Thursday, April 24, 2014

working 9 to 5

Today was "Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day," an annual nationwide event that was conceived and implemented by the Ms. Foundation for Women in 1993 (as "Take Our Daughters to Work Day") under the auspices of its founder Gloria Steinem. After ten years of the program, young boys got wise to this "girls only" bullshit and the offer was extended to include sons as well.

In my thirty years in the working world, only two of my employers participated in the yearly event — my current employer and my immediate previous employer. My son, now almost 27, never got the opportunity to witness me at work. He did, however, hear a fair share of bitching about my job at various times. That, coupled with his forced employment in the grueling weekend marathons at his grandparents' general merchandise store, I'm sure made him feel as though he wasn't missing anything. By the time I had a job that recognized the program, my son was past the 12 year-old age limit. And he probably wasn't interested anyway.

My first exposure to "Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day" was in 2003. I was working as a production artist in the marketing department of a national after-market auto parts supplier (I'll give you a hint. It rhymes with "Shep Shoys".) At the time, the company did a lot of newspaper advertising and twelve artists worked 'round the clock to produce multi-page, full-color circulars, each consisting of multiple versions varying by geographic zone and nuanced price differences. The department was equipped with a five-foot wide color printer, able to spit out actual-size proofs of ads for perusal by "the powers that be" at promotion strategy meetings. The files, heavy on copy and graphics, took a long and tedious time to transfer and print. On "Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day," the hallways were clogged with squealing children, darting from one cubicle to the next, surfing websites and downloading amusing photos. You could anxiously wait for your proof to print, only to be horrified when a five-foot wide picture of a kitten emerged from the printer because someone's kid beat your ad to the communal print queue.

My current employer, a law firm, treats the affair with a bit more dignity. Sure, there are still kids running through the halls, but a lot of them are lawyer's kids and the behavior is not as wild. Staff members (non-lawyers) are encouraged to bring a child — be it their own or a niece or nephew. One childless former co-worker brought her nephew because I believe his mother was a pole dancer and her employer frowned upon children in the workplace. The events staff (yeah, we got one of those!) planned a host of activities to occupy and entertain our pint-sized visitors, including a Q & A session with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (who happened to be in the Philadelphia office for a fundraiser). The afternoon brought an exciting take on TV's "The Amazing Race," where the children dashed from office to office and floor to floor, performing simple tasks for a token prize. The Chief Marketing Officer and I, showcasing our connections to marketing, quizzed the kids on a series of company logos. The wordless representations of Apple®, Starbucks® and Pringles® were identified in a matter of seconds. See? Marketing pays off! Afterwards there was pizza and ice cream, giving the children the false impression that we have pizza and ice cream every day. We do not. Stay in school.

Earlier in the week, my son, a DJ on a local Philadelphia radio station, tweeted the following:
Next year, I'm going to work with him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

anything you can do I can do better

There's an old Jewish expression: "Six Jews, Seven Synagogues." This is a pretty telling assessment of the disagreement and in-fighting among headstrong Jews and the on-going debates over the interpretations of Jewish law (Halacha). Considering they are all following the same basic teachings, customs and rituals, one would expect everyone to be getting along swimmingly, right? Wrong!

The Rabbi Emeritus at my family's synagogue passed away this week. He officiated at the suburban Philadelphia congregation for 36 years until his retirement in 2000. He was truly a beloved figure in every sense of the word, not only as a spiritual leader, but as a board member of several religious organizations, founder of a Jewish day school, as well as a friend, husband, father and grandfather. In addition, he was the longtime director of U.S. Naval Reserve chaplains. He served his country for 34 years, achieving the prestigious rank of Rear Admiral.

His funeral, held at the synagogue, was attended by well over 1500 mourners. Long lines of congregants, colleagues, friends and relatives waited patiently (for hours) for a chance to pay their respects and offer condolences to the rabbi's family. Solemn words and anecdotes highlighting the rabbi's illustrious career were delivered by family members spanning several generations. Rabbis from other Conservative and Reform synagogues in the surrounding area came to show their respect for a man who was one of the last of his kind — a rabbi who was fully, unequivocally and passionately devoted to his religion and his chosen profession. 

Almost all of the rabbis, that is. Conspicuously absent was the rabbi representing the small Orthodox shul just a few blocks from the glitzy, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed synagogue over which the deceased rabbi presided.

