Russian Hotel Roulette

The 2016 Great American Escape

In a recent post, I mentioned the sticker shock that my wife and I experienced upon searching for a reasonably priced hotel in Manhattan.  It did not take us long to realize that, at least in terms to which we are accustomed, there is no such thing.  Three hundred dollars a night appears to be the bellwether, with more chic accommodations going for many times that price.

At The Library Hotel, for example, a “petite room” with one full bed, not at all appropriate for two very large people (the website indicates “most suitable for one person”) goes for $305.15 per night, plus taxes and fees.  While I was intrigued by the hotel’s large book collection for which it is named (and from which guests may borrow for bedtime reading) and its midtown location right by the world-famous main branch of the New York Public Library, I must remind myself that this is considered a luxury hotel and far outside my budget.

So we started thinking about another really nice place that’s not in Midtown, the Bentley Hotel.  What’s that they say about location, location, location?  The farther away from Times Square, the cheaper, right?  It’s not like we wanted to stay in the Bronx or anything, but this hotel is in a decent upper east side neighborhood hard by the Queensborough Bridge.  We can deal with it!  Let’s check availability and rates.  (Gasp, gag)  $375.50 per night!

Clearly, this is not working.  Another approach is in order.  A friend of ours from the Central Valley who often ferries out of town tour groups around Manhattan tells me she either stays in New Jersey or uses the Hotel Tonight app to catch a same-day reservation on the cheap for an in-town room that would otherwise go vacant.  The latter choice will not work for us, as we want to have advance reservations, not wander around Manhattan wondering where we’re lay our heads for the night.  New Jersey is starting to look better and better.

I made a last ditch effort to stay in Manhattan by furiously clicking around until I found a hotel room on the Lower East Side that went for about $120 per night once tax and fees were added on.  “Only one room left!” the website warned.

“Quick, look at this!” I implored my wife.  She called up the place on her own laptop while I yanked my credit card out of my wallet and hurriedly entered my information.  After all, the web page said that eight others were looking at the room.  “I don’t know if I can do this fast enough,” I confessed as I harbored images of the screen flashing a laughing message:  “You lose, sucker!  Room booked by someone else 1.5 seconds ago.  Better luck next time!”

But that’s not what happened.  I successfully booked the room before it was gone.  “Whew!” I proclaimed in relief, congratulating myself on snagging such a good deal.  “Walking distance to Katz’s Deli,” the site assured me as the reservation confirmation hit my email box.  Great!  My wife wants to try out Katz’s (or at least gawk at the place) while we’re in town.

Only then did I take a look at the online reviews.  There were many of them, which I hoped would present me with a balanced picture.  Unfortunately, most of them said the same thing, in the most exclamatory of tones.  “Bedbugs!  Bedbugs!  Do not stay here!  Shitty sheets!  Blood on the sheets!  Bedbugs, bedbugs!”

I was crestfallen.  Oh, my God, how could I have been so stupid!  Of course, you’re going to get what you pay for.  (Or at least you won’t get what you don’t pay for.)  As if that weren’t bad enough, my wife could not believe the depth of my imbecility in having reserved through booking.com.  “You never go through those services!” she informed me.

Obviously, I am way out of my depth here.  I have to learn not to mess with things I so clearly do not understand.

The next evening, when I arrived home from work, I accessed the reservation and cancelled it.   Luckily for me, the screen assured me that there was no charge for cancellations at least 48 hours in advance.  It was still a month in advance, so I was good.

So where are we going to stay in New York?  Well, it looks like Manhattan is out, so New Jersey it is.  I found a trucker motel for $60 a night plus tax near the Pulaski Skyway.  Memories returned of my father’s old Rambler breaking down there one night when I was about ten years old, with the trucks whizzing by while Dad cursed and tried to figure out what was wrong with that piece of crap car this time. Let’s see, there’s Tonnele Avenue to Routes 1 and 9, that’s close to the Turnpike, right?  Near the Holland Tunnel?  I’m sure I can figure it out.

Ultimately, my wife found us a better answer.  We booked into a very nice chain hotel in my hometown in Rockland County, about 40 minutes from Midtown and right by the New York Thruway.  Hot breakfast included, even a refrigerator and a microwave in the room.  Decidedly lacking in some of the finer New York amenities, such as bedbugs.

One of these days, I will learn to trust my wife’s judgment in all practical matters and stay the heck away from expensive, messy errors.

I may have learned this lesson a little too late, however.  This evening, our Visa bill turned up with a charge for a two-night stay at Bedbug Heaven.

And that, my dears, is the reason that mistakes are so painful.  No matter how hard you try, they can never be fully corrected.

 

Help! My Parents are Stuck in 1995!

iPhone

We made another weekend run down to the Central Valley because my mother needed me to help her with some paperwork related to her stockholdings.  Buying and selling stocks has been a hobby of hers since back in her working days.  My parents have now been retired for twenty years, leaving Mom with plenty of time to pursue her fascination with Wall Street.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, my parents didn’t own a computer and didn’t subscribe to a newspaper (unless you include running out for bagels on Sunday morning and hauling home a doorstop-sized New York Times).  My mother listened to the stock reports on the radio and, every so often, would have my father drive her to the public library, where she’d pore over the latest Wall Street Journal.

