Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just Call Me Ebenezer Scrooge

It is that time of year again.  People were outside this past weekend putting up Christmas lights.  I see holiday displays everywhere and Sirius radio has multiple stations playing 24/7 Christmas music.  Have I mentioned that I haven’t even fried my Thanksgiving turkey yet?  It does really seem that we start "celebrating" Christmas earlier and earlier every year.  Not only that but we have started to ruin the holiday season all together.  I say this knowing I sound like people of our grandparent's generation and it generally sounds like I am being a scrooge.  However, if you give me a few minutes of your time, maybe I can convince you that I am right.

In the last two weeks I have read about retailers, whom over the last decade have seemingly opened black Friday shopping earlier and earlier in the AM, actually opening on Thanksgiving night to start the official holiday shopping spree.  The claim is that their customer feedback is telling them that they want to be able to shop after dinner on Thanksgiving.  I am sure that it has nothing to do with plummeting sales over the last 3 shopping seasons.  I am also not convinced that opening their stores, paying employees and covering operating costs will be a net gain for them but as long as they get more gross sales it will look good to shareholders.

I have also come across more and more of these perfect looking artificial Christmas trees.  They are beyond perfect.  They are the shape, color and brightness of every great picture and painting we ever saw growing up.  They also come with the lights and even garland already on them.  These are a far cry from the originals that looked as real as the cell phone towers that we see on the side of highways that look like giant pine trees.  Better yet, you can get these trees for only $30 or $40 more than a real one and they last a whole lot longer. 

I am not a very religious person.  Even so, I do find it troublesome that so little of the Christmas holiday has become about the true meaning of the day.  I do sometimes feel hypocritical about my lack of religion but I think that even without my affinity towards that aspect of all of the religious holidays, I have always and continue to make them about friends and family.  This is where I think that the commercialization of the holidays has caused us to lose our way.

My childhood memories are filled with family times during the holidays.  This includes Thanksgiving.  We would also have a big sit down dinner and watch the football games.  The thought of some of our family rushing out to go shopping after turkey dinner is very saddening to me.  Isn't the whole point of Thanksgiving to spend that time together and everyone just hanging out?  To commercialize Christmas so much into needing to start shopping for gifts at the expense of family time is just plain sad.

As for some Christmas traditions, I fully understand how busy we have become.  I am not knocking anyone that goes out and gets the artificial tree that is all pre-made.  But I am stuck again in the memory bank of my dad and I getting the not so perfect tree, drilling the trunk, moving a couple of branches around to fill a gap or two to try and make it our version of heaven.  It wasn’t because we didn’t want to just get the right tree from the start but it was fun doing these things together and making these memories.  Then there were all of us putting everything on the tree together.  My sister and I would fight over the different tasks of trimming the tree.  These are the great memories that you can only get when spending time doing things together.  I fear that too many of these great memory making times are being taking away at the expense of long lines, parking lot rage, and the Christmas tree Made in China.

I think retailers are good at making things convenient for us and thank you to them in most cases.  But for my holidays, I will take a pass and I am going to go slow and try to enjoy them as much as possible and pass it on to my girls as much as possible.

Monday, October 10, 2011

We Can Learn A Lot From a Straw

Have you ever done something for a long time, say your whole life, and one day realized there is a better way to do it?  I had that experience recently and it was eye opening.  I, like many others, used the grasp in your hand while banging it into the table method when I wanted to get the paper off.  This method works fine.  The problem is that about every third time, the straw bends during the violent thrashing against the table.  Then you end up with the little hole in the side of the straw that lets in as much air as liquid totally ruining your drinking experience.

Well one day, while taking my daughters to Chik-Fil-A, I noticed a 3 year old try it a different way.  I noticed that she grabbed the straw with two hands and pulled in opposite directions stretching the paper until it broke, pulling it right off the straw.  Since then, I have had a much easier time drinking my large lemonade at Chik-Fil-A.

