Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Thanks for noticing

I'm holding in my hands a flier from a home-improvement company called "Worth-In-Ex Corp." It reads, in part:

To Whom It May Concern:

If you are reading this, you are probably contemplating some form of significant home maintenance or improvement project -- typically not an inexpensive or pleasant process.

Where did I get this flier? I found it stuck under the welcome mat outside my front door. Which means someone from Worth-In-Ex was in the neighborhood, saw my house, and concluded that it was in need of "significant maintenance or improvement." Or, better yet, concluded that by leaving such a flier, Worth-In-Ex could make me sufficiently ill-at-ease about my house to call them.

Well, joke's on them. It's a rental! And it isn't in bad shape, either.

Attached to the flier is a letter of reference and recommendation from some presumably satisfied Worth-In-Ex customers. What I want to know is: How would "Bob and Lori Erickson" of Clive feel if they knew that the letter they so graciously agreed to write for Worth-In-Ex was in fact being used to spam their neighbors?

Monday, July 30, 2007

The trouble with templates

They don't call it dummy type for nothing ...

A tip for print media designers everywhere. If you run David Broder's column -- or anyone else's -- regularly, invest the two minutes it will take to create a separate sig with his name on it.

Steak stupidity

When I see a restaurant that's gone out of business, it usually strikes me as sad. I mean, someone poured all their hopes and all their dreams -- and probably all their money -- into that establishment, betting that with a handful of good recipes and a lot of hard work they could write their own American success story. But, as happens with most new restaurants, the place eventually brought in more bills than customers. Unable to tread water, the owner sold off the equipment and pulled the plug on his dream. So sad -- but like I said, usually.

Then there are those times when all it takes is one look at a boarded-up restaurant to make my lip curl into a sneer, and I laugh contemptuously and spit out, "Serves them right." Such was my reaction when I first saw the closed Texas Cattle Co. restaurant on Merle Hay Road, just north of the mall. And it's all because of the sign over the door:

"No Ties Allowed," it says, below a pair of cartoon scissors hacking off a cartoon necktie.

No ties allowed. Oh, really. And why is that? Let me guess: Because this is supposed to be a casual, laid-back, fun-loving place, right? Because the kind of people who wear neckties are always uptight and snooty and not the kind of down-to-earth people you want at your authentic "family steak house" out by Burlington Coat Factory and the Hobby Lobby, right?

And because nothing encourages customers to leave their stresses outside quite like a pissy sign over the door announcing a dress code.

A truly casual, laid-back restaurant opens its doors and says "come one, come all." Whether you're in jacket and tie or jeans and tennies, you're invited to drop in, pull up a chair and stuff your sinuses with food. No one gives you a hard time if you're wearing a tie or if you're not wearing a tie -- because that's what it means to be a casual, laid-back restaurant. There's no dress code, either prescriptive or restrictive. Just friendly service and decent food.

Texas Cattle Co., on the other hand, announced that neckties just don't fit in. Oh, I don't think there was actually a ban on neckties. But I'm pretty sure the place was set up to make a big, stupid fuss whenever a fellow from Charles Gabus Ford up the road came by for dinner and forgot to take off his tie after a ten-hour day on the sales floor. And, after being razzed stupidly for the faux pas of wearing the tie that his job requires him to wear, he smiled resentfully but manfully, left a 10% tip and decided never to come back to this phony grubhole.

And that phoniness is the ultimate irony here, isn't it? The "No Ties Allowed" ethos, ostensibly a swipe at pretense, is itself pretentious by several orders of magnitude.

Something tells me the "Texas Cattle Co." -- which I assume specialized in 16-ounce steaks burned to a crisp and served with an enormous basket of home fries -- wasn't likely to have a problem with High Society types coming in and killing the atmosphere, regardless of what the sign over the door said. All the sign did was make people self-conscious and encourage them to go three blocks up Merle Hay to the Ground Round, or three blocks farther to the Perkins, or another mile or so to the North End Diner. Hell, two miles north takes you to Trostel's Greenbriar, where you actually can see people in ties dining alongside people in shorts and T-shirts, and everybody gets along.

