Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How To Make Christmas Work For You...

Some great ideas happen by accident.  Penicillin, the Slinky and even the Post-It Note all came into being as an unexpected result of an inventor's ambition.  I was hoping the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup was born the same way.  Sadly, the television ads from the '70's were inaccurate - after extensive research (Wikipedia), I discovered that the most amazing combination of peanut butter and chocolate was, in fact, planned.

Two Christmases ago, my wife and I made the decision to go fake.  No, not her boobs or my hair - our holiday tree.  This was an easy decision, but it wasn't.  As a family, we'd be giving up on the annual all-day search for a tree farm that, somewhere on its acres and acres of property, held our next very special Christmas tree.  Over the years, these searches became less of a positive family bonding event and more of a chore to be dreaded.  Several years ago, the rest of the family stopped going on these journeys.  I took these trips alone.  But instead of dragging a plastic sled and hand saw for miles in a quest to find the Holy Grail of Christmas trees, I got soft.  I started to cheat.  We all liked Fraser Firs.  Unfortunately, "real" Fraser Firs only come from the southeast Appalachian mountains.  Therefore, all the "real" Fraser Firs in Ohio had already been found and cut and shipped from places like Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee.  Once I found this out, it no longer made sense to bust my butt to find the perfect tree.  What I really wanted wasn't in a field awaiting my discovery.  What I wanted was laying on it's side, next to a barn - for about twice the amount of the one living in the wild.  In the few years before going fake, I loaded myself into the minivan and drove a half hour to the best place for imported and overly-expensive Fraser Firs.  I was in and out in a half hour tops.  No complaining kids.  No long walks through snowy or muddy fields.  No dulled complimentary hand saws that didn't work for crap.  Two years ago I decided that even the simple task of walking over to a pile of lifeless, pre-cut Fraser Firs was too much work. 

It was then that we made the call to go fake.  I still like the idea of a real tree, I really do.  But the rest of them (my family) could care less.  So, the minivan and I made the ten minute drive to Costco.  Nothing makes you feel like you got a steal of a deal than when you buy something, anything at Costco.  From gallon-sized containers of hummus to minivan tires, this place virtually eliminates the by-product of overspending - buyer's remorse.  It's magic, I think.  Black magic.  But I love it.

After about five minutes of carefully inspecting the various artificial tree options, I settled on a nice nine-foot, pre-lit fake Fraser Fir for about $450.  After folding down the back seats of the minivan, the box fit in perfectly for the ride home.  I thought about assembling it in the parking lot and tying the tree to the top of the vehicle with twine for old times sake, but decided against it because - well, because that's just ridiculous.  Right?

Once home, I carefully navigated the large box through the front door, then unloaded the color-coded branches, trunk and base.  Within ten minutes our new tree was assembled.  No tipping.  No watering.  No needles to vacuum.  At the end of the holiday season, disassembly was just about as carefree, save for the fact it inexplicably wouldn't fit back into the box it came in.  Not even close.  Did it grow?  I made due, fitting what I could back in the box and the rest in a large black garbage bag.

One thing I will say about artificial trees is that they do take up a lot of space.  I kept it in the garage on a high shelf during the off season.

Last December, I took it down, re-assembled it, but noticed a portion of the pre-lit lights had gone out.  I planned to address this once I was ready to take it down.  As the holiday season went on, I noticed more of the lights had gone out.  That's when it hit me.  See, I could try to figure out what's going on, to carefully isolate the one light causing the problems on each string of pre-lits.  But that would be work.  In fact, more work than any other real tree could ever afford.  Costco has one of those no-hassle return policies.  It doesn't matter how long you've had the item or why you're bringing it back.  They don't ask questions.  They don't get in your face.  They just hand you your money back and you're free and clear. 

Now I didn't actually get around to returning the tree until this past July.  I needed to get it out of the garage because I didn't have the energy to hoist it on the high shelf.  So, most of it just sat there on the floor in a box with the rest of it stuffed into the same black garbage bag on top.  Despite Costco's liberal return policy, I did worry about returning a Christmas tree in July.  I got some well-deserved stares as I dragged it into the store on the back of a Costco flatbed. 

I was waiting for a comment from the customer service assistant manager who waited on me. "Whatcha got there?", they asked.

"Well, it is what it looks like.  Some of the lights are out and I tried like a bastard to find the source of the problem, but finally gave up."  It was a little white Christmas tree lie.

"Okay.  Would you like it in cash or on store credit?"  Costco customer service people are like the Buckingham palace guards of the retail world.  Nothing phases them.  They are trained to respond without emotion.

"Umm.  Cash would be great.  Thanks."

"No problem."

Hmmm.  So, remember when I mentioned great ideas and inventions that happened by accident?  That's what happened here.  I realized that I never really bought a tree from Costco, that they merely let me borrow it for two years.  I put a deposit down and when I return it, they gave the deposit back.

I'm going to try it again this year.  I'll borrow a tree from Costco, then return after the holidays, ideally prior to July.  No need to worry about getting it up on the high shelf or how strange the extra black bag might look.  I'll take it back to a very friendly Costco customer service person with no questions asked.

My wife thinks this is unethical.  I don't see the problem.  "They're going to catch you.  They'll see that you've returned a tree before."

"Really?" I argued.  "Do you think they remember me?  Do you think they look at my entire history of purchases and returns to see that I'm some kind of serial Christmas tree returner?  Are they going to risk losing me as a customer and the eight hundred gallons of hummus we buy every year by giving me a hard time?  No hassle return means no hassle return."

"Yes, but..."

"Yes, but nothing.  I pay them for a tree that I then own.  When I decide I don't like it anymore, I just take it back.  It's as if it never happened.  It's a lot like having a marriage annulled."

