Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Blank Stare Meets the Confused Clerk

Blank stares and confused looks rule the day after the Great Gift Card Christmas of 2006. Early statistics indicate an increase in gift card purchases of more than thirty per cent over last year. We certainly contributed to the gift card craze at our house, but not without considerable effort. We hatched and executed a pretty ingenious plan for our sixteen-year-old son. We bought gift cards to various restaurants and entertainment venues, along with tickets to two upcoming concerts. My wife organized them all in an expandable file and labeled it “Chris’s night out.” For a guy with a girlfriend but no job, this worked out wonderfully.
We learned quickly during the process that the gift card concept trips up your average fast food worker. With only a couple of exceptions, we were unable to acquire gift cards from the first person we encountered. Time and again, we would ask for one and the manager had to be summoned. Many times, you could tell the poor guy was exasperated, with that “How many times to we have to go over this for God’s sake?” look on his face. We also quickly determined that it is essential to keep the receipts, particularly for those “reloadable” cards. We have a low level of confidence that all of our cards were properly processed.
Redemption proved to be an issue, too. The Day After Christmas, kids rushed to stores to help the value of those cards evaporate into a mist of video games, DVD’s and meals-on-the-go. I was in line at a major national electronics retailer when the blank stare went face to face with the confused clerk. A teenager ahead of me in the checkout line had a gift card valued at $25.00. His purchase came to thirty-two bucks and change. He gave the clerk the card and a ten dollar bill. Simple, right? Not so fast. The clerk took all the money and gave him back the gift card with a balance of seven dollars and change.
Am I wrong, or does this make absolutely no sense? Isn’t it obvious that you should use up the value of the gift card first, and then use the cash to offset the balance, giving change in cash? The kid’s mother was incredulous, and who can blame her? The thing is, it had to be explained to the clerk at least three times and the kid never got it. Frankly, he didn’t care. It’s not his money. He didn’t buy the gift card.
That’s the beauty of it for those retailers. There is no chance the purchase will be for the exact balance of the card. If you give a card to a customer (particularly a young one) with a balance on it, it is likely it won’t ever be used. That’s free money for the store. If the customer is compelled to use up the balance on the card, another purchase is executed, maybe one that wasn’t intended to begin with. That’s more money for the store.
It’s no wonder they’re pushing gift cards so hard. Now, if they can push their employees to learn to work with them properly, we’re getting somewhere.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jump on the Bandwagon: Hate USC Now

The last month has been fun for veteran observers of the LSU football program. The team won ten games in 2006, backing up a ten-win season in 2005. Twenty wins over two years is an achievement worth noting for any college football team in America. So, why were LSU fans feeling blue in early December? It’s because they were not seeing red.
LSU did not win the Southeastern conference West Division title and consequently did not play in the conference championship game. Nonetheless, their success on the field had them ranked among the nation’s elite, and going into the first weekend in December it appeared that the team and the fans would have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to the Rose Bowl. If Southern California could defeat a mediocre UCLA team, then the Trojans would play for the national championship and a spot would be created in the Rose Bowl. LSU was tabbed for that slot.
In the days leading up to that decisive Saturday, the Tiger Athletic Foundation sent an e-mail to its members advising that post-season travel plans were developing quickly. The message was sent in red font. Some people read a lot into that, bought plane tickets and made hotel reservations in Los Angeles. Then, USC lost. That put the Trojans into the Rose Bowl and sent LSU fans scurrying about in a frightful fret.
What does it say about the state of your football team that you can make it into the Sugar Bowl matched up against Notre Dame and you’re disappointed? For days, the tiger faithful were crestfallen. The Sugar Bowl certainly is prestigious, but in this unusual context it suddenly appeared to be just another trip to New Orleans.
Once they snapped out of their funk, many LSU fans realized a rivalry of sorts had been born. When LSU won the Bowl Championship Series national championship following the 2003 season, USC was named national champion by the Associated Press. So, to the wide world of observers, the national title appeared to be split. LSU fans began to revile USC for casting a shadow on the legitimate national title. Now, in 2006, the Trojans did them in again by losing to UCLA and yanking the Rose Bowl rug right from under their paws. Even though USC isn’t on LSU’s schedule, there’s plenty of reason to dislike them. It seems almost personal, in a way.
A rose smells lovely, but sugar is sweet and the LSU faithful have come around. Shirts emblazoned with “Beat Notre Dame” became popular Christmas gifts. Talk turned to the quality of seats in the Superdome as tickets to the game became more and more in demand. Slowly but surely, the purple and gold people among us began to realize that this little trip to New Orleans wasn’t such a bad deal, after all.
There is the little matter of those non-refundable airline tickets to Los Angeles. There are people all over the state stuck with those. If that breaks the budget, people will be seeing red, after all. Of course, we’re talking about ink instead of roses. Wasted money: another reason to hate USC.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Another Crack at Defining Friendship

