Friday, March 30, 2007

It's Spring...

...and that means it's time for Daniel to drink a shitload of hefeweizens while it's warm. I recently picked up a sixer of Franziskaner at Great Spirits, and drinking them again after six months or so of not having them was like meeting an old friend you hadn't seen in awhile.

In the next day or so, I'll be talking about store meetings. Guess where I have to be a seven o'clock tomorrow morning?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hand scanning and Inventory Control

Beep. Beep. Beep. Chir-rup!. I'm standing in the Needlework section, scanning-gun in hand.

"I'm sorry, am I in your way?" Nice, twentysomething brunette, looking at the Home & Garden books behind me.

"Not unless I'm in yours," I smile. You get a kind of ingratiating manner when dealing with common customer questions like these. I don't let it bother me. I didn't tell her, of course, that in a little bit I was going to have to be scanning where she was -- she'd most likely be done by the time I got there, anyway.

She chuckles back at me. "Oh, okay." A pause. Another chir-rup, followed by my putting the offending book on a cart beside me. "So what exactly are you doing, anyway?"

"We have to scan all the books in the store periodically to see if anything goes back to the vendor." Beep.

"Oh. So it's like an inventory thing."

"Pretty much." It's actually exactly like an inventory thing. I continued, "It's about as exciting as it looks." Beep, beep.

"I guess sometimes that's kinda what you're wanting, right?"

A chuckle. "Yeah, like, 'I wonder if I can have some mind numbing boredom at my job today.'"

She laughed, and went back to her hunting in Home & Garden. And I continued scanning every book in the section.

Anyone who works retail long enough eventually runs across the joys of a scanner. They go by different names, depending on the store's lexicon and the manufacturer of the scanner, but "RF Gun" or "hand scanner" are generally the most generic terms I've seen for them. And while the person scanning make look like they're not really doing anything, this scanning process is a big part of what makes the store shoppable, in any retail environment.

Back in the old days at the office supply store, scanning was generally done in two stages: 1.) scan the item for price and 2.) if the price was wrong, take it off and replace it. The way I generally did the job was to take sections of the store and use a single hand scanner, first scanning all the prices and removing the wrong ones, and then going back a few minutes later to scan new labels. After a few sections, I'd go to the back and print up the labels I needed, and put them on the shelf.

(Some places like Wal-Mart make this last bit unnecessary, in that they have portable printers that associates can use to print labels.)

Inventory control at the office supply joint, on the other hand, was handled by a receiving associate, who was given a list of pulls each week -- he or she (well, let's face it, at my store it was always a he, although I met some highly capable female receiving specialists at other stores) would find the listed items, take them off the shelf, and send them back to corporate. This individual would also be responsible for handling discrepancies in on-hand data, i.e. if I discovered that we were listed as having eight Hewlett Packard DeskJet 812C's when we only had five, I'd let him/her know and he/she'd take care of it.

At the bookstore, though, all items come pre-marked with prices, so there's no need to scan for price. (We do, however, have a merchandising specialist who is largely responsible for making sure that all the various "percent-off" or "clearance" stickers are affixed to the right items. This doesn't count salebooks, which will be in another post.) Instead, we receive a list of sections that are to be scanned each week (on average, every shelf in the store is scanned once a month) and the system tells us which books to get rid of and which to keep. This takes two forms: either we are doing "voids", in which case any item that needs to be pulled (the chir-rup above indicates this) is pulled in its entirety, i.e. every copy off the shelf, or we are doing "overstocks", in which we may keep a limited number of copies of a book that we ordered too many of to sell readily.

In either situation, scanning is generally about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it is a pretty essential part of the shopping experience for the customer. It's a glamorous job that gets me all the groupies, but someone's got to do it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Booklog: Veronica, Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill
Vintage Contemporaries Trade Paperback, 257 pages

I picked this book up knowing only two things: that author Gaitskill was the author of "Bad Behavior", the story that was eventually turned into the film Secretary, and that Veronica was about a nonsexual relationship between two women. I figured it would be a sort of art-lit feminist work with frank discussions of sexuality and with a sort of "New Yorker" sensibility to it.

It was all that, and more besides. Alison is our viewpoint character, and in a more-or-less reliable-narrator fashion, she leads us through first her present reality as a has-been model who cleans the home/office of her friend David for a few dollars, and who has hepatitis and an arm that gives her stabbing pains whenever she tries to use it. She has a sort of vaguely interconnected life from the people who surround her, but seems isolated from the world nonetheless -- she is acquantainces with her neighbor, for instance, but they never seem to discuss the illness they share or the lives they lead.

