Monday, June 30, 1997

Meekly Speaking

It's been a newsletter tradition to devote one column a year to the exploits of my softball teams. This has usually been done by writing about the values and benefits of good teamwork and using the concept that those who work well together usually succeed while those who don't lose more often than not, a lesson that applies to our business as well.

I play twice a week for two different teams. The success of both teams has been rather limited this year. My Wednesday night team, the Roundheads play in the Shoreview Parks and Recreation Men's Class "D" League. Our win/loss record up to this point is 3-6. Last year we dropped down to the "E" league after years in the "D" league due in part to some of our declining physical abilities that are associated with advancing age. Many of the players on the team are either in their late forties or early fifties. We did well last year, finishing in a tie for first place. Thus when it came to signing up again this year, there was discussion that the team didn't face enough challenge in the drop to the lower league thus we should move back up to where we belonged.

At one point, the Roundheads were undoubtedly a very good team. Many played high school ball and can hit the ball a long way. Our fielding is usually pretty solid, we make few errors on balls we can get to. But they say the legs are one of the first things to go and I'm afraid for many on the team this has been true. We now must play station to station softball thus it takes several hits strung together to produce much offense. Those that can still run fast enough to turn a single into a double don't hit it far enough for that to happen and those that can hit it the necessary distance can't leg out the extra base.

I play second base for the team. My game has always relied on my above average speed and my ability to hit it harder than my rather skimpy wimpy form would indicate. Last week I dinked two little ground balls in my first two at bats and heard one of the opposition tell its outfielders to move in prior to my third at bat. I thus hit a solid line drive double which prompted them to play a bit deeper my next at bat.

On Thursday nights I play on Joan's Jetts in the State's Co-ed League. Our record thus far is 3-5. Unlike my Wednesday night team, the Jetts should have a better record than we do. The key to this co-ed league is to have better women players than the other teams. The men tend to be closer in ability but the women range from those who have a hard time making contact, and who will not get to any ball that isn't hit directly to them, to those who can outhit a lot of the men and are reliable fielders. Our female players are as good as any in the league and yet we have struggled playing consistently throughout an entire game. In many ways it has been our most frustrating season because we should be doing much better than we are. And it was a little disappointing when my favorite sports babe decided to sit this season out. Oh well, we only want those who have a desire to play, damn it.

Every week we suffer through one bad inning where mistakes pile upon each other and we allow the other team to get a lot of preventable runs. I play third base for the Jetts and have been pretty rock solid, not flashy but steady making few errors. It is a league that is more tailored for my hitting skills, playing on fields that don't have fences thus anything that gets behind the outfielders usually results in a home run. I'm not much for hitting a ball a great distance but I can usually hit it hard enough to get it behind an outfielder at some point during the game.

I have made concessions to the effects of the years on my body. I am using a heavier bat this year. I used to use as light a bat as I could find figuring it was most important for me to be able to place the ball where I wanted rather than hit it far. With a heavier bat and a harder swing I have been more successful at hitting the ball solidly while still utilizing my legs to beat out ground balls. The difficulty I'm running into is the vast difference between the two leagues. On Wednesday night any ball hit in the air that isn't a line drive will be caught. The outfielders are fast enough and skilled enough to catch just about anything catchable. On Thursday night it is more tempting to try and make the outfielders make the play because many of them won't and then it's off to the races. In many ways it has been my best year individually even as my teams struggle. This is due in part to improved self confidence in knowing that when I play within and up to my capabilities I can be a decent player.

This season's lesson? The reason my Wednesday night team is doing just as well as my Thursday night's team despite diminishing skills is that the same players come back to play every year. Joan's Jetts on the other hand has had a rapid turnover of its roster so any continuity from year to year is lost. A team takes time to develop as you learn from each other's strengths and how to integrate them in the most effective way while at the same time minimizing the weaknesses. Without that continuity building a team is a difficult task. Especially without the sports babe.

Monday, June 23, 1997

Still Running

"Your mother and I did this act, in some hotel about nine months back. It is love that brings you here, a love that will not disappear. Georgia, honey you can count on that..."
-John Hiatt's Georgia Rae

This week marks the newsletter's five year anniversary. Granted my professional and private life have seen their share of ups and downs but I have to say that being able to produce these eight pages every week for the past five years ranks right up there with my proudest accomplishments. Thanks to your contributions and work the newsletter has not missed an issue during all that time. The company has seen more than its share of changes both internally and externally and still week after week we have managed to consistently chronicle our little corner of the world.

