Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Financial Circus

We surprised the kids today with a visit downtown to see the Shrine Circus. My wife found a "great deal" on tickets, so it wasn't too expensive. Sure, great deal. Once we walked in there I was robbed of every dime I had.

It's a good thing the Shriners are a charitable organization. Because there is NO reason a visit for four to the circus should have cost us over $120.

It started with the $9 for parking. Well, The folks that run Mellon Arena obviously need to maintain the parking lots somehow, at least until they are all torn up in six months when the new arena for the Penguins starts construction. Once inside, they really had us cornered.

Since we arrived early, we were able to wander around the show floor a bit. Lo and behold, the circus elephants were out and giving rides to all the five bucks a shot. Then, to the moon bounce, for another $5 each. Once we found our seats, it was of course time for a snack. Nachos, a pretzel, and a couple of drinks, $14.75. and the list goes on.

But what REALLY got me was the "great deal" on tickets. Those tickets included a hot dog and drink for each of us. so, upon intermission we ventured over to the concessions. It turns out those vouchers were only good for soda. My kids don't drink soda. So we asked for water. Oh no, those vouchers aren't good for water. Water costs an additional $3.50. I even asked for an empty cup so we could find a drinking fountain. Nope. They weren't allowed to just give us cups (thinking about this now, I should have asked for the soda then dumped it out, but I was too stunned at the time to come up with that idea).

And then, of course, came the souvenirs. Look at all those flashy sparkly things. We were able to make it almost to intermission without buying them each a flashy sparkly thing, but there's a reason the "ringmaster" got her name. At one point she had asked for the lights in the stadium to be turned off, so all the kids with sparkly flashy things could light 'em up, and all those poor waifs without flashy sparkly things could feel unloved. Twenty-two dollars later my kids allowed me back into the family.

In the end, I gave over $80 to the Shriners' machine, plus the cost of the tickets. They'd better save a couple of really sick hospital patients for that.

Oh, a final note about that $3.50 water. That does not include a cap on the bottle. The lady at the concession stand told me it's a national law that bottles of Dasani must me provided sans cap at all stadium events. Supposedly this is for safety reasons, but we all know the real answer...more chance of accidental spillage, forcing another purchase.

Oh, and as for that "Visa...Priceless" moment? That was probably when Jessica said to me, "Daddy, I'm bored. when's this over?".

Friday, March 30, 2007

Some Passover Enlightenment

With Passover coming soon, I thought I would share some recent (and classic) discoveries to make the Seder a little more enjoyable. After all the slaves got OUT of Egypt, so it's a happy time! Let's slouch and read some Dr. Seuss!

Dr. Seuss does the Four Questions

Wasting away in Maischewitzville
Funny, this looks like my family.

Uncle Eli's Haggadah
General Dr. Seuss-like goofiness

Matzoh Man
How to dress up a flat, unleavened cracker like a gay police officer.

The Two-Minute Haggadah
A Passover service for the impatient.
By Michael Rubiner

The Computer Engineer's Haggadah
(No, really)

And, lastly, the Top Ten failed Passover Sales Promotions:

10. US ARMY - "THE ARMY OF 'who knows ONE?"
9. Animal Awareness Passover Campaign - "Frogs are our friends, not a plague."
8. American Red Cross - "This Passover, lets make rivers of blood."
7. Lenox Hill OBGYN - "We won’t throw your newborn into the Nile."
6. Adoption Promotion Week - "Drop your unwanted children in a basket in the NYC Reservoir, for less fortunate parents to find!"
5. D'Angelo's Barber Shop: "Free lice check with every haircut."
4. Republic of China's Population Control Agency - Death of the first born commemorative pins
3. Ebay: "Your Afikomen is worth a lot more than that"
2. Radioshack: "You've Got 4 Questions, We've Got Answers"
1. Kosher For Passover Ex-Lax, now in new Matzah strength - "Ex-odus"

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pulling my crank

There's nothing like a good guy project. One of those projects that starts off as a simple fix-it and ends up as three trips to the local hardware store, the borrowing of a neighbor's pickup, and a call to the local utility company after causing a city-wide blackout. One of those projects that starts off simple enough, when you still have complete faith that it "shouldn't take more than an hour" and ends up with your spouse sending out a rescue party because you've been missing since Friday afternoon.

