Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Eye(brow)s Have It

Something strange has been happening for the past year or so: when I get my hair cut, as the process draws to a close, the barber—male or female—will lean close and whisper, “Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?”

Now, I have been having my hair cut—on two continents—for a number of years, and never before have I been asked that question, except during these past few months. I can assure you that my eyebrows have not become suddenly shaggier (okay, they are a little unkempt at times, but it’s nothing a stiff brush and a garden rake can’t handle) I have to conclude that, at their annual conference last year, the Grand Barber must have given a rousing speech on the new and exciting styling possibilities waiting to be exploited within their customer’s eyebrows.

My eyebrows do NOT look like this!
Since we have already established that it is not my eyebrows, then it has to be that, or some obscure ordinance demanding that barbers offer retired people the option of having their eyebrows mowed along with their haircuts, as a sort of OAP perk. It could be this, as the question began to be posed to me after I admitted that I had recently retired. I told them that because, when I started showing up on weekdays instead of weekends to have my hair shortened and they asked if I had the day off, “retired” sounded better than confessing I had been made redundant and couldn’t be arsed to look for a new job.

Naturally, I have never considered saying, “Yes” to this question, for a number of reasons.

First, there is the manner in which they ask it, the way they lean in and furtively enquire, as if the state of my eyebrows and the possible shearing of them should be kept secret; something intimate to be shared between a barber and his patient that the rest of the shop does not need to be privy to. This is how I would imagine they might ask the more traditional “Something for the weekend, sir?” question, which they never have. Not to me, anyway. (For my American friends, “Something for the weekend, sir” is supposedly what barbers would ask gentlemen who were having their hair cut as a way of offering them condoms. Apparently, this custom died out about the time Boots began setting condoms out on the display racks so they stopped asking it long before I reached these shores. Or perhaps they just assumed I was the sort of guy who simply wouldn’t benefit from condoms. Just as well; if they had asked, I probably would have said, “A couple of tickets to Lego Land would be nice!”)

This is what they are planning on doing, I just know it!
Secondly, there is the matter of a friend of mine who once treated herself to a luxury make-over, part of which included waxing and tweaking her eyebrows. Long story short, an over-enthusiastic exfoliator-in-training removed half of her left eyebrow, leaving her with a permanently quizzical look. She tried to paint it in with eyebrow pencil and we all told her you could hardly notice it, but of course we were lying.

After deflecting one of the more approachable female barber’s offer of weed-whacking my eyebrows, I related that story to her. Surprisingly, she took umbrage at it, apparently believing I was suggesting—had I allowed her near the ridge of my brow with a set of lively clippers—that the results might be similar, which, of course, was exactly what I was implying. But now that I have so alerted her, I am certainly not going to let her touch my eyebrows for fear that she will (“Oops, I am soooo sorry. Not.”) shave them off in a fit of pique.

The real reason I will not allow my eyebrows to be fiddled with, however, is due to my secret shame, something I will not even confess in the sanctity of my barber/patient relationship: most of my eyebrows are not there.

No, it’s true: from the middle of my eyebrows outward, I am practically bald, and I use the vigorous growth of the other half as a sort of eyebrow comb-over. If I let my barber shorten my external eye-hairs, I am going to look as quizzical as my aforementioned friend, but on both sides.

God in heaven! These are eyebrow shapers...for MEN!

Just why my eyebrows have disappeared is a mystery. I did ask Dr. Google about it and—as you might expect—discovered a number of possible reasons encompassing an alarming range of outcomes, including death. (Seriously, I don’t know why everyone in the world isn’t a hypochondriac by now; the internet makes it so easy to inflate an infected hangnail into a symptom of bubonic plague or Ebola poisoning.)

I am choosing to believe my pattern eyebrow-baldness is at the lower, non-lethal, end of the hair-loss spectrum, which is merely “a natural condition of aging” because Hypothyroidism—which Doc Google puts forward as the most likely candidate—has a host of nasty side effects and complications (including premature failure of the ovaries) but which, happily, has a array of symptoms I have yet to experience, such as memory loss, fluid retention and irregular menstrual cycles.

Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that my eyebrow thinning is non-lethal, but I plan to hang on to as much of my comb-over as I can, so I steadfastly refuse the kind offers of my barbers to hack a path through my eyebrows with a machete and continue with my own brow-hair maintenance regime, as long as I can remember where I put the wire brush and the garden rake.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Grand Day Out

You can tell I’m getting too used to living in Britain; we went on a sightseeing trip to London the other day and I didn’t even bother to bring my camera. Consequently, all the photos for this post have been nicked from other sites. Don’t worry; I ripped off major news organizations, not budding photographers trying to earn a buck.

Anyway, my wife and I managed to hit the end of summer just right, and chose the final day of truly hot, sunny summer weather to make the trip to London to see The Monument. How I have managed to live this long so close to The Monument and not even see it, much less climb up it, remains a mystery but, once discovered, we aimed to rectify the situation sharpish, which is how we found ourselves on a northbound train this past Thursday.

The first tourist site we encountered was not The Monument, however, and we fell across it by accident. All we wanted was something for lunch and we ended up across the street from The Walkie-Talkie building, also known as the world’s first fryscraper.

The building itself is an attractive skyscraper with a slightly concave shape that, in any other year, would not have attracted any notice whatsoever. As it happened, this summer has been the hottest and sunniest for some time, and Britons—who are used to drizzly, cloudy skies—are now becoming re-acquainted with what happens to light when it meets a curved lens.

The building formerly known as the Walkie-Talkie building, in reference to its unusual shape
On the hotter days, cars have been warped, bike seats have melted and a doormat allegedly caught fire. The concentrated light reflects directly onto the shady side of the street and, let me assure you, it really is hot in there. We walked through it on our way to the sandwich shop but it wouldn’t have done me any good to have my camera with me as the area was so crowded with gawkers and photographers I wouldn’t have been able to get a decent shot.

This guy with the frying pan wasn't there the day we went
up, but most of the other people were.
The concentrated sun reflection does look just like that
and, boy, let me assure you, it is hot in there!
Really, they should put up a gate and charge admission; they might make enough to fix the building so it will stop frying people.

I got this from The Sun. You can always count on them.
After a bite to eat and a final look at the Walkie-Scorchie we made our way to The Monument.

For those of you who don’t know what The Monument is, it is a huge Doric column—built between 1671 and 1677—to commemorate the Great Fire of London. To the people of London, and beyond, however, it is simply The Monument.

It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt most of London after it burned down in September 1666. The tower—202 feet tall—is built in a spot exactly 202 feet from where the fire started, in a baker’s house in nearby Pudding Lane.

Incidentally, the fire began on the 2nd of September and burned until the 5th of September, exactly 347 years to the day of our visit.

The column—though short by today’s standards—would have towered above London’s streets in its time and, even though it is now dwarfed by surrounding buildings, it remains the tallest free-standing stone column in the world, and is still an impressive sight.

Really, it is impressive; there's a stairway inside and everything.
 It’s also an impressive climb: 311 steps to observation deck, a flat flange around the top of the column that used to be edged with nothing but an iron railing until the Victorians got tired of people flinging themselves off the top and erected an iron cage to scupper despondent peoples’ plans to become airborne (and thereby forcing them to go all the way to Beachy Head on the Sussex coast in order to try their luck at free-falling).

A serious set of steps, and a very old banister.
I have to say I was impressed with the construction. The 17th century spiral stairway is in better shape, is better constructed and is more roomy than the barely-a-century-old stairway corkscrewing up the inside of the Statue of Liberty. And, of course, there is the weight of history hanging over the place, and I thought of all those people who had climbed the steps before me, and whose hands had rubbed the oak banister to a smooth sheen—people from the 16, 17, 1800s, people who would be awestruck at the city as we know it, people who never heard of a power-shower, people who, maybe, had the plague, or at least cholera.

After that, I kept my hands in my pockets.

The view for the top is magnificent but, as I mentioned earlier, I forgot my camera. Imagine Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral nearly obscured by modern, steel and glass structures, one of which looks like a giant pickle and another that is slightly curved and melting cars on the sidewalk.

I put "view from the monument" into Google and this came up. Enjoy.
Trust me, it was worth climbing all 311 steps. And, best of all, when you climb back down, they give you a certificate.