This experience, among others, got me to thinking about our government.  If I could go thirty some years doing something a certain way that I thought was best and suddenly there is a much easier less destructive way, couldn't that apply to the troubles our country faces?  Couldn't our government find easier ways to deal with unemployment?

In the last two weeks, many protesters have come out in droves to protest Wall Street and our political and economic systems in general.  People are tired of rich and powerful people taking advantage of them.  Unemployment is still around 10%.  The poverty level is rising into the middle class.  Wall Street is continuing to be able to do whatever they want even though their unregulated greed is a big reason for the mess we are in today.  Bank of America, the largest bank in the country, is now leading the charge for new bank fees per month for everyone that uses their debit cards.  The status quo is just not working anymore and thankfully people are standing up to be heard.

President Obama ran his campaign in 2008 on a guarantee of change from the previous regime.  These first three year surely don't feel like a lot of change to me.  The lobbyists are still calling the shots, taxes are still high, the government is still in our business and the giant companies are still making all the money at our expense.

There is one thing that has changed in that last decade or two and has an ugly feel to it.  It also seems to have people on the left and the right equally as annoyed.  It is the almost unilateral rejection each party's leaders has to the other side’s ideas.  No matter what ideas our President comes up with, it is automatically met with unilateral rejection from the Republican congress.  Same thing if the Republican House comes to the table with an idea.  How can we expect to move forward with ideas on how to fix things when our own government is stuck in childish gridlock?

Finally there are the new calls for change.  Suddenly, I am hearing a lot more promises in these early days of the new Presidential election.  These include promises about bringing troops home, ideas about a flat tax, and ideas about keeping the lobbyist out.  All ideas to make you feel good but will probably end up on the cutting block.  So until the people really rise up and realize that there is a better way to open a straw, I have a feeling we are going to be stuck sucking on air.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

We Hardly Knew Ya Mark MacPhail

This past week, The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis.  He was a 42 year old African American man that was convicted of killing an off duty police officer in 1989.  He had maintained his innocence from the time of the crime until his death this week. Recently, his case had received international attention to the point where many celebrities, including Pope Benedict XVI, campaigned on his behalf for either a new trial or a stay of his execution.  A lot of inconsistencies in the original trial have come to light in recent days but each time the appellate court rejected the attempt to gain a new trial or a stay of execution.

This case has reminded me of two others like it: The OJ Simpson murder trial and the Mumia Abu-Jamal murder conviction. Both of these cases also involved African American males who allegedly murdered white victims.  They also forced and in the case of Mumia, still is, a lightning rod of debate about many philosophical issues including race, the death penalty, our justice system, and police misconduct.

For me, it is unfortunate that all three of these cases have been divided on racial lines.  There have been many wonderful documentaries about the OJ Simpson trial that delved into this phenomenon.  It seemed that many in the African American community were seeing the OJ acquittal as one big F-U to the justice system for all of the affronts to their people over the years by police, prosecutors and judges.  White people, on the other hand, could not believe that this man, who in their mind had obviously stabbed his ex-wife and her friend, could get away with it even though there was overwhelming evidence.

Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. The biggest similarity to the Troy Davis case I noticed in the Abu-Jamal case is all of the international celebrities it has attracted.  This, I just don't understand.  I saw a Rage Against the Machine concert once where the lead singer screamed in anger over the imprisonment of Abu-Jamal.  The funny thing was that he didn't have his facts right on the case.  I began taking notice of the case more and more and noticed guys like Ed Asner and others doing the same thing, speaking out for Abu-Jamal but seemingly knowing little about the actual case.  In the past couple of weeks, it seems that everyone has become an expert on Troy Davis.  From celebrities, to dignitaries, to your favorite friends on Facebook.  I will admit that what I have read leaves me with doubt about his trial and his guilt.  But for me to come out and claim his innocence and seek his freedom goes too far, I think.  Which leads to why I am writing this post in the first place.

