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Friday, March 30, 2007

Quick Hits for a Friday

Random Thoughts...

Random Thought 1: Ever have one of those days where you e-mail yourself, just to see if your e-mail is working? I've done that twice today.

Random Thought 2: Why is it that I feel angry sometimes because my boss actually wants me to do my job? Today was supposed to be a warm, blustery and stormy spring day, temperatures in the mid-60's... It rained all morning, but about 11 or so it started to clear up. When I went to lunch it was about 75 degrees, sunny and calm. I started to think about taking off work a few hours early so as to enjoy the day, tootling about on my shiny motorcycle. Ah, how relaxing! I spent the early afternoon sitting at work, daydreaming about sun-filled blue skies, starched white clouds playing tag with each other... As my target time, three o'clock, started to draw near I completely lost focus on work. I was going to go outside! I was going to see the sun! I was going to breath air with REAL LIVE OXYGEN in it, as opposed to this chemical gunk we breath all day at the print shop... I was going to enjoy the afternoon! At five to three, however, my boss hurtled himself down the steps to the Art Dungeon and breathlessly informed me that we needed to reprint a job we'd botched, and it needed to be done NOW, if not sooner. There went my afternoon plans of playing in the sun. My boss was only asking me to do my job. What right do I have to be angry about it?

Random Thought 3: We have a microwave oven in our kitchen. It works pretty well, too, as long as the toaster oven isn't running at the same time (we blow a fuse when we run both at once). There's a numeric keypad on the microwave where you enter how long you want something to cook. You poke at the buttons with your finger, the machine beeps and boops a few times, then your food cooks. The microwave oven serves a second purpose in my life, however, other than simply cooking food in a timely manner. It makes me feel intelligent. You see, I can't just push "2:30" and cook something in two and a half minutes. I have to use judgment and intelligence, you see. I know, to the bottom of my soul, that I have a very deep bond with my microwave, and I (and ONLY I) know exactly how long something needs to be cooked. So it's never just "2:30." It's "2:27" or "2:36," depending on what my special intuition tells me. I walk away, smugly content, knowing that the average person would have undercooked their hot chocolate by three seconds... But not me! No sir. I know these things.

Random Thought 4: If people don't want illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico, why don't we simply see if we can help Mexico? Instead of building walls and waving fists, why don't we just help our neighbor? If Mexico had a bit better economy and higher living conditions, maybe more Mexicans would opt to stay in Mexico... I realize this is kinda simple and "pollyannish," but couldn't we give it a try? I know I always feel better when I'm helping someone get to their feet rather than kicking them back down into the mud...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Boy, when it rains, it pours...

Seems like I sat around half the winter with nothing to do, then WHAM I've been busier than a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest. Most of it's been good, some of it's been bad. This will probably end up being a "what I had for breakfast" kind of post...

Edwards in Sioux City

Senator John Edwards pushed his campaign trail through Sioux City a few weeks ago (March 9, to be exact). I found it tremendously interesting that they held the rally (town meeting, whatever they call it) in our part of town. In the few weeks since the meeting (rally, whatever) there have been stabbings (including a third grader stabbing another third grader), graffiti and gang activity in the neighborhood. So it says something that Senator Edwards chose this neighborhood to do his thing (meeting, rally, whatever). It has crossed my mind, too, that the Senator may have had nothing to do with choosing the site...

In any case, Dagmar and I trotted down the street and around the corner to the meeting, marvelling at all the unfamiliar and fancy SUV's, glistening with chrome, that were lining our streets. I did notice that once again there was a very defined pecking order. The bigger and fancier the SUV, the closer it had to be to the front door of the building... Never mind that you're blocking the bus stop in a part of town where many people don't own cars of their own. It seems that those who can afford to drive a Lexus or Lincoln must all be too weak to walk half a block.

I also noticed that no one bothered to scoop the snow off the sidewalks in front of the hall -- old ladies were hitching up their dresses and trudging through the muddy sludge to get to the sidewalk. I wondered if there were any handicapped people there, and how they managed to get to the sidewalk.

