Sunday, December 12, 2010

Post-Chanukah blues (and reds, oranges, yellows and greens)

Last night, after I finished frying a tray’s worth of post-Chanukah potato latkes, I reached into the gleaming lights of the refrigerator – that bright, massive cavern filled with beautiful jars of jam, squares of white cheese, and bottles of sparkling water and wine – and pulled out a bowl, five inches in diameter, filled with pineapple sauce. The sauce, a golden heap of fruit that I had cooked down to a chunky custard of pineapple fibers, sugars and juices, seemed the right accompaniment for post-Chanukah deep fried potatoes, onions, eggs and whole wheat flour, thoroughly crisped in an inch of safflower oil. This was only the first course of a post-Chanukah dinner, which also featured red leaf lettuce in a mustardy vinaigrette and a pot of lentil, kale and vegan sausage stew. Chanukah was over and I was celebrating, several days after the fact.
I had already put away the menorah and the remnants of the fancy Chanukah candles my mother had purchased for me last year at TJ Maxx. Each slender candle had a beautiful twist of a secondary color winding its way from wick to base. Not lighting the menorah during a couple of nights (due to other obligations, of course) of Chanukah’s overextended tenure was the only reason a handful of candles remained. I made a note to myself that I need to pick out some new Chanukah candles for next year, and should start looking around soon at the after-holiday sales. I took the tray upon which the menorah had stood out of the freezer, where Brad had put it. He later told me it was there because a frozen ceramic plate apparently forces the wax to peel off with ease. I peeled the wax right off and scrubbed the tray and put it away.
In the other room. While I was cooking latkes in the kitchen and dealing with post-Chanukah cleanup, from around the corner, in the living room, came a subtle glow comprised of primary colors. The colors were muted, as if they were the coming from the back side of lanterns facing in different directions. This glow, in fact, was a result of my earlier efforts to string the large plastic faceted multicolor bulbs onto the Noble Fir, a Christmas tree I named Sigmund the Tree Monster. It towered above the remaining living room furniture, artwork, lamps and tables.
This is my first true Christmas tree that I feel I have ownership over. When I moved to Berkeley, my dear roommate Diane convinced me – it took no prodding, to be sure– to join her on an adventure to the Christmas Tree lot, just west of I-80, along the Berkeley Marina. The lot, which had transitioned from a pumpkin patch to a winter wonderland only a few weeks earlier, featured tree after tree, some flocked in spray-on California winter white and others seemingly artificial in their cone-like dimensions (Were they regular pines hacked to Christmas shapes, like the shrubbery down the street in the shape of a massive rabbit?). Children ran up and down the aisles and coaxed their siblings to talk to Santa or one of the elves working at the lot. Diane insisted that we buy a certain type of tree – as a Jew I could never tell the difference – and we found one of whatever tree that was (Pine? Cypress? Fir?). We asked the cheery young guy who worked there to hammer two boards crisscrossing each other in to the base, and put in on top of the car. As we pulled out of the Christmas tree lot, I rolled down the window to peer at the giant Frosty and Rudolph air-filled decorations. I saw the bouncy castle for small children, and the sparkle of Christmas lights in the foreground, with the twinkling lights of San Francisco and Sausalito across the bay, miles behind the lot. We drove the seven or eight blocks to our South Berkeley shared home and I realized just how much I had missed as a child: the Jewish kid whose only experience of getting a Christmas tree had been at Briar Vista Elementary School, when our teachers would walk our class into the forest behind the school (bringing along one of the custodians, who carried an axe and saw), and we would pick out a tree for the custodian to chop down and carry back our class. It sounds like something out of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood.
