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Uncategorized

Mornings

Waking up is when it all hits the hardest. That moment when your eyes open and your mind fully enters reality. It could be grogginess. It could be that I’m a horrible morning person. It could be not seeing her when I wake up.

i think part of it is the dream world is fun. I’m happy, or excited. I whatever I’m doing in my dreams are far more interesting and preferable to my real life. Ten I wake up, and I have to deal with real life all over again.

The further I get from morning, the better I feel. Coffee kicks in. I become preoccupied with day tomdaynerrands. Talk to people. Email. Facebook. Dinner with friends. It gets better, as activity and people fill the day. And I wonder if that’s why mornings are so awful for someone newly single, because that’s when we feel the most alone.

Categories
theater Writing

Why We Write (with a brief plug for my own work)

I like to think of myself as a story teller. In my opinion, telling stories is the second oldest profession in the world; way back in time, a caveman had sex, then afterwards he told all his friends about it. Knowing what I do about men and sex and stories, his version of what happened was also probably largely fictitious.

 

When I’m not paying the bills or trying to look respectable, my real vocation is telling stories to people. It can be through plays (my main focus), or essays, or blogs, or comics. It doesn’t matter. It’s what I do and what I love, and when I’m telling a story I’m at my best and my most content.

 

The functions of a story or manifold. Entertainment. Also making connections with the world around you. And it’s also about memory. One thing which haunts me is how much I’ve forgotten. How many wonderful moments from childhood have been lost to the cruel   effects of time? My first taste of ice cream. My mother comforting me when I was crying. Important lessons my parents taught me. The first time I was entranced by a beautiful face. They’ve all been lost, even if their effects remain part of the programming of my identity.

 

Sometimes this memory loss, and the inability to connect, happens on a global, historic scale. It was part of my motivation for writing Don Quixote at Tiananmen Square. Thousands of people died, more had their lives ruined. People were shot and maimed in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. And yet, most Chinese citizens under the age of twenty have no recollection this ever happened. Government propaganda has wiped the collective memory clean. Outside of China, The June 4th Incident has been a beacon for human rights violations committed by the Chinese government. Inside China, the event has been wiped clean by a ruling body intent on keeping up appearances.

 

So I want to keep this story alive. And that terrible tragedy in Tiananmen Square seems to have connected with others, as current events demonstrate. The sacrifice of those people, whose only crime was believing in an ideal, cannot be forgotten. It must be preserved, and the event must find a connection with people today.

 

Don Quixote was a man so in love with stories that he was carried away by them (yes, I know, literary understatement of the year). He read so many books about heroic knights that he believed he was one of them. Although the facts show that most actual knights were violent teenagers who spent most of their time living on subsistence farming. Of course, Don Quixote’s ideals were out of synch with reality. The events were comic, but ultimately tragic. Still, I think he remains an endearing figure because he was inspired to dream larger than life. Stories gave him a purpose and energy. He’s an example of the power literature can have on an individual, even if in his case the results were misguided.

 

What would he see, how would he react if he were at Tiananmen Square in 1989? And what could we learn if that happened? 

 

Storytelling can connect people in a way nothing else can. It can connect individuals, groups, ideas. It can keep history alive and preserve their memory. To all the writers and actors and poets and artists, I want to say that I love what you do. You may not have a house in the Hamptons and two kids in Harvard, but you are giving people meaning and enriching lives. You gave me hope and knowledge and a respite from loneliness. You enabled a connection with my family, as when my father read me my first nursery tale; an event which may been forgotten, but which still resonates with me today.

 

It doesn’t even have to be the next great novel. Just find a loved one, maybe someone you’ve neglected too long, and tell them about your life and what you’ve been up to. Nothing fancy. Share your personal experiences. A life unshared is a life half lived. Don’t give up. Keep at it.

Categories
theater Writing

What Eddie Van Halen Taught Me About Playwrighting

Writer’s block has an an equally destructive brother. It’s one thing when you can’t think of anything to write. It’s another when you over write something. Take a perfectly good piece, then add and revise till whatever gem of an idea you had is covered and distorted by the inability to let something go. It’s like taking a perfect piece of rib eye steak and seasoning to the point where you can’t taste the meat. Overwriting something can be as destructive as anything else for a writer. There are a few explanations for this. One is insecurity. Myself, or any other writer, doesn’t trust that the piece is good enough as is, and feels the need to pad with more “brilliance,” even when nothing is required. Another, perhaps related, cause is a lack of perspective. The writer can no longer see what is in front of them clearly, and can’t tell that the piece is good because they’ve become so inured to the piece.

For some advice on the matter, I turn to Eddie Van Halen.

To people who dismiss Van Halen as just mindless party rock, I would say that being creative is being creative, no matter what you’re doing. their goals may be to just have a fun time, but they also know what they’re doing. Yes, Van Halen’s music lacks ambition. Perhaps the one facet which keeps Van Halen one notch below the rock greats, such as Led Zeppelin and Queen and the Who, is that Van Halen never tried anything to take the music to the next level. There was no ambitious concept album with multiple movements. No experimentation or fusion of folk music. No epic songs that ran over five minutes. But you can’t ignore the craftsmanship. It’s just dessert, but dessert on the same level as Jack Torres or Bouchon Bakery.

