5-Hours of Energy, and a Crash!

I realize that energy drinks, those little insidious bottles of chemicals, are ubiquitous at this point, but I don’t really have much desire to try them. With names like 5-Hour Energy, and 5-Hour Maximum Strength, I am to be leery of a tiny plastic bottle, shaped a bit like a bomb, that promises oodles of healthy energy with no side effects nor crash at the end. It just doesn’t seem right.

The other morning, I had an early flight and called the local taxi service for a ride to the airport. As I slipped into the back of the cab, I greeted my driver who excitedly spat his return greeting over the top of my ‘ing’ of my ‘good morning’. Clearly he was in a hurry, had places to go, and he wanted to go immediately. As soon as my rear hit the seat and my remaining foot left the asphalt, he hit the accelerator. I had noticed the brightly colored, bullet shaped bottle peeking out from the bag of his supplies tucked next to him on the front seat. Sometimes I sit quietly, but sometimes I simply can’t help myself. I glanced at the name badge and said, “Hey Brad, I see you have one of those energy drinks …”

Before I could finish question, Brad erupted with excitement at the prospect he had potentially found a kindred spirit in the world of bottled energy … five hours at a time. After being informed that I didn’t drink them, Brad began his accelerated dissertation on the virtues, health benefits, and complete safety of the boost bombs. For years he continued, Brad has been turning himself from what was likely a reasonably normal person, into a Jimmy John’s talking, overclocked human, race car driving maniac. According to Brad, it was all completely safe and without any harmful side effects. To punctuate his endorsement, Brad said it was time for his morning drink, ripped the cap off the bottle peeking from the bag, and downed it in one quick gulp. Being a social juice junkie, he pulled another out of his bag and offered it up. I politely declined.

As we rocketed towards the airport, weaving and bobbing through traffic as if they were cones on an obstacle course, my sarcastic amusement began to transform into apprehension, and then a good dose of anxiety. I offered up to Brad that I had plenty of time before my flight, but as the second dose kicked in, I began to imagine him moving into hyper-reality, much like the original Star Trek episode where they had to alter Kirk’s metabolism so that he may communicate with the speedy aliens that were heard by normal humans as only an annoying buzz. I am quite sure he could no longer keep focused on my slow talking. And he was most certainly annoying to me.

Fortunately, our trip was nearly over as he rounded the curve heading into the airport passenger drop area. I believe he had almost enough speed going to get that cab up on two wheels, as he simultaneously scanned the chaos of cars jockeying in and out of curb position. As he neared my airline sign, he spotted the last open spot next. Like a NASCAR driver throwing his car into a pit space at maximum speed, Brad was proudly executing a slide into the targeted spot. It all was working well, until the moment the car he was pulling in front of pulled forward and harpooned the taxi on the passenger side rear door.

As I slide across the rear seat, and opened the remaining rear door that operated, I said as quickly as possible, “Well, Brad … I guess sometimes those drinks do have a crash on the end.” I am quite sure I lost his attention after a word or two.

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A Shoeshine Life Story

I was on my way back from Minneapolis to Orlando a couple weeks back and found myself down at the end of the G concourse. As I neared the end of the moving walkway, I noticed an elderly gentleman finishing his lunch, sitting in one of the chairs of his shoeshine stand. As we made eye contact, he reached his hand to his forehead and gave me a pantomime tip of the hat. It was a very quiet day in the airport, and he looked lonely and bored. I saluted back, exited the walkway and took the chair next to him.

As he climbed down from his spot, he proclaimed his desire to make my shoes shine better then when they where brand new. Slowly, he started his preparation of moving the laces, rolling up the pant legs, and looking for just the right hunk of shine cloth. From the deliberate pace he managed, and the way he looked, he was well into his 70’s, or maybe even his 80’s. I apologized for interrupting the end of his lunch. He asked where I was headed, and when I said Orlando, he wondered aloud about hurricane Isaac. I replied that it had headed west away from Orlando, and up into New Orleans. “That is my home.”, he replied and continued, “I am from Biloxi, Mississippi.” I asked him what had brought him north from Mississippi to Minneapolis. I wondered whether or not he was displaced a few years back by hurricane Katrina.

