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Monday, July 24, 2017

Fear and Loathing in Big Lots

Other Bill and I, sadly, spend more time than is probably healthy at Big Lots. It only makes sense for two people who are both gluttonous and cheap. Why spend $6.50 on two bags of vanilla Oreos at Publix when you can get three bags at Big Lots for less? Sure, the expiration clock is ticking faster on the Big Lots cookies. And it’s quite possible when you open the bag that all the Oreos will be crumbled into a sticky powder, but that just makes the cookies more amenable to serve as an ice cream topping instead of its intended use as a milk-dunking dessert.

It’s not rocket science to figure out why some things end up at Big Lots, otherwise known as the next-to-the last-stop-on-the-retail-train-to-the-dumpster. Things like chili con carne in a mylar envelope, and pumpkin-banana cake frosting were obvious losers. Hormel and Pillsbury are only human. Not every idea in the world food market will catch fire and sell like Starbucks. And things like half-priced giant bottles of Advil that expire tomorrow are only a natural for the store of the desperate and destitute. It’s always hit-or-miss with Big Lots. You never know what they’ll be stocking, which makes that the ultimate draw of the store. Maybe this time I’ll find those tins of anchovies for 60 cents again! Something that you can always depend on Big Lots to stock, however: Pop Tarts. That’s right, they always have a huge assortment of flour-encrusted jam slathered with jawbreaker icing. At radically-slashed prices.

At our Big Lots there is always one area in a dark corner under the $2 gallon jugs of white vinegar known as the Reduced For Quick Sale shelf. As if it’s not bad enough that you end up in Big Lots, this shelf always makes me a little sad. Products there look like they have been in trailers where domestic violence is the norm, and they have been returned to pay for bail. Boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix that look like they’ve been hit with a rolling pin. Dented little cans of Young and Early peas. So heartbreaking. Wrinkled, dirty bags of egg noodle crumbs. Sometimes I have to buy stuff from there just to show it a little love for products that lived a tormented life of abuse. Give the food a little dignity, for crying out loud!

When we were there recently, one of the first things I noticed was a huge box of rainbow-colored unknown chunks that looked like those tooth-cracking candy hearts with love notes on them. Only these were much smaller and asymmetrical and had no messages on them. They were in clear plastic cellophane bags with matte-finish, generic black and white labels. It looked like something that fell out of a government-issued military MRE.

Their labels made them seem almost as pathetic as the Reduced for Quick Sale items, but not quite. First of all, they were placed in the front of the store looking so colorful they caught the customers’ eye when they first came in. But you’d think they would have some fun and jovial name like Zip-Zaps! or Krazy Konfetti! (exclamation points not optional.) Sadly, whatever happened to these things, they never even made it to the marketing department. The label read, simply, “Asst Dehydrated Marshmallow Bits.” Not very appetizing, is it? And a far cry from creative.

Naturally I had to buy a bag, because a) I didn’t have my phone to take a picture of it, and b) They were only $1.25. And besides, you never know at Big Lots. You turn your back on something they have half a store’s worth of, and in no time, some kid who ran off with his mother’s SNAP card has whisked every one of them out of the building. You know this because the next day there’s a picture of a parti-colored, comatose child under a headline that reads, “Boy, 9, in Hyperglycemic Coma after Marshmallow Bit Overdose”, which would have been more eye-catching if it had instead read “Zip-Zap Overdose.”

So I blame the marketing department of these Bits. I picture a scenario where the national sales director gets on the phone.

“Look, Biff. I’ve got 620 thousand units of this rat-bait rotting in the warehouse. When are you going to get your marketing guys to come up with a goddamned name for them?”

“Just as soon as we can hire another marketing director, Maurice. You didn’t hear that Kevin emptied his desk and walked out without notice last week?”

Maurice does a face-palm and pops a Xanax. “This is the third marketing director in 5 months! Why can’t you keep someone in the job, for Chrissake? What was it this time? Pay, hours, or benefits?”

“Neither,” Biff says. “He wanted his office painted a different color, but corporate denied it.”

"Asshole Millennials," sighs the sales director.

Three weeks later, and Maurice is on the phone to Biff again.

“Goddammit, I told you months ago to get a name for these tooth-rotters, and—”

“How about Tooth Rotterz? You know, with a Z,” Biff suggests.

“What? Are you stoned? You can’t call them that. They’ll never sell. Mothers will be livid.”