My opinion of organized (or unorganized) religion has degraded considerably over the years. I was never what one might call "religious" or "spiritual." I was, however, observant for many years. My son attended Jewish day school (the one the rabbi founded, as a matter of fact). My family welcomed the Sabbath traditionally, with challah and candle-lighting. We fasted on Yom Kippur and smiled at the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. Although my beliefs have deteriorated, I still maintain that the essential message of all religions is love, tolerance and compassion. Even if you don't agree with the specifics of the particular dogma, you gotta be a real douchebag if you knock love, tolerance and compassion.

It is my understanding that the reason for his absence is the Orthodox rabbi wouldn't be caught dead in a Conservative synagogue. The Orthodox, for the most part, believe that if you are Jewish and you are not Orthodox, you might as well be Christian. They are a very close-knit, closed-minded, non-progressive ... oops! I mean traditional clique faction. For the spiritual leader of such a group to be unable and unwilling to put aside his antiquated and elitist beliefs in order to exhibit a tiny bit of kindness and compassion for another human being who devoted his life to spreading the same fundamental principles is disgraceful! Damn disgraceful!

There is a concept in Jewish law that is known as marit ayin. It literally means "appearance to the eye." It is defined as "Avoiding doing something that may raise suspicion that one violated Jewish law, or that someone's misinterpretation of actions may give the appearance that Jewish law has been violated." Perhaps the dissing of a respected colleague and community member is something that should be discussed at the next Talmudic learning session at the Orthodox congregation. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

a cigarette is all you get

It was overcast as I stood at the corner of 16th and Market Streets, waiting for my friend Steve to meet for lunch. I huddled next to a news stand and craned my neck hoping to catch Steve's approach from 15th Street. A few stray raindrops grazed my face ever time I looked up. I checked the time on my cellphone several times. It looked like Steve was running a bit late, but he was walking from the other side of City Hall, so I would cut him some slack.

Luckily, the diversity of the bustling lunchtime crowd offered plenty of distraction and even a modicum of amusement. Pretty soon, this guy crossing the street from the southwest corner was about to provide some brief entertainment.

With a spring in his step, the older man walked up to the news stand, just a foot or two from where I was standing. He wore a threadbare knit cap, pilled and frayed, pulled down to eyebrow level. His eyes were totally obscured by a pair of large black sunglasses, which were functionally unnecessary on this gray, misty afternoon. The lower visible part of his face was flocked with a coarse growth of wiry hair, sparse in places and wildly unkempt in others. He hunched over slightly under the weight of a haggard backpack, obviously stuffed with treasures and necessities that needed secure accompaniment. He drummed his bony fingers on the protective Plexiglas window of the stand in an attempt to get the proprietor's attention.

"How much is cigarettes?," he asked in a gravelly voice.

I couldn't hear the reply through the Plexiglas, but it obviously outraged the man. He curled his hands into fists and banged down hard on the small counter, making the packages of M & Ms jump slightly from their display. Then, with extended fingers and his palms facing down, he made a bouncing motion with his hands while he berated the news stand owner.

"Six fifty-five?! Too high, man!," he growled, still exhibiting the international gesture for "lower" with his hands, "You is way too high. They sell 'em for six-fifty up th' street, but I don't feel like walkin' all the way up there."

He argued a little more with the unseen (from my vantage point) owner of the news stand and then finally walked away. I can only assume he made an attempt at haggling on the price of cigarettes, hoping to get the owner to concede the extra nickel. Since the man walked away shaking his head and empty-handed, I can safely surmise that no such concession was made. He disappeared into the crowd on 16th Street, passing a smiling Steve on his way to meet me.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

talk talk

Sweet Jesus, can Simone talk! Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk! She doesn't slow down for a second. Not to take a breath nor to gather her thoughts. She jumps from one topic to another, offering her vast knowledge. And she is an authority a wide variety of subjects* - everything from where to get your car repaired to which foods contain dangerous amounts of carbohydrates. She elaborates exponentially on each topic, driving home her point by repeating everything she just said four or five more times. 

I usually tune her out, although she speaks at such an ear-shattering level that it can sometimes be a difficult task. But, for the most part, I have managed only hear a muffled noise when she speaks... sort of like the teacher's voice on the old Charlie Brown animated specials. Every once in a while, some inane statement will catch my attention, like the time she insisted that her cat shed actual tears because she was depressed.