I read an interview with Eddie Van Halen. Aside from talking about playing guitar and why his current lead singer is way better than his previous singer (alternate David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, ignore Gary Cherone if you ever remember him) he actually talked about his creative process. He said there are three basic steps; inspiration, creation and release. I don’t remember if he used the first two words specifically. But I do remember the equivalent meaning, as getting the idea, setting it down on tape and refining what you have. What struck me was the final phase, the release. He said it was an important step, and one that he only recently began to appreciate.

It was odd to hear the California Guitar God talk about the creative process so seriously.

Anyway, what struck me about Eddie’s interview was the idea of release. Letting go of an idea as a means of writing a song. Unfortunately, the interviewer seemed more interested in asking questions about what strings EVH uses and his sspeaker preference than futhering queries about hte mysterious creative process. EVH does emphasize the importance of release. Maybe someday someone will ask him to clarify. His statement also reminded me of an Indian proverb someone once told me, “All creativity comes from forgetting.”

Letting go can be a mysterious but powerful tool. It may explain why I never see a typo in my blog until I’ve published it.  Or why I seem to get my best ideas when I’m not at the desk writing. Somtimes, the idea will hit as soon as I get up from the computer to grab a root beer. Why does it happen this way? Who knows.

I do know that I’ve been plugging away for months writing Don Quixote at Tiananmen Square. Unlike other plays, I have a group of people interested in producing this one. I’m actually writing something with a production at the end. So that means a deadline. Which means that I can’t write a few pages, go away, come back days later and pick up where I left off. It’s been a constant writing process.

After finishing the second draft, I did walk away from the piece, very purposefully. I felt as if every time I read it I couldn’t even see it anymore. My brain had just burnt out on writing something that had anything to do with Don Quixote or the Tiananmen Square massacre.

So I spent about a month not writing any plays. I did write, and have done some work for the good people at infinite-ammo.net. Then I got a call from my director, Melissa, asking to have some meetings about the play and where everyone was going. So I picked up the play again . . . more accurately, I looked around the living room and finally found the play . . . and read it. And the interesting thing is, things about hte play became glaringly obvious. A lot of it I liked. But there were some sections where I said to myself, “Why the hell did I do that?” It was like waking up sober after a night of partying and seeing the mattress crammed into the shower. What was I thinking, and what God forsaken moment of inspiration make this seem like a good idea?

Anyway, letting go. Forgetting. Putting some distance away from a piece. Hard work is good and all, but sometimes you have to go out and play. And when you play, there’s nothing better soundtrack than Van Halen.

Categories
Movies Satire

Seriously, I really do like Hugh Jackman . . .

Here’s a movie review . . . sort of . . . that I wrote for Infinite Ammo:

http://infinite-ammo.net/2011/09/26/smh-infinite-ammo-meta-reviews-real-steel-before-weve-actually-seen-it/

Categories
Borders work

Closing Time/The Man in the Big Black Blazer

The transition to autumn brings a palpable yet definite change in the air, a feeling which lies somewhere between the regions of nostalgia and bittersweet. What I notice is the sudden lack of heat and humidity. Plants begin to whither and leaves start to fall, just as old sweaters and light jackets are resurrected from dusty storage bins.

For myself and about 11,000 other people, this fall also marks another transition. September 14th marked my last day as a Borders employee, as the book retail chain shut down for good, the last shelves and fixtures sold off pice by piece to liquidators. It’s still an odd feeling to wake up in the morning (or actually afternoon, I have to catch up on a lot of sleep) and have nowhere to go.

I was called in to work early on Wednesday. The feeling was that there wouldn’t be enough books to stay open till ten. And when I got in that morning, I was shocked by how little was in fact left. About nine-tenths of the shelves were empty and taped off to the public. The last dregs fill up two tables and about five sparse shelves. One or two employees were at the registers, but everyone else just mingled about.

Our general manager had assigned theme days, and in a move that would make Fellini proud, this last day was “Carnival Day.” Brightly colored pigtails and balloons. Cotton candy. I wore a burgundy short sleeve collar shirt (oddly the same color as the company’s logo) with a black and white polka dot tie, in my view kind of like a metrosexual hipster carny. There was even a toy pony. Really, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate ending. The theme resonated on so many levels for the last day of this chain, and as you look further into the layers of meaning it became both more resonant and depressing.

But like every other day I spent there, my coworkers kept it fun. We gathered up the packing tape and made a giant make-shift ball, which we threw and kicked around the empty sales floor. Everyone was on a sugar high from the cotton candy and pixie sticks. Endless photographs were taken.

I received endless texts asking me how I was holding up. I didn’t have time to reply with how sad I was, I was too busy having fun. That’s how it always was. As bad as things got at work, I couldn’t always look to the person working next to me to crack a joke or act like a clown.

