Sunday, February 25, 2007


This morning I woke up at the usual time for a weekend – around 8:00. This is long before my wife and daughter, who routinely sleep until 11:00 on weekends. So out of respect for their sleep needs, I usually tiptoe out of the bedroom in my sleepwear (a t-shirt and a pair of boxers), and fritter away the morning hours on the computer. Once they wake up, I can start noisy activities, such as laundry, dishes, yard work, etc.

My wife woke up about a half-hour ago, and we were chatting and watching TV when the phone rang. It was my wife’s friend, who lives down the street, wanting to stop by with some paperwork. “I’ll just tuck it inside the screen door,” she said.

Moments later, the doorbell rang, and my wife limped out to answer it. I went into our home office to check on some things. To my dismay, my wife invited her friend in. They’re in the family room now, talking. This could go on for HOURS. I can’t go out there because I’m still wearing my sleepwear. They’re between me and the bedroom, so I can’t change.

I’m trapped like a rat.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Take Back Our Names

I’m sure you have all noticed the alarming trend in the past decade to sell the naming rights to buildings and events. It’s where greed meets Marketing theory. I don’t work in Marketing (thank God), but it seems as though all Marketing people want to work for a company like Coca-Cola. This isn’t because Coca-Cola has a superior product, efficient distribution, or great profit margins. None of this matters to Marketing, that’s someone else’s job. It’s because Coca-Cola has embraced the philosophy of brand awareness, which is the Holy Grail of Marketing.

This philosophy, simply stated, says “If potential customers recognize your product brand, they will buy more of it than other brands.”

This is why you cannot turn your head in any major population center in the world without seeing the Coca-Cola brand name at least 3 times. They devote a massive portion of their annual revenues to brand awareness advertising. The objective is to ensure that everybody on the planet knows the Coca-Cola name, and they have succeeded.

The advantage of brand awareness advertising is that it is non-competitive. That is, it doesn’t have to be creative, truthful, or properly targeted to be effective. If you use traditional feature/benefit advertising, your competitors can beat you with better advertising. Brand awareness advertising is just THERE. It doesn’t have to do anything. It doesn’t have to compete.

To be fair, Coca-Cola does do some traditional advertising, intended to convey product benefits such as taste, satisfaction, thirst-quenching-ness, etc. But the vast bulk of their advertising is merely to convey their product name into your brain as often as possible. This is called “building a strong brand,” and it works really well for commodity products, such as ballpoint pens, laundry soap and beverages.

The problem is, not all Marketing people work in commodity industries. But they all went to Marketing school, where the concept of brand awareness was relentlessly hammered into their tiny little brains, until they understood that money can’t buy creativity, but it can buy brand loyalty in large groups of consumer drones who buy on impulse.

So the Marketing people working for banks and investment firms continually try to generate brand awareness for their stuffy industries, failing to realize that nobody with money chooses a bank or investment firm on impulse.

I live in Orlando, FL. We have a large arena here, which was known locally as the “O-rena.” But then, about 10 years ago, T.D. Waterhouse bought the naming rights and called it the “T.D. Waterhouse Center.” This is a clumsy name for a place to go see a basketball game or a rock concert. But to my way of thinking, it’s laughable to imagine that an arena football fan gives a hoot about the business of T.D. Waterhouse. So the name sat up there, meaningless, for a decade. It offended me - huge glowing letters that represented only two things: The greed of the arena owners and the hubris of T.D. Waterhouse.

This year, it was replaced by a higher bidder. It’s now the “Amway Arena.” So now I have to be offended by greed, hubris, and the barely-legal business practices of the world’s most successful Multi-Level Marketing organization.

I used to live in Boston, where the historic landmark Boston Garden was torn down, rebuilt and renamed to the “Shawmut Center,” then the "Fleet Center," then "TD BankNorth Garden." It will never end. The legacy of a respected name has gone the way of the dinosaur, no longer a monument to the Boston Celtics basketball dynasty, but instead a shabby testatment to impermanence. Fenway Park hasn’t sold out, though. Not yet.

These affronts to my sensibilities are endless. When the Orlando Predators play, and the home team achieves a first down, the announcer declares that it’s a “Jack Daniels First Down.”

I suggest that readers of this blog resist this commercial intrusion into our public namespace. If a building has a neutral or generic name, use that whenever possible. Let’s take back the right to define the names of things to suit ourselves, not the Marketing objectives of huge, faceless corporations. Because if we let them have this beachhead, it will only get worse. I guarantee that somewhere, a group of Marketing executives for a large corporation are trying to negotiate the right to change the name of Tiger Woods to “Morgan Stanley” or “Bud Light.”

