Technology: Beast or Blessing?

Many years ago, when I rolled my eyes every time my techno-wizard husband tried to tell me about the Internet, he assured me if I ever gave it a chance, I'd love it. He was right; of course, I didn't embrace the beast until we got past the dial-up modem stage--patience not being one of my sterling attributes--but, these days, give me a reliable server and a swift connection, and I can, invest...many happy hours taking advantage of technology's bounty.

By the same token, few things now make me more irate than technology used badly--or abused. I personally think spammers should have their fingers ripped off at the roots, telemarketers and politicians that use robots and recordings to call people should get their ears filled with brain-bursting strains of something (a la Slim Whitman in Mars Attacks) after the first ring, and websites with no contact information for the owner should be fined. However, the source of my ire on this last day of 2007 is neither spammer nor telemarketer, merely another company--and, oh, their numbers are legion!--who has managed to turn technology into an abyss of sanity-stretching, blood-pressure-rocketing frustration rather than the convenience it was meant to be.

I needed to reorder checks last week. Tried to do so at my local branch and was told they'd be happy to call in the order but couldn't make any changes. I needed to make changes so I said fine, I'll order online.

Tried to order online, but couldn't find an option for changing my information OR the style of checks I wanted (The carbon copy version of checks they sent last time is a complete waste of time, space, and money because no matter how hard I write, it's never enough to make it show up on the carbon copy.) Finally gave up after fifteen minutes and called the 800 number offered as the "fast, easy way to reorder your checks!"

LIARS! After the usual ten-minute runaround of trying to reach a human (Robot: "We're sorry. That number is not a valid option. Please listen to our menu again." Me, after entering every option possible, multiple times: "NO!! I DO NOT WANT TO LISTEN TO YOUR OPTIONS AGAIN!! I WANT AN OPERATOR! A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE! A HUMAN BEING! ANYTHING THAT BREATHS OXYGEN AND UNDERSTANDS ENGLISH!!!"), a young woman finally answered and, after listening to my plight, sighed indulgently and informed me that they were not allowed to change any information over the phone, but that my local bank would be happy to do that. "NO, THEY WON'T!" I screamed in a totally unSouthern manner. "THAT'S WHY I'M CALLING YOU!!! AND YOUR STUPID WEBSITE DOESN'T WORK, EITHER! YOU PEOPLE SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO OPERATE COMPUTERS!!" And then, remembering from whence I come, I added, "THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR HELP!" (Yes, I know the sarcasm negated the politeness, but good Southern girls always thank people for service--even bad service. It's a rule.)

This morning, I put my reorder slip in the drive-through drawer, with my address crossed out and corrected and the phrase "NO DUPLICATES!!!" emblazoned across the top. "I wasn't able to do this online or by phone," I informed the bank teller, with a look that said, "Don't even THINK about questioning me on this!"

And as the teller removed the slip from the drawer, she nodded and smiled and gave me a look that said, "Poor woman, some people just don't know how to handle technology."

Wishing you a new year rife with blessings and laughter--and devoid of frustration and idiots!

Are Family Films Making a Comeback?

Remember how Jeff Daniels crawled out of the movie screen and into the theatre in The Purple Rose of Cairo? As I watched Dan in Real Life a few weeks ago, I wanted to do the same thing--in reverse. So real, so endearing, so inviting is life with the Burns family that I wanted to teleport myself right into their living room. I don't endorse many things, but you have to see this film. Take your children. Take your mother. You can even take your grandmother; if there's a profane word, I don't remember it. (And if there was one, Nana Burns probably smacked whoever said it with a wooden spoon.)

The purity this film offers isn't the cotton candy, sweetness and light, all's well in the world variety. It's a this-is-how-normal-families-who-care-about-each-other-behave kind of reality that rarely shows up on screen. Somewhere between the nastiness of Arrested Development and the saccharine of The Brady Bunch, there's a happy medium of family life with which most of us can identify. Director Peter Hedges has nailed it. These people have problems, but instead of pulling out a weapon, an illegal substance, or a stream of expletives, they actually WORK THINGS OUT. What a concept!