"Don't give me any ideas."  She won't give up.  I appreciate her moral compass, but maybe just this one time she can look the other way.  "But, what if everything works?  You're just going to take it back anyway?"

"Right.  That's the beauty of this program."

"It's not a program."

"It is now."

"Oh really?"

"That's right.  For years I've been getting absolutely screwed by the Christmas tree industry.  I pay almost a hundred bucks a year to use a tree for two weeks.  It's an agonizing process that always ends with me being pissed off.  I just found a work-around.  Listen, it's the perfect deal.  We get to hunt for a new tree every year.  That's fun right?

"Okay..."

"But, we don't have to walk around in the snow.  We don't have to drive all over creation.  It won't be cluttering up our garage.  Do you think Costco is going to go out of business because of my one little return every year?"

"Probably not, but that's not the point."

"Well, I'm doing it and that's that."  I really am quite the debater.

"Whatever."

I can't wait to get on over to Costco to pick out our new tree.  I'll bring the whole crew with me this time.  My kids will sample strange meats and veggie dips while they wait for me to check out.  And dammit, I'm bringing my twine.  Because this year, that sucker's riding on top.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Pump Panic

My daughter has been on the road as a licensed driver for about six months now.  So far (knock on wood), so good.  Not having to be a passenger anymore is the best part of her passing the driver's test.  Riding alongside her while she still had her temporary permit has easily shaved five years off of my life.  I could be upset about it, but I figure my last five years are probably not going to be all that enjoyable anyway.  So if I'm missing out on my time in the old age home where the nurses drop me on purpose and draft me in the first round of their death pool, who cares.

Whenever my wife complains that I do nothing around the house except mow the lawn and produce dirty clothes, I point out that the duty of having to train our daughter for the road and maneuverability portions of the driver's test can never be matched as agonizing parental duties go.  Add in the high level of danger, and no amount of laundry or bill paying could even remotely come close to what I put myself through during the months leading up to her exam.

Okay, so my daughter has her license.  She has a car that my brother-in-law donated to the cause.  For the most part, she's only driving short distances - to and from school and to work mostly.  It's all good, right?  Not so fast.  See there's this little issue of filling up her gas tank.  First, she stressed about when to fill it up.  A couple of month of months ago, the conversation went like this...

"Dad," she said, "I need to get gas." 

"Uh, really?  We filled it up last week.  You don't go very far anyway, so I'm sure you're good Starsky."  I started calling her Starsky right after I noticed her affinity for parking in our driveway kind of cock-eyed, like she hurried to a stop to get out chase some bad guys on foot - just like my personal television cop heroes from the '70's, Starsky & Hutch.

She brushed off the Starsky comment like it wasn't even made.  "No, I really need gas.  I don't want to run out."

"What does the gauge say."

"Like only little more than half."

"A little more than half of what?"

"A little more than half a tank."

"Are you serious?"

"You're freaking me out.  Just please fill it up for me.  I don't want to run out and be stuck on the road.  That would be so embarrassing."

At first, I figured the purpose of her asking me to fill it up for her was to extract the cash necessary from my pocket rather than her own.  So, I offered her $20 from my pocket.

"Can you just do it?  Please?"  She seemed desperate.

"Huh?"

"I don't like to do it.  It's scary."

"Listen.  Prison is scary.  Taking a test you are unprepared for is scary.  Sometimes your mother's cooking can be scary.  Going to the gas station?  Unless it's the gas station in the movie Jeepers Creepers, filling your tank up should not be scary."

"Everyone is looking at me when I pump gas."  Now this was getting downright ridiculous.

I was tired of debating the subject, so I jumped into her 1992 Acura Legend, drove to the station and filled it up -- for $7.34.  That's not a typo.  Seven dollars and thirty four cents.  I've filled up gas cans for more than that.

Now, most of the time either my wife or I go to the gas station for my daughter.  At some point she needs to learn.  One time I followed her to the gas station down the road to see why she was having so many issues.  Turns out she's afraid to get too close to the pump.  I'm thinking she thinks she's going to knock the pump over and cause a massive explosion or something - like in an old Smokey and the Bandit movie (but she's too young to ever have seen it).  She literally gets no closer than a car's length away from the pump.  Now I know why she thinks everyone is looking at her when she goes to pump gas - because they are.  I ended up getting out of my car and pulling her car up to the pump myself. 

Then it hit me.  She's obviously not prepared.  For all the driving and maneuvering we did, never did I have her practice pulling up to a gas pump and let her do her thing.  Maybe the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles should have had us focus less on driving around a series of orange cones and broom handles and more on navigating a busy gas station.  If you know how many times my kid knocked over the orange cones as we practiced and practice and practiced maneuverability, you'd understand how much more intimidating a pump full of combustible gas is than a broom handle.

I have no idea if other parents feel like I do.  And, I have no idea if other new drivers, like my daughter, feel the way she does.  However, I do know that neither the driver's test or the standardized education that comes before it is about to change.  So, we are left to fend for ourselves. 

This aversion to gas pumps needs to change.  What if something tragic happens to my wife and I and there's no one to go to the gas station for my daughter?  She could run out of gas on the way to our funeral.  Even worse than missing the funeral or running out of gas, she could become embarrassed.  I must help her start to change today - to break the cycle of fear.  We'll practice day and night by pulling into every crowded gas station we can find, the busier the better, even if it means me jumping back into the passenger seat.  If we hit a pump or two, so be it.  And, as quickly as we slide our car next to a vacant pump, we pull away on to the next station.  Practice will make perfect.  I will not die in vain.

