Experiment

7 years ago me, my future wife and another couple traveled the American southwest by car. One of our stops towards the end of the trip was a Sheraton in Vegas. While checking in, my friend who lived and continues living in Canada came up with an idea that we should trade places, just for shits and giggles, and swap our names and phone numbers. Thus I became Vladimir Choulkovski (my friend’s real name is modified here for privacy) and Vladimir became me.
What follows is a detailed account of a long social experiment with no real objective in mind or end in sight. Sort of a journal of a prank that keeps on entertaining its participants. Just a quick note- the real Vladimir has very little knowledge of any events related to this prank. It helps him that he lives in the international area code. So here it goes.

Event 1… some two weeks after the above trip ended, back home and still unaware of what’s to come. I get a phone call from an unknown number that, after a few seconds of silence, opened with a sales pitch for a travel package promotion. The voice on the other end was of a typical phone salesman, polite at first and obviously, unmistakably indifferent after I declined the offer. The salesman asked for Vladimir and I pointed out that I was not Vladimir. He asked if I’d still be interested in what he has to sell and after I said no, the indifference was quickly followed with a click. He hung up. No harm done, just another telemarketing call. I chuckled as this brought back fresh memories of a fantastic trip we just came back from and the swapping joke we played.

Event 2… some months after the trip. A different phone number and the voice telling me about a promotion, all the while expecting Vladimir to be the lucky winner. I pointed out that I’m not Vladimir but also asked to be removed from the calling list. All along still being very polite. The voice assures me that the relationship between my phone number and his service are a thing of the past. Click. I sigh pleasantly reflecting on the power of regulations that so wonderfully control direct marketers.

Event 3 through infinity. Many events over the course of the following 8 years, all with a different outcome and underlying theme guided by the creativity of one of the participants – me. And after numerous times I begged and pleaded to stop calling me with this nonsense and no longer impressed with the regulation, I still get on average two calls a week.

Here are transcripts of some of the better ones.

Call comes in as always. The salesman asks for Vladimir.

Salesman. Good afternoon. Vladimir?
Me: “Vladimir Dracula?”
Salesman, unshaken by a curve ball thrown at him: “No sir, I’m looking for Mr. Vladimir Choulkovski”

Me (with a fake, probably horrible European accent): “Only Vladimir Dracula here”.
Salesman, a little taken back but still going strong- gotta feed the fam, you know: “Vladimir, we have a special promotion for a 7-night stay at blah blah blah with the blah blah blah…”

Me, a little ruder this time, kind of European way: “Where is the blood?

Salesman: “Excuse me?”

Me: “Where is the blood? Vladimir Dracula drink blood. You sell blood?”

Salesman: “Yeah OK buddy”. Click.

 

Call comes in. A girl this time. Asks for Vladimir.

Salesgirl: “Can I speak with Vladimir?”

Me: “This is he”

Salesgirl: “Valdimir, we’re offering yada-yada-yada on yada-yada…”

Me: “Hi sweetie”

Girl: “…yada. Is this something you would be interested in learning more about?”

Me: “What are you wearing?”

Girl: “What is your problem, buddy?”

Me: “No problem, I just want to talk. Vladimir lonely”. Fake sigh and sinister laughter.

Girl: “Oh you are a sicko, you know that?” Click.

Me: hahahahaha

 

In retrospect – who’s more of a sicko here? An 8-year fruitless plead to stop calling me entitles me to whatever behavior I feel like. Granted, they are doing their job but kind of breaking the law while at it. Can’t call the number unless I told them it’s OK to do so.

The saga continues. More to come on this. Next, we’re going to go through a list of famous Vladimir’s. Who would’ve thought there are so many of those???

 

Time is relative

I want to talk about time relativity today. You know, Einstein and his tongue kind of relativity. Only a little more absurd.

Part one. My wife, like the rest of us, drives a car. She has had several of them, some she loved and some she hated, some took care of and others let be on their own like unwanted puppies. No matter where her affection landed for a particular car, not a single one of them ever, and I mean ever, had the clock set to the correct time.

Not a few minutes fast or slow which could easily be explained by looking up time in one source, remote from the car, and while traveling to the car to actually set the clock, being distracted by kids, a magazine, some shiny object or chicken.

