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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: June 18-July 8, 2007

Sunday, June 24, 2007:

First off, a retraction: In my last entry, I purposefully exaggerated my dissatisfaction with my working life, simply because I thought it would serve as an editorial "hook." (You know, the way you can't help but be "hooked" when an entitled twentysomething starts bitching about how few job opportunities are open to him.) Looking back, I don't like the way I may have come off there, and apologize for using my poetic license for poetic complaining. I do think the job market in Maine is in sad, discouraging shape, but I do not want to sound like I think my unemployment is everyone's fault but my own.

Particularly since I'm not that unemployed anymore, and wasn't at the time of that writing. My good friend Amanda encouraged me to look into freelance transcription jobs, and I've wound up working with the same Toronto-based word processing firm that she works with. Basically, the head of the service sends me audio of various meetings, interviews, or focus groups, and I type everything up verbatim and send it back! It's interesting work, and years of listening to DVD commentaries has made me pretty good at distinguishng one person's voice from another's when I'm transcribing, which seems to impress my boss. I'm very excited about the prospect of working in this field, so thanks, Amanda!

*     *    *

I'm apparently one of the 20% of heterosexual Americans that eHarmony will have nothing to do with. (They'll have nothing to do with 100% of homosexual Americans.) I'm really not indignant about this development myself, mind you, being cheerfully married. Whenever those Match.com commercials come on, Bev admonishes me, "It's not okay to look, Will." However, I recently read an article about how eHarmony follows bizarrely stodgy and choosy practices for a dating service, and so, just out of curiosity, I decided to take their lengthy acceptance test. They probably call it something smarmy like a "values inventory," but whatever. Sure enough, it rejected me. The site doesn't tell you why it's "unable to match you" with someone, either, which I imagine would be dispiriting for lonely straights who'd bought into the commercials' claim that eHarmony will scientifically locate people who will love you for you.

Here's the message you get if the system determines you're unlovable: "eHarmony is based upon a complex matching system developed through extensive research with married couples. One of the requirements for successful matching is that participants fall within certain defined profiles. If we find that we will not be able to match a user using these profiles, we feel it is only fair to inform them early in the process. We are so convinced of the importance of creating compatible matches to help people establish happy, lasting relationships that we sometimes choose not to provide service rather than risk an uncertain match. Unfortunately, we are not able to make our profiles work for you. Our matching model could not accurately predict with whom you would be best matched. This occurs for about 20% of potential users, so 1 in 5 people simply will not benefit from our service. We hope that you understand, and we regret our inability to provide service for you at this time."

So the problem is either that the user doesn't "fall within certain defined profiles" which are pointedly not defined for the user, or else the "matching model could not accurately predict with whom you would be best matched." I assume they mean "consistently" when they say "accurately" there, because otherwise they're claiming that the computer will always want to set you up with Mr. Wrong, the way your cousin Jackie does.

The thing is, I can't come up with any reason why eHarmony would need to reject anyone, gay or straight, based on this questionnaire. They may ask you more questions than other services- in fact, they almost certainly do- but the questions themselves didn't strike me as anything particularly unique or probing. Nothing that would require a complex "matching model" to interpret.

In fact, let's play a game! Try to guess which of the following questions are from the eHarmony acceptance exam, which are from the "Oxford Capacity Analysis" (better known as the Scientology personality test), and which are from the Oblique Strategies decks by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. (NOTE: I've rephrased the eHarmony entries as yes-or-no questions for the purposes of this game. They were originally statements you could agree or disagree with, like "I waste my time." I haven't changed the questions' content at all, though.)

1. Do you try to accommodate the other person's position?
2. Are you aware of any habitual physical mannerisms such as pulling your hair, nose, ears, or such like?
3. Do you tend to think "outside the box"?
4. Could you allow someone to finish those "final two words" in a crossword puzzle without interfering?
5. Do you always read ALL of the warning literature on side-effects [sic] before taking any medication?
6. Do you often carry the conversation to a higher level?
7. Do you sometimes give away articles which strictly speaking do not belong to you?
8. In a relationship, is it important to know that your spouse is usually to blame when things go wrong?
9. Are you a slow eater?
10. Do we need holes?
11. Do you ask questions in search of information?
12. Would you use corporal punishment on a child aged ten if it refused to obey you?