When we started this venture my own goal was to see this thing through five years and then turn the keys over to someone else. In every job I've held communication has been an issue. Improving communication, sharing information and allowing everyone to be heard is problematic whenever a group of people try to come together to produce a successful work environment. The idea for a company newsletter seemed like a good one and I thought if I could lay the foundation for a period of time, the usefulness would prove itself.

We haven't always been the most effective newsletter around and there still is much room for improvement. But compared to other company newsletters I have seen I dare say that week after week at the very least we are readable which can't be said is the norm for the field. This past year's issues the contributions while not as frequent as I think we'd all benefit from, have been better than ever. The sharing of information and knowledge helps everyone and makes the company stronger.

This job in many ways is the toughest I've ever had. Five years is a long time to do anything (just think of how many Batmans there have been during this time). There have been many a Saturday night where the clock creeps past midnight and I start to panic wondering what I'm going to put on page six and if what I transcribed on page three is accurate and readable. I keep my eye out throughout the week for material I think is relevant and will be enjoyable to read and to come up with enough of that material week in and week out is a challenge.

But as so often the case, the hardest work is the most rewarding. When you stick to something, when you are willing to put in the needed effort to get the work done, the sense of accomplishment is usually well worth it. My own writing and my attitude towards my place in the workforce have improved. As a company we have come a long way since 1992. It means a lot to me that I was able to contribute in a small way. At my recent ten year college reunion when I was asked what I was doing I proudly replied that I was the editor of the Cheapo newsletter.

How much longer can I do this? I don't really know. It still is so much fun to do and the thought of my last issue is a bit sad. Last winter I thought about joining a program to earn my masters degree in public administration. It was a program that would have meant taking classes on the weekends and would have meant most certainly I wouldn't have been able to continue in this job. To me it would have been a bit of a loss and I would have missed the newsletter a lot. I do hope that when I decide to step aside or am told to step aside, someone else will continue on with the work. I think the newsletter can be a very important part of our company. I would hate for you all to lose this avenue of communication.

So thank you all for the five year run. Thanks for putting up with the occasional self indulgence. Thanks for all your contributions. Someday we may even find our true name...

Monday, June 16, 1997

Just Like Your Dad Did

Home Improvement Tip: For extra clean dishes and silverware, try drying them in the microwave after you thoroughly wash them. Zap them for one minute or two and be reassured they will come clean germ free. With the rising cost of dishwashers and the declining cost of microwaves, plus the growing fear of bacterial invasions, a few minutes in the microwave will wash away your fears. Sure the sparks may fly but isn't a little exposure to radiation worth the peace of mind from germ free spoons and forks?

Despite the appearance that may be given by my impressive steroid enhanced frame, I'm not exactly the most mechanically inclined person that has ever graced this planet. Those little home improvement repairs that I used to take for granted when I lived in an apartment now rest squarely on my massive shoulders as a homeowner. And I ain't exactly the greatest or most effective at carrying out those assignments. But they are nothing when compared to when it comes to fixing my car. I figure things are fine as long as my car continues to move forward. If placed under gun point, I probably couldn't distinguish between a carburetor and an air hose.

My education in mechanical skills is rather limited. Back in eighth grade industrial arts class we were required to take apart and put back together a small V-8 engine. My partner and I had no problem tearing that sucker apart. The problem came in the reassembly portion of the event and when all was said and done neither one of us knew exactly what to do with the two or three spare parts we had leftover. We tried starting the engine with our version of assembly and it didn't so much as sputter. Rereading some of our instructions we gapped the spark plugs and through a miracle of the heavens the engine actually started up. It was much louder than it originally had been and it shook the table frightfully as we tried our best to hide the clouds of smoke that came billowing out of it, but damn they had told us the engine only needed to be running in order for us to pass the class, they hadn't said it needed to be running well.

That I have been able to get this far in life with mostly minor car repair bills is a tribute to my father. Dad knows enough to be a source of information patiently answering what he must consider to be my rather naive and sometimes troubling ignorant automotive questions. Together with the assistance of Dad's mechanic, I get by with what little knowledge I retain. Checking the oil and tire pressure and adding gas are the only duties I have learned to handle over the years.

I am constantly impressed at how difficult it must be to be a good father. I certainly can admit that I am nowhere near being ready to assume fathering responsibilities. If my son was to come to me with a plumbing problem I'd be as likely to suggest a good urologist as I would a hardware store. And being knowledgeable enough to fix problems is only a small part of a father's repertoire. Being a good dad requires such an eclectic bag of tricks, everything from knowing what lures to use in fishing, to being able to grill successfully without resorting to gasoline to start the charcoal burning.