“Yeah, Maurice? Well, what about Screaming Yellow Zonkers, or, or Fizzies, or Trix? What about those, Maurice?”

“Look you little weasel. No Tooth Rotters. With a Z or an S. Either you come up with a name by close of business today, or I’m just going to order them labeled ‘Assorted Dehydrated Marshmallow Bits’, and you’re gonna take the fall for their failure.”

And then, six months later, they end up at Big Lots, with a dwindling “Best if Used By” date.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to buy wholesome, fresh snacks at Whole Foods, and purchase name brand toilet paper that doesn’t dissolve on the first wipe, and cranberry juice I’m not pressured to drink before expiration, and drugs I’ll consume without symptoms because somebody should take these!

Until then, there’s Big Lots.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Senior Survivor

I’m not proud to admit to this, but I have watched every single episode of Survivor since its premiere on May 31, 2000. To my credit, it is the only reality show I have watched with any kind of frequency, because I find celebrity-based reality shows just as repugnant as those pageants that feature five-year-old Jennifer Lopez wannabes in hot pants. I also have no interest in shows that feature, for instance, poor white trash fat kids with racist, child-molesting parents, or Donald Trump.

I also take pride in the fact that I am not one of those statistic-spewing Survivor addicts who can name all the players from every season, where each season took place and accurately recall the theme of every season. I would rather use that space in my brain to remember jingles from fifty-year old cigarette commercials (“Chesterfield Kings taste GREAT…because the tobaccos are!”) Because that is far more important than being able to recall, say, a list of my current medications to an ER doctor.

And speaking of that, when Survivor first came out, I always thought I would make a pretty good contestant. My carpentry skills were sufficient enough that I thought I could build a decent hut, and I was a pretty good distance swimmer, so maybe back then I could have placed in a few challenges. And I was pretty secure with my masturbation skills that if I tried hard enough, I could start a fire. But those days are long gone. I’m too old to keep up with the young, strapping contestants on the show. People my age are seldom selected—for this show, or anything, for that matter. We are just too much of a liability. Not to mention the fact that we aren’t going to win any beauty contests.

Therefore I’d like to propose to the producers of the show Senior Survivor. Naturally it will be an abbreviated season, because no one my age is going to last out in the wild for a month. Two days without our Ensure shakes, and we’d be snatched up by birds of prey. Frankly, we’d be lucky to last a week. So the rules are this: Seventeen seniors are taken to a remote island somewhere in the Pacific. Each day, people will be eliminated by a majority vote or by breaking the rules. One person each day will be exempt from the vote by winning an immunity challenge, and people will also compete for reward challenges.

Day 1 reward challenge: Contestants will put together a jigsaw puzzle that reads: Outwit, Outplay, and Outlive. The person who completes the puzzle first gets a Lipitor and takes 9 others to be fed, leaving 7 to fend for themselves. 

Day 1 immunity challenge: The ten players will be given a lavish dinner of soft, high fiber foods.  Before dinner is served, Jeff tells them that anyone who talks about an ailment, a malfunctioning organ, hip replacement surgery, their bouts with cancer, their bowel movement status or how neglectful their children are will automatically be eliminated. This takes out all ten players out right off the bat. And then there were seven.

Hidden somewhere on the island is an immunity idol that a contestant can play at tribal council at the last minute to prevent him or her from being voted off the island. Sadly, no one can find the idol because none of the contestants can remember where they put their glasses.

Day 2 reward challenge: The seven remaining players will have to stand on one leg on a small block of wood in the blistering heat. The person who outlasts all the others wins a lifetime membership to AARP. Due to their declining ability to maintain their balance, all challengers fail the task of standing on one foot, even in the sand, thus giving the producers more time to air commercials for Cialis, pro-biotic yogurt, Depends, Super Poligrip, and the Neptune Society.

Day 2 immunity challenge:  Contestants are shown where they left their glasses, and each receive an iPhone 7 and are told they have 30 minutes to set up their email accounts on the devices. If no one is able to do it, immunity will be given to the one who can perform the most difficult task. After a half hour, the immunity idol is presented to the guy who manages to turn it on.

On Day 3, a special delight for the contestants has been arranged. It’s Family Day, and contestants are treated to a visit from their loved ones. Children of all the contestants have been invited to fly in to this remote Pacific island to visit their parents. Sadly, all these children are too busy with their own careers, children, and Facebook to make the trip. One contestant is lucky enough to be visited by his gay grandson, but due to jealousy among the other bitter parents, he is voted off the island that night at tribal council.