And if that doesn't work, she can always take the bus.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Living The Dream...

"Living the dream."  That's how a former co-worker of mine would typically respond to clients, sales prospects and co-workers who asked, "Hey, whatcha up to?"

"How's it going?", they'd ask.  "Living the dream", he'd say.  That's it.  Most people understood.  I thought I understood.  Based on my limited ability to read a situation, it took me several months to realize that most of the time his response was sarcastic - that he really wasn't living the dream.  In fact, he was living the total opposite of the dream.

I was young and na├»ve.  At the time, I was in my early 30's.  The co-worker I'm referring to was probably in his mid 40's.  In your mid 40's something happens from a career standpoint that makes you realize if it hasn't gotten better by now, it's probably never going to get better.  You may as well have fun with it.  So, "living the dream" was his way of taking a mocking jab at the reality of his sad existence, at least the one he was getting paid for. 

That same co-worker is probably in his late 50's now.  Some days I wonder if his response has changed since I knew him.  Out of curiosity, I've come close to calling him at work and asking "How you doing?"  Maybe he's sacked the sarcasm and taken a more direct approach to answering the question.  Something like, "What difference does it make?"  Or, "I wish I knew."

As for me, I'm now in my mid 40's.  Though I've never once responded to a co-worker or client with a sarcastic "Living the dream", I've thought about it.  And worse, the statement now makes perfect sense to me.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who ever had career regrets.  From about sixth grade on I wanted to be a writer.  In my high school years I narrowed it down to becoming a newspaper reporter, probably focusing on sports.  I wrote for the school newspaper and became Editor-In-Chief my senior year.  In college I joined the staff of the daily student-run newspaper and graduated with a journalism degree.  After graduation, I thought about getting some experience at a local weekly paper.  Broadcasting school crossed my mind as well.  Maybe I could host a sports talk show, do play-by-play or produce a television or radio pre or post-game segment for one of my Cleveland pro sports teams.

None of these "aspirations" were ever acted upon. 

So, the other day I'm with my parents at my son's baseball game.  LeBron James made the announcement that he would be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers the night before.  We started talking about it and my mother blurts out, "You should be on the radio talking about this." 

"I don't like to call in to radio shows."

"No," she continued.  "I mean, you should be one of those talk show hosts.  You know so much about sports."

"No Mom, I don't know that much about sports."

"Yes you do.  You just told me all about LeBron."  She was borderline arguing with me at this point.

"I'm just an average fan.  Plus, I'm not all that great in front of a microphone.  Karaoke is kind of the outer limit of my stage prowess."

"Well, I think you'd be great.  You've always loved sports."

She wouldn't let it go.  "That's ridiculous.  Telling me I should be a sports talk show host because I like sports is like telling a fat guy he should be a chef because he likes food.  Or telling someone who wears too much make-up that they should become a circus clown."

"I'm just saying..."  The "I'm just saying" is her way of hoping that I think about it on my own later and realize how right she was and how wrong I was.  Then, according to her script, I'd call one of the local radio stations and demand they give me the afternoon drive talk show slot.  The station management would ask about my qualifications and I'd reply confidently with "Well, I've always loved sports."  Can it possibly be more complex than that?

This kind of thing happens a lot to me.

A couple of friends think I should send my "tape" in for voiceover work - books on tape to be exact.  After explaining that no one uses "tape" anymore, I tell them that a professionally done voice demo can cost in excess of $2,000.  "So, are you willing to invest in me by becoming my sponsor?  Because I'm not shelling out two grand so I can later tell you a story about how much it cost me to get turned down by recording studios and ad agencies - I'd rather have that disappointment be on your dime."

Maybe I'm just not a risk taker.  Or maybe I'm just smarter than everyone else.  Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

It may not have turned out exactly liked I had hoped or planned, but at 47 my life is nothing to complain about.  I have a great wife, great kids, a delusional mother who thinks I'm the most talented son in the world, a job and LeBron is coming back. 

Yes, I can honestly say I'm living the dream.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

217 Days...

Based on extensive research, my last blog post here was November 27, 2013.  Today is July 3, 2014, which means I've gone 217 days between entries.  If I had stopped shaving for 217 days, my beard would be at least a quarter inch long.  If I had dieted for 217 days, I would probably be trying to figure out a way to gain a few pounds because I'd lost too much weight.

You can accomplish a lot in 217 days.  Unfortunately, nothing gets accomplished when one stops writing.

Here's what happens instead.  First, and this is almost always the case, I run into people who I see only at sporting or school events for my kids.  I genuinely like these people, mostly because they don't get upset when I contact them to make them aware I have a new blog entry.  Because we're social friends, they don't expect anything other than a nice conversation at whatever event we're attending together.  I don't need to call these people just to say hi.  I don't need to help them build a deck or harvest their orchard.  These are my "holiday picture" friends.  I've never seen a bad holiday picture.  We only take pictures of the good parts of holidays.  So, these are my "holiday picture" friends.  They literally don't have a bad side.  But for all their positive attributes, these same people put all sorts of pressure on me by asking when my next blog piece will be coming out.  The first words out of their mouths are always: "Hey, when are you going to do some more blogging?"  I typically deflect by claiming to be too busy with work, then I quickly change the subject by asking, "You really read it?"  And even though I know they'll say yes, I wait for their response to ask "Why?"

In reality, only my friends (the regular and holiday picture kind) and select relatives that I haven't offended in my writings actually read this blog.  I suppose I could blame some Blogger.com marketing glitch, but I understand just how all this works: I write it, then Facebook and email anyone who hasn't implicitly said to never contact them again about the blog.  That's it.  No advertising campaign.  No public service announcement.  Just me, contacting anyone I know who will read it because I've been encouraged just enough to keep doing this...every 217 days. 