Once we got to the front of the building, it was apparent that we probably weren't going to get front row seats -- there was a line of people out the door, down the steps to the sidewalk. After about a half an hour of waiting in line, we ended up standing in the hallway in front of the gymnasium (or whatever). We could see the room where Edwards was to speak, but we couldn't actually get IN the room. This shouldn't have been too much of a problem, as we could hear fairly well what the speakers were saying... Until this very rude TV news team shouldered their way into the hallway with us. The cameraman seemed polite enough, but the little reporter lady kept babbling VERY LOUDLY on her cell phone. In spite of numerous people going up to them and asking them to be quiet, they rudely refused to move their operation, opting instead to stay where they were to do their VERY LOUD sound check. The camera man at least had sense enough to go outside to make his phone calls. It was bothersome that the little rude news reporter lady disrupted the event for about thirty of us (including State Senator Steve Warnstadt and his wife Mary) that were in the hallway. If I find out what station they belong to I'm sending a letter to the station manager.

As far as Senator Edwards' message itself goes, I'm sad to say I didn't really catch much of it. (You can look up his position on the various issues on his Web site.) I saw the Senator for about fifteen seconds as he and his entourage passed us in the hallway. After that all I could see was an occasional glimpse of the top of his head, and all I could hear was the rude TV lady as we stood in the echo chamber of a hallway. I could hear enough to tell that Mr. Edwards was a very polished speaker -- his natural warmth and charisma fairly oozed off the stage, surrounding the audience with a veritable fog of good cheer and confidence. The Senator made no groundbreaking announcements, nor did he deviate from his platform. I remember being impressed that he seemed to choose just a few issues on which to concentrate (health care and poverty), whereas most other candidates try to hit just about every issue on the table. Senator Edwards' health care plan seemed to be the most logical I've yet heard, and he had figures to back his plan. (In other words, he knows how he can pay for it.)

Most of the meeting (rally, whatever) was taken up by the Senator answering questions from the audience. Again, I really couldn't hear what was being said, unfortunately, but there was a lot of applause and laughter.

Once the rally (meeting, whatever) was winding down, Dagmar and I scooted outside into the chill March evening and made our way home. We couldn't help but notice that some guy in a tie got his SUV stuck in the mud. It seems to me that you'd have to have big brass balls to drive a SUV to a democratic event in these times of war and high fuel prices in the first place, but then to drive said SUV into the yard and over the sidewalk? In the mud? Then when you're stuck you spin your wheels, creating six-inch-deep ruts and spraying mud all over? All because you're a healthy young man wearing a tie and you're too lazy to find a parking place like everyone else? It's time to have those big brass balls bronzed, my friend.

My overall impression of Senator Edwards was very positive. Senator Joe Biden spoke well when he was in town, but seemed easily distracted. Former Governor Tom Vilsack seemed to know his issues well, but came late and left early. Senator Edwards knew his issues inside and out, handled himself well, and came across as well as a frontrunner should. Again, I wish local planners had made provisions for an overflow crowd (this was a problem at the Vilsack rally, too), and I was sad that the rude TV lady kept babbling through the entire event.

I'll be curious to see what happens when Barack Obama is in town this weekend! (He's going to be speaking on the rich side of town. It'll be interesting.) I shall endeavor to take notes for a change, and maybe even try to do my write-up BEFORE I forget most of the details...

It's a generational thing

"Hello?" I hate talking on the phone, but I like playing with my cell phone. It's a love-hate relationship. So when the phone rings I have conflicting emotions -- my natural shyness and fear of breaking some odd little "phone etiquette" rule versus my love of gadgets. I always end up answering.

"Hey," said the voice on the other end; a voice belonging to my father. "Do you know where your old pinewood derby cars are?"

"Is this a trick question?" I asked, wandering over to a window so I could peep out and catch the Candid Camera people in action. "I'm almost forty years old. I haven't seen a pinewood derby car in nearly thirty years." Nope, no Candid Camera in my yard. "Don't you still have them in the back room?"

