Monday, July 23, 2012

One (Fifty) And Done

With 149 consecutive days of blogging, I couldn't let go without one more post to hit 150 as I say farewell.  Since posting about ad revenue is what I suspect brought about the tragic end of Away from the Cubicle, it seems fitting that my final post will focus on that very same topic.  Why not finish things off with a traditional, woefully undersized graph to illustrate the meteoric rise and abrupt crash of my blogging fortune?



Nearly five months to the day since my first post, I'm hanging it up...at least for now.  Looking back at that first post from February 25th, I realize that I was blogging about ad revenue from day one.  No wonder the Google cops had their eyes on me...anyway, it's been a wild and crazy ride.  Look for my return on a new site sometime this fall.  Up yours, AdSense!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Suspended

July was supposed to be the month of my big payday--I hit the $100 ad revenue threshold last month, and I'd been anxiously awaiting my direct deposit.  But as of this morning, I still hadn't received a penny.  When I checked my email early this afternoon, I'd received an email from Google AdSense, and the contents left me absolutely shocked.


The subject line stated that my AdSense account had been disabled, and the most disturbing line from the message read:
We have detected invalid activity on your site and your account has been disabled. We're limited in the amount of information we can provide about your specific violation. We understand this can be frustrating for you, but we've taken these precautionary measures because intentional violators can use this information to circumvent our detection systems.
I checked the FAQs section, and my worst fears were confirmed: all the ad revenue I had accumulated over the past five months has been forfeited and "returned to the advertisers."  Worse yet, there's no way to reinstate my account.  Not only am I starting over with nothing, but I'm not allowed to post ads on any blog associated with my Google account, which includes Passionately Apathetic.

I still can't figure out what rule I'm accused of violating.  I didn't click on my own ads...except for the few instances when I had a genuine interest in the product, like the sperm shoes:


Google discourages people from making any references to ads or ad revenue in the actual site content, so I guess my downfall must have started with my constant references to earnings and all those charts and graphs I posted on a monthly basis.

Now what?  I'd like to say that I blog for the pure and simple joy of blogging, but the thought of collecting even a paltry income for my writing was an intoxicating prospect--I just can't go back to giving it away for free.  This lifetime ban from AdSense may very well mark the end of Away from the Cubicle.  Maybe the timing is perfect--I was about to take an extended break as I focus on school applications, and the only other incentive I had to forge ahead has disappeared.  When I emerge from the other side of the application process--if I make it out alive--look for yet another new blog under a different account, with the notable absence of any reference to ad revenue.

Like most major undertakings in life, what started out as a fun and promising endeavor ends in bitterness and defeat.  Apparently James isn't the only one who can bring great shame to the family.  Much like he was banned from Facebook for posting inappropriate photos, I'm now a Google AdSense outlaw for mysteriously and poorly defined reasons.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Fashion Emergency!

Call me crazy, but I didn't think mug shots were supposed to look good.  I've never posed for one myself, but I figure a person should get a free pass in the looks department when they've been arrested and tossed in front of a camera...especially since they're probably drunk.  People have enough trouble capturing good pictures of me when I'm sober and not battling the law.

But apparently the founding fathers missed a big one when they drafted the Bill of Rights: the right to a fabulous mug shot.  Before I get into the details, I'll just say this: you know you're in for a fantastically trashy tale when the main character's name is "Tanya Ann."  And, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the events of this story took place down south in Georgia.

Tanya Ann Fowler had her mug shot taken after police arrested her for "teroristic threats and acts"...whatever that means.  Here's how that mugshot turned out:


You may not know it to look at the picture, but Tanya Ann is a woman who cares deeply about her personal appearance.  Her unflattering mug shot found it's way into a weekly publication in Commerce, Georgia called "The Bad and the Busted."  Being the fashion icon that she is, Tanya Ann was not happy.  And even a kindergartener knows that when there's an emergency, you call 911.

So that's exactly what Tanya Ann did.  Last Sunday, she dialed 911 and complained about her unsightly mug shot.  Apparently, that call was strike three.  Strikes one and two came earlier in the afternoon when Tanya Ann called 911 in search of someone to store her meager possessions after she was evicted from her "home" (I'm assuming the author of the article treats "home" and "trailer" as synonyms).

Well, Tanya Ann got her wish--a second chance on that mug shot.  The cops charged her with obstruction of a 911 operator and brought her into the station.  I'll admit, I thought that Tanya Ann's compliant about the first picture just absurd, but after seeing her second mug shot, it's clear the the first one didn't do her justice:


Amazing what a little preparation and some makeup will do, isn't it?  Just kidding, of course.  Here's the actual second mug shot:


Let's face it, on a scale of one to ten, Tanya Ann couldn't score a point if she were being compared to a lineup of the world's ugliest farm animals.  I'm not really sure how to rank this picture relative to the first mug shot...but here it goes.  On one hand, Tanya Ann's face doesn't look as creased and wrinkled in this shot.  But on the other hand, it looks like she gave her mullet some fancy groomin' in the other picture.  And what's going on with her eyes?  It looks like two photographers stood on either side of her, each telling her to look directly into the camera.  Miraculously, she obliged both requests.

This unfortunate series of events can serve as an important reminder for all the potential criminals out there.  If you've even considering the possibility of committing a criminal act, try to look your best.  Fix your hair, put on some makeup, and wear a color that complements the beige concrete block that you'll be standing in front of when the cops take your picture.  And for the love of god, direct both eyes at the same camera.

Here's a link to the story:
http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/georgia-woman-calls-911-complain-mug-shot-gets-184622953.html

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Night...and Day

Some impressive streaks are coming to an end.  On the positive side, my season-long winless drought on the tennis courts finally ended this evening. My streak of futility came to a halt at the ghetto tennis capital of Minneapolis, the Read Sweatt Tennis Center..."Home of Inner City Tennis".


The name Sweatt on the sign outside isn't just a name, it's a strong indicator of the conditions inside the building.  The neighborhood doesn't seem terribly dangerous, but I do know that inner city tennis doesn't involve air conditioning.  My shirt was instantly soaked with "sweatt" before I'd even pulled my racquet out of my bag.  Luckily I love the hot weather, and we pulled off a 7-5, 6-3 win, and our team won the match-up 2-1.  The bad news is that we're already statistically eliminated from qualifying for sectionals, but a win's a win, and that hadn't happened in a long time.

That was the bad streak that ended today.  Unfortunately, I fear a good streak is also in jeopardy.  I'm approaching 150 consecutive days of blog posts, but I may have to hang up the keyboard and focus all of my writing effort on grad school essays.  With today's half-day Friday at work, I decided I'd sit down and officially start writing my first essay.  I would tackle the "easy" one that asks about career goals.  The problem is, I quickly learned that there's no such thing as an easy essay...odd that that the word easy is embedded in the word essay, huh?

Seven hundred words about myself should, in theory, be a walk in the park.  I figured I'd have a solid draft done between noon and the tennis match in the early evening.  My first rule of writing is that it's much, much easier to edit than it is to create something from scratch.  So I always just start typing crap on a blank screen and go back later to polish the big, steaming mess I'm left with.  For whatever reason, I couldn't even get the crap to come out this afternoon.  I have a bad case of mental constipation and can't seem to find the writer's laxatives anywhere. 

