Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Hear The Train Wreck A'Comin'

This past week has been full of suck.

My bank account is near empty three days after pay day, and not for anything fun. My oldest not-so-mini-me treats me like a complete jerk when I leave work a little early so I can catch the end of his basketball game. I come home to my disaster caused by three males living in a limited amount of space of an apartment to read a note on my door about the bank inspecting 10 percent of the apartments at random in two days time. And I was having a text war with my ex-wife that included discussions of garnished wages and threats of jail time. Top that off with the cherry, an unsolicited text conversation regarding politics that did nothing but first confuse me, then annoy me.

And I'm smack dab in the middle of two major work projects that require constant attention from me and my staff while the store is open. 

The stress level has been through the roof, no doubt. My first fantasy, my go-to fantasy, was to pack up a few essentials in my Saturn Ion and head for a nice Mexican beach. But, alas, said Saturn Ion is waiting for Dr. Kevorkian's staff to arrive any day now, and wouldn't have made it past Mexico, Missouri.

Then I thought about just saying screw it and calling in sick and drinking cheap beer and eating frozen pizzas and microwaveable bacon for a month.  I ended up taking a day off work to clean my apartment, and deal with car issues. Wasn't quite as fun as the beer, frozen pizza and bacon fantasy.

The old me would have let the entire ball of stress swallow me whole, and I'd be in the corner, rocking back and forth in the fetal position sucking my thumb. But the new me, the one who has faced far worse than this, and realized it's survivable, just did what any grown up does. I tackled the problems one at a time.

I swallowed my pride and asked for some help from my parents to help cover the unusual expenses I had this month - baseball league fee for the youngest mini-me, and having to pay out of pocket for a printing project for work that I'll get reimbursed for a few weeks from now.

I told my oldest son that I wouldn't bother going to any of his games from now on if he chose to disrespect me like he did. He quickly apologized the faint Teenage Apology...a muffled "I'm sorry" while staring at his iPad. But he did tell me he wanted me to come to his next game.

I cleaned my apartment, though not likely to the bank's liking, so I used my wherewithal. I wedged a chair on the door handle so they couldn't enter the apartment. And left through the patio door. The cleaning continues, and luckily my apartment shows no signs of forceful entry.

I sent a text telling my ex wife that I was fully prepared to go to court if that's what she wanted to do. Current divorce laws would be much more favorable to me, as the law changed shortly after my divorce to take away the notion that the parent with the penis was less worthy somehow.

And I let the political texter know that I respected their opinion, but that I didn't see how venting to me would help the situation. I've been pissed off by political leaders plenty in my lifetime, but I don't let it consume me to the point where I sent unsolicited texts about my frustration to friends or family.

Then I read a Facebook status update this afternoon from a friend who was admiring her amazing veterinarian. She asked her if she was as good at life as she was in the examination room. The vet replied with a laugh and admitted "No, my life is a train wreck." 

And it made me realize that even though I was putting on a fake smile with every customer this week, and to my employees to a lesser degree, and to my sons an even smaller bit, that I too was facing my own train wreck. Just like my friend's vet. And the soccer mom you passed on the freeway tonight. And the guy driving the Porsche who is wearing designer jeans and alligator skin shoes.

All of us, every last one, has our own train wrecks in life. It's how we deal with the boxcar wreckage that matters in the end. If we stand there staring at it, and don't try and fix anything, well, then we've got a nice monument to our failure. If we pick up the boxcars, and the engine, and the cute little caboose, and wedge the track back together when necessary, we can keep moving down the tracks. Until the next train wreck, of course. And if we're smart about it, we'll even ask others to help us when necessary to go through the clean-up.

There isn't some magical group of people who get to glide through life without derailment. Well, maybe MNDOT Snowplow drivers, but I digress. The people who appear to have their shit together only differ from others in that they've found a way to pick up the pieces as best possible and get the train wreck survivors rolling back down the line.

It's never easy. But the more times you do it, the better you get at it, just like anything in life. And you might even get to the point, like me, where you can feel the vibrations on the track and know... "I hear the train wreck a'comin'."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Worst. Customer. Ever.

In my three years of working in retail, I've had my share of interesting customers. There was the drunk and exuberant Scientologist who talked to me for hours about his "close friend" Tom Cruise. There was the customer who always smelled like a dirty diaper, and nobody on my staff could determine his/her gender. Or the customer we've come to know as "Bike Boy," who literally rides his bicycle miles to our store every few days -- in rain, snow or shine -- to buy a small amount of food (I even jokingly offered to set him up with a cot in my back room he's there so often).

