Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Let me take you where the action is

For the first time in over 20 years, I spent a sunny afternoon at the Caribbean Water Adventure located at Knight’s Action Park. I was under the impression, thanks to their jingle (“it’s so neat to meet your baby where the action is”), that it had degraded into some sort of sleazy singles park where baby boomers gather to engage in mating rituals while being hurled about in flumes of water. But it’s actually a fun place for kids, and save for a few of our fellow patrons, fairly wholesome and clean.

Since I went to the park with my kids, my main objective was to serve as guardian rather than to partake in the aquatic adventure myself. This afforded me a good opportunity to engage in some “people watching”, which isn’t the same thing as “girl watching”, just in case any of you are wondering and happen to be my wife.

Stripped of their regular attire, it’s not as easy to place people socio-economically as it is when they are strolling about downtown or at the mall. The principles of egalitarianism are much more in play when everyone is half naked and dripping wet. Luckily, I was still able to stereotype people based on their behavior or physical appearance.

One guy looked as if he had stayed up all night cooking-up meth so that he could make enough money to provide his family a day of fun in the sun, proving that you can operate on the wrong side of the law, have rotten teeth, and still be a good dad.

Another guy, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, was clearly suffering the unfortunate effects of a childhood marked by little in the way of athletic achievement. From what I could gather, he was timing himself by clicking off one-hundredths of seconds in his head as he careened down the big slide. At the end of each run, he would rise from the water and pump his fist in triumph of what must have been another record performance. And I got to witness it all.

Most of the adults that I observed were parents, and although I probably shouldn’t have been, I was surprised by how many of them had tattoos. Some were fairly tastefully done but many others looked as if they were scratched on by the arty guy over in the next cell block. Prison culture, as celebrated every Saturday night on MSNBC, is clearly making its way into the mainstream, or at least onto the Lazy River.

Hair styles, which can often serve as a cultural indicator, are rendered unidentifiable in a water park milieu where even the most stylish cut is rendered a matted muss. Still, there were some telltale signs into certain people’s backgrounds based on their coiffures – especially those with tails.

The tail, for those of you unfamiliar with this particular hairstyle, is a relative of the mullet, although the length in back is limited to fewer strands of hair which are often worn braided. Originally favored by new wave musicians such as the Thompson Twins, it was later adopted in rural areas where it allowed the wearer to exhibit a hint of counterculturalism without endorsing the full hippie ethos. The tail borders on extinction in most areas of the country except for parts of West Virginia where it thrives thanks to a grassroots conservation effort and a commitment to decades-old fashion trends.

There were no tails on the employees, most of whom appeared to be high school students lucky enough to land a summer job basking in the sun. I’m sure that they’re the sons and daughters of wheeler-dealer politicians or powerful amusement park lobbyists. Apparently water park lifeguard isn’t a job that Americans don’t want to do because I didn’t see a single employee who looked as if they might be in need of a green card.

Speaking of lifeguards, I don’t trust them. In my experience, they’re all glitz and no action. A baby beluga could turn up in the pool at the bottom of the water slide and it would escape the lifeguard’s notice until a parent pointed it out as a possible hazard. Even then, it would probably only warrant a toot of his whistle and a barely audible warning of “no whales on the slides, gawsh.”

I’ve come to this anti-lifeguard bias after observing the girl on duty during my kids’ swim lessons spend entire sessions picking at toe jam and talking to her boyfriend. Rarely did it occur to her to scan the water for sunken children. Once during play time, my younger daughter became separated from her flotation noodle and her rudimentary swimming skills were just barely up to the task of keeping her head above water. It wasn’t until I saw fit to mention the potential tragedy at hand that the pool staff finally took heed. Can you imagine Pamela Anderson’s character on Baywatch needing to be prompted before springing into action? She would spring all over the place and the swimmers under her watch and us viewers were better off for it.*

Since I wouldn't trust the lifeguards, I spent most of my people watching time watching my kids. Despite oppressive heat, they never tired of climbing the hill and sliding back down. What made this feat even more amazing was that just hours before, in our air conditioned basement, they couldn't muster the energy to pick up the sofa cushions that they had used to build a fort. There's clearly something magical about this water park.

