Sunday, October 28, 2007

Full/Self-Service and “Consume-while-Shopping”

Is there a store in Baytown that has more checkers working, than Food Town on North Main? High five to the manager of this store for "getting it"! Customer service will draw customers every time, but large business owners time and time again neglect the customer by offering self-service “fast” lanes.

Food Town on North Main usually has checkers standing in front of the line waiting on customers. And get this – they are friendly! Compare this to Wal-Mart or either Kroger location and it's easy to see why I shop at this particular Food Town.

I don't want to scan my own groceries while a cashier watches either. I don’t care if this is the wave of the future. I like the old way. I’ve had the obviously rebellious thought on more than one occasion of sending a bill to Kroger’s or Wal-Mart for my services, even if it would only pay minimum wages and no employee benefits.

How in the world is scanning my own groceries an upgrade in customer service? The conventional wisdom is it allows the store to pay less money to employees and pass that savings on to the customer. Right – and that email from Nigeria about winning the Lotto is real too. I don’t believe or trust either one.

We citizens should take a look at the self-serve gas stations as an example. It’s downright difficult to find a station with an attendant. Here you are in a suit or business attire and you’re pumping gas into your car, grit, smell and all. Hooray for self-service! Pass the hand-cleaner please! What? No hand-cleaner either?

Back at the
Food Town store on North Main, I was talking to a checker/cashier – a friendly lady of about fifty or so. We’ve exchanged pleasantries many times and I asked her if I should lift the bottled water out of my cart like the sign says: “All items must be taken from the cart”. She said no, she had the number memorized. She told me this rule was put in place to offset theft.
She went on to tell me how people will hide stuff in the lower portion of the cart and do their dead-level best to distract her and other checkers into missing it. Silly me, I thought that is stealing, but I guess some people do not see it that way for some dishonest reason. Her real pet peeve is what I am going to call “consume-while-shopping”. Whole families walk through the store mooching, munching and chomping on eatables while they slowly browse the store, according to this lady.

By the time they finally arrive at the cash register, the family of criminal grazers is well-sated and the store is littered with empty bags, boxes and fruit skins/pits. Many times a child will still have the empty food wrapper in their grubby little mitts and on more than one occasion, the parent has asked the cashier to toss the empty container in their trash can. My cashier told me she loves “popping” them, by scanning the package or counting the banana skins after they have consumed the contents, much to their surprise.

Honest shoppers occasionally will nibble, or let their children nibble on Animal Crackers, or sip a Coke while shopping, but they make sure the item is scanned and this has traditionally been acceptable behavior. If it keeps them in the store longer and they buy more items, I suspect Store Managers do not mind at all.

I’ve seen this dishonest “consume-while-shopping” phenomenon with my own two fuzzy eyeballs and I’ve noticed half-empty containers on shelves around the store. In my blissfully honest state of consumer ignorance, I presumed it was one of the late-night stocker’s snack fest, accidentally left behind, due to graveyard stupor. I now realize it was left by a thief - a child thief, learning from their parent-thief, or a mature parent thief, who has no concept of true honesty.

This parent-thief is perpetuating dishonest behavior by allowing their children to eat as they shop, consuming goods without eventually paying for them. They might as well be teaching their kids to hide the food in their pockets and walk out of the store.

This is simply shop-lifting via the stomach and let’s be totally honest here; it is condoned by some parents, thus giving it wholesale-approval. Another striking example of dishonest aberrational behavior is changing a baby’s diaper in the store, using available stock and yes, this happens also, as crazy as it sounds. If the Store Manager wants to save money, instead of offering self-serve lines, crack down on “consume-while-shopping” thieves instead.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep shopping at the
Food Town on North Main and pay for everything I decide to put in the basket. I just hope the idea of “consuming” toilet paper never becomes popular with these thief consumers.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dedicated to Those Who Serve

This Thursday, October 25th, my son, Sgt. Nick Marshall will be honorably discharged from the United States Army after five and a half years of continuous and honorable duty. It’s been a long haul for him and all those who love and support our son.

He has represented his Country, Baytown, his family and his friends well. He is every parent’s son or daughter, who left home with little real direction, but comes home experienced, mature and full of positive goals.

