Monday, December 29, 2008

It's the New Year: What Else Should I Fix?

If I believed everything they market to me on television, and I often do, apparently we're all fat nicotine addicts with crappy jobs. They actually got me on two out of three, but at least I quit smoking in 1996.

If the constant overload of doomsday news programming isn't enough for you, we now get to enjoy the bombardment of commercials reminding us how unhappy we should be with ourselves, all based on New Years' resolutions we'll rarely keep. Luckily it only lasts a few weeks before they move on to reminding everyone who is single that Valentine's Day is coming and you're alone, and for everyone who isn't how cheap you are. Hey, every "Kiss My Ass" begins with "K" too.

Losing weight for the sake of your health really is a good thing - but doing it at a gym full of hardbodies just ain't gonna happen. Beating yourself up about it or giving up before you start won't help you either. I believe in starting slowly and trying to introduce better thinking that eventually becomes routine. Reading labels actually did help change my own way of thinking about food, or at least paying attention to what goes into my body. "Hey, this only has half of the saturated fat recommended for me each day. Better eat two."

Quitting smoking is a given. Whatever you need to do, do it. The nicotine gum worked for me to get through the physical cravings (which were relatively brief) when I quit cold turkey on December 28, 1996 (Smoke-free World). The pyschological addiction took longer but not nearly as long as one might think.

As far as a career change? In this economy I'd save any Johnny Paycheck-like speeches you've fantasized giving (ala Take This Job and Shove It) until you secure another job. But it never hurts to do a personal assessment of where you are, who you work for, and weigh all of the pros/cons of what you've got now (or had recently); then start thinking about where you really want to be and what you want to be doing. You may stay, you may leave, but at least you can move past the negative thinking. At least for a week.

What they don't advertise on television is that we're all in this together. Random acts of kindness can help everyone, even if it triggers only a momentary change in the perspective of one person (yourself included) that we're really not all self-absorbed a*holes.

If you itemize your tax deductions, the deadline to include charitable donations is December 31 (and that's the date of the check or credit card transaction, not when it's actually cashed). You will be helping others as well as yourself.

If you don't have the energy for personal reflection, you can remember all those celebrities who passed this year. Yes, it's morbid and at first I was ready to add my typical sarcastic commentary, but after reading through over 100 names, I realized I did feel connected to many of these people and I am genuinely melancholy knowing that they aren't in my life anymore, including people like George Carlin, Bernie Mac, Heath Ledger, Eartha Kitt, Tim Russert, Paul Benedict (Mr. Bentley from the Jeffersons), Suzanne Pleshette, Don LaFontaine (the voice for movie trailers), Jim McKay, Majel Barret (the voice for Star Trek), Estelle Getty and Michael Crichton.

Good luck!


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Snuggie: Cult Fashion on a Shoestring Budget

As seen on TV! The Snuggie® is a backless monk's robe sans corded belt (think blanket with sleeves) for the low, low price of $19.95, plus shipping and handling. There’s nothing revolutionary about this product, it’s actually a rip-off of the $44.95 Slanket® , but the TV commercial is absolutely hilarious. If you haven’t seen the spot yet, enjoy….


“These are not the slankets you’re looking for…”

The flared sleeves and billowing folds modeled by the Lillywhite family makes me think (1) maybe satanists aren't all bad, (2) grandpa wasn't kidding about all those sacrifices he made to build his estate, and (3) what exactly are they roasting over that open pit of hellfire?

"Witness a family snuggled in Snuggies at a local rec soccer game" now ranks higher than "Reach true nirvana" on my bucket list.

The Snuggie comes in three colors: Soylent Green, When-the-streets-run Red, and Bealzablue. Add some to your Winter Solstice shopping list.

Postscript: I won't take full credit for coining the term "Snuggie cult" but I also didn't borrow it from someone else. It just naturally fit the image. I just love how this odd low-budget commercial has triggered a shared communal laugh at utter absurdity. Even Time magazine gave it a nod...

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1873112,00.html?imw=Y?iid=perma_share

Wish they would link to me. ;-)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Auto Industry Bailout? Hold on. Let me check with my sales manager…

Did you say "25 billion dollars?" Well I just got off the phone with another failed industry, and there are two more on their way in right now, and there’s only one bailout left. Our bottom-line price is 12. Take it or leave it.

Personally, I’m torn because I don’t want to see what a failed GM or Ford would do to all those people employed in the auto industry - not sales so much, but manufacturing, their suppliers, and the towns that support them. And certainly I don’t want to see our U.S. economy take another hit.

You know, these last few months have felt like a surreal AA meeting, where industry giants step up to the podium one at a time, sharing their personal stories of greed and mismanagement in a unanimous chorus of conscience-clearing, yet without a hint of remorse.

Over the years, and through two energy crises in my lifetime, Detroit has spent lots of money lobbying against higher MPG standards, standards which they’re given decades to meet, with no regard for the consumer. And consumers are synonymous with taxpayers, who are now expected to bail their sorry asses out.

And Big Oil has been right along there with them - the lower the MPG, the more fuel consumption. So how about getting a loan from ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips and leaving us alone? Better yet, how about borrowing money from the banks who were infused with all that cash from the recent 700-billion-dollar bailout, since they’re not offering it to us?

If only we could put conditions on this money before they got it. I'd start with mandating a new business model: fixed fair pricing and no more haggling (a euphemism for cheating innocent consumers for as much money as possible). Arbitrary dealer markups and marketing fees would be considered criminal. MSRP? Now it's a CSRP (Consumer Suggested Retail Price).

And then I would demand reasonable replacement part costs and servicing. When I hear it’s going to cost $300 to change out a “cabin filter” in my car simply because of its inconvenient access, I would just say “Well, that's a poor design. Guess you'll fix that next year. Here's $30.”

And you absolutely better start walking the walk when it comes to quality. American cars are better than they used to be, but they still aren’t built for the long haul. I want a vehicle that requires routine maintenance, not guaranteed expensive repairs. There are 60 foreign automobiles on the Consumer Reports Best of the Best Used Cars list. There are only 4 American. And there are 23 American cars on the Worst of the Worst list, compared to 8 foreign (and half of those are VW). And when it comes to the Used Cars to Avoid list, it’s simply embarrassing. There is one Honda (Passport 1999-2002) and two Toyotas (2007 V6 Camry the 2007 V8 4WD Tundra). For Chevrolet, there are more than 20 models, most spanning multiple years. And the pattern continues for the other makers.

But alas, we can’t put conditions on this money. Just like we couldn't for the banks who will continue to charge unregulated fees and offer us mortgages that equal three times the value of our loans once fully amortized. And we can't prevent those who got us here in the first place from continuing to profit or fail.

So I'm really torn. Serious mistakes result in serious consequences, and much of this could have been avoided. Perhaps it's time to let economic nature take its course. But many of these decisions, like in most big business, were made by the hands of the few, so why should the many suffer?

For those employees in the auto industry, I’d offer the same advice I would offer to anyone working today, including myself: keep your skills up, cross train and always have a backup plan; no job is forever, no one looks out for you except you, and nothing is guaranteed…except change.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Funniest Thing on TV? Drug Ads

Although I look forward to my weekly dose of 30 Rock, SNL and The Office for guaranteed humor (no, I’m not intentionally whoring for NBC, I just really love these shows), these days I get my biggest laughs from some of the outrageous disclaimers in pharmaceutical commercials. I also enjoy the not-so-clever ways they try to present the information.

On the radio, you hear a professional speed-talker who spews off the fine print of an automobile contract with perfect enunciation in under four seconds. For the television drug commercials, they have to disclose possible side effects and risks. Instead of the rapid speech, they usually go with a narration spoken in a pleasant, soothing tone - you can almost picture the voiceover artist smiling as they deliver lines like: “as with any drug, there are possible side effects, which may include headache, nausea and in rare cases, selling everything you own on eBay for a dollar immediately prior to bi-ocular explosion”, as if they’re saying “peace, love and kittens.”

They’ll also try to distract you with imagery, hoping you’ll forget to actually listen. Like a dozen mature, smiling women wrapped in towels, slowly raising their hands for Evista, a drug treatment for postmenopausal osteoporosis. Unfortunately, it can also increase the formation of blood clots, which we know can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Recently I saw an ad where they went with a more direct method instead of the voiceover. An actor who is meant to be a doctor but looks more like a Lenscrafters eyewear model (a handsome man in glasses he would never wear) wearing a white lab coat, shares the potential risks across a desk to another actor who is clearly his patient. The delivery is nothing close to conversational, and the list of risks seems endless.

Everyone caught on pretty quickly to the Viagra priapism warning (although I contend it’s probably more of a marketing ploy): “If you experience an erection lasting more than four hours, contact your doctor.” Doctor? Right after I call every woman who’s ever had a less-than-satisfying sexual experience with me first. Yes, that may take a while.