*I’ve never actually seen an episode of Baywatch, my familiarity with Ms. Anderson is mainly through her work on anti-KFC billboards, but from what I understand she was as diligent and buoyant as a lifeguard could be.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Who let the damned dogs out?

Since my low-class car doesn’t merit entry into our single-car garage, it remains outdoors where it has become a depository for avian waste. A large tree extends over our driveway and the curb in front of our house so there is no parking space that is out of the line of fire. One particular evening, what had to have been an entire softball team of geese returning home after an evening of beer and burritos at Xochimilco, took a rest stop in our tree and rained the remnants of their fiesta down upon my Sentra. I couldn’t help but feel victimized by the assault, although my more rational side knew that this was a random act and that wild birds, especially those that have had a few, are not beholden to the rules of common decency. Not so for pets.

Allowing one’s hound to seek relief on a neighbor’s yard is bad form, plain and simple. Refusing to clean-up that waste is barbaric. Yet many dog owners, at least in my neighborhood, have no qualms about letting their canine charges stoop in foreign territory and feel no responsibility to remove the offending matter once planted. Is it laziness or something else that causes humans to take such a cavalier attitude?

Perhaps the disinclination to scoop doesn’t arise from imposition, but from a feeling that the natural order is disturbed when we set boundaries on how and when animals are allowed to answer nature’s call. I’m thus given to wonder if certain dog owners don’t live vicariously through their pet’s public defecations. If the ability to eliminate upon first instinct and without impunity doesn’t appeal to a deep-seated desire to be free of the repression that is placed upon them in a sanitary society. To them, it may be, that freedom isn’t represented by a torch-bearing personification of liberty that welcomes immigrants to our shores, but by a crouching mutt doing his business wherever he damn well pleases.

But perhaps I’m over-analyzing. It’s certainly laziness, coupled with a significant degree of disgust, that keeps most people from doing the right thing. But identifying the cause doesn’t always lead to a solution.

The county is currently undertaking a campaign designed to keep pets from laying waste to public spaces, citing potential health risks. They hope to persuade pet owners of their duty to protect public health. There is also the matter of a public ordinance that carries a penalty for such an offense. But as the SJ-R noted in an editorial today, the potential $500 fine is inconsequential if it is never imposed. There is another problem as well - the fine is much too high.

No one would ever imagine that a park police officer would write them a $500 citation because Mr. Biddles went poopers near the playground. So it serves as no deterrent. If the fine were $20, payable within 10 days or animal control pays a visit, that sounds much more plausible and people would be more likely to head to the dog park for their canine constitutionals.

Economists will tell you that people act based on incentive. The reason that many people don’t clean up after their dogs is the same reason that they don’t return their shopping carts to the designated corral or dispose of their cigarette butts in an appropriate manner, there isn’t sufficient incentive for them to do so. Yet Aldi’s shoppers can witness how a measly quarter, that is used to obtain a cart and is refunded when the cart is returned to the proper place, can alter people’s behavior and get them to act in the desired manner.*

The key is finding the right incentive. A $10 refundable shopping cart rental fee would surely cause people to do their shopping elsewhere, while a one cent fee is too expendable and would lead to a cart-littered parking lot. In the incredibly insightful book, Freakonomics, they provide a case study on how finding just the right incentive to effect behavior in the desired manner is a delicate proposition.

A daycare center had a problem with parents picking up their children after the 5:30 PM deadline. A consultant recommended that they begin charging an overtime fee for parents who show up late. They were careful not to set the fee too high, for fear that parents would become resentful, so they decided to levy it at a flat $5. Weeks later, the problem became worse – not despite of the fee, but because of it.