When we got to our home in Berkeley, Diane and I placed the tree in the corner to the right of the fireplace and she brought out one small box of ornaments. We put them on the tree. That was it: an enormous tree with a dozen small ornaments. So I went through my closet, and to the basement. I brought out some seashells and sand dollars, a couple of bones I found, and a few baseball caps and put them on the tree. Diane went into her room and pulled out some of her most colorful shoes. We hung them on the tree and admired what we had.
Eighteen years passed with no trees. And then this year, Brad and I went to a local Christmas tree lot after going to a local nursery, looking for Christmas trees. The nursery was expensive and the trees were not calling my name – each one seemed a little artificially shaped, with bits of white ooze (or paint?) at the end of each of the cut branches. These did not stir me and my first reaction was sorrow: “Brad, it’s almost as if they made the trees this shape artificially. We want a real tree.” Brad explained to me that they were real trees, but that all Christmas trees are artificially shaped. I disagreed and said I’ve seen Christmas tree farms with little trees creeping up from the soil in perfect conical Christmas shapes. Brad repeated his lesson to me: that Christmas trees don’t naturally grow in the shape of Christmas trees. I still think he’s wrong.
The Christmas tree lot across from the local nursery had trees lined up one after the next, distributed in long rows, marked in “departments” of trees: hand painted signs hawked Douglas Firs, Noble Firs, Green Pines, White Pines, some kind of pines, etc. But the magic of this Christmas lot was smeared by the mud of the drive and parking area, the men hustling for work to pick out trees for the people milling about, the sound of circular saws hacking trees to bits, and the five different men who approached and aggressively tried to steer us toward a magical tree of their choice. At one tree, I wandered over to peek at the odd shape of the branches and try to figure out how the top of the tree had somehow grown into a crook-like shape. With stubborn alacrity, I was immediately greeted by one of the hustling employees trying to show me the tree, pulling it forward from the fence. I told him not to pull it out, and that I was just trying to figure out what was going on with its weird hump. He gave me a nod and walked away.
We walked around the lot and saw the many trees that were still rolled up, waiting to have the wiry strings cut loose so they could be fluffed and displayed with the other trees that leaned on the fences, up and down the long aisles. We walked back to the third aisle of trees and two men where unfurling one of those that had been wrapped and tossed along the fence only a few minutes earlier. We watched as they snipped the last of the cords and pulled the tree out from its bindings. They shook the tree, spun it a little, slapped its behind, ran their hands up and down it, and left it leaning against the fence with the other upright trees. And there it was – our tree – born right in front of us. It was perfect: a beautiful shape, tall and green, a fresh smell. It was meant to be ours. The thuggish guy (did he just get out on parole?) picked it up and carried it to the gate and told us to follow. I stood there and paid the woman – with Brad’s credit card – a woman who seemed unable to add up the cost of one tree and 12 feet of garland: first too high and then too low. The various thugs thanked us for coming, as a Latino guy in a white Cadillac burned rubber trying to pull out the lot, unwilling to wait for us to finish shoving the tree into our truck.
The magic of the season. That was it, the magical moment that kicked off this Christmas season. We drove the tree home, squeezed it into the “pivoting tree holder,” wrapped it in those plastic faceted color lights and I walked into the kitchen to cook post-Chanukah latkes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Strategic visioning workshop