And not a full hour ahead or behind which is a direct result of blunt disrespect towards daylight savings.

What I’m talking about is the odd one hour 22 minutes fast, as it is now in her Honda Pilot. When I drive her car, I almost cry every time we are late and it’s so obvious it’s because of that damn clock. My weak attempts to confront the time regime were met with stern resistance. I changed the clock once in my wife’s earlier car and was almost kicked out of the moving vehicle. To this day I find it mind bending how she could arrive at one hour 22 min difference. I think my wife lives in a different space time continuum from the rest of us. Or she may be an alien.

Part two. As I already conveyed in my earlier post,  I work for a very large company. The nature of my job is to provide support to other people, mostly internal clients, who take the results of my insights and research and further develop product and marketing strategies. What I do is less important. How I do it is most relevant. I aim for 100% on time delivery and accuracy, and I’ve never been known as a slacker or scatterbrain. Basically I’m a good old employee and my heart is generally in the right place.  More often than not, I work on projects that involve a certain degree of urgency. Not efficiently managing my clients’ expectations in the past – a cardinal corporate sin I was made aware of throughout the course of many performance reviews – I have rarely since succumbed to the temptation to let my annoying clients hang dry or figure out the stuff themselves. Basically, I’m always there for them, and with a ridiculously punctual update schedule for every step of the way.

And yet, occasionally, there is someone who ignores the laws of my universe and keeps pounding me with donkey-like questions “Are we there yet?” What I tend to do as a result, unbeknownst to that person, is commit another crime known as shirking. Popular in the 1920s, it was a technique for workers to slow down productivity so that the boss man wouldn’t end up expecting them to do even more. Basically Taylorism term for slacking off. That way I create my own timeline, which casts a shadow over the  entire analytical profession but keeps me sane. If only they let Shrek do what he does best, the world would be a better place.

Part three. My mom. Wonderful human being for the most part, aside from certain episodes in her earlier life. My mom has an awkward relationship with time. My dad, married to my mom in the past, firsthand experienced that awkwardness too. That entire relationship (with time, that is) is based on a premise that her own time exists in one parallel whereas everybody’s else’s in a different one. Here’s how.

Imagine the timeline which entitles my mom to a certain benefit. For example, timeliness of phone calls on her birthday from relatives and friends. If the day is kind of getting away from her, like just before lunch, and she has only received a handful of calls, say 20% of the total expected yield, that could be a strong reason for her to consider that day a complete waste. Her birthday mood would be turning from pale to gloomy, and certain conclusions could follow (like, they all forgot about me).

Imagine now a different scenario.  My mom is out shopping. She made plans with me or my dad or whoever else to meet at a certain time and in a certain place. This of course goes back years, before cell phones were widely available, so the arrangement of that sort would’ve been akin to a letter signed with  blood. And so it goes like that. My dad, me, whoever else whose own schedule so unfortunately depended on my mom’s, would be stranded in a strange place for a long, sometimes very long, time facing a series of ridiculous dilemmas. Stay here or look across the street? Outside the subway station or did we say inside, in the underpass? Or maybe, just maybe, I thought it was 3pm but in fact we agreed on 5pm? Or was it 6? The conditions for this suffering could vary from brutally cold to brutally hot, and were always accompanied by a burning regret for the time lost. Then, when all hope was gone, my mom would show up, walking slowly down the street towards you, still window shopping with quick glances and perhaps muttering something poetic while obviously thinking of far more interesting matters that the letter signed in blood.

I can’t express how much anger would befall on her when she’d finally meet up with her date. Where it gets interesting, and Einstein would agree with me, is the reasoning behind being late. Most of the time it was lack of clocks – an excuse so unbelievable, considering we lived in a city that was literally covered with street clocks (only pigeons were a more frequent resident). Or that there were clocks, but, alas, all of them showed the same – and inaccurate – time. Often 2 hours behind or so.

Years later, it is impossible to hold the grudge. There wasn’t much grudge in the first place, just a strong feeling of the time wasted. But again, in the end, everybody’s got their own sense of time.

Part four. I had a friend in the past. An OK guy as far as I was concerned, with hardly any long term prospects for us to hang out forever, but we shared the love for night clubs, music, drinking and relationships – exactly what guys in their late 20’s typically care about. Let’s call him Tom.