What bothers me most about these cases, and all three of them are the same, is the lack of attention that the victims get.  No matter how strongly you feel that OJ didn't kill anyone or that Abu-Jamal was framed or that Davis received a bum deal, one thing is for sure:  Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald Goldman, Daniel Faulkner, and Mark MacPhail are all dead.  They were all murdered in a brutal fashion.  The celebrities don't come out for them or their families that are left to pick up the pieces.  When the families have to deal with appeal after appeal after appeal and watch celebrities, perhaps ones they idolize, speak out on behalf of their loved ones killer imagine what that must feel like.

So next time one of these celebrity execution cases comes out, I may root for the execution to be stayed if the evidence I read leans that direction.  But I might not.  One thing I do know is that I will learn the name of the victim in the case and think of that person and their family.  I will also think back to Mark and Nicole and Ron and Daniel.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Club Card Membership

I am a big Seinfeld fan.  I think it is one of those timeless shows that no matter how many times I watch an episode it continues to make me laugh.  One of my favorite episodes was during the ninth season when George Costanza starts having back problems from carrying such a fat wallet.  He kept everything in his wallet from receipts to credit cards to his money although George was never one to carry a lot of dough.  The episode concludes with his wallet exploding in the New York City air as he tries to close it after adding one last receipt.

I doubt George was faced with the growing list of stores that are offering Club Card memberships.  You know the cards I mean.  The ones that you don't want but without them, it seems like you pay double the cost for just about every item.  They started at the grocery stores which were somewhat understandable.  They want you to feel at home so that when you had their particular store's membership card (and the handy key chain card), you were part of their club.  You wouldn't dare go to another grocery store to buy your toilet paper and ice cream once you had the card, right?  The problem is that we all have multiple stores near our work and home so we are stuck getting cards for multiple stores.

Now that we all had at least three credit sized cards added to our wallets and/or the key chain version, we felt like we were part of something.  We were members of multiple clubs and there was a certain high school feeling about that.  We were jocks, band geeks, and part of the debate team all at once.  We were like Ferris Bueller, loved by everyone.

The problem is that other stores caught on to this madness.  Sporting goods stores, the big box stores and yes, now my favorite one, the liquor stores.  I went shopping for some wine over the weekend and noticed two things.  First, it was a newer fancier store than the average liquor store.  They had wine tasting stations set-up that were free along with some freshly cut provolone cheese.  Yummy, I thought, and what a great idea to put the wines that they were recommending out to be tasted.  The problem was that without the Club Card, you couldn't partake in the tasting.  Fooey, I said, I am not adding any more cards to my wallet fearing my impending George-like explosion.  The second thing though, was that I noticed almost every item in the store was discounted about 20% to the Club Card member.

So I was faced yet again with the decision to pay the added non-member price or join another club and receive normal pricing for the goods I was buying.  Needless to say, I am a proud new member of the glee club, I mean Wineworks in Marlton.  I am also proud that my wallet is still in tact both physically and fiscally.

When push comes to shove, I really feel like the whole thing is a rip off.  Not only in a monetary way but of our intelligence.  Here are these companies that are overcharging us to come into their stores unless we sign up and join them.  Joining them, however, doesn't only involve carrying around the extra cards which I am half joking.  But it involves handing over phone numbers and e-mail addresses so that we can be hounded by our new club but also sold to other club members for well coordinated attacks.  Involved in this information swapping is the occasional breach of security as well.  How many of you have gotten the news that your information may have been compromised by one of the clubs to which you belong?  What becomes more frustrating is when you go ahead and try to find out who received your information and what info did they get.  You will not win this battle, you do not have the security clearance for that.  This is when you will not feel so much a part of the club.

I know it is a losing battle trying to fight the powers at be from avoiding the surcharges that are the non-member prices.  I am sure that next time I buy fish food at Petsmart, I will be pulling out my Club Card to save $.38.  But here's to hoping that the next card I get doesn't push my wallet to the limit like my friend George and I do not lose everything the least of which will be my sanity.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Christmas in July

I always wondered what the purpose of this pseudo holiday was.  Is it just another Hallmark creation to spark up greeting card sales?  Or is it another watering down of the true meaning of Christmas?  Well during the latter stages of July 2011 (and a few days into the start of August) I finally figured it out.  It was created for us Philadelphia sports fans and the wonderful week or two that we have just experienced.