I was working in a Starbucks because I needed an internet connection. [Yes, if you read that too quickly, it will sound as if I’d been a Starbucks employee.] I confess I usually try to avoid the places with their unimpressive coffee doled out at higher-than-appropriate prices based on the added volume of milk whipped into the drinks, but I know they are adored by just about everyone else (when doused with Splenda by you yellow packet worshippers).

I saw them when I walked in: a mixed bag of eight newbies getting indoctrinated “The Starbucks Way.” They were guided by an upbeat trainer who gathered them around two Starbucks standard-issue round tables pushed together in front of the sales counter. The regional trainer who said he “floats between stores” led the mismatched collective through a series of discussion topics from “creating a customer dialogue” (a.k.a., upselling), meeting customer needs, keeping the store clean, getting to know your customers, selling seasonal items, and providing excellent customer service. He was a good facilitator: asking lots of questions, doing ridiculous exercises, and remained endlessly upbeat about the Starbucks brand. As I listened in on the conversation every once in a while, I thought to myself that I would be really good at doing a corporate training, getting people to buy in to a culture they were stuck with because they needed a job.

At first glance, I thought the people at the table were high school types or people who might otherwise be college students. All except for two were white. Three in the group were women. And the oldest was a white man, probably at retirement age – presumed by me to either be retired or to have lost his job in the recession.

I tried not to pay much attention. After all, I had a really important meeting I would be facilitating the next day and was trying to develop some exercises to make sure leaders from around the region engaged to provide helpful, honest input.

The Starbuck group did some interesting exercises. For example, the trainer asked them all to close their eyes and point to the most important Starbucks customer in the room. Then they opened their eyes and the trainer said, “Whoa. You’re pointing in a bunch of different directions. That means our most important customer is everyone you see – all around us.” I was amazed.

Later, the trainer hopped up from his seat and talked about the Christmas holiday displays, breaking open one of several large boxes stacked near the counter. He pulled some bags of holiday peppermint brownies and the group talked about the white color of the brownies versus the green color some years ago. And then, the tough question was posed by the trainer, “How can you connect with a customer over a Peppermint Latte?” The young Black man sat back in his seat and said, “Well, you know they like Peppermint Lattes and so you could say, ‘if you really like peppermint, you should try these limited edition peppermint brownies next time you’re in’ or something like that.” Brilliant.

They went on to talk about giving someone a sample of a peppermint brownie if you want to encourage them to make a purchase, and the trainer said it was really okay if it happened to be a slow time in the store.

Keeping the store clean was another useful topic. The trainer reviewed the importance of making sure the counters were wiped down, spills cleaned up, and that the restroom was always well stocked and cleaned. He confirmed that keeping the restroom clean was an assigned responsibility, but suggested that everyone could pitch in. By eavesdropping I learned if you don’t have bathroom duty but go to use the bathroom and discover a paper towel on the floor, you could pick it up and throw it in the trash. I appreciated that team player approach to the training session.

And then I felt sad. There was a sixty-something year-old man sitting with an 18-year old guy with long hair listening to this training and participating. Maybe all of the people sitting at the table didn’t realize they were being talked to as if they were clever morons. It was a bit like watching a person who works with developmentally disabled young people leading a socialization session with a series of exercises, eliciting very active responses for which high-fives were deserved. But these were grown-ups and this was their job. And with heaviness in my heart, I packed up my PowerPoint presentation for the Strategic Visioning workshop I would be leading the next day and left the building.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Am I on a bus?

People behaving badly. I am on a Continental Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco, lucky enough to be upgraded and sitting in First Class. Everyone was just boarding and filling up the bins. I watch as a sweaty late 40s white Continental male flight attendant (who calls himself a flight coordinator), “Rick,” from Houston runs around frantically trying to take drink orders, stow luggage for old people and restrict the flow of passenger traffic down the aisle.

The flight seems to have a bunch of New York suspects, claiming large amounts of space in the overhead bins, talking loudly on cell phones with aggressive accents, and making demands that the flight attendant store their belongings in the closet at the front of the plane.

And down the aisle comes Number 1, “Vinny,” a big bonehead of a white guy who is seated in front of me in Seat 2A. He tries to put all of his clothes in the overhead bin, including a massive garment bag. He’s tall, shaved scalp, and of course, reclines his seat as soon as he gets into it. He picks up his cell phone and starts screaming at somebody about their relationship that got all fucked up and there’s something somebody doesn’t know about him.

Number 2, “Steve,” a nebbishy Jewish-looking guy, gets on the plane and wants to put his things in the same overhead bin that Vinny used. Vinny gets agitated so Steve tells him he is going to take Vinny’s garment bag out and put his suitcase in, and then put Vinny’s bag back in. Steve adds his oversized suitcase to the bin and then shoves Vinny’s garment bag back into the overhead. Steve doesn’t want to sit in seat 1B quite yet, so he stands in the front of the plane blocking the aisle and proceeds to talk to Rick the flight coordinator, but Rick politely yet firmly tells him to step aside.