The GM made a final speech. Plans were made to meet at a bar. And I clocked out for the last time. And that’s when it hit. You see, there was a security guard named Lionel Holder. An immigrant from Guyana, where he used to be a police officer. Semi-retired, he worked for a while at the front door of our Borders, deterring shop lifters. Which wasn’t hard for him. Even though he was older with grey hair, he was still a massive human being. Big shoulders and a head taller than everyone else, with a deep, booming baritone of a voice. I’ve written about him previously (see phantomasianman.livejournal.com). I would leave for work and end up spending over an hour talking to him. One of the nicest, avuncular guys I knew. Unless you were caught stealing. I’ve seen people break into a sweat when he stopped them for suspected shoplifting. Actually, most of the time when the alarms went off, it was for an innocent reason, and Lionel would ask politely, “excuse me sir, kindly let me deactivate teh alarm for you.” Only he looked so intimidating that people would still freak out.

Lionel passed away a few years ago from a brain hemorage. It was a couple of weeks for everybody, because everybody loved him. People would start crying in the middle of work. Coworkers who hated each other would hug one another. It was a dark time for everyone.

Fast forward to last week. Rosie called me up and asked if I’d left behind a dark blazer. I said not to my recollection. When I got to work on Wednesday, I saw the blazer she talked about.

“Rosie,” I said. “That’s Lionel’s old jacket.”

She looked shock, as years old but poignant memories came back unexpected. “You should keep it,” she said. It’s a few sizes too big for me. When I wear it, I feel like a little kid going through his dad’s closet. But he was my friend, and it seemed like the right thing to do.

So I took it with me after I clocked out. After nine years of working for the same company, I was leaving for good.  And I can never duplicate the good, sometimes great, sometimes terrible times I had at Borders. I’ll keep in touch with friends, but that shared experience will be gone. Laughter that comes after a grueling, ego shattering day at work forms a bond that is hard-earned. Being able to relate completely  to a roomful of people, who knew exactly what I had just gone through, at any given moment is a wonderful relationship that I took for granted. Now that the job is over, those situations won’t repeat themselves.

And over my shoulder I carried an immense dark jacket, once filled by a great man and now empty. Lionel won’t be coming back. But I could carry out a piece of him, just as I carry a piece of everyone I had the pleasure to work with. I can only hope they feel the same about me.

“Don’t run, man,” Lionel once said to me. I told him I didn’t have time to talk, as I had an appointment right after work. He said, “You have to walk. You run too fast, you miss the good things in life.” It feels like he said that yesterday. He passed away years ago, but it still feels like yesterday when I talked to him. So I walked out of the store, slowly, with dignity. I walked with my head high, looking forward as I soaked in the moment. I walked, proud of my time there, grateful for the people I met. I walked to prove that Lionel was right when he said that. And he still is.

Categories
Movies

Fu-Dunnit: Review of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

You’ve probably seen the trailer or the commercial. An airborne deer gets a flying kick in the face that sends it spinning out of control. This promises the type of left field, over the top action that was so entertaining in the Evil Dead movies and Kung Fu Hustle. The image belongs to the film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The title, overlong and melodramatic, also promises pulpy b movie enjoyment and silliness. Both however turn out to be red herrings. A “red herring” is a phrase used in mysteries, meaning a false or misleading clue. Because Detective Dee is in fact a mystery.

Basically, the plot involves Detective Dee, who apparently is an actual historical figure, a ranking official of the Tang Dynasty. Years ago he was accused of treason and imprisoned. But after a few people spontaneously explode into flame, the Empress decides to release him in order to solve the mystery of the . . . well, the phantom flame.

I won’t give away much more of the plot. Except to say that everything is plot driven as opposed to action driven.

Because this movie involves Asian people who punch and kick, there are the inevitable comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, this movie has more in common with Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, a detective story interrupted occasionally by an action scene. There’s also a lot of Dr Who in the filmic DNA of Detective Dee’s character. Both are kind, compassionate, smart, and observant to the point of near telepathy. And where the Doctor had his sonic screwdriver, Dee has his Dragon Mace.

The Dragon Mace is probably one of the most inventive weapons seen in a movie in some time. There’s a screenwriting phrase called “charging the object,” in which a prop is imbued with emotional meaning and significance, giving it dramatic heft in the story. Indiana Jones’ hat is one example, and the dragon mace is another. It looks innocuous at first, but during the climactic end it becomes one of the most entertaining action props  since Odd Job’s decapitating hat. I won’t spoil the fun by describing it in further detail, except to say I’m sure people will be leaving the theater shouting “break!”

In terms of kung fu movies and mystery movies, Detective Dee offers very little that is new. But the fact that it combines both is novel enough, and a lot of fun to watch. There are also a lot of nice touches, especially with the characters. We’re introduced to an overzealous albino detective, a curiously androgynous female companion, and a host of scheming royalty who never seem to be sure which side they’re on.

