Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good advice: Hey, let's be careful out there!

Just received a memo from my, ah, personal service representative with AT&T. She’s just checking in, concerned that she hasn’t heard from me recently.

Her memo has a post-it note attached. It details all the creative and new ways she’s hoping to get me to turn over some additional cash each month. The whole scheme has a sort of golly-gee vibe about it, and I might have been inclined to smile as I chucked it into the trash except for one little problem.

The note is part of an ongoing marketing push that began with a guy knocking on my door months ago, asking for just a moment of my time, followed up with phone calls, e-mails and promotional mailers. I fear my name is on a list in a boiler room somewhere and one of the jobs of some poor slob is to make sure they contact me at least twice a week about one product or another that AT&T is pushing – most recently Uverse. Don’t have it; don’t want it!

My growing relationship with the communication conglomerate and its efforts to woo me are, sadly, only the tip of an ever expanding iceberg. The frigid floe is filled with marketing gurus and consultants; company owners and managers, all looking for their piece of the American pie; low-paid boiler room staffers and, worst of all, scam artists and crooks.

Two examples. A month or so ago Miss Wendy’s car was crunched up and we took it to a local car dealership for repairs. They did a remarkable job – good service, quick and efficient; kept us informed; solicitous and deferential. So, what’s the problem?

Over the last three weeks, I’ve received phone calls, e-mails and letters thanking me for choosing the dealership, asking me to fill out surveys, offering promotional gimmicks and incentives. The body work was free – the other guy’s insurance covered all repair costs. Routine service and maintenance is hugely expensive. I just want these people to go away but it seems now that my name is in their system I’ll be hearing from them weekly for years to come.

Much more bothersome are the weasels at the bottom of the marketing / scam iceberg I reference above. For the last two weeks I’ve received at least four calls from a number that comes up as a motel on my caller ID. When I made the mistake of actually answering the phone, the caller went immediately into script mode, calling me by name and then explaining he was with ABC Heating & Air and according to company records it was time for my pre-summer air conditioning check.

I’ve never heard of ABC Heating & Air. When I explained this to the (pick one) jerk, idiot, crook he didn’t miss a beat, saying that it had been a few years since the company had serviced my home but they were going to be in the neighborhood and could drop by just about any time. I don’t think so!

The world is moving about at the speed of light and it seems each day that some sort of new idea is born with one purpose – to separate us all from a little cash. Okay, I can now admit that this entire post was written so I could offer up one little bit of advice, echoing the words of Phil Esterhaus (photo above), the desk sergeant on Hill Street Blues. All together now. “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lag BaOmer: Let's celebrate and start a fire!

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we explore the what and why of yet another Jewish Holiday.

Grab your matches and find a batch of wood! Lag BaOmer will be celebrated this weekend and it’s time to start a fire. The custom – at least in Israel – is just one of the ancient rituals that remain part of this special day.

The holiday falls on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer; a period of joy, recalling and celebrating the victory of a Jewish warrior, Simon Bar Kosiba, aka Bar Kokhba, and his band of rebels over the might of imperial Rome. For observant Jews and most Israelis it’s a time to reflect on the sweetness of freedom and the struggle for national liberation.

It’s also a day of festivals and feasts. Across Israel – and, if the timing is right, here in the Land of Cotton and across the U.S. – families go on picnics and outings. Certain restrictions, in place during the annual Counting of the Omer, are lifted; so the holiday is a perfect time for weddings, parties, listening to music and, ah, first haircuts. Trust me, it’s a Jewish thing and much too esoteric to detail here.

So, Nor, what about the fires? I’m glad you asked. In Israel, it’s clear that Lag BaOmer is nearing when you spot children gathering wood – old doors, chairs, pieces of wood and branches. It’s a chore that takes weeks, kids creating piles of combustible stuff across their neighborhoods and cities.

As the sun sinks below the horizon, the bonfires are lit. But, ah, why? Well, the historical link has to do with Bar Kokhba and his rebels. They would light signal fires atop mountains to communicate with one another. Today, I think it’s just a fun way too let off a little, um, steam – and smoke.

BTW, the biblical mandate to count the Omer can be found in the Book of Leviticus. The Torah makes it clear that it’s a mitzvah – not a good deed, but a commandment – to count seven complete weeks, beginning the day after Passover and ending with the festival of Shavuot.

Now go out and collect some wood; then call your neighbors and warm them not to call the fire department if they smell smoke in the neighborhood.

