Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Truly Black Friday

I made a vow a long time ago that I would never, ever go shopping on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, which has long been considered the busiest shopping day of the year.

I enjoy shopping almost as much as I enjoy trips to the dentist and doing my taxes, so it's not like that vow has required much discipline on my part over the years to keep. The thought of getting up at three or four o'clock in the morning in order to venture into the dark and cold of late-November in New England, strangely enough, doesn't strike me as all that tempting.

Who knows why?

Maybe it's just a personality quirk on my part, but I can give you two very good reasons right off the top of my head:
1) I hate crowds, and
2) I hate crowds.

My family, though, is another story. This year, my wife and oldest daughter, and even my fifteen year old son took part in the dubious tradition of Black Friday, all returning unscathed later in the day, something not to be taken for granted, apparently.

Undoubtedly you've seen the reports about the situation in Valley Stream, N.Y., where a crowd of jolly holiday shoppers celebrated the beginning of the season of giving by trampling to death the poor unlucky soul who drew the short stick and got the assignment of opening the doors of the Wal-Mart to let in the unruly mob waiting outside, some of whom had been camped in the parking lot since the night before.

Far be it from me to question the way anyone else spends his or her free time, but staying out all night in New York in November? To be the first one into the Wal-Mart? For the privilege of spending your hard-earned and increasingly hard-to-come-by money? Are you kidding me?

Anyway, the man who got killed in the line of duty, a 34 year old immigrant named Jdimytai Damour, wasn't even a full-time employee of Wal-Mart, he was a temp, not that that should make a damned bit of difference, but seems to add an even greater element of tragedy to the whole situation, if that's even possible.

Making the scene even more bizarre was the reaction of the joyous holiday revelers, who according to witnesses became irate when store officials announced they were going to close the store due to the tragedy. Some of them screamed they had been waiting in line since ten the previous night and weren't about to let a little thing like some guy getting trampled slow down their bargain-hunting.

Unbelievable. Supposedly law enforcement authorities are reviewing store security tapes in an attempt to identify any or all of the offending people, but good luck with that. Anyone identified on the video can simply claim, probably with complete accuracy, that they were being pushed into Damour by the surging crowd. No one will serve a minute in jail for this man's death.

Maybe it's time to rethink the whole "Black Friday" thing. I'm no retail sales expert, but isn't it usually considered bad for business when people get killed at your establishment? Isn't there a better way to draw people into your store than to advertise outrageous discounts on products that are going to sell out within a few minutes, leaving all the overpriced stuff for the people who didn't trample a worker to death to pick over?

Or maybe it's just me.

I know this much, though. "Black Friday" is supposed to signify the day during the year that retailers begin to make money. In Valley Stream, New York, though, at least for this year, it means something completely different.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What Did You Say Your Name Was Again?

My kids are now all at an age where they either are, or will soon be, dating, and when I see them going out it brings back a lot of memories; sort of like what I assume the survivor of a horrible car accident feels like when he first ventures back onto the freeway.

I was the King of the First Date in high school. Dinner and a movie, or sometimes movie and a late dessert if I wanted to change things up a little; I had that first date thing down. Getting past that terrifying First Date proved to be a little more difficult, though, as a lot of girls seemed to forget why they said yes to me that first time when I called them afterwards, always assuming of course that I decided to call them again.

One thing I discovered was that it's amazing how many families had to change their phone numbers in between dates. Either we had an incredibly large percentage of people living under the Witness Protection Program in the tiny town I grew up in, or else our phone service sucked, because it seemed like at least fifty percent of the girls I took out on first dates (Hereafter referred to as "victims") didn't have the same telephone number afterwards. Strange.

And of course way back in the Middle Ages, before there were things like IM's and text messaging and all of the other conveniences of the modern world that make it impossible to escape someone's unwanted attentions, if you couldn't get ahold of them by telephone, you had exactly two choices - write them a letter (Too time-consuming) or go to their house (Too scary).

So I ended up having lots of first dates but not all that many second ones.

Some of them were pretty eventful, too. There was the girl I took to the prom, who, although she wasn't technically a first date that night, still managed to make a Hall of Fame move when she asked me for my friend's telephone number after the dance. I can imagine how Jim's girlfriend of two years would have felt about him getting a call from my prom date. Needless to say, we didn't go out again.

Then there was the girl I went out with once who later turned out to be a lesbian. I've often wondered how much I had to do with that. I mean, how bad does a date have to go to turn someone off to an entire gender?

