Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hot coffee, cold reality and crossing the street

I can file this away under the heading “Will he ever learn?” Despite my rant just yesterday about the poor service at the place with the golden arches, I still stopped by this morning for a cup of Joe. Big mistake!

After standing about at the front counter, waiting for someone to take my order, I was put on hold when the cashier opted to wait on one of her colleagues. While I cooled my heels and the line behind me grew – both in length and impatience – the McBurger putz first told her friend to input his order in a nearby register, then left us all dangling to handle the chore herself.

In fact, what should have taken only a moment, turned into clerking 101, the cashier explaining in detail to her friend how best to place an order on McBurger registers and, in the doing, how best to tick off paying customers.

After five minutes or so she returned to take my order, took my money, let the register figure out my change, then informed me that the coffee pot was empty and it would take only a few moments to brew a fresh batch! For an instant I thought all this was being taped and I was part of a new reality TV show.

I sort of smiled, then explained I didn’t have any more minutes to wait around and asked that she return my money. That of course involved her calling her manager, getting the boss to open the register and fiddle around with the gizmo so it would register that someone – that would be me – interrupted a transaction in process.

I took my buck and change, drove across the street and stopped at QuikTrip (see Tuesday’s blog posting), said hi to the cashier who greeted me with a smile, then poured my own cup of coffee. I was in and out in less than two minutes and can now report that, yes, I have finally learned my lesson!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Winning formula: Good service with a smile

I spotted a news brief recently that reported service station convenience stores are stealing customers from fast food chains. In fact, the story suggested that even some family restaurants offering moderately prices meals – Applebees, Chili’s, Houlihan’s – are losing business to folks chowing down on nachos and burgers at corner gas stations.

Of course such neighborhood gas stations include mini-marts featuring fruit, veggies, candy and snacks; hot dogs, hamburgers and sandwiches; coffee, lattes, espresso and all manner of sodas and frozen treats. And, at least the one I visit regularly, cheap prices and great service.

In my little corner of the world, right across from that place with the golden arches, is A QuikTrip. The clerk behind the register always smiles and says howdy when I visit, actually makes eye contact when I step up to pay or ask a question, then – and this, I know, is hard to believe – manages to handle cash and make change using his noggin instead of a computer.

The clerk does all this while handling a slew of other chores – printing out gas receipts and lottery tickets, monitoring the dozen or so gas pumps out front and making sure the shop is clean, neat and fully stocked.

If three or more customers back up at one register, another clerk automatically – I swear I’m not making this up – stops whatever he might be doing, opens up a second register and keeps things moving smoothly along. I’ve never waited more than a minute or two at a register. Obviously, the bosses at QT’s corporate headquarters know something about customer service.

It’s a lesson the toads running the golden arches have forgotten – and it’s costing them money. Everything that QuikTrip does right, the burger drones across the street get wrong – no smiles, no eye contact, no service.

I actually like the coffee at McBurgers. As often as not, however, when I stop by in the late morning they pour out the last dregs from the pot then sheepishly tell me they’re out and need to make more. Ah, that never happens across the street at QT.

Now, if filling stations can just figure out how to make decent fries, cheap apple pies and start offering plastic action figures with kid meals, I could fill up my tummy and my tank in one quick stop!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion

I’ve been itching to stop itching. The scratching began with a little reddish patch that worked its way over one shin, jumped across my crotch and took over a thigh, then rapidly took hold of small bits of turf around my belly, arms and neck.

Can you say uncomfortable? The problem, as usual, can be traced back to that moment after I left the place with the printing press two years ago and decided I would conquer my lawn. As I’ve reported here ad nauseum, the war with my yard has taken a toll – bumps, scrapes, cuts and falls; mosquito and tick bites; sunburn, battle fatigue and, now, poison ivy.

Ignoring all those three-leafed weeds as I go about pulling them from my lawn doesn’t mean they will ignore me. In fact, I’ve scratched my way across my yard for two years, breaking out now and again with small signs of the toxic stuff. I won those battles, suffering only a little discomfort. Not this time.

After nights of little sleep, bathing in calamine lotion and becoming addicted to Benadryl, I finally waved the white flag and called for medical assistance. My doctor sent in the big guns – Prednisone, served up in massive dosage. After just a day, I could sense the tide of battle was turning and victory seemed possible.

