Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Bystander Effect

I'm not proud of what I'm about to share with you, but I don't want to hide from it either. It's inspired a lot of soul-searching on my part and it's something that we might all do well to ponder for a moment. I'm ashamed to admit this, but it's all true.

Tonight I was on the platform waiting for the train at the Gallery Place Metro station and I heard sudden shrill screams from above. "Help!! Somebody please help me!" There were a couple of teenagers to the left of me who arrived a few minutes earlier and they were somewhat rowdy and started laughing to themselves and I heard one of them say, "Haha, he say 'somebody help me?'" And then I thought it must be a prank, that it was someone with their group. I looked to the right and there were two other people who, like me, were standing there by themselves. We all looked around, concerned, not knowing what to do... the screams came from above, near the entrance to the station so there were Metro employees up there who could respond right away. We all exchanged concerned glances (well, not the teens so much) and then through this cloud of confusion, awkwardness and uncertainty, a man came racing past us. He was clearly not thinking, just reacted, and raced toward the scream. He passed the UP escalator before he realized the cries came from upstairs and not from the platform level. Rather than turn around and go up the designated escalator, he raced up the DOWN escalator. Fueled by determination, he made it up surprisingly fast. It was not until then that I realized what had just happened - someone was screaming for help and a crowd of people just stood there. I had just stood there.

I still don't know what happened or why the person was screaming. My train arrived and I got on and I have thought of little else since then. I have thought of Kitty Genovese and the more recent murder of Jayna Murray in Bethesda. Both cases when in hindsight, everyone shares disbelief that no one reacted. I really want to be that guy. The guy who ran up the wrong escalator to come to the aid of a stranger. But I was not that guy, I was just like everyone else.

It was not lack of concern that kept me from reacting, but at first I was in disbelief that the cry was genuine (I associated it with the rowdy teenagers), and then after the man ran past to offer help, I continued to wonder what I should do. All of these things went through my head: I have no medical training, I am not armed, I have a bad back and can't lift things, and strangely I just felt like it was none of my business. Like I didn't want to go up there and just stare at a person in need when there's nothing I could do. Plus, I knew that the Metro employees were there. These were all things that went through my mind. In hindsight - a.) I have a cellphone, if nothing else I could call for help and talk the person through. b.) Why did I count on a Metro employee helping this person? What if it WAS the Metro employee who was calling for help? c.) If everyone thinks the same way that I do, then we are all doomed. d.) "It's none of my business", while polite, is not a good rule of thumb in a potential emergency situation.

I have gone over this repeatedly in my head. Mostly because I am ashamed by my pathetic lack of reaction. But also, I can't stop thinking about that guy who ran up the escalator. Do you know how hard it is to run up an escalator that is moving downward? It takes a lot of effort or else you're just running in place. But this man who ran past me, he ran as if he was running for his own life. His energy and quick reaction was what you would expect from someone who was in danger and their life depended upon it. But this person's life did not depend upon it, he was responding to cries for help from a stranger whose life may or may not have depended upon it. I think this guy was a superhero. I don't mean to say that he looked like a superhero, because that was the most inspiring thing about it. He did not have the physique of someone who does regular drills running against a treadmill. He was also carrying a bag or a backpack that bounced haphazardly while he ran. As much as I regret my own behavior, I am equally inspired by this person. He did not even know what kind of situation he was running into, he was just running toward potential danger. I don't think I will ever be that guy. Clearly it is more likely that my slow reaction time will get me killed someday. By the time I realize that there is a potential threat, my reaction is more likely to be of self-preservation. That is part of what makes the guy so remarkable. If there had been a gunman at the top of that escalator, that guy would have been killed immediately. He would have been racing against an escalator toward his death. Even now that I wish I would have done something, I still don't think I'm capable of that much blind courage.

But it's a good time to consider two things - first, that if someone is crying for help and other people are standing their by themselves, that's the time to engage with those people. Instead of exchanging glances and allowing the other person's inaction to convince us that it was okay not to react, I should have engaged with them. Maybe we would have just verbally enabled one another's apathy instead of exchanging glances to satisfy it, but it's also possible that we could come together and taken action without being so afraid. The second thing to consider is if you are ever the person who is crying out in need of help. Take note that if you simply yell "Help" or even something more urgent like "Someone please help me", then there is a good chance that no one will react. If you find yourself crying for help and have the presence of mind to consider this, then it would behoove you to give a directive and smack people out of the fog of the bystander effect. For instance, "Someone please call 9-1-1." is better than "Someone please help me." Most people in earshot will have a phone and probably wouldn't hesitate to dial those three numbers from a safe distance. We all want to be heroes. We all want to be that guy on the escalator. But most of us are far more likely to dial a cell phone than race toward a potentially dangerous situation. That guy is a rare breed and if you or I are ever in danger, I hope he is somewhere nearby. In the meantime, maybe we could all strive to be more like that guy.

