WELCOME - Let's Look At Life and Rant About It!!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Today With The Short Straw ...

It's not actually a straw ... it's a red marble. On one of those "Bring Your Child To Word Day" debacles, some kid left a game in the break room. It sat in Lost/Found forever, so we pilfered several marbles from its contents ... one red and about a dozen white ones ... to help our office perform a hated monthly ritual. The task is vile. Loathsome. It makes you feel dirty and in immediate need of a hot shower. The morbid task is emptying the company suggestion box and logging the comments into the computer system!

We haven't actually "drawn straws" yet, but I have that feeling at the base of my brain that says my number is up. Like when you get the letter in the mail from the court house and your brains screams "Jury Duty!" This is the first company I have ever worked for that takes its "suggestion box" concept so seriously. Since the first of this year, I have had the honor once ... in April, I think. It really isn't difficult ... get the key, unlock the box ... a gaudy-looking rectangle that hangs from a wall near a set of public restrooms ... collect the slips of paper or folded notes or whatever, go back to your desk and log into a part of the Human Resources intranet, and finally key in the information. A monkey could do it ... well, I guess there are a few procedures that require a human with basic decisionmaking abilities. The "suggestion" must be typed "as is" ... verbatim. And there are check boxes for whether the entry was "written" or "printed" from a computer as if to disguise the contributor's identity. There is also a blank for putting the name of the contributor if they have happened to sign the comment. And believe it or not, some idiots want credit for the inane crap they propose. As a joke, I once considered suggesting something wildly stupid like "Stall-less Unisex Bathrooms" or "Chinese New Year's Day as a paid day off for anyone who could prove they were a cock, rabbit, or dragon" and then signing someone else's name to it ... like that douchebag in Fulfillment who always codes my mailings incorrectly. Too much time on my hands some days, I guess.

Anyway, last April when I "earned" the honor of viewing the wisdom of our collective office ethos, I had 16 suggestions to record. Most of them were of the printed variety to protect employee anonymity. Of the 16, only ten were actually suggestions ... six were just general complaints or the rantings of malcontents. But each was specific and needed to be recorded. "I need a raise!" was one comment; another was "Our company president needs to be told where to find a decent haircut."

One of my favorite concrete suggestions was "teach the cleaning crew how to clean." On the surface, this sounds pretty snarky, but I was betting that the contributor was actually being kind. Our custodial staff is mostly comprised of Hispanic-Americans who genuinely seem to have problems understanding English. I know that they get their instructions from a supervisor with a dubious work ethic ... they probably would do a better job if they were properly shown what was expected.

My least favorite
suggestion from last April was "award the top salesperson each quarter with a party and a front-row parking spot." COME ON!! ... our sales staff already enjoys a very generous bonus program and, to be honest, many of the rest of us bring in just as much business in other ways ... we just don't have the word "sales" in our position titles. Where's our incentives? Front-row parking would be cool, though ... especially in the winter!

uring my tenure with the suggestion box, there was one truly stellar suggestion that management is actually pursuing. Some clever individual wrote "put keycard 'roadblocks' in each major department so people aren't just roaming around the building."

company operates out of one major building with a few nearby satellite facilities. Our main entrance has a clearly-defined front desk staffed my a number of very bright, friendly, and conscientious individuals that monitor the comings and goings of visitors, sales reps, delivery personnel, media inquiries, etc. But occasionally, those same people are away on break or out sick or busy helping complete a big company mailing or other project that distracts them a bit. People do slip through and it can be annoying. I myself have been sitting at my desk when a printing rep or a paper salesperson just walks in and sits down with a big grin and starts talking. The majority of those times I am too busy to deal with the individuals or unprepared to discuss business particulars. Other times, I'm just not in the mood and would put them off for a day or two. Regardless, keycard "checkpoints" would stop this from ever happening again.

by and large, the absolute worst part of checking the suggestion box ... hands down ... is the idle gossip and personal "espionage" that gets reported. Every month, there are little jewels like "someone in accounting is stealing from petty cash" and "I smell alcohol on so-and-so's breath all the time!" Those "suggestions" I feel really slimy about recording into the computer. I guess I could always crumple them up, put them in my pocket, and pretend like they never existed. But what if the "rumor" was true and reporting it could have helped someone? Or worse, what if the contributor goes the next step and directly lodges a complaint. Then I get drawn into a game of "I said/they said" and my integrity gets called into question.

