Monday, December 26, 2005

A Golden Rule for the New Millennium

Happy Holidays everyone
This is something I’ve actually been planning to write about for over a year, and Christmas is as good a time as any. So as in the past, I’m taking a brief detour from my current series to talk about something that has become extremely poignant to me and has seriously affected the way I think about relating to other people.

It’s not too often that you hear or read something that changes your life. But about five years ago I was surfing the Web and found a sentiment; a pretty intelligent truism, I thought; a phrase that really made me think. It since has sort of become my credo and an important part of my personal philosophy on life.

It’s a new spin on a timeless reality; a Golden Rule for the New Millennium.

The so-called, Golden Rule, as described in the Bible, instructs us to, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It has been an oft-quoted fixture in the moral code of Western society since the time of the Pilgrims. It, as much as anything, embodies the so-called Judeo-Christian Ethic. However for what is largely regarded as a religious axiom, it actually speaks more to simple civility than to faith. Anyone, regardless of their faith, can and usually does wish to be treated well. Nobody enjoys the selfishness and rude behavior we so often encounter in everyday life. If everyone treated their neighbor as they themselves wish to be treated, the world would obviously be a better place, would it not?

So why don’t we do it?

Maybe we believe in the concept, but the terminology has become too old-fashioned to embrace or even understand. Perhaps we just need to look at it a bit differently. Maybe we just need to gain a fresh perspective.

I have no idea who first penned these words. And I’m really not convinced they had the Golden Rule in mind when they did so. As to where these words of wisdom originated, I haven’t a clue. I didn’t even bookmark the Web site. I don’t know who the author is or when it was written. But as soon as I found it, I printed it out and posted it in a prominent place where I now see it every day to remind and inspire me. It goes like this:

People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget about how you made them feel

Now most men I know would consider this saying overly sappy or too emotional to even be considered. Me, I don’t care much about whether or not people think I’m too emotional. I am what I am, and what I am is an emotional being; we all are, whether or not we care to admit it. If you really think about it, emotion is the only thing in this physical life that is really real. It defines us, both in the way we see ourselves and others see us. Emotions are the only means by which we can truly control our own destiny. I can’t control the future, but I can control how I allow myself to deal with it.

I guess it was fairly easy to adopt the phrase as I did, since I’d pretty much believed and lived it my entire life, before I even stumbled upon that Web site. But it’s not that I’m so great or better than anyone else. It’s just that I’ve observed that people who have themselves been mistreated often display the greatest capacity for understanding the need for kindness. Sometimes it takes a little experience being the victim to thereby gain the compassion to try and spare others from experiencing the same fate.

I’ve seen both sides of the coin in my own life. On one side there was my stepmom, Maxine. While I have completely forgiven her, it has been impossible for me to forget how the way she treated me growing up made me feel — both about her and about myself. I felt worthless, angry, confused, resentful; wondering if she really was right when she repeatedly told me that I’d “never amount to anything.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is someone like my friend Cindy, who has never done anything but make me feel good about myself, as I’ve made reference to before.

It is extremes such as these, which span the gamut of human emotion, that make that phrase of affectation so significant.

Ever find that you simply “don’t like someone” but can’t really place a finger on why? Or conversely, is there someone you know, even casually, who makes you smile every time you talk to them, or perhaps, even think of them? These emotions are not elicited by accident. But by the same token, they’re not always purposeful in origin. They are often based directly upon whether or not someone has made a conscious effort to be kind; to be civil; to place themselves in a position of servitude to another friend, family member, or even a complete stranger on the street.

We have the opportunity every single day, and in every single encounter, to either build or destroy our personal standing with another human being.

Have a problem dealing with someone? Guess what? Chances are it’s not their problem — it’s yours. We have the power to change minds, one smile, one kind word, one encouragement at a time. It’s not someone else’s responsibility to find us likable. We’re the ones who have the greater ability to make that happen.