Fortunately the story has a happy ending. I met my wife long after high school, after college even, and I immediately clicked with her like I had with no other. She refused to date me for a long time, but I eventually wore her down with my charm and sophistication - or perhaps she just got sick of saying no; there's a lot to be said for persisitence, as I'm discovering with this writing gig - and after about six months she gave in and went out with me.

Roughly a year-and-a-half after that we were married, and it's been nothing but happiness and bliss ever since. By the way, if you know us, please don't ask her, just take my word for it.

I'm not sure how I managed to avoid my typical first date magic with her, but I think my bad first-date karma somehow transferred itself to the restaurant I took her to - it later burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. Bad for the owner, good for me.

So anyway, watching my kids take part in that frightening dating ritual is bittersweet for me. Like all parents, I don't want to see my children get hurt, but I also realize that you can't ever find the right person if you don't ever look. I just wish they gave you seat belts or maybe crash helmets to protect you from the inevitable carnage that comes along with the whole dating thing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jewel of Denial

The things you see when you don't have a taser.

The absurdity of the fat-cat CEO's of America's "Big Three" automakers flying to Washington, D.C. from the Detroit area on their own private jets to beg for government handouts totalling roughly $25 billion - that's billion with a "B" - while their companies are circling the drain is almost too much to believe.

Maybe in order to rise to a position of power and responsibility in a corporation employing tens of thousands of workers and selling products at prices higher than my parents paid for their house requires an ego the size of Lake Michigan; an ego so tremendously huge that you either can't see or don't care what people think. But doesn't it seem as though some savvy marketing person in one of those three boardrooms might have suggested the public-relations benefit their company could have reaped from having the head man fly to Washington via - gasp! - scheduled airline?

Think about it. A phone call or two to the network news departments, and the cameras would have been rolling as the bigshot strides through Reagan National after stepping off the 9:00 a.m. business class flight from Detroit Metro, while the other two out-of-touch phonies land in their Gulfstream G5's. What a publicity bonanza!

The savvy company could have constructed a whole marketing campaign out of it, and maybe even sold a few more cars without having to use your money and mine to stay afloat.

Sure, it would have been a largely ceremonial gesture, but on the heels of the AIG lunacy, you would think it might have occurred to one of these geniuses that the extravagant outlay of company cash required to fly a business jet back and forth to D.C. ($20,000, according to ABC News) would have been headline news all across the country and would have done nothing to help their company get their grasping hands on their share of $25 billion, with a "B."

How much does an assembly line worker make in Detroit? Maybe $60,000, $70,000 a year? So yesterday, a guy making probably $20 million yearly used up three to four months salary for one of his workers in order to avoid having to - ugh - sit next to a commoner! Eww, the horror of it all!

I have no problem with these guys making bucketloads of cash when they are the stars of their profession, but to drain your company of money it doesn't have when it's about to go belly-up is inexcusable. Now all three CEO's look like exactly what they are: out-of-touch elitists who have become instant laughingstocks. Sometimes what you see is what you get.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Things I Wonder About

On my way to work tonight I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts as I usually do to buy my large coffee - or as I like to call it, my life-blood - and as I was sitting at the drive-through window waiting, I saw an interesting sign taped to the inside of the cold drink cabinet in the restaurant - you know, the big fridge with the glass front where you can buy milk or juice or whatever. This sign said something like, "Attention employees, Amp is now off-limits!"

If you're not familiar with it, Amp is one of those high-energy drinks that is so chock-full of caffeine that just thinking about drinking it makes my pulse race and my blood pressure skyrocket.

But here's the thing: Whenever I go to Dunkin's I always order the same thing - a large black coffee. Simple, right? I mean, really, what could be easier than pouring some coffee into a Styrofoam cup and handing it to the customer? But I can't tell you how many times I have ordered my large black coffee and driven off, happy and secure in the knowledge that I now have my life-blood to sustain me when I get to work, then opened it up and discovered my large black coffee has somehow morphed into a large regular coffee, which is fine if you like it that way but to me means only that I have once again wasted $2.15!

So, by my way of thinking, Dunkin's management should be making the employees drink at least one Amp when they come on duty, if only to get them to pay attention to my order. I mean it's not like I'm ordering a double-decaffeinated half-caf with a twist or something. It's a black coffee!