st April, I had the misfortune of logging a "suggestion" that caused quite a stir. On a slip of ivory stationary was the statement "Clark Jones ... the very married Clark Jones ... is sleeping with Melody Hayes." And Melody works as an assistant in my department.

my knowledge, unless it is a relationship between a direct supervisor and a reporting employee, our company has no prohibitions on office romance. Clark and Melody work for very dissimilar departments which are even at a great physical distance to each other. They seldom cross paths ... well, if the gossip is true they're "crossing" much more than paths. Anyway, Clark's supervisor ... a very prudish lady with a reputation for being a hardnose ... was apparently informed of the rumor and has made it her mission in life to make Clark's worklife miserable, saddling him with every nuisance project she can find. I've heard people comment that he'd consider getting fired a blessing! And no one even knows if it's true. And regardless, it wouldn't matter!!

, God ... I hear the marbles! Someone's shaking the damned bag we keep them in. Maybe I should just go hide in the bathroom. Happy thoughts! ... Happy thoughts!

OF RANT: "Truth" is such a fickle bitch!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Today On The Drawing Board ...

Every once in a while I get an idea that sticks in my head. It's times like this that I wish "Jimmy Neutron - Boy Genius" wasn't a cartoon character but a flesh-and-blood young inventor ... and that he lived just up the street!

I'm calling my idea "honeycomb glass technology" or HGT. I hate glare on my car's windshield and I have a hell of a time keeping track of good sunglasses once I find a pair. I also once drove a rental car with tinted windows, but the view had a weird bluish "aura" and things looked slightly unreal. I felt like I was driving in a video game instead of on real roads and highways.

HGT would revolutionize the automotive glass industry by creating a glass polymer made up of tiny ... just shy of microscopic ... interlocking hexagonal cells. Each enclosed cell would contain a clear chemical compound ... to be determined later ... that would become a soft, cloudy brown or green when subjected to an electrical current. The basic operating premise would be the more current applied, the darker the tinting. Basically, an adjustable tinted window!

Now I realize this is a bigger, more complex "invention" than my usual clever notions. I'd need the help of practical physicists, applied chemists, electrical and mechanical engineers, and polymer scientists just to name a few. Plus I'd need a mega-lawyer to help me navigate the miasma of federal agency approvals I'd need, as well as broker deals with the big automotive manufacturers.

Up front, I know my "team" would have several things to flush out. Like how to limit the process so a careless user couldn't completely opaque a windshield while the car was moving. And some type of "surge protection" so a jolt of electricity or an engine malfunction couldn't cause the same mishap. There would also need to be some type of light meter integration so that the system would not operate at night or under cloudy and inclement weather conditions. I'm also sure power would be an issue ... especially since I don't know if HGT would operate from occasional small electrical adjustments or require continual electrical stimulation to maintain the "tinting."
But THINK of the possibilities! If HGT works for windshields, why not kitchen windows? Or whole skyscrapers? And wouldn't HGT make for some killer shades and ski goggles? Even kitchen canisters that could display food one minute and then opaque to protect the foodstuffs from damaging UV light.

POINT OF RANT: Does anyone know a friendly venture capitalist? Anyone?!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Today At The Festival ...

I truly hail from Small Town, U.S.A. And like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano ... or the scary buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio ... each year I return with hundreds of other "expatriots" to our four-day home town rural festival. In a nutshell, the event is like a county fair but with twice the charm and half the sophistication. You draw your own picture!

Every small town has one, but in Ohio they seem to take on themes that focus around farming and crops ... corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, gourds, zucchini, and watermelon just to name a few. The festival has some good points. It's a boon to the local economy and keeps the teenagers out of trouble for four whole days. It also gives the entire population the opportunity to see old friends they haven't "visited with" for years ... even decades. And because the fair is small, you get to see those same "old friends" again and again and again!