As I have said, I don't know what happened tonight that caused the person to scream. I will try to find out, and it's possible that if I know the whole story I will feel the need take this blog down or edit. It is not my intention to make excuses for what I did, or rather, what I didn't do. I'm just telling my side of the story and you may judge me harshly for it. It's all true. Superheroes are real and I saw one tonight.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

You're so profane, I bet you think this blog is about you

When I was a kid, there were two songs that I heard and instantly felt cooler than everyone else on the block. (To be fair, there were only three other houses on the block and like 800 people in the whole town, so the competition was not fierce.) I don't remember a lot from my childhood, but for some reason I remember exactly where I was and who I was with when I first heard Babylon by Faster Pussycat.

When I was with my girl friends, they/we listened to Belinda Carlisle and Madonna and Whitney Houston. But at home, I was in love with the pure sleaze of Pussycat. There was just something about the self-titled Faster Pussycat album that my fellow 13-year old girls just did not understand. They were so invested in Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, there's no way I could bring them over to the dark side and make them see the unsophisticated delicacy that is Faster Pussycat. It's an under-appreciated work of art and when I was a kid, it was my secret escape from the rest of the world.

25 years later, it still feels that way. Unfortunately, the band seemed to have consistently bad timing. Their first album was released right around the same time as the Guns n' Roses juggernaut, Appetite for Destruction. By the end of the 80s, the market was flooded with hard rocking bands with fabulous hair and only the titans of hard rock and metal stayed on the charts as the music industry searched to find the embarrassing music of the 90s to replace the embarrassing music of the 80s. But I'm not here to give an oral history of hard rock and heavy metal, there are plenty of places on the internet to find opinions on that. There is only one reason I bring it up and that is: Faster Pussycat is coming to the DC Metro area on July 1st and I am so freaking excited!!! 

I hadn't heard their album in years, so I downloaded it (from Amazon mp3 - Pay for your music, people!!) The memories instantly came rushing back. I really was the coolest kid, probably on the whole street, even. The first time I heard the opening pussy sequence of Babylon, I was in love. These guys made no secret about what they are all about and I loved it! I saw the lead singer, Taime Downe, on a rerun of That Metal Show recently. Again, this guy seems to have classic bad timing keeping him from the spotlight. He was on the same episode as Jani Lane, the lead singer of Warrant. Before the episode had even aired, Jani Lane tragically passed away, it will now be remembered as Jani Lane's final interview. Rest in peace, Jani.

Coincidentally, the other aforementioned "remember the moment I heard it" song that I mentioned was by Warrant, although it was not a "song" per se, but a track on the Cherry Pie album called Ode to Tipper Gore. This was in reference to the PMRC hearings and I remember buying the album, thinking "What's this?" and then hearing a mash-up of profanity taken from Warrant's shows. It was unexpected and funny, and seemed to my young ears such an act of rebellion that I was reminded once again, I'm the coolest kid on the block just for owning this! But Warrant and PMRC are a story for another time.

There are other songs that have made an impression or spoke to me throughout my life, but for some reason, at this time in my life, I needed the profane rebellion of rock stars to keep me going. I didn't have a particularly happy childhood. It was definitely boring, living in a small town in the Midwest with the same 20 people in my class year-after-year. The most exciting thing in our little world would be getting a new kid in school. My world was very, very small and familiar, and that can be extremely oppressive to a young kid who is curious about the world. So, to hear the music and all the excess of the hard rocking bands of the 80s with their screaming guitars and their sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle breathed life into me. It didn't make me go out and do drugs and go crazy (Did you hear that, Tipper? I turned out okay!) Honestly, I'm in my late 30s and I've never even smoked pot, let alone whatever other substance kids who listened to heavy metal were accused of doing. I never got any tattoos or piercings and someone once told me I look like someone who has an iPod full of Carly Simon music. (I do not have ANY Carly Simon music on my ipod or elsewhere, thankyouverymuch.) My point here is, that music with innuendo and profanity and whatever else uptight people hated about it, was not a bad influence. In fact, it was the best thing I could have hoped for. Closing the door to my bedroom and rocking out to bands like Faster Pussycat, Def Leppard, Warrant, Van Halen (among others) is the release that I needed to remind me that there was a bigger world out there. I wouldn't always be a kid in a small town with rules to follow and no place to go to have fun. And when I was 18, I moved to a bigger small town and got a job and took classes at a community college. A few years later, I moved to a college town and worked two jobs and took classes at the University of Iowa for several years until I finally (finally!) finished two bachelor's degrees.

