Monday, December 21, 2009

Two Men In Bethlehem

We weren't bearing gifts, we were just trying to reach a destination. Neither one of us knew we would end up here - this little town of Bethlehem, but a Nor'easter had rolled in and mucked up everyone's flight plans, including Phil's.

Phil was visiting us from the West Coast and had come in for a weekend reunion with friends and family. And, of course, a traditional holiday visit to The Great Notch Inn, a New Jersey roadside bar that looks like it was plucked from the wilds of the Colorado frontier.

The weather outside was in the teens that weekend night and in the air one could feel that something big was moving its way in. Anywhere from 6-12 inches was predicted. But inside, The Notch offered a warm respite. The people, the drinks, the live band crammed into the 14 x 20 foot room provided the same warmth that a potbelly stove could've offered, a fixture that would be quite at home in this rustic interior (but they don't have one due to insurance issues).

Phil was already a little tense. The flight was expensive and his time was brief. He had already called in sick to the office so he could take the Thursday night red eye out of SFO. So by the time Sunday rolled around and he found his return flight cancelled, his temperament went from anxious to fearful to pissed.

Although he was getting a fare refund from the airlines, it wasn't fair that the next available flight back was not until Wednesday -- and cost double.

Phil was in a pickle that snowy eve. He would have to extend the lie to his boss that his Friday sickness had turned into the flu. And he would have to fork over a thousand bucks to fly home late.

Greyhound and the train were options but all that traveling would still cost him a few days. It was not until late in the evening on Sunday when Phil finally got through to the busy online travel site and booked a reservation. It seemed half the Eastern seaboard was trying to book a flight out of there. The airlines had everyone by the balls, even Phil's. It would be a cool $1200 to fly home, but at least he would be there.

While he rationalized the cost and the fact that he had a refundable ticket, another idea popped into his head - what about alternative airports.

It's common knowledge that the NYC metro area has some of the worst flight delays in the country. But with a little creativity, a few extra stops and a lot less money, sometimes you can get lucky with some of the lesser known areas.

Philly is only about an hour and a half from us. There's even Westchester, Stewart and Atlantic City airports. But not many folks think about KABE - that's Lehigh Valley International, nestled in between Allentown and Bethlehem, PA.

When the message, "Only 2 seats left", appeared on his screen, Phil knew he had to take this flight and refund the other ticket. Who cared if the airport was in another state and another city he never heard of, or that the flight left at 6:30am and connected in Cleveland back to SFO?It only cost $430!!!

When I got the call asking if I could drive Phil to Bethlehem and drop him in the airport late at night so he could wait for his morning flight, I shuddered. I pictured the poor guy having to sit wedged into an uncomfortable seat, under a fluorescent lit environment, and all alone in a podunk, backwater terminal. Phil deserves a little better than that.

And when he told me the Sands Corporation had just opened a brand, spanking new casino downtown, I immediately thought - road trip.

If Charles Dickens was American, Bethlehem may have just been one of the locations for his stories. There is that turn of the century feel you get from the row houses, the ornate stone buildings downtown and the industrial revolution steel mills that still loom over the city.

Bethlehem Steel was founded in 1857 and became one of the largest providers of steel for shipyards and armaments around the world. Its steel design enabled the construction of the first skyscrapers. Bethlehem invented the I-beam, as seen in its logo. At one point, Bethlehem's CEO was the highest paid executive in the country.

But by 2003, the company had gone bankrupt. Foreign competition, resistance to
modernization and the lucrative benefits paid to its workers, finally brought the behemoth down.

What's left now are hulking, abandoned steel mills, empty office buildings and monuments to a bygone era. You can't help but see history when looking at these structures.

And now, sitting amongst these ruins is America's next new revitalization effort - the casino.

Some call it a devil's playground set up to tempt the last few dollars out of your wallet. Others call it a plague that will be the final scourge on the land. For Phil and I, we called it a place to hang out until his flight left.

We two men entered Bethlehem just after midnight. The quaint downtown was empty. We had the area to ourselves on that cold night. Our only welcoming came from the bright and festive Christmas lights. We drove down Main Street, pulled to the only thing that seemed to be alive - the casino.

It beckoned to us at the end of town. A giant red (a devil's red) Sands sign
hung across a massive black (a devil's black) steel span that looked like an invisibly suspended bridge. The brand new complex appeared clean, modern and sparsely attended.

Inside were 140,000 square feet of gaming space, 7 restaurants and bars, and 3,000 slot machines.

We hate slots.

We like table games and this place was virtually devoid of them. I say "virtually" because you can play roulette, black jack and three-card poker on some new fangled electronic table game. A computer-run video of an attractive dealer pretends to talk to you and engage you in a game, while you feed your money into a bill slot, sit back and watch electronically delivered cards determine your fate. The roulette game doesn't even have a dealer. So much for re-training ex-factory workers. There's no need for them, just a couple of overweight security guards standing around the floor along with marginal looking cocktail waitresses (hopefully they will all be replaced with machines one day soon, too).

As Phil said, the only advantage to these electronic images is that you can tell the dealer to fuck off. Try doing that in Vegas.

We begrudgingly sat down to play because we had about 4 hours to kill. But when we started winning at our roulette and black jack games, we didn't mind the imitation game style because the money was real! Phil, in a short amount of time, amassed a handsome take, and I didn't do so shabby, either.

At 5am we took our gifts from Bethlehem and I dropped Phil at the airport while I went to look for an inn that would provide me a little sanctuary for the rest of the evening, or at least until the sun came up.

It was interesting driving up to a local motel without a reservation, baggage (or a cheap date) and asking if they had a vacancy. I felt like I was on the lam. Who show's up at 5am for a room?

It was not a problem. There was room a the inn. I managed a few hours of sleep, got up, showered, put on the same clothes, went back to explore Bethlehem in the day and grab some local breakfast. A great place to visit, but probably wouldn't want to live there.

I drove back home in less than an hour arriving in the early afternoon. I gave Phil a call to leave him a message thanking him for the fun weekend. He answered his phone to my surprise. As it turned out, he had just landed safely in California and was standing on the curb of the arrivals deck waiting for his ride - a ride to his next destination.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Man

My son, the middle child, is already taller than me (at age 15), smarter than me (not too hard), and much more social than I was at his age - granted I grew up in a small town with not too many people to be social with. He's been dating the same girl for past 18 months.

I truly admire him, his maturity and all his accomplishments.

He recently made the cut for the Freshman basketball team. It was an intense week and a half try-out against kids who have spent most of their careers playing basketball in summer leagues, travel leagues and special camps run by coaches, which always help to garner favoritism.

My son decided this past summer he was going to try and make the team. On his own, he spent hours shooting hoops in our driveway trying to perfect his shots, and playing pick up games in the local park at night. He stuck to his training regimen, figured out how to correct his mistakes, and built self-confidence in himself.

There wasn't much advice I could give him. While I was athletic in high school, I didn't play basketball - wasn't well coordinated for that sport. I ran track, though, so the only thing I could encourage him to do was run Cross Country in the fall to condition himself for basketball. Which he did, and was able to put himself amongst the top Freshmen runners.

He got better and stronger on his own and because he wanted to. And it was this determination that finally got him on the squad. While he may not be a starter on the team, he's definitely a player.

I like to remind him of those things when I have some time alone with him. I think it kind of embarrasses him and I don't know how much longer I will have his attention, but I feel it's my duty to say it when I can.

So when I picked him up after a practice the other day, I noticed a lot of other high school girls around him, really cute girls (don't worry, I have no interest in them), girls from the other sport teams.

When he got in the car, I asked him if he knew who they were.

"Yeah, they're just friends," he said casually.

Now, as I said before, I wasn't that social in high school. Okay, I didn't date anyone in high school. So when I saw this attention from these appealing and attractive girls to my son, all I could think was - why isn't he trying to "pick them up"?

I know he has girlfriend. But he's been dating the same girl, as I said, for the past 18 months. While this fidelity is wonderful and commendable, high school only comes around once. Cute girls who actually talk to you come around rarely. Damnit, I would've killed for a mediocre girl to talk to me in high school. And don't deny it, those of you with children, we all try to live vicariously through these kids, whether it's sports, academics, or adorable, winsome girls.