And yes, there is a fight with a deer. Specifically, about three deer. Three talking deer. It’s a fun scene, and one of the better action scenes in the whole movie. The oddest thing about a kung fu fight against talking woodland animals is that it’s not campy.

Probably the best scenes involve a skyscraper sized statue of a Buddha. Again, I won’t give anything away. But the fact I mention it at all should be a clue that something really cool happens.

A thoughtful, unique action/mystery, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is worth not only a look, but also the inevitable franchise that should follow.

Categories
social causes television

If Reality Shows Were Socially Conscious

Snooki had a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Just let that sink in for a little bit. Still reading, or are you packing a Bible and a month’s supply of water for the upcoming apocalypse? The Kardashian sisters are world famous celebrities earning millions. Their talent is . . . . anyone know? Think. Think really hard. Still don’t know? You’re not alone. But there they are.

Reality shows have become a powerful medium for making people rich and famous. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If millions of people are willing to shell out hard earned cash, forego food and rent to buy the latest celebrity bio and whatnot, well, there must be a good reason. Millions of people can’t be wrong. Then again, millions of people once believed the sun revolved around the earth. Millions of people once believed in the superiority of the Aryan race. Okay, maybe I’m going too far. But the fact remains that the reality format can have a huge influence in the media and popular mindset.

But what if networks decided to use this force for good? Here are my thoughts on how that could happen. I present show ideas that can be both entertaining and can make the world a better place.

The Real World, With Stephen Hawking

The Real World, aired on MTV, was perhaps the first break out reality hit in America. It chronicled the real lives of everyday people living in everyday cities. What it taught us was that real people have perfect abs and live in luxury apartments, have no responsibilities and nothing better to do than bitch about each other.

How about a show that really talked about the real world? I present to you Stephen Hawking. One of the greatest scientific minds of the modern world. As a matter of fact, it’s a safe argument that he possesses one of the greatest minds in history. He held the post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, taking up the post in 1979 and retiring on 1 October 2009, following in the footsteps of Isaac Newton. He’s made giant strides in the study of cosmology (not too be confused with cosmetology, a sticking point if he gets his reality show) and quantum gravity, presenting theories on black holes. In short, he’s the leading authority on how the universe works.

That’s right, the whole universe. Everything. Never mind the real world. This is the real universe. Throw him in a house with a bunch of twenty-somethings and have them learn about the formation of planets and galaxies. Have them contemplate how the world came about. Let them discuss theoretical physics. This, finally, is how the real world works. Really.

And did I mention he has motor neurone disease and can only communicate via computer? That he is slowly becoming completely paralyzed? There’s a second human interest story here. Is he blessed with an American Apparel physique and high cheekbones? No. He just used the brains he was given. Confined to a wheel chair, this man reached out into the heart and soul of space. And, like Snooki, he has had a best selling book. She had A Shore Thing (get it?) while he wrote A Brief History of Time. Yet he can’t get a reality show. The shame of it all.

The Somali Shore

Jersey has sunny beaches, right? You know where else you can find sunny beaches? Somalia! Do you like watching people who disregard the rules? There’s no government in Somalia, so there are no rules! Yay! And audiences love to watch what happens when people hook up for meaningless sex. Imagine if the stakes were raised. Say, if the hook up led to AIDS. Wouldn’t that capture people’s attention? Actually, shouldn’t that capture people’s attention?

Civil War. Genocide. Widespread AIDS. Poverty. Somalia is not a nice place to be. Most in the Western world shudder in guilt when they hear about the tragic conditions in this country. The problems in Somalia are so great and dire that most in the western world can’t even comprehend them. Why not set up a weekly television show where we allowed people to witness this disaster first hand? People are already willing to buy the “-red” shirts from the Gap, so they must care already, right? See, there’s a built in audience.

And besides, they have pirates in Somalia. Everybody loves pirates!

The Tutus

Desmond Tutu. Archbishop. Human rights activist. AIDS activist. During Apartheid, Tutu campaigned the world, asking countries to work with him to pressure South Africa to end Apartheid. And you know what? It actually worked. He had some help (Nelson Mandela, etc). Since then, he’s continued to fight for human rights across the world. He’s also set up a foundation to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Also, as evidenced in interviews, he’s just kind of . . . well, adorable. Believe it or not, he’s very funny. And charming. Who wouldn’t want to watch someone like that on tv? Follow his life, hear what he has to say. “There is no future without forgiveness” is one of his mantras. Has any statement on human relations been so simple yet so radical? And it makes so much sense. Much along the same lines as another man, who could have a potential rival television show . . .

Dalai knows best

The man most people know as the Dalai Lama is in fact named Tenzin Gyatso. “Dalai Lama” is the title of the highest leader in Gelug Buddhism. Specifically, Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama, and will be referred to as “Dalai Lama” for the remainder of the article.

The Dalai Lama came to prominence when he was exiled from his home in Tibet, the direct result of oppression by the Chinese government. His story has been retold in two movies, one directed by Martin Scorsese. Numerous books have been written about him, and he himself has written numerous books.

