Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Big Picture

I'm on a diet.

By that I mean I'm on a good old fashioned I'm-determined-to-validate-myself-through-this-midlife-crisis attempt at weight loss. This has been pretty easy so far, other than those moments when friends decide to buy doughnuts and offer you one. What is it about friends that give them so much pleasure knowing you're sweating, nay staving off a nervous breakdown trying your prison camp best to keep from imploding under the pressure to reacquaint yourself with the bakery's finest lemon-filled?

Over the past nine months or so I've managed to shed seventy-six pounds, which I swear makes my doctor want to kiss me. Yes, brothers and sisters, there was a time, not so long ago, when I had to lug my way around everywhere I went. Automotive spring warranties were stretched to their limit. I considered getting a wide screen TV because I didn't know whether or not my face was getting too large for me to see the image on a twenty-seven inch job. McDonald's used me as an opportunity to teach new hires how to upsell. I was so overweight that if Moses had seen my bathroom scale, there would have been another commandment.

Now, having slimmed ("slim" being a relative term) from three-hundred twenty to two-hundred forty-four pounds, I'm beginning to find energy I never had before unless Seven Eleven was having a burrito sale.

With this weight loss comes extra energy for exercise. Approximately nine months ago I had barely enough energy to burn off fifty calories on a treadmill, which was fine with the treadmill, judging from the sigh of relief it issued whenever I finished some five minutes later, winded from being pushed to the limits of my endurance. Now I'm cranking along for half an hour, knocking off three hundred calories to top off another rigorous half hour of weight training.

And this, I'm afraid, is turning me into a bit of a brat.

"Excuse me", intones a pretty brunette as I perform yet another crunch. "Are you going to be finished soon? Because I'm planning on going to grad school and I'd like to use the equipment before I go gray and my grandchildren are retired." This irritates me; I know that she has a point. I've been on this contraption, trying, failingly, to become fatigued ever since crunch number seven-hundred sixty-two, give or take a decade. If I don't feel tired yet, have I gotten enough exercise?

And yet I know she has the better point. Climbing off of the machine, I wipe any vestige of perspiration out of common courtesy and sanitized for your protection, thank you. The look of disdain shot from her eyes (green, I think) is quite a feat; how in the world does she manage to look down her nose at me while seated?

Humbled, I head over to an exercise bike. This, as it turns out, becomes an opportunity to vent any frustration I may have had a moment earlier regarding Miss Howdareyou. Selecting the "quick start" option, I begin pedaling my way along an imaginary European countryside. I wait until I've spent twenty calories and then increase my speed to one-hundred twenty RPMs. Things are going well as my sweat increases like Niagara Falls during the spring thaw. In fact, I'm really getting into this.

So was the guy in the bike next to me, who apparently was having the same daydream I was having. In almost no time we were Lance Armstrom-ing  our way down some nonexistent mountain, each determined to see whose bike could get to one-hundred sixty-five rpm first.

Victory was mine as the strap on one of his pedals broke, sending his foot into the aisle and almost kicking some lady in the butt. In all, I managed to wear out another hundred calories.

And so the diet continues, aided by the exercise and even the occasional bratty experience. This is a growing experience for me, even if that comes off as ironic. I think I'll be lean enough one day before the swimming pools close. Strutting my stuff isn't anything I've ever done. In fact, I don't even have any strut stuff. I'm so poor that I have to strut someone else's stuff. Still, I'm on the right path, even if that path sometimes leads me into imaginary bicycle races down European mountains and riles pretty brunettes with green eyes who can feel themselves aging whenever I inadvertently hog a crunch machine. I'm going to lose another thirty pounds before I'm finished.

I'm happy with that.

I see the big picture.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Rite of Errors

I've never been an athlete.

Let me rephrase that. I've never been a gifted athlete. If I ever join a church around here, let me be the first to say I'll scoot down low in the pew when the pastor's looking for volunteers for the church softball team.

That reluctance stems back to my preteen years. I played little league baseball for a few years. When I say "play", I mean that in the academic sense of the word. I didn't play well. I occasionally hit the ball and even scored a few runs.