Monday, May 16, 2011

It's a mitzvah! Praying, partying at Etz Chaim

The lovely Miss Wendy and I pulled into the parking lot at Etz Chaim Sunday evening and immediately realized something big was afoot. We were going to minyon and everyone else we spotted – all gussied up and prepared to party – was attending the synagogue’s annual Gala.

While the party goers filed into the front foyer and made their way to the social hall, Miss Wendy and I managed to sneak in the back door and into the chapel. The good news is we only bumped into a few folks headed to the party. The not so good news is there was only one other person in the chapel and it didn’t look like we’d come close to getting a quorum for services – Jewish law requires the presence of 10 Jews to recite certain prayers.

Turns out the few folks we saw grabbed a few other synagogue members and joined us for evening prayers. Several of us were saying Kaddish and without their help we wouldn’t have been able to say the memorial prayer for the dead.

Mensch is the Yiddish word that I’d use to describe the men and women who momentarily put aside their evening’s plans to help us hold a minyon. In the overall scheme of things it was a small effort but said much about my faith community.

Several years ago I was in Israel on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Federation here in the Land of Cotton. It so happened that on the day we were traveling to Jerusalem it was my father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, and I wanted to say Kaddish. Although several rabbis on the trip said there’d be little problem in coming up with a minyon, we were short of the required number.

After standing about for a few minutes and managing to pull in a few extra folks on their way to breakfast, we were still one person short. Then a couple passed by and the rabbi described our problem. The bulk of the service had been finished and we only needed the man to step inside our makeshift chapel for a few minutes so we’d hit the magic number and I could recite Kaddish.

It looked like all was good to go when the man’s wife started, ah, wining that they were going to be late for their morning coffee. The man was stunned. I was stunned. The rabbi was stunned. After a little chat between husband and wife, the man joined us while the missus sulked in the hallway. It only took me a minute or two to say the prayer and we all then joined the rest of our group at breakfast. In the overall scheme of things it was a small incident but said much about the temporary faith community I had become part of for a few days in Israel.

Sometimes we take for granted our blessings and all that we have. Sunday’s minyon was a nice reminder that Miss Wendy and I stumbled onto a wonderful community and special group of people years ago.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Nonsense, rants and the passage of a year

Oh how time flies when you’re having fun! It’s been a year – that’s right, a year – since I logged onto Blogger for the very first time and memorably decided to create a site called This&That.

I can now report that I’ve held true to my mission, posting mostly a bunch of nonsense, a few reviews and rants, the occasional update on my mom and lots of stuff on Judaism and Israel. Oh, right, and all those postings on my love of nature, critters, the royal family and yard work!

My efforts have been hugely popular or embarrassingly futile and simple – depends on your point of view and how you define success. Here are a few numbers that say something about my efforts; I’m just not exactly sure what.

I’ve managed to post 165 stories in the last year, attracting 9,584 visits and a whopping 14,395 page views. I have absolutely no idea if that’s good or bad. I do know that major sites – The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast and Salon – have annual page views in the billions.

Nearly 75 percent of folks visiting my site are from North America and about 75 percent of those visitors are from the U.S. No big surprise, right? Another 5 percent are from Europe; 1 percent is from Asia – I’m guessing mostly from Israel. I’ve also had visitors from Australia and New Zealand; Russia and China; the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt; South Africa, England, Germany, France, Spain, Norway and Iceland.

Since I don’t know if what I’m doing is good or bad and have no plans to carry out focus groups anytime soon to find out, I’m declaring victory. I’ll be asking my board of directors to approve a substantial pay increase for the, ah, staff, including additional stock options. All that will happen just as soon as I create a board of directors, which I plan on doing right after I finish cleaning the toilets and mowing the lawn.

I’d sign off quoting my blog’s memorable slogan. But we don’t actually have a slogan just yet. That is one of the first topics of business I plan to bring up before our new board. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Captain America, Wonder Woman in control!

Okay, so now we know the truth. I mean, a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

It turns out Osama never had a chance. After all, the White House is ground zero for the world’s Superheroes. Captain America, ah, I mean President Obama tried to hide his true identity and those of his chief aides.

The White House put out that photo of them all in the Situation Room, anxiously monitoring action halfway around the world as Navy Seals handled the dirty task of taking out Osama in his terrorist lair in Pakistan. It was obviously doctored and now, finally, we have the truth.