My friends, you just can’t make this stuff up. Below are some actual disclaimers you may have read or overheard recently:

Mirapex, for the treatment of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS). “Prescription Mirapex may cause you to feel drowsy or fall asleep during normal activities such as driving, or to feel faint or dizzy when you standup…”

OK, my jumpy leg keeps me up at night but that doesn’t sound too bad so far… then comes the kicker: “…tell your doctor…if you experience increased gambling, sexual or other intense urges. Ask your doctor if Mirapex is right for you.”

Excuse me? Urges? How exactly did they witness these potential side effects in a study? I can picture the journal entries now: “Day 7 of Mirapex Trial. Subject 22 was finally removed from Control Group A after her third warning regarding spontaneously dry humping Subject 43, who strenuously objected to her dismissal. Also, the Monopoly and Yahtzee board games have been removed from Observation Area G due to the number of street dice and hold ‘em tournaments. Patients are asking again for advances on their stipends.”

And exactly what is “other intense urges?” Instant OCD? Flipping off your boss and heading to the Grand Caymans with nothing but a Sears card? Bitch-slapping your co-anchor on camera every time he mentions “Main Street” and “Wall Street” in the same sentence?

Flomax, for the treatment of male urinary symptoms due to BPH (Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia), also known as enlarged prostate.

“Avoid driving or hazardous tasks for 12 hours after your first dose or increase in dose, as a sudden drop in blood pressure may occur, rarely resulting in fainting. If considering cataract surgery, tell your eye surgeon you’ve taken Flomax. Common side effects are runny nose, dizziness and decrease in semen. Get the picture?”

Sure do, Kodak. But exactly how much of a decrease? I mean, the entire reason I'm taking this drug is for a better urinary stream and so I can empty my bladder in one trip to the john in the middle of the night. But if you’re telling me sex is going to suffer more than it already does for aging men…well, no thanks.

And “sudden drop in blood pressure rarely resulting in fainting?” I’m not a doctor, but isn’t blood pressure regulated by that muscle in my chest called my heart?! Pass.

Here is a list of a few more, showing the drug (what it’s meant to treat) and the worst of the possible side effects:

Avodart (BPH)
"Women who are or could become pregnant should not handle Avodart due to the potential risk of a specific birth defect." Better get a vasectomy too, just to be safe.

Cialis (Erectile Dysfunction)
"Sudden decrease or loss of vision or hearing." You might want to add "don't operate heavy machinery" too, Lilly Company.

Enbrel (Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis)
"Serious infections, including tuberculosis (TB); some of these serious infections have been fatal. May increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer such as lymphoma." Oh for heaven's sake, infections or cancer? I'll stick with the gold treatments and horse-sized aspirins.

Lunesta (Insomnia)
"Getting out of bed while not being fully awake and doing an activity you do not know you are doing; abnormal thoughts and behavior." Sounds like a great defense for an episode of Boston Legal.

Procrit (Anemia)
"Death." This drug, approved by the FDA around 1989, was voluntarily recalled in August 2008. Well, at least they're quicker than Big Tobacco.

Valtrex (Genital herpes outbreaks)
"There are no data on the safety and effectiveness of suppressive therapy with Valtrex for more than one year." Soooo is he pill-worthy? Just make sure the year you do choose to reduce your outbreaks counts.

"Acute renal failure in elderly or inadequately hydrated patients." And drink plenty of fluids.

Well, that was fun. And all of these warnings are for patients who take the recommended dosage. I can only imagine what could happen if one takes too much.

The ads are entertaining but the potential risks are not. Common sense says do your homework before choosing a drug and talk to your doctor, if you have a doctor. I have a medical care practice with plenty of physician assistants on staff, and there’s always WebMD.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Lazy BOGO Advertising



I'm not sure what's funnier to me, the ad copy or the disclaimer itself from today's Gap email, and posted on their home page.

Pants: Buy One, Get One 50% Off.

One "pants"? You mean one "pair", right? Or is it one pant at full price, and the other at half off? So one full-priced leg and one half-priced leg? That would be silly. Do I pay extra for the crotch? What about the number of pockets? That little coin pocket inside a front pocket isn't extra, is it?

Even the concept, in these "trying economic times", that they're really only offering a 25% discount on my total purchase is annoying. We're a little tired of math these days, especially when it comes to money.

Maybe they felt keeping the font at 72 points was smarter than keeping the word "pair" in the "Buy one Pair, Get one pair 50% Off" copy. I beg to differ.

But the disclaimer: "DOES NOT APPLY TO JEANS" is what made me laugh the hardest today. It's the Gap! You sell jeans. Even their founder, Don Fisher, is quoted with this simple phrase under About Gap Inc. on their web site:

"I created Gap with a simple idea: to make it easier to find a pair of jeans. We remain committed to that basic principle." -- Don Fisher, Gap Inc. Founder and Chairman Emeritus

I question your commitment today, Don. I really do.

'Tis a short blog today. T'ain't no more to read.



Thursday, October 16, 2008

We ARE the Economy: And We Need Some Global Chilling

We have the ability right now to slow down the economic crisis by taking a collective deep breath and not reacting. I know this will go against the grain of the way most people think, but I believe the only way through this is if we don’t hunker down protecting only ourselves and our families and think globally.

That means leaving your money in your savings/checking accounts at your local bank or credit union, not stockpiling your cash in a safe or under your mattress, and leaving your 401K and stocks alone.

Without cash, these institutions can collapse. But now they're getting infused with cash thanks to the nebulous $700 billion bailout, and lending money to each other. As much as I'm tempted to max out my credit cards and ask where my bailout is, I've never relied on someone else to bail me out for my poor decisions. So credit cards stay on ice for now.

Losses on paper (stocks and 401Ks) are only on paper until you act. If you don’t sell at a low price, you don’t take the loss.

The economy is cyclical and complicated and I am in no way an expert. But what I can say with confidence is that most news programs are riding the sensationalism wave, highlighting the negative, almost hoping for a collapse. In fact, the headlines could just as easily be stating: “Stock prices are at a massive discount! Best prices in years! Buy low, baby!” I’m not recommending you buy up stock, or boost your 401K contributions. I’m just saying that from what I’ve read and heard, long-term investments (stocks and 401Ks) work over the long term. So don't panic.

Think about this: if your house dropped 25% in value today based on comps in your neighborhood or a state reassessment, would you sell it from fear of it losing even more equity? Or would you think, “My mortgage (if it’s hopefully fixed) isn’t changing and I’m not planning on moving in the next six months (or next six years), so I think I’ll just wait it out.”

I wouldn’t panic sell my house. Although honestly, I think panic buying and ridiculously inflated prices in the last housing boom is what really got us here. Stocks and 401Ks are definitely a lot easier to dump, but it doesn’t mean you have to. It’s just on paper.

The foreclosure rates are also being exaggerated. From what I’ve read they run at about 3% in this country, which is higher than usual so the headlines say things like: Foreclosures up 67%! That doesn’t mean 67% of the homes are now in foreclosure; it means the number of homes in foreclosure jumped 67% from the last time they checked. Another way to look at this: Over 96% of the homes are not in foreclosure.

And these mortgages are tied to homes that have value – they’re not junk mortgages with zero collateral. The homes are overpriced, and a lot of people took out loans gambling that the equity would continue to grow at an exaggerated rate, or they’d be making more money – neither factors that are guaranteed. And those mortgages are bundled with stable loans - apparently they're just not easy to manage.

The common element to all of this is people and their love for money.

People buy and sell real estate. People appraise homes. People list homes. People sell homes. And people buy homes. Corporations are run by people. Governments are run by people. Decisions are made by people.

Mortgage brokers, investment bankers, stock brokers, real estate agents, and home appraisers are people. The actions of people got us here, not faceless entities.

Even CEOs and executives are people; overpaid people, but people nonetheless.

It also means we can’t prevent the people of ExxonMobil or Bank of America from charging its fellow citizens whatever the heck they want to. It’s part of the free market society that allows you to sell a Phillies cap with two tickets to the World Series on eBay for $1,250. A piece.

The only way out of a mess like this is to educate ourselves through reliable sources of information, dismiss our old ways of thinking and not let it happen again. And to just chillax for a minute.

It’s time for the era of greed and personal entitlement to give way to an age of altruism. Instead of blame-storming, let's reprioritize our needs, reassess what’s truly important, and start talking about how we can help each other.

Photo found on flickr.com (http://www.flickr.com/photos/italamaria/).


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Answers to Rhetorical Questions

First, how do we know they’re rhetorical? Wow, did I just ask a rhetorical question about rhetorical questions?

I was bored so I decided it was high time someone answered these unanswerable questions. [Note to self: research clich├ęs like “high time” in another blog.]

What is the meaning of life?
Oh, wait. It’s 42. Douglas Adams already answered that in Hitchhiker’s Guide?

[Yes, nerds, it’s actually the answer to the nonspecific Ultimate Question (life, the universe and everything), but allow me some leeway.]

What do you want from me?
Money or sex. Or both. Sure we could go into validation, respect, blah, blah, blah, but most of the time it’s cash or nookie. [Note to self: write a blog on bringing back outdated euphemisms.]

Should I stay or should I go?
Stay when you’re wanted, leave when you’re not. How hard was that?