I wanted to use this alone time to tell him about the need to experience as much as possible (within reason) while one is young enough to do it. The image of Alan Arkin's Grandpa character in Little Miss Sunshine kept coming to mind. Actually, it was his advice that I was thinking of: Listen to me, I got no reason to lie to you, don't make the same mistakes I made when I was young. Fuck a lotta women kid, not just one woman, a lotta women.

I tried to convey these sentiments to him - using other words. But once again he proved to me that he is the bigger person - in size and wisdom.

"Dad, I don't need to date other girls. I'm already with someone I really like."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Birthday Bliss

Today is my wife's birthday. We are pretty low key about birthday's around here, so we don't do much for each other. That's why every year is such a let down.

This year was somewhat of a milestone for her and I suppose I should have planned something.

But I didn't have to. Her friends decided to surprise her with a "girl's" party. It was a win-win for me because I only had to supply a list of invitees to the organizer (so now I can claim I did something), and it got her out of the house for the evening.

Okay, I'm not that callous. I did take her for a nice lunch during the day - just the two of us. Although, she complained all afternoon that her stomach hurt after the meal. (My meal was perfectly fine).

Perhaps, it was the dessert place we went to afterwards. Don't you just love the sign from the restaurant?

While my wife was out being surprised and getting toasted, I thought I would do one other nice thing - make the next day's lunch for the kids. My wife already put out the brown paper bags with their names on them. All I had to do was stuff them with food.

I asked my daughter what she usually gets.

"Why are you asking me?"

"I'm making lunches."

"Do you know how?"

"Just tell me what you want."

"Turkey, not the regular turkey, but the honey roasted one, with a little mayo, Swiss cheese on a roll. Not a round roll, a long roll cut in half."

"Okay." I headed downstairs, but she wasn't done.

"Two Kit-Kat bars, a bag of popcorn and a small water bottle. Not the tall ones, the tiny ones."

I knew if I didn't get it right, I'd never hear the end of it. I thought I would just stuff her bag with a ten dollar bill instead.

I asked my eldest son what he gets.

"Peanut butter and jelly."

"That's it?"


"Nothing else?"


Perfect. That one would be a slam dunk. What a good kid.

And finally, I asked the middle child, the one who is so studious and upstanding, what he wanted.

"Don't make me anything."


"I don't want you messing it up."

"What's to mess up?"

He was trying to be diplomatic.

"Let's just have mom do it in the morning."

"It's mom's birthday. I'm trying to save her some work here, so just tell me what you want."

"You're trying to look good, right?"

"I'm just trying to make every one's life a bit easier. Now, tell me what you're gonna eat."

"I'll make it myself in the morning."

"Come on, this is crazy. I'm making everything now so we don't have to rush around in the morning."

"If you make it now, it'll be soggy by the morning and I'll just throw it away."

I threw his empty bag into the refrigerator for safekeeping.

When my wife came home she asked me where all the lunch bags were (after she told me how much fun she had).

I just smiled.

"You made the lunches?"

"Of course."

She shook her head. "I make them in the morning because the kids complained about how soggy their food got."

She opened the refrigerator, emptied the bags and took apart the lunches. "I'll put them together in the morning. This way things will stay fresh if they're not pressed up against each other for so long."

That last line reminded of why most married couples don't have much sex. Maybe they're just trying to stay fresh?

Hope you had one hell of a birthday, honey!

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Orleans

I went to hell last week. It's currently in a place called New Orleans.

New Orleans is a beautiful place, replete with Southern gentility. But an evil specter hangs over the city. Katrina's hand still weighs heavy on the area.

In some places you can see the physical damage. Empty office buildings with broken windows, store fronts still boarded up. These scenes are dotted amongst thriving businesses. How did some survive and others die?

In other places, you can feel it.

As I walked through downtown on a bright, sunny day during the middle of the week, I kept noticing one recurring thing -- there were virtually no people. Sidewalks were empty, parking was available on the street and traffic was light.

I travelled to New Orleans with Andy to visit an old college pal, Billy. (Interesting that these two mid-40 year olds still go by child-like names.) Billy's an assistant professor at one of the universities and Andy and I travelled from up North just to see him action.

When I asked Billy where all the people were, he told me that "they just didn't come back." What an eerie thought, but I suppose that's true as I heard many communities of transplants have settled in Rhode Island, Arizona, Texas, and one family was even living with Larry David in southern California.

There were three conferences going on throughout the city while we were there, and still no people. It was strange knowing the city probably lost half its population during the storm. Some died but the others just fled in the exodus.

Walking through the French Quarter turned out to be a civilized trek, even along Bourbon Street. There were no offers to exchange beads for flesh, no Hurricane drinking youth carrying their elongated drinking glasses, no vomit and no lines. The last one turned out to be to our advantage as we were able to secure tables at some of the finest eating establishments without a wait.

As I mentioned, we came to see Billy teach, but that never happened. It turned the day we were there, his role was only to be a silent participant in the 200+ lecture hall. And his class started in the morning, so just like we acted in our own college days we weren't going to make it.

New Orleans is a city of dichotomies. We found this out when Andy and I signed on for a Segway scooter tour of downtown. It was the first time I ever road this two-wheeled, gyro-balanced modern contraption. It's also the first time, I was led on a tour by a 66 year-old, white-haired, former Navy woman, named Crystal. She could barely walk, but boy could she ride.

I highly recommend trying one of these machines out. A lot of fun, especially when you ditch the tour leader and try and figure out the town on your own.

The other dichotomy occurred when the three of us went out for a cocktail in the late afternoon. Billy found one of the oldest bars in the Quarter, Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. It pre-dates our nation's independence and pretty much looks like it was when it was an operating blacksmith shop. From the outside, it looks like it should've been condemned. Inside, it's dark, wooden and lit by candles. Managing the bar of this antiquity was the hottest, blondest, firmest, 20-something-ist around.

Our one drink turned into many more as we sat in the tavern for over three hours, just staring like panting dogs at Laura. A brief smile from her direction was all we needed to keep coming up for more drinks. And, having her take off her jean jacket and expose us to her tank top clad body didn't hurt either.

The only reason we pulled ourselves up from our seats was the realization that we needed solid food. But we promised each other that right after dinner we would stumble back in to see Laura. If only Laura knew. It's amazing what can drive some men to drink hard liquor.

We went for a fantastic dinner at Nola's where everything we ate just mesmerized our mouths. (BTW, drinking Bourbon certainly helps everything taste and feel better). We finished our desserts and then headed back to Jean Lafitte's.

It was a lengthy walk, but, of course, the streets were not crowded and we had our mission to fulfill, so the walk seemed to fly by. We raced down Bourbon street to Lafitte's corner location. It was the first time I viewed a bar as a sanctuary. We made our way into the darkened room, almost feeling transported back to the early 1700s. We were looking for our wench. We approached the bar. And now, standing behind the wooden counter was Ralph, a tall bearded gentlemen, with a tattoo and piercing.

We gave up drinking after that and headed to the casino where we gave up money and dignity as well.

I was glad to have visited New Orleans just for a while. Any longer would've been hell.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Spa Castle

When I tell someone I went to a Korean spa in Queens, NY, I inevitably get a smirk and a strange back and forth motion with the hand from that person.

I don't get it. Am I missing some type of code? Koreans are upstanding people, right?

In any case, I was invited to join a small group on a day trip, and since I had no real commitments in the middle of the week, I went along.

We took the 7 train out of Manhattan to the last stop in Queens. The 45-minute trip made it seem like we had crossed the Pacific into Asia. If it were not for the a few street signs in English, you would've have thought you landed in downtown Seoul or Taipei.

There were store fronts with chickens hanging in the window, street vendors selling steamed buns and a guy who kept following us down the street asking if we wanted to meet young women. What a friendly guy.

It was a damp, rainy day and getting into a soothing spa was becoming more appealing. The only problem was our leader could not find out how to get there. Supposedly, there was a bus that was going to meet us at the train station, but nothing showed.

After circling the block a few times, we went into a bank for shelter and directions. We asked one of the tellers where we could find a taxi around the area.

"This bank, no taxi here. This bank. Get out."

Back on the street, we were fortunate enough to find a cab line. It had been nearby us all along. We hopped in and drove off.