And now comes August Rush, which is a tad heavier on the saccharine, although the music score more than makes up for it. (If there's a budding musician in your family, this is required viewing, and if you like happy endings, you're in for a real treat.) Granted, the story line's pretty implausible, and most of the bad things that would befall a youngster alone on the streets don't, but I give director Kirsten Sheridan lots of points for creating a family-friendly film that's inspiring, uplifting, profanity-free, and worth the nine bucks it cost me to see it (the latter all too rare an occurrence). And while the two main characters do engage in a single act of unprotected, unmarried sex (which we happily do not see), the result is the consequence every parent warns about.

Is this a fluke? Two movies in a month with worthwhile plots, quality acting, believable dialogue, and NO swearing, sex, or violence? Could it be--gasp!--that Hollywood has finally figured out there's an actual market for intelligent, non-offensive films? Frankly, I think that's too much to hope for, so I urge you to pile Grandma and the kiddies in the car ASAP and prove the point by buying tickets--lots and lots of them...send everyone you know whose ears are numb and who's definition of "acceptable" has been stretched to the max--to these two movies. With luck, there are more to follow.

Death, Thy Sting is Right Here

There's a lot about life that isn't fair, but sometimes that fact slaps you in the face with a vengeance. Last night as I sat with my husband, listening to a concert and watching our sons enjoy the music, my friend Maria sat in a funeral home a few blocks away, beside the casket of her husband, aged 47. Our sons are best friends; we have, up till now, shared similar lives.

Going to see Maria and her sons last night took every ounce of willpower I had, because I knew I couldn't simply file past with a sympathetic expression as I murmured banal platitudes. I know because my father, like Maria's husband, died ten years before he should have seen me graduate...fifteen years before he should have given me away at the altar of my hometown church...twenty-one years before he should have held the child who bears his name...forty years before he should have been watching the World Series with three young men who'll never know what it feels like to have a grandfather.

When you've walked in someone's shoes, it's impossible to lie to them. And so, as I hugged my friend last night, I didn't tell her it will be all right--because it won't be. I told her the only things I know to be true: "This is so wrong," and "I am here whenever you need me." And as I watched her sons standing awkwardly in the onslaught of well-wishers--I said nothing at all. But in my heart, I gathered them in my arms and wept with them over the moments that will now never happen in their lives.

Their lives will go on. They will cope; they will heal. But they will never, ever be the same. This I know.

Excuse me?????

Well, I was excited about ol' Whoopi coming on board to liven things up at "The View," till she kicked things off by suggesting that we Southerners view dogfighting as just another one of those regional idiosyncracies. Hello??????? How many dogfights have you and your girlfriends hosted lately? My gal pals and I keep meaning to, but...oh, that's right, we decided not to...since that's a form of entertainment we put right up there with throwing babies off skyscrapers and vivisecting grocery store clerks who ignore us!!!!

I swear, I get so tired of people assuming that anyone who lives south of D.C. still shoots squirrel for dinner every night and thinks Larry the Cable Guy is high comedy. Tragically, I know waaaaaaaay too many people who approve of Larry, but I don't know a single person in my entire circle--and it's a big one!--of Southern acquaintances who considers dogfighting anything other than the vile, abysmal, appalling thing that it is. SHAME on you, Whoopi! And shame on yet another pro athlete who missed a chance to set a positive example instead of a disgusting one. Where have all the heroes gone?

And on that same subject, what is going on with these public figures who can't keep their pants on in public places? We're not going to get into names--we all read the news and my heart already aches for the humiliation the families of these dolts have suffered, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what a celebrity or person of renown might possibly be thinking looking for a good time in a public bathroom/stranger's car in the middle of a major city/pick any other equally ridiculous place 'cause it happens over and over again. In my own county, yet another teacher is on trial for having sex with her 7th-grade students--at the school, no less! Time spent building your reputation: years. Time spent destroying it: two seconds. The word "idiot!" comes rapidly to mind. Frankly, I look for a tad more ambiance in my romantic encounters than what most public venues have to offer, don't you? I know we're a nation in decline, but puh-leeze! Have standards really dropped so low? Are we really that desperate for a random infusion of oxytocin?