And the food ... everything "on a stick" you can imagine. Main Street smells like "elephant ears" and side streets present fairgoers with the conflicting aromas of rich gyros and spicy Italian sausage sandwichs. The sizzle of the woks at the Asian food stand are both frightening and hunger-inducing. Our festival also sponsors a chili cook-off and pie-eating contest to bring out the competitive eaters and their cheering supporters. And there are crazy recipe contests where people create things like "tomato brownies" and "Boston zucchini cream pie." Some of it looks delicious!

But my hometown's street fair has some definite low points. Traffic and parking in a small town "stuffed" with visitors is a nightmare. And the midways ... or Main St. and a few side lanes ... are always delightfully filled with dust and debris, sluggish run-off from the concession stands, and strange, unidentifiable odors. And the noise ... the surrounding buildings trap all the ambient sound from talking and yelling and compressors and hydraulics and everything else that goes into running a bustling festival. Imagine the loudest concert you've ever attended ... then double that!

Then there's the entertainment. Annual events include a small-scale tractor pull (a watered-down version of the county fair competition), a baby-crawling contest (they look like little mobile pork roasts with faces battling for a silly plastic trophy), "bathtub races" (watercraft made of the oddest things assembled at a nearby lake with "boaters" acting crazy to win an overnight hotel stay in downtown Columbus), and a tobacco-spitting contest (even more disgusting than you can imagine). Musical entertainment spans both Friday and Saturday evenings. Friday night is always a local band and they're usually pretty good, but they are not allowed to perform until a sufficient number of people have "filtered in" from the area football games. So they get like a whole hour to rock! Then Saturday night is another exercise in sadness as a boring cover band or an actual "real" band with one aging original member still plugging along takes the stage. Time isn't an issue for this concert, although everyone in the audience keeps checking their watches and cell phones hoping that it will soon be over!

Then there's my new category ... "positive" things about the street fair that aren't positive anymore. I've been out of high school for more than a decade and I kept in contact with those individuals who meant something to me. So seeing all those slightly-heavier jocks and less-than-stunning former cheerleaders isn't fun anymore ... if it ever was in the first place. And it's incredibly awkward ... trying to conduct a conversation with someone you barely remember with lame comments like "so how's like without Student Council been treating you?" is physically painful.

Another thing I used to love was the lip sync competition held every Thursday night of the fair in the parking lot behind the local credit union. There were always serious performers and other groups just up on stage to clown around and get the crowd laughing. I always looked forward to the event. This year, I had a great spot ... standing almost up front with a clear view of the stage. Younger performers always go first, so it was no surprise when this cute little girl walked on stage in a tuxedo-esque leotard and top hat. What was surprising was that the costume had a plunging neckline that showed the girl's navel and she was wearing enough make-up to outfit a tiny car full of circus clowns. Then the music started and it just went from bad to disgusting. This nine-year-old girl started "syncing" to a Britney Spears song and playing to the crowd in a very adult way. She had moves that would make a pole dancer blush. Most of the people in the audience were shocked like me ... either staring with gaping mouths or shaking their heads while lowering their eyes away from the live "kiddie porn" revue. One lady a few places over from me ... probably in her 40s ... muttered quite loudly "Where are that girl's parents? ... I need to hit somebody!!" People around her silently nodded their consent

As the little girl continued to gyrate and pelvic-thrust her way across the small stage, I felt an odd tingling in my body. I now know that the sensation was the last "embers" of the little boy inside me who used to run straight from school up to the fair to play games, ride rides that threatened to overwhelm his youthful equilibrium, and consume his body weight in cotton candy, evaporating. Disintegrating. Dying of a broken heart.

POINT OF RANT: I think this "swallow" will be looking for new skies.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Today At Noon ...

Every day at work, I get seriously queasy around 11:30 a.m. It's not because I'm hungry or that I often skip breakfast ... the most important meal of the day. No, it's because at that precise moment, someone sticks their head up from their desk or leans out their office door or peeks around their cubicle and asks "What's everyone doing for lunch?"

