Sunday, July 28, 2013

Meeting Up

During one of my final days of living in Tennessee I was talking to a coworker (yes, whining) about how lonely I had been for much of my time in Clarksville, and especially the final year. There were hundreds of acquaintances I would see as I ambled alone through the monthly Art Walk, but when it came down to it, there were very few people whose phone numbers resided in my cell phone and upon whom I could call to meet out for lunch. And of the few, most were married with kids, so it felt like I had nobody available to entertain me. I even attended two concerts alone due to a lack of companions and I didn’t die of humiliation, which is good to know.

My coworker said a lot of single people he knew used the online Meetup site to find groups and activities. Well, crap -- if I’d known about that earlier, my last year in hell might have been more tolerable!

As part of my return to New England, I began pre-scouting for jobs and a social life. I looked into Meetup, checked off a bunch of preferences and quickly found a book club. Once you join a group, the system suggests other groups in your geography based on the interests chosen, so it wasn’t too long before I found a second book club.

During one week in April I had two book club meetings, which involved plowing through two novels. The first group’s meeting had great promise -- it was on a Wednesday night in an Irish Pub Restaurant and the author was going to attend. I had my first Scotch Egg, a dark beer, and the good fortune of sitting next to the author so I could actually hear the discussion over the din of the nearby diners, but the later arrivals at the far ends of the table were not as lucky. This book club was mostly couples and mostly in their 60s or older so I felt like a conspicuous misfit singleton (a common scenario for me). On the bright side, I was one of the younger people assembled at the table.

The following night was the other book club, which meets at a coffee house that has the good sense to also serve wine and craft beers along with the menu of light meals, pastries and gelato. This group is all women,  younger than the other group, and infinitely more fun. I still don’t feel like I fit in, but at least I'm reading current books and it’s a shorter drive for me to be a misfit.

Around early June, a new local Meetup group formed -- people aged 40-60 seeking to get out of the house and meet up at various places and events. It sounded promising to me -- while not a singles group, it might be a way to meet new people including some single guys.

The group scheduled its first meet up at a bar/restaurant on a Friday evening with the instructions to meet “at the chalkboard.” I managed to convince a gal pal to come with me to scope it out. We arrived early and parked ourselves at the corner of the bar to scope out the group and decide if we would actually join them, because we were nervous about meeting a large group of new people. Heck, I sometimes get nervous with people I already know. As we sat at the corner of the bar, eyeballing everyone who entered the restaurant, we finally noticed a guy sitting under the massive chalkboard. Then a woman arrived. And another woman. And more women. The assembled group of about a dozen was finally seated at a cluster of tall tables in a corner of the bar. It looked like one guy with a harem.

We decided we didn’t really want to be part of the estrogen festival and headed to a Chinese restaurant for a pu-pu platter, chalking up a loss on the meet up thing. At least we were out of our respective dwellings for a little while, escaping an oppressive heat wave and enjoying some air conditioning.

As the summer progressed, the Meetup group posted several more events at free festivals and local fairs (which I did not attend). One planned meet up that caught my eye was for a tour of the local craft brewery. This was right up my alley -- beer! -- plus the potential to meet a man who appreciates good beer instead of the crappy yellow fizzy water bottled by too many large breweries.

I tried to wrangle a gal pal into coming to the brewery with me, but one was in Michigan, and another was in Vermont. So, on the appointed day, I managed to not wimp out, screwed up my courage and headed to the meet up. Alone. The RSVP list, which had peaked at about five people a week earlier, had dwindled to three by the day of the event -- me, another woman, and a guy.

At the brewery, I headed to the “Tour Waiting Area” where I was the only female. Instead of being thrilled at the prospect, I was too self-conscious to speak. I visited the sample window for a tiny beer glass and a taste of Strawberry White beer from the woman who would soon be our tour guide. Luckily, two more women arrived (with their significant man people) and finally, a tall guy entered and asked me if I was with the meet up. Hmmm.... I wonder if it was my obvious aloneness in the room that gave me away. At least I had now someone to chat with. And he didn’t look nearly as much like an axe murderer as his little photo on Meetup. I noticed he did not get a free beer sample. Nobody who looked like the third Meetup RSVP arrived.

The tour began and we passed around jars of various types of barley, looked at photos from 1994 when the brewery operated out of a barn, and then moved over to the door to see more historic photos. Before heading to the bottling area, the guide instructed us to take a pair of safety goggles. As she was discussing the various sizes (child/small, medium, large),  she pointed to me and said, all chipper and nonchalant, “You can probably use the child size.” Thanks for the shout out lady. I appreciate you calling attention to my tiny pinhead.

We moved into the production area, where there was another tasting sample. I tried the Nut Brown, even though I already knew I liked it. And that’s when my Meetup buddy casually mentioned that he doesn’t drink. So much for my fantasy of comparing notes over the various beers and how this brewer’s product compares to that of other breweries. Seriously? Leave it to me to meet the one guy on a brewery tour who doesn’t even drink beer.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Honesty Policy

It’s sometimes hard to feel sorry for the financial woes of a major retail operation, and a recent experience at one of the big box department stores has me scratching my head over the difficulties of being honest.