As it turns out, he had been asked by his cousin to drive him from Biloxi to Minneapolis, and he had decided to stay. “That was in 1963.”, he said, staring up at the ceiling to pick the correct year out of his memory. As the story continued, I learned he had a wife and two children in Biloxi, but when he had asked them to come with him, his wife told him she wouldn’t follow him across the street, much less to Minnesota. So he left, and they divorced. He had planned to stay single after that, he informed me with a slight twinkle in his cloudy eyes, but his second wife had something to say about that. They have been married 42 years, and have four children. As he continued his story, I learned he drove a city bus for a few decades, putting two of his children through Bethel University and two through University of Minnesota.

As he reached for the heel polish, he smiled at me and said the second marriage seems to be working out better than the first. The smile shifted to a mischievous grin, when he informed me that he had heard from his first wife a few years back. She wanted him to know she wouldn’t ever marry anybody but him. He paused for effect and said he had kindly let her know that she had had her chance, so at this point, she had better just get used to being single. After he retired from the city, he started shining shoes three days a week, and the other days he goes fishing. As he straightened my laces, he said, “At my age, you just gotta keep moving, because if you stop, things don’t work no more.” I told him I believed that was true at any age.

After I said my goodbyes and headed to the gate, I couldn’t help but think about how well he told his life story, and how well he synchronized it to the length of a shoeshine. I wondered if that was a well-worn rendition he shared with many people, or if hurricane Isaac had inspired his storytelling. Or just maybe, I have inherited my mother’s ability to ask a few questions and have strangers share their life stories. Whatever the reason, that was the best shoeshine I ever had. Come to think of it, I never even looked at my shoes.

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Elvis Has Left the Building!

On the first day of my 51st year, I headed out for an early morning run, and followed it up with a wonderful ride in the cool morning air on the Ducati. I couldn’t help thinking about what an intense week it had been.

This past Wednesday, after weeks of furious preparations, we dropped our one and only son off at Marquette University to begin his freshman year. We dutifully lined up with our carts full of supplies, bags strapped on every appendage, and mashed into the elevator for our journey to the 17th floor of his dormitory. A cacophony of wobbling wheels, dropped boxes and overly agitated collegiate students provided the backdrop to our mission to move him in. Since his roommate had not yet arrived, we took the liberty of helping him arrange the furniture. Look! I know we are supposed to just let go, but the room was so full of boxes, desks, tables, suitcases, clothes and supplies, that something had to be done. There was only a single four foot by three foot empty bit of floor space. I convinced Connor that we should seize the moment, and move things at least into some semblance of organization. Like solving that little 15-square puzzle game, also called the Mystic Square, utilizing the empty tile space to shuffle the other pieces into order, we made our plan of attack and completed our furniture ballet with nary a dent nor scratch. Shortly after, Nolan and family arrive, and we bid a hasty retreat. Although he is completely ready to be on his own, I felt a notable extra squeeze to his parting hug.

This past Friday, I celebrated turning 50 years old. Yes, it is that mark of all marks, a half century down! I am sure the mailbox is stuffed with AARP applications right now. Still a bit stunned and exhausted from sending Connor off, I think I pretty much have stumbled through the 50-mark. Not really ignoring it, but more or less just wandering past it in a bit of a daze. I did reflect a bit as I ran and rode this morning, taking stock and for some reason, was stuck on the healthy, wealthy and wise promise of being an early riser. Healthy? Most certainly! Other than the occasional irritated calf muscle strained while running, or the slightly wacky eyesight that has forced me to buy some driving goggles, I am overjoyed at moving into my second half-century feeling absolutely great. Wealthy? Indeed. I continue to be blessed with family and friends that would put George Bailey to shame. I was aptly reminded of this over this past week and wish to thank you all. Wise? Hmmm … well, I suppose I have my moments, and my failings. Just a couple of days ago, traveling on a business trip and realizing only moments before I needed to be ready for a business meeting that I had forgotten my toothpaste, I did my best MacGyver survey of the room. The options were bleak, and it came down to the soap; a very unwise decision. When I was young, I obviously never had my mouth washed out with soap, for I would absolutely remember THAT taste. It still makes me shudder to think about it.