Say you want a res-o-lu-tion?
We often use this time of Christmas and the start of the New Year as a season in which to reflect upon our lives; evaluating things, both positive and otherwise, either acknowledging thanks that they are so, or exercising our resolve to change them into something better.

I challenge everyone reading this to accept the responsibility that we all have to make a positive impact on those we come into contact with each and every day. This isn’t pie in the sky, folks. It’s not, “all you need is love, “let’s make nice-nice” or any other kind of faux-sincerity. People are genuinely effected by our demeanor, our attitude, and whether or not we actually care about their lives or their opinions. If you think you can blow someone off or dismiss them without them knowing it, think again. When was the last time the shoe was on the other foot and you didn’t realize what was going on?

And of course the phenomenon isn’t limited to casual encounters only. What do we truly invest in our friends and family? Is it always about us, or are we actually concerned about their needs? These are tough questions because this is serious work. There is no free lunch. We all need to get paid. And because of that, we all need to put forth the effort to be deserving of such a wonderful blessing as the love and respect of great friends and family.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and Hanukkah. Here’s to a great and successful 2006. Take care of each other; respect one another. Make the impression you leave on others a good one.

Here’s to a new year filled with no regrets.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More LA Stories: 2005 (Part II)

Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride? (continued)
I was stuck. For one thing, my Dad lives in Hemet, nearly 100 miles and at least a two-hour drive away. There was no way in hell I was calling him. My friend Cindy, who was putting me up for the week, was no option either; she was working from home that day because, you guessed it, her car was in the shop.

I knew I was screwed when I asked the guy behind the counter, who was doing all he could to help resolve my problem, to find out how much a cab ride from LA to northern Orange County (where Cindy lives) would be. Let’s just say it was considerably more than the forty bucks I currently had in my wallet. Yep, not only did I blow off going to the bank before leaving home, to check the status of our account, I didn’t even take the time to pick up any cash for the trip, assuming I could just get some at an ATM once I got to California.

As I sat there in the waiting area at the car rental agency, I thought my head was going to explode.

Jay to the rescue
I really had just two options. One was the bus, with a zillion transfers and logistical entanglements in tow. The other was my college buddy, Jay who was the only other person who knew I was in town that might have been even remotely available to help me out. The problem was, I’d only made the loosest of plans with him beforehand. We hadn’t even decided when we’d get together that week. It was a, “I’ll call you when I hit town,” sort of deal. I had no idea what he was doing or what his schedule was. Even being able to get a hold of him would be a crapshoot. I had his home phone number, but that was it.

One of the truest testaments of friendship is how one person responds to another in a time of crisis. Let me tellya, Jay went above and beyond the call of duty. He wasn’t home when I first called so I left a message detailing my sad story of woe. But he called me back about 30 minutes later, cheerfully ragging my ass for being in such a laughable (to him, anyway) predicament. Then after letting me twist in the wind a little, he admitted that his inner-good-Samaritan had gotten the better of him once again; he’d be happy to help me out. After giving him directions to the rental place (which was about a mile from LAX) he was on his way to pick me up.

I think it necessary to explain the magnitude of this guy’s sacrifice. It was by now after 4:00 PM on a Friday afternoon. Jay lived 25 miles away in Long Beach and had to launch himself directly into the teeth of some of the most legendary rush hour traffic in the nation, just to give me a lift to another friend’s house (whom he didn’t even know). Now that’s a pal right there, boys and girls.

I can’t adequately communicate my relief at that point. I went from utter despair to outright giddiness in a matter of about 15 seconds. After I hung up with Jay, I sat and watched the TV that was playing there in the lobby, re-orienting myself to the local color, the commercials and news personalities. It’s just another one of the subtle pleasures I experience each time I come here — the process of re-connecting with this place. I was just so happy to be out of the mess I’d been in. Now I could get down to the business of having a busy but enjoyable week.

Before I knew it my cell phone was vibrating again. Jay needed a little more help finding the car rental agency, which I have purposely not named — yet — but will focus upon a little later. Jay had overshot the turnoff, which isn’t well marked, by a couple blocks so once we got him turned around, I was able to guide him in.