I could picture my three pinewood derby cars in my mind. I won trophies with those cars... The Pinewood Derby is a big thing when you're eight years old! Where else can a boy carve a six-inch-long race car out of a chunk of pine and actually RACE it, other than at the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby? As I talked to Pops on the phone I could remember it clearly -- the Scouts provides each boy with a little kit containing a regulation-size chunk of wood, four little nails to use as axles, and four little plastic wheels. The rules state that the cars have to be within certain weight guidelines. We had, oh, a month or so to get our cars ready for race day, that magical day when the entire Cub Scout Pack would get together and run about a zillion heats, finally crowning a Pinewood Derby Champion.

Pops cleared his throat a little, before continuing. "Well, I did find some old pinewood derby cars in the back room, but I don't know if they belong to you or your brother."

"I had a red car, and a white one with a little spoiler on the back," I replied. "I forget what my third one looked like, to be honest." I peeked out the window again, this time to see what the nice police man was doing over there across the street... "Hey, what do you want with my old cars, anyway?"

"Well, your nephew is a Tiger Cub now," Pops said. "His first Pinewood Derby is coming up in a few months..."

It should be noted at this point that when I was but a wee little lad (second from the left, if you care to peek at the photo), Pops helped me build my little wooden cars. Or, rather, I helped Pops build my little wooden cars. Not only did Pops really, REALLY enjoy doing stuff like that, but he was good at it, too! He'd get more excited than my brother or I could possibly get... He taught us the fine art of sanding down little plastic wheels to reduce traction, how to squirt graphite into the axles to keep 'em from sticking, how to account for the weight of the final coat of paint as you're melting lead to put in a hollow part of the car just behind the center of gravity... Pops took this stuff serious! So now my brother's boy is a Cub Scout.

"So my nephew has his first Pinewood Derby, huh?" I said. "What does that have to do with MY old cars?"

"Well, I was hoping to use them as models for his car. I built a track in the garage for the boy to practice on... I was going to see which one of the old cars worked the best, so we'd know how to build his car this year."

Yes, my father built a replica of the old Pinewood Derby track in his garage for his grandson to practice with. You could say Pops enjoys this sort of thing...

So, when the family gathered for our traditional Christmas Dinner at the farm, there on the table were my old pinewood derby cars. They were pretty beat up - missing wheels, scratched... Next to them were my brother's cars. (My cars were all really thin little things. My brother's were much more stylish.) Even my sister's boyfriend's old cars were there. Ah, the memories.

A month or two later, my phone rang again. "You're not going to believe this!" bellowed Pops. "They changed the rules!"

"What rules?" I asked, ever the polite boy.

"They won't let the boys take their pinewood derby cars home with them any more -- they have to work on them at the Fairgrounds. Under supervision." His voice started to crack a little. "And they won't let me help the boy - they say he has to work on the car with his father!" I could hear the anguish. "But I'm only the grandfather. What am I supposed to do?"

Turns out that they'd had problems in years past with fathers being a little, well, over-involved in building their children's cars. I remember hearing of one boy when I was a Cub Scout whose father took the little wooden car to a body shop and had it professionally painted. Now they can't take their cars off the premises at all - the boys bring their fathers and their tools to the fairgrounds to build the cars. So poor Pops can't help; all he can do is watch...

And, you know, my nephew did just fine! I couldn't be there, but Dagmar tells me the boy got a nifty ribbon and had a great time!

And Pops was in the audience, loving every minute.

GEEZE, whadda day!

Have you ever had one of those days where everything seems to go in hyperdrive? I hate those days. Our hyperdrive day actually started the night before, on Friday, March 16th.

Again, a phone call. "Hooonnnnneeeeyyyy! The car just qvit! It just stopped running right in de middle of de road! Vhat do I do?"

"Calm down," I told my little Austrian Snowflake. "Where are you?"

"I'm in LeMars," she said. "At my church meetink."

Great. My wife is stuck in the neighboring village with a broken car on a Friday evening, and I was still at work. A great way to start the weekend. We had plans! I needed to be sixty miles north of Sioux City by 7 the next morning to help the American Legion Riders (ALR) do a presentation at a Belgian Waffle Breakfast. We were to meet with some friends the next day to go out and celebrate St. Paddy's Day. A broken car and a distraught wife just weren't on my schedule anywhere. I checked. Nope, nothing on my agenda about a broken car.