What the consultants found was that some of the parents who always picked up their kids by 5:30, because that was the rule, were now arriving later. They felt justified in doing so because the fee established a new rule that allowed them to be late provided that they paid their $5. And it was worth it to them to be able to stay at work a little longer or to run a few errands before picking up the kids. In this case, a higher fee was probably needed or perhaps some other type of incentive, such as leaving the children outside of the locked building at 5:31.

So I believe that a $20 fine is just the right incentive to get people to scoop. And I won't have to look for landmines each time I mow my front lawn.

*Although I’m sure in some circles, leaving your cart in the middle of Aldi’s parking lot and forfeiting the quarter is an ostentatious display of wealth similar to when tycoons use rolled-up thousand dollar bills to light their cigars.

Friday, May 19, 2006

How not to apologize

If Joe Bartolomucci wrote for Hallmark, your next birthday card would be a text-heavy polemic that provides a firm defense of why the sender is giving you the card, but would fall short of actually wishing you a happy birthday. I say this after reading the silver-penned alderman’s letter-to-the-editor in today’s SJ-R. Written presumably to express a singular and simple sentiment, it instead manages to avoid making a genuine apology while distributing blame and engaging in a little Joe B. horn tooting in the process.

Bartolomucci wrote the letter after taking a right beating on the editorial page for the last several days over his comments concerning the homeless that gather outside Lincoln Library. His take on the relative worth of the homeless would be pretty harsh coming from a guy sitting on the end stool in an empty tavern. Coming from a sitting alderman while in the presence of reporters, it’s harsh AND stupid.

Although Bartolomucci’s letter goes on for six paragraphs, his mea culpa is contained in a single sentence: “If I offended anyone by my remarks, I do apologize.”

If? I think that it is pretty clear that there are people who were offended by his comments. He wouldn’t have written the letter unless he knew that he had provoked sufficient ire to damage his public image, so why qualify the statement with if? Why not, “to the people I offended, I am sorry”? Or better still, say “I’m sorry” and move on. Imagine if Mrs. O’Leary had written a letter to the Chicago Tribune expressing her regrets if anyone was inconvenienced by her cow’s inconsiderate clumsiness.*

There is another problem with his attempt at contrition. He uses a phrasing that is common among weasely politicians and celebrities, and has come to be known as an “unapology.” Bartolomucci’s unapology appears at first glance to express penitence for his comments, but what he is actually saying is that he’s sorry that some people are overly sensitive and took his remarks the wrong way.

Notice in the Mrs. O example I provided how she cleverly shifted the blame to her cow? Well, Bartolomucci set up a strawcow of his own, Mayor Davlin. In the letter’s first paragraph, before he even gets around to unapologizing, he seeks our sympathy for the frustration that he suffered at the hands of an inactive administration that would not heed his call and address this issue more promptly. This frustration, he’d have us know, is what led to his calling the homeless “drunken bums.” Well, oh my goodness! Forget Contact Ministries, my check is going to the Joe B. Frustration Relief Fund.

He goes on to mention the mayor two more times in the letter, a clear indication of psychological transference and perhaps of an unhealthy obsession.

I don’t know if Bartolomucci’s criticisms of the mayor have merit or not. But if his true intent in writing the letter was to express his apologies, than any attempt to inflict political damage on an opponent comes across as petty and totally beside the point.

Bartolomucci also tells us about the efforts he has been making to ease the burden of the homeless. That’s good; as an alderman he should be doing such things. Unfortunately, it comes across in the letter less as good-hearted attempt to find a solution to the problem and more like a desperate attempt to prop up his sagging image.

He closes by finding the silver lining in the controversy that he created - an increased awareness of the homeless problem in Springfield. Sure Joe, thanks to your calling attention to their urination habits, the plight of the homeless has been greatly relieved.** Maybe I’ll follow his lead and run over a few puppies with my car this weekend on behalf of the Animal Protective League.

I’m not one of those people who get offended at the slightest provocation and immediately demand an apology. I didn’t expect Bartolomucci to apologize for his comments. He’s certainly entitled to his opinions. But if he really feels that the homeless are nothing more than drunken layabouts, I’d have much more respect for Bartolomucci if he had refused to deliver an obligatory apology, and instead stuck by his guns. Not much respect, but much more.