Anyway, that's something I wonder about. Here are a few other things:

- If those long, stringy things that connect muscle to bone in your body are called tendons, why in the world do they call it tendinitis when you irritate or rupture one of them? Shouldn't it be tendonitis? No wonder English is such a hard language to learn. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to me.

- Doesn't it seem like the words "silent auction" are a contradiction in terms? I'm not sure why, but whenever I see those words, I instantly think of some kind of weird Monty Python skit, with an auctioneer gesticulating wildly over a product in front of an entire roomful of people, all of whom are jumping up and down trying to bid on it, but no one is making a sound.

And how would anyone ever know when the bidding is over? The auctioneer can't bang the gavel down, because he has to be silent. This is the sort of thing I wonder about.

- How is it possible for me to get a personalized rejection letter from one of the big New York literary agents - I mean, a biggie. I won't say who, but it's a biggie - that says stuff like "Your writing is smooth and commercial. Your descriptive turns of phrase easily set the mood and you consistently set up compelling conflicts in each chapter," and not be able to find a home for the novel I've been shopping around?

I'm conflicted. I am thrilled to read these encouraging words from - I know, I've said it already - one of the biggies in the agent world, but at the same time, encouraging words never got anyone a publishing contract. You know what I mean? I feel like the pitcher who strikes out everybody in the opposing lineup but the manager says, "Yeah, well, their star player wasn't in the lineup today."

There. I'm done complaining. I feel better now, I'm sure glad I got my large black coffee from the Amp-less people at Dunkin' Donuts a little while ago.

- How is it possible that I work in a federal government facility, built at taxpayer expense for something like forty million dollars, that opened less than five years ago, and when I go into the big, fancy kitchen to cook my lunch, if I use the toaster oven and the microwave at the same time, the circuit blows and I can't cook anything?

How is that possible? We're not talking a hundred and fifty year old building that was wired by Thomas Edison here. This is a state-of-the-art air traffic control facility housing equipment worth more money than you or I will make in our entire lives, and I can't cook a french bread pizza. Unbelievable.

Anyway, I'm done wondering about stuff for now. It's too stressful. Maybe if I had enjoyed a nice Amp tonight it would be one thing, but I didn't, so I'm done.

Thanks a lot for checking out my blog, I really appreciate it...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pssst - Hey You, Wanna Be My Friend?

I like to consider myself a social networking pro now. After all, I've been on Myspace and Facebook since July and in those four months have become "friends" with over 400 people, only a small percentage of whom I actually know.

When I decided to get serious about my writing, my wife, who always seems to be about three steps ahead of me - not that that's a shocking accomplishment - informed me that I needed to get online at the two networking sites, and within a day or so had me up and running.

Or in my case, crawling. I'm not so out of touch that I hadn't heard of Myspace and Facebook, but I honestly had never considered the possibility that I could ever have a page. I thought those sites were places where teenagers went to plan their weekends and creepy stalkers went to do the stuff you spend so much time warning your kids about.

Turns out there are lots of people just like me! Of course, most aren't quite as terminally square, but still, there are writers of all levels of accomplishment, most of whom are only too happy to let another person into the group. The best part of a virtual site is no one can see you standing off in the corner intimidated by everyone else - you're just there, proving the truth of the expression, "Wherever you go, there you are."

I spend most of what little time I have to go online on Myspace rather than Facebook, only because Facebook seems a little less intuitive to use for a Luddite like me. I suppose that makes sense. When I proudly told my seventeen year old daughter how proficient I was on Myspace, she responded breezily, "Oh, my friends and I mostly use Facebook; we hardly ever go on Myspace."

Figures. Even in the digital age, my kids have left me behind.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Privilege and Responsibility

I wasn't planning on voting today.

As a life-long conservative, who has spent the last twenty years or so as a member of the Republican Party, the prospect of voting for Senator John McCain has struck me as more than a little unpalatable ever since it became clear early in the summer that he would be the Republican nominee.

My dissatisfaction with the Republican Party has reached the point where I am seriously considering changing my pilitical affiliation to Independent, as it was in my younger days. The party of small government now seems to be filled with weak-willed men and women who refuse to make the fiscally responsible decisions necessary to ensure the financial stability of this country; instead making ill-advised choices that are based on something other than the best interests of this country.