But, for those who do receive the notification that a new blog entry is out there, I'm sure it's like getting a chain letter or email.  You kind of have to open it.  The guilt will suffocate you if you don't.  The difference is, my blog articles don't come with disclaimers like: "Failure to read this blog will result in a year of pure hell where you'll lose your job, your spouse, your house and your car keys.  But, if you read it, you will receive $1,000 checks from former grade school classmates for no real reason every week for the rest of the year."  No, it doesn't go like that.  Instead my blog comes with a more subtle and unwritten warning - "Basically, if you don't read what Steve poured his heart into for hours and days, and comment on how great it was the next time you see him in public, you'll probably force him to lose hope and give up.  If you don't read it, the disappointment will hurl him into a black hole of despair and you won't ever see or hear from him again." 

There it is in a nutshell.  So, what is this "black hole of despair"?  Glad you asked.

This is how it'll go down.  I'll gas up my silver 2012 Ford Fusion with premium unleaded and just start driving...west.  I won't even clean out the fast food bags first.  And once I start driving, I won't stop, except for bathroom breaks and more gas (and Slim Jims and Cherry Coke), until I reach Jackson Hole Wyoming.  This should take me two to three days depending on how long it takes me to shower in the gas station's bathroom sink - and stop crying.  Once I arrive in Jackson Hole, I'll officially change my name to Gus Reardon and will take up smoking.  And I'll smoke everything - cigarettes (filtered and unfiltered), cigars, pipes and even hookah.  If it can be smoked, I'll smoke it.  I'll even buy a really good used charcoal smoker and only eat foods that are smoked.  After a while, the locals of Jackson Hole will nickname me "Smokey".  Gus "Smokey" Reardon.  I'll make a living trick roping and gun spinning for tourists.  It'll pay just enough to afford a back closet at Hungry Jack's General Store.  Oddly, the owner of Hungry Jack's is a fellow named Lynn, who is not in the least bit interesting.     

Occasionally, I'll think about my former life and my family.  If I have anything left over after paying Lynn and buying various meats, I'll send them a check.  I won't ever explain who Uncle Gus is in the letters I'll mail with the checks.  Some days I'll contemplate going to Jackson Hole library to get on the internet and start writing again.  But my hands are too sore and tender from rope practice that I end up talking myself out of it.

Then, one day an old friend of mine from my Ohio days will come across me during one of my shows.  Without saying anything, he'll knock me cold from behind with one of my own guns, feed me sedatives, cover me with a burlap sack and deliver me back to Cleveland in the back of his SUV.

I'll try to do better than blogging once every 217 days.  Even if you don't care about what I write, please pretend to read it and I promise I won't be upset if you ask me when I'll be blogging again.  I really don't want to have to go to Jackson Hole.  And, I don't want to have to leave my family behind.  But, I may just change my name to Gus Reardon anyway.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stubble Trouble...

Note:  This blog entry is dedicated to Jarret Lobb, my uncle.  After two serious operations, he's recovering with a new artificial heart in Rochester, New York.  God-willing, Jarret (he's never let me call him "uncle") will continue to progress and be healthy enough to accept a second donor heart.  He will always be my favorite uncle.  And, even though he's my only uncle, I suspect he'd be right at the top of the list, even if I had fifty of them.  Keep fighting Jarret!

The other day my wife noticed that both Matt Lauer and Al Roker of NBC's Today Show were growing beards.  "What's with the beards?  Everyone is growing one these days."

I pointed out that neither Savannah Guthrie or Natalie Morales had beards to prove that not "everyone" was doing it, but I understood where she was coming from.

I'm not certain if it's Duck Dynasty or the Boston Red Sox who spurred this full beard trend, but it's starting to bother me too.  Don't get me wrong, I like beards.  In fact, I love beards.  The problem is, I've never been able to grow one.  It's the single most frustrating thing about me that I've had to deal with since I started shaving thirty or so years ago. 

I've tried growing a beard even before it was the popular thing to do.  Usually, I'd start it on vacation or prior to beginning a new job.  Unfortunately, beard growing is not one of those things you get better at with experience or the more times you try it.  I always start out strong, with a full face of stubble in a just a few days.  Week two looks a lot like week one, with the added element of itching.  Then I hit the Facial Hair Wall.  Nothing works, no matter how much I try to coax more length out of my follicles.  Week three is when I usually throw in the towel and think about what could have been - that maybe next time I'd do it right. 

Not being able to grow a full beard is a huge hit to the male ego.  When I do give up and shave it bare, I feel like I'm removing a layer of testosterone.  I may as well just give back my man card and sign up for electrolysis.

As I'm shaving, I'm reminded of how well I grow hair in other areas of body.  My back, nose, ear, eyebrows and arms are all flourishing with thick swaths of hair - those areas are like follicle savants.  Similar to weeds that won't go away even if pull them out by the roots, hair in those unwanted places keeps coming back for more.  When the most important feature of my Mangroomer is the warranty, I think you can start to understand what I'm dealing with here.

Last night I spoke with a friend after my son's seventh-grade basketball scrimmage.  Of course, he was growing a beard too.  Go ahead and kick me when I'm down.

"So, what's with the beard?" I asked.

He chuckled.  "I don't know.  I stopped shaving for a week and it started to fill in."

"It just started to fill in, huh?"

"Yep."

"How long have you been growing it."  I would have guessed a month or two.

"Two and a half weeks."

"You sonofabitch!"

"What?"

"You heard me.  I know you're Italian and that gives you an unfair advantage over normal people, but that's only two and a half weeks?"