Lunch for me, if I'm lucky, is a closed office door so I can just close my eyes or return personal calls and e-mails so I can stay in touch with my friends and family ... emphasis on friends. Sometimes I leave the office and "veg out" at a local coffeehouse or go and grab drive-thru and just sit somewhere and enjoy being away from deadlines and details.

But if unprepared ... like most of the time ... with believable "plans" or plausible excuses, I get enmeshed in the noon-time theatrics of about 12 people making plans to provide their bodies with less than nutritional comestibles. And the saddest part is that the conversation is like a script ... the same thing every day with a few ad libs for variety.

Our department manager ... "The Boss" ... always wants Chinese take-out. It's about the only thing on which he and I see eye-to-eye. I swear I could polish off a carton of Moo Goo Gai Pan or Shrimp Lo Mein or Garlic Pork and Snow Peas or Szechuan Beef every single day!

But then we have Penny ... sweet, lovable, good-sized Penny. Penny is a beautiful curvy woman with an obsession about her weight. She's also under the delusion that the word "salad" is synonymous with adjectives like "low fat" and "healthy." I enjoy a good salad with lots of tomato and cucumber and big slivers of mushroom. Some egg and bleu cheese and bacon never hurts either. And if you top it with fresh white pepper and fat-free Vidalia onion dressing you've created Heaven in a bowl! Penny's leanings run more toward less veggies and more breaded chicken strips and heavy, spicy dressing that glops on the lettuce more like a gravy. Well the lettuce part is healthy ... right?

Then there's Steve. He's a wild card when it comes to lunch plans because his calm, boring demeanor disguises the heart of a culinary adventurer. At his lowest setting, Steve insists on pizza with pineapple and spicy sausage ... or anchovies and hot peppers. At his upper range, Steve has convinced me ... much to my delight ... to try "kani" and "tako" and "hamachi" and yummy "spider rolls" from a great sushi bar nearby.

ur office "traditionalist" is Henry. He knows every burger joint within five square miles and he knows what kind of pickles they use and whether spicy mustard is a standard or special request. When we order out for burgers and a place says they don't have Swiss cheese or avocado slices, Henry gets on the phone and the order is "worked out."

I think Jeanette was placed in our office just to ruffle feathers. She's an outspoken Vegan ... I don't think that requires any more explanation. Pain in the ass during holidays and potluck events. On those days, she brings and lot and takes about the same amount of food back home. We smell it in leftovers for days!

And of course we have Stephanie and Gail. These two women always acquiesce to the majority in the group, but they always add "or we could all go out" to the discussion in a cute, sing-song manner. They work in open cubicles, but I swear they act like they're in a cage all day or shackled to their desks. They get this look in their eyes like lunch outside the office might give them the chance to make their "escape."

But the real key to our department's eating habits ... actually, for most of the building ... is Melody. A more recent addition to our team, Melody is young, cute, blond, and perky. She knows her way around a spreadsheet like no one I know and she's one of those individuals who spends the last 20 minutes of the workday tidying up her desk and files to the point where her area looks like an empty desk that no one's using. Around the first of the year, Melody decided to create a menu book of all the take-out spots in the area, popular restaurants, and even bakeries and caterers and party supply places. It has become the "Rosetta stone" of the office; the book itself is crafted and organized to the standards of an Olympic-level scrapbooker. I'm not kidding ... our accounting and legal departments combined don't pay that much attention to detail.

Sometimes when the big hand is on the 6 and the little hand is just over the 11, I long for the simplicity of elementary school. When lunch convened back then, the choices were either the meal your Mom "packed" ... which could be upgraded with carefully-orchestrated trades and swaps between strategically-aligned parties in the manner of a childhood NATO ... or shuffling along the metal cafeteria "line" to receive your tray of various victuals designed to address ... or mimic ... the basic food groups. An d damn if the chocolate milk and apple crisp weren't like manna from the gods.

POINT OF RANT: I always push for lunch with "The Boss" ... he has the type of ego that often prompts him to pick up the check!!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Today With My Blood Pressure ...

I'm so pissed ...really steamed ... and I blame it all on Labor Day! That was the weekend when it all came to a head and I was "put in my place," or so that's how it was related to a family friend who likes to gossip. The holiday will never be the same again!!