(Aren’t cell phones just the most freaking wonderful things ever?)

I looked out the front window to see Jay’s familiar dark blue Chevy truck pulling into the driveway and went out to meet him. We did the man-hug thang; he loaded my duffel and suit bag into a covered compartment in the truck bed and we hit the road.

Given the Friday afternoon traffic factor, we had a longer-than-normal time to catch up on what had been going on in each other’s lives in the year since my last visit to the homeland. That week I stayed most of the week with Jay, but for this visit Cindy insisted I stay at her place. It’s nice to know that I have not one, but two, Motel Californias vying for my patronage whenever I come back to this wondrous place that still feels so very much like home to me.

I know he wasn’t expecting it, but in gratitude to Jay for his taxi service, I told him that when we got together later that week (which, we decided would be the following Wednesday night), he could name the restaurant; dinner was on me.

Welcome to Cindy Manor
If you’ve followed this blog, you’ve already met Cindy. If not, allow me to ‘splain you something. She’s one of my oldest and dearest friends, and Michelle feels the same way about her that I do. So, if the proposition of me spending a week, by myself at the home of an unmarried woman, 2500 miles from my wife, causes anyone reading this to sprout a raised eyebrow, relax. This is a purely platonic relationship. Always has been, always will be.

I won’t completely re-hash our history, and what Cindy means to me as the friend she’s always been. But suffice it to say I was looking forward to spending the extended time with her that I wasn’t able to when I was in town a year ago.

When Jay dropped me off at her house, in a nice, middle-class neighborhood of suburban Orange County, she was busy undoing the mess that’s often left behind by any auto mechanic fixing anything on the inside of your car. In this case, Cindy’s SUV had a malfunctioning instrument panel that needed repair, requiring her to work from home that day. But now that she’d gotten her car back home, she had to replace the various items, once located neatly in storage compartments in her car, which had become mysteriously strewn all over the floor and back seat.

Following our greeting hugs, I thanked Jay once again and bid him adieu until Wednesday. She was just finishing up with her car, so we exchanged pleasantries for a few moments and then went inside. She showed me my room and refreshed my memory of the layout of her very handsome home, which she refers to as “the dump of the neighborhood,” but which actually couldn’t be further from the truth.

She asked me to run down my schedule for the week so that she could get a fix on when I was going to be around. As I related to her my plans for spending Monday and Tuesday out at my Dad’s in Hemet, she went to the entry table near the front door and began thumbing through a small stack of papers gathered there. “Okay,” she said, “If you’re going to be with your Dad on Tuesday night, maybe you two could get some use out of these…” She placed a skinny rectangular envelope in my hand with the words, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim printed boldly across the front.

“I can’t make it to the game Tuesday and I want you to take your Dad,” she said with a smile. Cindy, as you may recall is a longtime Angels season ticket holder and of course, the Halos are my (as well as my Dad’s) favorite team as well. It had already been established that she and I would be taking in a game during my visit, but that was a week away, the following Friday night versus the Boston Red Sox. This other game was a complete surprise. A bonus I that certainly didn’t expect, but yet I wasn’t exactly surprised either; that’s the kind of person she is.

We sat and spent probably an hour catching up on our lives, as well as those of our mutual friends, some of whom I remain in contact with and some I haven’t seen in 10-15 years, but whom Cindy still keeps tabs on.

She is, to a large degree, the single touchstone for an entire segment of my past, without which I would certainly lose contact. She hasn’t changed one iota in all the years I’ve known her. I guess she just reminds me of a time in my life when the whole world was so much bigger and more wonderful than it is now; back when we were all young and our lives were all before us. Not that I want to live in the past, it’s just that for me, she’s just such a wonderful link to that time, and I’ll always appreciate her for that.

By the time we’d finished our little re-introductory confab, it was getting to be dinnertime. The plan was that since I’d missed out on eating at my favorite restaurant a year earlier, we’d make it a point to do so at least once while I was there this time.