On Day 4, a special two-hour Senior Survivor airs. Tension mounts when two contestants are evacuated by the medical crew: one for a broken hip, and another who threatens suicide if she can’t go to the beauty parlor and get her hair done. The final four contestants must eat live worms, raw snake meat, uncooked bat livers and other putrid local delicacies. Surprisingly, all four consume all the snacks without even flinching. Their sense of smell and taste have long ago subsided, and everything these days tastes like wet flour. So in order to break the four-way tie, the players must make fire from flint and dried palm fronds. This takes up an hour and forty-five minutes of airtime, and each player at different times must be treated by the medical staff for exhaustion. Nevertheless, the episode wins the Nielsen ratings for the most watched show in their time slot. Jeff Probst runs out of discouraging things to shout at the contestants, so he tosses two Bic lighters a couple of yards away in the sand, and the two contestants who grab them and set their fronds on fire first get to stay for the last show.

On the last taped show, the two finalists must plead their cases to the jury members who will decide which one will be the sole survivor. The older of the two says, “Plain and simple, you should vote for me because I’m older than Nell over there.” Nell, in retaliation, speaks up.

“That is exactly why you should vote for me. Because I’m younger, I am more likely to live long enough to make it to the live season finale in a couple of months.”

The highlight of the evening comes with the jury member who had his grandson visit spews out a vitriolic rant, accusing both contestants of being “jealous bitches,” and says he’d rather vote for Satan than either of them.

The scene cuts to the live show in Studio City to a packed theater. Unlike Family Day, relatives of all the contestants fill the seats, because CBS has cut off their internet access, and they have nothing better to do. Jeff Probst dramatically reads off the votes, and announces Nell to be the Sole Senior Survivor.

The following night on the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley announces that Nell lost her million dollars to a bogus IRS phone scammer.

This comes as no surprise, because no one wins at Senior Survivor. 

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Subscription Prescription

I guess I am going to have to stop listening to Pandora and go back to CD’s and self-made playlists. It used to be very relaxing to tune in to my Pandora chorus channel and get lulled into a state of Zen by listening to Gregorian chants and blissful boys’ choirs. So calm, so serene, so soothing, almost like a sweet narcotic lulling me to sleep. Ah, yes, delicious, heavenly, carefree sleep until…


I bolt upright on the couch, my heart racing as I gasp for air. What the hell? Where did my British choirboys go? After a few rounds of self-induced chest compressions, I reach for my iPad to mute the volume. What did this screaming pillow guru do to those mellow, innocent, falsetto voices, and why is the volume for this commercial three times the decibel level of St. Philip’s parish in South London?

Yes, I know I could save myself from being startled, and possibly from future cardiac episodes, by ponying up a few bucks a month for a paid Pandora subscription, but I think subscriptions are a pox on the world’s financial well-being. I don’t want to get to the point where I need a prescription to manage my subscriptions, like a lot of people I know.

I pay a subscription fee every month for my gym membership, my home alarm monitoring, and the cell phone I use less frequently than I attend the gym, and I refuse to dedicate any more of my salary to anything that offers “auto-pay for my convenience.” Yeah, for my convenience. Like they’re inconvenienced by not having to chase me down every month to pay my bill.

And then there’s the yearly anti-virus subscription which I refuse to use again, ever since I got a surprise bill from Norton for a hundred and something dollars. That wasted an hour and a half of my day, which I spent  trying to track down their phone number and then waiting on hold to be told, “when you signed up for the service, it defaults to auto-renew.”

“Well change the default to cancelled,” I told them. And then, of course, I got a virus on my laptop. Then I got an iPad.

The latest offensive subscription menace is brought to you by the wonderful world of Microsoft, which now offers “Office 365”, so you can make sure that the next time they create a new feature for Word, we won’t miss out. So instead of just buying the software, you subscribe, as in yearly fee for the rest of your life. Listen, word processing software has been around for decades. There is nothing more to invent. There are no more features, so quit trying to re-invent the wheel by screwing with the GUI by force-feeding us crap like “ribbons.” I still very happily use Word 6, the ribbonless, menu-driven version, which is faster and easier, and you don’t have to spend half of your time scrolling through an endless supply of buttons for crappy features no one ever uses, like styles or equations. Microsoft, if you are that desperate for my money, howbout reconfiguring that awful way your products import graphics and then immobilizes them, or even better, for the love of God, fix the way you handle page numbering. Every time I even think about having to do a document that doesn’t have the page number on the first page but starts the numbering on page 2, I start cutting myself.