Answers: eHarmony: 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 11. Scientology: 2, 4, 7, 9, 12. Oblique Strategies: 10.

Scoring: 0-12 correct: Failure is imminent.

I think the eHarmony questions above are fairly indicative of the sorts of things you're asked throughout the test, and I think they're all pretty straightforward. I admit that I have no math skills and therefore no idea how a matching algorithm would operate, but when I first heard about eHarmony's exclusionary policies, I assumed that the high rejection rate must have something to do with the difficulty of wrangling all the personality data that their ads boast about gathering. For example, I thought, perhaps users were asked to rank a list of German Expressionists in order of preference, and eHarmony's current research could make sense of the resulting answers only for a specific swath of the population. If there was a lot of actual science involved, then maybe homosexuality, depression, or any other currently-ineligible attribute could genuinely throw more variables into the mix than the site is equipped to handle at present.

But these are questions you'd see, like, in a CosmoGirl quiz!

You really don't need any rarified knowledge to figure out what the user is looking for, and I don't believe for a second that there would be enough of an objective difference between the way heterosexuals answer these questions and the way homosexuals do- not the answers themselves, which differ by individual, but overall trends in the answers- to justify banning the latter group on the grounds that, so far, you have not found the science for them. Furthermore, if eHarmony doesn't have sufficient data on gay couples, it's because they haven't bothered to look for data on gay couples, which would be piss-poor legwork if they were actually interested in providing their services to the gay community now or in the forseeable future. However, it seems clear to me that there's nothing behind the ban on same-sex matchmaking but homophobia. Stupid.

Even beyond that infuriating policy, I have to think that refusing to serve one straight person out of five would be far more limiting than gratifying to clients. I can't see why people who do get past the velvet ropes would pay to use a dating service that won't let you look at 28% of humanity, by my calculations. (Assuming a 10% homosexual population that are ignored outright, eHarmony says no to 20% of the remaining 90%. I think that leaves 72% of the population, but see above comment re: math.) I'm sure plenty of people have indeed found love through eHarmony, and I congratulate them, but it seems to me that options are the single person's friend. Wouldn't you want to see the widest possible pool of matches so you yourself could decide who's acceptable and who's cannon fodder? You would!

Again, there's really no reason for me to care about this personally, but I find it irksome nonetheless. I'll just have to take comfort in the fact that Match.com will almost assuredly win this little war, and eHarmony's ubiquitous commercials will start seeming as strained and pathetic as Ask.com's.

Incidentally, while running through the eHarmony exam again, picking questions to use on the above quiz, I amused myself by filling out the open-ended questions incomprehensibly. When it asked me to describe my occupation in 20 words or less, I wrote, "star dealer." When the site asked, "What are the THREE things for which YOU are the MOST thankful?" I entered "posessions," "sponged bob squarrpants," and "labor." In response to "What are you most passionate about?" I wrote, "i use a lot of words to make sure so everyone knows what im talking about like yelling at trafic."

I rather hope eHarmony automatically aggregates these answers in a database somewhere, so its matching model will generate spontaneous knowledge based on collected data, like the way that 20 Questions game works. I'd like to help bring it down that way. Especially because the matches would start getting hilarious toward the end.

CURRENT MUSIC: One Word: Extinguisher by Prefuse 73.
Disproportionately annoyed.
Ba'athists. It's very pleasing, somehow.
6:55 p.m.

Doot? | |

Monday, June 18, 2007:

A couple weeks ago, I abandoned Bev and Cora and the birds to visit Michigan. The occasion was my cousin Caitlin's high school graduation, but Maine and I were ready for separate vacations anyway, due to my growing resentment at the state's lack of employment opportunities for people named me, so I'm glad it fell when it did. If nothing else, it was a nice excuse to see my family and friends, so I hopped a plane to Detroit.

While airborne, to stave off a conversation with the person next to me, I began paging through Sky Mall, the catalog of ridiculous gadgetry that was stuffed in the seat pocket. Hidden amid the offerings from Brookstone, Successories, and Sharper Image, there was a wonderful, lunatic two-page spread purchased by a guy who calls himself Alexander Innovation Wizard, who wants us to know about his new footwear line. They're shoes with springs built into the heels, and they're listed variously throughout the ad as "Impact Research Technology Shoes," "The Catapult MMXT3 Gravity Defying Shoe," and the genuinely innovatively spelled "Gravity Defyer Shoe."