Last night, Simone went on and on about a product she discovered called Polar Seltzer. She loudly and relentlessly sang the praises of Polar Seltzer, as though it was the true elixir of life, repeating her points several times. I believe she actually began and told her tale three different times, from beginning to end. It went something like this:
"Have you ever heard of Polar Seltzer? It's called Polar Seltzer and it's a seltzer and it comes in a hundred well maybe not a hundred but a lot of different flavors All kinds of flavors and not regular flavors but flavors that nobody else makes It's kosher and it's kosher for Passover but nobody carries it because it's so good that every place is out of it And it's kosher but it didn't come out for Passover this year but it's kosher KOP It's kosher and it's bottled locally because I know someone who said that the bottling plant is right down the street from them But you can't find it anywhere because nobody has it And it's kosher and they make holiday flavors and it's not out yet And in the winter they have holiday flavors but you can't find it anywhere and it's really good and they have different flavors and it's bottled locally right near someone I know. And it's kosher."
While she spewed out her repetitive nonsense, I silently did a Google search for "Polar Seltzer" on my smartphone. Now, we live in Philadelphia. I discovered that Polar Beverages are bottled at the company's headquarters in Worcester, Massachusetts. They have been for 125 years. Hardly local. I wasn't interested in any other statements that might have followed.

I sighed and, once again, tuned Simone out.

* I am being so sarcastic.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

glory days

After eighteen seasons, Mrs. P and I chose not to renew our Philadelphia Phillies season tickets. It was a roller coaster experience from the lows of last-place finishes to the highs of a World Series win. We witnessed a no-hitter, a playoff clincher on the last day of the season, the implosion of the old toilet-bowl that was Veterans Stadium (the Fightin' Phils' home for 33 seasons) and the christening of the beautiful new, state-of-the-art Citizens Bank Park (now, celebrating its tenth anniversary). The Phillies themselves have come full circle in that time, going from a pathetic conglomerate of uncoordinated losers to scrappy hustlers, hungry for the win and now returning to an aging group of "memories of one-time greatness." A lot of factors played into our ultimate decision. So as the 2014 baseball season approached, we resigned ourselves to the reality of watching the Phillies on television.

But, as the Phillies were opening their season on the road in Arlington, Texas, Mrs. P and I received word that the law firm that employs me had offered the Marketing Department (of which I am a member) tickets for the first Sunday home game. The firm has access to a so-called "luxury suite," one of many corporate-owned private boxes that accommodate sixteen people, lavishing guests with food and drink and a personal hostess. It's a pretty sweet deal, especially if you are used to sitting out in the "regular" seats with the commoners. While the suite is very nice and affords a great way to see a ball game, it does not offer the best seats in the house.

"May I see your tickets, please?"
Early this week, while the Phils were losing their home opener at the hands of the (currently) red-hot Milwaukee Brewers, Mrs. P called me at work to see if we had plans for Thursday evening. I told her that we did not and she cheerfully informed me that Rae and O., our neighbors from across the street, invited (actually insisted) us to join them at the final Phillies-Brewers match-up. Rae works for a multi-billion dollar international pharmaceutical company*. The company owns four seats in the prestigious Diamond Club section of Citizens Bank Park. That's the cordoned-off section that you can see from your shitty, third-deck seats and wonder "How do you get to sit in those seats?" Well, the answer is: You gotta know someone.

"I must be in the front row!"
On Thursday, we arrived at the ballpark and followed the flow of the crowd around the concourse until we found ourselves at a set of imposing glass doors that screamed "for privileged people only!" We flashed our gold-stamped tickets and were happily welcomed into the fray. Smiling staff members ushered us towards a flight of stairs where we were wrist-banded and admitted into a secret world of gourmet buffets, a fully-stocked, top-shelf bar and impeccably-themed baseball everything — tables, chairs, light fixtures, floor tiles — everything! It was awesome. Our special gold tickets entitled us to unlimited food and beverages. That's right, unlimited! Of course, we partook of the typical baseball game fare — goat cheese and wild mushroom ravioli with pesto and focaccia, freshly prepared before our eyes. Also, forgotten in the lyrics of  "Take Me Out to The Ball Game," there was grilled steak and chicken paninis (for you carnivores) and a full salad bar, plus a huge selection of alcoholic and soft drinks — all included in the price of admission. For us, that was "free."