"Well," I said, "let me make some phone calls. Your mother is at the meeting with you, isn't she? Can she give you a ride home tonight and we'll deal with the car in the morning?" After a bit more wailing and gnashing of teeth, we decided that was the best plan. I called my brother, who lives just three blocks from where the car died, and asked him to take a peek at the car. Being the nice guy he is, he didn't hesitate an instant. "Sure, I can take a look at it," he said. "I don't know what I can do, but I'll go look at it..." Half an hour later he called back. "Yep, your car's dead," he said. "I have no idea what's wrong with it..."

I called the ALR guys and told 'em I couldn't make it to the Waffle Breakfast (which really upset me quite a bit, actually - I've never had a Belgian Waffle), and made a few phone calls to some friends in the fine town of LeMars. An ALR buddy of mind gave me a tip on where to take my car to get it evaluated, and my brother said he'd help me fumble with the car again in the morning. Dagmar's mother gave her a ride home, and we put things on hold until morning.

"Gaaah!" I exclaimed when I woke up.

"Vhat's wrong?" asked my Little Viennese Vixen.

"It's only 25 degrees this morning. How are we going to get to LeMars to work on the car? It's too cold to take the bike."

"Vell, I guess we have to take de little vhite car," said Dagmar. "Hopefully it'll get us there." The little white car hasn't been out of town in years. It wheezes, and occasionally sneezes. Only one of the doors works.

Having no real choice, we crossed our fingers, got in the little white car and headed for LeMars. Surprisingly, we made it without incident! I dropped Dagmar off at my brother's house to watch the nephew and nieces (my sister-in-law was at work), and my brother and I trotted down the street to see what we could do with the broken little red car.

Turns out there wasn't much we could do with the little red car. "Hmmm..." I said. "Got a tow rope?" My brother nodded. "Wanna drag me to the local mechanic?" My brother nodded. We hooked the tow rope to the car, mapped out our route through town, and off we went, flashers flashing.

Twenty minutes later found me despondently kicking a tire as the mechanic said, "I don't really know what's wrong with your car. I can look at it, but it'll probably cost about three-hundred and fifty bucks just for me to find out what's wrong. If it's a timing belt, it'll only be around three hundred, but I don't know if that's what's wrong..." This was an emotional low.

"How much do you think the car's worth?" I asked.

"How much gas is in it?"

"Thirty bucks, maybe."

"About a hundred dollars."


I thanked the mechanic, told him I'd be back for the car later, and got in my brother's truck. I said a bad word, then we went back to his house to collect my wife.

"Looks like we may need a different car," I told her. "It will cost more to fix the red car than it's worth." Thankfully I'd only paid a thousand dollars for the little red car when I bought it back in 2001. We got our money's worth... The problem is that we were planning to get a different car next year -- once my student loans and the bike loan were both paid off -- not this year. This year we have no money.

Not quite knowing what to do, we got in the little white car and headed back to Sioux City. By the time we got to town we'd formulated a plan of sorts. We figured we'd get a nice, reasonably-priced used car to tide us over for the next few years. Great. Okay.

We pulled into the first used car lot and started walking around. "These are USED cars?" I asked. "Look at those prices!" The only cars on the lot for under $10,000 looked an awful lot like the one we were replacing -- the one they told me was only worth a hundred bucks. We looked at a nice little Mazda. Fifteen thousand dollars, but it only had 50,000 miles on it... We got back in our little white car and drove off.

"Vhat now?" asked my vife.

"Let's go to the Toyota place," I said. "Maybe they'll have something affordable..." As soon as we pulled in a nice lady came over to us. "We're looking for a nice used car," I said. "A small car -- gas mileage is important to us."

The nice lady smiled at us and showed us a few used cars. We didn't really like any of 'em. I was ready to go, but... "Do you have any Yaris' in the lot?" I asked. "I've been reading good things about them, but I've never actually SEEN one..." Well, it turns out that a brand-new Yaris costs the same as a decent used car.

Within an hour we were signing papers. We bought a new car! I've never owned a new car in my life! This is EXCITING! Scary, as we're not real well off financially, but exciting nonetheless! An emotional high! Dagmar and I hugged each other, grinning with glee and whooping with joy!