This particular retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002, somehow scraped up the funds to purchase Sears in 2005, and then, late in 2011 announced the closure of more than 100 stores after a poor response from shoppers during the Christmas shopping season. Yes, we are talking about K-Mart of “the Blue Light Special” which, for the years of my youth, was the king of the Twin City Mall on the Fitchburg-Leominster line. Back in the day, they usually didn’t have what I needed, but more recently, they actually carry crap I think I want.

KMart carries “Official” MLB, NHL, and NFL team branded merchandise, and the selection is both different and less costly than that of neighboring store Bob’s. Yes, I am sure the quality is probably of a lower caliber, but I happen to like the specific items carried. It was KMart where I found the wicked cool Bruins logo wall mirror I got for my niece’s birthday in May, when Bob’s had primarily commuter cups, ear buds and the usual array of overpriced lounge pants and tee shirts. It was a most fortunate find as she loved it, and unfortunately, my unemployment-era wallet is more in synch with KMart. (It’s currently more closely aligned with the local Salvation Army Superstore, but that’s another story.)

On a recent Friday, Mom and I visited KMart as we were heading to Cape Cod to visit my brother on his birthday so I could check out the New England Patriots merchandise and also get cash back with my debit card (avoiding a separate trip to my mega-bank’s ATM across town). After gushing over the various team branded infant and toddler clothing, I chose a suitable adult Patriots shirt for my brother and we proceeded to the register.

When I arrived at the cashier, there were no other customers around, but a line quickly formed behind me as if a tour group had just received word their bus would be leaving in five minutes. During my transaction I selected the option for $50 cash back. The cashier lifted her cash drawer and removed three bills, which I jammed into my currently empty wallet with the receipt. I didn’t take the time to count the money, partly because the cashier was already ringing up the next customer and I was feeling a bit rushed and in the way with the next person in line crawling up my back. 

It was a leisurely ride to the Cape, with a stop at the Christmas Tree Shoppe and a pleasant tour of the hydrangeas of every color (including deep maroonish-purple) blooming in the yards along 6A in Sandwich. Now I want a yard with dark purple hydrangeas. Maybe I should move to Sandwich.

After sitting around for a while talking with my brother and his wife, we all headed out for dinner. My dinner was an amazing bowl of lobster stew and a massive fried haddock sandwich with sweet potato fries (in case you were wondering). When it was time to contribute the funds for my share of the check, I dug into my wallet where I expected to find two twenty dollar bills and a ten, and found instead a fifty, a twenty and a ten. And I immediately began to worry.

Having worked in both banking and retail, there are still lingering miserable memories of cash drawer balancing and people getting into trouble for drawer shortages. I had no knowledge of KMart's policy, but I began imagining the cashier getting a lecture, or worse, fired for the missing $30. Another part of me felt like I’d won a prize -- $30 was more than I’d won on any lottery ticket in decades. Knowing that I would certainly contact the store if my money had been short by $30 the right thing to do was to notify the store about my erroneous windfall.

It seemed like it would be easier to explain in person with the receipt in view, so on Monday I returned to KMart. The customer service manager listened to my tale, looked at my receipt and didn’t quite seem to know what to do. I wondered if there was a policy for such events. In her defense, it probably isn’t every day a customer rolls in smiling, waving a receipt and declaring she received too much change. In fact, it probably isn’t ever the case. Until that day, anyway.

The service desk manager called someone else in the building and explained the scenario while I stood awkwardly at the counter waiting, then informed me it would take about 30 minutes to check into the cash reports from Friday and I could do my shopping and return to the counter later. I didn't really have any shopping to do, but a huge yellow banner screaming “Clearance” hanging on a wall above an array of swimsuits caught my eye. In front of the swimsuits (buy one, get 1/2 off another) a cluster of racks was jammed with clothing items reduced by a mere 10%. I felt like I’d been tricked. Someone at KMart needs to look up the definition and perception of clearance pricing.

Back at the service desk I was told that the cashier’s drawer was short by $30 back on Friday, it had been written off as a correction of some sort, “the cash lady” needed to look into what to do, and someone would get back to me in a day or so. Even at minimum wage, the two people working on the problem for the better part of an hour had already cost most of the $30 I was trying to return. And I can imagine the employee conversations. “You’ll never believe the freak that came into the store today, trying to give us back $30! Who the heck does that?”

It’s now been a week and I haven’t heard a whisper about correcting the situation, so I guess the extra $30 is mine. Because I made the extra effort of hauling my ass to the store to fix the store’s mistake, my conscience is clear. And I’m thinking maybe I should shop there more often -- as long as they are handing out free money. Maybe they’ll even get the hang of clearance pricing.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Time Elasticity

Several lifetimes ago, (as measured by career shifts and ex-husbands), I spent six years working for a manufacturer of timekeeping, fire detection and nurse call systems. That stretch of time included a divorce, moving twice, finishing an MBA and ultimately leaving the company. Sometimes it felt like forever, but in retrospect it now seems more like a lightning flash.