"Don't cry."
After dinner, we found our way down to our actual seats. According to our tickets, we were in Row 3. Aramark, the multifaceted food service entity, occupies seats in Row 2. There is no Row 1. Row 1 is the field. We were so close to home plate, I thought I was going to be tagged to catch that evening's game. We were mere feet from the Brewer's on-deck circle. During the game, I marveled at how young all the players are. They look like children, even Aramis Ramírez, a seventeen-year veteran who played for two other teams. I was so close, I could tell which players need a shave. When admitted steroid user Ryan Braun came up to take some practice swings, the taunts and insults from behind me were so loud and so clear, he had to have heard them. Perhaps he was removing his batting helmet to wipe away a tear. Or perhaps he was just blotting up some sweat and didn't really care what the Philadelphia fans are hollering at him.

A nice young lady introduced herself as our server for the evening. She displayed a list of the complementary offerings and, once again, we over indulged, requesting sodas and candy and peanuts and Cracker Jack (just like the song says.) She also told us that the buffet would be open until the sixth inning. I made a mental note to run up at the bottom of the fifth for ice cream in a souvenir mini Phillies helmet Maybe two! I'm sure they had my favorite flavor — "free."

"Better ...or worse?  Better ...or worse?  Better...? "
The overall experience was surreal. I have been watching baseball since I was a kid, but I never saw a game from this vantage point. The balls come rocketing from the pitcher's hand (especially from a master like Phillies starter Cliff Lee). The foul balls drop from the sky like atomic bombs. And of course there are things you never get to see, unless you are this close. Like this guy, for instance. Between innings, he stood at the edge of the field next to a guy seated behind a giant-lensed camera. With an enormous headset straddling his skull, he raised a series of colored, Plexiglas squares high above his head. He meticulously timed the duration of each hoist, substituting a different hue as he ticked off the seconds on his wristwatch. I was fascinated by this guy! I had never noticed him before, but now, being just a few feet from me and I couldn't stop looking at him! What was his purpose? Who was on the other end of his sophisticated communication device? And, most importantly, what did he write for "occupation" on his 1040 form?

The Phillies, who took an early lead on a home run by off-season acquisition Marlon Byrd, were now in a catch-up situation. The stalwart Brewers widened the gap in the score. The Phillies, who couldn't hit a ball out of the infield, were obviously not up to the task of winning. The game plodded along. O., admittedly not familiar with baseball, was losing interest. He asked me the location of seats that my "firm law" provides. (O.'s native tongue is Hebrew, where, like most languages, the adjective follows the noun it is modifying.) He fiddled with his phone, posing for "selfies" of Rae and himself. He was bored. Judging by the vast amount of empty seats, the remainder of the 25,000 announced attendees had had enough of this drubbing as well. In the ninth, third baseman Cody Asche swung at an outside fastball for out number three and the weary Phils recorded their fourth consecutive loss.

But, man, were those seats great!

* I originally thought that she was cooking up meth in her basement when she told us she worked in the pharmaceutical industry.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ah, look at all the lonely people

As much as I dislike people, I enjoy looking at them. Maybe it's the artist in me. Maybe it's my natural curiosity. Maybe it's just a weird fascination. Whatever the reason, I often find myself observing people — old, young, male, female, tall, short — across a wide variety of body types and ethnic make up. Humans are an unusual bunch. And, because of my daily route of travel, I am exposed to a diverse assortment of people in their natural habitat — the city. After many, many years of study, I have come to one very jarring conclusion: People are sad.

Every day, for the past seven years, I have taken the train to and from work. The train is a great place to watch people and I have watched them closely. I have seen any number of women — dressed in power-wielding, business-executive suits — sit in a train seat and apply a full face of makeup from an open, amply-stocked palette of cosmetics resting on the seat beside them (a seat normally reserved for another commuter). When they are through administering the final touches (a dabbing away of stray smear of lipstick or the removal of an errant clump of mascara), they look sad. Not stunning, nor attractive, nor intimidatingly corporate, but sad. I have watched as men thumb absentmindedly through a newspaper — their hair unkempt, their neckties askew, a stain on a lapel, a time-worn briefcase on their lap  — with a forlorn expression upon their weary faces. Not one of joyful "I'm ready to close a major deal!" or jubilant "Today's the day I get that promotion!," but one of sadness and grief.

As I make my way through the train station on my way to my office, I pass hundreds of sad faces. Some dressed to the nines in suits that I could never afford. Some in dirty, inappropriate-for-the-season outerwear clutching a shabby bag of their meager worldly possessions. I see people yammering into cellphones and others talking aloud to no one in particular.

And none of these folks look the least bit happy.

C'mon! Cheer up, everyone. Things could be worse. 

