Wednesday, July 30, 2008

You can't buy class

I try not to be too much of a class warrior if I can help it - it's too easy to get caught up chasing your tail and coming off as an envious chowderhead - but every now and again I just can't help myself.

Tonight was the worst night I've had on a tour all season and it's safe to say that a few extra bucks in the pockets of the group in question had something to do with it. As I think I've mentioned here, I'm spending the summer as a guide with a Segway tour company and nothing puts the fear of God into our customers like knowing that the $500 damage deposit hangs in the balance.

Remove that natural barrier to asinine behavior and it makes for a long evening.

Without getting on too much a diatribe, it's worth noting that I rarely have to warn people too many times to take it easy on the machines. Step one is a gentle reminder. Step two is a "please stop." Step three is a "please stop" and a description of what will go wrong if they don't stop.

Now, steps four and five are rarely used, but four is Step three with a graphic description of the injuries that will follow (bonus points if it happened on my tour!). Step five had never been used before tonight, but entails threatening to cancel the tour on the spot.

The main thing I learned this evening is that if you verbally emasculate a grown man in front of Buckingham Fountain in full view of their friends and several families of tourists, they will refuse to make eye contact with you for the next hour and a half. They will also pout, avoid eye contact and continue to act like a child who has been quieted in church.

They will not, however, change their behavior.

Go figure.

At the end of the whole mess, the guy who had paid for the group came up and tried to slip me a $20 as a tip. To be completely honest, I didn't really want the money at that point, I just wanted to get on my bike and get home to my wife and dog as quickly as I could and so I skipped the portion of the end-of-tour procedure where we mention that there are tip boxes out.

I declined, but didn't want to make a scene, took the money and stuffed it into my pocket.

Here's my issue.

Acting like a jackass and then throwing a few bucks around doesn't make things OK. It's essentially a blank check for assholes to keep acting like assholes and then feel better about themselves when they're treated like children by someone who is willing to chew them out every now and again. Accepting a tip is, in my mind, saying that all's well that ends well.

On that note, I got home pretty quickly, grabbed The Girl and headed down to the all-night diner on the corner where we ate greasy food, laughed and left the whole $20 and a little more for our waitress, who just happened to be in on her night off.

All's well that ends well - sometimes you just need to extend the ending.

(Image from:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What we're really afraid of

A few days after I turned 30, one of the guys at the shop asked what I thought of the whole thing.

Off the top of my head, I jokingly offered that 30 was the birthday to feel bad about what you haven't done yet - I would save wrestling with my own mortality for my 40th. Still, I keep coming back to that point more often than I used to, and that has to mean something, right?

Half the fun of stalking old high school classmates on Facebook comes from seeing how you measure up. Are they married? Do they have kids? Are they working at a better place than you do? Are they in Boise or New York City? It's all a very complicated formula that we all work out in our heads to see where we are and where we're headed.

As my graduating class got out of college or moved ahead with their lives, it used to be about who was ahead and who was behind. Now, it's more of a race against the clock - though not an all-encompassing one - to get as far ahead as you can. In short, it's gone from achieving to impress others to achieving to impress yourself.

Lately I've been incredibly motivated by the desire to not leave anything left undone, unsaid or unattempted. I can't imagine I'm alone in this strange drive.

While the end point is a bit different, the overriding question remains the same - what have I done so far?

This was on my mind when I read a feature piece in ESPN the Magazine about James Felton, a NBA prospect who drank his way out of college, out of professional basketball and eventually out of chances.

When you read the story, it breaks your heart. It's about a young man blessed with natural talent and the requisite size to make a run at professional basketball, but lost the heart to play and eventually drank himself to an early death.

At the forefront of Felton's collapse was a strange series of events, lasting only one play in a game at a basketball camp, where Tracy McGrady went from a complete unknown to the guy who dunked on James Felton. while that is the major plot point, it's by no means the underlying message of the piece.

I'm not sure if it's a cultural thing for Americans who are bred to back underdogs and those who make it big in the world with nothing but their wits and a few dollars to their name, but we tend to put a lot of stock in living up to one's potential.