So the Texas Cattle Co. went out of business just like everything else that once existed at its location (including the Pumpers nightclub, which shut down after the bouncers killed a guy for partying while black). Today there is a for-lease sign out by the road and weeds a foot high growing through cracks in the pavement of the parking lot. And watching silently over it all is that big, proud, dumb sign saying: "Your tie isn't welcome here, nor is your business."

Friday, July 27, 2007

If who got married?

The first thing I should say here is that I know that game shows determine their questions in advance, long before the producers even know who will be answering them. I learned this nearly 30 years ago watching Tic-Tac-Dough when an Air Force pilot was playing and the category "Plane Talk" came up. Wink Martindale hastened to reassure us that the show wasn't piping questions in favor of the flyboy; that's just the way it shook out. (Just as it wouldn't be fair to give a guy certain questions because they'd be easy for him to answer, it would be unfair to take away certain questions because they'd be easy to answer.)

I get all that -- and normally I'm fine with it. But sometimes I'd like them to bend the rules, because sometimes the shit I see on game shows makes me uncomfortable. And television is supposed to protect me from being uncomfortable.

We're going down this road because tonight, for the first time ever, I watched part of a horrible game show called 1 vs. 100. The details of the show aren't very important, except to say it's kind of like Deal or No Deal: There's a lot of shouting, the contestants yammer too much, hundreds of thousands of dollars go to something besides cancer research, and the host is someone who used to be really funny (in this case, Bob Saget).

I saw two different contestants. The first was a squirrelly looking white guy who answered a whole bunch of multiple-choice questions correctly and went home with $343,00o. Here are two of the last questions he had to answer:

What material is Michelangelo's original statue of David made of? A) Marble. B) Granite. C) Bronze. (The answer: A.)

What actor received Emmy nominations for playing the same character on three different series? A) Carroll O'Connor. B) Kelsey Grammer. C) Ed Asner. (The answer: B.)

So this fellow leaves with a wheelbarrow full of money, and the next contestant comes onstage. He's an affable, confident young African-American named Kwame. Here's the very first question he's asked:

If Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima got married, what would guests throw at the couple after the ceremony? One of the answers was "rice and syrup," but I missed the other two because I was choking.

When my wife and I watch Wheel of Fortune, we often joke that during their regular "theme" weeks, the puzzles should be really ham-handedly offensive. Like, during College Week, one puzzle clue could be "Activity" and the answer would be "SLIPPING HER A ROOFIE." Or during Military Week, it could be something about Abu Ghraib. The point being that someone in the production office is so blind to what's going on around them that they let something like that get through. Well, it happened for real on 1 vs. 100 tonight. Again, I know that the question was written long before they knew a black guy would be answering it (at least, I hope to God it was). But still. Perception is reality. If it looks like they did it on purpose, then they might as well have done it on purpose.

Was Kwame offended? Oh, probably not. He also probably wasn't offended when Saget asked him: "So, Kwame, do you think you can trust the mob?" Which is an unfortunate thing that they say frequently on the show. For what it's worth, I wasn't offended either.

But good God, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima?

Celebrity sighted on Corsica with a Beretta

I spent nearly a decade in the Washington, D.C., area before coming back to the Midwest this spring. Upon returning, a lot of differences were immediately apparent: less traffic, fewer people, lower housing prices, no pro sports. But there were other, more subtle differences that took time to emerge. One of them is in the types of cars on the road. I didn't detect it until after a couple months' worth of driving.

In both places you'll find expensive cars. Although luxury vehicles aren't as prevalent in Iowa as they are out East -- there just isn't the kind of fuck-you money here as there is there -- Des Moines does have its share of Cadillacs, BMWs, Mercedeses, Land Rovers, even a few Jaguars. Both places also boast plenty of affordable cars: Ford Focuses, Toyota Camrys, Nissan Sentras and Dodge Neons by the thousands. But there's one category of automobile in which Des Moines motorists appear to have the entire East Coast beat.

The shitty midsize Chevrolet.

