Friday, October 27, 2006

An Incredible Meeting of the Minds in Austin

This is the weekend when Austin turns down the volume of its music and cranks up its intellect for the written word. For two days, Oct. 28-29, the Texas State Capitol sheds its image as the venue for hallway politics and backslapping. Instead, the doors of the pink granite icon become the looking glass that beckons Texans to step into a world of books: fact and fiction, lore and experience, as well as politics and persuasion.

For a very worthy cause – to raise money for Texas public libraries – an expected crowd of 35,000 Texans will descend upon the capitol grounds to gain a better understanding of the people behind the bylines of some of the best-selling books in the country. Austin serves as the perfect host city for such a gathering that mixes social, political, intellectual and religious perspectives like a fraternity trashcan punch. The free festival allows us to binge on a two-day marathon of soapbox opinions on history, literature, politics, and whatever else the imagination can tolerate.

The exchange of ideas compacted within 48 hours is overwhelming, but nonetheless enriching and invigorating as the public clamors to hear one snippet of a good story after another. Austin attracts great minds, and great minds love to read and explore new ideas. The Texas Book Festival does a great job of connecting the creators of those ideas with a public who consumes books with voracious enthusiasm.

Last year, the Texas Book Festival surpassed a total of $1.8 million dollars in grants the organization has awarded to more than 600 Texas public libraries. The Texas Book Festival serves as the single largest public venue to support our precious archives of literature, against a trend of decreasing public funding. The growing public support of the festival, demonstrates how much Texans still love to read, despite a growing cultural preference for entertainment via audio and video stimulation.

Today, libraries and books continue to be relevant for all age groups and language preferences. This year’s festival improves its Spanish-language programming, which promises to enhance the crowd’s diversity and cultivate a stronger connection with Hispanics. Saturday features Univision’s María Elena Salinas, the most recognized Hispanic female journalist in the United States. The same day, a panel of authors will address Chicano literature. On Sunday, two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Sonia Nazario and Héctor Tobar, will share their thoughts on immigration.

If you seek lighter fare, you will find it under the Bon Appetit Y’all cooking tent, where chefs and authors will fill the air with the aroma of food, or you can hear one of more than 40 children’s authors who will share their new works both Saturday and Sunday. The children’s component is important, because the kids remind us how to imagine, and their attendance and participation gives us hope for the potential of literacy.

Well-known Texas authors come out of the woodwork this year in droves. Lawrence Wright gives us an intimate view into the mindset of Al-Qaeda, Steven Harrigan takes us into space, and Gregory Curtis delves us into caves and into art that speaks to our history. And, if you think the volume of music is too low, many of this year’s featured authors will demonstrate their musical talents throughout the weekend in the entertainment tent.

The list of headline authors grows each year, along with the Texas Book Festival’s national prominence, and the stature it brings to Austin and the state. Moreover, the festival helps remind us all of the importance of reading and its influence on our culture and our future.
When First Lady Laura Bush founded the festival in 1995, she wanted to back an idea that celebrated the literary tradition of Texans and supported our libraries. Today, the Texas Book Festival successfully creates a magic atmosphere that connects readers with authors in ways that make books come alive.

The Texas Book Festival provides us exposure to a variety of ideas and topics. More than entertain us, the collection and diversity of authors that will gather this weekend in Austin will challenge each of us to sort out our own worldview, whether that be based on fact, fiction or a frivolous author’s creative point of view.

As a result, more of us are motivated to buy books and read them, and more of our libraries will receive the grants necessary to sustain our Texas literary culture.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Power of Me

Recently, during a normal workday in my home office, I notice the email send/receive error message. I was Internet disabled, and the only option for seeking help was calling Time Warner Technical Support. I use Time Warner Cable ( for my high-speed Internet connection. The situation I face is not new for me, or for hundreds of consumers and small businesses like mine. As a result, I have the tech support number stored in my cell phone memory.

I make the call, wondering if I might get faster service by pressing the prompt for help in Spanish. A recording tells me that for quality assurance, my call may be recorded, in order to provide me with the best customer service possible. I listen carefully to follow the correct prompts and after entering and validating my home telephone number, I receive a recorded word of thanks for my recent payment. They know who I am.

As I begin to think about Time Warner’s enormous media campaign, “The Power of You,” the phone recording yanks me back to reality. It tells me that my wait time will be an estimated 35 minutes.

“Due to extremely high call volumes, wait times may be longer than normal,” a recorded voice tells me. This is the point I should begin monitoring my blood pressure – for quality assurance, and for documenting what one day may cause me to have a heart attack.

It may be coincidental, but this seems to be my situation every time I call Time Warner Technical Support. It makes me wonder if the company needs to reassess what it considers normal call volumes. It also makes me wonder if the company has set a standard for acceptable wait times for customer service. If the standard is 30 minutes, it would be nice to know. Then, the next time I have a problem I will FedEx ( a note explaining my situation. That might prove to be a faster approach than the current process.

After 20 minutes of listening to the recorded loop of tips and apologies, I give up, hang up, and perform the manual reboot of the modem several times, all along hoping to solve my own problem. No success.