For the life of me, I couldn't find the right balance between concise writing and too little detail to make any relevant points.  If things even out over time like I claimed a few days ago, I wonder if tennis success breeds writing failure.  Because I would have gladly traded a win for a decent draft of an essay today.  I typed, deleted, re-typed, and re-deleted thousands of words today, but I can only describe what I'm left with via a visual metaphor:


Good thing I only have about fifteen of these things to write...and today's was the "easy" one...and the draft isn't even finished.  So it looks like blog posts are going to be fewer and much farther between until mid-October.  Depending how bad things get, I may start a new blog-free streak that rivals what I've accomplished thus far.  I'm guessing that won't help the ad revenue.  Enjoy this while you can, because the dream is almost over...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Illegality of Stupidity

I'm not exactly sure how to react to these new laws that are intended to enforce what most people would consider common sense behavior.  They seem so incredibly unnecessary, but I guess the reality is that there a lot of stupid people out there.  And I certainly think that it makes sense to give law enforcement officials the authority to punish those people for their stupidity.

Over the past few years, many states have passed laws banning texting and driving.  I suppose if I were more motivated, I could easily look up the answer to this question...but I wonder if it's possible to avoid punishment based on the technicalities of the law.  Does the law really only ban texting, or is it general no-phone legislation?  For example, if I'm emailing behind the wheel and get pulled over, can I avoid a ticket if I can prove that I had Verizon shut off the texting capabilities on my phone long ago? 

And how tightly do these laws define "driving"?  I've been known to surf the internet while waiting at red lights. It's a strategy I strongly advocate--not only does it make productive use of a few boring, idle minutes, but I would argue that if everyone followed my lead, there would be far less road rage among the after work, stop-and-go crowd.  Using a smartphone in an unmoving vehicle is hardly dangerous.  What's the worst that happens--someone fails to notice that the light turned green and the drivers behind him start honking?

Now, Fort Lee, New Jersey is passing a law to make texting and walking illegal.  The local police chief cites twenty-three pedestrian accidents as the cause for this new law, but I think we can all point to one person who really caused this mess:



Cathy Cruz Marrero, the infamous fountain flipper, is the obvious mascot for this legal crusade.  After hilariously tumbling into a mall fountain in Pennsylvania while texting, she went on Good Morning America and other news programs, complaining about the tremendous embarrassment she suffered after the surveillance footage went viral.  She even considered filing a lawsuit against the mall security team who let the video find its way onto the internet.  Given that the person's face is unrecognizable in the video footage, one wonders why someone so afraid of public humiliation didn't simply skip the press tour and remain anonymous.  But then again, it's clear that common sense just isn't one of Marrero's strengths.  Looks like someone is fishing for an easy payday at the bottom of a fountain...

There's also the less-known but equally hilarious case of a man near Glendale, California who nearly got himself killed while focusing a bit too much on his phone.  A bear had been wandering around a California neighborhood regularly for over a month, and the man woke up and heard a helicopter overhead--a helicopter, he would later learn, that was tracking the bear as it walked near his house.


The went outside to check out the action and decided to send his boss a text, explaining that he was going to be late to work.  While typing his message, the man came dangerously close to walking into the bear.  A brilliant move, indeed, but the man survived to get himself killed another day.  Luckily, the helicopter was there to capture the footage:



With incidents like these making headlines, it's no wonder that towns are starting to pass these common sense laws.  The article that I read later posted a clarification, noting that the law does, in fact, allow officers to issue tickets for "dangerous walking," which includes, but is not limited to, texting and walking.  I'm quickly losing faith in my "officer, I was emailing, not texting!" defense...but I still wonder about the unmoving vehicle defense.

Anyway, there's clearly a better way to deal with idiots who don't pay attention to their surroundings, whether they are driving or walking.  If only there were a way to relocate all of these people in one area and just let them Charles Darwin each other out of existence.  Mount some HD cameras at all the street corners, and in a matter of weeks YouTube will be teeming with epic collisions involving drivers who were too distracted by their phones to notice that they were about to hit a pedestrian who was too engrossed in texting to get out of the way.  Throw some loose bears into this utopia of stupidity, and the rest of the world will be a safer and more entertaining place.

Here are some links:
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501465_162-57433581-501465/texting-while-walking-banned-in-n.j-town/

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-57412188-1/watch-now-texting-man-ambushed-by-bear/?tag=contentMain;contentBody

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Offsight Onslaught

I spent all of yesterday and the first half of today away from the office.  That may sound like cause for celebration, but in this case nothing couldn't be further from the truth.  Outside the office doesn't mean that I wasn't working--instead, I was subjected to that cruel form of work commonly known as the offsite meeting.  Every year we have an annual conference where we meet with the other finance people who work at the manufacturing plants.  Back in the heady days of 2011, the conference was held at a fancy hotel in downtown Chicago.  This year's rendition of the conference, on the other hand, was held in a suburban Minneapolis Sheraton hotel.  Clearly we were already starting in a hole...

To be fair, not everything about offsite meetings are bad.  It can be nice to actually meet the people that you only talk to over the phone and through email all year long.  And offsite meetings normally involve free lunch, which can be an added bonus.  In a best case scenario, the meetings involve minimal interaction, allowing my mind to wander blissfully, interrupted only by the occasional iPhone check.

While a free lunch can be nice, food can also be a major problem at offsite meetings.  I haven't been bold enough to pack in my own cooler with chicken and vegetables, so my normal strategy of eating every few hours gets shot to pieces.  After I go about three hours without eating, my stomach is growling like an angry predator and my mind immoderately and fully shuts off.  By the time lunch rolls around, I'm ready to kill someone.  And when 3PM rolls around, I'm ready to kill someone else.  Meeting organizers sometime anticipate the need for a snack, but a mountain of gummy bears just can't do the work of a little  quality chicken.


This week's offsite meeting presented me with some unique logistical challenges.  The organizers somehow missed me on the pre-meeting email that instructed everyone to dress casually, so I walked in yesterday dressed business casually while the rest of the crowd was in shorts.  I intended to take full advantage of the shorts policy in today's half-day meeting, but there was one problem...and once again, it was food-related.

Knowing that I'd be returning to the office in the afternoon, I needed two servings of chicken stocked in the refrigerator.  I didn't feel like asking to borrow the Sheraton's facilities (would they allow guests to store chicken in their kitchen?), and 90 degree weather and a hot car to bad things to meat in a hurry.  I had to drive past work for an early dentist appointment first thing this morning anyway, so I figured I'd swing by and drop my food off in the refrigerator on my way.  But what would I wear?

I didn't want to walk into the office in shorts and tennis shoes.  That's too casual even for casual Friday, and I my plans for casual Wednesday have caught on about as well as my attempts to institute shirtless Tuesdays.  Even if I only planned to walk to the refrigerator and right back out to the car, I just knew today would be the day that my boss's boss's boss happened to walk by and see making a complete mockery of the dress policy. What if they got rid of casual Friday all together and I was to blame?

So I dressed business casual to drop my chicken off at work, then drove to the dentist and changed into shorts in the car before my appointment.  After, I drove to the Sheraton for the half-day offsite meeting, knowing that I'd have to change in the car once again at work to return to the office wearing business casual attire in the afternoon.  Of course, at the end of the day, I'd have to change again into gym clothes before heading to Lifetime.  The sheer logistical effort was staggering.  The food, meeting, and gym plans required more outfit changes than a Lady Gaga concert.


Even ignoring these other nuisances, I could best describe the events of the past day and half as dreadful.  I knew I was for a rough journey when I saw these scattered around the room:

Sure enough, the flipcharts spelled trouble.  Long, boring, all-day meetings are barely tolerable when I don't have to pay attention.  But flipcharts can only mean one thing: awkward, forced small-group discussions.  Since we just went through a major restructuring, the meetings were painfully repetitive--I've seen the same set of org charts flashed on a PowerPoint slide enough times that they're burned into my retinas.  And with all this change, we spent all of these small group sessions brainstorming obvious, common sense ideas about ways to deal with change, how we can get work done more efficiently, and what kind of training might be helpful.

