Sunday, May 30, 2010

Don’t try this at home

You know the drill. You get some ailment, go to the doctor and get a prescription. Whatever your problem, the medicine you end up with shares this common trait with all others: Among the myriad potential side effects listed is one that’s identical to what the drug is designed to relieve. A drug for stomach upset, in other words, could give you stomach upset. One for sleep trouble might keep you awake. Got pain? It might be from the stupid way you lifted something—or from the drug prescribed for the pain. The original pain, for all you know, might be long gone.

It isn't just medicine. Watch a commercial on TV or listen to one on the radio. Car leasing, cellphone service, investments...the commercial's ending is invariably a monotonous rambling slew of syllables detailing how all exceptions to the commercial you just heard apply to you. If you could make any of it out, that is. Remember the speed-talking Joe Moschitta of that award-winning Federal Express commercial of 1981? I'm convinced he must make a big living as a coach to those who recite disclaimers at the ends of commercials.

Some of this, of course, comes from how we’ve become a super-litigious society. Consider all the disposable coffee cups with “Warning, this beverage is hot” printed on the side if you don’t agree. If you list every contingency imaginable, the theory apparently goes, the manufacturer can always say you were warned. But let’s face it—nobody takes responsibility for anything anymore. Just ask your weatherman.

Don’t think this trend has gone as far as it will. But maybe it shouldn’t stop here. I, for one, think it’s high time the rest of us had our own legalese disclaimers that could be posted at the entrances to our offices or cubicles, and piped into the phone as the boss is left on hold. Here’s one that could apply to many of us on Monday mornings—just not me (disclaimer):

Employee subject to lethargic fugue prior to ingestion of coffee, after lunch and throughout afternoon. Hunger prior to lunch may produce similar response. Guarantee to answer ringing phones and emails subject to prevailing mood and whim. Nodding in meetings not indicative of understanding or agreement. Help provided to mentored employees inversely related to level of perceived talent. Instructions carried out solely until receipt of written compliment supporting annual case for promotion.

Still, we’d better be careful here. The latest wave of entrants to America’s labor force is graduating this month, and if we fogies-in-training don’t get cracking, we’re bound to disclaim our lazy behinds right out of our jobs.

That is, until employers take the time to read the disclaimers some graduates present once hired:

Employee punctuality subject to length of line stood in to buy double-espresso raspberry mocha frappachino. Employee not responsible for time required to read and comment on status updates of 400 Facebook friends per hour. Texts received from friends and others during work hours immediately addressed with LOL or other appropriate response. Employee’s agreement to perform assigned duties subject to nullification should volume of manager’s voice exceed volume of music playing on employee’s personal audio device. Employer recognizes employee’s reserved right to corner office as per 16+ years’ inflation of self-esteem.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can you hear me still?

As cellphone users go, I’m the equivalent of a stuffed animal—the silent part, of course, not the cute cuddliness. That's how seldomly I use the phone. But having been born without the ability to tune out ambient sound, I can’t help but notice that many, many more words are being spoken into cellphones than before these products became ubiquitous. Is more actually being said? That’s for another blog.

What I find most interesting is that after years of work by manufacturers to implant a cellphone into every hand, other manufacturers are working very hard to get people talking on these devices to shut up and give the rest of us a break.

The product in question, a cellphone jammer, had served merely as an object of my fantasies for years before the other day, when I read about it in The Wall Street Journal. The columnist described his friend, Philip, as “one of the most civilized and heroic people I know.” But it seems one person’s right to speak loudly into a cellphone confronted, once too many, Philip’s right to his private thoughts. So after politely requesting that a person lower his voice, Philip’s next step was to reach into his pocket. To press a button that sent a scrambling frequency. To deliver justice to a lawless band.

I could have used one of these devices during my return from one particular business trip to Washington, DC. Having decided to return by train, I'd actually been looking forward to taking Amtrak again. I settled in to enjoy the ride, feeling my eyelids growing heavy. Until, that is, a few minutes after the train left Washington’s Union Station. When the fellow across from me pulled out his phone, called a friend and talked about absolutely nothing that needed saying…for 250 miles.

Let’s face it: Whenever we hear someone talking on a phone within earshot (okay, maybe it’s just me), we make judgments. We decide whether this side of the conversation is of a topic, volume and pitch we consider reasonable for public airing. If so, some of us have a chance to tune it out. If not, we might well imagine someone, anyone, grabbing the phone out of the offender’s hand, throwing it to the ground and stomping it to pieces. Other than the phone’s owner, who wouldn’t cheer?

On one hand, I understand why cellphone jammers are typically illegal except for, say, the military and police. Consider, for a moment, that a jammer blocks the signal not only of the offending phone but also of surrounding phones on which people are discussing important things. You know, like precisely when to make a stock trade as someone’s life savings hang in the balance. How much bleeding a sleep-deprived OR intern should consider inappropriate as he performs his first surgery. Or where I can find the nearest breakfast buffet.

