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????!!!???

Tom Hanks

Want to talk about probabilities?

Well, I do. Before today, I’ve witnessed a number of times when something happened, seemingly out of the blue, and it was related to some other chance event in my life. And since both events were absolutely random, you start believing in absolute randomness, aka chaos … Or some divine force that makes it all happen. Or that all things are indeed somehow connected, unbeknownst to us. So here’s what happened.

I was looking for a journal or note taking iPad app that looks a little more elegant than built-in Notes. I checked out a few and some were a complete overkill, others – not functional enough. I didn’t go to a great length reviewing them all but scrolled down a few rows just to see what else was there. For no obvious reason, Hanx Writer got my attention. I went into details and realized that Mr Castaway himself produced the app. So I downloaded it and played a bit with it. Its whole premise is to replicate an old-fashioned typewriter, with sounds, keys, end of line carriage return. The app is too cluttered, even awkward, in my opinion, but that’s secondary to the story. That was on a Tuesday.

Exactly a week later, also on a Tuesday, I got into my car, at a very odd time, about 4.45pm, I never get in my car at that time, but I worked from home that day and had to pick up a few groceries before picking up my son at the daycare. So anyway, I get into my car and I have NPR on. And I could have had satellite radio on, or played Pandora, or god knows what else. But I had NPR on, and I can hear a dialogue between a man and a woman, the woman being an anchor. And they are talking about old-fashioned typewriters, and carriage returns, and custom sound settings, and how popular this is going to be with kids (or not). And then, like a lightning bolt, this very distinctive laughter and tonality, you know, “I have made fire!” Tonality, strike me with the realization, “Holy crap, this is Tom Hanks, and they are talking about Hanx Writer”!!!

At that point, I’m thinking to myself, “well I’ve been here before, many times actually”, but I was either way too busy, drunk, lazy etc. to document it or simply didn’t see the whole coincidence meet chaos meet divine force angle to it. And then, thankfully, I decided to retain the experience and put it down on paper.

Back to probabilities- here’s how I view the whole thing.

Let’s write it down – iPad has X number of writing or journal taking apps, so the probability of me finding Hanx Writer is 1/X. The actual probability (sort of out of the blue) of me looking for an app like that is even lower but let’s assume that was predefined.

Further, there are numerous options for what I could’ve been listening to in my car. Let’s give weights to a few major options: Shoutcast, Pandora I’d say 1/10, satellite- 3/10, NPR- 4/10, some other radio or not listening to anything at all – 2/10. So with 40% chance I could’ve been listening to NPR. Not bad odds on its own but …

Now to the timing, probably the hardest to define. I drive every day so the day of the week itself is not important. The fact that I worked from home could’ve been caused by a million different events but lets say for simplicity that it was either me being sick or something else, like flat tire this time. So let’s say it has a 5/260 chance (average days I work from home over 260 work days a year). Now, the odd hour that I left home would arguably have the lowest probability but let’s assume we measure that whole time frame in 15 min increments- being the length of the show- over the span of 2 hours. In that case, the odds of me leaving at 4.45pm are 1/8.

From my statistics course I remember that to calculate the combined probability of multiple events, that is, the probability that they all happened is to simply multiply individual probabilities. So here it goes:

1/x iPad apps x
4/10 listening to NPR x
5/260 working from home x
1/8 leaving at 4.45pm

And that gives us 0.096% / x iPad apps for writing. I don’t know what that x is but my guess is that it’s in the hundreds, if not thousands. So let’s say a round thousand – and then the final probability comes to 0.000096%. In practical terms, this means that the odds are 1 out of a million for the events I just described to happen. I’m not much of a gambler but I’d say the odds aren’t great.

I have no reasonable explanation why these things happen. With the odds as they are, they shouldn’t but they have happened to me and far more than once. I’m positive I haven’t uncovered a conspiracy but I almost sense that there has to be some kind of connection between us that exists outside of our immediate senses. Too bad it’s unlikely that I’ll know what it is in my lifetime.

Car wash

Car wash

I’m sure you’ve been to a car wash. And if you haven’t, you should.

Car wash is a majestic place. Suspension starts building up from the moment you punch in a code. The preparation is a process in itself, almost a ritual. There is an attendant waving you in, making sure you don’t scratch your tires or rims. You keep driving up until he orders you stop, and mimes to you the steps you need to follow. Windows up, car in neutral, don’t touch the steering… I never know how to interact with the attendant at that point- do I mime thank you in response? Or do I nod? Or should I actually roll down the window, verbally acknowledge the fella and quickly roll it back up? At this point the rail picks up the car, and you feel like you completely lost control, almost a sense of zero gravity. And the real action begins.

All mechanical parts, moving in perfect harmony, their movements so precise that no harm should ever befall on your precious vehicle. Here’s a symmetrical set of side brushes, their not so friendly but firm advancements towards you and your passenger, only to stop inches away from your faces, so that they could attend to the sanitary needs of your doors. And then there is a center brush, ominously approaching the car, and it’s as if it knows exactly when to start inching up and rolling over the hood until finally disappearing somewhere over your head. You can hear the soft, cozy sounds of bristles against the body and suddenly the whole experience isn’t so scary. The sprinklers add to the joy with their multi-color expressions, and the foam engulfs you completely into the sense of serenity – you and your car are safe in capable mechanical, programmable hands.

And at that moment, when you are finally relaxed and happily observing the fresh water come over your entire body and wash away the suds, when you can make out a street light ahead of you, still red but ready as you are to turn green any minute now, and the dryers have deployed their lungs, you look to your left and through the water streaming down and vapor you see some guy standing there, absentmindedly, not even looking at you or your car but more like looking around, and the thought crosses your mind: “What the hell is this guy doing there???” It’s always so sudden that you involuntarily shudder. The vapor adds to the mystery in that the guy looks distorted, hard to make out his features or gestures. Your paranoid mind starts likening him to Freddy Kruger who wasn’t a stranger to vapor himself. And you realize that all this was just a show, mechanical precision, pretty colors and cozy foam. “It’s a trap”, your mind quickly registers, and at that point the rail actually slows down. Freddy the attendant continues standing there, and all your claustrophobic neurons jump into action. And just as soon as you reach the mixed state of “can it be” and “come on, be a man”, the dryers give way to open doors and you see the daylight again.

Whew. Adios Freddy and mechanical monsters, I’ve escaped your grip once again!

Meeting

I was in a meeting the other day. A couple of consultants presented some mumbomjumbo that the rest of us pretended to appreciate. Both of them, man and woman, looked identically tanned, same height, same fake laugh and quite possibly same bed while away on a business trip. He was her boss, anyway.

On our side there was this guy, new to the company and the team, that reminded me of Chris Cooper character in the movie American Beauty, colonel Frank Fitts. I mean, the guy looked like he had just gotten back from the gun range. I asked a rather innocent question and he gave me this look, unmistakably sharp look of a sharp shooter. Did I say the meeting was boring? I had a vivid image of this fella on a Saturday night, in his black vintage boxers and a wife beater, lovingly cleaning his Uzi. He drank and cursed all these damn immigrants that had invaded America and glanced at his white outfit in the corner every few minutes.

The meeting was over in no time. I’m glad Colonel and I work in different departments.

P. S. There was a follow up call and the colonel was on it. At some point he quoted “the greatest Donald Trump” and that was the break point for me. You win, Colonel.