Monday, September 28, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Downside

Every so often I feel like "Middle-Age Cranky" puts a false face on me. I'm generally a positive, upbeat person; that's probably why the aggravations of life seem bigger to me: I don't generally focus on them, until it's time to post here.

In fact, every so often something sweet will happen and I'll want to write about it, but then I realize I'd be violating my published persona as a certified grouch, misanthrope, and pessimist.

Take the change of seasons. I love the fall, for so many reasons. As a change of pace, I thought about documenting those reasons. But then I realized there was a downside to every single one of them.

Upside: The NFL Season Launches
Marrying an Oakland Raiders’ fan has given me a much deeper appreciation for football, as has TiVo, because we can fast forward through the timeouts and the blathering. At the beginning of the NFL season, optimism about the 49ers’ and Raiders’ playoff hopes is at its highest.

Downside: The College Football Season Launches
My spouse has also developed an abiding love of college football, which makes me a football widower on both Saturday and Sunday. I can barely keep track of the players on my favorite professional teams in this era of free agency, much less the college players. And I don't care whether Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer serenade Carrot Top all night long.

Upside: The New TV Season
After a summer of re-runs, I’m ready for new stories. We’re a big fan of Jerry Bruckheimer’s procedurals (CSI: Anywhere, Cold Case) and NCIS.

Downside: The New TV Season
There are two problems here. First, the Netflix DVDs tend to sit unwatched for weeks on end. Second, my spouse loves the dancing shows. I'm okay with the dancing, but I despise shrieking. This means I have to stifle the urge to strangle 1) Mary Murphy on So You Think You Can Dance and 2) the entire audience of Dancing With The Stars.

Upside: Cooler Temperatures
There is a wonderful county park not far from us with extensive hiking trails. The cooler temperatures of autumn and its rolling trails make it a perfect place to hike, without the summer swarms of visitors.

Downside: Cooler Temperatures
Fall brings different kinds of swarms to the park: an unbelievable number of both flies (there is a working farm in the middle of the park) and cross-country runners from local high schools. Neither the flies nor the runners seem to understand English.

Upside: Halloween
I love Halloween. Not for what it has become — an opportunity for teen-agers to roam looking to score candy, but as a remnant of childhood and waiting anxiously for darkness to come so children can roam the streets and still feel safe.

Downside: Halloween
Halloween is also the unofficial launch of the holiday candy season, a celebration I am trying to forego this season. 'Tis better to give than receive, so I'm trying to shed pounds rather than receive them. Somewhere there are Milky Way bars with my name on them, and I'd just as soon they didn't find out where I live.

Upside: Getting Dark Earlier
I thought about this a lot. There is no upside to it getting dark earlier.

Downside: Getting Dark Earlier
Daylight savings time used to occur each year on the weekend nearest my birthday and my half-birthday. Then they moved it, so it's harder to remember when to change the clocks. Besides, it's an antediluvian throwback to an agrarian culture that doesn't exist any more.

Oh, my. I guess I really am cranky.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shreds of My Existence

Not too long ago, the police department of the city in which I live sponsored a shredding event. Citizens could take up to ten boxes of records, receipts, and refuse in to have the contents shredded under the purview of the people sworn to ensure that our credit numbers wouldn't float away into the hands of criminals.

Although I thought this was a great idea, it's not exactly the way I like to see my tax dollars spent. I also realized that given the material being shredded, there wouldn't be a lot of time or effort expended to separate recyclable paper from old carbon receipts. I decided I would tackle the separating and shredding process myself.

That was how I ended up climbing into the attic and discovering that, while I had been diligent about saving evidence of my business expenditures, I had also lost track of way too much time. I had receipts dating back to the earliest days of the Reagan administration, which meant that I had carted these boxes unnecessarily through no less than four moves.

Even more enlightening was how even the flotsam of life has changed. Before computers, we were awash in carbon paper from credit card imprinters (which, interestingly enough, you can still purchase). These decades-old receipts all had long-lost credit card numbers on them, plain as day. What wasn't plain was the reasoning behind some of the purchases I'd made and long ago forgotten. I marveled at all the money that seemed to flow through my hands in my bachelor days, seemingly as plentiful and unmemorable as water.

It was also an agonizing reminder of how old I am (or, to put it in a sunnier way, how much life I've lived). I had:

• check stubs from projects I'd forgotten I'd done
• prescription receipts from illnesses I've long been cured of
• flight coupons from airlines that haven't existed for 20 years
• restaurant receipts from meals with people whose names (and even affiliations) were mysteries
• W-2s from too many companies that are out of businesses

It wasn't so much like walking down memory lane as it was walking through a graveyard of events that seemed very important at the time, but were just — especially after I subjected them to the voracious blades — shreds of my existence.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fees, the Rule of Three, and Me

Twice in the same day last week, two companies I've done business with for a long time hit me with outrageous penalty fees that were (in my mind, of course) unjustified. One was United Airlines. I had made return flight reservations for the wrong day and had to change them; the fee to change them wasn’t much ($6), but without explanation, I lost our Economy Plus upgrades, which cost significantly more.