It started with the NFL and their 136 day lockout coming to an end.  The Eagles brass spoke all during the lockout about how they poised themselves to be ready for an aggressive approach to reshaping their roster when it finally ended.  But after the first two days came and went without any deals, including quarterback Kevin Kolb not being traded, the fan blogs were incensed.  Joe "Nickels" Banner, as he has been nicknamed by the current regime haters, were having their field days about the "Gold Standard" being all talk and no action.  How could every other team be making moves but the Eagles be too cheap and all talk to get into the fray?

However, over the next few days, the Eagles shook off the rust, traded Kolb, and signed highly ranked defensive end Jason Babin.  It culminated last Friday with the coup signing of top free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha that no one expected after already landing another pro bowl cornerback in the Kolb trade.

Friday July 29th may go down as one of the most memorable days in Philly sports history and it was not even for what happened on any field.  In a matter of hours the Eagles landed Asomugha, that turned into one of those moments where you will always remember what you were doing when you found out, and the Phillies finally got the big right handed bat that they have been coveting.  In a surreal moment, as the Phillies were playing the Pirates, a TV report from Milwaukee broke in and showed former Phillie Jason Michaels replacing Hunter Pence in right field - in the middle of an inning no less.  It was obvious that the long rumored trade between the Astros and Phillies had been consummated.  It turned out to be one of those great days that sports fans remember forever and Pence has quickly become a fan favorite.  Not only that but as of this writing (August 5th) the Phillies haven't lost a game since this great July day.

Not to be outdone, the Eagles decided to continue to make headlines and acquisitions in their new "all-in" approach to free agency.  On Saturday, they signed highly touted pass rush specialist Cullin Jenkins from the Green Bay Packers.  They also added more offensive and defensive line help, a strong safety safety, a new back-up quarterback and claim they might not be done yet.  National writers have now descended onto camp Lehigh like ants on a cookie crumb and odds makers have cut the line for the Birds to win the super bowl in half.

I know that championships for baseball and football are not won in July.  I know that you can be the best team all year and still lose in the end.  I also know that both teams have put themselves in great positions to win in 2011.  And if either or both of them do, I will definitely remember this Christmas in July as being a big reason why.

Friday, July 29, 2011

My Very First Blog

I have often wondered what I would write about if I were to write a blog.  A few friends of mine write blogs.  They are very good at it, all of them much better writers then I.  Words seem to come more natural to them but I often have opinions that I feel an urge to share.  Sometimes though, they are the kind of opinions that your mother teaches you at a young age to keep to yourself.  For topics, I thought of politics, education, parenting, and work issues.  For today though, I thought of something I probably know more about than anything else - sports.  Sports with some social commentary mixed in.  I am not sure how often I will blog or what all of the topics will be about but I can probably bet that sports will come up more than once.

Today's sports topic is specifically about one of my favorites - Philadelphia Sports.  I am pretty much as die-hard of a Philadelphia sports fan as there is.  However, there is an undertone of the fan base that when I sit back and think about it, really bothers me.  I am sure some of you are picturing fans throwing snowballs at Santa Clause, right?  I am not. (if you want to read the real story about this fairy tale, click here http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/santa/philadelphia.asp)  I am also not thinking about the general hard nose nature of the craziest fan base in America.  These are aspects about Philly fans that make me proud.  However, it is the undercurrent of racism and the even sometimes right out in the open blatant version that makes me cringe.  I am sure this topic, in general, makes many people uncomfortable.  By reading posts and comments on blogs and facebook, many people are tired of talking about racism.  It seems that in many circles, it just doesn't exist.  Or is it that it exists stronger in these circles and they just want to pretend it doesn't?