Then comes the fun part: “Gloria,” a Chinese-American woman in her 50s toddles over to seat 2B, behind Steve and next to Vinny. She begins by trying to pull out all of the things Steve and Vinny have shoved in the overhead bin above her seat to make room for her pink oversize suitcase and her leather coat. Rick, trying hard to ‘coordinate’ the flight, informs Gloria that there’s plenty of space in the bin above seats 4 A and B. Gloria is spinning around in front of her seat muttering to herself that she wants to put things above her and she’s not going to put things two rows behind her. That’s when “Denise,” the African-American gate agent with a hefty Jersey dip to her voice, gets on to finalize seating so the plane can depart on time.

It all goes something like this:

“Eunice” in Seat 4A, behind me – (to Gloria) Excuse me! Make sure you don’t put anything on my tennis racket up there.

Flight Coordinator Rick – It’s no problem. I’ve got space for her here. (To Gloria) there’s no room up there, ma’am.

Gloria – We need to move things around so I can put my bag up here. I don’t want it behind me because I might forget about it.

Flight Coordinator Rick – Don’t worry. I doubt you’ll forget about your suitcase when you’re getting off the plane in San Francisco.

Gate Agent Denise – (To Gloria) Excuse me, ma’am. We need to stow your belongings so the plane can depart the gate.

Gloria - [She starts spinning again in front of her seat]. (Shouting) I just had a medical procedure and I think I have the right to put my things above my seat! You cannot tell me where to put my stuff! I want to put it here above my seat.

Vinny (in the seat next to Gloria’s assigned seat) – (To Gloria) I understand. But I got on here first and I put my stuff up there.

Gate Agent Denise - Ma’am you really need to stow your bag so we can go.

Gloria – (Shouting). You cannot tell me what to do. I will forget my bag back there!

Steve gets out of his seat (1B) to look at the bins and to confirm Gloria hasn’t shifted his suitcase either.

Joey (me) – [Starts laughing out loud and then silences self]. (Quietly to neighbor in Seat 3B) Oy vey. It’s just like commuting to work on the bus.

My neighbor in Seat 3B: Oh, is this your regular commute between New York and San Francisco?

Joey (me) – Oh, no. I’m just saying that with the crazy screaming lady [who can hear every word I’m saying], it's like being on the bus for my commute in San Francisco.

Flight Coordinator Rick assists Gloria with her bag and puts it in the overhead bin above Row 4. Gloria follows him to make sure it is really there, two rows behind her seat.

– (To Rick) How am I going to remember it’s there?

Eunice in Seat 4A – (Shouts out). I’ll remind you!!

Man next to her in Seat 4B – I’ll remind you, too!!

Woman across aisle – I’ll remind you, too!

Neighbor in Seat 3B - I think everyone is going to remind you!!

[Laughter from the other passengers.]

I’m hoping they will just drag Gloria off the plane and this incident can end up on the local Newark News at 6 pm.

Gloria - [Says something unintelligible, but recognizing she’s in a losing battle]. I had a medical procedure! I had a medical procedure!!

* * *

Everyone returns to their pre-flight cocktails and fumbles with their DirecTV channels, none of which are working (and none of which work throughout the entirety of the flight).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hell on earth: Walgreen's sucks

I was in Walgreen’s the other day. I’m usually there a couple of times a day, even though it is one of my least favorite places in the world, and even though a terrible Walgreen’s store went in where a Rite Aid previously had existed across from my office. Although there are many terrible things about Walgreen’s, I have prepared a list of the top 5 terrible things:

1. The stupid products that are locked up. Many of the items for sale throughout the store are kept behind plastic cabinets that require a Walgreen’s employee to come and unlock a case with a key. On almost every aisle of the store, numerous key-access areas exist, requiring you to push a button. So, if I’m standing in the area for the stomach pills and it so happens that the brand of stomach medication I want is behind the plastic flap, I must push the button and listen to the chime and the recording of the old woman’s voice that echoes throughout the store: “Assistance needed in the Antacids Department.” An Antacids Department?