Living out East, it's easy to forget that Chevrolet makes anything but the Tahoe and maybe a pickup or two. People just don't drive Chevy cars, at all. Even the poor putt-putt around town in battered Ford Escorts and 20-year-old Honda Preludes rather than be caught dead in a Chevy. Then I come to Iowa, and the roads are positively overrun with them. In particular, they're overrun with cars from the Golden Era of Shitty Midsize Chevys: the mid-1980s to the mid-90s. Four models stand out like ... boxy, oil-burning thumbs.

The Celebrity

God, isn't she beautiful? The first car I ever owned was a 1986 Celebrity. It was white like this one -- but mine was a coupe. And the only thing uglier than this white Chevy Celebrity is a white Chevy Celebrity with only two doors. It was OK, though, because nobody ever rode in the back seat. Get yourself a white 1986 Chevy Celebrity with a burgundy interior and see how many friends you have. (These people can barely contain their excitement about Celebrity ownership.)

The Lumina

The Lumina replaced the Celebrity in 1990 as Chevy's designated middle-class crapwagon. General Motors licensed Disney characters to sell the car, and paid to have it made the official car of Walt Disney World, on the theory that Americans were itching to drive Donald Duck's car. The Lumina sedan was homely. The Lumina minivan -- preposterously dubbed the Lumina APV -- was hideous. This one appears to have gotten a ticket on general principles.

The Corsica

Corsica is a popular tourist island in the Mediterranean. Though now part of France, it was once a territory of Genoa, so its culture reflects both Gallic and Italianate influences -- influences that are evident in the sleek, sophisticated European styling of the Chevrolet Corsica.

The Beretta

The Beretta was just a Corsica with slightly different styling, two doors rather than four, and an Italian, rather than French, name. So it was sportier! (The one in the picture is missing a hubcap, but really, all Berettas are missing a hubcap, even if just a hubcap of the spirit.) The summer before I started college, I came down to Des Moines for freshman orientation at Drake University. My roommate for the weekend was a fat fella named Darren from Scottsbluff, Nebraska. For high school graduation, his parents had given him a new Beretta. I thought that was pretty cool, but I was only 18. The Beretta was the pace car for the 1990 Indianapolis 500, and Chevrolet made a replica model available. I haven't seen one of those yet on the streets of Des Moines, but I guarantee they're out there ...

Thursday, July 26, 2007


There was a "little person" on Wheel of Fortune tonight, which helped answer a question that's been nagging us for a while: What happens when a contestant's arms can't reach the wheel? (He has a partner spin it for him. In this case, it was his standard-size fiancee.)

Anyway, the little person smoked the competition and advanced to the bonus round, where you have to guess the final puzzle based on six letters they give you -- R, S, T, N, L and E -- and four you pick yourself.

The four letters he picked: M-I-D-G.

Honest. I swear to God. I wish I had a screencap.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Gen X makes a stand on wobbly knees

The name Karen Mracek might not mean anything to you now, but in the future, when all your friends have XIOA bookmarked on their browsers and you're bragging that you were there right at the beginning, you'll thank her. Because it was her recent column in The Des Moines Register about "Generation X" in the workplace that prompted us to set up shop.

(Disclosure: I worked at The Register once and bear it no more ill will than I do any other media outlet. This ain't Cityview, which constantly berates the local daily for being owned by an out-of-town concern, yet gives the local TV stations a free pass on their absentee ownership.)

Mracek is one of two writers of The Register's "Workbytes" column, which, according to the press kit, aims to address workplace issues of interest to young workers. (The other writer, Larry Ballard, frequently uses the space to audition for a coveted spot at The Onion.) In Monday's column, Mracek takes it upon herself to introduce Generation X to the baby boomers who may come across these odd creatures in the workplaces and unemployment offices of Iowa. Upon reading it, I naturally assumed that it was still 1992 and that my 15 years in the workplace, my wedding, my old cat, my bitchin 1996 Dodge pickup and the birth of my son were just events from a very long dream. But no, the newspaper page said July 23, 2007.

So let's take a look at what she has to say, hmm? Excerpts from the column are in italics:

We came up with some things you need to know about Generation X workers:

To which my wife would respond: "Well, one of them hogs the covers, that's for sure." Meanwhile, everybody in every workplace everywhere in Iowa is saying: "Thanks, but I've already learned enough from the Gen-Xers who have worked here the past 20 years."