Like his father and both grandfathers and great grandfathers before him, aunts, uncles and cousins, Nick has endured long lonely extended periods away from the comforts of civilization as we know it. He’s been hot, cold, dirty, exhausted, mad, laughed uncontrollably, hungry, sleepy, determined and has shared the camaraderie only G.I.’s experience when war rages around them.

My Dad rode a motorcycle through the dirt and garbage-strewn streets of Egypt, throwing handfuls of small coins to the begging children of post-WWII Cairo, as an occupation forces Sailor. He admonished me, as a new USAF Airman to walk past the first bar I came to and see the country instead, which I did. He has been all over the world through his tour in the U.S. Navy and came home a productive citizen, to raise a family.

During the Vietnam War, I hung from the side of an over-crowded bus as it sped helter-skelter through the crowded roads around Takhli, Thailand; one foot on the door step and one foot hanging out in open space. The only thing between me and the ditch was one hand on an open window and bit of daring gusto. I was living large.

Nick drove or rode seventy long and dangerous missions through the IED-laden roads of the Sunni Triangle, covered in bone-tingling sweat, adrenaline, Kevlar, Copenhagen snuff and Redbull energy drinks…and suffered wounds from one of many explosions that blew hot fire and smoke on his vehicle (I later learned).

He, like so many brave and selfless soldiers and Marines, put their Country ahead of their own goals and faced the dangers inherent in that calling.

Our stories are just a handful of what millions of American men and women have endured and experienced over our Country’s short history. The military has been the platform for adventure and escape, new beginnings and sadly, tragedy and grief. For my Dad, I and so many others, the military afforded us a lifetime of great memories and adventure, mixed in with the discomforts. For Nick and others who experienced combat, maybe some good will perchance come of it and if the memories of the ugliness of war resurface, hopefully they will come to terms with it.

I especially pray for the family and friends of PFC Wesley Riggs and others who lost loved ones to the horrors of war. Their memories of the military experience are forever overshadowed with the loss of their loved ones. Their loved ones did not die in vain.

My son, like so many other young men and women who join the Armed Services, has grown up. His five and a half years of extreme living will benefit him in the game of life, in ways he has yet to realize. The year he spent in South Korea with its ice cold winters and drab weather will all be worth it later in life, as he exhibits patience beyond what is normal for his peer group. He told me one time that Korea was so bad that “even the Koreans are trying to leave”.

When someone on college campus complains of how this isn’t what they deserve, Nick can look back at the more than 600 hours of night escort duty he pulled in the deserts of Kuwait and chuckle.

The two bitter winters I spent in central Montana, walking the half mile to work each morning, because all the cars were too frozen to start, have helped me to shrug off minor discomforts in later life. The tropical heat and voracious insects of Central Thailand have hardened me against “little” bugs we have in Texas and our heat? It’s not bad at all, trust me.

The extreme poverty my Dad experienced first hand in the Mediterranean region after World War Two, have served him well over his life, as he put simple living ahead of gathering worldly goods. He always took his family to see nature, through hiking, fishing and camping, instead of man-made recreation. I didn’t understand it as a kid, but as an adult I realized what treasures we experienced instead of the pre-canned fodder other kids relate to.

So, if that son or daughter suddenly makes up their mind to forgo college and enlist, hope and pray for them – they might just be on a road to maturity that is the best life can offer.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

“Live like a King – Dine like a Pauper”

I read on CNN's web site that “Foreclosure filings across the U.S. nearly doubled last month compared with September 2006, as financially strapped homeowners already behind on mortgage payments defaulted on their loans or came closer to losing their homes to foreclosure”.

Back in 1980, anxious to move upward and provide my bride with a new home, I began the process of buying a house in a brand new subdivision here in Baytown. I sought the advice of my Pastor, the late L. S. Marcus. I laid out what I planned to do and how much it would cost me and he listened patiently. Being a Veteran, I could move in for only a buck. I really wanted the house and I had all but made the decision when I paid him a visit.

Much to my disappointment, he advised against the purchase and told me something I’ve never forgotten and it has been the basis for many a financial decision since. “If you buy this house, you will live like a king, but dine like a pauper”. I sat and stared, pleading with my eyes, but in my heart, I knew this house was not in my future. He was right and we both knew it.