In the Philly sports scene, there are many examples.  One of my father's favorite players was Dick Allen.  He was a dynamic third baseman for the Phillies before Mike Schmidt, who later became my favorite player.  There are many documented cases of the struggles he had with racism back in his day.  I am proud to say that we have come a long way since then.  I don't think we have come as far as we would like to think though.

I have been a season ticket holder for the Eagles for 17 years.  Without goring you with details, I have witnessed many examples of outright nastiness from fans shouting at other fans but even more so at the players that we are there to cheer.  One of the main victims is none other than Donovan McNabb.  Five, as he is so eloquently called when he was scrambling for touchdowns, was very often the target of fans who just didn't think he was ever good enough.  Sure he didn't win the elusive super bowl that the championship starved natives craved but was he not probably the best quarterback to ever play for the birds?  If not first, he has to be in the top two or three, right?  Time and time again, he was booed, heckled and cursed at.  Too often the words "We will never win with a black quarterback" were heard around the stadium.  When Jeff Garcia took over for a hurt McNabb in 2006, and won a single playoff game, you'd have thought Johnny Unitas came out of retirement the way the fans wanted him to take over the starting job from McNabb in 2007.  I often wondered why the fans took such a liking to Garcia (and later A.J. Feeley) when they didn't perform any better than McNabb but in the back of my mind I think I always knew that race played a part in it.

The Phillies have enjoyed a lot of success in the last four to five years.  A lot of the reason is because of the core group of young players that were brought up through their farm system and matured into star players.  Two, in particular, are Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.  Utley is a hard nose, grind it out hustler that reminds you of Pete Rose.  The fans adore him.  Howard is a big man, is more relaxed and happens to strike out a lot.  Howard has won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2005 and the MVP in 2006.  Maybe because of his tendency to strike out, Howard is often the victim of the fans ire.  He is often booed when he strikes out or doesn't bring a runner home, something he has done more than any other player since 2006.  He is criticized on talk radio and in blogs by fans for his play and as recently as this preseason, many fans wanted him traded.  Utley, on the other hand, seems to enjoy carte blanche with the home crowd.  Just last night, in his first three at bats, he failed to bring runners home who were in scoring position, twice striking out.  Not a peep from the crowd.  Howard, who followed him in the first inning after Utley failed to bring home the runner from third with one out struck out and took a pretty good beating.  Sure, this is just one example but I think after reading this, if you pay close attention to this dynamic and keep score, you will be surprised at the results.

Domonic Brown is my final example.  He is a prospect for the Phillies that is in his first full season in the big leagues.  In the pre-season, he was ranked #4 prospect in baseball by Baseball America.  He has been very highly rated for a few seasons.  He is supposed to be the next guy developed by the Phillies in their system to be groomed for stardom.  Like Howard, he is also African American.  So far this year, he has played in about 50 games.  He hasn't dazzled to say the least.  His batting average is .250 and his OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) is .749.  To compare, let's use another guy that most agree is a great Phillie.  Hmmm, how about that Chase Utley guy again that we all love.  Utley played 43 games his rookie year which is right around the same as Brown this year.  His batting average was .239 and OPS was .696.  In fact, the following year, when Utley played 94 games, his average only improved to .266 and OPS to .776.  It wasn't until the following year that Utley became the player that he is today.  The point is that it takes time for young players to develop.  It is normal for young players to experience growing pains as they make the jump to the majors.  The larger point though, is the backlash that Brown has felt in the last month or so.  The MLB trade deadline is this Sunday. The Phillies are built to win now and Brown isn't cutting it.  Despite the fact that the Phillies need to start turning their aging roster over with younger, and yes cheaper players, the fans are calling for Brown to get traded for a more experienced player.  Most even want to hold onto, at all costs, a young surprising 5th best pitcher, Vance Worley over Brown.  That's right, keep the 5th best pitcher, who didn't even have a Baseball America rating and likely won't pitch in the postseason, over the top prospect because he hasn't looked good in his first 50 games of his first full season.

Or is that not the reason at all.