Clarence, Pilot of the Shuttle Bus

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I recently went to a work-related conference in Orlando with my colleague Brenda.  We spent our days networking and our evenings blowing money at Downtown Disney and the nearby outlet mall. It was a fun-filled experience all around, even down to the shuttle bus ride back to the airport at the end of the conference.

Now, I realize that one wouldn’t normally think of a shuttle bus ride as entertaining, however Clarence was not your average shuttle driver and this was not your average shuttle ride. Unlike the staid, monotone shuttle driver who escorted us to the hotel when we arrived in Orlando, Clarence saw himself as an airline pilot, flight attendant and tour guide wrapped in one.

As soon as we pulled out of the hotel parking lot, he grabbed the microphone and began giving us what was obviously a practiced, albeit somewhat unintelligible, spiel in broken English. He first explained how to adjust the seat backs to maximize our comfort. Next, he pointed out the lavatories located at the back of the bus, should any of us be unable to make it without a bathroom break for the duration of the ride (20 minutes).

I was certain a demonstration of the correct usage of the oxygen masks was forthcoming, just in case the cabin should lose pressure once we reached cruising altitude. Instead, Clarence skipped the safety tips and moved on straight to the amenities, namely that there was a roll of paper towels available for our use. Unfortunately, he failed to indicate the location of said roll, but much to my relief, when I voiced concern about our ability to handle spills or other paper-towel-necessitating-disasters without this key piece of information, a fellow passenger quickly came to the rescue pointing out that the roll of paper towels was located on top of Clarence’s jacket, behind the driver’s seat.

Having covered the availability of the paper towels, Clarence next discussed the route to the airport…in excruciating detail. He recited each street and freeway we would be using, reminding me of a human navigation system. He even pointed out interesting local sights, such as the back of the Orlando Convention Center. Clarence definitely had my iPhone’s Siri beat. Or was it Suri? Jet lag was getting the better of me, since I couldn’t figure out the difference between my cell phone information system and Tom Cruise’s daughter.

Surely, like any good pilot, after walking us through the route, Clarence would next provide us with a report of the weather at our destination 11 miles away. Nope; to my disappointment, he left this part out, forcing me to come to my own conclusion that the weather was likely not notably different at the airport than it was at the hotel.

In place of a weather report, he instead made sure to advise us at least 3 times of the location of the rental car return (across from Terminal A). This proved somewhat befuddling as we were all on the shuttle bus, because we had no rental car. On the other hand, maybe he felt the airport rental car return is an Orlando hot spot that everyone should see. Brenda and I wondered if we should check it out.

As we approached the airport and the tarmac came into view, our trusty pilot took the time to address possible concerns we might have about flight delays. He promptly declared that our flights would all be departing on time. This was not based on any communication with the airport control tower, but rather, due to the fact that 1) he saw no planes lined up on the runway and 2) it wasn’t raining. While we appreciated his efforts to reassure us, it was not clear to either Brenda or me if this prediction would hold true in 3 hours, when our flight was actually scheduled for departure.

Shortly before exiting the freeway, Clarence made sure to clarify which lane he planned to turn into (the right lane) and announced twice that he would be using his Fast Pass. While initially neither of us knew what a Fast Pass was, we later discovered that this pass was a critical part of the shuttle experience. This was because it allowed Clarence to enter the shuttle bus drop-off section of the airport terminal. Without this pass, who knows where we’d end up. Most likely the rental car return.

Once we were safely through the Fast Pass gates, he informed us that his goal was to park in either of his favorite spaces, B21 or B22. With his passion and attention to detail, I was concerned about how he might react if both of these spaces were occupied. Would he completely melt down and go on a tirade about the inadequacy of spaces B1 – B20 and B23 – B30? To my relief, space B21 was free, and we were spared emotional outburst.