After finishing school, I moved to a major metropolitan area and I got a job, and fell in love with a big city where important things happen. There are more people on my Metro train during my commute than were in my entire town growing up. That never ceases to amaze me. My entire community for 18 years of my life would amount to the same as the number of commuters battling it out for a seat on the train every morning. I still see the District of Columbia with the same eyes as my 13-year old self, and it never ceases to amaze me what this city has to offer. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, and this Sunday it's going to be awesome when I take a short drive and hear that same voice that gave me hope from the despair of my pre-teen years. I am going to see Faster Pussycat perform live at Empire, along with many other amazing and under-rated, under-appreciated artists. And if I happen to see Taime Downe in the venue at some point I'd like to buy that man a drink. It's the least I could do for someone who made me the coolest kid on the block.

I was going to finish up there, but I feel that it is only fair to share an opposing viewpoint. If my brother reads this, he will likely tell you that I was NOT the coolest kid on the block, and in fact not even the coolest kid in my household. When I emailed him to tell him about the show on Sunday, I asked him if he remembered that song, Babylon, because I remember him being there when I heard it for the first time, oh so many years ago. He replied, "Hell yes I remember it. I have the CD in both my cars and both my home and garage cd players. If a week goes by that I haven't heard that song at least one time than I was probably in jain (for a week)." I'm pretty sure he meant to say jail and that was just a joke to illustrate his conviction. I don't believe for a minute that they don't listen to Faster Pussycat in jail. But it did make me very happy to know that he has the same connection to the music. I'm not kidding, that town was extremely boring, and every adult just sounded to us like they were just babblin' on and on. I can't wait to see some hard rockin' 80s music on Sunday! 

Seriously though, I am cooler than my brother. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

A review of the new movie Rock of Ages

I really want to be kind to this movie. I knew that I would likely be disappointed, but I walked into the theater prepared to give it a chance. While I knew that the musical numbers would not stand up to the original artists, I reminded myself that maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this will introduce a new, younger audience to some music that has not gotten the respect it deserves over time. I tried to see the movie as a tribute to the great bands of the 80s. I tried.  I really, really tried.

I failed.  I hate it.  I hate this movie so bad.

No... no... then I remind myself that I am going to the concert in July! I bought tickets to the "Rock of Ages" tour! Def Leppard, Poison and Lita Ford, all on the same ticket! This movie is bringing the music back!  Yayyy?  Aw who the hell am I kidding? Poison and Def Leppard have never stopped entertaining people and they both have the same band members they've had for nearly thirty years. I'm done f-f-f-foolin' myself about this movie. It was like watching people at karaoke completely botch my favorite songs. It was painful.

So then I have to wonder - who is this movie for? It is not for people in my generation who grew up with this music because (I  will speak for my entire generation here) the music sounds awful to us because we know how much better it sounds with the original vocalists. So, is it for the younger generation? To tell the story of the Sunset Strip to people who vaguely recognize this music from Guitar Hero and American Idol? That is really the only possible audience I can think of. Only a young person would not understand how cruel it is to start off with the opening riffs of the Scorpions, followed by a female singing the lead vocals. Seriously, that's torture. I don't personally know what it is like for a heterosexual man to hire a prostitute and then find out mid-coitus that the beautiful woman he just paid to have sex with is actually a man in drag, but I imagine it is very similar to how I felt when I heard Julianne Hough's voice along with the music of my youth. Again, I admit that I've never been a heterosexual man in that situation, but I'm 99.9% sure that this is exactly the same feeling.

Perhaps it's just me. Maybe I found the movie more objectionable because I feel such a personal connection with the music of this time period. This year I have seen Van Halen in concert twice, and I saw so many 80s metal bands at the M3 festival a couple of weeks ago and it has reminded me how underrated the musicians are. I don't know anyone in DC who is interested in seeing the same bands that I am. Most of my friends laugh at my choice of music and get a trivial look on their face when I get excited about Def Leppard or Motley Crue or Kix. The sad truth is that the music that I loved growing up, now classified as Glam Metal, or 80s Hair Bands... however you choose to classify them, they seem to be judged in retrospect at face value. And their faces... well, they are full of makeup and their hair is full of Aqua Net. History has not been fair to the musicians, and it's unfortunate. These bands surfaced about the same time that Mtv and music videos became an essential way for artists to get exposure. So yeah, they had the hair and the glam and the costumes, because that's how you made it in the 80s. It didn't matter how good the music was if you didn't have stage presence. Which is why I find it a bit ironic in this movie that they a point of mocking boy bands as a gimmick to capitalize on a new music trend. At one point, a manager decides that metal is out and tries to turn a metal band into a boy band because "that's what people want nowadays." But I view this entire movie as being the same kind of mockery as the brightly colored boy band members. If the whole point of the fake boy band was to not "sell out" and stay true to yourself, then why have I did I just spend two hours watching them turn 80s music into an episode of American Idol? I don't think that they make a strong case in making fun of pre-fab boy bands when their male and female leads appear to have started their respective careers in reality television. To me, this is just the movie industry capitalizing on the shallow popularity of reality TV in the same way the music industry seized the trend and manufactured boy bands in the 80s.