Addresses are quite strange in this part of New York and trying to get the cab driver to understand that we wanted to go to 131-10 11 Avenue took some work. One of the riders with us, Scott, tried some newly-learned Mandarin. I'm convinced this cost us another 10 minutes of drive time.

Eventually, we arrived. It was no joke calling this place a castle. It took up most of the block and was five-stories high. It was legit (and why wouldn't it be?).

You enter on the ground floor, pay a nominal fee for the facilities amenities, and head to the locker room. Shoes get their own storage, clothes follow further down the line.

Not that I like stripping naked in front of my friends, when in Rome, do as the Romans? We all stowed our personal possessions and headed for the showers.

This place combined Asian and European sensibilities on spa life. Modern facilities provided 6 different kinds of pools with varying temperatures and water jet capabilities; a steam room, sauna, personal grooming supplies at shower stations and a nice gentlemen who offered to do body scrubs with a broom. And this was just the first floor.

Upstairs were restaurants, outdoor pools and various co-ed sauna rooms with temperatures going from 39 degrees up to 178 degrees. There was a giant nap room and finally a place to get a real massage.

I partook in a 60 minutes rub down by a petite Asian woman with hands of magic who did a fantastic job of relieving tension in my neck, back, legs, arms and gluts (yes, you can have tension there) - and that's it.

Afterward, I retreated (actually floated) back downstairs to relax further at the whirlpools with my friends. As I recounted the extra-sensory experience, I sat near a high-powered water jet that if positioned correctly probably could have cleaned out much of my insides. As I told the story, my friends offered smirks and strange hand movements as I described the situation.

As I was thrust around the pool by the cannons of water, I could only think of the strange dichotomy I was experiencing. At one point, I was getting a little taste of heaven and solitude during my muscle workout. And now, I was sitting naked in a pool of men recounting a near nirvana experience.

Only in Hell, my friends. Only in Hell.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My Last Day

On my last day, you couldn't wipe the smile from my face. The opportunity not to be part of this organization (but collect a severance) was just too good for me. I was bursting with joy. The last time I felt like this was when I was a kid on the last day of school before the long summer vacation.

I was so elated that I worried my exuberance would be met by a lynch gang. I thought my former colleagues were beginning to catch on that I never really wanted to be in this place.

Perhaps it was my retorts, like, "Who would ever want to be in banking?" or "This place is falling apart faster than a snowball in hell.", or "I know one career I'll never try again.", that just didn't sit right with them. I mean, these were people who put in 10-20 years in the institution. They certainly didn't need a snot-nosed "kid" telling them their career choices sucked. They knew it already, I think. I'm sure they kept those thoughts deep in the recesses of their psychic apparatus.

"Okay, is it the end of the day yet?" one of them asked.

"No, it's only 10:15am," I replied.

"You should leave early on your last day."

"Oh, no. I'm sticking this out to the bitter end. I came this far. I'm not quitting now," I said. "I'm not gonna let this dung heap get the best of me."

"Leave now," the woman in HR told me.

You would think the offer to buy everyone a round of drinks would have encouraged a lot more people to show up to the bar at the end of the day. But I'm sure the two others who came to wish me well brought stories back to the office about what they had missed.

"Hey, good luck," one them wished me heartily. "I'll take that mojito in a to-go cup," he said to the bartender. What a joker. I'll certainly miss the UPS guy.

My last day was definitely quite different than my first day of my new life. I woke up (later than usual), went to the gym, showered, had a nice breakfast and then looked over the to-do list my wife had already assembled.

It was brief and to the point. On the top, she wrote lovingly: File for unemployment. And I used to think only losers did that.

Hey, wait a minute.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Memoriam

A couple of months ago, through a package of licorice which was imported from Australia, I tracked down a lead on a career I thought would be of interest.

The licorice was from an age-old family recipe and it was made without all the modern chemical ingredients we see today. No high-fructose corn syrup, starches or preservatives. It was made straightforward with some sugar, of course, and get this, it even had some licorice in it.

Through the company's website I found their local distributor in the USA. And by chance, the company was located just a few towns away from me.

I went to that site and saw something that interested me greatly. It was a firm dedicated to health conscious foods. It was a small company run by a gentle-looking older man. In the company picture, he was surrounded by his co-workers. It looked like a family. There was the head of accounting, vp of operations, the customer service person and the head of sales. The sales guy was the only one who didn't look like family. He was slick looking and had a mustache. Who has mustaches these days?

But I didn't want to judge the company by this one picture. I was more interested in the backgrounds of the people, especially the CEO. He had been in the food industry throughout all his career and started this company as a way to focus on what he thought would be good for the consumer, something he would enjoy eating because it was well made.

I liked that philosophy and thought this is a company I would like to learn more about. I'm sure if I wrote a nice letter to the CEO expressing my interest in hearing about the ins and outs of the business, he would grant me some time.

I bookmarked the site and then forgot about it for a while.

I spent the next couple months worrying about my current situation. What kind of future would there be in the bank? How much longer could I hold out? Could I get the severance package before its too late?

Well, all that worrying came to a close last week when I took the package. After the initial excitement of knowing my payout number and calculating how long it could hold me, I thought what am I going to do next?

Aha! The food industry. This would be the perfect time to reach out to that little company that was doing good things. Now, that I was unencumbered by the daily slog of the bank, I could focus on learning about something new, something tangible and perhaps get a few bags of licorice out of it.

I found the bookmarked site, clicked on it and came to their home page - which had changed. Instead of seeing a welcoming photo of the company employees, I saw a single headshot of the CEO. The poor bastard had died a month prior. He was in his early 60s and just dropped dead. And, now, running the company was the weaselly-looking salesperson.

Of course, just another day when you're already dead and living in hell.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day of the Living Dead

Part of the excitement of leaving my company is telling people I'm leaving.

For one thing, I feel like I'm blowing off some steam with the news. For another, it probably serves as good networking to let people know I'm out there and through the kindness of their hearts they may think of me if they ever hear of a possible job opportunity, or not.

In my office, most of my colleagues knew that I was trying to breakout for the past few years. My huge smile along with the news probably offered them some relief. Now, they wouldn't have to listen to me complain about our company or be brought down with my doom and gloom reports regarding the future prospects of the place. Now, they can get on with drinking in the Kool-Aid and believe that the company would not do anything foolish to jeopardize their careers any further.

The part I did not really think about was telling my friends and neighbors in town that I would be hanging out at home now. And as news travels fast, I soon found myself faced with a new dilemma.

It seems that quite a few other residents are in similar circumstances. As a result, small groups of these people who have also taken packages, early retirements or simply can't find a job have banded together. These are people who like to stick to a routine and they like to hang out with one another on a regular basis - something I don't like.

Let me clarify. I will have structure during my time off. I will most likely have a routine, and I will see people, but it will be my choice. I do not want to get caught up in someone's idea of what time off should be.

So when I ran into Richard at the town deli the other day, I knew I had to start preparing a better canned response.

"Hey, heard the news," Richard said. "How long you got?"

"About a year."

"A year, that's excellent. You got plans?"

"I'm thinking about some things I want to do. I'll be keeping busy."

"Great. Well, everyday after I drop the kids off at school. I head down to Rockin' Joes. About six of us meet there everyday for coffee. We could always use another guy in the group."

"Uh, sure. Maybe."

"Good, see you there, Rockin' Joes Cafe."

What did he mean, they could always use another guy? What is this some vampire clique? The problem is I like Rockin' Joes. It's a new coffee joint that opened in town with comfortable seating and some good food. Well, that'll be off my list of places to visit now.

And what about the other places in town I liked to frequent, the bagel store, the diner, the salad shop? I'm sure all those places have been infiltrated with wi-fi seeking regulars. Oh man, I might become a regular?

It was not until I ran into Morty outside the grocery store that I realized I may become something worse than a regular - I may become a shut in.

"Hey, heard the news about you, " Morty said. "How long you got?"

It seemed to be a similar conversation in Stepford. Somehow I had been targeted. I was new meat and the zombies were preparing to feast.

"We could sure use your help," Morty said. "There's a lot to be done down at the Town Beautification League. We got some new benches coming in that need assembling. And the mums need to be planted on the traffic circles. Maybe you can help out?"

I just nodded and kept walking.

"Okay, we'll see you down there," he called out after me.

Can you get unlisted numbers in hell?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Plan A, check!