These discussions always go the same--one overly enthusiastic person dominates the conversation (undoubtedly a former annoying child who always had his hand raised in class), while someone else volunteers to be the "recorder" and write ideas on the giant sheet of paper in hopes that she won't be asked to present the group's ideas to the larger group at the end of the brainstorm session.

Meanwhile, I stand there scowling, waging an internal battle in my mind.  On the one hand, I feel obligated to at least say something so as to not come off like a bitter, uncooperative employee.  But at the same time, the only thing I can think to add to the conversation would be to point out that he fastest way increase our efficiency would be to drop the pointless breakout sessions from the agenda.  And my focus is clearly lacking in these situations--I find myself constantly wondering if there's a single person in the room who truly finds these things valuable...

After twelve hours of this crap over the past two days, I have learned a few things.  First, it's not true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  I'm still alive, but my body is weak from hunger and my mind is softer than a bowl of pudding.  Second, I've learned some invaluable lessons about how to take an hour and a half worth of content and make it fill twelve hours.  I'm impressed at the way some of my coworkers have perfected the art of the financial filibuster.  In case you ever need to pull off something like this, just bring some markers and flipcharts and throw out an obvious topic...the rest will magically fall into place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Authentic Finger Sandwiches

As I've previously mentioned on this blog, I have fond memories of the great Wendy's thumb-in-the-chili scare of 2005.  The incident escalated into a huge win-win for just about everyone involved.  Office workers got a great story for the water cooler, and I personally benefited many times over when Wendy's offered free Frosty's for a weekend in a shameless attempt to stifle the bad publicity.  Not everyone fared so well I guess...Wendy's suffered all that aforementioned bad publicity, and the woman behind the fake thumb hoax is now banned from Wendy's for life.  (Though one could argue whether that's a punishment).  And seven years later, I benefited again when I found this low quality but still entertaining photo on the internet:


If 2005 was the year of the chili, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the sandwich.  The first few months of the year were relatively calm before a 14 year-old took an unsettling bite of an Arby's sandwich this past May.  Ryan Hart of Jackson, Michigan bit into something rubbery and tough to chew in his roast beef sandwich.  Hart must have an unusually curious nature, because most people place their orders at Arby's fully expecting at least one rubbery bite of unknown origin.  For the sake of his peace of mind, it's too bad he was so curious...

Hart pulled the foreign object from his mouth, revealing part of a human finger that his mother estimated was about a quarter inch thick and an inch long.  Police investigated his fleshy find and learned that a worker accidentally cut off part of her finger in a meat slicer, and the rest of the world-class Arby's team continued serving food before they noticed what had happened.  The kid was prescribed some medication and had his blood tested.  A friend of the family who was present for the digity-delight swore off fast food for life, eloquently stating, "We don’t eat fast food no more."  Despite the unpleasant surprise in his meal, Ryan Hart gave his Arby's Roast Beef sandwich one partial thumb up.



Two months later, sandwiches sprung up in the news again.  Just this morning, the news covered the story of a man on a Delta Airlines plane headed from Amsterdam to Minneapolis whose in-flight turkey sandwich fought back.  While taking the second bite of his sandwich, James Tonges got poked in the top of the mouth by a needle.  (Note the irony of a man whose last name very closely resembles "tongue" getting poked in the mouth.)  You'd expect this kind of thing in coach, but the most surprising part is that Tonues was served his stabby sandwich in elite business class!

"Needles" to say, Tongues wasn't pleased with his violent meal, and he's now taking anti-HIV medication as a precaution while medical experts test the needle.  This appears to be more than just an isolated accident--a total of six needles were found in sandwiches on planes leaving Amsterdam headed for the U.S. on Sunday.  The F.B.I. is all over the case, working to determine who's behind this.  Could it be a grossly undereducated food service employee who horribly misread a turkey sandwich recipe?  Maybe it's the act of a terrorist who's trying to destroy freedom and capitalism by unraveling American's previously unwaving faith in airline food.  They really know where to hit us where it hurts...

I guess "potential stabbing" now joins "horrendous taste" and "exhorbitant price" on the list of reasons not to eat airline food.  Worse yet, when Tonges reported the incident to Delta flight attendants, they charged him a $15 extraction fee to remove the needle from his mouth.

Where do we go from here?  The simple sandwich always seemed like a safe, comfortable meal option.  I don't know about you, but I'm going to think twice before I slot anything between two slices of bread.  Between Arby's and Delta, I guess there's still a slimmer of hope that these freaky incidents remain isolated to the lowest tier of the sandwich hierarchy.  Chew carefully, my friends...

Here are some links to the stories:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/17/finger-arbys-sandwich_n_1524129.html
 
http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/needles-found-sandwiches-delta-flights/story?id=16790585#.UAYR5vVdDam

Monday, July 16, 2012

Essay Writer's Block

You'd think after nearly 150 consecutive days of blogging, a little 250-word essay would be easier than stealing candy from a baby...though clearly less fun.  I've made a fortune--by which I mean slightly more than $100--by churning out random posts covering just about every imaginable topic.  From Pop Tart carrying cases to Iowa to taxes to weather to work to children who soil themselves at school, I've tackled every last one.  Yet when it comes time to even start brainstorming potential responses to a grad school application essay, I start sweating like a competitor at the Fat Kids' Summer Olympics and turn into this:



I'll admit, some of the essay questions seem fair: What are your short- and long-term career goals?  How will our MBA program help you achieve those goals?  Fair, perhaps, but that doesn't make them any easier to answer.  But then some questions are just absurd.  While scanning the application for one school, I found this essay question: If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? (250 word maximum).

First, I found myself getting a little too technical.  The question says IF you could choose...so why not just respond by saying that I couldn't choose?  That would be an honest, easy, and incredibly fast way to avoid that pesky inquiry.  But an admissions panel might interpret that response as sarcastic and lazy...so back to the drawing board.

I thought more about the question, and when it comes down to it, what's so hard about writing 250 words on any topic?  I pride myself on churning out lengthy blog posts about anything--or more often that not, absolutely nothing.  I've written thousand-word essays every day for the past five months.  Heck, before I even started typing this sentence, I've already surpassed 250 words and more.

Yet when I try to think about what song might describe me, only hilarious responses come to mind.  First, there's "Pretty People" by Dexter Freebish, a song whose lyrics include:

I cannot help it that I'm so good looking
I cannot help it that I have the perfect body
You want me but you cannot have it
I'll slap your hand if you try to grab it

Other options popped into my head, too.  How about Blondie's "I Touch Myself"?  Or if they're looking or something a little more contemporary, I bet Justin Timberlake's "Bringing Sexy Back" would have an admissions panel throwing giant bags of scholarship money in my direction.  With the prospect of grad school applications on the horizon, Theory of a Deadman's "I Hate My Life" seems like an appropriate choice.  If they want a song, I might even demonstrate my ability to over-deliver and throw a whole album their way!  What better way to share my manliness than Tommy Bolin's classic 1970s album Come Taste the Man?  Well, that one might rub the admissions panel the wrong way...



As these brilliant ideas swirled in my head, I came to the conclusion that all this blogging has ruined me.  I can write page after page of ridiculous crap, yet when it comes time to put something serious on paper, my mind is blanker than the walls in my beautifully under-decorated apartment.  My genius brainstorming session generated songs that could convincingly convey a strong message of narcissism, self-loathing, or just plain creepiness.  I know very little about what it takes to get into business school, but I can tell you that those three categories are not the foundation on which one builds a successful admissions attempt. 

The guidelines with the essay question said that the song doesn't have to be well-known. So I suppose that if I were smarter, I would quickly write my own song consisting of lyrics about helping old ladies cross the street, saving African villagers from hungry lions, and rescuing endangered baby seals while solving world hunger.  Because what song could possibly do a better job of expressing who I am?