As I ponder these two major events, separated by only a day, I can’t help but feel the sense of loss for Connor as a child, and for youth. I have to come to terms with the fact that he is an adult, very well equipped to take on the next phase of his life, and celebrate his accomplishments. I also have to come to terms with the fact that I cannot purchase any new vehicles, clothing, or do anything out of the ordinary for the next decade, for I will be shunned for having some type of mid-life crisis. Most of all, even though I want to linger and reminisce about both of these pasts, it is pointless. Ladies and gentlemen, in both cases, Elvis has most definitely left the building! It is time to see what comes next.

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Serious Ear Therapy

Over the course of the last three decades, music has progressed (or regressed) from purely analog to digital, then to sampled and compressed digital. This was driven by the desire to ‘personalize’ music and bring and have as much of it available, in as little space as possible. From the audio CD, to MP3 players, and into the iPod decade, the music and components kept getting smaller and more compact. The problem with this is that the audio quality diminishes the more the music is compressed. Depending on the sampling settings you used when you loaded the music in, the listening experience may be anywhere from slightly deteriorated to horribly thin and distorted. Combine the compressed music files with crappy little earbuds, and it is almost a wonder you can recognize what the music actually originally was. But over the course of years, you become accustomed to listening to that thin facsimile … and you simply forget. And then, something comes along to remind you.

At work, we have been working with a stereophone manufacturer for a number of years … and I am purposefully not talking about brands, because this isn’t an infomercial … this is about music. This is about being awakened to, and reminded of, what music is supposed to be. Through our work and conversations about the essence of stereophones, of the brand promise of how music is meant to be heard, I was reminded of those days back in the late 70’s, plugged into the turntable, a monster pair of headphones perched on your head, listening to a new album without any ambient noise. Throughout our conversation, I remembered thinking of how good the music sounded when you slipped on a pair of cans; how you could hear things in the music you simply never heard before; how you heard the music the way it was meant to be heard.

Having lost track of the last pair of headphones I owned, probably back in the early 90’s, and being inspired by reminiscent thoughts of pure music, I ordered a pair of high-end, over the ear, studio stereo-phones. Two days later, I was opening the box and pulling out a full-sized, fully cushioned, metal framed pair of cans that were meant for business. Simply holding them in my hands made me anticipate the sounds I would hear. My earbuds lay impotently crumpled in a pile as I plugged myself into the iPad. I completely understand the loss of audio quality with MP3s, so I have always ripped my CDs in at a higher sampling rate. They are not ripped in at ‘loss-less’, but certainly better than default settings. I spun through the selections and started really listening.

For the next three hours, I sat quietly listening to the music. I simply listened to music, like I haven’t heard music, in almost 20 years. I started with Rachmaninov as played by Gavrilov, each note as clear as if I were sitting on the bench next to him. The impossibly large intervals, being complimented by the faint sounds of pedaling. Next, I listened to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major. As the viola plaintively and expressively cries the melody, the clarity causes your breathing to become just a bit ragged, uneven. Moving into contemporary music, I needed to hear the jazzy and complex interactions of Weather Report’s Birdland, and the full orchestra accompaniments in Fool’s Overture on Supertramp’s Even in the Quietest Moments. Typically very restless and task oriented, I had no problem working my way through song after song, genre after genre. I was listening to the incredibly moving voice that belongs to Leona Lewis when my plug got pulled and I was herded off to get ready for dinner.

As I gently set the phones on the table, I was completely transported back to my early listening days. My memories were completely accurate. The music I had just listened to was full, rich and perfectly tuned to be delivered to my ears just as it had been done. It was serious ear therapy, and something I had not enjoyed for two decades. How did that happen? How did I wander away so far away from what music really is? As I walked away, I was already making a mental list of the CD’s I would be re-ripping into my library under the loss-less encoder, thus bringing the experience completely back to how it was originally recorded. While I am not completely convinced I’ll be able to pick up the subtle audio differences of going that extra step, I certainly look forward to my therapy session and finding out.

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BP, You’re Dead to Me!