At age fifty-three I can remember vividly the first time I went up to bat. "I'm going to hit the ball like Babe Ruth", I imparted to my teammates, most of whom had to prop themselves up, weak from the laughter at that arrogant comment of mine. Their giddiness was validated by two awkward words, which seemed amplified by a factor of ten: "Strike three!

Returning to the bench, I vowed to redeem myself. "Serves me right", I mused, determined to get on base.

That almost payed off the next time I was at bat. My giddy teammates were on the edge of the bench, eager with anticipation the next time I was at bat. What they didn't realize was that I had armed myself with deductive reasoning. Observing that the right-handed players lined up on the left side of the plate prior to heading to first base, and being left-handed myself, I was about to show them that I was smart enough to redeem my earlier goof.

Didn't happen.

I took the right side of the plate, and having gotten a piece of the ball, promptly ran to third. "Go to first!" seemed to be the collective mantra of my teammates, the parents, and even some of the opposing team members as I corrected my direction and short-cutted directly across the pitcher's mound to be met with "you're out!" by another umpire, who by now was probably wondering what was wrong with me, and could he get a refund for his officiating uniform? By now, my teammates were already planning for futures as financial planners, calculating how much money they'd need to spend on Kleenex to keep their eyes dry while I Don Quixote'd my way around the diamond.

Over time, I began to figure out how to get to get on base. "Keep your eye on the ball!" was sage advice for accomplishing exactly that. Turns out that it was also keen wisdom for anyone playing infield. I learned that while playing first base. On a beautiful Saturday summer afternoon, I happened to have my left foot on the bag with my glove out and palm face up. Daydreaming about the model car kit which was waiting for me on that idyllic day, and how I'd get to stay up and watch the late movie that night, I didn't see the ball which was apparently heading my way. To this day I have no idea how it happened; either one of my teammates assisted me or it was a one-in-ten-thousand shot, but my reverie was promptly interrupted by the ball suddenly appearing in my glove (accompanied by "you're out!" by the same umpire who was by now no doubt questioning his civic duty as a little league official). Someone later told me that I caught a fly ball which seemed targeted for my glove. I'm not sure about that.

My coach (aka, my dad, which was the only reason I actually made the cut) decided to put me out in left field in future games since I was already there anyway, so to speak.

Lo and behold.

Everyone is good at something. In my case, it was standing further away from opposing batters and trying my best to "talk it up" in an attempt to unnerve them and to distract them from focusing on hitting the ball. In a storybook finish to one game, we were ahead by one run with the opposing team at bat and two outs against them. At the bottom of the ninth, the winner of the game would go on to the All Star game. The kid at bat swung, desperately.

And connected.

To me.

Things went quickly. The ball was sailing. I was backpedalling, equally desperate not to let the ball get behind me. The ball was outpacing my "husky" body. I had no choice except to turn my back and beat feet in an effort to turn in time to catch it. When the ball came down, it came down into my glove. My teammates stormed out of the dugout, racing to me. I actually thought, for a moment, that I had screwed up again. "Why are they running at me? Why do they want to beat me up? Wasn't I supposed to catch the ball" I asked myself as "way to go!" was echoed by guys who became future classmates and friends.

The whole thing ended with my dad sending me and my brother to Illinois for a week, ostensibly, to visit my aunt, cousins, and grandmother. I suspect that he was afraid I'd get eaten alive by guys who really knew what they were doing on the field. As it was, I had a great summer. The model car was built, with me hiding in the basement during its assembly, when I got back home. We lost the All Star game, as it happened. Even so, the summer of '72 was a learning curve for all of us. I learned that I wasn't the reincarnation of Babe Ruth. My teammates learned to be patient with my non-athletic prowess.

And we all endured a rite of passage.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Pitch To Verizon

My life is mainly free of any significant contention. I work out, apply for jobs, look into various graduate programs, and pay bills.

I pay bills. Ahem.

Let me qualify that last sentence. I pay bills whose account numbers are operational. That leaves out Verizon broadband, a division of the telecommunications giant.

When paying a bill over the phone, one enters the account number and one's credit or debit card number, followed by the pound sign. Following from this, one enters the amount to be paid, receives a confirmation number, and closes the transaction within two minutes. One doesn't spend an hour and forty-five minutes, each month, engaged in hand to hand combat with the phone company in some grandiose effort to martyr one's way through honoring a debt.