"Yeah, I kind of like it."

"Do you have any compassion?  You come out here strutting around, showing off your precious two-and-a-half-week-old friggin' mountain man beard and you can just be so casual about it?  Do you know what people like me would do for a beard like that?  Do you?  I'd kill for a beard like that."

He quickly responded.  "Now, hold on just a minute.  I didn't think I was strutting."

"Well, one thing's for sure, you didn't think."  My friend is much bigger than me.  I should have probably stopped there and just walked away.  But I kept hammering the poor bastard.  "You're like a damned bearded peacock saying 'Oh, look at me and my amazing new beard!'  Well, I think you've crossed the line my friend."

"Well, I'm not going to shave it just because you can't grow one."

There it was.  A low blow and I let him know it.  "Okay.  I see how it is now.  You think I can't do this?"

"That is kind of what you told me.  You said you'd kill for a beard like mine."  I hate when people use my own words against me. 

"Yes...yes, I did.  But, I didn't say I couldn't grow one myself.  In fact, I'm starting on my beard today."

"Okay then, good luck with that.  Sheesh."  He walked away.

I have no idea what I'm going to do.  I may have just bitten off more than I can chew.  Pride says just stop shaving for a year and see what happens.  Maybe week four is the magical week my face has been waiting for.  What if it's longer?  Can I hold out that long?  One thing I can count on is that my beard will be better than anything the women of the Today Show will be able to grow.

When I got home it occurred to me that I may have been a little hard on my friend.  It also occurred to me that despite the harsh words and beard-growing threats, once week three rolls around I'll be shaving off another layer of my manhood.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Senior Moment...

If you know me, it's understood that old people and I don't get along - we're like oil and Metamucil. 

My distaste for the elderly stems from three major arguments. 

First, I've carried a grudge against them for their irresponsible use of recreation centers and grocery stores.  I've even gone so far as to petition local and state politicians to ban the retired from these facilities  during the hours of 6-8 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. during the week.  They can work out and buy groceries all they want from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  That's when I'm working.  But, before and after I'm done working, I expect to not have to wait for a treadmill or hear about Lou's bowel obstruction from across the room.  And, I shouldn't have to be subject to a grocery store check out line filled with old women who feel it's necessary to pay in cash using exact change.  Getting the money out of the pocketbook takes almost as long as putting everything back in place after they're done.  It's mind-numbing.

My second major issue with old people is in how they've hostily taken over all McDonald's dining rooms in this country.  Sure, many McDonald's now have indoor play areas for small children, but even then you have to pass through a maze of intimidating and awkward stares as the geriatics take a pause from their pointless conversations about prescription dosages or hearing aid battery life to see what young family has infringed upon their domain.  You don't think McDonald's built all these fancy drive-thrus to make ordering more convenient do you?  They built them because anyone under 55 is afraid to walk into the restaurant to order food.

Finally, I can't stand it when old people feel it's important to tell you every last detail of their doctor visit or a recent ailment.  I've never been compelled to tell anyone about the time I got food poisoning and spent two straight days on the toilet while previously digested things came rocketing out of both ends of me.  I'm convinced that the first thing to go isn't your memory, it's your empathy.  Old people have no ability to filter their thoughts when it comes to sickness - and, it's directly connected to not being able to understand how the person who is hearing the disgusting narration feels about it.

There are other more sublime reasons that I don't enjoy the aged, but these are the Big Three.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Cleveland had won the rights to host the National Senior Games in 2013, kind of an old people's Olympics.  Well, I'm not sure if "winning" the rights is the proper way to describe it.  Nothing as depressing as the National Senior Games could ever be awarded to a city - more like forced on the city.

I've tried to steer clear of downtown, to avoid the hordes of adreneline-filled seniors.  Who knows what they are capable in such large numbers.  No way am I testing those boundaries.  But now I'm seeing them in the suburbs, in my hometown.  Lots of grey-haired men and women with jerseys.  In real life, people older than 55 don't wear jerseys.  But this is my version of hell.

The only thing I can do is avoid and discredit.  I'll avoid it by staying in my house, under the covers for the next ten days or so.  I can discredit by pointing out that no true athletic event can include activities such as shuffleboard, horseshoes and something called pickleball.  Pickleball?  Really.  Look it up.  Hey, why not paper football or yatzee?  Those are games that have been around a lot longer and there's actually a chance humans might want to watch.

Unforunately, there's really nothing I can do about it.  The 2013 National Senior Games are here.  They will go on with or without my consent or blessing.  But what I would hope for is that the planning committee for the next National Senior Games would consider the following events...

Synchronized Dying - This would be a closing ceremonies event.  I'm sure they're going to a few participants that kick it while the games are going on, why not coordinate and judge it.

Mallathon - Why set up an elaborate course and close down streets for a senior marathon when you can have it at the local mall?  Instead of grabbing cups of water, runners grab Auntie Anne's pretzels for energy.

Pill Sorting - A race against time to see who can fill up their weekly pill box the fastest. 

Crazy?  Maybe.  But I'm 46.  I have to start training for something.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Coal Miner's Daughter

I remember the first time I picked up the microphone.  It was 1991 at the Winking Lizard Tavern in Twinsburg, Ohio.  I was young and brash.  Chicken wings had just become popular and they were my food of choice.  I was in my early twenties, too foolhardy to understand how many WeightWatchers points were in two dozen of the cholesteral-infused poultry pieces.  And, I drank cheap draft beer by the pitcherful.  That's when drinking was fun, not just a way to avoid giving the kids baths.