Let me give you some background. Every year since I was a small child, my family has always hosted a major picnic/cookout on Labor Day or sometimes the day before. Once my parents were gone, my oldest brother took over the tradition, but the last few years we have held the gathering at my sister's place because she has the most space and good street parking. It's just family and close friends but the number of attendees is close to 30. This year, we were all sitting down at tables and in lawn chairs and on sundry "perches" when I noticed my sister's daughter ... my 14-year-old niece talking loudly on her cell phone. I admit I have a thing about cell phones and how they bring out the rudeness in people ... it's really a pet peeve I need to work on. Anyway, I casually walked over to where she was sitting and asked her nicely to put her phone away and enjoy the day with the rest of us.

"In a minute," she replied and turned her head away from me to continue talking.

I walked around to her other side and said quite firmly. "Now!" She grinned, playfully flipped me off, and went right on with her conversation.

With a good head of steam, I sat my food down on a nearby table and placed my hand lightly over her phone. "Seriously ... you're gonna act like that. Can't you call them back in an hour and at least act like you're happy to see these people and carry on a few real conversations?" She looked at me with these big, uncomprehending eyes. "Hell, ask whoever you're talking to to come over and join the party. The brauts are great!"

My niece made apologies to her phone buddy, made some comment about "adults," and pocketed her cell. I returned to my seat and mouthed a "thank you" in her direction. The heated look she gave me ... had it been a corporeal thing ... would have incinerated me on the spot.

Just as I was raising a forkful of colorful pasta salad to my mouth, my sister appeared and nicely asked me if I could help her with something in the kitchen. The fact that she asked "nicely" should have been my first warning sign. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON ... DANGER!!

We had barely entered the kitchen and closed the door before my sister turned on me, her face distorted like a snarling beast. "What the hell was that little 'show' all about?" she demanded. "What gives you the right to embarrass my daughter like that?!"

"Huh?" I stammered. I was genuinely perplexed.

"It's none of your damn business when my daughter uses her cell phone or texts her friends. You're her uncle, not her warden." My sister threw her hands in the air and added, "Oh, you're not a parent ... you can't understand!"

I imagined my self being slapped in the face with a leather glove. I suddenly was not in the mood for my sister's routine histrionics and superior attitude. "You know what?" I challenged. "I may not have kids, but it doesn't take a genius to recognize bad manners. You have guests and it wouldn't kill your daughter to act like she belonged to this family. She's been glued to that cell for two hours. I haven't even seen her speak to Chet's dad ... her one living grandparent who drove an hour to be here. That ought to be what you're concerned about, Sis!!"

I'd crossed a line, but it felt damn good. Just as my sister was forming her retort, the patio door slid open and my oldest brother entered the kitchen. "Jesus, you guys ... we can hear the yelling outside!"

My sister just pointed at me ... the ultimate defense and explanation all rolled into one simple gesture. "Tell him ... he's the one telling me how to raise my kids!"

"Of come on ..." I started to say, but then I noticed my brother. His posture got ramrod straight and he crossed his arms in a very judgmental manner.

"Oh, I understand what you're saying all to well. He's been riding Adam's ass for months about college. Our 'little baby brother' just thinks everything is so simple. And for him it must be, 'cause he's got ALL the answers!" I just stood there, my mouth working like a landed trout. But no words came out. I was really dumbfounded. And hurt.

Adam is my 17-year-old nephew and I love him like a son. He's just a great kid and I actually consider him a friend. But from time to time, Adam needs a little push to get him motivated. Last May, right before his junior year in high school came to a close, I attempted to engage him in a conversation about college. I didn't think I was pushing ... I just tried to get him to articulate his interests and draw him out about careers he was considering. Like I said, he's a good kid with good grades and a bright future. And to be honest, getting him out from under his father's thumb and onto a progressive college campus would NOT be the worst thing to happen. Anyway, Adam's responses were terse and noncommittal. His one thought was that he would "probably" go wherever Karrie, his current girlfriend, decided to attend.

"Is that a smart way to plan your future?" I blurted it out before my brain's sensor (or censor) had a chance to kick in.

