Saturday, March 31, 2012

Driver's Ed Dropouts

It's no secret that I'm not the biggest fan of Lifetime Fitness.  I've complained at length about pretty much every aspect of the workout experience--the equipment, the other members, and the surly, unfriendly staff at Lifetime's tennis clubs all over the cities. At the risk of beating a long-dead horse, I have a few bones to pick with the parking experience at my local Lifetime.

The problem is quite simple, and not surprising, given how crowded the club is during the week: there simply aren't enough parking spots.  It doesn't help that the club is part of a strip mall, which means I'm competing with both gym-goers and shoppers for prime parking...though I would like to publicly thank the nearby Blockbuster Video for over-indexing on the parking spaces-to-customers ratio; every time I drive by I can practically see the tumbleweeds blowing past the storefront.

Whenever I drive to Lifetime, I know there's a pretty good chance that finding a decent parking spot will be tougher than anything I'll face during my workout.  Five times a week, I feel like I'm at the Mall of America on Black Friday...and that's bad news, considering that one Black Friday a year is already too many.  Drivers looking for spots at Lifetime will follow members as they leave the club and walk to their cars; others park in spots that aren't really spots, further narrowing the lanes in the already cramped lot.  And I can't begin to count the number of times I've seen drivers nearly come to blows after facing off for a rare open spot.

On top of the sheer quantity of people looking for spaces, Lifetime is also blessed with some of the world's most exceptionally lazy and unskilled parkers.  Here's a classic example I saw last week: missed it... In the driver's defense, there was another car parked in front of it when I got there, so maybe it was a really tight squeeze--and it is a big SUV.  But really?  That's the best they could do?  At first glace, I thought the driver must still be in there, still in the process of getting the SUV somewhere near the middle of the spot...but nope, the vehicle was empty.  Here's another look from the back:

I was tempted to squeeze the Malibu into that massive gap to the side of that vehicle, much like I'm tempted to park within inches of those jerks who take two spaces to protect their expensive cars from door dings.  I've never seen such a lackluster parking job.  When I first saw this, a conversation from an old episode of The Simpsons popped into my mind:

Park Job by John10s

If you ask driver's ed students where they struggle the most, parallel parking is probably near the top of the list.  Clearly, it's not for everyone--the driver of this SUV at Lifetime decided to compromise with the lines and turn it into and more of a traditional angled parking situation.  But if the driver sucks that bad at parallel parking, I think it might be time to trade in the Excursion for something a little more...compact.  That way, the driver could take advantage of the elusive perpendicular parking opportunities that only Smartcar owners enjoy--and I'm willing to believe there's not much else to enjoy about driving a Smartcar:

Every weeknight, as I'm hopelessly circling the Lifetime lot, I yearn for The Gym.  I passed by the empty building recently, and had to fight back tears when I saw the "For Sale" sign in front of that lonely, familiar parking lot:

Parking was never an issue at The Gym.  There were far more spaces than members (probably one of the reasons it closed...); when I think about it, there technically weren't any spaces at all, since the lines had worn off decades ago.  The place wasn't without it's issues--the lot was so poorly maintained that it was like driving across the surface of the moon.

In an effort to avoid spending money to resurface the lot (probably another sign the place would soon be closing), the owner made the spectacularly poor decision to fill the craters with dirt one spring.  That smoothed things out and briefly seemed to help a least until the rain started falling, at which point the lot turned into a giant mud pit, still with massive, moon-craters.  If you look closely, I think there's still a Geo Metro lodged in one of the craters in the lot...

Lifetime's parking issues make me want to buy a vehicle more powerful than the Malibu--that shouldn't be too difficult--and just make my own parking spaces at someone else's expense:

But maybe I should take a step back and calm down before I get too upset about one driver's horrifically bad parking job with his Ford Excursion.  After all, I'm sure there are worse parking offenses in the history of motorized transportation...

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Rainbow of Crime: Orange Bottle, Blue Liquid, Black Market

On a dark evening, two shady figures meet in a deserted back alley.  "You got the stuff?" one asks, pulling out a thick wad of twenties.  "Right here," says the other, as he reveals a his stash of...Tide laundry detergent?!  That's right, Tide is quickly becoming the currency of choice for drug dealers across the country.  Talk about money laundering...

It's a fairly recent phenomenon, but over the past few years, the "Tide has turned," so to speak, and a rash of laundry detergent thefts has swept the nation.  For a variety of reasons, Procter & Gamble's blue, cleansing liquid has become liquid gold for drug dealers and thieves.  It seems odd that criminals would choose Tide as their new monetary system, but experts say it makes perfect sense--everybody uses laundry detergent, Tide is widely recognized, it doesn't spoil, it's fairly expensive, and it's nearly impossible for law enforcement officials to track.