I casually argued that both my wife and I had good jobs and we could make the note. He countered that if something happened to my job, or my wife’s, it would make things very difficult in our household and went on to tell me about how financial strain wrecks more marriages than infidelity.

I told him I was soon to get a raise on my job. He laughed and countered with a truth I hadn’t factored in. We wanted to start a family. Our bills were soon to escalate. He told me we could make the choice now of living a bit lower on the social ladder which would free us to pursue a richer life.

My wife and I wanted what was already becoming a rarity – a traditional American family, where dad brought home the bacon and mom was always there for the kiddos. He knew it and we knew it. A big new home with a big new house note and at this time, the banks had introduced escalating payments, something that turned out to be very bad for the average homeowner.

I left his office in a somber mood. My dream of a big new home was a poor choice and I guess I knew it before I sought counseling. I am forever in debt to Pastor Marcus for telling me what I needed, instead of telling me what I wanted to hear.

My bride and I went on to buy an old wood-frame house on piers in Wooster, instead of that nice new brick house in the shiny new subdivision. We lived and dined well, even when Reaganomics caused a lay-off and a slowdown in chemical plant work. We raised 2 children in that house, made many thousands of dollars in improvements as the money steadily came in through my labors and my bride and I enjoyed the traditional American family we so wanted.

We lived on Ashby Street for 12 years and when the time was right, we moved to another established neighborhood, instead of buying into a brand spanking new one, with a brand new wallet-slapping mortgage. Once again, we made the choice to live a bit below, so we could live a bit above.

It’s the old story of the tortoise and the hare and we are the tortoise. I’ve watched as people spend with abandon, owning just about anything they could possibly purchase and at times, I’ve wondered what the quality of my life would be if I had succumbed to that philosophy. Four-wheel drive ATV’s with $3000 worth of extras, $45,000 cars and trucks, $150,000-200,000 homes, $10,000 whitetail deer leases in South Texas and well, the list is endless.

I wish I had known Granny Adcox of Highlands back then to get her advice, but I bet she would have told me the same thing as Pastor Marcus.

I told a young friend of mine that life is not about how much stuff you can accumulate. He replied “I thought that was the meaning of life, I mean, what else is there”? I’ve learned over time that less is more and that the abundance of worldly goods has little to do with happiness and comfort and it all goes back to that day in the office of Pastor Marcus.

Friday, October 12, 2007

City ratcheting up anti-crime efforts

By Barrett Goldsmith Baytown Sun
Published October 12, 2007

City manager Garry Brumback said law enforcement has ramped up its efforts over the 45 days and that those efforts are paying off in fewer crimes. Brumback said citizens would soon see the difference.

“There has definitely been a change, but perception is a lag indicator,” Brumback said. “We need to get people better information, and we’re working on that.”

Brumback met Wednesday night with organizers of the Baytown Concerned Citizens. Also attending were Mayor Stephen DonCarlos and Police Chief Byron Jones.

The group was formed to help coordinate with the city and neighborhood watch programs to make citizens more aware of crime issues and come up with solutions to make Baytown safer. More than 700 people are now members of BCC’s web site, www.hotpursuit.com, which includes a message board discussing crime and interactive maps showing the location of crimes in the city, as well as a searchable database.

Bert Marshall presented a list of concerns brought up at a meeting at El Toro in July and a subsequent meeting last month at the Baytown Community Center to check on the progress of the Baytown Police Department and the City of Baytown and see how those concerns were being addressed.

One of the major items of discussion was safety at San Jacinto Mall and in shopping areas along Garth Road. Capt. Keith Dougherty, head of patrol for BPD, said patrols have been increased in the area, including specially commissioned four-wheelers and regular patrol cars. Chief Jones said during the holiday shopping season, an officer would be assigned Garth Road duty to monitor the increased traffic.

In addition, Mayor DonCarlos said the city is now working with local businesses to discuss ways to improve security. DonCarlos said the city also said many apartment complexes in the city are improperly lighted, leading to an environment more conducive to crime.