Gaitskill writes the novel in a sort of vignette style, in which many sections are less than a page long and few are more than a half-dozen pages, with stories of Alison's past and present. We meet many of the important persons in her life that way, and eventually the name "Veronica" starts to become more and more prominent. As Alison tells us of her days as a model in Paris with an abusive boyfriend, then of moving back to the States and trying to go to secretarial school, she moves closer and closer to the present day of the novel, and we see more and more of her personality. Towards the last hundred pages or so of the book, Veronica begins to take more-or-less center stage, and we see her final days in the early days of the AIDS scare (the time frame is fuzzy, but is sometime in the early eighties) as Alison becomes a low-rent model and music video girl.

Veronica is portrayed as feisty and hotblooded even before her illness, but with a death sentence looming over her she becomes a spitfire. The relationship between Veronica and Alison is never really "warm", but each gains something from the experience of knowing the other, and the "reality" of Veronica's illness and eventual death are played thematically against the fakery of the modeling industry. Despite the great writing and well-conceived imagery that Gaitskill brings to these themes, she subtly warns us against taking our own understanding too seriously, by always making Veronica's illness stand up against that same flowery language like a concrete wall -- any "meaning" that we think we find in death is always more abstract and meaningless than the reality of that death itself.

This is a very good book towards the end, although it seems a bit formless at times and insufferably insular towards the beginning. Gaitskill has a clear command of language and metaphor that is worth reading, and the portions towards the end dealing directly with Veronica's death and understated and haunting. It's a bit outside my comfort zone, but it was definitely worth the extra effort.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Worldview Weekend Columnist on Hotel Porn

I have an amazing tolerance for the stupdity of religious fundamentalists, and am always on the lookout for new bullshit from that arena, so besides being on Focus on the Family's mailing list and the SermonAudio new list, I get daily emails from Worldview Weekend. Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains)and his sister Candace Cameron Bure (Full House) both post there, which is entertaining enough, but I was simply amazed at the stupidity shown in an email I got yesterday, entitled The Pornification of Our Culture.

After complaining about the pervasiveness of pornography in society (probably the only thing that radfems and social conservatives agree on), the author suggests that her readers use for their hotel booking, so they can send a message to the hotel industry that they don't want "smut" in their rooms. Which is fine, I suppose, although personally I'll be using the site to make sure that my hotel choice isn't on the list. Individuals have the right not to view pornography if they don't want to, and I'm generally a fan of letting businesses decide how they want to lure customers -- if people really are offended by the mere availability of pornography in their rooms, I think it's best for them to stay in hotels where it simply isn't available.

But this bit takes the cake:
Why should you care if you aren’t going to view the garbage? For one thing, pornography often proves highly addictive and contributes to many other problems that plague society, from divorce and domestic violence to prostitution and organized crime. In a paper presented to a special U.S. Senate subcommittee, Jill Manning, a social scientist and former visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, highlighted pornography’s many devastating harms, which are documented in a huge body of peer-reviewed research.

Another itsy-bitsy item to consider regarding sleaze-inns and whore-tels that peddle perversion: Do you really want to room next to a guy who’s just consumed hardcore sleaze? Do you want your wife or daughter walking by his door, or bumping into him in the elevator?

Ignore for a moment that reference to peer-reviewed research (the link to which I didn't include, but can be gotten at the original article), and read that last bit again. What exactly is the author thinking happens to men (and never forget that she is assuming that women would never, ever look at porn -- she's afraid of men looking at the naughty stuff) who have just viewed pornography? I'm getting this image of a hulking brute, desensitized to all urges except the base sexual need, throwing down the remote and wandering the halls of the hotel, zombie-like, in search of raw female flesh to use for his wanton sexual lusts....

No, ma'am, the truth is that the guy who just viewed pornography has probably just masturbated once or twice, and is probably satiated at least for the moment. In other words less likely to be sexually interested in your wife or daughter, even if he were so inclined in the first place. And even if he didn't jerk off, sometimes a bit of sexual entertainment is just that -- entertainment. If the guy had just watched Rambo would you think he'd be wearing a red headband and shooting people with a machine gun?

If the image of a freshly pornofied person interacting with you is scary, let me give you the genesis of your next nightmare: plenty of days I'll view a bit of pornography and masturbate before taking my shower and going to work in the morning. So the mild-mannered guy shelving the books in your local bookstore, who may even be interacting with small children might be a crazed lunatic who has recently viewed nekkid people doin' the nasty. There's evil lurking in every corner, there is....

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lost Girls Annotations, Chapter One

Note: Please read the intro page before continuing, as it explains the purpose of this project. Lost Girls is an extraordinarily dirty book, and I make no guarantees that the material below will not be offensive to many readers. I am also making many references to later material here, and it is not recommended that anyone read this text without buying the book first.