Like too many of us in America, my family consumes a lot of gasoline. In our little fleet, we are trying to keep four cars, three motorcycles, two lawn mowers, one ATV and a partridge in a pear tree running. When you throw in the weed eater and other miscellany, astonishingly I think we are approaching 50 spark plugs. Clearly it is time to begin divesting, but in the meantime, all of these cylinders … when in use … have been fueled by British Petroleum. My affinity for the BP brand began when the first Amoco stations starting being re-branded over to the ‘BP green’ brand. I don’t know if it felt a bit gentler, or greener, or had a slight British sophistication that appealed to me. For whatever reason, we have been a highly loyal BP fleet, pumping considerable amounts of our hard earned cash into BP machines, for years. It is funny how brand loyalty works; what starts a relationship, what trauma a relationship survives, and what eventually kills it.

Part of our commitment to BP is the accumulation of loyalty points; which then can be redeemed for any number of awards, including BP Gift Cards. The gift cards, typically our chosen award, is simply a prepaid credit card in increments of $25 or $50. You drive up to the pump, swipe the card, pump until the card is emptied, and off you go. Or at least that is the way it is supposed to work. Unfortunately, our local BP station, the Delafield Convenience, can’t seem to get the process mastered. Maybe they have old pumps. Maybe they don’t know how to configure what payment is accepted during which business hours. Maybe they are employing a strategy of coaxing you into the store by disallowing pay-at-the pump. Whatever the cause, I would suggest they are blissfully ignorant of what erodes brand loyalty. For the past couple of years, I have been met with a consistent stream of disallowed attempts to read gift cards, get receipts, use the regular BP Credit Card, etc. In a scene horribly reminiscent of “PC Load Letter” in Office Space, the pump simply reads “See Clerk”. Well guess what! I don’t want to see the clerk. And I certainly don’t want to see the clerk simply to use the gift card that has been awarded to me for my consistent loyalty. What logic is being employed to disallow the use of their own BP Gift Cards? They hold value, or they don’t. The pump automatically stops when the card is exhausted. There is no “drive off” risk to the station. Yet, the pump silently taunts me with “See Clerk”.

I stroll into the station, as I have done dozens of times to get a receipt that should automatically shoot out of the pump, or ask why I cannot process a gift card … to be met with the explanation that the gift card in question will work inside if the pump won’t let it be used outside. Fine! A stroll in, a stroll out, pump some gas, a stroll in and back out will be a nice addition of exercise to my morning errand. Yet at the pump, I try to engage the fuel type by selecting “Pay Inside” only to be met with the intransigent adherence to “See Clerk”. As I stare in irritated disbelief, the clerk sticks her head out the door and broadcasts loudly that I need to pull around to the inside pump to pay inside. Really? Seriously? I replace the nozzle with my right hand, as I form the “OK” signal with my left hand, and give her an exaggerated wink. Quick as a bunny, I jump into my car, pull across the street to the Daybreak Mobil Station, and activate the pump with my credit card. With the aforementioned clerk watching from across the street, I fill my car, collect my receipt on the spot, and drive off quietly.

As I reflected, I realized that brand loyalty is truly a peculiar phenomenon. In this case, it started for reasons I can’t even remember. Once the connection was made, however, it was a strong enough bond to survive a trauma of global proportions. The Gulf spill was a horrible event, but I rationalized that it really could have happened to any company, and anybody that has worked in a giant company will completely understand … huge multinationals, like our governments, are totally unprepared to deal with catastrophe. With that line of thinking, I had continued to stick by BP. But when it came down to the day-to-day interaction with the local representative of the brand, when it came to repeatedly disallowing the most simple of transactions … I cracked. Essentially, I threw my hands in the air and proclaimed “BP, you’re dead to me!” Years of loyalty eventually undone by the one local station that I interacted with the most. Hours later, remembering the cheerful blue Mobil pump and the advertising for the efficient Speed Pass feature, I jumped on the web and opened a Mobil account, complete with cards and Speed Pass key fobs. I guess for me, at least with commodity products, it comes down to making sure that everyone you rely on to represent your brand, starts with getting the basics done right and done consistently. Without the basics, there really isn’t anything left to build upon.

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