It's been in the works for three years and just this week I pulled it off. I truly felt as if I accomplished something. I felt proud and relieved as to how well the plan worked - I got laid off from my job.

Now, I know in this economy losing a job is not something to do the happy dance about, or walk around the office with a big smile on, or even accept congratulatory praise for -- but I did. I had been hoping and wishing for this to occur ever since my company published the terms of its severance package several years back.

Sitting in my office, I would imagine what it would be like to be compensated for time off. I thought about all the things I would do to fill my day - more writing, more gym time, more sleeping, maybe audit some classes, maybe see what the divorced women in town were doing during the day. It became a goal, actually somewhat of an obsession, to lose my job.

Of course, I could have just tried to find a new job and exit this mess respectfully, but if you haven't noticed lately -- the job market really sucks. And I didn't want to rush into something new just to get out of where I was currently. I didn't want to make a rash decision that I would regret, kind of what I did when I took my current position originally.

No, my plan was to get the package and use the fear of the complete unknown to force my brain cells to figure something out. I work well that way. Again, I know I could have done this while at my current job, but I didn't. I was handicapped by the time I spent trying to look busy at work. I didn't have enough emotional energy to focus on the "me" plan.

I know, it's lame, but you weren't there.

As I mentioned, the plan worked perfectly. I brought it down the wire with seconds to spare and achieved the end result I was finally looking for. I have counted my blessings a number of times in the fact the plan was not brought to final conclusion any earlier than it did.

I often think of what it would've been like if I actually left a year or two earlier. I could've been sitting out there much longer than my severance package covered. I know a few people who that's happened to. Scary.

But it wasn't for a lack of trying. I remember telling one of my managers early on that I wanted the package. I was laughed at. People didn't take me seriously. What kind of fool wants to lose their job?

This fool did. But instead I got promoted. I had to be accountable for more projects and more people. I know, "wah, wah, wah." But I hated my job. I hated the whole concept of where I worked and what the place stood for. I hated how unchallenging and how poorly managed things were. But I liked the paycheck. Wah, wah, wah!

This past week was especially difficult because the end of the week marked the official close of the known severance plan. Rumors on the new one didn't look good. It was not as generous. In fact, it was supposed to be down right awful.

I didn't sense any change occurring. I didn't read in between the lines on any conversations. I didn't think anyone even knew about the looming deadline, so when I saw my boss for a catch-up lunch this week I was totally surprised to hear him say, "Sorry, but we've decided to eliminate your position."

Sorry? You had better be sorry for keeping me on pins and needles for so long. I had already resigned myself to slogging through another year. A year of trying to pretend just to keep some sanity amidst the mindless projects that would be occurring. Do you know I spent 6 months on a project team of 12 people discussing through weekly meetings how staff should order business cards???

Yes, the waiting was too long and too close to the edge. But those sweet words rolling off my manager's tongue filled me with such elation, I forgot about the anxiety I had put myself through. My sentence had been commuted. I was free to leave.

"Again, I'm sorry to have to do this," my manager said somberly. "It's not performance related. It's just economics and I will be happy to give a recommendation if you need it."

I'm sure he thought my wide stretched grin was just a cover up to the massive amount of tears pouring out from within. He probably thought to himself that this guy is really trying to hold it together. The poor guy is probably just going fall apart once I leave.

"And, you should be expecting a call from HR to go over the details. Again, I'm sorry about this," he said.

I just nodded. I wanted him to leave as soon as possible. I wanted him to cut short the comforting words shit. I wanted to check my voicemail to see if HR had called already.

I brought the grin down a notch and saw my manager to the door. I thanked him for everything. I didn't want him to think I found this whole thing funny. I didn't want him to think I actually felt more sorry for him because he actually had to stay at the company.

We bid farewell and then I quickly checked my messages. Nothing. This was just one other thing I hated about this place. Everyone is so slow. You have to nag people to get things done. So, I called over to HR.

"Hi, how are you?" I said happily.

There was silence on the other end. I don't think HR is used to being greeted in a friendly manner.

"Um, I'm okay," the voice responded finally.

"Great. I'm in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by and pick up my paper work. You know, save you the trouble of bringing it over."

"Um, okay."

I needed my hands to be holding that packet of papers as soon as possible. I didn't want to risk any chance of them pulling back this offer. I had already come too close to the deadline. I didn't want anything to get in the way, especially an incompetent HR department or a morally ethical boss.

I was giddy with delight as the HR associate took me through paragraph by paragraph the essence of the 12-page exit document.

I kept interrupting. "How much am I getting paid?"

"We're getting there," he responded.

"Have you done a lot of these this week?" I asked with interest.

"We have done a fair share," he responded as if he was a mortician.

"How about you? Who would do your exit interview? I mean, would it just be one of your own colleagues or would you just do it yourself?"

"Can we just get through this document," he said curtly.

"Sure. By the way, when will the money hit my account?"

"We're getting there!"

"Okay, okay. Do your job," I said.

I could hardly contain myself. I had felt as if a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders that day. I did not foresee a grim forecast out there. I saw an opportunity to explore a new path. I was not afraid of the future. I was embracing it.

Of course, having a healthy severance payout that should keep me afloat for at least a year certainly helps grease the skids.

And I'm well aware how quickly that may go by. So beyond some of the daily things I would pursue each day that I mentioned above, I will also put aside some time to do some job hunting.

Yes, I will be practical because under this joyful exterior I am mature. I am cognizant of the difficulties that I may face, and so I will also be putting Plan B into effect - get wife to get new job that can accommodate the lifestyle I have grown accustomed to.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Fugitive

I read about a program the State of New Jersey was enacting that would give fugitives a second chance to turn themselves in.

Over a four-day period, a surrender site would be open where people could just show up and give up. A judge would be on hand to hear their stories and then dispense a sentence.

The State was expecting about 6,000 people to walk in to this location and ask for forgiveness.

I was thinking that if this actually worked, we wouldn't need cops anymore. We could probably even scale back the whole justice system. We could have our own self-service criminal justice system.

Just think of the money we could save. Commit a crime and then when you're ready and if you're available on the pre-set surrender date, come on down and hang out with all the other criminals that knew they were guilty. It'd be like a convention, a chance to meet and greet fellow colleagues from the industry.

The State would just need some clever advertisements telling everyone what dates they should mark on their calendars for the big dance. The department stores could get in on the action with Back to Prison Day sales (although I would think all sales would be final), there could be contests where the first 100 people who show up get a prize - like a lighter sentence. Maybe even a 10K road race to add to the festivity.

I was so intrigued by the openness of such an event, I decided to go down an check it out for myself.

I thought it was kind of funny that the surrender site was actually in a church. But considering it was the largest place around besides the town's athletic stadium, which was already booked for some school events, it seemed appropriate for the type of repentance that was supposed to occur.

I thought I got there early enough but the line to get in was already around the block. It's just like it was in the old days when you had to stand on line for concert tickets. I was not an early riser and I didn't like sleeping outdoors, so I never really got the good seats.

As I stood there, I started to wonder if I was on the wrong line. Just like me to waste an hour only to find out I was waiting for a soup kitchen to open or for some free dental check ups from the local dentistry school.

"Excuse me," I said to the rather large gentlemen with the tattoos on his arm, "is this the line for the surrender center?"

"Is this the line? What the fuck do you think it is?" he said quite brusquely and then turned back around. I was going to let that attitude slide for now.

I felt a little better when people started filling in behind me. At least I wasn't going to be last.

"So, what are you turning yourself in for?" I asked the guy behind me trying to make small talk. He was a little less intimidating, probably because he was 6 inches shorter than me.

"Gun possession."

I nodded. "Did you bring it with you today?"

"Did I bring it today?" he said, "what the fuck do you think I am? I'm not packing today, shit."

The guy shook his head a lot. I realized the people on the line used a lot of swears and liked to repeat the questions I asked. I guess it was sort of a fugitive type lingo. I was new at this and I needed to pick it up quick.

"What the fuck you here for?" the guy asked me.

"What the fuck am I here for?" I said.

"Don't fuck with me I asked you question. You fucking with me?"

I shook my head and then said, "Evasion."

"Evasion? What the fuck is that?"

"I didn't pay taxes ... actually, I didn't pay some taxes. I left some information off my 1040."

"You here because of some clerical error on a form, huh? You didn't fill something out right and you fucked everyone over?"