And it won’t stop there. Picked out a name for your firstborn yet? Just curious. Someone will make you an offer.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Geek Heaven

These days, there seems to be a lack of distinction in the definitions of the words "dork," "nerd," "geek" and "freak." When I was younger, a "dork" was a clumsy person, a "nerd" was a bookish person, a "geek" was a nerd with strange or obsessive interests, and a "freak" was a geek with extremely strange, very obsessive, usually offensive interests.

The lines that used to separate those definitions have been blurring over the decades, to the point where the word "dork" is now used as a term of endearment. Today I experienced an event where I was privileged to see the point in the universe where all of these terms became meaningless. I went to MegaCon.

MegaCon is a convention for comic book fans, Japanese animation fans, collectible action figure fans, fantasy film fans and sci-fi film and television fans. In other words, it's a convention for dorks, nerds, geeks and freaks. People wait all year in breathless anticipation of this show, where like-minded people can come together in a celebration of their social misfit status. The only reason I was there was because my wife scored free tickets.

I dropped my wife, my daughter and her friends off at the entrance, then I parked the car. I had to walk a long distance across a pedestrian footbridge to get to the convention hall, and as I did, I found myself following a young man carrying a sword. A sizeable percentage of the attendees show up in costume, dressed as their favorite character or superhero. This particular guy was wearing woven straw sandals that were tied to his feet with coarse twine. Authentic, yes. Uncomfortable and impractical, definitely.

Swords were everywhere. People carried wooden swords, foam swords, plastic swords. There were several vendors selling real swords if you wanted one. There was even an arena set up where people could fight with foam swords. The guy in the kilt is the referee:


There were all kinds of exhibits: Comic-book dealers, DVD vendors, toy and game dealers, costume shops, even a company selling reproductions of famous film and TV robots.




The place was packed, and as I wheeled my wife around in her wheelchair, I realized that the vendors who had paid hundreds of dollars for exhibit space weren't the show. The crowd was the show.







Lines of tables featured comic book artists who would sign their work or execute commissioned drawings. On the other side of the hall was a "celebrity" area, where Noelle Neill (who played Lois Lane in the Superman TV series) and Margot Kidder (who played Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies) were signing autographs along with lots of other minor celebrities and sub-minor celebrities.

There was a crazy energy pervading the exhibit hall, a palpable sense of belonging, as though I had gained entrance to an exclusive country club that only opens its doors once a year. This is where fantasy becomes reality.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

My Kryptonite

I belong to a pool league and play every Monday night in a large pool hall. Running a pool hall is a tricky business, because you need a lot of square footage to keep pool tables, and square footage costs money. So you need to keep customers coming in to justify the expense. This is why pool halls always have other attractions such as big-screen TVs, dartboards, pinball machines, foosball tables, a bar and a jukebox. It’s also why the pool hall hosts pool leagues on Monday nights, filling the tables with drinking customers on a night that would otherwise be dead.

The game of pool requires concentration, which is hard for beginners to achieve in a noisy, smoky, crowded environment like a pool hall on league night. The noise is like a constant roar, punctuated with mechanical dings and bleeps from the pinball machines, squeals of delight or anguish, thumping bass from the jukebox and the smashing of beer bottles as they are tossed into the trash. As you gain experience, you discover the Zen-like ability to focus your attention on the shot, excluding the distractions around you, which fade to a kind of background hiss, like white noise.

I consider this noise filter to be a kind of superpower, like invisibility or the power of flight. Unfortunately, like comic book superheroes, certain things can take away my power like Kryptonite, leaving me weak and vulnerable.

One night, early in my attempts to develop a noise filter, a group of six Yuppie guys in white shirts and neckties rented the table next to where we were playing our league matches. They had been drinking, and were playfully trash-talking as they took turns. They all had these weird, high-pitched giggles, like middle-school girls. I’d be lining up a shot, tuning out their clumsy sarcasm and dull witticisms, when suddenly one of them would shriek a hideous laugh that cut right through my noise filter, causing me to stiffen and wince. I’d have to stand up, sigh, and line the shot up again.

I’ve since reached the point where noisy players no longer bother me. But there are some things that still do, and they’re all found on the jukebox at my pool hall.

Jukeboxes have come a long way since the days when they actually contained vinyl records that had to be moved mechanically onto a turntable. These days, they’re all solid-state electronic devices. Only a couple of hundred songs are actually on the jukebox at any one time, but if you want to pay a little extra, you can download almost anything from a central server and play it. Today’s jukeboxes have a nearly unlimited catalog.