Turns out Captain America, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Hornet and others have been running the show. I, for one, am certainly relived. I guess that means Osama was the Joker. Actually, that sort of makes sense.

Laugh if you will; but this all goes to prove two things – you can find just about anything on the web these days and some people have way too much time on their hands.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mother's Day dinner long and tasty journey

The lovely Miss Wendy and I had a splendid Mother’s Day, walking away the morning with our daughter Lauren along the Chattahoochee, then meeting up for dinner with Lauren and our son-in-law Josh, our machatunim – trust me here, it’s a Jewish thing – Janice and Steve, and Janice’s mom and sister.

There were a few challenges. The surging crowd around Wildfire, an upscale steakhouse in our little corner of the world, looked like a scene pulled from a World War II movie – everyone a bit frantic and worried as they approached the border and possible freedom. Apparently the restaurant was overbooked and understaffed.

A few random numbers capture the problem. Wendy and I, wanting to run a few errands, left home around 5 p.m. We had a 6:30 reservation and had no problem making it to Wildfire on time. We finally got seated along with the rest of our party at 7:15, but it was another 45 minutes before the first bit of food – a platter of cornbread – was served. We limped out of the restaurant three hours after entering and made it back home just in time to watch the 10 o’clock news. For those keeping track, that would be five hours from start to finish; a reasonable amount of time for open heart surgery or running an ultra-marathon.

All the news, fortunately, wasn’t bad. After a short caucus, those with voting rights unanimously agreed to go with something called the “Club Supper Menu”, a family-style feast that was served in waves – appetizers, salads, entrees, sides and desserts. The food, once it landed on our table, was warm, plentiful and tasty.

Highlights included spinach and artichoke fondue and fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza; salad bowls of the Greek and chopped persuasion; cedar planked salmon and prime rib; redskin mashed potatoes and balsamic roasted veggies; triple layer chocolate cake and, the piece de resistance, key lime pie! Can you say yummy?

It’s been months since I’ve allowed myself the tasty and sensual pleasure of carbs, but it was all for a good cause. Mother’s Day only comes around once a year and, heck, luxuriating in a three-hour meal with family and friends was worth fighting our way across the border. Next year, however, I’m looking for a little bistro in neutral territory; perhaps Rick's Café Américain!

PIECE DE RESISTANCE: Wildfire’s Key Lime Pie (photo above) was a bit of heavenly cream, with a nice citrusy kick, atop a thick graham cracker crust.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

And they lived happily ever after – for now!

It hasn’t yet been a week, but it seems the royal wedding is already a fading memory. The world stopped for an instant last Friday and a few billion folks managed to push aside all of the troubling issues that hang about like smog on a hot and humid day and spend a few hours lost in a real-life fairy tale.

Yes, I managed to drag myself out of bed before the sun even thought about peeking over the eastern horizon here in the Land of Cotton and joined Miss Wendy to watch William and Catherine get hitched. It was a splendid affair, a really good show of pomp that included a hoity-toity crowd of family and friends; aristocrats, politicians and entertainers.

Outside Westminster Abbey, the common folk lined the Mall in London, hoping for just a glimpse of the royal pair as they shuttled between the abbey and Buckingham Palace. I, meanwhile, had a bird's-eye view of the ceremony and festivities, thanks to the over-the-top coverage of the event by every news organization on the planet.

Decked out in royal blue jammies, I feasted on cereal and a slice of whole-wheat toast as Kate wowed the crowd on her way to meet her prince. Just for the occasion, I skipped my morning cup of Joe and opted for a spot of tea – Lipton, thank you very much.

There was a moment when I felt just a little out of place after spotting Will’s cousins, Beatrice and Eugenie, and the creative crap they wore atop their noggins. But I solved the problem by grabbing a nearby cap and covering it with sparkles from Miss Wendy’s pre-school art supplies. Voila, instant chic and problem solved!

Aside from all the silliness and nonsense, there were a few moments of beauty and grace, most of them filled with Kate – in front of Westminster, a gown of white spilling about her; walking down the central aisle of the abbey, Prince Harry sneaking a little peek while William stood at attention, biding his time; the royal couple sweeping through the streets of London in a horse-drawn carriage, an hour or so later joining with their parents and others on a balcony at Buckingham Palace to salute the masses and share a kiss.