The guy was getting hyped up over this. I was starting to believe it was pretty cool crime from the way he was playing it up.

"You're a crazy mother fucker," he went on. "That shit is federal. That is big shit to mess with."

"That's right," I said. "That's why I came all the fuckin' way down here. I'm doing the right thing, man. Can't live myself anymore."

"True dat," he said. "That's why I came down here. Can't live with anyone anymore."

"Who the fuck can't you live with?" I asked, getting into the groove of the whole fuck thing.

"My bitch. She's driving me crazy. I needs to go away for a while. Three square meals, a little exercise. Do me good."

"Yeah? They're gonna feed us here?"

"Not here. In the blocks, man."

Yes, there was still that hurdle I needed to overcome to get into the big house. I needed to be convicted of my crimes.

It took about an hour until we finally got through the doors. We were asked our names at a front desk and then told to sit in the pews, which were filling up fast.

A guy on a PA was calling out names. Someone would rise from his seat and then walk up towards the altar. There was another desk set up there with three people filling out paperwork and looking up stuff on a computer.

Nobody was really talking to each other. I guess most people didn't know one another. People mostly kept to themselves and slept.

A couple more hours went by and I was getting hungry. I looked towards the back and still saw people filing in. I figured I could slip out the door, grab a sandwich and then come back in on the line. What's the crime in doing that?

"Hey, where you going?" The nazi-looking officer asked me as I neared the door.

"Gettin' a sandwich."

"Outside? Hah! Sit down. Once you're in here, you're not leaving until we let you."

Holy shit! What did I get myself into? What happened to being innocent until proven guilty? Well, I guess that went out the door by showing up here.

I sat back down in my pew and looked at my watch. Half the day was shot. This was not as efficient as I imagined it would be. Even with a self-service model, these government agencies add their own dose of bureaucracy to it.

I wanted to lean over and take a nap, but I have a thing about putting my face in the place where some stranger's butt has been. I chuckled to myself over that one. In prison, would I be getting a brand new bed? I didn't think so. How do they find open cells for all the new fish showing up? Do they work it out so those on death row leave just in time for the new arrivals? Or do they actually double people up in a cell? That would be awful. I hated sharing my dorm room in college. And I hate when people touch my stuff. When you double up you're just inviting that kind of snooping.

Just then, my name was called. I walked down the aisle up to the altar. There was something eerie about that.

I approached the desk with the three men, their logbooks and computer.


I gave one of the gentlemen my name.


I gave him my social security number.


I gave that, too.

"You're not in here. You have no warrants."

"What? That's impossible. Why do I have to be in there to give myself up?"

"What was the alleged crime?"

"Evasion. Uh, tax evasion."

They looked at each other. Shook their heads.

"Are you wasting our time?" one of them asked.

"No, I wanted to surrender."

"We're not the IRS."

"But a crime is a crime. I want to clear my name."

"Not here," the man said and pointed to the back door. "Take this." He handed me a slip of paper.

Dejected, I walked off the altar and up the aisle.

"What the fuck is up with you, mopey?"

It was my old friend who stood behind me on the line.

"They said they got nothing on me. They're sending me home."

"They're sending you fucking home? Shit, for me that would be the worst news I heard. I ain't goin' home."

I nodded my head and said good luck to the man. As I walked away, he called out. "Don't feel so bad, fuckhead. I read only 1 - 3% of the people who surrender actually get sentenced."

"Thanks," I said. I knew he was trying to cheer me up, but as I thought of those staggering statistics I only became sadder. At best only 180 out of 6,000 people would be sent away. That's no way to run a criminal justice system, I thought.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In the Beginning . . .

I had a job. Not a career, but a job that a buddy of mine helped me get. It was with a 30-year-old, family-owned chemical and adhesives manufacturing company that was headquartered in Boston. The Boston part was intriguing. The chemicals were not.

A week before I started, I found out they were moving the company to Walpole - 20 miles West of Boston. They were expanding and found an industrial park to set up in. The only other thing that was in Walpole besides this new industrial park was the state prison.

I had already found a place live in Boston and planned on taking public transportation to work. Now, I would have to get a car and drive.

Working with a budget of $300, I found a very used Honda Accord hatchback. It had just reached 100,000 miles, it had a choke to help start the car, balding tires, and rust along most of the edges. The main thing, though, it started.

My boss wouldn't let me park the car in front of the building because it was so ugly. He tried to get me to drive the company car. It was a pick-up truck with their main product's name, Topcoat, emblazoned on the side - a liquid roofing material for metal roofs. I was the new head of marketing for the product. I was the entire marketing department and sometimes technical salesperson.

While most of my friends were working in large corporations beginning training programs with hundreds of people the same age as them, I was sitting in Walpole in a 25-person company run by two brothers who didn't trust anyone or each other.

There was Stan in accounting who did everything with a pencil and piece of paper. He didn't trust technology.

"You see this pencil?" he'd say to me. "It's never gonna crash."

"But what if you break the tip?" I'd ask.

"What, are you an idiot? I'll sharpen it," he'd reply.

"But what if the sharpener ..."

"Get outta here, do some marketing," he'd say and slam the door to his office.

There was Felix who was in charge of the lab. We weren't allowed to talk to him or even go into the lab area. It had three locks on the door. The brothers thought there were people who would break in and steal the secret rubber formula. (I guess they shouldn't have moved so close to the prison.)

And then there was Lou who was in charge of operations. He basically managed the plant in the back where the chemicals were manufactured and the loading dock. He got to drive the fork lift onto the trucks everytime there was delivery.

He always liked to hang out in the front office. He would sit in the chair in front of my desk and tell me how stupid all the workers were out back, mainly because they were foreigners. He'd tell that if it wasn't for him, they wouldn't even know how to zipper their pants - not something I really wanted to think about how he helped them.

He'd also tell me how dumb the two brothers were as well. But whenever they walked by, he'd sure liked to kiss their asses.

"How ya doing Mr. Clark? I don't think the Sox are gonna pull one off tonight."

"What are you doing up Lou? Who's watching the plant?"

"I'm heading right back. I was just answering some questions for Marketing, here."

All these guys were a few years away from retirement when I started, fresh out of college. I had some great role models to look up to.

This is my desk that I sat at for 2 1/2 years.

And this is the window I stared out of from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

To be fair, I wasn't always at this desk. I did get to do a fair amount of traveling. I got to meet other roofers from around the country who I tried to educate on the wonders of a rubberized substrate for corrugated metal.

The point was that metal roofs leaked a lot because they expanded and contracted with the heat and cold. A rubber roof that goes down as a liquid coating would adhere to the surface, cover the seams and stretch with temperature fluctuations.

It didn't really work. You had to have the finesse of an industrial painter to put the stuff down. You had to know how thick to put it on in certain spots. You had to hope for warm weather and enough sun to cure the material. And you had to have the patience to attend to the details, like every screw that held the metal down had to have a special dab of Topcoat applied to the head. Did you ever see how large some of those warehouse roofs could be?

These were roofers who were used to rolling out carpets of black, oily matting that would have its seams heat-welded together with big, flaming torches they carried around. Sure, a few roofs would catch on fire, but man they could lay that stuff down fast.

These were interesting people. People from the heartland. I think a lot of them even made it to high school graduation.

And, like I said, I got to see different parts of the country.

For each place I'd go to I would try and bring back a post card so I could put it on the wall at home and marvel at it. Although some places I visited were so exotic they didn't even have post cards, like Waterloo, Iowa or West Allis, Wisconsin, or even Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

But I did get to the big towns now and then, like Fort Wayne, Pittsburgh, and even Cincinnati - the city where the TV show WKRP was supposed to take place in, even though it was shot in Hollywood I hear.

That was the beginning. Some days when I think of where I am now, I still look back fondly and think of the old gang of people I once knew.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beantown Reunion

I used to live in Boston, moved there right after college. Boston will always have a special place in my heart because it's where I first began what I consider my adult life.

I had a real job (that sucked even back then), financial responsibilities, and a bleak outlook for the future - all the things that go into being an adult.

I barely made it to Boston. I had to borrow five hundred dollars from a good friend just to leave campus. This paid for the car rental from Syracuse, NY, and provided some spending money until my job started. Based on my salary and expenses, it took me a year to pay back the loan, but I did it.

