Monday, December 31, 2012

2013 -- Ringing It In

Another New Years Eve is upon us. It is not one of my favorite holidays, but I can't really tell you why. It's just kind of vanilla; kind of cheeseburger.

There aren't many New Years' that stand out as exceptional when I try and recall them. There are several that I recall as being just OK, but few that rival say some of the Christmases or Fourth of July's of the past.

There was the New Years that ended up with me at Perkins with my friend and his sister. I remember it being so cold out and my 1968 Cutlass wouldn't start, so I had to pop the hood, take off the air cleaner and open the carburetor butterfly valve. It finally started, thank goodness, so I guess you could call that a good "start" to the New Year (1978-'79).

And there was the one where Donna and I had a New Year's party and it fizzled and popped because we tried to mingle 3 groups of friends and family and the mixing never quite happened. Throw on top of that starting it too early and you have an awkward celebration that you just want to end.

One of the stranger ones was the Y2K New Years when our kids (2 and 5) would not go to sleep like our friends' kids did. They ended up ringing in the New Year with us, despite our attempts to lull them to sleep so we could have our own celebration. I think we left that celebration at 12:10 AM.

There was one New Years that involved Blackberrry Brandy. Other than that, the details are fuzzy.

A couple of the better ones were when I lived on the East Side of Milwaukee. One was when Rob and Jane came out to visit for the holiday and we did the whole east side, including a trip to Wolski's Tavern on New Years day for some darts and recovery. The other was when Donna came to visit over New Years and we had a blast seeing a live band called Couch Flambeau. I remember her dropping her glove outside of Hooligans and she started giggling uncontrollably.

For some reason. I remember this moment as the one where I realized how truly, truly in love I was with her. It had something to do with the thought that we would be able to laugh together like this for the rest of my life. That I finally had a companion who loved me for who I was and who loved me more than myself. That was a good New Years revelation.

And so, tonight my wife and kids will be spending New Years Eve in the usual manner, with close friends in a low-key environment. (The same friends from the Y2K debacle, plus a few others). It may be low-key, but we wouldn't want it any other way.

Whatever your tradition is, be sure and enjoy the chance to look back on the good or not-so-good year and either relish it going away or look upon its passing with sadness.

Me, I plan to do a little of both,

Happy New Year, all!!!

Blogging off...

Friday, December 28, 2012

What Can I Do To Make You Feel Well Today?

I went into Walgreens yesterday in a simple quest to get some AAA batteries for a remote control that was dead in the water. I went to the battery section and found a 4-Pack for $3.49. I noticed the sale price was only good "With Card", ($5.49 without). Now, I've been pestered a few times at Walgreens to "get a card," which I've flatly refused. The last thing I need is another key fob or piece of plastic in my wallet. Suddenly it seemed like a good idea. I figured I would get one at the register and save myself a couple bucks in the process.

I walked up to the empty register and told the clerk that I wanted a card if it wasn't too much trouble. She assured me it wasn't and then began taking my name, phone, and other information. In the middle of the registration, her phone rang and she answered it.

"Thank you for calling Walgreens. What can I do to make you feel well today?"

This struck me as an odd and somewhat intrusive greeting for a clerk to make, but whatever. She then went on to click the Page button and say over the intercom, "Pharmacy, a call parked on line 102."

After she apologized, she got back to registering me. When it was done, she rang the batteries up and the total came to $5.77. This seemed high, but I paid anyway. Then, after thinking about it, I said, "These were showing as $3.49 "with card" over there." She walked with me to the display and noticed that it said with card AND coupon.


She assured me that she had a coupon at the register, so back we go. As she's rifling through the ads, the phone rings again.

"Thank you for calling Walgreens. What can I do to make you feel well today? Oh, you're still holding for pharmacy? OK let me put you through."

She punches the page button and says "Pharmacy, a call parked on line 102."

Then a line begins to form behind me. She picks up the phone again and says "Customer assistance for checkout at cosmetics please."

She returns to the coupon book and finally finds the coupon for the $2.00 savings, that I am beginning to regret ever mentioning. She's already taken $15.00 worth of my lifespan just getting this far. She determines that the best way to ring things up is to void the one transaction and re-ring the new. The phone rings again.

"Thank you for calling Walgreens. What can I do to make you feel well today? Oh, you're still holding for pharmacy? I'm sorry, let me put you through."

She punches the page button and with urgency says "Pharmacy, a call parked on line 102."

She punches it again and says sternly, "Robin, please come to cosmetic register for customer checkout."

Right about now, I'm thinking about checking out. Or, maybe dashing out. Nothing is worth this wait. But I stick around, more out of curiosity than respect. I want to see how much more broken this work flow can get.