But today, I encountered a customer I pray never sets foot in my store again. I knew right away she was a new customer, because she came from the opposite direction of where my regular customers come from. In case you missed it, my store is in a really hard-to-find location, doesn't face any streets, and has no decent signage visible from said streets. So when she walked in from the opposite direction, I was already prepared for her first words.

I started with my standard greeting.

Me: Hello, welcome to ___________, how are you doing today?
Worst Customer Ever (WCE): Well not very good, I've been trying to find you for hours.
Me: Well that's a shame, if you had called me, I would have been able to help you find us in a matter of minutes.
WCE: I came up Elevator 1 from the underground parking. They should put an elevator closer to your store.
Me: Actually Elevator 2 comes out right across there (as I point 200 feet away to a door to Elevator 2).

WCE: This store is so hard to find.

Up to this point, the conversation was going the way literally hundreds before it had gone with first time customers. I pointed to the sign behind my cash register that reads "Yes, we know we're hard to find. You are one of the lucky ones who found us, so SMILE!" Usually this disarms the frustrated customer, and they move on to concentrating on what they came in the store for. Not WCE.

WCE: Whoever put this store here should be fired immediately.
Me: Well we've been in this location for over three years now, so I don't think anyone is getting fired for it. What can I help you with today?
WCE: Oh, yes, I'm so flustered, let me collect myself. I have so many different coupons I don't know what to do. 

Finally, after going through her small stack of coupons, I suggested that a combo package she had for $49.99 was the best bang for the buck. As I began grabbing the various boxes out of the freezer for this package, her body language told me something was wrong.

WCE: That's a lot of boxes. Since I parked really far away because your store is hard to find, I'm not sure I can lift that.
Me: Well, if you need help to your car, I can lock my store up and help you carry the bag for you. But really, this is a great deal. Lots of food for the $49.99 price.

WCE: Oh no, I'm sure I'll be fine as long as I can find my car. You're store is really hidden.
Me: I know. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that in the last three years, well, I'd have a lot of nickels. (And if I had a dollar for every time she'd already mentioned it, I'd have enough to buy a pizza).
WCE: Does this come with the free knives and cutting board like on the coupon?
Me: Yes it does, I'm grabbing those right now for you.

I force a smile as I continue my usual sales presentation, and explain to her a few options she has for this particular deal.

Me: So this box of steaks that usually goes for $89 can be traded out in the package for just $20. Even though I'm not usually a big fan of top sirloin, I had one of the best meals of my life with these top-of-the-line steaks.

WCE: Well they look awfully big. I don't think I could eat all that.
Me: Well that's another nice thing about these steaks, they're really thick. I usually thaw them out and butterfly them so I can get two steaks out of each one.

WCE: I don't know what I would cut them with. I don't have any knives to do that.
Me (while fighting the urge to bring up the free knives she just made a big deal about): It's okay, you don't have to do the upgrade. I just have to tell you about it. You can do that anytime we have a combo with this other box of steaks in it for future reference.

At this point, I realized that this sale would take longer than normal to ring up, because it was a mail order offer. Usually I can type in an 8 digit code that automatically brings up all the items in a package, but for this one I would have to look in a separate system on the register for the price breakdown on each item, and ring each of the 10 items up by hand.

Me: This is going to take me a little longer than usual to ring you up, because it's not one that's meant to be done in the store. While I'm doing that, you qualify for a great deal as a first time customer. Normally, my customers, after they make a purchase, can go over to that board on the wall there and do a buy one, get one free from the list. You actually, to welcome you to the store, qualify for a buy one get two free.
WCE: So if I buy something more, you give me another item free?
Me: No, actually, as I said, for first time customers, they get to do buy one, get two free. You just pay for the highest priced item you choose, and get two more free.
WCE: Well I've never had your products before, how do I know if I'll like it?
Me: We have a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee on everything we sell. If you don't like it, we'll give you your money back, a replacement, or an in store credit.

She looked at me as if I had just kicked her puppy with steel-toed boots.

WCE: I am just so flustered, all I want to do is get out of this store because I spent all afternoon trying to find you.

Me: That's fine, I'm ringing you up right now. You can decide if you want to do that deal or not.
WCE: This is just too overwhelming. I don't think I can do this.

If this is overwhelming for her, I was wondering how she deals with such difficult life matters as "paper or plastic?" or "would you like the receipt with you or in the bag?" or "Is that cash or charge?"

I finally finished ringing up her combo, and she pulls out what appear to be two e-gift cards to cover the full amount of the sale. 