Where are you tonight, Sweet Marie?
Hoo-boy, I could write an entire post about this place — and in the interest of brevity and staying on-topic, I probably will. However in the meantime, need to rant just a little on the passing of a phenomenon, in my opinion.

If you live most anywhere in the Western U.S., you’ve seen them and more than likely eaten in one as well. If you live anywhere else, chances are for the past ten years or so you’ve seen this restaurant’s faire featured in your supermarket’s frozen food section. But if your experience is only the latter, you’ve unfortunately missed out on a lot. Marie Callender’s Restaurants were founded here in Southern California and became a fixture in the casual dining arena long before the numerous wannbes that couldn’t even approach their uniqueness or quality came along.

However one store in particular, my Marie’s, the original Marie Callender’s, is the subject of this mini-rant.

Marie’s son, Don was the family entrepreneur. It was he who made the push to expand his mother’s homemade pie operation from a small North Long Beach bakery and open a restaurant in nearby Seal Beach. That restaurant, just a mile west of my first bachelor pad, was the unofficial meeting place of most of my friends at during my late high school/early college years.

The MC franchise was well underway in the mid-70s, when the Seal Beach store became our personal Cheers. The larger, full-sized restaurants were already the norm for the growing MC chain, but not so for number one. Because of it’s more humble beginnings (it was essentially pie and coffee shop when it was built in the 60s), the original Marie’s maintained it’s cozy charm, even after an early 70s remodeling nearly doubled its overall size.

This was a special place, filled with memories of a less-complicated time and a menu of unique dishes that never disappointed. If it’s possible to have a personal relationship with a restaurant, well, I was head-over-heals in love with Marie’s.

When Michelle and came out in May of 2004, we ate there in Seal Beach and I relished a side of their famous Fettuccine Alfredo alongside a salad-bar salad drizzled with MC’s legendary exclusive hot bacon dressing. It was just as good as I remembered it, and maybe better. For dessert I had my old fave, a slice of Black Bottom pie. I was in heaven.

However when I returned for my second stay in SoCal that summer, in August, I was disappointed to learn that the Seal Beach store had closed for yet another remodeling. It was scheduled to re-open in the Summer of 2005. Oh well, I thought, maybe next time, then. I didn’t know it at the time, but that May visit would end up being my final opportunity to enjoy my old friend.

They say you can’t improve on perfection, but you can sure as hell go the other way.

In an apparent attempt to bring the “little Marie’s” up to snuff, corporate decided to give the place both a major facelift and image upgrade. The inside was all but completely gutted. Its coffee shop feel was completely obliterated and in its place was installed the sophisticated look of an upscale eatery. Even the name out front changed to reflect the restaurant’s new personality. Instead of the familiar, classic script welcoming patrons to Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery, a new heavy, masculine marquee now simply read, Callender’s Grill. As far as I’m concerned, a LOT was lost in the translation.

Joining Cindy and me for dinner was another mutual friend from the old days; one I’ve actually kept up with better than most, and have wriiten about previously: my good friend Az and his wife Katy. Although his parents live just a few blocks from the restaurant, Az now lives in San Diego County, but was willing to make the 90 minute drive north to join us (what a pal, eh?). Given that it was Friday evening, freeway traffic understandably had them running later than they thought they’d be. Receiving updates from time-to-time via cell phone, Cindy and I went ahead and were seated when our name was called. We decided we’d just sit, talk and wait until they arrived to order.

We were seated in a big booth in the very back of the restaurant, which seemed to be the only part that wasn’t changed in the re-model. Unfortunately that turned out to be the only thing that was familiar about this visit to my dearly departed little haunt.

We decided to chill with a glass of wine, and occasionally called in for a road-progress update from Az. As it turned out, they’d hit a pretty big snarl and told us to go ahead and order, they’d be along as soon as they could.