I had a good guy project this weekend. I had to fix my wife's elliptical machine.

The situation started at the tail end of the renovation, when the new bedroom was ready for occupancy. My neighbor and I moved this 500lb behemoth from the basement to the second floor. Unfortunately it was still plugged in when we started (yes, any good guy project is self-inflicted to begin with), and as a result we damaged the point where the electrical plug connects to the base of the unit. The plug connects to it much like a laptop, so let's call that point of connection "the plughole". It was still functional for a while, but eventually the "plughole" simply fell out of the machine.

So I called the manufacturer (has anyone noticed I have a penchant for calling manufacturers lately?) and asked if I could get a replacement plughole. He gave me a "there's good news and there's bad news" answer. The good news was they could overnight me the part for $20. The bad news was that the part was permanently attached to a wire that I would have to snake through the machine from the base all the way up to the electronic console at the top. I asked, "is it doable?" He said, "yeah sure, why not?" (I swear, that's what he said). I said, "let's do it then."

The next day the part arrived. I grabbed my tool bag and carried her up the stairs like that scene from Officer And a Gentleman, and got started.

Take a look at this machine. As you can see, there's a plastic "shell" of sorts surrounding a big round disk on each side to which the elliptical pedals are attached. The shell is attached by simple screws, so I started taking them out. After every last screw I could find was removed, I could not get the shell off. The disk seemed to be holding everything in place. And I couldn't figure out how to remove the disk.

So I called the manufacturer again. He responded with, "Oh, you need a crank puller."

In a glorious guy moment resembling that scene in Blues Brothers where John Belushi "sees the light"' the room brightened and a halo came over me as I realized that not only do I KNOW what a crank puller is, but my friends, I HAVE a crank puller! Yes, this overly expensive and very underused tool was sitting in my bike repair toolbox jut waiting for an excuse to be rediscovered. In case you are wondering, a crank puller is used to remove the axle that goes between the two pedal arms of your bicycle. But any real man would know that.

So after a quick trip to the garage and a quick, ummm, pull of my crank, the beast was subdued. Soon, the cable was snaked, the shell was put back on, and the unit was functional. Total work time, four hours spaced over three days, with approximately thirteen trips back down to the workshop for additional tools (including the crank puller). And the best part of it all? Only two leftover screws. Yes, the standard end to any normal guy project. I feel almost disappointed that I never had to call the electrical company, but the weekend's not over and Spring is in the air.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The man who won a goldfish for me

My dad's best friend died this week.

His name was Otto Strobino, and he was a huge man. And I don't mean physically, but rather in every other sense of the word. He was incredibly active in the New Britain chapter of the Connecticut Lions Club (along with my dad)both locally and internationally, even serving as International Director. His C.V was a mile long, as he spent his life building businesses, relationships, and foundations, traveling the world, and basically being involved in just about everything he could possibly be involved with.

But I'll always remember him for the goldfish.

When I was somewhere around 8 years old, we all went to the Berlin Fair in Connecticut. Otto stopped to schmooze with everyone, and along the way he tossed a ping pong ball into a hole and, presto, he won a goldfish. Having no need for a goldfish at the current time, he found the nearest 8-year-old boy to give it to, which happened to be me. Would you believe that damned fish lived twelve years?

Otto (the fish) finally went to fishy heaven while I was in college. During it's very full life it spent a year in the 7th-grade science class fish tanks, where it killed all of its tank mates. It ate chicken. It ate spaghetti. It even survived an episode where my sister accidentally dropped a box of tea bags into the water and didn't notice for hours; when we discovered him he was swimming in water that was deep red in color and was suddenly talking to us with an English accent.

When my wife and I married, Otto (the man) was unable to make it to our wedding. So my father hand-delivered a gift from Otto, which of course was a new fish. Unfortunately Otto Two lasted only about twelve hours, but the moment was there. As soon as I buy that goldfish tank for my daughters, the first one's going to be named Otto.

I hadn't really seen much of Otto over the past several years, living in Pittsburgh while my family is back in CT. But once I heard about his passing, I thought about it and realized he was a surprisingly strong presence in my life. He gave my family direction in many ways, by serving as a mentor to my parents as their lifelong commitment to the Lions Club formed. He gave my family stories, by dragging my parents to exotic countries, to international conventions, and to golf courses throughout the Poconos. To me, he was the politician, the Mayor, the guy who was always shaking hands with someone. And yet, despite all his accomplishments, despite all his responsibilities, his awards, his travels and his friendships, the guy still had time to win a goldfish for an eight-year-old kid.

