Monday, July 18, 2011


I'm not a particularly tidy person, but I do find joy in putting items in the right order. This can be as simple a task as sorting out cutlery from the dishwasher, putting knives, forks, and spoons in the right place in a drawer. I don't waste a lot of time on computer games, but I do allow myself a daily hand of Free Cell, a form of solitaire, in which the object is to sort a deck of cards from a random formation into neat piles of 13 cards in each of the four suits.

When I was an Oxford undergraduate, each December I would work a daily eight-hour shift at the main Tunbridge Wells post office, sorting mail destined for the West of England. I found this deeply satisfying, especially when my detailed knowledge of the geography enabled me to complete an address, secure in the knowledge that the mail would reach its destination in ample time for Christmas. My "station" was set up for two sorters, but from the first year I persuaded my supervisor that I could handle the "West Road" alone.

The British have developed a specialized meaning for "sort": to straighten out or correct something. Example: "We'll soon have this sorted", said in an optimistic tone, when something significant has gone wrong. (Note that they don't add "out", although the meaning is similar to our use of "sorted out".) I find this comforting: it helps me minimize my tendency to become irascible and intolerant with bureaucratic mistakes.

We have been very satisfied for about thirty years with GEICO handling our car insurance, but in recent months we had some problems. It seemed simple: the Volvo we had kept in Colorado for a few years, having brought it from California, was once again in Berkeley, and we had bought a used Subaru for Colorado. This seemed to buffalo the polite clerks when we called GEICO--not usually from the same office, because in their system GEICO offers service from many locations, not from the same place. I became frustrated at unexpected incompetence, although I really try--and sometimes succeed--in being clear and calm.

Luckily, one of our two excellent part-time helpers (Nancy Laws) is superb in dealing with bureaucrats. She is calm, firm, demanding, and terrier-like in following through until she is satisfied.

When we have problems with merchants, banks, and authorities, our best answer is "Let Nancy sort it."

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