Saturday, November 28, 2009

Redneck Rodeo

Every year, a local racetrack closes out its racing season with an event called Crash-A-Rama. It’s a series of novelty events designed to appeal to lowbrows like myself, and it’s billed as a “Redneck Rodeo.” It involves lots of races in which the destruction of opposing vehicles is actually the primary objective of every driver, and a key element to winning.

All of my male friends expressed keen interest in joining me for this absurd treat, but it fell on the day after Thanksgiving. Most of those who are married had houses full of family staying for the weekend, so despite pitiful begging, they couldn’t get their wives to let them out for one night. I wound up going alone.

The parking lot for the track is a gigantic empty field, and it was filled almost to capacity when I arrived, seven minutes before the show was about to start. To my dismay, there was a huge line of people waiting to get in. Just then, a man approached the line, pointed and announced, “If you have exact change, we’ve opened another entrance just over there.” Thirty people, including myself, bolted for the second entrance. I was admitted to the track within a minute.

The track has two grandstands, one along the side where I entered, and another on the far side. The stands on my side were packed, but the stands on the far side only had a few people in them. I walked over to the other side, and found a mob of people crushed together in front of a small gate. Track officials were admitting people one by one, and requiring them to pay an extra $5 for seating. Disgusted, I walked back to the other side of the track.

As I approached the center of the grandstand, I noticed an empty space between two people in the front row. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was able to grab one of the best seats in the house, only about 15 feet from the finish line. The only bad thing about it was the safety screen, designed to protect the people in the grandstand from flying auto parts, and believe me, there were going to be lots of flying auto parts. It wasn’t an obstruction for me personally, but it did hinder photography.


This particular track is only a quarter-mile long, with banked turns. It can be configured for lots of different events. The first race was a standard race, but using junkyard-ready cars on a kidney-shaped track arrangement. Adding the tight chicane meant that there would be lots of vehicle contact, and there was. The race was won by the car that avoided the other cars most successfully.


The next two events were called “Roller Derby” races. The race is run by teams of drivers, three cars to a team. The car in front is called the “puck car,” and it’s not running. The driver can only steer and brake. The next car is called the “pusher car.” The driver of that car attempts to push the “puck car” around the track for the specified number of laps. The third car is the “enforcer car.” The job of the “enforcer” is to keep other “enforcers” away from his team’s “puck-pusher” combination, or to disrupt the “puck-pusher” combination of other teams. By “disrupt,” I mean “destroy.” This race is run on an oval track.


As you can just tell from this photo, there was plenty of carnage. Some “pusher cars” wound up pushing mangled wrecks around the track, with what I suppose were mangled drivers in them. Kids, if you want to grow up and be a race car driver, try not to drive the "puck car."


I was impressed by this driver (the "enforcer" of the winning team), who drove a modified hearse with some kind of plow welded to the front, completing the entire race with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.


The next race was something called a “Skid Race,” once again on an oval track. In this event, each car was a front-wheel drive vehicle. The rear wheels were mounted on a pair of metal skis, which threw up a giant rooster-tail of sparks. The cars fishtailed all over the track, pinwheeling out of control at the slightest bump or steering error.

After the “Skid Race,” they set the track up for a “Flagpole Race.” In this event, a “pole” (actually just a junk car) was set up in the infield, just at the center of one straightaway. Cars raced around the track, then had to careen around the pole and reenter traffic. “That’s where it gets tricky,” said the announcer, a master of understatement. Cars often had to circle very wide around the pole, because of all the wrecked or disabled vehicles surrounding it.


Just before intermission, an unusual vehicle was brought out onto the track. It’s a jet-powered car called Green Mamba. This car is capable of going 300 miles per hour, but it’s nearly useless on a quarter-mile track. It crept slowly around the oval, and on each straightaway, the driver would enrich the mixture and belch a 30-foot tail of flame to amuse the children.


The announcer promised that at the end of the show, Green Mamba would return, and they would use it as a gigantic blowtorch to “burn a bus.” That sounded quite spectacular, but it’s not why I was there.

Finally, they set up for the event I came to see: The Figure-8 Track School bus Race. Twelve junk school busses drove onto the track, which was set up in a figure-8 configuration.