The story of his exile, and his fight for Tibetan freedom, alone make for a great and worthy subject. But above all, at least in the media, he has been a proponent of his Buddhist beliefs. In the many books and speeches he has given, a recurring theme has been compassion. Relating to your fellow human being to understand that person better. Look at any picture of him, and he just radiates kindness and benevolence.

Imagine what he could do for the cast of the Jersey Shore or Big Brother. With all their in-fighting and feuds. And imagine him bringing peace and harmony to this poor conflicted group. Then again, maybe you shouldn’t.

The Apprentice, with Kim Jong-il

King Jong-il is the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. If that sounds too formal, you may simply refer to him as “supreme leader.” Informally, the people of Korea refer to him as “our father.” Appropriate enough, if you come from a fucked up family.

Kim Jong-il has been called by many pundits a mass murderer, for the fact that thousands in North Korea die every year from poverty and starvation. What has he done about it? He created a glistening, modern city meant to be the envy of Asia. The only thing missing from this city is people. It’s in fact a fake city, built within eyes hot of the South Korea border, to make people think everything is okay. Denial, the first sign of a dysfunctional family.

This man has also publicly flouted all attempts at maintaining peace. He builds nuclear reactors despite threats that this will invite invasions from other countries. He even authorized the construction of a nuclear missile, then launched it in the direction of the United States. apparently not content with bringing strife to his own subjects, he wants to threaten peace world wide.

But hey, there must be a reason behind all this crazy behavior, right? Deep inside, don’t you think he’s doing this because he wasn’t hugged enough as a kid? Maybe he wants to be loved. Or he wants to be empowered. Coudln’t we just make his life better, make him happier and secure. And wouldn’t that give him self-esteem, and end all this psychotic world threatening kerfuffle?

Let’s have some of our youngest and brightest financial minds go to North Korea, and turn that economy right side up. From lemonade stands to fashion shows, they could demonstrate how they could bring money and stability to the country of North Korea. Go through competitions, and the last one standing gets to become Kim Jon-il’s economic advisor. Turn his frown upside down. Get much needed food and medicine to the starving people. And if Kim Jon-il’s really not the product of low self-esteem, if he really is a crazed megalomaniac bent on world domination, well, he can just follow Donald Trump’s example and build hotels and buildings all over the world. Woudln’t a gaudy obsidian and gold monument to one’s ego be more preferable than a long ranged missile?

And wouldn’t it be fun to watch? Some modifications from the original would have to he made. The catch phrase “you’re fired” would have to be more personalized and unique, replaced with the phrase “you will now be executed by the will of the people.” Catchy, eh? And wouldn’t you get a so-guilty-I-should-be-in-jail thrill from seeing him say that to yet another self-absorbed, money hungry Wall Street executive? Now that’s television.

to learn more about Desmond Tutu and his mission, in non-snarky context, please go to:

www.tutu.org

for the Dalai Lama, please go to:

www.dalailama.com

there are many sites on Somalia, easily found with a Google search. Here’s one:

www.somrf.org

Categories
Borders work

6 Nice Things You Do While Shopping, That Actually Drive Retail Workers Insane

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a nice person. So let me say, thank you. I salute you. You truly are one of those people who is making the world a better place, and there should be . . . no, need to be more people like you. I mean that in all sincerity. If you’re a jerk, you probably didn’t get past the title and went on, because you don’t care. And for that reason there is no hope, and no point in writing for you. This is for the nice person. The one who wants to make the world a more pleasant experience for everyone around them. Because they know that nice propagates more nice behavior, making the world better one gesture at a time. Want to make this planet better for your children? Save the rain forest. Recycle. Protect the ozone layer. But also be nice to your fellow human being.

Unfortunately, sometimes good intentions backfire.

I’ve found that every group has its own set of pet peeves. And these peeves are never obvious or apparent to those outside of the group. For example, I’ve learned that people who play water polo hate jokes about swimming horses. Women named “Stella” do not enjoy jokes about bread sticks, “Stella Artois” beer, or Marlon Brando impressions. And people who come from foreign countries hate it when you try to talk back to them in their own accent. The impression is usually terrible, and really, what’s the point?

“I’m from England.”

“Oh, really? Cool. ‘Ello there, guv’na! Wud you like some steak and kidney pie-ee?”

Are they supposed to find that charming and amusing? Imagine the same scenario, with one change.

“I’m Chinese.”

“Oh, really? Cool. Ching chong. Me take-your laundry and make-a flied lice for you, okay?”

Yes. This is not the way to charm someone.

Oh yeah, while we’re at it, if you meet someone from the state of Kansas, absolutely do not quote that line from The Wizard of Oz. I’m sorry, did you think this is the first time they’ve heard it? Or the first hundredth time? Do you still think they find it funny?

I digress.