I really, really wanted to be kind to this movie and appreciate the music. Instead, I'm going to grab my iPod and appreciate the real music. If you grew up with the same music that I did, I recommend you do the same.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

An expensive lesson about buying tickets online

I make a lot of mistakes.  Sometimes they are small ones and ultimately insignificant, but sometimes they turn into horrible, stressful nightmares full of regret.  This is one such story.  I made a mistake.  I bought concert tickets from a private individual online.  A jerk of a private individual and I'd like to tell you her name, but for now, I'll wait and see how the Paypal dispute turns out before I unleash full rage onto the internet.  For now, let's just make this a learning experience.

The funny thing is, I have bought and sold tickets to events online through many different venues and I have never had a problem.  I haven't kept track, but I would estimate between 50-75 times I have either purchased Caps tickets on eBay, or sold tickets on craigslist or Stubhub.  I never had a problem until two weeks ago.  This is pretty remarkable considering when I was desperately broke I had a very clever system in place that would allow me to see Caps games.  I would find someone online who was selling a block of 6 or 8 tickets at a price far below face value.  I would buy all of them, keep two for myself and resell the rest of them on Stubhub or Craigslist at face value and end up getting my money back and keeping the two tickets.  This way I was able to sell them for more than I paid for them to get all of my investment back since I underpaid so much.  It took a lot of work, but I saw quite a few free games, including the NCAA Frozen Four in 2009.  In retrospect, this could have very easily blew up in my face if I bought 6 or 8 tickets from a scammer and then turned around and resold them, assuming they were legit.  That would have come back on me.  In retrospect, I suppose I have been lucky thus far.

On May 12, 2012, my good ticket karma ran out.  I wanted very badly to go to the M3 Music Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion.  In fact, I was certain that if I didn't get to go, I would probably die.  It was a life and death situation that I find tickets.  I searched the internets carefully for VIP tickets.  VIP tickets were more expensive, but they  came with extra perks, the most attractive of which was a separate VIP area with a bar and restrooms separate from the rest of the venue.  The festival ran from 11am to 11 pm.  I didn't want to spend it waiting in line for drinks or for the bathroom.  I spent so much time online trying to find deals on VIP tickets.  Everyone was asking for more than face value to try and make money on the tickets, and I could barely afford them at face value.  I made so many lowball offers to people who never responded to me.  Finally I found someone selling two-day festival passes (Friday and Saturday) and I emailed her and told her that I only needed tickets for Saturday and made her an offer.  She waited until the last minute, but accepted my offer.  She had to overnight the tickets from Ohio, so on Thursday afternoon I sent her payment as soon as I received her invoice and she sent me a tracking number for the FedEx shipment arriving Friday.  I was very excited.  I was going to M3!!

Of course I know the risks of buying tickets online but I felt secure knowing that Paypal has policies in place for this sort of thing.  I have always used Paypal, eBay and Stubhub with confidence because I know I have recourse if the tickets are fraudulent.  However, I never went so far as to consider how much of a huge pain in the ass it would be to go through the dispute process.  And even then, I always expected that the law would be on my side.  If I was denied entry from a ticket, then how could they not refund the money?  Oh yeah, that whole "My word against hers" thing isn't as cut-and-dry when you consider there's someone else providing false information to avoid having to give your money back.  I may have had a false sense of security.

So, what happened was - on the day of the Festival, my friend and I handed our tickets at the door and the person scanned them, looked at the error message on her device, and then sent us to the box office to find out why we couldn't get in.  Then, we waited at the box office.  And waited.  And waited.  The person behind the counter had to call other people over to look at the tickets, then point at a computer screen, then talk to more people, before she finally explained, "The person who ordered these tickets called and canceled the order and then reinstated it.  When she did that, she invalidated the bar code.  These tickets are no longer valid."  She did not mince words, she said, "It's a scam.  People sell the original tickets, then cancel them and reissue them so that they can sell them again."  She was apologetic and told me to dispute the payment and try to get a refund.  I asked for written confirmation that I was refused entry, she said they didn't have any means of doing that, but to hang onto the tickets because if Paypal investigates and calls the box office with the bar code number, they will confirm that the ticket order was canceled on Friday at 10:30am.  Paypal knows that I paid her on Thursday afternoon, so she canceled them after I had purchased them, case closed- as far as I was concerned.  Rather than turn around and go home in defeat, I spent another $125 at the door for non-VIP tickets that were not as good and when I got in, I immediately went on my phone to the Paypal site and disputed the transaction.