Adam and I were sitting in the kitchen working our way through a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches I had whipped up. His father ... my older brother by nearly a decade ... was in the adjacent great room perusing the newspaper's sports section. "Ignore him, Adam," he yelled in with a surprisingly flat, emotionless tone. "He just likes to tell people what to do." I dropped the subject and turned my attention to the suddenly-unappetizing sandwich.

Over the next few weeks, Adam and his indecision over college plagued me. I spent some free time going online to about 14 or 15 college Web sites within the state. I picked about half private institutions and half larger public universities to get a good mix. The list conveniently included the Alma maters of myself and each of my siblings. From all the data I found, I assembled a matrix that included projected tuition and fee amounts, admission office phone numbers and e-mails, prominent programs, school colors and mascots, and even the estimated "drive time" from my brother's house to each campus. And ... most importantly in my mind ... I included all "visitation" and "exploration" programs scheduled for the summer and early autumn months. What a great, low pressure time to check out some potential schools!, I had been thinking at the time. The majority of the colleges I had researched had one or more "Freshman Fridays" or "Openhouse Picnics" events in June and July and August. I e-mailed the matrix to Adam, his father, and my sister-in-law separately. No one ever responded with so much as a thank you. I also tried on three face-to-face occasions to engage Adam in another "thought anymore about college" discussion. Each time he just shrugged and changed the subject. By my estimation, as of Labor Day, Adam and his parents had missed close to a dozen opportunities to explore some very fine collegiate options.

Back in the present in my sister's Mediterranean kitchen, I pled my case. "I wasn't trying to push you or Adam ... I just don't want him to miss out on something. A lot of kids are already collecting recommendations from teachers and employers. A lady at work has a daughter writing entrance essays for three separate schools, and she says some of the more competitive schools start sending out first-wave acceptance letters at the end of October ... October!" My brother seemed not the slightest bit fazed by my declaration. But I was on a roll and added, "has he even filled out a single application? Or even sent away for any literature?"

"See ... there you go again," my brother bellowed, stepping away from a counter and closing the physical distance between us. "It's not YOUR concern what Adam does or doesn't do!!"

"You can't be serious ... I love that kid! I just want what's ..."

"NONE ... OF ... YOUR ... CONCERN!" While my brother punctuated each word with a poke to my shoulder, my sister closed ranks. In solidarity against me, she moved to stand just behind our older sibling, wearing a pleased little smirk on her sour face. I was out the door and on the road in minutes.

As I merged into freeway traffic, my mind shifted away from my exasperating family and settled on my good friend Terry. He and I had been best friends since the fifth grade. I was his best man at his wedding and am very proud to be godfather to his daughter. One day a few month's ago, I was at Terry's house talking with his wife, Leslie. Terry was at a neighbor's helping with a clogged drain and we were waiting until his return to order some pizza ... Terry's very particular about pizza. Anyway, as we conversed, Terry's son Ricky ... I think he's two ... waddled over and started climbing up my leg. I hoisted the little guy onto my lap where he immediately started fussing with my car keys which I had laid to the side on a table.

"Tell him no," Leslie said with a hint of a challenge.

"It's okay ... he can't hurt them."

She eyed me slyly and said, "Do you really want him messing with them? ... he chews and slobbers on everything."

"Well then, no ... not really."

"Then get his attention and tell him 'no.' Say it kind of loud and if he doesn't listen, smack his hand and tell him again."

I shot Leslie an incredulous look. "I'm not gonna smack your kid."

My statement made Leslie snort out loud. "Aaron, I didn't say break his hand ... I said gently smack his hand so he knows you're serious. He has to learn to mind when he's told to do something."

As non-confrontationally as I could, I explained to Leslie that I wasn't comfortable disciplining her children like that. She took Ricky from my lap and fixed me with an amused smile. "Listen," she playfully lectured, "we consider you part of this family, so it IS your job to help us raise Ricky and Amber to know the difference between right and wrong. We're counting on you." I remember feeling my eyes mist up a little over her heartfelt words.