When the race started, the busses were in a fairly tight group. But after the third lap, they had spread out to the point where almost every bus approaching the intersection had to thread the needle between other busses crossing in front of them. There were moments of gut-wrenching terror. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and two busses collided. The bus that was struck rolled completely over, and officials stopped the race to verify that the driver was alive (he was).

There were lots of personnel on the track, used to remove debris between events. They were safely tucked away behind concrete barricades set up in the infield portions of the figure-8. However, one ambulance and one tow truck were parked outside these safe havens, so that they could render aid quickly, if necessary. Some young people lounged on the back of the tow truck, chatting – they had seen lots of these races. Suddenly, two busses collided in the intersection, and one of them careened out of control directly at the tow truck. The faces on the young people were priceless, as they suddenly realized they were about to become part of the show. Fortunately, the driver of the bus was able to recover and slam on the brakes at the last instant, bringing the bus to a screeching, smoking halt inches from the tow truck.

After that exciting spectacle, the track ran a “Boat and Trailer Race” on an oval track. Each vehicle had to tow a boat on a trailer, and to win, had to finish with at least a partial boat or a partial trailer. So the obvious strategy was to demolish the other boats. One guy showed up with a monster truck pulling a cabin cruiser. He was good at demolition, but too slow to win. Boats on trailers don’t corner well, so there was a lot of wreckage on the track after only a couple of laps, and the vehicles that were left were crashing into the wreckage at high speed. The carnage generated a lot of choking smoke, which seemed to delight the crowd.


The final race of the evening was what’s called a “Camper Trailer Race.” In this race, each vehicle must tow some kind of camper trailer or house trailer. One guy had a house trailer with a Christmas tree set up. When it started to fall apart, it dumped a gas stove onto the track.

By then, I was so jaded from this orgy of destruction, I decided to leave rather than hang around for the bus-burning. It's hard to drive a car after you've been watching this kind of thing. I was mentally daring someone to cut me off. Especially if they were towing a boat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Too Many Muhammads

My new job has a “business casual” dress code every day of the week. For the past six weeks, they’ve been doing something they call “Denim Day” on Fridays, but it’s not what you think. We’re allowed to wear jeans if we pay a minimum of five dollars for the privilege, which is then donated to a local charity, such as Meals on Wheels. I flatly refuse to pay money to wear jeans, as though I’m bribing a prison guard to let me keep a parakeet in my cell.

One problem I’m facing is that this company has a higher standard of “business casual” than I’m used to. The shirts are dressy and crisp, the pants are high quality and the shoes are shiny. Over the years, my “business casual” clothing collection has become outdated and shabby, so I needed to do the one thing I despise: I had to shop for clothes.

My first stop was Casual Male, because I’m long-waisted and require my shirts to be cut long. I’ve never shopped there before. Even though I’m 6”1’ and weigh 230 pounds, it seems that I’m a tiny little elf as far as Casual Male is concerned.

I went to Burlington Coat Factory to take advantage of their low prices, but it seems the bulk of their merchandise is designed to make you look “urban” rather than “urbane.” You don't see many people in the banking profession flashing gang signs.

Finally, I went to JCPenney (that’s how they spell it). In the shoe department, I was greeted by an incredibly attentive and polite salesman. When I made my purchase, he gave me the receipt and explained that if I complete an online survey, I can print out a coupon good for 15% off almost anything in the store on my next visit. “Be sure to enter my name,” he told me, and wrote “Muhammad” on the receipt. I promised that I would, and thanked him for his help.

I wandered around for a little while, and picked up a couple of additional items in the men’s department. When I checked out, the clerk printed my receipt and gave me the same information about the survey. “Please enter my name when you finish the survey,” he asked, and wrote his name on the receipt: “Muhammad.”

So how does JCPenney know which Muhammad to reward for their service excellence? One of them was an outstanding employee; the other was just running a cash register. Who designed this stupid system? Was his name “Muhammad?”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Team Building Exercises

My new company requires all new employees to attend seven full days of Human Resources training as part of their orientation. Some of it will be quite substantive, delving into business unit organization, the business of securities brokerages, and the internal mechanisms of asset management. But a lot of it is Human Resources nonsense, designed to establish the boundaries of tolerable behavior and rules to enforce conformity, hidden behind management buzzwords like “responsibility” and “service.”