Unfortunately, here I sit, still staring at a vast sea of white space beneath each endlessly hopeless essay question.  On the bright side, if this whole back-to-school thing doesn't work out, I have a solid plan B in the works.  These past few months, I've been reading a practical and useful book that also has the unfortunate side effect of giving me violent nausea at the mere sight of its cover.


If no school will have me, then I can write my own book, which I'll title 500 Fun and Hilarious Ways to Get Rejected From the Top MBA Programs.  It promises to be a fun and easy read, and best of all, it will even appeal to readers who have no intention of attending business school.  Anyway, if you can think of song that describes me that might also portray me in a positive light to an admissions council, I'm all ears...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Makin' Bacon

I have a whole group of blog posts labeled "Random," and it's really a perfect catch-all for the weird, uncatogorizble things I end up writing about.  And this post fits the bill perfectly--what could be more random that a weekend post about the merits of bacon in all of its unusual forms?  It's an odd post, that's for sure...but why not?  I haven't mentioned bacon since the great Jack in the Box post in early March.  So I'd say this was long overdue.

Two bacon references in the news over the past few weeks got my mind wandering in the direction of this delicious topic.  First, I saw a brief clip of a restaurant in Anaheim Hills, California that was serving a different kind of burger.  Everyone knows that adding bacon to a hamburger makes it better...by simple extrapolation, a burger made entirely out of bacon is absolute perfection.  The brief clip I saw didn't mention the name of the restaurant, but I had to find out more.

A little searching revealed that the inventor of this slab of awesomeness is a restaurant called Slater's 50/50, which has locations in Anaheim, Huntington Beach, and San Diego.  The "50/50" part of the restaurant's name refers to its flagship burger, which is a half-and-half blend of ground beef and ground bacon.  That's all well and good, but a half-bacon burger was rather disappointing after the rumblings I'd heard about a 100% bacon burger.  If I had to quantify the disappointment, I'd say it was approximately 50% as exciting as the real deal.


Fortunately, my fantasies were restored after some additional searching.  During the month of July, in a meaty, celebratory nod to patriotism and freedom, Slater's is featuring a special 'Merica Burger (for those of you who don't read so good, that's short for America).  And they did just about everything they could to avoid diluting the bacon-y goodness on this one--the patty is 100% bacon and comes topped with bacon-cheddar cheese, thick-cut bacon strips, and special "bacon island" dressing.  There's also an egg and a bun involved, which seem strangely out of place.



I must say, Slater's has their act together in the bacon department.  I'm not sure how Jack in the Box gained so much attention with their milkshake, because Slater's has been slinging bacon up and down their menu for years, from appetizers to desserts.  The appetizer section offers Bacon Mac 'N Cheese, main courses include the famous 50/50 burger and turkey bacon chili, and customers can round of their meals with a bacon milkshake or a bacon brownie.



As if I needed another reason to visit California.  The 'Merica is only available during the month of July, and the real tragedy is that I passed through San Diego, Anaheim, and Huntington Beach just last month!  If only I'd known about this, I would have changed the timing of my vacation.  Looks like I have about two weeks left to make things right in the world...

My other recent bacon encounter was a far less appetizing prospect that I also heard about on TV.  A story mentioned that someone had recently invented a squeezable bacon paste.  As awful as this sounds, I still had to find out more.  Could anyone really be lazy enough to consider chewing real bacon a cumbersome chore?  But this bacon paste still has me puzzled, because the story I heard made it sound as if this stuff just hit the market.  Yet I found plenty of squeezable bacon products.  This one is a Swedish-based product in what appears to be a ketchup bottle:


And the stuff that comes out looks like it contains almost as much plastic as the bottle itself:


And this yogurt-looking tub of mystery meat doesn't exactly whet my appetite:


Despite all of my searching, I still couldn't find a single story about any new type of squeezable bacon paste that came out in the past few months.  Hoax?  Parody?  Someone's wishful, imaginative thinking?  Who knows...but the world has already witnessed similar products, and I can't say that we're better off for having seen them.  If this bacon paste does exist, I just hope it's another foreign invention.  With Slater's effort, I'm genuinely proud to be an American...and I can only assume that the Swedish population is feeling more nauseous than patriotic after Squeez Bacon.

Here are some links to stories about Slater's and the 'Merica...including a post by the "Hamblogger"...what a great name for a blog.  I'd post some links to Squeez Bacon, but no one wants to see that.

http://thehamblogger.com/2899/slaters-5050-anaheim-hills-ca/

http://eater.com/archives/2012/07/06/slaters-5050-serves-a-100-bacon-burger-tops-it-with-bacon-cheese-bacon-dressing-bacon.php

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Forgetting To Remember...

Today is just one of those days.  There's simply no other way to explain it.  The morning looked so promising, too...sunny skies, temperatures in the low 90s, and plenty of humidity.  It would be a crime not to spend some quality time outside on a day like today.  So I did what any tough guy would do--I threw my rollerblades in the car and headed toward Lake Calhoun.

The uptown area is a solid 20-30 minute drive, but with Sam's Club along the way, it works well to combine a trip to the lakes with my weekly journey to restock the freezer.  There was just one problem...when I arrived at Calhoun and started putting my rollerblades on, I realized that I left my wallet at home.  Any idea what's hard to do without cash, checks, credit cards, or debit cards?  Buying things!

No IOU's allowed.


I was already at the lake, so I did my rollerblading, still frustrated with my memory lapse. I shamefully and walletlessly returned home, curious if the Maple Grove Sam's Club location might be a closer option than the St. Louis Park Sam's Club that I'd already practically driven right by.  Unfortunately, Google Maps showed me that I'm magically positioned equidistant from both Sam's Club locations.  If I'd chosen anywhere else to live, I would have more optimally positioned myself for faster shopping.  What hurt even worse was that I also drove right by Sam's Club last night on the way to that tennis match that didn't happen. At the time I told myself that I'd go to the lakes tomorrow anyway, so why not just shop tomorrow?  If I only knew.

When I took the rollerblades out of the car, I noticed something was missing--the white headphones that came with the iPhone.  Where could they be?  I was wearing them the whole time I was rollerblading, and I distinctly remember sitting in the passenger seat of the Malibu and unplugging them right before I changed back into my shoes.  I checked my pockets, and I checked every last inch of the car...nothing.  They must have fallen out of the car when I walked around to the driver's seat back at the lake.



Normally I wouldn't care too much about losing a pair of headphones--I have a few other pairs, and ones with better sound quality, but that specific pair that came with the iPhone has one critical feature that all of the others--including my old Apple iPod headphones--lack.  The base near the plug-in is narrow enough to fit through the tiny hole in the Lifeproof case on my iPhone.  Without those headphones, I'll have to use the annoying, clunky headphone adapter that I've avoided for so long.  Oddly, Apple is known for low quality headphones that break easily, yet they still come with the infamous Apple price tag...so replacing my lost friend will involve an expensive trip to the Apple Store....and I'm not referring to my apartment.



Since I had to go back to Sam's Club anyway, I figured I might as well drive the few extra miles to Lake Calhoun to search the area where I'd parked.  So, with a sense of annoying deja vu, I drove back toward uptown.  For some reason traffic had picked up considerably, so I spent nearly an hour sitting and staring at multiple cycles of the same red lights...all for the unlikely chance to maybe find those headphones.

When I finally got to the lake, I experienced a rare moment of luck.  Despite the crowds, I found an open parking space right near my spot from earlier in the day.  But my luck immediately ran out. As I pulled in, some jerk decided that open spot was big enough for two cars, and he tried to squeeze his car in front of mine.  I graciously tried to accommodate his stupidity and backed up until my bumper was literally within inches of the car parked behind me.  He, too, continued backing up, nearly parking me in.