The ad doesn't stop with promises of weight loss(!) and gabby tootsies ("Unlike traditional dress shoes that you can't wait to take off to relieve your feet at the end of a long day, your feet will actually be begging you to put back on the Gravity Defying Shoe"), nor with questionable physics like, "It was carefully constructed with a hidden 1/8 shock under the heal [sic] that releases its reciprocating resistance power each time you step. As weight changes to the balls of your feet, the hidden shock absorber generates and upward pressure [sic] pushing your body upward. This mechanism gives you the feeling of jumping like a kangaroo (or some say feel like flying) each time you step with the Gravity Defyer Shoe." Alexander wants you to experience the innovative wizardry of his shoes so fervently that, by the end of the ad, he's claiming induction into a land of pure fantasy:

"It's almost as if Aeolus, the Greek god of wind, himself has taken his powerful wind out of his bottles and put it into each of the Gravity Defyer Shoes. When you run you will feel like the famed Greek god's wind is beneath your feet, gliding you effortlessly through life. ... These ethereal shoes will transport you through life with such vigor that your friends and family will hardly be able to recognize who you are. ... We all have them, an expensive pair of dress shoes for those 'special occasions'. The shoes that look great and make our special someone admire us from head to toe at the company party or dinner reception. The shoes that world famous Secret Agents wear to the black tie party where they end up doing some reconnaissance before they are chased around a European city by evil henchmen."

Unable to contain my glee, I pointed the ad out to my seatmate. "Ooh- do you think they really work?" was her response. I stammered, "Er, no, but-- um-- y'see, this is completely insane!" She didn't see.

Caitlin had accompanied my parents to the Detroit airport, which was a fabulous surprise. A less fabulous surprise was the conspicuous absence of my suitcase as the flight's luggage made the rounds at the baggage claim. Even the smugly serene Buddhist monk-- who, strictly speaking, probably shouldn't have any possessions-- quickly snagged his stuff off the conveyor belt while I was left not holding the bag. Following a delicious dinner at Red Robin, during which Caitlin and I tried to explain the drunken-malaprop appeal of Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee to my parents, I passed the evening incessantly checking the US Airways website's luggage tracker, cursing each time I received the sub-Magic 8 Ball message, "TRACING CONTINUES- CHECK BACK LATER." The following morning, Mom drove me to Kohl's so she could use her employee discount to procure me some essentials. My stuff was naturally delivered to my parents' front door shortly after that. (US Airways said I was eligible for a $25 per diem for each full day I was without my luggage, and they delivered the luggage at about the 23-hour mark.)

On Thursday, I borrowed my parents' Saturn Vue to drive up to Ann Arbor. I visited Math Reviews and was reminded of how achingly much I miss working there. It still feels like home there, to the degree that I didn't even have to think about directions while I was driving; my hands just automatically steered me to the office while I sang to a CD. I hopped up the stairs to the copy editing department and quickly fell into a familiar rapport with my former coworkers:

GEORGIA: So do you and Bev have any babies?
ME: Oh goodness no! We've got a dog. That's plenty.
LISA: Well, that's kind of like having a kid.
ME: Only better!
TRACY: [mother of a four-year-old, wearily agreeing] Well, they don't live as long...

Lisa gave me a great mix CD, a hilarious T-shirt inspired by Cora, and a sparkly toy baton the copy editors found during a carpet-cleaning exercise a few months ago. Robin gave me a beanie chameleon. Juli gave me a copy of Anything Else by Cloud Nine Music (Robin's son's band), of which she happened to have doubles. Their generosity and the way I could easily regain that old, comfortable chattiness with everyone actually made me feel better about the way I got fired from Eastern Agency on Aging in February: lame as it sounds to say, EAA was just a job, while I felt I was part of a community at MR. Since I have an easier time relating to stuffed animals than I do people, nine times out of ten, it's really remarkable that I forged so many friendships there. I honestly cannot think of a job I wouldn't quit to work there again, if it were possible. [POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS PLEASE DISREGARD.]