Below, I reference the Chapter Number, Page Number, and Panel Number for each comment in order. A comment for Chapter 8, Page 4, Panel 5 would be: C8P4P5.

Title Page: Image taken from C1P1P4, with colors corrected into a more "normal" range, perhaps to reflect the "real" world (see commentary on page one for more).

"The Mirror" -- refers to Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The entirety of this chapter is framed by the mirror of the title, reflecting also most of chapter thirty, and the theme of reflection will be a primary one within the book.

Page One

The first two pages of Lost Girls have a varying color scheme to each panel, in which seeming "filters" have been placed over the action. This may represent the passage of time during the sexual act taking place offstage, or it may be a clue to Alice's mental state.

Chapter 1 Page 1 Panel 1: The first words spoken in the book are "Tell me a story." Speaker is unclear, from context in the next panel and in C1P3P1, it seems that Alice has a young girl in her room and is in a sexual tryst with her. More later.

Storytelling is a theme of the book as a whole, and using these words as the opening line might be a dig at the metafictional nature of the story. It is, indeed, often a story about stories, and a story about itself.

C1P1P2: "...once you're grown..." Alice's first words. Hints at the age of the other person in the room.

C1P1P4: The other person in the room is "mirroring" her actions to Alice.

C1P1P5: "...were you always this impatient?" Perhaps this person is not as young as we might think. Someone known to Alice, perhaps someone who has been known to her for a long time?

This is the first panel with separate word bubbles. Two characters are speaking, or are they?

Page Two

C1P2P1: "...had my medication..." Alice spent some time in a sanitarium when she was younger.

", sticky place..." See C1P4P4, Alice is likely in South Africa after the Boer War, keeping an eye on her family's affairs. "Hot, sticky place" might also have euphemistic meanings, and Alice's claim to "hate" that place might point to unpleasant memories from her former abuse.

C1P2P3: More oblique reference to Alice's abuse. And in the same breath wondering if it was connected to a fairy tale. More evidence that the story is largely metafictional.

C1P2P5: The mirror never breaking is a different thing from the mirror never melting. Foreshadowing of the last chapter here, when the mirror does break -- is Moore letting us know that the final pages are "outside" the story proper?

The mirror melting is another reference to Looking Glass. We later learn of the significance of the mirror, and all that it represents to Alice.

Page Three

C1P3P2: The servant heard two voices. Or at least thinks she heard two voices.

C1P3P3: "Lady Fairchild" is Alice.

First direct reference to the "disgusting" acts with young children.

C1P3P4: " her ways wouldn't show 'em up." Alice herself agrees with this in C1P4P4.

C1P3P5,6: Good breeding causes rampant immorality, not for lower-class servants to question or comment upon. The stratified nature of Victorian society is clear. Even more so with the clearly deliberate use of "niggers".

Regarding "niggers", this is perhaps a jab at those in our world who would question the clearly fictional acts perpetuated herein -- do we not also have our own flaws which may be much more serious than pen on paper?

Page Four

C1P4P3:Pretoria is a city in South Africa, cementing the setting.

C1P4P6: The mirror is very important to Alice, for reasons that are unclear now.

Page Five

The first page without any dialogue at all. Nice technique for showing the journey without, well, showing the journey.

C1P5P5, 6: First appearances of male characters. The porters will become significant later, but are for now unnamed.

Page Six

C1P6P1: First appearance of Monsieur Rougeur, the owner of the hotel and who will become important later on.

C1P6P3: Hippolyte or Hippolyta was an Amazonian queen who had a magic girdle. She was the daughter of Ares, the god of war, which has an interesting subtext given the way the story ends.

C1P6P5,6: Contrasting views of fiction here. Rougeur believes that fiction reflects true reality, whereas Alice calls herself a Platonist, believing that the real world that she is a part of is only a pale reflection of The Real. See The Theory of the Forms for more information here.

Page Seven

Alice is masturbating through panel four. She uses a two-handed technique here, likely penetrating herself with the fingers of one hand while using the other on her clitoris.

C1P7P5: The dialogue here is clearly confused as to how many persons are in the room. The alignment of the mirror is closer to the bed than in South Africa, and it is now clear that no one is in the room with Alice. And yet two word bubbles remain, and the dialogue indicates that two persons are present.

C1P7P6: "...unladylike." Mild humor.