The short version of what happened for the rest of the day is: She denied my dispute and said she had no idea why the tickets didn't work.  (I have since discovered that this is false.)  I gave her my phone number and we texted back and forth as she said she was trying to call the box office and trying to resolve the problem.  My phone battery died so I ended up in a tent for an hour with my phone plugged into a charger so I could continue texting the seller and trying to iron out the problem.  That was probably another mistake.  I missed at least four bands by typing emails, writing disputes and sending text messages.  Through it all she alleged she had done nothing wrong and had gone "above and beyond" in trying to resolve the problem and call the box office.  As it turned out, I was still able to claim the VIP benefit because she had not resold the tickets, so I was able to see the last three concerts from the VIP seats.  I also got the free t-shirt and b.s., which was less important than the good seats and the short line to the bathroom.  As far as she is concerned, she doesn't owe me any money back because I sat in her seats at the end of the show (the ushers don't scan barcodes, they just looked at tickets with no way of knowing that they had been reissued.)

It is still going through the investigation process.  Yesterday I received an email from Paypal stating that I had to provide documentation from a third party confirming that they had confiscated the item.  "The document must be on letterhead and include the name, address, and phone number of the individual, business or organization so that we may contact them if necessary."  Failure to provide the requested documentation will result in the claim being cancelled.  They thank me for my patience regarding this matter.

I spent an hour on hold with the ticketing agent today (Wednesday) before reaching someone and explaining the situation.  He looked up the account, talked to a supervisor, and was extremely sympathetic but told me that privacy concerns prevented him from giving information to anyone except the customer who had purchased the tickets.  So, he couldn't even tell me over the phone, let alone write something up in letterhead.  After more time spent on hold with Paypal, I explained it to someone there and she recommended that instead of the requested information, I send a scanned copy of the tickets along with all of the information that I had.  So I did.  All evidence indicates that the seller tried to cancel the tickets for Friday and leave them for someone else at Will-call (since I only purchased Saturday) but it was considered one 2-day ticket, so intentionally or not, she invalidated my tickets and claimed that she had no idea how such a thing could have happened and refused to refund any of my money.

Now I'm stressed out about it again because it appears that everything favors the seller in this case.  The only third-party who can confirm that I was denied entry is protecting their customer's privacy.  The reason I   am still awake at 2am on a Wednesday is because it has just occurred to me that I may not get any of this money back and she may have completely screwed my concert and get to keep all of my money.  I provided all of the information I have to Paypal and now I just wait.  I should receive a final decision by June 8th.

If you have read this far without losing interest, perhaps you have gone through the same thing yourself.  Feel free to leave a comment and share some of your hard-earned lessons.  After all, the point of this is to let other people learn from my mistakes.  It's a shame that I had no problems for so many years and now this one huge debacle will make me hesitate before buying or selling tickets online ever again.  I think 99% of the time, if people selling tickets seem legit, they probably are.  But let me tell you, that 1% is a huge pain in the ass!  Stubhub provides buyers with a toll-free number to call them on the spot if you are denied access to a venue, so I think that any problems with tickets purchased through them would be resolved more quickly.  The lesson to be learned for all other transactions - get a phone number.  If you buy tickets on craigslist, insist on talking to them on the phone first, that way you can immediately call them if you are denied access.  If I had been able to get in touch with her by phone, I probably could have gotten things ironed out before I shelled out more money at the box office.  Still would have been a pain in the ass, but not nearly the debacle that it ended up, and it would have been resolved much more quickly.  I don't know if eBay has the same resolution process as Paypal, but I assume it is similar.  So, make sure you have contact info and try to pay with a credit card if you can, that way you can always dispute the charge with your credit card company.  Oh, and don't ever buy anything from... ******   You know, if Paypal denies my refund, I will probably add her information to this post.  I would hate to see her try to pull this again, and I don't even want to think about how mad I'm going to be if she gets away with it and gets to keep all of my money after screwing up the festival that I wanted to see so badly.  I wanted to go to M3, but I didn't intend to buy tickets twice!

Oh, by the way, M3 was awesome - from what I saw of it, anyway.  It's a shame that so much was overshadowed by all of this drama with the tickets.  I feel especially bad for the friend that I invited because he entrusted me to buy the tickets and ended up having to deal with the drama.  I refused to take any money from him for the ticket since I had made such a huge mess of it from buying online.  But, I unplugged my phone and stopped dealing with it in time to catch the last song in one of my favorite band's set.  The good thing is, this has made me so excited for the M3 Festival next year.  I can't wait to buy my own tickets from the venue!  That was an expensive lesson learned!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Could DC residents survive the Zombie Apocalypse?

Last night was the season finale of The Walking Dead on AMC. This is an exceptional show that I wish more people in my social circle watched, because sometimes I really need to talk to someone after an episode, but there is no one to be found. So, I must go to the discussion forums on imdb.