So it was at this point that I first got a real glance at the menu. It was almost completely unrecognizable. Nearly all the classic MC favorites such as the Frisco Burger (the best sourdough burger you’ve ever eaten), Chicken Callendini (a wonderful combo of Fettuccine, stuffed tortellinis and a whole chicken breast, smothered in their wonderful Alfredo sauce), and even their classic Spaghetti and Meat Sauce dish, was gone. In its place was a myriad of appetizers, $15-$20 steak, chicken, and seafood entrees and the ever-ubiquitous catch of the day.

Sacrilege! You call this progress? I call it atrophy. I call it not knowing when you’ve got a good thing and screwing it up when you try to make it better. The most unique, warm, and inviting place in which I’d ever lifted a fork, was now just like any other medium-to-high-dollar restaurant, replete with servers expounding overly-contrived descriptions of today’s special. It was depressing itellya; simply depressing.

The menu’s one redeeming factor was that the Soup & Salad Bar (which thankfully made the cut) was still available, and another classic MC standard, Potato Cheese soup was as well. That was the good news. The bad news was that apparently, perhaps the restaurant’s most unique signature offering, their Hot Bacon dressing somehow got lost in the shuffle.

When Cindy and I went to make our salads, in anticipation of enjoying that incredible condiment once again, we looked at each other in disbelief when we realized that it was missing from the salad bar. We asked our server, and of course, she didn’t have the foggiest notion what we were talking about. She was a new hire and had never even eaten at the old restaurant. The place had been re-opened for a month and she admitted she’d never seen anything like it offered at the salad bar. We described the dressing to her and she said she’d go back to the kitchen and ask around. We went ahead and began eating our salads, sans the Hot Bacon.

Happily, minutes later our server reemerged with a large silver gravy boat, filled with none other than our prized Hot Bacon dressing! She proudly announced that they’d always had the ingredients on hand, but in the bustle of the restaurant’s re-opening, nobody had thought about it, and no customers voiced any complaint about it not being there until we did.

So never let it be said that Cindy and I never contributed anything to the culinary culture of Southern California. Why, we reintroduced them to Hot Bacon dressing, dammit!

Overall the food was still good, the service was pretty decent as well (that little girl earned an extra big tip for getting us that dressing!). Az and Katy arrived soon after we sat down with our salads, so we all ended up eating around the same time.

The conversation was of course fabulous (Az still laughs at my jokes — ‘nuff said). We talked about kids, jobs, and the next time Michelle and I might be able to come out to visit again. It was just a great time — a fitting end to a truly eventful first day of my visit to the homeland.

Next: Day Two — Saturday: Re-Wheeled

Sunday, December 18, 2005

More LA Stories: 2005 (Part I)

Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride?
Gather ‘round, boys and girls and hear a cautionary tale from ol’ AJ. It’s based on a very wise, old Chinese saying, He who make cheque fly will eventually have ass grounded.

Ya see, it all happened like this…

After a very hectic period at work I was anxious to get on the plane for eight days of R&R, doing one of my very favorite things — spending time with my family and friends. It was late August, one of the worst times of the year to be in Middle Tennessee from a weather standpoint, so I was really looking forward to getting away from the humidity and enjoying that incredible SoCal climate; that incredible combo of warm sunshine and a cool ocean breeze — the one thing above all that I so desperately miss about my former homeland.

Traffic getting to the airport was mild on a Friday, between A.M. rush and lunchtime. I arrived at the airport, having already printed off my boarding pass online, and had to wait only a few minutes prior to boarding time for my flight. I was able to procure my usual, preferred aisle seat in the upper two-thirds of the cabin and was comfortably settled in. I was curious as to whether I’d end up with a neighbor who wanted to talk or keep to themselves during the four-and-a-half hour flight. Personally I can go either way. I usually bring music to listen to, but for this trip I was unable to find my portable CD player (and I still haven’t found it), so I was out of luck as far as music was concerned. I suppose I was a little more inclined towards conversation for that reason.

I’ve met some interesting people over the years on airplanes. Last year, on this same flight to LA, I sat next two a father and son who were on their way home from the East Coast where they had followed our mutually favorite Major League Baseball team, the (then still) Anaheim Angels on a brief eastern road trip.