After the bus was parked, Clarence handed us our luggage and we made our way to check-in. Turning the corner I saw long lines at the TSA checkpoint and gulped audibly;  TSA appeared to be the real local hot spot. That said, noting the grumpy faces of the staff as I showed my ID and boarding pass, I doubted they would let us take any selfies at the body scan machine. Nonetheless, the security pat down definitely had the rental car return beat. I walked away thinking Clarence’s spiel could use a few updates.

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Cheaper Than Botox

image4In June, Elizabeth’s fourth grade teacher nearly got me fired. As if that wasn’t enough, I almost dragged several of my friends down with me. To be fair, it wasn’t really her teacher’s fault. She certainly had no idea that an innocent cell phone app would lead to a dereliction of MS Office duties and general loss of productivity across several companies.

Let me explain. I had helped out in Elizabeth’s classroom one day and was chatting with her teacher after school. At some point during the conversation, she introduced me to Bitmoji, an app that allows you to create a detailed avatar of yourself. I was immediately fascinated.  (I also couldn’t help but wonder why none of my elementary school teachers had fun stuff like Bitmoji. Instead they threw chalk at us.)

While the concept of an avatar was hardly new, when you have young kids, “new” takes on a different meaning. This is because, beginning with the birth of your first child, you are on a perpetual five year delay when it comes to anything hot off the press. To my point, I didn’t even see the 2009 film Avatar until 2014.

The next day at work, the PowerPoint presentation I was drafting crashed my computer. Sadly, similar to drafting a PowerPoint presentation, restarting my computer can be a painful and time consuming process. IT attributes this to the software I run, however, I’m fairly certain the true reason is that the computer I was issued is so old that it shouldn’t be running anything more modern that Microsoft Works. IT was most likely instructed under threat of death not to reveal the truth of the matter.

In any case, since my computer was obviously out of commission for the near future, I came to the logical conclusion that downloading Bitmoji on my cell phone was the best use of my time. I opted against the other option, surfing Facebook, since “liking” anyone’s status at 10am on a weekday would at best be perceived as suspect and at worst a performance issue.

Once Bitmoji was downloaded I realized how much better it was than I had realized. There were countless options to personalize my avatar. Not just hair and eye color, but even things like eyebrows, face shape and body shape. I was completely intrigued with the possibilities. In fact, I was soon so busy trying out haircuts and shades of lipstick on my fake self, I had completely forgotten about real life, including my technologically-challenged computer and my half-finished PowerPoint.

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About 30 minutes in, I discovered I could make myself taller, a feat which has defied me in real life. I was barely able to contain my excitement; this avatar was cheaper and better than either Botox or plastic surgery. Since my life is spent in one of four places – behind my computer screen, in traffic, at home, or at Target – I never see anyone I know in person. Consequently, the chances were slim that anyone would figure out my new avatar was not a completely honest representation of me. I began madly texting my friends these images of my new self. They seemed to share my philosophy, because the next thing I knew they had ditched their spreadsheets and PowerPoints and were texting me back images of their new Bitmoji avatars. Corporate productivity had decreased across Southern California.

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I truly don’t think I’d been that excited about advances in technology since moving back to the U.S. from Switzerland in 2000 and learning that you could get “cash back” at the grocery store. [I had been living in Switzerland for a number of years, and while the Swiss were obviously superior in many areas (watches, Army knives, direct Democracy, cheese with holes), the idea of getting cash and chocolate in the same transaction had not made it to the Alps.]

When I finally regained my senses, I realized that I had been hunched over my cell phone in front of a dark computer screen for at least an hour. I got my computer up and running and frantically checked my Outlook calendar for any meetings with my boss I might have missed. Next, I scanned the halls for any sign that my idleness had been detected. All was calm; I was met only with the faint sound of productive employees typing on their keyboards. It appeared I had dodged the bullet this time, but if I wanted to keep bringing home a paycheck, it would probably be a good idea to embrace my wrinkles and delete Bitmoji from my phone…

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First Day of School – My Epic Fail

 

The beginning of a new school year is full of unknowns. For instance:

  • How much homework will my child get? In other words, at what time do I have to start nagging in order for the homework to be completed by bedtime?
  • Will my child still be obsessed with becoming the Olympic tetherball gold medalist and resume begging me twice a day to install a tetherball court in the backyard? Everyone knows you can’t downplay the importance of home training for future Olympians.
  • Will the class bully give my kid the finger as a “back to school” greeting? Yes, this actually does happen. Just ask Elizabeth’s buddy Dominic who was the recipient of one such middle finger.