Although I live in Central Florida, the jukebox in my pool hall has a pretty wide selection of music, from the 60’s to the present; it’s not all Country and Western, thank God. Most songs, no matter what genre, good or bad, simple or pretentious, don’t annoy me at all. But for some reason, the following songs are able to penetrate my defenses:

    “Hurt” - Johnny Cash

      Never known for his ability to carry a tune, his aged voice wavers and fails to find the necessary notes, while the bass player attempts to seize control of the planet.

    “Lumberjack” - Jackyl

      A fairly tolerable rock song, but at one point, the lead singer plays a chainsaw as a musical instrument and my fillings jiggle in their sockets.

    “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)” - AC/DC

      A great song, until the bagpipes come in. Then I just can’t play pool. It's not that I don't like the bagpipes. But I'll never be a pool champion in Scotland.

    “New York, New York” - Frank Sinatra

      Yeah, somebody plays this occasionally. I know who it is, and I’m gonna take care of him. Fuggetaboutit.

But there is one song that outshines them all as the most annoying, soul-destroying song ever, capable of penetrating my noise filter with no resistance at all. The problem is, it’s been around for 35 years. I never thought I’d still be hearing it in the 21st century. It’s “American Pie” by Don McLean. Somebody plays this song every week, and I haven’t caught the bastard yet. Because it’s eight and a half minutes long, I can’t wait for the song to end to take my shot. My only consolation is that somewhere, Don McLean is sitting in a decrepit tour bus outside of a seedy bar in a small town somewhere, fighting the urge to kill himself as he prepares to sing that song for the 3,000th time.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Left Foot, Redux

Prior to my wife’s accident, she had scheduled elective surgery to correct an arthritic condition in the big toe of her left foot that had caused the joint to slowly seize up. This made it painful for her to walk, and impossible to wear dressy shoes. Once she broke her ankle, the surgery was postponed.

On Friday, the doctor told her that she could now put weight on the injured foot, making it possible for her to hobble around, drive a car, and enjoy the freedom of mobility that she had been craving since mid-December. He also gave her permission to have the toe surgery, if she wanted.

This put her on the horns of a dilemma. The foot surgery would leave her immobilized for another month or so. But we’re currently planning a trip to Panama in mid-March. If she waits to have the surgery, she’ll be in a wheelchair for the trip. If she waits until after the trip, she’ll have to go back through the whole disability paperwork hassle again. So she decided to have the surgery this week, and endure another month of pain and immobility.

Yesterday we got up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the orthopedic surgery center. We hung out in the waiting room with several other people, all women, who were in various stages of misery. One was suffering from a migraine so severe, she was near tears.

My wife was called in, and I went in to see her once she had been prepped for surgery. She was on an IV drip, consisting of saline solution and a sedative, which made her pleasant and relaxed. Several years ago, I had surgery to remove a benign tumor, called a lipoma. The doctor who performed the surgery removed the WRONG lipoma, and I had to go back into surgery to have the correct one removed. This doctor was more cautious. The nurse had written “YES” on her left ankle and “NO” on her right, so there wouldn’t be any nasty lawsuits.

Just before they took her in, they gave her an injection consisting of two drugs: Fentanyl and Versed. Fentanyl is a pain-killer. Versed is an interesting drug that makes you sleepy but doesn’t cause you to lose consciousness. Somehow, it blocks the process by which you form short-term memory. So you’re in and out of a sleep state during the surgery, feeling no pain, but unable to remember anything that happened moments before. When they bring you out of surgery, it’s like it never happened. As the drug wears off, you experience odd memory blackouts for a while.

The surgery was over in 15 minutes. She lay on the gurney looking drowsy as the doctor explained to me that he had to “break the joint” and put in a couple of titanium screws. He also said that in about 10 years, she’ll need to have the joint replaced. Although my wife was awake on the gurney nearby during this discussion, a couple of minutes later, she asked me if they had to put in any screws. I told her yes, they did, and she responded “Damn, I was hoping they wouldn’t have to do that.” She sat up in the gurney and got dressed. Then she asked me, “Did they have to put in any screws?” It went on like that for a couple of hours.

Old Screw Foot

While we were waiting to be discharged, they wheeled the migraine lady in from surgery. She was blissfully drugged up to the point where the migraine was no longer a factor in her life.

The nurse put my wife in a wheelchair, and took us out to the car. We drove home and she slept until noon, when she was awakened by the pain. Fortunately, she has lots of Hydrocodone to handle that problem, but it’s going to be a long February.