Thieves have found a variety of uses for Tide, none of which have anything to do with cleaning clothes.  Some trade it for drugs or sell it to other dealers; others set up shop outside laundromats and resell it, and some sell it back to stores that are willing to stock their shelves with discounted, black market Tide.  Experts estimate Tide has a street value of roughly 50% of retail price. No word on whether criminals prefer Regular, Mountain Spring, Tide with Bleach, Tide with Downy, Cold Water Tide, or one of the many other variations.

Another reason Tide is a popular target is that, at least until recently, it sat pretty much unguarded in stores.  The Tide-takers had developed brilliant, well thought-out plans to get the detergent out of stores--the two most popular strategies involved having a partner sitting outside in a getaway car and either (1) loading a shopping cart and sprinting for the exit, or (2) grabbing a bunch of bottles and sprinting for the exit.  (I'm curious the courts consider the unfortunate would-be detergent thieves who get caught to be white collar criminals...)  These days, it's becoming increasingly common to find Tide locked behind glass or outfitted with electronic tags.

Though the whole situation is very strange, but Procter & Gamble has gotta be loving this--all of that marketing and brand building is really paying off. Tide is the undisputed leader in the laundry detergent category, as measured by sales and thefts. Experts have noticed that criminals haven't bothered sprinting toward the exits with shopping carts full of lesser brands like All or Wisk.  One interviewer reached out to a P&G spokesperson for a comment about this unusual rash of thefts, but her response was vague: "We don't have any insight as to why this has apparently happened. But if so it is unfortunate."

Much like the thieves, I'm not buying it.  This is a sweet deal for P&G--as drug dealers empty the shelves, stores are left with losses, and their only option is to call up P&G to place more orders for Tide to replace the lost inventory.  This is a huge opportunity for any company that can come up with a widely recognized, expensive, tough-to-track product that never goes bad.  When stores have sufficiently secured their Tide supplies and put an end to the detergent theft, criminals will move on to the next product that exhibits all these qualities.

What company is best positioned to cash on this shift in the marketplace?  With some price increases, I'd say Hormel is sitting in a pretty good spot.  When I think about a recognizable product with an unlimited shelf life, one image instantly comes to mind:

And what's more difficult for law enforcement officials to track than SPAM?  There's not a person alive who knows exactly what it's made out of, let alone anyone who can distinguish one loaf from another.  So guard your Tide, stock up on SPAM before the price skyrockets, and pour your remaining life savings into Hormel stock.

Here are some articles with more details:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

R.I.P. Old Friend

The world lost one of it's finest backpacks last month.  In February, my trusty Adidas backpack was finally decommissioned after nearly a decade of unparalleled service.  The bag looks perfectly healthy in this photo, but don't be fooled...

Here's the problem--even when the zippers on the front pocket are in the closed position, the pocket can still open wider than a fat kid's mouth at a pie-eating contest.

The sad truth is that my old friend has been showing signs of age for quite some time now, though Mom's thread, needles, and creativity added many quality years to his life.  As the bottom of the pack wore out and chunks were literally falling off as the days passed, she MacGyver'd a durable reinforcement patch out of an old swatch of black denim.  When the zipper pull broke off years ago, she tracked down a clip-on pull that ably filled in for its missing counterpart.  And she even operated on the very zipper that finally gave out in February.

I don't recall all the details of exactly how or when I acquired the backpack, but from what I can remember, I picked it up before my senior year of high school in 2002.  It carried my books during my final year of high school, and it was right there with me on the first day of college when my bitter hatred of learning and education caused me to forget that I needed to bring a pen and paper to class.  In addition to the standard backpack duties, over the years my Adidas pack has been a pillow, a gym bag, a hiking partner, a man purse, and above all, a trusted friend.

That bag is extremely well-traveled, having accompanied me to numerous high school and college sporting events and countless trips all over the country.  To honor his departure, I've created a photo tribute to his travels over the past six years (I'd go back even farther, but the bag predates my photographic archives).  Rest in peace, my friend.  Cards, flowers, and replacement backpacks are welcome and highly encouraged.

February 2006
At an Iowa State Tennis Club event in Des Moines, IA

April 2006
 In the hotel room at another ISU Tennis Club event in Austin, TX

December 2006
Serving as my pillow in Burbank, CA

June 2007
 At the top of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, AZ

Taking a break in Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, AZ

At Torrey Pines in La Jolla, CA

December 2008
Hiking at Paramount Ranch in Augora Hilla, CA

July 2009

All over Hawaii.