Goodbye Otto, we'll miss you.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

One little, two little, thirteen little indians....

As mentioned in a recent post, today was the gathering of the Adventure Princess tribe at our house. At approximately 2pm, Natalie began asking every five minutes or so how soon they would get here...which, by the way, wasn't until 6:30pm. At 6:30 on the dot, the first minivan arrived in the driveway, a dad and a princess unloaded, and the volume got turned up past Eleven.

It is simply astounding, the deafening squeal produced by a horde of such small creatures. If we could somehow harness it, I think we would have the makings of a new nonlethal weapon against terrorists. Osama himself would come running from his hidey hole with his hands to his ears crying, "make it stop, make it stop!" and we would have peace once again.

Despite that, the evening went off without a hitch. The girls first gathered around the table for "the wampum jar", during which each little angel mentions something good she did over the past few days and tosses a dollar into an ancient pot passed down over the ages from the great Chief Nonni Biscotti Chocolati to be saved for a charity at a later date. Usually, the "something good" tends to be "I helped my little brother get dressed" or "I got my mom a napkin". We have yet to hear one of the girls say something along the lines of "I urged my parents to rescue a child from Darfur and take him in as one of our own" but maybe by next year.

After the wampum jar, the kids were herded to the basement for "the craft". The craft is simply an organized way of keeping 13 kids from destroying someone's home while the dads stand back, watch, and drink a beer. Our craft involved decorating little clay pots with foamies and ribbon, then filling each with dirt and planting flower seeds.

(Now at this point, if you do not have children, you're asking yourself, "what's a foamie?" Ah, a very good question. Foamies are out to destroy the earth. Little pieces of soft, squishy poylethylsomething foam, cut into creative shapes with peel-off sticky backs. I'm certain they are not biodegradable, not recycleable, and come in plastic bins of approximately 123,000 pieces. If you DO have children, you're thinking, "ah...foamies...keep my kids quiet for a half hour...greatest things on earth)

After craft, it was of course snack time. And what's better on a school night when the moms aren't around? Why, cookies of course! We got 'em good and hyped up on sugar and sent 'em home for momma to deal with 'em. And that's all there is an to Adventure Princess evening. I gotta go dispose of 13 juice boxes and about 38,000 leftover foamies now.

Frogs review Home Depot's website

My friend Howard commented on the last post about why I didn't consider just getting quotes on all the materials for the deck from Home Depot's website.

I'll let the frogs explain why I didn't.

Are you smarter than a Home Depot Employee?

So I went over to Home Depot today, to get a quote on all the materials I need to build our new deck a month from now. I figured they could just take the materials list we came up with, look the items up, and give me a quote on each so I didn’t have to walk around finding everything…right? Wrong.

I did the same at 84 lumber yesterday. It took five minutes. However, the guy at Home depot had to:

1.Log into his workstation
2.start up the same software they used to make the designs for kitchen cabinets and other advanced stuff. an entire deck ever so slightly resembling ours (mind you I had full architectural plans and a materials list with me)
4.adjust each dimension
5.print out designs and bill of materials that were very much not like what I needed
6.pick and choose certain items from the BOM and log into a different system, to find pricing additional searches to find pricing on additional things on our list but not on the BOM.
8.explain to me that he knew nothing about Trex or the other products, and suggest I call Monday.

During all that, a lady in her 60’s or so came by with her father, holding her father’s garage door opener remote. She asked if this opener had a battery in it. He said he wasn’t sure (wasn’t sure?? What kind of a man is he??). He then fiddled with it and said, “we do sell some batteries, but I’m afraid I don’t know”. I suggested sticking a coin into the little slot on the side to pop it open. He fumbled with it and decided not to try too hard, and handed it back to her, suggesting she try the outdoor department (mind you this guy is sitting at the millwork desk, which has a full display of Clopay garage doors right behind him).

After he finished my quote I went to find the lady. I popped open the remote for her, pulled out the battery and told her, “go to the radio shack up the road and ask for one of these.”

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Is a gathering of 14 little girls a gaggle, a flock, or the coming of the Apocalypse?