The phone rings again. Stupid greeting ensues. "Oh, I'm sorry Laura, I didn't know. OK. Thank you." Evidently they had a system crash of some sort in Pharmacy, so calls weren't being properly answered and routed.

The line forming behind me begins to move to cosmetics. After much more register number punching and another scan of my new Walgreens card, the clerk finishes the transaction and hands me my $2.00. It should have been $20 if I had been paid for my time and agony, but alas, I took the money and ran.

It occurred to me after I left that the stress that this lady was under was totally unnecessary. By making her use a stupid introduction every time she answered the phone, and making her scan  customer cards to save $2.00, they are setting her up to fail. It causes her to be unproductive, get stressed, hate her job and find a new one. Then they train some other poor slob to do the same idiotic work flow as well as learn the new system. It's a recipe for failure. Pay people to check customers out, efficiently. Period. Because we all have better things to do.

Blogging off...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Over The Rivers

Our upcoming trip to the Twin Cities for Christmas brings to mind the many trips there and New York in years past. The treks are always long and weather occasionally makes for some interesting rides. A few come to mind as standouts, (not outstanding, just standouts).

There was the trip to Minnesota shortly after marrying when we hit a very bad snowstorm from Madison to Eau Claire. The snow was building up in the road to the point of having ruts. We had Donna's '87 Honda Accord and promptly surrendered in Eau Claire and stayed at a Motel. Word from Mom the next day was that if we had toughed it out for another 15 minutes we would have been out of the worst. There was no way I could have driven for another 15 minutes. I was fried.

Then, there were the many trips to New York. These were long, drawn out, overnight affairs and almost always included some bad weather somewhere along the way. Usually we hit some lake effect snow in Erie or Buffalo and things got white knucklish. If not going there, then we had something bad coming home. One year they had a horrible ice storm that we drove out of. Beautiful, but devastating and scary.

A couple of years ago we were driving back from NY in our van and suddenly we couldn't accelerate any faster than 35 MPH. The TCS Traction Control System light kept flashing and the situation was dire. I had to keep pulling over to the side of the road and putting my flashers on. Finally a cop came along and put his lights on. He turned out to be no help. "I don't know where you can go, but you can't stay here," was the crux of his message. Thanks, man. Luckily I was able to limp the van to the next exit in South Bend, IN where we actually found a hotel that would take a dog. Because Toby insisted on barking every time a door slammed or a toilet flushed, we didn't sleep very well of course, but that's another story.

There was a trip about 5 years ago where we spent much of the trip counting semi trucks and other cars that had slid into the ditch the night before. We lost count of the semis at 15 I think. There was even an SUV on its roof with the headlights still on. Scary stuff.

Thankfully we've never had a real disaster ourselves. We've had some weather setbacks, but for the most part, it's been smooth sailing.

Here's to safe travels for you and your families this holiday season.

Merry Christmas!

Blogging off...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Birthday Wish

Today would have been my stepfather Jack's 83rd birthday. He died in 1997 of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy or PSP. This is a disease that affects 1 in 100,000 people over the age of 60. It is characterized by loss of balance, changes in mood, inability to control eye movements, depression and a host of other bad things. My mother and he divorced in 1985, so I didn't see him much after that.

Though he was far from perfect, he was the only dad I ever  knew. He liked his drink and it was the cause of both of his failed marriages. The outcome of his marriage to Mom was that we inherited a great step-family that we still see and love. We actually lived on the same street as his first wife, Portland Avenue. More ironic is the fact that her name was Mary, as was my mom. At one point there were two Mary McKasy's on Portland Avenue, as if the post office didn't have enough trouble getting things right.

While Jack had his faults he gave me many things in this life.

He gave me the love of professional football. He got me interested in the Vikings and, subsequently, in playing the game myself in middle school and high school. We used to bet on what the record would be on the season. Then, during the games he'd always bet me nickel and dime bets for scores and first downs. Many of them were never paid, but it was fun betting anyway.

While they didn't make it to many of my games in middle school, I remember he and my mom came to the City Championship and the Twin City Championship games when my team got there. Bear in mind that I didn't do much in either game except play on the kickoff team. The fact that he and mom came though, meant the world to me. It showed me he cared.

He gave me the love of camping and the outdoors. We took family camping or cabin vacations every year as a family, thanks to him and mom. He loved to sit by the fire and listen to WAYL AM radio (The beautiful Whale) or some other jazzy, elevator-ish station. He loved swimming and once tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully to teach me how.

He lived in the moment, and much of that rubbed off on me. One of his favorite quips was "Not to worry." Another was "Piece of cake." Those two statements were how he went through life. Carefree and lackadaisical. (With touches of irresponsibility thrown in for good measure.)