Now, Tom had a full appreciation for finer things in life, like a good company, sharp dress, thoughtful drink over a thoughtful conversation, and all of that with some hint at style. You would expect such person to be balanced in every respect or at least stylishly approach the difference in opinions, right? Wrong.

What happened every time I had pleasure of making plans with Tom was that he turned into a complete maniac in trying to stick to some kind of self-imposed schedule. I could drop by his place five minutes later than agreed, to pick him up, and even if I was a designated driver, he’d meet me with his eyes wide open and the whole mood one step away from complete hysteria. “We are late!”, he’d proclaim in disgust and after thirty seconds of a rapid fight with laces, jacket, wallet, sunglasses and other essential carry-ons he’d rush out the door. First, this was innocent enough that I didn’t care. Later on I asked him, what is it that we are late for, dude? Did you make plans with other people? Is there a deadline to get into a club? Is the world coming to an end? What is it, damn it??? And he’d just say, “No, none of that. It’s just that we’ll be late to have fun”. To this day I find it ironic how it was worded. I guess he never really left work, even when he was off work. But … you know… it’s all good, as long as it’s on time.

Part five. Me.

My relationship with time is nothing remarkable, really. Being in the mid-forties with 2 kids, full-time job, a house and a mortgage, time is often a concept so rare to me and my wife, that we hardly even realize it exists.

But despite that I find sometimes a little bit of it to reflect on my contribution to the relativity of time. I remember when I was much younger, my parents could say something like, “Oh, it was like yesterday and it’s been 20 years … Doesn’t time just fly?” I often listened to them in absolute bewilderment – what are you talking about? This year has been forever!!! Remember such and such did this and that … well, that was a long time ago, in April!

Or they could something like, “Oh, you are so young, you have your whole life ahead of you”. And me again, annoyed with that statement – don’t patronize me! I am not that young, look at such and such, he’s old, he just turned 30.

Well, I’m sure all that sounds familiar to both sides of the Turgenev’s divide. And yet, not a day goes by that I’m not thinking along the same lines. A little less dumb and pretentious thoughts, with more wisdom that life has finally hammered into me, but generally within the same theme. 50 sounds much older, I’m thinking. I am not that young but younger than a 50-year old. What is it like when you are 50? And it’s not that I don’t respect the elders, I really do, but I think our civilization made it a norm that being young is preferred over being old – with all opportunities still ahead of you and the physiology to match.

I guess, in a way, we just never stop hoping for a miracle.

Blood

My wife, my two kids and I were at the science museum the other day. One of the rooms educated visitors about heart, blood and arteries. Like with many science museums, there were plenty of interactive devices that demonstrated to kids (and generally less educated folks) the obvious facts about us and the world around us. And so one of the devices had a metal plate with two footprints on it, a stand at the end of the plate with a jar, a huge green button and a sign instructing to step on the footprints and press the button to learn how much blood you have. I stepped on the plate, pressed the button and was happy to learn that I have 10 cups of blood. Then my wife, who is a good 40 pounds lighter than me, stepped on the plate and stated with a giggle that she has more blood than me- 11 cups. When she asked me why she has more blood than me, my comeback was swift: “That’s because you keep drinking the blood out of me, woman”.

Mascots

Mall mascots freak me out. I was in the mall the other day and a red mug was handing out flyers. A huge red mug equipped with a handle, saucer and a set of two eyes each the size of a serving plate, with saucer like black dots representing pupils. The mug was chatting with some girl who found the conversation amusing. She laughed and kept touching the mug’s arm. The mug sort of reacted with a hardly visible movement. It probably amounted to a significant effort inside the suit  but it was so stiff that, on the outside, the movement translated into what could be described as a shrug. The girl finished her flirting business and retreated while the mug sort of moved a few degrees. The new position placed him directly across from me, 20 or so feet away, and with the serving plates looking straight at me. No doubt, he was looking at me, the mug was looking, not the person inside it. After a few seconds passed, he didn’t look away but continued staring. Considering his constrained movements, it was obvious he was doing something else all that time- like scratching his balls (did I mentioned the suit even looked warm) or taking a more comfortable position inside the suit, so he could double his flyer distribution productivity while doing it in relative comfort. That’s what my brain saw. My eyes on the other hand registered two fist size felt pupils peering through me with the stubborn ability to win the blinking contest. A minute later a few more degrees to the right released me of my arrest.