*I realize that this is an urban legend, I use it only to make a point.

**Pun intended.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

From the Treadmill: About Schmidt

The biggest complaint about Jack Nicholson, even from his fans, is that he never loses himself in a role. It doesn’t matter if he is a rebellious mental patient or an omni-phobic novelist, his animated eyebrows and dastardly smile are always winking at the audience through the fourth wall. The buzz that surrounded the release of “About Schmidt’ was all about how you’ll finally see Nicholson as you never have before, as a character in a movie and not the guy sitting next to Dyan Cannon at Lakers’ games.

The buzz was correct for the most part. There’s none of the cockiness or mischievousness that we expect from Jack. It did take me a few minutes to completely accept that I was watching Warren R. Schmidt, a 60-something insurance actuary, and not the actor portraying him.

At the film’s beginning, Warren is attending his retirement banquet. We, the viewers, are supposed to soak in the indignity of seeing a man’s entire career being feted at a Maverick-style restaurant with a speech by the young whippersnapper who is replacing him. At this point, I was still seeing Hollywood Jack and wondering at the ridiculousness of a celebration of his lifetime achievements that didn’t include an audience of worshipful celebrities and a special gold statue presented by Amanda Peet.**

But that tinsel-tinted perception fizzled once introduced to Warren’s wife, played by the decidedly un-Peet-like, Jane Squibb. And it never returned as the movie became absorbed in the dour reality of a man for whom life is devoid of wonder and emotion. A life where every person’s existence can be summarized through a calculation of demographics and probabilities. This is no “Easy Rider”, although there is a road trip.

After his wife Helen dies suddenly, Warren finds himself lost. With no job to attend to or wife to attend to him, he hits the road in his new RV, retracing points in his history while heading out to his daughter Jeannie’s wedding, an event that he hopes to keep from happening.

The movie uses a neat little device to allow us inside Warren’s head. He “adopts” a young Tanzanian named Ndugu through a children’s world charity organization. Taking to heart the charity’s suggestion that along with sending a monthly check he also include a letter to his new stepson, Warren uses his monthly correspondence to unload the deepest thoughts of a depressed Nebraskan actuary, which we hear through voice-over narration, on a boy living amidst hunger and disease.

In one of the film’s funniest moments, Warren ends his first lengthy missive by apologizing for rambling on and stating “You probably can't wait to run out and cash this check and get yourself something to eat.”, as if Ndugu will be heading down to the village Applebee’s for some chicken fingers and an Oreo milkshake.

The film’s depressive mood is punctuated frequently with other very funny moments, most coming from the family of Jeannie’s fiancé. Dermot Mulroney is perfect as Randall, a mullet-headed waterbed salesman who is stealing away the daughter that Warren never had time for when she was a child. Kathy Bates, Randall’s mother, is the polar opposite of Warren. She embraces life fully and never lets an emotion go unexpressed. She does have a gratuitous nude scene that made me wish that the director had cast Peet in that role, but other than that, Bates was perfect.

Another amusing scene comes when Warren meets up with the kindness of two strangers at an RV camp. John and Vicki Rusk – with their strong regional accents, golly-gee attitude, and blunt honesty – do for Wisconsinites what the characters in “Fargo” did for Minnesotans. Warren starts to open up to the couple before betraying their unconditional hospitality by making an awkward pass at Vicki. Embarrassed, he flees. At least he didn’t throw her in a wood chipper.

The movie has a false ending that occurs when Warren is giving his father-of-the-bride speech at the wedding reception. After having previously witnessed Jeannie’s resolution when he confronted her with his disapproval of the marriage, we anticipate that Warren will undergo a change of heart and find happiness in his daughter’s happiness. The speech seems to be headed in that direction as he finds something nice to say about Randall and all of his kooky relatives, but after an emotional turn talking about Jeannie and Helen, Warren concludes by saying that he is “pleased” at what has transpired that day. Not “overjoyed” or “filled with love” or “overcome by happiness” – merely “pleased.” In Jeannie’s face we see her disappointment, and perhaps her disgust, with her emotionally deprived father.