Not wanting to get stuck for hours, I had about fifteen seconds to quickly scan the area around my old parking spot in search of the headphones before the guy walked away from his car.  No luck.  I ran back and asked the guy to move his car so I could exit without leaving tan paint on the bumper of his Mercedes.  He seemed confused as to why I was already leaving, but he moved his car and let me be on my way.  I've noticed that the Malibu has a unique ability to part seas of expensive cars...

I'm now down a $30 pair of low quality but much-needed headphones, and my future either involves a frustratingly unnecessary purchase or years of fumbling with an annoying headphone adapter.  After spending my Saturday afternoon driving all over the suburbs of Minneapolis, I finally returned home with my groceries.  Disappointed, but home. 

Then I realized that a friend had stabbed me in the back...well, technically that friend had burned me in the arm.  That friend, of course, is the sun. A glance down at my red left arm reminded me that I'd also forgotten the sunscreen this morning.  I'd hoped that there was enough shade and that I'd wouldn't be facing the same direction long enough to pick up a sunburn, but like I said, it's one of those days.  The sleeveless shirt, my Minnesota-white upper arms, and a hot summer day were a perfect recipe for disaster.

 I want to strangle my friend right now...

My plans for the rest of the day involve re-reading yesterday's blog post to remind myself that things will eventually even out, then lying on the floor in the fetal position for the rest of the day, avoiding sharp objects as I wait out this bad luck streak.  With a day like this and a car like mine, I'm certainly not going to drive anywhere.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Un-Undefeated

I've found that things have a way of evening out over time.  When things aren't going so well, it's nice to know that life will eventually get better again.  On the other hand, when everything seems to be going my way, that also means that rough times are probably ahead.  In terms of my tennis game, 2010 was one of those times when I had to just sit back and hope that things would turn around...

Tendonitis in my left Achilles kept me from playing competitive tennis for more than a year.  After a demoralizing, pain-in-the-ankle match in a work tennis league in mid-January, I hung up the racquet and didn't pick it up again until May 2011.  But sure enough, things have a way of evening out...

When I started up again in May in a USTA mixed doubles league, my two goals I set for myself were very, very basic: (1) don't re-injure the ankle, and (2) no crotch shots--well don't be on the receiving end of any crotch shots.  It was a simple game plan, but I hadn't gone fifteen months without playing tennis since I first started practicing when I was twelve.  Shockingly, despite my horrendous lack of practice, we won the match in straight sets.  And, even more shockingly, we continued winning matches in straight sets all summer.

As my partner and I piled up the wins, our team continued winning, too.  By August, we'd finished the season at the top of the standings, qualifying for sectionals in September.  Somehow, the wave of victory continued, and my partner and I swept our matches, the team went 3-0, and we qualified for nationals in November.


I fully expected our team to get destroyed at nationals--the warm-weather teams from California and Texas have a long history of dominating the pathetic, frigid northern states.  Though my partner and I went 1-2 and our team also finished 1-2, I was pleasantly surprised at how competitive we'd been--every one of our matches was close, and we didn't even have our best lineup playing.  Things were looking very promising for the 2012 summer season...but I should have remembered that things have a way of evening out...

After nationals wrapped up in mid-November, I barely touched a racquet for the rest of the winter.  To make matters worse, the USTA finally came to its senses and bumped up the rating of our semi-pro ringer, Tony, from 5.0 to 5.5, which meant he was no longer eligible to play in the league (yes, the same Tony from that crazy hybrid singles/doubles match this spring.  Then my partner said she was going to be too busy to play regularly this summer, so she didn't sign up.  The old team was getting dismantled, but somehow, I still felt optimistic that we'd field a solid lineup when the season started.

The summer season kicked off in mid-May.  The captain found a new partner for me.  We'd never met or played together before, and to say it didn't go well just doesn't do justice to the epic craptacularity that unfolded on the court that day.  I played bad, and she played even worse.  We were matched up against a middle-aged team with mediocre tennis skills, yet the lone highlight of the match for us was the one game we put on the scoreboard in the second set before they put us out of our misery, 6-0, 6-1.  Any prospect of another undefeated season was blown off the court in about forty-five minutes, and the team's hopes were also squashed as we lost 2-1.

I figured the next match couldn't get any worse, and fortunately, I was right.  I got better, but not better enough.  The captain paired me with a different partner again (it wasn't hard to notice that the last pairing hadn't gone well).  She was a tennis instructor at one of the Lifetime clubs, but I wouldn't have guessed that from watching her play.  My performance was a lot better than the previous match, but her double faulting and consistently inconsistent play led us to defeat.  Again, the team lost...0-2.

Two losses had already all but eliminated us from sectionals, so I really didn't care what happened going into the third match.  I was paired with the instructor again, and things started well enough before they came crashing down.  We blew a 5-3 lead in the first set, then lost the second.  I was 0-3 and the team lost again, also falling to 0-3.

Tonight was my fourth match of the season, and all I could do was hope that things would start evening out. I was scheduled to play with yet another partner, so I hoped that might help end the sad winlessness that's been plaguing me for two months.  The good news is that I didn't lose tonight...but the bad news is that I didn't win tonight, either.  After driving to Lifetime, I learned that one of our opponents' three teams had to default.  I was still scheduled to play, but then one of the guys on their remaining two teams failed to show up.  Default number two meant that I'd driven to Lifetime for nothing.  On the plus side, our team picked up a rare win...

Looking back, why was I even considering the possibility of a turnaround tonight?  After all, it's Friday the 13th, a day far better known for chainsaw massacres and axe murders than tennis comebacks.  There's always next week...but I'm hoping things start to even out swing my way again.  After last year's undefeated season, I now run the serious risk of going winless in the summer of 2012.


This wildly unsuccessful streak of tennis makes me apprciate my old partner that much more.  She hardly ever double faulted, she moved up to the net on every point, and we never felt the need to congratulate each other for good shots or apologize for bad ones.  We barely talked when we played...it was like two singles players covering halves of the same court.  We never tried anything fancy and didn't talk strategy at all, but not overthinking seemed to be the key to success.  Now, as we approach the midpoint of the summer, I have to keep reminding myself that things will eventually even out...right?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Playing With The House's Money

It turns out that July has been quite the month for big news in Iowa.  When I was back home, I heard that an audit found that the University of Iowa payroll department issued over-payments totaling nearly $650,000 during the previous school year.  Now, the lucky recipients of those payments have to pay back the excess funds, either through payroll deductions or via direct billing from the university.

The article mentioned that the audit uncovered a total of 338 payroll over-payments.  That really makes you wonder why the university needed an audit to uncover the problem--didn't a single person come forward?  I don't know if it was 338 different people who received over-payments, but at least some of them had to notice, and it's surprising that not a single do-gooder pointed out that their paycheck mysteriously increased.

  Overpaying employees for more than 160 years.

On the surface, receiving a windfall from an artificially high paycheck sounds fantastic--who wouldn't want more money for the same amount of work?  But even though many months have passed between the time the payments were issued and someone figured out what had happened, these things always seem to get uncovered.  (Though, in all fairness, I guess we don't hear about incidents like this that go undetected...)

Anyway, I'm willing to bet that some of the people who received over-payments didn't even notice.  People with direct deposit who don't pay much attention to the ins and outs of their bank transactions and account balances could easily have let this slide.  You've gotta feel a little bad for the unfortunate employees who had no idea this was happening and now find themselves holding an unexpected bill from the U of I.  But I guess that's a good reminder in why you should pay attention to your bank account...

On the other hand, this is a hilarious miscalculation for those who knew they were getting paid too much, remained silent thinking this would go undetected, and spent the money.  If they don't have the money to reimburse the university, it looks like it's wage garnishment time.  And if any of those employees lost their jobs at the university and are broke...well...like I said, hilarious.