Now, a week later, the battle of Ivy fields is a fading memory and mankind, yet again, has prevailed over the expansionist hopes of plant life – at least its impact. Unfortunately, the war rages on; my yard calling out to me for help. It remains a gruesome mess of damaged turf, weeds and debris.

My days of rest are coming to an end and I will soon be grabbing my weed wacker and heading back into battle. I know that glory hides in the dawn, tucked behind a fallen pine cone, buried underneath a blooming dandelion. I can hear the mowers starting up now, my neighbors puttering about in support. Damn, how I love the smell of exhaust in the morning!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

'One Day' okay way to spend an afternoon

It turns out that One Day is an okay way to spend a hot afternoon in the Land of Cotton. The film, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, is a meditation on friendship, love and loss; the stuff – big and small – that defines that thing we call life.

The film plays out around one day each year over two decades or so, introducing us early on to Emma and Dexter meeting cute on the night of their college graduation. They stumble into bed only to decide to cuddle and sleep. They become buddies and a special friendship is kindled.

The relationship grows and wanes over the years, at times awkward and confusing, filled with laughter, tears, loneliness and fear. Em and Dex, as often as not, are headed off on different paths, but their love for one another has a way of tossing them together – such is life.

What makes all this minutiae palatable – even quietly serene and enjoyable at times – is, in the words of A.O. Scott of the New York Times, a lush, swooning, deliciously anachronistic orchestral score by Rachel Portman. I concur. I’d also add that the film’s evocative and richly colorful settings in London, Scotland and France offer up a pleasing cosmopolitan vibe.

All of this, in a fashion, has been done before. The movie, at its best, often seems a euphonic blend of Two for the Road; Same Time, Next Year and When Harry Met Sally. I’m certain there are others. In fact, the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill plays around with much the same themes. Worth noting, Hathaway and Sturgess are younger versions of Notting Hill stars Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant; a long and winding way simply to say there is very little new under the celluloid sun these days.

There is much to like about One Day. Its third act, however, takes the effort off into a dark and dangerous direction for a film that’s built on fluff. Not wishing to give too much away, I’ll simply finish by suggesting you might want to bring along a box of Kleenex and a friend with an available shoulder to cry upon.

Friday, August 19, 2011

More attacks and the world remains silent

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we glance at the news and see that Israel is once more under attack.

Israel once again is mourning the loss of life, victims of Palestinian terrorists striking at civilians in the southern region of the country. Seven people were killed and over 40 wounded earlier this week in five separate attacks.

The terrorists slithered out of Gaza and made their way south along the Egyptian border, slipping into Israel just north of Eilat on Thursday. Around noon they opened fire on an Egged bus that was traveling from Be’er Sheva to the resort community.

Over the next several hours, the terrorists managed to pop up in several different areas, firing an anti-tank missile at a sedan carrying civilians, setting off an explosive device next to an IDF patrol and exchanging small-arms fire with Israeli troops.

Those are the facts. Now let’s suppose for a moment that all this loathsome activity was happening closer to home. What if you or I, family or friends were headed south along I-75 to Florida? Our car is packed with luggage and good cheer, the AC set on chill and a CD blasting out our favorite holiday tunes.

Just South of Valdosta, as we cross into Florida, we spot a Toyota Tacoma in our rearview mirror, a silver blur advancing wildly in our direction. Hanging out of the passenger window we can just make out the metallic glint of a weapon and then we see two thugs, their heads wrapped in keffiyehs, standing in the cargo bay.

We notice a puff of smoke blossoming in our direction and then suddenly the asphalt to our right explodes. We press down on the accelerator and our family sedan lunges forward just as a few bits of shrapnel ping off the back bumper and crack a side window.

Despite our best effort, the Toyota pulls alongside. We glance quickly to our left and in sheer terror spot the front end of a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launcher. Time slows and we can actually see the first fiery exhaust of the weapon being fired. Absolute madness!

And it is – madness. Of course life in the Land of Cotton is often hot, but not deadly. Politics here can get rancorous but we don’t often have to worry about our neighbors trying to kill us off. Just imagine if they tried – the immediate response from civil authorities; the media coverage and headlines; outrage and support from around the world.

Yes, the world has taken note that Israel was attacked – again. The international press has printed a few stories and television networks have offered a few minutes of coverage. But where’s the outrage and condemnation. Even though it’s been two years since the last major attack, it all feels like business as usual in the Middle East. Madness!