1. We don't plan on being at this job for the next 30 years. It just ain't going to happen. If we don't win the Powerball and say "see ya" to this cube farm, then we'll probably find something else that strikes our fancy (a.k.a. when Heineken comes looking for a beer taster.)

I sure as shit hope we won't be in this job for the next 30 years. Demographers generally peg Gen-X as people born from 1961 to 1981. Those in the middle are in their late 30s to early 40s. Besides, when did the majority of people ever stay in a job 30 years? Hint: Never. This is a lie we'll revisit later.

Beyond that nit, however, are a few horrifying assertions. One is that everyone works in a "cube farm." Look, just because your workplace is a miserable shithole doesn't mean everybody else's is. Second is that we all hate our jobs and can't wait to quit. I've had jobs I hated. I've had jobs I loved. Sometimes on alternating days. You tell me how that makes Gen-X any different from every other generation. Third is that members of Generation X move from one job to the next not because it's what's best for us and our families but because something "strikes our fancy." Fuck you, lady. Some people have mortgages and kids. They'd love to go sell vibrators at the State Fair or something, but those hungry little mouths don't feed themselves. Lastly, she infantilizes an entire generation by offering as an example of our dream job "Heineken beer taster." Not only do we prize beer above all else; it isn't even good beer. Come to think of it, that's pretty much Juice's editorial philosophy, isn't it? Oh, and just because I'm in a mood, that "a.k.a." should be an "e.g."

Seriously, this probably won't be our last job. The average employee in his or her late twenties, for example, has already switched jobs five or six times. Disclaimer: I have had four since I graduated from college. (But I really like this one.)

How do you reconcile "it just ain't gonna happen" with "this probably won't be our last job"? You can't. Because it's not a message for the reader. It's a message for her own boss, one that earns bonus points with parenthetical ass-kissing. Also, that's not a disclaimer. It's a disclosure. But now I'm just being a dick.

Xers just don't see job-jumping as a bad thing. It doesn't mean that we aren't contributing while we're there. And many of us are happy living on the cheap. (I can't speak for the whole generation on that one. After all, I am a journalist.) We do pick up skills along the way and want to make a difference at the company we are working for, whether we work for three years or three decades. It doesn't mean we aren't loyal, but it does mean that we value different things. We prefer job satisfaction over job titles, work/life balance over tenure, and happy hour over making sure our boss sees us at our desk at 5 p.m., even if we are just watching the latest JibJab.

Guess what? Nobody really sees job-jumping as a bad thing anymore. The boomers' entire work experience taught them -- and us -- that loyalty is only as good as the checks it's printed on. No one believes in the company-loyalty model anymore -- except the companies that would benefit from it, and workers are wise to them. Really, It's disappointing that a workplace columnist is so out of touch with what's actually going on in the workforce. But cut her some slack: She's a member of Generation X, and they only just started working!

The business about being happy "working on the cheap" because she's a journalist is just depressing. One of the many scandals in America's J-schools is the way the faculty have convinced students that they will be making less money because they're involved in some sort of noble pursuit. I was told many times, "There isn't any money in journalism," which is a stone cold lie. There's tons of money in journalism -- even now. It's just that the money in most places isn't shared with the newsroom hoi polloi, who have been conditioned to think that ... there's no money in journalism.

Toward the end of the passage, she makes some good points about what Gen-Xers value, then pisses all over it, twice -- first with another boozy reference, and then with a caricature of Gen-X as slackers. (We're watching JibJab, though, so at least it's not 1992 anymore; it's 2005!)

2. We can listen to music and carry on a conversation at the same time. It's not that hard, really. We grew up with Walkmans and MTV and have spent the last 20-plus years only listening to what we think is relevant to us. ... What's that I hear? Lattes?!? Wait for me. OK, I'm back. More important, music usually helps us focus. It also makes us able to multitask. So as long as we aren't humming along to K-Fed, who cares?