Here's my personal philosophy.  If you realize you're getting overpaid and decide to go the dishonest route and say nothing about it, at least have the common sense to hold onto the money.  There's a good chance someone's going to eventually uncover the error and you'll have to return it.  So if you're going to remain silent, at least enjoy the ride and collect a paltry interest rate on the overpaid funds until someone discovers the error and you're forced to plead ignorance and return the money.  Taking a more "aggressive" approach with this accidental can lead to serious problems, as a recent story illustrates.

A Detroit man named Ronald Page held a checking account with a regional bank called Lasalle Bank.  To say that Mr. Page was not wealthy would be an understatement--he had only a few hundred dollars in his checking account...but that was about to change.  What do banks do best?  Buy other banks.  Several years ago, Bank of America (the self-proclaimed "Bank of Opportunity") acquired Lasalle Bank, and in the process of transferring cusomters' account information, BoA made a costly error.  Costly for everyone involved, it would turn out.



A computer glitch at the Bank of Opportunity presented Page with the opportunity to withdrawal unlimited funds from the bank's ATMs without any overdraft restrictions.  When he discovered this, Page did the only logical thing and withdrew more than $1.5 million between late 2008 and early 2009.  Had he kept the money and deposited it into a savings account, the interest alone would have been staggering--this was back in the days when interest rates weren't fractions of a part of a tenth of a percent.  I wonder if Bank of America would have noticed if he deposited the money back into his own account...and could they still charge him with theft of bank funds?

After withdrawing all that money, Page tried parlay his new found wealth into an even larger fortune by heading to the blackjack table.  Needless to say, things didn't turn out as he'd planned--all Page succeeded into doing was earning compound interest on his own stupidity.  Over the course of two weeks, he gambled away all $1.5 million, and BoA discovered the missing cash.  Unable to repay his ill-gotten debt, Page now faces more than a year in jail for theft of bank funds.


.

Interestingly, the only reason Page isn't facing a longer prison sentence is because the U.S. Attorney's office placed part of the blame on Bank of America, because it was their computer error that presented Page with the opportunity to steal all that cash in the first place.  That sounds like faulty logic to me, but as a bank customer, I do find it incredibly annoying when banks merge, change everyone's account numbers, staff their branches with ignorant tellers, and add a bunch of new fees.

And it would seem that the University of Iowa has plenty of problems of its own.  The university audit claims that the $650,000 in over-paid wages was an increase of $73,000 from the previous school year. What are they doing down there?!  A one-time error of this size is bad enough, but it sounds like faulty payroll controls are as much a part of the school year as spring break and finals week.  That's pretty weak for an institution that publishes the salaries of all its employees online.

This just goes to show you what not to do when accidental monies show up unexpectedly.  I'm not here to preach the virtues of honesty, but if you decide to keep the cash and hope that the missing funds go undetected, at least have presence of mind to invest conservatively in case your luck runs out.

Here are a few links to the stories:

http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/state-and-regional/iowa/state-audit-shows-university-of-iowa-payroll-overpayments/article_4aea7116-c86f-11e1-8afe-0019bb2963f4.html

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/detroit-man-gambles-away-1-5-million-accidentally-191619543.html

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When Life Gives You Lemons...Get A Permit!

Between kids on summer vacation and the heat wave that's been sweeping the nation for the past two weeks, I've seen far too many child-operated lemonade stands popping up in driveways, on street corners, and even at Lake Calhoun.  But you have to wonder...is this legal?  Every so often, you hear about the police shutting down a child's stand because they didn't have the proper permits for street-vending.  These stories are followed immediately by a public outcry from people who think the law enforcement officials shouldn't take the law so seriously.


When Iowa comes up in conversation, I normally keep my mouth shut and attempt to sneak away silently, hoping to avoid the embarrassment, shame, and mocking that others typically bestow upon me for having grown up one of the nation's top five most boring states.  But this week marked one of the few times that I stood up tall and shouted proudly from the rooftop that I hail from the corn capitol of the world.

On Monday night, I heard on the news that police officers in Coralville, Iowa recently shut down a child's lemonade stand because he didn't have a vendor's permit.  I tried to look up the story online, but my search yielded both delight and disappointment.  Somehow, I couldn't find any record of the story, but I did turn up a remarkably similar tale from last summer.

In late July of 2011, Coralville cops shut down three different lemonade stands in one weekend!  My favorite line from the article came from a woman named Bobbie Nelson, whose six children had their stand shut down after just twenty minutes after negligently failing to acquire the necessary $400 vendor permit.  Nelson said, "The kids were devastated. They just cried and didn't understand why."

The only thing I don't understand is why these stories are newsworthy.  These vendor permit laws are designed to protect the health and safety of the public.  Why should age exempt anyone--especially children--from a well-intentioned ordinance?  Especially when children are notoriously germy and wash their hands after going to the bathroom about as often as they purchase vending permits.  Having their lemonade stands shut down provides these budding entrepreneurs with a valuable life lesson in the mechanics of running a business and in adhering to the laws of their local communities.  I've heard that Kenneth Lay, Andrew Fasdow, and the other criminal executives at Enron all ran unlicensed lemonade stands as children.  Coincidence?  We may never know for sure...


I'm a law-abiding citizen--and one who finds children endlessly annoying--but I also have economic reasons behind my delight in the noble efforts of the Coralville P.D.  Let's face it: these days, you can't find a kid selling lemonade for less than a quarter a cup...and those cups are usually tiny.  Based on the input costs, that cup of lemonade shouldn't cost more than five or ten cents, which would still provide a reasonable return for the stand operator.  What gives these kids the right to think that they can gouge the unsuspecting public by charging more than double the fair market price for their product?  And it's not uncommon to find children hawking cups of fifty-cent lemonade!  The profit margins are outrageous--I think they're involved in some kind of twisted price-fixing scheme!


The situation has me thinking about a fun and potentially profitable way to spend some vacation days next summer.  On those unbearably hot July days, I'm going to take a week off work, find a town with a lax police department, and locate some children running lemonade stands  I'll set up shop right next door and give 'em the old Bill Gates routine.  First, I'll buy lemons and sugar in bulk quantities and achieve tremendous economics of scale, then I'll set my prices so low that their little enterprises will be crushed within minutes, leaving them with nothing but tears and an unsold inventory of overpriced lemonade.  Then it's off to the next driveway to destroy the next competitor who dares challenge me.

I'm confident that the public will welcome a trustworthy, adult vendor who is offering a fair price for cold, refreshing lemonade on a hot summer day.  If the cops won't take care of business, someone has to step in...and that someone is me.  With my love of hot weather, spending time outdoors, and crushing the dreams of children, I can't think of a job better suited to my unique interests and abilities.  And I can guarantee this: my business will hold all of the necessary and required permits.  Now that's newsworthy, and I'll glady welcome the free publicity that will undoubtedly swarm to my stand.

Here's a link to the story of Coralville's finest police work:

http://www.kcrg.com/news/local/Coralville-Police-Shutdown-Several-Childrens-Lemonade-Stands-126592563.html

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The P.A....Potentially Awful?

When I'm not at work, I do my best to avoid checking work emails or my Outlook calendar.  That's not easy when that stuff gets sent directly to the iPhone, and I certainly loathe the annoying chimes that start to go off around 10PM when coworkers with children put their kids to bed, then log into their work computers and start firing off emails and setting up meetings.  But that's precisely why Steve Jobs invented silent mode on the iPhone.