The first week of time clock company employment included “orientation” -- a professionally produced company video which my boss told me was narrated by the same narrator for the PBS show Nova. I learned about company projects such as an underground school system and the monitoring grid over a massive sports stadium with water cannons that would rise from the stands and extinguish a fire detected by the system.

The time systems product line included school clocks and the dreaded time clock punched by hourly workers everywhere. Remember in school when it seemed that time stopped dead and the sweep hand just twitched on the clock for what seemed like forever? I do. I’d be glaring at that thing, willing it to move and tick off the minutes until I could move onto more interesting things like ballet class, public library meetings with my co-worker/sort-of boyfriend from the catholic high school across town, or Espresso’s for a slice of fifty-cent pizza before the one-mile walk home from high school. Let me point out, that yes, I am wicked old, and back in the 1970s, we really DID walk to and from school, and slabs of pizza could be procured for a mere fifty cents. There was no soccer-mom-SUV-caravan picking up schoolchildren -- we either took the bus or oh-em-gee -- walked. These were the dark ages when super-sized fast food was a special occasion treat and not a dietary mainstay, homemade family dinners at the table were the norm, and genetically modified food was the stuff of science fiction. All that walking and now-miniature-by-comparison nutritious food portions meant few schoolchildren were overweight, but I digress and that is a rant for another day.

Back to the twitching clock. In company orientation, I learned that yes, the clocks of my school days HAD indeed stopped momentarily, not to punish the suffering student body, but to self-correct to the exact time transmitted via some magical beam in the western United States that allows timekeeping systems to synchronize. It was a relief to realize the clock really did pause and it wasn’t a trick of my imagination.

During my years toiling in the treasury group at the time clock company, I moved money between banks to cover accounts payable, multiple payrolls, investments and loans. The routine at my desk was dictated by the clock and included multiple daily deadlines -- daily cash reports due to the executive suite by 9:00, account balance pulls and initial daily cash needs from payables and payroll at 10:00, loan or investment calls by 12:00 and 2:00, and final daily updates by 3:00. There were points in the day when I could not leave my desk for fear of missing a deadline, no matter how urgent the need to use the loo. There were times in the month, quarter, and year where the volume of reports and analyses made breathing feel like a luxury. To balance it all, there were also spells of mind-numbing emptiness of time.

During the time at the producer of master timekeeping systems, my concept of a Master Timekeeper living somewhere up in the clouds developed. Just to screw with the humans, he (yes, in my head it was a male, nonhuman entity with a sense of humor) would cause time to speed up or slow down, for his own amusement. This is why two weekend days never feel as long as a single Monday at work, and why an entire vacation week feels about as long as any one workday.  It’s why waiting alone in a bar for someone who is tardy feels as long as an eight hour factory shift and why a night of laughter with friends passes by in what feels like a second. It’s the Master Timekeeper messing around.

During a recent weeklong vacation at a rented beach house in southern Maine with no wi fi, no computer, and no schedule, the elasticity of time was felt. The first full day at the beach house, my oldest niece and I went to the beach. We walked to the beach from the house, and once at the beach, we walked in the shallow water for a while then laid in the sun on a blanket. After our very luxurious spell in the golden sun where time felt like it was suspended in honey, we were ready to head back to the house. A check of the clock shocked us with the information we had been at the beach for a mere twenty minutes. It was weird. I’m pretty sure it was my Master Timekeeper at play, but it worked in our favor, so there were no complaints, just wonderment. 

There were other time surprises during the week. Being awakened by the rising sun at 5:40 and being up and out of bed at 6 or 7 am (thanks to an overly eager dog) was pleasing to me and a nightmare for  my teenaged niece roommate. Morning and evening walks with the dogs that felt like ten minutes but were more like forty-five proved that the ocean as a destination is infinitely more fun than aimlessly walking around your own boring hometown neighborhood for the millionth time. A couple hours spent waiting for high tide to recede and reveal a bit of actual beach passes quickly when the kids are playing pool and there are books and lunch to be enjoyed. Conversely, sitting around after lunch for ninety minutes awaiting the completion of someone who shall remain unnamed’s laundry so six of us could go someplace felt like damn near forever. When we finally headed out and it began to drizzle just as we were leaving for Fort McClary followed by “the world’s smallest suspension bridge,” the angry voice in my head was screaming that “I’ll never get that hour and a half of wasted vacation laundry time back!”

The return to “normal life” at home where time is dominated by my job of looking for a job has been a bit of a letdown. During vacation, the pace was slow, leisurely and luxurious, but upon reflection during the first few days back home, the week feels like it sped by. The normal frustration of not knowing how much longer it will take to find a job is at least as aggravating as the months already spent searching. The fear of spending money to do things for which there is presently ample time (like a gym membership, travel or education) will someday be replaced by anger at not having done them when I am finally employed and looking back at six or nine or 12 months of unemployment with no accomplishments. And someday, it will all seem less significant. It’s just a matter of time.