Tuesday, February 25, 2014

the camp with the difference

Remember summer camp when you were a kid? The anticipation as the school year came to a close. The agonizing, yet exciting, ritual of deciding what to pack. Eight weeks worth of activities (both fun and strenuous), meals and new friends. Small, cramped sleeping quarters with all of your belongings neatly crammed into bedside shelves — t-shirts and underwear unnaturally co-mingling. But you were a kid and that's what you did.

Well, that's essentially what a cruise is — summer camp for adults. And because we are adults, we don't have a spare eight weeks to set aside for such frivolity. We have to get back to our jobs, our families, our lives. One week will do just fine. Give me one week to gorge like a pig, soak up some sun, see a foreign country and meet some new people that I will develop a close bond with, then probably never see again. Yep, one week should do it.

My wife and I just returned from our second cruise. Last year, at the end of our first cruise, I was surprised by the good time I had, but I expressed to Mrs. P that any subsequent cruise would be exactly the same. And, with very few exceptions, I was right. Of course, there was food — and a whole lot of it. The most noticeable difference between this cruise and the last one food-wise, was the presence of self-serve soft ice cream machines in our recent ship's buffet. I took full advantage of this, having consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty cones in one week's time.

"Is that a pole right outside
your cabin door? It sure is!
Our ship, the enormous Norwegian Breakaway, followed the same itinerary as last year's Norwegian Gem. The Breakaway is the fifth largest cruise ship in the world, and it boasts a passenger count of 4000. That's right - four thousand people. The puny Gem was about half the size and made for a more intimate trip. Although we latched onto several "ship buddies," we found ourselves marveling at the hordes of unfamiliar faces on-board on Days Five and Six. "Were these people here all week?." we thought. "Did they just board this morning, in the middle of the ocean?"

The activities aboard range from wall-climbing and zip lines to trivia contests and towel-folding demonstrations. Mrs. P and I, however, grit our teeth and dove headfirst into the most adventurous activity we have ever participated in — karaoke. I am a show-off, by nature, but I am very aware of the fact that I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Mrs. P, on the other hand, can sing, but shuns the spotlight like a mole. We are the last people who should be having the karaoke experience. But, we figured, what the hell!, we're never gonna see these people again. Our new pal Chris, a young man from Sheffield, England who was the same age as our son, was a karaoke aficionado. We watched him perform several times, cheering him on with wild applause. He was no Pavarotti, but he had a pleasant voice, that obviously got better with every beer he (and the audience) downed. And he was a bit self-conscious, asking, as a participant warbled out a horribly strained and off-key rendition of Bon Jovi's "Livin' On a Prayer," "Am I that bad?" We assured Chris that he was not. That no one was.

"Offer me solutions, offer me
and I decline."
As Chris presented his version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in his charming British accent, I perused the song list and selected REM's anthemic "It's The End of The World (As We Know It)," with which to serenade the crowd — or clear the room. Before my name was called to perform, we watched a man playfully belt out "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter." We sang along in our best/worst mock British accent, innocently dissing poor Chris.

The DJ announced my name and I took the stage, grabbed the mic and stumbled my way through the onslaught of Michael Stipe's lyrics, as they quickly flashed across the screen. Some incorrect words tripped me up a few times, and I lost track of the tune, but, no one ran out screaming, so I considered it a success. After some real singers (including a lovely, yet totally hammered, young woman offering a heartfelt rendition of "At Last" to her expressionless husband), Mrs. P. joined me again onstage for a drawn-out take on Marty Robbins' cowboy ballad, "El Paso." We were terrible and we didn't care. We capped the evening with an abbreviated version of the epic "American Pie," even forcing poor Chris to make us a trio.

Did we have fun? Sure, we did. Will I cruise again? I suppose, but, again, I can't see the experience being any different than the last two.

What's that? Mrs. P is already making plans.....? (Mrs. P went to summer camp. I didn't.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

won't you please, please, help me

Let me take you for a ride up the corporate ladder.

Wednesday morning brought another Comm meeting (that's corporate lingo for "Communications Department"), a small sub-group of the larger Marketing Department of which I am a paid proud member. 