On the other hand? I don’t just want a cellphone jammer—I’m far too ambitious for that. Intended only for phone conversations, jammers do nothing, nothing, for those other distractions.

I want a universal mute button.

Think of the sheer implications of such power. I expect I’d quickly get creative once I've taken care of the obvious uses: garbage trucks, car alarms and barking dogs. Think of the doofus with the crooked ballcap who likes to gun his car—the one whose muffler has long popped its welds—past your house late at night. I’d be waiting at the window …Mute. Take those Jet Skis and other “personal watercraft” that plague more and more beaches. Sorry if your engine’s drone is part of your fun, Bub, but we came to hear the wash of the waves. Mute. And what about the ubiquitous music blaring in restaurants, malls and supermarkets? It might be okay…if only it suited the tastes of the paying customers, not the employees. Mute. Mute. And mute.

Alas, there’s a downside to all this. Were the technology to truly exist that could cancel out any annoying sound at the touch of a button, you can bet it would be very expensive, at least at the get-go. It would also be illegal—or some short-sighted people would be using it on every police, fire or ambulance siren.

And for all I know, sometime I might be at the counter of, say, the post office. I’d be in the middle of trying to explain to someone who doesn’t speak Queens how I want something mailed, and the patience of someone behind me on the line will reach its end. He’ll reach into his pocket, press a button and “…all I’m trying to tell you—” …will be nothing, since my lips would suddenly produce no sound whatsoever.

Thankfully, I’ve a backup plan. I’ve got Italian blood, you see, so have a cultural advantage no technology can erase…not counting a chain saw. I can gesture my way, arms flailing, for the rest of the conversation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

At least we’re never alone

We all watched cartoons as a kid. One common scene is when a character, facing a moral decision, hears conflicting advice from two little floating companions that look like him (females have no such conflicts) but with distinct differences. One has wings and a halo; the other, horns and a pitchfork. We’ve never forgotten those critters because we have, in real life, our own individual twosomes telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. They follow us everywhere. And they never, ever shut up.

Oh, if life were only as easy as that these days. To follow the right path, you had to just listen to what the angel said and tell the devil, well, to go to hell. What’s hard about that?

But the little angel and devil, you see, are no longer alone.

Take the first little critter. Though floating in the air like the others, he’s shuffling his feet. He’s looking at his watch and furtively glancing at the nearest doorway. He exhales through his nostrils like a bull preparing to charge. Somewhere, anywhere.

His name is Agita.

Agita doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong. Strict rules of the International Critter Union—the acronym is no accident—keep jobs from overlapping. His job is to whisper in your ear, whenever you’re in a hurry, what will raise your blood pressure the highest. He asks little questions like, “Aren’t you leaving a bit late for work?” Answer yes to a question like this at your peril, because the follow-up comes next: “Didn’t you mean to buy gas on the way in? Didn’t you need to stop at the ATM?”

He uses both the angel’s and devil’s words for his own ends. The angel’s: “Sure, pick up the check, big spender. You can tell the family you’re vacationing on Staten Island this year.” And the devil’s: “Yeah, find a reason to hit the men’s room just as the waiter comes with the check…but every wife at the table will notice.”

If you’re not in a hurry? You will be. That bill you have to pay. That email you have to write. That repairman you need to call. You might, in a moment of clarity, decide no…no! I don’t want to get to work frazzled by doing everything that occurred to me before I left. Those things can wait till tonight!

You might get away with it, too, except for another critter: Agita’s companion-in-arms, Gotta.

Gotta wears a bow tie and, though he resembles his host, has twisted his version of your face into a sniveling expression. He isn’t there to tempt or to make you worry over things you really ought to do. Because to Gotta, there are no two ways about it. He stands and stares, arms crossed, blows a whistle and recites from his clipboard everything that’s your job to do. What’s on it? Everything. Take that computer you’re probably looking into at this very moment. Gotta’s list is long: Anti-virus, anti-otherbadstuff. Software and driver updates. New printers, mice, keyboards. Printer ink and paper, too. You need to back up your data and, every now and then, delete those emails with big, fat photos that fill up the hard disk. You think your computer works for you? According to Gotta, it’s the other way around.

The way Gotta sees you, it’s all just duty. But he has a way of turning everything around, if you let him, to take all enjoyment out of everything you do. Plant a garden? “It needs weeding, dead-heating, and fertilizing.” Take a walk in the park on a nice, sunny day? “You need sunscreen and mosquito repellent!” Stay home, make a nice cappuccino and read the paper? There…what could get in the way of that? Nothing, except that your most talkative friend’s own Agita tells her that she really ought to call you—at the very moment you sit down and bring the cup close enough to your lips to smell the cinnamon.