The problem with the imdb forums is that a lot of people have already read the comic book, which is much farther ahead than what we have seen on the television show. From what I understand the tv show has made some deviations and character changes, but for the most part it follows the comic. This is problematic because I avoid the comics to stay away from spoilers, but reading an imdb forum where contributors have read them, I’m very likely to accidentally come across a spoiler. So, I try to read conversations that focus on a certain episode or seem spoiler-averse. Today someone posed the question to fans, “With where you currently live, do you think you could survive [The Zombie Apocalypse]?”

This is an interesting question for this forum because the contributors to the message boards are from all around the world, so everyone would have a different perspective. It has crossed my mind to question what I would do in this situation, but only long enough to realize I would be zombie bait. I don’t think any asthmatics would fare well in this environment. I would probably be very ironically killed by running for my life and having an asthma attack and dying. But, removing my asthma and general lack of cajones from the equation, I never considered the geographic pros and cons of being in Washington, DC. So, without further ado, here they are.

Pro #1) Government buildings. The District is considered to be vulnerable for terrorist activity, so while I don’t know the statistics, I would venture to guess that the city holds more panic rooms and bomb shelters per capita than anywhere else in the United States. The President lives here, members of congress, Supreme Court justices… Chris Matthews, Tony Kornheiser… What I’m saying is there are a lot of high profile people who live here, and there are buildings created with hypothetical pandemic and/or apocalyptic survival situations in mind.

Con #1) I am not the President, a member of congress, a Supreme Court justice, Tony Kornheiser or Chris Matthews. The likelihood that I would have access to one of these shelters could be slim.

Con #2) No guns. The strict gun control laws in the district would leave us extremely ill-equipped for defending ourselves from a zombie attack. We would need access to a lot of weapons, which brings me to…

Pro #2) Proximity to Virginia. Virginia has the right to keep and bear arms written into their state constitution. If I can make my way to Virginia, that is where my looting will begin.

Con #3) My apartment building. I live in a 12-story apartment building and it is very well populated. If the majority of the world population becomes zombies, the majority of my building would be full of people shuffling around and trying to eat my brain. There are a few residents I already suspect of being zombies, but they have never done anything to me, so live-and-let-live. Or, live-and-let-living-dead, as the case may be.

Pro #3) My apartment building. On second thought, there are a lot of 20-and-30-something professionals in my building, so we may just fare better than say, a frat house. Or a hospital. Or a retirement community. Although thanks to rent-control laws, there are quite a few retired people who opt to spend their twilight years in the same apartment where they have lived for decades. I am not judging. I am well on my way to becoming one of those people. But they would very likely contract that zombie virus long before I run out of inhalers & join their ranks.

Conclusion: The likelihood of the average citizen surviving in Washington, DC [edit: as compared to other geographical areas] = 50/50.

It may seem like I am over thinking this question, but I think it’s been a healthy exercise. It's always good to be prepared for any situation. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think so. My thoughtful consideration has taught me that it’s probably in my best interest to become friendly with a few more Virginians. And important government officials. I currently have a disproportional number of friends who are attorneys, which might serve me well if the zombies were just stealing my property or sexually harassing me, but fairly worthless for battling the average brain-eating variety of zombies. I don’t know that their extensive knowledge of the United States Code or their exceptional wardrobes will be much good in that situation. Unless they are from Virginia, of course. If they are from Virginia, they may have just moved to the top of my dance card.

Friday, March 16, 2012

FMLA for blogs (BMLA?)

Last summer I challenged myself to find something to blog about at least once a week. For the most part, I accomplished that and found something to prattle on about at length. Since December, it may appear that this blog has been abandoned, but I think it’s more accurate to say it’s on Medical Leave.

In November of last year, I wrote about my back pain, which I learned was due to herniated discs and mild spinal stenosis. You may have noticed how infrequently the blog has been updated since then. It is not a coincidence. The way that my herniated discs are situated, being seated is the most painful position for me. Unfortunately, I sit down at work all day long. During an average week, I find myself in several social occasions where it is not possible to stand up – attending concerts, hockey games, basketball games, or plays. I have been seeing fewer movies in the theater lately, but I still go to the movies a few times a month. Even if I was in the very back row, it would be weird to stand up through an entire movie while my friends are all seated next to me. Same goes for having lunch or dinner with someone. Playing board games (unless it’s Twister), getting pizza and a movie at someone’s home… pretty much anything you do socially is going to involve sitting down.

So, while sitting down is most uncomfortable, my back is not strong enough that I can do something really active, either. For example, going bowling with friends wouldn’t involve sitting, but I can’t even imagine what kind of damage I would do to myself if I attempted to bowl with my back as messed up as it is. Man I feel old.