What is love?
Unconditional and unquantifiable. Hey, I tried.

Why me, Lord?
You know why. Keep thinking…

How many times do I have to tell you…?
Apparently more.

Why are you so stupid?
That one’s just not fair. The inquisitor already knows the answer, so the rubber-glue reflection principle applies, making you, my friend, the stupid one. AKA takes one to know one.

What’s the point of going on?
Same as “What do you want from me?” Moola, action or both.

Are we there yet?
Well we’re in motion, so even if we were, we aren’t anymore. Stop hitting your sister.

There actually isn't any more to read but you can click if you don't believe me. What do you have to lose?



Sunday, October 05, 2008

Lawn Voting: Don't Tell, Didn't Ask


Eventually I came to realize metal lawn darts were a bad idea, but at the time they were popular and fun, and I understood how to use them. And they reflected the sentiment of the era in which I grew up (the 70s): Don’t impale yourself when throwing a weighted, steel projectile straight up into the air, then jumping out of the way at the last possible second of its descent. And walk it off if you do. I was also nine at the time.

I’ve never thought posting a sign in your front lawn declaring your political choice was a good idea; and it's definitely not neighborly.

I’m really enjoying all of the excitement around the upcoming presidential election, and the wonderful parody that comes with it. What I’m not enjoying are election signs popping up in people’s yards everywhere.

Voting is personal and private. When you head to the polls, you make your vote alone, without accompaniment or pressure, and with some form of confidentiality. It is a cherished right and privilege. Freedom of speech is also a cherished right and privilege, but it’s not an obligation.

I love macaroni and cheese. I don’t post it in sign form in my yard, or my window, or even on the bumper of my car. And if I did, it wouldn't be meant to taunt those who are carb-conscious or lactose intolerant, or simply love hummus more.

For my neighbors, I want to know how your procedure went at the hospital, how your daughter is doing in college, that "it's a boy!" or how your son’s soccer game went. I don’t want to know your politics.

Posting your choice of candidate(s) doesn’t inspire or influence the votes of others, including the undecided. It actually seems intimidating or, at a minimum, challenging – “That’s right, MF. I’m voting for so & so. I dare you to challenge me.”

If you’re into politics, or civic involvement, that’s awesome. Support your candidate. Get people registered. Offer your insights, opinions or anecdotes in the appropriate forum: political rallies, letters to the editor, public hearings, even a blog.

Sharing your vote or affiliation where it’s not invited doesn’t bring you closer to me if we’re aligned in our choice, and may even polarize us if we are not. So with all due (or undue) respect, please stop posting your vote on your lawn. It doesn’t count from there anyway.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Top 10 Top 10 Lists

Bloggers and news sites love top tens. It would take years to actually read all of the lists available after a simple Google search, so consider this a random, unranked list compiled on a Saturday.

Top 10 Worst Celebrity Baby Names
“Banjo” and “Wingspan” aren’t on the list (fictitious yuppie names from Baby Mama) but I’m sure they’ll appear on some birth certificates this year.

Dave Letterman’s Top Ten List Archive
Let’s face it; every list on a Top 10 could come from Dave’s staff over the years so I added their fab archive instead. It’s searchable by key word and date (from today back to 1993 when Late Night on NBC switched to the Late Show on CBS. I haven’t found NBC’s archive for 1982 to 1993 (sounds like a task for YouTube).

Top Ten Excuses for Being Late to Work
I searched and didn’t think the lists written so far were that funny, so I wrote this one today. Don’t try these at work.
  1. I could swear you said we could work from home starting today. Or was that a dream? You were also wearing bunny slippers and a Frankie Say Relax t-shirt.
  2. I had a choice: stop to help pull the orphans from the burning building or show up on time. OMG, you still look pissed. What kind of a monster are you?!
  3. Isn’t time just a relative thing in the grand scheme of life? Who appointed you the clock Nazi, anyway? I certainly didn’t get the announcement.
  4. I was so inspired by our company’s “Going Green” PR campaign that I took myself off the grid – it’s hard to power an alarm clock that way.
  5. I clicked my heels three times repeating “There’s no place like work” but it didn’t take.
  6. With no plans to move the office closer to my house, I decided to maintain a personal speed limit of 30 to save on fuel. Get up earlier? Apparently you don’t remember: I’m off the grid!
  7. I have no excuse. Sometimes, Joel, you just have to say WTF and make your move.
  8. I heard you were going to be in today, so I had to stop and get some valium first.
  9. I was feeling under the weather and wanted to come in, but had to check my symptoms on WebMD first; you know, to make sure I wasn’t contagious. My hunch was scurvy and I was right: I stopped for a Jamba Juice on the way in and I’m all better!
  10. I had to wait for you to leave first. By the way, you’re out of coffee.


The World's Top 10 Wine Soils
And I thought the adjectives that describe wine were pretentious enough. There is such a thing as too far, oenophiles.

Top 10 US WTF Sex Laws
Ah, morality legislation; just as effective as "judge not, lest ye be judged" has been for the judgmental. This one’s not for the kiddies.

The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives
Not a joke list but it is the original top 10. No wonder we can't find him: it's "Usama"!

CNET’s Top 10 Downloads of the Past 10 Years
A top 10 based on info compiled over the past 10 years deserves my props.

Top 10 Blogs from Technorati
OK, it’s a top 100 blog list but page one is the top 10. Where’s mine? With an “authority of 5”, I think it may take a while. You can also get the Top 10 Blogs by Number of Fans – but I currently have 0 because I’m too modest to vote for myself, but not too humble to ask you to hook me up with a vote Vote for Do I Amuse You?!

The Top 10 Commandments
It’s still the original list, though it instantly triggers in my mind the classic scene from History of the World Part I when Moses brought three tablets down from Mount Sinai, announcing he held the 15 Commandments. Then, after dropping one of the tablets and watching it crumble to rubble, corrected himself… ”Oy! Ten! Ten Commandments.” And I’m definitely not questioning the Lord Almighty (though maybe the translators) because I wonder if the Commandments were written in the true order of precedence. Personally, I think # 6 (Thou shalt not kill) would have ranked higher.

The Top 10 Mantiques
Yes it’s my own, but it did land me a gig on Sassy Bean and I just didn’t feel like searching anymore!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Impin' Ain't Easy

I signed up for an Intro to Improv class recently, and I was honestly quite humbled. After watching so many seasons of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I was thinking I will kill in this class. I was looking for the props (my favorite game) on day one.

Improv, my friends, especially for the novice, is not easy. But it’s a lot of fun.

The first concept I struggled with is: Don’t try to be funny. That’s really, really hard when it’s your life’s goal to make people laugh. Like a class clown, there’s nothing I enjoy more than breaking up the room with a quick line. But coming up with a quick line in the game of improv ping-pong (you feed up the line or your partner feeds one to you) isn’t like a classroom situation, or the perfect set up at an office meeting. The best lines are the ones that come out of left field, that surprise everyone, even yourself. Your mistakes are often gold.

You also accept anything another actor gives you – the “Yes, and…” concept. It’s totally affirmative. It’s also a best practice to make your partner(s) always look good. This positive environment is simply awesome. I left my first class with a smile and 15 new friends. There wasn’t one person in the room I didn’t like; and that's a first.

I’m not an actor, so a lot of this is brand new to me. I actually took the class because I want to be more spontaneous in my writing. I love my reactive comedy, but writing doesn’t work like that. I need to start it. I also want to give standup a shot, and I really have to build my confidence on stage. This will help me do that.

Another core concept is: Don’t think about what you’re going to say before you get up there. Again, not easy! But it makes total sense. Improv is not scripted. Thinking about what you’re going to say and delivering the perfect one-liner sounds contrived to the audience and simply disappoints. And you can get caught off guard when another actor goes in a direction you’re not expecting.

If you believe what you’re saying, so will your audience. But when I clear my mind, it often stays that way and I freeze. And then I don't know what I'm saying, let alone selling it. And that is humbling.

Then I worry so much about not being funny, that I fulfill my own prophecy. So I’m going to work on keeping my mind empty, not freezing up, not trying to be the class clown, and see what comes out of my mouth.

And I can’t wait for more games and techniques. It’s so much fun! Even when I tank.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Junior Handles Stadium Heckler with Style

Last week the Chicago White Sox were in town, visiting my Orioles at Camden Yards. My friend Frank and I bought two sweet seats at the scalp-free zone (one of Baltimore’s best ideas) for $30 a pop, six rows from home plate, and the visitors’ dugout.

We sat next to a nice gentleman, Howard, a 78-year-young season-ticket holder. I really enjoyed our conversations. We also sat behind a foursome who scored sweet seats like we did. Nice enough crew, but one of the guys was the self-designated heckler. You know, that guy who tosses a few back and then throws out lame one-liners. No one really laughs, except for maybe a few nervous chuckles. The most annoying part is the constant repetition of the same “jokes”. We didn’t laugh the first time; what are you expecting the second and third?