I always felt like an outsider in Boston. It was a place I could only look at but not touch. It was an expensive place to live. If I had five bucks at the end of each week, I considered myself lucky. So I, and my roommate Curt, spent a lot of time walking, biking or running through the city. If we were lucky, we would come across something free, like a concert at the band shell along the Charles or some street performers in front of Fanueil Hall.

I remember doing a lot of watching, especially in the posh downtown areas like Back Bay, the North End and Beacon Street. I'd walk by the high-end hotels and wonder what it was like inside. Occasionally, I would slip into The Four Seasons across from the Commons to use the bathroom. I always expected to be stopped at the entrance, but the doormen always greeted me graciously. I felt like I was pulling one over on them as I walked with purpose to the Men's Room.

These days I've had the the good fortune of visiting Boston on business trips. I've had the chance to stay in some of the hotels I used to pass by in my poorer days. While my company is paying for the room, it doesn't take away from the feeling that I somehow arrived. I feel a little bit richer, a little more nostalgic - but only momentarily.

This is a picture I took from my hotel balcony on a recent trip. I am looking right at Fanueil Hall.

It would've been hard for me to imagine back then that I would be standing in a hotel room looking out onto the city one day. And there I was, in an excellent location, in a beautifully appointed room. But yet, I still felt like an outsider.

While I was finally on the inside, I had no one to share it with. No one to relate my story of where I had once come from. No one except that couple who had been standing near the stop light for quite some time staring up in my direction. The woman now had her back to me, she was in discussion with the man.

What were they thinking? Did they look up at me with envy? Maybe they were young lovers smitten by the downtown scenery and warm air wafting in from the scenic harbor. Maybe they desired a room of their own, a bit of privacy where they could embrace and share each other if just for a brief moment.

And I thought, what if someone looked down from their perch onto me back then. What if this person had the power to play with dreams. What could have been?

That's when stepped back into the room and picked up the phone. I dialed the front desk and was greeted personally, like a real guest.

"I'm calling to report that two people have been harassing me from the street below. They have been staring at me incessantly. I wish to have them removed."

"Removed?," the front desk asked.

"Yes. They are disrupting my view."

"Please accept the hotel's apology. Security will take care of the matter immediately."

"Yes, that's what I expect. Now, step lively," I said and hung up the phone, and drew the curtains.

Ah, it's always good to return to your roots.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sittin' On My Thumbs

All this recent cool air has got me thinking about how my body will be going into a deep freeze in the coming months. More specifically, how my hands will be losing blood flow and feeling.

Most people can tell the change of the seasons by watching a thermometer, or watching the leaves accumulate on the ground, or even by a calendar. Me, I know the season has really changed as my hands become cold and clammy.

I'm sure it's some type of survival technique. Some neuro-sensory mechanism deep in the recesses of my recesses kicks into full gear in preparation for the sun's angle change. As I go throughout my usual life-cycle processes, oblivious on how to handle these celestial machinations on my own - that is, my conscious being - a whole colony of brilliant cells have figured out how to keep the power plant alive without me - the outer me - having to worry one bit.

Around this time of year, they begin shunting blood from my extremities to the core. The core houses the vital organs, the things that really need to stay alive or else. My hands, and my feet, who needs them. And if the whole of me was really smart, not just the involuntary part that keeps the brain functioning and the heart pumping, I would stay away from cold weather altogether. But for some voluntary reason, I live in an area where these things happen. Stupid, right?

Well, this year I'm making changes. Perhaps, small changes. This year I'm focusing on keeping my hands warm with gloves. To be exact, it's about keeping the thumbs covered.

Why do we have thumbs anyway? Sure it's the whole opposable thing. It's also for hitchhiking, for giving really good movie reviews, for sucking and for sticking it up your. Ask me again, and I'll tell you we have thumbs for texting.

That's right, texting is what we have finally evolved to. This is the reason we have thumbs. And you can only text if you have thumbs. (Do not mention stylus. Stylus is so Palm pilot).

But what do you do when you live in colder climes, and your phone or blackberry pings you telling you you have an ever-so-important message that needs to be responded to?

- Wat up?
- Wher r u?
- Lunch?

What do you do when you're wearing thick, meaty gloves or faggy Isotoners? How do you respond quick enough to show the sender you are worthy of a two-way conversation? This is what happens now:

- Nszlgja
- hhyrt7
- Yyyyyyyyyyyyyy

Completely embarrassing. The only thing saving you is that you probably can't even hit the send button to send this mess across the airwaves.

Don't even tell me, you're going to remove your gloves. Please do not give me a lame-ass answer like that. In December in Detroit, you're going to take off your glove, expose your entire hand, actually hands, to 26 degree weather???

No. Absolutely not. You're not going to even flick back some cute-ass finger hood to expose a finger tip. I won't let you. You're not even going to stuff those leather-skinned hand protectors into your mouth or under your armpit so your naked thumbs can tap away on those plastic keys. No.

And you are certainly not going to go out and buy another pair of gloves that may or may not enable you to text through some plastic dot on the finger tips. You're not going to do it because those gloves only come in one gay style and they are f-ugly. You bought your own stylish gloves and you are going to use them to communicate.

As you read this right now, a legion of illegal immigrants are busy cutting fabric, stitching seams, affixing Made in the USA labels, hiding under tables from the INS raids, packaging and preparing to ship the next greatest fad for the frozen kind - ThumbDogs.

Stay tuned.

Also, works in extremely hot situations, like Hell.

Some of my (happy) workers

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

People Who Died, Who Died

Being a celebrity and dying sucks. But, being a celebrity and getting overshadowed when you finally die, sucks even more.

I thought about this when Farrah Fawcett passed away a couple of months ago. She reached her peak of popularity in the late 70s in her role on the successful Charlie’s Angels. She also became a pop culture star thanks to her big hair, smile and tight bathing suit featured on a famous pin-up poster.

Soon after, though, she faded taking on some weak acting roles involving critical flops. To her credit, though, she did garner some dramatic roles in the late 80s which won her some acclaim. But the press had more fun with her personal life. Her marriage to Ryan O’Neal and their son’s drug arrests were great fodder for the tabloids. Her quirky appearance on the David Letterman show didn’t help dispel a dumb blond image, either.

But it was her battle with anal cancer which really took the cake. What a way to go. I mean, there are only two ways listed to contract anal cancer. One is smoking, which I can’t picture Farrah doing. The other is, well, anal sex, which is quite a picture.

I have to admit that I felt a bit saddened when I heard she died that morning on June 25th. She was 62 and that seemed young. The web was filled with gorgeous photos of Farrah and I thought that at least she’s getting some respect now.

But then a few hours later, MJ knocks himself off and boom, Farrah’s photo is reduced to a thumbnail, then to just some text. Wacko Jacko had upstaged her. Maybe it was a fitting summary of her career, but it just sucked.

I thought about this overshadowing again when just a few days ago the great Jim Carroll passed away. I was not expecting any big photos on the web but I was glad to see at least a reference to him in the major media as a “punk rocker and poet”. I was hoping this would spark an interest and revival in his music and writing. His biography, captured in the book and then the movie, Basketball Diaries, is still one the most powerful personal stories I know of. Even with the passing of Larry Gelbart, creator of MASH and other great comedies, Carroll did not seem to get overshadowed. His name stuck around in the press longer than I thought it would.

And then, yesterday, Patrick Swayze died followed shortly by the news of the passing of Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter’s former press secretary. That seemed to be the final nail in the memory coffin for Carroll, as well as Gelbart.

Not only is life so fleeting, but it seems trying to squeeze out a few days of remembrance once you die is also quite tenuous.

Perhaps the posthumous work of a PR firm would be in order. I think Michael has a good one. I'm sure he will go the way of Elvis or some other major religious figure as the years go on. (Note to self: Write business plan for after death revisionist history PR firm).

For me, I don’t have to worry about any of this – I’m already dead and this is hell.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day 2009

This is always seems to be the saddest day of the year to me. It's the unofficial end of summer, a season I anticipate all year long like a kid waiting to pop a piece of candy into his mouth.

While I'm in the thick of it, I try to appreciate the sunshine, long days and smell of warmth. Those appreciations, however, seem fleeting these days. As I get older I have other things on my mind - unfinished business that nags at me and never lets me be fully immersed in the summer memories I had from my childhood.