Okay maybe not the Apocalypse, but certainly a tenuous situation. This Sunday, approximately fourteen six-year-old girls will descend upon our humble abode for what's known as the Adventure Princess monthly gathering. A quick scan of the house enabled me to determine we've never had fourteen of ANYTHING in this house, never mind 14 high-pitched and overly sugared kindergarteners excited to get together and share with each other their latest pursuits of the ultimate in Disney Princess dress-up accessories. Luckily, each is arriving with a dad in tow. But honestly, what good are the dads, anyways? if things get out of hand, we'll all stand around watching the chaos and sharing comments with each other like, "man, that little blonde one sure has some lungs on her, huh?" and "nah, I got out of morning duty by getting her dressed for school one day in a t-shirt that said 'who farted', two unmatched socks, a tiara and her hiking boots."

So if you don't hear from me after Sunday, you'll know that the giant magnetic field caused by the static electricity of 14 little girls running to and fro engulfed our family room and sucked it into a black hole, lost for all of eternity. Or I may just be tired from the cleanup.

I'm getting old

It's official. I'm getting old. My doctor told me.

I went for my annual physical a month ago, the one I get religiously every decade or so. Usually my blood pressure is obscenely low, my cholesterol is made of silk, and my pulse is often sampled by a local techno band because of it's perfectly rhythmic qualities. The only family history of illness I have is an occasional deviated septum, a couple of hernias, and one long-lost uncle who died in a clash with a rabid wildebeest in on an African safari.

But not this time. The news came down like a piano tied to a rope outside a 4-story walkup. It went sort of like this...

Nurse calls: Hi, I've got the results of your blood tests.

Me: Do tell.

Nurse: Everything's normal, including your overall cholesterol, but your Good Cholesterol is too low. You need to start working out.

Me: How did you know I don't work out?

Nurse: Oh please...

So that's it. My overall plans to coast into my golden years by spending every evening in front of the plasma with a bowl of Moose Tracks in one hand and a handful of my kids' Goldfish crackers in the other is for naught. I need to get my ass off the couch.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bugabootoo Redux

I must send praise to Columbia Sportswear for treating their customers so well. A half dozen years or so ago, I bought a pair of waterproof boots (similar to these). I pretty much only wear them in the snow. Around here, that means I probably wear them a total of about 8 hours a year. Otherwise, they sit in my basement feeling lonely. A few weeks ago I put them on to find that the leather upper had completely separated from the rubber bottoms. Okay, they are slightly old, but come on....

So I decided to call Columbia Sportswear. The customer service rep agreed with me feelings, that any boot used this little should still have decades of life in them. He then asked me if the rubber was cracked, which it was. He said, "ah, you may have a pair made when we were having some problems with our rubber supply. Send them to our warranty center, they just might replace them even though they are out of warranty".

They are! How about that? It's good to see some sign of intelligent life in this day and age of planned obsolescence and decreasing quality of manufacture.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Apheresis Donation

Hey, I'm back. No, I wasn't taking a break to let the flamers cool down. I was traveling on business and visiting my buddy Paul and his wife and squirt on Dallas. I got back Friday, and spent Saturday morning donating platelets through Apheresis at the local blood bank.

I've been a blood donor for years. I usually give every time they call me, and it feels good to so. Blood donation doesn't seem to affect me physically, and I can usually get through the day without any dizziness of tiredness. So during my last donation, I got curious about the machine a couple of donors were hooked up to across the room, and the nurse explained the apheresis process to me.

As explained by the Central Blood Bank website and by the nurse, during apheresis blood is drawn and sent through a cell-separator machine. The machine spins the blood to separate the needed component, and then returns the remaining components to the donor in the same arm. I learned that this process is used to give platelets, which are the cellular component that stops bleeding and are used for cancer or leukemia patients, transplant patients and people with blood disorders. she told me the process would take about 2-1/2 hours and could be done early on a Saturday morning. And while a pint of whole blood has a shelf life of 45 days, platelets last only 5 days, making it all that much more important for the Blood Bank to find platelet donors regularly. Sounded good to me. So I signed up.

Up to the point of the actual needle stick, the beginning of the process is exactly the same as a regular blood donation. Fill out some papers, check the vitals, fill in a bunch of bubbles to answer questions about my last trip to Africa with an HIV-stricken pregnant prostitute with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and a penchant for needle-sharing to get a tattoo.