Liz and her gang offered up all the lavish royal touches necessary for the occasion. But let’s be clear, there’s no question most of us would rather spend an afternoon with Kate and her parents sharing a beer than pointing our pinkies and attending low tea with the Queen!

So what’s the point? After a short nap I was out and about and turned on my car’s radio. I was immediately attacked by two loud-mouthed politicians – one blue, the other red – shouting about campaign financing. I quickly changed stations and learned that the most recent jobs report was dismal and the economy was still in the crapper. Another push of the button and I was hearing all about the ups and downs of military life in Iraq and Afghanistan and the staggering cost of maintaining troops in those war zones for the next few years.

Then I reached the BBC and was back in fantasy land, hearing a recap of the royal wedding and plans for the evening – a little bash hosted by Charles, to be followed by a late-night after-party breakfast. The whole royal thing, of course, is silly and meaningless. Lizzie, Phil and their inbred fops are, well, foppish – look it up.

But like many of the entertainers, sport stars and mini-celebs filling the pews at Westminster, the royals provide distraction in a world that often seems mad. For an instant the royal wedding allowed all of us to set aside our problems and take part in a cosmic fairy tale.

So here’s to Will and Kate, along with my hope that this time around the prince and princess actually do live happily every after. As we say down here in the Land of Cotton, Mazel Tov!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Never smart to wake a sleeping giant

I was still in bed, somewhere in that hazy zone between sleep and waking when the phone rang. It was my daughter Lauren calling from school in Kentucky, wondering if I was watching the Today Show, that something weird was happening in New York.

It had been a late night at work – that place with the printing press where I earned a living – and I remained groggy as I shuffled from the bedroom to our upstairs den to click on the TV. The Today Show’s gang seemed tense, all huddled around the coffee table on the set, talking about a plane hitting one of the towers at the World Trade Center.

As they chatted, live footage of the scene was being aired, a huge plume of billowing gray smoke spilling from a gaping hole in the North Tower into a cloudless blue sky. People stood about gawking, eyewitnesses offering up contradictory reports and on-the-spot analysts mostly agreeing that a small plane had veered off course and accidentally smashed into the tower. And then a second plane came into view.

I don’t recall who pointed out the second missile, but it only took a moment to realize that it was headed directly for the South Tower and only another few seconds before United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the building. In that instant it became clear that the United States was under attack and our lives would never be quite the same.

It’s been nearly a decade since the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and finally the terrorist responsible for the death and destruction that day, Osama bin Ladin, has been killed. There was never any doubt in my mind that he would be taken out; little doubt in my mind that the U.S. will prevail in the war against terrorism.

Just as the Axis powers learned during World War II, it only appears that Americans are happily hunkered down in fortress America. It’s a huge error to mistake the country’s sense of laissez faire and goodwill as indifference or, heaven forbid, fear. Apparently Osama was asleep at Terrorist High on the day his instructor was detailing the thoughts of Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral and mastermind behind his country’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even as the first reports of success were filtering in, Yamamoto remained pensive, unwilling to celebrate what seemed like a mighty blow to the United States. “I fear all we have done,” the admiral told a few subordinates nearby, “is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Of course the admiral’s fear proved true. Osama has also learned something about the tenacious spirit and resolve of a country and people filled with good cheer, willing to stand aside for awhile as bullies, tyrants and terrorists wail about in the dark. But a time almost always comes when the darkness fills the planet and the lumbering giant is once again awakened.

I like to think that the Special Forces commandoes in Pakistan, just an instant before unleashing their fiery hell, shouted out a hearty hello and announced they were the striking avengers for the thousands murdered and injured on 9/11 and the millions living under the tyrannical heal of Islamofascists. And perhaps for a moment, Osama understood what it means to be on the right side of history and regretted pushing his people down the path of darkness.

A footnote. Moments after the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I received a call from my boss telling me everyone was being called in early. I quickly showered and dressed and was just about out the door when the phone rang again.

It was Lauren, a little shaken and calling just to check in. I told her I needed to get to work and I’d be back in touch later. We said our goodbyes and then she added, “I love you … and be careful.”

So the world really had changed. It was now a little bit scarier, the sort of place you needed to let those you care about know they were loved and the sort of place where you really needed to tell family and friends to be “careful”.

The world, I fear, remains a scary place and the war against terror remains unfinished. But I like to think that with the death of Osama, the scales of justice have been righted once again and we’re all just a bit safer, at least for the moment.