Certificate back (front side is inset);
seems I forgot to sign it. Does that invalidate it?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Writer’s Digest – the End of an Era

My writing journey has taken many twists and turns but, through the years, my constant companion has always been Writer’s Digest Magazine; and I was not alone. From the days of scribbling in college-ruled notebooks to the time when submissions were sent electronically instead of in padded envelopes, “Subscribe to Writer’s Digest,” was generally the first piece of advice given to any aspiring author. Every month, Writer’s Digest offered inspiration, instruction, insider views and the occasional chuckle as we navigated the long, lonely and tortuous path to publication. In good times and bad, Writer’s Digest was there, with calm words and sage advice. Writer’s Digest was our friend; they were on our side.

Sadly, those days are gone. In truth, they have been gone for some time, but it was only this month that my subscription to Writer’s Digest ran out and I decided not to re-up, after 40 years of continuous loyalty.

The reasons for this are a bit complicated and intentionally obfuscated by the companies involved but the long and the short of it is this: Writer’s Digest is no longer interested in helping writers; they have devolved into an advertising rag for the scummiest, scammiest, most predatory vanity publisher on the planet.

The business of a vanity press is diametrically opposed to the business of writing. In the writing business, money goes from the publisher to the writer. End of. No exceptions. If money goes from the writer to the publisher, you are dealing with a vanity press, an entity not in the business of publishing books, but of bilking money out of authors.*

On a whole, writers tend to be, shall we say, more hopeful than other people. This is largely because their chosen vocation is a lonely one, and they suffer a great deal of rejection. So when a company says they will publish their (stunningly brilliant) manuscript and promises them the moon and many stars in the process, a lot of writers are willing to believe. But once the contract is signed, the fees begin to add up, and up, and up.

There are many vanity presses out there, but the largest, slipperiest and most voracious of them all is Author Solutions. Author Solutions—in its many incarnations—has been the bane of writers for many years. They are adept at luring writers in with promises of profit, then the fees and hidden charges kick in and soon the writer is out thousands of dollars/pounds only to find themselves with an error-ridden, sub-standard book that they can’t sell. At which point Author Solutions will offer to sell the writer a marketing package, with more fees and hidden charges…

I could go on.

Suffice it to say, Author Solutions and its various hydra-heads are so good at sucking writers in, pressure-selling them useless services, ratcheting up fees and delivering next to nothing that a class-action lawsuit has been filed against them and their parent company, Penguin Publishing.

I have known enough to stay away from Author Solutions for some time, and have become increasingly disappointed in Writer’s Digest as more and more ads for Author Solution companies have crept into their pages. The only justification I could muster on their behalf was that these are tough times and you take what advertising you can get. Little did I know, they were a just a puppet of Author Solutions.

FW Media owns Writer’s Digest. Writer’s Digest runs a disturbing number of ads for Abbott Press, which is a Vanity Press that uses the same model and methods as Author Solutions. Turns out, FW Media also owns Abbott Press. And, interestingly, Abbott Press has the same address as Author Solutions and all of its many offshoots:

Source: Author Solutions website
Source: Writer's Digest Magazine
It is clear, therefore, that in the incestuous world of corporations, FW Media is in bed with Author Solutions and that the numerous ads for vanity presses in Writer’s Digest is not a case of temporarily selling their soul in order to stay afloat during these bad economic times. The ads are, in fact, the main purpose of the magazine, which is to lure their readers into giving money to any one of the many vanity presses they advertise (it doesn’t matter which one, they are all owned by the same company).

Writer’s Digest has no soul to sell; they are a shill for Author Solutions.

And so I must continue this writing journey on my own, without my life-long friend and companion by my side. The realization leaves me hollow and bereft, and feeling more than a little bit betrayed. It’s the same feeling I might get if I discovered that a long-time and much-admired entertainer turned out to be a pedophile, thereby tainting all the shared moments stretching back over the years.

Thankfully, there is very little chance of that happening.

* Self-publishing is not to be confused with a vanity press. Self-publishers may need the services of an editor and/or graphic designer but these services are hired on an as-needed basis and paid for with a one-time fee. The author remains the publisher and receives 100% of the profits. A Vanity Press acquires the rights to the book, becomes the publisher and receives all the profits, and makes the author pay for the privilege. Many vanity presses advertise themselves as “self-publishing” companies, but that is an egregious diversion from the truth.