Unless, of course, one is dealing with Verizon.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I've been duking it out with the phone company since, um, July 2009. Specifically, Verizon assigned a faulty account number for my broadband bill. That's why I now suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Each month, when attempting to pay the bill, the automated attendant shares "I'm sorry. I did not recognize that number. Please try again." The next step includes contacting a real, live human being in the billing department -something even Marlin Perkins would have found challenging. "How can I help you today?" is soon followed with "apparently something is wrong with your account number", as I'm reminded of the adage that "misery loves company". The billing department representative asks for my social security number in order to access the account, the bill is finally paid via much struggle by the representative, and I begin to wonder if people are driving bubble top cars by the time I've paid the bill. Still, all is right with the world; the bill is paid, and I have peace of mind.

Until today. I received a bill from "can you hear me now" claiming that I owe the company $366.20 for an "unpaid broadband bill extending back to February". Wait a minute.

First of all, if my bill had been unpaid during that entire time frame, my service would have been cut off like Daffy Duck in a gin joint. In fact, I'm still accessing the internet precisely because my bill has been paid. So agrees my bank, which is only too happy to provide evidence detailing each and every payment. Why, then has Verizon refused to correct the issue?

First of all, the account number itself isn't recognized by the very business which created it. If Verizon can't recognize it, why should I be expected to? "Your call may be monitored and/or recorded for quality purposes" is played into my ear while I'm placed on hold en route to asking that very profound question. (What quality, I ask myself, bemusedly, while being informed that my expected wait time is less than two minutes.)

"I'm sorry you're having so much trouble, sir" doesn't successfully quell my rage, as I'm balling up socks and hurting them at imaginary heads of Verizon executives who are very likely imaginary themselves. "According to our records, you owe us the money. How would you like to pay?"

What an excellent question: it further provides me with motivation both necessary and sufficient to develop a wicked fast ball. "My bank says you were paid for each month I've used your service, except for the past month", I begin, "and -"

I'm cut off by the twenty-nothing year old who's doing her best to practice her professional bearing in a vain attempt to cover her utter incompetence. "Sir, you'd have to take that up with your bank" is followed by changing my tactics to throwing sliders. Calmly, I promise to speak slowly so she'll have a better chance to grasp the concept of paying a bill, having evidence that the bill was paid, and that the issue should, logically, be resolved by now.

Linguists would be proud of my slow, if precise, enunciation of the syllables now pouring off of my lips and sugarcoated with sarcasm not unlike arsenic mixed with maple syrup. "I paid the bill. I have a statement from the bank attesting to that fact. Therefore, I don't owe Verizon the money. Wasn't that easy?"

I begin my curve ball when her "no, sir" response is issued.

About the time I mentioned something about referring the matter to both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, she decided to transfer my call to her supervisor. Hooray. I get to start the entire process over again -just as I had to do with the resolution center, the billing department, the retention department, the financial department, and the cafeteria, first explaining the situation to the representative and then to his or her supervisor.

The issue remains unresolved. Verizon's stance is that it couldn't possibly have committed an error. If that were true, then criminal fraud is the only thing which Verizon could have committed. Along those lines, I mentioned something about RICO law, and asked the representative if orange is a flattering color for her.

Thank you, Verizon, for motivating me to practice my baseball pitches. I haven't thrown a baseball in decades, and when I did I was a first baseman in Little League. Maybe the Orioles can use a closer.

At least then I could afford to be ripped off by your utter incompetence.


Monday, December 1, 2014

I'm Not Puzzled

Recently I discovered an online jigsaw puzzle website which is packed full of automotive puzzles. As I'm a car guy (mom and dad met each other while working at Chrysler, thank you), I welcomed the escape from boredom which bordered on the surreal.

Every kind of car is on the site. Talbots, Saab Sonnets, and even Chevies (sorry for the profanity) are featured on the site in all of their high-octane glory.

That's why I've become miffed. You see, I'm obsessive-compulsive about things like puzzles. It would be no small understatement to describe my resilience when it comes to completing jigsaw puzzles in one sitting.