The advantage of ignoring all those late-night messages, of course, is peace of mind and relaxation.  But there are times when I walk into work and pay the price in the form of an unwanted surprise.  Today was one of those days.  The problem wasn't that a meeting popped up last night after I left work, it's that I didn't bother to check today's calendar in advance.  When I walked in this morning and checked Outlook, a dreaded one-hour, 11AM meeting was staring me squarely in the face: Performance Appraisal!

Ahh, the annual P.A.  I should have known it was coming--the fiscal year ended in May, and late June/early July has always been performance appraisal season.  But my manager put it on the calendar weeks ago, and it seemed so far off at the time that it slipped my mind entirely.  But sure enough, today was that once-far off day, and I figured I've used the "I can't make it, I have a bad hamstring" excuse enough times that that well is officially dry.

I have mixed feelings about the performance appraisal.  On the one hand, it reminds me a bit of the horribly uncomfortable IDP discussion in that the P.A. is inevitably an awkward conversation.  It's not often that you have someone sit across the table from you for a full hour and tell you to your face what they--and all of your closest co-workers--think of you.  Whether the feedback is good, bad, or indifferent, it's a bit of an unusual situation. Usually when people tell me how they feel about me, it involves more yelling, a lot more spontaneity, and a fair amount of obscene gesturing.

If your manager is showering you with praise, you have to fight the urge to smile giddily and say something like, "Of course!  You don't have to remind me that I'm awesome!"  If the feedback is bad and it becomes clear that your coworkers universally hate you and consider you dangerously incompetent, what can you do?  You certainly can't talk your way out of unlikeability, and any attempt to explain your actions over the past year will come across as a series of pathetic excuses from a defensive loser.  The main advantage the performance appraisal has over the IDP discussion is that it's a much more one-sided conversation--you pretty much sit there and listen and don't have to do nearly as much talking about feelings, hopes, dreams, and goals...and that's obviously a very good thing.


Though awkward, the P.A. is extremely entertaining at the same time.  Unlike school, full-time work doesn't involve test scores and graded homework assignments...which is both good and bad.  The P.A. is the one time each year that someone actually grades and assigns a score to your work...and it can be nice to know where you stand.  And who doesn't spend time wondering what their coworkers think of them?  To receive a piece of paper with their word-for-word comments about you is delightfully informative.  The comments are listed anonymously from a large number of people, but it doesn't take a genius to quickly figure out who said what.

The funniest part of the process is that there are only two characters of text in this entire booklet of information that anyone really cares about: the individual performance rating.  There are pages that cover what you accomplished (or failed to accomplish), along with comments from co-workers, qualitative discussions about strengths and weaknesses, and on and on.  But when it comes right down to it, everyone is looking for that magic little number that factors into the bonus calculation...the rest is just details.  They say that actions speak louder than words, but in the world of finance, numbers speak the loudest.

Fortunately, another P.A. is behind me, which brings twelve more months of relatively awkward-free days at the office...or at least a few months' worth until it's IDP season again.  Instead of the formal one-hour production that takes place every year, I wish they could just post the performance ratings on a bulletin board somewhere, listed anonymously by employee ID the way colleges handle test scores.  As for the feedback portion of the P.A., just tell me real-time when I screw up or when I'm awesome...or at least the latter...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Working For The Weak-End

Over the past four weeks, I've made some breakthrough fitness discoveries that I'm generous enough to share with the world free of charge.  First and foremost, I've learned that a monthly workout regimen that includes one week in the gym and three weeks away from the gym does little to improve strength...quite the opposite in fact.  Disappointingly, further research suggests that increased ice cream consumption does not offset this loss in muscle mass.  It's been a rough month.

I can't honestly say that I'm looking forward to my return to the gym this evening.  It's unfair how strength disappears in a matter of days but takes months to rebuild.  And I can't get over how seven short days can make all the difference in the world.  One week off every few months?  No problem--it's a welcome and much-needed rest, usually without any noticeable loss in strength.  Two weeks off in a row?  Major issue--that first day back in the gym always feels like a fat woman is sitting on the bar on every rep.

I can still remember my disappointing--and life-threatening--return to the gym after two weeks of vacation last summer.  I fully expected the overwhelming weakness, but still I managed to overestimate my diminished strength.  I approached the decline bench press,  lowered the weight to embarrassingly low levels, and proceeded to almost plant the bar directly on my neck.  Fantastic!

I further lowered expectations after this year's vacation.  This time I managed to clear the pathetic hurdle I'd set for myself and kept the bar safely off my neck, but the second day back was worse than I expected.  I hoped to slowly claw my way back to the glorious niche that I had previously occupied at the gym, which I affectionately refer to as "not that weak for a skinny guy."

But after one week on this long journey, I returned to Iowa for the Fourth of July.  The local YMCA is stingy with the guess-passes, so it would seem that for the foreseeable future, my weakness will keep me relegated to my new status at the gym, which can be best described as "sickly high school JV basketball bench-warmer."  At least I won't have to hang out near the crowded end of the dumbbell rack with all those heavy weights.  But it'll be a long while before I can glare with disdain at those annoying half-rep idiots.

Now I have to restart my comeback, and I have some additional motivation to fuel my efforts.  While in Iowa last weekend, I drew the attention of a waitress at a Mexican restaurant who was impressed with my hearty appetite.  After devouring a substantial plate of food in a few short minutes, the waitress came back to retrieve the empty plate and commented, "You ate all that?  You're so small!"

Needless to say, that comment came directly out of her tip.  But I'm sorry to say it wasn't the only indicator that I need to get back in the gym ASAP.  When I first arrived in Iowa, Mom momentarily mistook me for James.  Honest to god--James!  I can't do much about the face, but I couldn't be more motivated to return to the gym as reestablish my dominance in the "not that weak for a skinny guy" segment of the population.

It may take a few months, but eventually I hope to look as good as Brandon here, at which time I'll be able to flex in situations where it makes no sense at all and have people take my picture.  I just hope that I won't be so unfortunate as to find myself holding a baby in the process.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Goodbye Again, Iowa

After five more days spent outside the office, I have further evidence that the better the break, the tougher the return to work...because Sunday night feels especially bad this evening.  It doesn't help that July has traditionally been the slowest month of the year at work, but with all this fantastic corporate restructuring, it appears that I'll be heading into a chaotic mess that may not resolve itself until the fall.  Hence the return to Minnesota this afternoon was no picnic.

Work aside, there are certain things about Iowa that you just can't find in Minnesota.  For example, as far as I know, you can't find a Fareway store anywhere in this state.  After all, it does refer to itself as "Iowa's Most Economical Food Store."  It's like a whole new shopping experience in there--look what I saw this week:


It may not be too easy to see in the picture, but those are Larry the Cable Guy-branded potato chips.  If you look closely at the sign with the price on it, you'll see the phrase "Get -R- Done!"  The classiness knows no bounds.  I realize that Iowa is south of here, but I never thought of it as deep south.  I haven't seen these chips anywhere before...I'm not sure if they just haven't caught on yet or if someone recently restocked the shelves, but they didn't appear to be flying off the rack.

This particular Fareway location has a trailer park nearby, so if these chips are going to gain a following anywhere in the state, they're set up for success at this exact spot.  I can guarantee they have a hard time keeping these on the shelves at the Piggly Wiggly stores in Alabama and Mississippi.  The top-selling flavor there is Larry's White (Trash) Corn Tortilla Chips.  See what I'm missing by leaving Iowa?!