I’ve worked for too long in retail. And honestly, the majority of people I’ve helped have been good, decent people. Granted, there are a lot of horrible people, but that’s not news to anyone. In an attempt to help the nice people, I would like to point out some things which they do which are actually making retail workers sick with frustration. Because you don’t want to get them angry, right? You appreciate their hard work, their low pay, and the fact that they’ve helped you find that perfect sham wow for your apartment. So here are some things that people do to be kind, but which actually backfire hideously.

First, let me set the scene. The average retail worker does not do what they do because they want to. No one I know dreams of being a retail worker. They have do, for a myriad different reasons. In order to keep their jobs, they are given tasks which they themselves despise, and which lead to conflict with customers. By the time you encounter one in their work environment, they have been yelled at, insulted and humiliated, and were forced to respond by saying “what else can I do for you?” or “have a nice day.” So when you meet one, they’re already sensitive and angry. Moreso, they expect to undergo the same debasing experience, and in their mind you could be the next to insult them and say “I hope you lose your job.”  Every time they hear the phrase “Do you work here?” it’s an invitation for debasement. Which leads to the first nice gesture that actually drives retail workers insane.

“Do You Work Here?”

No retail worker hates it more than when a customer walks up and just blurts out “Where are the Children’s books?” Or even worse, just “Children’s books?” It’s common courtesy to address someone properly first, with maybe a “hello” or “how are you?” But just like “How are you?” certain phrases have lost their meaning. When someone asks that, they probably don’t want a full story about one’s state of affairs and life. It’s just a greeting. In the retail world, this opening phrase has become “Do you work here?”

Most people know this is a silly question. The retail worker either has a giant-sized name tag, or an ill-fitting polo shirt with the company logo emblazoned onto it. Many even have to wear aprons, perhaps to absorb the blood stains when they finally lose it and kill someone. Everything is done to make it obvious who is there to help people buy products, and thus make money for the company. One of my coworkers even tried an experiment. Whenever someone said “Do you work here?” to her, she replied “No.” The customer blinked, then asked the question anyway. They knew she worked there, yet asked the question anyway.

I myself walked into a store, approached someone in a big colorful uniform, and heard myself saying “Do you work here?” I kicked myself. Hard. I did it mentally, but with vigor.

Why do we ask this when we know the question? I think it’s just the easiest way of addressing someone and indicating that we need help. What we actually mean is, “I know you work here, but I want your attention and want to indicate that I need help.” Over the years, the phrase “Do you work here?” has become an idiom in the shopping experience.

When someone asks this, it drives retail workers insane with frustration, even if they don’t show it. Why is this question so aggravating? It’s not just because the question is pointless and silly. People get pointless and silly questions all the time. It’s because they get that question literally at least a hundred times every day. Let me put it this way. Imagine something you enjoy eating, say a candy bar. Imagine eating one hundred candy bars every day for a week. You’ll probably grow to hate it. Now imagine something you don’t like, such as three day old sushi. And imagine eating that a hundred times every day.

So yes, politely asking if someone “works here” is driving the retail worker nuts. Next time you want their attention, just take a moment, and say something else. “Can you help me?” is a good choice. Or, “Hello, where is . . . .”

This leads directly to . . .

My name is . . . 

This is going to seem completely counterintuitive. Every uniform or badge or tag has the worker’s name displayed. This means they want you to know their name, right? Wrong. The company wants you to know their name. So the store can seem more friendly. Regardless, let’s say you walk into a store, and are greeted by an employee. They have a nametag which reads, let’s say “Dan.” And in order to be smooth and friendly, you say, “Hello, Dan.” Given the circumstances, this seems like a nice, personable thing to do.

I can tell you from experience that being called by your first name from a stranger is, in reality, really, really creepy. I don’t care that my name is on the front of my shirt. This isn’t a party or a convention. This is work. You are a stranger. Having someone you don’t know suddenly address you by your first name is very unsettling. In addition, I’ve found most people who do this are in fact actually quite creepy, or at the least unsettlingly eccentric. After using my name once, they tend to use it over and over again. “Hello, Dan. Can you help me, Dan. You’ve been so nice, Dan. Where do you live, Dan?” This has happened. If you work retail, this probably happened to you. And you didn’t like it.

“That means it’s free, right?”

Almost every sane individual loves to laugh. A good laugh can make a horrible day a good one. Laughter, in my opinion, is one of the best guilt-free uppers that exists. When a customer makes a joke or tries to make a retail worker laugh, that’s a good thing. With one exception.

Ask anyone who has been a cashier for even a day, and they can tell you they’ve had this experience. And they hate it. The product is placed in front of the cashier. She or he scans it over the laser barcode reader. The scanner doesn’t read the barcode, so the cashier must scan it again. After a few tries, the products still doesn’t scan. So the customer breaks into a giant grin, and says, “That means it’s free, right?” Pause while the comedian du jour waits for a laugh.

Problem is, the jokes really not that funny. Maybe twenty years ago, when scanners were invented (no, I didn’t check my history, this is just a guess) this produced a chuckle. But not anymore. What’s worse, the one making this joke usually waits for a laugh. So the cashier can either glare in disgust, which is bad customer service, or fake a polite smile. We’ve all faked a laugh at a bad joke. But again, this happens a hundred or so times every day. Want to tick off the cashier? Make that joke. Want to genuinely amuse them? Come up with a new one.