Don't get me wrong. That polite little forty-eight piece job was a wonderful break from the usual ennui. That's why I was left feeling kind of empty approximately four minutes and thirty-eight seconds later, when the Vega masterpiece was completed. What does one do when facing such dynamics as OCD and an overwhelming desire to escape the painfully mundane?

That's exactly right. One delves into a five-hundred piece puzzle of Richard Petty and his '74 Dodge Charger, doesn't one?

Now, I don't know about you, but when I build a puzzle, I always start by assembling the edges. It becomes easier when one sees where the grass, beer cans, and chicken bones go. And really, was there ever any question regarding the placement of that two foot long STP decal? The eighty-thousand or so fans perched behind the world famous driver and his neon grin were a bit more difficult to figure out; apparently Thelma was the one wearing the flannel shirt on that chilly February afternoon at the speedway.

Race cars are a huge favorite among we automotive puzzle-solvers, but sometimes one needs a breath of fresh air. And that's where street gassers come into play. For those who don't quite know what a "street gasser" is, it's simply a replica of a mid-sixties gasser drag racer, identified mainly by a truck or van front axle and a high-altitude front end. It was speculated, back in the days of the Polaroid instant photos and first-run showings of "My Favorite Martian", that raising the front of the car would lead to improved weight transfer, and thus improved traction. Turns out that it led to nosebleeds and the need for step ladders. Still, the automotive genre remains popular, with a large number of car parts companies supplying the components necessary to transfer your vehicle into visceral terror on wheels.

It would be remiss not to mention the puzzles of exotic cars and their powertrains. In particular, the six-hundred fifty-two piece copy of a Lamborghini engine had me worried about my plans for the fast-approaching evening one day last week. The worst part wasn't feeling an overwhelming compulsion to complete it. It was having to enlarge the screen so I'd have enough room for all of the pieces. That, of course, meant that I'd have to struggle in order to see the pieces clearly enough to build the dumb thing. Exercise and bill payments were delayed as I struggled, valiantly, to ascertain which was the spark plug wire for cylinder number seven.

In all, I love the website. I have to steer clear of it sometimes, though (pun, sorry). The addiction to building cars which I'll never be able to afford provides me with a good bit of satisfaction. And that's okay. I can leave the cars in a full state of assembly while I traipse out to the kitchen for a Weight Watcher's spaghetti dinner, lovingly microwaved for my dining pleasure.

Doesn't puzzle me a bit.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Habitat? Oh, The Humanity

While snooping around the net the other day, I decided to see if I could locate some of my long-lost blogs. I found a few gems over on WordPress. I use the word "gems" in the academic sense, especially since words like "pedantic" scare me. Several of these early writings were primitive, and that's being kind. (I can't believe I ended one blog with "to be continued following a Taco Bell break". Really, what was I thinking?)

The blog of choice was a wonderful venue to release frustrations wrought by a thankless and miserable job. At the end of the day, I could engage in "narrative therapy for fun and profit", assuming that the monetization option worked. (It didn't.)

After hours' worth of taking abuse from two assistant managers whose job, apparently, was to inflict abuse on low-wage employees while basking in air conditioned comfort, venting a few how-dare-you's" in the comfort of my home (and shorts) helped me to prepare for the abuses of the next workday.

I think that's how I got into trouble; one day, following an especially trying afternoon, I sought the counsel of my boss's boss, only to discover that she was rarely in her office, and was, apparently, loathe to return phone calls.

That, of course, fanned the fire of my rather flame-kissed tongue.

"The ladies who work in the office", I mused, "are too busy chasing mice around their offices late at night and drinking milk from their saucers to deal with employee issues". Now, I'm all for free speech. I'm also a bit of a hothead at times, feeling rather put out by assistant managers who chain smoke while watching the rest of the employees carry slate top tables, shower/tub units, and all kinds of floor tile for customers. The fact that such a leader can't actually be relied upon to, um, lead, isn't good for morale, even if it is good for blogging material.

It took approximately .002 seconds for my executive director to discover my less-than-gentlemanly redress of grievances. It took even less time for her to express her opinion of my right to free speech, if issuing a written evaluation and an unpaid three day vacation were indications of her thoughts on the matter. "And don't even think of setting foot on the property this Saturday", was effectively her parting shot.