He taught me the healing power of laughter. I remember driving to the University with him one morning in his 1960-something Mercedes Benz that he had inherited from his father. It was a cold winter morning and he opened his window to clear the side view mirror. He noticed a plastic piece flapping in the wind, so he grabbed it and pulled it off. It turned out to be the seal that held the mirror to the car, and the whole piece of glass fell to the ground and crashed. He said, "Well, that takes care of that fogged up mirror, I guess." We looked at each other and we both cracked up. It was a moment I'll never forget.

I realize it's never easy to be a step-parent. You're coming into a situation that demands you be a parent, yet you're a bit of a stranger too. I don't know if Jack ever successfully crossed that bridge with much of my family, though, as I said, he was tough to love at times.

I credit him with helping me to be a better father to my own kids. I'm trying to take his good qualities and leave his bad. If we're not all trying to do that based on our experience with our parents, then we're doing it wrong.

Happy Birthday Jack!

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown's Wake

I'm not sure how to approach the subject of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings. It is a tragedy of such unthinkable proportions it's hard to even fathom. When I heard the news from my wife, my first thought was "Again?" Noteworthy was the fact that I didn't first think "How could something like this happen?" It's happened enough that surprise is not the first reaction.

Only when I asked how many casualties there were and she said 26, did the shock truly set in. Before that I was sickened by the news, but when I heard 26 (later changed to 28, including the killer,) my jaw dropped. When she said that most of them were children, my heart broke.

Later in the day, I repeatedly broke down in tears. This tragedy had an effect on me that no other national event has since 9/11/2001. When I heard the magnitude of that day, I wanted nothing more than to get home, get Sarah out of school and huddle with my family. It was so gut wrenching that someone (or in the case of 9/11 many individuals), would carry out such an unspeakable action that I just wanted to shut it all out.

It was the same situation here. I wanted to pull my kids out of school and lock our doors and shut out the world. I think it was a common sentiment among other parents too. Everyone wants their kids to be safe, and when our schools are no longer a safe place, our gut reaction is to get them home.

Unfortunately, I don't know what the answer is. Is it better gun control? Better mental health care? Tighter security in schools? I think the answer to all is yes, or perhaps some combination of the three. That's not to deny though, that some of the issue is not directly related to the family. A divorced home with multiple weapons and a child with known issues is just a bad combination.

In the aftermath, about all that's left for me is prayer. Prayer for the families affected. Prayer for the community of Newtown.  And prayer for my own kids and their ability to process what they hear and see about this event. God help us all.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Revisited

As we rush headlong into another Christmas, I need to remind myself of what I want to get out of the season.  Per usual, I tend to think most about what I'm going to GET. Its the world's shortest 4 letter word, especially this time of year.

What am I going to GET? What should I GET (someone else)? What if I GET something that isn't what I really wanted? How much will I GET? What if my kids aren't happy with what they GET? Did we GET them enough?

Do you see where I'm going with this? Every year I say it should be so much more than the GET or even the GIVE. As low key as my Wisconsin family tries to keep it, it always seems to come down to spending too much and we end up not looking any different than the rest of the world.

At the same time, I've found I can enjoy the moments despite the craziness of shopping, lights and decorating. The day we were decorating the tree, I was watching the Packer game with the sound turned down and Nat King Cole playing on the surround sound. Sarah and Ben picked and chose which ornaments to put and where, and I thought to myself, how many more years will we have this? Two, maybe three or four. So I was just sucking it all up like a sponge.

The next day Sarah, of her own accord, turned on Nat King Cole and just lay in the the living room listening. She too, was sucking it up like a sponge, probably trying to figure out what "getting in the spirit" meant.

I can appreciate every glass of egg nog. (Though my holiday gut does not.) Egg nog takes me back to 1973 in the blink of an eye. Taste transcendence.

I can appreciate the idyllic miniature Christmas Village, where the snow is always bright white, and everyone is smiling (when they're not tipped over), and there's never any traffic, crowds or bad weather.

I can appreciate being in a warm house, with those I love, and spending time with good friends.

So as the rest of the season marches on, I intend to try and focus more on these last things, and less on the GETTING and GIVING.

Are you with me?

Blogging off...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Always Right

My son became eligible for a phone upgrade this past week, so I took him out to get one on Tuesday. We started at WalMart, which was our first mistake. Frankly, it's not my favorite store. I know it's one of the biggest employers in the US, but that doesn't matter. I still cringe at the thought of having to shop there. Ben had seen that they had his phone for $30.00, so I thought we would give it a try.

In the parking lot I told Ben that if I had a bad feeling at all while dealing with the salesperson I would give him the signal, and we would bolt.