Anyway, with great seats like these, this guy kept bugging the batters on deck, especially Ken Griffey Junior. Hey, we’ve got no problem with Junior. We were all excited to see a future Hall-of-Famer just a few feet away. And when he was warming up, everyone would whip out their cell phones and try and grab a quick picture, mostly of his back. Our local heckler tried to get him to turn around for a picture: “Hey, you’re no A-Rod but you’re still pretty good.” Cute, but obnoxious.

The third time Griffey was on deck, Frank asked me, “How do these players tune out the fans?” With authority, I said, “Aw, Frank. These guys are pros. The fans are so close in stadiums these days, and they’re at an opponent’s park half the year, they just tune them out. They have to.”

Dumbass repeats his taunt again, and Ken turns to him and says, “He’s behind me.” He pauses a beat, then adds “...in every stat.” Classic heckler comeback. All of us are rolling, even the heckler.

I was totally impressed, and laughing even harder because it was brilliant timing: silencing the heckler and totally negating my statement. But it did have me thinking…leading Alex Rodriguez in every stat? Really? Hey, it’s Junior. I’m not going to argue with him. I was actually hoping he would step up to the plate, look back at the defeated fan, call his shot pointing to right field and then belt one out, hitting the warehouse. But this guy wasn’t worth it, and it would have added another run to the routing they were giving Baltimore anyway.

Of course I had to check Junior’s stats against A-Rod tonight. Junior certainly isn’t leading him in 2008 in virtually any stat, except for his one triple (A-Rod has none). He is leading in most lifetime cumulative stats (so far), but in fairness, he has a five-year head start. And A-Rod still has a better lifetime batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. But I bet he can’t shut up the hecklers.

What a great night!


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Fed-Up.

I know my diatribes on the driving habits of others have to be getting old, so I’ll make this one quick. After avoiding a head-on collision with a dude who decided to exaggerate his turn around a family riding bikes on the shoulder into my lane, right after a woman blocked traffic because she wanted to turn into Citgo across traffic instead of Shell, right after the tailgaters who got their driving training from Nintendo near-missed my tail within inches, I just have to say something before I go Michael Douglas in Falling Down on someone next time.

I do not judge nor retaliate, nor even wish harm upon another human being, but I have to wonder if a few folks aren’t overdue for a good old smiting.

Maybe it’s the old adage of one rotten apple upsets the cart, but these Granny Smiths affect me in the worst way. I cannot drive anywhere without wondering who these self-absorbed, overly aggressive, tailgating, one-turn-away-from-thankfully-removing-themselves-from-the-gene-pool mow-rons think they are. I need to restore my own hope in humanity, and I’m having a lot of trouble. Remember how brotherly every one was for a heartbeat after 9/11? Wow, that really lasted, huh?

So…God? I leave it in your capable hands, but if I may be so bold to offer my humble opinion, I’d sleep just fine knowing you decided to smite down a few of these bastards to remind them worshipping a false idol includes themselves, and slowly bring our world back into some semblance of order.

I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.
I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

And if that doesn’t work, I’d like you to bring back glass bottles so I have something to chuck at these a*holes.

Amen


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Desperately Seeking Humor

I get caught in this rut where nothing really funny inspires me, so I don’t post; yet when I don’t post, my blog becomes stale and people stop checking, so I have this urge to post something and an even greater urge to check Google Analytics to see how many people found my something post today, and what country/state/city they read it from, and if they read anything else while they were here, and how long they stayed (8 seconds? You can’t read anything in 8 seconds!) and if there might, by some miracle of the ego-stroking deities, just be a comment, where someone actually felt moved, inspired, tickled or more likely annoyed enough to write something back, but then it just becomes one big, embarrassing, unhumorous run-on sentence. Is "unhumorous" even a word?

So I did it anyway with a really dated reference in the title. Maybe inspiration will hit me tomorrow, or at least some up-to-date humor.

There ain't nothin' more, man! This was a shorty.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Well, Someone Chose Civility…right off the back of my car


About a year ago I, like so many other well-intentioned neighbors, picked up a green magnet (free to those who asked politely) at the checkout desk of my local Howard County Library, which said: “Choose Civility in Howard County”. Honestly, I hadn’t read the book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct by PM Forni, but I’m fairly certain “If it was free to you, it’s free to me” wasn’t one of them.

A few weeks ago I noticed my magnet, which I had placed on the back of my car the day I got it, was missing. I displayed it mostly to let other drivers know that I’m non-aggressive, enjoy a little distance from the vehicle in front of me, and often try to help other motorists in a pickle (I let them in so lay off your horn and my a$$). I did not display it to say: “Hey, living in one of the top ten wealthiest counties in the country entitles me to tell others how to behave.” Nor to imply whoever sees the magnet hasn’t already chosen to act civilly, as if there should be a choice. But I know I could often use a reminder, and I’m not alone, especially behind the wheel.

But why would someone swipe the magnet? It is convenient. A magnet is much easier to lift than an adhesive bumper sticker that’s baked on after a year of sunshine. But your neighbor’s newspapers aren’t tied down and their mailbox is unlocked; do you help yourself because of accessibility?

Perhaps the message “Choose Civility” filled this individual (or roaming gang of magnet lifters, or politically charged censors) with such ire, he/she/they just had to pull it off my car, but kindly resisted keying my vehicle. Wow, if “Choose Civility” pisses you off that much, keep it.

Maybe you just wanted one for yourself and didn’t feel like going to the library. For all I know, reading those five words might have been your quota for the day.

And how do you answer when someone says, “Hey, I loved that book. I’ve seen a lot of those around town. Where did you get yours?”

Is it possible you were just in a hurry yet you needed the commuting world to know right at that moment you’re really a nice person, aside from the stealing? Obviously one who displays a message of civility on their bumper would understand and want you to have it.

Or someone’s just playing a prank on me, albeit a lame one.

Regardless, I think you missed the spirit of the message and have annoyed me enough to not bother replacing the magnet. I’ll continue to hope for (though not anticipate) random acts of kindness, enjoy the moments when people are nice just because and let Karma take care of the rest.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

My Big Fat Greek Vacation

Since I can’t afford a real vacation this year, I thought I’d reminisce about last year’s instead. The trip was two weeks long, as is this blog, so I encourage you to grab a coffee, sit back, and read the sections over multiple visits.

My yia-yia (grandmother) Sophie was from the Greek island of Naxos (pronounced like the cheese Doritos® made famous, but with an x). The village is Apiranthos (pictured above). Although I am of Greek heritage, and a litany of other European countries, I won’t pretend that I am completely immersed in Greek culture or could have written anything close to the incredibly funny screenplay Nia Vardalos did for My Big Fat Greek Wedding (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Big_Fat_Greek_Wedding). But I could definitely identify with it.

One of my sisters moved to Athens many years ago to do all sorts of noble work I couldn’t begin to approach. My parents decided a few years ago instead of exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts, they would take us to Greece every two years for a mini-family reunion. Pretty sweet deal! Here are some of the more memorable and quirky experiences on our most recent trip last May.

American tourists
No travel log is complete without sharing the annoying habits of other travelers. Mine starts before we even got out to our departure gate with a lovely retired couple. Baltimore-Washington International airport has one evening non-stop flight to London. In fact, on this particular Friday, it’s the only flight out of the international wing. So there was only one security lane open for the 200 or so passengers on the flight. And the couple in front of me couldn’t stop bitching. “Why is only one lane open?” “Why aren’t more people working?” It took us 15 minutes to get through security and they wondered why the airport didn’t call two more people in to work a 10-minute shift. But I’m on vacation and nothing is going to break my stride. Time for my iPod set to random shuffle. Hmm… Matthew Wilder. Imagine that.

Dynamic cab fare
Plenty of Greeks speak English, which makes travel easy for me, and my sister can speak Greek for us when they don’t. I’ll just cling to her whenever I need to communicate with anyone (I’m sure she won’t mind). Luckily, most cabbies speak excellent English, but there are a few you should watch out for that are apparently technophobic because they can’t seem to master those strange contraptions mounted to the dashboard that automatically apply a regulated monetary rate to the time and distance of the ride, so they’ll just leave them off. But they’ll act like they’re doing you a favor when they retrieve your bags at your destination and quote you a fare three times the standard rate. Not kidding. Don’t be shy: ask them to turn on their meters or get out.

The Greek frown
Greeks are a wonderful people, and I’m not just saying that because I happen to be one. They are full of life and love. An evening of food, drink and conversation is a night of warmth and hospitality you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. But on the street….well, that’s a different story. It appears that New York isn’t the only place in the world where smiling in public is against local ordinances. Everyone on the streets of Athens wears an expression like Al Pacino in desperate need of Prozac and definitely without a “hoo-wahh!” on its way.

It’s also fun to watch Greeks in conversation. At first I thought everyone was arguing but they’re just passionate. They could be talking about the weather but they’re so expressive it looks like they’re engaged in a furious debate, moments from fisticuffs, that would make Socrates blush.