Nowadays, Mom turns on the TV at 5:00 pm every weekday (unless my parents are out to dinner at Red Lobster) to watch the stock reports on one of the five over-the-air stations that can be pulled in out on the rangeland.  My parents live in the country, don’t receive cable, and once tried to install a dish antenna on the roof of their house but quickly removed and returned it when they couldn’t get it to work properly.  They still don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but they do own a PC.  Dial-up connection, of course.  Remember those?  Ooooooweeeeeeaaaaahhhhshhhhhhhhhhhh… You’ve got mail!

Yep, my parents are stuck in 1995.

About half the time that I call my parents, I am unable to get through because Dad is online, looking at pictures of old cars and checking out the for sale ads (his own Model A Ford sits in the garage).  When I see him, he rails about the scourge of internet abbreviations and about how people don’t know how to spell anymore.  Meanwhile, Mom is listening to conservative talk radio in the kitchen.  When I see her, she bemoans the atrocious grammar of the broadcast personalities and those participating in the call-in shows alike.

My father, who is 81 years old and had never used a computer until he was retired for several years, knows how to Google search terms, send and receive email, contact me via IM (exceedingly rare) and place bids on eBay.  Each afternoon (after his daily TV dose of theater and opera goes off the air at 1:00), he logs onto AOL and checks my mother’s stocks.  Back east on Wall Street, the market has just closed for the day.  He scribbles the prices and progress of each of her stockholdings (XYZ 128.16 +1/8) on a sheet of paper, after which he hunts down my mother (likely tending her roses out front or watering a fruit tree out back) and provides her with the results.  Mom then transposes this information into neat columns in her stock notebook.  I am impressed with the detail (“See?  This is the PE ratio.  I am watching this one reeeeaaaalllly closely.”), which looks for all the world like a Stone Age version of an Excel spreadsheet.  I am tempted to make a bad Fred Flintstone joke here, but you know, poor Mom.

My mother assures me that she knows how to look up her stocks online without any assistance, thank you, but that she lets my father do it because he’s online anyway and, goodness knows, he sure doesn’t do anything else around here.  She then proceeds to gripe about how he goes to bed early, sleeps until 10 every day, and then takes two hours to get ready and have his cereal with blueberries, which he finishes just in time for his theater and opera show.  Meanwhile, she tells me, she herself couldn’t possibly sleep past 7:30 or 8, at which time she gets up and does all the work around the house with no help at all from peacefully snoring Dad.  I did not exactly ingratiate myself to her when I offered that I plan to do exactly the same when I retire and that I, too, do nothing around the house.  My wife enthusiastically vouched for the veracity of my assertion.  Like father, like son, hey?

My mother has an armload of college degrees and has always been a smart cookie.  Her investments are about as conservative as her politics, but she does make money.  Not a lot, mind you, but the quarterly dividend checks roll in and when the stock goes up just the right amount, she’ll make a stop at her discount brokerage house on the way to Food Maxx and place an order to sell that sucker.  Capital gains tax?  Just a part of the game, son, just a part of the game.

“What’s your strategy?” they ask Mom at the brokerage, marveling at her many small victories.  “I have no strategy!” she snaps back.  The trick, she assures me, is patience.  Like a cat, you stay real quiet and wait for just the right moment and then… Pounce!

Let’s just say that I am seriously impressed with Mom.  What I find particularly amazing about my mother’s investments is that most people spend money on their hobbies, but she makes money from hers.  Whether you’re into golf or sewing or travel or collecting things (or, in my own case, attending Scrabble tournaments), it’s always a money pit.  It would be wonderful if one day I, too, manage to find a formula for doing something I enjoy and have the checks roll into my mailbox every three months or so.

Nah, ain’t happening.  I’d rather sleep until ten like Dad.

Dial-up modem notwithstanding, my parents do have cell phones.  They each have their little TracPhone, which Dad likes to hang on his belt when he goes out, while Mom keeps hers tucked in her purse.  My sisters and I find those two cell numbers mighty convenient for times when Dad is online again and we just have to tell Mom something right now.  All three of us know that if the house phone is busy, you call Dad’s cell, which may be plugged in to charge somewhere, so if there’s no answer you proceed to calling Mom’s cell.  My father even knows how to navigate his little black and white screen to key in his contacts.  It took my parents years to advance to this stage, so I suppose I should be grateful that they’re not still stuck on a plain black wall phone and no “answering machine.”  Really, Mom, you know it’s called voicemail, right?  My wife reminds me that rolling one’s eyes is impolite, mister.

Of course, my parents still don’t text.  Even their funky TracPhones have that capability, but my parents are just not interested.  Texting leaves Mom cold.  If she can’t see my face, at least she wants to hear my voice.  I guess I should be flattered, but oy, Mom, it’s a pain in my tokhes when I need to tell you one little thing and can’t without getting on the phone with you for an hour.  I don’t always have an hour, Mom.  What?  You don’t have an hour for your old mother?  Not when I’m at work, Mom!  Not when I’m at the supermarket, Mom!  Not when I’m barreling down the 99 and I know I’m about to hit that dead spot between Nicolaus and Natomas.  The upshot is that you lose out on a lot of stuff that might bring a smile to your face and make your day.  To date, my arguments have been unsuccessful.

Mom and Dad have now become accustomed to the way it is when my wife and I are visiting.  Most of the time, we have our iPhones out.  It’s not like we’re texting all the time or anything, but we keep one eye on email and my wife is aware when someone posts a comment on her Facebook status.