Page Eight

C1P8P1: The first word bubble implies that the mirror itself is speaking. When I first read the story, that is the implication that I took away from it. Given what happens to Alice during the next twenty-nine chapters, and given the fact that no other "magical" items exist in the universe of the story, it is more likely that Alice's reality is somewhat fractured here, and that she is either hallucinating the other voice, making the voice herself, or merely fantasizing that the other person exists.

C1P8P2: The reference to "child" (in addition to the later material) cements the idea that Alice is speaking to a childlike version of herself, who in her mind is "trapped" in the mirror.

C1P8P3: Alice does look old here. She has a sadness that she hasn't had before.

C1P8P6: A faint image of a heart can be seen around the mark made by the kiss.

Lost Girls Annotations -- Intro

Lost Girls is a graphic novel published by Top Shelf Comics in 2006. Written by Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, and illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, the work is a masterpiece in any sense of the word, filled with complex characters, immensely detailed fictional worlds, and huge amounts of cultural subtext.

Yeah, and plenty of hardcore fuck action. Because in addition to being a great graphic novel, Lost Girls is all about sex, lesbian sex, straight sex, gay sex, threesomes, foursomes, incest, pedophilia, bestiality.... it's an unspeakably filthy book, one that anyone with even a hint of squeamishness will find upsetting at times. I cannot stress enough that this book is not intended for children, and that even discussing the themes and events of the book will lead into various unsavory aspects of human psychology.

So it's NSFW, get it? Don't read it, hell, don't read the rest of this post, unless you're really really ready for what's coming down the pike.

That said, the book is incredibly brilliant, and it deserves the same kind of annotation that Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Gaiman's Sandman series have gotten. And while I'm not the absolute best person to do this job, I'm going to do the best I can here and hope that others will email me with additions and/or corrections.

My limitations: I actually have not currently read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or The Wizard of Oz, although I am of course familiar with popular adaptations of them, so I cannot directly comment on the original material. I plan on reading the books later on, so hopefully I can make these annotations works in progress to which I can add impressions as time goes by.

Similarly, I am not an artist or an art critic. While Gebbie's work illustrating the books is wonderfully appreciated by me, I cannot discuss the artwork in technical detail. I will, however, be discussing the meaning of the imagery within the context of the narrative. My main focus in these annotations will be to discuss the parallelism in the structure of the overall work, and hidden references within and to outside sources.

I will also be perhaps stepping a bit outside the bounds of the annotative format and discuss my own reactions to different parts of the work, in a sense making the whole thing a very detailed critical reaction of Lost Girls. With material this personal and a work this intricate, I cannot imagine trying to do otherwise, and hopefully my honesty up front about this issue will allow any readers to accept that bias as stated.

This is a forthright, daring, and somewhat disturbing book. I feel it deserves commentary that accepts it as is, and attempts to elucidate the honest reactions of at least one reader (myself). I am sorry that I'm not more talented or well-read to analyze Moore and Gebbie's work, and if they ever run across this text I hope they will read it with the understanding that I write this annotation out of love for the original source material, and have the utmost respect for their joint accomplishment.

That said, shall we get started?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lights Out!

Ever been in a store when the lights went out?

Even better, ever been working in a store when the lights went out? Happens not quite irregularly, just often enough that anyone who's done the retail thing for a while will generally have experienced it. Basically, I went to lunch at around 12:45 today, and when I got back thirty minutes later there was no power. Apparently it was the entire shopping center that had lost power, but since I spend all my lunch breaks in my car anyway, I simply didn't notice.

In general, there are two basic philosophies that companies take towards what to do when the power goes out: 1.) Having customers in the with low visibility is a liability, and if anyone gets hurt it's tons of lost money for the company or 2.) Telling customers to get out means losing all revenue during the power outage, and losing revenue is a Bad Thing.

The office supply store where I used to work took the former attitude towards power outages: get the customers out, nicely, politely, apologetically, but get them out. And don't let any new ones in. I once sat in an office chair for nearly two hours during a power outage, because we're still required to hang out there for our shifts, even if you can't get any work done due to a lack of lighting.

The bookstore where I work now took tack number two. Although partly it may be because there was a DM in the store (gotta do a DM visit post soon!), it's likely that this company are just greedy bastards.

Now, when the power goes out the register doesn't work. So someone has to stand at the register with a paper pad for making hand receipts and writing down all transactions, making change the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, this wasn't me -- in fact, the manager on duty ended up having to do the register for that period.

The highlight of the brief blackout period? A customer wanted to browse the home and garden magazines all the way in the back of the store, far, far away from the sunlight streaming through the front doors, and out of the way of the emergency lights. So I got to stand there with a crappy plastic flashlight while the customer glanced through a gardening magazine. Y'know, since I didn't have anything important to do to prepare for the DM's audit of the store coming up the next day...