A footnote: Exactly a week earlier, a friend of mind was a passenger on the Egged Bus that was attacked on Thursday. David P is a retired NYC policeman who is in Israel to take part in a program, Sar-El, that places volunteers on IDF bases to help with menial chores. He, like the injured civilian passengers, was headed to Eilat for a weekend holiday.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big banks, the IRS and training porpoises

Nothing gets my dander up more than dealing with the minutiae and incompetence of big banks and big government. Just being one of the little people that make up this very large country, I only have to wade through a smallish amount of red tape each year.

That said, I recently received a notice from my ginormous bank ordering me to expeditiously fill out a form – a request for my Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification – that was needed by the IRS. I’ve had several accounts with the bank for years and been filing taxes for decades. So what’s changed and why the urgency?

The IRS form, btw, is indecipherable. I imagine there are accountants and tax attorneys who can make sense of the rules, regulations, penalties and instructions detailed in 8 point type. But it mostly reads like gibberish to me.

When in doubt, I always like to be able to sit with a real, live, breathing bureaucrat who can explain what’s needed. So last Friday I dropped by a local branch of the ginormous bank and met with an assistant manager. She glanced at the form, checked my account in her computer, then scratched her noggin in puzzlement.

She said my Taxpayer Identification Number was already included in my account information. She suggested I go ahead and fill out the form or call the bank’s toll free number and provide the information again.

That’s what I just attempted to do, after working my way through a 10-minute phone tree that left me stumped and confused. The robot at the other end wanted an account number that I attempted to input on my phone. Something was amiss and the metallic voice repeated its request again, then yet again. Finally, it suggested that perhaps I might want to talk with a bank representative – please say “yes” if that’s the case.

A moment later I was talking to Maggie in Mumbai. She greeted me with great enthusiasm, then announced that our conversation might be monitored for quality control and training porpoises. I immediately had this image in my mind of Maggie in full SCUBA gear, holding tightly to a floating desk off the coast of India.

Despite her willingness to help, Maggie’s advice was all wet. She didn’t quite understand what sort of form I was struggling with and didn’t seem to know much about U.S. taxes and identification numbers.

The good news is she was able to help me figure out the account number the robotic voice was in search of earlier. We said our goodbyes and I tried the automated system once again. This time the metallic voice allowed me to enter his home turf, asked a few questions about my account and then announced that my Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification was accepted – that I was now a good and loyal citizen.

The robot also added that if I had provided false information I was subject to hefty fines, years in jail and deportation to Mumbai where, I assumed, I would hook up with Maggie for training porpoises.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

At least the popcorn was fresh and tasty

There are some things that just aren’t meant to go together – oil and water, Tech and Georgia, cowboys and aliens. Hollywood apparently thought the cowboy/alien thing was a good idea; but despite the heroic efforts of Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, the film is a dud!

That’s not to say it’s a complete disaster. Much of the western vibe found in the cowboy story is entertaining. There’s the quiet stranger, a loner who manages to be both fierce and lovable; the really bad kid whose daddy runs the town; a brave sheriff, God-fearing minister and seedy bar filled with a mix of cliché characters.

The aliens remain in the shadows for much of the film, something sinister in the background; thingies that are a cross between really big roaches and really big spiders. Despite their bug-eyed ugliness, they apparently are really smart. After all, they’ve built a ginormous space ship and an entire fleet of fighters, traveled light years across space and hold the copyright on some sort of bluish death ray!

If I could just time warp my way back to when I was a kid, I can imagine Cowboys and Aliens working really well as a Saturday morning double feature at the old Bradley Theater in downtown Columbus. All that would need to be done is zap the movie into two separate parts – a western and a sci-fi flick.

The whole blending thing might have worked if the filmmakers hadn’t lost touch with their sense of humor. The film takes itself a little too seriously. Even when the quiet stranger manages to race along on horseback next to one of the alien fighters, then jumps from horse to fighter and cripples the craft, no one is winking at the camera.

The final big battle – despite the good guys essentially tossing rocks against a force of bad guys with hi-tech howitzers – ends predictably. Worse, it was pretty clear before the fighting began who would be walking away from the battlefield and who was going to be zapped.

My greatest fear is that Cowboys and Aliens will do well enough at the box office that a few years down the road we’ll be hearing about a sequel – Cowboys and Aliens: The Musical! Now that’s a flick I’d pay not to see.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Chopsticks, napkins, water and ear plugs

It doesn’t take much to make me happy when dining out with friends. It’s always nice, of course, if the food is decent, the company good and the ambiance a euphonic blend of quiet background music, candlelight and the reverential clinking of silverware meeting fine china.