My phone buzzes.  “What was that?” Mom asks.  I have a new follower on my blog, I tell her.  Ohhh, she says sweetly, do you still do that?  Barely, I tell her.  These days, I only have time to post on Sundays.  But do you still have a lot of followers?  I don’t feel like explaining that followers don’t just go away; you have to be really boring for them to take the time to go into their WordPress Dashboards and unfollow you.  It’s okay, Mom, I wish I could say.  I’m so glad that you don’t really understand about this stuff and that you don’t read my blog because I write about you quite a lot and some of the things that have come out of my fingers would make the hair stand up on your graying head.

My father’s eyes dart back and forth between my wife’s purple phone and my orange one.  And he sighs.  Maybe we’ll have to come into the 21st century eventually, he offers.  “I really, really wish you would!” I reply.  It’s not that expensive anymore, I tell him.  The prices have come way down from when Apple first came out with this.  Dad is very good about keeping his TracPhone charged, but should I tell him about wifi and 4G?  He is impressed when Mom asks me for the address and phone number of one of my cousin’s ex-wives and it takes me about 30 seconds to locate the information on my phone.  “It’s really quite useful,” I say of my iPhone.  I want to tell Mom that she can tap an icon and see the latest prices of her stocks, but I bite my lip and refrain.

If my parents are to take the plunge off the deep end, I know it will have to be Dad first.  I wonder whether we should just get it over with and buy them a pair of iPhones with protective covers in some cutesy his ‘n hers colors.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could text Dad “good morning” every day?

I know, Dad, not before 10 a.m.

Aw, Snap!

I switched over to the Google Chrome browser a few months ago.  I had been using Internet Explorer just about forever (at least since Netscape days . . . remember that?), but I was scared off after constantly reading dire warnings about “Heartbleed” and the security issues that IE users are allegedly experiencing.  I tried Firefox for a little while, wasn’t all that thrilled, and finally settled on Chrome.

Well, let’s just say that I’m not all that thrilled with Chrome either.  For one thing, I have to keep reminding myself that I have 479 windows open.  I can’t see them until I click on the colorful Chrome logo, so I tend to forget that they’re still open.  It wouldn’t be that bad if all my windows showed up on visible tabs so that I could close some every once in a while.  But I really miss the days of each open window appearing at the bottom of the screen.  You could easily switch between them and close the ones you no longer need.  I haven’t forgotten that if you open too many windows in the same program, Internet Explorer no longer allows you see them individually, but instead see a message that reads “10 Microsoft Word…”  Regardless, I miss IE.

The most annoying thing about Chrome, however, is the way I am rarely able to access documents, particularly PDFs, from hyperlinks on the web.  This is particularly important for me in that I spend hours each day on my job search, which generally involves clicking on links to access application forms.  Far too often, Chrome greets me with an error message that reads “Aw, Snap!  Something went wrong while displaying this web page.”

The annoyance of being unable to access my document is compounded by Google insulting my intelligence.  It seems to me that the use of the phrase “Aw, Snap!” indicates one of the following:

  • Google assumes that I am 13 years old and in middle school.  The only person who I have ever heard using the phrase “Aw, Snap!” was the teenager who I used to mentor as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.
  • Or, Google is using this phrase as a euphemism for “Oh, Shit!” that removes the defecation reference in favor of an expletive that, unbelievably, is even more juvenile.
  • Or, Google is merely a huge fan of Rice Krispies.  As I become more experienced with Chrome, I’m sure that I’ll run across “Aw, Crackle!” and “Aw, Pop!”  The latter will prove somewhat awkward for those of us who, like myself, don’t happen to be fathers.
  • When “Aw, Snap!” rears its ugly head, Google provides a hyperlink to a list of suggested troubleshooting techniques that it invites Chrome users to try in an attempt to solve the problem.  Inexplicably missing from this list is the obvious:  Close Chrome and open your document in Internet Explorer.

    Works every time!

     

    The Meaning of Blogging

    Sad events tend to make me turn introspective.

    More introspective than I already am, that is.

    We grieve, and we try to make sense of the senseless.  The questions start to pile up:  Did this have to happen?  Could this happen to me?  Is there a lesson I’m supposed to learn from this?

    When others suffer misfortune, we are called upon to comfort, to be there to listen.  We’re supposed to keep ourselves out of it.  After all, it’s about them, not about us.

    Except that it is about us.  It’s about our relationship with the ones suffering the loss.  And it’s about how what happened causes us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  Misfortune ridicules the faux importance of the minutiae of our everyday lives and tends to help us obtain a clearer idea of where we’ve been and where we’re going.  For once, we get to ignore the trees and see the whole forest.  What’s the meaning of it all?

    Here in the blogosphere, we enjoy opportunities to share both laughter and tears with fellow writers whom we have come to know and love.  Indeed, it is this sense of community more than anything else that has kept me reading and writing on WordPress.com.

    I have yet to meet any of my bloggy friends in person.  And yet I feel that I know them better than some people I have known offline for years.  Sure, the anonymity and distance between the writer and the reader of online blogs makes it easier to divulge details of our personal lives that might be difficult to discuss with someone who we had to look in the eye.  This draws us closer to our fellow bloggers than we would ever likely become in person.