In 2002, I visited a friend who now lives in Idaho. On the flight home I spent a fascinating time discussing high-tech trends for what was then an entirely new concept of the “plugged-in home” — pre-building high-speed fiber-optic cable and other tech options into entire subdivisions of new homes — with an electrical contractor specializing in that cutting-edge service.

But perhaps my most interesting in-flight confab, at least now in retrospect ocurred in December of 1992, on the first of several business trips I would make between Nashville and SoCal, back when I still had freelance clients there. I sat and listened while a wired, very young-looking, and just a little geeky Dermot Mulroney chatted my ear off about his part in a just-completed movie entitled, The Thing Called Love, his first “big” role, in which he co-starring with River Phoenix. It was shot mostly in Nashville and Mulroney was just returning home following the film’s wrap. At the time I’d heard the film mentioned on the local news and was familiar with Phoenix, but had no idea who this Mulroney guy was. So I politely listened, gave him my business card and told him to look me up the next time he was in town.

After that, I didn’t really think all that much about the encounter until five years later when the movie,My Best Friend’s Wedding came out. To my surprise, here was this same Dermot Mulroney playing the lead male role, starring opposite Julia Roberts. This was obviously his greatest commercial success to date. He’s had a few other starring roles but has primarily made his career as a supporting, character actor. Still, just to realize in retrospect that, “Hey, that guy talked my ear off on an airplane once, way back when,” well, it was kind of a cool experience for non-Hollywood types like yours truly.

As it turned out, I had enjoyable conversations with two people who ended up occupying the seats next to me on this sold-out West Coast flight. The gentleman who took the window seat to my right was from a small town in southern Tennessee, returning to Bakersfield, CA for his father’s funeral. Later, the still-vacant seat between us was filled by a guy connecting from Detroit flying out to Los Angeles with his family for a vacation. He had given up his previous seat to a lady who needed to sit next to her elderly father with Alzheimer’s. There weren’t any empty adjoining seats left, so he gave his up to accommodate her.

It was a great flight. In the air, everything was smooth. It wasn’t until we landed that I encountered some turbulence. And going back to something that had happened earlier that morning, I probably could have seen it coming; as Lennon and McCartney once said, I shoulda known better.

Michelle had told me earlier Friday morning, after viewing our checking account balance online, that she was surprised to see the check she’d sent in for our son Shaun’s Fall Semester tuition had already been received by the bank, a mere two days after being sent to the University. Not that we are normally in the habit of kiting checks, but the close proximity of the tuition due date and my trip to California wasn’t anything Michelle had necessarily made provision for, or even worried about. She understandably assumed it wouldn’t be a problem due to the fact that normally it takes about four days to process a check being sent from outside our local area to come back and hit our account. That being said, Knoxville is nearly 300 miles from where we live, more than far enough away to qualify for that kind of scenario. Additionally, our paychecks were due to be auto-deposited on Friday night, so there was no immediate concern given to the possibility that the funds needed for me to rent a car in LA wouldn’t be there when I needed them. Michelle believed she had headed off any potential problems by moving some extra money into our checking from another account, once she’d seen that the tuition check had already posted.

So when she told me about it early Friday morning I agreed that it shouldn’t be a problem. However something happened soon thereafter that should have clued me in that all was still not well in Debitville.

My flight was scheduled to depart at 11:15 AM, so the plan was that I would first take Michelle to work at 7:30, come back home and finish packing, and then pick her back up at 9:30 so she could drive me to the airport. When I dropped her off at work, Michelle reminded me that the car was low on gas and asked if I would stop and put a few gallons in the tank on my way back home, which I was happy to do. When I went to get the gas, my debit card was rejected at the pump. Irritated but not dismayed, I figured that for some reason the money Michelle had transferred simply hadn’t been officially credited into the system, given that it had only been an hour or so since she’d done it. So I paid cash for the gas and proceeded on home to finish preparing for my trip. In retrospect I know now that I should have followed my gut and gone to the bank to check our account status, just to be sure. I had the time, although taking that extra 30 minutes or so would have made things tight. Still in the long run it would have saved me even more time, not to mention the embarrassment and frustration I would experience some six hours later.