Something in that beer, possibly the alcohol, triggered a desire to jump up onto a tiny stage, and read a teleprompter set to music in front of a roomful of strangers.  It was "follow the bouncing ball" for grown-ups and I loved it.  Finally, there was a place for young drunks with bad voices to go and to feel like they truly belonged.

In those days, the list of songs available to choose from was sparse.  I think you could either go with Louis Armstrong's Mac the Knife or Funky Cold Medina by Tone Loc.  Because of my natually hip and cool personality, I chose the Mr. Loc standard for my karaoke debut.  I was a bundle of nerves as I drank and ate and waited for the karaoke DJ to call my name.  Amazingly, as soon as I was handed the microphone and the music started to play, my nervousness melted away.  I was in another world.  A world where you were accepted, even if you couldn't sing, or had a permed mullet, or drove your mom's Chevy Cavalier, or...okay, you get the picture.

As other establishments in and around northeast Ohio started to offer Karaoke, playlists expanded...and so did my personal karaoke repertoire.  In fact, I had quite the karaoke following, even if they were my brother and three or four of our friends.  I took my talents to places like Gatsby's in Mentor and Tommy's in Rocky River.  I even played the Clarion Hotel lounge in Eastlake.  I was two cities away from being a regional act.

Then, one night in 1993, I decided to shake things up.  Tone Loc was getting stale.  I stepped out of my hip hop confort zone and turned my name in for a little Loretta Lynn.  "Coal Miner's Daughter" to be exact. 

And, when I began..."Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter...," I knew there was no going back.  Some found it humerous.  Some appalling.  Some didn't care.  Others thought I was some kind of fruit loop. 

I suppose it served its purpose - it generated a reaction from the crowd.  Funky Cold Medina was dead.  Coal Miner's Daughter was now my signature song on karaoke nights.  Sure, I'd mix in some Johnny Cash or Led Zeppelin or The Doors...but, one thing hasn't changed for me over the many years.  My first song of the night is always CMD.

Well a lot of things have changes since way back then.  I got married, had kids and decided to start taking my career seriously.  Not my karaoke career, the other one.  It's been almost four years since my last karaoke night.

Some day I'll get back out there on that tiny stage.  I don't know when.  But, I've been preparing for it for a few years now.  In my car I carry a list - I keep it hidden in my glove box..  Its a karaoke song list.  Of songs I haven't tried before.  If I hear something on the radio that requires limited to no vocal ability to pull off, I write it down.  I'm currently at 18 songs and counting.

Some day I'll find a nice bar.  I'll order some wings and a pitcher or two of cheap beer.  Then I'll turn my song request in.  It's what I do.  And when I do, I hope you're there.  You can't keep this coal miner's daughter away from the microphone forever.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Ten Things I'll Miss When The World Comes To An End

Well, this is it.  The last work week of human existence.  Only the Mayans know if the world will cease to be early or late in the day on Friday, December 21, 2012.  I'm hoping it's early, since I have planned to do some last-minute Christmas shopping in the evening and you all know how much of a pain-in-the-ass that can be. 

Since I'm trying to eat as much pepperoni pizza and Twinkies as I can between now and then, I don't have all that much time for blogging.  David Letterman has always done well with lists.  So here's mine...

Top Ten Things I'll Miss When The World Comes To An End

10.  Magic Mondays at McDonald's.  Buy one Big Mac or Quarter Pounder with Cheese and get a second sandwich for $.25.  This would be higher on my list if the promotion hadn't just started this week.  I only get one Magic Monday -- I'm going to make the most of it.

9.  Nutella.  The delicious hazelnut spread.  Mmm, mmm (emphasis on the second mmm).  Not sure if the FDA checked this one out yet.  No way is this stuff good for you.

8.  Jumper Cables.  My first non-food related item in my top ten.  Not once have I regretted the purchase of jumper cables in 2006.  I just wish I could take them with me into the next life. 

7.  The Amish Mafia on the Discovery Channel.  I was so hopeful after week one of the series that I'd be able to follow Levi and company lay down a little Menonite justice.  I guess not.

6.  My Nosehair Trimmer.  Do I need to elaborate?

5.  Wind Turbines.  Man, I could watch those things all day long.  If I see one off the highway, I just pull over and gaze.  I often wonder how they keep moving, even when there's no wind to speak of.  Oh well.

4.  Pop Tarts.  I eat them sober. 

3.  Milk.  Gotta have something to go with the Pop Tarts. 

2.  Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel.  Hey, I'm just keeping it real.  Afterall, there are no rules when it comes to how many Discovery Channel shows you can have on your Things I'll Miss When The World Comes To An End Top Ten list.  I only wish I could have seen Dakota Fred strike it rich by hitting the mother load in the Porcupine Creek glory hole.

1.  Olestra.  I always thought that's what would have killed me.  Who knew. 

Well, that's it.  I have many others that just couldn't make the cut.  Good luck to everyone, especially you doomsday preppers out there who have been stockpiling gallon cans of chili beans and brussel sprouts, hoping to outlast the rest of us. 

Farewell.  But, if for some reason the world doesn't end on Friday, please don't tell me what happens on Gold Rush this week.  I DVRd it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bad Signs

I hate to go all political on this blog, but I thought you might be interested in something I recently submitted to my town's weekly newspaper, The Strongsville Post.  It published on September 1st, but they made me cut it down to 500 words.  A little background: the city used $130,000 from the General Fund to construct a large brick sign with the word "Strongsville" on it.  Seems like kind of  waste to me.  Here's the unedited version.

A few months ago, I noticed the beginnings of some landscape and brick work being done on the northbound side of I-71, at the SR82 /Royalton Road exit.  A few weeks ago, the work completed, I saw the result, a very nice brick wall with the word "STRONGSVILLE" attached to the front and rows of greenery directly in front of the wall.