Me: Okay, I'll take those for you. This will also take a minute, because I have to hand enter the gift card number into our register.
WCE: I really just want to go now.
Me: I'm hurrying, ma'am. It will just take a minute. I can't scan these like I can with an actual physical gift card.

The system we use to lock the gift cards flashed a message that told me these were not the typical gift card. They actually are cards that have to be rung in to the register differently, which forced me to have to start ringing up the sale all over again. In addition, I knew at this point it was a sale that my store didn't get credit for.

Me: Ma'am, I apologize, but this card isn't a typical gift card. I have to re-ring this sale up differently than I did, so it will be just one more minute.
WCE: I should have just ordered these over the phone.

Me: The 800 number is on the coupon, but just so you know you'd be paying at minimum $14.99 in shipping costs for that.
WCE: I probably spent that much in gas just trying to find your store.

I finally finished ringing her up, and got ready to bag up the 10 items she didn't pay one penny for.

Me: Would you like me to put these in two small bags for better balance, or one large bag?
WCE: One large bag is fine, if that makes it quicker, so I can leave faster.

I bagged her boxes up, and she now gave me a look as if I had just told her that her family had died in a fiery plane crash.

WCE: I don't think I can carry that in one bag. Would it be possible for me to get two smaller bags?
Me: Oh, definitely. Let me just re-pack this for you.

I quickly finished re-packing the boxes into two small bags, and told her I was sorry again for the extra time it took, but that I had never seen any gift cards like the ones she had.

WCE: Oh, well I got these from the airline because the last time we flew on vacation with them they gave us such horrible customer service. I complained about it, so they sent me these gift cards.
*What I WANTED to say: No shit? You complained about customer service? I can't imagine you complaining about anything.*
What I ACTUALLY said: Well it's always nice when a company goes above and beyond to turn a negative experience into a positive one.
WCE: I'll never fly with them again in my life.

Me: Well hopefully enjoying this hundreds of dollars worth of free food will be some consolation.

By now, I really wish I could have issued her a free flight with what ever airline originally scorned her, so I could keep paying it forward, so to speak. As I walked her to the door to point her to the closer elevator, I took the coupon she used and tucked it in one of her two small bags.

Me: You know, usually we have to keep the coupons, but I thought I'd give this back, and let you know that for your convenience, you can call the 800 number on here and have it shipped directly from our headquarters to your doorstep in the future. That way you won't have to go through the frustration of finding us again!

WCE: Well, let's see if I even like your food first.
Me: Oh I'm sure you will. Good luck finding your car, and I hope you have a wonderful day!

As I watched her walk away, I thanked Baby Jeebus for three things: 
1) That she would likely never be able to find my store again, 
2) That this twenty minutes of my life was over, and 
3) That I wasn't her husband.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Mirror Image Not-So-Mini-Me

“Like its politicians and its war, society has the teenagers it deserves”
_ Joseph Priestley

I remember the days when I was a freshman in high school.

I was a tall, lanky, geeky nerd. I lacked social skills, and was incredibly shy, believe it or not. I was obsessed with girls, but not one girl was aware of that fact. Nor were my parents. I was awkward, had pimples, goofy hair, and probably weighed about 120 pounds dripping wet.

It was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times. If you wanted to put me in hell, make me a freshman in high school for eternity. 

And now, 28 years later, I'm watching my oldest son go through his own hell. He's tall(er), lanky, and a bit of a geeky nerd. He lacks social skills (though less so than I did), is incredibly shy, is probably obsessed with girls, but no girls know for sure, nor do I. He is awkward, has pimples, goofy hair, and weighs about 120 pounds dripping wet. He's my mirror image not-so-mini-me.

And as I've mentioned in previous blog entries, I didn't have to face the things he has had to in the last seven years: a split home, moving across town to a new school in eight grade, into a home with new "pseudo siblings." I didn't have to navigate issues with transitioning between two homes every week, or figuring out what things I need to bring with me each time. 

The last few months have afforded me some quality time with him that has been absolutely amazing. We've spent one-on-one time, talking through life issues. He tells me his problems. I tell him mine. We talk about how life can be really difficult sometimes. How some days you just want to scream "¡NO MAS!"

I just hope every day that he can come out of this as unscathed as possible. He's already flirted with the whole "I don't need to study, I'm smart" thing in his first semester of high school. His horrible GPA and being dropped from his advanced classes have, I hope, sent him a wake up message or two. But I know the next few years are going to be a roller coaster. 