Back in the present, in my car driving home, I had similar "moisture" threatening to occlude my vision. But these were tears of anger. Could my siblings really not see what I was trying to do? I pondered. How was wanting my niece to have decent manners or helping my nephew make informed decisions about going to college a "bad" thing? Was "being an uncle" just helping out from time to time and showing up at Christmas and birthdays with a nice gift? Whatever the case, I knew it was going to be quite some time before I bothered speaking to my two oldest siblings.

POINT OF RANT: Thank God friends make the best "family!"

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Today In The Reference Section ...

My one nephew, Jake, has a big report due on a famous figure from history. He chose Abraham Lincoln. Over lunch at his house, I asked the innocent 11-year-old why "Honest Abe" intrigued him. "Because he got shot!" was his reply. Over cheese pizza ... this family wouldn't know a salad or a fruit plate if it knocked on their door and asked to use the phone ... I discovered that Jake still had a little over a week until his report was due but he hadn't even started it. His Mom, my sister, was going to print a bunch of stuff off the Internet at work "in a few days."

I have a problem with our cookie-cutter, Wikipedia-wrought world sometimes, so I asked Jake if he wanted to run and get ice cream ... just him and me. He was ecstatic. His happy mood faded quickly when we pulled into the parking lot of the library 20 minutes later. Jake turned sullen and then oddly awed as we entered the main lobby. I know he's at least "visited" his school library but he'd probably never been to this main branch of the public system downtown. It's huge. Busy. Serious.

We found the reference section and a nice lady helped us locate four really great books. Jake's mood definitely brightened when we discovered some interesting facts about Mr. Lincoln. Not only was he the 16th U.S. president and the first Republican to hold the office, but he was also born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana ... both just one state away. And while everyone knows he helped move the U.S. toward an end to slavery and brokered the conclusion of the only major war in history where Americans were fighting Americans, Abraham Lincoln is also one of the few presidents with no middle name and he accomplished his goals with less than 18 months of formal education. And Jake thought it was a hoot that some places ... like train cars and a few hotels ... had to build special beds to accommodate Lincoln's 6'4" frame.

Jake and I photocopied several pages of information and borrowed a highlighter from the same librarian to mark the good things we found. I even "bankrolled" a few color copies of pictures he might use in his report. And on the ride back out of the city, Jake was even considering wearing a "beard" and stovepipe hat for the oral presentation portion of his assignment and was going to see if his Dad could build him some "mini-stilts" out of scrap wood to look taller. I agreed to work with him next weekend on memorizing part of the Gettysburg Address ... "four score" and what not. He was really getting into the spirit of learning!

When we arrived back at my sister's residence, I didn't go in. My self-preservation instinct is strongest around Jake's mom. And she was not gonna like Jake all enthusiastic about school and wanting to get to work. Plain and simple, my sister has always been a procrastinator and an enabler with her children ... and I try not to be. All of us kids were raised in the same way in the same house by the same people, but I think by being the only "girl" my sister got away with a great many things.

A prime example of her "slacker" ways is "The Great Leaf Project." Since the dawn of time, our high school's freshman biology class has required each student to assemble a collection of leaf specimens from area trees and present them in a photo album or some type of "book." Each leaf included in the project must be properly identified. To aid in this, students are given these cool books that, by answering simple questions about leaf color, shape, texture, vein structure, etc., help identify the proper phylum. Overall, the more properly-identified leaves a project contains, the higher the grade it receives.

everyone else, my sister had six weeks ... SIX WEEKS! ... to do this. And she waited until the last minute and "boo-hooed" around the house until my parents drove her around and helped her collect a smattering of leaves. I remember the weekend before her project was due ... the kitchen table was off-limits to everyone but my sister and my Mom. We ate our meals on TV trays in the living room. In the end, my sister had 30 leaves. My mother had found some leaf stickers and thought maybe my sister could dress her project up a little. "Use them sparingly," my Mom cautioned, "they're pretty colorful." My sister put those stickers everywhere. It was a mess! My sister earned a "C-" and complained that the grade was low because the teacher didn't like her.