I make the call again, desperate to reconnect to the World Wide Web and conduct the necessary email exchange with my clients. My desperation means I must hold for the now 28 minutes of estimated wait time.

After too long, John comes on the line asking, “How can I help you?” The question makes me think of Wal-Mart (, and I shudder. I explain that I have no Internet connection. Before we go any further, John wants my home phone number, which I already provided.

Finally, I get to explain to John that my Internet connection is down and my modem lights are indicating no signal. John asks if I have tried rebooting the modem. I explain that I have performed a reboot of the modem three times.

“Okay,” John says, “Let me transfer you to technical support.”
My jaw drops. I replay the telephone prompts in my head and the buttons I pushed on my cell phone to reach John. I thought he was technical support. This should be the drill in the doctor’s office when one takes a stress test.

John – perhaps anticipating my wrath – quickly reconnects me to the recorded loop apologizing for the longer-than-normal wait time, due to high call volumes. This burns five more minutes on my cellular phone plan.

Now, Mark greets me. It appears he is having a nice day. I have to pass a security test before Mark and I can cultivate a deeper relationship. After I surrender the last four digits of my social security number, I get to explain my problem again. Mark runs a test at his end and tells me, “It appears there is no signal reaching your modem.” No kidding, I think to myself. Now I wonder whether the slight twitch in my neck is a new development brought on by my customer service experience. I can only imagine my blood pressure reading at this point.

After quick research, Mark advises me of an unplanned problem in the neighborhood where technicians are on the scene. Unfortunately, he cannot estimate when the problem will be resolved. I should check my modem, he says. When the lights are solid, the service is up and running. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Mark asks.

“Absolutely not,” I say with certainty.

“Thank you for calling Time Warner. Have a nice day,” Marks says.

He has to be kidding. I hang up the phone weak and wondering what Time Warner means when it promises, “The Power of You.”

Perhaps it means the power I have to write about the company's poor customer service. If you reside in beautiful Austin, Texas, and can relate to this experience, let Time Warner Cable know your thoughts (

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Sending Forth A New Generation

The anticipation of formally sending off our first-born child to college has been like watching the arrival of the passenger train that seems forever slow as it rolls to a stop and the doors finally open. However, the train of reality eventually arrives and the time to let our protected, fragile bird fly free is upon us. Our arms open in release of a child, as the doors of a university open to receive a fertile young mind for cultivation.

The ritual of sending forth a generation of youth into the world of higher education has been in the mainstream of our country’s culture since the industrial revolution. Yet, the excitement felt by one generation walking onto a college campus as freshmen is lost upon the same generation, as parents, sending forth a new round of innocents into a world of unknown variables.

For 18 years, parents focus on nurturing and protecting each child, in hopes of preparing them for the future – a future without parental oversight. Yet, somehow as parents, we cannot help but worry about what we left undone or unspoken. As parents, we can only take solace in our self-reassurance that we did the best we could, under our respective circumstances. Now, our minds wrestle for a sense of hope over anxiety about the future of the next generation.

We are anxious whether the professors and teaching assistants will take in our child with the sensitivity and care necessary for her continued growth and development. We are anxious about the intellectual prowess of PhDs, and whether they will nurture or negate our child’s current worldview perspective. Yet, we are hopeful that someone will stand in the gap to prevent her from falling into the traps of youthful folly. And, we are hopeful that someone will reassure her that failure is only measured at the end of a lifetime and not at the end of a date or English 101. Such thoughts consume parents as part of the ritual of the sending forth, the letting go.

The details of the ritual play out differently for each family, but the similarities are great, nonetheless. Mothers take the lead in logistical preparation. They are the inspectors of the full inventory of what leaves the house with the college-bound student and what stays behind as a memory of the child too young to leave the roost. The drama is especially rich when siblings experience the departure of the first-born. The feelings are mixed. Everyone secretly wishes they were in college, while pondering their respective new position in the hierarchy of the household. Fathers try to be strong examples of encouragement and advisors on adventure.

If there is a road trip involved, it becomes another family vacation; denial driving everyone’s behavior. The finality of unpacking the last box in the dorm can be too much to bear for some, and lingering does not help. The room may be small for two college co-eds, but it feels comfortable for the family of six. Maybe we should all stay and enroll together. And, before the final exit, the new comforter on the bed requires a final tucking and the fresh throw pillow needs one more fluffing.

The return trip is no vacation. Silence steers us homeward, as we wonder what’s going on with the one we’ve left behind. Finally, after a full hour of torture, the text message arrives: “Thanks for your prayers. They are working.” Hope returns, especially to the parents. The tether snaps and the real education begins for another university student.

Professors, deans, student advisors, active alumni and an entire city now become an inclusive flock for which we parents pray. Although we may be a wireless call away, we pray fervently for those who our young daughter may encounter. May her new dwelling be a warm and safe place. May her education be rich and rewarding. And may her new city welcome her as its own and provide her the encouragement and enjoyment of her life.