As we were signing the last of the paperwork, my phone rang. I have a strange relationship with my phone. This was one of those times when I wish I hadn't answered.

Turns out my uncle had passed away earlier that day. Funeral at 11 on Wednesday just southeast of Des Moines. Numb. Even though it was expected, the news still shocked. My uncle is dead now, and there's nothing anyone can do. No last conversations, nothing. No more chances. I said another bad word - my second of the day, this one heartfelt.

Emotional low.

Dagmar and I quietly finished up the paperwork and went to collect our brand-spanky-new car. They'd washed it while we were in the office. It shined nicely. The nice lady showed us how to run everything, "...and this is how you fold the back seat down..." and off we went, Dagmar in the new car, myself following in the little white car.

By the time we got across town and into our driveway, my spirits had revived a bit. It had been an emotional whiplash of a day - broken car low, new car high, uncle passing away low... But what can be done? I concentrated on the good.

Dagmar and I stood in the driveway for a while, admiring our new car, then made our way inside. "Oh my!" she exclaimed. "Look at the time! We're supposed to meet our friends for St. Paddy's Day soon!" With that she disappeared into the other room to do whatever it is that women do for an hour so they can see their friends. I decided I'd have a nice glass of Abbey and listen to some nice music to cheer myself up a bit.

Frothy ale in hand, I started iTunes. Ahhh... Some nice yodeling music. That's the ticket! Nothing makes a man happier than drinking a Belgian ale whilst listening to some guy yodel "The Chicken Dance." About halfway through the song I looked over to see my beloved Austrian Turtledove grinning from ear to ear, hair in braids, looking positively radiant.

"Und ve YODEL!" she cried. "Und dance!"

No one dances to a good yodel quite like someone born and raised in the Alps, lemme tell ya!

An hour later, much cheered, we scampered off to meet our friends, one of whom was wearing a green wig, and a grand time was had by all.

I have much, much more to say, but it's quarter to five in the morning. I should probably catch an hour's sleep before I head to work, I suppose. (Insomnia sucks. I was so pooped yesterday I fell asleep at eight last night. But then I was up at three in the morning...) The rest shall simply have to wait for another post.

Friday, March 16, 2007

I haven't forgotten...

...just been busy

I have a ton of stuff to blog about, but Dagmar and I have been on a pretty busy roll lately (meetings almost every night, work, full weekends, work, got to ride the motorcycle for three hours, work). I haven't forgotten my beloved blog, I promise.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sunday Ruminations

To Whom It May Concern:

Here's a letter I e-mailed Philips, a national corporation, complaining about something:

Hiya... I just bought your "4 in 1 Complete Cleaning System." "All you need to clean CD/DVD" it says on the package. I haven't tried it yet, so I assume the product itself is fine. What's got my tail twisted into knots is the horrible, terrible, miserably misbegotten hardshell plastic packaging the product comes in. Have you ever tried to open one of those things? It's neigh on impossible, I tell you.

Here I'm sitting in my comfy robe and slippers, cat snoozing gently on my lap, adoring wife by my side as I stare in complete bafflement at this fine example of impervious packaging that encases your product in a shell of transparent plastic that's so tough I'm not sure a diamond-tipped drill could make so much as a scratch. All I want to do, you see, is get a DVD to work, thus ensuring me an afternoon of peace and quiet. But instead, I now have a distraught wife, and angry cat, several cuts and scratches on my hands as I sit here, surrounded by various knives, scissors, box cutters and razor blades. I'm reasonably sure I just heard my cat say a bad word, and I'm fairly certain he learned it from me as I struggled to open your product.

Can't you just put your stuff in a nice paper bag, or maybe just put your products loose in a big barrel in the store and forget packaging altogether? Seriously, you gotta come up with something better than this...

Thank you for your time,
Chris Radloff

And here's their response, bad grammar and typographical errors included:

Dear Mr. Radloff,

Thank you for your email to Philips Customer Care. We understand you're complaining on a DVD lens cleaner's packaging.