Saturday evening our weekend gang – Denise and Stan, Susan and John, the lovely Miss Wendy and me – just about struck out. The company was grand, but the food was only okay and the ambiance seemed plucked from a steel foundry. I’ll explain.

Looking for something a little different, we all agreed to try out one of those happening make-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants that are popping up across the Land of Cotton. The Big Chow Grill takes up a corner of a struggling mall complex in the northern ’burbs; an expansive space featuring high ceilings, lots of glass, pendant lights, exposed pipes and ducts.

The gimmick that you’re either gonna love or hate involves working your way around a counter filled with veggies, starches, protein – fish, meat, chicken, tofu – and sauces. The idea is that you fill your bowl with whatever captures your attention, pile it high and hand it off to a squadron of waiting cooks.

The problem begins when you start mixing and matching. Truth to tell, I have absolutely no idea what the sauces taste like and what blends well together. I’ve tried places like this before and no matter what I manage to create in my ten minutes of foraging, it always ends up tasting the same – a little spicy, a little sweet, mostly bland with a toxic aftertaste.

That pretty much describes the mound of stir-fried stuff that landed in front of me moments after we’d finished a batch of wilted and overcooked egg rolls. But, well, we still had the good company thing going on – a splendid melding of conversation and booze.

Unfortunately, the booze was a little watered down and the conversation was difficult since it seemed we were sitting smack in the middle of a foundry – at least that’s what it sounded like. Imagine a place where there are blast furnaces, huge pieces of machinery and workmen yelling above the roar of clanging, clattering gizmos. Now bottle that noise and release it inside the gym where Duke is facing off against North Carolina for the ACC championship. For good measure, add a sonic boom and the ka-thunk of a helicopter flying overhead.

After an hour of attempting to make small talk, yelling at John and Stan across the table and screaming at their wives, I had more or less lost my voice. I was reduced to using remedial sign language – shoulder shrugs, a few obscene gestures and the occasional smile – to communicate.

Okay, so I exaggerate; but not all that much. We had the misfortune of being seated next to a group of 30 or so kids, all simply out for a fun evening and all chatting very loudly. They did absolutely nothing wrong. The acoustics simply couldn’t handle the traffic. I couldn’t either.

You know that old saw about how good it feels when you quit banging your head against a wall. It works the same with noise. I’m here to tell you that the sound of silence is a treat once you’ve had a meal at the Big Chow Grill. It’s a mediocre dining experience I won’t be repeating.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Market stumbles; Yogi provides words of hope

Yes, that’s right, it’s Friday and I was all set to tackle a provocative issue dealing with Jewish ritual. Then the Dow got my attention. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again!"

In the last months I was working at that place with the printing press, I often sat at my desk monitoring the wires and watching the Dow – and my retirement savings – go down the toilet. It was a bleak and dismal time, not at all for the faint of heart.

I recall that for at least a year before the bottom completely fell out of the market, there was this constant talk of a recession. Everyone agreed that it was just around the corner when any fool could pretty much tell that we were already, um, standing in it!

If you’ve forgotten, it was on Sept. 29, 2008 – just about three years ago – that the Dow dropped 777 points. Yikes. Don’t look now, but it cratered again on Thursday, losing over 4 percent of its value, down a whopping 512 points.

Once again the “r” word is being mentioned by economists and bloviators of all stripes and colors. The global economy is teetering on the abyss and it seems there’s little in our economic toolbox to address the issue.

The cupboard is empty and our leaders and politicians seem fresh out of ideas after the recent little dust-up in Washington over the country’s debt ceiling. All the shouting seems a little silly now that we’ve been floored – again!

Susan, a friend and colleague, assured me back in 2008 that the market would rebound. It goes up and it goes down, but over the long haul it always seems able to advance, she opined. I nodded in agreement, but wasn’t convinced. Something felt different, something about the whole global thing that had taken hold of the economy over the last decade.

BTW, if you think it’s dark and frightening here, it’s absolutely nightmarish in Japan, Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland. Like dominoes, once one of these countries tips over, the others will soon follow. Welcome to the global village!