What is so infuriating is that some brands are behind plastic and others are not. The crappy Walgreens versions are often in the open, while the Prilosec is behind plastic. But not all of the Prilosec might be behind the plastic. Some sizes are too large or too small for the plastic, so those are just above it on the shelf. Once you push that button, and a sour Walgreen’s employee arrives to assist you [see more about sour Walgreen’s employees below], he or she pushes the same button and the voice says, “Antacids Department,” supposedly indicating that somewhere in the store, some poor soul with stomach issues has been approached by a Walgreen’s employee with a key. When I started to take two containers out and compare the ingredients, the guy sighed like “hurry up” and then finally said, “I don’t have much time.” I said it would just be a few minutes more and added an apology, but continued to compare the composition of the stomach pills.

Sometimes what is behind the plastic panel makes no sense: Crest is not but Colgate is. Vitamin E is not but Vitamin C is for one brand, and for another brand Vitamin E is and Vitamin C is not. The good news about some of the pills and products locked in the plastic key-access spaces: you can sometimes knock over a few containers of whatever’s adjacent to the case, and stick your hand into the locked area from the side. It means knocking over a few bottles of pills for $11.99 outside the case to reach your box of something for $3.99 inside. Sometimes it’s just easier than pushing the button and waiting.

2. The ugliness of Walgreens, whether it’s the “old” design or the “new and updated” store design. It feels old and dated. The uniforms are ugly. The logo is screamingly tacky. The store displays are ugly. The people who work there are ugly and unpleasant and have never smiled in their lives. And the people who shop there are really ugly.

3. The terribleness of Walgreens products. Need Sudafed? Buy Wal-fed. Looking for Claritin? They have Wal-itin. And Wal-dryl, Wal-tussin, Wal-act. In addition to the products that seem to have been named by a 50-year old woman who is a PTA volunteer in Deerfield, Illinois, they have created a number of fake “brands” that are really manufactured expressly for Walgreens including a line of stale peanuts, ‘European’ chocolate (Albania is in Europe), and dried fruit for $1 that tastes more like the added sugar and preservatives than the name of the fruit listed on the label. Many of their horrible products are actually marketed under the name Deerfield Farms. Do farms exist in Deerfield? Oh, and use your food stamps for some delish Walgreen’s Bridge Mix, Circus Peanuts, Peanut Clusters, and Walgreen’s Comfort Stretch training pants. They even sell their own Splenda-like product: delicious Walgreens Sucralose Sweetener Sugar Substitute in little yellow packets.

4. The awfulness of Walgreens coupons. Ok, so you’re browsing around the shitty Walgreen’s store and you see a sticker on the shelf under that can of toilet bowl cleaner that says ‘only $2.99 with instant savings coupon.’ Next to that is a bottle of dish detergent that says ‘only $2.99 with coupon in this week’s circular.’ Next to that is a can of powdered bleach that says ‘like spending $2.99 after the little crappy coupon is printed out at checkout so you can come back and save a buck on your next purchase.’ In the next aisle is a sign under some candy corn that says ‘2 for $5.00 (or $3.69 each).’ In order to get all of these savings, you have to run to the front of the store and pick up a circular and rip out the coupon, grab a copy of the monthly coupon savings catalog somewhere in the back of the store and take that powdered bleach to the front and buy it and hope that the sour Walgreens employee remembers to give you a coupon for one whopping dollar off your next purchase. And for the candy corn, you have to buy two to save any money, and if you happen to grab one bag of the Walgreen’s chocolate-flavored candy corn and one bag of the Walgreen’s banana-flavored candy corn and expected to pay $5.00, good luck to you because stock boy #1 only entered the banana-flavored candy corn into the computer system even though stock girl #2 put the savings labels under both. Basically, buying anything at Walgreen’s is a frigging ordeal if a coupon is involved.