You may or may not know I am employed as an FAA air traffic controller. What this Republican administration has done to the career to which I have devoted my entire adult life is shameful. It is hard for me to imagine any legitimate argument for air-traffic control as anything other than an inherently governmental enterprise, much like law enforcement and fire protection.

And yet, under this administration, the mantra of "Running it like a business" has been enthusiastically adopted, resulting in the trampling of employees rights, and the unprecedented (and I believe illegal) payment of COLA's which have the effect of drastically slashing my retirement income, among many other offenses. All in the name of "Running it like a business." A business that produces no tangible product - other than safety.

If you disagree, simply ask yourself this question: When I am flying to Disney with the kiddies for my vacation, and there are thunderstorms everywhere and the air carrier jet I'm riding in has lost an engine and dozens of airplanes are surrounding mine like mosquitoes at a spring barbecue, do I want the lives of myself and my precious loved ones in the hands of the lowest bidder? I wouldn't.

Anyway, this illustrates the depth of my disgust with the Republicans in Washington. On the other hand, could I really bring myself to vote for Senator Barack Obama, the man who has steadfastly promoted himself to an America sick of George W. Bush as an agent of change, without really specifying what sort of change he's talking about?

You see, Senator Obama has forged a record during his short stay in the United States Senate as the most liberal member of that body. More so than Hilary Clinton, more so than Edward Kennedy, more so than John Kerry. If you consider yourself a liberal, that's wonderful, but for a conservative like me, it provides no legitimate alternative to Senator McCain. The funny thing is, my disgust with the Republican Party is so complete that had the Democrats nominated a more centrist candidate I would most certainly have voted for him or her.

So I was going to sit this election out.

Then I began thinking about all the young men and women serving thousands of miles away in foreign countries most of them probably knew nothing about until they were assigned to go there.

I started thinking about the thousands upon thousands of Americans who have given their lives defending the Constitution of this country, oftentimes while disagreeing personally with the policies that led to their deployment.

I started thinking aout my own father, who served long ago in a war and saw things that, right up to the day he died, he refused to talk about. Ever.

I started thinking about all that stuff and I realized that it would be an insult to the memories of every single one of them for me to stay home today; that I would be disrespecting everyone who has spilled his or her blood in this or another land so that I could be guaranteed the opportunity to cast a ballot in a free election.

So I voted.

I voted with a reluctance that I have never felt in the twenty-eight years since I became eligible to do so. I voted because even though the choice in this Presidential Election, in my opinion, is between two campaigns who will both take this country in the wrong direction, I have discovered that I believe strongly in the notion of voting as a privilege as well as a civic responsibility. It is not just for those partisans who are rah-rahing their candidate on to victory, but also for those of us who maybe have to hold our noses this election cycle when we enter the voting booth.

I voted because I have a child who is participating in her first presidential election, and two more who wil participate in their first presidential elections next time around. I don't want them to look at their dad as a non-participant in the process that is so special and so important.

It wasn't easy, but I voted. And if you are a veteran, thank you. And if your father or mother or husband or wife or son or daughter or neighbor or cousin is a veteran, please thank him or her for me.

And whoever wins this election, congratulations. When the celebrating and crowing is over, come January, 2009, please, please, please put this country first.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cue the Music

You know what would be really convenient? If you had a sound track attached to your life, like the characters on TV and in the movies.

I was watching Mr. Deeds on DVD - hey, don't judge me, okay? - and it was nice knowing just beforehand when Adam Sandler was going to do or say something heartwarming; you knew it was coming thanks to the sappy music that started playing.

Imagine if you had the benefit of that advantage in the real world! As someone who has been involved in a couple of car accidents in my life, I can tell you it would have been really handy if that jagged music you hear on cop shows (You know, the tense background music that clues you in on the fact someone is about to get shot) had started playing just before I hit that patch of ice on I-95 or that lady came around the corner much too fast and smashed into the back of my car.

Or how about this: A laugh track? Anyone who has ever launched into a joke at a party before remembering that it wasn't really all that funny the last time you told it would appreciate the unfair advantage sitcom folks have from the canned laughter that reminds everyone at home that what they're watching is supposed to be, you know, funny. There's no such reminder at parties, which is one big reason why I don't like parties much.

Let's face it, it's really easy to be sensitive and wise when you have violins playing in the background to let everyone know you're about to say something profound, and it's a lot easier to be the life of the party when everyone is roaring at whatever you say, whether it's really worthy of their laughter or not.

Who knew there was so much to be learned from Mr. Deeds?