As I was a part time employee, I never actually received any type of paid vacation during my seven year tenure in the ol' sweat box. I was admittedly confused regarding her verdict. Mean to say I'm being granted a Saturday off  -something which only the managers ever get to enjoy? Well, heck, lady. In that case, maybe I should also mention something about the store manager kicking the dock doors off of the hinges in a rage reaction to a customer.

It's easy to feel sour about the entire experience. Leaders should lead by example rather than by abuse of authority. Call me crazy, but I'm of the opinion that Christian organizations should actually try being Christian. It could be the case that feeling so insecure about holding a position of responsibility that one feels the need to snap at his employees with reckless abandon is counterproductive.

I'm free from an oppressive job. I'm thankful that the seven years there didn't jade my opinion of my faith, despite numerous apparent attempts to the contrary.

I tell you, if Moses had seen what goes on in that store, there would have been another commandment. Still, I'm free and I'm doing well, thank you.

I think that's because these days I spend most of my time in my habitat.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Reunions, Dancing, And Cornbread

I love my high school classmates.

Specifically, I love the occasional (and all too infrequent) get-togethers several of us enjoy for lunches and dinners. The camaraderie, the moral support, the remembrance of the good old days.

The social dynamics of the dance floor during our thirty-fifth reunion.


Anyone who knows me knows that I majored in psychology. That's convenient when recalling lectures from social psychology class I took during the Reagan era.

While the band began warming up with something not-too-disco, no fewer than twenty-nine thousand women made a beeline for the dance floor. That was pretty interesting in light of the fact that there were no husbands/significant others accompanying them. That piqued my curiosity; am I the only guy who's agonizingly self-conscious about dancing, which in my case probably resembles Herman Munster trying to walk off a foot cramp? Scanning the entire main ballroom, I only saw five or six guys. The rest, as I discovered momentarily, were hiding around the corner, having placed themselves, strategically, near the bartender and the food. Hey, two birds, one stone.

In all fairness, there were quite a few ladies back there as well. Turns out they were the reserve unit to replace the original Dance Platoon.

This was a pretty interesting phenomenon; as the evening progressed, the second troupe hit the floor with all the gusto of Ethel Merman at a state fair. This second group was even more interesting to observe than the first. I say that in the context of how they danced. Whereas the first group of classmates strolled out to the floor and displayed good fast-dance form, the second took the field, as it were, and did a circle dance which seems to have closed in on some guy who made the mistake of using the area for a shortcut.

I'm not making fun of anyone, nor would I want anyone to think that. People were simply having fun. Well, except for that guy who looked for all the world like he was going to panic if he couldn't escape and evade back to the food line, not that I blame him. (They taught us to practice empathy in psych classes. I taught myself "you're on your own, pal" as I made my way to the baked beans and cornbread.) I'm reasonably certain that he survived the ordeal. I speculate that he made his escape somewhere between some soft rock song and "Disco Duck". (Note: they didn't actually play that song, but had I ascribed a Barry Manilow tune here, we'd all have sought escape.)

The final main dance, not taking into account one couple who danced a slow dance alone, and who are obviously in love, plus two guys who joined perhaps eighteen ladies for three minutes, formed either a wavy line dance or half of the Electric Slide, depending upon my eyesight and the sobriety of perhaps one or more people on the floor. No one got trapped in that one, but when two sides of the dance tried, momentarily, to move in opposite directions it made me realize how light-hearted the whole thing was, and it reminded me not to take some things as seriously in my own life. (I'm the guy whose first Little League experience was to assume that because I'm left-handed that I should run to third base. I was called out about halfway across the pitcher's mound, by the way. Am I judging anyone? What, are you nuts?)

I considered taking dance lessons, but decided that my own self-consciousness would relegate me to the line serving beans and cornbread.

That line trapped me at the pasta salad.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Snow, Ruminations, And Tennis

I have no idea how it happened. One day last winter, while digging my car out of the snow it occurred to me that I needed to play tennis.

That was a pretty random thought for a guy whose afternoon would be defined as productive if he could locate the name "Michelin" on his right rear tire. Anyway, the more I worked to liberate my car from the clutches of what looked almost like a typical January afternoon in some place like Rochester, Minnesota, the more my mind wandered.

