Posts Tagged ‘business’

All ready for the office reorganization

November 21, 2011

My boss asked to see me in her office Friday. This is far from an everyday request so – considering the state of the economy and particularly concerns about the so-called “jobless recovery” we’re experiencing in which the unemployment rate still hovers near 10% and new job creation is at a virtual standstill – I was, like, freaking out.

A manager who wants to discuss potentially bad news with an underling is at a distinct advantage if they play their cards right. In this environment, the employee automatically assumes the worst is about to happen. Anything less than a pink slip, a box to collect your personal effects and a security-guard-escorted walk to the parking lot becomes welcome news.

If they put enough drama into the meeting, closing the door behind you as you enter and remaining grim-faced as you settle into your chair, you’ll accept almost anything else they have to say with enthusiasm.

“Dave, I’ve called you in here today to discuss some new directions we see your career here taking,” they can say.

“New directions,” you hear. As in, make a left as you leave the building, then a right at the second light, and you’ll see the unemployment office on the left? you wonder.

“We’ve got some new duties we want you to add to your current skill set,” they can continue.

“New duties,” you hear. A sign of hope?

“We need someone to scrub the floor of the men’s room each day using only their tongue,” they can offer. “And we think you’re just the man for the job.”

“I still have a job!” you think. Relief floods your mind. “That sounds like something I can handle,” you answer. “I’m all salivated up and ready to go. When can I start?”

So when my boss started talking about the reorganization our department is about to undertake, and how it will affect the hours I work and the place where I sit, I was more than happy to listen respectfully and nod my head in an affirmative motion at all the right places. I was not losing my job after all. That was what they call in the corporate world my “key takeaway.”

But now that I’ve had a few days to think about what she said, in the context of not having to trade my comfortable suburban house for a homeless shelter, I have some concerns about a few of these changes.

I’m not going to have to get used to a new chair, am I?

We all have the same type of chairs in my office, but after several years of use, not all of the features still work on every chair. I need more than just a flat horizontal surface to place my can. I need a certain level of lumbar support. I don’t like the armrests to be so high as to interfere with my typing, or too low to provide rest for my arms when I’m reading. The wheels need to work properly so I can scoot to the coffeemaker with a single thrust of my legs.

What about mousepads? Can we keep the ones we currently have?

I like the kind that has the little mound of gel you can rest your wrist on. I don’t like the kind that advertises Office Depot or the pharmaceutical industry’s latest anti-depressant. My wrist tends to get tired after a long day of clicking and dragging, and I’m not sure I can put in a full eight hours with a weary forearm.

The carousel of supplies at my current desk is organized just as I like it. Can I take it with me to my new desk?

A few years ago, in the throes of another reorganization that saw us sticking labels on everything that didn’t move, the different storage slots on my carousel got signs for what goes into each area: “staple remover” reads one, “red pens and pencils” reads another, “black/blue pens” reads a third. This seemed silly at the time, but I’ve grown used to it since then. When I’m through using a rubber band or a paper clip, I want to know where it should be returned to. These labels are the lifeblood of my sanity, and my whole worldview will be affected if I don’t know where to put the medium-sized sticky notes when I’m through with them.

Will I have a stapler and scissors at my new desk?

Right now, I don’t have ready access to these seemingly essential tools of office work. I don’t know whether we just have a shortage, or whether there might be some safety issue involved. I feel I’ve demonstrated a level of responsibility during my 30-plus years with the company to show I can be trusted to handle sharp instruments. If there is some training involved in how to properly attach one piece of paper to another, I’d be eager to learn. I believe learning is a lifelong pursuit and am always eager to gain new skills.

Can I be positioned directly beneath an air-conditioning vent?

Most people in my office seem to be suffering a chronic hypothermia that requires them to constantly fiddle with the thermostat until the room becomes a sauna. I’m originally from Miami, and grew up there in the days before air-conditioning. I appreciate a nice draft as welcome refreshment. You can even put me near the door if you want to; it’ll make it that much easier to slip out five minutes early at the end of the day.

Please don’t make me sit next to Kelly. Please. I beg of you. Have some basic human compassion.

Kelly is our office loudmouth. She chatters endlessly about every detail of her personal life. I don’t want to constantly be hearing about how her son has done at soccer practice, how she has a new cat, how her husband is going back to school again instead of getting a job, how she has this lump on her side that she needs to get checked out. If I want to know these things, I’ll sign up for her online newsletter.

Finally, I need both a recycling bin and a trash can at my new desk.

I’ll often work through lunch, eating a sandwich at my work station. When I’m done, I’ll usually save the Zip-Lock bag I packed it in, unless it’s been stained by mayonnaise dripping out the side of my turkey sandwich. When this happens, I’d like to be able to throw it away without getting up. I don’t want to put it into recycling, because that would destroy the Earth.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Don’t make me share a desk with Edwin on second shift.

Edwin is notorious for eating three-fourths of an onion-packed Subway sandwich and tossing the rest in his desk-side garbage can instead of — as we were specifically instructed in an email dated September 27, 2003 — putting any smelly trash in the breakroom receptacle. The maintenance people usually empty the office trash cans at mid-morning, so whoever shares a desk with Edwin has to smell old onions for half the day. This, I will not abide.

Somebody in management needs to have a talk with Edwin. Let him think he’s getting the ax, and he’ll be more than grateful to stop putting his onions in the regular trash.

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Turkey time at the office

November 18, 2011

The food for the office Thanksgiving luncheon was all set up and ready to be eaten. Workers summoned for the feast from different departments stood about awkwardly, hungry but mindful of the need to wait for some kind of “GO!” command.

First, the district manager had a few words to say. He welcomed the 50 or so white-collar staffers, and spoke of an old tradition that he greatly admired. He’d heard of a family that asked everyone in attendance at their holiday dinners to talk briefly of something they were thankful for in the past year.

A few sidelong glances were exchanged among the famished professionals — “at this rate, we’re never going to eat” seemed to be the unspoken consensus. The manager sensed the crowd’s reluctance to talk about home and family matters at work.

“Anybody have anything they’d like to share?” he asked.

There was some lame muttering from the back about being thankful for friends. Another person said they had suffered a lot in the last year while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, then realized this wasn’t much of a reason for thanks and instead turned it into a “deep gratitude” that another accident hasn’t happened again.

I felt embarrassed by the silence and sorry for the well-intentioned manager, and almost spoke up myself. I was going to say I was just thankful to have a job in these difficult times, then realized it might prompt him to wonder “why is he still working here?” and decided to hold my tongue. When it became apparent that no one else was going to speak — unless we wanted to ask the people ringing our phones off the hook while the receptionist was away microwaving the green bean casserole — he moved on.

After a pause, he again looked around the room and asked if anybody wanted to say “a word” before we began eating.

Were this any other region of the country besides the South, the word people might’ve offered would be something like “c’mon” or “let’s go, already.” Down here, though, “a word,” especially when requested immediately prior to the consumption of food, means a prayer. Finally someone accepted the challenge, and asked everyone to bow their heads. I used the opportunity to study what a nice pair of running shoes the person next to me recently purchased, and how well their color coordinated with the office carpet.

The prayer (prayist?) proceeded through an acknowledgement of the usual litany of Christian superheroes. He thanked an unseen timekeeper who granted us the opportunity to join together. He gave a brief preview of the available entrees, specifically mentioning both turkey and ham. He said he did all this “in Jesus’ name” (though I bet he’d be resuming his usual role as Bobby in just a minute), then everybody said “amen.”

I’m really glad that I, an agnostic, have never been forced to deliver an impromptu invocation at a company function. I’ve had years of Lutheran training and could probably recall a doxology or two if pressed. I think I could fake my way through it.

Actually, I’ve been known to invoke the various names of the Almighty and His Posse on numerous occasions throughout the average workday. I’m not sure how good a prayer it would make, but I could improvise something like the following.

Good God
I can’t believe the last person to use the copier didn’t hit the reset button when they were through.
Now I have 50 copies when I only wanted two.
And they left blue paper in the legal tray.
Christ Almighty
Those people on the night shift have been using our creamer again.
And doesn’t that guy over in Legal realize that you’re supposed to pay to be in the coffee fund?
Mary, Mother of God
Why have these maintenance people vacuuming while I’m on this important call?
They now wear portable motors and bags on their backs.
I wish those were jetpacks and they’d fly the hell away.
Sweet Jesus
I’m out of sticky notes again.
And I think someone slid a different chair over here, because this one just doesn’t feel right.
Is there no respect for personal property in this place?
Holy Cow
They’re cranking up the thermostat again even though it’s already 150 degrees in here.
These women need to ditch the sleeveless tops already or else bring their Snuggies to work.
God Damn It
It looks like there’s another network outage coming in five minutes.
Tech says it’ll only take about thirty seconds, but by the time you have to restart and bring all your programs back up, you might as well call it a day.
They’re probably doing some upgrade that blocks even more websites.
Jesus H. Christ
Those new paper towels in the men’s room are so thin, they’re practically toilet paper.
I’m sure it’s cheaper than the old stuff, but don’t they realize we’re using twice as much?
I am sick of tiny disintegrated shreds of saturated paper sticking to my hands.
God Almighty, what is wrong with these people?

 

Sweet Lord

Trying to figure out the new cell phone

November 11, 2011

Often, I’ll write about being flummoxed by new technology.

When I first started this blog over three years ago, I wrote that one of the slots on the side of my laptop must be malfunctioning because twenties were not flowing out, like is supposed to happen when you have a blog.

When I discovered Wikipedia, I thought it was an online shopping site. I tried to buy three Christmas presents for my uncles there: Flucindole, a never-marketed antipsychotic drug; an Australian Wood Duck; and a Chartered Economic Analyst (ChEA).

I’ve told of the time I mistakenly recited my fast-food order into a trash can that I thought was the speakerbox interface to the order-taker.

“Ha, ha,” as we say in the humor business. “Very funny.”

Today, that is not my theme, although you’d think it would be considering that I bought a new cell phone on Monday. Today, I get to describe my mastery over at least a small sliver of the Digital World.

My old phone was so ancient that Motorola was still a respected producer of handheld sets at the time it was made. I had the Razr, a state-of-the-art device for about a month back in 2005. It had all the latest features, including a camera, internet access and text messaging. Some telecommunications analysts were even reporting you could make phone calls on it.

What I fell in love with was the text messaging. No more phone calls. No more “Hi, how are you?”, “Fine, how are you?”, “Fine. How’s the wife and kids?”, “They’re fine. How about your family?”. Now, telephonic communication could be done in a direct, efficient, soulless manner.

And the bonus was, you got to typeset. I love typesetting, as my 35-year career in the business can attest. Now I could do it anywhere.

The problem with the Razr is that it has one of those old-fashioned keypads with three or four letters to a key, so to type something like the word “feces,” you had to punch different buttons 35 times, complete with occasional pauses. I might like typing and I might like the word “feces,” but that amount of time and effort was ridiculous. The more I got into text messaging, the more I realized I needed one of those slide-out QWERTY keyboards.

When we went to the local wireless provider, my wife and son helped me consider the dozens of sets on display. My primary criteria were that my new phone have a user-friendly keyboard and be less than $100, after mail-in rebate, with a two-year contract renewal, today only. Because I have a heavy swipe finger, I also would’ve chosen to avoid touch-screen technology if that were possible, but apparently it is not.

We settled pretty quickly on the Pantech Ease. Pantech is a South Korean company that has a long tradition in the telecommunications industry, going back to at least April. The Ease is one of their most popular models.

I cracked open both the phone and the Quick Start Guide as soon as I got home, and started noodling around with the features. A certain long-tenured female in my family believed that I should read the 200-page User Guide cover-to-cover (including the last half, which was upside down and written in Spanish) to figure out how it worked. I made a different choice, and basically just started pushing random buttons.

I looked occasionally at the one-sheet overview and for some reason, a certain phrase caught my eye.

“Ease is about options. You can get quick access to the features you need in easy-to-use, easy-to-read Easy Mode,” read one paragraph. My son noticed all these “easy” references too, and made a succinct observation.

“What you’ve got there, Dad, is one step up from a Jitterbug,” he said. I think he’s probably right.

Reading further, we saw other clues that confirmed this suspicion. In a segment on mobile email, the sample address is “silverfox2″. The Cool Tools section describes how to use the “pill reminder,” a kind of alarm to prompt you to remember your heart medicine. This feature even comes with a “snooze feature” to give you an extra 15 minutes in case you’ve already passed out from your bout with angina. A box describing the available accessories called the Velcro belt-attached carrying case “fashionable.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t take me a while to master the Ease’s rather limited offerings. I’ve spent the last 24 hours puzzling through the different screens and have figured out how to send a text, how to text a picture, how to shoot video and how to send an email from my phone to my office. With an attachment. I think that’s pretty impressive.

My studies haven’t come without some trial and error. I wanted to see if I could receive video, so I asked my son to make a short film of what our three cats were up to yesterday morning and send it to me at work. It came through loud and clear. Too loud, in fact, as I couldn’t find the volume button and when I did it wasn’t very responsive.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” rang a high-pitched chant audible throughout the department.

“What’s that?” snapped Regina over in customer service. “There better not be a cat in here.”

When I woke up at 4 a.m. earlier that morning to get ready for work, I grabbed the phone from my dresser and apparently hit the “Say A Command” button on the side of the device.

“Say a command,” instructed a woman’s voice in a stern but friendly tone.

I was only half awake during all this after maybe five hours sleep, and you can probably imagine how aback I was taken with this middle-of-the-night directive. I thought I was caught in the midst of some S&M-themed dream. Fortunately, the Ease’s voice-recognition software didn’t know what to make of the command “Wuh? Huh? Shit! Ouch!” as I stumbled through the dark. I’ll have to come back to this feature later.

I really think I’m going to like this cell phone. There’s still a lot to be learned, so I am starting to make my way through the large User Guide. I’ve already learned you can toggle over from the Easy Mode home screen to an Advanced Mode display with three pages of apps icons if you want to attempt things like mobile social net, mobile banking and mobile web. Frankly, though, I have enough trouble doing those things standing still.

The only thing I miss so far about my old Motorola Razr was the resounding metallic thunk it made when you were done with your telecommunications business. It made me feel important and plugged-in to the larger world. People standing nearby would look admiringly at me, whispering to their friends “Hey, that guy’s got a cell phone!”

Sliding the QWERTY keyboard soundlessly back into position after firing off a text doesn’t draw anybody’s attention. But maybe, if I keep studying hard, I’ll find there’s a feature to record everyday sounds, and I can capture the sound of my slammin’ Razr for use as a ringtone.

Out with the old …
… In with the new

Finding new uses for the coupon

November 10, 2011

One evening in 1803, Thomas Jefferson came home from his job as president of the United States with exciting news. He had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a $15-million transaction in which France handed over nearly a million square miles of territory to his fledgling nation. All lands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains would now be American.

“Soon we will span the continent,” Jefferson told his wife Martha. “Our manifest destiny to stretch from sea to sea has been set in motion by my presidency. We have purchased the future of America.”

“Did you use the coupon on the refrigerator?” a skeptical Martha asked. “Because, you know, Napoleon is having a special, and with any purchase over $10 million, they’ll throw in the French West Indies.”

“This is the best deal since we bought the island of Manhattan for $24,” Jefferson answered. “The size of our land has been doubled.”

“You didn’t use the coupon, did you?” Martha continued. “Oh, well.”

The coupon may not trace its origins quite that far back, but the hope of getting a better deal has always been with us. In mankind’s earliest history, hunters and gatherers would return to the cave with what they thought was an impressive array of roots, berries and elk chunks, only to have their pride deflated by the well-intentioned spouse who’d been hoping for a free order of tree bark as well.

Americans save billions of dollars a year with just a little foresight and a pair of scissors. The coupon (pronounced “kew-pahn” by the unwashed and “coo-pohn” by those of us with a continental flair) has made its way into our everyday retail buying habits. For almost every product or service you can name, there is the opportunity to save substantial amounts on your purchase by handing over a thin slip of printed paper with your cash.

To her credit, my wife does a fantastic job of watching out for bargains that benefit the bottom line of our family’s budget. The picture below shows just a part of our collection, hanging in plain sight on the refrigerator where only a blind moron such as me could miss them.

I frequently neglect to use these coupons despite repeated reminders. A silly sense of pride is part of this — I see myself casually accepting of any price announced by the cashier with the noble proclamation that I’m willing to pay “whatever the cost” — though it’s primarily a memory issue. I’m lucky to remember my car keys and my clothing before leaving the house on a buying errand.

I’m trying to do better. Even though the 1/20th of a cent in cash value doesn’t go as far today as it used to, it still pays to shop wisely. The image of the Coupon Queen hauling a file cabinet full of paperwork up to the checkout so she can save $3.67 is now little more than a stereotype. Even urbane men of the world are regularly seen these days pulling a wad of vouchers out of their finely tailored suits to save a few bucks on the business lunch that will seal the upcoming merger.

Keeping this in mind has helped me do a better job of using coupons. I’ve now become enough of a veteran bargain-hunter that I understand slight variations in how the coupon economy works. Once you’ve steeled yourself to the humiliation of a transaction that announces to the world how cheap you are, there are subtleties at work in different settings that are worth knowing.

The coupon is most commonplace in the supermarket. Some stores even have special double- or even triple-coupon Tuesdays, where essentially they pay you to cart their stuff away. It’s not at all unusual to see every one of your fellow shoppers racking up big savings, buying one and getting one free, earning a quarter off here and free bag-of-chips-they-don’t-even-like there as they stretch their grocery dollar to extraordinary lengths.

A casual attitude toward the coupon also exists in the fast-food industry. As long as you declare your intention at the drive-through speakerbox to use it (in addition to “I have a coupon,” also acceptable is “I had a suit on” and “I’d like some Grey Poupon”), they’ll often ring up your discount without even taking the thing from you. The deals are usually not that great, and often involve some leftover, failed promotional item, like the McSquid sandwich or the Whopper Super Extreme, an all-beef patty topped with battery acid.

It’s in finer dining establishments where things tend to get dicey. You’ll want to keep the coupon hidden until you’ve finished your meal, unless you want smaller portions and/or spittle in your salad. Produce the discount as you ask for your check, and have confidence in your right to use it. I usually say something like “I have this coupon I was hoping to use if it’s something you accept and you promise we’ll never meet again.” Beware of hidden details in the fine print that may disrupt your plans. My wife and I once had a coupon rejected because we tried to use it on Veteran’s Day Eve, because holidays were specifically excluded from the offer. (In the end, we were just happy to have found a reservation on a night as crowded with celebrating couples as Veteran’s Day Eve).

Finally, there are opportunities to use coupons to purchase services as well as goods. I’m frequently able to take advantage of an offer for $8.99 haircuts at Great Clips (regular price: $11). The good thing about this set-up is that you don’t pay until after the cut is done, and by then there’s not much your stylist can do to mess you up on purpose, short of holding you down and gluing your floor trimmings back onto your scalp. The bad thing, for me anyway, is that I usually feel so guilty about gypping a struggling single mom out of a few dollars that I leave an excessive tip that negates any savings.

Harking back to the Jeffersons, it seems the time is right to expand coupon usage to other kinds of transactions, like those involving the government. Maybe we consider additional incentives to sympathetic Afghan warlords to accompany their direct cash payments, maybe a coupon for half-off the latest ground-to-air missile technology. How about offering the Chinese a deal on Treasury bills, in which a piece of an American monument is thrown in for every $100 billion sold? They could be given Teddy Roosevelt’s eyebrow off of Mt. Rushmore and hardly anybody would notice. Or the Statue of Liberty’s exposed armpit, which could then be covered up with a Band-Aid. You could say she nicked herself shaving. It’d make her more human.

Regardless of what the nation chooses to do, I’ll keep trying to remember to use my coupons. Frugality and thrift are valuable traits in these bad economic times, and I shouldn’t be ashamed to show them. Our third president would’ve been wise to heed the encouragement of his wife. Imagine Martinique as our 51st state.

Long-time worker is honored

November 8, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Nov. 7) — DavisW was awarded the prestigious Certificate of Achievement Award, marking ten years of service with his company, in a gala ceremony held right after the 10:45 coffee break at work on Tuesday.

Supervisors called on all of Davis’s co-workers to put their projects aside for a moment and join them in the corner of the room where we keep the refrigerator. Only moments before, a tray of muffins and fresh fruit had been put out on the condiments table, hinting at the festivities to come. An envelope, a portfolio folder and a framed certificate were also on display as the employees shuffled reluctantly from their cubicles to the site of the observance.

“Come on, Kate, you can finish that up in a minute,” said general manager Eric Taylor to one lingering worker who was wrestling with an urgent deadline.

“I have to get this PDF emailed before 11,” Kate responded.

“Okay,” said Eric, “we’ll wait for you. Hey, did anybody watch the (football) game last night?”

Several people said they caught a few minutes of the early action, but most chuckled that it was “way past my bedtime” and didn’t really like football that much anyway. At last, Kate joined the group.

“I’ve called you all together so we can honor one of our own for his service to the company,” Taylor began. “We want to recognize Davis today on the occasion of his tenth anniversary.”

A smattering of hesitant applause rose from the crowd of about 20 people.

“I want to read from a letter sent to Davis by Hubert J. Moore, president and chief executive officer of the company,” Taylor continued. “He writes, ‘While businesses frequently talk about their experience in glossy brochures and during sales presentations, the truth is that companies do not have experience. People do.’”

According to Taylor, President Moore went on to tell Davis “thank you for the important contributions you have made during your ten years of service.”

Taylor shook Davis’s hand while presenting him with the beautifully framed certificate and the portfolio. The certificate echoed Moore’s praise, citing Davis’s “commitment and dedication,” while an instruction sheet in the folder telling Davis how to order his anniversary gift online pointed to Davis’s “dedication and contributions to the company.”

Asked to say a few words, an obviously emotional Davis could only say “thanks, everybody” and that it “seemed like only yesterday that I started here.” He considered joking that a certificate of achievement was really nothing special, since an “achievement” is just something that somebody has succeeded in doing, and not necessarily positive. He thought better of it at the last moment, however, offering instead a “thanks again.”

At that point, another manager stepped forward and gave Davis a $2.50 greeting card ($3.25 in Canada) that had been passed around the office for everyone to sign. On the front, the card showed fireworks explosions and said “Congrats” and on the inside were scrawled several personal messages.

“Best wishes,” offered one of the Karens. “Enjoy many more,” wrote Andy. “Hope you stick around for a few more,” said Robin. “Congrats,” inscribed Joyce, while Cheryl D. noted “congrats and many more.”

“Now let’s enjoy some of these snacks,” said Taylor, indicating it was time for everyone to get back to work. A few people took apples and oranges. Davis, however, exhibiting some of the traits that made him so successful over the past decade, picked several grapes and wrapped a blueberry muffin in a napkin that he would save for breakfast the following morning.

Among the online recognition awards Davis is considering are #267, a telescope; #419, a watch; and #577, a museum-quality fine art print on canvas, truly every color of the rainbow, no detail has been overlooked in this great painting of the reef and its wonderful residents. He’s leaning toward the print, considering he already has a frame that he won’t be using.

A proud, proud Davis

Helping out at the supermarket

November 7, 2011

Self-service in the retail world has come a long way in recent years.

I still remember when it required a partially toothed half-wit to pump gas into your car. Now, we dispense it into our own tank, and all over our clothes, with no assistance at all.

Fast-food restaurants used to pour drinks for us. Now, we do it ourselves at a free-standing fountain, and come away with a bonus application of industrial-strength adhesive on the soles of our shoes. If Earth’s gravity ever fails, you won’t see McDonald’s customers floating off into space, because they have sugary soft drinks all over the bottom of their feet.

Most of these advances represent a measure of progress for humanity. Businesses are able to save money by deploying workers to more cost-effective tasks, like sitting at home unemployed and watching TV. Store patrons can take better command of their time, moving swiftly to complete their transactions or, in the case of the woman always in front of me at Texaco, talking into the gas nozzle like it was a telephone, trying to tell the clerk inside that she forgot her purse.

One place where I think the jury is still out on the issue of convenience is the grocery store self-checkout. No longer do you have to stand in line to have a cashier wave your purchases over a scanner. You can do it yourself at U-Scan stations. On-screen prompts and pre-programmed voice commands guide you through the steps necessary to complete your transaction and, when this fails, a store employee descends from her centrally located turret to explain how wrong it was of you to jam your credit card into the receipt printer.

I don’t mind pitching in with the operation of my local supermarket. My sore back prevents me from going to the loading dock to help unpack their trucks, but I’d be more than happy to sneeze on the produce as I’m arranging it on the shelves. It takes a lot of effort to run that large a business and I’ll gladly do my part.

If only I can figure how the U-Scan is supposed to work.

It’s a bit daunting when you first step up to one of these hulking machines. There’s a large touch screen where you start by selecting your language (English is my personal favorite). If you’re in the frequent customer program and can find the appropriate card to prove as much, you swipe that past the laser reader and hear something like “welcome BiLo Bonus Card customer.” If you’re just an average citizen looking to buy a pound of coffee, I think there are provisions allowing you to proceed, though you may need a special dispensation from the regional manager.

Once you’ve been identified as friend or stranger, you begin passing your items over the scanner, turning them every which way until the barcode is detected and a reassuring beep is issued from the machine. (If you’ve turned a carton of eggs upside down to find the code and the eggs come tumbling out onto the floor, don’t worry. The customer in line behind you is taking the job of “cleanup at U-Scan station four” this week).

After each beep, the pre-recorded voice instructs you to “please place the item in the bag.” Plastic sack dispensers sit off to the side, and scales beneath these detect whether or not you’ve complied. If you’re buying something too big to fit in a flimsy plastic bag, too bad. Just cram that lawn rake in there as best you can, or prepare to explain yourself to the authorities.

You repeat this procedure for as many items as you intend to buy. (Fujitsu, the makers of U-Scan, claim to be developing a new generation of machines that will scan your whole shopping cart in one fell swoop, though I suspect we’ll see a man on Mars first). When you think you’re finished, the machine wants to make sure, because it still remembers that time you bought $150 worth of groceries, then drove off and left them at the curb.

“Do you have any items under the cart?” it asks helpfully.

“I don’t even have a cart,” I answer because, on this occasion, I’m buying only three things.

Now comes the hard part: the paying. The touch screen shows an overwhelming number of options — credit card, debit card, check, food stamps, gift card, cash, voucher. I’m trying to find “barter” because I want to trade a box of old Beanie Babies for my two frozen dinners and a bag of chips, but it’s not there. Finally, I choose credit card, as I don’t want to go through the ordeal I once endured of trying to use cash. (“Please enter coins first, from smallest to largest denomination. If you enter more than one coin of the same denomination, tender these by the date on the coin, with the oldest coins first. When entering bills, do so in chronological order by the birthdate of the historical figure portrayed on the bill. And good luck finding either the coin or the bill slot.”)

I swipe my credit card at yet another monitor to the side of the touch screen.

“Is $12.37 the correct amount?” reads a new display. I want to say that it seems a little high, that I thought prices would come down a little now that I’m doing all this work for them. But I’m given no such option.

Past experience tells me that I now have to find a third pad to record my signature, using the specially designed stylus provided for the occasion. Or maybe not. Some stores no longer require you to sign for purchases under $25 while others want not only your John Hancock (born 1737, featured on the rare $30 bill) but also several forms of identification to prove yourself. I stand by waiting to be told what to do next, ready to obey any command short of “kill”.

Finally, a couple of printers kick into action, indicating my receipt is ready as is the raft of coupons for products the computer knows I’ll want on my next visit. This is where you see another advantage of today’s obsessive data collection by scanners and customer-loyalty programs. Because I bought a bag of nonfat potato chips, shown in tests to promote frequent diarrhea, the computer suggests I may want to benefit from a coupon on Pepto-Bismol in a few days. Very impressive.

I do a little scanning myself, checking each portal and terminal in the array before me to confirm that I’m indeed done and can now leave the store. I glance over at the attendant, and she gives me a reassuring nod, and I think I’m finished.

However, the bag boy at the cashier-staffed line next to the U-Scan area has a temporary lull in his workload, and thinks he sees an opportunity for being tipped by an aging gentleman unable to carry his parcel to his car. He approaches with an offer to help.

I politely decline, wondering how much longer his job is secure with the eventual development of Roomba-style robots to automatically carry me to my car.

A typical self-checkout machine, or possibly the controls to a nuclear reactor.

Getting creative with the grocery list

October 27, 2011

I am fascinated by other people’s groceries.

When there’s someone in line checking out in front of me, I always review their items and try to imagine the lifestyle they lead based on their selections.

I envy the discipline of the middle-aged woman buying Greek yogurt and pretending to like it. I’m jealous of the college student purchasing the 12-pack of energy drinks to maintain his amped-up schedule of partying, studying and bonking coeds. I yearn for the day when, like the elderly man grabbing a pack of adult diapers, I won’t have to get off the couch to go to the bathroom.

Similarly, I’m always hopeful at the end of the checkout process that I’ll accidentally end up with someone else’s purchases. For one thing, I rarely pick up more than a few items at a time and, for selfish reasons alone, I’d rather have their hundred-dollar haul than my single plastic bag of pretzels, gum and dryer sheets.

But I’d also like to have the experience of wading through a collection of random products I’d never buy myself, and trying to figure out how to eat or otherwise consume them.

This would be a great way to get out of the rut I’ve dug after decades of being a big boy who could feed himself. I bought only what I needed to re-stock the routine things I ate every day. Early morning meant a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice and a blueberry breakfast bar. At lunch, I’d eat a turkey sandwich and three Chips Ahoy reduced-fat cookies. Occasionally, I’d mix it up slightly — substituting mixed berry bars for blueberry ones, for example — but that was the extent of my adventure.

I longed for the day when serendipity would be my menu planner. I’d pull out a Boston butt pork roast, some PopSecret popcorn and a box of Sylvania micro-mini CFL lightbulbs, throw them all in a big crockpot, and have the kind of dinner I’d never imagine on my own.

While picking up a few things from the nearby gourmet organic supermarket yesterday, I came upon what may be the next best thing to this bizarre fantasy. In the parking lot, I found a wadded-up grocery list some careless shopper had dropped on the ground. Perhaps I could use this as my guide to an exciting new life full of exotic consumables.

The handwriting was a little tough to read, but that’s about what I’d expect from someone more focused on grabbing existence by the throat than on penmanship. This was a person with places to go, people to see, things to do and — if I’m reading this list correctly — “sour crougat” to eat.

Across the top of the list, in all caps, was the word “WALMART”. Though it is a publicly held company, and theoretically you could snatch it up for its market capitalization value of $194 billion, I doubt this is what the shopper intended. (If it is, I sure hope they had some coupons.) Maybe this was just their next stop.

The rest of the list read as follows:

Swiffer Dusters 360°
Prunes
2 – Cape Cod chips
40 gurg raisen boxes
Sour crougat – in Pic 6 RSF
Nail clipper – good
Anch. persporarv can
Tooth paste
Vitamin D
Diet Coke ?

Many of the items that were legible are things I’ve considered buying in the past.

I’ve seen the Swiffer commercials (where a housewife’s first marriage — to a mop — comes unraveled and they divorce, though the mop continues to stalk her from the backyard) and they seem like a good alternative to my method of cleaning (moving into a new house when the old one becomes too dirty).

Prunes and raisins seem like sensible fruit choices, if I want my exhilarating new way of life to include regularity. I’ve always neglected the health and well-being of my colon, duodenum, semicolon, etc.; maybe now is the right time to make some changes. I’m not sure what the “40 gurg” means, though. Could it be “yogurt”?

I already have about a dozen nail clippers in the backs of various drawers around the house. Whether or not they qualify as “good,” I’m not sure. Goodness would seem to be a desirable trait, and I’ll keep that in mind next time I need some grooming tools.

I already buy toothpaste, having long ago given up the practice of buying root canals instead. I’ve never been a believer in vitamin supplements, though if I were to start anywhere, I imagine I’d start with vitamin D (to match the letter my name begins with and because, in my book, you can never get enough fat-soluble secosteroids).

I may opt to skip those products whose spelling I can’t make sense of. If I had to guess, I’d say “sour crougat” is probably “sauerkraut”. I’m not familiar with the kind that comes “in Pic 6 RSF”, though I’d hope that’s the additive that converts the pungent cabbage concoction into actual food. The “Anch. persporarv can” could actually be a can of anti-perspirant or, at the other end of the smells-good spectrum, anchovy perspiration. My own sweat smells bad enough, thank you.

As for “Diet Coke?”, it does seem like a good question. I’ve frequently considered switching from my beloved Pepsi to less-sugary soft drinks, but the fact that most taste like overly sweetened brownwater discharge has hindered me.

I’ve still got the list, and still wonder what I should do with it. It’s been fun using the battered sheet of paper as a window into the world of an anonymous gourmet. I was hoping for something a little more extensive, something with a little more meat on its bones, but this could be enough to get me started.

Plus, it did have a small grease spot on it.

Maybe I’ll just eat the paper.

“Occupy” movement making inroads in the office

October 18, 2011

Fed up with corporate greed and the unwillingness of his bosses to acknowledge the increasingly desperate plight of workers, Michael Ash has joined with anti-establishment protesters around the country by occupying a conference room at his office.

“I’m just tired of being exploited and abused by the powers-that-be,” the 32-year-old project manager for Hewlett-Packard told reporters in his San Jose, Calif., office. “It’s time for the people to take back what’s been stolen from them.”

“Also,” he added, “I’ve been out of ‘stickies’ for a week now and still they’re not stocked in the supply closet.”

Ash and others have watched as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has grown from its start in New York to its increasing popularity in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Thousands have shown up at events to voice their support for the unemployed, the poor, the young and the disenfranchised, and to state their opposition to the entrenched interests of the business community.

Ash joined the surging movement yesterday as his frustration with the way his chair was adjusted, and with the person who keeps linking the paper clips at his desk into a chain, boiled over into action.

“They obviously care very little about us,” Ash said of his superiors at HP. “If they did, they’d put a hidden camera at my work station and see who’s messing with my desk.”

Ash set up his protest in Conference Room B on the second floor of his office building shortly after 9 a.m. Monday. He brought in a sleeping bag from his car, and posted several signs he created in Word around the room. One read “Reform Corporate America” and another read “I Am the 99%.” A third sign was largely illegible because of black splotches all over the surface.

“I’ve complained about the toner in that printer for a week now, but all I get is the runaround,” Ash complained. “Typical behavior from the corporate fatcats who are more concerned about their tax breaks than they are about the toner.”

By 11 a.m., several coworkers had stopped by the rarely-used conference room to express their support for Ash, or to ask if he knew when he’d be finished, because sometimes people eat their lunch in there.

“Most meetings are in Room A, down the hall and around the corner,” Ash told reporters. “I picked Room B because I didn’t think anybody would care.”

Ash continued his demonstration until 1 p.m., greeting well-wishers, debating the value of increased taxes for high-income earners, and occasionally marching through the halls to get a drink of water. Shortly after 1, he was asked to leave the conference room to make way for a safety committee meeting.

“Sorry about that,” Ash told committee members as they streamed into the room. “Just give me a sec to clean up this mess. Here, let me put those chairs back. Sorry. Sorry.”

Dislodged from his protest site, Ash relocated to the men’s room next door, and re-dubbed his rally “Occupy Second Stall From The Sink”.

“In a way, this is better,” Ash said at mid-afternoon Monday. “It’s symbolic of how our future is being flushed down the commode by Big Business, and of how we have a really crappy system for reserving conference rooms.”

By the end of the day, Ash had added to his list of demands. In addition to his desire to get last Tuesday counted as a sick day rather than a vacation day, he called on his corporate superiors to unblock YouTube from office computers, to crack down on lunch thefts from the refrigerator, and to say something to the guy in accounts payable who always sneezes so loud.

“Also, after spending the day in the toilet, I want to demand a new box of toilet seat covers,” Ash said. “The box claims ‘provided by the management for your protection’ but that’s a lie. Management doesn’t care about our protection at all, at least unless it affects their bottom line.”

Ash said he had received a lot of support from co-workers during his protest.

“Guys have been coming in here all afternoon, and I believe they’re behind me,” Ash said. “I think they know I’m in here. They should at least be able to see my legs.”

Ash said he was unsure if he’d continue the protest for the rest of the week. The sales presentation he’s working on for the vice presidents’ meeting next Monday still needs a thorough re-do, and he’s also looking for a bit of clip art to break up the monotony of his PowerPoint.

“It’s time for the rest of America to ask, ‘where’s my bailout?'” Ash said. “I just have to make sure I can squeeze it into my schedule.”

Safety committee talks about temporary inconvenience of "Occupy" protester

A relaxing stroll around the office park

October 17, 2011

One area where I doubt I’ll meet expectations in my upcoming job performance review is break-taking.

I’m not taking all the lunch and coffee breaks I’m entitled to. Not only does this place me in danger — “breaks are in place for the safety of employees,” warned our official policy after a third-shifter plunged his nodding head into his keyboard, injuring his nose and adding the word “poijasdpfjiopasdij” to an initial public offering — but it creates major headaches for accounting.

It’s not because I’m dedicated that I work so hard. Nor is it because I’m especially busy. The reason I’ve not been taking all my breaks is that (a) there’s little in or near my office’s industrial park worth breaking away to, and (b) when you already spend 90% of your day doing crosswords while waiting for work, you frankly don’t get all that winded.

I’ve tried to make myself step away to the breakroom, where I can while away 15 minutes of relaxation staring at my choice of one of four walls. (One of the walls is filled with posters about worker’s rights, informing us that even though we work in North Carolina, we still have a few.) There’s also a television in one corner, running an endless loop of Headline News. But hearing all the ways Michael Jackson’s doctor tried to make him sleep will quickly get me drowsy.

With pleasant fall weather here, I’ve started taking a walk around the office park. This offers both clean air and exercise, and I can return to my work station feeling refreshed, even though my sweat-soaked underarms may beg to differ.

As a scenic attraction, the SilverLake office park offers little to the casual tourist. Most of the tenants are trucking firms, so unless you’re big into loitering 18-wheelers, there’s not much to see.

The landlord does a pretty good job of maintaining nice landscaping, so there’s that. There’s wildlife, if you count worms and fire ants and diarrhetic Canada geese. And there is, in fact, a lake; its silverness may not be apparent beneath the algae-coated surface, but just knowing it’s under there somewhere is soothing.

I’ve assembled a small collection of photos into a travelogue, so you can see for yourself the scenery I’m now able to enjoy on an almost-daily basis. Why not transport yourself away from your dreary Monday, and enjoy a bit of what the Great Outdoors have to offer.

The natural beauty begins right outside our back entrance, with a view of the loading dock at the building next door. Note how the natural wilderness is barely kept at bay in this pristine part of Charlotte.

A crooked sign stands guard against outsiders who might attempt to skate, bicycle, loiter or be a dog. The wide, tree-lined boulevard forming the main access into the office park reminds many of Paris's Champs Elysees.

Keep your eyes on the road, and you may find yourself a treasure! Here, a discarded mouth filter serves as mute testimony to the adventure faced by warehouse workers trying to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

A serene Silver Lake laps at its embankments, its scum-sheen bright in the sun of a warm October afternoon.

Earthworms also need a break, so many take to the sidewalks for their daily constitutional. Unfortunately, most dry up and die during their outings.

Discarded truck parts gather to compare notes about their fate. Like other industries, logistics and distribution have suffered considerably during the current downturn. Like illegal aliens waiting near a Home Depot, these three axles hope to latch onto some day work.

Occupy Wall Street is occupied with ‘issues’

October 12, 2011

The dirty, stinking hippies who make up the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York will see their “be-in” enter its second month this week, with participants still incapable of selecting only one thing to protest about and still in need of a shower and a haircut.

Meanwhile, pundits and other observers continue to struggle with how to portray the anti-corporate movement in terms that the American people can understand.

“They smell bad, and they don’t pick up after themselves,” said Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee.

“Most of the men need a shave, and the women are just plain ugly,” noted CNN contributor Erik Erikson.

“Many of them are soiled,” added Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report. “I’d personally give each one a good scrubbing in the bathtub if I could find a hazmat suit that would allow me to get close enough.”

Some who have watched the grassroots movement grow from a few hundred marchers to thousands of demonstrators in over 70 cities complain that the group can’t articulate its concerns in a few simple words.

“They talk about economic inequality, upper-class greed and the way that corporate money controls our entire political process,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “What does that even mean?”

“Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest?” asked civil rights lawyer and protest supporter Glenn Greenwald. “Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality, and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism — is destroying financial security for everyone else.”

“Ha, ha,” noted Noonan. “That’s too complicated.”

Noonan and others have said that the movement needs to articulate its message in simpler terms. Abuses of a long-entrenched hyper-capitalism that have resulted in a full-on attack of the middle and working class are hard to put your finger on, critics say.

“They could take a tip from Herman Cain and his ‘9-9-9’ tax plan,” said Huckabee. “Pick some random numbers and say that these represent your stand on complicated issues. If nothing else, people can use them to play the lottery.”

“Better yet, pick a few key words,” added Noonan, a former Republican speechwriter. “I would suggest ‘grimy,’ ‘grubby,’ ‘filthy’ and ‘foul.'”

A few more-moderate observers have suggested that Occupy Wall Street protesters represent a movement with roots similar to the Tea Party. Both have anti-government tendencies and both have relied on widespread public frustration with a status quo they claim is not serving their interests.

“Whoa, there. I wouldn’t say that,” said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who many regard as a spokesperson for the Tea Party. “Folks in the Tea Party not only wash their hair, but they also style and color it. Many of the women wear tasteful jewelry while the men are careful to keep their shirts tucked in.”

Palin stressed that good grooming was the foundation of America, and that the Founding Fathers would’ve had spiffy crewcuts “if they’d had access to modern hair-cutting technology.”

David Raphael, founder of the Light Party and one of the spokespeople for the protest, said that demonstrators represent the 99 percent of the American people who struggle to survive, while the 1 percent super-rich exploit everybody else.

“This is a holistic, proactive, educational new political paradigm party dedicated to health, peace and freedom for all,'” Raphael said. “We have formulated a practical, synergistic seven-point program which addresses and serves to resolve our current socioeconomic and ecological challenges.”

Raphael added that he was reluctant to assume the role of official spokesperson, noting that most of those involved prefer that the movement remain leaderless. He used the so-called “people’s microphone” — a system of loudly repeating what each speaker says designed to get around the city’s ban on sound amplification — to confirm statements he gave to reporters.

“I’m saying we need to set the agenda for a New America,” Raphael told bystanders.

“HE’S SAYING WE NEED TO GET A GENERAL, AND THAT WE NEED A NUDE AMERICA,” the crowd repeated.

“No, wait,” Raphael corrected. “I’ll say we’re making a common statement about government corruption.”

“HE SAYS WE’RE MAKING A COMMUNIST STATE WITH A VOLCANIC ERUPTION,” the crowd said.

“No, no, I’ll say instead that we’re anti-consumerist and we want someone to address the growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions for those who caused the global financial crisis,” Raphael continued.

“OUR COMRADE SAYS WE NEED TO BURN OUR DRAFT CARDS, BURN OUR BRAS, LISTEN TO COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH, AND SLIDE AROUND IN THE MUD,” the crowd repeated.

“Oh, I’m just going to say ‘power to the people,'” Raphael finally said in exasperation.

“SOMETHING ABOUT A PEEPHOLE,” the crowd shouted in confirmation.

Look at these filthy protesters. Just LOOK at them. (Don't, however, smell them).