Seems like everyone is jumping on the subscription bandwagon, because most people think: “Well, $10 a month isn’t going to send me to the poor house, so why not?” Click. And the commerce world is well aware of our gullibility. They think that no one multiplies the monthly fee by 12. Just look at Amazon Prime. Who buys into that? Subscribing to Amazon Prime at $10.99 a month is telling yourself: “I want to get free shipping on everything I order from Amazon, so I’m going to pay for it.” Is this Alice in Wonderland?  Where do they get their logic? That’s like saying, “I don’t feel like going to work today, so I guess I’ll just get in the car and drive to my job instead.”

Subscriptions are like heroin. At first they seem great. Everything is wonderful, but as time goes on, you get less and less enjoyment out of them, and they cause you anxiety, so you get more, and then they become impossible to cancel. If you are lucky and find the number to call to cancel, they wear you down with menus and an insane hold time. If that doesn’t have you tapping the “End Call” button and you do eventually reach a human, instead of just canceling your subscription, they try to upsell you on something different. “We’re sorry to lose you as a faithful reader of Playboy, but if you want to subscribe to Hustler at our special introductory rate of ten cents per issue for the first three months, we will give you Playboy for free up until the end of your current subscription. Does that work for you?”

Canceling a subscription is almost as bad as canceling a credit card. Recently I fell victim to signing up for one of those airline credit cards to get “up to four free flights” by paying the $75 annual fee.  What a butt load of crap that was. First of all, it took them 5 months to credit the miles to my account, and secondly, the four free flights evaporated into one free one-way flight to Atlanta. I could have gotten four free flights maybe if I wanted to fly from Minneapolis to St. Paul or LaGuardia to Newark or Tampa to St. Petersburg. So when I called them up to cancel this scam, they took it personally.

“Oh, I’m so sorry you have decided you no longer want to receive the benefits and rewards our card gives you. May I ask why you want to cancel?” Said the lovely Carol Merrill. On the rare times I get a woman who speaks discernible English, I picture Carol Merrill from the original Let’s Make a Deal. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because she spent her early years staying silent and pointing at things, and I hope now she has found a job where she can actually speak to people and interact.

“I don’t want to pay the annual fee,” says I.

“Well, Mr. Wiley, because you have been a loyal member of our program for almost six months, I’m authorized to waive the annual fee for you from now on, but you will still receive the same benefits you have been. Now, how does that sound?”

And then we go round and round and I end up telling her that a 32% APR should not, under any circumstances, be considered a benefit. When she refuses to take no for an answer, I tell her things that are not even credit-card related, like how they are the worst airline I have ever flown, and their seats are hard, and they charge for oxygen and they don’t pay the flight attendants a living wage, and just cancel the damned card already. And Carol runs weeping into the call center break room, which is just a toilet stall with a half sleeve of saltines on the shelf, rolled up and fastened shut with a binder clip.

So I keep my subscriptions to a minimum so I don’t end up like Other Bill. We have a joint credit card, but we also have our own cards that we use to buy our own clothes, nose hair trimmers and novelties with. For years there was a charge on his credit card for $14.99 a month for a website subscription that spread possibly nefarious content to its subscribers. He had only subscribed to get one set of irresistible photographs of an old erotic model heartthrob. But through years of declining libido and both short and long-term memory, he had forgotten what the site was or how to unsubscribe. So then he had to shamefully call his credit card company and admit, after being told that the vendor was Smut R Us, that his adolescent son must have used his card without his authorization.

“You know how teenagers can be, so can you give me their number so I can get them to stop billing me?”

I don’t want to end up in that situation, because I’d never be able to deliver that lie with a straight, so to speak, face.

But I would consider ending up in a career at a call center if I could be assured that I’d get all the calls from remorseful subscribers to websites of questionable taste. “So, sir, is your wife aware that you’ve been forking over a monthly fee to Wet Women of the West Indies dot com? And what would it be worth to you to ensure that she never found out?”

I could have a lot of fun with that. And maybe then I could meet the lovely Carol Merrill. So sign me up.

Or should I just click Subscribe?