Comm is comprised of Elgie, the Director of Communications, who, in addition to other responsibilities, spends a good portion of her day maintaining a diplomatic calm over the more hot-headed members of her team (read: me). In my thirty years as a professional artist, Elgie is one of the best bosses I have worked for — and I'm not just saying that because she reads my blog. (And I'm not putting her solely at the top of the list  because my former boss Diane reads my blog, as well.)  Perhaps you remember Elgie as a supporting player in this ordeal. Comm boasts two writers, including my friend Kym, whose well-meaning antics have made for many an amusing blog post. Then, there's the Data Steward, a key member of the team, but whose actual job function remains a mystery to most of the Market Department. Comm is rounded out by the Web Master, whose job title sounds as though he should be wearing a cape and a tunic emblazoned with a big red "W."

On Wednesday morning, we were joined by the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer, for those non-corporate types playing along at home), as he wished a status report on an upcoming, highly-anticipated, internal website overhaul. So, at 10 AM, with coffee mugs and note pads in hand, we all filed into a conference room. Web Master had arrived early and was busily fiddling with connections from his laptop to the big, wall-mounted, flat-screen monitor looming over the the far end of long conference table. He was rigging a video feed so the whole group could see his computer's desktop on the big screen. We sat patiently, sipping coffee and nibbling the donut hole treats that Elgie graciously brought, as Web Master checked his plugs and jacks until he was satisfied with the connections. Then, he grabbed the multifunction remote control, pointed it at the sleek black video receiver on the wall and pressed the power button.


He pressed the button again.

Again nothing.

He examined the remote. He popped the back open and rotated the batteries, hoping to remedy a faulty contact. He replaced the battery compartment lid and pressed the power button again. Nothing.

"Maybe there's a power button on the unit itself." he said, as he jumped up and approached the wall displaying the massive monitor. Slowly and carefully, he slid his hands around the outside of the unit, each side, top and bottom. He inspected the back of the unit and crouched down to visually survey the underside, hoping to spot something he may have missed with his hands. Nothing. He shook the remote and mashed the power button again. Exasperated, he called the company Help Desk. Past experiences have revealed that name to be a misnomer.

"Help Desk," said the voice from the four way speakerphone at the center of the conference table.

"Did you
try pushing
the power
Web Master explained his dilemma.

The Help Desk voice paused, obviously assessing the technicalities of the situation, then offered this astute, previously-untried solution: "Did you press the power button?"

We all exchanged stunned glances. "She didn't really say that did she?" We all thought it, but no one spoke it. Well, maybe I did.

"Yes. Yes I did.," Web Master replied, doing his very best not to end his sentence with "you fucking moron!" (He was successful.)

Help Desk voice was not defeated, as she provided another suggestion. "Did you check for a power button on the unit?"

"Yes, I tried that.," Web Master replied, nearly biting his lip.

"I'll send someone down to check it out.," Help Desk voice reported.

A short time later, two gentlemen entered the room. If we had not already known their purpose, we would have believed the pair to be entertainers for a children's birthday party, judging purely by their wobbly gaits, ill-fitting tool belts and droopy clothing. One of the men immediately snatched the remote from the table and repeatedly pressed the power button several hundred times. Then, he popped the battery compartment lid and.... do I even need to finish this sentence? Meanwhile, his cohort slid his hands along the outside of the wall-mounted unit and inspected its posterior for a power button. This was followed by several minutes of head-cocking, chin-stroking and thoughtful skull-scratching, supplemented by a generous amount of "hmmm"s. 

One of the men whipped out a cellphone and called — we can only assume — someone in a supervisory position. Within a minute, the conference room doors flew open and  a woman with a no-nonsense stride burst in. She headed straight for the wood-grain cabinet beneath the wall-mounted monitor. Leaning over, she studied a large, black unit on a shelf, previous hidden by the cabinet doors. She pressed a button on the front and the monitor came to life with bright a LED glow. She turned on her heel, smiled, and headed back from whence she came.

"What was the problem?," the CMO asked, as she crossed by him on her way out.

"Someone had turned off the main power switch.," she answered, shaking her head.

The two men followed her out of the room — ambling unsteadily, mouths agape — looking like lost puppies about to be given a new home and a big bowl of sloppy meat by-products.

Problems behind us, we started our meeting.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

don't call us, we'll call you

Recently, Mrs. P ran into a woman that she had not seen in some time. She knew my wife from the neighborhood or our kids went to school together or some other nondescript "just acquaintances" relationship. Nevertheless, they exchanged greetings then proceeded to the general, but superficial, "catching up."

"What is your son doing?," she asked with a slight hint of "I already know what your son is doing."