I remember my friends with older kids always telling me to get ready for the teenage years. I always thought "it can't be THAT bad" to myself. And of course I was wrong. So to my friends with younger kids, I warn you, BE READY! And by be ready, I mean, give up control, because it's going to go away anyway. I'm not saying don't lay down the law. I'm saying forget about a kid telling you "please," and "thanks" and smiling at you. Ever. And forget about any words you speak having ANY level of intelligence in their world.

I'll see him on the other side of this mess, and hopefully continue to have one-on-one time where we can escape our two separate worlds for a few minutes to check-in. And just as my dad did for me, I'll guide him as best I can, even if he doesn't always listen.

I also am well aware that a few decades from now, he'll be in my shoes (even if he wears a size bigger than me already). And God willing, I'll be sitting someplace warm, overlooking a beach, telling him over the phone "Yes, son, I remember going through this stage with you. Good luck!"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again

February can kiss my ass.

I absolutely loathe everything about this month. And it's not just because it has Valentine's Day in it. And while I'm thankful it's the shortest month, I still some days would rather cut this month out and make March twice as long.

Why do I hate February you ask? (If you didn't ask, oh well, you're going to get the answer) Let's just review my history of February over recent years.

February 2005: The beginning of the end of my marriage (well truthfully, it started much earlier, but this was when things got REALLY ugly, so perhaps it was the near-end to the end?). It was at this point that I lived in my own bedroom, in the same house, because under Minnesota law, if I had left the home it could be used against me in court as "abandonment" of my parental rights. Thank you Minnesota for a law that essentially keeps couples at risk of strangling/stabbing/shooting each other together under the same roof. Oh and my ex-wife's birthday is in February, too. So there.

February 2008: The first serious relationship I had after my divorce began to unravel, right around Valentine's Day (shocker!). I found out that one of her old flames was busy trying to get her back, and even though she wasn't pursuing it, she wasn't stopping it. I was prepared to spend the rest of my life with this woman. I loved her. I loved her daughter. But then that damn month of February had to pop up and get in the way. I stumbled a bit, but I persevered.

February 2009: This year's installation takes the cake for it's sucktacular craptasticness. This was literally when I hit bottom in life. My second serious relationship since my divorce ended rather abruptly (think of going from hearing "I love you and miss you" one week to "This just isn't working" the next). The day after it ended with the girlfriend, I lost the job that was my most favorite of ALL I've held - writing for an amazing and creative film and corporate training company. And within two weeks of that I also lost my home and my car. This was the closest I've ever come in life to giving up. But I didn't. So yeah. Suck it, February.

February 2012: On the face of it, last year's entry in the "Sucktacular Sweepstakes" would have appeared to most people to be pretty benign. After all, I traveled to San Diego for an amazing vacation with friends. Only it was a farewell trip with the Now Ex-Lady Friend®, my third serious relationship since my divorce. We had ended things the previous month, but the vacation was already booked, so we toughed it out and decided to still go. It was a fantastic trip, but it was like an alcoholic's last bender - bittersweet and leaving you feeling both elated and horrible when it's over. I said goodbye to another woman I envisioned spending my life with. But I kept on keepin' on. Even though Now Ex-Lady Friend's® birthday was in February, too.

I haven't quit you (yet) February! I'm still here. I'm not hiding in my cave. And I'm most certainly NOT blaming others. In fact I'm very close to all but one of the parties involved in the horrible months above, and I'd happily remain close with her if she'd acknowledge my existence. I consider all of these women (including my ex-wife) to be amazing people, or I wouldn't have had the connection I had with them. And they will always be in my heart.

It does me no good to go into this month with a defeatist attitude. Hiding behind my fear will not help me conquer this beotch I call February (or this February I call beotch). Complaining about being disappointed by the actions or inactions of others (girlfriends, employers, mortgage companies, car loan companies) is a complete waste of time. The only one who can make this and future Februaries good for me is the person who just typed this sentence. 

So I vow that every day this month I will wake up, shower, get ready for work, get my sons to school, feed them, pay bills, do the best I can every day at work, and remember that if I assume that this month will suck, it most definitely will.

No way, February. I got this. You've got 21 more days to mess with me. But I have 21 more days to put all my energy into remembering one simple truth. I'm a lucky man. Because even though you've tried to knock me out year after year, I'm still standing. And I've got one helluva team assembled in my corner. 

I am not a victim. I'm a survivor. Soon to be thriver.

And some day, I'm going to be enjoying Valentine's Day with the love of my life. And you'll still be the shortest month of the year. GFY.