“Looks like rain.” [eyes glance toward the heavens]

“RAIN?! RAIN, YIORGOS?!” [fist pounding an open hand] “OH MY GOD! HOW CAN YOU TELL?! IT HASN’T RAINED IN…three days” [shrug]

“I HEAR THERE’S A COLD FRONT COMING IN FROM THE WEST, YIANNI!” [sweeping arm to the west] “METEROLOGISTS HAVE PREDICTED IT! TRAINED SCIENTISTS, YIANNI! BUT I AGREE…IT’S TOO EARLY TO TELL! I THINK IT MAY BE…another few days” [shrug]

Ferry to Naxos
We took an early morning ferry ride from Athens to Naxos. When I first heard ferry, I thought of a barge-like flat boat where you share the ride with all the cars, or step into a seating area with a ton of commuters and cellophane windows protecting you from the rain.

These ferries are nice. There are even some plush seats inside, with a great view of the sea through windows or a movie on a large video screen. But our cousin explains that’s first class. So we sit in some plastic deck chairs. Not too bad but I’m not a morning person and all I want to do is sleep. I finally doze sitting up with my head on the table, like I used to do at kindergarten naptime.

Our ferry ride is 5 ½ hours long. By the time we arrive, I have the pattern of my backpack waffled in my face and a swollen right eye like Rocky Balboa. We could have taken the high-speed ferry for an extra €30 but that would have only saved about 90 minutes. Besides, a ferry across the Aegean is smooth and absolutely breath-taking, so it’s worth the extra time! There really are great views from all over the ferry, with coffee, sandwiches, sodas, wine and beer available as well. And if you like people watching, you're in for a real treat. I havent seen so much gold, hair product or tan skin (and this is the men) since my last trip to Jersey.

Customer service
There’s a lot to be said about the decline of American customer service these days. But even outsourced technical support, phone-tree labyrinths and cranky teenage cashiers (if you can still find a teenager in fast food or retail who isn’t above entry-level work) doesn’t compare to my experience.

When I arrive on Naxos, I need some cash and hit the first ATM I can find. My card worked back on the mainland at the same bank, so I didn’t anticipate any trouble. (Too much foreshadowing?) It doesn’t work. I try over and over and then say "F it" and walk into the bank.

There's a bright red “Now serving 101” electronic sign greeting me as I come in. There is one customer in line, and six employees, all at their desks. All smoking. After five minutes, I am called to one of the six desks. I go with my cousin, who does speak Greek, and hand the error slip and my ATM card to the bank employee. He looks at the slip, looks at the card, looks at the slip, looks at the card, makes his Pacino face, mutters an inaudible “hoo-wahh” and then mumbles something audibly in Greek. My cousin argues with him. Not the “looks like rain” discussion but a real argument. We are escorted two desks down to Pacino’s co-worker, Robert DeNiro. However, Bobby is working with the first customer and doesn’t feel it necessary to acknowledge us. So we stand for 10 minutes until he finishes with the other customer and another two cigarettes. He didn’t help him, he just finished with him. I don’t speak a lot of Greek but I know the customer does not leave happy.

Bobby looks at the slip, looks at the card, looks at the slip, looks at the card, looks at me, looks at the slip, looks up a page in a book and then hands everything back to us. He doesn’t say a word and walks us out to the ATM. We repeat the entire process. He shrugs and tells my cousin it’s not working. Really?

We go back inside. He takes us to another desk. From there we’re taken to a fourth desk. She in turn takes us back to the first desk we visited. Al and Bobby converse, make a phone call, look something up, and finally tell my cousin they can have my bank wire me cash that will be available in three days for a $17 service charge.

After 25 minutes of smoking, frowning and shuttling us to every bank employee’s desk (it’s not like this was a large bank - they could have just spoken to each other from where they stood), this is the best they can do. We decline. Then I realize it’s still only 5 AM in the states. I try my ATM card four hours later at a different bank and I’m golden. After an experience like that, I have come to a new tolerance level for snarky teenagers and overseas tech support.

Journey to Apiranthos: Roller coasters courtesy of Greyhound
OK, they’re not really courtesy of Greyhound but they are buses and the inclines remind me of “amusement” rides. My sister and I want to visit my grandmother’s village, Apiranthos while on Naxos. We could go by donkey or bus. Stupid Americans, we take the bus.

We buy our bus tickets at a stand in the port and head to the bus stop. A very friendly English-speaking driver greets us, takes our tickets and lets us board early. Five minutes before we take off, she disembarks and Al Pacino’s nephew Yiorgos gets on. I should tell you now there are only three male names I heard on my entire two-week visit: Yiorgos (George), Yianni (Johnny) and Stefanos (Stephen). And they all know each other, especially on the island, because they all greet each other everywhere. Anyway, Yiorgos gets on and immediately asks my sister and me for our tickets. In Greek. He speaks no English and isn’t pleasant. I almost cry, he decides we’re not worth his time, shrugs and goes back to his seat.

The bus heads for the village. Apiranthos sits on the highest point of Naxos, and the bus ride is notoriously scary. It’s straight up the mountain. There are guardrails, they’re just not… a constant.

The bus makes a few stops around town, loading and unloading passengers. It’s only a 30-minute trip and I’m starting to think, this is cake. What are they talking about? Then the bus driver pulls over and gets off. He runs across the street and comes back with a few baskets of strawberries. OK… I guess he’s hungry. He probably has a busy schedule and has no choice but to run personal errands during his shift. The road starts to get windy, our bus begins to ascend the mountain and I notice the drop-off begins to get a bit sheerer. Occasionally I see a guardrail, and I wonder how effective a device less than four feet high can be in preventing a vehicle nearly 10 feet high from plummeting. Hey, who doesn’t wonder why bridges don’t snap when there’s lots of traffic as you’re crossing deep water?

Another five minutes into the trip and he pulls over again. This time it’s for a six-pack of Amstel. Holy crap! We’re still on the upswing of Space Mountain and he needs beer?! Thank God he doesn’t crack one open.

After a few Hail Mary’s and 20 more minutes of thrills, chills and excitement, we arrive in Apiranthos.

Getting off the bus, I almost weep. I’m setting foot in the village where my grandmother was born and raised. It’s beautiful, it’s classic, it’s exciting. We head to a local tavern where someone inside is expecting us and can connect us with another relative.

We enter the tavern. There’s lovely art work and old pictures on the wall. Two older Greek gentlemen straight out of Zorba are sitting at a table playing backgammon. They sip their Greek coffees and are clearly engaged in something interesting going on behind the bar. I’m on a rustic, ancient Greek island soaking in my heritage. The air is clean, crisp and I am near tears that my ancestors breathed the same air and hailed from this beautiful village that is nearly untouched after decades of…wait a minute. They’re watching the Fashion Network! On a high-def widescreen plasma TV mounted above the bar, that’s hooked up to satellite. I don’t understand a word they say, but you hear the models names as they cross the runway. [Greek Greek Greek Greek Heidi Klum. Greek Greek Greek Greek Gisele. Greek Greek Greek Greek Frederique.] These old farts are giving a Greek play-by-play for a fashion show, and giggle when the model’s top is a little transparent. Needless to say, my eyes are now quite dry.

My cousin’s brother-in-law finds us at the tavern and takes us through a maze of sidewalks, past the homes that are literally built into the hills like the Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Again, I’m beginning to get emotional as I walk through the streets that my grandmother walked as a child. She lived to be nearly 100, bless her heart, before she passed away a few years ago. We get to my cousin-in-law’s home and step down and in. It’s lovely, like a stone townhouse. Before I fall for the rustic charm of Apiranthos a second time, I see my cousin-in-law’s son playing soccer, on his Playstation 2.

OK, what have I learned about my grandmother’s ancient village and island? It’s beautiful, charming, full of history, and people still work a very difficult terrain to herd goats, grow food, and still export olive oil, oranges, potatoes, marble and emery. And the ferry I came in on brings anything you could need – it just takes a little longer than FedEx.

We put the fun in funeral
The day before we landed in Athens, my cousin’s husband Yianni unexpectedly passed away. Attending a funeral wasn’t on my original itinerary, but things often happen for a reason. For those of you who haven’t experienced a Greek Orthodox funeral, let’s just say it’s a bit…emotional (truly an understatement). But if we can be of comfort to my cousin during this time, especially when our other relatives cannot book a last-minute transcontinental trip to Greece, we’ll make the best of it. And I’m truly delighted we were there. Plus I had firsthand cultural experiences I won’t forget.

The burial and funeral itself actually occurred before we got to Naxos, but there are other memorial services, including the third day, ninth day and fortieth day services, so we are able to join my cousin for one of the graveside services. The priest brought boiled wheat and placed it on the grave, meant to represent resurrection. It was quite moving, standing on the mountainside with a view of our village, the rest of the island, the sky and the ocean. Later the next morning (when we were in the coastal town of Klido), one of Yianni’s brothers had taken some of the water used to boil the wheat, walks to the end of the beach and pours it into the sea, like one would scatter ashes. I felt quite privileged to share these private moments with my cousin and family I just met.