The woman we got was less than helpful. When Ben told her he wanted to buy the Sony Xperia Ion which was on sale for .97 cents, she asked him "Why don't you want an iPhone 4? (Which was also on sale for .97). She went on to ask what was so good about the Sony vs. an iPhone. Ben came through with a decent answer, but that's not the point.

When a customer asks for something, you don't counter with a question. You say okay.

She then told him to open the back of it, because she couldn't. Ugh.

Danger Will Robinson, danger!

The transaction went downhill from there. When I told her we were doing a cross-upgrade where we were using my Daughter's eligibility for an upgrade to upgrade Ben, she said "Oh, we would have to activate his phone, effectively killing hers and we would have to take them both to the ATT store and have them straighten it out.

Red flag number two. Sirens are starting to wail in my head.

When I asked her if she could call ATT to verify that she said nope, but that I could. When she tried to see how our upgrade was structured, none of our consumer info came up on the stupid WalMart computer system. She said she would have to manually input all my wife's info including her Drivers License number, which I did not have on me.

Strike three you're out. I gave Ben a slight kick at the ankle, winked at him and whispered, "We're out of here. We'll try Target." He was fine with it. He could see the train beginning to derail, even as a fourteen year old.

We thanked the woman and made up an excuse that we were going to shop around. I wanted no further part of the impending disaster. It did absolutely nothing to restore my faith in the appeal of WalMart.

Off to Target we went. It turns out they did not have a Mobile Center in the store we went to, so it was off to Best Buy. I chose it because rather than try another Target and risk getting a clerk that normally worked in the Jewelry department, I thought we would have better luck at Best Buy. I was more likely to get two clerks who knew what they were doing there than one with no clue at Target.

I was dead on.

We got the mobile center manager to ask us what we needed within a minute of our arrival. I explained about the cross-upgrade and she said "Oh sure, we can do all that, no problem. Let me get you an associate."

She got me a clerk who was courteous patient and professional. She even gave the ATT technician on the phone a bit of flack when they said they couldn't do the switch. She was doing her job, and doing it well. She mentioned the $10/mo insurance which I declined. She said "No problem"

Within 25 minutes I left the store with a $500 phone having spent $1.05. Both phones were working, account was switched, Ben was happy, I was happy.

You just don't get that at WalMart.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Saturday Coffee

One of the things my wife and I have taken to doing lately is going out for coffee on Saturday mornings. We get up around 7:30 and head over to the Steaming Cup, a local coffee shop about 6 blocks from home. In the summer months, we would even go to the Waukesha Farmer's Market afterward and buy produce.  Now that it's winter, we just go for coffee and a cinnamon roll. What once started on a whim, has become our ritual and I have grown to love it for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is it gives us the chance to talk uninterrupted for an hour or so. We could probably do the same thing at home, because the kids usually sleep in on Saturday AM, but it wouldn't be the same. When you're home, the appliances beckon. Projects beckon. Technology beckons. When you're at coffee none of that is a factor. Even our phones don't come out until it's time to go home. Getting uninterrupted time used to be a bigger deal when the kids were smaller and pulling us in all directions, but it's not as much anymore. Still it's nice to be alone.

Another thing that's key for me, especially as an attention-challenged male, is I am able to listen without distraction. This is something I have been working on for some time. I'm not sure why we tend to start tuning people out after living with them for 20 years, but I know that I'm guilty of it. We take people for granted, usually the ones we love the most, and suddenly they're not worthy of 100% of our attention. (And I'm not saying this is just a male trait either. Though I sincerely think women are better listeners.)

We talk about everything under the sun at coffee. Things like work issues, friends we know and what they're going through, dreams we have of travel, upcoming events etc. It is totally one-on-one good face time. I realize when I listen to her I look at her mouth instead of her eyes, and I'm not sure what that's all about. It may have something to do with lip reading but I can't be sure.

We always finish the conversation by discussing the coming week.  Getting a quick overview of kids' schedules, work schedules and anything else is key for me. While Donna plans things out a month or two in advance, I have a much shorter timeline I work with, and a week ahead is about it.

Donna and I used to do a similar thing back when we lived on the east side of Milwaukee. Life as a married couple with no kids was much simpler then, but one of our rituals was to go out for pie and coffee at Baker's Square on Capitol Drive. We were blind in love at the time and considered shopping our date night. When you're in love, goofy stuff like that happens. Well, I came to really like those dates and we even had a favorite waitress (Irene) that was part of it all. Of course, we moved to Waukesha and never really resumed the practice.

While I realize that this arrangement works for us, I understand that it may not work for everyone. Schedules are busy, weekends get booked, etc. At the same time, I highly recommend it. I said to a friend that it gets us both on the same page because, by Friday night, its almost like we're not even in the same book. Its our way of telling each other we're important and you can't knock that.

Blogging off...