That day I learned two valuable things: do not make eye contact with mall mascots and add the mall mascot to my “the last profession on earth” list.

Ah… to be 15 again

My wife and I used to go to a Greek restaurant that we loved. The place had good food, a decent crowd and a vibrant atmosphere. There was a feeling at that place that you have finally arrived at your destination. The lights are bright, the host and hostess are all smiles, people chat away and the food is plenty. The walls were decorated with Greek style fake balconies and shutters, the ceiling painted blue and the TVs streamed breathtaking bird eye views of the Greek islands. There was a feeling of certain unity at that place, family like feeling. There’s no need to go back to the blizzard or 100 degree heat. Basically, you’re home. Except you don’t speak Greek.
Well, we didn’t (speak Greek) but from the many signs I could tell that some families were in fact privy to the wisdoms of the ancient language. Large families, with kids, grandmothers, neighbors, all talking at the same time and gesturing … and constantly on the move, as if they absolutely had to move, now that they were forced into their seats. The food was a common Greek fair like lentil soup, souvlaki, gyros, lamb chops, spanakopita. The couple – host and hostess – immigrated from Greece years ago, settled down in the Midwestern suburb, opened this restaurant and were doing well to the extent that the place had once won some kind of local dining award. They were swift too, making round eyes, roaring with laughter, constantly chatting with guests while miraculously balancing with trays of food between the tables.
The core entertainment was basic – two very Greek looking fellas, one short and round, with a very kind, moustached, plump face, the kind of guy that when you meet his gaze, you just can’t help but smile back; and the tall, thin, sort of ill-looking fella, glasses, not very friendly, at least initially. The moustache guy played a keyboard and a drum machine to help him with the Greek beat. The thin guy played a guitar that resembled a ukulele. The odd couple were most likely family friends, or relatives, of the owners, the kind of folks that live in the community for decades and everybody knos who they are. So this odd couple rocked the place with all kinds of tunes from the old country, and the moustached guy even chimed in with a very pleasant falsetto, thus creating a musical concoction that was noninvasive and ever present at the same time.
But the true highlight of the entertainment pack, the reason people paid top dollar for their gyros and souvlakis, was a belly dancer named Anastasia, also Greek looking beauty with a sole purpose of demonstrating her squiggling middle section to the rhythms of the odd couple. She only performed at prime time on Fridays and Saturdays and attracted a bit of a crowd, although it could be that people would go out at that time anyway, with or without Anastasia’s majestic naval on display. We always managed to get a table though and since we mostly went out on Fridays, we saw her perform a few times.
Now, I don’t know much about belly dancing but I do know that it originated in the Mediterranean or Middle East and since Greece is right around the corner from both of those, it’s natural to expect that the Greeks would adopt such a lovely tradition as their own. Unlike the Eastern neighbors though, whose belly dancers would likely envelop their gorgeous faces with a traditional veil, right below the eyes, Anastasia didn’t feel the need to hide her strong features and pearly teeth, and added a good deal of warmth by sending her inviting smiles all over the place, while of course performing the squiggly dance. She also wore finger cymbals, called zills, that she clasped rhythmically with every move and beat, only to add to the rhythm of the moustached guy’s drum machine.
To top it off, she wore a rather open dress that revealed her cleavage. She had no intentions of hiding her forms, that was no mistake, as she wanted this to be part of the overall experience. The whole thing was far from vulgar though – just the right amount of openness and intrigue.
As I said before, we had seen her in action a few times and I took notice of Anastasia’s openly provocative forms and her dance. My wife also enjoyed watching her artistic movements but was probably far more indifferent to her cleavage than me. After a few times, many unique aspects of Anastasia’s presence and behavior faded away and we started accepting her as something that’s always there… like tzatziki on my gyro.
So back to family gatherings. One regular Friday, the place was especially packed. All kinds of people, mostly large families, with all generations present at the table …. Kind of fun to watch and observe. One table, closest to us, was in fact a combination of a few tables, to accommodate a huge (perhaps Greek?) family. Two teenage boys, I’d say 13-15 years old, sat in the front closest to where the odd couple was warming up and Anastasia was expected to appear. They sat with their backs to the stage during the meal but as soon as the Moustache started off, they turned around and, facing the musicians, continued looking down at what appeared to be some kind of device. I couldn’t tell for sure but it could be a portable video game or smartphone. In any case, they both were completely immersed in whatever it was they were doing – game, Facebook or some other kind of chat or virtual social interaction. Very soon, Anastasia stepped out from the shadows and onto the stage, glamorous, glittery, very hot. She looked fantastic, even for a seasoned belly dance connoisseur like myself, and I noticed that she took extra care in preparing for the show – make-up, dress, her whole demeanor. So the music kicked off and she started dancing, clasping, swirling, with the ever increasing graciousness, to the upbeat rhythm which itself seemed to accelerate, lifting everyone’s spirits higher and higher. I found myself forgetting about my lamb shank and started tapping my foot under the table, admiring Anastasia’s curvy forms and graceful dance. The whole room seemed to go along with that liveliness, people chatter growing more excited, eyes brighter and more smiles than you’d ever see. And amidst all this excitement, liveliness, love of life, music and dance, amidst this sexy celebration of life and sacred female, I glanced at the two teenage boys in the front row and almost choked on my lamb shank. Despite all this excitement and emotional overload in the room, those two poor schmucks kept on tapping or clicking on their devices, oblivious to the world around them, still immersed in their second life.
I think Anastasia knew all along that something was off there. I mean, after all, she gathered crowds of hungry eyes weekend after weekend, with men consuming her bodacious forms and women so envious of them. She – the culmination of a long working week, the centerfold of this establishment’s entertainment, the main act – couldn’t possibly understand how  these two adolescents could miss her gorgeous presence.