"I think I had told you the last time we bumped into each other." my wife replied, "He's a DJ on W*** right here in Philadelphia."

"Oh yes! That's right! I knew you said he was something in the music industry!," she smiled as she feigned embarrassment at the reminder. Then, she stopped dancing around her real point of inquiry. "I saw a wonderful Israeli singer named Hagit Yaso. She was terrific. She came in first place on the Israeli version of American Idol."

"That's nice.'" said Mrs. P, her eyes narrowing with suspicion.

The woman continued, "She really talented and she's looking for an agent in the United States. She's really really good." She paused. "Does your son know any agents?," and then reiterated "She won on Israel's American Idol. Came in first."

My wife swallowed dryly. "I suppose I could ask him,." she said uncomfortably, "Where does she live?"

"She's from Israel."

"Yes. I understand, but is she still there or is she in the United States?"

"I don't know.," the woman answered.

"What sort of agent is she looking for?"

"I don't know.," the woman answered, then answered another question that had not yet been asked, "I have her email address."

Mrs. P asked the woman to email the singer's contact information to her. Then, my wife, the nicest person in the world, offered to contact our son's friend who works for a publicity firm that specializes in music promotion. 

My wife made good on her promise and send a text to our son's friend. He was happy to help and asked a barrage of questions: "Where is the singer located?;" "Is she looking for a booking agent or a manager?;" "What sort of songs does she sing?" and perhaps a dozen more. Unfortunately, all she could answer was "I don't know," because the woman had only supplied an email address. He was polite, but explained that there was not much he could do with, literally, no information.

I'm not sure what this woman's expectations were. Did she think that the mere mention of an unknown singer's name to someone that she remembered had a son who worked at a radio station would result in instant, international stardom for her would-be protege and untold recognition for her as the one that made it all possible.

Or perhaps she just didn't think at all.

Monday, February 17, 2014

you can't always get what you want

I love Target. I hate idiots. Tonight, the two crossed paths.

Take me home.
Mrs. P and I went over to Target to look for a pair of gloves (mine got covered with broken glass when this happened) and to check out the marked-down Valentine's Day candy. As we strolled through the aisles of the grocery department, we came across a display of plush Coca-Cola polar bears. These little characters were playfully stuffed into a two-tiered cardboard shelf  with a large red and white sign on the front explaining how you can bring one of them home. Quite simply, all you need to do is purchase any of the qualifying products in a quantity of three and you'll be one plush polar bear richer. Of course, you could buy thirst-quenching Coca-Cola in an 8 pack of 12 ounce bottles, a 6 pack of 8 ounce bottles (the nifty glass ones!) or an 8 pack of 7.5 ounce cans. Another option, according to the official sign, was to buy three 12 ounce bags of Hershey's candy — that's right — Hershey's. I was not aware of any corporate connection between the manufacturer's of Milton Hershey's and ol' Doc Pemberton's respective comestible legacies, but Target was making the rules, not me. We read and re-read the sign and then my wife grabbed three bags of Reese's Cups and three bags of Rolos and two plush bears. We carefully checked the net weight on each bag and decided that we had fulfilled the offer's requirements.

With a full cart (how'd that happen?), we headed to the checkout area. I dutifully placed each of our potential purchases on the conveyor belt, keeping like items together — boxes of pasta, frozen foods, jugs of iced tea. The last items to be tallied were the plush bears and the candy. Our cashier scanned the bags — each ringing up at $2.49 —and then she scanned the bar-coded tag that was attached to the little fella's ear. The cash register monitor lit up with a big $9.99.

Mrs. P spoke up. "Those are free with the purchase of three 12 ounce bags of Hershey candy. There's a sign that says so."

The cashier scanned the items again with the same result. "It would say that there's somethin' free on th' screen," she said, "if these are free an' it ain't sayin' nothin'." She called Arturo, the front end supervisor, for assistance. Arturo and his necktie (the sign of a supervisor at Target) made their way over. He hefted a bag of Reese's Cups and examined it as though it was a newly discovered dinosaur fossil, turning it over several times in his hand. Once again, my wife explained the offer, this time to Arturo. He listened, although his expression was one of befuddlement. He snapped the transmit button on his store-issued walkie-talkie and repeated "Market! Come in!" until a reply crackled back.

"Check the Coca-Cola polar bears. Lady says you buy three and get a free bear. Check the candy aisle," he said into the walkie-talkie, "What's the sign say?"