June 2010
At Airport Mesa, back in Sedona, AZ (post car crash)

July 2011

 Yet another trip to Sedona, AZ

Near Flagstaff, AZ

At Walnut Canyon, also near Flagstaff, AZ

March 2012
 Hiking without the Adidas backpack at Afton State Park in Wisconsin.  A very sad day...and the end of an era.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Math For Bodybuilders

If you're looking for a quick way to refuel after a brutal workout, it's tough to beat a protein shake. Mix some powder with water, and in seconds you've got a high-protein, low-carb drink. The only downside is the taste...the packaging on protein powder can be very misleading in that area. Without fail, the flavors listed on the bag sound incredibly delicious, with choices like chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, chocolate hot fudge sundae, peanut butter, banana split, and similar dessert-y names.

When it comes time to actually drink one of the shakes, however, disappointment is inevitable. In reality, despite what the bag might suggest, you're likely to experience a taste from one of the following categories: chalk, dirt, cardboard, or truck stop men's room floor. Most of my protein shake experiences involve plugging my nose, holding my breath, chugging the liquid, then downing a bunch of water to rid my mouth of the dreaded aftertaste.

I've learned that those delicious names on the package are more descriptive of the color of the powder than the actual flavor of the beverage. With my wealth of knowledge and experience in this area, I've built a handy guide for a few of the common flavors to help the less experienced users out there:
  • Chocolate = brown
  • Vanilla = white
  • Strawberry = pink
  • Peanut butter = light brown
  • Banana split = off-white
  • Chocolate hot fudge sundae = dark brown
 Flavor = Chocolate; Color = Brown; Taste = ???

As for the taste, it's anyone's guess what you'll end up with.  That's why, in those rare occasions when I stumble upon a product with an acceptable flavor, I hold onto it for dear life.   There was a glorious stretch during which Sam's Club carried E.A.S. protein powder--mixed with water, it wasn't too bad, and mixed with milk, drinking it was actually enjoyable.  Not only that, it was reasonably priced!

How did Sam's Club handle this big win-win situation?  Like all good things, they destroyed it and stopped carrying E.A.S. protein.  Club stores are notorious for their rotational/seasonal offerings, and Sam's opted for a more expensive, taste-bud-offending product from a lesser competitor.  Devastated, I drank my way through several bitter experiments with alternative brands, to no avail.

I was almost ready to give up when Sam's Club started carrying a brand I hadn't seen on their shelves before: MuscleTech.  A friend at the gym tried it first and said the taste was unspectacular, but tolerable.  I picked up a bag labeled "Vanilla" and tried it for myself...the flavor definitely wasn't great; it reminded me of that artificial butter you find on movie theater popcorn, which is rather unappealing when downing 16 ounces at a time.  But it was certainly better than the bottom-of-the-shoe taste from the other brands I'd tried recently, so I decided to stick with it.

When I'd emptied the bag, I returned to Sam's Club to pick up another, and I was very concerned with what I saw on the bag.  The flavor had changed from "Vanilla" to "Deluxe Vanilla," and there was a big red burst on the package:

New & Improved Flavor!?  This was not I'd found an acceptable product, and MuscleTech decided to tinker with the formula. The logo on the bottom of the package claimed that this new and improved version had received some kind of award from the American Masters of Taste, but I was still leery.  It had to do a Google search to confirm that this was even a real organization.

Having already exhausted all of my options with the other brands, I went ahead and bought it anyway.  When I finally tried it for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised.  The flavor was, in fact, improved, and I was absolutely astonished at the taste: an actual hint of vanilla!  One other item on the package caught my eye...but I'll get to that in a minute...

Within the past few years, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute came up with the "Facts Up Front" nutrition labeling system for food products.  The basic idea was that moving key nutrition information to the fronts of packages would help people make more informed and healthier eating decisions.  This represents a huge leap forward for people who are genuinely concerned about their health, but not concerned enough to pick up a package and turn it. And the $50 million the two organizations spent on a consumer education program was clearly money well spent.

Here's a quick example that shows how Facts Up Front works. The lower left corner of this package of Jimmy Dean's breakfast sausage/croissant sandwiches includes one of the new labels.

I'm no health expert, but something tells me that there are healthier ways to start your day than with sausage and croissants.  Facts Up Front pulls everything consumers need to know directly in their line of sight:

The best part is that food manufacturers have some discretion on which items to highlight on the front of the package, so they try to paint their product in the most positive light possible.  Look--these Breakfast Minis are loaded with protein and are low in sugar!  And have only four grams of fat (wait...that's four grams of saturated fat, not total fat...). But whatever--I'm convinced these aren't so unhealthy after all.  Take that, common sense!  Facts Up Front is based on the underlying assumption that Americans are too lazy to pick up a package and examine the standard black and white "Nutrition Facts" section on the back.