After a short break, she came back, looking even hotter and sexier than in the  first act. She added some make-up, her cheeks were blooming (perhaps she had  a shot of ouzo backstage for an extra drive), skirt shorter and cleavage noticeably lower. I’m looking and thinking, oh my dear god, she’s an absolute Greek goddess. So the music kicked off, and the duo played as if that was their last concert ever. And she started swirling, and cymballing, and bending, and almost moaning with every move. It was one step away from an erotica film. The patrons visibly quieted down sensing something different this time. Anastasia went offense. In a gracious dance, she approached the youngsters, cheeks flaring, her mouth half opened and almost uttering “Hey, look at me, I’m yours”. And guess what? Those teenagers just kept on tapping on their devices like none of that was happening around them. What has this world come to?

There are valuable lessons to learn here. Perhaps the society these days puts an enormous pressure on young individuals to adhere to new social norms. Their parents lived in a different world, perhaps growing up in the 1980s or in Greece which was in any case more open to sexuality. These two boys are told these days that even looking suggestively at a girl could get them landed in the principals office or worse, like getting their parents sued

It is also possible that those two particular youngsters were gay but that’s highly unlikely. Even gay people admire female beauty and fine dance.

And then there is the most plausible explanation of all. Those boys were absolutely in love with their smartphones, Facebook chat rooms, Twinter feeds or whatever else digital they preferred to Anastasia. To the point that it replaced real world for them. My wife joked that day, “Those two are probably texting each other, check out the boobs on that one lol”. And that, my friends, is just plain sad.

The longest 4 years

When I was in my 20’s and 30’s and life was somewhat uneventful, 4 years meant very little. Don’t get me wrong – 4 years still feels like a long time, it actually feels like forever when you’re younger, but still not too rich with major changes. At least it wasn’t for me. It was consistent, if anything.

I picked a 4-year mark because of the Olympics schedule. There is a certain beat to life on even years. Every 4 years – Summer Olympics, alternating 4 years – Winter Olympics. Same goes for World Cup and EuroCup. But it always  alternates with 2’s or 4’s. Essentially, the even years are milestone years.

The Rio 2016 Games just finished a couple of weeks ago. Great event … that I had a very limited opportunity to watch … but as with any international sporting events, good variety and certain class and quality of performance. As the Games were happening, I reflected on the 2012 Olympics in London and looked back at the 4 years that had passed.