Anyway, you get the picture. Sitting sucks. Standing is overrated. Walking is great, and laying down is usually fine. Sitting is the worst. Unfortunately I have not figured out a way to update this blog while walking or laying down. As a result, you have probably missed out on tons of mindless rambling that I may have otherwise put into my blog, if the thought of coming home and sitting down at my desk was not completely unbearable. We are now in the 11th week of 2012. Here is a list of things that I could have blogged about, were my back not hindering me from sitting down to write them…

More random pictures of underwear or advertisements that I make fun of;
The Republican presidential candidates;
The disgraceful mess that Tim Burton seems to be making in the name of Dark Shadows;
The Van Halen concert in Chicago;
The homeless man I went to breakfast with after the Van Halen concert in Chicago (that one actually could have been pretty interesting reading);
A thoughtful analysis of how much less time I have spent with friends since I added HBO and TiVo to my cable package;
More complaining about Barnes & Noble;
My disaster preparedness for the zombie apocalypse;
How much Leap Year sucked this year;
Lots and lots of complaining about how much my back hurts;

As I write this, I’m actually on break at work and typing into a word document that I will copy & paste when I get home. This is beginning to feel like a mistake because I usually get up and walk around while taking a break at work. This already feels like too much sitting. Of course, if I could find a way to make my points more succinctly, I could update the blog more often and it wouldn’t take so long without rattling on for hours. I need to learn to rattle on for minutes and then let it go. I’m not sure that I’m capable of such brevity.

Okay, break is over and I need to get back to other sitting-down related work things. Since November I have also been attending physical therapy on a regular basis and it has been helpful with alleviating the pressure on my nerves and spine. I have also had two epidural steroid injections. They may or may not have been helpful. The most recent was two days ago, so their success or failure is TBD. It is also directly related to the success or failure of updating this blog, so the good news is, if I start to update more frequently and at length, that means I must be feeling better. But for now. Ouch.

Thanks for reading. I'll be back! (No pun intended.)

Friday, January 27, 2012

I am not quitting, so I must be getting fired

I began working for Barnes & Noble in 1998. At that time the Coral Ridge Mall was still being built and when I heard that Barnes & Noble had signed on to have a store in the mall, I immediately went to the nearest location to get the lowdown on the hiring process for that store. I remember how giddy I was during my interview. I loved to read, loved to write, and I was ready to throw on the Cat in the Hat costume and start working that day. I was hired (as everyone was at that time) on a temporary basis, with the knowledge that they were hiring more people than they needed to assemble the store, not everyone would remain on staff after the store opened.

For about a month, my new B&N coworkers and I parked in the mud of the unfinished mall parking lot, and walked on cardboard and wood planks to get to the front door of the store without tracking in the mud. We put the first books ever on the shelves of the brand new Barnes & Noble #2917. It was more than a job, it was an amazing experience.

Opening a new store is a great bonding experience, and the employees got to know each other before we had to be all business casual. Even today, after we have all moved on, I still maintain a friendship with many of these people. I had a wonderful time over many years of working at that store. In the beginning, I worked 32 hours a week, and had a few $.50 wage increases. It was not enough to live on, but I still loved the job. After borrowing a large sum of money from a friend to keep myself from bankruptcy, I had to find a more lucrative full-time job.

Since then I have had four other full-time jobs (each more lucrative than the last) but I never wanted to give up Barnes & Noble. I remained a part-time employee and when I moved out to DC, I transferred to a store in the area. Since June of 2008, I have worked for the same store, giving up my weekends to help pay off student loans and go to a job that I genuinely enjoyed. My full-time jobs have all been in an office environment, where I am exposed to the same people every day. Working at the bookstore has been a wonderful way to get out and meet new people – both coworkers and customers. It exposed me to a lot of things that I would otherwise not have the opportunity to get to know. Not all of these things were positive, there are some people who are shamefully condescending they to people who work retail. For the most part, it has been a good experience. Sadly, the events of the last week have suddenly overshadowed my positive feelings about the company.

I was informed last week that if I did not open up my schedule availability, I would be terminated.

The manager corrected me when I used the word “terminated” because she assured me it was not punitive, it had nothing to do with performance, and if I could work more hours they would be happy to have me. But I am not physically capable of working more hours without killing myself. She said she understood, but gave me no other option. Tomorrow (Saturday, January 28th) will be my last day with the company. She kept assuring me that I am not being fired, but our conversation was like a mixed-up version of the stereotypical disgruntled employee/employer conversation. “You are NOT fired!” “Well, I am not quitting.” “But we are not firing you!” “Well you must be firing me because I am not quitting.”

Okay, it didn’t go down exactly like that, but it was similar. I have worked the same schedule for the last year. After all of this time, she has told me that it is unacceptable and she needs people with open availability, or at the very least, people who will work 2-3 days per week (6-8 hour shifts). She kept saying, “How many businesses do you know that have employees who work one day a week?” (What I didn’t say out loud: How the hell should I know? I don’t have any inside knowledge of business schedules!) What I did say out loud: “How many businesses do you know that have employees who have worked there for 14 years?” She went on to explain that the book business has changed in the last 14 years. This is obvious. Nothing is the same as it was when I started. The company has adapted to the changing consumer demands, and I understand that they constantly need to make changes. I just don’t happen to understand how terminating my employment factors in.