So we visit with cousins, cousins of cousins, neighbors of cousins, and friends of the family during our whirlwind tour of Naxos. Everywhere we visit, coffee, water and homemade cookies are brought out each time. (Greek homemade cookies are worth the trip alone.) And it’s obvious some of these incredibly gracious people have very, very little means. It is touching and humbling. The generosity is universal and everyone is welcoming.

And here’s another Greek tradition I learned on this trip: raki. Raki is Greek moonshine – potent, home-brewed and able to kick your ass a lot quicker than Ouzo. In this time of mourning, it is offered at every house we stop by during our village tour. I pace myself and am able to politely decline at many of the homes. My cousin’s brother-in-law (and our driver), is much more gracious and can not refuse. That would just be rude. And the drive not nearly as heart-pounding.

When we’re ready to leave Apiranthos, he drives us down the other side of the mountain to see my cousin’s home in the tiny (and I mean tiny) town of Klido. By this time he has had at least 10 shots of raki. But he’s much bigger than me and he’s a native. I’m sure he can handle it. [gulp] He points out a burned-out car at the bottom of a ravine. His son had crashed that one – as the panic spreads across my face he laughs out loud. His son was amazingly not hurt.

And just for fun, as we meander down the mountain with our raki-soaked driver, and sporadic guardrails, I see this roadside sign:


I believe it’s the universal sign for “Oh Shit!”

We make it down the mountain without giving into the vertigo I am sure will pull us over the edge. By the end of the drive, I’ve dropped enough bricks to build my own home in Klido. I’ve also aged a good five years.

Ferry back to Athens
Remember the 5½-hour ferry ride over? I learn for an additional €2 (that’s like $5) we could have upgraded to First Class, which we do immediately for our return trip. Plush, reclining assigned seats with a window view, air conditioning, tray tables and eight rows from a big TV. Which brings me to the highlight of my ferry ride: the safety video.

The entire video is in Greek (of course) but I can still follow this fascinating instructional film telling me what to do in case of an emergency. Essentially if I hear a series of seven horn blasts, it’s time to panic because it basically means “man overboard, we’re going down”. The video shows a woman in her cabin who hears the seven blasts and is obviously contemplating what to take with her as she casually learns life may be over as she knows it and the ferry is sinking. She grabs the suitcase, then thinks twice and just opens a front zipped pocket, grabbing the contents. She leaves the suitcase and calmly walks to the nearest exit, which I guess is really anywhere along the railing.

So what do you think she grabbed? Pictures of her children? Rosary beads? An iPod? Nope. Cigarettes.

That’s right. Why grab something irreplaceable or meaningful if this could truly be the end? You’re going to be floating (hopefully) for hours in the ocean and may need to swim. Who doesn’t love a good smoke, even if it means depleting the most critical physical trait you need in this situation: lung capacity? And you do realize you’re plunging into water, which kind of kills any chances to light up, right?

Tell me, doctor. What was she clutching so close to her heart that gave her such comfort before she perished? Was it her ring? Her father’s pocket watch? A picture of the boys? A pack of Newports?! Are you freaking kidding me?

Travel Tip: Ferry hop
If you want to see the Greek islands, my advice is skip the expensive cruise lines and ferry hop from island to island. In May, you can get from one island to the next comfortably, inexpensively and without reservations. It’s pre-high-season and the weather is absolutely lovely. When you get to the island, you can find a room with a view for well under €100/night nearly anywhere (except maybe Santorini, where it isn’t much more). If you like a particular island, stay as long as you want. Ferries run every day, often more than once per day. If you’re bored, book your next ferry and check out the local sites, do some shopping or have a nice portside meal, coffee or cocktail while you wait.

Greek news
I love watching television in other countries, even if I don’t speak the language. In Lisbon, I once watched a low-budget version of The Price is Right. I couldn’t follow any of the Portuguese dialogue, but they would send someone down (who would flail their arms wildly and cheer, just like they do at home), and then the four players would bid on an item. When a contestant repeated the bid of the player to their left (I may not know the language but I know an echo when I hear one), they were quickly corrected by the host (and me).

In Athens, I loved watching the news. The reporters speak in that same journalistic monotone vocal delivery we’re all used to, but in Greece they add their own editorial flair. At the end of half of the stories, the anchor shrugs and then smirks with a Deniro-“I heard tings”-like facial expression. I can’t translate the particular story I heard but I think it ended something like this “…and traffic was tied up for hours. A total of four people died in the accident.” [Pause a beat] Then a single-shoulder shrug with a half-smirk, as if to silently say: “Eh. Could have been five”.

David Sedaris
Another highlight of the trip was passing around Naked, a wonderful collection of essays by humorist David Sedaris, a fantastic humorist who shares our Greek heritage and love for sarcasm.

We read “Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!” together one night on my sister’s balcony. My mom could really identify with David’s retelling of his mother’s dealings with a Greek mother-in-law. We were rolling with laughter as we read it out loud and then recounted our own stories. I recommend both group reading and anything he’s written.

Curses
When you hit the marketplace in downtown Athens, it’s going to be crowded and quite festive. It’s also a haven for solicitation. Not the escort-based, but loads of cheap crap that no one wants (sunglasses, toys, disposable cameras). Sometimes someone will try to sell you a tablecloth or blanket that appear to be handmade – they’re actually very nice and not crap, but who wants to carry around blankets while you’re shopping?

Poverty is everywhere on this planet and it pains me every time I see it. So you’ll have to deal with beggars and watch your pockets in the busy tourist areas. It’s quite hard to pass by another human being without at least an acknowledgement, but eye contact, a nod or an apology brings more beggars and I just prefer not to hand out coins on every encounter. One thing which should trouble me, because I’m often superstitious, but oddly doesn’t are all the curses that have been spat at me when I have chosen not to drop a coin into the gnarled hand of an elderly woman beggar clad in all black. Does it count if you’re cursed in a language you don’t speak? I’m going with no.

Closing time
It’s bad enough my internal clock is in turmoil and I don’t know when I’m actually hungry or tired. Bars in Greece don’t close at a given time, so don’t wait for your friendly neighborhood bouncer to check the fake clock on the wall and hustle you out at the end of an evening. They close when you leave. This is awesome! And totally not awesome! Take it from your ole buddy Mike: pace yourself.

Cell phone service
I don’t care what the marketers want us to believe, cell phone service in the states is sub-par, especially compared to Europe. I live in a populated area on the northeast with cell towers and repeaters everywhere, and I get no voice signal and a single text bar at my place. While in that little town of Klido on Naxos, population 42 (and I’m fairly certain 28 of those are sheep), my cousin had two bars or more and full conversations all the livelong day. A-ma-zing.

The Olive Tree
The olive tree is a sign of peace, strength and perseverance. Olive trees can live for thousands of years in a brutal climate. Yianni hand-built a lovely stone sitting area around a twin olive tree, pictured below. It's a one-of-a-kind spot to relax and reflect, soaking in God's beauty. And answer your cell phone if you're European, and stew in envy if you're American.



Well, I really hope you enjoyed my tales and get a chance to visit Greece one day (or again). Obviously, I loved the trip.

Efharisto, Mom & Dad!!!

Khairete


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Diablo III is coming! I have reached Nerdvana.

If I could be a giddy 12-year-old school boy for just a moment, the computer game Diablo III has just been announced by Blizzard and I just about peed myself. I hit a note that could break a dual-pane E4 Andersen replacement window.

You can read all the game details here:

http://www.blizzard.com/diablo3/

Most of my adult friends will say, "And I care why?" You don't. Unless you also played this PC-based action RPG (role-playing game) along with millions of others.

I've been following the rumors for years, all which led to disappointment. Over the past month, I've been following a much stronger rumor that an announcement may be coming at the Blizzard Entertainment Worldwide Invitational conference in Paris, France, which began today. Even yesterday, after following stories all month, I thought the big announcement was actually going to be about their World of Warcraft franchise, which from a business perspective made sense - it's the most successful MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) ever and is still going strong.

But the announcement I've been waiting to hear for seven years was made official today. It would be equivalent to Gary Larson announcing he's starting up The Far Side comic strip again.

I am probably most tickled that there is something coming (some day, there's no release date yet) that will help take my mind off of the real issues (even if just for a few hours at a time) that I struggle with each day as I try to think of possible solutions or even ideas that could ignite change. Issues like corporate (oil) and personal (real estate) greed; alternative energy sources and a real plan to get them in place (not just a prototype); eliminating handgun deaths (while keeping the 221-year-old U.S. Constitution intact, even the misinterpreted militia-based items); promoting human respect and common decency (instead of hatred and incivility); and encouraging and living by an allocentric (instead of egocentric) perspective.

See, the world is a total downer right now, and we need some fun. So I'm excited. Really excited! This is bigger than Mulder finally proving we're not alone, or the return of Star Trek to TV, or Lucas saying he's got a decent Star Wars epilogue in the can.
Well, let's not get carried away...

Cheers!


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Good Early Morning to You Today, America!

I am not a morning person, unless it’s marking the end of my day. I like to ease into my morning routine and slowly accept that I eventually have to head into work. I already get plenty of stress from my caffeine-induced morning commute. So today’s question: when watching any of the national morning news programs (GMA, The Early Show, or Today), what’s up with the 25-second interviews?