As I’ve already mentioned, the flight was great. The time passed quickly and I was in good spirits when the shuttle dropped me off at the rental car agency.

It’s hard to say that I wasn’t thinking of it at all, but I certainly didn’t expect to have any problems. Yet there was that flash; just a thought that sort of hung in the back of my mind as one of those, now-wouldn’t-it-just-suck-if-this-happened kind of fleeting thoughts which oftentimes spring from the fertile fields of my paranoid mind.

Only this time it came true.

“I’m sorry sir, but your debit card has been rejected. Do you have another you could use? Like a credit card perhaps?”

“Um…nope. This is the only card I carry,” I replied, as a steadily growing feeling of warm dread began to overtake my spine and shoulders.

I was boiling over inside, furious that something like this could have happened to derail my vacation before it even started. However I tried to remain calm, asking the attendant what recourse I had. She said she would check with the company’s credit office and see what she could do. She then disappeared into the back for several minutes, only to return with the same discouraging refrain: she was sorry, but they just couldn’t rent me a car today.

Unwilling to give up just yet, I asked if she would call my bank directly to make sure there wasn’t some kind of mistake or at somehow vouch for the good standing of our account, regardless of what that damned computer said. Perhaps I could get the bank to explain that there would be more than enough in the account later that night when our paycheck money was due to go in automatically.

But no dice; the bank said the current balance was short of the amount needed to cover the rental company’s required 200% hold for the projected weekly rental fee. I would have no choice but to wait until the auto-deposited paycheck money hit the account.

But how did the tuition check get back to our bank so fast? At first we surmised that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville must bank with the same institution that we do, but would learn later, it was more likely that technology played the dominant role in our little misfortune.

Many companies are now using software which allows them to use that series of numbers printed along the bottom of a check to directly debit a payee’s account. It’s the same process used by companies who allow you to pay by check “over the phone.” But now, realizing that The University of Tennessee has this ability makes another one of their policies more than a little dubious. To pay via check for tuition and other fees is free. However if you want to pay online with a credit or debit card, you’ll also pay a $25.00 service charge for the privilege! How wrong is that, particularly when they can get their money just as fast with a check as they can with a direct transfer via credit or debit card? Oye.

I’m a wild and cash-only guy.
Just the same, about now you may be wondering exactly why I found myself in that predicament in the first place. Why don’t I carry a credit card like everyone else?

Call it a “once bitten-twice shy” mentality, or maybe I’m just stubborn, but ever since we became debt-free (except for the mortgage) in August of 1999, I’ve been pretty staunch in my stance against using credit cards.

I haven’t checked my credit report in years, although I know I probably should. We re-fi’ed the home mortgage a year and a half ago, so I know my credit is good, but frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn if I’m five-star or one-star. And the only reason I would, is if I ever intended to use credit again, which I don’t. I may want to get another mortgage someday, but even that’s a wait-and-see proposition. I just don’t use credit. Don’t want it, don’t need it.

I’m a cash-only kinda guy. I’ve learned that for me, if the money’s not in the checking account (or not already earmarked for something else), then too bad AJ, you can’t afford it. The good news is, with nothing but the utilities and mortgage that have to be paid each month, it only takes a couple weeks of saving to be able to buy just about anything I want anyway. And while I know that I’m sort of a weirdo for living this way, after what I’ve dealt with in terms of debt issues, the alternative is infinitely worse in my estimation. But don’t relegate me to the horse and buggy set just quite yet. 99.999999 times out of 100, my Visa debit card does me just fine, thank you. I can purchase anything with it that I could with its credit counterpart. In fact, over the past six years I’ve never run into a problem of any kind as a result of not owning a credit card.

Until now.