    Most of us long for deep, abiding connections with others, connections that we often miss due to societal taboos as well as the personal and cultural roadblocks that all of us erect on the highway that is our lives.  “Don’t talk to strangers” is one of the first rules we learn as children.  It’s just too dangerous.  Others will hurt you if you let them.  Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve or it’ll just be broken.  I think of my elderly parents, who have learned to use the internet as a tool, but still try to keep it at arm’s length.  To them, it’s not “real,” just letters and words on a screen.  People are fakers who can pretend to be anything.

    I get it that we can’t throw caution to the winds.  There will always be “bad” people online just as there are offline.  Those with malicious intent or a desire to misrepresent themselves can certainly use the internet as a means of doing so.  But that doesn’t give us license to dismiss the entire medium as duplicitous or illusory.  To me, the bloggers I follow have become family.

    And so today I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite bloggers has deleted his blog.  Simply picked up his marbles and went home.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I clicked on his goodbye post and received the message “(Blog name) is no longer available.  The authors have deleted this site.”

    Some of you may know to whom I refer.  He was a popular blogger whose work helped to give me a sense of what our electronic community is all about and what sorts of things are possible on here.  In the early days of my blog, I paid close attention to those of his posts that referred to the hazards of blogging and how difficult it can be to strike a balance between one’s public and private personae.

    As I started out saying, this sad event (like any loss) makes me introspective.  When a popular blogger who has been working at this for a hell of a lot longer than I have makes a decision to simply vanish, I feel compelled to take a step back and ask myself what exactly I’m trying to accomplish here.  For that manner, what does any blog hope to achieve?

    We blog for many different reasons.  Blogs may be a method of doing business, a gallery for displaying photographs, a travelogue, a forum for political debate, a poetry slam, a cooking school.  Or an intimate journal.

    But all of these reasons come down to one lowest common denominator:  We want to share a little piece of ourselves.  And no, we don’t want to talk to the wall.  We want to be heard and we want feedback.  We go to bed praying for “likes” and wake up with squeals of delight to find we have comments, reblogs, new readers and followers.  We want to start a discussion, an argument, a dialogue, a movement, a revolution.  We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to break out of our little worlds.  We want to make a meaningful connection with others.

    My WordPress.com Reader brings widely scattered friends into my living room for a chat on a daily basis.  Pull up a chair and have a cup of tea, dear ones.  There’s one mother who has been feeling depressed and another who is dealing with her husband’s infidelity.  There’s the divorced one, the one coping with a sick child, the talented artist, the cancer survivor, the published author.  There’s a French teenager who manages to crack me up in two languages from the other side of the world.  There’s even a cat and a dog that I follow.

    All of these and many more have become valued members of my online family.  For, in the end, that’s what we are, isn’t it?  One big, noisy, crazy, delightful, loving, extended family.

    And the loss of any member of that family leaves a gaping hole that diminishes us all.

     

    Friends of Yesteryear

    Yesterday’s post about the value of a liberal arts education in a STEM world sent me tripping merrily down Memory Lane to my college days in upstate New York.  This set me to wondering what happened to the colorful cast of characters with whom I hung around back then.

    Most of my partners in crime worked on the college newspaper with me.  We were a tight little club, or so I thought.  We did a lot of things together, but studying definitely was not one of them.  In fact, more than a few of us did as little studying as possible.  I’m not sure about the others, but I have no idea how I managed to graduate at all, much less on time.

    Once we escaped, it wasn’t that easy to keep up with my widely scattered cohorts.  After all, we didn’t have the internet back then.  I did manage to gather some of the crowd for one last hurrah about a year after graduation.  On July 20, 1981, we had a big bash at my parents’ house, with college friends driving in from all over the tri-state area.  It seemed that anyone who I called or wrote to knew the whereabouts of someone else and thus the word got around.

    After that, many of us did the usual things involving marriages, kids and careers, and I lost track of just about everyone.  Back when I was on Facebook, I’d occasionally see one or two.  One who I knew only slightly turned up at a Scrabble tournament that I attended several years ago.  Other than that, it’s pretty much a great big blank.

    So I decided to do an online search to see if I could discover anything about where they are today.  Well, my first surprise was how easy it was to find them.  Many of them showed up in about two seconds because they have their own websites.  The following is a summary of my findings:

    • The one who lived in my hometown has her own business as an educational consultant.  After college, she joined the Peace Corps and spent time in Africa.  In her absence, I visited her mother on numerous occasions, particularly after her son (my friend’s brother) died of a drug overdose.
    • Two of them run their own companies, specializing in marketing businesses on the web and doing graphic design on websites.

    • At least one succeeded in our dream of being journalists; he is a bureau chief for a major newspaper.

    • One is a counselor in the mental health field.

    • One became a lawyer and now works as an assistant district attorney.

    • A couple of them who have their own companies hired several others of my acquaintance to work for/with them.

    • There were a few whom I was unable to immediately find, either because their names are common or because the sands of time have erased their names from my aging mind.

    But the result of my research that shocked me most of all is that our work as budding journalists so long ago has not disappeared.  Thanks to the advantages of modern technology and the efforts of the university library, just about every issue of our twice weekly college newspaper has been scanned and is available to the public online.  And here I thought the fruits of our all-night labors so long ago had been lost to the ages.

    I may not know what happened to all of my college buddies, but I do know that our nascent journalistic endeavors of nearly forty years ago live on.