I engaged in various ruminations while freeing the other three tires from solid ice -a workout which prompted me to escape to my happy place. I guess my most immediate problem was that I didn't actually have a happy place. All I had was ice, gray skies, and "watch that snow shovel, dude" issued by a neighbor whose car I was absentmindedly covering with the snow I was clearing from my own car. Ruminations became the doorway to any number of happy places. Actually, the ruminations became more of a hallway at a Motel 6. I think I had gotten to the locks on the car's doors by the time I had begun weighing the pros and cons of visiting Deming, New Mexico, and renting a duck for the duck races. Oh, sure, you never know what kind of a duck you'll get when you rent one. The best way to win a duck race is to throw yourself into the sport with absolute passion and go for it. That means raising a duck from a duckling, and training him or her to outperform every other duck on the circuit. It means getting up at five-thirty every morning for duck calisthenics and stretching. And really, encouraging ducks to stretch themselves until their beaks meet their little duck knees has got to be challenging.

Ducks were out, then. That was clear -as clear as the windows I was now dusting the last bit of snow off of. Maybe I should return to school. Hmm. The problem there is that, while I'll eventually do exactly that, it's a serious challenge to have letters of recommendation sent by professors who have moved to unknown addresses in foreign countries, died, or, in one case, been incarcerated for stealing computers. In any case, I have more than sufficient time to formulate a good plan to return to school.

One thing I learned from behaviorists is that life is largely about having something to do. The fact that I was now clearing off the moonroof with the precision of a neurosurgeon overdosing on Dexedrine drove that point home. Maybe I could start a self help group of some kind. Maybe contracting with a church to borrow one of its rooms once a week was the way to go. Heck, even I can afford to buy coffee for the clients, and I ain't rich. In the end, I nixed that idea by the time I got to the headlights. Turns out that the valley has so many self help groups that one more added to the mix will spread the self help population so thin that none of us would actually get any help -or coffee.

While I expounded to myself on the idea of a niche self help group -maybe something like people with mood disorders (like me) who worry because someone elses blue eyes might be prettier than mine, and who experience profound anxiety as a result. That idea, too, was tossed aside as I experienced a panic attack due to having almost broken the car's antenna while thinking deeply about what it would be like to suffer from blue-eye anxiety.

And then it hit me: what I needed to do was play tennis. A game which I had played perhaps five times prior, and which I most recently played in 1982. As the weather grew warmer, the days longer, and the car freer from the last vestiges of precipitate, I began thinking frequently about what it would be like to play the game again. There I was, in my mind's eye, with four percent body fat, lean, sinewy, and with a Burt Reynolds-esque moustache, meeting with friends for a rousing afternoon game with friends, with my brand new 1978 Dodge Magnum GT (black, because this is a macho daydream) parked outside the courts so that everyone could see that I had arrived, baby. Looking for all the world like a composite of any number of other guys, I was really playing the game like a one-time US Open hopeful whose potential pro career had come to an end due to a tragic racket stringing accident. It was in that moment that I felt strongly compelled to buy a cheap racket and nine tennis balls, and see how close to that ideal I could come to before the onset of the next winter.

 Let me tell you, while my daydream version of me was really making the ladies swoon, the real version of me was making them run and duck due to my very erratic serve. In fact, one of the balls ended up on the bottom of my car's windshield, which was parked backward at the bottom of a steep hill. Thus far I've only had one partner on the courts, though a good friend says he'll play me. I look forward to that. Maybe in October, when the temperatures drop a bit and my serve is reduced to Southwest Roanoke. The serve itself is decent now. What I want to be able to do is sustain a volley which will be entertaining enough for whoever I play against. "Sorry about that -are you okay?" shouldn't be included in the tennis lexicon.

I'm getting better at this. The ball is landing, about thirty percent of the time, solidly in the service box. Occasionally I go for a Wimbledon-type of serve: a hundred miles per hour and as much felt as I can bust off of the ball. I don't know what it's like playing on grass. I do know something about ricochets. When playing against someone, I won't serve that way.

Unless I'm ruminating about firearms.