Somebody save the children while there's still time.

Let's Hear it for Barbie!

Who'da thought She of the Flaxen Hair, Pointy Breasts, and Pointy Toes would be the one to say "Enough!!!"?

There will be those who scream irony, but I frankly think it's quite fitting for Barbie to be first in line to save the girls of the world--and Lord knows they need saving. I speak of Mattel's gutsy new initiative, "We Believe in Girls," a movement whose purpose--on the surface, at least--is to encourage parents to let their daughters be little girls as long as possible. Self-serving, to be sure--Mattel is, after all, a toy company--but anything that promotes playing with dolls over playing with fire deserves as much support as we can give it.

In case you haven't strolled the halls of a middle school lately, be advised that waaaay too many of today's 12-year-olds dress like Paris Hilton, think Lindsay Lohan's cool, and have mouths that make Britney and Avril sound like Sunday-Schoolers. If that's not enough to make you shudder, go rent the movie "Thirteen," or flip through a few pages of one of the Gossip Girls books. Not only have we left Kansas far, far behind, we're thisclose to making Scarecrow spontaneously combust!

It's hard to say when it started or who's to blame (I have some theories but, good Southern girl that I am, if I can't say something nice, I'll say nothing at all), but Mattel is right: it's time to make a u-turn. And those of us who have enough sense to know that dressing 10-year-olds like trailor trash (best book title ever: Celia Rivenbark's Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank!) and letting 6-year-olds watch "CSI" (appalling a thought as that is, according to a recent article in USA Weekend, there are a lot of them!) is inappropriate need to lead the parade.

It's not just Big Evil Cities where such stupidity takes place. Some years ago, in a tiny rural town that shall remain nameless, I was the only parent upset when a P.E. teacher showed "Pretty Woman" to a class of fourth graders one rainy day. "He fast-forwarded through all the bad parts," a fellow--and presumedly intelligent and responsible--parent explained when I brought it up at a PTA meeting. "THEY'RE ALL BAD PARTS! THESE CHILDREN ARE NINE YEARS OLD! IT'S A MOVIE ABOUT A PROSTITUTE!" I screamed as politely as I could.

I am the mother of three sons, which, according to some, means I'm off the hook as far as worrying about the evils of society. Au contraire! I've raised my boys with the same set of standards I would have used for girls. At the Ferrer house, chromasomes have no impact whatsoever on moral expectations. One of my sons is 23 and I know for a fact he has learned some words I never taught him. (Note to parents: never tell your child you visit and read his MySpace site or you will be banned from said site, thereby losing that most intriguing--and fully public!--opportunity to gain insight into said child.) However, he has never used those words in my presence, nor have his brothers. And we have no arrests, impregnations, wild parties, drunken stupors, or drug usage to mar the family name thus far, so I have to believe my rules paid off--though I give the greater credit to God's grace and my sons' inherent integrity.

There are other mothers out there fighting the same valiant fight--I know them! I have lunch with them!--but I fear we are the exception rather than the rule. I suspect this because in the video store, I constantly hear tiny little people point to odious, horrific titles and say, "That was a good one, wasn't it, Mom?!" and because in the mall, I see mothers who should know better accompanied by daughters who never will.

Two things stick in my memory as being particularly heinous in regard to wise parenting. One was a newspaper article a few years back about women who had carried their daughters to meet Monica Lewinsky at some public appearance and were all excited. The other was when Madonna wrote a children's book and mothers were falling all over themselves to buy a copy. HELLO???? YOU WOULD WANT THESE WOMEN DISPENSING ADVICE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS, WHY?????

Are there no young Helen Kellers out there to admire? No Jane Goodalls, Chris Everts, or Amelia Earharts in the making? I'm betting there are. But it's not the good girls who make the news, it's the bad ones--and I don't know if that's our fault or the media's. My husband and I have an ongoing argument about profanity and gore-laced films. He says if Hollywood could make money off wholesome films, they'd make them in a heartbeat, but that's not what the public wants. How 'bout it, public? Would you keep buying and tuning in if the media made darlings of girls whose body parts were all adequately covered, whose favorite late-night activity was playing board games with their families, and whose worst vice was chocolate? I would! I've seen enough sleaze to last me a lifetime and I would really, REALLY like to think I have at least a 50/50 chance of getting a daughter-in-law who hasn't yet made it around the block.