You can’t rush a hurricane victim who's lost everything because you have three more segments before the national weather report (which is apparently so useful we get six every hour)! I understand that structure and tight timing is required in a live television program, and things don’t always go as expected. But if you’re going to speak to someone about anything sensitive that requires patience, respect and at least a little decorum, don’t put them in the speed slot and rush them along! There’s nothing more distasteful on these shows, in my opinion, then cutting someone off a mere 15 seconds after they've been asked how they’re coping after a tragic event, just to get to the Cooking with Crisco segment.

“When the doctors told you your son was slowly being poisoned from the peanut-free macrobiotic meals you had been preparing for him with unknowingly tainted well water, what went through your mind?”

“Well…it was just awful. I kept saying ‘This is all my fault. [tears] I was trying to protect him from packaged foods that could trigger anaphylactic shock and all this time I was—’”

“I CAN ONLY imagine. Well, Tracy, thanks for taking the time to be with us here this morning. All of us here at NBS have you in our thoughts. [beat] Gordon, what ya got cooking over there? I’m thinking peanut brittle!!!! And it smells delicious!”

Look, if you can’t spare enough time for a non-celebrity to at least respond, don’t have them on your program. It’s uninformative, insincere and leaves all of us with a bad taste in our collective mouths. Almost as bad as peanut brittle.

Honestly, I watch a lot of ESPN’s SportsCenter in the morning so I’m up to date on my favorite sports and, more importantly, everyone else’s so I can maintain my man card at the water cooler. I get my national and world news from NPR’s Morning Edition on my drive in. I get my local news from an RSS feed to my local rag, the Baltimore Sun. And I like the national morning shows for human-interest stories, regional weather envy (it’s always nicer somewhere else), watching bands perform outdoors in 22-degree weather at 7:30 in the morning, and blog fodder.

Back to you, Chet.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Graduation Day Advice

My daughter graduated from high school today. I know she's on cloud nine, and it's deservedly so. It was an incredibly satisfying afternoon for me as well for all the reasons you can imagine, and a few others that shall remain where they belong, private and in my own heart.

But I am inspired to share for any graduate who cares to listen from the vault of "I actually know now what I didn't know then."

  • It's your life so they have to be your choices.

  • After earning a bachelor's degree, no one asks if you went all four years, and often don't even care where you went.

  • There's no shame in community college, only an easier commute and the same general electives at a tenth of the university price.

  • Work on your own timeline - 2 years, 4 years, 6 years... it's all relative to your own goals and schedule, and not that of others. I'm not recommending you burn through a 6-year bachelor's on your parents' dime, but if you need to take it slowly, especially in the beginning, the degree will still be waiting for you when you get there.

  • If you somehow have the finances to take the time to study abroad, or intern within your related field, it's a worthwhile extension of your educational schedule.

  • Eliminating career choices is just as important as choosing them.

  • There's no shame in skipping college altogether if you want to pursue a trade, an art, a vocation, a calling, a job, a family, military service, etc.

  • A college degree doesn't make anyone smarter than anyone else.

  • It's OK to be undecided.

  • It's OK to change your mind.

  • It's OK to change your mind again.

  • If you didn't graduate, there's no shame in taking the extra time to finish what you started.

  • It's never what you expect when you get there, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy the ride.


OK, enough serious talk. Here's what else you'll learn:

  • No one needs whole-life insurance.

  • It takes two to tango, three to make it interesting.

  • Learn the symmetry test now: if you have it on both sides of your body, it's supposed to be there.

  • Pyramid schemes will not bring you instant fortune - the only thing that grows exponentially are the number of victims. Remember when you repeatedly asked in algebra class, "When will I ever use this stuff in real life?" This would have been one of those times.

  • You'll be oddly willing to start paying outrageous sums for adult phys ed, also know as health clubs, gyms, spas...

  • Set up your reunion web site now so you won't have to search for everyone in ten years. I didn't say "five years" because time will begin its acceleration now and you won't feel that different after such a short span. Reunions are a lot more fun when everyone has physically aged, and you get to see first hand that Karma has taken care of all those people who were so mean to you these last four years.


I'll add more as they come to me...feel free to add yours in the comments!



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Girl with the Butterfly Wings

Last week while driving I saw the cutest thing I’ve seen in a really long time. A little girl was running up a grassy hill with a pair of huge butterfly wings flapping on her back. And her older brother was running with her. They were both smiling. And that image hit me with so many thoughts at once I had to write them down.

She put something on that made her happy, and wasn’t worried about what others might think. If anything, it would make others happy. She was probably thinking how great it would be to fly, and not that it isn’t humanly possible.

She was playing with her brother instead of fighting with him.

She was not stressed, thinking about work, or about who or what the next disappointment might be. She was just having fun. She and her friends probably laugh all the time just by being silly.

She looked like she was actually trying to fly up that hill.

And it reminded me of when I was young, not in butterfly wings but close: a safety-pinned towel that served as a Superman cape that allowed me to fly.

[And before anyone from my family reminisces for me, I also recall running around the neighborhood in my PJs before bed, with a fly (hell, it was a buttonless flap before the days of Velcro) that wasn’t built to prevent the instant humiliation of a young boy as he realized why the wind felt a little extra comforting.]

And I remembered playing with my friends in the summer from morning until I had to be told to come in for dinner three times, ultimately to wolf down my food in record time so I could get right back out there before it got too dark (my definition of too dark was equivalent to a full solar eclipse-not exactly the same as my folks').

It took me back to the days when all of my needs were met, and the only thing I had to truly consider was how to fill my time.

And as all these thoughts flew through my head, I realized I was smiling, and not thinking about work, or who or what the next disappointment might be. And wouldn’t it be fun to pull the car over, run up to the top of that hill, and roll down like a big log until I’m dizzy? And wouldn’t it be cool to fly?


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Accidental Disclosure

After coming very close today to plowing into a jackass that pulled out in front of me way too late, while I was foolishly zooming down the right-turn only lane assuming everyone going straight or left would continue to do so, I decided that (a) they’re not accidents, they’re mistakes and (b) we should start including the driver’s name(s) and hometowns in the morning traffic reports when these mistakes happen. Perhaps removing the anonymity people enjoy behind the wheel will make them think twice before making a move they fully know is unreasonable and so often prickish.

Today’s delay is courtesy of Tony le Tigre of the 700 block of Narcissist Row in Westchester Hills. Tony decided he needed to be in the right lane when it was already occupied and didn’t feel like waiting his turn. You can reach Tony on his cell at 202-555-PUNK or drop him an email at selfentitledbastard@alwaysgottabefirst.com and thank him personally for providing you with a cardiac workout and some extra driving time this morning.

Our traffic nightmares in the morning and evening rush are partly due to too many vehicles on highways that weren’t meant to support the volume, or that were poorly designed from the outright. But I contend most of our real delays are due to the mistakes that are entirely avoidable if people had respect for the laws of traffic and more importantly the laws of physics, they paid attention and they waited their mothertrucking turn!

I’m not the best driver by any means, and I really try to count to 10 and not react in any vehicular way like following, tailgating, braking, beeping or even flipping off drivers who f’ up. I wish others would follow suit. We all take it personally of course because the behavior is simultaneously selfish and risky. And when there are kids in the car, yours or mine, it’s really hard not to lose it.

There are times when someone is in a legitimate hurry (getting a pregnant woman to the hospital when the contractions are down to five minutes apart, rushing to your child’s school when all you’ve been told is “they’ve been injured”), but most times it’s because the other driver is an ass. When that’s the case, and they cut you off or cause an accident, I can guarantee it’s not the first time they were an ass and it won’t be the last.

So instead of worrying about them myself, or feeling any need to react emotionally, I’d rather just hear about them on the radio or read about them in the paper (list them right after the crime log).

Sorry I was late to work today, boss. Apparently Paris Hyatt couldn’t be bothered with all those distracting lights, signs and signals yet still felt confident enough in her multitasking proficiency to text her boyfriend as she flew through the intersection of Inconsiderate & Brainless. Actually, she only made it into the intersection before colliding with the truck that had the actual right of way. I’ll be sure to send a flowery eCard to wtfwereyouthinking@heynumberone.com when she’s feeling a little better.

I know my rant is harsh but I have very little patience with those who know better and choose to risk the lives of others all for a few seconds or a better place in line. And half the time it’s to get to work. Who wants to be there earlier? Please, after you.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Wireless – The Next Big Tobacco

A totally paranoid conspiracy theory, or the truth we already know and simply choose to suppress back into that little space deep within our psyches where we tell ourselves the government would never let us hurt ourselves, especially in the name of convenience or big business?

I’m not one to lie so my guess is our cool, techy, gadget-filled, wireless world of constant communication is slowly killing us, and not just from the information overload. I truly believe just like big tobacco buried the truth decades ago about the addictive/harmful qualities of nicotine and tobacco, and what we all told ourselves to rationalize our own addictions, the same is happening again, only this time it’s companies like Apple, Verizon, AT&T, MCI, Comcast, Microsoft, Netgear, and Cisco at the helm.

