Americans lived in “landslide counties” that Jimmy Carter either won or lost by at least 20 percentage points.  In the 2004, 48 percent of the counties were “landslide counties,” and in 2016, fully 60 percent of the counties in America — nearly two thirds — voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.

What does this all mean?  It suggests that many Americans now tend not to even engage with people with different perspectives.  They don’t see them when they go home at night, they don’t talk to them, and they have no significant understanding of their thoughts, concerns, . . . or lives.  When people are so cloistered, looking only at the kind of websites that mirror their views and interacting only with people who share those views, there will inevitably be a great divide that will become increasingly difficult to bridge.  How do you get people who live in separate worlds, who don’t play softball or attend club meetings or participate in any interactive communal activities together, to understand and appreciate where people of different views are coming from, and why they hold those views in the first place?  Facile social media memes and tweets that depict people of opposing views as dolts, racists, sluggards, communists, or any of the other names that have become so common don’t seem to be working very well, do they?

This, I think, is one of the big-picture issues that we need to address as we work to get America back on track — and like many big-picture issues, it’s not really being discussed or addressed by anyone, because these days we focus on the small things.  I’m not saying, of course, that government should forcibly relocate people to achieve some kind of political or economic balance, or that government should focus on providing tax incentives to encourage people to join the local Moose lodge.  Government didn’t need to do that in colonial America or in the America of Grandpa Neal’s day, and it shouldn’t be needed now.  Somehow, though, Americans need to find a way to start actually talking to, and interacting with, each other again.

The Zen Master Passes On

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  An Inquiry Into Values, died on Monday at age 88.  It is sad news for those of us for whom Pirsig’s book — an intriguing combination of travel writing, novelized autobiography, rumination about various facets of modern society, and study of motorcycle mechanics — was an important, shaping rite of passage when we first read it.

pic0904-pirsig002I was introduced to Zen by Uncle Mack, who told me that I absolutely needed to read this book.  (To provide some context, he also told me at about the same time that I needed to read Watership Down, which told the tale of rabbits in southern England who had their own language and liked to silflay under the moon.)  Because I am a dutiful nephew, I of course read Zen, and it forcefully struck an inner nerve.

The arc of the book, which tells the rambling story of a man struggling with mental illness who takes his son on a long motorcycle trip and along the way realizes that he and his son will always deal with those issues, was interesting, but what really got me were Pirsig’s miniature lectures, which he called chautauquas, that were interspersed throughout the book.  The lectures reflected a way of looking at and thinking about the world that really had an impact on me.  One concept in particular — that “quality” is a kind of independent characteristic that can be recognized by people intuitively, without training, and should always be the ultimate goal of whatever you are doing, whether it is writing, living, or repairing a motorcycle — has been hugely influential and is a concept that I have returned to again and again.

I wasn’t the only person touched by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It was a kind of phenomenon in the ’70s, and according to the New York Times obituary linked above it has been cited as a personally influential book by the likes of basketball player and coach Phil Jackson, Star Trek star William Shatner, and others.  It was Pirsig’s first book, and he later recounted that it was rejected by 121 publishing houses before William Morrow finally put it in print.  Pirsig’s persistence was rewarded when Zen sold a million copies in its first year — many, no doubt, due to the insistence of friendly uncles — and sold millions more in the years since.

I will always be grateful to Robert M. Pirsig for writing this book.

O’Hare After Dark

I’m here in O’Hare Airport tonight, waiting to catch a late flight home.  So far, at least, no one has assaulted me or tried to bodily remove me from a seat — but my adventure is not yet over.


There’s definitely a surreal quality to O’Hare after dark.  It’s an enormous facility, designed to accommodate huge throngs of passengers, so when night comes and the crowds have seriously thinned out, the solitary traveler is almost overwhelmed by the vast spaces.  There was a guy playing a solitary saxophone at the end of the walkway leading to Concourse 3, and his echoing notes perfectly captured the kind of lonely feeling that is created when you’re traveling alone, through oppressively large, impersonal spaces that make you feel swallowed up and almost nonexistent.

There’s no better advertisement for the pleasures of “home” than O’Hare after dark.