Who has the time or energy to turn the package all the way around?!  (By the way, this is not the actual nutrition information for Jimmy D's Breakfast Minis)

But I digress...the item that caught my eye on the front of the protein bag was reminiscent of Facts up Front.  Since protein powder is a supplement and not a traditional food product, MuscleTech included nutrition facts that bodybuilders would be most concerned about: protein, fat, and aspartame (an artificial sweetener).

MuscleTech's information panel is apparently based on the belief that bodybuilders are too dumb for simple math.  First, MuscleTech points out that one scoop of protein contains twenty grams of protein and one gram of fat. That's fairly useful information...but MuscleTech takes it one step further: for muscle-bound meat-heads who can't figure out what the nutrition profile would look like if they decided to go with two scoops of protein, MuscleTech does the math for them: forty grams of protein, and two grams of fat!

I'm mildly insulted, but then again, I'm not big enough, strong enough, or in good enough shape to call myself a I guess I feel a little better about my intellectual abilities and much, much worse about my physical appearance.  It all evens out.  I'm just thrilled that for the time being, I know where to purchase protein powder with a taste that's at least vaguely reminiscent of the flavor listed on the bag.  I better stock up before Sam's Club decides to ruin this for me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anthem Antics

During a drive to work one morning late last week, one of the local radio shows played an audio clip of a guy singing the national anthem at a recent sporting event.  He was actually a very good singer, and he'd almost made his way through the song when the big freeze hit.

Mid-sentence, the singer stopped. It first sounded like a dramatic pause, but it quickly evolved into dead silence, then gave way to a lengthy, painfully awkward stretch with hushed whispers from the crowd. The announcer finally ended the pain and came on the P.A. system and fed the singer the next few words so he could he pick up where he left off and finish the song.

The audio clip was hilarious; I had no doubt the video clip would be even better, watching the singer's deer-in-the-headlights reaction as his mind went blank.  I scoured the internet, but not only was I unable to find a video clip, I couldn't even find a single article that mentioned the blunder.

It didn't help that my Google searches turned up all kinds of celebrity "Star Spangled Banner" screw-ups from years past.  I never realized how many famous people have forgotten or misquoted the lyrics or done something else to bring shame and dishonor to America--Wikipedia has an entire section dedicated to the subject.

Perhaps most famously, Christina Aguilera blew a few lines and entirely omitted some others when she attempted to sing the national anthem before the the Super Bowl in 2011.  Earlier this month, washed up singer Brian McNight performed "The Star Spangled Banner" with his sons before a NASCAR race in Phoenix, and one of his sons managed to ruffle a few feathers by forgetting to remove his hat.

But it's professional football that really seems to bring out the worst in singers.  Late in 2010, at another NFL game, the country group Zac Brown Band botched the second line of the song, got booed, and had to take it from the top.  And a few months ago, at the Thanksgiving 2011 Packers/Lions game, the latest American Idol runner-up blanked mid-song, but was able to recover when the crowd helped her out and continued singing--apparently it was a much more forgiving group than the silent audience in that clip I heard on the radio.

Aerosmith's Steven Tyler has a long list of national anthem blunders on his resume, spanning multiple decades.  More than ten years ago, he kicked off the Indy 500 and offended some fans by ad-libbing a few of his own lines. Then, earlier this year, he fell victim to the NFL curse and sang "The Star Spangled Banner" so poorly at a Patriots/Ravens game that critics debated whether it was the worst rendition of all time.  One critic suggested that the song must have been written by Francis Scott Off-Key.  At least Tyler got most of the lyrics right...but it's pretty ironic for a guy who gets paid gobs of money to judge other people's singing abilities on American Idol.

Despite my finest detective work, I couldn't find that spectacular clip I'd heard on the radio--I can only assume it's lost in the chaos of celebrity screw-ups.  But I didn't have to feel sorry for myself.  As I listened to the same radio show on the drive to work yesterday morning, an even more hilarious national anthem story hit the airwaves, courtesy of my favorite sporting event, the Arab Shooting Championship.

A Kazakhstani shooter named Maria Dmitrienko took the gold medal in one of the target events.  The tournament organizers apparently hadn't anticipated any champions from Kazakhstan, because they were a bit unprepared for the medal ceremonies.  When Dmitrienko took the podium, Kazakhstan's national anthem blared over the loudspeakers...but there was one minor problem: officials played the parody version of Kazakhstan's national anthem from the movie Borat, performed by comedian/actor Sacha Baron Cohen.  Looks like their last minute scramble to track down Kazakhstan's anthem on Google failed to turn up the real song, "My Kazakhstan."