It's not until Labor Day when I look back and try to remember if the summer was successful or not. Did I get to the beach? Yes. Did I have a meal outside in the evening? Yes, with bugs. Did I take some time off of work and do something special? Yes.

Then why so sad?

Because the child in me questions why these things have to end.

Why does winter have to come? Why do the days have to get shorter? Why will my hands be cold for the next six months and my body just slightly more hunched over with the added weight of warm clothing?

Because Labor Day heralds a change of the seasons!

Now, I know people in other parts of the country are jealous of the change of seasons but after spending all my life in this area I can tell you it's a pain in the ass - leaf cleanups, gray skies and slush, breathing in dry heated air, seeing ads for Caribbean vacations that are too expensive to go on. I've had enough.

And to add to this, I have a little bit of guilt celebrating a holiday called Labor Day. I believe it became a national holiday in 1894 as a way to honor the common worker - union workers who slaved away in factories to help build our country. Today, the unions for the most part are despised, most of the work is outsourced to a foreign country, and I don't really consider what I do at the office anything resembling work.

I started a little tradition this year. On Memorial Day (the happiest day of the year), I put an American flag out in front of my house. It's a little symbol of all the hope and good times the following days, weeks and months can bring. It hangs out front all summer long. And on Labor Day, I take it down - a symbol that I need to put away some of my childishness, look reality in the face a little harder, and get on with my life - in hell.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Get a Job!

The economy still sucks. Many of us have either lost our jobs or are looking for new ones. And I'm on vacation.

How are you?

It's without fail that while I'm out of the office, a place I have been looking to leave for quite some time, I get a call for a job opportunity. This happened to me last year as well while I was on vacation, so I suppose I should've expected it. The fact that I don't get these calls when I'm in my office where my focus is predominantly on job searching is, well, the subject of this entire blog.

I suppose I should be happy that someone called at all, no matter what time it occurs. It's been a rough year and with all the resumes I've shot out there and all the follow up I have been trying to do, this was one of the first calls I received in a very long time. As my friend , John, says about his job search, "I just want to know that I'm still good looking, that someone loves me out there."

My cell phone rang at 8:58 am this Monday. It woke me up. (BTW, it would've woken me during a typical work week as well but that's fodder for another blog entry). It took two rings for me to realize what it was, another ring for me to clear my throat and practice a quick "hello" and then I answered it by the fourth. One doesn't want to be too quick to respond in these situations, even though I had no idea who the hell was calling me on Monday morning during my vacation.

"Hello?" I scratched out. My voice was obviously groggy.

"Hi, this is Sarah Westport with Executive Recruiters. Is this is a good time to speak?"

"Yes!" I said authoritatively but the nasal sound of a deep sleep was still resonating.

"Uh, okay. You sent us your information regarding a marketing position and I wanted to get back to you. You're sure this is a good time?"

"Yes, yes." I had sent out so many resumes I had no idea which job she was referencing. By now, my wife had walked into the room and handed me a pen and a back of a magazine to write something on. I'm still in bed trying to pretend I'm not asleep, and I have pen ready to write down something in case I need to remember some information. I had already forgotten the woman's name.

"We have the information you sent us for the job in New York but another job came up which I thought your background was perfect for as well," she said.

I'm starting to feel the love. Now, I may be sitting on two job opportunities. Not bad for a Monday morning on vacation!

"This other opportunity," she continued, "is for a multi-national organization that needs someone to re-think their marketing and branding strategies."

Right up my alley, I thought.

"The company is based in Atlanta. Would you be able re-locate down there?"

What!? I'm lying in bed, on vacation, and now some woman I don't even know is asking me to move. "Uh, I don't think a re-location to Atlanta would be possible. I would like to stay in the tri-state area."

"Oh, they're pretty adamant about the position being in Atlanta."

"Yeah, I don't think I can move, but what about the other position you mentioned."

"Well, that one is looking more for a chief marketing officer background. It looks like your current position is not the chief marketing officer."

Duh! Do you think if I was the chief marketing officer of my current 100,000 person company I'd be worrying about looking for a job? I'd be set with some type of golden parachute anyway. "Well, my current company has well over 100,000 people. I'm in charge of one of the divisions, but in my previous company I did have the role of being the head marketing and performed many of the same duties that a chief marketing ..."

"Uh huh. I'll take another look at your resume and let you know if we think there's a fit."


"We'll be in touch. Goodbye."


My wife was staring at me the whole time. "Head hunter?"


"You didnt' want to move to Atlanta?"

"No. We can't move."

"You should've said yes. If they like you you can negotiate later."

"That's lying."

"Everyone does it. You'd be surprised how flexible people can be if they want you."

"You'd move to Atlanta?"

"I'm not moving, but you could commute. You should've said yes." She huffed and walked out of the room.

Now where's the love? It's not like I was out of a job. I had not come to desperate measures yet. I just was looking and now my wife was kicking me out of the house, on my vacation no less.

I rolled back over, looked at the clock. About five minutes had passed in my private hell.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Back Breaker Break-Up

This is a follow up to "My Frickin' Knee" story. As part of my intensive and dedicated rehabilitation therapy, I have been pursuing help from a variety of medical disciplines - my internist, an orthopedic doctor, an acupuncturist, and a really hot, curvaceous chiropractor who may or may not know what she is doing.

Now while the acupuncturist is just poking some needles in my knee to stimulate some nerve activity to maybe, possibly offer some healing, there really does not seem to be any bodily harm occurring.

The chiropractor, though, is actually hurting me. And I knew I had to end this.

First, it was these torture techniques that involved metal bars being rubbed rapidly across my muscle tissue. The result - black and blue marks that took weeks to heal.

Then, there was the Extracorporeal Activation Pulse Therapy (EPAT). I'll quote the actual description, because I couldn't even think of such an inhumane thing:

EPAT is a shock wave that is generated through a powerful compressor that causes a projectile to be propelled down the barrel of the applicator. It then strikes an end plate producing a shock wave similar to an earthquake or a sonic boom from a jet. This wave then passes into the body and helps to: reduce pain, increase circulation, breakup calcium deposits and encourage new blood vessel growth.

Bullshit! Earthquakes and sonic booms don't make people feel better. And, to date, that application has done nothing to help my knee pain. In fact, the applicator (which is highly phallic-looking) acts like a million tiny hammers against my kneecap, and I know if I ever decide to get an X-Ray, I'm sure I'll find a couple hundred fissures across the bone.

But I stuck with it over the weeks because I didn't have the heart (balls) to tell the chesty chiropractor it wasn't working. Was it the way she deftly held the applicator in her hands as she worked it around my knee while leaning over in her tank top? Was it her seductive stories she told me about her short skirts on the mechanical bull or how she likes to rub the metal bar along her body when she's sore?

Of course, not. I'm a mature male. And that's why I started to lie.

"You know, my knee IS starting to feel better," I told her.

"Really, that's so cool," she responded in a manner that conveyed her surprise that any of this actually worked, too.

"Yeah, I'm feeling like it's loosening up a lot. And the extra stretching exercises you gave me to follow are helping, too." (I never did them.)

"Oh, goody. Now, on a scale from 1-10, 1 being not at all, how much have you improved since you first started sessions with me?"

"Oh, well, I'd say I'm a solid 9. Probably a 9.5." I had to let her down easily.

"Ooooh! That's great."

"Yeah so, do you think I still need to come here?"

"If you're good, I'm good."

"Great. I'm good, then, too."

I should've just stopped there, but my guilt was getting the best of me and I just wanted to make sure I was being as polite as possible. "So, I guess we could just do one more session since I'm here."

She agreed and I got on the table. She applied some gel to my knee and started massaging it in. She's great at this. Big, slow circles around my knee and then she finishes with a giggle as she towels off the excess gel dripping off her two fingers.

Then the phallic applicator comes out. She grabs the shaft with one hand and then screws on the metal-tipped head with the other - again turning slowly and giggling.

The machine fires up and she points the pulsating stick at my knee. As she maneuvers back and forth, she doesn't watch my knee but looks at my face. What she sees is a middle-aged man wincing in pain.

"Does that hurt?," she asks.

"Uh, a little. I'm okay." I had to remember that I was healing so the pain wasn't supposed to be there. "Not too much."

That's when she amps the machine to a higher rate. "Wow, you're at 4.0. Most of my patients can only take 2.8 or 2.9."

"Really? Yeah, I guess I'm better." Now, those million hammers on my kneecap felt like the entire Mandarin-speaking country of China tapping dancing with spiked shoes. I had to hold tight and change the conversation.

"So, whaddya do this weekend?," I said smiling - and sweating.

"Oh, this weekend was great. I hung out with a bunch of my girlfriends. One of them had this crazy idea of making an adult-sized slip n' slide. Since it was really hot out, we did it. We just put on our bathing suits and slid across these wet plastic mats. I think I got some bruises on my hip, though." She lifted her blouse slightly, bent the waistband of her pants and exposed a tiny mark on her skin.

That did it. I was convinced this was all a set up for some British reality show that was being secretly filmed. How long will it take for the stupid American to maul this beautiful young woman?

I'm sitting there with a penis-like instrument being jackhammered into my knee while she's prompting visions of bikini-clad women frolicking wet in a backyard. If I had any strength left in my knee that would've allowed me to jump up and onto her, I could've been fodder for YouTube watchers around the world.

But, of course, I sat there smiling politely. "That's nice. I read a book this weekend."

Well, the session ended and I happily bid her goodbye. The break up was complete.

"Thanks for everything. I'm sure if my knee acts up again, I'll be calling you."

"Okay, good luck," she said and giggled. "I hope I never have to see you again." I suppose that was some type of well-meaning send off?

"Ok, me, too." And I hobbled out of that relationship as fast as I could.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Art of Giving -- and Taking

I'll admit it. I live in an upscale town. When I first moved in, I was a bit embarrassed to give out my address. I was the poor guy with the rich neighbors, and I thought people would think I was pretentious trying to live in this area. But over the years I found my happy space, and I really began to enjoy the amenities of the town - beautiful tree-lined streets, excellent schools, convenient transportation, and access to top-notch shopping. And over the years, I even became friends with some of those uber-wealthy people.

So when I got the email a few months ago from one of those upper stratospheric income earning families soliciting "support" for a board of education candidate they were endorsing, I knew I would have to put up or be put out.

I'll admit something else. I felt pretty good being part of that email list. I looked at the other names on this small and exclusive distribution. It consisted of families that were quite well off, and, in fact, somewhat influential on the Wall Street circuit, and me. I thought, wow, they consider me part of their circle. Someone they could come to for help. Despite my comparably piddly income, they were able to look beyond that and see me for whom I really was.

Actually, I had no idea what they thought of me at that time. I came to realize they wanted my property.

The solicitation was quite simple on the surface - could they post a campaign sign on our lawn showing our support for the candidate? Just a small sign, how harmless could that be? After all, I lived on a well-trafficked street so the eyeball stickiness would be high.

Well, if there's one thing my wife and I detest, it's the proliferation of campaign signs in front of people's homes. We have refused them over the years because of the clutter and because we never really felt it was anyone's business to know who we support and who we vote for.

But now, I was in a pickle. After being accepted into the circle of trust, I would have to decline my new found in-crowd with what they probably would deem some weak, lame excuse.

"So, make a donation to the campaign," my wife said.

In the email, there was a link to the candidate's website and on the website there was a link for donations. I was just an automated PayPal button away from saving face.

"How much should I give?" I asked.

"It's a local campaign, give'em fifty bucks."

So while I was at the office the next day half-listening to a conference call, I wrote an email to the original sender telling them we prefer not to post signs but would gladly support this candidate with a cash donation. It was a win-win. I can't offer the property but I'll give you something better - money. I then went onto the candidate's site, hit the donate button and quickly entered in the amount.

It was easy, it was done and I could still be on the holiday card mailing list.

Well, about ten minutes later an email popped up on my screen: "That was soooo nice! Thank you soooo much! We all appreciate your generous support. It is wonderful to see how dedicated you are to our town's education issues."

Okay, it was only fifty bucks. A simple thank you would have worked. What's with the excessive, gooey praise?

Then the PayPal receipt came in across the email. In my haste to punch in some numbers and get back to my conference call, I gave a little more than fifty. I gave five hundred!

I broke out in a cold sweat. What kind of idiot makes that type of donation?

"Honey, you won't believe what happened," I said to my wife on the phone. "I accidentally typed in an extra zero, and, well, uh ..."

"Uh, what?"

"Uh, I gave five hundred dollars instead of fifty."

Long, dramatic pause. And then, quite calmly and quietly, like a mafia hit man about to finish off his victim, she said: "Get it back."

"Get it back? You mean ask the campaign for the money back?"

"Yes. Get it back."

"I can't ask rich people for my money back."

More silence.

"You are not donating five hundred dollars. You are getting four hundred and fifty dollars back at the very least."

Just then, another email popped up from the really rich family: "Please make sure you come to our house next Wednesday. The candidate will be there to discuss her campaign with a few invited guests, and she would like to personally thank you in front of everyone for your amazing generosity. Ok, see you then."

"Hey, honey, they want to honor me next week because of the donation. That could be fun, right?"

"What kind of idiot donates that much money to a school board campaign?", she said.

I wasn't sure if that was rhetorical or not but I didn't have a chance to answer because the phone went dead on the other end.

At home that evening, my wife asked me if I got the money back.

"Not yet. I was busy today."

"I'm calling over and telling them to refund it," she said. I broke out in another cold sweat. Cold sweats are not enjoyable. You really feel like everything's falling apart. Besides, what's worse than asking for the money back? Having your wife do it in your place. I'm still shaking.

"Okay, I'll get it. I'll get it."


I got in my second-hand Honda sedan with the dented passenger door and cracked windshield and drove through my beautiful tree-lined streets, past our excellent school and into the estate section of town.

I never really saw this wealthy person's house up close. It was set so far back from the street and covered in a lush forest of trees and shrubs, I could only make out a window now and then and that was usually in the winter time when the foliage was less dense.

I drove up the winding 200-yard driveway, around a circle that had a spouting fountain in the middle and parked right by the front door. I debated leaving the motor running in case I needed a quick escape.

I knocked on the huge, wooden front door. I could almost hear the knock echo throughout the massive cavern on the other side.

The intercom against the wall crackled: "Please step back from the door."

I took a step back.

"Please turn to the right."

I turned and looked into a hidden camera.

"Oh, it's you," I heard cheerfully through the intercom. "I'll be right down."

I was thinking how that happiness was going to change in a few seconds. I was thinking I could just run now, but since they already saw my face they might find that odd. Well, they were certainly going to find my request odd, so what did it matter. Maybe they'll find the whole thing funny, a silly mistake. We'll have a little laugh. They'll invite me in for a drink. We would sit in the library and talk about the problems of the world, and then they would ask me to visit them this summer on the Vineyard.

The door creaked open.

"Well, hello. What brings you here, you big campaign donor, you?"

I chuckled a little, shuffled my feet a bit. "Uh, well you see. There was a little, uh, mistake."

"Uh, mistake?"

"Do you think I could get four hundred fifty back?"

The u-shaped lips became a straight line. The eyes drew to a slit. The forehead furrowed. I was asking a rich person for money.

"Excuse me?"

I told them about the mistake I made and how I didn't really want to give that much although I really cared about the cause and how my wife thought it was stupid to give that much and that fifty bucks is more than enough and the more I talked the more I realized I sounded like an idiot who just dug a grave.

There was some silent staring, some head shaking. I thought now would be a good time to faint to get some sympathy. I could blame my abhorent behavior on a brain tumor that was causing me to act irratically. But there really wasn't any place to fall without getting hurt. Too many steps to roll down, and getting blood on their property probably wouldn't make them happy.

"Why don't you just take the whole thing back. We'll send a cancellation to PayPal. Does that work for you?"

There was a quick, uncaring smile and a short goodnight. As the door was slamming closed, I quickly offered: "I can take one of those signs."

The door opened. I got a "what did you say?" look.

"I can put the sign on my car, if you want. Happy to do that."

We both glanced at the sad, poor, overused vehicle parked on the cobblestone. I was sure a big fat oil splotch was building up below.

"Yeah, thanks but that's not going to work." And the front door was closed.

I got in the car, trying not to feel bad for myself. At least I got IT back.

I started the engine and drove out of that circle - for good.