The Backstory.

Retail workers are busy. They have dozens of people to help. It is normal for them to have two or more customers waiting for help at the same time. And they know that the longer the customer has to wait, the more impatient they will get, and the more likely to harass and belittle the worker if something goes wrong. Time and speed are essential, if only for preserving self-esteem and more importantly one’s will to live.

So imagine the frustration when someone asks for something. But rather than just saying “Where can I find the bath towels?” they say, “You know, I was in Tuscany on a family trip with my in-laws, when I stayed at this hotel and found the most wonderful bath towels, and upon returning home I tried to . . . . .” Trust me, unless you’re Ruth Reichl or Anthony Bourdain or any other great story-teller, they don’t care. You’re also wasting their time. And increasing the chances that they will be yelled at when they move on to customer #2.

The Excuse

Companies keep thinking of ways to make more money. This often involves asking their employees to push something, like an extra impulse item, or a membership card. To ensure that everything is done properly, employees are usually given a script to recite to get said customer to fork over money for this whatever miracle money-maker that will increase the bottom line.

Customers usually respond with a “yes” or “no.” Some sympathetic people understand that retail workers have to say this, and will probably be reprimanded if they get too many “no” responses. So they try to make the worker, and themselves, feel better by explaining why. “Sorry, I can’t sign up for the rewards card, because I just broke up with my girlfriend and I’m short on cash and I need to . . . “ whatever. Great. I sympathize. There probably is a very good reason to decline. Actually, considering most of the rewards programs and impulse items, there are hundreds of good reasons. We all know that. The cashier doesn’t need to hear the excuse. It doesn’t help their case. They’re not going to repeat the story to their supervisor in the hopes it will get them off the hook because they didn’t get enough people to sign up for the “magazine of the month club.” It just wastes more time, and again, it happens constantly.

A sincere smile and a pleasant “No, thank you” is much more effective when you want to be nice. Trust me, it will be appreciated, and might even make someone’s day better.

“Why are you closing?”

This one is more personal, and hopefully rare, because I work for a company that is going through liquidation. And I get this question a lot. People ask, “Why are you closing?” Now, I know they’re just curious and maybe want to make conversation to make the exchange more personal. but why on earth would someone ask this to someone who is losing their job?

This is just a flat-out painful question. Never mind that the answer would take half an hour. I once told someone “Do a Google search and find out for yourself.” They laughed, but I was pissed. Some even failed to take the hint and say “No, really, why are you closing?” You wouldn’t walk into an E.R and say to a gunshot victim “Why are you dying?” It makes no sense. Maybe it’s genuine concern. Sometimes I think curiosity gets the better of sensitivity. After all, I do work in New york City, where people are almost psychotically self involved.

So, there you have it. Thank you for letting me get this off my chest. And let me just say, if you really want to be a nice person, just don’t try so hard. Sincerely friendly and considerate people are a joy to help. I really mean that. So if you are nice, if you like making others smile and feel good for the sake of doing so, then just be yourself. Want to make the world a better place? You already have.

Categories
Movies

What has me excited this week: Shark Night 3D

So while sitting on my couch eating old take out and watching reruns of the Office, my senses were awakened by a commercial for a new movie. The movie is called “Shark Night 3D.” There is not much revealed in the commercial, so I went online and did some research. Apparently the movie is about a bunch of people who get attacked by sharks. Apparently at night. I also found out that this movie will be in 3d. Awesome!

“But haven’t we seen a lot of shark movies already?” Yes. But these are different. These are FRESH WATER SHARKS! I know for a fact that freshwater sharks do exist. Finally, we get a new wrinkle in the whole shark attacking people genre. Not the old boring salt water sharks. Fresh water sharks should bring an entirely new perspective. I know a lot of people say, “Oh, we don’t have to worry about sharks, We’ll swim in fresh water and be safe.” WRONG!

I mean, if there’s one surefire bet for a good movie, it’s a 3d movie about some underwater animals which attack attractive people, especially when said movie is experienced in all three dimensions. Sure, I know. Pirahna 3D sucked. And MegaShark vs Giant Octopus Sucked. And Deep Blue Sea sucked. But this movie will not suck because . . . . okay, maybe this will suck as well.

 

The other day, after I put a dollar in the vending machine, my candy bar got stuck. After some vigorous shaking, my just reward finally fell and I was able to eat some prepackaged goodness. That’s when a coworker told me that more people die each year of falling vending machines than shark attacks. Holy shit! Why isn’t there a movie about this? Vending Machine 3D!

 

Okay, my director wants my new draft today, and I should stop procrastinating . . . .

Categories
Borders Uncategorized

Borders Closing

It is officially against Borders Group In.c rules to blog about work, but now that the company is no more I feel like I can write about it freely. In one month’s time I will be out of a job, and a ten-year phase of my life will be over.