Yet, as I found out this year, the biggest and scariest unknown is whether I will be taken down by my own mental decrepitude on the primary school playground…and drag an unsuspecting first grader with me.

My kids were brimming with excitement yesterday, the first day of school. It was their opportunity to finally see all the friends with whom I had miserably failed to organize play dates during the summer. Furthermore, since they are still young enough to like to be seen with me, they love the fact that on this day and this day only, parents are allowed to accompany their children onto campus.

After the first day, of course, things resume to normal, which usually means pushing the kids out of the car without coming to a complete stop in order to make my 8:30 am meeting. This is the real reason I bought them helmets and knee pads a few years back; the scooters were just a cover.

Upon arriving on campus the first day, the protocol is to go with your child to his/her assigned teacher’s spot on the playground and line up in an orderly fashion. The teachers then make their way down their respective lines and introduce themselves personally to each child. I love this and find it to be a very warm and welcoming touch. This is, in fact, much better treatment than you generally receive when you start a new job in the corporate world, where it is not uncommon to spend the first two weeks spinning your wheels in a futile attempt to:

  1. locate the bathroom
  2. find a chair that’s not broken
  3. determine how to effectively gag the person who whistles loudly outside your door all day long
  4. obtain access to a computer so that you can meet the deadlines you know you’ll have if you can ever figure out who you report to

Because Elizabeth had to go to the upper grade playground for her meet and greet and Corinne had to go to the primary grade playground for hers, Thomas and I decided to divide and conquer. He took Elizabeth, and I took Corinne. Taking Corinne’s hand, we made our way to the appropriate line and took our places. Soon after, I saw a familiar face approach and take the place in line behind us. I turned and gave Connor a big smile and warm greeting.

Now, Connor is a shy boy who cried every day last year when his mom dropped him off at kindergarten. Since it appeared that his mom had ditched him this morning to accompany his little brother to pre-K, my maternal instincts took over. I peppered him with compliments, telling him how brave he was and commenting on how much he had grown over the summer. When it was clear that I had managed to coax Connor out of his shell in a matter of minutes, which was record time for this kid, I beamed with pride.

It was right at this point, where Connor and I had established a true rapport and were ready to face the day united, that I heard Corinne shout out excitedly in the other direction, “Hi Connor!” I turned my head and, sure enough, the real Connor had arrived.

I looked back at Fake Connor. Fake Connor looked at me. We both took another look at Real Connor. It had all become clear to me. Halfway through my conversation with “Connor”, Corinne had asked me who the kid was that I was talking to. I brushed off her silly question, because it was obvious that she had suffered summer amnesia and forgotten what her classmate looked like. But it was I, not Corinne, with the brain decay.

Once the truth had set in, I bowed down in utter defeat and asked Fake Connor to identify himself, for his sake and mine. He shook his head in true, first-grader pity and told me his name was Cody, and he was new to the school.

As Karma would have it, I ran into Real Connor’s mom a few minutes later. She had in fact ditched her son to take his brother to pre-K. After a quick tallying of pros and cons, I decided to reveal the morning’s prior events to her before someone else ratted me out. After all, I could not be certain how many witnesses there were to my mental downfall, or if Cody was inclined to keep this little misunderstanding to himself. Besides, I was also fairly certain that Corinne could not be trusted with such sensitive information.

As I gave Real Connor’s mom the play-by-play, she laughed sympathetically. However, I could tell she was simultaneously wracking her brain to figure out which medication she should suggest to me.

I think I would have preferred it if she would have just given me the finger.

Preparation for Parenthood

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There seems to be a general consensus that having pets is a precursor to parenthood and somehow prepares you for the experience. While I admit there is some validity to this concept, in my experience it is not completely true.