Some of it is laughable. For example, we had to watch a Powerpoint presentation that must have been created in the early 80’s and shown to hundreds of employees over the years, but which nonetheless was laden with typos and grammatical errors. And we watched a video on the subject of business dining etiquette, hosted by an older woman who discussed the use of silverware, chewing with your mouth open, paying the bill, etc., all delivered in a condescending tone as though we had all been raised by wolves.

Today we focused on Team Building Exercises, a concept that normally sends a shiver down my spine. These exercises in futility are typically so embarrassing and demeaning that the only thing I learn from them is to avoid teams at all costs.

The “facilitator” divided the nine new employees taking training this week into two teams. Our first assignment was to name our team, define the word “team,” and compile a list of our individual strengths. It was definitely a low point for me. At least the facilitator refrained from gushing over the bullshit we were being forced to shovel.

But then, the day took an odd turn; it got interesting. Each team was given 12 soda straws, 18 inches of masking tape, and a golf ball. We were required to develop a mechanism that would enable us to drop the golf ball from six feet that would prevent it from touching the floor. Only three straws were permitted to touch the floor. We could hold the ball to drop it, but we couldn’t touch the mechanism. It was a challenging problem, and we had only about 10 minutes to solve it. The teams used very different designs.

The other team made a platform, supported by three straws, onto which they attempted to drop the golf ball. It didn’t work of course, because the ball simply bounced off the platform onto the floor. Our solution consisted of wrapping the ball in three triangles made from straws, and then taping the straws to the ball, leaving two small areas of the ball exposed for fingers to touch it. When we dropped the ball, it bounded around for a while and settled onto two of the straws, held off the floor by a fraction of an inch. I was so pleased, I completely lost sight of the fact that I was working for a banking company, and dropping golf balls would probably not be part of my duties.

Finally, we were presented with a bizarre survival problem. We were told that our team’s airplane had crashed in a wilderness area of sub-arctic northern Canada in late October. We were alive and unhurt, but we were wet, and the temperatures were below freezing. We had salvaged fifteen items from the crash, which included a compass, a box of matches, an axe, 50 feet of rope, an inner tube, a bottle of 151 proof rum, a flashlight, and so on.

We were asked to rank the items by importance to our survival. Then, the teams met to come up with a “consensus” ranking of those items. So those who put the compass first on the list had to defend that choice against those who selected matches. We wound up ranking matches first and the axe second. One of the guys on my team, who is not particularly bright, thought that we ranked the axe second on the list because we would use the matches to burn the axe for warmth. We eventually made him understand the value of the axe. I live in Florida, and people here just don’t understand cold at all.

Eventually, the facilitator showed us a video of a member of the Canadian Forest Service Rangers who explained the true survival ranking of each item. A score for each team was calculated, and my team won by a large margin. After the round of congratulatory fist-bumps, I started to wonder why a banking company would want to develop good team-building skills in a disaster scenario where no typical banking resources were available. Perhaps they know something about the future that I don’t know. I confess the words “zombie apocalypse” crossed my mind.

The facilitator told us that when he took the training, he was on a team with two other guys. They decided that the best survival strategy was to try and walk out of the wilderness, but one rule stated that if you wanted to leave the crash site, you could only carry one item each. They decided to carry the matches, the axe and the rum. “You all died,” joked one of the participants, “but at least one of you died drunk.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but not the one who was carrying the rum.”

“What do you mean?” asked the participant. “Who died drunk?”

He smiled knowingly. “The one with the axe.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Empty Wastebaskets

My first week at my new job has been something of a radical culture shock. At my last job, I wore jeans and t-shirts, worked on easy projects that I finished ahead of schedule, and spent the rest of my day checking my e-mail and reading blogs. Those days are gone forever. I have entered a realm of ponderous bureaucracy, inflexible rules and strange company culture.

I’m forced to wear “business casual” clothing, which I despise, because I just look sloppy in it. If I have to look sloppy, at least let me wear jeans and t-shirts so it seems intentional.

Security is very tight, sometimes incomprehensibly so. For example, one business unit is sealed off behind electronically locked doors that separate it from another business unit. This isn’t because either business unit could somehow violate the security of the other, it’s because their revenues are accounted for in different ways, and in the banking industry, that’s equivalent to having offices next to a lab housing rabies-infected monkeys.