Many viewers were disappointed by the film, expecting the “you make me want to be a better man” moment that never comes. It’s true that there is no happy ending, but not every story should have a happy ending. We see Warren as he is, not how we want him to be. "About Schmidt" won’t leave you filling all sunny inside, but it is a fine movie with enough humor to keep it from being totally dark. As for Nicholson, you can put his Warren Schmidt right up there with Jake Gittes, Randall Patrick McMurphy, and Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky as one of the best performances of his career.

*We have several other “About…” titles in our movie collection. “About Adam” , “About a Boy”, “About Last Night” and “The Cutting Edge”, which is about stupid.

**Of all of Jack’s co-stars throughout his career, Peet would be my number one choice to do the honors. Shelley Duvall would be the last.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The World is Ending! And All Diamonds are 30% Off at K's!

K’s Merchandise Mart, a store that may fighting for survival in the Springfield retail arena, deployed a team of human billboards yesterday to draw attention to a jewelry sale targeted at forgetful or procrastinating offspring. Two gentlemen of the scruffy variety were stationed along Wabash Avenue, holding up signs announcing the sale. Their posture seemed to indicate that they weren’t being paid high dollar for their services and they exuded a level of excitement that can be expected from someone doing a job that requires all of the skills of a wooden stake. Although I wasn’t persuaded to stop into K’s 70s-style showroom, I still found it to be an effective form of marketing.

The sign toters immediately drew my attention because I thought they might be protesters. And if there is anything more interesting than a group of people so infringed upon that they are willing to make signs and take to the streets, it’s a lone protester, someone whose cause is so personal and possibly deranged that he couldn’t find a single other person to join him in his call for justice. Not to belittle our country’s rich tradition of public demonstration, but the spectacle of the seriously aggrieved falls behind only car crashes and sorority-sponsored car washes in their ability to elicit rubbernecking from passing motorists.

The thought of sidewalk hawkers and their sandwich board signs touting great deals on RCA Victor TV Consoles seems nostalgic. But as it becomes increasingly difficult to get noticed through the traditional means of advertising in the modern era, we’re starting to see some alternative forms of marketing.

The local Quizno’s outlets have gone the alternative route by forcing an employee into a large-Coke-to-go costume and shoving them outside of their sandwich shops. Unlike the lethargic K’s sign posts, the Quizno’s paper cups have been instructed to wave at passing motorists. Fans of Comedy Central’s Reno 911 are probably instantly reminded of the episode in which a giant soda cup is beaten with night sticks after smarting-off to two of Reno’s dimmest. If Quizno’s could stage a similar performance of street theatre, I might be persuaded to buy a sub between acts.

One of the hottest trends in guerilla marketing is orchestrated word-of-mouth campaigns. Marketing agencies such as BzzAgent enlist thousands of volunteers to spread the word on their clients' products. The volunteers try a sample of the product and are given a tip sheet on how to talk it up. Then when they are out in public, at a store or in a bar, the casually slip a mention of the product into conversation in what seems an unbiased endorsement.

After reading the article that introduced me to the concept of word-of-mouth campaigns, it occurred to me that I might have been the target of one of these buzz agents. Standing at the dairy case at Meijer, an elderly gentleman made mention of the fact that Brummel & Brown butter spread was selling for a remarkably low price. He also commented on the delectable taste of the yogurt-based concoction. I just pegged him as a friendly man with uncommonly strong margarine loyalty.

It would take an in-depth sociological study to determine just why so many people are willing to volunteer their time promoting products. It might take an in-depth psychological profiling to determine the motivation of Floyd Hayes.

Hayes specializes in the field of “voicevertising.” In a nutshell, he promises clients that he will yell out their products name every 15 minutes for a week, regardless of where he might be at the time. The makers of Halls Fruit Breezers took him up on his offer, appropriately enough.