Yes, like kids, pets do steal your food and trash your house beyond recognition. However, unlike your offspring, your tween pets don’t usually talk back to you when you say something they find offensive or stomp their feet and slam the door to express their frustration at the fact that you don’t believe they’ve really brushed their teeth.

I actually found my wedding to be better preparation for parenthood. This might not be an obvious connection but hear me out.

Much like parenthood, a wedding is full of surprises. For both of these pivotal life events, you plan for a year and yet, despite your efforts to coordinate everything perfectly, you quickly learn that nothing actually turns out the way you had anticipated.

Here are some detailed comparisons to illustrate my point:

Wedding: Drunk “professional” photographer takes goofy, off-center pictures.

Parenthood: Kids figure out how to bypass your phone security to take inappropriate pictures of you in the dressing room at TJ Maxx.

Wedding: The insulation at the church is so poor that you and the entire wedding party have sweat running down your faces, leaving you with expensive pictures that are off-center (see above point) and unattractive. Even Photoshop can’t save them.

Parenthood: You can’t post selfies without people asking if you’re feeling ok.

Wedding: Pastor realizes there is not enough bread for Communion and secretly sends the Best Man to the grocery store in the middle of the ceremony.

Parenthood: When tucking her in, your child informs you that she is assigned to bring the caramel topping to the class ice cream party the next day. You drag your husband out of bed and send him to the grocery store.

Wedding: You keep getting whisked away during dinner and miss out on the delicious buffet you paid to enjoy.

Parenthood: You come from work starving. As you approach the second hour of helping your child prepare for her math test, you start wondering if they sell edible flash cards.

Wedding: Wedding cake mix-up has you and hubby sharing carrot cake rather than your specially-selected favorite marble cake.

Parenthood: Lean Cuisine on Saturday night sounds good; no actual cooking is required! If you buy 4 microwaves, you can have everyone’s dinner ready at the same time.

Wedding: Wedding coordinator forgets to have you throw the bouquet, ensuring no single people at the reception will ever tie the knot.

Parenthood: Two-year old daughter throws epic tantrum at Hometown Buffet, ensuring no single patrons will ever have children.

Wedding: Evening ends with a trip to the local bar.

Parenthood: Evening ends with a trip to the local bar.

So, clearly my wedding prepared me better for parenthood than did my pet rabbits. That said, the rabbits did teach me some helpful parenthood coping strategies. Next time Elizabeth exclaims loudly “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND”, I won’t freak out. Instead, I’ll stare at her blankly for a moment, and then I’ll hop past her haughtily on my way to chew on the sofa.

My Life in Kindergarten

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This time last year I found out I work in kindergarten. This was particularly surprising since there aren’t actually any children in my office building.

Let me explain. It was Back to School night at my children’s school and we were in my 5 year old’s classroom. There was a nervous and excited buzz in the room, as my husband and I, along with the other parents, sat down on the little blue chairs and waited anxiously to hear about the expectations for the school year…and of course, whether or not the teacher would announce that our child had already clearly established herself as the genius of the class.

After welcoming everyone, the teacher began explaining the life of a kindergartner. As her presentation progressed, it began to sound strangely familiar. Yet, try as I may, I could not put my finger on the connection. I knew it wasn’t because I was relating her words to detailed memories of my own year in kindergarten. I can barely remember last week, let alone events from the 1970’s. Instead, a much more disturbing truth slowly dawned on me. My daughter’s days in kindergarten were not much different than my days at work in corporate America.

The first topic covered was behavior management in kindergarten. The concept centers around a large color chart. Each child has a clothespin with his or her name on it. The clothespin is clipped on Green at the start of the day. Green designates a neutral color. During the day, if the child is paying attention and working diligently, that child is complimented and his or her clothespin is moved up the chart to a “better” color like yellow, orange or red, which is the best of all colors.

At work, if I do a good job, my boss compliments me…and silently moves my clothespin up the career chart.