The idea for the sign came from a city council member who drove past a similar sign while on a trip to Columbus.  If it was good enough for a Columbus suburb, it certainly must be good enough for a Cleveland suburb.

I wondered just how much this sign cost the city to construct.  It seems that the landscaping was paid for by an ODOT grant of $48,000.

But, what about the brickwork and the giant letters?  Last week the Strongville Post's Terry Brlas reported that the sign itself cost the city $130,000.  Whoa!  Hey, it's a nice sign, but is it a worth the same amount the parents of this community are asked to shell out to have 325 student-athletes play a high school sport this fall?

But, in reading Mr. Brlas' article, I found out that there's really more to this sign than meets the eye.  See, apparantly "the purpose of the sign it to let motorists traveling northbound on I-71 know that they are in Strongsville and the Royalton Road exit is the place to exit."

That's interesting.  I guess a motorist might not notice the several big green signs advertising the Strongsville exit placed on the the highway starting at about a mile and a half before they would have to make their mind up to turn.  Maybe people who like to just stop to discover new cities can only read words attached to brick.  Maybe their GPS is broken and would steer them past Strongsville and into a less desirable place like Middleburg Heights.  If the purpose it to ensure we lure as many potential out-of-town consumers off the road and into our town, why not just build the brick wall on the highway itself, replace the big letters with a large arrow pointing to the right, forcing motorists onto the exit and right into the Strongsville Commerce Trap?

A little crazy, right?

But is it as crazy as what Mayor Perciak said about the sign?  In the article, the mayor is quoted as saying the sign "identifies what our community is.  We're sound, we're stable, we're safe and it displays all that.  It also displays a certain amount of pride in our residents, our schools and our businesses."  I personally drove past the sign eight times this week, the last three times driving really slowly to make sure I wasn't missing something.  Not once did I see anything other than the word "Strongsville."  I didn't feel more stable or safer.  I didn't feel more prideful or feel better about the schools or want to patronize any of the businesses in town. 

Or, is it as crazy as having members of the committee who helped to organize the construction of the sign stand next to the highway with large letters while others on the committee drove past.  The purpose was to determine how large the letters needed to be in order for them to be easily read as they drive by.  How about just sending one person down to the Columbus suburb where the idea came from in the first place and measure their letters?

Maybe Mayor Perciak's assistant would be able to help me see the light on this.  He said, "Folks are flying in to see some of our tech businesses and this lets them know where to access Strongsville."  Really?  They're flying in, yet have no means to figure out how to get our town from the airport, which is three miles away?  I doubt they'll be coming from the south anyway, but don't worry, the city is planning another sign for the southbound side of the highway.

I'm not sure how we ever break even on a $130,000 pricetag for this sign, much less adding another one, ultimately costing the city $260,000.  The good news is that the dollars come from the city's General Fund.  Apparantly, that's the fund used for uneccessary projects.  The General Fund must not cover things like adding sidewalks for children who walk to school, fixing potholed and cracked roads, or beefing up police patrols to catch up with youth gangs who sell drugs right out in the open in the common areas of certain residential developments.

And, the General Fund must not cover the cost of looking into ways to solve the backed up traffic leading into and out of the Mall and the Costco/Best Buy shopping plaza off of Royalton Road and onto I-71.  Yes, the same Royalton Road and I-71 the city is hoping random motorist will unwittingly discover with our new nice but overpriced signs. 

According to Mayor Perciak, "the business community wanted the sign."  Well then, here's a sign that I (a taxpayer who most likely contributed to the General Fund) want: "Strongsville: Leadership WANTED."  Maybe someone will see it, run for office and help stop wasteful spending in this town once and for all.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Down For The Count

I'm beginning to think that Groupon may have something to do with the Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy.  Nothing can take down a civilization like two-for-one, month-long boxing lessons at the mall.  In my case, I didn't need the entire month -- I only needed about fifteen minutes.

My oldest daughter will be heading to high school in less less than two weeks.  She loves to work out.  I'm proud of how she takes care of herself, though I'm not exactly sure where in her DNA that trait came from.  Anyway, my wife finds a Groupon deal that would give two people unlimited month-long access to a new place at the mall called The Empowering Punch.  It's a place where you can take workout classes, most of which are boxing-related.  The crazy part about The Empowering Punch is that it's located inside the mall, between a pet store and the entrance to Dick's Sporting Goods.  There's a big window just for shoppers to watch you while they down their Auntie Anne's pretzels and large fresh-squeezed lemonades.  It's just what the  public has craved for all these years, a place to watch people sweat while taking a break from the exhausting chore of shopping.

My daughter couldn't wait to go.  She has like a thousand friends, according to Facebook, though none of them were willing to step up and take a class or two with her.  And, she didn't want to do it alone.  My wife wouldn't go with her and didn't even offer any sort of legitimate reason as to why.  So, my daughter was faced with going alone or...

"Why don't you take her?"  My wife every once in a while has a great idea.  This was not one of those times.

I needed to come up with something really good, an excuse my wife couldn't deny.  But, before I could answer...

"It would be great for you two to do something together.  I mentioned it to her and she really wants you to go with her."

Crap.

There's no way out of this rabbit hole.  My wife had played the guilt card and she played it well.

When we arrived at The Empowering Punch, another class was finishing up.  The class was led by a man wearing a Garth Brooks-type headset, yelling out commands to people who looked like they just spent the last hour working a dunk tank at the local Home Days festival.  The killer part was that almost everyone was in amazing physical shape.  I've never seen healthy people sweat that much.  God only knows what this class would do to somone like me.