Other strange marketing vehicles in recent years include selling advertising space on a suit of clothes, a forehead, and a pregnant belly. The motivation for these walking marquees is obvious, some easy cash. It’s doubtful that they will attract many paying customers once the novelty of their service has waned or full gestation has been reached. But it does illustrate just how desperate companies are to cut through the glut of marketing messages that consumers have conditioned themselves to ignore.

So sign-bearing strangers will continue to attract the desired attention until we wise up that they aren't Marshall H. Applewhite acolytes, but regular guys carrying crummy ads.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

SPD: Black White & Blue*

The latest installment of the SJ-R’s riveting newspaper serial, SPD: Black White & Blue, appeared this morning. Things are really heating up. It must be sweeps week.

In case you missed it, they’re starting to reveal more about the mysterious ex-mistress of our hero/villain (the writers are cleverly concealing their hand on this.) It turns out she’s not the innocent that we suspected. A plot has been exposed that reveals a contemptuous side to our would-be damsel.

But the real bombshell this week is the introduction of a new character. Hold on to your hats because not only is she the niece of the mistress, she is also the wife of one of the beleaguered detectives, who may be, along with the aunt, using the race scandal the department is in embroiled in to advance the niece’s career. How deliciously ribald! I suspected that eventually these two story arcs would collide, but who knew they would pull it off with such intrigue. All we need now is a shocking discovery of parentage, an evil twin, and an extended dream sequence and we’re talking Daytime Pulitzer (I’m assuming that there is such a thing, the equivalent of the Daytime Emmy?)

What’s that you say? This isn’t a fictional serial concocted by creative minds at the SJ-R for the pure enjoyment of its readers? This is an actual, ongoing news story? Well, that can’t be good for anybody, especially the Springfield Police Department (SPD).

Someone down at the city should yank the plug on this melodrama. The public may enjoy contrived stories of scandal and salaciousness but they don’t want to fund its production, especially if they fear that it may be jeopardizing pubic safety, even if that fear is unfounded.

The SPD does a poor job of defending itself in the court of public opinion. It also doesn’t seem to have a good sense of the damaging effects of bad publicity and how sometimes it’s better to cut your losses rather than engage in a protracted dispute in clear view of the public. On the same day that they received a vote of support in the form of a positive editorial, the aforementioned story appeared on the front-page. They can run their advertisements showing a bicycled and biracial police force all they want, the message that’s coming across is still the one that is making headlines on the front page.

Not that the SPD should take the full brunt of the blame in the ongoing saga. I don’t know much about the lead plaintiff in the racial discrimination lawsuit. I don’t know if he’s a good person or a good cop, nor do I know the merits of his complaints. But I will say that on the scale that charts the victims of social injustice, based on what I’ve read he probably falls slightly more towards the side of Rodney King than the side of Rosa Parks. As for Courtney Cox, I’m sure that the Black Guardians aren’t paying him by the hour, so he’s not likely go away without a settlement or a judicial decision. For the good of the department, however, he does need to go away, and not in a “sleeps with the fishes” sort of way.

The SPD should quit with the soap opera and return to those thrilling adventures of yesteryear, when virtuous crime fighters, free from the defects of prejudice, would overcome all obstacles to achieve justice for all while never disturbing the rakish tilt on their shiny-brimmed caps. The concept may sound hokey, but it would definitely play well in the real world.

*After writing this post, I realized that the first several paragraphs sound as if they were ripped from a transcript of The Shooting Sport. I assure you that this was not my intention and that no one is more disturbed by it than I am.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My state fair is the rockin'est state fair

In today’s A&E section of the SJ-R, Nick Rogers weighed in on the Grandstand entertainment lined up for the 2006 edition of the state fair. There isn’t much that interests me. This leads me to believe that I should be booking acts for the fair. I doubt that many of my picks would break the 10,000 attendance mark, but after years of avoiding the grandstand due to an aversion to crap, I think they can indulge me for just one year. So here it is. Nine nights of music magic.