Next: Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride? (continued)

Friday, December 16, 2005

More LA Stories: 2005 (Prologue)

A little travellin’ music, please…
There are a lot of ways one can spend money. Unfortunately for people like me, when you don’t do a good job of choosing priorities, you often spend too much, and find yourself in a hole before you know it. Having fought for years through all of that, it’s pretty cool to see things from the opposite side of the equation. Not that we’re now rollin’ in the dough by any means, but in recent years Michelle and I have been in a decidedly more positive financial circumstance than had been the case for the vast majority of our lives together. It’s actually taken a little getting used to.

There are obviously a lot of nice things about being unencumbered by debt. However I was surprised to find that one of the best of those benefits was something I had never really thought about all that much while we were on the opposite side of the issue. It wasn’t exactly on the list of things I pined for in the old days; the years when I wondered what it would be like to experience 24 hours without my phone ringing off the hook, an endless parade of bill collectors waiting on the other end of the line, either to extract their pound of flesh or inject a ton of guilt into my already beleaguered psyche. Back in that godforsaken time in my life, when just looking forward to the day that junkmail would once again out-draw the number of bills in my mailbox seemed like the Impossible Dream.

No, for me, I’m happy to say, perhaps the most enjoyable perk of being essentially debt-free is the fact that I now finally have the means (relatively speaking) to travel more than once in a blue moon. Not that I necessarily wish to become some kind of globetrotter; I’m more than happy to just be able to see my family and my friends on a semi-regular basis.

The passing of my Step mom, Maxine, in 2000 slapped me in the face like a wet glove. The realization that my parents had actually become mortal, seemingly overnight caused me to see things from a much more proactive perspective. That impetus became even more pronounced two years later when my Dad, who had never even been diagnosed with high cholesterol before, suffered a minor, yet near-fatal heart attack, resulting in quintuple bypass heart surgery at the age of eighty.

At that point it became abundantly clear that it was time for me to wake up and smell the reality; my Dad was not going to be around forever, and seeing him once every two or three years was no longer acceptable. I decided that seeing him as often as is feasible was something I needed to make a priority in my life.

Michelle’s parents live relatively nearby in Florida, and she has always made seeing them a priority. Either she travels there or they come to spend a week or so with us, at least once a year. I figured it was time I did the same with my Dad.

My plan finally took flight in early 2004, when Michelle surprised me by saying she wanted to take a trip to SoCal as a belated celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary (in March). It would be the first time she’d been back to SoCal (or indicated that she even wanted to go) since we’d moved to Tennessee. I of course had been back several times on business, and most recently for Maxine’s funeral. But at that point it had been more than three years since I’d seen Dad and over two years since his heart attack). Needless to say I was eager to go.

That summer was also my 30th High School Class Reunion, and I had already been planning to attend that as well. So as it turned out I made two trips; one in May and the other in August, giving me the rare opportunity to see my Dad and his wife Helen twice in less than three months time.

I decided that twice a year would be my goal from that point forward. If I couldn’t pull it off, so be it, but I really wanted to try.

This past year I made only the single trip to California that is the subject of this series. Nonetheless I was able to see my Dad twice in 2005 because of the trip we together had taken in February, to Dallas to spend a few days with my brother Alex (something I haven’t written about but may at a later time). So now the pattern is somewhat in place. Twice a year, some way, somehow, I’m going to try to find a way to see my Pop twice a year, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I have the opportunity.

But for as much as I love seeing my Dad, these frequent visits back to the SoCal homestead have provided an additional bonus. They’ve allowed me to reestablish familiarities with a few old and dear friends from my high school and college days, in addition to further cementing friendships with a couple more recent pals from Blogsville. A lot has changed since I lived in Southern California, but thanks to my friends, I really do feel as though I can go home again.

The title of this series is merely an update of the original from the 2004 trip, for which I owe a tip of the cap to Michael, who first gave me the idea. But I really need to offer my most special thanks to Aimee, who I had the extreme pleasure of meeting for the first time on this trip, and without whom much of this story would quite literally have never been written.

And I’ll explain that a bit later.

Next: Day One — Friday: Buddy, can ya spare a ride?