Thursday, April 9, 2015

Seal Training: I Quit!

You know those tamper-proof seals they put on condiment bottles? I'm referring to the nasty little "peel-and-toss" kind which promise that you'll be chowing down on that sour dough-and-pepperoni masterpiece you slammed together the other day during a commercial break.

Those seals are, in a word, evil.

Let me qualify that. Those things are designed, apparently by someone working in the psyops division of the National Security Agency, to test the approximate elapsed time necessary to reduce a normally sane person into a raging lunatic.

Now, I'm all for keeping our food products as safe as they can be. I also understand the potential liability issues associated with such tamper-proof seals. And, I understand that if they're so tamper-proof that the consumer can't remove them, then the whole point of squirting that fancy Chez Snitty Poupon-And-Fescue mustard on your delicately-toasted bread becomes moot.

Take Monday. Amidst the balancing act of timing toasting some bread, microwaving a small portion of spaghetti, and pouring a glass of apple juice, I had several minutes' worth of time to peel and remove the seal.

Didn't happen.

What did happen is that, for the first minute or two, I struggled to remove the seal. The bottling company's accounting firm must have been in a generous mood, given that they apparently approved forty dollars' worth of glue to be spent on keeping my condiment of choice from being breached by anything less than trained professionals from MI6. As I was in the process of removing the seal, the clear plastic part finally gave, however grudgingly. The heavily-foiled underlay part of it, however, remained in what can only be described as a condiment bottle's equivalent of a Super Maxx prison during lockdown.

The toast popped up, issuing its wonderful come-hither aroma while I began issuing a very rude litany of words which I won't repeat here. (You're welcome.) And, while that was happening, the microwave began beeping its desire for my attention even as I knocked over my glass of juice which flowed all over the kitchen counter amidst my struggle with the seal.

The remainder of the seal, however, remained the one constant in what was quickly becoming in the kitchen what the Broncos became in their Super Bowl quest against the Seahawks the other year. It became all-out pandemonium as I tried stabbing the seal in a vain attempt to puncture it, bending the tip of the knife blade instead. People don't normally engage in hand to hand combat with mustard bottles where I come from, by the way.

In a valiant, if desperate act, it occurred to me that the only way I'd ever be able to enjoy my mustard would be to cut the top of the bottle off using a hobby knife, and dumping the contents into a plastic food container.

It worked. Out of sheer determination I had achieved victory. Never have I made a sandwich which tasted so good. I could simply have settled for just the spaghetti and apple juice, but I was in a mood for a sandwich on the side as well. And let me say this: when I want a sandwich, a sandwich I shall have. One wouldn't have needed a background in forensics to determine the cause and effects of events in my kitchen that afternoon. Even so, I did calm down and enjoy what was a very satisfying meal.

If I call the bottling company to share my experience, that might lead to another column. It might also lead to a quick trip to a mental hospital if I have to relive the experience again.

As for these condiment seals, I quit. From now on I'll eat my sandwiches plain.

It certainly wasn't a flavorful experience.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Feeling Chippy

A couple of years ago I decided to spruce up the ol' Honda. By "spruce up" I decided to make myself feel like I had hit it big in life. My reasoning for doing so was based on some admittedly weird ideation.

I've been a pretty avid reader of Car & Driver. Seems like everyone who drives the latest Mercedes M16 Bigshot or the Infiniti Q-Ship (complete with wet bar and foot massager) has fancy wood appliques (Peruvian Elm Burl, thank you) affixed around the gauges so they can think to themselves, "wow, I have genuine reproduction wood trim around my tachometer. Hope this puts me on  the fast track to upper management". To me, wood burl signifies that one has successfully scratched his or her way to the top. Leave the plain old black gauge clusters for the cubicle people. The wood look is for the movers and shakers, baby.

Seriously, when applied correctly, it does lend a certain feeling of "move over, you in the Prius. Success is coming through!"

That "success" was successful for about a year and a half. After approximately forty-seven Armor-All baths, each applied with the same loving care that is taken when shearing a sheep in preparation for making an angora sweater, the appliques began to lose their charm.

By that, I mean they began to erode and chip from the caustic solution in the wondrous greasy stuff. Seriously, it began to look like some lady with long fingernails and a short temper had clawed her way, Freddy Kruger-style, across the fake knotholes and simulated stress lines of the decals which I had applied, so lovingly, one July afternoon following a long day of work.

My first mistake was that I used decals rather than the fancier plastic parts which are much sturdier. Those are much more durable, even if "Please Peel And Stick" is sometimes visible through the parts encircling the cup holder.

The second mistake was using gallons of that fantastic, slimy protectant which we all love to use on our vehicle's interiors. Knowing that your center console is the shiniest one in the parking lot can make you feel like Mitt Romney in a primary debate. Armor-All, as it turns out, dry rots cheap decals over time. Unfortunately, it also virtually welds decals to interior panels. I discovered that during the four hours or so I spent removing them, one square millimeter at a time (with my thumbnails, which proves how doggedly determined I can be when I can't find tools), across each panel proudly displaying enough wood grain to cover the entire Amazon region.

And, along the way, I managed to compact approximately forty-seven square miles of decal scrapings under both thumbnails, thereby causing no small number of cuts under each nail and making me worry about staph infection by next Thursday.

I can say this: the man who operates the detailing site expressed a limitless degree of patience, though I'm sure he wondered if I was homeless and had decided that my current residence should be Brambleton Car Wash, Roanoke, Va. I do know that he appreciated the large number of tokens I had to purchase in order to vacuum out the cubic yards' worth of "look like a big shot with burl!" now covering my floor mats, the front seats, and the coin tray like fungus.

Now, at 2:03 AM I'm typing this, my thumbs finally not hurting so much. In all, I had a pleasant afternoon. The interior looks great. I learned that I can't design a Honda interior as well as Honda can. It's back to the basics for me: humble I-work-in-a-cubicle black plastic (not that I work in a cubicle, but you get the point about the unpretentious black plastic panels). I'm sure that, for the next several years, the occasional chip of simulated burl will flit out through the vents whenever I crank up the AC or the heat. And that's okay.

That's the price I'll pay for feeling chippy.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An Exit Strategy

Ah, the perils of grocery shopping.

I never expected going for food to be fraught with danger. Serendipity's evil twin showed up this afternoon, provoking future PTSD among those of us who were merely imparting "no, dear, I haven't forgotten the pralines" to unseen loved ones while trying their Rambo best to evade and escape the malfunctioning electronic door at the Towers Kroger this evening. I judged, from behind the safety of someone's Granada, approximately how quickly I'd have to exit past the electronic gadget which was doing its best to inflict malicious wounding upon those who dared violate the space within its bowels, possibly in Aisle Six.

Now, I'm not a commando, at least not in the normal sense. However, having been blessed with YouTube, I've been privy to Special Air Services training tactics. That's why I felt as though I had committed dereliction of duty this evening. Rather than taking an "everyone for himself" attitude, as I did, I should have played the role of force multiplier. Specifically, had I won the trust of my fellow shoppers entering the store, I could then have convinced them that (a) the door posed a threat, and (b) our best bet to obtain microwave spaghetti and sourdough bread would include storming the door in waves. Given the average speed of the twenty-seven or so of us, we could breach the entry in approximately thirty seconds. This would likely have included casualties, especially among those who hesitated while searching purses for coupons.

While an employee was busy telling his coworker "I told you so" regarding the failing contraption, I stormed my way in (please, no puns about "stormed doors" here). I did sustain a sore left elbow for my efforts. Still, when apple juice is at stake, is that really such a big price?

One could feel the tension in the air, even as far away as the cereal aisle where Joshua was locked in a battle of wills with his mom over Lucky Charms. Distracted by the lure of Mountain Dew, Hostess cupcakes, Budweiser, and Bubba Burgers, how we were going to escape was the one detail which we all had apparently overlooked. One Carillon physician's assistant suggested wedging the door with a small piece of wood. That idea was quickly nixed, however, when some guy in bib coveralls asked the critical question, "wouldn't we have to be outside to find wood?"

Another woman, whose only identity came from an apparent overdose of Botox and perhaps a gallon of highly vulgar perfume, suggested that several of the younger men engage the door in a suicide mission long enough for her to escape to her Mercedes SUV with her poodle. Again, another idea tossed into the trash heap of history by several younger men who weren't suicidal. Despite Precious's yapping insistence that we weren't being brave enough, none of us decided that the honor of Alpo's biggest stock investor was worth the risk. A small dog was highly offended, but no blood was spilled.

Finally, it happened. Someone noticed that there's another door on the other side of the storefront. Mired in the tactics and logistics of escaping, evading, and buying pretzels, we had unknowingly become victims of Occam's Razor. I, for one, felt silly about the whole thing. My personal plan of escape was to exit through the back door, traverse down the interior alleyway which Tower's Mall is famous for, and Force Recon my way back to my car. That would have been formidable at best; the guy at GNC is always on the lookout for me so he can try to sell me "Muscle Gain 10,000 RPM Macho Max". And, of course, there's always the specter of the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, whose seductive aroma intoxicates one to come inside and spend money whether they want to or not.

A great many of us turned to look back, possibly to assess what we had all endured, or maybe simply to remember the casualties of the day. Whatever the case, Triscuits were purchased, along with eggs, any number of Betty Crocker dessert mixes, broccoli, and Jerry's Fancy Red Wine For Fancy Off-Yellow Noodles. Most of us survived, and that includes the poodle.

We had discovered our door. That was our out.


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 up. 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.