     

    Inconsiderate Me

    ass

    Before there was Back to the Future, there was Peabody and Sherman and their Wayback Machine on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” a standard of 1960s Saturday morning cartoons.

    So today, let’s take a quick trip in the Wayback Machine.  We’ll just turn the dial a hair — not all the way to Camelot, just a few years to, say, 1999 or so.  Before Twitter and the iPhone.  Before Words with Friends, Angry Birds and Ruzzle.

    If you were on the internet back then, you may possibly remember word games such as UpWords and WordOx.  And, yes, both of these games are still around (although I haven’t heard them mentioned in years).

    In accordance with my night owl proclivities, I often played both these Scrabble-like games until the wee hours of the morning.  And who knows?  You may have met me back in my WordOx days.

    My screen name was “Inconsiderate.”  I chose this name after my wife, quite rightly, tagged me with this moniker.  Honestly, I was pretty bad back then.  When we were first married, I had no clue what I was doing and continued on in many of the selfish (and childish) ways I had cultivated as a single guy.  Okay, so I’m still pretty bad.  I like to think that I’m a little better than I was back then, that I’ve learned a thing or two in fifteen years of marriage.

    But there are a lot of days when it is clear to me that I am still the same idiot as always.

    Take today, for instance.  My wife and I were walking around Wal-Mart.  I was pushing the cart.  We had quite a bit of shopping to do, as did the other zillion shoppers sharing the store with us.  Except that I acted as if I was the only person in the whole store.  At the end of an aisle, I made a sharp right turn without looking to see who was coming.  I’m just glad I wasn’t driving my car.  I “cut off” a little old lady with a very full shopping cart.  She promptly pointed out that she had the “right of way.”  I agreed that she did and apologized for not paying better attention.  She made some other choice comments.  My wife later opined that the woman was rude, and I agree.

    But that’s how it is:  If you don’t pay attention to how your actions will affect others, you will inevitably piss them off and they will let you know in no uncertain terms that you are a douchebag.

    I probably wouldn’t have thought too much about this little incident if it hadn’t been the second consecutive day that someone had called me out for being, like my WordOx screen name, inconsiderate.

    Allow me to explain that I have played in a regular Scrabble tournament via email for the past decade and then some.  I have gotten to know some very lovely people from all parts of the world in the course of playing our turns back and forth.  But I currently seem to be in a feud with one of my opponents who feels personally injured because I frequently do not bother to say “good luck” at the start of a game and “congratulations” at the end.

    I don’t know.  Maybe it’s “a man thing.”  I don’t stand on ceremony.  I am not big on the social niceties and, frankly, I rarely notice whether or not others bother with them.  “We’re here to play a game,” is my line of thinking.  Just play!

    Or maybe I’m still just plain inconsiderate.  You know, not a very nice person.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how I got this way.  Laziness?  Yep, probably has a lot to do with it.  Upbringing?  Maybe.  I am a native New Yorker raised by two native New Yorkers.  And New Yorkers are, if nothing else, a jaded lot.  We push our way into buses and subway cars, cut in line if we can get away with it, flip people off if we are annoyed.  We engage in every ilk of unsavory behavior that I’d rather distance myself from.  We tend to undertip, pocket the excess change given us by mistake and engage in acts of Schadenfreude and one-upmanship that keep the Park Avenue therapists in business.

    Suffice it to say that things are a lot different here on the west coast of the United States.  Californians are renowned for their mellowness.  Or so I’m told.  I’m still not sure how the road rage and drive-by shootings of Los Angeles fit into the cool groove of La-La Land.  Chalk it up to the stress of inching along on the freeways and breathing smog.  I am glad I don’t live down there.

    A fellow blogger recently posted about a study conducted to determine which states were the most “courteous” and which had reputations for “swearing like sailors.”  California fell squarely into the latter category.  So I think a lot of the groovy surfer dude stuff is more myth than reality.

    I’m not sure where exactly I fall on the spectrum.  My annoyed Scrabble opponent asked whether, in my desire to forego the niceties, I don’t bother to say “please” and “thank you.”  My wife, who is extremely courteous, has taken me to school over this issue in the past and I am proud to say that I am somewhat less Neanderthal about it than I used to be.

    I still tend to push open store doors and walk straight out without turning around to see if anyone is behind me or holding the door for them if there is.  I’m not trying to be rude; it’s just that most of the time I don’t think about it.  And if the person ahead of me does the same, I blame only myself if the door slams in my face.  I should have been paying attention.

    So, as you can see, while I have exhibited some improvement, I’m still rather inconsiderate.

    The whole Scrabble thing is an issue that I’ve heard discussed on numerous occasions when I’ve attended “live” tournaments.  Isn’t it being rather duplicitous to wish your opponent good luck before starting a game?  Let’s be honest here:  You hope your opponent draws nothing but vowels and that all the good tiles land in your own rack.  You hope your opponent is preoccupied about something else and misses all the juicy bingoes.  Heck, you want to win!  If you didn’t, why would you have spent all this money on entrance fees, hotel bills and travel expenses?  So isn’t it a big fat lie when you wish your opponent good luck?

    Several years ago, one of my Scrabble buddies filled me in on a socially acceptable solution to this problem. The answer, he says, is to say “here’s to a good game.”  Therein lies the appropriate social nicety and an ambiguous turn of phrase, all wrapped up in a pretty little package with a bow on top.  A good game for whom?  We needn’t specify.  It’s perfect, as it allows you to be polite without being a liar.