Since there is a tradition of booking recently reunited oldies acts, the fair will kick-off with the triumphant return of the Replacements. Paul, Tommy, and Chris will resurrect the drunken tunefulness of the Mighty Mats with fellow Minnesotan Bob Mould filling in on guitar for the duly departed Bob Stinson. Opening up will be the already reunited Pixies, with Kim Deal given ample time at the lead mic.

The indie rock continues on Saturday with something for the younger set, at least the hip ones. Franz Ferdinand, the Hives, and the White Stripes will bring their minor radio hits and major chops to ensure that our kids learn the meaning of rock from someone of their generation. We’ll throw a couple of American Idol winners in the beer tents for those youngsters who like their rock and roll sanitized.

For all of you honky-tonk types with a penchant for dark lyrics, night two of the fair will go country with a troika of women artists who all make Shania Twain sound like a Hee Haw cast-off. Maria McKee, Emmy Lou Harris, and Lucinda Williams will have you eating crackers with your gin and drinking in your Sunday dress.

In an act of civic mindedness, locals will get the spotlight on Monday. I’ve lost touch with the local music scene since fatherhood has beckoned, so I’m going to have to call on some bands from my bar-hopping hey day. The Ingrates, They Came in Droves, the Belinda Chaire, and nil8 will make the jump from On Broadway to the capital city’s biggest venue. Someone will probably try to get me to book the Cherry Stoners as well, but she’ll just have to head over to the Ethnic Village if she wants to hear them.

To prevent debilitating culture shock from ravaging the community, we will have some traditionally bad Grandstand fare on Tuesday. That sniveling ferret who sings “You’re Beautiful” will take the stage fifteen minutes after I board a plane for somewhere less annoying. Since they’ll probably show up anyway, Central Illinois’ own REO Speedwagon will give their fans what they deserve. If I can get David Copperfield to do a couple of card tricks to kick things off, the evening of lameness will be complete.

I’m back on Wednesday to catch what will surely be an emotionally-charged evening as two estranged Illinois boys put their differences aside for the show they said would never happen. Jeff Tweedy and Wilco will headline after an opening set from his former friend and bandmate, Jay Farrar, accompanied by the original lineup of Son Volt. I may need Dr. Phil to help negotiate this booking, but if all goes as planned, we’ll be treated to a 90 minute encore of Uncle Tupelo songs.

Thursday night I give to my children. The original cast and voice extras from the Disney Channel's runaway smash "High School Musical" will perform all of the songs and dances that made them this summer's flash in the pan.

Aimee Mann will play on Friday, accompanied by the Illinois Symphony. I can’t take credit for the idea of pairing one of our generation’s most articulate songwriters with an orchestra. In the last week of June, Aimee will be playing two shows with the Boston Pops in Boston. The same week my family will be just a mere 170 miles away in Peachum, Vermont. Just a week before my birthday. And I’m a big Aimee Mann fan. What a present that would be. If any of you out there is my wife, I hope this wasn’t too subtle a hint.

It’s awful white, this Grandstand of mine. I don’t know from rap so we’ll go the rhythm and soul route for some music of color. Chaka Khan will sing us something good and the lunatic antics of funk-it-up Fishbone will make sure it isn’t a sunless Saturday. Where Prince? If the millionaire musician promises not to write "slave" on his cheek, he'll be given the prime slot. If I can be shown that Earth, Wind & Fire hasn’t turned into a cheap parody of themselves, they’ll be added to the bill as well.

Since I stole the symphony from its traditional spot on the last Sunday, I’ll atone by bringing in George Gershwin and orchestra to perform an extended, 75 minute version* of Rhapsody in Blue, one of the greatest songs every written. I want George himself on piano, which presents some obvious booking difficulties. But I figure if I can get Uncle Tupelo to reunite, I shouldn’t have any problem raising the dead.

So there you have it. Something for everyone, but mainly for me. Of course, I’m interested in hearing who will play when it’s your turn to book the acts.

*And no In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-style drum solos.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

So, it's you again.