The world has changed and continues to change. For a day, anyway, all seems a bit bleak and dismal yet again. But I take solace in something else Yogi – the New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher and philosopher – had to say years ago: “It ain’t over till it’s over!” I’m choosing to spin this Yogism in a positive way; and here’s hoping that his words are prophetic.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mob movie cool on a warm summer night

One sure way to beat the heat here in the land of cotton is to spend a cool evening inside watching a mobster movie. That’s exactly what I did earlier this week, managing once again to sit through Godfather: Part II.

I first saw the film back when I still had hair, Richard Nixon was in the White House and Elvis was starting to wear spandex. I’ve seen bits and pieces now and again, but haven’t watched the entire film in decades.

It remains one of the top movies ever produced, featuring a killer cast – Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale and Talia Shire. It also has a pitch-perfect screenplay, beautiful cinematography, and a wistful, melancholy soundtrack that won the Oscar for Best Original Score in 1974.

There is a minor hiccup that bothered me the first time I saw the film and continues to irritate decades later. Lee Strasberg, the legendary actor, director and acting teacher, plays Hyman Roth in the film. It’s worth noting that he was nominated for a best-supporting Oscar for his performance – he lost to Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone.

Take a moment and recall the scene when Michael meets with Roth at his home in Miami. Michael is ushered into a smallish den where Roth is relaxing before lunch, sitting in some sort of lounge chair, watching TV. Roth initially seems oblivious of Michael coming into the room. His right leg is awkwardly resting on the arm of the chair and he seems to be lost in his head.

The first thought I had as Strasberg turns toward Michael and the camera is that he’s acting. That, I’d argue, is a thought you never want to have when watching a flick. The entire scene – at least the Strasberg half of it – feels phony, unnatural and awkward. The leg thing comes across like some sort of artistic affectation.

None of this is particularly surprising. Strasberg, after all, is considered the father of method acting. It’s a concept that Dustin Hoffman captured hilariously in the film Tootsie when his character is trying to figure out how best to portray a tomato by understanding what motivates the veggie. Sometimes the best thing to do is just act!

The Godfather franchise is filled with memorable characters and solid actors who bring them to life. Strasberg eventually finds the heart of Hyman Roth and quietly builds the character throughout the film. In their last scene together, Strasberg and Pacino face off; Roth ranting about the nature of the mob and the work they have chosen, Michael seething in quiet rage.

All four hours were grandly entertaining and very, ah, chilling. That would be a good thing on these oh-so hot and humid nights. Up next? The Untouchables and Sean Connery’s over-the-top Irish brogue!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Capped, crowned and smiling once again

The lovely Miss Wendy has her lovely smile back. It only took two dental appointments and a few hours with our favorite neighborhood dentist, Dr. S.

That’s what happens when you crunch on a crouton that’s crisp and tasty – and, unfortunately, hard as a rock. For a variety of reasons, Wendy asked that I go with her for all the drilling and heavy lifting on Monday. It was an eye-opening experience. Well, actually, Wendy’s eyes were closed for most of the appointment.

But with the blessing of Dr. S and his irreplaceable and charming assistant, I had an up close and very personal demonstration on how to fix a cracked tooth and replace it with a dental crown. Standing above it all, the experience is all together different than when you’re sitting in the big chair! I don’t know about Wendy, but I had a grand time.

Did you know that all the initial drilling is simply to whack away the enamel surrounding the tooth’s dentin and core? It’s not unlike sanding away a peeling layer of paint on a wall – if the wall happens to be tiny, filled with nerve endings and has a huge tongue that keeps getting in the way!

What you’re left with after the dust clears is a smallish post that serves as an anchor for the crown. The majority of the work – the aforementioned demolition; sanding, blasting and creating molds – has much more to do with artistry than science. It’s the sort of work I think a carpenter would be better at than, say, a theoretical physicist.

Of course dental work takes a good deal of focus. Dr. S certainly seemed to be paying attention to Wendy as he worked and we discussed what’s new and happening at the local cinema; his plans to take his entire office to Vegas in the fall; the ups and downs of the Braves, Falcons and the U.S. economy; and the incredibly fishy smell of a piece of salmon his wife recently bought at that oh-so popular specialty market that is bulling its way into our little corner of the world.

But I, ah, digress. Everyone was smiling once again – especially the lovely Miss Wendy – when Dr. S finished up his work. In fact, the only person frowning at the end of the day was the guy holding the bill. Oh, right, that would be me! But, hey, a million dollar smile and a healthy set of pearly whites are worth a few bucks, right?