"They're in the soda aisle," my wife corrected.

Without getting confirmation from his "scout in the grocery department," Arturo informed us that these candies were not included and they were not on sale. Clearly, he was clueless about the store's inventory, layout, and promotional offers. Again, Mrs. P slowly and concisely reiterated the offer to Arturo. 

Just so there is no confusion, let's pause our story to recap the actual offer that caught our attention and piqued our interest. First, there was the sign on the display.
Yeah, it looks like I read that right. Then, there's the bags of candy.

Yep, they are both Hershey products and they each tip the scales at 12 ounces. We bought three bags of Rolo and three bags of Reese's Cups. So far, so good.

Finally, my wife went back to the actual display, although Arturo insisted that he could not leave the front of the store. Another Target associate would meet Mrs. P to validate her claim. My wife was met by a young lady who identified herself as a manager (outranking a mere supervisor). Together they read the sign on the display, confirming the offer. 

The manager asked my wife who was giving her a hard time at the cash register. She said it was a young man.

"Was he about this tall?," the manager asked, cutting the air with the palm of her hand at about chin level.

"About.," Mrs. P answered.

"Was he wearing a red shirt?," she continued her line of questioning.

My wife cocked her head to one side. "You are all wearing red shirts!"

"Was he wearing a tie?"

"Yes," Mrs. P said, "He was."

"Arturo!," the manager exhaled and rolled her eyes. Via walkie-talkie, the manager contacted the cashier and authorized the "free bear with qualifying purchase" deal. 

When Mrs. P arrived back at the checkout area, Arturo had conveniently "gone on break."

(* A footnote to this tale: two different customers stopped me and asked if I worked in the store.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

she came in through the bathroom window

Monday brought the Philadelphia area another eight inches of snow, adding to the already record-breaking totals of frozen precipitation for the new year. As that storm drew to a close, giddy TV meteorologists eagerly predicted two more wintry strikes for the area — each conveniently spaced two days apart.

I hate winter. I hate everything about winter — the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the shoveling of the snow, the boots and heavy clothing — everything! I had had enough of winter way back in December, so the threat of two more storms in the same week wasn't exactly a thrill for me. Luckily, I take the train to work, so driving in the snow has been retired from my winter hate list.

Just as had been predicted, the darkened skies opened up and dropped several inches of ice on the lower part of Montgomery County (where I live), leaving every tree, bush, car, trash can and fence post encased in an otherworldly, shimmering glaze.

Before my alarm went off, I was awakened by the annoying sound of ice crystals ricocheting off my bedroom window. It was still dark outside, but I could see the glistening precipitation in the glow of a nearby streetlight. I showered, shaved, made some coffee and checked my email — my daily "getting ready for work" ritual. One of the emails informed me that my office would be opening late. I smiled, made myself another cup of coffee and settled in front of the television.

Suddenly, from downstairs, I heard a loud creak — followed by a louder crash.

Watch out for that tree!
My wife sprang from our bedroom. "What was that?," she screamed and together we descended the stairs. The living room floor was littered with shards of broken glass. The culprit was the giant, gnarled tree branch lying across the hedge that skirts my driveway, its thick shredded top protruding through the smashed window frame and into my house. We stood and stared in disbelief for several minutes before I went and got a broom and dustpan.

Once I swept up the mess, Mrs. P and I went outside to assess possible further damage. The other end of the offending branch was resting upon the hood of my wife's SUV, along with a twisted network of other branches brought down in its sixty-foot descent to our driveway. Several cable television wires were buried underneath the chaos, stretched, but still attached to the utility pole at the curb and back of my neighbor's house.

All ready for the second little pig.
O., my neighbor across the street, saw us milling around our porch and came over to offer assistance. O. is a general contractor, having built the aforementioned porch, in addition to completing various painting and repair jobs for us. He looked around and made a more professional assessment than I. He sprinted back to his home and returned with a chainsaw and — torrents of icy rain be damned — began reducing the branch to tiny logs and sawdust. When he finished, he measured the window frame for replacement glass and fashioned a makeshift patch out of corrugated plastic board to fill the space left by the shattered window. A friend likened good ol' O. to Jesus — possibly because of his "savior-like" aid in a dire situation, possibly because of his carpentry skills, or possibly because he is Israeli.