In kindergarten, if a child is not focusing on his or her work, the child is reprimanded and must move the clothespin down to blue or purple. If he or she hits another child, the clothespin goes straight to the dreaded color pink, and the kid’s parents are called.

At work, if I spend the day surfing YouTube and don’t turn in my PowerPoint draft, my clothespin moves down the career chart. If I slap someone in IT for not providing me the right data for my PowerPoint draft, then the Human Resources Department is called.

The teacher then went on to discuss her motivation techniques. When a child does a really good job on a project or exemplifies good listening skills, he or she gets a “super worker treat”, which is a piece of candy. When the class as a whole does well, the teacher puts little toy bears in a jar. Once the jar is filled, everyone gets to choose a prize from the classroom Treasure Chest.

Hmm…if I do well, I get a bonus at the end of the year. If my company does well, I get an even bigger bonus from the Company Treasure Chest.

She next went on to talk about class activities. They make colorful art projects using different shapes like triangles, circles and rectangles. I, on the other hand, create colorful PowerPoint slides that have arrows, boxes and bullet points.

The class participates in regular story time. All the children gather around in a circle on the floor while the teacher reads aloud. When she has finished telling the story, she asks the children a series of comprehension questions.

In my world, we refer to this as a meeting or “conference call”. I often lead such meetings. For example, I might explain during such a call that my team has suddenly been tasked with performing a time-sensitive review of ABC product. To do so, I need XYZ data. I will then follow up with questions to assess comprehension. For example, how quickly can you get me that data…i.e. did you understand the meaning of time-sensitive?

There are even parallels to the playground. In kindergarten, children ride around on tricycles and climb up and down the ladders on the play equipment. Similarly, I drive my car through miles of traffic across the county, jostle for a spot in the parking garage and have to walk down 4 flights of stairs.

So, as you see, my daughter and I actually have very similar days. We are rewarded for good work, do colorful projects with shapes, have story time and run up and down stairs. For those who worry about the quality of our public school system, you can rest assured. It is indeed preparing our children for the real world.

Plumbing and 3D

For Father’s Day, we got my husband a plumber. Since this was an unforeseen present, we didn’t have time to wrap him.

At issue was the tree next to the sidewalk whose roots were clogging the sewer line and causing the overflow pipe in the front yard to fertilize the geraniums. This was truly a sight to behold; it’s not everyday that you see flowers wrapped in toilet paper.

As our testing revealed, the clog was so bad that any water run through any pipe in the Money Pit, err…house, came out the front. It’s a shame we didn’t have more notice or we could have figured out how to funnel the water and toilet paper to the dying grass. (It’s tricks like these that can help your garden thrive during a California drought.)

Uncertain how quickly the plumbing company could send someone over and having drunk a fair amount of coffee, we were forced to flesh out several contingency plans should we hear the call of nature. We agreed the easiest solution would be to pile in the car, drive to Starbucks and try to inconspicuously use the facilities without buying anything. Not only are we cheap, but consuming anything would certainly lead to greater bathroom necessity.

However, we also needed a longer-term solution, should this turn into a serious plumbing problem. I decided such an incident could be classified as a disaster, and we would therefore be justified in breaking out our disaster preparedness kit with its big, yellow bucket that doubled as a toilet.

On the other hand, why go in a bucket when you have a pool, which everyone knows is really just an oversized toilet. This really wasn’t such a bad idea, particularly since we knew from experience that Larry the Pool Guy could neutralize anything (and was likely a chemist with the CIA in his younger days). Of course, if we could hold out until it was night and the neighbors were in bed, we could just go directly onto the grass. With all of these possibilities, things were looking up.

As it turns out, no drastic measures were required. Instead, an emergency plumber arrived promptly and after 3 hours of industrial snaking, declared victory over the tree.