She went on to tell me that the company needs to save money and there are too many people who take advantage of the company benefits and holiday pay but only commit to limited part-time schedules. (What I didn’t say: Well if you would pay more, then people would be able to work here for a living instead of part-time.) What I did say: I don’t receive any benefits. How am I costing the company money? All she could say was – “Well, you get your employee discount. You can go into any Barnes & Noble in the country and get 30% off."

Really? I am bankrupting the largest book retailer in the country with my discount on occasional book purchases and once-a-week bagel & beverage from the cafĂ©? That’s a little hard to believe. No, actually, it’s just downright insulting.

But, I have no choice in the matter. As of tomorrow afternoon, I will not be a Barnes & Noble employee - for the first time in nearly 14 years. This is really not how I predicted this adventure would end. I am more than a little pissed off.

The conversation between the devil manager and I took place last Saturday right before she left at 4:00. Of course, I was scheduled until 5pm, so we had this horrible and offensive conversation and I was trying to hold back tears (unsuccessfully), then she gave me a moment alone to compose myself and I had to go back out onto the sales floor for another hour. My face was bright red, my eyes were bulging red and tears leaked out of them. I blew my nose every five minutes. Customers awkwardly avoided me as I watched the clock and waited for a very long 60 minutes to end so that someone could relieve me and I could go somewhere more private. All the time I am thinking – 14 years I have given to this company and this is how it ends?

You can probably tell, I am a little bitter. I am offended by the fact that my length of service means nothing. I understand that if someone with my availability filled out an application, that person would never get hired. It would not be worth it to train someone with that limited of availability. But I am not a new trainee, I am a self-sufficient, reliable and tenured employee. How foolish of me to think that would count for something.

For all practical purposes, I can understand their decision. Generally speaking and all experience aside, someone who works 30 hours is probably going to be a more efficient employee. There are so many trends when it comes to books, and displays are constantly changing, sections are re-categorized from time to time, and only working once a week, I don’t always know where everything is located in the bookstore. But that too is less of a factor because I have been working in the music & dvd department. I know a thing or two about movies. So I really don’t think that the problem was not being oriented with the store. What I think is that the economy has tanked and there are plenty of people who are willing to work for the store minimum. I do not make the store minimum. I am "maxed out" for the bookseller position and I don't even get raises any more. But a new hire would make about $4 less per hour, and probably have a PhD in Anthropology or something. That is the beauty of this economy for businesses. There are always people willing to work for whatever wage you offer to pay them because their other option may be unemployment. And I understand that it’s more profitable for a business to pay someone less and give preference to people who will work whenever you want them to because they don’t have another job to work around. I get it. I see how that could be a more attractive option. But I never expected to get kicked out the door so unceremoniously.

I am less pissed off now than I was last week. I realize that there are people in far worse situations than I am in. Whoever takes over my former shift may need the income more desperately than I do. Perhaps it works out nicely for everyone but me. I am less bitter about the situation than I was at first, but I still think it is cowardly how B&N handled the situation. I may not have put in many hours, but I gave up nearly every weekend for a dozen years to work there. I survived 14 seasons’ worth of hectic holiday shoppers. I had a strong connection to the bookstore and under other circumstances, would have remained a loyal B&N employee. But in one afternoon of breaking this girl’s spirit and then sending her back out on the sales floor to talk to customers while trying not to cry (unsuccessfully), they have all but erased all of those warm feelings that have accumulated over the years. I still have fond memories of the people I have met, and am happy to still have many of them in my life. But I can’t bring myself to show that company any more consideration than they have shown me, and I can’t imagine walking back into that store and having to see that manager ever again. She was successful in getting rid of me not only as an employee, but as a customer, too. I understand that the book business is struggling and they have to adapt if they want to stay in business. But I have very little sympathy for the struggles of the company after the disregard they have treated me with in the last week. I have done my part by saving them all of that money they were wasting by giving me a discount on my weekly bagel at breaktime. You are welcome, BKS shareholders. You are welcome.


[Follow-up edit: I arrived to work on 1/28 to find that I had been scheduled for the following Saturday, 2/4. The store manager never mentioned anything about our conversation to the Asst. Manager who writes the schedule, other than telling him a few weeks ago of her intention to talk to me. So, I am happy to enjoy one more week of employment, but it was like adding insult to injury to learn that the manager didn't find it significant enough to communicate my situation to the rest of the management staff. No one on any level seemed to know about my departure other than the people who I had told directly. How many times can a company burn the same bridge?]