    As for me, I usually introduce myself to my opponents, ask where they’re from and how they’re doing in the tournament, and then shut up.  We’re here to play, and that’s what we do.

    This particular online opponent, however, continues to take issue with my behavior and suggests that my failure to say “good luck” and “congratulations” is tantamount to being a robot rather than acknowledging my opponents as real people with feelings.  And when I tried to mollify her by typing “good luck” at the start of our most recent game, she responded that I probably wasn’t being sincere and that most of what I write on this blog must not be sincere either.

    Am I really supposed to be sincere in wishing my opponent good tiles and an excellent score?  As for this blog, I will leave that judgment to my readers.

    Perhaps I just need to come to a full stop at the end of the Wal-Mart aisle and look left and right before proceeding to reduce the likelihood of running over little over ladies.  Perhaps I need to remind myself to stop dead in my tracks when I push open a door.

    And if you expect that to happen, I say good luck.  And I mean that sincerely.

    After all, they don’t call me Inconsiderate for nothing.

     

    Ars Gratia Artis

    art for art's sake

    My father called this week to ask why I’m not spending every minute of every day pursuing job leads, sending out résumés and going on interviews.  He expressed concern that a fiftysomething middle manager could become unemployable and impoverished if he stays out of the workforce too long.  I could tell that he was following up on my mother’s call of last week (she was of the opinion that my ambivalence toward writing job applications must indicate that I am depressed over having been recently laid off).

    This doesn’t take into account the fact that I knew about the layoff two months in advance and that I’ve applied for more than 25 positions to no avail.  That I am not applying for dozens of jobs right now appears to be the issue.

    “You have to have somewhere to go in the morning,” was my father’s advice.  I responded that it’s also nice not to have to go anywhere in the morning.  I omitted mention of the fact that he has been retired for twenty years and doesn’t have to go anywhere to go in the morning other than outside to mow the lawn or into town to a doctor appointment or the grocery store.  I also thought it circumspect to skip the part about how the only thing this night owl wants to see in the morning is the back of his eyelids.

    Dad pointed out that there is a difference between not working because you’ve been thrust out of the workforce due to the economy and not working because you’ve decided to retire and have a nice pension from the state retirement system.

    It’s not as if I haven’t thought long and hard about whether to keep working or to throw in the towel.  I tried to explain that I’ve had enough of the cubicle life and that I would like to work in a results-oriented environment in which I can exercise my nighttime creativity rather than being stuck in the 9-to-5 routine.  I fear I was not very successful in my efforts to relate how much I love blogging every day and, hopefully, finally finishing the last part of my memoirs.

    “And what will you do then?” he asked.  I offered that I hope to market my manuscript around and hopefully attract the attention of a publisher who can afford me the services of a professional editor.  I’m realistic, I told him; I don’t expect to earn a penny from this endeavor, although I won’t be self-publishing the book either.  Why, then, would I waste my time?  Good question.  My answer:  To satisfy myself that I can do it.

    This got me to thinking about how, along with my fellow writers, I am a member of a society of professionals who work without compensation.  In a capitalist economy, this sounds crazy.  Who would work for free?  Plenty of us, apparently.

    In a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” Oct. 26, 2013), author Tim Kreider observes that those who wouldn’t think of giving away a haircut or a can of soda for free think nothing of asking writers to compose work for publication for no pay.  The applicable currency, the theory goes, is not money, but “exposure.”  In other words, no compensation is really needed because the public gets to see what great writers we are so that they can ask us to write more stories, poems and articles for free.

    The whole idea of us creative types pouring out our blood, sweat and tears for love (not money) struck a chord.  Kreider’s article took me back to my “volunteer” work for America Online in 1995, 1996 and 1997.  I worked as a message board monitor, a content provider, a leader of virtual “tours” through AOL’s Entertainment Channel and a “love doctor” (facilitator in a love, sex and relationships chat room called The Hot Bed).

    I’ve heard anecdotally that several of my fellow chat hosts and content providers have unsuccessfully attempted to sue AOL for back wages.  I am told that AOL’s legal people took the position that all of us willingly and eagerly volunteered our time in order to be a part of the excitement of the early days of the Internet.

    I believe it is true that we agreed to work for free, but not necessarily for the “coolness” factor. Like myself, many of us were addicted to the friendships and connections we had made online back in the days before Internet access was essentially free. 

    In the mid-nineties, AOL was behind a firewall and the charge to use its services was three dollars per hour.  Quite a few of the volunteers were students, unemployed or just too poor to be able to pay the huge bills that we tended to rack up.  I recall working 20 hours per week as a combination desktop publisher and technical writer for a tiny Silicon Valley startup, getting paid ten dollars an hour, crashing with my sister and sending almost all of my paycheck to AOL.  I just had to get my chat fix at any cost.  See?  Addicted.

    When I ended up unemployed and broke, I found out a way I could stay online.  Those who were willing to perform tasks such as hosting chat rooms and message boards would be “compensated” by being credited with an hour of online time for every hour worked.  In some of AOL’s channels, it was possible to earn two or even three hours of online time for each hour worked.