Anyhoo. I was due to meet Adrienne for dinner shortly after that, so I killed a few minutes at Borders. Their graphic novel section was maddeningly disheveled. While browsing, I noticed a girl pointing a book out to her friend and saying, "I read this. It's like watching a Lifetime movie: you could cry at it, but you'd have to already be PMS-y and in a sad mood. In a way that you're wanting to cry and it's kind of cheating to do it."

Joss Stone was playing an in-store at Borders as well, so I quickly left. Her security team wasn't crazy about letting me by when I passed them on the sidewalk. I guess I have the crazed stare of the quality-music fan, which sends Stone's people to DEFCON 1.

I also stopped at Schoolkids in Exile, a great indie record store, because BTK had recommended the new Okkervil River album to me while I visited Math Reviews. I didn't find it, but I felt like I should buy something since Schoolkids is going out of business and everything is 20% off, so I bought a cheap copy of Songs: Ohia's debut. (Same genre, after all.) More because I felt like I should avail myself of my final opportunity to buy something there than because I really wanted the album. Luckily, it's a very good record, particularly if you're a fan of both Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Neil Young. (Look for "Dogwood Gap" to be one of my MP3 Picks soon.)

Adrienne and I spent the evening at the Old Town Bar. I'm never any good at capturing the pleasure of catching-up conversations with my close friends when I write, I've determined. As when we were in college, though, Adrienne and I can go months without seeing each other and, when we do meet, immediately have the same conversation we'd have if we'd convened just yesterday. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I do love the way we can pick up not far from where we left off. It makes me feel refreshed.

On Friday, my parents took me to see Waitress. My dad wanted to see it because he has become a huge Curb Your Enthusiasm fan and is enamored of Cheryl Hines. I have quickly become a Firefly dork who is enamored of Nathan Fillion. Mom just likes tiny character pieces like that. At any rate, it was cute. Nothing you haven't seen before, from the steadfastly quirky small-town characters to the heroine who's trapped in an awful relationship but hasn't yet summoned the will to do anything about it, but it's all presented and performed in a loving fashion that lands just on the right side of "twee" or "self-conscious." In fact, the vibe of Waitress reminded me somewhat of The Good Girl, except without the bit where you want to cram everyone onscreen down each other's throat until you're left with a set of Zooey Deschanel nesting dolls.

T-Bone and LeAnne flew in from Wisconsin later that night, and Dad and I set out to fetch T-Bone from LeAnne's parents' house at about 12:30 a.m. As Dad and I walked out to the car, he looked up and exclaimed, "Look at what a clear night it is! You can see so many stars!" I looked skyward and counted, like, eight stars. So the air-quality point goes to Maine.

Saturday. The Game Show Network was airing a Nelson Reilly orgy that'll make your hair curl. T-Bone and I watched Match Game for a couple hours. (I laughed out loud when the clue was "Weird Willy was fired from his job as a hospital orderly when he was caught inserting a straw into blank" and Brett Somers wrote, "the navel of a corpse.") Then my extended family all came over to hang out, which was loads of fun.

The Detroit Pistons played game six of the NBA Whatever-Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers (against whom they were down three games to two), and I watched along, more to dig my family's reactions than because I had anything invested in the game. Good thing, too, because the Pistons totally blew the pooch, while I had a lot of fun in the room with my parents and brother. T-Bone is, by light years, the best sports analyst I've ever heard, and even when he's breathlessly bellowing advice at the TV during the final five minutes of the game, his arguments are so jaw-droppingly cogent that the athletes' unresponsiveness seems as stupid as a horror vixen shrugging off the audience's suggestion that she NOT GO IN THERE. A few years ago, he actually managed to explain the NCAA's labyrinthine BCS algorithms to me, in plain English, on the way to a record store, so I do not know how T-Bone is not employed by some network to lay out sports strategy for the masses. (My function during the game, incidentally, was to critique Marv Albert's grammar and to repeatedly ask what the three-second rule is.)

Sunday was Caitlin's graduation. I've never been able to sit still during ceremonies of any sort, but Caitlin is a great cousin and, more importantly, a great friend. And also, she got dragged to my high school graduation, so I figured it was the least I could do. (In my defense, if I'd had my druthers, neither she nor I- nor anyone else I care about- would've had to attend my graduation, since I figured a diploma could be mailed and I considered never having to see most of those people again to be a fine reward for my accomplishment. Mom had the last word on that one, though.)