When that fails to happen, it's viewed as nothing short of a tragedy and much is made of the what could have been's. We're just as entranced by stories of success of little guys who became moguls like Marhsall Field and Jay-Z as we are of flameouts like we saw with Mike Tyson and John DeLorean.

So maybe one moment at an ABCD camp didn't ruin his life; his demons did. If, as he said when he was younger, he got his manhood from the game, maybe it was stripped from him that day on the court, for everyone to see. Or maybe it was just the tipping point for a troubled soul, one who never felt comfortable being what everyone said he should be.

God had given him the gifts of height and skill, but Felton could never handle the expectations that came with them.

"His family and people in the neighborhood always asked James, 'When you gonna buy me a house?'" (his wife) Rana says. "I'd tell him, 'You don't have to do this. If you never play again, I'm okay with that.'"

But Felton's life was entangled in the game. It was all he knew.

I think that the source of our morbid curiosity with tales of failure steams from a need for them to be cautionary tales. Just like funerals can be jarring reminders of the need to make our days count, these stories serve a similar purpose. They remind us to do our best to stay on track and try to live up to our potential, regardless of where those talents lie or how our potential may manifest itself.

Mainly, they remind us that simply being able isn't really enough sometimes.

While it's easiest to see cut and dried stories like Felton's in sports, where quantifying success is made simpler by stats and trophies, it's by no means localized there. For every pitcher who trashes is shoulder in AAA, there are hundreds of frustrated artists who need to work to support a family and musicians who never caught the right series of breaks to reach an audience that needed them.

Again, simply being able isn't enough.

As tragic as stories like Felton's are, they aren't the worst case scenario. I'm convinced that distinction is reserved for everyone else that we never even hear about who can't ever get off the ground high enough to crash and burn.

Monday, July 07, 2008

That's just a stupid, stupid law

In the fall of 1996, I was a college freshman in Green Bay, trying desperately to be cool and make friends.

One of the first people I met who wasn't a roommate or one of the escaped mental patients who lived on my floor was gold-star commenter, NAD. We bonded over our lack of respect for biology lab reports and hippie music like Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler.

It was a Blues Traveler/Wallflowers show that came to town that provided the first opportunity to venture off campus and NAD had a friend who had access to the school's passenger vans. As an RA, he could sign out the keys, load the van with people and claim it was a legitimate outing for students.

I quickly alerted said mental patients to the possibility of a ride and we filled the van without much trouble.

When we got to the show at the less-than-glorious Brown County Arena, we waited through the opening Wallflowers and got to the main event. Without thinking, one of the guys lit a cigarette - and let's face it, it wasn't the worst thing being smoked at a Blues Traveler concert - and was tapped on the shoulder by security a few moments later.

The guard told him he had to put it out because the arena was a non-smoking facility - in Wisconsin in the 90s, no less - but there wasn't much of a hassle about it.

Our guy thought a second and pointed to the stage and asked why he had to put his out if the bass player could smoke while he played.

"Do you want to take the time to file a formal complaint?" asked the guard.


"Then shut up and put out your cigarette."

The reason I bring this up is because the city of Chicago has determined that the actors in Jersey Boys - set in New Jersey, in the 1950s - cannot smoke on stage. Not even clove cigarettes. On stage. During a show set at a time when everyone smoked. Even in doctors' offices.

How stupid is that?

Worse yet, the whole issue came to a head because someone complained about the smoking on stage and took the time to file a complaint. A complaint that was probably more paperwork-intensive than the one in Green Bay that was refused by someone who had even less to do with their time.

As someone who recently saw the show, I have no idea how close the central complaining idiot had to be sitting to be bothered by smoking on stage, but it had to have cost them a serious chunk of change to get near enough to care.

Also, for those who think it's a bad influence for children, keep in mind the multiple f-bombs, scenes featuring adultery, petty crime and loan sharking and you'd have to be a highly functioning chimp to think smoking was the worst part of the show.

Oh, wait - we might have a winner.

From the Tribune blog where I first saw this story:

I wrote about the absurdity of this when the smoking ban was first proposed. I am no fan of smoking but to legally require that shows pretend that no-one ever smoked in the history of the world is absurd, unreasonable, damaging to the city's cultural reputation and injurious to art.

Yeah, and that, too.