We signed in.  I think I signed some sort of waiver, not holding The Empowering Punch accountable for my death.  My daughter was excited.  Apparantly, the guy running the class was "hot."  Really?  That's what she's thinking about?  I reminded her that she has a boyfriend and to focus on the task at hand -- checking every couple of seconds to make sure my eyes were not rolling into the back of my head during the class.

I sized up the next group, the ones who would be my classmates.  There was a guy who seemed less in shape than me, so I started to gain a little confidence.  Maybe I could pull off this 55-minute workout afterall.  It's just punching, right?

Wrong.

With just five words, the instructor hit me with the biggest dose of reality any fat man could ever hear.

"Get out your jump ropes."

Gravity and excessive weight is not one of your classic combinations, like, say peanut butter and jelly.  Gravity and excessive weight go together like, "Holy shit" and "Get me out of here, now!"

But, I couldn't let my daughter see how frightened I was.  And, certainly I couldn't show any signs of weakness with the instructor.  So, I grabbed a jump rope, pretended to unwind it for a few minutes, then took my place in the only open area left -- the freakin' front row, right in front of Garth.  I had planned to be in the back row, so he couldn't see me and I could go unnoticed at my own pace.  What happened?  Now I'm in the front row?  This is not starting well at all.

"Let's go everybody", he yelled into his microphone.  I heard him say "everyone", but I know he was talking to me.

Since I haven't jumped rope since my eighth grade physical fitness test, I had no idea if I could even make it over the rope once.  Yet, somehow I did it.  I was jumping rope -- eight, nine, ten in a row.  And I was really getting some elevation when I jumped, maybe a foot or higher with each jump.  I was clearing the rope easily.  The problem was that I really needed to only be just barely off the floor.  Doing a full-out leap into the air every time that rope hit the floor really wasn't helping me conserve my energy. 

This went on for ten minutes I think.  It felt like an eternity.  Good God was I getting tired.  And this was the warmup.

I should have conserved what little energy I had.  I tried to see what was going on behind me.  It seemed that no one was working as hard or jumping as high as I was.  Finally, after pushing my body to the limit with a seven-foot length of chord, the instructor commanded us to go get our gloves.

Gloves.  Now that's more like it.  There is no jumping with gloves.

I found a pair of black ones.  I liked them -- they made me look tough.  Don't mess with me, I jumped rope for ten minutes and now I'm ready to take your head off with my fists of fury.  I'm going to make this class my bitch.

Then the truly hard part began.  The instuctor showed us various punches, all of which were numbered.  Number one was a left jab.  Number two a right cross.  Number three a left hook.  And so on...

Whatever number Garth Brooks called out, we'd do.  "Two."  Right cross.  "Four."  Right hook.  "Five."  Left uppercut.  I got cocky, thinking I could do this all day long.

Then Garth started with the combos.  And, he picked up the pace....big time.

"One, one."  Jab, jab.  "One, three, two."  Jab, left hook, right cross."  My mind worked slowly, but my body worked even slower.  I was still halfway through the last set of instructions when he barked out the next combination. 

"Four, six, two, one, one, three."  What?

Now I was tired and confused.  I started to make up my own combinations thinking that no one else would notice.  I thought maybe the instructor would be too busy calling out the orders that he wouldn't be able to tell if I was doing things correctly. 

But this guy was some kind of freak.  He zeroed in on my cheating ways by standing in front of me holding padded mits.  He called out the next round of instructions.  I tried, I really did, to make sense of it, then execute.  When I failed to translate his orders, he made me try again...and again...and again.  Either I did it right on the eighth try or he finally gave up on me, I'm not sure.  The good news is he was gone. 

But so was my stamina.

I couldn't do this any longer.  We were about fifteen minutes into this fifty-minute workout.  My daughter was doing everything correctly.  It looked like she was hardly breathing.  I, on the other hand, looked like an escape artist who had been unable to breath after being chained underwater for three minutes.  I gasped and wheezed and struggled to do what was being asked.

I had had enough.  I slipped into the side room next to the boxing studio.  It was quieter in there.  Maybe Garth wouldn't notice I was taking a break.  The instructor kept going as if nothing had happened.  Cool.  I bent over, exhausted.  Then, one of Garth's helpers appeared out of nowhere asking if I was alright.

"Oh yeah, I'm fine."  I lied.

"What did you have to eat tonight?" he asked.

"Umm, uhh...that's a good question."  You know, I couldn't remember.  Wierd.  I thought maybe I was punch drunk.  But no one hit me, so that ruled that out.  He waited until I finally just randomly called out whatever food I could think of... "a sandwich, I had a sandwich."

"Did you have any fruit?"

"Uh, no."  Didn't I just say I had a sandwich?

"Well, you should really have fruit before coming to one of these classes.  Next time make sure you have a piece or two."

Oh, I'm sure that piece of fruit would have given me the stamina to fire through this class like Sylvester Stallone on Red Bull.

"Next time?" Did he just say next time?

"Right."

I started to laugh.  And, I couldn't stop.  He walked away after about six minutes and I never saw him again.

Going back into the class would not have been the right thing to do.  I was embarrassed and I didn't want to embarrass my daughter more than she probably already was.  So, I watched her and she did great.  I was really proud.  They took her up into what looked like a small version of a boxing ring and Garth worked one-on-one with her, calling out combinations.  She stuck with it.

Good for her.

After it was over, she asked me what happened. 

"Are you okay Dad."

"Oh, sure."  I lied again.  "Apparantly, I should have had a banana before I came here tonight."

"Well, maybe next time."  She was encouraging at least.

Then I started to laugh.  And I didn't stop until we got home.