I’m not an engineer or a scientist, and I can’t explain exactly how all these things work, but I believe we’re all being bombarded 24/7 by wireless microwave technology – cell phones, cordless phones, blackberries, digital and satellite TV and radio, Wi-Fi (internet hotspots, our own home wireless networks), even infrared remotes. And we keep adding the devices, networks and features to our arsenal of gotta-haves.

Just because we can’t see it or feel it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us. I think of the technician who drops a 15-pound lead vest on us for x-rays (even dental), and physically leaves the room, often quickly, to get behind an additional shield before clicking the button. Are they crouching when they click? I bet they even squint a little. Remember the warning signs they used to post on microwave ovens for anyone with a pacemaker (stand back at least three feet) – we’d put our food in them and then leave the room, just like the techs.

When I think of our wireless world today, I imagine a jewel thief who sprays an aerosol fog to reveal an intricate laser-guided alarm system that lights up like brilliant strings in Jacob’s ladder, and we’re standing in center of the web.

By the time the true, long-term studies are released to the public, and the direct link to the meteoric rise of cancers like brain and bone marrow is established, it will be too late because we won’t care. OK, we’ll care, but we’ll be more concerned about losing our conveniences. Hell, it’s already too late.

The data will verify the cancer link just like they did for smoking and lung cancer, and we’ll resist it, refute it, search for other possible factors, ignore it or ultimately dismiss it. How many studies did we really need to tell us inhaling burning paper and chemically treated tobacco into our lungs was harmful? How many studies will we need to tell us working all day long in supercharged environments with powerful wireless networks, PCs and laptops isn’t healthy? Or wearing microwave receivers on our hips (pockets or purses) and holding them to our temples for 1,000 minutes per month (and unlimited nights and weekends) isn’t the safest thing to do? And we buy them for our kids.

Maybe the line should start forming here for the class action suit for second-hand wi-frying.

No one needs a cell phone, or total disconnected access. If you want to call someone, you can use a landline or a pay phone (if you can find one). But when’s the last time you pulled the car over and dialed a 10-digit number by hand that wasn’t stored in your device’s directory. And we could plug into wired docks for internet/LAN access, but I know no one wants to regress. And if I ever suggested these actions in the workplace, I’d be ridiculed and ignored.

And I’m not excluding myself from those who can’t live without wireless. I’ve got all the gadgets too, and a full list of rationalizations. The question I have to ask myself is if I want to live a shorter, much more convenient, adult life, or start changing my dependencies now?

Do I have the facts or proof or studies? No. I may just be paranoid and technically uninformed. Even if I did, would you believe me?


Just food for thought. Can you hear me now? Will you hear me then?

Postscript. I didn't say my idea was original. Here are a bevy of links after a quick Google search:
http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=1132
http://commonground.ca/iss/0612185/cg185_cellphone.shtml
http://breakfornews.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=121
http://www.breakfornews.com/CellPhones-Fry-Your-Brain.htm
http://www.saveyourbrain.info/media.html
http://compnetworking.about.com/cs/wireless/f/healthhazards.htm
http://www.dailywireless.com/features/health-hazards-of-a-wireless-world-030507/
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/healthmain.html?in_article_id=449981&in_page_id=1774
http://www.emrnetwork.org/schools/macopinion.htm
http://www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/
http://www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/sar.html
http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/sar/
http://www.fda.gov/cellphones/qa.html
http://www.goland.org/cellphonehazards/
http://www.centerdigitalgov.com/international/story.php?docid=77034
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobile_phone_radiation_and_health
http://technology.inc.com/hardware/articles/200609/cellphonesafety.html


Sunday, April 06, 2008

If you can’t hear me, why are you shouting?

Why do people speak louder into their phones when they can’t hear the person on the other line? I do it myself. It’s like wiping your cheek when you see an eyelash on someone else’s face, or hitting the imaginary brakes when you’re in the passenger seat.

I can promise you, increasing the volume of your own voice has no affect on theirs.

I get it. We can’t live without our cell phones. But it seems to me more often than not, we can’t hear people very well when we’re on them and it’s usually our own fault. We love the convenience, but taking a call outside, in the car, in a store, in a bar, in a restaurant (really? do you have to?), is more trouble than its worth due to the competing noise around us. And we end up annoying everyone.

What’s even more frustrating is when you’re in a quiet setting when someone takes a call from someone on their cell phone who can’t be heard. Your officemate or library neighbor just speaks progressively louder, and eliminates all chances of membership in Mensa.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot get the earpiece volume for my mobile phone up beyond the top bar. It’s like repeatedly hitting the elevator call button in futility when it doesn’t arrive fast enough – of course, if it did arrive fast enough we’d all completely freak out during the ride when our heads pounded into the ceiling and there was still no view of Wonkaville. I think if the elevator manufacturers started making the light toggle on and off every time we hit the button, they might actually break us of this moronic habit. Again, I do it myself.

So the next time you’re on the phone and can’t hear, please go somewhere that you can, or ask the person to call you back on a better line (if that’s a reasonable request). At least stop shouting.


And I lied about Mensa (http://www.mensa.org/). The only requirement for membership is a high IQ – common sense and decorum are optional, and apparently don’t correlate with intelligence. There will always be plenty of rude, loud people, genius or not-so-genius, screaming into their cell phones, repeatedly punching elevator buttons and providing more fodder for my blogs.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Over-30 Softball: Blast To My Past

I don’t remember seeing Bill & Ted there, but I think I mastered time travel. Why would I attempt to relive my youth, when they weren’t my glory days?

This was several years ago, but a friend of mine asked me if I was interested in joining an over-30 softball league. He said it’s all in fun and not competitive at all. Really? It’s not baseball but it’s still a competitive sport and it’s still a bunch of men. But they’re adults now and we’re all over 30. And I love playing baseball. How hard can softball be?

Oh. My. God.

Over 30 doesn’t mean old, or non-athletic, and it definitely doesn’t mean non-competitive. Some of these guys were huge and everyone was competitive.

It started with me being picked last. Awesome! I’m not very tall but I can still play. I just don’t look like I can play, especially when I’m standing next to Count Jockula.

Then there’s the good-natured taunting. Please. I think they made me cry, more than once. I just wanted to go home.

No, instead of enjoying myself I’m straight back to when I was 12, and awkward, where I didn’t care about making the big play, I just didn’t want to embarrass myself.

They put me in the outfield, of course, but in adult softball that means Action City. Although I am entirely capable of catching a fly ball, now the batters just pick their spot and hit them way short so I chase them like I don’t know how to play my position, or way over my head so I can pop my glove up just 80 feet shy of my target.

Now I begin the nerd-player mantra: “Please don’t hit it to me, don’t hit it to me, don’t hit it to me.” Hit it to the third baseman! I can back him up. He’ll look like the fool and I’ll be playing my position.

Then I get my turn at the plate. It’s slow-pitch. Who can’t hit a slowly pitched softball? After I realize everyone is watching me, apparently I can’t. If it came down the pike like a baseball, I’d have a chance. I’m fine in the cages. But even though it’s slowly pitched, it comes in a really steep arc. I actually have time to swing all three times in one pitch and I’m outta there!

After the strikeout comes the walk of shame. No one offers the insincere condolences I got when I was 12 like “You’ll get ‘em next time.” Total and absolute silence.

I play with the Brawny towel guys who all get home runs. They’re disappointed if it doesn’t clear the fence, which makes an evening of softball double-headers (they usually play two) a lot longer than I expected. Even if I do get a hit, I don’t exactly point to left field before I swing and I have to sprint to first base. Sprint? I haven’t sprinted in over 20 years. My quads are in hibernation and my hammies are tighter than my sphincter was when I was playing left field. When I jettison from home plate, for some reason my head suddenly weighs 400 pounds and I run like a Vaudeville tap dancer bringing it home, and wipe out right before I get to the actual base.

And if this hasn’t been fun enough, there’s the heckling. I have a million comebacks for nearly every situation except sports heckling. It’s like that nightmare when you’re being chased, and you’re legs are Jell-o and when you open your mouth to scream, nothing comes out. Except it’s not a dream - I’m paralyzed because I know I can’t trash talk when I’m going to suck.

Recovery time after a softball game for nerdletes like me is worse than a week-long bender (I can only imagine). Besides involuntarily reliving the events over and over in my head, and constantly checking over my shoulder to make sure no one is about to stuff me in a locker, I have to suffer through the muscle pain and make things up every time someone asks why I’m walking funny: “I’m auditioning for a John Cleese tribute.” And then I remember women play softball, only it’s fast pitch and they’re a lot better at this. You don’t have to ask, I’m ready to turn in my man card.

Just for fun my ass. I’m in my 40s and was made to feel like a pre-teen again. Why would I do that? Don’t fall for it, unless you’re a jock looking to regain some of your lost glory. Then I’m sure it’s fun for you, but I bet I can kick your ass at Risk or Jeopardy mothertrucker. What is "Be careful what you wish for, Alex?"