So what happened in the last 4 years? A lifetime happened. More than anyone can wish for. And it was in such stark contrast with the previous 4 years or prior, that it makes me wonder – what’s in store for me by 2020?

While London 2012 Games were happening, my wife was 3 months pregnant with our son. We lived in Ohio, in a rental townhome, I was finishing up the business school (writing thesis at the time), had a fairly full head of dark hair (no grays, with only a slight loss at the very top), and was genuinely worried about the most stupid things. My wife just turned 30, was still a bit shallow and was equally ignorant of the upcoming change in her life.

Shortly after, i.e in a 6-month time, our son arrived. A little bundle of joy that first didn’t cry or make too much noise at all, slept most of the time and was a real angel. Mommy and daddy were tired but moderately, and still retained the ability to worry about some stupid things (although the list had gotten shorter). Well, that relative tranquility didn’t last long, and there started the crying, and night feedings, and ear infection and so on and so forth. As hard as it sounds though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Soon after, I managed to graduate from business school (try writing a thesis when your wife is pregnant and then the kid actually arrives!). I was awarded a Master’s degree with Honors for all my hard work.

Just months before The London Olympics, I changed jobs after 4 years of doing exactly the same thing – same department, pretty much same boss, same general responsibilities. Same pay, too. Right around the time that our son arrived, and perhaps related to his arrival (considering my tired, zombified state, I wasn’t performing at my best), I was asked to start looking for something else, a sort of a soft layoff. I landed a new position with the same company very quickly and continued on.

Around that time, I realized that I can’t see the fine print on food and medication packages. And I had difficulty concentrating on the computer screen. So I went to see an optometrist who quickly quoted a bunch of meaningless numbers that really meant that I had lost some of my original, hawk-like eye sight. Damn, I thought, now that’s a huge change.

About a year later, we decided to leave Ohio behind. Many reasons for that … perhaps one of the main reasons being that being true to the Olympics 2’s and 4’s beat, we joyfully watched both Beijing and Vancouver Olympics while living in an Ohio rental (although a different one) and it looked like it was turning into a lifetime of uneventful stupor, with each day looking exactly like the one before. Even with the bundle of joy on our hands, the Midwestern slow motion kept me tranquilized, so we decided that it was enough.

I quickly (again) landed a new job with the same company in the Philadelphia area and my wife found a new job (also very quickly) with a different company in South Philly. We moved and first decided to rent, so we could look around, get used to things… and decide on the next thing. Well, the next thing was, we started looking for  a house and got pregnant. And very quickly again. By the time we signed on the house, my wife was 5 months into it. I expediently repaired and painted what I could and as soon as I was done, another bundle of joy arrived. By that time, I pretty much slept in my glasses and lost 2/3 of my crown hair. The rest of it now looks like someone mixed salt and pepper.

With the baby here and money safely invested in real estate, I thought, well, that’s enough being in the same company, bought the house, now have 2 kids, pretty much anchored myself to the area, so why not try looking for some new adventure, that is, a job.

I didn’t end up with a new job – my ex-manager left the company for medical reasons and I moved into his role. So I had essentially a new boss too… who changed to another boss within 2 months.

As I look back now, it was by far the most staggering 4 years of my life. Here’s a tally:

  • went from simply married to a father of two
  • went from rent to single home ownership
  • went from full sight to God knows what number up or down… but not 20/20, as it was oh not so long ago
  • went from full head of hair to a shiny patch – constant object of my wife’s mockery
  • went from Midwest to East Coast
  • changed a 4-year job to three other jobs

So what’s next?