We apologize for the inconvinience, but to provide the best customer care regarding your request and problem determination for your product, we suggest that you contact this number that you may be able to obtain the needed assistance. Please contact Philips Accessories and Peripherals at [phone number].

Seems odd to me that a company that so prides themselves on "being green" has packaging that certainly seems bad for the environment in many ways. And why do they have a section on their web site where you can e-mail customer service if they're just going to send you a form letter telling you to call them? They didn't read my missive, their computer simply spat an automated reply back at me. I'm sure the theory is that they're hoping people will forget about it and leave them alone, skipping the phone call (as I did - I hate confrontation). The problem is that they'll never know how people feel if they're not reading their e-mails... Bad customer relations, methinks.

I'm not condemning their products, mind you, I think Philips is a fine company. I'm just torqued that I couldn't open their stupid package is all.

Speaking of packages - Dagmar bought a bag of almonds the other day. On the back of the package is a conspicuous, rather ominous-looking warning. "Contains Almonds," is what it says. Well, I should hope so! It is, after all, a bag of almonds... Did they think people were going to be surprised?

Boo! I'm an almond!

Things That Are On My Mind

Katy, Texas:

I've seen this on TV, and have read a bit about it on-line, too. It seems the terrorists are winning. You see, the Islamic Association there has bought some land, and would like to build a mosque and a school there.

After they'd bought the land, they asked the guy they bought it from to please move his cattle off the property so they could start development. The guy misunderstood for some reason and thought they wanted HIM to move off HIS land. So, in a typically small-minded show of overreaction, the man, Craig Baker, decided to race pigs along the property line when the Muslims were having church every week. The Islamic religion deems pigs to be "unclean" animals, so this is a very deliberate snub.

"I am just defending my rights and my property," Baker said. "They totally disrespected me and my family." When he found out that he was mistaken, and the Islamic Association wasn't trying to force him or his family to move, had this to say about continuing the pig races: "I would be like a total idiot if I didn't. I'd be the laughingstock now because I've gone too far." I hate to tell you, Mr. Baker, but, well... the idiot thing kinda fits.

Here's a video of the whole mess. Please take a minute to watch it. It's good.

It's a little scary to hear citizens of the United States of America (founded, by the way, by people fleeing religious persecution), a nation that guarantees freedom of religion, saying things so blatantly bigoted.

The terrorists have won. We're now turning on ourselves.

Ann Coulter:

Ms. Coulter has brought the Republican party more embarrassment. In a speech at a conservative function, Ms. Coulter referred to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards as a "faggot." Besides the obvious stupidity of the remark (Mr. Edwards is happily married to a very nice lady) and the offensiveness that particular word holds for the gay community, Ms. Coulter has brought light to the fact that the conservative movement in America no longer respects ANYONE. I'm sorry, but name-calling and denigration are NOT family values, it's second-grade bullying.

America is a great nation. Most of our greatness comes from our diversity. In these times of terrorism and doubt we CANNOT allow ourselves to hate. White, black, red, yellow, brown, gay, straight, Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, Jewish, we all need to stand together. We are ALL citizens, and are ALL afforded equal rights and protections under law. Ms. Coulter's remarks are dangerous precisely because they aim to promote an "us versus them" mentality at the very time we can ill afford to be a house divided.

Besides, isn't it more Christian to be accepting of others? Isn't that what Jesus taught?

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Friday, March 02, 2007

The Week in Pictures

It's been, as usual, an unusual week...

On Wednesday there was the weekly Jam Session at the Chesterfield.
You can see more photos I took HERE if you want. Just follow the links...

How to exercise? First, touch your toes.
This is strenuous, so you may want to take a break at this point...

Looks like a blizzard...

The bad weather started Wednesday night, and is expected to continue on through to Saturday morning. Looks like I'm gonna be walking to work today... (Hopefully the boss will kick us out early. I left at noon yesterday, but I brought half a desk full of work home with me.)

I may blog more later today, but if not, feel free to read THIS POST about conditions in my neighborhood, or maybe the bottom half of THIS POST I wrote a while back about hate, or Bert Bananas has an interesting thread going that you can read HERE. If you want something kinda funny to read, here's a post I wrote back in 2004 that people seem to enjoy...

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