“The city is working on making sure apartment complexes are meeting lighting standards,” DonCarlos said. “And they need a certain amount of security. But I’m not at all convinced that all apartment complexes have adequate lighting.”

Marshall also said people are worried about the city’s enforcement of youth curfew violations. Jones said the city has written 50 tickets for curfew violations this year, though police officers often simply warn violators, and Dougherty said some juveniles are arrested for other charges if they are stopped on suspicion of being in violation.

“Curfew is just another tool we use to make Baytown safer,” Jones said. “It gives us the ability to question a kid who’s out at 2 a.m. if there’s no reason for a 13-year-old to be out that late.”

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Using the Internet to prove what we want to believe

“Ten years ago, renowned Swedish scientist Dr. Celsius Fahrenheit, took a kayak trip to the Antarctic land mass, to study flora and fauna for PETA. The air trip was a bust, as all he found was flotsam- jetsam plants and that, in abundance, as the red tide was in. Bagging up what he could, he was able to trade it to the Inuit Eskimos for Atwater Prairie chickens, which are raised as a cash crop.

“If only we had been in the Arctic, where little Emperor penguin-itos are in abundance we could have harvested a number of the tasty “chickens” for food, but instead, we were forced to subsist on polar bear liver, as it is the only safe part of the polar bear for humans”.

Antarctica is the second largest continent in all three hemispheres and is expanding every year, by about 4000 miles due to Global warming, which Al Gore discovered. Hugo Chavez, of the Bolivian government, owns most of the expanding land mass, and is causing a world-wide outrage, by introducing logging. Mr. Chavez is planning on selling lead-based lumber to North Korea, against international sanctions.

Starbucks beat everyone to the punch by opening up a series of coffee “mosques” in what is now a thriving community of Argentine loggers, known as “Gauchas”, on the southern peninsula. The local loggers are known for their Gaucho pants and pointy-toed boots with large spurs, known in Sanskrit as “roofies”.

Okay – all that you have read in the preceding four paragraphs is urban myth, or rather misinformation, as none of it is true or even happened. All the keywords appear somewhere on the Internet and could be used to qualify and prove a “fact”. I love the seemingly infinite amount of information the Internet search engines put at my fingertips, but I learned early on, that it pays to double check what we read, with what is actually true.

Look at the Internet this way. Suppose you go to the Sterling Library and approach the reference desk. The research Librarian directs you to the non-fiction section so you can check facts, but warns you that half of the information is false and it is up to you to cross-reference everything.

That sums up the Internet and the sooner we realize it, the quicker you can move from website to website with confidence. Many web sites sell the modern day equivalent of “Snake Oil”, just like the traveling buckboard salesman of days past. By the time you realize you’ve been taken to the cleaners (both financially and intellectually), you can’t even trace where they went.

Here is a surefire way to get in trouble when searching for facts on the Internet. Start by trying to prove what you believe to be fact. Many times we want to believe something to the point that we pass up the truth and happily grab onto something that reason and logic would warn us was bogus. It is a far safer approach to do the opposite, which is of course, try to disprove the fact.

Anytime someone sends you a “known fact” story, before you hit the “forward” button in your email program, go to www.snopes.com and do a keyword search to find out if it is true. This is the famous “Urban legend” debunking web site and very handy when searching for truth.

I guess I am a skeptic and a stickler for facts and everyone isn’t as concerned about passing on accurate information as me and I have noticed that there is a lot less “forwarded” myth material than there was five years ago, which tells me folks are getting the message.

Now, back to the first four paragraphs; there are a at least 50 false “facts” in this story and one of them is so wrong, if taken literally and as advice in a survivor situation, would kill a human. Your assignment, Mr. Phelps, if you decide to take it, is to disavow the story and see how many of the false “facts” you can find.

Note: Although polar bear meat is safe to eat when cooked, if you were to eat a polar bear’s liver, you would die of vitamin A poisoning. As a carnivore which feeds largely upon fish-eating carnivores, the polar bear ingests large amounts of vitamin A, which is stored in its liver and in the past, humans have been poisoned by eating the livers of polar bears.

We don't know our left from our right.

I got my first real lesson on what being out of step means when I in was in Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, in ...