Besides, relaxing is really no option when all of them—well-meaning as the angel is—work on you at the same time. The din can be deafening:

• “Why don’t you go clear the snow from your neighbor’s driveway? He’s getting too old for this.”
• “What, the same fine fellow who complains if you don’t get to mow often enough for him? He can hire out like anyone else!”
• “If you don’t spend every available minute to make your own driveway perfect, the mailman will fall on his butt and sue yours.”
• “You’ve got another hour’s worth of chores indoors after you finish this alone, and it’s almost 11 p.m.!”

I don’t know what it says about 21st-century life that it’s the little devil who seems to have gotten reinforcements. I’m also wondering about another friend of Agita and Gotta.

I only notice this one while I’m at work. It has a constant cigarette, rolled-up sleeves and a raspy voice with a short but devastating repertoire: “You call this writing? You call that writing?”

I suspect that anyone who makes a living as a writer knows this one, who combines the worst qualities of Agita and Gotta, union regs be damned.

If you do any writing whatsoever, no matter what the job, you might even have met Edita yourself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Even a paper tiger has his resources

The newspaper is there long before I wake up. I presume it comes flying out from the passenger-side window of one of many cars that pass by in early morning. I have never met the driver. I suspect it might come from an unmanned drone, one possible reason today’s newspapers are going broke.

Folks who grew up in upper Westchester would likely tell me that newspaper delivery has always been for adults of driving age. But that’s not the way I grew up. No, the wilds of upper Queens spawned throngs of paperboys as young as 11 armed with canvas shoulder bags, bikes or shopping carts. We had three basic goals. One, of course, was making 20 bucks or more a week. Another was nobly serving customers—as long as they behaved and paid their bills with a fat tip. The last? Turning our parents’ hair gray, of course. This wasn’t something I would ever have thought of at age 13, when I first started delivering the Long Island Press. But looking back on it now, and with a son and daughter of my own, I realize it had to be high on the list.

Weekdays could not have worried them much; I did my route after school and still got the homework done. On Saturdays, I’d pick up my papers at 10-ish and was done by lunchtime. But there were two times of the week that had to be a concern. The first was my weekly collection on Thursday night. At one point I had two routes: one my manager gave to me and another I started on a block other paperboys were scared to deliver to. (Yes, it was my neighborhood.) And by the time I finished collecting, I had a hundred dollars or more in bills and coins bulging rather noticeably from one jeans pocket.

Thieves were one potential threat on collection night. Dogs were another, since most times I’ve been bitten were during collections as a teenager. But oh, those were the tangible fears. After the first five kids, I guess neither parent had sufficient breath to ask Number 6, as my dad affectionately called me, to please, please not go out at 2 a.m. to deliver newspapers. They might not have known that most paperboys did their Sunday deliveries at 6 or 7, when at least a few people would be out, and it never occurred to me to tell them. It was my adventure for the week, after all, and I relished the notion that no matter how early my customers got up, they’d find the paper outside their door.

Presuming I made it to their door alive. Take the bald guy in the trenchcoat who kept talking to me as I awaited the truck, which was late. Long before he asked the question he’d been leading up to, I’d pegged him as a pervert for being out alone at 2:30 on a Sunday morning—and for chit-chatting so long to a 13-year-old. I had the advantage: I waited in the street, not in the windowless office, and kept myself between him and the police station, a half-block away. Months later, I learned he lived next door to one of my customers. He’s probably now in Congress.

Then there was the bozo who decided to follow me in his car as I carried the papers toward my route. He’d drive up a few feet past me—and smile diabolically as I passed him. This went on several times till I ran out of patience. His car could go only in the direction of the road; I could go, more or less, where I wanted. So I cut over to a one-way street where he couldn’t follow except in reverse—which would have looked pretty silly for someone intending to look diabolical. By the time he circled back, he’d lost me for good.

Still, I learned lots of good stuff, too, as a paperboy. Sure, there was all that boring stuff about entrepreneurship and growing a business. I’m talking about the cool things. I figured out how many newspapers my parents’ fold-up shopping carts were not designed to hold; I went through two or three. I showed exemplary manners to building superintendents to wheedle out keys to their apartment buildings, so that I didn’t have to buzz my customers on the lobby intercom at 3 a.m. on Sundays, and to pick the lock of one building where the super had said no. I learned how to stalk customers who tried to pretend they weren’t home when I rang the bell to collect. And, through empirical study, I ascertained how many bell rings the average human being can bear before giving up and, sobbing hysterically, opening the door to hand me a rubber check for any amount I desired.

Come to think of it, the world was somehow safer then—even for foolhardy 13-year-olds. I guess I have to prefer the unmanned drones. Ones that can pull fold-up shopping carts, pick locks and fire the occasional heat-seeking missile.