 

First of all, I can’t believe I’ve been at Borders for ten years. Looking back, however, I have mostly fond memories. I’ve met most of my best friends there. And early on, especially when I moved to New York, I enjoyed working there for the most part. But I think a lot of the fun was illusory, and so inevitably disappeared. The reason I enjoyed work was because I endured bad customers and odd hours with a group of intelligent, talented and funny people. And being intelligent and talented, a lot of them left to move on to better things. Many stayed behind, but things slowly changed. Management started panicking, a clue as to the increasingly fragile state of the company’s finances. Hours were cut, so I spent less time filing away music and movies and more time ringing at the register. While at the register, we were all required to sell a membership card and make plus sales and a lot of other initiatives that were meant to save the company. A lot of stress was put on the people taking in the money. They even hired someone to stand behind us and “coach” us as to how to sell these membership cards. What that basically meant was that every time someone said “no, thank you” we got a lecture. The new membership cards, we were told, were the means by which Borders would save itself. We had to stand for five to eight hours, enduring verbal abuse from customers and our own bosses while shilling out these cards. So basically, Borders was putting its fate in the hands of people who were increasingly hostile and resentful to itself.

 

Things became increasingly miserable. I was scheduled for nights and weekends. Which meant that I rarely saw any of my friends. Bad enough, but I noticed certain privileged individuals had every night and weekend free, and would come in talking about how good a time they had last night. Meanwhile, things for Borders kept getting worse. I won’t go over the details, a quick Google search will provide a recap. Better yet, go to iworkatborders.livejournal.com for the inside story. I will tell you that for the past two months I’ve had a painful knot in my left shoulder that still has not gone away. After one day at work, my left heel is still painful enough for me to have to favor my right foot. Anne Bogart once wrote that one should listen to the body, and mine is complaining loudly and not very politely.

 

And this was all before the store announced it would be liquidating. So all that work for nothing. As testament to how frustrating work had become, most of us weren’t so much saddened as relieved. Have I felt sad? Not really, but mostly because it’s been too busy for anyone to have that luxury of self-pity. Since the “all things must go” signs went up, it’s been like Christmas, only with ninety degree weather. The summer climate has had a dual edged purpose. It’s made us hot and sweaty at work, while simultaneously reminding us that this is supposed to be the fun part of the year. Line of people stretching as far as our busiest times, all carrying huge stacks of books. Many of them asking us to do math at the registers. “How much is this? That much? I don’t want it. Tell me how much this is.”

 

There have been a few jerks. Some who’ve said “I’m glad your company is closing” to our faces. One person shouted out “Barnes and Noble forever.” Really? Put the majority of people have been nice, if not downright sympathetic. My dad told me that the reason a lot of people are there is because they feel nostalgic and guilty. An era in books is disappearing, and people who loved our store are coming by to pay their respects and for that one last trip take their minds off the every day. Before, all we heard were complaints. Now all the people who really enjoyed us and our store are feeling compelled to say so. I’ve felt at times like an usher at my own funeral.

I didn’t expect so many awkward moments. After the hundredth time of hearing “I’m sorry” it takes a lot of effort to say “thank you.” I’m not even sure if thank you is the right response. What is the right response? A lot of my co-workers have heard that so many times they’re actually sick of hearing it. That might sound unappreciative, but you have to understand just how many times we hear it in one day. Then there are those who say, “What are you going to do next?” When I say I don’t know, they look worried and concerned. and I love them for that. But then it becomes a weird game where I try to make them feel better, assuring them that I will be fine. I don’t know if I’m lying to them or not.

 

By far the most awkward question is “Why are you closing?” Why? Do they expect me to pull out a P&L statement for the last eight financial quarters? Breakdown the national economy? Go over all the bad management decisions made over the past ten years? Most people will say “it must be the nook.” I’ve learned to nod at that response to get them going, even if I don’t agree. What’s the point of agreeing with someone who irritates you? There was one boy, probably twelve or younger, who bleated out in an irritating prepubescent voice “Why are you closing? Why are you closing? I don’t understand.” I didn’t answer, and he kept asking. Naturally, his father did nothing to shut him up.

A few of the customers have been absolute gems. One lady informed me that unemployment is not so bad, she’s going through the same thing. A lot of people have sincerely wished me good luck, and I appreciate each and every one of them. I remember talking to one woman. She said “I’m really sorry you’re going to lose your job.” And I said, “well, it’s not like I wanted to work here forever.” I said it to make her feel better, but it’s also actually true. This so-called temporary job, that was supposed to pay the bills till I found something better, has lasted almost ten years. we talked about how sometimes fate kicks you in the ass just to get you moving again.

As much as I am a playwright, I’ve also been a retail worker, and I don’t consider that a good thing. Not when I’ve been stuck there as long as I have. I’ve been in a rut. A comfortable, miserable rut. This might be exactly what I needed. For ten years working at Borders has been a part of my identity. Now I can find a new one. Write that play. Take my girlfriend out. Explore the city again. I just hope that I can, you know, pay the bills.