The Borat version includes some absolutely hilarious lyrics.  The song claims that "all other countries are run by little girls," it references Kazakhstan's impressive pool filtration systems which "remove 80 percent of human solid waste," and it credits the Kazakhstani people with the invention of toffee and trouser belts (if you're not easily offended, check out the full lyrics here).  Best of all, Borat was banned in Kazakhstan because of its offensive content.

The gold medalist handled the potentially embarrassing situation like a champ, ignoring the mishap as the Sacha Baron Cohen recording played during the ceremony.  She even stuck around afterward to pose for photos.  But Dmitrienko's teammates and coaches were less than thrilled--they demanded an apology and a do-over of the medal ceremony with "My Kazakhstan" playing on the speakers.

It's been a rough week for Kazakhstan.  At the opening ceremonies of a skiing competition a few days before the Borat debacle, officials accidentally played Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" instead of the national anthem. But I'm a firm believer that when one door closes, another opens.  I couldn't find the national anthem clip I was looking for; the very next day something similar, and at least twice as funny, fell right into my lap. If this trend holds true for Kazakhstan, they can expect great things in the coming weeks.

Here's an article with more of the hilarious details:

Monday, March 26, 2012

Welcome to the Big Leagues

Spring Training is winding down, and baseball season is almost underway.  For fans in the larger metropolitan areas around the country, early spring brings the anticipation of summer days at the ballpark, watching high-quality, Major League Baseball action.  For the unfortunate fans living in cities a little further off the beaten path, baseball season means watching obscure minor league teams with questionable talent battle for the equivalent of a junior varsity championship.

It's no easy task to fill a stadium when the teams on the field have limited abilities and uninspiring names like the Cedar Rapids Kernels. If a team hopes to strike fear into the hearts of its opponents but is dead-set on calling itself the "kernels", I don't understand why the team wouldn't at least upgrade to "colonels".  Unless you've got some serious digestive issues or just hate flossing, pieces of corn don't rank very high on the intimidation scale.

Facing such hurdles, minor league times have come up with some creative ways to keep fans coming back to the ballpark in spite of the low quality product on the field.  And nothing draws the rural fans more than state fair-style food and unique twists on the staples of ballpark cuisine.

The Western Michigan Whitecaps minor league team, the Detroit Tigers single-A affiliate (and another club with an intimidating mascot), introduced its now famous Fifth Third Burger in 2009.  The burger earned its name from the five 1/3 pound hamburger patties that are nestled among chili, nacho cheese sauce, and a variety of other fixings inside an oversize bun. All this for only $20...and an impressive T-shirt if you finish.

The Gateway Grizzlies are a professional baseball team located in a St. Louis suburb in Illinois.  While their team name is more respectable, the Grizzlies don't enjoy the benefit of any type of affiliation with Major League Baseball, playing in the independent Frontier League. To help attract fans, the Grizzlies offer what they've dubbed "Baseball's Best Burger".  For a mere $4.50, you can can fit all the important food groups in the palm of one flabby hand--you've got a Krispy Kreme donut surrounding two slices of bacon, a beef patty, and cheddar cheese.

These teams know how to draw the crowds and shift the atmosphere at the games a little more toward "sideshow" than "baseball".  Thus far, Major League Baseball has ignored this pent-up demand for extreme ballpark food.  But that's no more--the Texas Rangers, last year's American League Champions, are throwing their hats into the ring with this beast:

It's the $26, one-pound, two-foot long chili dog named "Boomstick" or "Champion Dog" depending on where you make your dinner purchase at Rangers Ballpark.  The big dog, which features "exotic bread flown in from France," allegedly feeds three to four people, though I imagine a fair number of guys will step up to the plate and take a swing at downing a meal the size of a collector's bat. This thing looks mildly appetizing, though the hot dog itself looks a little dry and wrinkly in the photo...

Regardless, it's nice to see major league teams recognize that quality baseball and over-the-top food offerings can peacefully coexist and complement each other quite nicely.  The Dodgers took a step in the right direction several years ago with the opening of their All You Can Eat Pavillion--they're offering standard, normal-sized burgers and hot dogs, but the quantity can't be beat.

Looks like the Kernels and friends will have to come up with a new way to convince fans that a minor league team can compete with the big leagues in overall entertainment value.  I can't wait to see what they come up with next...let's just hope it's edible.

Here are some links with more delicious details and photos: