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.