Hospital

I was recently in a hospital. My wife just gave birth to a beautiful boy and I was spending a few days with them before the three of us got dismissed home. I was at the cafeteria and just got some non-nutritional, overpriced food that I was ready to pay for. It turned out that their credit card machine was down and I asked the cashier if I was OK with what I got if I only had $6 cash. Before she could open her mouth, a guy behind me, older, sickly guy, offered to spot me the difference. She said it’s fine, the bill only came to $4.01, and she was quick to tell me that I didn’t have to walk away with 99 cents jingling in my pocket and had an extra penny. I got my $1 change and was just doctoring the coffee when that old guy pulled up next to me. I thanked him again, not entirely shocked with the help he offered but more trying to be polite and admiring that these things still happen. He obviously responded no problem but then said something like “this is a hospital, if not here, then where?” implying that it was the most appropriate place for that and other acts of kindness to happen. At that moment I looked around and saw all kinds of people- cancer, heart patients, people on crutches, old and lonely people. I had seen them all along but now saw them with a new perspective. All of a sudden, to me this was a frontier, a final stand between life and death, where people don’t divide themselves into black and white, liberal and conservative, rich and poor. This was the ultimate place where you survive or cease to exist. Like a frontier. I don’t know if that stranger was terminally ill or walked out of the hospital the next day (and I sure hope it was the latter) but he made me think about our life choices and how we build a network of complex interactions between us and call them something unpronounceable. But at the end if day, we are just people who will one day pass on. In the face of that reality, why don’t we do good things for each other?

Craporation

I work for a very large national and international bank. I am a big proponent of all things business and corporate but this week I had a bit of a commie-like reaction to what I heard. A while back my manager told me that my new direct report had been in fact making more money than I had. That same week, a far more junior person was joining the team and she too was making as much as me. Both came from outside, at allegedly market rates, and I was being rewarded for my 8 years of loyalty to the company. Interestingly, I didn’t dwell on these unpleasant news, partly due to my manager’s assurance that it should all be taken care of, and soon, fully recognizing that it was as absurd as it gets.

3 months later, i.e. now, rolls in the mid year review. A mid point in the year, that serves a somewhat vague purpose of “correcting the course and checking the pulse”. So with all these corrections and pulse taking I could only focus on the matter at hand- where is the bloody justice??? It made my pulse beat faster if anything, which theoretically should’ve made my employers ecstatic, since I was so persuasively upbeat. 

And then comes the big day. I’m not one of those morons that bought a boat with the money that hadn’t been paid yet. Nevertheless, I’m thinking, my manager told me he would take care of this. In fact, he brought it up a couple of times without any prompt from me. So I’m going into a review meeting, not 100% convinced that things would get resolved but at least having some kind of hope that they might. So the review goes well, the manager highlights what a champ I am, proactive and delightfully genuine in my quest for the team’s success. How well I manage my team, especially the intern that I practically had to fire (who we didn’t even get to hire or meet beforehand because he was assigned to us through some internship program). Then he totally stuns me with a rating he came up with, the rating that apparently the senior management unanimously agreed to – Exceed Expectations! The highest of them all.  The holy grail of corporate performance. The magic E. So I’m like all smiles, and thinking oh yeah, it’s going well. Happy to oblige. Where do I sign up for the next hundred projects?

And then, sort of casually, but sternly, he tells me that raises are tough in the mid year, the company is aggressively cutting costs, last quarter’s results didn’t make Wall Street analysts too happy, and share price is kind of stagnating. That he did his best, and begged and pleaded, and built a whole case for me but, despite all that and more, I would not be getting a raise this time. Most likely at year end but he can’t promise me anything. On top of that, the company is flattening its structure and they will be doing two more things to make things better and improve employee satisfaction: removing redundant levels and standardizing job titles. As a result I’m going to become a single contributor, lose Senior in my job title and keep staring in the eyes of my former employee who makes more than me, has less experience and has a long way to go in what we do. So I’m effectively demoted, stripped off of the opportunity to grow into a leadership role, and kind of losing money to inflation. But who really cares about any of that when your rating is Exceed Expectations?

I know all this sounds familiar and there are millions of corporate schmucks out there that experience the same kind of treatment every day. That, however, doesn’t change the fact in my own mind that there is a definitive course of action cut out for me. Sadly it can only guide me towards another craporation where it’s only a matter of time before I face another example of absurdity, bad management and plain injustice.

Juice

My son, who is now two and a half but was about 2 years old at the time when this story took place, may be the world’s youngest comedian. My wife, my son and I went to a bar-mitzvah of a son of a good friend of mine, who I went to school with years ago. As is customary in the Jewish tradition, when a boy turns 13, this ritual known as rite of passage celebrates his coming of age and becoming a man. It is a highly celebrated event and is often observed by families that wouldn’t come near a temple otherwise. Basically, it’s just as much of a cultural tradition as it is of religious nature.