5. The artificiality of it all. Nothing natural exists in the Walgreen’s store. If Alexander Hamilton were to appear and go shopping in San Francisco, I think the most shocking store he would set foot in would be Walgreen’s . Whether it’s the one at 3rd Street, 4th Street, or 5th Street, or any of the others a block away in any other direction, I think Mr. Hamilton would be mortified that the apothecary had become a bastion of artificial flavors and colors, and plastic-wrapped brightly colored boxes filled with chemicals for fat people to lose weight.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Something odd about this

I took this photo in Waikiki. I can imagine how appealing it might be for a tourist from the Mainland to go sit and have her toenails done while she's chomping on a big fat funnel cake, with the grease and powdered sugar oozing down her arm: it's good for the skin.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just an observation about Minnesota

I just spent the last few days in Minneapolis, with a little time in St. Paul. I had a meeting to attend so I made a short vacation out of it, bringing Brad along to continue our exploration of the great cities of the American Midwest. First there was Pittsburgh, for a family Thanksgiving and later a funeral, then Cleveland for a wedding. A couple of trips to Cincinnati to visit my sister and niece and nephew gave us the southern Midwest experience, and now we have Minneapolis to point to. And when I asked Brad if he had to live in any of the cities we’ve visited so far, Minneapolis is the winner. Flat and expansive with terrible winter weather and an overcooked summer climate, Minneapolis has a great arts museum, nice cafes and restaurants, a beautiful river setting, pretty architecture, and a nice crop of doughy all-American white people who came from Norway, as well as a mindboggling concentration of Somalis who fled that county’s anarchy for a better life – in the upper Midwest.

I felt okay for the Somalis in the summer because it was hot – maybe a little more humid than it is in Somalia. And they were everywhere, quickly integrated into Minnesota Culture, but also still speaking the language of their homeland and wearing clothes designed for the desert. When one is accustomed to seeing big-boned white people everywhere with Scandinavian baldness patterns (the men, that is) peeking though their stiff dirty-blonde and reddish hair, it’s quite a sight to come across groups of women and girls wearing dark veils with skin dark in the northern plains.. According to Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota is the American home for the former prime minister of Somalia, Ali Khalif Galaydh. He was ousted from office in October, 2001. Galaydh, his wife Mariam Mohamad and three children live in Owatonna. Most Somali refugees moved to Minnesota because a small group of Somalis had settled there.

From my experience, each time I’ve visited Minnesota, the people there are very friendly in restaurants and on the street, and waiting in lines. We had the biggest fan (and long-time theatergoer) of the Fringe Festival serving as our ambassador, passing out coupons, making recommendations about which shows we would want to see. The other women in line were laughing and chatting away. We stopped in a small antique mall and the people were following us around making beautiful small talk. A waitress in a diner had all of us eating out of her hands. And two women in a gift store welcomed us to town with rave recommendations for a St. Paul ice cream spot that gives its patrons a gimmicky Izzy ball of ice cream on top. I have been told the Minnesotans are great people, and indeed are masters of small talk. Friends who have moved to Minneapolis had a hard time “breaking in” because, according to them, everyone there went to kindergarten together and although they’ll gleefully chat with you in any public space in the upper Midwest, trying to form a close relationship is like trying to find an outfit you could wear all four seasons.

Perhaps what makes the Minnesotans seem so friendly is their goofy accent. It’s hard not to smile when people are pronouncing everyday words the way they are actually pronouncing them there. Whether it’s eating hoagies or grinders, or being told by my waiter the fish special on the Thai restaurant menu is a basil spiced walleye, it’s amusing to those of us who grew up in other states. Minnesotans have a wide-eyed joy about life unlike the hurried Michiganders or the wily Pennsylvanians. Just ask me, a dopey drawling Georgian or a sly and fake Californian. Obviously these are all fun stereotypes to rattle around, but I do appreciate something about the Minnesotan that I don’t necessarily appreciate about others.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I’ve been regretting not having the flights lately that have allowed me to keep writing, and looking at my schedule for the months ahead, I will probably have plenty of time to catch up. There was that pesky one-month trip to Italy that got in the way, and I didn’t bring my laptop along for that one. And then after being on vacation for a month I didn’t have very many negative thoughts, so there wasn’t much to write about.

About Me | Contact Me | 2007 Joey Goldman