Are you ready to stop letting Whever It is That's Doing All This steal our children's childhood? They have so little time to be innocent; shouldn't we protect that at all costs? The motivation for my second book, A Mother of Sons, came from a newspaper photograph of a woman holding a starving child. As I stared at that photo, I was struck by the unfairness of life and the realization that that mother wanted the same things for her son that I wanted for mine, but because that woman lived in some desolate, war-torn, drought-besieged part of the world, there wasn't a ghost of a chance her boy would know the life mine would. How wrong to let someone rob our children of the chance to know love and security and happiness and innocence when those things have become so rare in our world!

Please join me in Mattel's effort to make innocence something to celebrate instead of ridicule. If you know of a young person who's making headlines because of GOOD behavior, tell us about it right here. And go home and gather the gang for a round of Spades or Hi-Ho Cherry-O: time's a-wastin'!

Life is Good in Greenville

I live in one of the world's great cities. No, it's not New York, San Francisco, Paris, Prague, or London. It's little ol' Greenville, South Carolina--and any day of the week, you'll find visitors wandering our downtown with a smile on their face as they experience Southern hospitality with a side of topnotch urban planning.

Greenville's not big--yet--and most of us hope it doesn't get too much bigger. But after they've been down here on the farm, it's gonna be hard to keep those cityfolk back on the boulevards. How many midsize cities sport a waterfall smack in the center of town--complete with wide, flat rocks for the kiddies (and their parents!) to romp on? How many midsize cities have a baseball stadium, entertainment arena, world class performing arts center, four theatre companies, a public and private fine arts high school, science center, superlative symphony, and two internationally renowned art collections all within a few blocks of each other? And they're all staffed by people who say "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" and "Y'all come back soon!" (Okay, I haven't heard Greenville Symphony director Edvard Tchivzhel say those exact words, but Edvard's charm transcends words anyway, so the point's the same.)

I'm not a native, sadly. But Greenville's been my home for twelve years, and that's the longest I've lived anywhere except the little Florida town I grew up in, so I claim it as home. My oldest son (23) thinks it's deadly dull and, compared to L.A., I suppose it is. But my youngest son (16) thinks Greenville rocks. Its labyrinth of downtown nooks and crannies, funky tea and coffee bars, and eclectic array of streetside musicians provide plenty of diversion for teens in search of quirky things to do. Parents love Greenville because it's child-friendly; women love Greenville because it's safe. It's arts-friendly (my favorite event is the immensely enjoyable Open Studios Tour), pet-friendly (we have a dog park!), and climate-friendly (four distinct seasons, and just enough snow to be fun). Employment is high, crime is low, and the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains loom just far enough up the road to provide a perfect backdrop to our northern horizon.

Come on up/down/over and pay us a visit! But be forewarned: you might not want to leave!

Thus Spake Comma Goddess

I frankly don't think the world needs the burden of yet another opinion. But there's a poetry project afoot and, while the world has waaaaaaay too many opinions, it doesn't have nearly enough poetry. Thus here I am, hanging out my shingle and looking forward to doing business as a poetrymonger. (Not that there won't be equal space given to the subjects of motherhood, manners, the joy of words in general, and other essential elements of civilization. Read: do not come here looking for political commentary or Hollywood gossip. Okay, fine, my son lives and works in L.A. so there might be the occasional Hollywood reference...but if you know John, you know we ain't talking mainstream!)

But I digress.

I'm probably the last among my circle of word people to launch a blog because a) see above thoughts on the planet's need for another opinion, b) if I have time to write, it seems more sensible to spend it on a work in progress (that would be the kind that earns income), and c) what with laundry and life and such, I don't have time to write unless something else goes undone.

And yet, here I am. And here you am, too--and that's quite lovely. Thanks for dropping by, and hope you'll come again.