Shopping for new cellular phone service this weekend, I was slightly insulted in the casual manner in which a particular salesperson addressed me. I don’t expect to be hailed as royalty, but if you want to sell me on what amounts to a $2,000 plus transaction*, you’re going to have to do better than “Hi buddy.”

I’m not the first person to bemoan the dismal state of communication in the retail environment, most of which can be blamed on whoever you happen to disagree with politically. I hold free-soilism responsible, a lasting remnant of their laissez-faire attitude towards customer service. But rather than curse their darkness, I’ll light a candle for retail employees and offer my observations on the most important aspect of customer/associate relations: the greeting.

Not only do I not require the royal treatment when shopping, I don’t even particularly like being called “sir.” I appreciate the good manners, mind you. But when a younger person says it, it makes me feel old. And when an older person says it, it creates this uncomfortable class division as if they are in servitude to me based on my fiscal superiority at the time of the transaction. I don’t need that. Besides, I always cede the title of sir to my elders and I’m not yet ready to assume that position.

“Hello, friend” has a nice ring to it. It’s wholesome and optimistic yet avoids being too familiar. If delivered too eagerly or with a suspicious twinkle in the eye, however, it could be a sign of an impending hustle in the style of Harold Hecuba.

Colloquial-type greetings are fine in the right situation. A cheerfully-intoned “Howdy”, “Que Pasa?” or “Whassup?” can add to the ambiance at an accordingly themed restaurant. Although, I’m not sure you want to hear any of these greetings coming from a sommelier.

“Hey, man” is only appropriate in head shops and organic delis. “Hey, Joe” should be reserved for Asian brothels. "Hey, Bill" is inappropriate at any brothel, the more formal "Welcome back Mr. Clinton" being the preferred form of address.

I still get “sweetie” and “honey” on occasion, and it becomes more disconcerting as the years go by. Not long ago, a girl some twenty years my junior called me “sweetie” no less than three times during our brief fast-food encounter. What’s worse, it rang with an almost maternal tone, as if she was impressed that I was such a big boy now that I could go to Burger King all by myself.

Since I often do my retailing with a pack of children, much of the communication is directed at them. While most of the fellas at Menard's are too embarrassed to tell me that I have beautiful eyes, grocery store cashiers are forever saying that about my children. It makes me proud to hear their compliments and if tipping a cashier weren’t frowned upon socially, I’d leave a little something extra on the conveyor belt.

You can’t go wrong with “hello”, “how are you?” or “did you find everything okay?” They’re pretty meaningless as sentiments go, yet the mere sounds of these words are comforting and they help convey the ritualistic aspects of human behavior during a forced confrontation with another member of the species.

Of course, we’ve gotten to the point where you can be forgiven for wondering if the person on the other side of the counter is of the same species. Some seem to lack even the most basic communicative skills associated with human beings. Even a “what, jerk?” is preferable to the silent distain and barely perceptible eye contact that often signals that it’s your turn next to receive some of that good ole Mickey D’s hospitality.

At some outlets, the greeting has been replaced with a sales pitch. This happens a lot at Jewel where the cashiers are required to apprise customers of the daily special. It probably wasn’t management’s intent that the greeting be lost, but that has been the effect. Apparently there is some sort of demerit system in place for cashiers who forget to push the special, so most of the time they recite it right off the bat lest they forget amidst a floundering of platitudes.

While greetings vary greatly, there is one closing remark whose popularity hasn’t waned despite its chronic overuse. I speak of course of the folksy, “Have a good one!” A good what? “Day,” I suppose, but why not just say that. It doesn’t require any extra syllabication and you won’t sound like you’ve been watching Roseanne reruns all day. But that’s a personal peeve.

You might consider it ironic in light of my preachings here, but I’ve decided to purchase new cellular service through the human-less environs of the Internet. It’s simply a better deal. I visited four different retail outlets this weekend looking for new wireless service, and none of them offered anything in terms of personal service that would justify my paying more than the online price. Isn’t that a fine “how do ya do?”

*80 bucks a month over a two year contract plus activation fees and phone costs.