Look, I don't know how to break this to her, but if you need music ("usually") to help you focus, maybe you should try Ritalin. I have absolutely no idea why so many people my age have chosen this particular hill as the one they want to die on. If your boss lets you wear headphones, then great. But if she doesn't, that's your problem, not hers. Maybe she doesn't want to have to shout to get your attention. Or maybe, because she's paying you for your time, she wants you to be listening to what's relevant to her, not "what we think is relevant to us," whatever that means. Nice K-Fed reference, though. Only eight months too late.

3. 9 to 5 is not part of our vocabulary.

This is the lead-in to a pretty reasonable discussion of flex-time, so good for Mracek. That still doesn't excuse this stupid opening line, though. Is she aware that tens of millions of people work in service positions that require them to be "on the job" even when there's no work to do? Not everyone works in an office. Even dirt-poor journalists can be elitists, it seems.

4. We're not all the same. Just like all generations, we can't be characterized as a homogeneous group.

Uh, OK. Maybe she should have made that No. 1, and stopped there. Because what she's been doing for far, far too many words now is trying to paint an entire group of people with a broad brush. You can't have it both ways. You can't say "Gen X does this" and "Gen X likes that," then turn around and tsk-tsk the world for trying to stuff us into a box. And as it turns out, saying "No one speaks for my generation" does not actually make you a spokesman for your generation.

The term "Generation X" was the title of a popular book written in 1991 by Douglas Coupland. It is a fictional work about three strangers who decide to distance themselves from society to get a better sense of who they are. He describes the characters as "underemployed, overeducated, intensely private and unpredictable." And those characteristics can describe 48 million people in United States? I don't think so.

Generation X was also the name of a late-1970s/early-1980s punk rock band that was fronted by Billy Idol and, more important, was the precursor to Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Idol's first hit, Dancing With Myself, was actually a Generation X song. I'd describe the music as "pop-inspired yet trending toward a harder edge." And those characteristics can describe 48 million people in the United States? I don't think so.

It's not clear what she's trying to accomplish with this. Yes, the Coupland book was where the media -- and, most influentially, marketers -- got the term. No one ever said the characters in the book stood in for an entire generation.

5. We do care. Having more than one job in a lifetime may be seen by older generations as disloyal, but I would beg to differ. We are loyal, it's just not a blind loyalty to a company. In a study released by Catalyst, a nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization, 47 percent of Generation X professionals say they would be happy spending the rest of their careers with their current organization; 85 percent care a great deal about the future of their organization, and 83 percent say they are willing to go beyond what is normally expected to ensure the success of that organization.

Why, that's a mighty big straw man you have there, dear. Again, I call bullshit on these hypothetical "older generations" sitting in their rockers somewhere wagging their gray heads at the disloyal ingrates of Generation X. Old people got fucked by their employers, too. A lot of them lived through the Depression, where they got fucked by the system as a whole. A lot of them continue to get fucked by having the pension and health care benefits they were promised yanked out from under them. They know exactly why we're free agents: Because we saw what happened to them.

The statistics she cites are interesting. Frankly, she should have led with them. But how interesting would it have been to lead her column with, "People of Generation X are pretty much just like everybody else"?

For me, if a company treats me well, I will do the same by it.

In case the boss missed it the first time around: I'm not talking about me! I'll eat your shit and smile, too!

Ultimately what's so disappointing about the column is that it's bleeding with the very solipsism that Generation X is so frequently accused of. Mracek enters a workforce that Gen-X has been demonstrating its abilities in for close to 20 years, and she takes it on herself to introduce the boomers to "her generation." She figures that because she hops from one job to the next, everybody does it -- and does it for the same reasons she does. She figures that because she makes shit wages, everybody does -- and is happy about it. She figures that because she needs music to help her think, everybody does -- and no one has a right to tell her otherwise. And she figures that because getting off in time for "happy hour" is more important to her than being taken seriously at work, everybody else has those same priorities.

Actually, I suspect she doesn't believe that last one, but that doesn't mean she isn't going to attribute it to everyone else in Generation X.

This column was hackneyed a dozen years ago. Where's Larry Ballard and his fart jokes?

Aw, man, thisisgonnabefun.