Every time I go back to Ankeny, I feel a decade older, even if only a few months have passed since my last visit.  Every time I return, new buildings are under construction, others have been torn down, and new businesses are popping up everywhere.  On this most recent stint in Ankeny, I stumbled across a newcomer in town when I drove to Fareway. And let me tell you, the excitement in town hasn't reached these heights since the Olive Garden opened a few years back.  This is the view looking east from Fareway's parking lot:


That may not look like much yet, but let me give you a hint what the future holds for this hallowed ground:


Yes, Ankeny will be home to a Pizza Ranch in the not-too-distant future.  It's like the culture of New York, London, Rome, and Paris are all pouring into town at once.  On a side note, I'm betting the driver of that rusted out, bumperless truck in the picture above is the one who bought the lone bag of Larry the Cable Guy chips that was missing from the shelf.

It's precisely this type of thing that makes me feel so old.  A Pizza Ranch is on the way!  Across town, a new frozen yogurt shop called Cherry Berry is days away from a grand opening.  A few miles south of that, an old building that's been sitting at the corner of the city's busiest intersection since the dawn of time was torn down since I my visit.  Now I feel like one of those seventy-something grandpas who's always saying, "Son, I remember when that building used to be a gas station, and gas cost 89 cents a gallon!  And see that over there?  That used to be a real estate office.  Beyond that, it was corn fields as far as the eye could see!" 

These days, everything in town used to be something else, and I have very vivid memories of what those somethings used to be.  I fear that recognizing that is one of the first steps toward old age, and I don't like it one bit.  The city shouldn't have been allowed to change anything starting the day I moved away.  But I suppose I'll allow the Pizza Ranch...

Now it's time to break some pool cues over my head in preparation of a difficult and demoralizing work week.  Until next time, Iowa!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Second Fourth And The Big Eight-Oh

The calendar may say July 7th, but today turned into Fourth of July version 2.0.  The continuation of this hot weather streak was practically begging residents of the Midwest to grill some meat, and it's a crime to let a call like that go unanswered.  We may have the smallest, least easy-to-use grill in the world, but that couldn't stop us from putting together a spread of meat that looked like a Noah's arc of deliciousness.

We had two of every animal cooking away on the back porch early this afternoon.  Technically, it was just cows and chickens, but within that limited group of animals, we hit 'em hard.  With the blazing afternoon sun, flame was barely even required to get things cookin'.  I'm sure the meat would have grilled up nicely if it was sitting directly on the pavement, but we went the complicated route and used charcoal briquettes and that antique of a grill.  But the flavor was unbeatable...to say that grilled tastes better than boiled would be the understatement of a lifetime.


In addition to fake Fourth of July, today was also Grandma's fake 80th birthday.  She hit the milestone a few weeks ago, but since I was out of town on vacation, we decided to do some pre-birthday celebration in early June, and today was selected as the post-birthday celebration day.  I think it's safe to say she cashed in big--personally, I'd be more than willing to trade in a celebration on the day my birthday for two parties surrounding the actual date. 

I suppose since we split the 80th celebration into two separate occasions, it would have been appropriate to celebrate twice like it was a 40th birthday party.  But eighty doesn't come around too often, so we went big and threw two full-fledged 80th parties, which is the equivalent of a 160th birthday party.   And no triple-digit birthday can pass without homemade ice cream.  That's twice this week--but this time, in a show of racial harmony, we gave a nod to our old friend the cocoa bean and whipped up a batch of dark chocolate ice cream.


And any good birthday bash needs cake to complement the ice cream, so Mom baked a book-shaped cake in honor of Grandma's 80th.  I must say, this is the kind of reading I could really get into--I've never devoured a book so quickly in my life.  I did, however, have to ask Mom to add an icing comma to the cake, because there's nothing more unsettling than a grammatically-challenged dessert.


It's been quite a week--there was the Fourth of July, fake Fourth of July, and fake 80th birthday for Grandma.  I certainly can't complain about being underfed these past few days.  With two pseudo-holidays in a single twenty-four hour period, only two things kept the day from achieving absolute perfection.  My hopes and dreams of peeing out the coals after the grilling was completed went unfulfilled, and Serena Williams won Wimbledon this morning.  Despite those notable downers, July 7th will go down in the record books as a fine, fine day of celebration.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tragony...or Ironedy?

Death is rarely a happy event, but since every living thing's time will come eventually, I suppose there's at least some consolation in providing the world with a little entertainment while leaving the land of the living.  We can all hope that we go as quickly, painlessly, and ironically as possible.  What follows are two perfect examples of spectacularly ironic ending to some life stories.

We'll start with a tale from the animal kingdom.  The rhinoceroses population in South Africa is struggling in a big way, and strangely enough, mythical and magical powers are to blame...at least indirectly.  Poachers have been more active in rhino hunting in recent years as demand for rhino horns has soared.  While the horns don't off much in the way of practical uses, some African and Southeast Asian cultures believe the horns have special medicinal or magical powers, and people are willing to pay top dollar.


With the increase in poaching activity, conservation groups have upped their efforts to save the rhinos.  Some groups have tried removing the horns from living rhinos to beat the poachers to the punch.  The horns, much like human hair or finger nails, grow back after a few months. 

Other conservationists are experimenting with a process that involves placing a poison capsule into the horns of living rhinos.  If poachers kill the rhino and remove the horn, the capsule releases the poison and makes the horn useless for its intended medicinal purposes.  How the poachers know the rhino has a poison capsule in its horn before killing the animal, I have no idea...but there must be a way.

Now here's where the tragic and ironic death part of the story comes into play.  Early in February, a group of conservationists in South Africa called together members of the press to watch them sedate a rhino and insert one of these anti-poaching poison capsules into its horn.  But there was one major problem with this noble effort to save the rhino's live: the outcome was the exact opposite of what the conservationists had hoped to achieve. 

When the group shot Spencer the rhino with a dart full of anesthesia, he started convulsing, went to sleep, and never woke up.  Oops! One of the would-be rhino rescuers called it, "an unfortunate reaction to the anesthesia," recognizing that there is always a risk that an animal may not wake up after being tranquilized.  We can all take comfort in knowing that Spencer lead a long and full life--like me, he was in his mid- to late-20s, which is apparently old for a rhinoceros.  The saddest part is that he was three days from retirement when they darted him.

Such tragic endings aren't limited to the animal world.  Two months after Spencer's passing, a Russian plane carrying fifty people went missing after the tower lost radio contact with the pilots.  The next day, a search team turned up debris from the plane in the mountains of Indonesia, with no survivors.  The aircraft was a new type of passenger jet called the Superjet 100, though aviation experts have since agreed that the plane was significantly less super than the name implied.



Not the intended landing site.

Aside from the sad loss of life, the crash of the Superjet also crushed the hopes and dreams of the Russian aviation industry, which has struggled with safety and quality issues since it's glory days as the USSR.  The Superjet 100's manufacturer, a company called Sukhoi that's run by the Russian government, has been trying to overcome the country's troubled history in flight and convince other nations to purchase its aircraft.  The Superjet was the first new passenger jet to come out of Russia since the USSR days, but this headline-grabbing debut doesn't bode well for sales.  Who says all publicity is good publicity?

Once again, that's where the ironic part of the tragedy comes into play.  That plane that went nose-first into the Indonesian volcano was on a demonstration flight intended to prove the safety and comfort of the new aircraft.  As such, it was full of journalists, business people, and aircraft technicians, and pilots.  If this doesn't convince the world to scoop up all the Russian aircraft they can afford, I don't know what will.  But hey, I bet you can pick up a Russian-made plane for pennies on the dollar right about now...

At least Spencer lived a long life and got to go relatively peacefully.  I'm sure there were plenty of young people among the fifty killed on the mountainside in Indonesia, and "peaceful" and "plane crash" are the oil and water of the aviation industry.  What a sad an unlikely combination...a rhino that gets killed in the name of preventing rhino killings, and a plane that crashes on a safety demonstration flight.  At all those affected got to leave a lasting impression on the world with an entertaining final chapter to their lives.

Here are some links to the stories: