School Days, Long Days

Recently, Mayor Emmanuel Rahm of Chicago has publicly lobbied for lengthening the school day. I publicly yawned when I heard that.

bobbell_3stoogesIn September, 1964, at the start of 7th grade in a private school in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, yours truly was about three weeks short of his 12th birthday and got a rude awakening to long school days. Until then, the school day was easy to take. I lived less than a block from grammar school and it was over by 3:15pm. That was enough time to rush home and catch the second half of the Three Stooges tv show hosted by Bob Bell dressed as an old caretaker of an even older theater building.
Continue reading “School Days, Long Days”

Back To School

My good neighbor and friend on the second floor of our condo building told me to come downstairs and take a look at something he wanted to me to see. I immediately grabbed a couple pieces of candy and followed suit knowing I would be greeted by his two youngsters as soon as he opened the door.

The older of the two, the seven year old boy, took a look at me and without batting an eye, said: “I want candy.” He was quickly admonished by his father. “That’s not the way to ask for something.” Begrudgingly, the boy added, “please?”

While offering one of two choices, I asked him if he was now going into second grade and he acknowledged as such. Actually, he shrugged as if to say, “what of it?” or in today’s parlance, “whatever!” He didn’t seem to be put out that he was giving up two months of summer freedom that allowed him to get up whenever and watch his pleasure on television until day camp started. On several weekends, the family went to their cottage in Michigan by the beach. In his mind, I guess, there is only so much of the good life that one can take before going back to prison.

The girl, however, was a different story. Five years old and fully aware that she was leaving the safe haven of kindergarten and now going on to the mean streets of first grade where you had to sit at a desk and pay attention to the teacher.

She said, “I’m not going to first grade. I’m going back to nursery. I don’t even know how to read!” Her brother threw in his two cents (with inflation, I guess it is now five cents) and said that she couldn’t go backward and had to face the music. She said, “un, uh! I’m going back to nursery and that’s that!”

My mind raced back- it being a long trip- to 1957 when it was time for me to go to school. I had not gone to nursery, although I think my older sister might have. We attended a private school and it required taking a school bus a distance of a little more than a mile and a half.

A year earlier, she had surreptitiously abandoned our daily playing in the apartment while Ma did her house chores. It usually meant- for us, not Ma- jumping up and down on the green sofa-turned-bed while we watched Liberace dressed elegantly in tuxedo on television play the piano. Now I had to jump alone while my sister mysteriously went off each morning on an orange bus and came back later in the day bragging how she was getting smarter and smarter.

I was intrigued as she would usually return with construction paper filled with her crayon drawings and paintings. Not only that, but she could recognize letters in a book. This had possibilities but I was concerned about the hours one had to commit to this.

But in the fall of 1957 I did not go to kindergarten school because of a technicality. I was not quite five years old when class began. I missed the cutoff by two weeks. I was not so lucky come January when the second semester began. It was time to go and I was dragged to school literally by Ma.

She brought me into the basement of the mansion where kindergarten class was held. I was crying hysterically until I turned and saw a vision of loveliness- my teacher. All of a sudden my desperation turned to acquiesce. If I was going to be taken down, it was okay as long as she was along for the ride. It was as if I was assigned a second Ma.

As it turned out, school wasn’t so bad after all. We got to color with crayon and paints, sit in a circle and sing songs and even take naps whether we were tired or not. I learned, however, that the girls got preferential treatment. In any dispute, the girl classmate was always telling the truth and not the boy. Once, I was sent to another room and told to stand in a corner for what seemed like hours. Go fight city hall, right?

For the rest of that school year, I took the same school bus as my sister. She was an upperclassman, being in first grade so she didn’t want to sit next to me. I didn’t care because this was an opportunity to make new friends. Besides, the bus smelled like puke which encouraged the rider to carry the same feeling and it was also a time when motor vehicles were powered by manual transmission. It seemed as if the driver would attempt to shift gears every thirty seconds. The herky-jerky movements of the bus added to the nauseous feeling creeping up inside our little bodies.

The following year, we abandoned the broken down bus service and for the next two years until we moved within a half block of the school, we took daily taxicab rides back and forth. But, that’s another story.

Netflix Offers Blockbuster Savings?

By Larry Teren

I recently heard that Netflix raised their monthly fees for renting films. It was couched in such a way that it does not look like a price increase but rather a splitting of the current all-in-one service into two distinct plans. The thinking is that most people really only use one or the other aspect of the service but not both. It smacks of a little double talk to me and definitely confusing. You can read the official explanation on their blog located at http://blog.netflix.com/2011/07/netflix-introduces-new-plans-and.html . Continue reading “Netflix Offers Blockbuster Savings?”

The Road to Mackinac

mackinac bridgeNo gas-driven cars, trucks or buses other than emergency vehicles. That’s how they advertise the charm of Mackinac Island, located just off the northern tip of lower Michigan. mackinac islandThe best way to get there from the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan – cross the five mile long and elegant Mackinac Bridge that joins the Upper Michigan Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula and then take a forty minute ferry boat ride from the regular mainland.
Continue reading “The Road to Mackinac”

Is The Customer Always Right?

Remember the old slogan, “The Customer is Always Right”? It seems as if in today’s world, that axiom has gone by the wayside. Nowadays, consumers are encouraged to call toll-free numbers to get customer service assistance. More often this is what they hear:

“Welcome to the XYZ Company customer service hotline. Si habla espanol, pulse’ ocho” or something like that. The caller waits a few seconds until it is safe to speak in English, as if it is a crime in the United States to do so.

The thing about these automated dialing systems once you get past the greeting is that regardless of language they are programmed to prevent you from talking to a live person who can help facilitate solving your problem. So, what good is customer service if you can’t reach them?

As it happens, complainers like me have learned the tricks of the trade on how to navigate through the labyrinth of circular digital detours that end up back to the ubiquitous “or press 9 to start over the menu choices”. The best thing to do is rapidly press the number 0 several times. This will cause the switching system on the other end to figure out that one very ticked off person is holding on the other end expecting to talk to a live person.

When this happens, you hear “okay, you will be routed to the next available customer service person shortly. Please have patience as all of our customer service persons (the two that are not on coffee break) are helping others.” Then there is a slight pause, and you next hear “your call is important to us. Your estimated waiting time is 5 minutes. There are 2 people ahead of you in the queue.” Of course, this does not really mean that you will be connected in 5 or less minutes. You just know that the person ahead of you is going to take fifteen minutes to get his or her issue resolved.

Then there is the other tact that these automated systems pull. A mechanical voice prompts you to
say or enter your 10 digit customer account code. Sometimes this is how the action goes:

“Please say or enter your account number and press the number sign when done”. Or, “press the pound key when done.” Half the people over the age of 60 are looking for a button on their phone that reads “lb”. They have no idea what a pound key is. Sometimes the voice will offer, “press the star button to go back to the menu.” That’s nice, but it ain’t a star- it’s an asterisk, dummy.

On some systems they don’t give you an option to press a validation button to confirm the entry of the account number. When that happens, after a voice actuated entry of said account, the mechanical response may go like this:

“Sorry, we do not recognize ‘one, eight, seven, oops- I mean five, four, no make that five, what the heck’ as a valid account in our system. Please try again.”

After the correct account is entered, the system will acknowledge that you are worthy of speaking with a live human being even if they are seven time zones away from yours. As soon as the customer service rep comes on the line, he or she will say, “Hi, this is Maleek, can I have your name?”

You reply with, “I can understand why. I wouldn’t want yours, either.” The support person doesn’t get the joke so you change the tone of your voice and give him your name as if Perry Mason is asking you to do so on a witness stand.

The next thing you hear is, ”may I have your account number?”
So, you reply with, “but I just typed it into the system so I can get to talk to you? Why do I need to give it again?”

He or she replies with, “we need it to verify who you are.”

“But I know who I am.” So, in order to not lose the call you give him your account number, your social security number, drivers license number and grade transcriptions from college.

Ten minutes into the call you finally get to explain why you bothered to telephone in the first place.
Whether they end up making you happy or not, they always ask you to please fill out a survey if asked
by their company and mention how pleased you were with the help you received over the phone.

This is where you can get even and rid of several days of frustration. You reply, “sure, can I have your name? I’ll also need to verify your home address and mother’s maiden name.”

Thank you, good night and drive safely.

No Soap, Radio!

One of the first “clean” jokes I learned in high school in the 1960’s from a new group of friends was the “no soap” radio joke. It was a small step up from those annoying “knock, knock” jokes. The idea was to start telling a humorous story that seemed to be directed to a punch line but then instead of delivering it, the teller would say “no soap radio”. The recipient of such stupidity instantly acquired a feeling as if two minutes of their life had been wasted. It is akin to what all Cubs fans experience while watching a Chicago Cubs game where they are leading in the 9th inning only to witness the so-called closer walk the bases loaded and give up the winning runs. You think to yourself, “why bother?”

The thing in listening to the joke was that you knew it was coming to an illogical conclusion but you still laughed because you thought it was supposed to be funny but were maybe too stupid to get it. Sort of like an initiation within a cabal of lunatic friends.

I did a search on the Internet and found a plausible suggestion that the expression at one time had to do with listeners being upset that the show they wanted to hear was not on the airwaves but instead a boring, soap opera. Thus, “no- (it’s) soap radio!” The idea being was to laugh it off and think that at least older folk would be happy because they could hear their favorite dramatic soap opera. The ones who would be frustrated would be those attuned to the half hour sitcoms starring Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen, Amos and Andy, and the list goes on.

Baby boomers, of course, were mostly born after World War II as the beginning of the decline in network entertainment radio occurred. When I came aboard, television was in its infancy but already stealing away audiences from radio. I grew up on the stars mentioned above, but while watching them on their television shows. I didn’t even know that they had a previous career on the radio dial. Sort of like kids today finding it a hard time to believe that their grandparents had black and white television sets that required an antenna and offered at the most six channels in the larger cities.

One day in the early 1970’s Dad discovered a Chicago radio station that found its niche by playing reruns of so-called Old Time Radio. His enjoyment of these shows rubbed off on my kid brother and me. More than fifty years after these shows stopped broadcasting first run, they still provide entertainment. Now, instead of waiting to hear the one Chicago station that still plays old shows at midnight, I go on the Internet and click websites such as:

http://www.streamingthe.net/index.php?v=8&genre=Old+Time+Radio&s=N%2FA&c=USA
StreamingThe.Net is also a useful site to find just about any radio station format in the world. No soap, radio!

Home Improvement for Cheapskates

When you live in a house for 43 years, it makes sense to spruce up its looks once in every 10 years or so, right? Ma decided to ask a handyman to come over a week ago Sunday morning to take a look at several things in and out of the house to determine if he could repair it and how much it would cost. What she neglected to do was tell me because I was the one who would have to escort the fellow to the various spots and explain to him what she wanted done.

I got a call about 9:15 in the morning from Ma and she asked if I could come over almost immediately.
What could I do? Still using a walker because of the broken hip, she could not go up and down the stairs so readily to show him things on the second floor, the basement and even in the back of the house. Still, Ma was very patriotic and she was doing her thing to try to spur the economy.

I rushed over and greet this short Eastern European accented fellow who called himself Jack now that he was paying taxes to Uncle Sam- at least I think he was. I still was smarting from about a dozen years ago when I hired a fellow Ma raved about to paint three rooms in my condo apartment. What I didn’t know at the time after we sealed the deal was that the stinker hired an old friend or uncle- who knows?- to assist him. This meant that the wonderful guy Ma recommended would go to another job in which he was getting paid a lot more moolah and dump his loser assistant on me. The guy was a sloppy painter and didn’t speak a word of English. To top it off, I was asked to write two thirds of the agreed amount in a check to the contractor and to give the rest in cash to the dimwitted laborer. It didn’t take a genius to figure that the laborer was an illegal worker or one so fresh off the boat that he hadn’t had time to steal a social security number yet.

I didn’t learn from my mistake and a couple of years ago I hired another Eastern European origin handyman to lay ceramic tile in an area of my apartment. This time around, though, I was more sophisticated and elicited from a downstairs neighbor two guys to offer bids. My buddy had used both to do work at his real estate properties. Naturally, I took the guy who spoke better English and not necessarily cheaper. The fact is no matter what anyone quotes you, it will always end up costing 10 to 20 percent more because of unforeseen problems. As it turned out, the guy spent half the time while working talking to his wife on his cell phone. I couldn’t tell him not to because at least he did the work himself and did not sub it out to someone else. The only issue I had was his effort to put into place a nice floor divider or whatever you call it between each room that adjoined the tiled area.

In Ma’s situation, there were about five things that needed to be done but the two most critical were installing a new screen door to the front of the house and hand railings on the wall to the basement stairs. The handyman spoke English like I spoke his native language. But numbers and money he could count well. He said he was going over to Home Depot to check out a screen door among other things.
He called thirty minutes later and said he found the perfect door for $144 plus sales tax. Naturally, I asked him why he didn’t go to a store in the suburbs where the sales tax was a half percent less. In perfect broken English, he said, “Vhat’s a few dollars?” He then asked me to come over to the store to take a look at the door and approve it.

At the store I saw the door and asked why we couldn’t use the one that was 50 dollars cheaper. He said, “look- there are ones that go for over $200. This is the best for the money.” Especially since it wasn’t his. Ma said, “do whatever he says.” I asked Ma how she got the guy and she said that he was referred to him by her physical therapist. I commented that this was the same therapist who wanted Ma to throw away the walker and do handstands two weeks after she left the rehab joint. I was outvoted.

I saw how all the things Ma wanted done was going to pile up into a nice windfall for the handyman. I asked him what he thought the total project would cost. He smiled and said, “we’ll figure it out after I’m done.”

It ended up that the store did not have the door with handle facing the way it needed to open out. Instead of calling other stores, he took his time going to two others and wasted precious work time. As it turned out, I told him about a store that would have it in stock and he finally went to it and got it.

Every time he worked on something, he would show me how other things needed to be done. The project ended up costing about 300 dollars more than I anticipated. At least he was happy and I decided to call him again when I needed to have someone negotiate my next business deal.

Cable Tv Viewership Drops Like a Hulu-Hoop

A couple of months ago I pointed out that there was little incentive to watch the NBC Thursday night lineup of six comedy shows at their appointed times while sitting in front of a television set. I also suggested that this fact was wreaking havoc on the ratings people regardless of what they said. Why did one need to be glued to their seat to watch a television show when they had the option to watch it at leisure over the Internet on Hulu.com for four or five weeks after first broadcast?

Apparently, the industry is now taking a harder look at this because it was announced in the last couple of days that anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 subscribers have dropped cable and/or satellite service as a result of economic conditions. It’s ridiculous to spend fifty or more dollars a month to get a daily entertainment fix out of a television set. This is especially so for baby boomers who grew up with free over-the-air tv. We got used to a static and wavy signal unless the antenna or bent wire hanger attached to the set was positioned correctly. We didn’t complain because our choices were limited and we were grateful for even the five or six channels from which to select.

In late 1968, our family moved to an area on the far north side of the city of Chicago that only a couple of years earlier had been built up. There was open space for two full city blocks to the north of us and one to the west. An inexpensive black and white tv sat in my bedroom. The old axiom of ‘what you don’t know you don’t care about’ was true. We didn’t have a color tv set in the house so there was no sense of dissatisfaction because I couldn’t see my favorite shows in color.

As was with most sets built in those days, the uhf band was a separate control and rotary dial. Finding a uhf channel over 13 was not a click to a preset spot as was on the standard 2 thru 13 vhf knob. To get to channel 26 or 32 one had to use the same sensitivity that a seasoned safe-cracker employed to open a vault. By accident, I soon discovered that when the atmosphere was cooperative, I could pick up channels from other cities such as 22 or 23 (Rockford or Elgin?) and 60 (Aurora). This was mighty useful during the football season. In those days, Chicago Bears home games were blacked out on local tv if all the seats were not sold out. The Bears were not that good and had a hard time filling to capacity. Even though the video display was grainy and the audio faint on these out-of-town stations, I was a kid in a candy store.

A handful of years earlier, I’d get a kick out of listening to clear channel out-of-town radio stations at night when the daytime stations in our area stopped broadcasting at sunset. And then I bought a shortwave radio and was able to hear broadcasts from overseas.

Ma now has three color televisions in the house that are cable connected. She only uses one on a regular basis- the others are there for visits by children and grandchildren. The only reason she keeps the cable connection is in order to get the Cubs and Bulls games that are not shown on WGN channel 9.
That is roughly half the games. Otherwise, whatever else she wants to watch can be found on regular television.

Two or three years ago, the FCC, I think, decided that the Chicago area had to get rid of analog signals for over-the-air broadcasts and switch to digital. This meant that each television set in a residence that was not receiving broadcast signals via cable or satellite dish would now be obsolete unless a special convertor box was attached to it to turn the analog signal into digital.

Ma’s only set that was not cable ready was in the kitchen. I went out and bought her a small flat screen, high definition ready digital model to replace the old kitchen unit. Upon initial use, we quickly discovered that the mandate for digital broadcasting included new channels. Several of the local broadcast companies were now offering multiple channels. It was no longer WMAQ channel 5, but 5.1 and 5.2 or WLS 7.1 and 7.2, etc. Each channel had its own theme. In addition there was a movie channel and two versions of a classic shows theme. All in all, there was enough to keep you occupied even if you didn’t have all the cable channels. That is, of course, if you didn’t mind not seeing half your favorite sports teams games.

A throwback to the old ways, but these high tech digital televisions that are not connected to cable or dish require a digital antenna box as well. So, the old rabbit ears still have a place to roost, albeit they contain newer guts. It took only a day or two, but we quickly discovered that the antenna needs to be placed in a certain way or the signal gets blocked. Not only that, but if one stands near the tv set at a certain angle, the signal also cuts out. And weather conditions also affect reception.

So much for progress- and you can’t pick up any out-of-town stations. As for me, I’ll keep my cable. Hey, I have to- it’s part of my monthly condo assessments.

What Happens In Las Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay There

I heard a story from a friend that almost seems like a movie plot but is supposedly true. It went like this:

A funny thing happened on my plane ride to Vegas for a trade show. I’m sitting in my assigned seat and a young lady about the age of my daughter sits down next to me. She is in a mood to talk so we get into a conversation. She says she is going to Vegas to get married. I tell her that it was very nice but I don’t see the groom around so I ask her if she is meeting up with him upon arrival or does he already live there. She says, “Oh, I’m not engaged- I intend to find a husband while checking out the action in the casinos.”

Trying not to act stunned, I asked if her parents knew about this and wondered how they felt about it. She said that she was from Iowa and her father was old-fashioned and very upset but that her mother gave her the money for the trip.

Figuring he was finished with relating the story I nodded and said that it was intriguing. I wondered out loud if he thought she was really going to go through with it or was she just a young person in their early twenties boasting. He said that he indeed caught her again a few days later at his hotel’s casino. This time around she was hanging out with a good looking fellow about her age as well. She introduced him as her fiance and said they were planning on getting married that day at one of those Vegas chapels. He said he was from Chicago and as it turned out lived not far from me. He did seem like a real nice guy.

Hearing my friend’s story, I thought about the time when I was 22 and met a very nice, if not gorgeous, young lady during a week’s vacation at a resort. She looked somewhat like Sandy Dennis, if I recall correctly. Maybe it was her red hair that gave me a sense of simpatico.

We were assigned to the same table to have our meals three times a day so I had a chance to spend some time in conversation with her. She lived in New Jersey which seemed more than just a time zone apart. After I returned from the thrill of a week of living away from cares and woes, I got down to the business of exchanging letters and cassette tapes with her. She was studying to be a musician and played a mean flute.

Being both young and naive, I presumed that she was sincerely interested in getting to know me better. I told her I was flying out to New Jersey to visit. She didn’t say no but she didn’t say yes, either. I showed up at her parent’s door and she had that horrified look on her face that immediately told me I had done something not only irrational but stupid.

It would not be the last time I would impetuously take a plane ride to another city to find that alluring woman of dreams and come up empty. I guess I should have put Vegas on my itinerary.

Should Rich People Pay More in Taxes? or It’s the Economy, Stupid!

So, how many millionaires are there in America anyway? That’s a fair question, right? Some people of a certain political persuasion believe that the solution to our economic crisis is to ask the very wealthy to cough up more dough. Repeat this mantra- “if we collect more tax revenue, the deficit will eventually disappear.”

Did you know that more than a third of the income tax returns that are filed end up in not having to pay taxes at all during the course of the year or what is paid in is refunded back 100%? This is especially true for senior citizens who rely solely on monthly social security payouts for income. That means that a little more than 60% of us are paying for everyone’s needs in America . In the interest of full disclosure, the quarterly estimates I begrudgingly pay don’t come back to me or at best are used to help reduce the estimated amount I owe for the first quarter of the next year. And I am not in a bracket that is going to put a dent in the deficit.

Continuing with this disclosure business, I am not an economist nor even a licensed accountant. In the early 1970’s, I was required to take a class in Economics at Northeastern Illinois University in order to fulfill the obligation for a more well-rounded education. A not-so-bad looking blonde lady professor was the teacher who tried to pour ideas about bell curves, trends and consumption- the consumer type, not the disease- into our minds in class. What made it a challenge- for both her and my classmates- was that she was cross-eyed, like Ben Turpin. (If you don’t know who Ben Turpin was, forget it.) She’d ask a question to elicit whether we were reading our textbook at home or wherever. If she was looking in your general direction, you were in trouble. You weren’t sure if she was calling on you to speak up or the person one row behind and to the right. Each time a bunch of hands were raised, she’d say, “you!”. And you’d hear for the next two minutes, “who, me? No, you! Who, me? No, him. Alright, then you speak up….” We learned more about diplomacy and tact in that class than how to balance a budget. Maybe that is what’s missing now.

So, how many millionaire are there in this great country of ours? I asked this question on the Internet and found several answers depending from which the year the statistics are taken. It is probably a safe bet to say that there are at least five million households with more than a million in cash in various banks. I’m excluding those who are on the bubble because their wealth is mostly in property equity.

Let’s say we ask these 5 million rich dudes to donate an extra 1,000 dollars to the tax coffers. What does that do? It brings in an extra 5 billion in cash. Wow! But that is not going to do much for closing the gap on a 4 trillion dollar deficit. What if we gave them all a free supper and raised the ante to 10,000 dollars each? No one likes to cough up so much extra like that but it still will not make a dent in their lifestyle, right? Besides,we only need to stroke them for a couple of years. Just to try to stabilize the economy and bring back confidence to our global partners that this is a great place to invest in. We gain an extra 50 billion in cash but still a mere speck of a dent.

What if we increased the pool of givers and asked those making over 250,000 dollars a year to give one thousand extra dollars to the tax coffers? You are still adding less than 100 billion dollars to federal revenue.

Some people argue that the extra revenue should come from businesses that shelter their income from taxes. Yes, there are a handful of global corporations that stiff Uncle Sam but still not enough to dent the deficit. Bottom line, any extra revenue generation is just going to go into some legislator’s pork barrel project anyway.

Unless you ask 100 million Americans to give big chunks of money the next couple of years in addition to what they are currently obligated, it is not going to do much to narrow the deficit. It seems plain simple to me that the major effort to reduce the deficit is to tackle it from the other side- cutting spending without choking those of us who need the services that are provided by the Federal Government.

A lot of tax-paying Americans- those that don’t give a penny should keep still- would be more amenable to tough compromises if we were all on the same playing field. This means that no government workers including legislators, judges and even the President should have special health care benefits and pension plans. We should all have the same. You cannot expect those with better perks to wisely make decisions that concern the Economy for the rest of us. It’s called conflict of interest, otherwise. What affects our pocketbooks have to affect theirs. And no legislator should be allowed to vote on raising his or her own salary. Any vote on salaries should not be instituted until one term of office following the one being voted on. No one has ever put a gun to the head of a legislator and forced them to run for office. When the rest of us suffer financially, no one in public service should demand or even expect to receive improved benefits.

When do I pick up my Nobel Prize in Economics? Or tell me that I am an idiot and give me concrete examples and no political talk. Thank you.