My slightly-older brother had the same project when he entered high school. I helped him find some of his leaves because he is actually a decent sibling. And my brother is pretty clever ... right away he went to a local floral shop owned by a family friend and got them to sell him a can of this preservative spray that really kept his leaf samples pristine and colorful. It was like protective shrink wrap for plants. His specimens looked great, and when he organized them he also alphabetized them and added the location where the "donor" tree was located.

And for a final flourish, my brother begged my father to take him to an arboretum about an hour away. The trip netted him five exotic leaves. He ended up with 58 leaves and a "B+" ... two measly points away from an "A-." Damn the high school grading scale!

When my turn rolled around, I hit the ground running. That first weekend I had 20 leaves stacked and "starched" with the same pecial spray my brother had employed. Likewise, I guilted my father into making the same arboretum trip and walked and walked until we had eight specimens to add to my leaf count. And during that first week, my Mom helped me phone friends and family we had in California, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee. I explained my project to them and over the following two weeks I received big, overstuffed envelopes containing out-of-state samples ... nine in all ... of sequoias, hemlocks, red junipers, Spanish moss, several citrus trees, and even a redwood. These I placed in the back of my "book" with a map noting their home locations and a little block of text explaining how I had purloined them.

With two weeks to go before my "due date," I spent some time detailing my project. I went back and took some photos of a few trees and included them on pages where I had the most room. I added scientific names to many of my samples like "Ginkgo biloba" and "Acer saccharum." I also alphabetized my samples and added "addresses" like my brother had. My final "touch" was decorating the cover with a poem that my great grandmother wrote about leaves and had published in 1959. I reproduced the poem in the simple shape of a leaf. I thought it was very artistic, and so did my instructor. Out of a possible 100 points, I earned 98 ... and the teacher wanted to keep my project as an example to show future classes. I politely declined her request.

I bring this all up because I see my sister passing her "tendencies" to her children. One time, my niece ... also my sister's kid, of course ... was given a project where she had to create a series of flash cards to help younger children learn common Spanish words. Each student was required to work with a list of 20 words and produce 40 cards in all ... one "basic" flash card with the word in Spanish on the front and its English equivalent on the reverse, and then a second card exactly like the first but with little icons or graphics to prompt recall. The assignment was due in three weeks, and my niece received what I thought were pretty simple words like "cake" and "forest" and "school" and "picnic" and "bulldozer." Hell, the teacher even supplied the card stock with a generous amount of extras to offset any "flubs."

Two days before the cards needed to be turned in, my sister called in "sick" and made every stinking card. My niece had put it off and put it off until my sister just decided it was easier to create them herself. She even had me e-mail her some clip art images ... I was unaware I was "aiding and abetting" until much later. My niece "earned" an undeserved "A" and a compliment from her teacher for all her extra hard work ... she had actually turned in cards for 25 words.

Now, I'm not a tyrant. Parents ... and uncles ... can and should help young people with their academic studies. But when I say "help," I mean "aid" or "guide" or "clarify" ... not "do" or "take over" or "complete." I remember being 11 ... exactly like Jake ... and my class was studying Native American tribes. We were placed in teams of four and I volunteered to construct a scale model of a wigwam. I asked my father ... a man who could make a tree fort out of a pile of sawdust ... for help. First, he had me find several pictures of what I hoped the model would look like. Once assembled, we sat down and he tried to explain why some things would be easy to do and others not so much. Then we went over the tools and materials I'd be needing and looked to see what wasn't available in my Dad's workshop. At this point, with him watching closely, I built a wigwam. He gave advice but it was me doing about 80 percent of the work. My percentage probably would have been higher but early on a sliced into my thumb badly. We discovered I was quite a bleeder and Dad took over all "cutting" activities from that point on.

And I will concede that my father did provide a few very cool elements to my primitive dwelling. He worked with a guy who hunted and trapped and did all that "outdoorsy" stuff. His friend gave me some scraps of pelt ... rabbit and squirrel, I think ... and I used them throughout the model. My father also helped me install a little light inside the structure so it looked like a small fire. My wigwam was outstanding and my team received high marks. And I earned a "wigwam scar" that remains to this day as a reminder of the merits of hard work.

POINT OF RANT: When using a knife, always cut away from yourself ... especially if you want a matching set of functional thumbs!!