Nevertheless, it is held in a temple or synagogue and involves an extensive amount of praying, singing, bowing, leafing through the Torah and often dancing. A very interesting event at that, even if you don’t speak or understand a word in Hebrew … like me.

This time, it was no different. Women were separated from men by a semi-transparent, fabric-covered hedge, men wore yarmulkes and the mood was celebratory and solemn. The celebrated youth smiled occasionally, revealing his braces, and I bet he couldn’t wait to get out of his suit and into something more comfortable.

My family was offered a place in the basement (it was a house converted to a synagogue). My son, being 2 years old, would’ve started going nuts after 10 minutes of the ceremony, let alone 3 hours that it actually took. So it was in fact a wise decision to keep him contained where he couldn’t interrupt the flow of the sacred ritual.

I had no idea what was going on in the basement, until after the ceremony when my wife told me. Apparently, it was a busy place, where people would come and go, food was prepared, service personnel moving things around. Like any other synagogue or temple, this is where people gathered, among other things, to discuss the latest news and gossip, but instead of meeting in the main hall upstairs, where the ceremony was in full swing, they’d come here unable to contain the desire to share everything that’s happened since last Saturday.

My son was moving freely around one of the rooms in the basement, staying close to my wife but making a few steps in every direction while exploring the room surroundings. He’d announce loudly if he wanted anything to eat or drink, in his somewhat distorted language that we could understand, and my wife was there, like a good mom, with a Tapas bar of food and drink options for him.

At some point, there was a group of Hassidic Jews, in traditional dress, standing not too far from where my family camped. They were completely involved in a brisk discussion, and weren’t paying much attention to my family.

On one of his rounds, my son stopped in the middle of the room, in relative proximity to them, and announced with much excitement, sort of waving his hand that could easily be misconstrued as pointing a finger: “Jews!!!” My wife, normally quick to react, kind of missed the first demand, and he went on insisting “Jews, jews!!” Only my wife knew that he was actually asking for JUICE. He repeated it a couple more times and the rabbis already started glancing at him before she got to him and gave him his well-deserved apple juice. The grave misunderstanding was averted!

Shorts

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My biggest regret in life is that I’ve never been able to achieve perfection in anything I do, know or strive for. It’s also my biggest satisfaction in life – to observe that the world is the most wonderful, endlessly creative and constantly evolving place that’s a culprit for impeding that same perfection in the first place.

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You know how Listerine gives you a “deeper clean than brushing alone”? For years I’ve been staring at the bottle twice a day while swishing the bitter liquid. For years…. Until it occurred to me that “brushing alone” can actually mean a couple of things. One meaning, most definitely unintended by Listerine makers, made me imagine a lone man, day after day brushing his teeth all by himself, with a final result far less than what he expected. In another scene, that same man is surrounded by his friends- Listerine bottles, and he’s still brushing but less incessantly, and ends up blinding us with his strikingly white, clean teeth. I thought I was crazy at first, looking for double meanings in an innocent marketing campaign but then found at least one instance of people discussing that same angle of the expression, but taking it even further, suggesting replacing a toothbrush with fiends, or asking if someone could brush their teeth with their friends to get the same effect. And I thought I was crazy …

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We go to this dental office and the hygienist’s name is Ruth. Lovely, older lady. I was joking with my wife that we should start calling her Ruth Canal. She couldn’t stop laughing.

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Our kids go to a daycare where teachers are almost like family. My older son had some stomach problems and missed one day of school, and everybody there was concerned about him. One teacher in particular confided in my wife: “Can’t go, huh? That’s bad. I couldn’t go either. Bananas did it to me.” And after a short break she went on: “I went yesterday”. My wife thought such confession was odd  but I thought it’s great when people can open up like that to strangers. Something tells me they are incapable of evil.

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You know the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words”? It puzzled me to find out who might have come up with this concept. I wondered if it could only belong to someone who’s innately lazy or an ultimate genius. A quick Wikipedia search revealed that it’s partly true on both fronts. The writers (Ivan Turgenev), world leaders (Napoleon Bonaparte) and some advertising guy in the 1920’s all expressed the same idea, albeit in various forms. What puzzled me even further was a Chinese counter-version that, according to John McCarthy, a computer scientist, went something like this: “1001 words is worth more than a picture”. So which one is it, people????!!!???