People, just leave the damned store when the power goes out. It's not like you'll never have the chance to browse those magazines again.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Booklog: No Witnesses, by Nancy Sanra

This is a new feature I'm starting here at Chez CounterMonkey, in which I review the books I run across. I'm currently working my way through the Pynchon roster, so my day-to-day reading tends to run towards the simple and straightforward, but once I've gotten Pynchon out of my system I'll be reading and talking about more in-depth books. I'll probably leave the Pynchon out, because I'm intending these to be short snippets about books, things that I will generally read in a day or two and which are very easily digested. More complex posts about books will go in under a separate label.

No Witnesses
Nancy Sanra
Rising Tide Press Trade Paperback, 182 pages

This is a bit of an inauspicious deput for this feature, as this book just really isn't all that good. Oh, it's a decent little read, fine for a couple of hours' entertainment, but other than the basic premise it's really not all that special, and the writing drags in places.

No Witnesses is the first of what seems to be a series of books (my store also carries No Escape and No Corpse starring Tally McGinnes, a private investigator out of San Francisco (ex-cop, naturally), who is called in by Lieutenant Cid Cameron of the SFPD to help solve a murder case involving Tally's ex-lover, Pamela Tresdale. And herein lies the main "twist" of the book -- other than a few supporting characters, all of the speaking roles are gay women who are very aware of each other's sexuality and tend towards wearing sensible but sensual clothing. Though I'm not a longtime fan of the field, I am aware that most of the mystery novels on the shelf at the local bookstore are fairly lightweight affairs with some sort of theme or character that runs through them, so I suppose this isn't really any worse of an example of this than, say, a series of mysteries involving food, or a series involving a knitting club.

I was hoping, though, that Sanra (openly gay herself) would use her setting as a way of poking holes at the conventions of these sorts of crime thrillers, or to make some sort of sly social commentary with her characters or with the crimes that occur in the novel. Instead, these characters remain stubbornly two-dimensional despite the twisting web of motivations that Sanra attempts to use to envelop them, and the actual killer is telegraphed from her very first appearance. Fans of complex or entertaining mysteries should look elsewhere, as should anyone looking for depth of characterization.

In fact, this book is barely even a novel -- at 182 pages with wide margins and large type, it's more of a novella in length, and the $11.95 sticker price would scare me away if I hadn't been able to read it for free. Even readers hoping for steamy love scenes will walk away disappointed, as aside from a memory Tally has of Pamela early in the story, there's really nothing at all dirty in the book, and the romantic subplot towards the end remains mostly platonic. The writing is also choppy, composed of simple sentences strung together into barely descriptive paragraphs. It's far from the worst writing I've ever read, even in a published novel, but it never really feels like a professional work to me.

Granted, I'm not the target audience for this book, and it's certainly worth an afternoon's reading, but I can't really give this book my recommendation. Later on I may try one of the sequels to No Witnesses, but for now I'll leave the series thinking I got my money's worth.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Phone conversations with retail emloyees (not mine)

Beth sent me this link to a conversation Waveflux at Shakespeare's Sister had with a Hallmark employee over whether they carried a certain item in-store. There's not really a way of trimming it down, and I don't want to quote the whole thing, so go on over there and read it. I'll wait.

Now, from the perspective of someone who gets these kinds of calls regularly, the employees really didn't handle this all that badly. At the bookstore, we have what are called "Key 6" items, which are typically small tacky knickknacks that either sticks in a purse, sets on a desk, or gifts to someone who will do one of the two. And it's pretty much impossible to keep track of what's what, and where anything is, and what any individual thing might be called, unless you spend some percentage of your time stocking and/or straightening it. Ditto for the handful of stuffed animals and other similar things in the kids section.

In other words, if someone called me and asked for such-and-such item, my response might very well be, "Um, well, not sure, let me go check," or, "Let me check with the merchandising specialist in that department," or similar. And unless that person had very recently seen the item, or at least was familiar with the various names of the random stuffed toys that get stuck in that area, their response might very well be, "Beats me."

I can understand that the employees here work at a Hallmark store, not a bookstore, and can be more reasonably expected to have at least some knowledge of the various items in their store, but remember that this sort of thing can be tough to keep track of, and even smart, motivated employees can be stumped by very simple items every once in a while. And that assumes that the store wasn't really busy when Waveflux called -- in-store customers will generally get a much higher priority than phone customers.

Now I've got to go get dressed for work, even though today's supposed to be my offday, because someone else called in and I've been asked to cover the closing (four to midnight) shift. If anyone wants anything, I'll just pull a "not even supposed to be here today" defense.