After the needle stick, things got a little weird.

In a normal donation, the nurse hangs the bag below you and gravity does the work of removing the blood from your arm. With Apheresis, the blood is sucked by a pump from your arm. As it enters the machine, those wheels start whirring as the centrifuge kicks into gear, and the platelets are separated from the blood. The rest of the blood is mixed with an anticoagulant and fed back into your arm through the same needle. I must say, I was not a fan of that feeling. Not only was it literally a rush to the head, but the anticoagulant, as I was told, made my lips, teeth, and head tingle. The nurse gave me Tums to eat, telling me that would ease the tingling. Oddly, they did. That went on for a little over an hour. I also found that if my arm rested in a more natural position (palm down), the blood didn't flow so well through the machine, and it began beeping like R2-D2 to warn the nurse.

After the process was done, it took a little more time for me than usual to make it to the cantina for my free cookie and juice. I was light headed and bordering on nauseous. But that passed in about ten minutes, and I was back to normal. The nurse told me that extra calcium before a donation next time would help all those feelings.

Apheresis is a rewarding and extremely necessary experience. I certainly won't do it every time I give blood, but I could see doing it once a year or more. If you've got the stomach and criteria for blood donation, then give apheresis a try. It may be a bit uncomfortable and draining (literally), but look on the bright side: you'll save a few lives, get to watch a grainy copy of Terminator 3 while you sit there, make your kids look at you like you're a superhero, and convince your spouse that the most important thing you should do the rest of that busy Saturday is sit out on the deck and relax.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A public apology: no pizza for you!

It seems that my innocent attempts to provide visual humor have offended. No real surprise here. But when I created my last post about Pizza Hut, I did what I usually do, which was to find an applicable image on google images and stick a pic of it next to the title of the post. Well, it seems the owner of the graphic didn't like it so much. First, I received a comment from whom I can only assume was the webmaster of the site where the graphic originated, suggesting that I was a thieving bodily orifice and that I should suffer with some sort of pain. I assume it to be the webmaster only because, well, who else would be tracking the possible bandwidth that the graphic would use? After a reply of my own, I received a far more professional, polite, and informative reply from someone whom I can only assume is an owner or officer in the business owning the website. One that politely explained their position. And I've granted their wishes and removed the graphic from my blog. A reasonable explanation deserves a reasonable response.

So, since this is a family friendly blog (at least it tries to be), I will point out the first lesson...that you get better results through politeness and patience than by being a blithering and threatening moron.

And by the way, I only deleted the comments because of the blitherer. I would have been happy to save the one from the site owner but I accidentally deleted it as well.

Now as for the use of graphics in general, I will also abide by the wishes of this site owner and be more forthright about my use of images, checking copyright where applicable and asking permission whenever possible. Frankly, I was wondering how long til something like that was going to happen.

And hey - we've all got a lot to learn about this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. I still think it's a fad. We'll see.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Irony in the form of Pizza

There's an article in CNN about Pizza Hut's "Book It" program being denounced by critics as corporate sponsorship run amok, leading to child obesity, etc. In the program kids read a certain amount of books and, in an exchange, receive a gift certificate towards a personal pan pizza. Critics say that all this is doing is pressuring parents to take their kids to Pizza Hut to engorge them with heart-disease-ridden pizza.

It's sad because yes, this is "corporate sponsorship run amok," and the end result is simply more business for pizza hut by the parents who have to buy a large pizza when they bring their kid there for his or her personal pan. It's sad because it's promoting fatty snacks for learning, and what kid would want to read a book if there wasn't a pizza in it for him?

But it's also sad because in many schools or families I imagine that this is the only way to get some kids to read. There's plenty of families out there that do a lousy job of promoting good learning habits and plenty of families that truly believe a pizza provides all four of the basic food groups (breads, meats, cheese, veggies) in one convenient package.

And lastly, it's sad because, frankly, I'd be willing to bet the Pizza Hut marketers truly believe this isn't a bad idea. Hey, if we can help kids learn to read, we're doing a great favor to our kids! So why shouldn't we make a buck or two while we do it? We've got to be able to afford the plan somehow, right? Well, yes. Right. But usually every bad idea that ends up blowing up the earth starts off as a good idea with good intentions.

I think I will go read a book to my daughter while she eats some fruit. she might even like it.