    And then there was Nirvana, the Holy Grail, the mysterious “overhead account” that was only whispered about and was rumored to be a myth.  It wasn’t a myth, however.  Some of us managed to cadge content wrangling volunteer positions that required many, many hours of research and HTML coding, compensated by an entirely free AOL account.  For addicts like myself, it was the ideal situation.  As long as I got my work done, I could spend all day and all night online.  Which I frequently did.  I wouldn’t sleep until I collapsed in my chair.  To buy food, I borrowed money from family and friends.  I freeloaded, I mooched.  I moved from California to Connecticut and back to California again.  Anything to avoid working so I could be online all the time.

    I loved hosting the chat room, particularly on Saturday nights when the place would be rockin’ and rollin’. This was a double-sized chat room that held 46 rather than the usual 23.  There were always a few “snerts” in attendance, kids who had no interest in taking part in the conversation and would repeatedly violate the no polling/no scrolling/no profanity rules.  We had macros, pre-typed scripts, that could be sent into the chat room at the touch of a button to warn these miscreants that they risked being tossed out by the higher-ups.  For most of the chatters, however, it was one big party and I was the emcee.  I would have thought-inducing questions prepared ahead of time; if I received responses, I would type follow-up questions.  I would do my best to recognize participants by addressing them by their screen names.  As the text scrolled down the screen, it was my responsibility to try to keep up with all the threads of the chat and to make additional comments to provoke the expression of a variety of opinions.  It was a heady experience, quite the thrill.  And I did it all, if not for free, than at least for the free account.

    At one point, my “supervisor” asked me to conduct a seminar to let my fellow chat hosts in on the secrets of my success.  That was when I finally put my foot down and demanded compensation.  Of course, AOL was unwilling to pay actual money, and so I stood my ground and took a pass.

    These days, I can’t help feeling that I am falling into a similar pattern by blogging in this forum.  None of my fellow WordPress bloggers are paid a penny; we do what we do as a labor of love.  As the old saying goes, “writers write.”  The instant publishing tools that WordPress makes available to us at no charge enable writers to gain, as Kreider terms it, “exposure.”  I love the Times graphic attached to his article, a bank deposit slip that lists, in part, “1,530 page views, good karma, 872 likes, 490 comments, 2 days notoriety… Total: $0.00.”  He points out that, despite all the feel-good vibes, a writer cannot eat and pay the rent on this.  He cites the old joke headline “Artist Dies of Exposure.”

    Kreider proposes that writers could remedy this situation if we’d only stop giving away the fruits of our labors for free.  “Not getting paid for things in your 20s in glumly expected, even sort of cool,” writes Kreider, while “not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, [is] considerably less so.  Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift.  Now I am 46, and would like a bed.”

    Being a considerable number of years past the age of 46, I can certainly appreciate Kreider’s perspective.  He rails against a public that, by expecting us to work for free, relays the opinion that “our vocation is worthless.”

    Clearly, Kreider doesn’t believe that our vocation is worthless.  And this is where he and I part company.  Say what you will about the virtue of the starving artist, the fact remains that, in a free market economy, things are worth exactly what people will pay for them.  In that respect, my work and that of most of my fellow writers is indeed worthless.

    But that’s okay.  Just as in my days as a chat host, I do what I do because I enjoy the process and take pride in the product.  More than likely, Kreider would argue that I can’t have very much pride in my work if I am willing to forego compensation and simply give it away.

    I respectfully disagree.  I blog for the same reason that I spend time with my little grandniece:  Both pursuits light up my life.  They make me smile, and hopefully they make you smile, too.

    Ars gratia artis, baby.

    NaBloPoMo November 2013

    Freedom of the Press, and of the Tunes

    newspaperradio
    I suppose it’s a part of growing up. There are some things my parents did that drove me crazy when I was a child but make perfect sense to me now. And as may be inevitable for a man squarely in the grip of middle age, I realize that I have become my father.

    Here’s an example of what I mean: Anytime I’d be in the car with my father (and I was always thrilled with the opportunity to ride up front with him), he’d tune the radio to either news radio or to easy listening music. I could handle that, but what really bugged me was the way he’d either flip stations or turn off the radio whenever a commercial came on. He’d refer to the results of the latter alternative as his favorite song, “The Sound of Silence.” (I hadn’t yet discovered Simon and Garfunkel.) He made it clear that he wasn’t going to have the idiocy of Madison Avenue forced upon him. Occasionally, he’d leave the radio on just so he could mimic the ridiculous ads (“rub it in, in, IN!”), which he’d usually follow up with a stream of swear words that I’d try my hardest to ignore.

    Well, I don’t do the swear words thing, but I’ve now reached the age where I find myself changing the station or turning off the radio as soon as I start to hear a commercial. In my little town, this is no small statement. I refuse to listen to the Spanish stations or the Christian stations, which leaves me with exactly two choices. There is a powerful country music station over in Arizona and there is our little hometown radio station that plays an eclectic variety of music. I find our local station charming. I never know what to expect and I am often delighted. Turning on the radio, I may be transported back to another era by one of my favorite doo-wops, followed by something from Kenny Chesney or Carrie Underwood, then a classic from the Stones and a tune by Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.

    With entertainment like that, it seems the least I could do would be to support the station by listening to the commercials that pay their bills and then patronizing those businessess. Sorry, Charlie. Nothing doing. I may have been bopping and drumming to the song that just ended, but when a commercial comes on, I am gone. Out of there. Splitsville.

    Too often, both our local station and the Arizona country people are playing advertisements at the same time. Like my father, I’ve come to accept and even enjoy “the sound of silence.”