While O. was putting the temporary fix in place, he told us that he had been looking out of his window, coincidentally, just as the ice-covered tree branch gave out and plummeted to the ground, taking out our window on the way. He watched as Sam, our next-door neighbor, came out of his house, walked across our lawn to our front porch to observe the fallen limb. Once Sam was satisfied by what he saw, he walked back to his house and shut the door, never stopping to tell us that a giant tree branch had demolished our window and landed on our car. I guess we chose the right neighbor to befriend.

And then our cable went out. Oh, when is the first day of summer?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

the torture never stops

Over centuries, many devices and methods have been invented to inflict pain and torture among humans — some innocent, some deserving. Some of these implements were downright horrific, like The Rack, which stretched a victim's body to almost the breaking point. Or the fearsome Iron Maiden, that enclosed the victim in an impenetrable cage and pierced the skin with sharp spikes.

This past Saturday evening, I was subjected to a method of torture that rivaled any cruel Medieval device — a 5th grade school play.

My niece's class was planning a production of Disney's Aladdin, albeit a somewhat shortened version specifically edited for kids and those with short attention spans (which is essentially the same thing). She was cast as Genie, so for months, she would stay after school for rehearsal. She pored over the thin script booklet, her lines carefully noted in yellow highlighter. She scoured closets at my in-law's house for special accoutrements to accent her costume. I can only assume that the other cast members were going through the same ritual.

The evening of the performance arrived. My son, the Genie's cousin, graciously turned down an invitation to Opening Night, but Mrs. P and I attended as the dutiful aunt and uncle. We entered the small lobby of the auditorium that was already filling up with families and friends of the cast. My niece attends a Jewish day school of which the student body is predominantly comprised of members of affluent suburban Philadelphia families. Yelling "Rachel, over here!" in this crowd would yield a stampede of women clad in Lands End and wielding Coach handbags. Affluence doesn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with intelligence, because a more clueless bunch you have never seen. The lobby was chock full of people with faraway expressions and "lost puppy" looks — confused and bewildered. Small children (most likely younger siblings) weaved through the throng, screaming and giggling, devoid of supervision.

We entered the small auditorium and found our seats. After a few unintelligible announcements from the principal through a way-too-loud microphone, the lights dimmed and the fourth grade choir filed along the stage front and took pre-placed seats facing the audience. They stared blankly. An audible click from a boombox filled the room with prerecorded music. A dozen or so fifth graders shuffled onto the darkened stage and when the lights came up, the torture began.

For the next fifty minutes, we were assaulted both audibly and visually. Save for one young lady (the girl playing Jasmine, who obviously takes voice lessons), the singing could have been likened to ice chips — cold, flat and crackly. The choreography was puzzling, with most of the kids moving independently, like the muddy pirouetting  presented in the Woodstock documentary or someone suffering from Saint Vitus Dance. Everyone delivered their lines as though they were cattle auctioneers, blending the words in a rhythmic, though inarticulate, slur. And the faces. Oh, the faces. Every last child looked as though they would have rather been strapped in a dentist's chair than be on that stage. Not a smile could be found. The only exception being when the boy playing the Sultan blew a line and Jafar caught an inconsolable case of the giggles. I was reminded of The Voyage of The Little Mermaid attraction in Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park. It is a wonderful piece of entertainment, but if you never saw the original film, you'd be hard pressed to follow the plot. This production was similar — except for the "wonderful piece of entertainment" part.

When the play was over, the children came to center stage and took bows and the parent-and-grandparent filled audience lavished them with thunderous applause. A woman in a Coldwater Creek sweater grabbed a microphone and thanked several people for their work on the play. She preceded each acknowledged name with the adjective "amazing," using the accolade three times in once sentence. A few years ago, I saw the stage version of The Lion King. While I am not a fan of musical theater, I was suitably impressed by the ingenious costuming and production design. Was it amazing? No. It was undeniably cool, but not amazing. "Amazing" should be reserved for groundbreaking accomplishments in medicine or feats of engineering like Hoover Dam or natural phenomena like Niagara Falls (all of which I've seen and, yes, they qualify as "amazing"). I did not witness anything on that stage on Saturday evening that remotely resembled anything "amazing." I understand that parents want to give unconditional praise for their children's accomplishments, but "Hey! That was great!" works just as well. What will you do when, later in life, your child does something that is really amazing? Over time, that word loses its "specialness" and becomes diluted.

As we walked back to our car, Mrs. P., once again, told me that I'm a "good sport." Like she's done so many times before. 

The torture was over.