To celebrate our functioning toilets, we decided to go see Jurassic World the next weekend. Not having seen a movie in a movie theater in about a year, Thomas and I were excited to experience how the rest of the world lives. We left Corinne with my dad and stepmom but figured 10 year old Elizabeth could handle the content. After witnessing the horrors of our 1960’s plumbing, I doubted  she would be fazed by a few dinosaurs eating people. The people-eating was in 3D, but then again, so were the contents flowing into the front yard the week before.

This was the first time I had seen a film in 3D and I must admit it was impressive. In fact, I found myself wondering if I could figure out a way to do my PowerPoint presentation at the next month’s Board meeting in 3D. It certainly would be harder to ignore me if my bullet points were floating in the air in front of them. I made a mental note to give IT a call.

Opening Remarks

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This blog[1] was my cousin Wayne’s idea. If you find it as ridiculous and nonsensical as I do, then I’ll give you his contact information and you can complain to him directly. Wayne is a writer/director/producer, so if you are indignant enough in your complaint, you might land yourself free tickets to his dinner theater (which is excellent, by the way). In fact, maybe if I complain, he’ll send me free tickets. I’ll give it a shot and let you know how it goes.

Background

In all fairness, I suppose I can’t completely blame my cousin. After all, he was just trying to help me find a more suitable forum for my middle-age ramblings[2]. You see about 10 years ago I had taken to expressing myself (that is, dumping on everyone) through an annual Christmas letter. After all, it was cheaper than therapy. However, as I got older (better said, as my kids got older), my life became increasingly more dramatic – which meant I needed more cheap therapy – which meant longer, crappier Christmas letters. Unfortunately, like with many things, holiday letters have a point of diminishing marginal utility. Statistical testing has shown this point to be about 4 pages. In other words, if you send people holiday letters longer than 4 pages in length, they will find more utility in using it to line their cat’s litter box than in reading it.

I knew I had reached this point when I stopped receiving Christmas cards from people with cats. The true enlightenment came however when I started getting requests to provide my letter in an audio format. This request came exclusively from people who had no cats or litter boxes to line, which meant that they were forced to read it and more than likely would need to take a day off work to get through the whole thing.

I try to be accommodating and took this request seriously. After careful consideration, though, I was forced to admit that an audio version was out of my league. Although I had joined Toastmasters over a year ago, I was doubtful that I could get through a 12 page letter without peppering every pause with at least one “uh”, “um” and, the real signature of failure, “you know”.

The logical solution was to simply send out mid-year update letters. This worked for awhile, but it proved not to be a viable long-term solution. This year the jig was up. It was clear to anyone who read my June update letter that an update to the update letter would be forthcoming. This was mainly due to the fact that we had purchased a house that everyone started affectionately referring to as “The Money Pit”. In Italy they have a saying about the city of Naples[3] which can also be applied to our money pit: “le storie non finiscono mai” which translates to “the stories are never ending.” How many updates to updates can you do before physics steps in and you go back in time? Luckily, right when I found myself on the edge of the swirling black hole of update letters, my cousin entered with his blog idea.

Birth of the Blog

Wayne was a child computer genius. In elementary school he could do pretty much anything with his Tandem computer, and I secretly suspect he may have invented hacking. Consequently, he has automatic credibility regarding anything computer-related, including blogs. In all honesty, it didn’t take much convincing. I was almost immediately on board, since being a blogger clearly meant I could quit my job compiling boring statistical information into PowerPoints and instead could drop my kids off at school and hang out at Starbucks drinking vanilla lattes all day.

Whether or not anyone actually reads this will be seen, but at least trees and everyone in my address book can breathe a sigh of relief.

[1] For disclosure purposes, this may not actually meet the definition of a blog, since I don’t actually know what a blog is. Using the term “blog” makes me feel cool, so I’m going to stick with it.

[2] Yes, I’ve already started to ramble in my 40’s. I’m certain my kids will catch on by the time they’re in high school and start making plans to move abroad…permanently.

[3] On second thought this may not actually be an official Italian saying. Well, in any case, I can personally confirm that at least one Italian has said this. His name was Carlo. Sorry Carlo, I don’t remember your whole name or I’d give you more credit. After all, that was 20 years ago.