    Back in my college days, I used to argue about this with a friend of mine. He’d insist that radio stations are businesses, and that like any business, their sole purpose for existing is to make money. Bah humbug, I’d say. The purpose of radio is to entertain me. If a station ceases to do so, either because of its music selection or because an idiot commercial has come on, it’s adios, amigo. That’s not fair, my friend would respond. I’m receiving a service for free, while the radio station has to pay its bills. Not my problem, I’d tell him. No one is forcing the radio station to entertain me for free. The public has every right to take advantage of its largesse. If someone has dropped a quarter on the ground, why shouldn’t I pick it up?

    When my wife and I purchased our current car, we found that it “came with” a six-month subscription to Sirius XM radio. Thus, we discovered the world of radio by paid subscription.

    The technology fascinated me. Just to think that Sirius XM could send a signal specifically to our car antenna, a signal from a satellite orbiting the earth that we could pick up but the car in front of us and the car behind us could not. Amazing!

    The best thing about paid subscription radio, of course, is no commercials. Well, sort of. I’d happily sha-la-la and whoa-woah along with Sixties on 6 and Seventies on 7 in commercial-free heaven, but when we switched to the comedy channel, we found the routines constantly interrupted for commercials. Not just any commercials, mind you. Commercials for . . . ah, um, er, products of an “intimate nature.” And we were paying for this!

    Well, for the first six months it was free with our new car. But after that we were paying for it. Yes, we shelled out the bucks and renewed our subscription several times. This, of course, is exactly what Sirius XM hoped we would do. Get ‘em hooked, then send ‘em the bill.

    After about a year of this, we figured out that it just wasn’t worth it, particularly with the idiot commercials that interrupted our favorite stations. We could get that for free on over-the-air stations.

    That’s when we started keeping CDs in the car us. We’d slip them into the disc player to entertain us on our frequent trips between northern and southern California. Of course, the CDs weren’t free, but at least we only had to pay for them once rather than being billed every six months for a subscription. And no idiot commercials!

    The downside of the CD solution is that you end up playing the same music over and over. Not only that, but we realized that we tended to buy a CD for one or two favorite songs, while the rest of the album really didn’t interest us.

    iPhone to the rescue! We already had iPods, and when we purchased iPhones, we had our music right on our cell phones. With the aid of a little adapter cord, we were able to plug in, set the music on Shuffle and go rockin’ on down the highway. I’d be singing along at the top of my lungs (off-key, of course) and before I knew it we’d be past Bakersfield.

    This was better than CDs. We had exactly the music we wanted to hear. No idiot commercials and no B-side boring stuff. Of course, this didn’t come free. Every time we thought of another song we wanted, we’d just go online and buy it. We found that most songs were 99 cents or $1.29 to download. Very reasonable, particularly when you build your music collection a little at a time.

    I love reading newspapers almost as much as I enjoy listening to music, and I don’t think I should have to pay for either one, at least when I am not picking and choosing my content. Back in my New York days, on Sunday mornings we’d go out to buy fresh bagels and pick up The New York Times. The Sunday Times was truly a marvel. It was thick and heavy, with many sections. I’d head straight for the “magazine” section and the book review. Then I’d settle back with Section 2, the famed Arts and Leisure section, where I’d ogle the full-page announcements of Broadway shows with a mixture of awe and delight. Of course, the Times wasn’t free, and its price increased as the years went by. But it was a once-a-week indulgence, and we could skip a week or two anytime we felt like it. It’s not like we had a subscription.

    My parents didn’t even subscribe to the local paper. Both they and I knew that it would largely go unread and back issues would inevitably be stacked up in heaps to be carted out to the curb on recycling day.

    But that was back in the Stone Age before the internet came along. Soon, I found myself being able to read The New York Times online for free anytime I liked, weekday or Sunday. This was wonderful, particularly after I moved to California, and then to a remote area of the desert where I couldn’t go to the corner and pick up the Times with my bagels and cream cheese.

    Like all good things, this one didn’t last. It didn’t take long before the Times realized there was money to be made out there in the wilds of cyberspace. Inevitably, the Times began charging for its service. But you know me. I’m not going to pay for it if I don’t have to.

    This is how I worked it out: First, I downloaded The New York Times on my iPhone. As I am constantly reminded by the insipid pop-ups, “Top News is Free. Subscribe for full access.” I don’t think so!

    First phase accomplished: I get to read about a dozen top news stories on my phone for free every morning. Of course, the Times attempts to tantalize me into paying by dangling what I’m missing in front of my nose. I can click the “Sections” icon and view the headlines and the first sentences of all the great articles I’m missing in Opinion, Books, Travel, Arts, Dining, and on and on.

    And so on to the second phase: Grab a scratch paper and make note of the titles of the articles I am really interested in reading but don’t have access to. Then I log into www.nyt.com on my laptop, find the articles I’m looking for, and read to my heart’s content.

    Well, not exactly. Surely you don’t think the venerable Times will make you pay on the iPhone but give it up for free on Windows? Of course not. I am able to read ten articles per month for free on my laptop. After that, I am blocked by the ubiquitous message to subscribe in order to continue reading.

    Fortunately for me, my wife doesn’t object when I log onto her account on her laptop and get to read another ten articles in the Times.

    To paraphrase Billy Joel, “he’ll take what he’s given as long as it’s free.”