The other was the Bank of America, with whom I've had a love-hate relationship since college. My credit card bill was due on Labor Day, and I made the payment through online banking on the preceding Sunday. No, came back the reply, this won’t post until Tuesday. I'm confident there will be a $39 late fee for that (which, as a supposed valued customer, I will contest).

My rant, however, is not about these fees. It's that I feel powerless about protesting.

The most logical protest is to take my business elsewhere. But where? In economics, there's a concept called the "Rule of Three" (though I'll be darned if I can find who first proposed it). According to this rule, eventually competitors get whittled through attrition and acquisition until only three major players remain.

Take major American airlines. In my youth, you could chose from American, Delta, United, Pan Am, Eastern, National, and TWA for transcontinental flights. Today, only the first three remain. The idea of leaving United behind only brings back worse memories of the times I previously attempted to do so. Of the first three flights I booked on Delta, two were cancelled. The last time I flew on American, the gate agent tore out the wrong coupon from my multi-leg itinerary — and couldn't understand why I was so upset at the idea of arriving at my next destination without a ticket. (For you younger readers, this was when we still actually used tickets.)

Once upon a time, Macy's was our default department store. Retailers would supposedly kill for that kind of loyalty, right? No. After several bad-tasting episodes (one of which involving the receipt a grammatically incorrect, non-apologetic response from some assistant in customer service), we said hasta la vista, returning our credit cards sliced in two.

So what happened? Macy’s (then called Federated Department Stores) went on a buying frenzy. I think the only stores it currently doesn’t own are Wal-Mart and Nordstrom. I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I’ll shop at Wal-Mart, but I do patronize the latter. (To be completely truthful, though, because Federated bought Frederick & Nelson, we have been known to sneak into Macy’s and buy Frangos.)

The same obstacle applies to switching banks. I've never heard anyone say they were happy with their bank (though there have been times I’ve been happy with Bank of America, even after it was acquired by NationsBank). So what's the point of switching? No other institution is better; they've all risen to the same level of barely adequate.

So when you get to middle age, having tried most of the options available and found them lacking, you're stuck when it comes to taking your business elsewhere. There is no elsewhere. Besides, I've spent 20 years learning where all the Versateller machines are, and I'd hate to have to start over.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Parade of Changing Tastes, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I had something to eat I hadn't had in years. It was something I’d fantasized about, and as with many fantasies, the reality fell short.

It was a fluffy, puffy cloud of pink cotton candy, straight out of the drum.

As any cotton candy aficionado knows, the food police have ruined the whole idea by requiring that it be put into plastic bags for cleanliness. But I was attending an A's game at the Oakland Coliseum, and to my delight, the vendor asked me if I wanted my cotton candy freshly made. I looked at him as if he'd just offered me a ride in a time machine.

But it was not the way I remember cotton candy. It didn’t taste as sweet. It didn’t crystallize in the air the way I expected.

There are probably multiple reasons for this. First, our taste buds, like everything else, age as we do. They get less sensitive (this is apparently why every restaurant in Palm Springs, including the Italian ones, forgoes spices in its food). Second, my primary venue for cotton candy as a child was the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Perhaps a necessary ingredient to perfect cotton candy is salty sea air moistening selected crystals and turning them from wispy to hard and from pink to magenta. I can still remember the light crunching of the sugar and the incipient rotting of my teeth.

But it's not just cotton candy. I used to love fast food — Jack in the Box, Arby’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Up until recently, when I was on my own for dinner, I would visit KFC. I haven't been for quite a while. I can't tell if it's the memory of the greasiness that's deterred me, or the distant sound of my spouse's voice saying, "If you sit quietly while you eat that, you can hear your arteries slam shut."

It's not just the health concerns that haunt me. There's something about the taste of fast food that seems ... different from when I was younger. It doesn't have the same pop on the tongue that it used to. Not rancid, but perhaps the same freeway exit.

And breakfast cereals. You know how Jerry Seinfeld used to have ten boxes of cereal on a shelf in his kitchen on his TV show? That was my idea of heaven. I mourned the passing from my childhood of Post Crispy Critters and Sugar Rice Krinkles. I loved the Kellogg’s Jumbo Pac — 18 perforated boxes that you could open, pour in the milk, and eat right out of. (The Product 19 and the Rice Krispies were always left over.)

I used to love Trix and Froot Loops, but not after they added the radioactive colors. In the last few years, I have bought Post Alpha-Bits or General Mills Frosty O's in the hopes of crunching into old memory, but even those have lost their appeal. This from a man who used to think of Cocoa Krispies as boxed heroin.

When I was a child, I looked forward to a time when I could afford to indulge in any kind of food I wanted. But I have been betrayed — whether by my mind, whispering about health concerns, or by my withering taste buds, straining to reproduce a forgotten memory, I do not know.

I can look at old pictures; I can listen to old recordings; I can touch old toys; I can inhale aromas. Taste, I fear, is the only one of the senses that can never be recaptured.