To be able to live up to your father's good name is of course the challenge of any good son. And when the bar is set as high as what my Dad has achieved one can only hope that somewhere the knowledge and skills were genetically passed down. Landscaping, bill paying, oil changing, gutter cleaning, room painting, country music loving, Indy stock car knowing, bowler extraordinaire, yes Dad can do a little bit of it all. And when I think that I don't even know enough not to wear blue dress socks with black dress shoes, how scary is the notion that there is a possibility that some day some little pair of eyes will look upon me and be calling me daddy? Egads.

Monday, June 2, 1997

Good Old Freaking Mac

Despite being known as the "Fifth Beatle" way back when I was in high school, I didn't buy any of the Beatles year and a half old Anthology series until just a few weeks ago. It was my own little personal protest/statement to Paul who I felt was spending too much time living in the past, and living off his gasconaded status as a member of the greatest rock group of all time.

But I must admit having listened to the first two Anthology collections a lot recently, I was reminded of why I liked the Beatles in the first place. The group clearly demonstrated that the whole was greater than the parts; John's wit was complimented by Paul's charm. George's mysticism was balanced by Ringo's charisma. Not only did they make a lot of great music, they appeared to have a whole lot of fun in the process.

McCartney's answer to criticism that he has never come to terms with his Beatle past is to say that he isn't living off the nostalgia as much as trying to be motivated and inspired in the same manner as he was when he began writing and playing songs with his celebrated bandmates all those years ago. "I go back so far I'm in front of me." His career has always been about getting back to his roots to proceed forward. He now seems less defensive about feeling free to use some of the same devices he helped to make famous twenty five years ago.

His up and down solo work is often like the game of golf. Amongst the frustration and mediocrity lies a gem every now and again that suggests to you there is always a possibility for greater things. That one shot or that one moment keeps you coming back even if overall the end result isn't always so worthwhile.

His latest CD, Flaming Pie, like all his best work grows on you after repeated listenings. In terms of quality it falls somewhere between superlative efforts like Tug of War and Flowers in the Dirt and missed opportunities like Venus and Mars and Red Rose Speedway. Like the concept demonstrated by the Beatles, the overall sum of the parts on Flaming Pie is greater because of the individual moments. It's musical snippets like the piano fill on the cover track, or the backing acoustic guitar and oboe work in Somedays or his double tracked octave apart vocals on The World Tonight, or the nifty little coda on Beautiful Night that show Paul's often breathtaking and impressive versatility and talent.

Like every new McCartney work one of the songs has already worked its charm upon me and is now my all time favorite song: Young Boy (which was the first single released in the United States; The World Tonight, another fine tune was the first British single). Supposedly written to his nineteen year old son, James, Young Boy is like 90% of other fine McCartney songs, highly melodic with lyrics about the virtues of love that scan well but really don't reveal all that much about the writer. It's catchy, it's hooky, it's downright Beatlesque, and it is the type of song Paul does so well and seemingly so effortlessly. And it's a fine song to crank in your car and sing along with at the top of your lungs. Find love, a time for meditation. Find love, a source of inspiration...

I also enjoy the equally melodic Beautiful Night produced by George Martin with its wonderful orchestral backing. It's the CD's big ballad and unlike similar attempts on his last few CD's, this time McCartney successfully walks that fine line between schmaltz and true sentiment. The song is charming without being cloying. Other highlights include Used to Be Bad a rocking duet with Steve Miller, and the acoustic Calico Skies a simple silly love song.

McCartney's career has consisted of an intriguing paradox: he either fails when he tried too hard (Ram, Back to the Egg, and Press to Play) or when he doesn't seem to try hard enough (London Town and Wild Life). The underlying current in all his work is his overwhelming desire to please. Thus when he attempts to be meaningful these days, because his music is clearly motivated by the need to entertain rather than being inspired by anything in particular, he fails more often than not. The weakest moments on Flaming Pie are the moments when Paul tries too hard to write something of significance again. Lyrics like "Long live all of us crazy soldiers... May we never be called to handle all the weapons of war we despise..." sound forced and unconvincing. Still those moments are few and don't distract from the overall spirit of the CD. It's great to finally have yet another set of solid songs (his last CD was four years ago). And like any collection of new McCartney songs it is guaranteed to bring a smile to at least one little fella's face as he plays it over and over again this summer.