When I was about 20 years old, I lived through a pretty significant heartbreak. The girl I thought I was going to marry unexpectedly dumped me and revealed that she had become invloved romantically with my closest friend at the time. I spent all of my free time with those two people, and poof...everything changed in an instant.
Not long after that, some people took pity on me and invited me to a party. I didn't know anyone there well, at all. There was a young woman there named Dianne Hay. She was so kind to me. She spent time alone with me and talked with me...helped me through the evening. She gave me hope that I would recover from this emotional darkness.
I only saw her once more. I remember well running into her a couple of weeks later at the Pizza Hut on Kings Highway in Shreveport. I never saw her again, and I have often wondered what became of her. I would like the opportunity to tell her how much that evening meant to me. She was there when I needed her, and no more. It was amazing. I may never see her again, but she apparently made a permanent impact on me.
I received an e-mail from a friend which started like this:
People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you know which one it is, you will know what to do for that person. When someone is in your life for a REASON, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually. They may seem like a godsend and they are. They are there for the reason you need them to be. Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away. Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled, their work is done.
Immediately, I thought of Dianne. I guess the holiday season brings out my sappy side. My wife and I aren't nearly as social as some people I know. Sometimes, you think there are parties all over the place and we're just not invited. Then, something happens to make you realize that friends are friends. You don't necessarily have to be actively social with them to know they're truly significant in your life.
One of my newest friends (It's always hard to define that, especially when you're talking about people you work with) and his wife work really hard at "getting out there." If there's a fundraiser or a social event surrounding a cause or civic endeavor, they go. Consequently, they are invited to a lot of gatherings. Sometimes, I'm a little envious of all the things they do and all the social interaction they have. Then, I realize that we have essentially the same opportunities; we just make different choices. So, I ponder the difference between actual friends and business/ psuedosocial acquaintances.
My father has spent a lot of energy trying to keep the next generation of his family connected. I've steadfastly maintained that "just because they're your relatives doesn't mean they're your friends." Yet, during our most recent troubles with my brother, an uncle and a couple of cousins stepped forward as really good friends. So, I've learned it's never too late to re-assess your relationships.
The e-mail from my friend continued:
Some people come into your life for a SEASON, because your turn has come to share, grow or learn. They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy. Believe it, it is real. But only for a season.
The older I get, the more I realize this is true. I think a lot of time, "work friends" fall into this category. You help and support one another. Then, someone moves on and your work is done. You might occasionally touch base, but the relationship is changed. It has served its purpose.
LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons, things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life. It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant .
There are a couple of friendships in which I have this level of confidence. Here at mid-life, it is incomprehensible to me that I will not go to my grave loving these people. I am fortunate to have a life-long friend who has been with me at every major step I have taken, from first grade to marriage to becoming a father to burying a parent. I, in turn, have had the honor of being with him at times like those, as well. Of course, my wife is the best friend any person could have. She is the model for how relationships should operate.
Over the years, I have made a few enemies but have earned many more friendships. I'm not really comfortable categorizing them, I just celebrate them. At the holidays, I'm grateful for them. If anybody knows Dianne, tell her I said thanks.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The Longest Five Seconds of My Year

On the first Friday in December, I traditionally endure my annual physical. On Friday, December 1, 2006, the tradition continued. Having another man peer into various orifices is an unsettling experience on its own. In fact, for several years I went to a female doctor. I actually preferred that. However, there were certain activites which became necessary because of my family medical history. We weren't comfortable with her doing them, so I moved on. This is how we got to The Longest Five Seconds of My Year.
Let me lead you down this path gently (an adverb my doctor needs to embrace, by the way). My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer when he was in his 50's. The good news is: He's 80 now, alive & well. The bad news is: he was much younger than your average prostate cancer patient. So, as fortune would have it, I began experiencing the up close and personal exam for prostate enlargement when I turned 40. If you don't know what I'm getting at, let's put it this way: as far as I'm concerned, Christmas does not come early for me. Seven Decembers now, a cumulative 30-40 seconds of my life have been excruciuatingly elongated.
I know I get no sympathy from women for his. The pelvic exams they live through can't be pleasant. I have a point to make, though. For a lot of women ( I dare say most), isn't the area the doctor examines used as an entrance much more than it is as an exit? I mean, think about it.
From my perspective, this prostate exam causes someone to force his way in through the out door. ( With a nod to Prince, I guess the doctor could wear a raspberry beret. An obscure reference, I know).
The silver lining: I hate needles. Any kind of puncture turns my stomach. In the sequence of events surrounding this annual prod-fest, the bloodwork comes after the (Oh, my God, here it comes) digital rectal exam. So, the needle stick is a tiptoe through the tulips. I'm typically still reeling from the initimate invasion, so I sail through the phlebotomy portion of the program unscathed. The palpation portion of the process is almost a pleasure, in a non-homoerotic kind of way.
This leads me to the lingering mystery which seems to enshroud all of this for me. As painful (yes, painful) and awkward and unsettling as the Five Seconds are for me, I just can't figure how some people engage in similar activities for pleasure. Maybe it's like coffee, an acquired taste. I'm not interested in any new acqusitions, by the way. Thanks.
I already have another appointment for the first Friday in December of 2007. You know when I start dreading the first Friday in December? The first Saturday in December. The 24 hours in between, I'm just trying to recover.

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