Not much, but still.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

television light

I love television, especially the programs from my youth. So, imagine my delight when, one day while scanning the plethora of channels offered by my cable provider, I stumbled across MeTV. This retro godsend shone like a beacon in the murky sea of reality shows, sappy romances and obscure sports analyses. The good folks at MeTV have procured the broadcast rights to such simple, wholesome gems like F-Troop, Leave it to Beaver, The Rifleman and countless others from the Golden Age of Television. It's like a dream come true, if you dream in black & white... like me. My evenings are filled with Gilligan's Island and Twilight Zone and my mornings kick off with The Beverly Hillbillies and The Donna Reed Show.

Until this week.

Having given up on Matt Lauer and the degenerating shitstorm that The Today Show has become, I begin my pre-workday hours with a shower, a shave and a little Petticoat Junction, followed by the aforementioned Clampett clan and a visit with Donna Stone, her doctor husband and their kids. Settling down with a cup of coffee, I flicked on the television like I do every Monday morning. However, instead of Elle May fishin' some critters out of the cement pond, I found Alyssa Milano earnestly hawking some hair care product. I checked the channel guide and, sure enough, it described (in typical encapsulated form) an episodes worth of antics from Jed and all his kin. I quickly switched to a few other channels. They all aligned  — Good Morning America on our local ABC affiliate, local news right there on channel 10 (as it should be), the CNN morning anchor reporting intently on the missing Malaysian airplane on channel 5. I scrambled back to the MeTV consort where Miss Milano was presenting a diagram of what hair follicles can amount to if left untreated by her product.

Click to enlarge
I was outraged. I angrily flipped over to The Today Show and watched a jolly Al Roker try to get surly Matt Lauer to crack a smile. Soon, I left for work.

I woke up early on Tuesday morning. After my daily grooming ritual, I grabbed a cup of coffee and flicked on the TV, hoping that Monday's broadcast was a glitch. It wasn't. Damn if the former premonition-blessed witch from Charmed wasn't, once again, singing the praises of her miracle hair treatment. 

That tears it! I grabbed my smartphone and immediately sought out Comcast customer service. Some nimble navigation brought me to a live chat with Comcast Customer Support. That sounded promising. I was determined to get to the bottom of this! I typed my "issue": Why were there infomercials on MeTV instead of The Beverly Hillbillies and Donna Reed— and after a short time, an "analyst" entered the chat. He identified himself as "Aristheo."

Aristheo thanked me for contacting him and asked for a minute or two to review my information. His watch must have stopped, because his "minute or two" turned into five. In the interim, he managed to tell me it was good to know I was having a great day.

I wasn't so far.

He then explained that issue resolution and my satisfaction was his top priority for the day. (Top priority! Wow!) That together we could work this out and that he would personally take care of things. Then, he offered a comforting "no worries." He continued by saying that once my problem found a solution, he would review my account to ensure I was receiving the best possible value for the services I have.

So far, after nearly ten minutes, I found myself in the exact same situation I was in before I entered this chat. I stared at my phone's screen, looking for any sign of activity. There was none. I typed: "This is taking way too long." There was no response for a few minutes until Aristheo replied that he would check the channel listing.

Error! Error!
Check the channel listing? What the hell was he doing all this time? I typed back, inquiring about his progress. He, again, informed me he was checking the channel listing. Then he sent me a long URL, instructing me to check the listing myself. I clicked the link and my browser opened a new tab. The progress bar crept along slowly until it finally stalled a third of the way across my screen. Suddenly, the link revealed a Google Chrome error page!. A bad link! In the middle of my Customer Support chat! From a guy who claimed that my satisfaction was his top priority on this very day. I told Aristheo that the link gave me an error. Aristheo told me to try the link later. (That's hardly the response I would expect from someone who promised to take care of this issue personally!) Aristheo was starting to piss me off.

I had enough! I punched a venomous retort to my Comcast Customer Analyst: "Thank you very much. You have not been helpful in any way and you wasted my time!"

In the most automated, scripted action, Aristheo sent what was obviously a many-times cut-and-pasted reply. It contained words like "ensure," and "guaranteed," and "stand behind our services." It also made the solemn invitation to contact the Customer Support Live Chat 24 hours a day/7 days a week. Then he unceremoniously ended our chat.

If you have a couple of hours to kill with no expectations of solving your problem, I highly recommend giving Comcast a ring.

Ask for Aristheo.