The valedictory speech was memorable only for my brother's interjection. I paraphrase the speaker: "'We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. We cannot ascend the stairs above us without the foundation of the stairs below us. Stairs. Stairs to the left of me, stairs to the right. I'm stuck in the middle with stairs.' Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote these very words in his essay entitled-"

"'The Walk of Shame,'" muttered T-Bone.

It may not read like much, but T-Bone delivered it so sublimely that it left me shaking with laughter for quite some time.

The entire ceremony took about 90 minutes, which was half the length of my own high school graduation. Plus it was air-conditioned, which my graduation pointedly was not. So it wasn't that bad. We retired to Aunt Kimmey's place for a celebratory supper, which made me happy. I'd intended to make a giant, Arrested Development-inspired banner reading, "FAMILY LOVE CAITLIN," but forgot. She knows I'm proud of her anyway.

On Monday night, I met up with Tim and Jess for tofu yakiudon and drinks at Little Tree, the best Asian restaurant on this or any continent. We wandered Royal Oak for a bit, and Tim insisted we stop in this new popcorn restaurant they've opened, simply because... it's a popcorn restaurant. A popcorn restaurant which, Tim enthused, will give you free samples of any of its bizarre, gourmet flavored popcorns. I passed, as even caramel corn strikes me as somehow impure, so I can't imagine the nightmarish ways honey mustard/shrimp carpaccio swirl corn would blaspheme against my palate. As with my dinner with Adrienne above, I can't do justice to the satisfaction of sitting and chattering with Jess and Tim for several hours, but they're two of the best friends I shall ever have, and I'm a lucky man for it.

The following day, it was back to Maine, with a layover in Philadelphia. The flight into Philadelphia was fine, since I had the new MAGNET to keep me company. During the evening descent, the sunlight and wind lent the river a texture like golden reptile skin: something fragile and alive and ripplingly beautiful. Of course, we were quickly released into the Philly airport, to contend with shuttle buses, teasing "express walkways" that were blocked for nonexistent maintenance, and ten-dollar beers. (The Jet Rock Bar, specifically, was gross. A stereotypical late-forties yuppie with a gray ponytail told dirty jokes to the tank-topped bartender, who was clearly laughing insincerely because she didn't get it rather than out of simple indulgence. He then begged her to do a shot with him. She said she was dying to but wasn't allowed. He suggested she quit her job for a few minutes har har.)

My flight was an hour late getting into Bangor, where the ever-patient Bev picked me up and took me out to a late-night dinner at Dysart's. I then arrived home to discover that she'd redone the entire bedroom while I was away, up to and including building and installing a new headboard! I've married Amy Wynn Pastor! Those dozens of coins I threw into fountains back in 2003 weren't for naught!

I was glad to be home. I still have some of the same problems with Maine's job market that I had when I left for vacation, but coming home was a nice reminder that the job market isn't why I moved here in the first place.

To conclude this entry, I thought I'd give an update on Cora the puppy, who seems to have more fans than I do at this point. This is likely attributable to the fact that, of the two of us, Cora is the one who does not send effusive electronic communiques full of typos and crossed boundaries to assorted contacts in the late-night interval between when the Ambien kicks in and when the decision to actually go to bed is made. Anyhoo, she's a happy little dog. She's fallen in love with our neighbors' garage, and would sit in our driveway and stare longingly at it all day if I let her. When we go into the backyard so she can do her dirty sinful business, she finishes her routine by taking a few steps and doing a hilarious victory dance. Just a silly little flamenco in which she kicks up a bunch of grass with her back feet as if to say, "I am hot stuff!" When she feels frisky, her tail curls in a loop onto her back so it looks like she's sporting a luggage handle. She doesn't care for electronic music, but she seems to be soothed by Sebadoh-influenced melodic/dissonant indie-rock acts of the '90s like 18th Dye and Small Factory. And her favorite treat is Cheerio omelettes that Bev makes special for her. Further updates as events warrant.

CURRENT MUSIC: Are You Driving Me Crazy? by Seam.
Beginning to rue my decision to eat a pack of fun-size Butterfingers for lunch.
I just found a twist-tie sitting in my hair. No idea where it came from, how long it's been nestled there... Sad.
2:35 p.m.

Doot? | |

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