The wastebasket beneath my desk seems to have no purpose, because I’m not allowed to throw trash in it. Corporate documents must be deposited in locked bins on the other side of the building so that they can be shredded. Cans, bottles and garbage must be hand carried to the lounge area and deposited in garbage cans. So I’m afraid to throw anything in the wastebasket, even Kleenex.

My computer is heavily protected and the content I can view is filtered through a carefully-controlled firewall. I can’t read blogs or personal e-mail. Worse, there’s no software installed on the machine that’s newer than 2003. Bankers are conservative, and they want to make sure all those nifty new productivity features that Microsoft introduced in 2007 aren’t really just evil Chinese spyware designed to destroy our economic system.

In fact, I can’t read any e-mail at all, because this company uses Lotus Notes, and for some unknown reason, it doesn’t work for me. Corporate management, in their wisdom, limited the scope of different IT groups, so that one single disgruntled employee can’t shut them down completely. One employee does one little part of the task to fix my system, and then passes the task along to another IT guy in some other location who does the next part, and so on. If anything fails during this process, it all goes back to square one and we start over.

My boss called me today, and I answered the phone conventionally: “Hello.” She laughed and told me I had answered the phone incorrectly. Apparently, there’s some corporate script I have to follow, that wasn’t explained to me by Human Resources. She promised to e-mail it to me, but my e-mail isn’t working yet. So now I’m afraid to answer the phone, which means the IT guys won’t be able to tell me when my e-mail is working.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I’ve had my fingerprints recorded twice in my life: Once when I was 11 years old, and again on Friday.

When I was a kid, my parents enrolled me in the Cub Scouts for awhile, which consisted mostly of hanging out at someone’s house and doing stupid crafts projects. It was really just an extension of the adult babysitting network. When I turned 11, they convinced me to join the Boy Scouts, which was really just an extension of the juvenile justice system.

I’m sure some kids had a wonderful Scouting experience, learning knots and Indian lore and all that crap. But in my case, it was terrifying. Every kid in my Scout troop was a vicious delinquent, and the only reason they stuck with the Scouting program was because it gave them easy access to knives and guns. I called them “hyenas,” but never to their face.

I attended lots of events, such as campouts, Jamborees and exhibitions. Campouts were the worst, because the adults would hang out around a campfire drinking, and the younger kids were left to fend for themselves, out in the dark woods in the company of psychopaths. We would set up our tents and then disappear, huddling in the mosquito-infested woods until the hyenas lost interest.

On one campout, one of the hyenas brought a large package of firecrackers. He and his buddies spent most of the early evening catching frogs in a nearby pod. They caught a hundred or so, which he kept in a bucket. Every few minutes or the rest of the night, he would stuff a firecracker into the mouth of a frog, light the fuse, and let it hop away. Boom.

He was thrown out of the Boy Scouts a year later for dousing another kid’s tent with kerosene and setting it on fire, with the kid inside, sleeping.

At one exhibition, various groups of Boy Scouts were working on merit badges, and had set up booths for public demonstrations. Some were cooking, some were making arrowheads, some were demonstrating Ham Radio sets, and one group was taking fingerprints as part of the Criminology category of merit badges.

They demonstrated the procedure for me, rolling my fingertips on an inked pad, and then carefully pressing them into the corresponding locations on a fingerprint card. When they finished, I asked what they would do with the dozens of fingerprint cards they had collected. “We send them to the FBI,” they told me.

I’ve thought about this many times over the years, wondering if he was joking, or if somewhere in the basement of the FBI building, there’s a fingerprint card with my 11-year old signature on it. The requirements of the merit badge say nothing about sending the fingerprint cards to the FBI, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. I’d like to believe that the FBI has fingerprint cards for all of those future serial killers in my Boy Scout troop.

Fifty years later, as part of the requirements of my new job, I had to be fingerprinted and photographed. It’s a holdover from the days when banks of this type actually handled money instead of electronic representations of money. Security is very tight. The door to the office area is locked from the inside, and a uniformed guard sits outside, verifying that anyone wishing to enter has a proper ID badge. All of this security is necessary because there are Boy Scouts out there somewhere.